When one idly day-dreams one frequently imagines how things might be different.What if the clouds were red? What if I had a million dollars? What if I did not have to wake up at 5 a.m. during the week? Generally, one likely imagines things which one wants, or reality as being slightly more in accord with one’s desire. But as we learn from thinkers as wide-ranging as Dante and Carl Jung, what one thinks that he desires outside himself, as shifting and changing as it is, generally represents what he desires in himself, or what he wants, or lacks. So is the object of desire the actual object desired, or is the object of desire actually knowledge of what one feels that one lacks, and therefore, knowledge of one’s self? As the Cheshire Cat says in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:
“Alice asked the Cheshire Cat, who was sitting in a tree,
“What road do I take?” The cat asked, “Where do you want to go?”
“I don’t know,” Alice answered. “Then,” said the cat,
“it really doesn’t matter, does it?”
Source: (Is this one’s desire staring one in the face?)
As the Cat suggests, if one does not know what one wants, then one does not know which road to take to get it! Is then learning one’s inmost desire tantamount to learning one’s destiny? Quite so, because if in learning one’s destiny, one learns one’s complete story, beginning to end, even in broad strokes, then what one learns from desiring some object is that in desiring that particular object, one has created a path between where one is, and where one wishes to be, and therefore one can actually work to attain what one desires by knowing what it is.
But what if there were a deeper level to this question? What if the function of desire were not to attain any external object at all? Is not the present beneath a Christmas tree, so beautifully wrapped, and ready to receive projection, so often more pleasant even than that which it contains, which one spends endless moments idealizing and fantasizing about? What if the purpose of desire were to discover the root of desire–for in discovering the root of desire, would then discover knowledge of one’s self? And if one discovers knowledge of one’s self, what more could one desire? Rather than pointing outward, then, does desire rather point inward? For in knowing that which one desires, one knows better one’s self and what sort of person one is and is meant to be.
The answer to this riddle is in full display during the Aiolos episode of Homer’s Odyssey (Book X) during Odysseus’ recounting of his journeying to the Phaiakians. King Aiolos, underthegn to Poseidon, meets Odysseus and very kindly offers to take three of the four cardinal winds (Boreas, Eurus, Notus) and place them in a bag to keep Poseidon from harrying Odysseus with storms on his final leg home. One wind, Zephyros, or the West Wind, is left outside the bag to help blow Odysseus home. After ten days of sailing, and several during which Odysseus has been manning the helm of the ship all through the night himself, Odysseus falls asleep within sight of Ithaka. Of course his men then believe his new secret sack, so similar to Santa’s, must be full of gold and treasure! They then open it, and lo and behold, they are all spirited back to Aiolos’ isle where he refuses to help such cursed men again! But what is the curse, exactly, if it is not lack of self-knowledge? For let us analyze what the contents of the bag of winds could and could not have been.
On the one hand, the men believe that Odysseus might have been holding out on them, which is well in line with his character, but on the other, the men are in sight of Ithaka, the place they have been away from while fighting at Troy for now over ten years. What could possibly have been in the bag that ever would have been commensurate or equal to returning home finally? There is absolutely nothing. And yet the appeal of the unknown is forever an itch in one’s throat or a mote in one’s eye. Though their hearts desire lay right in front of them, the men still wanted more, just as the Fisherman’s Wife in Grimm’s Tale can never be satisfied, though she receives more and more. And this is precisely how desire works: though there could be no thing in the bag which would be commensurate to getting home after ten years, it was the mystery of the bag, or the allure of an object of desire, which lured the men to open the bag, and eventually leads to them all dying in various places throughout the Aegean. Though the bag could not contain what the men most desired, they still felt compelled to open it. So, what is it exactly that they were looking for in the bag if what they wanted most lay in Ithaka just a few oar-strokes away?
Precisely this: Self-knowledge. One opens the door precisely because one does not know what is inside it. One looks at the present and wonders what it contains. One opens the bag of winds, and loves the image of Santa’s bag, because what one truly seeks within such mysteries is the ultimate mystery, knowledge of one’s self, which of course, no physical items can contain. But the fact that one projects one’s desire to know one’s self onto physical objects does point the direction towards self-knowledge. For if what one is looking for in mysterious objects outside one’s self, is actually coming from within, then at the least, one knows where to direct his gaze.
“Those who depart from this world without knowing who they are or what they truly desire have no freedom here or hereafter.”
(The Chandogya Upanishad. Easwaran tr.)