Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”
In his text The Religion of the Future, Roberto Mangabeira Unger writes: “Our desires are insatiable. We seek from the limited the unlimited. We must fail. Our insatiability is a third incurable defect in human life” (p. 17). Because we are never satisfied, life can readily become burdensome to us. We keep pushing ever harder to satisfy the insatiable in us, yet no matter how hard we try we fail to ever adequately meet those desires. As long as we, pre-reflectively, have as our goal the satisfaction of our desires, life will always be too much for us.
We see this in and around us in countless ways. How is it, for example, that people with millions and billions of dollars remain driven by greed for more? How is it that we who as human persons are so dependent on each other keep seeking the satisfaction of our lust for power and control and so find true cooperation and collaboration so difficult? Perhaps, in a way with which even more of us can readily identify, we who are surrounded by manifestations of care and concern for us, feel so unloved and uncared for. Quite simply it is this “incurable defect” of our humanity, insatiability.
It is not easy to be the center of the universe. Yet this is the position that our egos assume. We measure out and discern the nature of reality based on our own personal needs, desires, and “defects.” This is why the Buddha tells us that we are to cease living by craving and aversion, what Freud, much later, would call “the pleasure principle.” For, no matter how much pleasure, as we imagine it, that we attain, we shall always remain unsatisfied. And, any moment or event in life that feels unpleasurable or painful to us we shall experience as suffering.
Many years ago a good friend asked me the question, “Why do we think it is better to feel good than not to feel good?” I must admit that the question had never before occurred to me. I had always just taken for granted the truth that it was better for me to be strong, healthy, and comfortable than otherwise. However, I was aware that I sometimes had a reaction to the commonplace expression: “As long as we have our health we have everything.” If having our health was everything, what was left when we no longer had our health?
My friend’s question brought to my consciousness this intuition of incompleteness I felt whenever I heard the totalization of our physical health. It also gave me insight into the deeper significance my father having said this to me a short time before the diagnosis of his esophageal cancer. Although I was oblivious to what he was really communicating, he was no doubt expressing his fear as he sensed that he truly was not well. If he was as ill as he felt, what was left of his life? At the moment that had occurred I remained, probably to some degree deliberately, unaware of all this. In my avoidance of the deeper reality being pointed to, I opted to follow the dictates of the pleasure principle by denying it.
In the gospel today, Jesus tells his disciples that liberation from the bonds of living by attraction to pleasure and avoidance of pain is a transformation of consciousness which replaces ourselves at the center of our concern with him and his “yoke.” The yoke of which Jesus speaks is the yoke of the “Law” in his tradition. It is the way, the truth, and the life that converts and transforms our consciousness from the pleasure principle to the reality principle, to use Freud’s terms. It is to recognize the first noble truth of the Buddha that, for us, life is suffering. We do get ill and lose our health, so health cannot be everything. We do lose everything and everyone that is dearest to us, so the comfort and consolation they bring us cannot be everything. We are sometimes received and appreciated and at other times scorned and rejected, so our place in the eyes of others cannot be everything.
The Buddha tells us, however, that it is our craving of pleasure and our avoidance of suffering that is the cause of our deepest suffering and burden. It is because we are certain, as my friend implied, that feeling good is better than not feeling good that the latter is so painful for us. So Jesus says, if our hearts are changed so that we desire more what he wants than what we want, we shall discover that his “yoke” is light. This is what he himself practices in his suffering in Gethsemane the night before his death “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39).
One of the problems we always have with spiritual teachings, however, applies also here. It is all well and good to say that we need to transform our hearts from their self-centeredness to a reality orientation. The problem is this does not happen merely by dint of will. We are, for the sake of our survival, hard wired to having a craving for pleasure and aversion to pain. This is where Jesus desires his teaching to resonate with the “yoke” of the Hebrew Scriptures. We change our hearts by daily and continual practice of putting God’s will first.
The master “psychologist” of the Christian tradition, St. John of the Cross, makes the way of practice even more explicit. Rather than merely saying, we shall become whom God has made us to be by keeping the commandments and the law, he says we must practice on a daily basis to prefer the difficult over the easy. We must not avoid doing what is disagreeable for us when that is what is called for, but must readily and willingly take it up. We must not manipulate reality and relationship so that we are satisfied by them and recognized as significant. Rather we must by choice take the lower place. In short, we must continually practice moving against our tendencies of craving and aversion.
Perhaps a very common experience of mine will help to illuminate John’s teaching. To this day, given my introversion and shyness, when entering a room of people for the first time I shall almost always scan the room to look for the safest and most appealing person or space. My entire perspective of the room and the people in it is limited by the filter of my own desire for security and gratification. I don’t see the place and the people as they are, but rather only in light of my own insatiable needs. The result ordinarily is that I don’t experience anybody new or different, and thus gain any wider sense of the world or the experience of others.
To practice the counsel of St. John, I would be called to pause as I enter the room rather than impulsively or compulsively move to the safe space or person. I would be called to take in the real and entire situation and move toward doing what for me is more difficult, perhaps seeking out another person who is alone and uncomfortable and attending, not to my own fears but to them. We often mystify the terms God’s will or Jesus’ way, but these come to us through the actual reality of a world that is always a call and appeal to us. We so often miss the appeal or call because we are unconsciously attending to feeding our own cravings for pleasure.
St. John reminds us that “formation is sheer work.” It requires challenging the directions and demands of our own unconscious, because those demands block our access to the person we are called to be. It is not as if this formative task is ever complete for us. The joy comes, however, in remaining on the way. The burden is light because there is truly peace and joy in its practice. We may not, in this life, attain the mind and heart of Christ, but we can experience the love, peace, and joy that come from no longer bearing the burden of our insatiable demands for pleasure. We can truly begin to appreciate the world when it longer needs to meet the insatiable demands of our unconscious. St. Ignatius of Loyola prays in gratitude to God: “Give me only your love and your grace. That is enough for me.” This is the lightness of Jesus’ yoke. We are given all we need, and then some. In walking the way of formation, reformation, and transformation, we shall know that lightness and experience spontaneously our heart’s gratitude for it.
In order to achieve this and avoid being deceived, you should never set your eyes on the satisfaction or dissatisfaction of the work at hand as a motive for doing it or failing to do it, but on doing it for God. Thus you must undertake all things, agreeable or disagreeable, for the sole purpose of pleasing God through them.
To do this with fortitude and constancy and acquire the virtues quickly, you should take care always to be inclined to the difficult more than to the easy, to the rugged more than to the soft, to the hard and distasteful in a work more than to its delightful and pleasant aspects; and do not go about choosing what is less a cross, for the cross is a light burden [Mt. 11:30]. The heavier a burden is, the lighter it becomes when borne for Christ.
You should try, too, by taking the lowest place always, that in things bringing comfort to our brothers in religion they be preferred to you. This you should do wholeheartedly, for it is the way to becoming greater in spiritual things, as God tells us in his Gospel: Qui se humiliaverit exaltabitur (Whoever humbles himself will be exalted.) [Mt. 23:12].
St. John of the Cross, Counsels, #5-6