Approaches to Desire

The desire-pain connection is a well known one.  Take the following, a thinly veiled version of the first 3 of Buddhism’s 4 Noble Truths:

  1. Pain (dissatisfaction, suffering, etc…) are ubiquitous.
  2. This pain arises due to not getting what we desire, losing what we desire, or the threat of either (thus leading to worry, anger, etc…).
  3. However, much of this pain can be overcome by addressing the problem of desire itself.

Despite being inspired by Buddhism, these points are universal.  The question now is, how do we choose to live in light of the above? Below are a few choices as to our lifestyle…

Traditional: Keep pursuing desire.  Some consider the cure worse than the disease. To them, it’s better to have pleasure and pain than to live on an even keel wherein both are reduced.  Yet even this choice can be enhanced by embracing the truths above, for in doing so, they are empowered by accepting responsibility for suffering.  They can suffer yet say “I chose this, and I choose it again for it is the price of joy, a price I knowingly pay.”

Epicureanism: Simplify the objects of desire to things likely to be satisfied.  Achieve as much independence from society as possible, since society can constrain freedom and create artificial desires, both of which hinder our ability to be satisfied.  This includes living away from society, spending time with like minded people, and avoiding politics.

Stoicism: The only objects of desire that can be thwarted are external objects, for they are subject to fate.  Therefore, pursue the only object of desire that is immune to fate: the will to virtue.  Fate can rob me of my health, wealth and youth, but I can always choose to respond virtuously to what comes.

Religion: See Stoicism, but substitute God for virtuous intent.  What’s more, since God is approached through virtue (as defined by the religion), it comes out to the same thing.

Buddhism: Overcome desire, period. Careful analysis reveals the root of desire to be the self.  Not only is the self the perspective relative to all desires, but many desires are simply veiled ways of feeding the self image. Therefore, to undermine desire, undermine the self image.

All schools face the same challenge: turning away from the typical objects of desire.  It’s tough because they are enticing and a common — constantly reinforced — mind-set is that life is lived to gratify desires.  What can be done?

One way is to realize desire is only enticing because its connection with pain is just an abstraction, and not experienced.  Therefore, maintain mindfulness of experience to see the desire-pain link in action. Strive to see…

  • Pain arise from thwarted desires
  • Pain arise from losing desired objects
  • Pain arise from the POSSIBILITY of the above
  • Satisfied desires turning to worry about loss
  • A satisfied desire being forgotten in favor of the next desire
  • A satisfied desire giving rise to another desire

A particularly “fun” game to play is to see how long it takes for a fulfilled desire to turn into worry. For example, the last time I bought a new car (many, many years ago), it took less than an hour to start worrying about it getting damaged; even potholes became a source of worry, something that didn’t bother me with my old car. My satisfaction with the car was short lived.  My payments were not.

If these truths can be experienced, then perhaps desire can be seen as a painful event in the same way a burned hand is a painful event.  I am not tempted to burn my hand, nor do I fantasize about it or pine after lost hand-burning opportunities.

Can I see desire, or the typical objects of desire in the same way?


6 thoughts on “Approaches to Desire

  1. You’re back too!
    I’m starting to think you should make a living from this. Even though it goes back to your usual subjects, I just need the reminder. Believe it or not, this actually helped today after a bad day at work. Thanks.
    Gosh I missed blogging…

    1. Thanks!

      I’m trying to hit things from different angles, or mine perspectives. There’s actually some theme I’m trying to approach that involves not trying to solve things, but simply confronting pain and cases where we don’t live up to what we want and letting the solution spontaneously emerge from that. Part of it may still be the Needleman influence.

      Sorry to hear you had a bad day at work. If you feel like talking about it, I’m all ears. You can even email me if you’d rather not put it in the comments section.

      Was there any particular section that you felt helped? I’m just wondering if I could make a book or article recommendation if you’d like.

      1. Oh, it was nothing serious. Just a bad class. For some reason every time I have one it kind of ruins my day. So it’s back to unfulfilled desires and all that. It may also have something to do with self-image (viewing yourself as a good teacher and feeling threatened by anything which may challenge that image). I actually just needed to be reminded that pain stems from unfulfilled desire, then everything else fell into place. Strange how that works!

  2. I’m glad you’re back. I haven’t done much blogging lately either, but it’s a lovely coincidence that the piece I’m working on also concerns desire. Any day now … We’ll see.

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