Saturday, July 14, 2012

Is Desire the Source and Cause of Suffering?

High Rise Building in downtown Vancouver with a missing window

Desire is often accused of being the principal culprit of unhappiness and suffering. Buddhism ingeniously points the finger at desire as a human flaw or as obstruction on the strenuous path to enlightenment; as a result, this Eastern religion / philosophy gets to the point and lays the blame squarely on our own shoulders.

There is no need for elaborate stories of original sin, a rebellious evil superpower causing disruption and pain, but rather to each his or her own, a karmic explanation of why there is so much pain and suffering in the world because as aptly expressed in the lyrics of the Radiohead song "Just": “you do it to yourself.”

Yes, we need to take a good deep look at ourselves in the mirror, accept our flaws, weaknesses and shortcomings, most of which can be traced back to our selfish and self-interested desires. We are always in the process of desiring this and that. We want a partner for the most part because we are stung and driven by sexual desire, and once this desire is fulfilled, we want another person to renew this desire with.

We want a good job and when that comes along, we feel unfulfilled and look for a “better” one. It seems that the only time our desires will ever give us any rest or respite is when death embraces us. (Although if you believe in an afterlife, then your soul will most likely continue to desire things!)

The solution then might be to eliminate desire. Evidently, it is not desire that gives us happiness as we are never fully satisfied even if the desire has been quenched. To be happy, then is to have no desires, to be free from its drags and pulls, to have no need.

But is this true? There are moments of Zen -- very sparse and too fleeting – where I get a glimpse of what bliss might possibly feel like. It is the state where desire is dormant, when I feel completely at peace and harmony with myself and with others. There is nothing else I may wish for, nowhere else I would rather be.

It is an overwhelming feeling, yes. The fact that I am breathing, walking and seeing feels like a revelation to me. John Lennon comes to mind as he, comfortably nestled in sheets on a bed, told a series of baffled reporters how brushing one's teeth is in itself an accomplishment. It is indeed. There is a certain magic and joy to doing simple things ... well.

When I was younger, I had the desire (!) to become a Buddhist monk (after wanting to be a priest first). I figured that the isolation from the world would help me gain peace and tranquility in my soul and to be better able to blend in with the powers that be, the universe and all. 

Siddhartha did it and the quest would have been a worthwhile one. That my happiness was a mere fraction of the bliss experienced by the Enlightened One, I am fully aware of. I can imagine a happiness that is so strong and overwhelming that you would want to explode.

But I chose not to. I decided to firmly set foot into and leave a mark onto this world of pain and suffering, of illusion, to willingly choose the path of desire. Why? Because say what you may, desire, for better or worse, means being alive.

It is that same desire that has driven humanity toward progress in many ways, the desire to explain the boundaries of possibilities, the limits of the sky and the universe, the nature of reality. There is, in my view, nothing wrong with all or any of that.

Desire itself does not know or have morality. It is as Freud would say created in the dark abyss of our consciousness, the lustful and hungry id. It is our animal instinct, binding and tying us to nature. It wants power, dominance, survival; it can be utilized for good or cruel purposes.

Look at sexual desire, for example. Unless you are puritanical at heart (if you are, then what the hell are you doing reading this post!), there is nothing inherently “wrong” with sexual desire. I mean, come on, we are not blocks of wood, so if you are happily married and desire the stranger next to you, it is OK! I mean there are instances when we “desire” to kill people, a co-worker, a partner, government officials or tax representatives. You don't have to feel bad for having “bad” feelings.

It is not so much our desires that is the problem, but what we choose to do with them, namely our actions. This is Freud's superego telling us that it is either morally wrong or simply not a good idea to have sex in public, especially with a stranger. Sometimes the desire can topple us, but it needs to be controlled and mastered both for our and the common good.

So I am revising my previous statement. It is not desire that causes suffering, but our lack of mastery over it. This is what Buddhists may call attachment. If I am strongly attached to my desire, then I have given up my freedom and am merely a slave to my passions. 

Put differently, it is not bad to be wanting to get a better job or more money as long as this is not your constant obsession, as long as you are not walking over dead bodies to get there.

Desires can be selfish, but they can also be used for altruistic motives, the desire to be helping others. A better income, for instance, could mean more and better opportunities for one's family.

So, in a nutshell, don't kill your desires but don't lose control over them either. Yet most importantly, don't expect your desires to make you happy. They might (for a while that is), but then again, more likely, they might not. 


Jerry E Beuterbaugh said...

No, it is not necessarily desire, in and of itself. For having a desire for the right things is most definitely good, which even the Buddhists should recognize. After all, do they not desire to reach higher plans of perfection? Ah, but I could have a much more tolerable existence in this world if I could just let go of my own expectations of the way things should go.

jedi lost said...

"It is not so much our desires that is the problem, but what we choose to do with them, namely our actions. "

I think this puts it the best, even better than the revised statement.

But, who will explain my wife that desiring the woman next to me is ok?

Arashmania said...

Thank you very much for your comments!

Yes, Jerry, that is the exact dilemma I see in desire as well. Some desire is definitely good and beneficial and drives us forward. The drive for perfection is good, though I do believe that one should take breaks and breathers on the way.

As to your wife, Jedi, I could not agree with you more. I myself have been trying to prove the same for quite some time.