The nature of desire is something we all face. Whether in moments of lack or abundance there is something to be had that isn’t quite there. When we chase desire, what we chase is an object that we feel can fulfill our desires. Whether it’s a love interest, a thing we fancy, an ambition or something to achieve or an experience. Desire is always somewhere where we are not and the movement of our desire tries to take us there. We often relate desire to what we want but desire also takes us in challenging paths which can be uncomfortable and yet help us grow and sometimes not getting what we want and maybe getting what we need instead can be exactly what we desired. It is in the movement in this path that we find the continual manifestation of desire.
“So long as there is desire or want, it is a sure sign of imperfection. A perfect, free being cannot have any desire.”Swami Vivekananda
What Vivekananda is pointing to here that our desires can trap us in our chasing of them. If we look at some examples of chasing – One might have lofty career ambitions with a sincere intention to help and uplift society but in chasing these ambitions, the desire and the rewards over time can have an almost aphrodisiac effect to which one can get hooked onto. In a similar manner, what once began as the seeking for love becomes a chase for different sexual partners and the seeking of sexual gratification. The original need for love, forgotten and buried. The unchecked and unobstructed chasing can mislead us and take us away from our purpose. What we want and what we need are often different things and we are generally liable to confuse these two. The diversity of opinions in global cultures also give a mixed insight into differentiating want and need. Are we to follow the Buddhist path and believe that our desires are the root of our suffering, or are we to follow the hedonistic path and give into our desires, wildly expressing and gratifying them at every possible occasion?
In the confusion between these two poles, I cannot help but feel a lack of motivation towards any sort of gratifying activity. I know that I cannot control all of my experience and certainly when things go to shit, I can’t control them or make them better just by willing it. So, I may look for a divine being that maybe does control everything and I secretly hope that I am their child and that they care for me and they’ll help me with their benevolence but especially with their power. And I wish they’ll grant me what I want, that which I desire and which has been eluding me for so long. Maybe the cause of my suffering is my desire and yet I solemnly seek divine providence to deliver me from my suffering and eventually take me towards what I desire. Because isn’t that what is truly meant to be? The confusion continues and it is either my suffering that I must accept as real and desire as illusory or that I suffer is the illusion and it is only the interlude to when I obtain my object of desire.
Because desire is usually an object, in some form or the other, the content of this object is something whose blanks we have usually filled in ourselves. The fruit at the end of the chase keeps us motivated to achieve it. We also endow it with certain qualities that will bring some order to this chaos of existence or maybe complete us in some way with that which we are missing. Georg Freidrich Hegel called this desire ‘a living thing’. That in some ways it is the restless movement of that which we feel we lack and this makes us decorate or embellish the object of our desire with what we think we lack. Hegel says that the object itself is independent and normally feels ‘other’ to us. Only when the object gets infused with our longings does it become alive as our object of desire. Thus it seems we cannot help it, it is in our nature to desire. Maybe it is not that we want what we desire but that we desire to keep desiring.
Desire’s raison d’être is not to realize its goal, to find full satisfaction, but to reproduce itself as desire.Slavoj Žižek
Desire is neither right or wrong. Whether it’s the person that soothes us in our nervous storms or the thing that pleases us and distracts us from them. Seemingly desire shows up so that we might look outside us and see that something is not right and the movement of desire promises to set it right. But I wonder who is it that sees and judges what is right and what is wrong? And if this one who judges is the same as the one who desires. A way that leads you somewhere also implies there must be other ways that mislead you. If we attach to one path then we exclude all other paths and we have no way to see if the path we are on is right or not. It may turn wrong in the future or we might. And the truth is we can never know and may be able to make calculated guesses but in the end there are innumerable factors that can influence the flow of events. Thus attachment to any specific way or form or representation of desire negates the movement of desire by confining it to a static object, definite path or a tangible entity.
Buddhism while defining desires as the cause of suffering, also divides desire into skillful and unskillful desires. While greed and lust are always unskillful, desire is ethically variable—it can be skillful, unskillful, or neutral. This can be corroborated with theories of motivation where 16 basic desires are listed, among them: are power, independence, curiosity, acceptance, order, saving, honor, idealism, social contact, family, status, vengeance, romance, eating, physical exercise, and tranquility. This shows a stark contrast to what we think the buddhist attitude to desire is. The thing here to overcome is not desire but rather craving.
The wild geese do not intend to cast their reflection. The water has no mind to retain their imageZen Proverb
Craving broadly classified, is that feeling you can get when you’re hungry but you crave something specific. The image you have is in your mind and even though anything will satisfy your physical hunger, only this certain object of craving will satisfy the mental hunger. We seem to go in a quagmire of circles where each of them leads us nowhere and in all our goings around in life, we are somehow desperately seeking to get somewhere. The sky is clear but does not clean itself, the moon shines but does not intend to reflect the sun’s light.
Maybe our seeking is not a seeking, which in the end, will rid us of seeking. Maybe it is rather a seeking of possession. Because we want to possess what we desire, so that it will make us whole again. The implications of that mindset leads us to believe that we are incomplete and we seek to fill in the gaps. In my opinion, we cannot be anything other than that whole. We feel that maybe if we keep what we desire next to us, over time it will do its thing and make us believe we are whole again. Or maybe that we’re not yet there and this crutch is what we need until we eventually are. But that leads us into all these pits where desire loses its original creative essence and traps us in our longing, craving and attachment to it.
“If you love a flower, don’t pick it up. Because if you pick it up it does and it ceases to be what you love.”Osho
In Hindu mythology, desire is one of the basic reasons for creation. The god of desire Kama is sometimes considered as one of the primordial beings that shot an arrow into the slumbering godhead and woke it up, asking it to participate in the world and create it through its participation. Sight, sound, touch, smell. These are all the reflecting desires of our senses to play through this godhead, and touch the world around us. It attracts us to feel it, to see it, to touch and smell it. It is such an instant desire that as soon as we open our eyes, the world is there! Where we get stuck with desire is in our attachment and possession to it. That we think that desire is something that completes us, that we need to move toward, and act toward fools us and takes us away from the true nature of desire. Isn’t the act of acting, an expression of desire. Isn’t our heart beating an expression of desire. Isn’t the brain thinking an expression of desire. The desire of the brain to interpret the stimuli of our senses so the godhead can participate in the world. The metaphorical shooting of Kama’s arrow is manifested in each moment through each of our senses in the myriad of ways we interact with the world around us. Desire is already and always flowing through us, we just need to dance with it.
In all our chasing for desire there comes a moment when the sun sets on one trying to be what one desires. The roads of desire are a meaningful and necessary path to explore the vastness of our potential. Desire need not only be limited to pleasure, attention or money, but also skills, talents, jobs, ways of life, destinations etc. Desires can show us a path inside us that leads to the outer world and gets us there in a state we could not have imagined. Desires can show us creative ways of expressing ourselves and also offer, at times, a much needed antidote to boredom. Following one’s desires challenges us, puts us out of our comfort zone, and brings us in a situation where we are tested and the simple act of going through the test is passing the test. We only fail the tests of life that we don’t take.
In my chasing of desires, I thought this life of seeking desire would make me happier and that I would be more content. But yet dissatisfaction has not ceased to accompany me, nor frustration, nor despair. Pain has also been present, although much more bearable. A desire-filled life is not an antidote to these feelings but rather a cheerful companion. It can lighten the mood but desire can also be dark. A need for acceptance that has been rejected can conspire with desire to create a power-grabbing force in a relationship or situation. In similar ways, desire can become subtle fueled by vengeance, retribution and forcefulness.
We cannot hold this desire back and in combination with these elements, it can be destructive and such concoctions are what give desire a bad name. Desire in effect seems to be neutral, not choosing a good or bad side. It can lead to good things, people, understanding, new skills and overcoming our limitations. Furthermore, desires can be fruitful as they engage us in meaningful life experiences. They can lead us to people, places and situations we need to be in to further our growth.
Desire manifests itself in many ways. We are often the object of desire for someone else and others can be objects of our desires. Whether it’s deep seeded desires for attention, affection or adoration, we find ourselves almost being controlled by an unconscious thirst. We find our desires manifesting all around us in the way we live our lives, our relationships and our passions. Our desires can be healthy and prosperous and they can also be unfriendly and malevolent. What our desires don’t teach us however, is how to make this distinction. We, in a way, become our desires and this distinction is impossible to make. A way of release is to see that the nature of desire is in us and that neither attachment to an object of desire nor avoidance thereof will help us.
Whether pleasant or unpleasant, that isn’t desire’s game. Desire does not seek a permanent and linear expression. It does not seek to perpetuate itself though one or few activities, but rather desire seeks to reproduce desire. Desire isn’t picky how it gets expressed, but rather that it gets expressed and not clung to. We are the picky ones creating paths and destinations out of desire. Desire is only the compass needle that points us in any given situation or life stage to our true north. And much like a compass, desire is to be used to reorient ourselves regularly. A repression of desire is then simply a refusal to look at the compass. Without the compass we’re either super focused on our destination but have no way to know if we’re getting there. We can also feel lost without a sense of direction that a compass provides. If we’re lost we could just find a cave and settle in it where desire goes to die. This symbolic cave of repression feels safe for a while but in the long run it is that we stagnated life at some point. When we stop the flow to feel safe but in that we also stop the flow of that which makes us feel alive.