Engaging with Desire

I’ve come to really like the word engage. To me it expresses making conscious choices in how we interact. To engage with our own desire means to consciously choose how we deal with that energy. Do we let it take us over and dictate our actions? Do we repress it and push its influence away?

Most of us were socialized in childhood to avoid being selfish – to give some consideration to the thoughts and feelings of others. Should we forgo all consideration of our own desires and needs, focusing only on the needs of others? Or should we ignore the thoughts and feelings of others and try to fulfill our own desires? Or maybe somewhere in between? I would not want to live in a world where everyone was focused only on their own desires – it sounds like a horrid loveless existence. I also would not want to live in a world where everyone was suppressing their desires. Without desire, there would be no art, no music, no inventions or creativity. Without desire, I don’t see how we could have created yoga or even language with which to discuss it.

In my previous article on the Triadic Heart, I talked about the 3 levels of our being: “I’m not you, I’m something like you, and I’m nothing but you”.  It’s in the “I’m not you” level that we have our individual desires and interests. Everyone else has their own individual desires and interests too. If we focus only on our own desires to the exclusion of other’s desires, people will exist only as possible avenues of fulfillment. In psychology they call this narcissism.

If we focus on the needs and desires of others to the exclusion of our own, we will also cause ourselves much suffering. We will be rejecting that level of our being where our selfish interests lie. Yet many of us were socialized in just this way: Don’t be selfish! It seems the “safer” way to be, but if we suppress it completely do we end up living a life of quiet desperation without joy or vitality? Can we fully embrace our desires while also being aware that others have their desires too? I think we can do this, but does desire itself cause suffering, even if it’s in balance with the desires of others?

Buddhism seems to have much to say about how we engage our desires. According to Wikipedia, the second noble truth is “Suffering is caused by attachment to desire (craving).” And the third noble truth is “Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases”. Kenneth Shoulder, Ph. D said it this way: “Since life is full of suffering, and the cause of suffering is unceasing desire, the way to eliminate suffering is to eliminate desire. The third truth concerns the cure for the abiding suffering of life. If you can destroy desire, suffering ends.” But if desire is truly innate, it cannot be destroyed without also destroying our spirit and vitality. Does this mean we are destined to a life of suffering? Are we to choose between a life of suffering and a life of stilted boredom?

I have to question this popular interpretation of Buddhism as stated by Kenneth Shoulder above, which is not shared by all schools of Buddhism. Attachment to desire may cause suffering, but desire does not cause suffering. A subtle distinction, but with profound implications. In order to investigate this further, let’s consider a child wanting to play with a toy. Maybe the toy is in a toy store and it’s time to leave. Does the desire to play with the toy cause suffering? Or is it the attachment to the fulfillment of desire? When the desire first originates there is no suffering. In fact the desire brings joy and delight. It’s when the child imagines a future of playing with the toy and forms an attachment to that particular future that suffering can arise. We suffer to the extent that we are attached to our imagined future matching what actually happens. When the child releases the imagined future (i.e. becomes interested in something else), the suffering ends. Desire itself does not cause suffering. It’s our attachment to getting a specific result that causes suffering. If we accept what is happening in the present, there is no suffering. When we want a “different present” we suffer. If we are experiencing a desire in the present moment, there is no suffering. We can define suffering as a rejection of the present, whether or not the present contains desire.

I believe that desire is the creative fuel that makes life worth living. I prefer to be around people who are passionate and engaged. I certainly want a lover to have desire; don’t you? If we cannot and should not stop desires from arising, then our task is to choose how to engage with our desires.

I think it works like this: First a desire arises within the present moment. We can experience the fullness of our desire while it’s part of our present moment experience. But we humans have a great capacity for abstract thought. And we go from experiencing the fullness of our desire into a image of the specific result we want to experience. This specific result is no longer connected to the present moment; it exists only as an abstraction within our brain. If we get fixated on having this specific result manifest, we will experience suffering if things turn out in any other way.

Suffering is the dissonance between what the present IS and the abstract image we want to manifest. Instead of ending suffering by trying to end desire, we should end our suffering by ending our fixation on imposing our personal will onto life. Humans grow desires as part of our immersion into life, and we cannot stop that process. We can no more end our desires than we can stop the production of thoughts in the mind. To try to end our desires is to want things to be different then they are; and that is suffering.

But why do we get fixated on having our abstract visions of the future come into manifestation? I believe it’s our fear of uncertainty. We want to be certain that our desire is fulfilled, and fulfilled in a very specific way. We are not content to experience the fullness of our desire as a present moment experience. Instead of enjoying the desire and allowing for the evolution of the present to be as it will, we create anxiety about getting our specific results. But isn’t there joy in the desire itself, whether it is fulfilled or not?

Can you stand unflinching with your longing? Or will you collapse into the attachment to specific results?

If we can engage our desires this way while also accepting the present moment just as it is, we can find happiness. Some of our desires will be fulfilled, and some will not. How could it be otherwise? It’s not a tragedy when a desire goes unfulfilled; we know there will be more desires coming, so why get upset about it? We can then stay in the present moment experiencing the fullness of life.

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