We are hungry animals. Hungry for food, drink, emotional and physical stimulation, things, experiences, sex, lovers, kids, money, power–there is literally no end to our collective longings. We come from a long ancestral heritage of hungry creatures who were pretty damn good at beating out the competition, be it humans or other animals. Lusty and aggressive, our ancestors could be said to share one overriding characteristic: a driving will to survive. They were full of desire, and so are we. It is a biological fact, and anyone who feels otherwise is in denial, depression, or coma.
For many years as a dharma student I viewed desire as one of the evil cousins of attachment, which itself was seen as the root of all suffering. Desire and attachment were to be overcome if one hoped to be free. But time and experience showed me that as a relational human being, it was impossible to be free of attachment (and desire) and further that it was undesirable to do so. Eschewing desire can lead to a personal collapse of spirit, repression (that often becomes obsession), and/or apathy for life. The sublimation of desire in general can also lead to strange fixations on small events and things. I have heard stories of monks fighting over petty issues, such as sandals being placed outside the meditation hall in someone else’s designated sandal spot.
In my own case, during many years of meditation practice I felt proficient enough at watching life but terribly lacking in participation in it. There was a battle going on inside of me, a yearning for aliveness and full engagement that was at odds with the preference for renunciation that I understood to be the higher road of spiritual expression. I have now come to see that attachment to what we love is as natural as breathing, that desire is the fuel that keeps the whole thing going. To paraphrase Tennessee Williams, desire is the opposite of death.
Yet it is also the case that our collective desire is killing us. We are gulping the planet’s resources and despoiling the eco-system at a rate that is seemingly impossible to redress. Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal and author of Our Final Hour, puts humanity’s chances of survival into the next century at no more than 50%. Gratifying desires without regard for long-term consequences (a luxury afforded to our ancestors) is not tenable for us.
On an individual level, desire can run one’s life in such a way that it exhausts the very person it seeks to satisfy. So while it is natural and, I would argue, healthy, desire must also be considered in terms of the greater good. That is all that is at issue here. Not whether we should have desire. We do, and it is intrinsic to life that we do. But how shall we live with desire in harmonious ways both globally and personally?
The primary rule of desire should be the same as the physician’s Hippocratic oath: “First, do no harm.” How many times have we regretted our actions because we ignored this most basic principle? Through awareness we become more sensitive not only to our own feelings but to the feelings of others and we notice, often with horror, the damage that pursuit of some of our desires has caused. We look back in hindsight and discover that we paid a mighty high price for whatever we got from fulfilling desires that caused harm to ourselves or to others. When desire results in hurt or betrayal we must ask ourselves whether it was worth it. Often the cost was more than the gain.
The second rule of desire should follow Blake’s suggestion to kiss the joy as it flies. Desire and its fulfillment, like everything else, is fleeting. Whatever pleasures and delights come our way are just passing flickers to be enjoyed, not only despite their impermanence but also because of it. There is no point or possibility of holding onto these joys. Kiss them, celebrate them, love them and let them break your heart as they fly through the open window of your life. The heart is a muscle that gets exercised this way, and with time and wisdom it gets used to letting its joys bloom and fade. Our desires themselves change as we grow older and experiences that once drove us mad with excitement are quietly replaced by subtler passions.
Lastly: be willing to live with desires unfulfilled. Most of us will not get everything we wanted in this life. Some will feel satisfied on a personal level but not on a planetary one. Some will feel wanting in both. It is likely that many of our desires will go unsatisfied. This is not a cause for sadness but rather for appreciation of that fire that lives in us and keeps us interested and creative. A force of life that keeps roaring, “Yes, yes, bring it on!” but sooner or later, gently whispers, “And… let it all go.”