Desire: Curse or Blessing?

As mentioned in one of my previous posts, both Buddhism and Epicureanism view desire as somehow central to the ‘problem’ (if it is a problem) of human existence.  Most (but certainly not all) Buddhisms see desire as universally problematic, while for Epicureanism it is only the preponderance of our desires that are so.  But these two philosophies are, of course, not the only ones that pay attention to the phenomenon – indeed, any life-philosophy worth its salt deals with desire in its own way, whether that be the Taoist harmonization of desire to gel with ‘the Way’, or the Christian realignment of desire to accord with the eternal and unseen order established by God.  What is of interest, of course, and what is almost so fundamental as to escape notice, is that all of the life-philosophies mentioned above view desire as something that is broken, or bad, or a burden, as something that must be overcome, subdued, abandoned, or redirected.  The analysis tends to be that, with the abandonment of desire (whether this is total or restricted to specific desires depends upon the particular theoretical framework) life will become easier and freer.

There is no small degree of wisdom in this general approach.  After all, humans have innumerable desires for innumerable ends and, since it is not possible for all our desires to be fulfilled, we will very often be dissatisfied by the gap between what we want and what the world is willing to provide.  Desire probably should be treated with much more suspicion than is currently en vogue among the West’s cultural and business elites[1] and, hearteningly, there are indeed some indications of a growing interest in minimalism.  But these approaches (particularly the stronger ones, like various strains of ascetic Buddhism) ignore something vital and valuable about desire, something that modern Western culture recognizes and responds to (even though, arguably, this response is disproportionate and overly indulgent).

What the modern West generally recognizes about desire is that desire is what gives life its flavour and its vividness.  It is from the satisfaction of desire that we derive our greatest pleasure and joy.  It is our desires that motivate us to do valuable and important things, like getting an education, and it is our desires that motivate us to do things that need doing but which we would otherwise avoid, like maintaining sewage treatment infrastructure.  Desire is what gives us something to act upon, something to look forward to, and something to hope for.  The West knows that to eliminate desire entirely would leave us without any grounds for action or judgement, and leave life a bland affair.

It isn’t obvious, then, that desire is necessarily a bad thing or that we should seek to uproot it entirely (should it even be possible to do so).  We need to find a middle-way between absolute renunciation and absolute indulgence.  More on this later.


[1] Though by no means am I possessed of socialistic tendencies, I do tend to agree with most critics of consumer capitalism insofar as they are arguing against the insipid, ugly, and crass nature of the phenomenon.  But that is a discussion for another time.


About AtaraxJim
What would you like to know?

7 Responses to Desire: Curse or Blessing?

  1. Orphan says:

    I think this is recognized in Buddhist philosophy, at least; I recall a Buddhist story, which I cannot find now, about a king who asks a wise man to help him through a time of misery. The wise man gives him a token to remind him that all things pass, good and bad; that this should make the bad times pass more tolerably, with an implication that the good times would pass the less vivaciously as well.

    It was always my understanding that joy gets left behind with sorrow when one achieves enlightenment as Buddhists have it, and that Nirvana is misunderstood if interpreted as a state of supreme joy, but rather it is a state of supreme well-being and content.

  2. James says:

    Thanks for dropping by, Orphan. I enjoy reading your blog.

    Indeed, that is correct (at least, for most types of Buddhism). This raises two questions; the first is whether desires really can be done away with, and the second pertains to whether that would really be a life we might wish to live. Of course contentment would be nice, but dominant traditions in Buddhism maintain that a sort of emotional deflation wearing a goofy smile follows enlightenment. Buddhists take it for granted that abandonment of life’s ups and downs is preferable to the roller-coaster, but I’m not sure that I agree – I want to stay on the ride with awareness that it’s probably not going to kill me. Maybe something like the Spinozistic vision.

  3. Orphan says:

    I somewhat accidentally embraced through my adolescence something close to nirvana – I deliberately killed all of my emotions, believing at the time that pure rationality was preferable. I do not think most people fathom the degree to which this is possible.

    I rediscovered emotion, somewhat predictably, in one hell of an emotional roller coaster, which started, again rather predictably, with a single particularly emotional event I won’t relate which shattered that carefully constructed division. Sometime in there while I was struggling to decide which path to follow, I discovered Ayn Rand, whose works convinced me wholesale that I had been entirely wrong to dismiss emotion. (Which I suspect most would find a curious lesson to take from her, but I was already in wide agreement with most of her views by that point, and that is the lesson I needed.)

    I would not call the state of empty contentment which characterized my adolescent nature enlightened, nor do I ever wish to return to it. I would rather be in pain, for pain has meaning, and that existence had none.

    There is purity and strength in purposeful emotion, a basic vitality, life. It is insufficient to merely exist.

  4. Chucky says:

    > It isn’t obvious, then, that desire is necessarily a bad thing…

    Do you mean “isn’t necessarily”?

    I agree. Not all desires are good, and not all bad. It depends what the desire is for…

  5. James says:

    That is very interesting – do you think you were just suppressing/repressing your emotions or that you had actually genuinely removed them for a time? How did you go about doing this?

    Yes, I admit that I haven’t read Ayn Rand, but the (no doubt) charicature of her that I am familiar with is that of someone who is actually quite opposed to ’emotionalism’ (not a loaded term).

    And I fully agree, the ‘mainstream’ Buddhist solution to life strikes me as not unlike being anaesthetized.

    Did you mean whether I meant “isn’t necessarily obvious” or “isn’t necessarily a bad thing…”? 🙂

    I’m curious (as in: I haven’t yet decided myself), do you think that a desire for a bad thing (something uncontroversially bad, for simplicity’s sake) is itself bad, or is it bad transitively?

  6. Orphan says:

    I had a trick I used for memorizing things at the time – increasing the blood pressure in my head. (I originally learned it as a trick to make my face turn purple, and at some point discovered if I concentrated on a fact while I did this I wouldn’t forget it.) And one day, irritated by a senseless bout of shame concerning a matter which had occurred years earlier, I started concentrating on my emotions while I did this, feeding them into a mental fire one by one.

    A couple of them took a second try to completely eradicate, but they weren’t there for me on a conscious level anymore. I couldn’t tell you if they were suppressed or gone.

    The emotions which broke that were not ones I had been familiar with at the time.

  7. James says:

    Hmmm. That’s fascinating – now I’m going to be hitting my meditation manuals and seeing whether anything like this is mentioned somewhere.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: