On Desire

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This evening we recited our Bodhisattva Vows as we do every evening after sitting. Our sangha recites the English version of the second vow (Bon No Mu Jin Sei Gan Dan) as “Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them,” but bon no is really Sino-Japanese for the Sanskrit kleśas, usually translated as “defilements” or “afflictions,” most notably the three so-called “poisons” of desire, aversion, and ignorance.

It’s a pretty grandiose vow when you come to think of it. The idea that you and I are going to put an end to our desire, aversion, and ignorance is, on the face of it, patently absurd. Let’s just focus on desire, for one thing. As the Sephardic Dutch philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, might have said, desire is an example of “natura naturans,” nature doing what nature does, and our brains can’t help producing states of desire and aversion regardless of our intentions. It’s the nature of the hypothalamus to make us thirsty when we’re dry and hungry when our energy’s run low. That’s what brains do. That’s how mammalian species survive.

Above and beyond that, we can rightly ask if desire is always something that must carry such a negative connotation. Do we really want to put an end to it? All of it? What about our aspirations to do and be better? What about our aspirations to help others, be more present, be more kind? What about our wish for the aesthetic enjoyment of unspoiled nature or of great music, art, and literature? What about wanting a hug or a cup of hot chocolate? Can there really be a plausible description of human well-being that doesn’t honor these basic human desires?

So how are we to meaningfully understand and make use of the second Bodhisattva Vow? What are we really supposed to do about desire? The Sino-Japanese word dan in the vow literally means “cut off,” but extirpating desire never seems to work out all that well. Consider how well the celibate priesthood has worked out for the Catholic Church. Or just as an experiment, try counting from one to ten without thinking of a white rabbit. As psychologist Daniel Wegner points out, attempting to suppress psychological processes often ends up only ironically reinforcing them.

The Buddha’s first talk after his Enlightenment was his discourse on the Four Noble Truths at the Deer Park in Sarnath. The Four Noble Truths are like an Aryuvedic prescription, diagnosing the nature of the human dilemma, its etiology, and its treatment. The First Noble Truth is a description of the problematic nature of human existence, namely, that our lives are, in some fundamental way, unsatisfactory. This is sometimes translated as the “truth of suffering,” but the Pali word dukkha is more nuanced then that, suggesting something out of balance or off-kilter. In any case, the First Truth points to a fundamental dissatisfaction with our lives, and the inability of any relationship, achievement, attainment, experience, or object to plug that gap and make our lives wholly satisfactory.

Why does anyone come to a zendo to sit for long periods (often uncomfortably) in silence and chant in an incomprehensible alien tongue? People only come because their lives are not completely satisfactory as they already are. Maybe they want a little less suffering or a little more inner peace. Maybe they want to be happier. Maybe they are looking for more meaning in their lives, something deeper. Maybe they want to be kinder to others, or to be more present. Maybe they are looking for something beyond the materialism and gospel of success preached by our culture. Maybe they are looking for something to replace their old religion with which they grew disenchanted. Whatever the reason, there is some present dissatisfaction that motivates people to become “seekers.” It’s that desire for “something more” that brings us to Buddhism, and there’s more than a little irony in the fact that “wanting something more” is also part of Buddhism’s definition of the problem, and that often, what people genuinely derive from Buddhist practice is not the “more” they were initially seeking.

The Buddha identified the source of human dissatisfaction in the never-ending process of desiring itself. We are forever wanting something else, not wanting what we already have. Whoever we are, whatever our circumstances, we are always wanting, wanting, wanting. We want to have a better job, or do a better job. We want more money, better health. We want more loving relationships. We want to be thinner, younger, and more beautiful. We want to be more popular, better appreciated and respected. We want to do something more substantial, more important. Our lists never end. When we get what we want we find it wasn’t what we thought it would be, or that it doesn’t last, or we grow weary of it, or we soon find ourselves wanting something different or something more.

So we sit down to do zazen, hoping for a respite, but as soon as we sit, we notice the inexorable desire for things to be different than they are as it manifests in the present moment. Nothing has changed just because we are sitting down to do zazen. We want the room to be warmer or cooler. We want it to be quieter. We want our thoughts to slow down. We want our mind to be more focused and concentrated. We want our meditation to be the way it was yesterday when it was so pleasant and peaceful. We want to be more alert and awake. We wish the pain in our back or leg would go away, the itch on our nose to cease. We want our stomach to stop gurgling. We wish our posture were better. We wish the bell would ring. We want to be better at this meditation thing. We want to be Enlightened. And so it goes.

If you attempt squelching these wishes and try making them disappear, you soon discover that you are setting yourself up for a battle with the impossible. It’s like struggling with quick sand — you just sink deeper. The trick is to simply notice the desire and allow it to be as it is, but at the same time, in the very act of recognition and noticing, we are in a very real way unhooking from the desire. It’s there, but we’re no longer driven by it. We can step back and watch the urge grow and intensify, and then wane and pass, only to return again later. We can surf the desire like a wave that ebbs and flows. The trick to desire is mindfulness and non-attachment. Once we can step back and watch desire, we can use discerning wisdom to analyze its pros and cons, to decide whether pursuing it is something in our own and others’ best interest — or whether it’s just another one of those endless desires to open our hands to and let go of.

The problem with desire isn’t that it exists, but that it drives us — that it controls us whether it’s good for us or not. Desires have an inherent velcro-like stickiness to them, but mindfulness, to pursue the metaphor beyond the boundaries of good taste, Teflon coats them. In Zen we say that while ordinary people are pushed by their desires, Bodhisattvas are pulled by their vows. The real intention behind the second vow is to remind us to deal skillfully with desire, to live guided by the North Star of our aspirations rather than being tossed hither and yon by the passing currents of our whims.

So we sit zazen and watch desire come and go. And the golden rule is: Don’t live driven by desire. If you want to move, don’t move. If you have an itch, don’t scratch. Just sit. See what happens.

Gesshin Greenwood explored this “don’t move” policy in a recent post in That’s So Zen. She was about to undergo the traditional trial period in Japanese Zen monasteries when newly ordained clerics must sit still for a week, excepting bathroom breaks and meals. Dreading this, Gesshin asked her teacher:

“What do I do if I have to move?” A week seemed like a really long time, and I had heard horror stories about people digging their nails into their palms and drawing blood in order to keep on enduring the zazen posture.

“You can’t move,” he said.

“But what if I really have to move?”

“Don’t move,” he reiterated.

“But what if I really, really have to move?”

“Well, then you move.”

It sounds so simply when it’s laid out like that, doesn’t it? We take up the posture of not moving, and we don’t move, and don’t move, despite the pain and itchiness and restlessness, until we simply must move, and then we do. This is true with most things, too. With any sort of commitment– a friendship, a romantic relationship, a marriage, a monastery, a period of academic study, a job, a diet, an exercise regime, a forty minute zazen period. We try our best to stay in one place, where we promised to stay, until we can’t anymore, and then we move.

Sometimes staying in one place and being patient is right, and sometimes moving is right, too, when it’s the only thing left to do.”

The end of zen training is learning how to be with each moment as it is — letting go of the desires and aversions that interfere with just being present. All of these desires only reinforce the network of me-ness, our narrative of identity. They are all about “me:” what I want, what I want to have. The universe is supposed to go the way I want it to. When we loosen our attachment to desire, we are also loosening our attachment to “I,” learning to get our “selves” out of the universe’s way. We’re learning to see reality from outside the confines of our necessarily limited point of view and see it, as Spinoza would say, sub specie aeternatatis — from the vantage point of eternity.

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Tarantula!

Desire never stops.   There is always something else or new we want.  Something better.  Something new to obtain; something new to attain; some new way to be.  It’s the mainspring that drives our behavior in the world.

When we sit down to meditate the mind is flooded with desire:  We want the room we’re in to be warmer or cooler.  We want the environment to be quieter.   We want our posture to be better.  We want our sitting position to be more comfortable.  We want our minds to be more alert, more concentrated, more still.  We can watch the parade of these desires with some degree of detachment and bemusement.  It’s the same old “Wanting Game” again and again.

Buddhist legend tells us that Mara the Tempter appeared to the Buddha in various disguises following his Enlightenment.  Each time Mara would appear, the Buddha would see through his disguise saying “I see you, Mara!”  With that, Mara would disappear, sad and disappointed.  The Buddha didn’t have to struggle with Mara.  He just needed to see Mara for who he was.

Similarly, when we see desire clearly it loses it’s power to enchant.

When I was in elementary school I used to go to the movies every Saturday afternoon.  I could see a double feature, five color cartoons, and a newsreel all for twenty-six cents.  I especially liked science fiction and monster movies.  One Saturday afternoon the local theater was showing the movie Tarantula!

I had seen the coming attractions the previous Saturday, and couldn’t wait to see it.  This had to be the scariest, best movie of all time!  Unfortunately for me, my mother had other ideas.  She was taking me to the dentist for my annual check-up that afternoon.  I was beside myself!  I begged and I pleaded!  Not while Tarantula! was in town!  Couldn’t we call up the dentist and cancel?  Couldn’t we see the dentist next week?  My mother was unrelenting, and I can still remember the taste of my disappointment today, fifty-five years later.  Seeing that movie was the most important thing I could possibly imagine.  When I asked the other kids about it on Sunday, they all agreed it was the best movie ever.  And I had missed it! Sheer misery!

I got a chance to finally see Tarantula! recently.   Here’s what James O’Ehley, the webmaster at Scifimoviepage says about it:

“As far as 1950s giant insect movies go, this… isn’t all that bad. Acting isn’t too rotten… You can certainly do a lot worse….  The older movies such as Tarantula become, the less interesting they become as movies in themselves. It certainly ticks off all the conventions of this particular subgenre: small town in the Arizona desert setting (check), mad scientist (check), army fighting giant insect creature (check), and so on…  Tarantula is simply slow-moving and dull by modern standards. There is a lot of leisurely chatter going on and the finale is anticlimactic to say the least.”

The reviewer is being generous to a fault.  I couldn’t watch more than 15 minutes of the movie.

Isn’t that the way with so much of desire?  How many possessions we couldn’t wait to obtain have been long since sold-off at tag sales or on e-bay or are accumulating dust in some attic or basement?  How many events we wanted to attend were better in anticipation than in actuality?  How many record albums, CDs or MP3s, the one’s we just had to have, now lie unlistened to?  How many things did we wish for that actually turned out to be toxic for us in some way?  Like the sugar, fat, and salt that makes junk food so appealing?  Can we see desire for what it is?

I see you, Mara!”

This is not to say that all desiring is wrong.  We can desire to educate ourselves, parent our children better, be kinder to others.   All good things.  Right now I want to learn how to play Chopin on the piano, and I’m looking forward to a trip touring the National Parks.  I’m also looking forward to another tomato ripening in our garden; they’ve been spectacular this year.  Nothing wrong with that.

What is important is that we look at our desires with discriminating wisdom.  Is what we desire really good for us and others around us?  Is it really worth the price we’re going to have to pay to get it?  Not only the monetary price, but other costs as well: our time, effort and emotional involvement, and the effect it has on loved ones.  Also, the other things we couldn’t afford because of the resources expended on fulfilling that one particular desire.   Is our desire based on a true evaluation of our situation, or is it a senseless craving, an addiction, a whim?

One way to assist in the process of discerning the nature of the desire is to wait a bit.  If we want something now, what if we wait a few minutes, or hours, or days, and see if we still want it?  That is why when we sit down to meditate and the room is too hot or too cold or too noisy, we don’t do anything about our desire to make things better.  We just sit there.  It’s boot camp for life.

[Deep apologies to everyone connected with Tarantula! including director Jack Arnold who went on to direct the wonderfully mystical Incredible Shrinking Man two years later, and actor Leo G. Carroll, who was terrific as Topper on TV.  Apologies also to (genuflect! genuflect!) Clint Eastwood who played an uncredited jet squadron leader in the film.  I didn’t write about this movie because it was especially bad, only because of my memories of having missed it.]

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Why Aren’t We Happy Yet?

So why aren’t we happy yet?  What’s the problem?

Well, as it turns out, there isn’t just one problem, but a whole bunch of them.  (Things are never that simple.  I’ve gone ahead and bundled them into seven categories. I’m a bit of a category nut):

  1. The Problem of Conflicting Desires
  2. The Problem of Illegitimate Desires
  3. The Problem of Enchantment: Translating Desires into Needs
  4. The Problem of Supply and Distribution
  5. The Problem of Impermanence
  6. The Problem of Other People’s Imperfections
  7. The Problem of Our Own Imperfection

Each of these problems needs a little bit of explanation and elaboration.

The Problem of Conflicting Desires

We sometimes have several desires at once which are incompatible with each other.  For example, we want to eat everything that appeals to us, but we also want to be thin.  Or we want to have lots of money, but we don’t want to work too hard.  Or we want to have a relationship with Sally, but we also want one with Joan.  Or we want to please our parents, but we also want to do things our own way.  We want to have our cake and eat it too. This is our unfortunate human condition.  The world seems to have been arranged so that we just can’t have everything we want because the things we want are contradictory and exclude each other.  In fact, it seems to be a general rule that whenever we chose something, we are not choosing something else.  Every time we make a choice we are closing off other options.  There is nothing we can do about this problem: this is something we just have to suck up.

The Problem of Illegitimate Desires

Sometimes we have a desire, but we’ve been told by our parents, partners, or teachers that we shouldn’t have it.  We’ve been taught that the desire is illegitimate.  When this happens, we may blame ourselves for having the desire, or we may pretend the desire doesn’t really exist.  For example, you may be told that you shouldn’t have certain sexual desires: you shouldn’t feel like masturbating, or having sex outside of marriage, or having sex with a member of the same gender or a different race.  Or you may have been told that you shouldn’t be selfish, or acquisitive, or independent, or aggressive.  Or that you shouldn’t be soft-hearted, trusting, or sentimental.  Or that you shouldn’t be curious, questioning, and innovative.

If one is going to think sanely about this issue, it is important to make a distinction between having desires and acting on them.  Desires just happen, and we don’t ask to have them.  We don’t ask, for example, to be homosexual or heterosexual, or have high or low sex drives.  We just have certain desires or we don’t.  We also can’t ask not to have them without ending up pretending and lying to ourselves.  We do have the ability, however, to decide whether to try to fulfill those desires or not.  A person might discover, for example, a desire for sex outside of his or her marriage and decide that it would be morally wrong to act on that desire.  The important thing here is not to blame oneself or someone else for having the desire in the first place. So much human misery has been caused by the self-blame and low self-esteem that comes from believing one is bad because one has illegitimate desires.  It is wiser to accept oneself fully in terms of recognizing one’s true desires; then one can control the satisfaction and frustration of those desires in accordance with the way one wants to live.

It’s a simple fact that we can better manage our desires when we see them and understand them correctly and without blame.  The alcoholic who denies he’s really an alcoholic doesn’t make the decision to avoid alcohol at all costs.  The alcoholic who is honest but not self-blaming can make wise choices and stay out of the bar.  The alcoholic, however, who recognizes the desire but labels himself or herself as “bad” for having it just has one more reason to go out and get drunk.

When we don’t properly appreciate and understand our own desires, we often end up making our lives and the lives of others around us miserable.  Think for a moment of a male homosexual who denies to himself that he is “gay,” and marries a woman just to prove to himself that he is “straight.”  You can predict the results a few years down the road: an unhappy husband, an unhappy wife, and in the wake of the probable divorce, unhappy children.  You see this same predicament in people who choose the wrong profession for themselves, or in couples who marry when they only think they are in love.  Socrates’ injunction to “Know Thyself” involves our ability to know our true desires.

The Problem of Enchantment: Translating Desires into Needs

One problem with desire is that we often magically over-evaluate the thing we desire.  On a ten-point Intensity of Desire Scale, we often assign the desired object a score of “11”.  When we are in love, the person we love has no flaws, and is more wonderful than any other person who ever lived.  We would give up everything to win their love in return; sometimes we do.  When there is stylish dress, or a new cutting-edge electronic device, or a classy automobile we just have to have, the item we want changes from an object to an obsession, and there is enormous energy that arises as part of the yearning and wishing.  Once we actually possess the loved one, or the dress, or the car, our evaluation of it begins to decline: our desiring loses some of its charge, excitement, and energy.  How often have you noticed that our anticipation of attending a social event, for example, is often more fun that the event itself?

This initial intense charge, this infatuation, makes for a certain kind of enchantment by things: the desired object has us in its power.  We are bewitched.  What ought be just a desire has become a need in our own mental calculus.  Once a desire has been turned into a need, it takes on a pre-eminent importance to us above what it should have, and this means that we will give more to obtain it than we ought to.  It also means that if our attempts to obtain it are frustrated, we become angrier and more frustrated and upset than we would otherwise be.  It can become something we would die for, or would kill for.

Learning to see desires as just desires and not as needs is an important part of making things right-sized in our lives.  We can see how irrational our teenage children are when they need a special brand of clothing, or need to attend a particular party.  From our special place of hard-earned maturity, we can see how childish they are.  What is harder to see is just how childish we are when we need that bigger house, or that boat, or that promotion, or that elective office, or that early retirement.  Or when we need to be thin, or to not look old, or to not become infirm.  Learning how to live with what is reasonably possible, and to accept what is inevitable is an important part of learning how to be happy.

The Problem of Supply and Distribution

Economics has been called “the dismal science” because one of its central axioms is that desire always outstrips the ability of the world to satisfy it.  There isn’t enough money, oil, gold, or diamonds to meet everyone’s wishes for them.  There aren’t enough supermodels and hunks to go around as spouses for everyone.  There aren’t enough brainy genes to make everyone a genius.  Scarcity often makes things more valuable: the more rare it is, the more people want it.  On the other hand, if something isn’t desirable, there often seems to be more than enough to go around: more than enough flu viruses, more than enough dust, more than enough mosquitoes.

To make things worse, when things are desirable, they aren’t distributed evenly.  The powerful and important people get more than their fair share of things, and the rest of us make do with less.  Or none.  That’s not just true in capitalist societies.  In feudal societies the nobility had it all and the peasants had next to nothing.  In communist countries, the commissars had their dachas (vacation homes) on the Black Sea and the special schools for their children, and the best of healthcare, and the masses shared the poverty of the collective farm. The old joke has it that under Capitalism man exploits man, while under Communism, it’s just the opposite.

While some societies share the wealth more fairly than others, Western Europe, for example, is more equitable in sharing its wealth than is the United States, no society has even remotely done away with inequality.  Some people are born into more advantaged families, genders, nations, or races, or they are bigger, faster, brighter, stronger, more beautiful, or more unscrupulous than others, and voila, there you have it: inequality.

As a result, you will never have everything you want, and there will always be someone who has something more than what you have. For some people this is an unmitigated  tragedy and a cause of unending bitterness, for others it is “just life.”  You get to choose which attitude you want to take towards it.  Guess which one makes you happier?

In saying this I am not arguing in favor of inequality, and I am not suggesting we should not make real efforts to try to make the world fairer.  I am just arguing for the wisdom of the Serenity Prayer that is recited in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings: May you be granted the serenity to change the things you can, accept the things you can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference between them.

The Problem of Impermanence

If you succeed in getting the thing you desire, your next problem is that it won’t last.  Nothing lasts forever.  People grow old and sick and die.  They fall out of love and they move away.  You get that great new job, and the boss changes, or the company gets bought out or folds. Houses need painting and repair, car engines wear out and get thick with sludge.  Mountains erode, climates change, nations rise and fall. Objects decay, entropy intrudes, times change.  Eventually the sun will burn out and the universe will run down.  Trust me. The Buddha said that all “compound phenomena are subject to decay.”  By “compound phenomena,” he meant things that were made up of other things, namely, everything.  Heraclitus said “You can’t step in the same river twice.”

Not only is the world constantly changing, but our feelings about the world are constantly changing too.  There is a psychological law called habituation which basically says that the brain tires of responding to the same old same old.  The first bite of Ben and Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk Ice Cream is sublime.  The 100th bite, not quite as delicious.  The first time you hear that new hit song, it’s delightful.  After a while you feel like you’ll scream if you hear it one  more time.

Not only is the world always changing, and our emotional response to it always changing, but the contents of our minds is always changing, too.  If you just sit and observe your thoughts, feelings, and sensations, you will see how they are all constantly changing.  We are continuously learning new things and forgetting old things (unless we have Alzheimer’s Disease, in which case we forget the new even faster than we forget the old).  We change our moods, our opinions, and our minds.

Our desires change as well.   The books and movies we love as teenagers are not the same books and movies we love in old age.  As a youngster I hated olives and anchovies, now I love them. The vocation you aspired to in grade school is not probably not the same vocation you are in, or want to be in, today.

While the law of impermanence says we can never be permanently happy because what we want changes and the things we acquire change, there is a bright side to it: it’s not all gloom and doom.  If there was no change, we would never grow wiser or smarter, we would never overcome bad habits, and we would not learn new skills and information.  We would never better our condition or invent or create something new.   Change allows for the good as well as the bad.  So let’s hear one cheer for the Law of Impermanence: Hooray.

The Problem of Other People’s Imperfections

Nobody’s perfect.  And when it comes to other people, nobody’s even close.  In fact, to tell the truth, most people are disappointing and annoying a reasonable percentage of the time.   Even, or maybe especially, the people that you love.   They have all these bad habits, and they do all these dumb things.  Part of the problem is genetic.  Half the population is below average.  And humans share over 99% of their DNA with chimpanzees, so other people really aren’t much smarter or better behaved than chimpanzees.  How could they be?  Their biggest problem is that they don’t always put our own interests first.  They often care more about themselves than they do about us. How selfish!  And they aren’t always sufficiently attentive and appreciative of us.  Can you imagine?  They don’t hang on our every word, they don’t think all of our ideas are great ideas, and they don’t always anticipate our every need and satisfy them.

Even the best of people have all these flaws.

The Problem of Our Own Imperfection

There’s no doubt about it: We’re not perfect either: We’re not powerful enough to control the world.  We’re not powerful enough to control our bodies and stop them from aging or becoming ill.  We’re not even powerful enough to control our own minds.  If you need proof of this, just try counting from one to ten without thinking about a white rabbit.  Or try to have no thoughts at all for the next ten seconds.

There are certain kinds of errors we’re prone to making just simply because we’re human beings.  As a species we tend to be irrational, impulsive, and overly focused on short-term gain.  Think of those as design flaws.

In addition, we have limited vision and tend to be short-sighted.  When chess masters are playing an opponent, they try to anticipate how their opponent will counter their next move, and what they will do in response, and how their opponent will respond to that.  But even the best chess masters can only see several moves ahead.  Our brains are only so big.  As a result, our actions often have unintended consequences which we failed to anticipate.

As a result of our limited vision, all of our solutions to problems seem to create new problems.  This is why there will never be a problem shortage.  When the automobile was invented it was seen as an ingenious and affordable method for getting rapidly from Point A to Point B.  No one back then guessed it would contribute to global warming, to air pollution, to dependency on the Middle East for oil, or to tens of thousands of deaths and brain injuries per year.  When Thalidomide was prescribed by European gynecologists for morning sickness in their patients, they didn’t anticipate it would lead to an epidemic of birth defects.  When air conditioners and cooling systems were invented to make the summer heat more tolerable, no one anticipated that they would become reservoirs for the microorganism that causes Legionnaire’s Disease.  When Paris took Helen to be his wife, he didn’t expect the Trojan War.

As much as we try to think ahead and come up with “environmental impact statements” or other guestimates of the future impact of our decisions, we’ll always be woefully wrong.  The variables that affect the future are so numerous, we can never fully take all of them into account.  We’re like people lost in the night-time fog with little flashlights.  We can shine the flashlight on the ground and see a few footsteps ahead, but not much further.

So there you have it.  The seven reasons why you aren’t permanently and deliriously happy yet.     I hope you’re satisfied.

I wish I could be satisfied with the list, but I’m not.  I must have left something out, given my own imperfection.  If you come up with any additional reasons, please post them here.

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