Aspiration and Desire

We are creatures who can imagine things different from the way they are. In imagining alternative realities, we tend to line them up along an evaluative dimension, from least desirable to most, imagining worlds both better and worse than the one we currently inhabit. The gap between the “actual” and the “better” is the domain of desire.

This wish for better things—better circumstances, a better society, a better self—is an intrinsic part of the human condition. The 17th Century philosopher Baruch Spinoza held the metaphysical position that all things act to maintain and enhance themselves. One doesn’t need to agree with his metaphysics, however, to observe that all plants and animals, from the simplest to the most complex, act in ways that tend to maximize the odds of their continuance and enhancement.

This lining up of possibilities along a dimension of desirability pervades our experience of ourselves and the world. Our everyday language expresses it in terms of a vertical dimension ranging from “high” to “low.”  We seek to avoid “sinking to new lows” or “hitting bottom.” We want to be inspired and “lifted up.” People we despise are “beneath our contempt,” while we “look up” to those we admire. We’re admonished to “pick ourselves up” after we’ve “fallen down.” We’re advised to “raise our sights” and “aim higher.” We have, in other words, an aspiration for ascent.

This vertical dimension is reflected in our religious and philosophical metaphors. The Judeo-Christian Hell lies vaguely beneath our feet, while its Heaven floats somewhere above our heads. The Greek god Zeus dwelt atop Mount Olympus, while the sun up in the heavens symbolized The Good in Plato’s allegory of the cave. Buddhist Bodhisattvas inhabit celestial paradises, while the Chinese Emperor was said to hold the Mandate of Heaven. 

Why should our evaluative dimension be mapped onto metaphors of height and depth? Is there something about our embodied experience that facilitates this connection? The way the force of gravity pulls us towards the Earth? The way we grow taller as we age? The way we cease crawling on the ground and learn to stand up? The way we gaze up at the stars in amazement? It’s an interesting question, no?

Our aspiration for ascent takes many forms: the wish to ascend to Heaven after death, or the wish to establish a heaven on earth for ourselves and future generations; the wish to become Enlightened; the wish to become more wealthy, famous, popular, loved, admired, respected, or revered; the wish to become smarter, thinner, prettier, stronger, healthier, or kinder; the wish to develop our talents; the wish to do good and great things.

Buddhism, however, is suspicious of all this endless aspiring. Buddhism’s Second Noble Truth asserts that our ceaseless yearning for something more and better—our constant desire to improve the present moment, is the root cause of our suffering. Buddhism suggests that we alleviate our suffering by radically accepting everything-just-as-it-is. In meditation, we dwell in the present moment without separation, observing and letting go of any and all intentions to improve the moment, however subtle, as they arise.

As the well-known Tang Dynasty Chinese Zen poem, Faith in Mind (Xinxin Ming) suggests:

The Great Way is not difficult

for those who have no preferences.

When love and hate are both absent

everything becomes clear and undisguised.

Make the smallest distinction, however,

and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.

If you wish to see the truth

then hold no opinions for or against anything.

To set up what you like against what you dislike

is the disease of the mind.

But this Buddhist admonition to accept the present moment and end our striving for a better state of affairs contains a deep internal contradiction. Our very attempt to curtail wishing for something better is itself a new kind of striving after something “higher,” another kind of rejection of the present moment, just as it is.

In addition, it’s impossible to hear the Buddhist admonition to end striving for improvement without a certain degree of skepticism. The entire history of human cultural improvement—of imagining things being better than they currently are—the history of tool making, writing, agriculture, animal husbandry, sanitation, medicine, central heating, indoor plumbing—would our lives really be better without it?  Who would voluntarily trade present-day life for the lives of our distant ancestors? Isn’t the Dharma itself an improvement over earlier beliefs? Didn’t the mythological Buddha strive over many lifetimes to develop his virtues so that he might one day achieve  Enlightenment? And isn’t our shared communal world—plagued by injustice, selfishness, and cruelty—in continued need of improvement, large and small?

We’ve also all traversed the road from infancy to adulthood. We’ve learned how to walk and speak, read and write, and cultivate our understanding, judgment, self-control, conscience, and imagination. While some of this development “just happened,” much of it required effortful striving and a reaching for something not yet at hand. To use the metaphor of verticality, we “grew up.” Who would choose to forgo all that our striving has earned us in terms of our development of competence and character?

Given our appreciation for the role of striving for improvement in our cultural and personal development, how can we to understand the Buddhist admonition to radically accept things as they are—to rest without separation in the present moment?

It’s interesting to note that the Zen Buddhist meditation instructions straddle this same contradiction between acceptance and striving. We’re told to give up striving while meditating, but then we immediately notice that striving is present in our wish to become Enlightened, in our wish that our meditation space be warmer or quieter, in our wish for our body to be more comfortable, in our wish for our mind be more concentrated, and so on. These wishes don’t go away; they just keep on coming, one after another.

So we’re then advised to step back and just observe these wishes come and go without disturbing ourselves about them—to radically accept them as they arise. But this very act of  acceptance is again a movement away from our-mind-as-it-is-in-the-present-moment which includes the wish that we could stop desiring—another movement of separation from the way things are.

So then we’re instructed to take another step back and accept that, too.

We thus find that the “resting in the present moment” instruction delivers us into an ever widening spiral of acceptance that, far from “resting in the present moment,” brings us paradoxically to a “higher” state different from the original “present moment.”

Our ancestors believed that the world we lived in was a world of appearances, and that some “higher” reality lurked above or behind it—a world of spirits and the Divine. Modernity tells us that there is no world lurking above and beyond material reality.

There is “just this.”

Buddhism tells us that whatever “just this” is, it’s possible to experience “just this” in some “higher” way if we practice letting things be as they are. If we encounter things lovingly rather than instrumentally. That it’s possible to experience the realization that the-world-as-it-is has its own kind of perfection, independent of our desires. We may wish it wouldn’t rain during our picnic, but the flowers and grass need the rain. We may wish there weren’t any mosquitos where we picnicked, but the bats and birds need those mosquitos. We may wish not to ingest and inhale bacteria, but our bodies need bacteria to function properly. The world-as-it-is has its own kind of perfection—amazing, beautiful, integrated—which is, when rightly seen, the very realm of the sacred that modernity has tried to disabuse us of. When realized in this way, the distinction between “high” and “low” paradoxically collapses—the higher world we once sought out is identical to the everyday world we already inhabit.  And yet, seen from our more ordinary perspective, its a world still in need of some improvement.

In understanding the Buddhist path, it may be useful to distinguish intention and aspiration from attachment and desire. Our aspirations to better our circumstances are inseparable from being alive. They never cease. We will always want air, water, food, clothing, shelter, medicine, and companionship.  Above and beyond our basic wants, we may also aspire to certain so-called “higher” goods such as wisdom, compassion, and courage. While pursuing these higher goods, we will still simultaneously find ourselves experiencing a desire for “lower” goods as well, such as social status or material wellbeing. It’s one thing to recognize an aspiration to some good—be it “higher” or “lower”—and thoughtfully work to increase the likelihood of attaining it.  It’s another thing to be seized by it, to be held in its grip, to be helpless against it, to pursue it recklessly, against one’s better judgement, even when it’s antithetical to one’s long-term wellbeing.

If Buddhism were asking us to cease all intention and aspiration, it would be asking the impossible. What it’s actually asking is for us to become discerning about our intentions and  aspirations. Are they worth aspiring for? Will they really makes us happier? Can we pursue them intelligently, weighing their direct and indirect costs, or are we being dragged thoughtlessly along by them to the detriment of ourselves and others? If a desire is in charge of us—if it’s leading us to ruin and misfortune—can we detach from it and let it go? If the desire is unattainable or only attainable at too great a cost, can we also let it go?

When we meditate, we watch our desires come and go, detaching from them, without taking action on them during the period of meditation. Meditation is boot camp for observing desires, discerning whether they’re wise, and learning to let them go. Strengthening this skill set is a requisite for the well-lived life.

I would label desires that are 1) worth it, 2) attainable at acceptable costs, 3) consonant/synergistic with one’s continued growth/development and with achieving one’s higher-order goals, and 4) regulated/meditated by reason, “aspirations.” Buddhism is full of aspirations: The aspiration to find the time to meditate, the aspiration to follow the precepts, the aspiration to be of service to others, the aspiration towards greater awakening. On the other hand, desires that 1) are not really worth it, 2) come at too high a cost, 3) interfere with our continued growth and development and with achieving our higher-order goals, and 4) are unregulated/unmediated by reason so that they have us in their grip and pull us along unreflectively, are the kinds of desires and attachments that Buddhism is warning us against.

How can we discern helpful aspiration from unhelpful desire and attachment? Aspiration gently nudges us in a direction that feels intuitively wholesome and right. There’s nothing rigid, compulsory, joyless, or constricting about it. Aspiration never feels like an external taskmaster whipping us into shape. I would like to be kinder to others and will orient myself in that direction and encourage myself to try harder, but there’s no “must” about succeeding, and no need for self-flagellation if I fail.

Attachment, on the other hand, is riddled with imperative “musts”:  I must be a better person. I must have “X” or I’ll be miserable. Everybody must behave the way I want them to. The cognitive-behavioral psychologist Albert Ellis called this kind of thinking “musterbatory” and referred to engaging in it as “musterbation.” It seems as good a word as any to describe it. 

Living in this way—seeing the good and pursuing it wisely, but neither driven nor compelled by it; preferring things to be better but not desperately needing them to be so; being able to see that things as they are, even when they fail to coincide with our preferences, have their own integral place in the cosmos—this is the path that Buddhism invites us to follow.