Buddhism A-Z: “Desire”
For this, Buddhism quite often gets a bad rap (as many of you might imagine; the readership of this blog being on the whole rather fond of desire..)!
But again there are a few assumptions to unpack before this over-simplified “desire = suffering” equation can be properly understood.
“It is this thirst/desire, manifesting itself in various ways, that gives rise to all forms of suffering and the continuity of beings.”
First of all, it’s important to note that it is the manifestation of desire that is said to be the problem. If I had £1 for everyone I have heard make this mistake I’d, well, I’d probably have frittered it away on coffee, or sweets, or ink… but that’s besides the point. Eliminating desire is not the answer. Understanding and controlling if/how it motivates you is. It’s a frustratingly common occurrence that people fail to understand that desire is human, it’s ok, but ignorance of that and the manifestations of it (see footnote) are the problem. Desire usually causes us to want nice things we don’t have or, strictly speaking, need (a new car, a cuddle right now); or not want nasty things we do have and can, strictly speaking, cope with (an assessment, a bereavement). What’s more, we desire ‘good’ things to last forever, and we desire ‘bad’ things to end now. We’re not going to get either of these things so even if we do acquire the things we want, we suffer when the good things inevitably end and we suffer through the bad things we cannot avoid.
At first glance it seems hopeless. I can completely understand why the Buddha described humanity as being ‘trapped in a cycle of wanting and not wanting’ EXCEPT if we get rid of our little human egos for a second – good and bad, nice and nasty, are completely nonsensical experiential things! The universe has no ‘good’ and ‘bad’, objects themselves have no inherent nice or nasty, it’s all a matter of perspective.
The statement that desire causes suffering is stating the fact that, because things we perceive as “bad” and things we perceive as “good” are just things we (not even as humans, but as individuals) have categorised based on our own experience; and because the universe will operate as it will from the immovable laws of science despite our individual feelings on the matter, we pragmatically cannot avoid all that we dislike and have everything we want and desiring things to be any other way will cause you to suffer.
Here, I need to distingush between things that we percieve as bad happening to us, and our suffering before I get a comment thread full of “How can desire cause suffering! Desire doesn’t cause cancer! You can avoid cancer..” No, Desire doesn’t cause cancer** but if you do have cancer (which, though influenced by our choices, is a fact of life for some of us, like any illness or like death is for all of us) desiring not to have, wishing it could be different, expending cycles and cycles of mental energy on the “what-if?”, this desire to have the situation be other is what causes you to suffer. I have seen some very unwell people who I wouldn’t say were suffering with their illness, as well as some much less physically unwell people who most certainly were suffering.
It’s this that Buddhism drills on and on about. Everything you want and everything you dont want are affected by more factors than you control. Letting go of the narcaissism that says you, tiny organism in the universe, should have a say in what is and isn’t allowed or fair will mean that you only need to deal with what actually happens to you – not the dissonance between what is, and what you want to be.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try and change things of a human construct, of course. It’s no excuse to ignore politics, the law, human rights violations at all. In fact it’s important to work for what is right and what you believe in but begrudging that work, desiring it to be different, wishing you didn’t have to work for it, are all causes of suffering that could be eliminated. Accept that you are part of a solution, don’t hate the problem.
It’s easier for you as an individual to cultivate acceptance of these universal facts, to counter the ‘desire’, than to try an be the exception. You’re not the exception. Accept that, or suffer.
*technically one of two things that cause suffering, the other being ignorance, but this gets kind of circular because mostly we are ignorant about our desires or ignorant about our ignorance #meta
** I think that’s possibly the one thing the Daily Mail has, to date, neglected to blame!