Poking around at desire

I have found myself pondering desire as a result of several different trains of thought. The economic upheaval we’re experiencing has its roots in desires of the consumers; and it would seem root cause solutions would involve both altering consumer desires to match realistic goals AND aligning what the market “desires” to match societies goals (Part of that excellent article in Harper’s, “How to Save Capitalism”. The folks at Harper’s are good capitalists, though, because you can’t read the article for free.)

Another path that has brought me to thinking about shaping desire is the suspicion that this might be a valuable and practical result of faith & religion. After preaching on prayer, I’ve come to realize that teaching and nurturing empathy is an important role of faith & religion. I wonder if shaping desire could be another.

Also, there’s the New-Year’s-resolutiony bit of it. What is the best way to overcome a desire that it would be best that you did not have? Maybe the desire is bad because it is impossible to achieve; maybe it’s bad because it is unhealthy, as in the case of short term gratification but long term disappointment.

So, I’m faced with a choice about whether to get the salad or the deep fried burrito. I can think of at least three techniques ensuring that I get the salad. Reason: I’m on a diet that is the result of my decision to loose weight, the burrito has too many calories/points/carbs/whatever; Habit: I always order salads so I get a salad without really considering the burrito; Desire: I prefer salad to burrito. The recent not shocking study I heard about on NPR, summarized here, is that reason is a feeble tool to use against desire.

I think our Buddhist brothers and sisters have a more dramatic solution than aligning our desires to the good. I believe they would suggest we give up desire altogether. Consider this from the Dhammapada:

209. Giving himself to things to be shunned and not exerting where exertion is needed, a seeker after pleasures, having given up his true welfare, envies those intent upon theirs.

210. Seek no intimacy with the beloved and also not with the unloved, for not to see the beloved and to see the unloved, both are painful.

211. Therefore hold nothing dear, for separation from the dear is painful. There are no bonds for those who have nothing beloved or unloved.

212. From endearment springs grief, from endearment springs fear. From him who is wholly free from endearment there is no grief, whence then fear?

213. From affection springs grief, from affection springs fear. From him who is wholly free from affection there is no grief, whence then fear?

214. From attachment springs grief, from attachment springs fear. From him who is wholly free from attachment there is no grief, whence then fear?

215. From lust springs grief, from lust springs fear. From him who is wholly free from craving there is no grief; whence then fear?

216. From craving springs grief, from craving springs fear. From him who is wholly free from craving there is no grief; whence then fear?

Notice the passage not only counsels against craving but also affection and endearment. Hmm.

BTW, I experienced moderate frustration this morning because I was looking for my copy of the Dhammapada and couldn’t find it. Ironic much.

5 replies on “Poking around at desire”

So, did the peasant classes that Luther was talking to, when he was saying, “Just be cool, in the afterlife everything will be great for you,” have it enough better than the impoverished in India that this philosophy made sense to them, while those in India just had to learn not to have desire, or were Buddha and Luther just coming up with two different ways to address the problem?

First the Buddhism thing. As I understand it, Siddharta discovered that the real source of his suffering was not getting what he desired. Aha! If I quit desiring, no more suffering. Problem solved. That’s the B-for-dummies version, horribly abbr.
Plato also decided that desire was a bad thing, ’cause it never worked out quite like he . . . um, desired. Consequently, both desired to stop desiring.


You can see the difficulty. I think it may be more helpful to look at the nature of our desire, what is desired, and for whom. Jewish phenomenological philosopher Emmanuel Levinas has some (really complicated but) good things to say on the topic. First he makes the distinction between desire and need. What we actually desire, he thinks, are those things beyond our basic need. Says he, “desire ia an aspiration that the Desirable animates; it originates from its ‘object’; it is revelation — whereas need is a void of the Soul; it proceeds from the subject” (Totality and Infinity, p. 62). Elsewhere he adds, “Desire cannot be satisfied . . Desire in some way nourishes itself on its own hungers and is augmented by its satisfaction. . . .” It is related to our awareness of the Infinite (Ethics and Infinity, p. 92). So, need is contingent upon our finitude, but desire, instead of being a hopelessly futile thing, is actually a sign of our capacity for self-transcendence.

Now about the “for whom”: there is, of course, a self-consuming desire, which really bespeaks a “hole in the soul” that (my faith inserting itself here) cannot be completely filled by anything in this life. However, the yearning for something “more,” for meaning in this reality, I think, is a healthy desire, which spills out beyond the narrow parentheses of my own private life. For, if we truly “desire” (in the way Levinas sets up), then we do so for more than just “me” — if nothing else, our desire is intrinsically relational: we desire “from” an “other.” Automatically, we set up either an exploitative desire-from, or a free, adventurous desire-with.

Sketchy, but there’s my 2-pennies-worth.

Bob Howard

Stuff like this “desire ia an aspiration that the Desirable animates; it originates from its ‘object’; it is revelation — whereas need is a void of the Soul; it proceeds from the subject” really reminds me of introduction to philosophy classes. Not because it was easy, but because my first reaction is to reject the notion of something eminating from objects, and the specific participating in the form and whatnot, but then just about the time I’m going to throw it away I start to see why it is important.

Here, I think the distinction between need and desire is an interesting one. I also like using the fact that a want is insatiable as an indication that it is a bad desire (or a desire rather than a need).

Does Lavinas, or Howard for that matter, think we should extinquish desires, but satisfy needs?

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