Question for the Year Revisited

I asked before, “How does one change what one wants?” I poked around a little further in a later post. Today, reading up on Hinduism, it appears that one answer may be, you don’t.

It is true, Huston Smith’s Hindu would say, that there are greater and lesser desires. The desire for success is better than the desire for pleasure. The desire to serve others, better than the desire for success. Ultimately, you will desire liberation from the finite. But, the point is you will eventually have the higher desires. Maybe not in this lifetime, but eventually.

So, should we try to shape our desires?

13 replies on “Question for the Year Revisited”

So, should we try to shape our desires?

I think it depends on whether it is a destructive urge. If you desire a new intimate physical relationship while you’re still married, I think that alone is not destructive to anyone. In fact it may be inevitable and universal. If that desire rises to, or has the potential to rise to, the destructive level, even if it’s never acted upon, then I think on needs to attempt to change that desire.

If you are a Republican US Senator with a Wide Stance, my recommendation is for you to work on shaping your desires.

I think it’s all about the potential for harm.

What about the potential for less good? For example, if I have an urge to lay around and watch TV when I come home instead of reading a book, or meditating.

If we just assume that it is better for me to read a book or meditate, is there any reason I should not work to shape that desire?

True, there is a more compelling reason to shape the urge to do harmful things. Of course, could we call my watching TV a harm of missed opporunity? (Compare to the “cost” of early $100 when you could have earned $1000.)

“could we call my watching TV a harm of missed opporunity?”

Perhaps it depends on what you were watching on TV and with whom? What if you are watching TV with your family? Some consider spending quality time with your family more important than making a few more bucks. What do your desires come from? Family or money or God?

I agree that it is inevitable and universal to desire a new intimate physical relationship while you are still married. However, does it have to be that way? Why do we have so many people that commit adultery say…”it just happened”. Is it a lack of control?

Before we try to shape our desires, we must be clear on what our fundamental beliefs are. If you don’t have any, then you are at higher risk for disappointments.

For our good and those we love, it is necessary to shape our desires before the desires shape us.

What if you paid attention to your desires, with some objectivity, and let them inform you — so that ultimately you could make a conscious decision about whether or not to follow them?

It seems to me that all this focus on changing our desires implies that’s the only way to avoid falling prey to them. Don’t we have more agency/power than that?

Desires don’t usually exist in a vacuum — and pretty often there is an equal counter-desire at play, simultaneously. It’s a lot like choosing which wolf to feed — which desire wins? The one you chase.

Anon, no fair fighting the premise. Sure, watching TV with your kids could be a valuable activity. I don’t know for absolutely certain that meditating is a better way to relax that watching Two and Half Men, but I suspect it is. My question is if we shape our desires on big things (away from adultry) why don’t we do the same for small things (away from sloth)?

Anon, I think you are right to point to values, because I think that is an essential first step. Without values there would be no bases on which to shape your desires, you would have only desires. And, Lin, I agree that we do have agency to resist our desires. HOWEVER, I’m not convinced how effective that is.

(BTW, thanks for the great dialogue.)

And, Lin, I agree that we do have agency to resist our desires. HOWEVER, I’m not convinced how effective that is.

As a more or less strict materialist, do I have to bow out of the conversation now?

I agree with whomever it was who said that no matter whether we have free will, we have to act as if we do. So Lin’s right, we need to act as if we have agency to resist our unhealthy desires.

And there are no great wrongs being done if your choice is between meditation and a funny sit com. Your desires there are probably a fine guide. I often am rushing about doing something and have the desire to stop and go into one of my kid’s rooms and just see what they’re doing. If they don’t see me I get to observe them for a while, and if they do I ask what they’re doing and I get a little insight. That desire is my guide to give up the competing desire to get the dishes done or start reading for school. I have no idea how that little vignette informs the debate.

As a more or less strict materialist, do I have to bow out of the conversation now?

Not at all. In fact, it is because I do not believe in multiple lives that I reject the Hindu notion of just fulfilling your “lesser” desires until they no longer satisfy and only then pursue the next “higher” desire. I think it would be sad to spend a lifetime, my only lifetime, just pursuing pleasure.

It appears clear to me that I did not adequately set up the premise that I intended to address desires to do at least unhelpful (perhaps harmful) things. I don’t think desire by itself is bad.

I’m considering how to respond to ones desire to be lazy or lecherous or greedy or glutinous.

A few disjointed responses.

*Lin’s response sounds much like the Buddhist idea of mindfulness. That tradition says that the important thing is to be aware of your thought. Observe a thought, acknowledge you just had it, without judging it. That awareness is the beginning of wisdom. So they say.

*There’s a quote in a book at home I have to look up. It is something like, “If you know something, but you do not act accordingly, you do not know it.”

*I sometimes think that deciding to follow a desire that is going to have negative consequences is a failure of imagination. This is related to the quote above. Lechery is going to hurt you in the long run, and if you would sit and visualize, experience in your mind that future, maybe you wouldn’t do it.

*Perhaps the simplest guideline I have for this kind of thing, and the most useful for me, is that it is easier to avoid temptation than to resist it. Not idealistic, and perhaps some would say pessamistic, but there you go. It’s easier not to watch too much TV if you have a crappy TV and keep it in the garage. That kind of thing.

Welcome, strict materialist! This is a universal issue, I think.

Desire is not an element of religion only. It is a quality of humanness.

If you imagine an apathetic environment where varieties of desires inhabit our psyches and we follow them willy-nilly like chasing butterflies, we’re in a heap of trouble.

I think desire doesn’t exist in such a vacuum, however. Another quality of humanness is morality (which also is an element separate from religion, though religion informs many people’s morality). So if our rampant desires co-exist with our morality, our morality acts as a monitor, helping us decide which butterfly to chase. There really is no decision to make, because desire and morality both seek the greatest possibility for themselves. Ultimately your deepest desires that are for the greatest good for all concerned will disqualify all other options.

I wish I had thought of it first, but Frederick Buechner said something similar in “Wishful Thinking.” Buechner, talking about vocation or calling, says that the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. At that sacred intersection is where your purpose is revealed.

Desire and deep gladness seem a lot alike to me, and it seems that our morality, at its highest, propels us to seek the greatest good for all who are affected by our choices.

Jim, while you doubt that our agency, our power to choose, is enough, I think it is precisely enough — and the only thing that can keep us from the abyss.

Woah, Josh! We were writing at the same time, and what you wrote is so perceptive and helpful. Yes! Mindfulness.

You said I sometimes think that deciding to follow a desire that is going to have negative consequences is a failure of imagination. Very helpful language. I may want to borrow it.

My plan is to write about this once a month. Now that I’ve said that I will obviously forget to do it in March. But I’m very encouraged and excited by the divergent opinions expressed.

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