August 17, 2017

The Object of Desire

For centuries we considered the desire a danger. The most varied doctrines and religions have taught us that the desire is a source of unhappiness and suffering, encouraging us to fight it through apostasy or even asceticism.

But I believe that desire and sexuality are indispensable elements of a spiritual path, a concrete help to bring happiness to everyday life.


All phenomena, once Buddha said, are rooted in desire. Everything we think, we say, or do – every experience – comes from desire. We also exist as a result of our desire. We are born into this existence because of our desire to be. Whether we are aware of it or not our wishes continue to redefine the sense of who we are. It is through desire that we place ourselves in the causal matrix of space and time. The only thing not rooted in desire is NIRVANA because it is the end of all phenomena. But the path leading to Nirvana is rooted in desire, in competent desire. The path to liberation pushes the limits of competent desires to see until where they can arrive.

The desire for happiness is fundamental to each of us. Any other desire is a strategy to achieve it: we wish for an iPod, a partner or peaceful spiritual experience because we are convinced that these will make us happy. Since these secondary desires are strategies, they follow a consistent pattern. They derive from an indefinite sense of lack, they rely on our perceptual ability to identify the cause; they use the creativity of our imagination to find a solution.

But despite this constant pattern, the desires are not monolithic. Each of them shows us something that’s missing in our lives, and suggests a solution. The crave for a sandwich comes from the perception of hunger, the wish to climb a mountain involves a different kind of “hunger”, hunger for adrenaline, the need to overcome our own limits, and so on. Whatever the desire is, if it’s satisfying and leads to happiness, it is a competent desire. Otherwise it is not. However, something that seems to be a competent desire can at times lead to a misleading or transitory happiness that is not worth the effort.

So wisdom begins as a meta-desire: learning to recognize competent desires from the not competent, for what they actually are.

The non-competent desires can create suffering in many ways. Sometimes they aim for the impossible: not aging, not dying. Sometimes they imply excessive means. Like, for example, lying or cheating to make a career. Or it may be the case that once the goal achieved it does not make us happy. Even the top of Everest may be a disappointment – anyway, you can not stay there forever. When you go down the hill, there will be only memories that are going to fade more and more. If you have done bad things to reach the top, the memory of them will destroy any remaining pleasure.

In addition, the desires may often pull us in opposite directions. The sex desire, for example, may be an impediment to our desire for peace. It is the conflict between our contradictory desires that makes us aware of the inherent suffering in desire. Because of this conflict, every single desire has learned to persuade, to argue, to fight to prevail. And the fact that a desire is competent does not mean that it is more skillful than others to defend their own reasons, since the non-competent desires are often the most intransigent, the cleverest. This means that wisdom needs to develop strategies to strengthen the competent desires in order to make the less competent to listen. The desires can be trained to work together for greater happiness. A healthy and mature mind can conduct a dialogue not necessarily between rationality and desire, but between competent and non-competent desire.

However even for a mature mind, this dialogue often results in compromises that do not convince the heart: fragments of sense of pleasure, moments of peace of mind, nothing really satisfying. Some, tired of compromises, give up on cautiousness and choose instant gratification: sex, money, power, everything that can be grasped. But when the impulse towards easy gratification vanishes, it will take many lifetimes to remedy the damages.

Some others try in any way to accept the compromise between desires, trying to find a bit of peace in renouncing at what seems impossible. But even this kind of peace denies the truth that underlies all desires, which is a life made of infinite limitations is unbearable.

It is common belief that true, unlimited happiness is unattainable. We can not even conceive the real happiness in our lives.

What made Buddha special is the fact that he never lowered the aim. He imagined absolute happiness, a happiness so free of limits that it did not allow space for any other desire.

He has therefore considered the desire for this happiness his highest priority.

While all other desires were deliberating with the main one, he explored various strategies until he found one that really accomplished that unlimited purpose. This strategy is his basic lesson: the Four Noble Truths. Most of us, while contemplating the Four Noble Truth, do not realize that they are essentially about desire.

Buddha also saw in desire the cause of suffering. And then, by inviting us to abandon the cause of suffering, seems to deny any positive role of desire and its allies: the creativity, the imagination, and the hope.

This conviction prevents us from capturing two fundamental points;

The first one is that the Four Noble Truths address the basic dynamics of desire in its own terms, which are: the limitation and the sense of lack, the imaginary solution, and the strategy to accomplish it.

The First Truth (This is Pain) teaches us the fundamental sense of lack and limitation of our lives, the attachment that generates suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates (form (or matter or body), sensations (or feelings, received from form), perceptions, mental activity or formations, and consciousness) subject to clinging are suffering.

The Second Truth (This is the Origin of Pain) indicates the types of desire that produce attachment: it is this craving which leads to re-becoming, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for becoming, craving for disbecoming.

The Third Truth (this is the cessation of pain) drives us to imagine that attachment can be totally overcome: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, non-reliance on it.

The Fourth (this is the path leading to the cessation of pain) the path leading to the end of suffering, indicates the strategies to overcome attachment by letting go of its cause: that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.

The 2nd point we often do not understand is that the Noble Truths attribute two roles to desire, depending on whether it is competent or not. The non-competent desire is the cause of suffering; the competent desire is part of the path that leads to its cessation. The competent desire cuts from the roots the non-competent desire not by mutilating it, but by generating ever-greater levels of satisfaction and well-being, so that the non-competent desire has no more space to be. This competent desire strategy is made explicit in the factor of the right effort:

What is the Right Effort? The most basic, traditional definition of Right Effort is to exert oneself to develop wholesome qualities and release unwholesome qualities.

There it is the example of a monk (a meditating person) who has a desire, makes an effort, strengthens his determination, uses the intention with the intent to do not bring in bad things, the unwholesome mental qualities that have not yet arisen in order to abandon evil; in order to create wholesome abilities that have not yet arisen, for the maintenance, the strengthening, the fullness, the full development of wholesome abilities that have arisen.

This is called the right effort.

So, the crucial elements to replace unwholesome mental qualities with wholesome abilities are: the desire, the determination, and the intention. The latter is the most complex factor, it implies engaging the whole mind in the process: all sensitivity, intelligence, discernment, and skill.

These qualities are present in each learning process. As with every apprenticeship, there are several steps in the development of the path, but the fundamentals are four.

So, to begin with the first one is to make use of your determination to identify the choir of inner voices trying to dissuade you from doing the right effort. These voices are malicious advocates who defend heavily rooted interests, and that is, all your unwholesome desires that feel threatened. One must be vigilant and fast in reacting to their arguments coming from everywhere, and sometimes also taking a wise and honest tone, even if it is not real.

Here are some examples of these voices:

“Trying to manipulate desires this way is unnatural.” In fact we do nothing else than manipulate our desires constantly, when we choose one desire instead of another, so it’s worth learning to do so skillfully.

And out there in the world there are a lot of people whose only purpose is to manipulate your desires – think about advertising – so it is best to entrust manipulation to more trustworthy hands – yours.

“Trying to control your desires is a real attack on your own self.” This argument works only if you give your own ego more substance than it deserves, given that it is nothing but a mess of desires.

You may combat this affirmation by observing that since the sense of the ego is a continuously changing sequence of strategies for happiness, it is worth trying to direct them toward achieving true happiness.

“Splitting desires into competent and non-competent is dualistic and judgmental.”

Of course you do not want a non-dualist mechanic to fix your car, or a non-dualist surgeon to work on your brain! You want people able to discern what is skillful is not from what is not. If you really care for your happiness, you will demand the same discernment from the person who is most responsible for it: yourself.

“There is too much tension on the target. Just accept the things as they are in the present. ”

Each desire tells you that the things at the present are limited and unsatisfactory. One may accept the desire, or may accept the sense of lack. Accepting both at the same time means denying either one is real.

“It is useless to resist such a mysterious power.” The desire seems overwhelming and mysterious because we do not know our minds.

“Combating non-competent desires is too much trouble.” Consider the alternative: a continuous wandering from one limitation to another, in a perpetual search for a happiness that always slips out, pursuing a desire and then immediately another. The Right effort provides you with at least a stable place to put your feet. It does not add other desires to the chaotic crowd. It offers a way to avoid confusion. This path keeps the door open to the hope of unlimited happiness, preceded by increasingly subtle and reliable levels of happiness as we progress along the way. In short, it is an alternative that gives us more joy and is less tiring.

Once you have silenced these voices, the next step is to take full responsibility for your actions and their consequences. In order to do this you need to be open to learn from your own mistakes.

Some time ago a sociologist asked his students what was the cause of success. He noticed that, at the question “Do you ever make mistakes?”, the troubled students responded to seldom making mistakes or attributed them to factors out of control. Successful students instead not only admitted to making several mistakes, but they explained what they would do to not repeat them in the future.

Buddha encouraged the same mature attitude while teaching his son Rahula. He told Rahula to focus on the intention before acting and on the results of the action while doing it and after completing it. If he noticed that the intent might harm himself or others he should not go to action. If his thoughts, words or actions had negative effects, he should stop and decide not to repeat them in the future, but without any remorse. In the case he did not see any negative consequences, he should enjoy the progress made on the path, and nourish his own practice with that joy.

Although Buddha taught these instructions to a 7 years old child, they outline a valid path for every level of our practice.

The entire path to awakening consists of following always the competent desire and to do the most wholesome thing. Little by little it will develop your perception of what is “wholesome”. If you act on a non-competent desire, take responsibility for its consequences and use it to educate your desire. Although desires can be terribly stubborn, they share a goal – happiness – and this can create the common ground for a fruitful dialogue: if a desire does not lead to happiness, it contradicts its very reason of being.

The best thing to do is to watch the way the desire leads us to action, and the consequences of our actions.

If your desire targeted a happiness that was the cause of suffering for other beings notice how their own desire for happiness leads them to turn against you.

If you desire things subject to aging, illness, death, notice how this fact itself predisposes you to failure.

Notice how the suffering coming from this kind of desires is universal. It is not only you. Anyone who has acted, is acting, or will act in the future on the basis of such desires had suffered in the past, suffers now and will suffer in the future. There are no alternatives.

Thinking this way helps us with the tendency to constantly ask ourselves the question “why me?” which strengthens the suffering and leads you to cling even more to the desire that caused it.

It also helps us to develop two important attitudes that reinforce the competent desires: a sense of dismay in the face of the universality of suffering and great accuracy in order to avoid being deceived by that kind of desire.

And yet the non-competent desires do not give in until we demonstrate them that a different kind of desire produces greater happiness.

This is why we need to learn to appreciate the rewards of a virtuous, more generous life: the joy of fostering the happiness of the other, the sense of self-esteem coming from doing what is difficult but right. This is also the reason why this path is based on a state of beneficial concentration, the meditation. Being able to access that dimension during the meditation allows us to identify the desires that generate a happiness that would give us the force to keep choosing the right path.

This is the next step: the determination and the patience to stick to the desire to do the wise thing in every situation. It is not just pure effort. One has to unite the intention with determination. One should try to notice the patterns that keep repeating in what we do.

Practicing yoga, qi-gong or meditation, help us to identify these patterns. As soon as we reach a state of concentration, we should try to observe if there is still any uneasiness. Then we should try to identify the setting. What are we doing to provoke it?

Find ways to cheer your mind when you feel down, to free it from its straits, to calm it when it is restless. This way, as you learn to rejoice in the challenges posed by meditation, you become more aware of the subtle causes and effect on the mind.

The fourth step, once you mastered these tactics, is to push them to their limit. Once again, this is not just a matter of pure effort.

It’s a bit like re-igniting your imagination to explore the unsuspected ramifications of the cause and effect.

The sense of meditation is of course to promote calm and deep insight, but the most striking strings are the beliefs motivating our search: sense of lack, strategy, dialogue, the Ego. Can you learn to do it without them? The time comes when the only way to a greater happiness is to begin to question these convictions. And this leads to interesting paradoxes: if the desire originates in a sense of limitation or lack, what happens to the desire when it is generating unlimited happiness? How is it to do not need desire? What happens to your inner dialogue, to your Ego? And if it is through the desire that you define yourself in space and time, what happens to space and time when the desire is absent?

Buddha described the awakened person so indefinite and unlimited that he can not be placed in time. It may look like an abstract or unattainable aim, but Buddha showed us his human face. And his testimony tells us that not only the monks, but also the laics, even the children, can develop competent desires to the extent to enjoy the taste of Awakening.

Now, think about that, practice and listen to your competent desire so that can lead on your right path, for this is your path to true happiness.


Originally published on Doina’s blog: LA LUCE CHE GUARISCE