Desire-our “most precious possession” or the root of all suffering?

Steve Goodheart Essay

The Buddha’s Second Noble Truth is that craving—desire, attachment, clinging—is the cause of suffering, unsatisfactoriness, stress. Anyone who has looked into the cause of suffering can affirm this great truth for oneself.

From this insight, one might conclude that the way to end suffering and find lasting happiness is to kill all desires. From that viewpoint, life becomes a battle to annihilate craving, a kind of war to-the-death with our very own humanity, which is certainly filled with desires, good and bad.

While we may want to remove suffering from our life, the apparent cost of losing our humanity may make us think that the Buddha’s path is only for those who are ready to renounce the whole world and become a recluse sitting in the jungle or some remote monastery someplace.

But I think this view is a misunderstanding of the Second Noble Truth and of the skillful means that bring about the end of suffering through a noble, happy path. If one investigates the skillful means that the Buddha gives for bringing about an end to suffering and the unsatisfactoriness of life, one will find that the Buddha actually uses desire—the desire to be happy—as a stepping-stone to freedom.

Far from calling all desire evil, the Buddha show us how to work with our desires in skillful ways that begin to remove the egotism, selfishness, and insatiable craving that cause suffering. As we gain intelligent insight into what we call desire, we can begin to free this life energy from what hinders its flow.

Suffering arises from our identifying with what arises in our experience as being “I” or “me” or “mine.” The ego grasps as the flow of life energy and crimps the flow into an “I” knot, a “me” obstruction, a “mine” hindrance, and this blockage causes inevitable suffering.

As we gain freedom from “I”-dentification through the insights that arise in meditation and metta, we become freer and freer. We begin to see that we don’t really exist the way we thought we did. We are so much more, and less, than what we identify with, as “self”—as “I” and “me” and “mine.”

We begin to see that if we don’t grasp, nothing can catch us, hold us, trap us, hinder us, snag us, limit us—we are not that which can be caught. We are not that which can be defined, or limited in any way. This is not annihilation, but freedom from all fabrications and limitations. And it not nihilism, but great, great joy—joy that passes all present understanding, because it is not contingent on anything.

Here’s a wonderful passage from J. Krishnamurti that I think speaks to these issues and that puts desire into a whole new light:

“Now desire, contrary to general belief, is the most precious possession of man. It is the eternal flame of life; it is life itself. When its nature and functions are not understood, however, it becomes cruel, tyrannical, bestial, stupid. Therefore your business is not to kill desire as most spiritual people in the world are trying to do, but to understand it.

If you kill your desire, you are like the withered branch of a lovely tree. Desire must keep growing and find out its true meaning through conflict and friction. Only by the continuance of the conflict can understanding come. This is what most people do not see. As soon as the conflict comes, and the sorrow born of conflict, they at once seek comfort. Comfort, in its turn, breeds fear. Fear leads to imitation and the sheltering behind established tradition.

From this come rigid systems of morality, laying down what is spiritual and what is not spiritual, what is the religious life and what is not the religious life. It is the fear of life which produces guides, teachers, gurus, churches, religions. Please, I know. None of these things are going to satisfy a mind which is really enquiring, which is really in revolt. As soon as you fear, you have the desire to conform, to listen to everybody, to become a machine, a type. And all this is but contraction, and contraction is slow death. It is not in this way that desire can ever fulfill itself.

Growth can only come by the liberation of desire, and liberation here means freeing it from all fear, and so from the cruelty and exploitation which results from the quest of comfort, which is the refuge of fear. And this, in its turn, can only come about through the wearing down of the egotism in desire by contact with life itself.

Only in this way can the reality be reached which is the true consummation of desire. And so, truly to grow is to learn to love more and more, to think more and more impersonally, through experience.”  ~ J. Krishnamurti

“Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment”
  ~ T.S. Eliot “Four Quartets”


About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

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