Over the decades that I’ve been practicing meditation, I’ve heard that desire was the cause of suffering. Here is what Buddha said on the subject:
Unchecked craving strangles the careless man,
Like a creeper growing in the jungle,
He leaps from lifetime to lifetime,
Like a monkey seeking fruit. Translated by Ananda Maitreya from The Dhammapada
This craving, this clinging,
Overpowers the man caught in it,
And his sorrows multiply,
Like prairie grass fed by rain. Transl. by Ananda Maitreya from The Dhammapada
Living beings, caught up by cravings,
Rush about aimlessly, like trapped rabbits,
Therefore, set aside craving,
And find freedom. Transl. by Ananda Maitreya from The Dhammapada
But whoever in this world overcomes his selfish cravings,
His sorrows fall away from him,
Like drops of water from a lotus flower. Transl. by Juan Mascaró from The Dhammapada
In my early years of meditative practice, I saw how I was driven by desire and how, even when one desire was satisfied, the enjoyment lasted but for a moment before other desires arose. I was always chasing and never really satisfied. Still, I couldn’t imagine how I would be able to root out desires and imagined that a life without satisfaction of desires would be unenjoyable.
But over the years, as I’ve meditated and tasted serenity undisturbed by desire and found it precious, I started understanding that a serene mind is far more enjoyable than a mind forever agitated with desire and that even the intense pleasure of satisfying a desire does not truly satisfy. I’ve witnessed myself chase after desires millions of times and noticed the effect that had on my inner state. Sometimes it was possible to satisfy my desires and sometimes it wasn’t. When I was not able to satisfy the desires, I’d feel sad, frustrated and angry. That was unpleasant. When I was able to satisfy the desires, still my mind was not peaceful and content because, although I felt momentary pleasure, I wanted more—I wanted absolute, unending fulfillment, but that never happened. So, in either case, whether my desires were satisfied or not, I was not at peace.
Then there were the vacations. When I was a child, my parents took the family on annual vacations. I loved going on those vacations and would look forward to them intensely. But, as I grew into an adult, I still looked forward to vacations, and I’d suffer both before the vacations and afterward: Before going, I was so preoccupied with anticipation that I was not mentally present in my life. Because of that, I missed out on what was happening right in front of me. In addition, I feared getting sick and not being able to go on the trip and suffered the pain of anxiety as a result. Furthermore, after the vacations were over, I also suffered because they went by so fast and then I had nothing to look forward to. This also diminished my joy.
Having observed these truths about desires repeat over and over in my life, I came to understand that my attachment to desires diminished my happiness.
But just dropping desires was not possible for me because I thought I needed to satisfy them to be happy.
But there is a way.
Recently I ran into an acquaintance, I’ll call this person Suze. Suze explained that she was married a long time and that the marriage had become sexless. She was now in her 70’s and now craved homosexual relations. At the same time, she was held back by fears that having homosexual sex might be wrong and would harm her spiritual quest. I felt she was seeking permission to follow her desires. We talked and I referred her to retired psychologist and very good teacher of meditation I know who is gay, assuming he would be able to help her. When Suze and I spoke again later, I had the sense that she felt freer to follow her homosexual desires and also wanted to devote more time to her inner life.
Months passed without a word and then I heard back from Suze. She had found a person with whom she was enjoying the sexual relations she desired but this new sexual partner was not available to Suze as a real loving partner. Rather the new partner was there for sex but aloof otherwise. Suze was unhappy with this as she wanted more than just sex.
This is the problem with desires: they are as tricky as they are infinite. We think we just have one desire, say for sex, but others are hidden. In Suze’s case, if her only desire were having a relation with someone of her own sex, she’d be fine now. But when she found a person of her own sex for intimate relations, another desire made itself known, of also wanting a loving relationship with that person. Wanting a loving relationship is perfectly reasonable, and maybe Suze could find another person of her own sex with whom she could also have a loving relationship. But it is another condition on her happiness. Each of us only has so much time and Suze is not a young person, and her pool of potential partners is somewhat limited. So, does Suze have enough time to find someone who will both satisfy her homosexual craving and her craving for a real relationship? Even if Suze were lucky and found another with whom she had both sex and a loving relationship, would another desire arise and mess up the happiness again? Would there then be a conflict as to whether to move in together, or of food preference, or sleep times? This can go on and on.
Young people have this problem too, but they have more time and a larger pool of possible partners. When one is older, both time and the pool of possible partners is more limited. So how to ever be happy?
One possibility, which most people do, is to decide to give up on imagined perfect happiness and to appreciate what one has. In essence, this is a choice to limit one’s desires, and in so doing, have some enjoyment. It’s a compromise. But this compromise is not the perfect because one might still secretly cling to the abandoned desire.
A better possibility is to cultivate constant self-awareness, which is often called mindfulness. Mindfulness is a consistent, moment-to-moment witnessing of one’s motives, thoughts, desires, emotions, and actions. Being mindful means being aware of whether satisfying a desire results in happiness or not. It also means being aware of the context, such as one’s age and the passage of time. When mindful, one observes oneself, neutrally, as a camera would do. Not judgmentally.
As one practices mindfulness, she will directly experience how her happiness is affected by chasing a desire, and a time will come when, she will know beyond any doubt that a certain desire always reduces her joy. Once that insight dawns, she will be able to renounce that desire without secretly clinging to it.
If one remains mindful throughout life, she or he might come to see, as the meditative traditions say, that desires in general lead to suffering. Then it may be possible to give up desires generally, but only based on direct experience and not on a business-like compromise.
Like Suze, we all have desires, and it is through constant neutral self-witnessing that we can gain the insight to know whether our desires enhance or diminish our lives.