In Buddhism, desire often gets a bad rap.
For example, it’s seen as what leads to rebirth.
Rebirth in Buddhism is seen as a bad thing. We want to avoid it because rebirth means more pain and suffering. We’ve been doing it for ages (literally) and we’re tired. We are dragged on by this incessant desire of ours. The desire to exist, primarily, but also the desire to experience and acquire worldly stuff. Money, power, fame, cake. Whatever.
Buddhist sucking a lemon
This can lead to some Buddhists trying to keep a lid on desire. They think if they starve it of oxygen for long enough, it will die off. Then they’ll be Buddhas. By default. They usually use the word ‘ego’ when doing this. “Oh, it’s just my ego that wants an ice cream – I’ll do without thanks.”
They do without and sit some more, trying to get rid of that face. You know the Buddhist sucking a lemon face? Usually while wearing bad clothes.
It just doesn’t work like that.
The truth about ego, Buddhism and desire
Firstly, ‘ego’ is a Freudian term, not a Buddhist one. The Buddha wouldn’t know what the hell you meant by it. Somehow it made its way into the western Buddhist scene and got conflated with not-self theory. Not helpful.
Secondly, desire is vital. Although it leads to more pain and suffering, it also leads to all the good stuff. Including Buddhahood.
Gotama (that is, the Buddha pre-Buddhahood) had desire by the bucketload. He wanted to become awake more than pretty much anyone else on the planet. He wanted to end suffering once and for all.
This desire is called ‘dhamma chanda’ – desire for the truth/reality. It’s the opposite of ‘kama chanda’ – desire for sense experience. So in traditional Buddhism we have healthy desire, and unhealthy desire. To say ‘desire is bad’ is not Buddhism. We unequivocally ARE NOT trying to get rid of our desire. Or our frikkin ‘ego’!
In reality, you can’t just decide to feel one and not the other. You have to trust the practice and trust the process. Personally I think it’s far more harmful to try to lose desire for stuff than it is to acknowledge it, allow yourself to pursue it (if it’s not too dumb and doesn’t really harm others) and keep practising so that over time you fall in love with simplicity and skilful mental states.
We aren’t trying to whip ourselves to enlightenment (the Buddha tried that and found out it didn’t work – hence the ‘middle way’ idea in Buddhism). We’re channelling our energies in ever more skilful directions.
It’s true, sometimes we need to kick ourselves up the arse. But not as often as we might think. Some people seem to kick themselves up the arse all the time. Like it’s their one motivational tool. It doesn’t look like much fun. Even if it does get you into Harvard!
There are other ways to get yourself into Harvard. A strong desire allows excellence, allows the overcoming of obstacles, and fosters a faith that we have what it takes to go all the way and get what we want.
Sure, desire can be destructive and in fact disastrous for the planet. It causes wars, gets idiots into positions of power, and results in people manipulating and coercing others in the pursuit of their own smutty little cravings.
But to hold your will down and dampen your desire because of this is to assume that you are fundamentally a bad person.
You aren’t. Trust me.
Do it with mindfulness and an honest take on what you’re doing. Review regularly so you don’t just fall into mundane habits or hoodwinking yourself into thinking 100 cigarettes and a bottle of vodka a day is no biggie.
Follow these simple rules and you’ll be:
- Practising Buddhism – not monastic Buddhism maybe, but Buddhism nonetheless (and I’ve got lots to say about ‘monastic’ Buddhism – but that’s for another time)
- Getting closer to being happy and healthy