This will be my last word, for now, on desire. So far I’ve summarized the Eastern view on it and dealt with two of the questions that inevitably arise: How do we motivate ourselves if not by desire? and Are there not healthy forms of yearning?
To round out the discussion, let me point out that although one post was titled “The Road to Hell Is Paved with Desire,” I did not mean to imply that desire is sinful in the usual sense of the word.
We in the West are conditioned by Judeo-Christian theology. Within these religions, there is a presumption that God judges our actions and condemns our sins. Lust, greed, sloth, wrath, pride, gluttony, and envy are all related to desire in one way or another. When we yield to these “seven deadly sins,” and hence to our base hungers, God rebukes us. Or so we are told by the Abrahamic lineage.
This kind of thinking is at odds with the views of Eastern traditions. The Hindu God is a complex entity with many facets and manifestations. But if God appears in personal form at all, he (or she) is more a companion and neutral witness than a punitive judge. The Hindu and Buddhist concept of karma implies that we are free to choose and suffer the natural consequences of our choices. If we elect to cause harm, we will reap darkness in this or future lifetimes. If we choose compassion, we will receive mercy in kind, eventually. The emphasis is on inevitable cause and effect, not just desserts.
In spelling this out, I am not claiming that one view is necessarily right and the other wrong. Rather, my point is that both Divine punishment and Karmic consequence deal with ultimate effects, not immediate results. In contrast, these essays were not written to suggest that desire leads to a hellish afterlife or unhappy future birth, but to misery in the here and now. Craving creates hell on earth.
Desire causes suffering automatically. It is not sinful in the sense of leading to eternal damnation. Nor do we necessarily accrue bad karma if we choose to live by desire. But if we bank our happiness on satisfying wishes, on constantly adjusting our circumstances to meet our expectations, we are doomed to suffer disappointment. This is a utilitarian judgment, not an ethical one.
The many questions that arise when one proposes rejection of desire become less important when we see things this way. Those who prefer to live passionately, or who feel strong hungers and enjoy pursuing them, are perfectly free to do so. Such people are neither unworthy nor unspiritual. They are free to ride the stormy waves of yearning, satiation, and more yearning. No doubt they can, as much as anyone, find realization if they want it badly enough. They can choose ethically supportable desires and reject destructive ones; they can hunger for social justice and world peace; they can elevate their passion to mystical ecstasy and so counterbalance the grinding frustration of appetites.
But those of us who tire of the roller coaster, who seek equanimity, can find it by rejecting the promise of desire. We can see how pursuit of hungers leads to nagging dissatisfaction. We can transcend the yearnings of body and ego, and move to a deeper and quieter space within.
Yes, there will be a price to pay. Life will lose its power to stimulate and arouse. But we will gain steadiness and profound insight in exchange.
The choice is ours and ours alone. The universe will love us either way.