The Spectrum of Desire

by Gil Fronsdal, August 25, 2006

Desire is so inherent to the human condition that life without it is almost inconceivable. It is probably more accurate to call us “human desirelings” than “human beings.” Anyone wishing to live a wise life needs to explore deeply the nature of his or her own desire.

A number of myths about desire circulate among Buddhists. A common one is that desire is bad, and a spiritually mature person has no desires. Another is that the Buddha taught that desire is the cause of suffering and therefore all desire, even the desire to practice for liberation, is a problem. But life without desire is not necessarily a good thing: for example, one symptom of depression is having no desires. The Buddha did not teach that desire was the cause of suffering. In fact, he encouraged his followers to arouse ardent desire for liberation.

A starting point for understanding desire is to differentiate between unhealthy and healthy desire. Unhealthy desire undermines psychological health, producing what Buddhism often calls “suffering” for short. Healthy desire can contribute to psychological well-being, happiness, and peace. If we place healthy and unhealthy desire on a spectrum, at one end we have the motivations that lead to some of the worst and most horrific things people do. But at the other end, desire expresses some of the most beautiful and noble aspects of human life.

One way to distinguish the two ends of this spectrum is to differentiate between craving and aspiration. When the Buddha pointed to the cause of suffering, he used the word tanhà or thirst. It represents desire which is in some way compulsive, driven, and therefore not easy to let go of. This kind of desire is often accompanied by clinging, contraction, tension, or pressure.

Craving has its costs. People have destroyed their lives by acting on their addictions. When craving has the upper hand, it is all too easy to make poor choices. Freedom, that is, free will and the ability to choose wisely, is easily compromised. Craving takes a toll on our bodies when it expresses itself as physical tension. And it can take an even bigger toll on our minds: constant wanting can exhaust the mind. Left unchecked, craving can lead to an alienation from our self. Unfulfilled, craving can all too easily turn into frustration and anger.

One of the surprising discoveries that we make in mindfulness meditation is how pervasively and constantly the mind is under the sway of craving. This thirst is the primary reason the mind chases after its own thoughts.

An important function of meditation is to calm down the incessant churning of desire so that we can discover at the other end of the spectrum our deeper wellsprings of motivation. When surface concerns and chatter quiet down, among the beautiful things we can find are our aspirations. The etymology of “aspiration” (like “spiritual”) is rooted in the Latin word for “breath” (spirare). This points to the close relationship between breath and aspiration. Craving tends to contract the breathing; aspiration surfaces most easily when our breathing is relaxed and open. In the same way that natural breathing can’t be an act of will, so too the motivations and sense of purpose that come with aspiration can’t be willfully generated. Staying aware of our breathing can keep us close to what inspires us.

The sensitivity and awareness that come from mindfulness practice support the discovery of our healthy desires and aspirations. Mindfulness not only helps us get in touch with our aspirations, but it helps prevent aspiration from becoming craving. Even though what we might want is healthy and appropriate, if we are not careful, this desire can manifest as craving. Noticing the physical and mental tension, pressure, and uneasiness that come with craving makes it easier to distinguish aspiration from craving.

One way aspiration becomes craving is through expectation. At its best, aspiration has an openness to possibility without a need for anything to happen. This doesn’t mean that we don’t act on our aspirations, but that we don’t cling to their success. There is something satisfying and wonderful in a healthy aspiration that is not dependent on outcome.

If we want to base our lives on aspiration rather than craving, we have to give ourselves time to discover our deepest wishes. Aspiration often arises from a non-discursive part of the heart and mind. Craving and clinging are often tied to the discursive world of planning, thinking, and fantasy, while aspiration is associated with inner stillness and relaxation. Sometimes it is only during long contemplative periods that people discover what they most want to base their life on.

It is also important to respect both ourselves and our aspirations. It is easy to dismiss both our aspirations and the search for them. Believing that we are not good enough, capable, or deserving can leave us feeling unfulfilled and regretful. In the world of aspiration, it is far better to try and fail than to never try.

Buddhism recognizes many beautiful aspirations, including wishes of goodwill and kindness for others, and the desire for happiness and other wholesome qualities of mind for ourselves. Central to Buddhist practice are the aspirations for liberation and for the alleviation of the sufferings of others. However, Buddhism does not require us to desire either of these; when the heart is open and relaxed, these wishes often bubble up. Both aspirations can flow through us without egotism or craving. They can seem so natural that they appear impersonal. Just as water flows downhill, so the unimpeded heart flows to freedom and service. The healthy desire for freedom and compassion can flow like a mighty river that finds its rest in reaching the vast ocean.