How To Overcome Desire | Buddha’s Lesson

With desire the world is tied down.

With the subduing of desire it is freed.

With the abandoning of desire all bonds are cut through.

The Buddha, Iccha Sutta; SN 1.69

Desire, I Want To Turn Into You

Desire is the force of attraction we feel from an object in our perception. Sexual desire is the most exaggerated form of this. That’s why so much’s been written on it. But sexuality is only one instance of a more fundamental drive.

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Whether you strive for money, knowledge, a happy marriage, status, or enlightenment – the differences are superficial. Underneath, there is the same basic force. This force fixes attention on an object and demands that you be united with that object. The ‘object’ can be anything, ranging from material things to abstract notions like ‘progress’, ‘success’, and even ‘wisdom’. Philosophy is simply the lust of the intellect.

All this is to say, desire cares little what you desire – as long as you do desire.

And enough is never enough. As soon as the object is attained, it is either recognized as not so desirable after all – or one begins to take it for granted. In either case, desire simply moves on to the next object, and the next, and the next…

The joke’s on us, of course. Though we know the trick desire plays on us, we never fail to fall for it. Time and again we let ourselves become enchanted, we open mind and body to the thrill of a new passion, new goal, hope, wish, longing…

Buddhist Psychology Of Desire

There is, however, more to learn about desire than what I’ve just said. And the best place for that is Buddhist psychology which is all about understanding and overcoming desire.

Buddhist scripture often uses medical metaphors. It presents the Buddha as a doctor, his teaching as medicine, and people as afflicted with the symptoms of dissatisfaction, unhappiness, stress, and suffering. On the face of it, the Buddha’s aim is to heal people from that suffering. In fact, he repeatedly describes himself as doing just that.

But we know a doctor’s job is not to remove the symptoms of an illness. When possible, he must cure the illness itself.

And what’s the cause of dissatisfaction, unhappiness, stress, and suffering? The Buddha says that is the mental illness of desire.

But that’s not all.

In most places, Buddhist scripture says desire is the root cause of suffering. But other passages point at ignorance as being that same root cause. We can dismiss this as mere inconsistency of accounts. But in fact, here is a subtle piece of insight, hidden in plain sight.

The equivalence of desire and ignorance.

Desire & Ignorance

You see, the Buddha suggests desire is not the attraction we feel from an object in perception. That is how we experience it, but that’s not how it actually is.

For example, a straight man feels attraction to the female body. A gay man might not experience that attraction. A Buddhist arahant certainly wouldn’t.

In short, ‘desire is in the eye of the beholder’. The pull of attraction we feel from objects does not originate from them. In fact, these objects might go entirely oblivious to our deepest longing. Our crush back at high-school is a case in point.

This is the sleight of hand desire uses to trick us time and again. It fills us with agitation and fixes our attention on an object. It convinces us union with that object will remove the agitation. But of course, the object has nothing to do with our agitation. It is desire itself which creates the conditions for its own existence.

The particular object is secondary and, frankly, arbitrary. It will be one thing today and another tomorrow. And while we’re busy chasing it, we forget entirely that the agitation and attraction we feel are projections of our own mind.

Desire thrives on misdirection. It acts like a magician who draws the gaze of the audience to his right hand while performing the trick with his left. And the trick works only as long as the audience is fooled.

Desire works only as long as there is ignorance.

Desire = Ignorance?

But we should be careful here.

Desire cannot be entirely reduced to ignorance. When a thirsty man desires a glass of water, he is not being ignorant. The organism is responding to dehydration and desire is the means for survival.

This works on the psychological level too.

A person chasing after success is not simply being ignorant. Perhaps her entire childhood she was ever only embraced if she was being ‘a good girl’. To her mind, success is the condition for love. Ambition to her might feel no different than how thirst feels to a dehydrated man.

My point is, desire is not entirely divorced from reality. It is not simply ‘ignorance’.

But it does work through ignorance in the way it warps perception. A glass of water feels one way when we are thirsty – and another way after we’ve had our fill. Desire imbues its object with extraordinary value. It narrows attention. Context and consequence disappear and there is only the object before us and its enchanting pull.

This is why we don’t do groceries on an empty stomach.

The Necessity For Desire

Perhaps this enchantment is necessary for survival. Perhaps the tunnel vision of desire gives us the focus and motivation to act and thrive. Nietzsche, for one, points out ignorance can be more conductive to life than truth. And after all, who is to judge what way of seeing the world is true and what false? We may recognize desire affects perception, but to say that it makes perception less true is a mere prejudice.

In any case, it’s not the evolutionary role of desire that’s causing us problems. It is rather its tendency to overreach its utility, to enslave us to objects neither necessary, nor good for us. To convince us we need success, when really, we need love.

It’s here that the Buddha’s insight comes in handy.

That is, the reminder that desire is a private experience, a hallucination really. Yes, that hallucination has its reasons, and we better explore and address these reasons – but it is a hallucination nonetheless.

Overcoming Desire

I don’t think the overcoming of desire is matter of life experience. I’ve seen people over ninety who’ve gone no further with it than I have. And I haven’t gone far. Rather, it seems to me the Buddha was right in saying desire diminishes to the degree that insight increases.

I also don’t think overcoming desire is incompatible with life. Surely, the Buddha didn’t forget to drink water. Rather, the filter of agitation applied on perception dissolves, while what is necessary (like drinking water) remains perceived as just that – necessary.

Buddhism calls the extinguishing of desire ‘liberation’. There are deep reasons for that, but one of them must be that the mind is no longer ensnared by objects. In fact, the mind realizes it never was ensnared by objects. The chains were always of its own making.

This liberation is not easy when desire is constantly feeding on new objects. That is why the Buddha established a monastic order.

But there is a fair amount of progress you can make without putting on a robe. The Buddhist monastic code was created to facilitate liberation, not to produce it. What produces liberation is mindfulness of experience and our reactions to experience. Desire cannot be defeated by resistance. It can ever only be outgrown by insight.

The road to liberation is contemplation.

Surely, this is something we can all do a little more of – monk, nun, or otherwise.

(If you want to learn more about the Buddhist way of liberation from desire, have a look at our article on the Four Noble Truths.)

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