Mindfulness & Desire

A man can do what he wants, but not want what he wants.
- Arthur Schopenhauer

The human condition is desire, desire is the human condition. And human desire is a paradox, a never-ending search for the one condition that will make us unconditional. Desire is dissatisfaction, a demand for reality to be otherwise. But this desire is exempt from its own demand for change. It only wants part of reality to change, but wants another part -- the self -- to remain the same. For if the self does not persist to that anticipated pleasurable moment, who would be there to enjoy it? What is desired is not pleasure per se, but the repetition of pleasure.
The self desires the power to make a pleasurable experience available again and again. Desire for pleasure (and its mirror image, aversion to pain) is desire for power, which is desire for unconditional selfhood, the sense of being a particular being with the ability to determine its own attributes and experiences. And thus we have the subject-object split in experience, which is the source of suffering: desirable experiences are the objects of grasping, and the self is the master who possesses the experience and the ability to recreate it.

Desire is the attempt to create a single effect through a single cause. The self is a "one", autonomous and acting alone, a singular cause in control of its effects. But the central Buddhist doctrine of dependent co-arising, or radical contingency, reveals that being such a "one" is impossible. In every event, multiple causes give rises to multiple effects. No single effect results from a single cause, and no single self can create a single effect. Our actions depend on other conditions that are beyond our control, and our actions always produce more than the single, desired effect.

In our everyday lives, we are usually ignorant of dependent co-arising. We ignore the difference between the desired and the attained. The desired result is never the same as the remembered pleasure -- it is modified by many new conditions. We take for granted the fortuitous similarity of external conditions that allows the two unique experiences to appear identical. We ignore all the conditions that create this experience, seeing only our own autonomous agency. And we ignore the ultimate conditionality of our agency, the passivity of our activity -- for the desire itself is conditioned by the previous pleasure. The apparent satisfaction of desire, which is the apparent mastery and freedom of the self, is actually further bondage. All desire is desire to transcend time, to be unconditioned, but this desire itself is conditioned. It cannot be owned, created, or eliminated by me or anyone else. The apparent master is actually conditioned and passive, hence "suffering".

Here we have the infamous, self-perpetuating cycle: karma ("action", successful action, fulfillment of desire) + ignorance reinforces the sense of self, and selfhood motivates further action. The fulfillment of desire reestablishes the subject-object split in each new moment, and the sense of self conditions desire by finding pleasure in those things which confirm and enhance its sense of control. And this desire to be unconditioned hides itself, sustaining ignorance. The central Buddhist technique for breaking this cycle is mindfulness, close attention to desire. Attentiveness counteracts ignorance -- it makes implicit desire explicit. Usually, the desire itself does not come to consciousness as an object in its own right. It remains hidden in the body, invisible to itself and expressed only as the object to be attained. The whole world is seen through this invisible desire.

When we do become aware of desire and aversion, they become klesas (afflictions). They are painful, because they are now seen to be demands which condition and impinge upon our agency and selfhood. Mindfulness does not eliminate desire, it simply makes it explicit. And it is this ironic reversal which undermines desire, leading to its eventual cessation. Pleasure is power and freedom, the overcoming of limitation, but unconcealed desire is seen to be dependence, neediness, and limitation, and therefore displeasurable. When desire is hidden, we perpetuate it -- we desire our desire. But when desire is made an object of awareness, we dislike and avoid it. Mindfulness allows us to "let go" of desire by simply letting it be what it is: impermanent, painful, and conditioned.


Vaulker said...

diet tea is the epitome of attachment....dont want the calories yet i want that sensation regardless :sip: :sip:

Anonymous said...

Amazing post. I am touched by the clarity and the perfectness of what is being said, and the way it is being said! Many thanks!!

VAB said...

That was exceptionally well said. You have an incredible gift for expression. You brought together a number of concepts in such a way that my understanding of each of them deepened. Thank you.