A recent quote prompted some fun musings on happiness and desire. Here is the quote:
A man asked Buddha, “I want happiness.”
Buddha said, “First, remove “I”, that’s ego. Then remove “want”, that’s desire. See, now you are left with just “happiness.”
At The Revolutionary Living Institute (RLI), Tessa and Kimberly encourage people to get in touch with their passions and actively pursue desires. It makes sense that if our daily actions are in alignment with our greater internal passions that this would produce happiness. In simple terms, if you are doing and pursuing that which you love, then you are likely to be happy.
Simple enough, I can jive with that.
But, what about the Buddha’s teaching in the quote above, of not pursuing desire but actually removing desire in order to create happiness. Is this just some clever quote or does it hold some truth?
Is both pursuing AND removing desire pathways to happiness?
Desire is a sense of longing for a person or object or hoping for an outcome, which implies a sense of attachment to reaching a certain outcome or object. A sense of attachment implies a wish for control; control over an outcome and happiness that comes from reaching it, but pain if we do not. When we live in a world where things are constantly changing and we often do not have absolute control over all matters; our attachment to do so produces a situation that is set up for disappointment. We desire, we want to control and get a certain outcome; and thus our happiness is dependent upon reaching that outcome. If something happens out of our control and we do not reach our desire, then we are set up for unhappiness.
If you are acting in alignment with your desires and you reach them, then you will likely feel happy. Nevertheless, your happiness is a conditional state. The happiness is likely temporary.
You are happy if the outside situation meets your desires.
In Buddhist terms, the idea behind contentedness provides a more accurate definition of happiness for the state of being I am talking about.
Contentedness is accepting one’s situation or life with equanimity and satisfaction; satisfied with things as they are.
The idea of contentedness or happiness looks more in line with the idea of removing desires, accepting life as it is right now and feeling satisfied exactly with things as they are (whether they meet our desires or not).
Uh oh, this makes sense too. If we remove desires, we remove the source of suffering at its roots. Without desire, without an attachment to a certain outcome, we cannot be disappointed. We are happy no matter what happens.
So, what are we to do? Do we act in accordance with desires or do we remove desires, in order to be happy?
Answer: We do both.
Balancing Desire and No Desire
In Buddhist teachings, I have often studied the idea of a “middle path.” The common misconception of a middle path is believing that it means to avoid extremes and always acting in a calm way.
The middle path actually implies a sort of acting or responding to any event in a way that is the most beneficial. In regard to desire, it implies that sometimes it may be beneficial to pursue desire, and other times it may be most beneficial to remove desire.
In other words, depending on the situation, the most happiness will be produced by pursuing desire in some situations and removing desire in others.
For example, when things seem out of our control, it may be most beneficial to remove desire and practice acceptance because we have little control and a low likelihood of reaching the outcome we want. When we have lots of control over a situation, then we are likely to reach our desire and thus pursuing it will likely bring happiness.
There is nothing inherently bad about desire or bad about removing desire. Desire is natural and beneficial; it is fuel for procreation of our species, spiritual development, and making the world a better place. Yet, even if we do attempt to practice no desire, it does not imply that we stop pursuing beneficial pursuits. We may pursue them with non-attachment to the outcome. Depending on a complex set of variables in any situation, it may be most beneficial to pursue desires or work to extinguish them.
I encourage you to become mindful of desire and no desire in your life, in order to find the right balance. Are you strongly attached to certain things and certain outcomes? Do you have no desire, no attachment to other things? Take a look at food, alcohol, people, activities, etc. Be curious, non-judgmental, but observe. What does your level of desire or non-attachment mean to each of these things?
Ultimately, is that desire or lack of desire beneficial to you and others?
Keep in mind, pursuing desire and removing desire are not mutually exclusive practices. You can practice both pursuing and removing desire.
In any situation, we can practice desire and no desire. At RLI, we call this Passionate Flexible Detachment (PFD). For example, we are passionate about growing our business and actively pursue our desire to help other entrepreneurs spread their good work to others. At the same time, we also balance these desires from the outset with a focus of gratitude and contentedness with that which we already have (in a sense, a practice of no desire). We are then flexible along the path, staying nimble to change course and change our desires and actions if they no longer fit. Then, we also practice detachment (or non-attachment), meaning that if the actual outcome of our desire-based actions do not meet our expected outcomes, we are still content and do not need the expected outcome to be content in our lives. We practice balancing our desires with no desire/contentedness.
Desires are fuel for conducting experiments in life, a way to experience and engage in life fully, because life might get boring otherwise. But, keep in mind, we are also bad at predicting what desires will bring us happiness. We may desire money and a nice car, thus work long, hard hours, accumulate wealth and buy expensive things; but then find it does not make us happy. This becomes a perfect opportunity to change course, practice some non-desire, and thus master PFD!
What do you think about desire and contentedness. Please share below!