Should desire be indulged or denied?


Most people think of spirituality as being against desire. If pursued, desire would lead only to more desire. Trying to quench desire by satisfying it would be like trying put out a fire by pouring gasoline on it.

But if these older traditions are examined more closely, they are not as against desire as they seem. 

The Bhagavad Gita counsels against lust, greed, and anger, not against sex, possessions, and aggression. It warns against eating too much or too little, sleeping too much or too little. Similarly, the Buddha recommends following the middle way. Aristotle and Confucius, to take two widely differing examples, recommended similar ideas.

Throughout eastern culture, it is not simple denial of desire that is counseled, but balance. Harsh repression of desire is just as bad as simple indulgence. In either case, you deviate from what helps ensure a quiet mind.

How to find that balance? Here is where my advice differs from most. I believe that our desires have in them a natural balance. We usually don't know this balance because we don't take the time to express our feelings. Expressing exactly what our feelings are like in words or in other symbols helps us see what they are really pointing at. Often, the needs they really express are not the ones that they seem to target on the surface. If we target the wrong needs, then of course we fail to soothe our feelings, and get more and more frustrated.

To understand what needs our feelings really target, we have to experiment: envision possible new scenarios or test certain actions, then express how we feel again.

To delve into our feelings, express them, test them against possible actions, and attempt to find a way that they can all co-exist harmoniously is the true path to the moderate expression of desire, and to the acquisition of mental and emotional balance.

You can't just get from here to there. Unless you can.

In psychoanalysis, a client resists getting better. If they weren't somehow getting something out of their current way of being, they wouldn't keep it. That way of being provides some utility or protection. So it fights for its survival by resisting change. And so therapists must point out, at the surface level, that resistance, even as they also attempt to delve deeper. These surface resistances often manifest in the client's interactions with the therapist over what seem to be other issues. And as one layer of resistance is pointed out and softened, another, deeper one, often arises -- until the point when the client is ready to deal with the deeper issues.

It's like an archaeological dig. You can't go directly to the deepest layer. You must start with the top and strip one layer away after another.

So it is with the spiritual search.

What prevents us from progressing in the spiritual search, and often in life, is that we are aligned with our own desire. The ultimate misalignment is our belief that we can get what we want from somewhere out there rather than from our own being. 

Yet our current mode of desiring resists deep change. So we must address it at the surface levels, where it interacts with daily life. We have to be honest about what we want in every sphere of our life. We must peel away our illusions about our own desires, even if that reveals we want things that "we" (i.e. our nagging should and should-not thoughts) disapprove of.

How do we do that? There are many ways (therapy can help!). This is one:

  1. Find some dissatisfaction with a particular area of your life (it could be something very small, like what you drink for breakfast in the morning) .
  2. Try to write or speak about just what is so dissatisfying about it.
  3. Imagine some new scenarios that might address this dissatisfaction. As you imagine each one, write or speak out loud how you feel about them.
  4. Experiment with attempting, at least in small ways, a new possibility that seems promising.
  5. Write or speak about how you feel about it.
  6. If it feels more aligned with you, that's progress. If not, rinse and repeat.

So it's an iterative process of discovery. We cannot necessarily depend on spirituality to take us directly out of the game until we are ready for it. Rather, we must pursue the spiritual game in parallel with the alignment of ourselves with our deeper desires.

Being in greater alignment with our desires is like dealing with resistances in therapy. It is necessary before the deeper issues can be effectively dealt with. Without progressive alignment to desire, the mind is usually not quiet enough to grasp the Truth. It doesn't desire it enough.