No Desires?

“He who loves 50 people has 50 woes; he who loves no one has no woes.” — Buddha.

I’ve been thinking about this idea quite a bit lately.

It’s an argument for detachment, the idea that if you let go of your desires, you lessen or eliminate suffering.

How? Well, suffering is partly caused because you want things: love, money, health, iPads.

The idea is that if you don’t desire any of those things, then you won’t suffer if you don’t get them or lose them. This is especially true if you tie your happiness to something that you desire—if you think you’ll be happy if you get that new job, for instance.

When you don’t get that job, you suffer. Or, if you do get the job, you’ll be happy for awhile, but things won’t stay that way for long.

Why? Because the novelty of what you desired will wear off. Or the thing you desired will change. Change is a part of life, and it affects pretty much everything we come in contact with. So, if your happiness depends on something external, something you can’t fully control, when that something changes, your happiness will most likely be affected.

Therefore, say the sages with their long, fluffy beards, you must to find happiness within yourself, be happy with who you are, and not wager your happiness on external desires.

It sounds all good in theory, but in practice it’s difficult. Unfulfilled desires can definitely cause suffering, but removing desires altogether seems like an extreme solution. It’s like saying that to avoid catching athlete’s foot, you should cut off your leg. Sure, you’ll never get athlete’s foot again, but you’ll have lost an important part of yourself.

To be human is to desire, no? To crave, to become elated at attaining something and feel gutted when you don’t. To laugh and cry, become angry and scared, to hope and despair.

What are your thoughts on desires and suffering?


20 comments on “No Desires?

  1. It would be difficult to stop yourself from desiring things. I think it’s important to seek happiness not from things but else where. This is where faith in God comes in for a lot of people or remembering that you’re happy no matter what you have. It’s not easy refocusing and not making it about things. My thoughts seem incomplete as I reread them. Maybe I need to give the topic more thought.

    • Yeah, God does seem to offer people a good focal point for their desires and happiness. I can’t personally relate to that idea anymore, but I can definitely see how it helps millions of people to find happiness and peace. 🙂

  2. Hi Mike, that is an interesting question, but it leaves no middle ground. Life is seldom so black and white. What if you are content, appreciative, or even curious, but not craving or desiring? Also, if you turn yourself off to any possibility of pain, if you don’t try for that job or take a chance on that relationship for fear of failure. or if you refuse to form attachments because one day they might be broken, that is not living, it is merely existing, like a zombie waiting for death.

    • Hmm, it’s not so much about avoiding pain as a consequence of an action (“I won’t ask this woman out because I’ll get hurt”) and more about not tying your happiness to whether or not you succeed or fail in doing something (so you won’t feel crushed if the woman says no, or if she does say yes, if the relationship changes, you won’t eventually feel crushed because your happiness doesn’t depend primarily on how well the relationship works out).

      Maybe I didn’t explain it correctly above. Carol has given me another perspective on Buddhism to think about. Your last line, however, is kind of what I was worrying about, becoming a zombie who doesn’t feel the way other fleshy humans do. 😛

  3. There is a lot of misconception and misunderstanding about Buddhist philosophy.

    Buddhism isn’t about not having feelings, it is about not allowing your feelings to rule your state of mind. For example, if you have the thought “I am happy,” you allow your mind to accept the thought “I am happy” and then let it go. The same thing goes for “I am sad” or “I am angry.” Your mind recognizes you are having a feeling, and then you release your attachment to that feeling because it is transitory.

    The key, according to the Buddhist teachings is to not remain attached to these feelings. It is the attachment that causes suffering.

    You mentioned material goods, which is always a great example.

    If you covet…an iPad… and all you think about is ‘I want an iPad’ or ‘I don’t have enough money for an iPad’ then you are frustrated or sad or whatever about the iPad.

    Then, somehow you get the iPad and for a day, a week or even a month you are happy. ‘Hey, I have a new iPad!’

    After that, you don’t think about it because the momentary desire was fulfilled, which is replaced by a new desire. For example, oh gosh, they just came out with the iPad2, or iPad3, etc. Mine is old. I need to save for a new iPad. Round and round we go.

    Substitute the word iPad for anything you desire. A new job, a girlfriend, more money. All of these things are transitory.

    Removing the “veil of Samsara” (suffering) requires removing the attachment to these transitory feelings we have, but it doesn’t mean becoming inhuman. Humans will always have random thoughts and feelings, and that’s fine. If we acquire the mental discipline to recognize they are temporary, transitory and not real, we can (in theory) achieve a higher state of being where we recognize the feeling and let it pass. And then the next feeling, and the one after that….

    • I love that. Great explanation. There’s so much pressure these days to be happy when it’s simply not possible for anyone to be happy all the time. It’s always buy this, eat that, take this pill, do more exercise, find the right guy, get a raise and you’ll be happy. But happiness is fleeting like every other feeling and we’d be a healthier society if we could accept that.

      • Thanks Farah.

        The Buddhists are more into developing mental discipline to recognize thoughts as the come into the mind, but not allowing our emotions to get tangled up with the thoughts. And you can see, based on what I’m saying, how that would create a situation where our minds would be more “at rest” instead of constantly riding the up and down roller coaster of emotions.

        And I may talk a good game about what Buddhists think and do, but I have the same emotional outbursts as the rest of humanity. I’m no Dalai Lama.


      • As long as you don’t hang onto your outbursts 😉 My family is culturally Buddhist but you best believe that every family dinner is a roller coaster of emotions. I think you need to live in somewhat solitude to really practice those beliefs – the rest of us can just aspire.

      • Haha, yes Farah, we are all human. 🙂 It would be fun to read a story about how a Buddhist family is very emotional, and maybe how they struggle with that – while fighting all the while! A story like that could be done with both humor and deeper emotions.

        Are you a writer? Maybe you could write such a story based on your own personal experiences. As for me, I’m fascinated by your comment!

    • I can always count on you to provide an interesting perspective, Carol. 🙂

      I can understand what you’re saying about not becoming attached to feelings. However, feeling something and letting it go seems to have the same underlying effect as not feeling to begin with.

      What I mean is that if we recognize a feeling and let it pass, as you suggest, we aren’t allowing ourselves to dwell on that feeling associated with an object of desire (joy, fear, pain, anger, etc.). We don’t milk the feeling so to speak.

      Yet that prolonging of feeling, that part of us that yearns to experience a feeling and make it last, is what I was referring to primarily in the last part of my post (not that Buddhism says we can’t feel but that we should not feel attachment for our feelings as you suggested).

      So the crying and laughing and anger and hope and despair that I refer to as being human is an indulgence. To lose that indulgence seems like a loss of at least a part of our humanity. By removing the attachment we in effect do become a bit inhuman.

      At least that’s what I struggle with. The Dharmmapada and other Buddhist scriptures can be pretty subjectively read, which is why I appreciate any and all perspectives to give me food for thought. I definitely have to ponder your words more. 🙂

  4. You said it best with the athlete’s foot/amputation line. It’s interesting that the idea to rid desire in order to rid suffering comes from a man. Because I think that it is a fearful and controlling way to live (ergo a masculine way to live). I agree with your last paragraph: risk it, laugh, love, get hurt. Otherwise, you’re not living. And let’s face it, those monks didn’t know how to live. Now the nuns- those were some wild sisters- 40 chics, one dude. Hot.

  5. Synchronicity. This is a theme for me right now. Im reading a book right now that you may like.called “Coming to our senses, healing the world through mindfulness” by Jon Kabat Zinn. The key I think is being able to live completely in the moment. Way easier said than done.

  6. We just recently discussed this in my metaphysics class. Here’s what I learned: an essential part of being human is to constantly desire something, which is also why we constantly have something to complain about. Most of us try to fulfill these desires with money, relationships, etc… which is good but often temporary and not completely fulfilling. I believe it was Pascal who said that human beings have an infinite void in them and this void can only be completely fulfilled by a common, greater good, namely God.

      • That’s a good question. I went into this course wondering the same thing. The answer to your question would be he/she could turn to a common, greater good, like I said. Call it God, call it whatever you want to call it. The conclusion is the same, there is something greater out there, something completely actualized, something infinitely good with which our void is fulfilled.

        This is the conclusion we came to on our course and I believe it to be true, but thats just my opinion.

      • But how do we know that something great and good exists? Where does this infinite good exist if not in our minds? I’m genuinely curious to know. 🙂

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