Should you follow your desires? Here I lay it out.
"Eve" by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1528
The Desire Conundrum
Desire. That sticky word. That hot potato. When I read advice, I find myself confused. On one hand, I find many wise figures saying that desire is the root of all suffering, and that we should renounce them.
If thou wilt make a man happy, add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.
Desires wither the heart.
~Tao te Ching
When a person really desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person to realize his dream.
I prefer to be a dreamer among the humblest, with visions to be realized, than lord among those without dreams and desires.
You, sent out beyond your recall, Go to the limits of your longing. Embody me.
Radiant One, inquire:
Before desire arises in me, who am I? Before I know anything, who am I?
Seek always the intimate joy
Of your original Self,
And move through this world in freedom.
~Lorin Roche, Radiance Sutras
On the other hand, I find many wise teachers saying that desire is the root of self actualization, and that we should follow them.
So which one is it? Is desire good? Is desire bad? Is it a tricky trap? Or a roadmap?
One day, I flipped open a page in a poetry book. I encountered this stanza, which illuminated the whole conundrum for me.
Do you see the clue?
For me, the epiphany lay in the word, longing. I realized this whole conundrum arose from an inconsistent translation of the word desire for longing. Although subtle, the difference between the two reconciles these seemingly contradictory teachings.
Metaphorically speaking, longings are the undercurrents of the ocean; desires are the waves.
Here's my take.
When we face a tug towards something, should we just renounce it?
When a want arises, I feel it would be wise to discern whether it is a desire or a longing. If it is a desire, it’s probably better to let it go. If it’s a longing, it’s probably better to go for it. If it’s still unclear, try this test I learned from my wise mother. Wait. Wait a few months before acting on it. Like waves, desires tend to dissipate as quickly as they form. Longings, on the other hand, are always there, waiting for us to heed the call.
It took me a while to understand why sages, like Epicurus, advised us to drop our desires. I now believe it’s because desires perpetuate the feeling of not enough. When we feel we are not enough or don’t have enough, we don’t have peace. Instead, we chase our desire aimed to fill that hole, only to get there and have another desire. Desires become the fodder for this wheel we keep running on, leading us away from peace.
However, there is a grand opportunity hidden inside a desire. An ancient text, known as the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra, puts it elegantly:
Like a wormhole, where time folds on itself, your desires can be portals to “that intimate joy of your original self.” That to me is your longing. That is what you want to follow.
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