When I talk with friends about the Buddhist position on desire -- that desire is illusion, that we must free ourselves from desire -- the conversation often becomes circular. How, someone may ask, can a person want to not want? And, if we free ourselves from desire in order to become happier, aren't we actually following our desire (the desire to be happy) by claiming to free ourselves from it?
These are the right questions to ask, and I'm not going to pretend to have the answers.
But I think we have much to be gained by reframing the question in a wider way, and placing this question at the very center of our philosophical thoughts. What is the object of our desire? Let's say I want a tray full of Taco Supremes from Taco Bell (this is a highly realistic scenario, since in fact I do want a tray full of Taco Supremes from Taco Bell). So, which of these sentences are true?
1. I want to enjoy the pleasure of eating some Taco Bell.
2. I want to free myself from the agony of wishing for some Taco Bell.
3. I want to be happy.
I think we can agree that the third statement is true. What about the first two? The first statement seems reasonable, but actual life experience shows that when we chow down fast food, we often do so without even paying much attention to the pleasurable qualities of doing so. If I were to go to Taco Bell right now, I might very well be on my phone as I eat, texting or checking Politico (how's that debt ceiling crisis going?) or checking my email. Actual experience shows that, all too often, we seek pleasure defensively, wishing mainly to quell our aching desires. This is certainly true of drug addicts, alcoholics or cigarette addicts; it's easy to see that they often fail to enjoy their indulgences, though they do enjoy the freedom from having to think about whether or not to give in to their weaknesses.
So this is a question worth asking: what is the object of our desire? It's a helpful thing to just ponder this question sometimes. We don't need to answer the question. Just to sit and ponder it every once in a while is a good step closer to a Buddhist attitude in life.
And then, here's an even better question, one that I have been hinting at in my recent writings about Ayn Rand, and one that seems to suggest Buddhist themes: when we desire, what is the subject of our desire?
That is, on whose behalf do we desire? Do we each simply desire on our own behalf, alone, in total isolation? Or do we desire on behalf of our families, our best friends, our fellow citizens? We all want to be happy, but don't we all want everybody to be happy?
I don't know the answers to any of these questions, but it seems to me that if we could figure out what is the object of our desire and the subject of our desire, we'd figure out a whole lot that we don't currently understand.
(NOTE: I found the statue in the photo above at Madison Square Park in New York City. The artist is apparently named Jaume Plensa.)
This article is part of the Philosophy Weekend series. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: The Debt Debate. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: C. S. Lewis and the Abolition of Man.