If we were asked to make a list of our problems, most of us would soon fill a page with complaints, many of which would include a lack of fulfilment of our desires. But how many of us would list desire itself as a problem?
Buddha taught that desire is one of our greatest problems. Desire is the state of mind that craves pleasure and wants to possess a particular object of pleasure, either another person or a material thing, as our own. Desire exaggerates the pleasant qualities of the object so that it seems to be much better than it actually is; and desire is blind to any negative qualities. When we are attracted to a particular person, desire makes them appear to be the most beautiful person in the world. Their body is perfect, their voice, their clothes, everything about them is blessed with a certain magic. Physically we desire their body; mentally we crave their recognition of us as an individual. We need their smiles and their love to confirm that we are a good and lovable person. At night and during the day we cannot stop thinking about them and it is impossible to concentrate on study or anything else. If our friends point out bad qualities of the person we desire, we reject their advice. We simply cannot see any faults.
Desire is not happiness. It is an agitated, unhappy state of mind which believes that if we do not get what we want then we cannot be happy. When our desire is unfulfilled we cannot eat, we become irritable, we cannot relax or be friendly with our family, we hate life, we may even hate ourselves. If we do finally obtain the object of our desire, we soon become disenchanted because we realise the object is not as good as we thought it was; or we become bored or dissatisfied and start looking around for something or someone else. Just as desire exaggerates and even invents good qualities and superimposes them upon our possessions, our children, our parents, and our friends, anger does the opposite. It blinds us to good qualities and exaggerates negative qualities or superimposes non-existent negative qualities upon those who displease us. With desire and anger we believe the good or bad appearances of our friends and enemies to be true. We do not realise they are projections of our mind. Because we believe the fault lies with others, satisfaction and peace are impossible
to achieve. We abandon our partner, trade in the car, get a new job, move to another neighbourhood, on and on until we die, still dissatisfied.
When we marry the person we wanted so much, we may soon find out that our friends were right. Our new husband or wife is not the person our desire projected them to be. They drink too much, or are lazy or violent; perhaps their feet smell. Either consciously or unconsciously we unfairly blame them for not living up to the ideals projected by our desire. We see our partner as our possession or as an extension of our ego, and again, either consciously or subconsciously, we manipulate or coerce them into conforming to our projections of how my partner should look and behave. This suffocates them, allows no space for them to be an individual, and unrealistically demands them to be what they are not. As we too are unable to meet the projections of their desire towards us, discord arises in the relationship and we start looking around for someone else. At a party we meet another attractive person and once again our mind comes under the control of desire. “Oh, this one
is really perfect, I love him.” We abandon our current partner and embark on the whole miserable journey once again. Like a donkey chasing a carrot on a stick, we are forever pursuing an unattainable goal.
If we check up, the happiness of experiencing pleasure is only partially due to the pleasant feelings of touch, taste, music, or whatever is our object of desire. The main reason for our happiness is a sense of relief that our desire has stopped. Unfortunately, the cessation of desire is only temporary. Very soon, the cancer-like craving for pleasure again awakens and begins to destroy our happiness and peace of mind.
Desire for the pleasures of life arises strongly when we are approaching death. We do not want to die; death is the opposite of all that we have lived for, and appears to be the end of pleasure. This desire for life ensures that we will be born again, still seeking pleasure. It causes karma for rebirth to ripen in our mind and, without control, our mind takes another life. Next time, however, we may not be so lucky to have a human body. We could have the miserable body of someone born in the living nightmare called hell; the emaciated form of a
starving ghost wandering in a barren landscape; or the feathered, scaled, or furred body of an animal. In Buddhist legend there is a story of a woman who was so attached to her physical appearance that she was reborn as a snake living inside the skeleton of her previous human body.
Desire and love are not the same thing. Love is a positive emotion that we should cultivate. It is the pure wish for somebody else to be happy, whereas desire is the wish for oneself to be happy. The emotion of “being in love” is a mixture of desire and real love, and the main cause of the unhappiness associated with this condition is desire. When pain in your heart indicates that desire is manifesting, you should apply its antidote and turn your mind towards nirvana and enlightenment. Cultivate detachment by first contemplating the folly of desire, its exaggeration, superimposition, and clinging; and then seeing the object of desire as it is in reality — a transient phenomenon that is empty of your projections. Both pleasure and pleasant objects are like illusions in that they appear to be something real and important, but have no more essence than a pleasant dream. Soon they are gone and cannot be retrieved.Buddha taught his meditators to remove disturbing fantasies of beautiful bodies by imagining them dying, decomposing, and becoming skeletons. Try it with the one who has captured your heart. When detachment frees your mind from the fog of desire, you will be able to love them purely.
When I was a medical student spending many hours each day dissecting human corpses, I was dismayed to realise that beautiful girls were beginning to appear as walking skeletons. Beneath the skin that beckoned to be touched I saw yellow nodules of fat, red muscles, and white bones that dissipated my desire – until I had a few drinks, anyway. Romantics may complain that this clinical approach to the experience of being in love is a
dispassionate negation of a true and spontaneous emotion whose pleasure is necessarily inseparable from its pain. But the cemeteries are full of frustrated romantics; there is no contradiction in cultivating love and detachment simultaneously. This, in fact, is the only way to have truly spontaneous love, the vehicle that can take us beyond suffering and death.