Philosophy Weekend: What Is The Object Of Your Desire?

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.)

7 Responses

  1. our instincts and desires are
    our instincts and desires are bound together, which makes for a tough scenario. only when we tame our instincts and resist our desires appropriately (very relative) do we find any peace. as you pointed out, following our instincts and indulging our desires rarely produces sustained peace, or even fleeting satisfaction. the next indulgence is immediately on the mind. resisting our instincts and denying desires can produce a long lasting peace, especially if the indulgences have gone too deep. a confidence that we can actually overcome ourselves, at times, and do extraordinary things. truly, mind over body. oh, but the objects of our desires. they are right there in our imagination. and they are always better than the real thing. our imaginations are wild. indulgences can often be disappointing and confusing. “i thought it would be so much different.” “i thought it would turn out better.” usually better. sometimes the card is turned and the one-eyed jack winks at you. these are good days too. don’t mess with fate.

  2. really? once you negate your
    really? once you negate your desires
    you live

    it’s all a big fluff dance

    ain’t it?

  3. thank you for this
    thank you for this enlightening piece, I was reading it whilst I should have been studying, I currently want to exempt myself from that study in order to seek alternative freedom, that frees my mind from thinking about exams. There you have desire!

    And thus writing here.

    I don’t think I’m adding anything:
    that there is, indeed like you said, no real answer. Because very often a answer if followed by another question. Or as you mentioned you end up in a circle. But maybe we should take a closer look to the ‘why’ we seek desire? And how it is defined? Personally I don’t necessarily believe that we have so much freedom, as we are shipped through life by society, family, heritage etc. But nonetheless, we can see that through different stages of our lives, that we look upon desire differently.

    In a sense I follow Kuhn, that we can never have all the answers, but that a new paradigm will give us a temporarily solitude with a few explanations.

    and what fun would life be if there would be no questions? When there would be no curious children finding out about the facts of life? Asking the simple and simultaneously deep question: “Why?”

    I was really intrigued by the first part, the part of Buddhism. Thank you for letting me grind my grey matter on something else then Law.

  4. As somebody who is not a
    As somebody who is not a Buddhist, I have to ask, what is wrong with following your desires? I don’t see any relevance to the question, “What is the object of your desire?” Who cares? The desire is there for a reason, why not pursue it to your fullest capabilities? I understand that there are a plethora of desires in the human psyche but I don’t see anything wrong with following and pursuing your own desires. In fact, I think it is good for a person to do so. Can a desire be the same as a goal? Who among us does not have goals that he/she wants to reach?

  5. Catalyst, the reason is
    Catalyst, the reason is simply: because we see all around us people who are not happy. This was also what inspired the historical Buddha’s search for answers and eventual enlightenment, according to his life story.

  6. Far too much desire lies in
    Far too much desire lies in the idea that happiness will miraculously alleviate our frustrations, our un-happiness… It’s important to realize (thru contemplation and/or meditation) that the search for happiness is but yet another illusion that we insist will make our lives far better than what we have. Happiness/sadness – another duality that we live with but will never bring us enlightenment.

    Far better to accept contentment… pure simply contentment… not as radical as happiness and not as annoying as sadness… and far more comfortable to live with without the highs and lows that so many of us deal with in our lives. Just accept this moment… this Now that has no room for anything but Being.

    How many so foolishly take drugs or drown ourselves in alcoholic stupor because we are unable to find or even keep happiness? The great Pharma has made billions off the illusion that our lack of happiness has a cure thru a pill.

    Happiness is but yet another desire that we long for in our imaginations, believing that this desire fulfilled will be our final desire… that will keep us from harm and will make us wonderful people with so much to give. Illusions are a dime a dozen that end up costing us fortunes if not our lives. Happiness will eventually lead us to sadness… invariably, as we get caught in the duality of life… up and down, up and down we go in search of another illusion to bring us happiness. Where is your Now?

  7. Levi, I don’t think that
    Levi, I don’t think that desires are the same thing as goals, as Catalyst suggests. Desires are impulses, visceral needs, that are often tied to pleasure and excitement or to relief from pain (be it physical or psychological). Desire aims at an adrenaline rush or an escape. Those who live primarily to satisfy their desires end up living an unhappy life, an insatiable life, filled with big appetites, small thrills and a new dissatisfaction, a new need. Exactly as Schopenhauer argues. Often, they end up addicted to substances, people or behaviors (Amy Winehouse’s sudden but not surprising death comes to mind). But I think that setting goals and attempting to achieve them is very different. It can give people a sense of purpose in life and helps them accomplish worthwhile things. Claudia

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