I’ve been thinking about desire a lot lately. How it relates to being able to be present, how it manifests itself, and what we can learn from it. Most of the time, especially if we haven’t spent time working with our desires, they can take over, pulling us out of the moment and towards some unrealized future in which we have achieved whatever it is that we want. We see something, we want it, and that’s all there is to it. We don’t usually grow from that experience, it just repeats itself the next time we see something we want. Part of what I’ve been trying to figure out is the following: When can desire be a good thing? And when it’s harming us, bringing us closer to attachment and suffering, how do we recognize the difference and how can we work with it?
Jack Kornfield, in his wonderful book A Path with Heart, makes a distinction in types of desire, naming the negative parts grasping and wanting. “Grasping and Wanting are two names for the most painful aspects of desire.” He says. “There are beneficial desires such as the desire for the well being of others, the desire for awakening, the creative desires that express the positive aspects of passion and beauty. There are painful aspects of desire – the desires of addiction, greed, blind ambition, or unending inner hunger.” Given how similar the two can feel on the surface, how do we notice when the desire is beneficial or painful?
Like all of our emotions and thought, it takes bringing real conscious attention in order for us to be able to see our own patterns and how those emotions play out. Kornfield suggests paying attention to desire when it arises and noting certain aspects of it. “How long does this kind of desire last? Does it intensify first or just fade away? How does it feel in the body? When it is present, are you happy or agitated, open or closed?”
For me, when I unconsciously follow a desire, it can be surprising how the thing I thought I wanted, suddenly doesn’t seem so appealing once I see the whole picture. How it fits in with the rest of my life, the work that might be needed to maintain it, etc. And of the flip side, once you bring consciousness to a desire and are able to see the whole picture, it can also be easier to identify the desires which are healthy.
Bringing attention to desire can also help us to identify places in our life where we need attention and nourishing. When we trace painful desires back to their root, they can point the way to things in our life that we might be neglecting. Which can help us to grow and learn about ourselves and bring about positive change.