2012-09-06

First, Notice

Desires that enhance reproductive success spread and grew -- and those are the desires we inherit, built into us. Thus we desire, for instance, status – because status gives access to healthier mates, more food, more protection, more assurance of healthy children to carry on our genes.

Here's our problem: restless, unsatisfied anxiety to always get more, to never be satisfied, facilitates reproduction better than being happy, content, and satisfied does. What a predicament! Where’s the hope for us?

Notice, however, that desires are always competing with each other. Does the organism go looking for food, or seek safety from some danger, or seek a mate? Once there are multiple options, then there are desires. Something has to determine whether the organism will seek food, safety, or a mate, and we name that something “desire.”

Desires are there to compete with each other to determine what will do. So if the food desire is shouting louder than the safety desire – because it’s been a while since the animal ate, and there are no signs of danger – then the animal will usually go about trying to rustle up some grub.

Your desire for another piece of pie competes with your desire to be trim and svelte. Your desire for job success – and the things that go with that – competes with your desire to sleep in on Monday morning. Because there are always competing desires, there’s hope for us for a kind of liberation. The desire that happens to be yelling the loudest doesn’t have to win. We can, if we work on it, bring thoughtful intentionality to our desires, and thereby reduce the attraction of the desire that happens to be loudest at a particular moment, and increase the influence of quieter desires.

Let's say a desire intrudes itself on me. "Pizza!" I can ask myself, "Where did that come from?" Or, somewhat more expensively, suppose I discover this desire: “I think I’d like to own an original Van Gogh.” I can turn the light of attention on the desire. I can explore where it might have come from.

The young Thomas Merton was, in his college years, a hard drinker who ran with a fast crowd and fathered a child out of wedlock. He was, in his own words,
“an extremely unpleasant sort of person – vain, self-centered, dissolute, weak, irresolute, undisciplined, sensual, obscene, and proud. I was a mess.”
Then, out of the blue, he felt a desire to convert to Catholicism. He took instruction, got baptized, and became a Catholic. Shortly thereafter, he got another spontaneous desire: to become a priest. He tried the Franciscans for a while. And then a third desire: to be a Trappist.

He didn’t know where the desire came from, but there it was: powerful, irresistible, clear. As William Irvine suggests, there is something very disturbing about Thomas Merton’s story.
“It raises the possibility that we are all just three spontaneous desires away from life in a Trappist Monastery.”
This could be you.
When it comes to making our peace with ourselves, making our peace with being creatures filled with desires imposed upon us and out of our control, the first step is noticing. Just step back and say: "Ah, there’s that desire." And bring a curiosity to it: "Where did you come from, desire? You are legitimate, I will not deny your presence or try to repress you. But maybe you need not be indulged, either."

In moving toward simply bringing more consciousness and awareness to our own desires, notice just how much our social position is a huge part of what we want.

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This is part 2 of 5 of "Desire"

Next: Part 3: "Two Thought Experiments"
Previous: Part 1: "Fields of Dreams, Streetcars of Desire"