Desire and Happiness

human-desire-movie-titleThis week I came across a New York Times article called Love People, Not Pleasure. It’s well worth reading. But the most important section is just three paragraphs long. Here it is:

From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that we are wired to seek fame, wealth and sexual variety. These things make us more likely to pass on our DNA. Had your cave-man ancestors not acquired some version of these things (a fine reputation for being a great rock sharpener; multiple animal skins), they might not have found enough mating partners to create your lineage.

But here’s where the evolutionary cables have crossed: We assume that things we are attracted to will relieve our suffering and raise our happiness. My brain says, “Get famous.” It also says, “Unhappiness is lousy.” I conflate the two, getting, “Get famous and you’ll be less unhappy.”

But that is Mother Nature’s cruel hoax. She doesn’t really care either way whether you are unhappy — she just wants you to want to pass on your genetic material. If you conflate intergenerational survival with well-being, that’s your problem, not nature’s. And matters are hardly helped by nature’s useful idiots in society, who propagate a popular piece of life-ruining advice: “If it feels good, do it.” Unless you share the same existential goals as protozoa, this is often flat-out wrong.

This is as good an explanation of the Buddhist position on the matter of desire as I have ever come across.

Often people are confused because they’ve heard that the Buddhist Four Noble Truths are 1) All life is suffering, 2) Suffering is caused by desire, 3) Eliminate desire and you eliminate suffering, 4) Follow the Noble Eightfold Path to eliminate desire.

My teacher, Nishijima Roshi, was extremely critical of this understanding of the Four Noble Truths. He heard it when he was a youngster in Japan and it made no sense at all to him. You can’t eliminate desire! Without the basic desires for food, water and shelter, we’d die. Without the desire for sex, the human race would disappear. If Buddhism was about eliminating desire, he thought, then Buddhism was stupid.

Nishijima was not the first person to notice this. Lots of people have thought the same thing and many of those people, quite sensibly, rejected Buddhism altogether as being simply unrealistic. Which it would be, if that’s what it actually said.

It may be true that the cause of suffering is desire. However, the solution to this problem is not to eliminate desire, but to confront and understand desire for what it actually is.

Meditation as Desire Confrontation

The explanation I’ve quoted above is extremely useful for understanding the problem intellectually. But mere intellectual understanding of the problem won’t solve it. This is because, as the quote above suggests, the mechanisms of desire are extremely strong and very subtle. They are literally hardwired into our nervous systems. Desire cannot be eliminated or transcended even if we completely comprehend it with our thinking minds.

This is why meditation is such a brilliant solution. It forces us to confront our desires head-on, over and over and over again. When you sit in non-goal-seeking meditation you are forced into direct confrontation with some very basic desires such as the desire to not be sitting there facing a blank wall, the desire to be doing something productive or at least interesting, the desire to not be bored…

You sit there and you meet your desires moment by moment and you do not do anything at all to satisfy even the easiest ones to satisfy. You want to move, but you don’t. You want this meditation session to be a good one full of peaceful feelings and bliss, but you stick with it even when it’s full of conflict and distractions. You just sit still.

This usually causes desire to redouble its efforts. Rather than getting more blissful and full of peace, you get positively enraged. It’s not an easy practice, however simple it seems. It never was. Not for anyone.

But We Westerners Just Can’t Do That!

These days lots of Westerners have a fantasy that meditation is nice and easy for those blissed-out Asian people over in The Asias, but that we Westerners have a much harder time with it. In working on this Dogen book I’m writing now, I came across a bit in Dogen’s essay Bendowa (A Talk on Practicing Pursuing the Truth) that I’d forgotten about.

In this essay he has an imaginary questioner ask, “In India and China, the people are originally unaffected and straight… As a result, when they are taught the Buddha-Dharma they understand and enter very quickly. In our country (Japan) … we are deeply attached to the results of intentional effort, and we like superficial quality. Can people like this expect to experience the Buddha-Dharma straight away, even if they sit in zazen?”

Dogen answers by basically saying what I just said, that zazen is tough for everybody including people from India and China and that you just need to make the effort anyway. What’s funny to me is that this exact same stance is now taken by Western people who include Japan among those countries where they imagine meditation is easy for everybody.

Bliss Feels Like Shit

This is why quick and easy methods of experiencing spiritual bliss or achieving altered states of awareness are ultimately damaging and a colossal waste of time and money. Achieving spiritual bliss and altered states of awareness are just more ways of giving in to desire. Your desire for bliss or altered states is satiated for a little while, but then it comes back again even stronger and you have to make even greater efforts to achieve it, or else simply suffer for the lack of it.

Bliss will always make you feel like shit after a while.

Unsatisfied

What we’re working on when we do zazen is the exact opposite of “following our bliss.” We are following our lack of bliss, following our lack of satisfaction. Paul Westerberg was right. In The Replacements song Unsatisfied he says, “Everything goes / Well, anything goes all the time / Everything you dream of is right in front of you / And everything is a lie.”

But the fact that everything is a lie is OK. What the article calls “nature’s useful idiots in society” lie to you and say that the best thing you can possibly do is satisfy your desires. They do so in the hope of satisfying their own desires with the money and fame they take away from you. But in the end they fail.

On the other hand, not literally everything is a lie. Open your eyes and see the truth. It’s right in front of you all the time.

Desire and Happiness

We don’t confront desire this way in order to be all austere and severe with ourselves. We do so in order to find real happiness. If Buddhism wasn’t about finding happiness it wouldn’t even be worth talking about.

Real happiness doesn’t come from satisfying our desires. Real happiness is to be found in dissatisfaction itself.

Sit down and shut up for a little while, and it all becomes crystal clear.

*   *   *

My desire is to pay my rent. Your donations help me satsify that! Thank you!

*   *   *

My on-line retreat at Tricycle.com is still happening. Check it out!

*   *   *

Here’s my upcoming events schedule:

Aug. 16 9:30 AM – Noon at Dogen Sangha Los Angeles in the Veteran’s Memorial Building 4117 Overland Blvd. Culver City, CA 90230

Sept. 6 Houston Zen Center All Day Zazen

Sept. 9 Austin Zen Center

Oct. 3-5 Helsinki, Finland all events to be determined

Oct. 6 Movie Screening in Espoo, Finland

Oct. 8 Lecture in Munich, Germany

Oct. 9-11 Retreat in Munich, Germany

Oct. 12-17 Retreat at Benediktushof near Würzburg, Germany

Oct 18-19 Retreat in Bonn, Germany

Oct 20 Hamburg, Germany

Oct 24: Lecture in Groningen, Netherlands

Oct 25: Day-long zazen in Groningen, Netherlands

Oct 26: Lecture in Eindhoven, Netherlands

Oct 27: Evening zazen in Eindhoven, Netherlands

Oct 28: Evening zazen in Nijmegen, Netherlands

Oct 29: Lecture in Rotterdam, Netherlands

Oct 30: Lecture in Amsterdam, Netherlands

Oct 31: Movie screening in Utrecht, Netherlands

Nov 1-2: Retreat in Utrecht, Netherlands

Nov 4-6 (or 3-5 possibly) Retreat in Hebden Bridge, UK

Nov 7-8 Something in Manchester, UK (to be determined)

31 Responses

Page 1 of 1
  1. The Brain Police
    The Brain Police August 3, 2014 at 10:55 am | |

    So, during zazen we basically fight not to be slave of desire and not desire in itself. Am i right?

    1. stonemirror
      stonemirror August 3, 2014 at 1:10 pm | |

      During zazen, I just sit. You can’t fight sitting down.

      1. The Brain Police
        The Brain Police August 4, 2014 at 12:35 am | |

        Yeah, i didn’t mean to be literal, but in a way you’re still making an effort to just sit and not get up and do something else. Somehow you’re fighting against yourself.

        1. The Brain Police
          The Brain Police August 4, 2014 at 12:36 am | |

          At least in the beginning.

        2. minkfoot
          minkfoot August 4, 2014 at 5:32 pm | |

          That happens. Especially in the struggle to stop struggling. Sitting Down makes it easier to see what you’re doing.

        3. stonemirror
          stonemirror August 6, 2014 at 1:51 pm | |

          “…making an effort to just sit and not get up and do something else…”

          I just don’t get up and do anything else. Until I do.

          1. The Brain Police
            The Brain Police August 7, 2014 at 12:52 am |

            But it’s not that easy.

  2. A beginner in Texas
    A beginner in Texas August 3, 2014 at 11:02 am | |

    This is a really great post that speaks to me on the heart of why I am doing this.

  3. sri_barence
    sri_barence August 3, 2014 at 11:44 am | |

    Thanks Brad, that’s very clear. I have noticed that when I try very hard to have a smooth clear experience of zazen, I am often left feeling worn out and frustrated, because body-and-mind have a different agenda. But if I simply sit, zazen takes care of itself. Sometimes this means that the experience is wide-open and all-inclusive. Sometimes it is dreamy and filled with random thoughts and physical discomfort. The challenge for me is not to try to force a particular state, but to simply sit with whatever appears.

    Leave them alone, and they’ll come home, wagging their tails behind them.

  4. shade
    shade August 3, 2014 at 12:07 pm | |

    “But that is Mother Nature’s cruel hoax. She doesn’t really care either way whether you are unhappy — she just wants you to want to pass on your genetic material. ”

    Up till now I’ve resisted the temptation to quote stuffy English poetry – cause I know, it’s kind of pretentious – but just this once I’m gonna succumb, because it just seems too pertinent:

    And why is it, that still
    Man with his lot thus fights?
    ‘Tis that he makes this will
    The measure of his rights
    And believes Nature outraged if his will’s gainsaid.

    Couldst thou, Pausanias, learn
    How deep a fault is this;
    Couldst thou but once discern
    Thou hast no right to bliss,
    No title from the gods to welfare and repose

    That would be Matthew Arnold’s “Empedocles on Etna” – a great piece of work, by the way, if you’re into that sort of thing (Even if it is rather long and despairing, and ends with it’s philosopher hero throwing himself into a volcano)

    What that has to do with desire I’m not exactly sure… except that this particular piece of forgotten victorian literature attempts to grapple with the fact that the universe more often than not thwarts our desires. And not only the selfish or hedonistic ones, or those connected to basic survival, but also with the more virtuous and selfless ones. That is, even when we make a sincere and concerted effort to live our lives according to higher principals, the fruits of our labor are often destroyed by the bad actions of others or by forces beyond our control. How does Buddhism or Zen respond to that dilemma? (Karma maybe?)

    Next time Brad does a post on morality or ethics or fate (which is basically what Empedocles means by “nature” and “the gods”) maybe I can follow up on this digression. But just for the record I did read the whole post and not just the parts that interested me.

  5. Daniel
    Daniel August 4, 2014 at 3:07 am | |

    “It may be true that the cause of suffering is desire. However, the solution to this problem is not to eliminate desire, but to confront and understand desire for what it actually is.”

    Uhm….I thought it’s all about seeing who is having desire? And the “solution” is that it’s seen there’s no-one…which eliminates the problem (and a lot of other neurotic stuff) in a split second.

    Trying to confront desire and understand it…there’s no end to this. Who’s trying to understand? Who’s going to confront it? Is “desire” different from “you” having a desire?

    The question does not fit the case as the Buddha said! You’re asking the wrong question doofoos!!!!!!!!

    1. senorchupacabra
      senorchupacabra August 4, 2014 at 8:33 am | |

      Why is “no one” feeling it, then?

      Stop asking questions, period.

      1. Daniel
        Daniel August 4, 2014 at 8:39 am | |

        “Why is “no one” feeling it, then?”

        There’s just feeling. It’s that simple. Feeling doesn’t need “you”…

    2. sri_barence
      sri_barence August 4, 2014 at 9:35 am | |

      It really seems like it should work that way, doesn’t it? Sit for a time, realize that there is no duality, that “self” is an illusion, and bingo! all desires and delusions drop away. That might happen, to a greater or lesser extent. But like everything else, that state also comes to an end, and as Brad says, “the next thing happens.”

      The good news is that zazen provides a way to see the true nature of desire and delusion. What also becomes clear is that we choose our every action, and that we are wholly responsible for the consequences. No more fooling ourselves. If I eat the ice cream I so desire, it may make my diabetes worse. So what am I going to do?

      1. Daniel
        Daniel August 7, 2014 at 7:39 am | |

        sri_barence said:

        “Sit for a time, realize that there is no duality, that “self” is an illusion, and bingo! all desires and delusions drop away.”

        -> No there are still desires and “delusions”. It’s simply seen that they arise for no-one that there is no self that has desires. That makes them much less interesting right away…

        That might happen, to a greater or lesser extent. But like everything else, that state also comes to an end, and as Brad says, “the next thing happens.”

        -> No it doesn’t happen. It’s been the case all the time. There is no self. It doesn’t have to drop away or something. You don’t need to get rid of it, because there is no you. And nothing happens after.

        What also becomes clear is that we choose our every action, and that we are wholly responsible for the consequences. No more fooling ourselves. If I eat the ice cream I so desire, it may make my diabetes worse. So what am I going to do?

        ->If it’s seen that there is no self, it’s also seen that there is no chooser. You can’t choose to eat ice-cream or not, it simply happens. You’re not responsible for any consequences because there’s no-one to be responsible and no-one who could choose otherwise. There’s the illusion of choosing and it goes on even after it’s seen there is no-one but it’s just a way your brain creates a plausible story for what’s happening. I highly recommend you to read “Free Will” by Sam Harris the Maitreya, it’s the best book I’ve ever read about that topic.

  6. Fred
    Fred August 4, 2014 at 5:31 am | |

    Very good piece, Brad.

    “Bliss Feels Like Shit

    This is why quick and easy methods of experiencing spiritual bliss or achieving altered states of awareness are ultimately damaging and a colossal waste of time and money. Achieving spiritual bliss and altered states of awareness are just more ways of giving in to desire. Your desire for bliss or altered states is satiated for a little while, but then it comes back again even stronger and you have to make even greater efforts to achieve it, or else simply suffer for the lack of it.

    Bliss will always make you feel like shit after a while.”

    Bliss didn’t make me feel like shit. It just was what it was. “I” did not seek “it”

  7. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote August 4, 2014 at 2:38 pm | |

    Fast and furious, Brad Warner at work!

    Thanks for “Unsatisfied”, Mr. W.

    Broken Yogi used to talk about desire as the root cause, and the ceasing of desire, didn’t he?

    “What also becomes clear is that we choose our every action, and that we are wholly responsible for the consequences.”

    That’s not clear to me. Let’s suppose you went to a night club and volunteered to be hypnotized, after which the suggestion was made that your arm was getting lighter and lighter and your arm did in fact rise up. Did you choose to raise your arm, are you responsible for that?

    Ishinashini, the hand just moved, it was will-less. Who said that!

    Suffering exists; then:

    ignorance–> habitual activity–> stationing of consciousness –> name and form –> senses –> feeling –> craving (desire?)–> suffering (“in short, grasping after self in form, sensation, perception, habitual activity, or consciousness”);

    also, the end of ignorance–> end of habitual activity–> end of stationing of consciousness–> … –> end of suffering;

    and: there is a path, eight or ten-fold, to the end of suffering. Adepts still have a path, said Gautama, and it’s ten-fold. Suffering still exists if there’s a path, even for adepts– whatdya know!

    suffering does not exist, none of the above applies. No need to ignore what’s happening in favor of analysis, in the absence of doubt.

    Have a blissful or whatever other kind of day you have! Don’t forget to write.

  8. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote August 4, 2014 at 5:34 pm | |

    No need to ignore what’s happening, even if it’s analysis. What a culture we live in, it’s all humpty hump!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k1Nxiki1jEg

  9. Fred
    Fred August 5, 2014 at 10:43 am | |

    Red Pine said that Gautama created the doctrine to keep their minds busy, while
    he healed their spiritual distress, or some facsimile thereof.

    “Have a blissful or whatever other kind of day you have!”

    Have a no stationing of consciousness kind of day.

    1. minkfoot
      minkfoot August 5, 2014 at 12:17 pm | |

      Energize the heart-mind, but don’t let it stick in anywhere.
      Especially not in there!

  10. Alan Sailer
    Alan Sailer August 5, 2014 at 3:11 pm | |

    Mark said,

    “That’s not clear to me. Let’s suppose you went to a night club and volunteered to be hypnotized, after which the suggestion was made that your arm was getting lighter and lighter and your arm did in fact rise up. Did you choose to raise your arm, are you responsible for that?”

    I have only experienced hypnosis once, but while under hypnosis I still had choice. In hypnosis you are generally more suggestible, but you do keep your ability to decide whether or not you want to do something.

    Hypnosis on stage is more complex since the presence of an audience can persuade people to do things that they might not otherwise do. And hypnosis in movies is pretty laughable as it is frequently portrayed as a form of absolute mind control.

    Cheers.

  11. Fred
    Fred August 5, 2014 at 4:39 pm | |

    The hypnosis of everyday life is a form of absolute mind control.

  12. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote August 5, 2014 at 9:01 pm | |

    Alan, good point. So you’re saying that whatever the suggestion was, you allowed it to happen, you didn’t will it to happen but you realized you could have prevented it. Or at least it seemed that way.

    Let us suppose for a moment that your body began to move as though by hypnotic suggestion, and rather than preventing it thinking that Bella Lugosi was behind the curtain, you watched and wondered. Suppose then that your hand began to move up a skirt… weird, huh? RIP.

    But aside from that, supposing your body began to move, and you walked out the door, and down the block and you turned a corner as though by remote control and met an old friend who was just passing through. Weird, huh?

    “Whatever… is material shape, past, future or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, mean or excellent, or whatever is far or near, (a person), thinking of all this material shape as ‘This is not mine, this am I not, this is not my self’, sees it thus as it really is by means of perfect wisdom. Whatever is feeling… perception… the habitual tendencies… whatever is consciousness, past, future, or present (that person), thinking of all this consciousness as ‘This is not mine, this am I not, this is not my self’, sees it thus as it really is by means of perfect wisdom. (For one) knowing thus, seeing thus, there are no latent conceits that ‘I am the doer, mine is the doer’ in regard to this consciousness-informed body.”

    Or maybe you died the noble death, the breath was cut off, you returned to your senses and they got up and walked off with what used to be you.

  13. Alan Sailer
    Alan Sailer August 6, 2014 at 8:22 am | |

    Mark,

    The hypnosis session was brief (about a half hour). I did nothing that I didn’t want to do. It was relaxing and felt unlike my normal state of consciousness. There were also no residual effects.

    As far as the rest of your post, it’s above my pay grade. My life is not nearly that exciting.

    Cheers.

  14. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote August 6, 2014 at 9:44 am | |

    Alan, thanks- “felt like my normal state of consciousness”, a point I’ve been trying to make here. I’m wondering whether there was any demonstration of induction involved in your experience (the ol’ arm rising or other suggestion, just to see if you were in fact hypnotized).

    Occurred to me this morning that, while having the senses get up and walk off gets the attention, alright, having the mind move without getting up is equally surprising; got my attention this morning.

    Paying attention to the wind and the flag, we miss the place that is moving.

  15. Shamany66
    Shamany66 August 7, 2014 at 6:14 am | |

    I enjoyed this article very much. After living in 7 spiritual centers and two monasteries I became VERY aware just how much desire was a part of the ‘sp iri l life.’ Instead of desiring money, drugs, and modern trappings MOST of the people I met were seeking the drug of ‘spirituality.’ That is perhaps the biggest drug of all. I am writing a book about my experiences, not to say all spiritual centers are bad, but rather to suggest desire comes in many forms.

    As for my journey , I also fell into all the spiritual trappings. From new age seminars ( years ago ) to monastic training ( more recent )…..I was often seeking only to find that which I was seeking was always present. Now I am quite content with desiring four things:
    1. Food
    2. Shelter
    3. Clothing
    4. Access to Health Care
    5. College Football ( Sorry, I can’t seem to outgrow that )

    I can do all that on about $1,000 a month which I have….so I guess that makes me one really happy camper who will never be famous. I should add the one thing that allows me to be so happy is meditation. Without that I am a hopeless wreck living in a world that makes no sense. ( To Me )

    Thanks for the nice article I really enjoyed it

  16. Conrad
    Conrad August 7, 2014 at 10:06 am | |

    It’s important to remember that the First Noble Truth doesn’t say that life is suffering, it says that life is dukkha, which doesn’t translate very easily as “suffering”, but rather as “dissatisfaction”. This is key. Likewise, the second noble truth doesn’t say the cause of dukkha is desire, it calls it tanha, which better translates as “craving”.

    Getting these meanings right is important. Mere bodily desire is not the source of dukkha, but craving is. And craving is to be distinguished from desire by its inability to be satisfied. Craving refers to the endless search to satisfy the illusory internal self, which can never be satisfied even when desires are. If you are hungry, that desire can be satisfied by eating, but if you are not merely eating to satisfy hunger, but to satisfy your cravings for some kind of internal solution to all the problems of the separate self, eating will never satisfy you, no matter how much you eat. So tanha refers to this internal search to satisfy the cravings of the illusory self.

    That’s what needs to come to an end – tanha, not the simple desires of the body. And that’s what meditation addresses. By sitting quiet and still, and one presumes decently fed and not in overt pain, these extra cravings come to the fore, and by not trying to satisfy them, they reveal themselves as the source of our dukkha, our disatisfaction. By observing them without satisfying them, their nature and source can be observed directly, and the stupidity of building a life around their drives and purposes is seen for what it is. Futile, pointless, and distracting from reality, and putting us in an illusory world where the separate self is presumed to be real and true, and endlessly demanding of satisfaction. Likewise, a different kind of life is also put forward, one in which we don’t believe in this internal separate self or feed its cravings, and instead merely live in reality, which of course includes the ordinary needs of the body, but also includes the marvelous freedom that comes with no longer being bound by the cravings of the separate self illusion.

    As Buddha said,

    No earthly pleasure
    No heavenly bliss
    Equals one infinitesimal fraction
    Of the bliss of the cessation of craving

    That’s Buddhism in a nutshell.

  17. The Idiot
    The Idiot August 7, 2014 at 3:24 pm | |

    so good to read that – thank you.

    i heard joseph goldstein translate it as du = bad, ka = axle hole on wheel of wooden cart. when the hole gets work from use its no longer a tight circle but a loose oval. hence the axle bounces around and you get a very uncomfortable long journey. so maybe dukkha could also translate as ‘bumpy ride’, which is certainly not satisfying.

    but this is just playing with words. your text was clear.

  18. It’s just a song, after all … August 29, 2014 at 4:00 pm |

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.