The Misconception of Desire and Attachment

And the place of spirituality

Awhile ago, a friend sent me the following video:

It pissed me off, and then it made me think. What are friends for, after all?

The small print

I should stop here, and preface this by saying that I’m very much a scientifically-inclined individual.

I don’t believe in reincarnation or karmic law. I don’t believe in miracles, and I don’t believe in the deities of any religion.

I believe we’re the chance result of star particles forming under gravity and pressure billions of years ago in a vast universe, amino acids combining in a murky pool, and hundreds of millions of years of evolution through random mutation and natural selection. The reason I believe this is because literally everything science has discovered so far supports it.

For me, spirituality is a tool for coming to grips with these bizarre circumstances. “I” is simply a community of complex cells, which are a community simple cells, which are a community of genes, that happen to be able to ponder their own existence. Spiritualism, and Buddhism in particular, is a way I deal with the phenomena of being sentient matter in an incredibly complex, confusing world.

Now, onwards.

Floaty white nothingness

The misconception that Ravi Zacharias reveals in the video above is that it is a Buddhist’s ultimate goal not to will anymore. To free oneself of desires, become a passive entity in the world. I’ve heard it many times, and struggled to understand it myself. The idea that Buddhist enlightenment is a sort of empty whiteness in which you float around, free from action and desire, sounds pretty bland.

Thought creates and sustains pleasure through desire, and gives it continuity, and therefore the natural reaction of desire to any beautiful thing is perverted by thought.
— Jiddu Krishnamurti

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna (an incarnate of “god”) says to Anjuna (the protagonist of the story) that “all life is action”. Basically, that it is impossible to live without engaging in action. That sounds pretty obvious, I think.

One way or another, life will thrust us into situations that require us to act, whether we like it or not. And this action is always accompanied by desire for a certain outcome.

Attachment and desire

Desire is inevitable, a product of action, an inevitability of our conscious minds. The folly (in the Buddhist tradition) lies in attachment to that desire, or to the desired outcome, not in the existence of desire itself.

To become attached to our desires is a recipe for continual disappointment. We pursue impermanent, unachievable goals. No amount of money is enough, no lover is perfect, no success complete. As soon as we achieve something, we look to the next step, to someone who’s doing a little better, and decide we’ll finally be satisfied if we can just get there. We continually attach ourselves to these unachievable goals, and it’s this attachment to the unattainable that’s responsible for our anxiety and discomfort. Neuroscience is even proving that our brains our wired to enjoy the seeking, not the achieving.

So it stands to reason that breaking from this cycle of self-deception, of attachment to desire and outcomes, will alleviate these negative feelings.

That sounds nice. How does it work?

That’s the tricky part. Breaking a habit that is hard-wired into us is a massive challenge, and it takes a lot of work. But it’s the only process I’ve found that alleviates the anxiety of a complex, messed up world, the stress of not doing enough, the guilt of past mistakes.

And to me, that’s the purpose of spirituality.

In a more practical sense, it works by slowing down. It works by meditating to empty the junk out of your mind. It works by listening to people instead of anticipating and waiting for your turn to speak. It works by dropping your expectations of what a perfect partner or friend should be. It works by appreciating the clothes, furniture and lifestyle that you have.

It works by continually reminding yourself that the next step won’t finally provide that perfect bliss, that lasting happiness, that it will simply spawn some new desire. You should be able to prove that to yourself just by looking back at every other “next step” you’ve arrived at. Did it create permanent bliss for you? Didn’t think so.

Another way to think of it: Outcomes exist in the future. Actions exist in the present. The present is all we ever experience. So enjoy the actions, and give up your reliance on the outcomes.

This isn’t some activity in abstract religious asceticism, it’s a pragmatic approach to being content, and the only method I’ve found that consistently works.

Back to the video

I can’t speak for the Thai monk or the Dalai Lama, or verify the conversation Ravi Zacharias claims to have participated in. Buddhism’s take on will and desire is misunderstood by many, certainly by myself for a long while (and perhaps still), so it’s not surprising to hear.

The theme of the Ravi’s musings is that until everyone unites on the side of Christianity, they are the other, the unknowing, the unconverted. It’s the dangerous notion that if you’re not like us, you’re wrong. It fans the flames of bigotry, arrogance and self-righteousness. And unfortunately, it’s how many religions operate, and the reason so people many have turned away in disgust, not just from religion, but from spirituality as a whole. I think that’s a huge mistake.

I’m not saying Buddhism has all the answers. It’s simply the language of spirituality I understand best. I encourage everyone to find their own, and create a discussion instead of a sermon.