Zen in the Art of Desire

The title of this post is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but I hope to analyze the effects my desires have had on me and attempt to temper them with a stoic perspective. I’ll probably be unsuccessful, but oh well. (One definition of zen, by the way, is “an approach to religion, arising from Buddhism, that seeks religious enlightenment by meditation in which there is no consciousness of self,” emphasis being my own.)

Stoicism teaches that desire (of any kind) can be disastrous. Epictetus wrote:

“Remember that following desire promises the attainment of that of which you are desirous; and aversion promises the avoiding that to which you are averse. However, he who fails to obtain the object of his desire is disappointed, and he who incurs the object of his aversion wretched.”

This is a fairly obvious statement – if you desire something and you don’t get it, you wind up disappointed. Similarly, if you wish to avoid something and you fail to, you also seem to be impacted negatively. Epictetus would argue, however, that these negative repercussion are not necessary; they are in fact a symptom of our faulty way of viewing the world.

Epictetus, again:

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and in one word, whatever are not our own actions. The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men….”

What he is saying here is that we, as humans, have only limited control over our situation in life. Things which we routinely think of as “ours” (to include “our” body) are not, in fact, completely under our control. (Can you, for example, control whether or not your body contracts disease, whether or not it grows cancer, whether or not it circulates blood and whether or not your brain is sending electrical impulses? You can influence some or all of these things, but the stoics would draw a sharp distinction between things that you can control and things that you can influence.) Hardship and personal agony result from the dissonance between perceiving things as under our control which are not – after all, it is only natural to feel miserable if something you think you can control goes awry.

There are many other examples of things that are not in our control but are commonly thought to be. Epictetus provides several illuminating examples:
  • “Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things. Death, for instance, is not terrible…But the terror consists in our notion of death that is terrible.”
  • “If you wish your children, and your wife, and your friends to live for ever, you are stupid; for you wish to be in control of things which you cannot, you wish for things that belong to others to be your own.”
  • “Remember that you are an actor in a drama, of such a kind as the author pleases to make it. If short, of a short one; if long, of a long one. If it is his pleasure you should act a poor man, a cripple, a governor, or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For it is your business, to act well the character assigned you; to choose it is another’s.”
The Stoics, then, would have us realize that things outside of our control should not cause us grief. Epictetus elaborates on the nature of aversion and desire:

“Remove aversion, then, from all things that are not in our control, and transfer it to things contrary to the nature of what is in our control. But, for the present, totally suppress desire: for, if you desire any of the things which are not in your own control, you must necessarily be disappointed; and of those which are, and which it would be laudable to desire, nothing is yet in your possession. Use only the appropriate actions of pursuit and avoidance; and even these lightly, and with gentleness and reservation.”

What’s the upshot of all of this? We can control our desire in the sense that we can (attempt and learn to) pick and choose which things we are desirous of, but we cannot ultimately control whether or not we receive most of the things we desire. If I were to desire to have better restraint, for instance, that is something I could control. If I were to desire, on the other hand, a lover or a family – that is not something I can control.
And that’s what I’m getting at. For quite some time, perhaps for all time, I have been very desirous of love. I did not feel, growing up, that I was the recipient of much love at all – and the love I did receive often came from questionable sources (like my alcoholic/drug addicted/womanizing brother), which had the effect of making the love itself questionable. I feel as though I have been used and taken advantage of (in the sense that I provided many kinds of support and sacrifices for people without receiving any reciprocation). In my life, I have had only one girlfriend, and this was not the most satisfying or lasting of relationships. I’ve had many other negative experiences attempting to reach out and find love in my life. (I felt that linking to other articles was more effective than paraphrasing their content, here. Such things are an old theme in my life.)
All of this had the effect of making me feel ‘love starved.’ But the idea here is that perhaps such thinking is wrong – perhaps viewing the world in the way that I have (and many other people seem to) is fundamentally flawed and incorrect. To be desirous of love and of all the “benefits” (as they are often referred to) of human relationships could be folly – I should be concerned only with the things that I can control and I should not be perturbed by those things which I cannot control. Certainly, I can try to exercise my influence, but I shouldn’t be crushed when things don’t necessarily go my way.
It seems as though I need to live more like this (Epictetus, again):

“Remember that you must behave in life as at a dinner party. Is anything brought around to you? Put out your hand and take your share with moderation. Does it pass you by? Don’t stop it. Is it not yet come? Don’t stretch your desire towards it, but wait til it reaches you. Do this with regard to children, to a wife, to public posts, to riches, and you will eventually be a worthy partner in the feasts of the gods. And if you don’t even take the things which are set before you, but are able even to reject them, then you will not only be a partner at the feasts of the gods, but also of their empire.”

And when better to start, than now – as I’m getting ready to change my career up and spend the next three years (starting in March) overseas in various countries? I wonder if I am strong enough, however.

In the writing of this, I had forgotten to include the original impetus to even begin: There have been points in my life where I’ve been so cripplingly lonely that I entertain various fantasies of intimacy and love just to nourish myself. I’m not talking about sexual fantasies – I’m talking about fantasies where a girl I’ve known for a while reaches out to me and comforts me, holds me, puts me at ease… I don’t know exactly how to describe it, but my subconscious will provide me with these sorts of vivid dreams where I actually feel loved, and it has regenerated me at certain times. (It has also served to worsen me – drawing attention to what I felt has been absent in my life.) I bring this up only because it happened recently, and I don’t think there is much benefit to these sorts of fantasies – however comforting they may seem in the short term.
Ah, life. When did you get so complicated?

3 thoughts on “Zen in the Art of Desire

  1. He also said that his philosophy can't guarantee anything. “For as the material of the carpenter is wood, and that of statuary bronze, so the subject-matter of the art of living is each person's own life” (I did a little Wikipedia searching since the browser was already up from earlier 🙂 haha). It's an art, you can't follow guidelines that's not what I was saying earlier but make yourself available to love from anybody and any kind of love. Even the unexpected Facebook friend that you probably just deleted. Don't close yourself off. Everyone has something to offer if you let them in a little. AND…. rejection is disappointing. But disappointment isn't always so awful, you just move on and learn to make room for things that have chances to be more positive. You're being silly and thinking too hard about life next term take some chemistry classes instead of ethics.
    p.s. we should hook your brother up with my sister they may have one or 100 things in common.

  2. thinking that you are realistic and wanting only deep and meaningful relationships in the same breath is contradicting?

    okay off to sleep. I'm so tired that I'm pretty sure i'm just arguing with you now for the sake of being right. sorry. It's not my best look.

  3. Allyse –

    I don't view it as an argument. Different points of view are always helpful. I believe in a sort of casuistry, where ideas are only good if they have been tested and proven against other ideas – so disagreement isn't a bad thing at all! (And in issues like this, who is to say who is right? All we have is our reason and our experience – both can be faulty.)

    Being realistic and wanting only deep and meaningful relationships is not necessarily contradictory, but it does imply a different lifestyle than most people are used to. I currently have only a handful of people I would count among my true friends (people I have known for years, who would, more than give me the shirt of their back, provide me with a place to live indefinitely if I needed it). Outside of them, I don't maintain a lot of relationships aside from working ones. How many people can you truly care about in a deep sense at one time? Is it possible to have 800 deep and fantastic friendships? Is it possible to have 3 or 4? (Shallow friendships have never been satisfying to me – I used to be popular in school and I found the whole thing very draining. I felt miserably alone in a sea of friends and it was very confusing. I felt less alone with three or four good friends than four hundred fair-weather ones!) To those I extend my friendship to, I would do anything – I don't have the energy or means, then, to be friends to everyone.

    I think you are too easily dismissing stoicism on the basis of my limited presentation of it. Stoicism isn't an attempt to guarantee anything – it's an attempt to better understand and cope with the human condition (and all the limitations being human implies) while still finding the strength and beauty of humanity.

    Just to provide a counterbalance to your statements, if I leave myself open to anybody and anyone, I also leave myself open to exploitation – everybody has something to take if you let them in a little. 😉 (I agree with your statements, too – I treat everybody the same way and give them the same chances and opportunities to get close to me. I tend to only trust people who are honest, though, and who say what they mean and mean what they say – the people who walk their own talk.)

    Sorry, but I have always loved philosophy and it's various branches (ethics is but one – then there's logic, epistemology, ontology, aesthetics, and even political science philosophies) and the implications they have on life. So, next semester I'll have another philosophy class, though it won't be an ethics one. (I'm taking a creative writing course, too.)

    P.S. I don't think my brother needs anymore hook ups :P. He needs a stable relationship, too. He's got a kid these days – named after me!

    Besides, I'd be much more interested in seeing where our (yours and mine) similarities lie. As much as differences have seemed to be the focus in our conversation, I'm sure there's common ground too.

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