Two approaches to desire
As I was explaining at my recent Humanist Contemplatives gathering, it has occurred to me that one way we can classify spiritual paths (be they religions, philosophies, traditions, etc) is on how they deal with the issue of desire and the fears we have about them. After all, if a spiritual path is about anything it is about obtaining ultimate happiness, whether you believe that is salvation, nirvana, eudaimonia, or so on – and a big part of happiness is finding some way to deal with the discrepancy between what we desire, and what we have.
The two ways are as follows:
You can have your cake and eat it too
These paths tell you that, yes, you can have what you’re wanting most. One example of this is the so-called Law of Attraction, as referred to in Rhonda Byrne’s “The Secret” among many other places. According to this path, it is claimed that whatever you desire will come to you if you focus on it positively and strongly enough. This allegedly happens, not simply because a person who is positive will perform better, bounce back from misfortune, and not give up. Rather, the Law of Attraction tells us that our thoughts and attitudes actually somehow alter the universe so that good things come our way.
Another path that falls into this category are the ‘prosperity gospel’ teachings of preachers like Houston’s Joel Osteen at Lakewood Church. According to Osteen, Jesus came to the earth so that you might have a balanced checkbook, and have it more fully filled with funds. He also came so that you won’t have to suffer the pains of sickness or injury. Basically, if you believe hard enough and you ask for Jesus’ help, you will allegedly have material prosperity in this life.
More traditional Christians shake their finger at Osteen saying that God didn’t guarantee an easy life, but came so that your soul might be saved in the afterlife. Interestingly enough, we find that even old time Christianity (as well as Islam and many other religions, though not all) also fall into this category. For those more concerned about their grave than their gold, these paths guarantee the true adherent fulfillment of the ultimate desire: immortality.
In addition, many of these path highlight the importance of various activities which are designed to help us control the things around us we may wish to. Perhaps they say we must chant to ward off whatever causes pain and suffering, or we must pray to ask for favors from powerful being/s. The desire to control those things we fear are out of our control is a strong one, so any path that claims to empower us in that way will always seem appealing.
Nearly all of the major Western religions, and many of its New Age offshoots, tell their members they can have what they desire most, and escape what they fear most. One unfortunate side effect of this approach is that when people fail to get their desired outcome, they are often left blaming themselves (“I wasn’t faithful enough, didn’t focus enough, didn’t do x or y”). As far as their delivery of these paths, results any large number of people can verify range from unknown to questionable. Either they lie beyond the veil of death and verification, or they have produced little statistically meaningful evidence of success. Surely, many report being happy with these reassurances, depending one one’s definition of ‘happiness’.
There is a second category under which other paths fall.
You can eat your cake, but you can’t have it
These paths tell us that we live in a vast, turbulent, ever-changing, and often unpredictable flux of interdependent causation, often outside of our control. Rather than offer us ways to control it, or offer us what we desire, these paths address the reasons why we fear our reality, and help us come to terms with it. They focus on getting us to accept, internalize, and even see beauty in such a cosmic circumstance. They attempt to teach adherents how to ‘let go’ of clinging, attachment, and the myth of permanence and see through the delusions our desires often create for us.
When it comes to control, rather than offer us rituals, trinkets, or other methods to know the unknowable and direct the unpredictable, they work on our ability to ‘go with the flow’ and adapt to the unpredictable changes that will inevitably happen in life. As for our desires, they do not attempt to offer us what we desire most, but instead seek to free us from that desire that we may live without fear of loss or its unfulfillment. When it comes to blame, these paths seek to assign us responsibility only for what we truly control, which is our own internal judgments, priorities, virtues, and choices – not externals which are the results of many causes beyond ourselves.
It is not difficult for any reader to have guessed which of these paths this author finds more fruitful. Examples of this second path include Stoicism and some branches of Buddhism, among many others – much of them Eastern, but not always. This is one reason I tend to focus on these philosophies in my own contemplative journey.
For my fellow geeky readers, these influences in the Jedi of Star Wars fame are well known. Yoda tells Anakin, “Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed, that is… Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose…”. Why? As Yoda explained previously to Anakin, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” But it was Yoda’s predecessors who provided many more jewels than this. The founder of Epicureanism, “Master” Epicurus, revealed this ‘secret’:
“If thou wilt make a man happy, add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.”
To my readers: I have been out for a while but it’s good to be back, thanks for reading! This post has been a quick commentary, just something I was thinking about recently, but I am working on a better piece regarding “Stoic Compassion” I hope you will find interesting and worthwhile.