We’re trapped in a hungry animal. Gasping for air, thirsty all the time, burning fuel like a Colorado wildfire – we have, shall we say, certain needs. And no matter how much air, water, and food we devour, our needs go on unabated. There is no end to the hunger.
Life itself is one giant alimentary canal. Life-forms go in one end, poop comes out the other. I didn’t make the rules. This is just the way it is.
To demonize desire, therefore, is to demonize life.
But we also recognize that our desires are not very smart. They don’t have a brain. If left unchecked, they’d kill us. Addiction, obesity, debauchery, all manner of disease-causing overconsumption – desire is a terrible steward of the life-form it inhabits.
Without desire, we’re dead. With desire, our lives are in constant peril. Philosophers have long struggled with this paradox, working hard to draw a line between healthy and unhealthy hunger. From their work a few simple principles emerge. Since desire itself is neither good nor evil it falls on our skills of discernment to distinguish the good from the bad. Pious platitudes and blanket taboos fail where subtler insights prevail. It’s time for us to grow up and move into a more sophisticated philosophy of desire.
Perhaps a simple test, consisting of a few salient questions, could help us steer a course through the minefield of our endless hunger. When faced with a craving, ask yourself the following seven questions:
1. If I do this, will it bring me real joy and deep satisfaction, as opposed to merely short-term pleasure?
2. Will it expand my ability to be of service to others?
3. Does it resonate with my higher sensibilities?
4. Would I consent to public disclosure of this activity, as opposed to secrecy?
5. Would this activity leave me with a lingering sense of beauty, as opposed to regret, embarrassment, or shame?
6. Is this proposed activity rooted in love of self and others?
7. Is this activity rooted in honoring the inherent dignity of all living things?
If you can answer yes to one of these questions, then your desire is a healthy one. Do it. And by the way – if you answer yes to one of these questions, you’ve implicitly answered yes to all of them.
If you cannot answer yes to even one of these questions then your desire is an unhealthy one. Don’t do it. It won’t further your own interest or anyone else’s.
Behind this simple strategy is the idea that each of us carries within us an internal moral compass, a deeply ingrained and universal sense of right and wrong. Religious teachings, sacred texts, and well-constructed ethical philosophies are nice, but they tend to create as many problems as they solve. The Bible is a good example. It contains some of the most sublime moral teachings ever written alongside some of the worst examples of cruelty, ignorance, and bigotry in the history of religion. We must read any sacred text with our hearts awake, our God-given minds engaged, and our intuition open to the sublime insights inspired in us by the words of the ancients. Our philosophies and theologies serve us best when they call us to our own wisdom.
Wanting to expand the scope of one’s life through the acquisition of new skills and the mastery of a craft is not wrong. It is not wrong to want to be more, to see more, to know more, to grow more. As long as your longing for expansion aligns with the seven questions, you’re fine. Nothing’s gained by playing it small and hiding your light. If carried out with humility, self-respect, love for others, and the consciousness of service, pursuing one’s own greatness brings a much needed blessing to the world. A tree does not apologize for growing. Why should we? We are all blessed by the abundance of a tree’s fragrant fruit and sheltering shade. Having no ego, the tree is never foolish enough to claim credit. It just stands there with nothing to prove, allowing its inherent magnificence to do all the talking. Successful people understand this, and see their prosperity in this same light.
Seeking wealth, fame, and power over others to fill an aching wound, on the other hand, is a pathological craving that generates only suffering for oneself and others. It violates one, and therefore all of the seven questions. Without humility and the consciousness of service, our growth, acquisition and expansion take on a cancerous quality that threatens the health of the whole. Seen through the lens of competition, we view the success of others with envy and covetousness. We cannot be happy unless we have more than everyone else. No matter how skillful we become at attracting material wealth, joy eludes us because we see ourselves in conflict with everyone and everything instead of as an integral expression of the universe in harmonious concert with itself.
In this light, drug addiction, alcoholism, overeating, serial shopping, and all other forms of compulsive acquisition are not moral weakness as much as they are cognitive errors – faulty calculations of how best to maximize our long-term self-interest. The active meth addict and the clean and sober meth addict in recovery are both pursuing their self-interest. One is simply objectively better at it than the other. We all naturally lean toward the good. Some of us are just better at figuring out what that actually means.
The great Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas and the pagan Plato agree – there is only one power and presence in the universe and it is the Good. Whether we of our own free will come to understand it and manifest it through our choices and actions is another matter entirely.
This is why it is so important, on both a personal and societal level, that each of us does the hard work of relentless and unflinching self-examination. It’s the only thing that works. It’s the only way to break the spell our bad habits and unconscious cravings cast over us. When we do not have clarity and vision and act instead from our mindless conditioning, great harm results, to ourselves and to those around us.
Hunger and desire are not the problem. They never were. They were convenient scapegoats upon which to heap all the blame. Our Puritanical impulses are born of this great misunderstanding. It’s not censorship and abstinence we need – it’s consciousness and awakening, grounded in compassion for ourselves and others. Say yes to that which serves our highest good and no to that which doesn’t. It’s not complicated. It’s not mysterious. We carry within us the gold standard by which all actions can be tested – our God-given minds, our awakening hearts, and our memory of what worked and didn’t work in the past. We know what to do and we know how to do it. All that’s left is a decision.
Peter Bolland is a writer, speaker, and singer-songwriter as well as chair of the humanities department and professor of philosophy at Southwestern College where he teaches comparative religion, Asian philosophy, ethics, and world mythology. You can find him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/peter.bolland.page), follow him on Twitter (www.twitter.com/peterbolland), hear his music at www.reverbnation.com/peterbolland, or write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org