The Desirability of Desire

A fairly standard, but I would argue flawed, understanding of Buddhism says that the root cause of suffering is desire—and a related interpretation says even that desire itself is suffering. While those are overly simplistic and problematic interpretations in themselves, some interpreters of Buddhism go even further and say that enlightenment requires the cessation of all desire. If we take that literally as a call for having no desires whatsoever, then it is difficult to take that seriously. After all, if you think about it, it’s pretty clear that either one engages desire or one engages death. Moreover, it’s hard to understand what the Buddhists are doing if they don’t desire enlightenment. The issue in Buddhism is not so much one of desire as it is attachment to the object of desire, or so I would argue.

However, what I want to focus on is, we might say, the desirability of desire. That is, even if the problematic interpretations of Buddhism that say desires themselves are suffering is wrong, might it not still be the case that desire itself, when compared with the having of the object desired, is not so pleasurable? In other words, the answer to the following question is obvious: Which would you rather have, the desire or the object of the desire? The object, of course! But is that always right?

In my early twenties, I think I was going for a walk thinking about some girl I had a crush on, I had the thought that desire itself could be more pleasurable than the actual having of the object desired—that the pursuit/longing was more pleasurable than the attainment, the having of the object. I thought this is pretty interesting; in fact I was rather surprised by it. At the time, I proudly mentioned this realization to one of my paternal half-brothers. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I remember him being dismissive. I don’t mention this out of some grudge. Rather, I want to say that I can understand his dismissiveness, given that I couldn’t explain it well myself at the time and given that it may well seem counterintuitive at first.

It has only been in the past several years, now nearly twenty years later, that I have come to have a better understanding, I think, of what I was onto back then. The truth of it still seems obvious to me now. I think if we pay attention to our experience, we can see that there have been times when we were, if not disappointed by the acquisition of the object of our desire, then we can at least see that there was more pleasure in the excitement of the desire itself.

That which we desire often disappoints us when we get it. And if it doesn’t, the “newness” of “possessing” it quickly fades. But when we are caught up in the intensity of desire, though it is imaginary, we can luxuriate in our idea of the object desired. That can change and fade, too, but it does not seem to do so in the same way as when we actually get what we want. At least sometimes. Perhaps this is because when we don’t actually “possess” the “object” we are ignorant of so much about it. And we naturally and easily fill in the gaps of our ignorance, imagining things according to our limited understanding, projecting from positive past experiences. And here it seems we are much more likely to idealize, not imagining flaws or other reasons for disappointment.

I’m of course not stating the absurd claim that this is always the case. Desiring to date the woman who became my wife was not as pleasurable as actually dating her. Desiring to go on vacation for the first time in a year is not likely to be more pleasurable than the vacation itself. And such examples can, of course, be multiplied.

But at least with some “things,” there is a distinct pleasure in the longing itself. Presumably though there is a threshold at which point there is dissatisfaction, a certain suffering, that occurs with prolonged desire.

Aside from the above, what other reasons might there be for this “phenomenon”? And are there any principled things we might say about the kinds of objects of desire that would help make sense of which ones are more prone to be more desirable to desire than to possess? Would it then make sense to seek (to desire) to have certain desires, not because we earnestly want the object desired, but because we want the desire itself? Or don’t we have to earnestly want the object desired in order to take pleasure in the desire itself?

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