The Two-Way Streetcar Named Desire

On the subject of worldly desires, spiritual traditions are somewhat schizoid. On the one hand, we have the Janis Joplin school: “Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.” This consists of teachings that urge us to go after the things we desire with zeal. Some go a step further and actually teach how to pray, meditate, or chant to get what we fancy. In some schools of thought, satisfied desires are actually regarded as signs of God’s favor.

On the other hand are teachings that disdain worldly striving. They say that satisfying even the most worthy desires leads only to temporary satisfaction, and that once a given wish is fulfilled it is quickly replaced by another, and another, and another, in endless succession. In this view, spiritual freedom is gained only when we step off the treadmill of craving and dwell in the eternal bliss of the divine. Some teachings go so far as to say that desire itself is the enemy; they call upon seekers to quit the desiring business altogether.

Unfortunately, trying to eradicate desire from the mind is not only maddening, it can actually bring you closer to frustration than fulfillment. Why? Because it’s impossible to succeed; as long as we’re human we’ll have desires (even the desire not to desire is a desire). Besides, what about the desire for noble things, like love, or good health, or to serve others? Should we forsake those too? And if all desires are obstacles to spiritual realization, what about the desire for spiritual realization?

So, is desire a streetcar to heaven or to hell? That depends on a number of factors. For instance:

  • Desire for what? Wanting to help someone in need is not the same as craving a Ferrari. Wishing to provide for your children is not the same as pining for revenge.
  • Degree of intensity. Like the burners on a stove, the flame of desire has different settings, ranging from hope to wish to want to need to gotta-have to kill-for.
  • Level of dependency. How much does your well-being or spiritual fulfillment depend on satisfying specific desires? Will you be OK if you don’t get what you want?

Fortunately, there is a self-correcting element on the spiritual path: as we move forward, the nature of desire tends to change. Higher aims seem to replace those driven by greed, power or immediate gratification. With more inner peace, the urgency behind our desires tends to ease. And anxiety over not attaining them relaxes as you realize that your happiness does not depend upon it.

Along the way, however, it’s a good idea to help the process along by nudging your desires in the right direction. Here are some tips:

  1. Lower the heat. It’s not desire as such that gets in the way of spirituality; it’s compulsive craving and relentless grasping. See if you can reduce the level of urgency from “I can’t do without it” to something closer to “It would be nice to have it.”
  2. Check your motivation. When you want something badly, ask yourself: Why do I really want this? What do I think it will bring me? See if you can favor desires that truly serve your spiritual needs.
  3. Go deeper. Every material desire is rooted in a deeper yearning. In most cases, what we’re really after is an inner state: happiness, peace, love, etc. Ask yourself: How will getting what I want make me feel? Can I get it in a more direct way?
  4. Simplify. The smaller your wish list, the less mental clutter. Cutting out the non-essentials frees up time and energy to pursue the desires that feed your highest aspirations.
  5. Be grateful. Try to find the appropriate balance between going after things that will improve your life and being content with what you have.

Perhaps most of all, we need to constantly remind ourselves that underneath every desire is the most basic desire of all: the primal yearning to unite with the source of ultimate grace. Whether you call it God, or Spirit, or Self, the kingdom is, in the words of Muhammad, closer than your jugular vein. By turning within we can taste the peace that surpasses understanding with far less effort than we expend chasing after transient satisfactions. The dilemma of not having it all is resolved by having the All.

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Written by Philip Goldberg

Explore Wellness in 2021