We had a good conversation on the weekend at Cafechurch Crafternoon about the nature of desire, bouncing off a conversation one of our members had with her meditation teacher. I can’t quite call to mind the exact words, but it was something like this: You suffer so much because of your attachments: the solution is to release those attachments, and especially your attachment to the idea that there is a blueprint to your life, which you are failing to meet.
This seemed like the perfect topic for a Cafechurch Tuesday, combining as it did a real experience of one of our members, a hook into a strong theme in contemporary culture (what could be more now than a meditation class in northern suburbs Melbourne?), and a chance to reflect on such a central, depth theme of Christanity? Plus it meant I got to play one of my favourite film clips, Desire by a very young looking U2.
The thing that struck me about this is the way it related to the the Buddhist Four Noble Truths. Now I’m pretty wary about getting into deep waters by writing about things I don’t really understand, but as I understand it, it might be possible to summarize the Four Noble Truths thusly:
- To live is to suffer
- The origin of suffering is attachment
- The cessation of suffering is attainable
- The path to the cessation of suffering is by releasing your attachments (byfollowing the Noble Eightfold Path)
So, what the guy said seemed a lot like the Second Truth, and his solution rather like the Fourth (especially given that he is a meditation teacher and presumably follows the Eightfold Path.)
So it seems to me that the basic appeal of Buddhism to someone like me (Western, a bit of a melancholic – like a poorer, more hirsute version of Alan de Botton) is that it recognises something true about the basic human condition – that life is inherently difficult and that we have these desires which do not seem to be met in my life. I go to the exotic locale on holiday – and I’m discontented and cranky. I succeed in walking the Oxfam Trailwalker, and after the initial relief has worn off, I’m still no nearer to satisfaction than before. The new job is alright, but sometimes I stare out the boardroom window thinking: is this really all there is to life? I enjoy living in Preston, but sometimes even the experience of being elbowed in the ribs by an elderly Chinese lady who is impatient with my indecision around the bok choi is not enough. There is something missing somewhere.
Like I said, I tend to be a bit melancholic. Or perhaps I’m just realistic.
So, given that is where we stand, the question is: what is to be done? The answer I take from Buddhism (and Seneca’s stoicism, and Shopenhauer (himself influenced by Buddhism), and a hundred other teachers) is that I should free myself from desire, because it is fundamentally unsatisfiable. I should resign myself to life as it really is, and protect myself from dukkha (craving / desire / attachment.)
As I said, it’s not without its appeal, if there is nothing better on offer, to put it a little bluntly. This seems like a very sensible, rational, comprehensible picture of life without God. Best not to get your hopes up, given that they are destined to be disappointed; knuckle down to life as it really is, and give up your adolescent dreams of some sort of transcendent consummation.
But what if there is in fact something better? If desire, far from being the problem, is the key to the solution? If, as a nun of my acquaintance once said, my discontent is what is right with me?
This strikes me as the promise of Christianity – and indeed its premise. It is possible to be so focussed on the (wonderful, amazing) fact of God’s forgiveness that we overlook its base assumption: that the end and purpose (the telos) of our desiring is God, and not only that, but in Jesus Christ, God has come searching for us – not only is our ultimate desire for God, but, against all reasonable, carefully managed, adult, trimmed down and pared back hope, God desires us. And it is this astonishing claim which Christianity rests on, and declares, and has to witness to.
My favourite parable is this:
‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”
This is not the renunciation of desire, but rather its intensification. Forget about the prodigal son, this is the prodigal trespasser! He gives up all he has to get the treasure in the field in which he is trespassing, because the Kingdom of God, is that thing ultimately worth pursuing, worth putting everything into, an amazing, life giving, life changing discovery!
All our desires are put into context by this: it isn’t that our desires are too strong and need to be renounced. Rather, they are not strong enough. Can you imagine giving everything away to purchase a treasure in a field? I’d be strongly tempted to ask questions about whether the field been surveyed recently, has the treasure been properly checked out, are the lawyers’ papers in order? Surely there must be an easier, more efficient way that equivalent value could be extracted without all this histrionic rushing about?
However, that appears to be the deal: and so I’m transformed from a sensible, mature, rather bourgeois, adult, making careful plans to hedge against an uncertain future in an uncaring universe into a happy beggar. All my plans are overthrown, the world is suddenly entirely unlike what I had expected.
Of course, that does still leave me with the problem of unsatisfied desire: my life often does fail to provide what I want from it, what I think I need. But now desire, even unfulfilled desire, is itself transformed. Rather than a problem which needs solving, it is now a sign of what my whole life is about. It recontextualises the experience, and even though I still fail to find complete fulfilment in the realization of my desires, that now makes sense, caught as we are in the tension between the “now” and the “not yet” of the Kingdom of God.
There is a huge amount to be said about this, so I won’t try to plug it into the end of a blog post, except to say that this in turn gives us a way of living with secondary, non-ultimate desires. They are good, and have their place, so long as they don’t try to become the ultimate desire. Marriage is good, but no possible marriage partner, no matter how wonderful, can fulfil all of our needs and desires, in spite of the fairy dust that being in love sprinkles over our perception. If you try to make your partner your everything, you will fail, because no-one can possibly live up to that burden of expectation.
“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”― C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses