Every human being wants lasting happiness.
We seek it in unique and diverse ways yet the goal is the same. Whether it’s acquiring new skills that empower us at work, acquiring possessions, filling our lives with interesting hobbies, or dedicating ourselves to a life path of parenthood or civic duty, we’re all on the lookout for a happiness that lasts. It is important to think deeply about what endeavors we will seek happiness in. Ultimately it is wise to seek an experience of happiness that endures regardless of circumstance. Once we have our goal then it is important to act with enthusiasm.
If we are sincerely going to strive for our highest potential and a happiness that remains regardless of circumstances, then we will need to investigate the nature of desire. What is desire? Can fulfilling our desires really make us happy? And if not, what can? This article aims to explore the subtleties of desire—both where it comes from and what it creates within us—so that through education, we can begin to understand the elements of our experience that bring us closer or farther away from lasting happiness. In that quest of understanding we begin to perceive that there is a difference between fulfilled desire and happiness, and the difference can make a huge transformation in our lives.
What is Desire?
My teacher, Sri Chinmoy, spoke often about desire. In the first chapter of his book, The Wisdom of Sri Chinmoy, he writes, “Desire means anxiety. This anxiety finds satisfaction only when it is able to fulfill itself through solid attachment.”
Our desire points us outward to the world of objects. It suggests that our anxiety is created by not having something—a job, relationship, shopping spree, etc.—and that if we were to just fill this void, we would be happy. If we are interested in resolving this anxiety as quickly as possible, we might turn to the most obvious solution, which is to give our desire the food it is asking for. When we satiate our desire, we receive a taste of happiness—the desire-less state. This lasts only until we feel another void, which triggers another anxiety and another desire and so on.
In desire we seek identity in what we, and we alone, possess. In wishing to grow by desire, we naturally want quite a lot. That’s the idea of solid attachment. It is a possession that creates a concrete identity for one individual self. It is an identity that separates me from others. We think, “Look at me! I possess all these things, so I am really somebody!”
The problem with this model is that the happiness we experience by fulfilling our desires is short-lived. It’s based on circumstances that we largely have no control over. For instance, we might have just satiated our desire for something sweet to eat, but as soon as we get back in the car from the ice-cream shop, we find ourselves sitting in evening traffic. Suddenly, we have a new desire and a new problem to solve. This can feel like a chase, with short-lived bursts of happiness that arise immediately following the cessation of a desire, combined with much longer stretches of anxiety when our desires are actively pointing out the problems that need correcting.
When we become aware of this, we realize that fulfilling our desires as a method of finding happiness is unsustainable and largely unsuccessful. We need the guidance of something beyond our personal desires to help orient ourselves towards true and lasting happiness.
Transforming Desire to Aspiration
If desire proclaims, “This is mine!” aspiration says, “This is ours!”. The focus of desire is that which can be only one person’s possession but the focus of aspiration is that which belongs to all. When we shift our interest from our personal desires to impersonal aspiration, we begin to see the evolution towards the happiness we’ve been seeking.
The transformation is actually quite simple, and it all starts with understanding. Desire that seeks individual gain is not a different energy from the aspiration that seeks the welfare of all. It’s the same energy except turned downward toward a less benefit. Desire is the infant form, which when mature, turns into aspiration. In our spiritual infancy, we want things mainly for ourselves. But as we grow spiritually, we begin to want less for ourselves personally and care more about the welfare of others. It’s not that we stop taking care of our own mental and physical needs, but that we realize that the chasing of our personal desires does not lead to the freedom it seems to promise. When we realize this, we naturally lose interest in filling every personal desire that crosses our minds. We begin to see our desires as mental events that point to how we have been conditioned to perceive lack in our lives. The energetic fuel of our desire can then be transformed into aspiration, towards the good will of all.
Sri Chinmoy says, “aspiration means calmness.” By shifting our focus from our personal desires to impersonal aspiration, we resolve the anxiety inherent in desire. The diminishing of our desire makes way for a deep peace and calmness (which is ironically what we were searching for through trying to fulfill our desires in the first place!).
It can be tempting to believe that happiness is achieved by fulfilling our personal desires moment to moment. But as we get better at noticing our experience, sooner or later we come to see that fulfilling desires gives us only a taste of the happiness we were seeking. But then another lack surfaces and brings with it a new desire and a new problem to solve.
Becoming steeped in lasting happiness requires a transformation of the energy we use to fuel our desires—to expand our interest from a narrow, personal focus to a universal perspective that includes the welfare of all beings, without exception.