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Living Skillfully: Knowing the Two Kinds of Desire

Wholesome desires are those energetic feelings that arise from non-grasping love, compassion, and empathy toward others. However, even wholesome desire can lead to unskillful acts and to all manner of suffering if it becomes an obsession.
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People often mistakenly believe Buddhism is nihilistic or anti-life because they have the misconception that the Buddha taught that desire is bad. Certainly, the Buddha instructed that the arising of desire is a critical link in the chain of mental events that leads to suffering, but he also made clear that desire itself is not the problem. It is our attachment to obtaining and keeping our desires that creates our suffering.

In order to live more skillfully and create less suffering for yourself and others, I suggest that you explore the role of desire in your daily life. Whenever a feeling of desire arises in you, first identify whether the desire is wholesome or unwholesome. Then, if it is a wholesome desire, observe if you are attached to achieving it and if it is leading you to cause suffering because grasping and craving have taken over your mind.

We all know what unwholesome desires are and the harmful actions they lead us to -- lusting after material goods, or sex, or escapist activities such as taking recreational drugs; wishing someone ill will out of jealousy; hurting someone you love out of your own desire to be loved unconditionally; obsessing about altering your physical appearance to conform to our cultural definition of what's beautiful -- the list is endless. Responding skillfully to unwholesome desires is relatively simple: All that's needed is mindfulness to know when they have arisen and an ongoing commitment to live according to your values, which gives you the strength to not yield to such desires. The more you practice mindfulness of desire, you will begin to clearly see how suffering comes from pursuing unwholesome desires, and they gradually lose much of their appeal. The struggle to resist then becomes less strenuous. Your mind is no longer enchanted by what used to allure you, and you are no longer easily deluded by the surface experience of people and events.

Wholesome desires are those energetic feelings that arise from non-grasping love, compassion, and empathy toward others. However, even wholesome desire can lead to unskillful acts and to all manner of suffering if it becomes an obsession, or if you start to believe the end justifies the means as a way to excuse what you know to be wrong. Thus, a wholesome desire becomes an unwholesome one if it brings about restlessness and worry because of craving, or brings ill will to those who you perceive to be thwarting the desire, or if it leads to a confused state of mind. For example, who doesn't want their children to be healthy and happy? But when parents become attached to that desire, they can act in harmful ways. They may become overly protective which can cause their children to become too dependent on them, or they may become over-controlling and create alienation and rebellion in their children. Or they may forsake the well being of other children to benefit their own.

In my experience there are three skillful means you can practice that will prevent your wholesome desire from deteriorating into craving. The first is to commit to ethical behavior and to renounce being controlled by your desires. The second is to cultivate wisdom through mindfulness and insight such that when desire arises you can discriminate between those thoughts, words, and actions that are skillful and those that lead to suffering. The third is to surrender to the truth that you cannot control what happens to you or those whom you care about. Some of your desires will be fulfilled and some will not, despite your best efforts. There is no way of knowing if what seems to be a wholesome desire will bring good or bad fortune or if the desire once fulfilled will be even temporarily satisfying.

A painful example of "not knowing" the outcome of wholesome desire is the story of one woman who desperately wanted to become a mother, so much so that she drove her husband to distraction with her obsession and put her body through numerous uncomfortable medical procedures before finally becoming pregnant. Once her child was born, she was dismayed to discover that while she loved her child she did not enjoy the activities of mothering. She found herself wishing for her child to be more grown up and in the meantime felt like she was just enduring motherhood. This is the mystery of manifest life; the only response is not to cling even to what seems wholesome.