One must not lose desires. They are mighty stimulants to creativeness, to love, and to long life.
Alexander A. Bogomoletz (Soviet-Ukrainian scientist)
As the above quote indicates, desires are a hugely important driving force. However, like fire, if not managed, they can easily consume our lives. The Buddhists’ claim that they are source of all suffering may be an exaggeration, but there is no doubt that being plagued by one’s own desires is inimical to being content. We will examine here how we can nurture our desires without letting them get out of control.
Thinking about desires
How you relate to your desires may be a good first step in gaining some control over them. For this purpose, the following questions may help: Do you follow or disregard your desires without question, or do you reflect on them first? Do you feel that you are more in charge of them than they are in charge of you? You can also consider how your immediate desires affect other aspects of yourself and your life. Does the fulfilment of your desires make you do something that goes against your values and beliefs? Would you like to change anything in relation to your desires?
Awareness of desires
Awareness of your desires is the first step in being more in charge in this respect. Rather than trying to block, hide or push desires aside, this requires bringing them to the surface and admitting to yourself (if not necessarily to others) that you have them. In other words, you have to be honest with yourself. This does not mean giving importance to every fleeting whim (they could just be insubstantial internal ‘provocations’). Generally though, it is better to acknowledge your desires even if you are not pleased with them. Reoccurring or intense desires will not go away if you try to suppress or ignore them. Once they are out in open, you can do something about them. But before we focus on what can be done, we need first to distinguish between two types of desires.
End desires and means desires
End desires are desires that reflect our needs. In other words, they are an end in themselves (you don’t desire to sleep, for example, because of something else, it is end in itself). Fulfilling our needs is important for our physical and psychological balance and development. They relate to our internal state and are typically less specific than ensuing wants. For instance, your need to change your surroundings can trigger a number of different and more specific wants: to go for a walk, to visit friends, or even to watch a travel programme or images of an exotic place on the internet.
Means desires are a means to an end. We desire something for the sake of something else (e.g. a desire to have a new car may mask a desire to impress others). They can be so removed from the real end-desire that you may not even be aware of it. Recognising your true need though can help you make the right decisions and have real fulfilment. In the above example, a new car may not impress others or you may not be able to obtain it, but there are other ways to impress others; or you may realise that making an impression is only another means-desire for a deeper need.
Uncovering end-desires: to find out whether your desire is an end-desire or means-desire, imagine vividly that your desire is already fulfilled, and then change or exclude various components from the image one by one (in the above example you could imagine that nobody is interested or impressed with your new car – would you still want it?). If the desire doesn’t lose its intensity substantially when you take everything else out, it is likely to be an end-desire. If it does, examine which of the excluded components really matters. You do this by adding back each element one by one and observe your reactions. So, if others looking at your car with envy gives you thrills, this is actually what really matters!
How to modify your desires
Our desires may control us, but we may control them too. Rather than suppressing desires, which can be frustrating and is often not effective, the latter can be achieved by modifying or transforming them. This is possible because of the so-called equifinality principle: ‘…needs may be satisfied or goals accomplished through a variety of different means.’(1) For example, a desire for chocolate may be a result of a need for carbohydrates – this need can be satisfied with many other types of food. The way of modifying desires depends on the category they belong to:
- Unreal desires are desires that do not reflect your real needs (e.g. the desire to go to a sports match even if you don’t care for sport). They are always means-desires and they can be replaced if you find out what your real need or end-desire is (in the above example it could be a desire to be with friends).
- Inadequate desires are desires that conflict with your principles, beliefs, views, ideals, aims or, indeed, other desires (e.g. your desire to eat certain food that is against your religious beliefs). You can do three things with such desires: you can try to find an acceptable way that accommodates both; you can adapt your principles or, if they are more valued (more desirable), adapt your desires. Which one to choose depends on the situation, but it is important to resolve the inner conflict before taking action.
- Unrealistic desires are desires that are unattainable or too costly (e.g. flying to the Moon). Awareness of the price and effort that satisfying a desire requires is what distinguishes realistic from unrealistic desires. To avoid getting stuck with unrealistic desires you may have to accept that it is not possible to have everything. This may initially trigger some reactions such as anger or sadness. Expressing them (through talking or writing, for example) may help you get to acceptance.
- Realistic desires are desires that are real, don’t conflict with your values and are attainable. Some of them can be easily fulfilled, but some of them need to be transformed into aims first, which will be addressed in one of the following areas.
If you have many competing desires, a mind-map can help you understand them better and how they relate to each other. You can use various mind-map ‘devices’ (circles, lines, arrows, symbols, colour, thickness of lines, position etc.) and label each of them: M(eans-desires) and E(nd-desires), and also U(nreal), I(nadequate), Un(realistic), R(ealistic).
Here is an example of a mind-map of desires:
Central beliefs (that may not be the most prominent ones) are near the centre.
(1) Ford, M. E. and Ford, D. H. (ed.) (1987) Humans as Selfconstructing Living Systems: Putting the Framework to Work. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, p.292.