Many of us grew up in religions that warned about the perils of desire. Greed and gluttony are two of the seven deadly sins that imperil our soul. Buddhism, which many view as a psychology more than a religion, is often understood as teaching that desire is the root cause of suffering; the path toward liberation is one of freeing ourselves from its seductive grip.
No doubt, our desires and longings have brought a heap of trouble with them. But an open question remains: is suffering created by desire itself or how we relate to it? Perhaps it is how we engage with desire — or fail to engage with it in a wise and skillful way — that generates the bulk of our discontent.
Desire has gotten a bum rap. Without desire, we wouldn’t be here. Since desire has the awesome power to create life, how could it be anything other than sacred? As psychiatrist and Buddhist teacher Mark Epstein puts it in his book, Open to Desire: Embracing a Lust for Life: “To set desire up as the enemy and then try to eliminate it is to seek to destroy one of our most precious human qualities.”
According to Buddhism, “tanha” creates suffering. This Pali term has often been translated as desire, but “craving” is a more accurate translation. A psychological equivalent would be compulsion or addiction. We often cling to substances, activities, or things that distract us from seeing things clearly and impede our connection with ourselves and others.
For example, craving excessive carbohydrates or sugar might bring temporary pleasure, but they are poor substitutes for our desire for love. Craving alcohol might numb us to our pain, while offering a surge of pleasant sensations. But this addiction comes with an obvious cost and does not satisfy the deeper needs of our soul.
Differentiating between craving and desire might alleviate any shame we might feel to honor and pursue our human longings. Greed, gluttony, and craving might be understood as secondary reactions to our frustrated, primary longing for love, intimacy, acceptance, and respect. When our longing to love is thwarted, we may get consumed by a search for power, wealth, or fleeting pleasures that take us on a journey away from ourselves and life.
Differentiating between craving and desire might alleviate any shame we might feel to honor and pursue our human longings. The scientific research that led to Attachment Theory, pioneered by John Bowlby, tells us that we’re wired with a need for connection — what he calls human attachment. Without strong bonds, our immune system languishes and we’re more prone to anxiety, depression, and other ills.
A useful and illuminating practice is to inquire into the nature of our desires, exploring what they’re about. As Buddhist teacher and psychologist Tara Brach explains in her book, Radical Acceptance:
“Longing, fully felt, carries us to belonging. The more times we traverse this path — feeling the loneliness or craving, and inhabiting its immensity — the more the longing for love becomes a gateway into love itself.”
As we welcome our longings and uncover how they’re guiding us, we might find that our deepest longing is to love and be loved. Now, how can that be anything other than sacred? Our challenge is to welcome our experience just as it is — exploring which desires lead to suffering and which ones lead us toward greater connection, openness, and freedom.