Healthy Desire

Buddhist psychology teaches us to distinguish between the painful desire of addiction and driven ambition and the healthy energies of dedication and commitment. A dream or powerful goal, whether to write a successful novel, to compete in the Olympics, or to create a thriving business, can be pursued in different ways. If the goal exists to prove that we are worthy, to cover our insecurity, or to conquer others, it will ultimately prove unfulfilling and come to an unhappy end. And yet the very same activity can be done in a healthy way with dedication, commitment, and love.

The Tibetan monks who work tirelessly and delightedly for days on an exquisite and complex sand mandala know that after the ceremony it will blow away. Gardeners enthusiastically plant annuals knowing the same flowers will need to be planted again the next year. We all know this experience, giving ourselves to life out of dedication and care. Healthy desire leads to freedom. A skilled basketball player learns about letting go and “being in the zone.” A dedicated commodities trader learns to blend dispassion, rhythm, and good intuition. The best lovemaking is not about a goal.

The Buddha praised healthy desire. He enjoined parents “to care for, morally instruct, educate, support, and nurture” their children. He taught partners to “honor, respect, be faithful to one another.” He told employers to offer “suitable work ad suitable wages, to offer support in times of sickness and appropriate rest,” and urged employees to be “dedicated, honest, hardworking, and supportive.”

As we can hear, all this sounds quite different from the type of Buddhist who is completely impassive, detached, wanting nothing, as I found out living with my exasperated girlfriend. To live in this world wisely, we have to go beyond the extremes of being numb to desire and being lost in desire. We need to release unhealthy desire and learn to hold healthy desire lightly.

This excerpt is from the book, “The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology

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