All phenomena, the Buddha once said, are rooted in desire.
Everything we think, say, or do—every experience—comes from desire. Even we come from desire. We were reborn into this life because of our desire to be. Consciously or not, our desires keep redefining our sense of who we are. Desire is how we take our place in the causal matrix of space and time.
The only thing not rooted in desire is nibbāna because it’s the end of all phenomena and lies even beyond the Buddha’s use of the word “all.” But the path that takes you to nibbāna is rooted in desire—in skillful desires. The path to liberation pushes the limits of skillful desires to see how far they can go.
The notion of a skillful desire may sound strange, but a mature mind intuitively pursues the desires it sees as skillful and drops those it perceives as not.
Basic in everyone is the desire for happiness. Every other desire is a strategy for attaining that happiness.
You want an iPad, a sexual partner, or an experience of inner peace because you think it will make you happy.
Because these secondary desires are strategies, they follow a pattern. They spring from an inchoate feeling of lack and limitation; they employ your powers of perception to identify the cause of the limitation, and they use your powers of creative imagination to conceive a solution to it.
But despite their common pattern, desires are not monolithic. Each offers a different perception of what’s lacking in life, together with a different picture of what the solution should be.
A desire for a sandwich comes from a perception of physical hunger and proposes to solve it with a Swiss-on-rye. A desire to climb a mountain focuses on a different set of hungers—for accomplishment, exhilaration, self-mastery—and appeals to a different image of satisfaction.
Whatever the desire, if the solution actually leads to happiness, the desire is skillful. If it doesn’t, it’s not. However, what seems to be a skillful desire may lead only to a false or transitory happiness not worth the effort entailed.
So wisdom starts as a meta-desire: to learn how to recognize skillful and unskillful desires for what they actually are.
This reflection by Ajaan Geoff is from the Study Guides book, Desires, “Introduction.”