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 iPod, 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 book, Purity of Heart: Essays on the Buddhist Path, (pdf) p.26.