“Why?” I asked.
The different reasons boiled down to this:
Our desires often compete with what we know in our hearts to be good and right. At least for most of us. There are saints and great teachers in the world for whom this may not be true, but they are uncommon, which is why we tend to revere and try to learn from them. Did Mother Teresa have to struggle against a desire for material fortune, a big house and high-priced car, fancy clothes, or exotic perfumes? Probably not. Mother Teresa has implied that her greatest joy came from helping others. Her values, it seemed, were highly aligned with her desires.
For the rest of us, however – whether for foods that are unhealthy, unsustainable, or inhumane; or for more and more stuff that is produced in sweatshops, using toxic materials, and likely to quickly wind up in landfills; or for gossip that causes harm but entertains us – our desires often eclipse our values. Values which may well include care for the earth, other people, and animals. We are in conflict. Our desires are not fully aligned with what we know is wise.
For me, one desire that conflicts with my values is travel. I love visiting and exploring faraway places. I yearn to travel more – not for work but for pleasure. If I could justify it, I would spend a couple months each year visiting rainforests and coral reefs, glaciers and mountains, ancient villages and all the natural wonders on the earth. I don’t travel for pleasure as much as I would like, but I still do it, even though I know that each trip spews huge quantities of climate-altering gases into the atmosphere; even though that money could instead help others in desperate need.
Buddhism describes our desires as the cause of our unhappiness. This is often true. But if we can cultivate a desire to do good through right livelihood and right speech, we can meld our desires with our actions. When we want to do what is good and right, we find greater peace. To the extent that we make an effort to do the most good and the least harm, we find joy.
And when desires compete with our values, as they inevitably will, we can acknowledge them, yet choose not to act on those that would tear our souls too deeply. And in so doing, we can cultivate our will.
I’d love to hear about your own struggles with desires that compete with your values and how you have resolved them.