How can you stop wanting? Is that even humanly possible? We all want something, whether it’s the welfare of our family, or job security, or world peace. Are all desires equally bad? Is craving equality and freedom, for example, as dangerous as lusting after a Tesla or a designer handbag?
As our homework this past week, we had to list what we would ask for if we were given five wishes. It was a difficult task. As I sat down the night before class to write my wishes down, I realized how radically different the same list would be at various stages in my life.
When I was a hormonal and peer pressured teenager my list would have been:
- Be popular.
- Have the prettiest clothes and bags and shoes.
- Be beautiful and desirable to the opposite sex.
- Marry a rich and handsome hero.
- Become a writer.
As an ambitious young woman my list would have been:
- Become a famous author.
- Get a doctorate and teach at a university.
- Find true love.
- Travel the world.
- Make a difference.
As a doting mother and devoted wife my list would read:
- Have a happy marriage.
- Have healthy beautiful smart children.
- Have a cozy house and a nice car.
- Have grand sarees and pretty jewelry to wear to parties.
- Have lots of good friends.
So what’s changed over the years? How different is my list now? I thought hard about what I would want at this stage of my life and with the knowledge I am gaining each week. It made me realize that I am still very much wrapped up in desire. Here’s what I came up with:
- I wish for my son to have a healthy, happy, spiritual life.
- I want to move to the bay area, to be closer to family and to a culturally rich environment.
- I want a job where I have plenty of funding and support to pursue my research and writing on Indian culture, religion and philosophy.
- I want to serve society in some meaningful way.
- I want liberation.
So let’s examine each of these wishes.
- Unlike one of our group members, who had only one wish, for liberation, I clearly still want things. My son’s welfare and happiness top the list, which I suppose they have done since the day he was born. I readily admit that this particular desire is born of attachment and the attachment is extremely strong.
- As I get older I find myself craving the bonds and comfort that family brings. I want to spend my time in a city where there are tons of museums and libraries, galleries and restaurants, cultural events and gatherings. I may not necessarily want to be out there all the time, but I need to know they are available to provide me with intellectual nourishment when I need it.
- Lately, I find myself drawn more and more to the ancient wisdom. I am curious to explore and understand the knowledge accumulated thousands of years ago in the Vedas and the Upanishads. I want to translate epics like Kalidasa’s Shakuntala into accessible prose. I want to truly engage with the enlightened works of so many great masters in the Indian tradition. How wonderful would it be to find a position where I could do that for a living?
- My urge to serve has transformed from its early genesis as a need to make an impact, since that carried it with a desire to be known for my work. Lately, I am more interested in making a difference even if unseen except by those whose lives are directly affected. I am still trying to find a way to channel that urge and find avenues to reach more and more people.
- I am ashamed to say that I used up four wishes before I even got to liberation. While they are far from the shallow superficial wishes I had as a young girl, or the wild ambition I had as a young woman, or the staid conservative values I held as a homemaker, I was still apparently not as far along as I had hoped. I shared with the group my reaction when I had a health scare over the weekend and had to rush to the emergency room with tightness in the chest and shortness of breath. Sure that I was having a heart attack and faced with my impending mortality, I gave my husband quick instructions. “Tell our son to take care of himself, please make sure the dogs stay together, and scatter my ashes in the Ganges.” When my husband, sure I was fine and trying hard to disguise his amusement, asked me why I was so distraught, I told him, “I know everyone will be fine and I don’t mind leaving. It’s just that I know I’m not going to be liberated if I die now. And I don’t want to come back!”
Turns out the “heart attack” was merely allergy induced asthma. So how does this obvious desire for liberation reconcile with my putting it at the end of this long list? After I thought about it for a while, here’s my pragmatic explanation. If I was indeed granted the wish of immediate liberation, I like to think that I would take it. All the other wishes are merely to make life worth living if I must stay here and work out my karma.
As we continued reading about the nature of desire, we began to understand the Gita’s caution against it. Desire leads to attachment, which leads to exhilaration when the desire is met and anger and frustration when it is thwarted. So while none of us can get rid of desire entirely, it would make our lives easier if we kept those desires from robbing us of our peace and the singular desire for permanent happiness.
What are your desires? How have they changed over the years?
Image: Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons