Desire is why we fall in love and desire is why infidelity happens. Desire can explain obesity, and desire for self-improvement can also explain weight loss. Desire is universal and part of the life force. And it is complicated. A patient I’ll call “Barbara” realized how complicated desire could be. When I first met her, she had a strong desire for her marriage to be more intimate and nurturing. She was convinced the only way to achieve her desire was if her husband changed.
Over the last several years, her emotions had ranged from frustration to anger to futility – all driven by her heart’s desire.
More often than not, desire is about grasping. Even falling in love is about the desire to possess another.
Sometimes desire begins as a quiet wish, a longing. And then the brain converts that longing to a need. Eventually, we become convinced that we cannot live without the object of our desire, whether it is love or an SUV.
William Irvine, in his book On Desire: Why We Want What We Want suggests that the brain is hardwired for desire. But when we achieve what we want, we simply desire more.
We humans have struggled with desire forever. Even the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden could be a cautionary tale about desire. Our psychological architecture could be seen as “desire management.” The conscience itself, which provides shame and guilt, helps prevent us from doing whatever we want to do whenever we want to do it.
But without desire there would be no acquisition, no growth and no procreation. So how do we strike a balance?
According to Irvine, desire is about a search for satisfaction, and the best way to achieve that is not by changing the world, but by changing ourselves.
First, he says, we must “know the enemy.” To do that, we must understand that desire is a state of mind and not a state of emergency. So we begin by loosening our grasp on that which we desire and see what happens. Try it. Imagine spending a lifetime without having those things you feel you need.
Just as desire can evolve from a quiet longing to near desperation, it can continue to evolve once we loosen our grasp.
Barbara discovered this when she found the courage to stop fighting and ease up on her desire to change her husband. As she was able to allow the emotions to unfold, it was almost as though they marched backward.
First she felt angry, as though living in this marriage was unjust. Then she felt frustration that she was the one who was working on these issues. She thought she was the only one who was able to love properly.
As she opened further, she felt herself longing again just as she did in the beginning. Longing for closeness and physical and emotional contact.
Then she felt great sadness over the loss of her dream.
Once she let go even further, and did not try to repair her longing, things really began to change.
She began to see her husband in a different light. She saw him as a good man with a good heart who loved her and their children in his own way. She felt a different kind of love for this man, one that was more tender and generous. Toward the end of our work together, she said she felt as though something shifted in the way she loved her husband. She said that her love began to focus outward instead of inward. She used the word devotion – something she had never felt about another person. And she said it felt wonderful.
Barbara’s desire evolved to devotion. Desire is about self. Devotion is about another. Maybe that’s why in the word devotion, the “I” is silent.