But the priest desires. The philosopher desires.
And not to have is the beginning of desire.
To have what is not is its ancient cycle.
– Wallace Stevens
Desire – the craving to fill an emptiness or an absence in ourselves. A wish for something, a strong sense of wanting something we don’t have, or something that doesn’t yet exist. The ancient Greeks posited desire (in the form of Eros) as the driving force of the universe. When we want a thing, that want gives us the drive, the impetus and the energy to plan, to reach out, to take action. One philosopher stated that “nature abhors a vacuum” – that nature fills every space of itself, that the idea of empty and unfilled space is not natural, that a void would somehow break the laws of existence.
We can observe this on a daily basis, even without getting into physics or evolutionary science. When I leave a clay pot full of new potting soil on my back deck for long enough, it will eventually collect some leaves, some bugs, some dropped pine needles. If I wait a little while longer, some seed or other will find its way in and my little pot will sprout things without my having planted a thing. Why does the world need to put something in that soil? Alternately, what desire is there in me that I put out such a pot to be filled by the world?
Many creation myths begin with a single point of origin, a creator god who creates light and darkness out of a void, then the sky, the sun and the moon, maybe water and then something to stand on. And then (before or after the garden and the animals and such) the creator creates humans. Some traditions hold that we are created out of a god’s desire to experience itself, or out of a kind of cosmic loneliness.
We can think of organizing the universe of our personal mythology in this way, too – we desire meaning and understanding, so we create our myths and stories to fill where we are feeling void.
Desire is a tricky thing – it can elevate and motivate us, and it can also blind and mislead us. Our baser desires sometimes court catastrophe, but suppressing desire can also lead to imbalance and disorder. In the course of examining our mythic structures, we might discover that we have inflated the importance of something we desired while ignoring the source and the reason for that desire – and that we have gradually or abruptly lost our way.
I can resist everything except temptation. – Oscar Wilde
The theme of temptation is as ancient as we are. Think of the desires of King David, Sigurd, Lancelot, Paris of Troy. Literature and myth are full of variations on thwarted love, unrequited yearnings and passions. Even the Buddha had a desire and wrestled with its troublesome paradox: how could one possibly end all suffering, when the very desire to end it would lead to renewed suffering?
Desire is also related to the sin of greed, of selfish pursuit, of attachment. It is often a synonym for sexual lust. But it can also describe the pursuit of truth, a desire for something good or holy, for a need to feel loved. When the saints yearn for God, their desire is to return to the source.
And here they say that a person consists of desires. And as is his desire, so is his will; and is his will, so is his deed; and whatever deed he does, that he will reap. – Upanishad
Sometimes, too, getting a desire fulfilled is the setup for a bit of fairytale trickery, the first point of plot that ignites the real message of the story (and it’s usually not to the hero’s advantage – consider the monkey’s paw, the trickster genie in the lamp). Folk tales and sacred writings, fables and parables warn us about the dark side of desire. Sometimes the point of these stories is to bring the hero back to her original state where, having exhausted a desire and come full circle, she finds it has passed through her. She is left hopefully the wiser.
Write today’s poem on desire. Use any of the following questions as a springboard.
* In what ways have you acted out of emptiness?
* What great risks have you taken out of desire?
* How have you substituted other gratifications for something you really wanted?
* Have you ever pursued something so intently you were blinded to what was really important?
* Consider desire’s opposite. Desire draws things together; aversion drives things apart. Try writing a poem in two parts – begin with a longing and end with antipathy.
* Describe an infatuation – how did it turn out? What did you learn about desire’s outcome?
* Write about a desire you did not act upon. Is prudence always a virtue?
* Explore your passions and inclinations – is there something larger they lead you to? What is it you really seek?
* Can you cultivate a void, instead of trying to fill it? Describe an emptiness – is it liberating, uncomfortable, lonely? Can it be a source of personal strength, or does it diminish you?