The human desire paradox

November 16, 2017 - 6.31 PM / Blog

One of my mentors shared this short, animated film with me about the detriments of materialism: 
He presented the notion that materialism leads to violence. It was easy to see on a global scale how the desire for territory or natural resources, for example, had led to violence. But in terms of how this applied to my own materialism as an individual, well, I had to chew on this.Materialism might not be so different from selfishness or egoism, I considered. I think before any of them lead to violence, there are a few stops on the road – the first being separation – believing ourselves to be separate from everyone and everything else.

Then, there may be desires that arise that are tied to that separate self who wants this and wants that. At that point, the question could be, how far will that individual go to realize their own wants and desires? Will it be at the cost of others? If our desires always, even if in small ways, get in the way of us being more compassionate or considerate of the needs of others, because we are focused on what we want to achieve for ourselves, then perhaps any level of materialism, selfishness or egoism comes at the cost of others.

At the same time, I couldn’t imagine that the natural process of a desire arising inside an individual, and the movement to fulfil it, would always be a bad thing, even when that desire was for self benefit, or connected to something material. We build confidence and mastery when we fulfil desires; we are motivated and sometimes inspired by their fulfilment. The fulfilment of desires can then create self growth. As well, it can produce pleasure, which can provide us with happiness, even if temporary, and may allow us to act in a more expansive, patient and inclusive way because we are feeling fulfilled.

Sometimes, being selfish can allow us to be more selfless. For example, engaging in self care – getting a massage, taking a bath, meditating or engaging in self enquiry – may be activities we take part in to benefit ourselves, but in turn can benefit others around us because we show up more ‘whole’. 

And it also seemed apparent that the consequences of continuously repressing desires for self benefit because of some mental ideal to be altruistic, didn’t seem like it would produce healthy consequences for the long term either. So where was the middle ground?

After penning down these thoughts, I felt like I didn’t have an answer. So I waited. I reflected. I reconsidered. And then after some time, I had a clue.

Many desires are connected to self preservation. I’m hungry or I’m tired for example. If we ignore these desires, our survival may be threatened and our potency as humans in whatever capacity could be diminished. Similarly, there are desires connected to happiness and wellbeing. I need to feel human connection, or I need to learn, or I need to exercise regularly. If we ignore  these desires, while our survival may not be threatened, our sense of satisfaction with ourselves and our lives could be reduced and our potency as humans in whatever capacity would again be diminished.

My colleague shared with me the notion of finding the middle ground between being selfish and selfless, which was to be “self-true”. It was starting to seem like it was a balance – to serve our selves enough to be able to best serve others. To live out our own individual desires sufficiently so that the service to others was not from a place where we “should”, but because we could — and because, we wanted to. To know that the balance was always in flux, dynamic, constantly shifting. To be aware of certain messages and influences that would suggest to us, continuously, that we need to acquire more for ourselves individually than we do. To welcome opportunities to use our abilities and our energy for more than the service of our own tiny personal domains. And then, to see what might happen.

Contributed  by Salima Stanley-Bhanji

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