I want! I want! (Pub by W Blake May 1793)
With Christmas approaching, our childrens’ time has been occupied with defining a response to the old chestnut question, “What would you like for Christmas?” But this has provoked a deeper question in me. What do we desire, and how do we understand a desire at any given moment? Ordinarily, most adults would initially associate desire with wanting something external, either an object or a person. But what drives these desires?
Television and the media continually propound and reinforce the need for the latest fashionable time-saving electronic devices, the latest cars, fashion and so forth. Is it true that what attracts us often corresponds to our perception of how we wish to be seen? Does that new style of mobile phone fit with our usual sense of style and purpose? Do we want to be seen as “avant-garde” in our use of technology or are we playing the role of the Luddite who refuses to accept the new, whatever the benefits? I can very clearly recall as an 8 year old boy seeing a box of a model racing car in a shop which was so exciting and colourful that I quickly became convinced that the toy car inside would be the most special toy I’d ever had. After I’d pestered my father to buy the offending item, the toy turned out to be a dull green, very basic model. How quickly the excitement of anticipation turned to disappointment!
But our ordinary desires are in a way more direct. Are we not governed mainly by the desires of the body – starting with food and drink? The need for the next meal, the next snack or cup of coffee can be overwhelming can’t it? And what about sexual desire? Are we not driven by this need for general gratification? How do the needs of the body colour my thinking and feeling, my sense of myself?
And this leaves another question – are there different scales of desire that we can experience? Is it true that ordinarily we are obsessed by self-gratification? Why is it that we so rarely seem to be able to experience a deeper sense of community with our fellow human beings? Is it possible that this predominant urge to “acquire” more belongings and general increased gratification is a misplacement of an innate desire for inner silence and unity? For many of the great religious teachings, specific references are made to desire as a useful tool in the growth of understanding. For example, “Like as the hart desireth the water-brooks so longeth my soul after thee O God” (Verse 1, Psalm 42).
There is a beautiful passage in the Bhagavad Gita –
Not the desirer of desires attains
Peace, but he unto whom all desires
Enter as the waters enter into the
Ocean, which is full to the brim and
Grounded in stillness.
(Verse 70, The Way of Ultimate Reality, The Bhagavad Gita, translated by Swami Nikhilananda, 5th edition, 1987, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Centre) This suggests that there is a way for mankind to transform desires so that they do not overpower him or her.
Within the well known mystical Christian book The Cloud of Unknowing, there is an exhortation to “beat upon that thick cloud of unknowing with the dart of your loving desire and do not cease come what may.” (From The Cloud of Unknowing, Edited by William Johnston, Doubleday, 1973). But for me the most moving testament to this inner desire comes from the parable of the Prodigal Son, who on realising how deeply impoverished he was, made a giant step towards understanding.
It is interesting at this point to consider the derivation of the word desire. According to the Bloomsbury Dictionary of Word Origins, it derives from a base related to the Latin word sidus (star). Before it was used for “wanting”, it signified “lack”.
This inner recognition of a lack, the sense that how we experience life is incomplete, is in many traditions the key to real inner search. Is this the same level as wanting a meal? What tools can we use in this search, and do we recognise that the mind, feelings and body all need to be engaged? So it seems appropriate in Advent, at a time associated with bringing light into darkness to ask a final question. How can I recognise where I live in myself?