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Newsletter - February 2024

Why Does Desire Cause Trouble?

“When there is no desire, all things are at peace.” (Lao Tzu)


Does that mean we can’t desire for all things to be at peace? Why not? Seems like a noble cause; worth a desire or two. The trouble is that desire involves filling our minds and then holding on to what we desire. The Tao Te Ching (Chapter 37) reminds us that peace comes when we empty our minds and let go. That doesn’t mean we don’t do anything. It means we respond from awareness rather than act with intent to impose our will and fulfill our desires. Big difference.


In an everyday sense, we may think that to have no desire is to have no motivation to do anything. My opening sentence jokes with Lao Tzu’s words by suggesting that peace is surely desirable—in which case we may well be motivated to do something about it. But the Tao Te Ching suggests that what matters most in the results we produce is where we’re coming from when we act. And that the more we come from the place of our desires the less likely we are to produce peace. Why is this? This newsletter explores an answer.


Lao Tzu has a lot to say about desire. “Thoughts weaken the mind. Desires wither the heart” (chapter 12).  “If you close your mind in judgments and traffic with desires, your heart will be troubled” (chapter 2). A weakened mind, a withered and troubled heart doesn’t sound good, does it? Why should desires cause so much trouble?


The trouble is desires focus on the separation between ourselves and whatever it is that we desire. In the easy case of desiring an object, we clearly don’t possess the object which is why we desire it—hence the separation. The trouble starts because this separation becomes the motivation for closing the gap. After all, if we didn’t desire the object, there would be no separation and therefore no motivation to close a gap which didn’t exist. The object would just be what it is, and so would we.


The point is the gap is not “real”; it’s an illusion that exists only in our minds. But the moment we act as if the illusion is real then, in effect, it becomes real. In other words, we make it real. This is how illusions become powerful and how “Thoughts weaken the mind. Desires wither the heart.” In short, this is how we create trouble, and why we’re typically not “at peace” because we’re busy desiring things to be somehow different.


Does Lao Tzu’s Master have any suggestions? Yes, fortunately he does. “If you keep your mind from judging and aren’t led by the senses, your heart will find peace” (chapter 2). “The Master observes the world but trusts his inner vision. He allows things to come and go. His heart is open as the sky” (chapter 12).


So the message is: don’t judge, don’t be led by the senses, observe the world but don’t take it as a source of direction. Instead, trust your “inner vision.” What does trusting your inner vision look like? It looks like allowing things to come and go, staying as “open as the sky.” And how do you do that? The answer is to let go of desire. “The Master’s power is like this. He lets all things come and go effortlessly, without desire” (chapter 55).


Seriously, doesn’t the Master desire anything? Yes, actually he does. “What he desires is non-desire…” (I think that’s Lao Tzu being witty) “…what he learns is to unlearn... He cares about nothing but the Tao. Thus he can care for all things” (chapter 64). Not much wiggle room in that, is there? Seems it’s your desires or the Tao—one or the other.


This is all a bit abstract, isn’t it? Besides, what about instances of desiring something other than to possess an object? These are good questions. Let’s take the second one first. And then let’s find an everyday example to bring the abstractness down to earth.


I mentioned that desiring to possess an object is the easy case. It’s easy because possession is a very visible measure—either we have the object or we don’t. But we can also desire things like happiness or peace of mind or other people to behave differently. These are not so easy to measure. However, the process of desire causing trouble is the same. So let’s stand back and see how it works.


First, we look at everything as it is, then we imagine a state that we’d prefer, then we become dissatisfied with the way things are, and we get to work to close the gap we just created between everything as it is and what we desire. There’s the trap, and that’s how we fall into it. It’s not complicated. Inside the trap, we do not accept everything just as it is, we’re not satisfied, and so needless to say we are not “at peace.”


What’s the way out of the trap? I mentioned earlier that accepting everything as it is does not mean we don’t do anything. I think the way out is to start by being silent and patient. Not listening to the noise of the thoughts in our head—just being silent and patient. “Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?” (chapter 15). For me, the answer is often no and no.


When we do this, the noise stops, separation between ourselves and everything else falls away. Desires vanish because there’s no gap between the present moment and an imaginary future in which they are satisfied. And then what happens? You discover that the “right action arises by itself.” What’s more, the process is completely peaceful.


An example that’s true for me is when I let go of a problem that I’m trying hard to solve, such as a piece of writing that just doesn’t seem to come out right. Clearly, my desire is for it to come out right, but no amount of trying seems to work. I stay stuck, my wheels spin, I get nowhere—so, to some degree at least, I’m not “at peace.” There’s a lot of mud in the water, as it were.


In my case, the best way to let go of the world of thought is to go for a walk in natural surroundings. Big trees, mountains, sky, water—any of those will do. That’s where I find it easiest to become silent, to let the mud settle and the water become clear. Maybe I go back and write, maybe I don’t. It somehow doesn’t seem to matter so much. But next time I visit the words on the page I find they seem to arrange themselves much more easily—sometimes hardly needing me to do anything at all.


That said, I don’t mean to suggest that peace means all our desires are satisfied—and that somehow letting go of desire is a clever way to get there. You see, there’s the trap again because I’ve now implied “here” and “there” and suggested we’re not “there” yet. I think peace comes from being here right now, accepting everything just as it is, and discovering that the water becomes clear all on its own and our response arises naturally “by itself.”


What’s an example that’s true for you where letting go of desire brings peace?


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