This page derives from a discussion in an on-line philosophy forum about whether it is possible to destroy a desire and, if so, how it would be done.
I think the religion which concentrates most on the elimination of desire is Buddhism. I am not particularly knowledgable about Buddhism, but I think their general way of eliminating desire is to (1) become aware of it – not as simple as it sounds – and (2) see it in a larger context, in which it (or its object) becomes undesirable. I think all this comes under the heading of "right meditation," but I leave it to actual Buddhists to pronounce authoritatively.
What I've never understood is how to pursue enlightenment itself without making it an object of desire.
Most other ethical religions require one to resist a desire that entails doing evil. This is not aimed at destroying the desire, but in practice desires often die away, or at least diminish, if faced squarely and suppressed.
There is, by the way, a big difference between suppression and repression, in psychoanalytical terminology. If I suppress a desire, I admit I have it but refuse to do anything to satisfy it. If I repress a desire, I deny to myself that I have it and create a prime breeding ground for neuroses; I may satisfy it without realizing that's what I'm trying to do, or I may project it and claim that you have it, not me, etc.
Carl Jung said that the greatest service an individual could do for civilization was to confront his or her own Shadow. The Shadow was the name Jung gave to all the repressed factors in the personality. What you do with a bit of the Shadow after you have un-repressed it (become aware of it) depends on the particular bit in question. You do not necessarily just give into it and satisfy the repressed desire it represents. If it's a harmless or creative desire, you may indulge it, within reason; if it's a dangerous, destructive desire, you should sit on it firmly, remaining aware of it while looking around for means to control or eliminate it ... which brings us around to the original question of how to eliminate a desire.
If all you can do is sit on it, that just may be part of the price to pay for personal and public health and safety. "Civilization and its discontents," Freud called it.
I think that, above the changing clamor of momentary desires, there is the will. The will is not just the resultant of the forces with which the different desires push in different directions. Instead, it is a judge, and can discount a desire (though perhaps at a cost of pain and frustration) or cause the intensity of a desire to grow or diminish.
To a degree, this power is simply native to the will, just as is the control of voluntary muscles. More elaborate and pervasive forms of control must be learned, just as I can use my voluntary muscles to type or speak or walk or play the piano, but not without practice.
The psychological equivalents to learning to play piano are the ethical and spiritual disciplines taught by the various cultures and religions. But behind the desires and the schools for coping with them is the simple act of will.
This ability to master one's own desires is often known as "detachment," in the Buddhist literature I have encountered. I believe it is the same general idea, or at least a similar idea, to the Christian concept of the regenerate life, the life of the spirit that rises above the life of the "old Adam," the "flesh."
(There's an interesting little quirk of terminology here; where most English Bibles have Paul contrasting the spirit with the "flesh," the original Greek contrasts spirit with psyche, soul. I think the English badly misrepresents the contrast Paul was trying to draw. It wasn't between spirit and body but between spirit and individual ego.)
As best I understand it, the discipline of detachment is a matter of learning to live in more than one context at a time. My own model for it is a chess game. Within the context of the chess game, capturing a bishop is a triumph, losing your queen is a disaster, and losing your king is fatal. But the chess game itself is nothing but an afternoon's diversion with a friend. In the smaller context, winning is the only goal. In the larger context, winning isn't even important (or shouldn't be); playing well is what counts, and even that is only a tiny feature of the friendship.
Similarly, Buddhism, Christianity, Platonism, New England Transcendentalism, and all the other instances of the Perennial Philosophy all concern themselves with a larger context, a more primal existence, in which a career or a life are embedded, in which any secular success or failure is (in one way) important enough (for you ought to play the game well), but (in another way) irrelevant (for the important thing is your position in that larger context, and that is unaffected by success or failure in the smaller one).
To stretch the analogy a little, the chess game could erupt into the larger context under some conditions. If one player or the other cheats or is a sore loser, that could damage the friendship. If all these people do is play chess together, that severely limits the friendship. Similarly, sin and folly can damage one's spiritual status.
People pursue detachment as a path to freedom. There is external freedom and then there is internal freedom. External freedom is limited by the decisions made by other people, plus the constraints of natural law. Although internal freedom may have to overcome inhibitions and desires that were trained and conditioned by other people, those others are now no longer present; internal freedom is limited by your own decisions and by the constraints of psychology.
Confucius said that the freest people are able to conform comfortably. Yes, or not conform. Someone who is very internally free might choose to conform for ethical or prudential reasons, in most respects, but would be unpredictably liable to stop conforming for his own reasons. Such people are, of course, very hard to detect and so come as a sharp surprise when, after an unbroken record of conventional behavior, they suddenly and calmly leave the herd.
Are non-conformists really unfree (internally)? I think it depends on their motives. If all they want to do is rebel against the conventions, then their behavior is just as conditioned by the conventions as is that of a conventionalist. A bit of plankton has to move with the current; a spawning salmon has to move against the current and is hardly any freer than the plankton. An otter moves with, against, and athwart the current, and can pull itself out of the water entirely when it wants.
The standard-issue "conforming non-conformists," who dutifully wear the non-conformist uniform and give rise to the stereotypical images of bohemian, beatnik, hippie, or new-ager, were neatly parodied in The Man Who Was Thursday, by G. K. Chesterton. The hero of this story came from a long line of English eccentrics; he had one aunt who was a strict vegetarian and another who was a strict carnivore, one uncle who never wore a hat and another uncle who was arrested for wearing nothing but a hat, etc. By the time he was born, there was nothing left to rebel against except eccentricity itself. So he became passionately, fanatically ... normal.
I suppose that people tend to concentrate on external freedom rather than internal mostly because they can see the external kind. You can only guess at another person's internal freedom, and only then after long acquaintance. For that matter, you have to guess at your own degree of internal freedom, I believe. Internal freedom is largely a matter of self-knowledge, and that's a pretty slippery thing to estimate.
Also, just as external freedom admits of degrees, I think internal freedom does too. Only a very few, perhaps no one, has the maximum possible internal freedom; only the insane, and only some of them, have none at all.
I think internal freedom (i.e. detachment, or at least detachment is part of it) is a good thing, but I don't think it's the same thing as being a virtuous person. It would certainly be a big help in any effort toward virtue, but it might help evil efforts just as well. It would certainly give someone more flexibility of response.
Internal and external freedom affect one another in significant and complex ways. In fact, the degree to which they affect one another in a given person is probably a good measure of how little internal freedom that person has. That is, once you win complete internal freedom (if there is such a thing), it will be little affected by external events (short of brain damage), including whether you are externally free or bound.
One of the most significant influences that the outside can have on internal freedom is to give or withhold a teacher. The Buddhists and the ancient Stoics and Epicureans all value detachment greatly and all carefully teach it to their pupils.
But the teaching effort quickly shows up a limitation of external events on internal ones. You can explain the value of detachment to someone and lecture them on how to attain it, but you can't make them understand the value or force them to practice it. That is, they are free to refuse to pursue internal freedom. As the witty little paraphrase puts it, "You can lead a man to data, but you can't make him think."
Many self-help groups, counselors, and preachers teach detachment, though they seldom use that term. And the detachment is generally just part of a general "course" of spiritual "education."
Alcoholics and their families stand in particularly sharp and obvious need of detachment, so Alcoholics Anonymous, AlAnon, and Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACoA) all teach some basic emergency methods of detachment. Almost any other support group for people with acute emotional problems will use similar methods.
These methods consist of pointing out the common mental and emotional mistakes people make in whatever the crisis is, then recommending some simple self-calming and self-examination techniques, as well as practical courses of action.
Detachment ties in to St. Paul's great theme of faith rather than works as the key to salvation:
"For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.; not as a result of works, that no one should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." (Ephesians 2:8-10, New American Standard translation)
"If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.... Love is patient, love is kind, and is not jealous,... bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all thing.... But now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love." (1 Corinthians 13:1-2, 4, 7, 13, New American Standard Translation)
Both these passages have, as part of their theme, the idea that outward acts are insufficient for salvation. The second goes further and lists inward acts that, though great and noble, are still not central and efficacious. I mention it because it shows how detachment assists virtue without being identical with it. It is much easier to be patient, kind, and not jealous, to bear and to endure, if you can summon up some detachment.
In general, the unlovable become much easier to love if you can back away from your own reactions, even though you may continue to have them.
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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2011