Desire, Aspiration, and Doing What We Can

Each of us desires to live a life free of suffering. For some that means accumulating enough money, power, and material things that they might never want for safety or comfort. Or if they do it will be but a fleeting desire – one quickly fulfilled by bringing an appropriate measure of resources to bear on the offending circumstances. For others the desire to live a life free of suffering entails following some religious or spiritual path, one that affords them the good grace and protection of their God or gods in this life, and perhaps even paradise in the next.

Desire seems to be especially prevalent in religion and spirituality these days – whether manifested as an insatiable thirst to be right about that which can never be known, or in the need to be favored in the eyes of the creator. Think of the barely veiled covetousness of the so-called Prosperity Gospel: “God wants you to be successful”, “God shows his approval by blessing you with abundance.” Interesting, isn’t it, how God wants for you precisely what you want for yourself! Of course, many of the more New-Agey sorts of spiritual practices are even more blatant in their embrace of desire – untethered, as they are, from anything resembling the message of humility lying at the heart of longer-standing religious traditions. Practices related to wealth manifestation; visualization techniques intended to bring the bounty of the universe in line with what we want; rituals meant to uncover our “true self”, which quite often means “me, after I get everything that I want” – these are the staples of New Age spiritual practice. “You wouldn’t be in this painful position if you just knew the secret to focusing the positive energy of the universe within you.” “You’re not getting what you want in this life because you just don’t have a clear enough image in mind of precisely what it is that you want.” Yes, you know what I’m talking about! This is wish fulfillment fantasy writ large!

Do I paint an unflattering picture of spiritual practice, one in which the fundamental motivation is just as selfish as it is for the individual whose motivations never stray from the material realm? Sure, the nature or quality of that which is desired is different, as are the means of obtaining it; but for materially and spiritually motivated individuals alike, the motivation to engage in actions that enhance the likelihood of getting what one wants remains the same. Now, you might be expecting me to contend that we Buddhists are so much higher-minded than all of that. Sorry, fellow Buddhists, I’m not. I actually think that most of us, at least with respect to our initial motivation, begin practicing because of our desire to bring an end to our suffering, pure and simple.

Ginny Morgan, a Buddhist teacher in the Insight Meditation tradition with whom I’ve enjoyed numerous residential meditation retreats often speaks of the bewilderment that students face when life suddenly deals them a “cruel” blow – as if the depth of their spiritual practice should somehow provide immunity from the vicissitudes of existence. Ginny calls it “expecting a cookie” – a payoff. We’ve been good, after all, and being good is worthy of reward, isn’t it? Shouldn’t our goodness recalibrate the karmic payback machine so that it always works in our favor?

Alas, true spiritual practice is much more complicated than that, even as it retains its simplicity. True spiritual practice, no matter the religious tradition, takes us through layer after layer of meaning as understanding deepens, and intention becomes purified. What starts out as a more selfish motivation gradually transitions into a more all-encompassing one. Desire becomes subsumed by aspiration. Thus, the Buddhist who takes to meditation, desperately wanting to alleviate his own suffering, might one day find himself reciting the bodhisattva vow “to save all beings” – and meaning every word. Recall the difference between translational and transformational practice discussed in an earlier post. Without coming to grips with the nature of our desire we will always remain on the plane of translational practice – rearranging the furniture in the living room of our ego.

But as our deepening practice takes us to that place between desire and aspiration, we might actually find that our suffering has intensified! The increased awareness or awakening that we thought would free us from “our” suffering has only brought us face to face with just how much suffering is “out there” in the world. We’d like to do something about it, but what? There’s so much to do. And, anyway, our lives are so fleetingly short – like dewdrops on a blade of grass, as Dogen says. My practice was at just such a place some years ago as I said goodbye to the corporate world and headed out from Portland on a cross-country bicycle trip, hoping to answer the question: what can I do?

I was fairly well-seasoned by the time I made it to Wyoming’s Wind River Canyon, having weathered the Coastal Range, Cascades, and Blue Mountains of Oregon; the Sawtooth Range in Idaho; and, of course, the Rockies. Such trials open up the traveler to seeing things we might otherwise overlook, just as practice opens us up to insights that might not otherwise have visited us. The Wind River Canyon is about fifteen miles long and a half mile deep in spots. Picture, if you will, the many layers of the earth’s crust, deposited over millions of years. Now picture those layers tilted at a relatively steep angle as one end is lifted up by forces deep inside the earth. Finally, picture a river – a recent arrival on the scene – flowing down this sloping landscape and slicing through its layers. Since the Wind River flows at a shallower angle than the layers of deposition, a journey upriver through the canyon is like a journey back in time. Whereas the mouth of the canyon opens up onto the relatively recent red mudstone beds of the Triassic period, some 225 million years ago, it begins by cutting through Pre-Cambrian granite that is nearly a billion years old.

As I made my way up the canyon – past the grayish-beige of the Permian Period, the yellow, peach, and creamy rust of the Pennsylvanian Period, the creamy buff of the Ordovician Period, and the gray-brown of the Cambrian – I became more and more keenly aware that my very existence is supported by, dependent upon, and the result of all life that came before. Stem reptiles, lunged fish, invertebrates, the first flowering plants, single-celled life forms – if each and every one of those beings had not strived to its fullest, doing its part to fill in the web of life as completely as it could be filled, would we even be here today? This realization was given even greater poignancy by the fact that the Triassic Period marked a brand new blossoming of life after some catastrophic event caused the vast majority of all of those life forms to become extinct. On one hand, we might wonder what those now-extinct lives amounted to. But on the other hand we might ask how the right genetic codes could have been arrived at, the ones capable of surviving such a catastrophe, if each life form had not done what it could.

Doing what we can – what else can we expect of ourselves? We can hold ourselves back from doing something because it may not measure up to what we consider adequate enough to make a difference. We can lament the shortness of our lives, the limitations of our bodies and minds, and the vastness of the work to do. But that doesn’t change the fact that we are here right now with work to do. The “lowliest” amongst us have done their part, lived out their karma, and paved the way for new generations of life. Let’s not lament the “meagerness” of what we have to offer. Let’s simply aspire to doing what we can, for the benefit of all beings. Perhaps that is where spiritual practice really begins.

Parts of this post were originally published in the June, 2010 Sangha Life publication under the title 'Doing What We Can.'

Copyright 2010, 2011, 2021 by Mark Robert Frank


  1. Another great post and a natural follow-up to the preceding one, Maku. have you considered compiling your posts in book form?

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