The notion that desire contradicts ethics either makes people wilt in terror or it transforms them into greedy little children slavering over all the delights at the candy counter. The truth couldn’t be more different. Desire has the power to be our strongest moral compass even as it leads us to the kind of ecstasy that would make a Harlequin romance look pallid.
Let me start by saying that I’m a life coach, and desire is the name of my game. My clientele are couples and individuals who’ve been divorced from their sexuality for too long. On the surface, these people are successful and happy, yet a fundamental spark is missing. Often, when the match of desire is struck, the pile of kindling has accumulated to such a degree that there is the danger of being burnt down altogether.
Of course, there’s one major mistaken assumption that many clients and otherwise well-meaning people make—that is, acting on one’s desire is equivalent to throwing out principles and ethics altogether. After all, morality is like kryptonite to the supernatural fortitude of desire, which wants what it wants when it wants it. Right?
Wrong. I’ve witnessed too many exploding powder kegs—generated by those who kept their desire in the closet for too long—to keep that particular myth going.
Desire and Morality
The Bhagavad Gita famously states, “While concentrating on objects of the senses, a person develops attachment to the objects; from attachment desires are born, from desire anger arises.” However, many Hindu texts and teachers have suggested that attempting to eradicate desire is a fool’s errand. Instead, fulfilling appropriate desires that aid in our spiritual development keeps us from becoming slaves to our constant craving.
Admittedly, few people I know are currently working to align their desires with their spirituality. I’ve met many well-meaning men and women who prefer to use desire as a fantasy security blanket that lets them take refuge from the realities of their lives.
Recently, I had a client who was absolutely serious about his desire to cheat on his partner of 20 years. He had no intention of ending the relationship (after all, she would never be willing to let him go, and besides, what would their family and the neighbors think?) but he didn’t believe that lying to his partner was such a big deal. In his mind, he had stifled his true impulses for so long that there was nothing wrong with going out of control. He was entitled to that kind of happiness, especially after all he’d suffered, gods damn it!
To me, his justifications seemed like a giant red flag, but they weren’t unusual. His was the type of adolescent behavior typical among people who are just coming into an understanding of their desire.
Many of my clients are good people who have been accustomed to placing everyone else’s needs before their own. These same people often end up transforming into the most insufferable and selfish individuals after they discover the potency of their desire.
This isn’t because desire is bad, however—it’s because, as psychiatrist Carl Jung noted with his “principle of enantiodromia,” the abundance of any one quality or force eventually produces its opposite. When we are operating on extremes, the principle of equilibrium will ensure that we revert to the flipside of our original behavior in order to restore balance.
My client was using “desire” as an excuse to let his fantasies run roughshod over everything else. If this man were truly willing to live out his desire, he wouldn’t simultaneously be chaining himself to a dead-end marriage.
Desire and the Voice of Reason
Of course, when I speak about the ethics of desire, I’m not necessarily talking about the laundry list of shoulds and shouldn’ts that society has beaten into our skulls. It’s simply about understanding what the most skillful behavior is in any given situation.
An example I like to share with people is that of the addict. While his superficial desire may be urging him to reach for the next available high, another voice may be urging him to refrain … especially because he knows the crash-and-burn cycle all too well, and that his next hit is likely to come at too high a cost.
On the surface, his “desire” to use may feel like it’s coming from a place of truth, whereas the voice of “reason” may be a pesky hindrance to having what he wants. Of course, the dichotomy between desire and reason is a false one. Surely, a combination of common sense (after all, fire hurts when you put your hand in it) and risk-taking is in order. Because the addict’s compulsive behavior is in the driver’s seat, his ability to clearly distinguish which voice to listen to is going to be cloudy. But desire doesn’t preclude restraint.
Skillful vs. Unskillful Behavior
Let’s come back to the idea that it’s not about right vs. wrong.
I have a client who used to incessantly engage in relationships with married men. It was almost an addiction, but it was one that she justified to herself over and over again. After all, they were the ones who sought her out. What their wives didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. She was helping them experience a freedom they otherwise had no access to. The notion of infidelity itself is a social construct placed on people to make them feel guilty about their sexuality. And so on and so forth.
Whatever argument someone would come to her with, she had a counterargument. That is … until she came to a huge realization about her approach.
It was, simply put, unskillful. The men always ended up leaving, the relationships seemed to impact her ability to trust and open up to other men, and whether or not their wives ever found out, she knew that she was leaving a mark on their marriages that was not exactly pretty or beneficial.
Now, she operates on the premise that cheating is never a wise idea. At first, she resisted this notion, because someone else’s morality was dictating the parameters of her choices. But at a certain point, her rebelliousness gave way to a profound consideration of her actions.
She began to ask herself a simple question: Do my actions leave a mess in their wake? If the answer that surfaced was yes, she refrained from repeating them.
It’s always a smart idea to examine the after effects of our desires. It is ultimately about being in a harmonious relationship with the world.
Living a Desire-Based Life
An ethical approach to desire also includes taking other people into account. Does acting on your desire interfere or conflict with another person’s desire or free will?
One of my clients, a self-proclaimed “nerd” with lousy luck when it came to women, showed up one day, frustrated and even a little angry. “I’ve been doing this work with you for over a month and I’m not seeing any results,” he complained. “Women still won’t date me, and the last woman I came on to told me that I was being creepy. This just confirms my belief that the only thing they want is a guy with money and muscles!”
What my client didn’t recognize was that his expression of desire was operating on unspoken beliefs about his own “unattractiveness,” as well as a hostility that was tangible whether he opened his mouth or not.
I suggested to my client that he might find more success if he adjusted his dials according to a woman’s response. If he were to make an invitation and she responded with ambivalence (“I’m not sure I’m ready” or “I’m not sure I’ll like it”), he should back off and let her lead.
In the realm of desire, we are all free agents. Just because you’ve expressed desire, it doesn’t mean that someone else is honor-bound to do the same. Rather than forming expectations of specific outcomes, make clean requests and be receptive to the responses you get.
Communication is key in most situations. In the case of the man who wanted to cheat on his wife, he believed that he could never experience the passion he wanted with the woman he’d been with for over two decades. But in truth, he’d never made his desires known except through oblique comments and evasive communication.
Whereas many people are ashamed of their desire and cover it up with plenty of smokescreens, to trust our desire is to bring it out into the light of day, no matter where the chips may fall. This is actually the only way we can make our desire sustainable and to allow it to be the compass it is meant to be.
Desire, Honesty and Ethics
Developing an ethical approach to desire also means being honest with ourselves. If I am feeding my desire for perfect health with alcohol and chocolate chip cookies, I know I’ve come into contact with some crossed wires. When we acknowledge that our actions bear fruit in the world, we can begin to practice responsible hedonism.
The universe wants us to have what we most desire. But in order to fulfill our birthright, we must determine how skillful our actions are—and how effectively they lead us to our deepest potential and expression of truth.
Nirmala Nataraj is a writer, editor, and desire coach. To learn more about her work, visit www.sacredfirecoaching.com