Passion and desire can be used to our advantage: the passion to be a better person, the desire to help others, the wish to become healthier.
But sometimes our passions and desires can get the better of us and spiral out of control.
All of us can become overwhelmed with desires that are detrimental to us. The desire for junk food, if not controlled, can ruin a person’s health. A passionate affair can destroy a long-term, loving relationship. So, how do we deal with these destructive desires?
To deal with our desires, it is important to first understand what desire actually is.
In the book, On Desire: Why We Want What We Want, William B. Irvine explains that many of our desires are the result of our Biological Incentive System, or BIS. This system developed to make us desire the things that would help us survive and reproduce, hence the reason that many foods are delicious and sex feels so good. The problem is that now we are surviving and reproducing beyond our capacity but are still driven by our outdated BIS. (If only our BIS progressed as quickly as iOS!)
What makes it difficult to override our BIS is that it is rooted in our emotions and even when our reason recognises that certain desires are actually undesirable (in the long-term, short-term, or even the present), our emotions often win the tug-of-war. But that doesn’t mean the fight is futile.
Here are a number of suggestions that Irvine has presented which come from the world’s philosophical and spiritual traditions:
Evaluate our desires
Before we start pursuing our desires, it is a good idea to think about them first, and here are a number of ways we can do that:
>> Question whether something is desirable or not. We might think that we want something when, in fact, we don’t. So, obviously we need to get clear about this.
>> Watch out for contagious desires. Questioning if something is desirable to us also involves staying awake to the influence others have on us. For example, we might have the hidden thought, “Stacy has the latest iPhone so I should get one too.”
>> Don’t pursue other people’s passions or try to fulfill other people’s desires. We are social beings but we are also individuals. We need to own our lives and consciously choose to pursue our own path. Sometimes we might pursue the same things as others, sometimes not. Either way, we have to do so intentionally.
>> Decide whether something is right or wrong. In deciding which desires to pursue and which to transcend, we need to ask whether they are morally sound. Someone might have the desire for more money and find an easy way to get it that lacks integrity; a married person might want to go for a few “innocent” drinks with a coworker, secretly hoping that it will lead to something more.
>> Instead of simply repressing our desires, change our perspective on them. For example, when the desire for copious amounts of junk food invades the mind, palate, and stomach, ponder the long-term effects of pursuing that desire without restraint. “Do I want to end up with heart disease or diabetes? Do I want to be fit and healthy right now?”
>> Distinguish between desires that can be fulfilled and those that cannot. Some desires, like the desire to be hydrated can easily be quenched: drink some water, but others, like the desire for wealth, only lead to wanting more and more. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make more money, but we need to be careful of the pitfalls of doing so.
>> Weigh the effort to resist a desire against the effort to pursue it. We only have so much time and energy to expend, so by pursuing one desire we prevent ourselves from pursuing others. Of course, we are not limited to doing one thing in life but there is only so much we can do. “Do I really need that new and expensive car when I will have to get a second job to save up for it, or do I want to use that time to spend with my loved ones or pursue a passion like painting?”
>> Remember that many things are out of our control so we can’t always get what we want. Even after we think through which desires are good and bad, desirable or undesirable, and start going after the “good” ones, all too often things won’t turn out the way we want them to anyway. That’s why it’s important to remember that we can’t control everything and some things we just have to accept. Then we can concentrate on doing what is in our control.
Use strategies to avoid temptation
Even after thinking through our desires and ticking off the list the ones we don’t deem suitable, they can still taunt and tempt us. To deal with these temptations, we can:
>> Remove stimulus from the environment that may lead to temptation. We don’t need to make things harder for ourselves if we are trying to kick a bad habit. We shouldn’t leave a big bag of potato chips sitting on the coffee table in front of the TV if we are trying to eat healthier.
>> Count to 10 before acting on a desire. If a desire for something that will sabotage our happiness strikes with brute force, count to 10 before we pursue it, and hopefully in that time it will fizzle out or at least be more manageable to control.
>> Ask ourselves what will happen if our desire is fulfilled? This could be done after we count to 10. “What will happen if I eat this whole bag of potato chips?”
>> Oppose negative thoughts with positive thoughts. Sometimes our desires are simply destructive. Someone might be angry and have the desire to physically attack someone. Instead, they could try to think something positive about the person.
>> Adopt rules to guide our actions, from a prescribed path or our own. In liberal societies, rules have a bad name, but often with too much freedom we are paralysed by possibility and our wills can be stunted. Rules can give us clarity and structure and make it easier to live the life we have chosen.
>> Practice mindfulness of the moment and when desirous thoughts arise, let them go and return to what we are doing in the present. Not only is mindfulness important on the meditation cushion, but it is also useful during daily life. We can use our awareness to look at desires in a detached way and not get caught in the mental trap of trying not to look at the thing we don’t want to look at (which inevitably makes us look at it).
>> If a person believes in a higher power, they can use prayer to call on that power for assistance to resist temptation. Calling on a higher power can be a way to gain strength in moments of weakness and help us to pursue our heart’s desire.
Retrain the mind
Along with learning to rethink and resist our destructive desires, we also need to retrain the mind itself so that we can become better able to deal with ourselves. In his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, the psychologist Jonathan Haidt mentions two ways that can help us to gain control of the part of us that is prone to indulging in unrestrained desires:
>> Meditation. Studies have shown that people who meditate regularly, even for a short time each day, are happier and healthier than those who don’t. The benefit of meditation is that we are not trying to wrestle with ourselves through any kind of rational debate. We sit and watch ourselves—the breath, the body, the mind itself—developing concentration and awareness.
>> Cognitive behaviour therapy. This tool from modern psychology can help us to learn to replace our irrational and destructive thinking with rational and constructive thoughts. Often our unwanted desires can get the better of our minds, but through adopting new ways of thinking that we put into practice, gradually we can shift our ways of thinking, behavior, and emotions.
These are some of the ways that we can gain clarity and control when dealing with the many desires within us. Not all of them will be useful for all of us. Each of us needs to find the ways that suit our unique self so that we can pursue our deepest passions more fully.