Zen in the Art of Desire

The title of this post is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but I hope to analyze the effects my desires have had on me and attempt to temper them with a stoic perspective. I’ll probably be unsuccessful, but oh well. (One definition of zen, by the way, is “an approach to religion, arising from Buddhism, that seeks religious enlightenment by meditation in which there is no consciousness of self,” emphasis being my own.)

Stoicism teaches that desire (of any kind) can be disastrous. Epictetus wrote:

“Remember that following desire promises the attainment of that of which you are desirous; and aversion promises the avoiding that to which you are averse. However, he who fails to obtain the object of his desire is disappointed, and he who incurs the object of his aversion wretched.”

This is a fairly obvious statement – if you desire something and you don’t get it, you wind up disappointed. Similarly, if you wish to avoid something and you fail to, you also seem to be impacted negatively. Epictetus would argue, however, that these negative repercussion are not necessary; they are in fact a symptom of our faulty way of viewing the world.

Epictetus, again:

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and in one word, whatever are not our own actions. The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men….”

What he is saying here is that we, as humans, have only limited control over our situation in life. Things which we routinely think of as “ours” (to include “our” body) are not, in fact, completely under our control. (Can you, for example, control whether or not your body contracts disease, whether or not it grows cancer, whether or not it circulates blood and whether or not your brain is sending electrical impulses? You can influence some or all of these things, but the stoics would draw a sharp distinction between things that you can control and things that you can influence.) Hardship and personal agony result from the dissonance between perceiving things as under our control which are not – after all, it is only natural to feel miserable if something you think you can control goes awry.

There are many other examples of things that are not in our control but are commonly thought to be. Epictetus provides several illuminating examples:
  • “Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things. Death, for instance, is not terrible…But the terror consists in our notion of death that is terrible.”
  • “If you wish your children, and your wife, and your friends to live for ever, you are stupid; for you wish to be in control of things which you cannot, you wish for things that belong to others to be your own.”
  • “Remember that you are an actor in a drama, of such a kind as the author pleases to make it. If short, of a short one; if long, of a long one. If it is his pleasure you should act a poor man, a cripple, a governor, or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For it is your business, to act well the character assigned you; to choose it is another’s.”
The Stoics, then, would have us realize that things outside of our control should not cause us grief. Epictetus elaborates on the nature of aversion and desire:

“Remove aversion, then, from all things that are not in our control, and transfer it to things contrary to the nature of what is in our control. But, for the present, totally suppress desire: for, if you desire any of the things which are not in your own control, you must necessarily be disappointed; and of those which are, and which it would be laudable to desire, nothing is yet in your possession. Use only the appropriate actions of pursuit and avoidance; and even these lightly, and with gentleness and reservation.”

What’s the upshot of all of this? We can control our desire in the sense that we can (attempt and learn to) pick and choose which things we are desirous of, but we cannot ultimately control whether or not we receive most of the things we desire. If I were to desire to have better restraint, for instance, that is something I could control. If I were to desire, on the other hand, a lover or a family – that is not something I can control.
And that’s what I’m getting at. For quite some time, perhaps for all time, I have been very desirous of love. I did not feel, growing up, that I was the recipient of much love at all – and the love I did receive often came from questionable sources (like my alcoholic/drug addicted/womanizing brother), which had the effect of making the love itself questionable. I feel as though I have been used and taken advantage of (in the sense that I provided many kinds of support and sacrifices for people without receiving any reciprocation). In my life, I have had only one girlfriend, and this was not the most satisfying or lasting of relationships. I’ve had many other negative experiences attempting to reach out and find love in my life. (I felt that linking to other articles was more effective than paraphrasing their content, here. Such things are an old theme in my life.)
All of this had the effect of making me feel ‘love starved.’ But the idea here is that perhaps such thinking is wrong – perhaps viewing the world in the way that I have (and many other people seem to) is fundamentally flawed and incorrect. To be desirous of love and of all the “benefits” (as they are often referred to) of human relationships could be folly – I should be concerned only with the things that I can control and I should not be perturbed by those things which I cannot control. Certainly, I can try to exercise my influence, but I shouldn’t be crushed when things don’t necessarily go my way.
It seems as though I need to live more like this (Epictetus, again):

“Remember that you must behave in life as at a dinner party. Is anything brought around to you? Put out your hand and take your share with moderation. Does it pass you by? Don’t stop it. Is it not yet come? Don’t stretch your desire towards it, but wait til it reaches you. Do this with regard to children, to a wife, to public posts, to riches, and you will eventually be a worthy partner in the feasts of the gods. And if you don’t even take the things which are set before you, but are able even to reject them, then you will not only be a partner at the feasts of the gods, but also of their empire.”

And when better to start, than now – as I’m getting ready to change my career up and spend the next three years (starting in March) overseas in various countries? I wonder if I am strong enough, however.

In the writing of this, I had forgotten to include the original impetus to even begin: There have been points in my life where I’ve been so cripplingly lonely that I entertain various fantasies of intimacy and love just to nourish myself. I’m not talking about sexual fantasies – I’m talking about fantasies where a girl I’ve known for a while reaches out to me and comforts me, holds me, puts me at ease… I don’t know exactly how to describe it, but my subconscious will provide me with these sorts of vivid dreams where I actually feel loved, and it has regenerated me at certain times. (It has also served to worsen me – drawing attention to what I felt has been absent in my life.) I bring this up only because it happened recently, and I don’t think there is much benefit to these sorts of fantasies – however comforting they may seem in the short term.
Ah, life. When did you get so complicated?
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Dead Men Tell No Tales: The Mirror II: You Asked For This

What is Dead Men Tell No Tales? It is a selection of (hitherto) undisclosed, private ruminations and epiphanies. Most take the form of (slightly) edited letters to unnamed recipients, but some have been scavenged from the depths of private journals recently rediscovered. Over the next little while (however long it takes – days, weeks, months, years?) I’ll be posting them in episodic fashion for the reading pleasure of my nonexistent audience.

In The Mirror, our author thinks he has found a female extremely similar to him. He provides her a shoulder to cry on, but when he attempts to use his shoulder, he is met with (you guessed it) rejection. You Asked For This is a tale of the writer getting what he wanted…sort of.
[Some thoughts and feelings I shared with her before the main letter:]
One of the most troubling things to me has always been the fact that that which matters most to me tends to matter little (or not at all) to others.
This could relate to my passions as easily as it could my problems. It makes one feel very isolated from others.
I dunno. I get sick of being alone, but moreover I get sick of feeling lonely when I am supposed to have so many friends. It is for that reason that I tend to isolate myself. A loneliness borne of being alone is far easier to cope with than a loneliness in the midst of others. Does that make any sense?
[These go largely ignored for a few days, then I lay this down about a week before I ship out:]
Haha, I’m terrible. There is something about me that does not want to share the good things about myself, only the terrible ones. Like, the past few days, I have been writing again and it has felt awesome and I have been really proud of it and it has felt great.
But do I tell you about this? Nah.
I only feel motivated to get in touch with you when, out of the blue, tonight, I get in a huge fight with my brother and pretty much feel like I have no family left in the world. I only want to reach out to people when I’ve been crying for two hours. 
I am sorry for being stupid that way. I know very well why I have few friends, why those few friends barely tolerate me, and it is because I have a terrible habit of putting people in a bad mood. Part of the reason I don’t share my writing with people, for instance, is because I’ve tried to in the past only to have people shoot me down over it. I mean, it doesn’t happen all the time, but it happened and it hurt and so I stopped sharing it, but, you know, that’s just an excuse I use to justify being negative all the time.
Sorry if I’m rambly or transferring my BS onto you. I don’t mean to. I just, I’m just really conflicted. I wish I could be in kindergarten again, I really do, where it is perfectly okay and not weird to just say to someone “I like you, let’s be friends.” I wish I could feel like that again, where I could just say “I like you, wanna hang out?” Where things are that simple. Because the reverse side of that is, in kindergarten, kids either said yes or they said no. If they said no, maybe you cried for a day but you got over it and you made other friends. What seems to happen now is, people are afraid of saying no (for a good reason, they don’t want to hurt people’s feelings) but instead do something far worse, which is to lead people along and make them believe that everything is fine when it’s not.
Haha, look at me, I apologize for being rambly and shoot straight off into a ramble… ugh… 
What I’m getting at is, what I’ve meant to tell you for a while, is just, I like you and wanna be your friend. I don’t know why I have such a hard time saying it. I think you are fascinating, really interesting, I really truly do, and I’d like to get to know you better and talk more (and would have liked to hang out with you, back when that was possible), because I think you’re a good, worthwhile person. You know? That’s what I’d like to do, why I’d like to do it. 
For a long time, I guess, I’ve just been so afraid of ultimate rejection from people, and so afraid of doing things to make them not like me, that I set myself up for the kind of situations I hate. When people don’t start talks with me, I assume it is because they don’t want to talk to me, and I leave them alone – sometimes forever. There are some people I have not talked to for years, literally, because of that. I stopped starting conversations, they didn’t start any, and we just stopped talking. So I secretly put people through all these BS tests to try and figure out if they really like me or not and really want to be my friend or not and… it’s all so stupid and short sighted and blah.
Part of the reason I really like you is because I think you feel the same way about honesty as I do. And if that’s the truth, if you really feel the same way about honesty, then I think we could actually be good friends. But we just need to be honest. So I’ll be honest with you (am being honest, like really honest, right now). And just please, you know, return the favor, even if it means just telling me no. Please please, whatever your response is, please please make it honest. Because if you tell me that you also want to be friends, but you really don’t want that, I am going to try and be your friend and invest myself emotionally into something you didn’t really want, and that’ll be bad for both of us, because then I’ll be around annoying you all the time, and when I finally realize that you don’t actually want to be my friend it’ll hurt a lot more after a big investment than it would relatively up front by you just saying “nah.” 
If I sound like a broken record, sound like I keep pushing this honesty thing and not listening to you (because I know you said once before that you want to be honest) I’m sorry. I promise this’ll be the last time. I’m just so worried about you actually being honest, and want to make it clear that honesty is a good thing, will be a way better thing than dishonesty – because I had someone tell me that before, that they were being honest. In the absolute worst situation to lie in – in a relationship. They told me they were being honest, you know, and were telling me that they loved me and all that, and next thing I know, she’s admitting to not being honest, to not meaning those things, and I found out she was cheating on me and… it was bad for both of us, really bad, and far worse than if she had just been honest.
So again, sorry if this is all rambly and annoying. But I am going to take your next response and operate on the assumption that it is completely truthful, completely honest, no matter what the consequences. That way I won’t ever bring this up again. So I hope that you will be honest. I think you will be honest, actually, otherwise I wouldn’t even be asking – but, there you have it. 
And if it turns out that you’re sick of me, tired of me being weird all the time, that’s fine, but I just want to thank you for putting up with me as long as you did, because even if we haven’t been the best of friends or anything, I have enjoyed our conversations and you’ve been really helpful to me in times when I needed help, if you know it or not. (That was a long sentence.) Which is why I want to be friends with you, you know, feel like good friends – which I think can only happen on a foundation of mutual honesty and trust and all that jazz. 
I’ll shut up after this: all I want is for us to be honest, that’s it. Whether we have good things to share or bad things – I don’t care, as long as we’re honest, and I’ll try to share things that excite me and make me happy in addition to bad crap like tonight. There, that’s it, that’s what I wanted to say. If you’ve managed to read this far, thank you very much.
[At least her response, below, was honest, as I asked:]
“Ok. I don’t want to be rude or anything. But I really do want to be your friend, but there will be sometimes that I really don’t want to talk to you. I hope that makes sense. I also hope that didn’t sound rude. I honestly don’t know what else to say.”
[Then I say:]
That makes perfect sense, and you do not sound rude. Thank you. 
This is all a result of me being seriously screwed up when I met you, and me being really stupid and over-complicating everything. I can elaborate, if you want.
[She responds:]
“No thanks.”
[And that’s the end of that. I’ve since rarely talked to her – mostly just to help her out with her romantic problems, but never about myself.]