Friday, March 8: This week, I’ve been reading about desire and the infinite forms it can take. In Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, Matthieu Ricard differentiates between “the deep aspirations that we generate throughout our lives and the desire that is solely concentrated on craving and obsession.” He distinguishes between “desire, which is essentially a blind force, and aspiration, which is inspired by motivation and attitude.” He says if the motivation is vast and selfless, it can be the source of great human qualities and accomplishments. When it’s narrow and egocentric, it fuels the endless cravings of daily life and offers no guarantee of deep satisfaction.
Ricard notes that “the great pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer stated: ‘All striving springs from want or deficiency, from dissatisfaction with one’s condition, and is therefore suffering as long as it is not satisfied. No satisfaction, however, is lasting; on the contrary, it always merely the starting point of fresh striving.'”
When I lived in America, I was all too familiar with this striving for more and more. Living in the suburbs of Washington, I was as guilty as all my neighbors of wanting a big and beautifully decorated house, a nice car, perfect children, lots of money. I even went though a very long period where I was so obsessed with clothes that I got in a huge amount of debt trying to keep up with the latest fashions coming from my favorite store, anthropologie. I think it was all about fitting in, feeding my ego, looking like I had some amount of taste.
Anyone who reads my blog knows that I have a lot of desires. All one has to do is to read my New Year’s Resolutions (RESOLVED 2013!!!) or my Bucket List (things to do before i die ~ otherwise known as my “before-i-kick-the-bucket list”) to know my list is long. I am a goal-oriented person; most of my goals nowadays have to do with creative pursuits or travel or learning new things. I also desire good friends, true love, spiritual growth and time in the company of my children. Lately, of course, I have a strong desire to return to the United States, to return home to my family, my old friends, and a job I love. I miss so many things about home: four distinct seasons; abundant green; access to a wide variety of restaurants, movies and books; familiarity with my culture; and, most of all, a sense of belonging.
Are these desires good or bad? Like Schopenhauer says above, satisfaction (of desire) is merely the starting point of fresh striving. I know from personal past experience, that satisfaction of a desire often leads to more desires. And that attachment to any desire’s outcome can be problematic.
“When you are discontent, you always want more, more, more. Your desire can never be satisfied. But when you practice contentment, you can say to yourself, oh yes — I already have everything that I really need.” ~ Dalai Lama
Shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, I became obsessed by the Arab world. Eventually, a determination to learn about this foreign world, and to somehow make a difference, led me to what was once my heart’s desire: to live and work in the Middle East. I achieved my desire, but not exactly in the way I envisioned it or wanted it. I wanted to work in international development, especially in Egypt, but instead life led me to teaching English to Omani girls. It wasn’t quite what I had in mind, but it’s been an eye-opening journey that I value immensely. However, all the things I overlooked by focusing on this obsessive desire have now come back to haunt me: separation from my family and my home, suspension of close friendships, and the homesickness I strongly feel.
I know I’m attached to this outcome, returning home, but I am also trying hard to make the most of the present moment, these last days in Oman. I have a lot I work on every day: I still try to travel every Thursday. I have embarked on a daily spiritual practice. I’ve revised through Chapter 10 of my 50-chapter novel. I have been updating all my blogs, including my year in Korea (catbird in korea), to show larger pictures and to break down long, cumbersome posts into smaller posts. I am saving money and paying down my debt. I’m trying to enjoy my students and my dear friends in Oman.
I’m trying hard not to focus too much on the outcome of returning home, though it’s difficult at times. Most of the time I keep myself too busy in the present moment to dwell on this desire and its outcome.
I know a friend who trekked to the base camp of Mt. Everest. She said she nearly died from altitude sickness because she was too attached to the outcome of getting to the base camp. It’s possible she might not be alive today because of that attachment.
We all have been attached to outcomes, so that the disappointment in not achieving the desire becomes crushing. A cause of suffering. I have been attached to outcomes like this in the past. When I desired to get married the second time, I was so attached to that outcome that I was afraid to reveal my true self to my potential husband. If I hadn’t finally opened up and revealed myself, he would have married someone who wasn’t even really me!
I suffered a number of huge disappointments in my life regarding my career. First, I applied to get into the MFA – Creative Writing program at George Mason University. At the same time I applied, I began work on a novel. I had to wait about 5 months to hear whether I was accepted, and during that time I was doing yoga and was quite productive on my novel. After 5 months, I got word that I wasn’t accepted. I was devastated.
Shortly after that my husband lost his job after 25 years with a big defense contractor, and I had to go back to work in the financial industry, which I hated. I had to put my novel aside. No matter. After being rejected by GMU, I didn’t feel the novel had any potential anyway. Finally, when my husband got a new job, I was able to quit my job and return to my novel, but with much less enthusiasm. All the wind had been knocked out of me.
After this, a long period of exploration followed, where I took interior design classes and started a little interior design business. However, my interest fell by the wayside when I realized having a business required abilities in salesmanship. How can someone with no confidence sell herself?
Finally, I attended the Master’s program in International Commerce & Policy at George Mason’s School of Public Policy. I graduated in 2008, achieving a 3.8 average, because it was the perfect blend of my financial industry experience and my interest in foreign affairs following the September 11 attacks. I did two internships at the U.S. State Department, one in the Office of U.N Political Affairs and one in the Office of the Chief of Protocol, organizing events for then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. I worked on the Annapolis Middle East Peace Conference in fall of 2007; I was responsible for the U.N. delegation to the conference.
Despite all of this, upon graduation, I applied to 250 jobs in international development, including to the State Department, USAID, and too many non-profits and government contractors to count. All to no avail. I simply couldn’t get a job. My desire to work in this field was so strong that relentlessly, I bounced out of bed each day and sent off a new application. I attended networking events and met with people who could help me. Obviously, it was not meant to be. I believe to this day it was because of my age (52 at the time) and the fact that I had a 15-year gap on my resume when I was a stay-at-home mom.
Eventually, I got incredibly depressed. Not from rejection, because I wasn’t even being rejected. I was being ignored. Out of all those jobs, I only had about 5 interviews and zero job offers. It was the first time in my entire life that I actually entertained the notion of suicide.
I was so attached to the outcome I desired that I could have ended my life, leaving behind my children and a family who loved me. And I would have missed out on all the amazing experiences that I’ve had in Korea, Oman and in all my travels over the last three years. A perfect example of the danger of obsessive desire.
I won’t even get into my obsessive desires regarding my love life! In that regard, these days, I no longer have any desires. I think Oman has been good for me in helping me get rid of that obsession.
Anyway, in my life now, I have become generally less attached to outcomes. I still have desires, but I try to be realistic about them as much as possible, and to not place huge importance on their achievement. I try to live in the present moment as much as possible and go with the flow. I’m not always successful, but I’m much more successful than I used to be. Maybe one day, I can be satisfied with whatever life hands me. That is my desire, anyway!