Desire is always a tricky thing. Especially when we’re in depression. We lose any interest in things we used to love, and at the same time whatever shreds of hopes we hold seem so impossible in the midst of the suffering.
Now in the short version of Buddhist practice, we hear desire is the cause of all our problems. Mix that in with the American ideal that, as my father used to put it, “Suffering builds character” and you can get some very confused ideas about suffering and desire. It’s no wonder our depression comes to define us, so that we almost become attached to it. Even as we go deeper and deeper into the attempt to care less, so things won’t hurt so much.
At workshops I give about a spiritual approach to depression, we talk toward the end about how depression, or grief, can bring us to a bottom line. Rather than being attached to our suffering, we can begin to ask the question of how to let it go. What might I need to do, or to change in my life, so that this doesn’t return or doesn’t hold such power over me? And beyond that to the question, “Am I willing to consider what would bring happiness or joy or love into my life?” So that even if I become depressed again, I will have learned and filled my life with as much as I can? People usually have a lot to say about that, about their innermost heart’s desire.
At one such group an older woman said, “You know, I have always wanted to get a motorcycle and ride it. But what would my kids think? I am a grandmother after all. And isn’t that a bit self-destructive?” The people in the group suggested she didn’t need to worry about what other people think, and how often they had let that simple fear keep then from doing things. They encouraged her to do it if she wanted to. I thought a moment too, and said, “It seems to me that there is nothing more self-destructive than to ignore that voice of our heart’s desire.” Some Buddhists might take away my membership card for that suggestion. But we forget that aversion is as much a cause of suffering as clinging.
There are many theories about depression and it‘s cause—repressed anger, suppressed rage, unacknowledged sadness–that all seek to tie it to one emotion. I’ll offer mine. That perhaps it is about suppressing who we are, in whatever form that manifests. Getting a motorcycle might be all that is needed. To those purists who will jump on me for that, I think there is a way we can learn to differentiate between clinging desire, and desire which might even lead us to further emancipation. Sometimes the path out is through.
Or sometimes perhaps, there is wisdom simply in thinking about the possibility of happiness. We have to choose in this life, and have to take action. We can act as best as we can in accord with our heart’s desire. I think of my friend Brett, who had a pretty good life. He had inherited a business from his father, didn’t mind the work, and made a good living at it. But what he really loved was to play the saxophone. He was good at it, too. He’d made a record even. One day he told his friends he was going to leave his business, and move to L.A. “I just don’t want to be an old man one day on my deathbed, wondering what might have happened if I’d taken that chance. I want to find out now, and the only way to do that is to try it out there.”
I saw him about two years later, when he was back for a visit. I don’t remember if I even asked about whether things had worked out for him in his dream of making music. I only remember that he was happier than I’d ever seen him. He was married and in love, both with his wife and his beautiful new baby. Taking that chance on his dream had opened up doors to happiness I don’t think even he knew were there.
It’s been said by evolutionary biologist and behavioral psychologists, that if the universe wanted to move a human being in a particular direction, that based on what we know of human nature, it would do it through what delights us. Not through punishment or desire, but through delight. It would do us well to pay attention to that.