Siddhartha, who became the Buddha, made his final breakthrough to enlightenment after many days and nights sitting under the Bodhi tree, rooted there in determination to reach the end of his quest.
His final obstacle was a confrontation with Mara, the demon of desire. After he faced down Mara, invoking the earth as his witness, he achieved enlightenment and became the Buddha.
What is most interesting about this story is not the wrong objects of desire that were paraded before Siddhartha in this final "temptation" but the fact that the story casts desire itself in the central role of tempter.
The notion that desire, the very "act" of wanting something or somebody, is at the heart of the problem is a new one to me, until I think about what has been happening on the frontiers of biological research into the brain. Then it makes sense.
Neurobiological research is doing a lot to make clear the psychobiology of desire. This work suggests that desire is a universally addictive response. The same circuitry seems to be involved with cocaine, sex, chocolate, flowers........anything that gives us pleasure. The brain circuits involved do a very effective job of creating an anticipation of pleasure which itself becomes a drive that is hard to resist.
This seems to be a neurobiological definition of desire.
If it is the desire itself that we have to manage then we have some clue about what might be the answer. I mean, how do we manage this desire? I think the answer is patience.
Whatever the desire is, whether it be money, or sex, or chocolate, or paper clips, it is the uncontrolled compulsion to satisfy that desire that will destroy us.
If this is true we do not need to make an analysis of whether sex is more important than paper clips. If the need to have paper clips NOW causes us to act heedless of our other commitments and obligations and needs, we will destroy ourselves and others.
What we need is time to understand how the need for those paper clips fits in with everything else and how we might stay alive, keep others alive, and get some paper clips too.
Surely patience is needed.
Returning to Siddhartha, he emerged from his stay under the Bodhi Tree with great insight into the nature of the universe and everything in it. He developed a set of moral precepts to guide anyone else seeking this path. I understand them to be a simple way of turning something not good into something good.
where there is greed, let me be generous.
where there is ignorance, let me be wise.
where there is anger, let me have compassion.
....to these, I would add.
where there is desire, let me be patient.
(credits: the story of Siddhartha is drawn from a WGBH production on the life of the Buddha; the summary of neurobiological research comes from a recent Charley Rose production on the brain; the answer came from across the ocean.)