In this excerpt from The Art of Happiness the Dalai Lama explains the difference between beneficial and less beneficial desires.
Crossing the hotel parking lot on my way to meet with the Dalai Lama one afternoon, I stopped to admire a brand-new Toyota Land Cruiser, the type of car I had been wanting for a long time. Still thinking of that car as I began my session, I asked, “Sometimes it seems that our whole culture, Western culture, is based on material acquisition; we’re surrounded, bombarded, with ads for the latest things to buy, the latest car and so on. It’s difficult not to be influenced by that. There are so many things we want, things we desire. It never seems to stop. Can you speak a bit about desire?”
“I think there are two kinds of desire,” the Dalai Lama replied. “Certain desires are positive. A desire for happiness. It’s absolutely right. The desire for peace. The desire for a more harmonious world, a friendlier world. Certain desires are very useful.
“But at some point, desires can become unreasonable. That usually leads to trouble. Now, for example, sometimes I visit supermarkets. I really love to see supermarkets, because I can see so many beautiful things. So, when I look at all these different articles, I develop a feeling of desire, and my initial impulse might be, ‘Oh, I want this; I want that.’ Then, the second thought that arises, I ask myself, ‘Oh, do I really need this?’ The answer is usually no. If you follow after that first desire, that initial impulse, then very soon your pockets will empty. However, the other level of desire, based on one’s essential needs of food, clothing, and shelter, is something more reasonable.
“Sometimes, whether a desire is excessive or negative depends on the circumstances or society in which you live. For example, if you live in a prosperous society where a car is required to help you manage in your daily life, then of course there’s nothing wrong in desiring a car. But if you live in a poor village in India where you can manage quite well without a car but you still desire one, even if you have the money to buy it, it can ultimately bring trouble. It can create an uncomfortable feeling among your neighbors and so on. Or, if you’re living in a more prosperous society and have a car but keep wanting more expensive cars, that leads to the same kind of problems.”
“But,” I argued, “I can’t see how wanting or buying a more expensive car leads to problems for an individual, as long as he or she can afford it. Having a more expensive car than your neighbors might be a problem for them—they might be jealous and so on—but having a new car would give you, yourself, a feeling of satisfaction and enjoyment.”
The Dalai Lama shook his head and replied firmly, “No…. Self-satisfaction alone cannot determine if a desire or action is positive or negative. A murderer may have a feeling of satisfaction at the time he is committing the murder, but that doesn’t justify the act.
All the nonvirtuous actions—lying, stealing, sexual misconduct, and so on—are committed by people who may be feeling a sense of satisfaction at the time. The demarcation between a positive and a negative desire or action is not whether it gives you a immediate feeling of satisfaction but whether it ultimately results in positive or negative consequences. For example, in the case of wanting more expensive possessions, if that is based on a mental attitude that just wants more and more, then eventually you’ll reach a limit of what you can get; you’ll come up against reality. And when you reach that limit, then you’ll lose all hope, sink down into depression, and so on. That’s one danger inherent in that type of desire.
“So I think that this kind of excessive desire leads to greed—an exaggerated form of desire, based on overexpectation. And when you reflect upon the excesses of greed, you’ll find that it leads an individual to a feeling of frustration, disappointment, a lot of confusion, and a lot of problems. When it comes to dealing with greed, one thing that is quite characteristic is that although it arrives by the desire to obtain something, it is not satisfied by obtaining. Therefore, it becomes sort of limitless, sort of bottomless, and that leads to trouble. One interesting thing about greed is that although the underlying motive is to seek satisfaction, the irony is that even after obtaining the object of your desire, you are still not satisfied. The true antidote of greed is contentment. If you have a strong sense of contentment, it doesn’t matter whether you obtain the object or not; either way, you are still content.”
Also published on Medium.