In The Afterdeath Journal of an American Philosopher, the ghost of William James (or at least Jane Roberts) writes,
That fact is gloriously apparent to me, though spasmodically, when the intelligent light I mentioned earlier sometimes radiates with a depth of desire almost beyond imagining, as if desire is so intense it must break up into a million segments, each forming a life, a consciousness, a being. That desire and its showering segments are eternal. Of this in my own mind I am assured.
To go along with one’s desire, to ride the thrust of one’s life, does indeed lift an individual into communion with that far vaster desire and power, not to the annihilation of individual desire but to its activation at other levels of being. And there lies a paradox, for those who speak of the death of desire and the assimilation of the individual into the whole are often the most individualistic of people, the most fanatically fueled, the most eccentric and one-sided. In many such cases their comprehensions, once begun, are side-tracked, it is true. But in its purest version, natural faith seeks the fulfillment of the most individual and original tendencies of a person and accelerates rather than diminishes his desire. (197)
The most fundamental idea being expressed here is that desire is good, not something to be avoided. Earlier in the same journal entry, the author criticizes common manifestations of faith, writing,
This, “Heaven” was closed to non-Christians, and belief in Christ often brought membership in an exclusive spiritual club as snobbish as any Londoner’s. Other frameworks, such as the Eastern ones, included a faith that excluded millions–the untouchables–or displayed a callousness toward life itself in which the purpose of life was to escape it or any repeat performance. (196)
This latter part characterizes something that is common in both Hinduism and Buddhism, the idea that life is to be escaped and that desire is a bad thing. Buddhism, or a common understanding of it, tells us that life is suffering and that the way to end suffering is to eliminate desire. There is certainly something to this. Much suffering in life comes from desiring what we can’t have. You may long for someone who doesn’t care for you. You may want greater riches than you currently have. You may be envious of people who are better off than you. But there seems to be a point at where this breaks down. Suppose you are in agonizing physical pain and want it to stop. Is your suffering being caused by your desire to stop the pain? I think it is the other way around. Your desire to stop the pain comes from the suffering it is causing you. At the other end, desire can add joy and meaningfulness to life. When you are acting in pursuit of a goal that matters to you, engaging in creative and purposeful activity, you are acting on the value of life, enjoying it in a way that you can’t when you merely regard life as suffering and something to be escaped from.
As commonly understood, Buddhism presents a one-sided understanding of desire. It is merely the cause of suffering, and as such should be eliminated. But the ghost of James speaks of another side of desire, as something that is itself holy and brings us into communion with the divine. Even allowing that Jane Roberts is just a very imaginative woman, I think there is something to be said about the positive side of desire. First, desire connects us with our sense that life is good. This makes it possible to enjoy life and to find it meaningful. Without any sense that life is good, we may as well die, and it is primarily the belief that this will not end suffering that keeps people with this belief from killing themselves. When we believe life is basically good, we can put up with suffering. When we don’t, suffering becomes our focus, and it eats away at our capacity to enjoy life.
Second, desire gives us goals, which makes our actions purposeful and meaningful. It is easier to endure suffering when it is for a worthwhile goal. It is when suffering is meaningless that it becomes hardest to endure. Activity is more enjoyable and engaging when it is directed toward a goal. Without a goal, activity can become listless. There is greater joy to be found in working toward an important goal you may not achieve than there is in giving up on everything and striving for nothing.
Third, desire connects you with other people. It is through desire that you come to care about other people, to want what is best for them and to want to do something for them. Without such desire, other people are not going to matter, and you will not derive as much benefit from knowing them. It is true that when you care about other people you may suffer from the knowledge of their hardships in life. But it is also true that when you care about other people, their happiness will make you happier. Working toward the happiness of other people gives you something meaningful to do with your life, and having a hand in the happiness of others can make you even happier than merely being a witness to it. There may be failures and set-backs, but focusing on doing good remains a better and more fulfilling way to live your life than living in fear of loss or feeling nothing but apathy for others.
Some understanding’s of Buddhism replace the word desire with craving. The idea here is that it is not mere desire that causes suffering but some kind of inordinate desire. This is closer to the truth. Sometimes, desire does get out of hand, and it becomes important to rein it in. It may be as wrong to say that desire is all good as to say that it is all bad. Perhaps we should take an Aristotelian approach to desire, where the goal becomes to find the right mean between deficient desire and excessive or misdirected desire. Desire is essential to our enjoyment and to our sense that life is meaningful, but inordinate desire can cause suffering. The idea here is to cultivate desire to the extent that we get its benefits but to curb its growth to the extent that it brings us undue suffering.