“I do not need to fulfill my desires. My desires fulfill me”
Ok credit where credit is due, my dad David came up with this saying. But there’s a lot to this little sentence that may not be immediately apparent so I want to talk about it in a little more detail. If there were schools where the practice of Stoic Philosophy was taught today, what would be the first thing the kids would learn? They would learn that there are some things within out power, and some things outside of our power. And what would the second lesson be? That we should aim to concern ourselves only with what we control, and to everything we don’t control we should show a kind of indifference.
The kids in this fictional classroom would be asked by the teacher to raise their hands and help make a list of things that we do not control. “The weather” a little boy would shout, that’s right we don’t control the weather, “Our toys” says a little girl, very good, our possessions are outside of our control as well. By the end the white board is covered with words including reputation, wealth, the actions of others, the opinions of others and our body. Now a similar list is made of things that we do have full control over. By the end of the session, under the heading “what we do control”, the kids have collectively added our thoughts, perceptions, opinions, beliefs, preferences and aversions.
The point is that there are things we control and things we don’t. And we become very unhappy when we mix the two up. When we believe we control our wealth and it is lost due to theft, economic crisis or natural accident, then we feel wretched as though we had lost something. The fact is that it was only ever on loan, it was never in our ultimate power to keep possession of the wealth and so it was never truly ours. It is not lost, it is given back. How can I be so sure that our wealth, for example, is not within our power? I am sure because despite having an element of influence, you still require a whole lot of help from your circumstance and environment (which you do not fully control) in order to lose or gain wealth. And so it is with anything else outside of our sphere of influence, be it a relationship, our status and reputation, our possessions, our career or, which is the subject of this post, our desires!
Let me now put something to you; that it is not the attainment of the desired outcome which makes you happy, it is having the desire in the first place that makes you happy. This is true for two important reasons.
- Firstly, even though everyone has desires, not every desire will come to fruition, and yet everyone has the capacity to be happy. Therefore being happy does not require the attainment of all, or even any of our desires.
- Secondly we have the ability to choose our desires and simplify them to the point where we desire only to happen whatever will happen. Therefore anyone frustrated by not being able to attain a desire simply has to change the desire, the thing we can control!
You might be thinking “But the failure to attain our desires causes pain and frustration!” I’m sorry but that’s simply not true. It is the belief that you must attain your desires in order to be happy that actually causes the pain and frustration. When you believe that you control that which you do not then you are destined to be miserable! Ok so I’m waffling on a little here, let’s get back to basics. Let’s look at me for example, my desires include earning a living with only my writing, touring Europe playing music and getting a nice big expensive DSLR camera with a few lenses for different occasions. Every single day of my life these desires fill me with energy, joy, motivation and happiness, despite the fact that not a single one of them has actually occurred yet!
I have not fulfilled any of these desires and yet every day these desire fulfill me. When I sit and close my eyes, when I immerse myself in how it would feel to own that camera, when I imagine receiving five and six figure (why not!) royalty cheques in the mail, when I see myself rolling along the roads of Europe with my guitar, I feel fantastic, it brings a smile to my face every time. I embody these feelings and I live with the same consciousness and vibe as though they had already occurred. Not only does this feel great, but it also (thanks to the laws of attraction) increases your chances of actually attaining your desires as well!
I’m a sensualist, I love “things”, and I love it when my desires actually come to fruition, I’m no ascetic I love yummy, soft, warm, new, shiny and cool things. But I have common sense, I know that the attainment of such nice things lies, ultimately, outside of my control. And so when something nice comes into my life I am grateful and I enjoy it, I do not deny it. However when my life is barren of niceties I take solace in my desires, and their ability to fill me with joy and energy regardless of the current circumstance.
So let’s recap shall we?
- Do we control whether or not our desires will be fulfilled? No.
- Do we control what we choose to desire? Yes!
All humans have basic survival needs which will either be met and we will live, or will not be met and we will die. It’s very simple. However after your basic needs are satisfied you move into the realm of preference, of desire. This is where we get to choose what we would like to occur. Remember that it is not the failure to attain your desires that causes pain and frustration. It is the belief that you MUST attain your desires, that causes such misery.
My challenge to you is twofold:
- List your desires, just pick a couple. Take 10 or 15 undisturbed minutes to sit with yourself, close your eyes and begin to imagine what it would feel like if your desires had come true and were taking place right now. Feel how nice it would be in the present, don’t wait till it happens (or doesn’t happen), feel it right now! Keep that feeling fresh by regularly taking a moment to bring it into your body again. Let you desires fulfill you! The fact is that you or I could be stuck down by any manner of things tomorrow, there’s not time to be putting off your happiness to some future date when “everything is worked out”. If that’s your attitude you could be waiting your entire life!
- Remember that you can choose your desires! Some of us are unfortunately following the desires of another, a parent, a partner, a teacher or some social convention. When you follow the desires that are not your own this creates an inner conflict which can cause a lot of pain and frustration. Once again take 15 or so minutes to sit with yourself and focus on how your body reacts when you think about your desires. Are they really your chosen desires? What would you desire if the people in your life were not around, or were different? What are your TRUE desires? What are YOUR desires?!
If you find through this process that your true desires are impossible to fulfill at the moment, simply be thankful that you have found them, let them begin to fulfill you, and allow time to pass for things to change (as they invariably do), and perhaps they will one day come to be. However I would hope that by this stage it doesn’t matter to you whether or not your desires are fulfilled, as they are already fulfilling you.
Thanks for reading!
ps. For more Stoicism check out my e-book on the subject: Greeks to Geeks: Practical Stoicism in the 21st Century
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