Ever wonder why chastity is so heavily suggested in Christianity or why Buddhist monks live modest lifestyles? The core tenant is simple, our desires are powerful and obstruct “good” decision making. What is said to be good or bad is completely subjective to the particular person but we all have done things in the past that were based on our want of some thing. For many it could be the temptation of a lover that has lead us to stray out of a meaningful relationship. Others manage to practice will power or moderation. No matter what our mechanism is, we seem to recognize that we need them. Acknowledging that we need to be in control of our wants is a universal idea from east to west. The question though is when and where to apply this idea.
All too often in religion and philosophy we take a particular principle and apply it through out a system when it should only be used in context. While it is certainly true that we should be capable of raining in our desires and learning our impulses we should also know when to follow our hearts and lean into our wants. Both Buddhism and Christianity make distinctions between basic desires and greater ambitions but we don’t always utilize them comprehensively and have an even harder time recognizing where our wants are coming from.
A wild animal that smells fresh meat in a field is likely to move towards it naturally to follow its basic need for sustenance and because this is behavior is pretty reliable it is easier for humans to manipulate wild animals, trap, train, and tame them. We humans are animals too though, and the same devices are used to bind us, and control, and get us to conform. “When we free ourselves of desire, we will know freedom and serenity.”, it is a Buddhism that speaks to the power of self-restraint. But to deny your basic urges would be the same as a wild animal denying its need for food.
To look at our desires objectively we must step away from the connotation we place on them as negative or positive. When a wild animal follows a scent it is neither doing sinful or holy. It is the animals innocence that keeps it in the clear. We react to internal stimuli the same way, but we acknowledge emotions that qualify the stimuli and a consciousness that allows us to observe the stimuli objectively. It is commonly held that if an animal is hungry it has no choice whether or not to eat, while a human has the ability to control its basic urges to keep from acting on them.
But as Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal states our will power is finite and is also related to our health and creates stress. So while we may think we are advanced and can avoid our satisfactions we have increasingly less ability to do so as stress increases and it begins to effect our physical and mental health.
This is what makes monks particularly interesting. A monk can exist in any religion but they have chosen to live free of temptation. While this is incredibly empowering it also comes at a cost of being incredibly isolating as well. Since so much of civilization is based around succumbing to basic desires of violence, lust, gluttony, these few have chosen to remove themselves from it completely. It is admirable but not particularly practical for the rest of us. So how do the non-monks deal with our desires and maintain control especially if our will power is finite.
We should recognize that to deny our desires causes stress, and that is something we can only sustain for sometime. Along with this realization we should find specific outlets to ease this tension by directly or indirectly addressing the desire at hand. If we want sugar, then it may be acceptable to set controls around our sugar consumption. In other cases we may need to remove the stimuli from our environment completely. These decisions are ours to choose and we should take great care in doing so.
We are animals, complex, but animals nonetheless. The goal is to be the ones holding the carrot in front of our own heads and to not be controlled, but practice self-control. It is there that freedom lies, not by succumbing to our desires, nor ignoring them, but finding a balance between them.