Desire, Desire, Desire: Observations on Greed, The First Defilement in Buddhism

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What makes the engine go?

Desire, desire, desire.

The longing for the dance

stirs in the buried life.- Stanley Kunitz

How much of your everyday activity is driven by desire? Obviously, we all desire food and water to keep our engines going. Perhaps we all desire love, comfort, and safety too. Perhaps we all desire connection. Perhaps we all desire a sense of meaning or direction. And perhaps we all desire sex or escape or hedonistic pleasures. Desire is the stuff of all human activity, the thing that keeps us going and wanting more and more.  Desire is what the economy going (what would happen to the worldwide economy if people were completely satisfied with what they have?) 

For most of my life, I did not question this instinct. But that has changed over the last few years. Desire, I’ve observed, causes so much of my suffering. On one level much of my pain is the result of wanting what I cannot have or wanting things to be different. It seems so obvious. Give up desire, and maybe I can be happier. But trying to give up desire is like asking a fish to stop swimming. Swimming is in fish’s very nature. Desire is how we operate. There is no escaping that. 

I suppose the question then is this: if desire is innate to humanity, yet it causes us to suffer, what do we about desire? Different traditions and psychologies deal with or label desire in different ways. For instance, Freudian psychology assigns desire to the id, which conflicts with our superego, which moralizes and civilizes us. Whether you buy Freud’s theories doesn’t matter; it is a conceptual framework with which to understand human nature. It has its inherent strengths and flaws like any theory.  

Photo by Suraphat Nuea-on on

Personally, I prefer a Buddhist framework when dealing with desire. In the Pali Canon, which are the original writings and teachings of the Buddha, much is made of wholesome and unwholesome states of mind. The three defilements, greed, hatred, and delusion, derive from the Four Noble Truths, For this post, I’d like to focus on greed as analogous to desire. Greed is simply our desire to obtain objects, believing they will bring us pleasure or happiness. The objects can be material objects, but also abstract objects like money or human beings that one desires sexually. 

Greed is inherent to human existence. Some would argue that greed is caused by capitalism and that if we only removed the desire for accumulation, which capitalism fosters, human beings would learn to live in harmony. But I think Buddhism would disagree. Greed begins with our senses at a very young age. Young children and babies are by their nature full of desire, mostly for the basic necessities: food, water, shelter, and love. 

But as we get older, our desires become stronger and more cultural. I think of my adolescent self, and my rapacious material desires. I wanted new sneakers, new video games, and brand-name clothes to show off to my friends. I suffered when I could not get them, even getting angry with my parents. These types of desires are not innate but come from social hierarchies.  

The truth is no matter what we do, we cannot escape desire. All of us live with greed. The grass is always greener. We tend to want what we can’t have. There is a certain amount of hopelessness that can come from this realization. We are born to suffer because we are born to want. It is the way of humanity. 

But perhaps fighting against our desire is where most of us go wrong. Perhaps there is nothing to fight. It is what is. Greed is here to stay. Perhaps the first step is to accept this is what human nature is, a constant stream of desires that is insatiable. Perhaps this is what human existence is. 

Acceptance around desire sounds easy, but in reality, is very hard. Our consciousness, our very egos are always present, and it is primed to want. It often starts with our senses, whether it is the smell of delicious food or the sight of a beautiful person. But Buddhism has a way to suffer a little less, called mindfulness, which I’ve discussed a lot throughout this blog. Mindfulness is simply defined as non-judgmental, present-time awareness. It is to step outside of the self, outside of the constant stream of thoughts, feelings, and sensations that make up the ego. Learning to be mindful has a steep learning curve. Anyone new to meditation will tell you that sitting in meditation for five minutes can feel like hell, mostly because one’s thoughts just keep going, and it feels impossible to concentrate. But it gets easier. With more self-awareness, patience, and remembrance, mindfulness can become a habit like anything else. 

How does mindfulness work with respect to greed? Let me give a real-world example of the situation. Let’s say I’m watching television, and I see a donut commercial, and I suddenly have an irresistible urge to eat a donut. Normally when I feel that urge, I get up from the television and scour the house for any sweets available. But today I am a little more mindful of my urges. I am present with how my cravings have been manipulated by the television commercial. I cannot get rid of the urge but I have some distance from it. I see it arise in me, but I also see it fall. It doesn’t feel quite as overpowering, and I move on to watching my TV show. 

This example is maybe a little too neat. It is much harder to this in regular life. But the possibility to change is always within our reach. It’s just smaller and less ostentatious than we might think. But this is the path to awakening. As Victor Frankl once said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” There is a lot of truth in this quote. Maybe we can’t stop our greed. But we do have some power to buy into every urge we have and find some freedom in between. 


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