Craving vs desire in Buddhism

It’s a core doctrine of Buddhism that craving and aversion are bad and you want to get rid of them. Their alternative, equanimity, is good and you want to have all of it.

But there’s a confusion close at hand here. What exactly is it that I should cease to crave? What is it that I should be equanimous towards? Does equanimity mean I have to just accept the conditions of my life, bad as they may be, allowing others to mistreat me, resigning myself to realities that I could otherwise have changed?

Buddhism teachers will unanimously agree: no, equanimity practiced rightly does not lead to indifference or resignation. It leads to power and effective action, they say. It doesn’t mean you can no longer desire and intend for the world to be different. You can have those desires, and you can work hard with effective action to make the world so.

But how does this work? Where are the lines drawn such that I can desire something but not crave it? How does this work?

I haven’t yet seen a clear explanation on this question.

“What exactly is it that I should be equanimous towards?”

Many teachers will say something along the lines of “reality”. They might say…

  • Reality
  • What is
  • The present moment
  • Thoughts, feelings, behaviors, circumstances

The problem is that this doesn’t give us an explanation for when and how to change circumstances. Sometimes there’s a bear behind you. It wouldn’t be prudent to think “ah well, I guess that’s the way things are now, there’s a bear behind me and he’s gonna eat me.”

One teacher, Shinzen Young, is careful to draw the line in a different place. According to Shinzen’s Unified Mindfulness theory, the object of your equanimity should be the flow of sensory experience, not objective circumstances or behavior.

This seems to at least partly resolve the problem. I just have to stop resisting my senses; I don’t have to stop resisting the fact that there’s a bear behind me.

But it still doesn’t provide an account of how desire works. Lots of people use non-equanimity (craving and aversion) as a todo list or a motivator to get stuff done. If you take those away, it’s just not clear to them what will drive them to do stuff. And when a thought arises about how they should be doing something, or about something they want, why should they ‘react’ and go do the thing, rather than practicing equanimity with the ephemeral passing desire?

Not yet clear to me.


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