Solving the Paradox of Pursuing Our Desires While Detaching From Them
Letting desire be your compass while detaching from outcomes.
One of the major areas I work on with clients who are struggling with burnout and trying to reconnect with their creative center is how to differentiate between what they truly desire and what they only think they do. The latter consists of things they feel they need or should have, but that do not bring the happiness we associate with getting what we want. This failure of expected results brings with it an enormous burden of anxiety, confusion, and despair. Eventually this can turn into burnout, a dislocation or dissociation of the self from its true desires: the experience of living a life that does not fit.
A reader recently asked me about the seeming contradiction between what I recommend to clients, that they pursue their deepest desires (once they’ve identified them), and what many great teachings from around the world advise, which is to detach from desires. She struggles, she wrote, with letting her desires be her compass while detaching from outcomes. What she is hitting on is the essential challenge of desire: often we want something because of what we hope we’ll get from it, and it can be difficult to differentiate between this kind of desire and a genuine desire (what I would perhaps call a desire-need of the soul). Additionally, few people are free from all attachment to outcome. How do we sort through the seeming paradox of following our desires while detaching from them? To put this another way, how do we figure out what we really desire versus what we desire for the (expected; hoped-for) results?
First, is it wrong want something because of hoped-for outcomes? Not at all. Many people live this way and do just fine. But some can find that eventually they reach a point of disillusionment with life, where their disappointment in the results of their efforts becomes despair. Certain types of people are prone to this kind of burnout. Those whose life path must inevitably diverge from conventional or “correct” routes generally reach an existential crisis point in what could be termed the “faux results” phase of life. This is a time that comes after the “preparation” phase, which is full of maturation activities like studying, starting careers, planning families. The faux results phase is one of presumed arrival. Presumed, because it is not yet the time of real arrival. It is an in-between phase where many of us, perhaps all of us to some extent, grapple with the hard truth of desire: wanting something and working hard for it doesn’t guarantee any certain outcome, particularly happiness. The universe does not calculate rewards by any mathematics of merit.
If your reaction to this is anything but helpless rage, you are a better person than I. You should be enraged, because what we’ve been taught about the linear causality of effort = reward is wrong. It is at once too simple and too abstract. The imprecision of this formula is on par with flipping a coin. Yes, sometimes effort does reap expected rewards, but someone somewhere decided that this meant that it usually does, or that it always does when you make the right kind of effort, and turned that into one of our deepest-held cultural doctrines. In the Western world we tend to believe not just that effort leads to reward, but that right effort = just reward. The obvious problem here is that there is no way to morally or objectively fix the meanings of right effort or just reward. They exist only as conceptual leaky buckets into which we pour our prayers and wishes.
As my reader pointed out, there are other philosophical systems that have an entirely different reckoning of the relationship between effort and result. Notice that here I use the term result rather than reward. And therein lies the solution to the paradox of how to pursue your desires while detaching from them. When we personalize outcome, when we make certain outcomes a referendum on the value of our efforts, and by extension our worthiness, we will eventually and inevitably be personally devastated by results. The brittle kind of desire, where your desire is a prayer that says, “Please let this happen,” is different from the supple kind that stretches and yields, or desire-in-the-moment for something that feels good or right, brings peace or joy or comfort. It is these latter two in combination that can help you find a balance in your desire. You can want certain outcomes, but a desire is always more comprehensive and abundant than this. It contains within itself its own realization: it is, at its core, an embodiment and manifestation of living from your own creative center. Your needs are met in the accommodation of what could be with what is.
None of this is easy. It certainly does not lend itself to a “five easy steps to achieve your best life” approach. If you’re anything like me, you’ve tried those five steps, therapy, and perhaps some medical approaches as well, and still struggle to figure out what you truly desire. The answers often exist in the place where truth breaks the bounds of logic, a place we find very frightening indeed. But nothing you’ll find there is worse than the feeling of living a life that isn’t right for you.
Kendra Patterson is a writer and creativity coach based in north-central Florida. She works with fellow creatives to help them work through blocks and burnout, and to reconnect with their creative spark. You can find her at www.kendrapatterson.com.