I was sitting recently with my reaction to a situation where I didn’t get something I wanted. It is not important what it was (no, not a Christmas gift, or any other material thing), but it was something I knew full well I couldn’t have and I understood full well the reasons. Nonetheless, I felt deep inside something of the way a child feels when told he can’t have a sweet or a toy he or she wants. I could almost feel myself inside shaking my head back and forth saying, “No. No. I want it. I want it.” Figuratively holding my hands over my ears saying, “I don’t want to listen to the reasons why I can’t have it. I want it.”
That roiling feeling inside – the “I have to have what I want or I won’t be happy” urge – is the product of what Buddhists would refer to as clinging or grasping or attachment. It is an impulse that produces only dissatisfaction and unhappiness and there is nothing productive about it.
That is very different from the kind of deep desire that motivates us. The desire for union with God that provides energy to our spiritual life. The desire for the “good” that fuels our laboring for God’s Kingdom.
Reflecting on the two feelings in Ignatian terms, it is very easy to distinguish between them. Attachment (what might be called disordered desire) always feels tumultuous, unsettling and lacking in peace. Deep desire has an element of peace in it and it pulls us generally forward rather than roiling uncontrollably. And they are very different in their effects: Clinging and attachment incapacitate, deep desire energizes. Clinging and attachment lead only to pain and a feeling of incompleteness. Deep desire leads to satisfaction and peacefulness.
It is important to distinguish between the two and not fall into the mistake of thinking all desire is bad and should be abandoned. We want to recognize when clinging and attachment arise so that we are better able to let them go. Our desires, however, help energize us and help us be all that we can be.