Clinging vs. Desire

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.

What We Gain By Letting Go

The participants in the Fall Reflection Series I’m giving at St. Hubert’s are praying this week on the subject of letting go of the things that we cling to, things that threaten to remove God from the central place in our lives. The various prayer exercises they are engaging in this week are designed to help them identify what are the things that they cling to, what are the things that distract them from discipleship.

The difficulty for us is that the things we cling to can look very attractive to us, so attractive that we can fail to see how our attachment binds us, how it prevents us from being free. Buddhist thought on this subject is very developed; Buddhists identify attachment as one of the root delusions.

There is a story that captures well the danger of clinging. It is one I first heard many years ago, but I read it again recently in a newsletter and so thought to share it. It is a story that explains how monkeys in Africa are captured alive with a simple trap. The “trap” is a heavy bottle with a long neck, inside of which are placed some sweets that are attractive to the monkey. The neck is wide enough for an open hand to go in and out, but not side enough for a fist to enter or exit.

You can guess what happens. Attracted by the scent of the sweets, the monkey reaches its open hand into the bottle and grabs the object of its desire. Once it closes its fist around the sweets, it cannot remove its hand from the bottle. Because the bottle is heavy, the monkey cannot run away with it. All the monkey has to do to get away is let go of the sweets. However, the monkey clings to the object of its desire, unwilling to let it go, even though that means captivity.

We do the same. We cling to things that cannot bring us ultimate happiness, to things that keep us from being free. And all we have to do to gain greater interior freedom is to let go.