Chapter 3. Desire – the Fuel that Drives Us
Do we eat because we are hungry or because we want not to be hungry? Do we scratch our noses because they itch, or because we want them to stop itching? When we were teenagers, did we clean our rooms instead of doing something fun because we wanted to clean our rooms, or because we wanted not to have a parent who was mad at us? I could go on and on with these rhetorical questions, but I think most readers will see where this is heading.
Every single act we perform in life is born out of a desire. From the smallest, most insignificant, conscious act to acts that require a vast amount of energy, they are all performed for one single reason: a desire entered us and affected us enough for us to take an action to fulfill it. Kabbalah calls the Force that propels us to fulfill these desires “the will to receive.”
We are completely controlled by desire; without one, we remain perfectly still, not moving as much as an inch. But what is the goal? What are we trying to achieve by consciously and subconsciously following our desires? The answer is pleasure. We pursue them in order to receive pleasure in one form or another.
Sometimes that pleasure may be the feeling of doing something because we believe it is the right thing to do. Other times it may be at the expense of another’s happiness. But no matter what the desire, it is the same will to receive that is the underlying force, literally leading us around by the nose to act in a manner that fulfills the desire.
This will to receive is so complex and cunning that at best we barely even notice we are slaves to it. Of course, nobody in their right mind wishes to admit they are a slave to anything or anybody. But if a person takes time to seriously reflect why he or she performs any given action, even actions of the highest morality, there is only one conclusion that explains all acts. We act only in order to receive pleasure for ourselves. Period.
This is an exceptionally hard axiom to grasp. As a teacher of Kabbalah, I find most beginning students struggle with such a concept. I instantly receive a litany of examples from students trying to show that the above statement is dead wrong. Some of these examples include the millions of people who give to charities every day, a man throwing himself on a hand grenade during a war to save kids, Mother Theresa building orphanages for children, the list is virtually endless. Yet when I ask them why they think these people did what they did, the final answer is not “to save kids’ lives.” It’s because the person who did the deed felt it was the right thing to do.
In other words, in these people’s judgment, the correct act was determined to be exactly what they did. In fact, each person in each example was doing something that may even have had a negative impact or caused great sacrifice for themselves, but they would not have been happy with any other action. For instance, in the hand grenade example, the soldier had placed the value of the children’s lives above his own, therefore making it impossible not to perform the act he did.
The will to receive pleasure is so powerful that it can even override instant gratification, such as safety or money, for a greater pleasure to be received in the future. At the end of the day, if we have any stake in an outcome, if we calculated ways to achieve this result, our will to receive made that decision.
So what really happens with the will to receive and why does it cause such actions when a desire presents itself? The answer is simple—a judgment is made. A calculation occurs regarding the pleasure an act may bring versus alternative actions and the pleasure they may bring. This calculation happens at lightning speed and does not usually require conscious thought. What ingenious tool has such a capability to perform these calculations and do it literally millions of times a day? The answer lies right between our ears: that marvel of a biological computer we refer to as the brain. We will speak more about this miraculous calculating machine in a moment.
The will to receive is so perfectly developed within us that it boggles the mind to consider how many acts it controls every single second. Every function of your body operates through this environment. All systems act in a coordinated manner to insure the utmost efficiency for a person’s bare survival on an unconscious level; all the while calculations that require conscious cognitive processing occur simultaneously.
Every second, and every move we make, whether swinging in our office chairs to help ease stress or bringing our wives flowers after work, is a desire to receive that is designed, analyzed, and calculated before any action ever takes place. Most of this process goes completely unnoticed without any cognitive effort. Just sit back and think for a moment how many individual movements it takes to get up and get a glass of water when we are thirsty.
Of course, there is calculation there as well. Enter the brain. Our biological systems detect a desire for water, so we feel thirsty. Now we may or may not go and get the glass of water. That depends on the calculations of the brain. For instance, if we are sitting in front of the television watching our favorite show or a particularly exciting ball game, we might forego that desire, at least until the next advertisement.
What happened? The brain made a calculation, weighing the pleasure we would receive by getting out of the chair now and going to get the water versus the pleasure we receive from what we are watching. If the subject here is a man, and his wife is watching her favorite soap opera, he will not hesitate to get up and get the water. But if it is the World Series and his favorite team is playing, the water can wait.
The calculation with regard to when or whether to perform an action at all is a calculation of work. That is the fundamental formula within the brain: possible pleasure received versus work required to receive the pleasure. If we are sick as a dog lying in bed at night sleeping and the phone rings, we probably will not get out of bed to answer it. But if the house is on fire and we smell smoke, we can literally be on our death beds, but we will get out of that house somehow. The brain prioritizes. It matches, compares, estimates and makes the decision based upon the results of the analysis. Once the decision has been made, only then is there an action.
In the case of desires like the thirst for water, it is easy to see how the will to receive works. The confusion comes when we begin to consider acts where a person is seemingly giving to others, like people who support charities, or Boy Scouts who help old ladies cross the street. The answer is that there are actually two types of receiving for oneself.
The first is the simplest: the will to receive in order to receive. The second is the will to give in order to receive. As previously mentioned, the will to receive is exceptionally cunning. Not only can it work out ways to receive by simply getting for itself, it can even work out ways to receive by giving to others.
On the surface, this makes absolutely no sense. What possible pleasure could one receive by giving? Of course, anyone who has ever been to a birthday party, brought a gift to a friend, and laid it upon the table with the rest of the gifts is well aware how they simply cannot wait for their friend to open the particular gift they had brought. In fact, it is of utter most importance that the gift they brought is enjoyed by the birthday honoree. If not, there is a deep sense of sorrow, a disappointment that is very hard to explain. In point of fact, we receive a certain type of pleasure for an act of giving as well.
Some people have discovered just how pleasurable this type of receiving can be and literally give millions of dollars to charities all over the world. It is not that they necessarily like dispensing their hardearned money; it is simply that they receive a pleasure that is greater by doing so than by keeping it and spending it on themselves. In fact, some people are so addicted to this type of pleasure that, if you were to somehow stop them from continuing to do so, they would no longer consider life worth living.
It is important to note here that Kabbalah does not say that people who receive in order to receive or give in order to receive are evil in any way. In fact, it is quite the opposite and there is a special reason for it. You see, those desires causing such actions come directly from the Creator. Every day people simply follow the program under which they were created. Like a sophisticated computer program that says “if yes, do this, if no, do that,” they merrily march on day in and day out receiving desires, calculating, and fulfilling—or not—depending on the results of the calculation.
People receive their desires from two distinct places. First, there are the animal desires, which are the same as those of any other biological animal. These desires for food, rest, shelter, and procreation are received genetically and are apparent no matter whether one lives within society or not. What do we really need? We need a slab of meat to chew on, a cave to stay out of the elements and to rest, a partner to fulfill physical desires and desires for procreation, just like any other animal.
Then society takes over. There are desires such as money, honor, knowledge, and power that we depend upon society to provide. What do these offer us? Money determines whether or not we eat that slab of meat or we enjoy a wonderful filet mignon at Ruth’s Chris. It determines whether we stay in that cave or live in a 20-room mansion, or something in between. Sometimes, it even determines the partner we choose.
Everybody wants to feel good about themselves, and if left totally alone, this does not take much effort. Yet this is where the society really begins to come into play. How? Our opinion regarding our self-worth is drastically influenced by how we are regarded by the society we live in. It is no wonder that the homeless, the unemployed, and those with drug problems have little or no self-esteem. All one has to do is observe how society views such people.
Then there is our immediate environment. We have all experienced the “keeping up with the Jones’” syndrome. If our immediate environment dictates that it’s important to have a certain type of car, you will see garages full of them. If it is a certain hairstyle, every woman will be wearing it. If hunting is what determines one’s manliness in the area, hunting will be a popular sport. In other words, our society provides us with what it deems important in these areas.
Today, a college education is a virtual necessity. In fact, its value more closely compares with the value of a high school education years ago when a college diploma was considered a “head start.” In today’s world of high tech, the post-graduate degree is the head start.
But if one moves to a poverty-stricken country and is left there with no possessions, simple survival issues will be deemed of greatest importance. Eating, drinking, and shelter might be regarded as honorable, while education will mean virtually nothing, except to perhaps escape this challenging environment.
Of course, we do have some freedom of choice. Our current fashions will offer a variety of colors and shapes, the latest type of car will come in different models by different companies, and we have a wide array of choices for that college degree. But even in these, our choices are based on desire, what we perceive will give us the most pleasure. If something within me makes me prefer green, chances are my car is going to be green. Why? Because I feel better with a green car.
To summarize, every action we make is predetermined by the desires within each and every one of us. We receive those desires from two different sources: our genetics and our environment. We are pressured one way or the other to fulfill what we calculate will bring us the most pleasure based upon those desires we receive. To go against these pressures is virtually impossible.
Desires from society enter into us through our five senses. When we smell apple pie, a desire that was previously not there appears. Is there anyone who has ever eaten just one potato chip, and not reached for another? The sense of taste immediately kicks in and out of the blue, we feel our life will be incomplete without that next chip.
But there is one more desire; the desire brought up in the first chapter of this book. What is that desire and where is it from? Why does it at first tease us, then annoy us, and finally drive us to seek answers? What is the fundamental basis for this desire and how can we fulfill it? Who really are we? The answer lies in a single discovery of that spiritual entity called “the soul!”