Unhealthy and Healthy Desire
Sam Trumbore | May 05, 2016

I have an unhealthy desire for sugar. Candy corn, a spoonful of honey, fruit jam or sorbet or any concentrated sweet substance touching my tongue sends me into an endorphin enabled rush of pleasure.  And one taste sets off a strong craving for more.  Even with my stomach aching with fullness, the craving doesn’t stop for more.

Unfortunately, excessive sugar consumption has negative physical consequences for my body.  Indulging in too much sugar makes my osteoarthritis worse, makes my eczema much worse, and, of course, makes me gain weight.  Too much sugar consumption for me is above about 10 grams a day.  So to maintain good health, I must monitor and restrict my sugar intake … which is very hard in a society that encourages sugar consumption at every turn. This is particularly hard as a minister who participates in many social gatherings where hosts and hostesses make delicious desserts they want to share with me.

The way I manage my cravings is by using artificial sweeteners like Sucralose (the yellow artificial sweetener packets).  It gives me some of the pleasurable experience of sweetness but without the health problems.  Sucralose mostly passes through the digestive system without being absorbed by the body … but I suspect I may be paying some health cost I don’t know about since it hasn’t been on the market that long. I feel a little like a methadone user who is trying to avoid heroin.  Maybe someday I can wean myself off artificial sweeteners – but unlike heroin, calories from food consumption are necessary for survival so I will continue to encounter sugar in what I eat for the rest of my life.

My problematic relationship with sugar helps me better understand and appreciate the dysfunction of a critical regulatory mechanism of our bodies.  Desire is absolutely critical to our survival.  If we are too cold, as I was the other day with a biting winter wind in my face, we need to find warmth or face the dangerous prospect of hypothermia or frost bite.  Thirst directs us to rehydrate with a glass of water.  Hunger to consume nutrition with a plate of food. Loneliness to seek companionship and support.  Desire signals to us an imbalance in our homeostasis that needs a correction to bring us back into balance.  Without the unconscious signaling process desire provides, our survival would be at risk constantly.

To reinforce this autonomic process and guide it, evolution has developed a powerful method to orient our attention and educate our behavior.  When there is an imbalance, the sensation is unpleasant.  When the imbalance is addressed, the sensation is pleasant.  Quenching an intense thirst with a cold glass of water, stepping out of a blizzard and warming one’s hands by a fire, the first forkful of food in the morning after a good workout, a hug of greeting with an old friend, all these experiences are very pleasant and satisfying.  Yet these healthy bodily regulatory functions can be easily hijacked by craving for that pleasurable experience disconnected from its autonomic function.

Craving for pleasurable experience and avoidance of unpleasant experience disconnected from one’s autonomic function is what the Buddha identified as a primary source of misery imbedded in the human condition.  He called it “tanha” and connected it to the existential angst human beings experience facing our finiteness and our insularity, separated from each other inside a bag of skin that eventually becomes dysfunctional and disintegrates.  Pleasurable experience helps us forget our condition and unpleasant experience reminds of our existential dilemma.

Thankfully, not all desires devolve into cravings.  The Buddha also identified a healthy form of desire he called “chandha.”  Chandha is the desire to act toward a worthy object with a virtuous purpose.  The desire to meditate to alleviate one’s own suffering and the suffering of others is described as chandha.  The desire to act to offer loving-kindness to other beings, to celebrate their joys and have compassion for their sorrows is chandha.  To work ardently to dismantle racism and discourage the use of violence in society is chandha.

The work of ethical responsibility, the cultivation of virtue, and social transformation for the benefit of all beings is chandha work … mostly.  The challenge for us is to discern in our actions whether we are operating from the tanha or the chandha motivation then purifying our purpose.  And often it is a confusing mix of both.

This is why I value so highly being part of a religious community dedicated to cultivating chandha in its members and friends.  It is the work of a lifetime best done in community for mutual support in this difficult yet worthy endeavor.

And the fruits of the effort are sweet – sweet in a satisfying and fulfilling way rather than a way that stimulates more craving and dissatisfaction.