Dao Du Jour II, Day 37: The Understory

Chapter 37: Over All

“In the unnamed, in the unshapen,

is not wanting.

In not wanting is stillness.

In stillness all under heaven rests.”

~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)

These verses recall the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths:

  1. Life is suffering.
  2. Suffering is caused by desire.
  3. There is an end to suffering
  4. The end to suffering is the Eightfold Path.

And key steps in the Eightfold Path—Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration—involve contemplative practices aimed at cultivating the cessation of desire, at sowing the seeds of stillness.

Many people chafe at what they perceive to be a pessimism pervading the Buddhist prescription. To snuff out desire would be to get rid of what makes life worth living in the first place: action in pursuit of what we want. Beyond this, it sounds like trying to fight gravity, to resist millions of years of evolutionary inertia. Finally, many of the things we desire are things we think are good to be, things that ought to be done, things that are needed for society to function. In short, the Buddhist path sounds neither desirable, possible, nor moral.

The paradox is that once we perceive that wanting is the problem, we want to stop wanting. That is where the real struggle begins.

The struggle is not really to eliminate desire, but to excavate the psyche, explore its root system, and begin to understand your “understory.” There are desires, and then there are desires. Some are like weeds: they multiply mindlessly, bear no fruit, are parasitic, have shallow roots, are easily pulled, and a waste of time.

Weeds represent a psychic economy of scarcity: I am incomplete and empty, and I need something else to fill me up. This is the first phase of Maslowe’s hierarchy: survival, safety, belonging, self-esteem. These are marked by what he called “deficiency needs.”

But some desires are like big old trees. They do not seize us with intensity in the moment. They tug on us with lunar gravity, gently, persistently. Their roots reach deep beneath the surface. They grow slowly. They reach high. They send forth an architecture that turns an empty space into a living place. Their roots plug into an underground network. Not to mention they sequester carbon, preserve soils, and provide habitats for living things.

Trees represent an economy of abundance: I am already full, and I need to empty myself to share my bounty. This is the second phrase of Maslowe’s hierarchy: self-actualization and, what is less widely appreciated, self-transcendence. They are marked by what he called “being needs.”

There is a reason the Buddha found his enlightenment seated at the foot of a tree. The Buddhist goal of eliminating desires is really about identifying and pulling out the weeds in order that we can find our true roots. The stillness we find there is not a withdrawal from life or an end to desire. It is the space that gives us the clarity to see which desires matter most.

And tells us where we need to weed.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”