The Desperation Cycle

Written on June 17, 2009. Written by .

Many Eastern philosophies advocate the reduction of desire in order to prevent suffering. The logic goes that if you desire little, there will be much less to disappoint you, and this is true. If you care about nothing, not even your own life, then what could possibly upset you? But by the same token, what would ever excite you? If taken to the extreme, the elimination of desire effectively throws the baby out with the bathwater, and merely makes your life quality more stable, but not necessarily better. But suppose you are after stability, perhaps because the pain is too much and you are willing to forego the pleasure. Even then, you must question whether the elimination of desire is even feasible. There are some desires that are so strongly ingrained in us that their elimination would require huge amounts of effort and strain, which would cancel the potential benefits. The most significant such examples would be social desires such as the desire for friendship and romance, which can lead to feelings of loneliness through the desperation cycle.

The key to understanding desperation is that it is not stem from just desire. You do not feel desperate just because you are alone, just as you do not feel desperate just because you are not rich or are not in Aruba right now. Desire is not enough, desperation requires the combination of desire with negative thought patterns based on non-present thinking.

Here is the basic mechanism of the desperation cycle. First you stumble on some desire, nothing painful or problematic, just a realization that you would prefer some other state to your current state. This desire inspires you to make a direct effort to attain the preferred state as quickly as possible. Sometimes this effort may succeed, but if it doesn’t you feel a bit disappointed because you lack control over the attainment of this desire. This lack of control creates a slight insecurity (in this case desperation), initially unnoticeable, but identifiable by the thoughts that it produces. Your planning mind considers the future and worries about what it would be like if you can’t find success. You may worry that your life won’t live up to the standards that you’ve set. You may even have fear of future regret – that you didn’t try hard enough and you missed out on a good opportunity. These non-present thoughts generate an artificial need which feeds back into your lack of control due to the fact that you have a perception of unmet needs. This cycle is what we call the desperation cycle. This process is illustrated in the state diagram below.

There is a way to avoid the desperation cycle without the elimination of desire, which can be found in the state diagram above. If you are in the cycle, you need to break out by detaching from the desire. This amounts to convincing yourself that what feels like a need is in fact just a desire. You can still be happy without it. In fact, psychological studies suggest that people can find ways to adapt to almost any conditions and find ways to be happy. Poor celibate monks, people who have lost their vision, and siamese twins connected at the head have all found ways to be happy with their lives. Our minds are just very bad at predicting future happiness [see Stumbling on Happiness for a thorough explanation]. It may help to meditate or use cognitive therapy to facilitate detachment.

Unless detachment training techniques are continued permanently, the original desire will likely sprout up again soon after the desperation was quelled. Naturally, there is a danger of falling right back into the same cycle. One way to prevent this is to avoid direct effort and instead use indirect effort. Indirect effort refers to the techniques of result detachment, where you put yourself on the path to success, but don’t consciously strive for it. The distinguishing factor between direct and indirect efforts is whether you would still want to perform the action if it was guaranteed that it would not help you in attaining your desire. If you would prefer to not do it, but you do it anyways in the hope of attaining your goals, then it is a direct effort. It may sound like a trivial distinction, but it makes all the difference in the world how you think of things. When using indirect effort, you don’t provide yourself with anything to fail at, and if you can’t fail, then you don’t feel a lack of control.

But is indirect effort as effective as direct effort? In general no, but it depends on what you mean by effective. For example, if you want to start a business, using direct effort will probably help you reach profitability faster. But if you use indirect effort, say by taking your time and exploring your business interests, you will more likely find an option that you truly enjoy. With romance, making a direct effort by going to bars every night may find you a partner faster. On the other hand, you could make an indirect effort by spending more time in social activities that you are really interested in, and increase the odds that you find someone you are truly compatible with. Even if you are not in the desperation cycle, there may still be times when your desire outweighs your other concerns. In this situation, it is probably best to optimize your indirect efforts. For example, you could find new activities to join or develop yourself in ways that make it easier to meet people. If you can learn to avoid creating expections, comparing yourself to others, and rushing for the future, then you will find that life unfolds moment by moment in a perfectly satisfactory way.

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