The faculty of desire purports to aim at securing what you want… if you fail in your desire, you are unfortunate, if you experience what you would rather avoid you are unhappy… Because if you desire something outside your control, you are bound to be disappointed; and even things we do control, which under other circumstances would be deserving of our desire, are not yet within our power to attain. –Epictetus, Enchiridion, Chapter 2
Virtually every philosophy and religious tradition has had much to say about the problematic nature of desire. Our desires can bend our beliefs and distort our worldviews. They can compel us to act against our own rational judgment. And crucially, they can cause us to suffer pointlessly. Because desires cause us pain and frustration when they are not satisfied, every desire we harbor is a potential threat to our contentment and stability.
The solution offered by popular wisdom is to try your best to secure the objects of your desire and maybe you won’t suffer so much. But seeing the futility of this endeavor, the Stoics offered a counter-intuitive approach: Rather than attempting to conform nature to your desires, you should do the exact opposite. Conform your desires to the state of nature. Much has been said about the Stoic preference for suspending desire and training it not to chase after externals. But how is this actually done?
The Stoics prescribed a number of thought experiments for achieving inner peace. But many of these ideas, when examined closely, boil down to methods for up and down-regulating desire – exercises for training our longings to operate harmoniously with nature. Many of the principles behind these exercises have even been validated by modern research. By learning to modulate our desires, we can not only reduce the temptations and increase the fuel propelling us toward our goals, we can eliminate a major source of needless suffering.
The first and most basic skill we must practice is the ability to up-regulate, or increase, and down-regulate, or decrease the strength of a particular desire. Cognition is deeply involved in emotion, and it is intertwined with our desires as well. Strong feelings of desire are typically accompanied or preceded by cognitive simulations and fantasies.
…Desire-related processing can be subject to a vicious circle of reprocessing and rumination that, in turn, increases the feeling of wanting and the motivational power of desire.Wilhelm Hofmann et al., The Psychology of Desire
Participants of experiments who are given cognitively demanding tasks to complete are less likely to respond to stimulus with desire. In other words, if our minds are preoccupied or focused on something else, they are unable to initiate the thought cycles that heighten desire. So the key to basic desire regulation has to do with our mental closeness or distance from the stimulus.
The Stoics were well aware of this principle. They often advocated for objectivity in our perceptions and thoughts and viewed our unruly impressions as the source of our rogue longings. So to down-regulate a desire, you can distract yourself from the desired stimulus, focus on it in a purely objective, even alienating way, and cultivate a non-attached awareness of the feelings associated with the desire.
Don’t let the force of the impression when first it hits you knock you off your feet; just say to it, ‘Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test.’ Next, don’t let it pull you in by picturing to yourself the pleasures that await you. Otherwise it will lead you by the nose wherever it wants. Oppose it with some good and honourable thought, and put the dirty one to rout. Practice this regularly, and you’ll see what shoulders, what muscles, what stamina you acquire.Epictetus, Discourses, book 2, chapter 18
Here, Epictetus expresses the common Stoic directive to be on guard against our own thoughts and impressions, always prepared to challenge them. But he goes further to show that understands the mental mechanisms that cause our desires to be heightened, and how to reverse it. He tells us not to engage in the detailed mental fantasies triggered by pleasurable stimuli, and to instead think “cold,” detached thoughts. He even points out that practicing this exercise can train us to do it automatically and build up our desire regulation “muscles.”
Marcus Aurelius offers some specific examples of down-regulation:
When we have meat before us and other food, we must say to ourselves: ‘This is the dead body of a fish, and this is the dead body of a bird or of a pig, and again, this Falernian [wine] is only a little grape juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool died with the blood of a shellfish’…This is how we should act throughout life: where there are things that seem worthy of great estimation, we ought to lay them bare and look at their worthlessness and strip them of all the words by which they are exalted.Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 6
He reminds us to view food and luxurious possessions with objectivity and break them down into their constituent parts. The same can be done for sexual interests, entertaining activities, or money. But we may also seek to do the opposite. To up-regulate a desire, focus purely on the desired stimulus and all of its most positive aspects and delicious details. Increase your closeness and identification with the stimulus. This can be done to increase the intensity of a desire for a school lecture, a long drive, or a veggie burger. We will also see how it can allow us to embrace what seems to be a truly bad situation.
Once we have a grip on the basics, we can move onto methods for regulating our desires in bulk.
Our minds are wired to acclimate to our circumstances and magnify the negative to completely fill our field of view. This tendency may be biologically useful by driving us to continually push for more, but it can destroy our contentment and make life seem like one big series of hindrances and hardships. But we can use the practice of gratitude to balance our perspective and desires. The Stoics made heavy use of gratitude, often reflecting on the unearned gift of simply being able to live in this world. Marcus Aurelius even spends an entire book in Meditations expressing thanks for everything he has been taught from various people in his life.
Do not indulge in dreams of having what you have not, but reckon up the chief of the blessings you do possess, and then thankfully remember how you would crave for them if they were not yours.Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 7
Marcus encourages us to think, not only of how fortunate we are to have certain things, but to consider the cravings we would have for them if they were not ours. In doing this, he invokes the up-regulation method mentioned above, leading us to indulge in ‘hot’ mental impressions for the things we already have, just as we are often inclined to do for things we do not have.
In this way, gratitude can be used as a method for up-regulating all desires for what one already has while down-regulating desires for what one lacks. It is an excellent strategy for countering the disappointment of failure by shifting emotional investment away from new gains and toward things that one already has, such as loved ones, achievements, or fortunate living conditions. Often the greatest barrier to serenity is too many desires for what we don’t possess and too few for what we do.
Numerous studies have found that people who consistently experience gratitude are more satisfied with their lives and experience more frequent positive emotions. They are also less depressed, anxious, lonely, and neurotic. These findings are not merely correlational; controlled studies that ask participants to journal things they are grateful for every week have consistently found a significant boost in overall life satisfaction and positive affect among those participants. Gratitude is likely so effective because it causes people to savor their positive life experiences, reinterpret negative ones, avoid constant envy and craving, and build stronger interpersonal bonds.
A related practice has been called negative visualization. It is closely related to the Buddhist reflection on aniccā, or impermanence, and the Dalai Lama has termed it “pain insurance.” When one initiates this practice, he reflects on the possibility of losing the things he has. He considers the possibility that all of his plans may fail, all of his possessions may be lost, and all those he cares about, including himself, can, and eventually will die.
It strikes some as depressing, but this practice goes hand-in-hand with gratitude. When we down-regulate our desire to possess and keep something permanently, we up-regulate our desire and appreciation for what we have in the present moment. This visualization technique can inoculate us against loss and reduce or eliminate the blow to our emotions we have to bear if things don’t go according to plan. The Stoics remind us that change is fundamental to the very nature of the universe, and that being mentally unprepared for change and loss make us vulnerable to suffering.
This act of anticipating unpleasant events has actually been proven to minimize their emotional impact. In one study, participants were delivered a series of electric shocks of varying intensity. Those who knew the intensity of the shocks in advance experienced less pain and fear than those who received less intense shocks of unpredictable intensity. We can apply this insight by calibrating our expectations so we are never caught off guard by unanticipated shocks.
Another idea often associated with Buddhism is the doctrine of anatta, or nonself. It serves as a reminder that we are not unified egos, but parts of an ongoing and constantly evolving process – an aggregation of uncontrolled perceptions and cognitions. Not discrete beings detached from all others, but inextricably tied to the collective of all sentient beings. But the Stoics were aware of this fact as well, often pointing out that we are all part of a “universal mind” to which we share a duty.
A branch cut from its neighbouring branch is necessarily cut away from the whole tree. In the same way a human being severed from just one other human has dropped from the whole community. Now the branch is cut off by someone else, but a man separates himself from his neighbour by his own hatred or rejection, not realising that he has thereby severed himself from the wider society of fellow citizens.Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 11
This powerful passage illustrates the sense in which we are all connected to one another. We often get caught up in our own egoic stories, which falsely convince us that we that we are separate and unaffected by the well-being of others. There are multiple problems with this limited perspective. As Marcus points out, the sense of separateness can lead to hatred and a lack of empathy for others that can cut us off from a crucial sense of community. But it also makes us vulnerable and fragile to perceived attacks to our identity.
Much of the pain we experience is caused not by events we wish to avoid, but by the identity we wish to have. The desires which cause us to suffer when we are hit with a painful insult are the desires to be a competent, lovable, and valued individual. But by contemplating nonself, we can down-regulate all identity-based desires by reminding ourselves of the flaws with the entire self-construct when circumstances clash with these desires to be liked or respected.
There is evidence that reflecting less on our personal life narratives and more on the expanded self improves well-being. A decrease in narrative-self thoughts have been found to result in greater by decreasing negative and mixed negative–positive emotions. This decrease in attention on the self is often achieved and studied through a practice of mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is thought by some to have this effect by decreasing activity in the brain structures collectively known as the default mode network, which are associated with rumination about the narrative-self.
View from Above
The Stoics also made use of a method known as the “view from above”, which consists of contemplating the vastness of the cosmos, and the contrasting smallness of all of one’s petty concerns. This exercise is based on the same notion of the self as a part of an interconnected whole, but encourages us to step back and try to observe this divine whole and appreciate the small role that we play in it.
The Stoics thought the primary reason we suffered was because we are unable to comprehend and love nature in its entirety. When we understand that everything that happens is causally determined, we free ourselves from the blame and resentment of ourselves and others and from the anxiety of trying to control fate. When we come to see that what we naturally view as bad is derived from our limited perspective, we can put a limit to our sadness. And when we understand that the permanence of our possessions, relationships, and souls for which we long is unattainable, we can learn to love what is permanent.
To see them from above: the thousands of animal herds, the rituals, the voyages on calm or stormy seas, the different ways we come into the world, share it with one another, and leave it. Consider the lives led once by others, long ago, the lives to be led by others after you, the lives led even now, in foreign lands. How many people don’t even know your name. How many will soon have forgotten it. How many offer you praise now-and tomorrow, perhaps contempt.Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 9
It is hard to even read this quotation without feeling a humble relief over the ultimate triviality of our concerns. We are told to think of the many things happening throughout the world, near and far, past and present. The lives and journeys of millions of other people, all of whom felt that their problems were deeply important. He points out that even those who attempt to leave a legacy will eventually be forgotten. Contemplating these facts, though they deflate our sense of personal importance, can free us from our natural tendency to catastrophize our situations.
In his book, The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Donald Robertson points out that this thought experiment has its place in modern therapy as well. Aaron Beck, one of the founders of cognitive behavioral therapy, refers to the tendency of depressed patients to magnify their issues and take the “worm’s eye view” of their situations. To counter this, patients are encouraged to take an “enlarged perspective,” in which they distance themselves from their current circumstances, view them with greater objectivity, and contemplate them from a greater scale and timespan.
The view from above is a powerful method for putting the realities of life into perspective and stripping the emotional aspects out of a situation so it can be examined more objectively. It can be used to down-regulate all desires in bulk when one is overly invested in general, particularly when life becomes volatile. The more you study the great, harmonious ground of being, the less you will be affected by its permutations, and the more equanimity, calmness, and self-control you can attain.
Many such things will present themselves, not pleasing to every man, but only to him who has become truly familiar with nature and her worksMarcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 3
Most people learn at some point to appreciate films that don’t have happy endings or to marvel at paintings that are beautiful in the way they deal with dark and ugly themes. Though not pleasing to those who have not yet acquired the taste and ability, we can learn to view life as one great work of art that is made more beautiful by both the good and the bad. We can look back on our lives and feel thankful for the successes, but also appreciate the failures and struggles. We don’t have to be crushed by every change of plans if we can learn to find the beauty and long for what is.
Though best known for trying to mitigate or eliminate desire, the Stoics advised to increase desire for ostensibly bad circumstances. When things don’t go the way you want, you have the option to mourn and wallow in self-pity. But you also have the opportunity to cultivate a desire in the place of your aversion. You can want exactly what has happened to you. By practicing Stoic embrace, or Amor Fati, you can find a way to see the good in events, as arising as a part of a grand scheme of nature.
Stoicism urges followers to take an attitude of radical acceptance of everything which happened to them. This allowed the Stoic to remain happy in a sense, even when her circumstances were ostensibly bad. When an individual learns to correct the distorted aims of her life and appreciate the workings of nature, everything that happens becomes an opportunity to not only accept reality, but to embrace it. To give herself up to fate, and let only the functioning of her own mind concern her.
The tendency to find positive interpretations for negative outcomes is often called positive reappraisal, which has been found by both self-reports and functional imaging studies to reliably increase positive emotion and decrease negative emotion. Its use is also correlated with enhanced memory, closer interpersonal relationships, and overall mental health. Resisting change or hardship often comes in the form of self-blame, rumination, and catastrophic thinking, which have all been linked to anxiety and depression.
Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well.Epictetus, Enchiridion, Chapter 8
Learning the ways of your desires and strengthening the skill of modulating them will require patience, but once you have done this, you will be able to use this craft in real time. When an obstacle stands in your way, you will instantly arrange your desires to avoid the emotional friction and focus your attention on responding to the obstacle. You can learn to adjust the dials of desire at will, largely eliminating the tendency to suffer over ungratified longings.
Ryan A. Bush is the author of Designing the Mind: The Principles of Psychitecture and founder of the Designing the Mind organization. Its central theme of psychitecture represents a new, modern way of viewing and iteratively improving your mind integrating wisdom from Stoicism, Buddhism, cognitive therapy, and more. You can learn more at Designing the Mind, and find DTM on Instagram and Twitter.