desire and expectations

Yesterday I wrote the start of a post on desire, but didn’t have enough energy to brush it up. The following article in science news, motivated me enough to continue:

Screenshot-antsASU scientists discover that ants, like humans, can change their priorities | ASU News.

Past and Experience

Apparently the mechanism governing desire (see next §) is the same for all animals, even for the far away invertebrate phylum of arthropods where the insects belong to. This is not very surprising. Simply said: all species must avoid danger, and find pleasure in food and procreation.


Desire is learned from past experience: a longing to re-experience whatever was called ‘good’ and at the same time an aversion to relive whatever was painful. Desire always goes out of ‘I had a good time then and there, and I want to re-experience this again’.


Disappointment is unavoidable when the present experience is less elevated in ‘goodness’ than its predecessor in memory. And alas, memory distorts experiences, delivering a snapshot of past feelings but not a snapshot of history.

Disappointment will also follow when we cannot avoid the painful experiences, again and again.


Disappointment is the result from an expectation

Expectations kill reality, and give it an ever diminishing value of quality.

Desire < > Expectation

In order to try to understand the relation between desire and expectation, I will try a thought experiment:

I wish to go back to Vienna because we had such a good time there 30 years ago.

We had such a good time”, a memorized experience, is wanted to be re-experienced.
I wish” is the expressed desire to re-experience.
go back to Vienna” is the action required to re-experience
we will have a good time again” is the expectation that we will connect to the action of following the desire.

So when we finally go back to Vienna, we expect to experience the same as 30 years ago. Excuse me, … we expect a lot more since our memory has removed all the bad experiences from Vienna: the endless re-chewing of the experience has only amplified the good parts.

Apparently, desire and expectations are very intertwined. If we wouldn’t expect ‘to have such a good time’, we would not have much desire to go to Vienna either.
Time is a serious distorter of memory: and hence experiences in the past are distorted far beyond reality (undone from waiting to board a plane for instance).

Is my thought experiment worth anything? Is it correct?

Perhaps there is one aspect on expectations that is different from desire: expectation always compares the present with the memorized past. While desire is the instigator of reliving the experience, and expectation is the follow up, the evaluation of the present.

Perhaps expectations are conscious mental constructs, while desires come from a deeper sub- or even super-conscious?

What do you think?

Some chains of questions remaining:

I have read about the elimination of desires in a Buddhist context. How to lead a life without desire? Is desire not the nature of the animal? Is being aware about the nature of desire, memory and expectations enough to be more present? Or perhaps one has to go further, and get rid of self, and in consequence desire will also be dealt with?

Whenever we follow a desire, can we do this without comparing with the past, silencing or circumventing the google-in-our-head and still be in the present moment?

And one last remark:

The desire of the bodhisattva is to be reborn and selflessly help others one step further to enlightenment, until all beings are enlightened. For them the elimination of all desires does not completely apply.


40 thoughts on “desire and expectations

  1. ‘self discovery’ is exactly that and requires no one else
    ‘Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.’ Buddha

  2. This desire thing is a major problem. Desire can be endless or if one becomes aware one can see the outcome as unnecessary any more, especially if one has been gorging on desire and now feels sick with self-hate. Then the change to less it no desire night come, however fleetingly and much subdued. One realizes the desires will not bring joy but complications and keep us worldly.

    Yogananda says that after we die desires don’t go away. Not only that, but a memory can trigger desire and disrupt our peaceful interim and drag us crying, back to earth, for another incarnation. Quite different from the bodhisattva who comes to give, not “to get.” Meditation would seem to put things in perspective where desire is seen as the greedy, destructive, addictive fiend it is and may tip the scales. Giving in to one’s desires can lead to self hate. The desire for a cigarette after one has quit is so tempting, if given into, may make one sick, and a lessons is learned. Or there could be lack of desire and one feels that one has beat that one desire and does not want to go back to being addicted again and that makes one desire conquered and that may teach us how to deal with all desires. They are momentary and sometimes greedy, evil grooves in our psyche to be left unfilled so they can eventually disappear. Then one can pray that a memory does not provoke a desire thought. Desire is addictive but one can overcome addictions. I would hate to be in the spiritual world, if I make it there, and have a desire thought that drags me back to earth protesting all the way because the word-desire pizza came into my head. Small scale desire but enough to make a rebirth. I am paraphrasing a Yogananda monk here. You can wait out desire. It will eventually go away. We are like junkies.

    • Perhaps we can look at desires when they come up, and try to find out their nature and where they come from. Not unlike watching anger develop and seeing that an event has pushed / or is trying to push my buttons.
      A desire itself is not negative or positive. It is a consequence of our memory of past experiences. Acting on desire can be negative, but doesn’t necessarily have to be so. We learn best from making mistakes.
      When a desire becomes an addiction, we become greedy on our own ‘self’. The physically rewarding addictions like alcohol, nicotine and others, are the most difficult to conquer, since they almost feel like ‘hunger’, and the will power to go on ‘nicotine-strike’ is the same as the will power to go on ‘hunger-strike’. These days there are patches that make it easier, but any difficult situation in our life, and there is that desire again. Very difficult to erradicate that groove completely (if at all).
      I don’t know much about desire in a possible afterlife, although I read also stories telling more or less the same thing as what you quoted. Whatever is freed from the body, will not carry a mental consciousness, related to the disintegrated physical memory. Whatever remains might have its own urges, though, and it is possibly going to be troubled by not being fully adapted to its new conditions. (if anything remains at all … )

  3. What if a Desire was already a Desire 30+ Years Ago; you live your life and Your Desire crosses Your Life, Unexpected but Real and You let Go for whatever reason. Suddenly You come to the conclusion that there is No Reason behind Your Reasoning not to Follow Your Desire and You Write to Your Desire, without any expectations You let Go of Fear. What if after Writing down, or Writing to, Your Desire it suddenly becomes Reality? Is this still a Desire or is it “Ment to Be”? What if You Know it is Real but “Your other Reality”, person in this case, is in a state of Desire and Tries very hard To suppress Reality, but Fails over and over again Because Of Desire Clouding Reality?
    – I let go of Desire and Fear
    – Desire that was set over 30+ years ago, unexpected, becomes Reality
    – No Expectations since (almost, yeah right lol) No Memory
    – Your Reality suddenly Desires You; but can’t See Your Reality because of its Desire, Expectations and Fear

    My experience:
    – let go of Desire, Expectations and Fear and Your initial Desire becomes Reality
    – Your Reality or “ment to Be?” is Not in Sync and In a State of Desire of Your Reality

    Problem is that You Cannot Force Desire because Desire has Expectations and Fear Clouding itself (or like I said above: “Your other Reality”/Desire)

    Solution, if Any? Wait…Wait…Wait? Or Let Go of Your Reality and Transform it to Desire?
    This ain’t looking good aye…since Waiting has No Momentum and Desire = Expectations, Fear,…

    Ha! The ‘Your other Reality’, is it Real or Just “Desire” longing for Your Real Reality?

    You can’t fight what’s Really your Reality, right?
    Or can You? (just get rid of “Your other Reality”/Desire???)

    OMG! What a comment…but if I understand what I wrote…

    • Perhaps it is important to see where a desire comes from. A desire itself is not negative nor positive. If you never follow any desire you will never know the manifold sides entangled to it. You can only conquer addictions if you know that it is an addiction. You don’t have to conquer the need to eat as a mammal, and the desire to eat an ice-cream on a hot summer’s day is something I would not like to eliminate. That one can take a distance from this desire and have the freedom to follow or not to follow is more important. Being aware of the consequences of following or not following is another issue, but nobody knows the future and the entire series of events when following or not following any desire.

    • I think it is impossible to have no desires as a human being, although it is possible to stop and look at each and every individual desire, and then act or not …

  4. I try to live more of a “tempered” desire. I enjoy things and want to do those again; however, I also try hard to remember the not so pleasant things that happened. This way desire is tempered. Also, I try to remember “why” I desire to go back. Can that happen again? If not, why go back? Still, I prefer having desires. They produce excitement and can also point to similar things that might be enjoyable but have not been done before.

    • Yes, that is the right reflex. I don’t think any human being can eliminate desire, but we refrain of the habit of following, look at these desires and have the choice.

  5. In A Course of Love, Jesus asks a question: “can you imagine a life without Desire?” In the context in which it is asked, it is following a “period of time” in which desire is essential to our return to Love. Desire (in any form) is described as an expression, albeit perhaps distorted in some cases, of the one desire to recover what is felt as lost or missing, which is ultimately the presence of Love, or our communion with Love. But the question “can you imagine a life without Desire?” is asked in relation to the question we might ask that goes something like this: what happens when we recover the awareness of Love’s presence in our lives? what then? I think when the “hole” is filled by what is True, desire perhaps flips over and becomes an endless, giving expression of the Love we have once again identified with. It is meaningless to have “desire” when one is “complete”, but it is impossible to be “complete” and not be “overflowing”…

    Perhaps the boddhisatva’s are in that state of overflowing, of endless giving, and not in a state of “lack”, which fosters desire…?

    Looks like flu/cold took us both around the same time. Crazy!


    • Thank you very much for this great comment. I had to reread it a couple of times. Concentrated information 🙂 I hope you feel better right now. I have been working for a week, and still feel tired, but a lot better than 2 weeks ago.

  6. Hi, 🙂 the very best book on behaviour in the sense of Buddhism ideals is the book Loving Kindness, by Sharon Salzberg.. The term for loving kindness is Metta… (Glad to have found your blog Bert. ) bonne chance… eve

    • Thank you, Eve. I’ll take a look. I see that Salzberg is on youtube.
      I’m familiar with Metta, although I don’t always show it. If I remember well, Pema Chodron talked a lot about metta in one of her books. Namaste

  7. I am very interested in learning about “elimination of desires in a Buddhist context”. I am just reading Seneca (just started) and it’s often said that Stoic and Buddhist philosophies are similar.

    • The standard answer of Buddhism is the 8th fold path.
      I’m not very familiar with Buddhist theory and doctrine.
      I don’t think one has to become like the ‘world-image’ of the stoic. In fact, the most interesting Buddhist teachers I know seem to be very lively people with a lot of emotions, but who keep the stories in their mental mind from circling and feeding themselves.
      Personally, I think it is only possible to not follow the mental story of the ‘downgrading expectation’. The subconscious part of desire is barely reachable, unless of course, one becomes completely selfless .. and then perhaps desire might also disappear.

      • Thanks! I have mainly read about the stoic indifference to wealth and fame – I am not sure they deny emotions in general (I don’t believe so).
        But one could argue that wealth and fame are easy to discard as they are do not represent the original desires – which are more related to being accepted in society (or something). So you could probably trade your desire for being famous or wealthy – accepted by “many” or by “important” people – by acceptance by a smaller community – but you could probably not eradicate that desire at all.

        • the elimination of desires, if possible at all, seems more like a multi threaded process, going on for multiple decades, and not like a linear algorithm as the 8th fold path might look like at a first glance by the unaided eye.
          I know Seneca, and read Marcus Aurelius. But it is very difficult to meet a living stoic these days. Perhaps they were different from what we read in Wikipedia, just like I discovered that Buddhism was different from its description in Britannica somewhere in the beginning of this millennium.

    • It happens that my writings are almost identical to the Buddha’s teachings so, if you read mine you will get what you are looking for. Be careful with confining you search to a particular matter as knowledge is best acquired in the total context for maximum relevance.

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