I Want

Sarah Richards
February 7, 2016

I Want

What is the object of your desire? What is the “diamond” in your life? What is your heart’s own song? Maybe nothing springs to mind at this moment, but there’s something or someone in your past for which or whom you craved. What does it feel like to be in the thrall of desire? Is the unfulfilled “wanting” exciting, agonizing, or both at the same time? Or something else? Has it fueled creativity, exhaustion, or both? Or something else? The experience of desire, in all of its baseness and complexity, is universal and life-long.

We have desires because we have needs, some are basic to our survival, some are necessary for us to thrive, and of course, we desire things that are neither: for example, a donut, or world peace. And we desire things—like world peace, or winning the lottery—that we know are extremely unlikely to happen. “The goal may ever shine afar—the will to win it makes us free” as we sang a few minutes ago. Desires, themselves, apart from their fulfillment are important motivating emotions.

You may be familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs model, which categorizes needs into lower and higher orders, from the basic physiological and safety to love, belonging and esteem to the pinnacle, “self actualization.” The hierarchical aspect is not as relevant to us this morning as just the different types of needs, and their corresponding desires. “I need water, I want water.” “I need praise, I want praise.” “I need status, I want a diamond.” “I need knowledge. I want wifi.” “I need peace of mind, I want enlightenment.” “I need my life to have meaning, I want to make a difference.”

It’s no wonder desires (and needs) is a topic of much theological conjecture over time and across cultures. St. Augustine’s Confessions, written in the 5th century, famously recount his battles to control and extinguish “worldly desires.” They started as an adolescent: “For as I grew to manhood I was inflamed with desire for a surfeit of hell’s pleasures. Foolhardy as I was, I ran wild with lust that was manifold and rank. In your eyes my beauty vanished and I was foul to the core, yet I was pleased with my own condition and anxious to be pleasing in the eyes of men.[i]” But his adult conversion to Christianity doesn’t mean the end of yearning for something he doesn’t have. After becoming Christian, he has “otherworldly desires” of eternal life:

O Lord, have mercy on me and grant what I desire. For, as I believe, this longing of mine does not come from a desire for earthly things, for gold and silver, precious stones and fine garments, worldly honours and power, sensual pleasures or the things which are needed for my body and for my pilgrimage through life. If we make it our first care to find the kingdom of God, and his approval, all these things shall be ours without the asking.[ii]

I’m struck by the similarity to the sentiments expressed by the 13th century Islamic scholar and Sufi poet Rumi, writing about the desire of relationship with God, “the beloved”:

in every breath
if you’re the center
of your own desires
you’ll lose the grace
of your beloved

but if in every breath
you blow away
your self claim
the ecstasy of love
will soon arrive

all your impatience
comes from the push
for gain of patience
let go of the effort
and peace will arrive

all your unfulfilled desires
are from your greed
for gain of fulfillments
let go of them all
and they will be sent as gifts

fall in love with
the agony of love
not the ecstasy
then the beloved
will fall in love with you[iii]

“all your unfulfilled desires/are from your greed/for gain of fulfillments/let go of them all/and they will be sent as gifts” This seems a lot different from Maslow’s motivation for self-actualization…but a lot like some Buddhist teachings. In the Buddhist tradition, desires are not motivations but obstacles to the goal of mindfulness. Contemporary American Buddhist teacher and author Jon Kabat-Zinn writes:

Letting go means just what it says. It’s an invitation to cease clinging to anything—whether it be an idea, a thing, an event, a particular time, or view, or desire. It is a conscious decision to release with full acceptance into the stream of present moments as they are unfolding. To let go means to give up coercing, resisting, or struggling, in exchange for something more powerful and wholesome which comes out of allowing things to be as they are without getting caught up in your attraction to or rejection of them, in the intrinsic stickiness of wanting, of liking and disliking. It’s akin to letting your palm open to unhand something you have been holding on to.[iv]

Letting go of desire in order to have something “more powerful and wholesome,” in a way, reminds me of Augustine exchanging the worldly desires for a Godly life. Very different perceptions and approaches to dealing with desires—Augustine’s sinful desires that will lead him to eternal hell contrasted with Kabat-Zinn’s “stickiness” leading to distraction from the present moment. But I find a common thread in recognition of importance, and strength of desire, and the importance of reflection on one’s desires, whether that reflection be for the purpose of salvation or enlightenment.

20th Century African American theologian Howard Thurman wrote his reflections about his desires as a prayer:

The concern which I lay bare before God today is my need to be better:
I want to be better than I am in my most ordinary day-by-day contacts:
With my friends—
With my family—
With my casual contacts—
With my business relations—
With my associates in work and play.
I want to be better than I am in the responsibilities that are mine:
I am conscious of many petty resentments.
I am conscious of increasing hostility toward certain people.
I am conscious of the effort to be pleasing for effect, not because it is a genuine feeling on my part.
I am conscious of a tendency to shift to other shoulders burdens that are clearly my own.
I want to be better in the quality of my religious experience:
I want to develop an honest and clear prayer life.
I want to develop a sensitiveness to the will of God in my own life.
I want to develop a charitableness toward my fellows that is greater even than my most exaggerated pretensions.
I want to be better than I am.
I lay bare this need and this desire before God in the quietness of this moment[v]

This is a heart-felt prayer for self-actualization. And it is a humble request for guidance—let go, let God. What do Rev. Dr. Thurman, St. Augustine, Rumi, Jon Kabat-Zinn and the diamond-loving woman[vi] have in common? They have each become very aware of their desires, conscious of the holding and the letting go, the agony and the ecstasy in the experience. It is not the diamond, or the sex or the union with God or the enlightenment, it’s not the object of desire, but the awareness of our desires that matters. Being clear on what we are feeling, can help us be clear on our motivations, it can help us to shift or let go, or even indulge.

But does being aware of feeling desire, or any strong feeling, diminish the experience of it? Is it like explaining a joke, that it drains the pleasure, the passion of feeling? I don’t know the answer to that, but I think that at least Rumi and St. Augustine would say, “heck no!”—the cultivation of self-reflection and awareness, for them, only led to deeper feeling.

And what about we Unitarian Universalists, we spiritual seekers who hold many theologies, and whose greatest desires for spiritual fulfillment may include and differ from enlightenment or salvation?

We can look to our principles and discern desires for truth and meaning, justice, equity, and compassion, connection—with humans, within the interdependent web of all existence, to “transcending mystery and wonder.” How conscious, how aware are we of our Unitarian Universalist desires? How often, how deeply do we reflect on them? Of course meditation, keeping a journal, studying, and other methods of spiritual practice help us to reflect. More generally, we can take a cue from Gary Kowalski’s poem[vii]: “Maybe it means just listening.
….Maybe it means listening to our dreams,
Paying more attention to what we really want from life,
And less attention to all the nagging, scolding voices from our past.”

And what of our corporate desire, our yearnings, hopes and cravings for our living tradition and our beloved Fellowship? There are opportunities for communal reflection, too–conversations within Covenant Groups, within Cottage Meetings, within our upcoming Congregational Retreat—opportunities to reflect with others and discern our common and different desires. Beyond these structured gatherings, we can again apply Kowalski’s suggestions: “maybe it’s all about listening to each other,
Not thinking ahead to how we can answer or rebut or parry or advise or admonish,
But actually being present to each other.”

Friends, whatever our desires, may we make time and space to listen to them, to cultivate awareness of them as sources of motivation, of courage, anguish, direction, despair, hope. May we cultivate awareness of our desires for ourselves as spiritual seekers and for ourselves as community of spiritual seekers. May our desires help us to discover “something more wholesome and powerful” within ourselves and our congregation.



[i] Saint Augustine, 1961. Confessions (Classics). R. S. Pine-Coffin, trans. London: Penguin Books, Book II, p. 43.

[ii] Ibid., Book XI, p. 255.

[iii] http://www.ayearofbeinghere.com/2015/06/jalal-ad-din-muhammad-rumi-in-every.html accessed 2/4/16.

[iv] Kabat-Zinn, Jon, 1994. Wherever You Go There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. New York: Hyperion, p. 53.

[v] http://www.uua.org/worship/words/prayer-meditation/i-want-be-better accessed 2/6/16.

[vi] Refers to the Time for All Ages story presented earlier in the service. Adapted from http://www.storymuseum.org.uk/1001stories/search.php?keyword=diamond&opt=0

[vii] Refers to the Reading earlier in the service, “Listening With the Heart” http://www.uua.org/worship/words/meditation/listening-heart