Motivation: Desire, Reactivity, and the Passions

One of the ancient and enduring objections to the Buddhist emphasis on inner peace, calm, equanimity, and coming to the end of desire is the idea that these qualities have the effect of draining away one’s motivation for action. This objection makes sense at first glance, and is absolutely true for some people, but it’s not necessarily true, and causes a lot of suffering and needless anxiety. This is really a question about motivation. Why do I do what I do, and what do I need to feel in order to do what I want to do in my life?

The understandable mistake is to assume that desire—in the form of strong emotion based in strong reaction to something that’s happening—is the only effective motivation for action. This is so common as to be an almost universal underlying belief in some parts of activist and political cultures, as well as recovery, spiritual, and wellness cultures. It is also the underlying engine of the consumer economy.

Everything is urgent… everything is a crisis… hitting rock-bottom is necessary in order to turn your life around… if you’re not mad you’re not paying attention. We live in a social economy where intense emotion has become the primary currency, and this is because people are trying to get us to take action all the time: to buy things, to vote for people, to get off our asses and do something already.

The Buddha proposes that there is a radically different pathway to action, in fact the entire path can be understood as a training to undo the indoctrination that makes us think that our intense desires are the primary thing we should pay attention to and act on. What if that whole M.O. (our modus operandi, literally “how we do things”) is just a big, old, fractal of a trauma complex?

While it’s true that some form of desire is behind every kind of action, it’s not true that desire has to be reactive or come with strong emotional charge. The Buddhist tradition defines several different kinds of motivation for action, some wholesome and some unwholesome, some emotional, some cognitive, and some somatic-instinctive. Exploring in our own experience different kinds of motivation can help free us from the idea that only certain kinds of inner state lead to wholesome action in the world, and we can begin to cultivate a different set of inner forces that can help us stay engaged without becoming slaves to intensity and crisis.

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