Lao-tzu’s Wisdom on Artificial and Natural Desires

In the Tao Te Ching, Lao-tzu makes a distinction between “the desires of the eye” and “the desires of the belly.” He recommends that we revert back to one over the other. In chapter 12 of the Tao Te Ching Lao-tzu explains:

The five colors blind our eyes. The five notes deafen our ears. The five flavors deaden our palates. The chase and the hunt madden our hearts. Precious goods impede our activities. This is why sages are for the belly and not for the eye; And so they cast off one and take up the other.

The word “five” as it appears in this chapter can be replaced with extravagant or fancy, because five refers to our tendency to focus on sensual pleasures rather than moderation. The sage’s advice is to go back to the desires of the belly over the desires of the eye. But what are the desires of the belly and eye that Lao-tzu mentions? First of all, what are the desires of the eye that Lao-tzu warns us against?

 The Desires of the Eye and Modern Culture

 The desires of the eye are the things that you can see far away but you don’t possess. The desires of the eye are the artificial needs created by society, which keep us chasing and hunting a life that is not ours and this in turn “maddens our hearts,” to use Lao-tzu’s words. These desires are insatiable and practically infinite. We know these desires all too well because our modern culture promotes the desires of the eye as the template of a successful life.

 Think of how important Madison Avenue and the advertising industry are supposedly to modern culture. Modern advertising creates these new artificial desires through marketing. They promote the desires of the eye and this in turn creates inauthentic people, which is why Lao-tzu believes these desires are dangerous. A growing swell of people, especially among the youth, will stop at nothing to be famous or have social success. But both fame and success are artificial needs planted in our mind. Striving after such artificial desires suppresses our true nature. As a result, we become a soundbite generation with no depth, where we always swim in the shallows. Being famous, then, becomes more important than integrity, arrogance is mistaken for humility, and marketing is more important than knowledge and wisdom.

 We only have to see what nonfiction books are bestsellers and what films are the highest grossing to realize that we’ve built an empty culture with no depth. Granted, some few worthy books and films can get moderate exposure and reach a wider audience, but this is very rare. And last but not least, wealth is mistakenly associated with success. The symbol of success, then, is wealth, which either consciously or unconsciously motivates many people to do what they do in life. This is just the nature of a shallow culture. As a result, we’ve got this new phenomenon of people striving to be entrepreneurs for the sake of being one. So, an entrepreneur then is someone who is just a motivation speaker for other people to become motivational speakers. This empty striving just to be noticed is not natural entrepreneurship. True entrepreneurship just happens naturally resulting from hard work, a brilliant idea, and perfect timing. Think of Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and so on. None of these people set out to become an entrepreneur or have wealth and fame. All three acted on a brilliant idea that they believed in and now they reap the rewards. 

 In a culture driven by the desires of the eye, we get in the bad habit of trying to mimic someone else’s achievements as if this is a sure-fire path to success. We are always comparing our lives to others and this breeds inauthentic people. We try to emulate other people we believe are on a pedestal. On top of this, we also try to live up to social norms which, in the end, inculcate within us a fake sincerity enacted by our role in the world and this is not who we truly are beneath our social and cultural conditioning. This is why we feel a certain stench about some people’s sincerity and their over the top attitude towards being politically correct. 

German philosopher Martin Heidegger explained that when we are enacting a certain role with fake sincerity then we are driven by “they,” meaning the expectations of other people and culture. As a result, we are not operating from our original nature, which is our deep-down raw self, minus its egotistical conditioning. Most people never encounter this raw deep egoless nature because people are too busy trying to be somebody important and trying to acquire wealth. We are always trying to keep up with the Joneses or get ahead of them, and this attitude eclipses our true nature. As a result, we have a world that is predominately hypnotized by consumerist thinking. 

Modern culture, and specifically advertising, sell us this idea of how our lives should be, such as the American dream, which fuels our consumerist habits. Marketing ramps up what we think we need, but in truth we don’t need any of what they’re selling. We are fooled into believing that we need the latest smartphone, car, clothes, haircut, computer, television, and whatever else is deemed trendy by advertising. We also think we need to be famous or known and respected in some sort of way, even if in truth we’ve accomplished nothing to gain such notoriety.

All of these artificial desires are built on the lie that we actually need all this rubbish. The fact of the matter is you don’t need any of it. And I’m going to let you in on a little secret that all these great motivational speakers won’t tell you, not everybody can have financial success or fame, and not all of us can have a brilliant idea. And you know what, none of it matters in the end because that’s not why all of us are here.

 We will never know why we are truly here nor our true nature if we are constantly chasing our tail, and this is Lao-tzu’s point. He recognized that we are always chasing empty desires, the desires of the eye. And keep in mind, Lao-tzu’s criticisms were aimed at Confucius’s carving and polishing ideology of self-cultivation, with its focus on artificial desires and an attempt to induce naturalness, which is completely mild compared to our modern culture.

Just imagine if Lao-tzu could see the world now, he would surely roll in his grave. But, nevertheless, his advice and reaction would be the same: we need to turn our back on modern culture and return to the way of nature, the Tao. If we don’t turn our back on modern culture then we are living inauthentic lives because we are continuously enacting some sort of role to fit into the accepted cultural and social framework. This mentality is a disaster and something most of us aren’t aware of. Our mind is so polluted with striving that we diminish simplicity in the process. We move away from simplicity by chasing desires. Lao-tzu’s remedy for the hypnosis of the desires of the eye is to return to the natural desires of the belly. 

The Desires of the Belly and Simple Living

The desires of the belly are our basic needs, our basic desires which are very simple. These desires of the belly are what nature gave you and they are quite modest needs. This is quite a different picture compared to the Confucians who value being cultured and, as a result, become a connoisseur. But, as Lao-tzu mentioned in chapter 12 of the Tao Te Ching, having too much of anything deadens our palate. So, for example, instead of becoming a wine connoisseur, Lao-tzu would suggest that we just enjoy the wine for its own sake without becoming a wine snob.

If you are a cultured connoisseur of life then you have moved away from your simple needs. In chapter 46 of the Tao Te Ching Lao-tzu explains that having too many desires, like a Confucian or modern individual, is a great disaster. The Tao Te Ching states:

There is no greater crime than having too many desires. There is no greater disaster than not being content. There is no greater misfortune than being covetous.

In chapter 46, the Tao Te Ching explains that no matter what our fancy explanations are, excessive desires drive greed and in turn greed drives aggression. As a result, we end up with the world we have now with all of its conflict, tension, and inequality. So, all of this education and socialization fuel our desires and this is why Lao-tzu wants us to return to the desires of the belly. 

If our natural needs are modest then our starting off point to become a sane and healthy individual is oriented in the wrong direction, as we are “trying” to attain it. But if we reorient our lives towards the desires of the belly, we will realize that human beings have a simple nature and are easily satisfied. We only mess with this simple nature when society creates artificial desires and, as a result, we want more than we naturally need. Human nature, then, is fundamentally good according to Lao-tzu, but not according to Confucius because he believes human nature is this ugly raw material that we need to shape and cultivate. Interestingly, both Confucius and Lao-tzu have opposing metaphors to explain their view of human nature. Confucius uses the carving and polishing metaphor, referring to the carved and polished block of wood. And, on the other hand, Lao-tzu uses the uncarved block metaphor, or unhewn wood, to explain the human being just as nature intended it.

So Confucian self-cultivation is about taking our raw human nature and carving and polishing it to the point that we become a superior man, junzi in Chinese. Lao-tzu, on the other hand, believes human nature is good, so he doesn’t want you to carve or polish but instead stick to the uncarved block as this is your simple raw nature. Confucius believed that a human should be called a “human becoming,” while Lao-tzu believed that our common title of a “human being” is an accurate description because there is nothing for us to do or become. We already are naturally good deep down. Carving and polishing warps our human nature. In chapter 37 of the Tao Te Ching it states:

Nameless unhewn wood is but freedom from desire. Without desire and still, the world will settle itself.

What chapter 37 means is if we can get back in touch with our original nature, the uncarved block, then having an urge for excessive desires will vanish. If we can just get back in touch with our original nature and forget about all of this carving and polishing then everything will begin to order itself because our basic needs are very simple. So, we don’t have to do anything for this to happen. Instead of embarking on Confucius’s journey of self-cultivation, we just need to return home to the uncarved block. This return home encapsulates Lao-tzu’s view that human perfection is through nonaction, wu-wei. Chapter 47 of the Tao Te Ching states:

Without going out the door, one can know the whole world. Without looking out the window, one can see the Way of Heaven. The further one goes, the less one knows. This is why the sages: Know without going abroad, Name without having to see, Perfect through nonaction (wu-wei).

Our tendency to cultivate through action driven by learning and socialization leads to excessive desires and eclipses our true human nature. We can never be truly content when we are filled with desires and this is something skillfully explained in many Eastern spiritual traditions. All of our striving and reaching one goal after another never leads to contentment, but instead contributes to a world that suffers from anxiety, stress, and is basically insane. You surely have noticed this persistent hum of anxiety in your own life. Lao-tzu’s radical advice and solution for all of us is to Know the contentment of contentment. This is one of the greatest lines from the Tao Te Ching and it should become a daily mantra for anyone sincere on the path of liberation. Having this unwavering contentment is something not many of us experience in our lives. We can never have this contentment if we are constantly chasing artificial desires in trying to keep up with the Joneses. This deep level of contentment is also explained in Buddhism and Hinduism.

The contentment of contentment is to be content with the simplicity of life, to be content with what you have. This contentment is the fundamental basics minus all this modern extravagance. If you experience this contentment of contentment in your life, then you won’t be drawn into the desires of the eye. Returning to the home of the uncarved block, your original pure nature, evokes this deep contentment and allows you to live a life as nature intended it. If we truly want equanimity and a sane and healthy world, then returning home to our true nature is where it all begins. So, my parting question to you is, have you tasted the contentment of contentment?

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