Can a pair of shoes seduce you?

by OneTaste Living Library  Aug 27, 2011

High-heel shoes

When we are not really reflecting on the matter, we tend to assume that desire is caused by what we desire. You pass by a shop window or browse Zappos and see some gorgeous shoes. You may or may not actually need a new pair of shoes, but need is irrelevant to your feeling for this particular set of shoes.

Whether or not you need them, you desire shoes. If asked why, you would describe their desirable qualities: the style, the color and so forth. Perceiving the object happens before the desire, and seems to have caused the desire. Your mind wouldn’t even have gotten on the subject of desire if you hadn’t seen the pair of shoes.

When you are looking at it that way, the power of attraction seems to reside in the object. It’s as if the beautiful pair of shoes is pulling you toward themselves, compelling you to feel, and making your vulnerable to what happens next. If you are able to acquire the shoes, you are going to feel happy. If it costs more than you can afford or is sold out in your size, you are going to feel disappointed.

Yesterday you didn’t even know these shoes existed. Now it has the power to make or ruin your day.

Okay, we’re exaggerating slightly. You probably don’t get that bent out of shape if you can’t have the shoes. But you get our drift. In believing that desire is caused by its object, we endow the object with power. When we do that, we experience desire as a kind of anxiety. Taking possession of the object is our best idea of how to get rid of the anxiety.

Quite often, possession gets rid of the desire as well. Once the object is under our control, it no longer has the power over us that was the very source of its allure. Indifferent to what we have attained, we start the cycle all over again with some new object of desire.

From very early on, philosophers diagnosed this syndrome as a leading cause of human unhappiness. The “original sin” that got Adam and Eve kicked out of paradise was wanting something they weren’t supposed to have. Desire has been in the doghouse ever since. The solution religions and philosophies have often proposed is to curtail desire. Don’t want, or at least don’t want what you can’t have. Remember the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, and be content with your lot. Think of disappointment as character-building, and sacrifice as a virtue.

Hardly anyone succeeds in taking such advice, and those who do seem not to succeed at much else. Curtailing desire has the unfortunate effect of stunting capacities that are closely related to it: ambition, imagination, and joie de vivre. If we could really succeed in eliminating desire, nothing new would get created—and nobody would get born.

The real culprit in human suffering is not desire but one of its imposters: fixation. When we believe that desire is caused by its object, only that particular object will do. Nothing else appeals to us. Nothing else has the power to delight us. We become single-minded and inflexible in our obsession with acquiring it. The gap between desiring and attaining fills up with agitation.

If we are severely fixated, we may end up harming ourselves, others or even the object itself with the forcefulness of our grasping. We forget that we ourselves have cast the spell that is enchanting us, that we ourselves gave the object the power it seems to wield. All of the harms that get blamed on desire—over-indulgence, craving, addiction, obsession, exploitation, greed—can be traced to this fundamental confusion.

When we get into a harmful state like craving or addiction, we experience ourselves as out of control. The paradox is that fixation arises from being too controlling. Desire has a quality of leaning forward, of moving out of ourselves, out of a sense of static self-sufficiency. Something in us is afraid of losing our balance if we lean out too far.

It’s as if we are trying to steady ourselves by grasping onto the object of our desire. Fixating is a way of making the situation stable and predictable. If we are obsessed or addicted, we can expect to feel tomorrow exactly the way we feel today.

Nicole Daedone, the founder of OneTaste, tells this story -

One of my closest childhood friends was a girl named Maria. She came from a large, warm, rambunctious Chilean family. As an only child, I envied the love that seemed to surround her. But even more than that, I envied her most cherished possession: her bicycle. She rode it everywhere and took very good care of it.

Maria had such a passion for that bike that she learned everything about how it worked and what it needed, and eventually got a job repairing bikes for other people. The love she felt for her bike made it glow—made it seem like the most desirable object on earth. I wanted that same feeling. In fact, I wanted to feel even more of it than she did. I figured that if I bought a better bike than hers, my bike would glow even more.

So I bought a bike that was top of the line. But somehow its glow eluded me. I rarely rode it, and its presence in my garage began to feel vaguely reproachful, a thorn in my side. I almost came to hate it. In my mind, this was definitely the bike’s fault. That’s how fixation usually ends up: blaming the object for failing to deliver the joy it had originally seemed to promise.

One day, my friend’s beloved bike was stolen. She borrowed mine and rode it everywhere. To my amazement, it began to have the same magical glow I had so envied in her old bike. So naturally I wanted it back. But once I got it, I still didn’t really feel like riding it, and it soon resumed its reproachful sulk in my garage. It refused to glow for me.

What made any bike that Maria possessed seem so desirable was the love she lavished on it. The glow was not in the bike, but in her relationship to it. Because that relationship was active and ongoing, she never lost interest in the bike. It remained just as desirable as it had seemed the day she bought it.

When her bike was stolen, she was very sad, yet not inconsolable. In loving her particular bike, she had learned a lot about bikes in general, and the more she learned, the better she appreciated all bikes. After mourning the loss of the first one, she was able to fall in love with another.

That’s one of the ways you can tell the difference between desire and fixation. Real desire is expansive. When you desire a particular object, you awaken to the desirability of other objects that have the same qualities. You begin to notice how the world abounds in whatever quality you have fallen in love with. The particular opens and expands into the universal. Even if you can’t have what you originally wanted, desiring it has made you richer than you were before.