Getting caught up in wanting—wanting both to get what’s pleasant and to avoid what’s unpleasant—is a major source of suffering and harm for oneself and others.
First, a lot of what we want to get comes with a big price tag—such as that second cupcake, constant stimulation via TV and websites, lashing out in anger, intoxication, overworking, or manipulating others to get approval or love. On a larger scale, the consumer-based lifestyle widespread in Western nations leads them to eat up—often literally—a huge portion of the world’s resources.
Similarly, much of what we want to avoid—like the discomfort of speaking out, some kinds of psychological or spiritual growth, standing up for others, exercising, being emotionally vulnerable, or really going after our dreams—would actually be really good for ourselves and others.
Second, some wants are certainly wholesome, such as wishing that you and others are safe, healthy, happy, and living with ease. It’s natural to want to give and receive love, to express yourself creatively, to be OK financially, to be treated with respect, to make a big contribution, or to rise high in your career. And many things in life are pleasurable—some of my personal favorites are morning coffee with my wife, walking in wilderness, watching the SF Giants win the World Series, seeing kids flourish, writing these articles, and laughing with friends at dinner.
But even with wholesome wants and pleasures, trouble comes when we get driven about them—grasping after them, insisting that they continue, craving and clinging, taking it personally when there’s a hitch, getting pushy, or staying in a tunnel with no cheese. The art is to pursue wholesome desires with enthusiasm, discipline, and skill without getting all hot and bothered about them—and to enjoy life’s pleasures without getting attached to them.
For even the most enjoyable and fulfilling experiences always end. You are routinely separated from things you enjoy. And someday that separation will be permanent. Friends drift away, children leave home, careers end, and eventually your own final breath comes and goes. Everything that begins must also cease. Everything that comes together must also disperse.
Given this truth, grabbing after or clutching on to the things we want is hopeless and painful. To use an analogy from the Thai meditation master Ajahn Chah: If getting upset about something unpleasant is like being bitten by a snake, grasping for what’s pleasant is like grabbing the snake’s tail; sooner or later, it will still bite you.
Therefore, holding wants lightly is helpful in everyday life, bringing you more ease and less trouble from your desires, and creating less trouble for others—even across the world. And if you take it all the way to its end, holding wants lightly is a powerful vehicle for liberation from all of the suffering rooted in desire.
For starters, be aware of wanting inside your own mind. Try to notice:
- The ways in which desiring itself feels subtly tense or uncomfortable.
- The emotional pain of not getting what you want. Including disappointment, frustration, discouragement—perhaps even hopelessness or despair.
- The frequent discrepancy between the rewards you expected to get from a want, and what it actually feels like to fulfill it. Similarly, notice that the anticipated pain from the things you want to avoid—especially things that would be good for you to open to or go after—is usually worse than the discomfort you actually feel. In effect, your brain is routinely lying to you, promising more pleasure and more pain than you will actually experience. The reason is that the pleasure and pain circuits of the brain are ancient and primitive, and they manipulated our ancestors to do things for their survival by overselling them about apparent opportunities and over-frightening them about apparent risks.
- The costs of pursuing the things you want, and the costs of trying to avoid some of the actually beneficial things you don’t want. What is the cost/benefit ratio, really?
- The ways that every pleasant experience must inevitably change and end.
Next, imagine you are observing your wants from a great distance, like seeing them from on top of a mountain as if they are down in a valley below. Let them go like clouds in the vast sky of awareness. They are just one more mental content, like sensations, thoughts, or memories. Don’t give them special status. They are just wants. You don’t need to act on them. Usually, they’ll just pass away after awhile.
Then, on paper or in your mind, make a list of problematic wants:
- Things you’ve wanted to get but are either not good for you or others, or come with too high a price.
- Things you’ve wanted to avoid, but are actually good for you and others.
Live with this list. Stare at it. Listen to what it says to you. Perhaps talk about it with others (maybe a therapist). Then make a plan for what you are committing to do about it. Honor this plan; if possible, tell others about it.
Also list wholesome wants that you would like to pursue more. (Some of these may be suggested implicitly by the list above of what you’ve wanted to avoid.) Hang out with this list for awhile, perhaps discussing it with others. Then make a sincere plan for what you are committing to do about it. Your wholesome wants will help crowd out the unwholesome ones.
I know what I am suggesting here about these two lists is a big deal, much easier said than done. I’ve been grappling lately with a couple of my own items on these lists, and it’s not easy. But we can be aware of our issues forever—even mindfully aware!—while still never doing anything about them.
After you’ve stared at the garden for awhile…it’s time to pull weeds and plant flowers.