In previous posts we explored the First Noble Truth: That there is suffering in life. The Second Noble Truth says there is a cause of this suffering, and that cause is our grasping, clinging and pushing away of the objects, ideas, experiences and people that we either want or don’t want in our lives.
Wanting. We all know about wanting! Given a blank page we could each sit down and write a comprehensive list of desires, those things we want more of, those ways we want to change ourselves, our situation and the world.
Desire is a naturally arising phenomenon. Getting rid of it is not the goal. That would just be a desire to be free of desire. Instead we want to develop a skillful relationship with our desires. For many of us our current relationship is that our desires control us, dictating our behavior. That’s suffering!
The first step to come into skillful relationship with our desires is to notice a desire as it arises. And then, before we rush to fulfill the desire, we pause. We pause and just experience the desire fully. (See the exercise below.)
Pausing to just be with a desire can be challenging when instant gratification is so easy. With credit cards, stores open around the clock and overnight shipping from anywhere in the world, if our desire is for a particular taste or a particular possession, we can almost skip over the whole experience of wanting and go right to fulfillment.
Do you remember wanting something as a child? The waiting, the longing? We became intimate with our desire. We lived with it for long periods (that seemed even longer!) We could describe the experience of desire as a bodily burden that was almost insupportable. Many of these desires passed. Some didn’t. Some were fulfilled. Some weren’t. Some were given as gifts, treats or rewards. Some we were told to save for. Some we were told weren’t good for us and we wouldn’t be allowed to have ever. Some were for things that couldn’t be purchased.
While none of us want to return the power to our parents to decide whether our desires will be fulfilled, we can recreate a bit of that state of delayed gratification. Not as torture but as a way to come into relationship with our desires and to be more skillful in our response to them.
Stop for a moment now and see what comes up when you say, “I want…..” Whatever desire arises is fine. It doesn’t have to be anything special for you to work with it.
Now, close your eyes and sense in to your body, saying the statement again. Does the statement bring on any physical sensation? Does it bring up any emotion? Does it bring up any images beyond the visualization of the desire itself, perhaps a memory?
This is an interesting self-exploration that you can do with many different desire statements (both “I want….” and “I don’t want…”). For it to be most useful, write down the statements and any accompanying sensations, emotions or images.
When the desire arises of its own accord (not from the prompting in this exercise) you can also notice what, if any, thoughts preceded it and see if there is a causal relationship. You can notice what thoughts accompany the desire that energize or enable the wanting. And you can notice what thoughts follow the desire — judging yourself for the desire perhaps?
It is also interesting to notice any external causes and conditions that may have brought on the desire. For example, you’re walking down the street, perfectly content, when you see a luxury car driving down the street or something in a shop window and suddenly you feel wanting.
Look at the last sentense of that exercise: “…and suddenly you feel wanting.” Wanting as in lacking in something. As if you are somehow incomplete. Suddenly you are not enough because you don’t have (fill in the blank). Amazing, isn’t it? What an opportunity to notice how we so readily attach our identity to objects of desire, and often even to the desire itself.
By pausing before fulfilling our desire, we give ourselves the opportunity to be fully present with it, to recognize it as a recurring pattern, and to come into awareness – through bodily sensation and evoked emotions and memories that flit through like faint traces of dream.
We may notice that many of our desires, if not instantly fulfilled, simply pass away. An itch that doesn’t get scratched often subsides.
By paying attention to what else arises with the desire, we may recognize that the thing we think we desire is just a mask for some deeper desire that we were not willing to look at, but can now.
These unmasked desires may be for things that can never be fulfilled, like a return to a seemingly safer time, the return of a loved one who has died, or a chance to undo past mistakes. But by allowing ourselves to be fully present with them in a compassionate and spacious way, these desires benefit by being given a voice. Once acknowledged they may shift, but even if they don’t, they enrich our understanding, thus reducing our sense of suffering.
In this compassionate non-judgmental spaciousness, we can also allow ourselves to acknowledge an addictive desire, when we realize that the desire is controlling our behavior and that no matter how often we rush to fulfill it, it never satisfies the gnawing desire that fills us. And if through this process we are not able to skillfully explore this addiction, we can finally seek the help we need to do so.
Desire is not a dictate that we must mindlessly obey, but simply a natural phenomenon coming into our experience of this moment. By pausing before rushing to fulfill desires that arise, we have a rich opportunity to fully experience this utterly human trait as something in and of itself. We can be in a spacious relationship with our desires, neither clinging, grasping or pushing them away. We simply hold them in an open embrace.