Category Archives: desire

Can’t get no satisfaction?

chocolate cake thoughtSometimes right in the middle of a meal, I remember about dessert. Suddenly I can’t taste what I’m eating. My whole focus shifts to desire and the anticipation of something sweet. This may happen even though the meal is tasty and I had been looking forward to it! Sad, huh? But instead of judging it, let’s see what’s going on here, because this is an example of what we all experience to one degree or another in some area of our lives. Why can’t we enjoy what’s right in front of us? Why does the mind leap into the future or into the past?

Whether it’s a craving for sweets or some other sensory experience, desire for something else clouds our ability to be present. Sense desire is the first of the Five Hindrances, those obstacles to mindfulness. All of the Hindrances pull us away from present experience: We crave something or are annoyed by something; we are too restless, worried, spaced out or sluggish to notice what’s going on in this moment; or we are in a constant state of doubt. Whatever muddles the mind, clouding clarity and compassion, hinders us from feeling fully alive and well.

In our exploration of the Ten Paramitas, Perfections of the Heart, we now come to the third Paramita, Renunciation. What is that? All the synonyms for ‘renounce’ sound equally unpleasant: ‘abdicate, abstain, cancel, deny, disavow, eschew, forego, give up, let go, rebuff, refuse, relinquish, abandon, repeal, repudiate, sacrifice, spurn, surrender, veto, waiver, yield.’ Yuck! If you feel resistance to them, you are not alone. Even the Buddha said that at first his ‘heart did not leap up at renunciation, seeing it as peace.’ But later he did recognize the inner peace that renunciation creates within, once it is truly understood and acted upon.

In Buddhist practice, renunciation is not denial, nor is it punitive. Instead it is recognizing where our happiness is. If we believe that happiness comes from the objects of pleasure in our lives, then we are constantly seeking out these things and experiences, caught up in a state of longing. Then, once we attain the object of desire, after a brief jubilation, we find it difficult to fully enjoy because, like all things, it is fleeting. We want it to last forever, but that is not possible. So there is clinging that arises in our experience. We either plot how we can hold onto it, or we have discovered it isn’t all that great and plot how to get the next object of pleasure in our lives. Perhaps you can pause and think of some situation in your life that illustrates this.

Once we understand the nature of impermanence we see that it is not the objects of pleasure that provide happiness. It is, instead, our ability to be present. We can enjoy even ordinary moments, even challenging ones, if we are fully present in all our senses. Through our meditation practice, we create a spacious ease to hold all that arises in our experience, and we discover the joy available in every moment.

When we believe that happiness is attaining a particular sense object — I used chocolate as an example, but it could be anything that we long for and hate to see end — then we get caught up in the throes of misery of our own making. So I don’t have to renounce chocolate. (Yay!) I simply need to notice how the Hindrance of sense desire is activated within me, and how it causes me to suffer. That awareness, fully realized, disempowers the Hindrance. This is skillful renunciation — a kind of catch and release of the mind states. These Hindrances are universal in nature and we will come upon them again and again in our lives. Each time is an opportunity to notice, to celebrate and be grateful for the noticing, to observe and be curious about the way the Hindrance is impacting our experience, and to compassionately detangle and eventually release it, with a reminder to keep an eye out for it because it will appear again.

Renunciation is the third of ten Paramitas, right after Generosity and Ethics. All these Perfections of the Heart work together, but there is a traditional order and a reasoning for this order: As we develop a sense of generosity, deepening our connection to others, we naturally develop a sense of non-harming. So the Paramita of Generosity begets the Paramita of Ethics. Our exploration of Ethics took us to review the Five Precepts or vows of non-harming that are traditional in Buddhist practice. Each of the Precepts uses the word ‘refrain’, as in ‘I will refrain from taking what is not freely given.’ Notice how the word ‘refrain’ naturally leads us to Renunciation. We refrain from, we renounce, we let go of ways that we harm ourselves or others. And in all three of these Paramitas, the Hindrances have played a major role in our investigation.

A word came to me as I prepared to teach about Renunciation and I think it has a place in this discussion. I thought of ‘cleave’ as in cleave unto each other in our marriage vows. What if we ‘cleave unto this moment’, holding this moment above all others? In our mindfulness practice we are in effect vowing to ‘marry’ this moment, letting go of our longing for other moments, for the past or the future. There is a devotional quality to this wording that I think captures the sense of renunciation that we’re going for. It’s making an intentional choice to be here and now.

Buddha said, “I removed the fever of sense pleasures and dwell without thirst with a mind inwardly at peace.”

A few posts ago, I told the story of my nineteen-year-old self’s experience of being high and having a vision of a mountain with people earnestly climbing it. When I saw that although I was at the same level as the top of the mountain, I was in a hot air balloon and it was losing altitude. I recognized that I needed to ‘go to the mountain’ and climb one of those paths. Looking back, I can see that it was a moment of renunciation. It became clear that no drug could provide what I was seeking. So renunciation is not denial of the pleasures of life, but a way of recognizing what is truly beneficial and what is causing us harm.

A final quote from the Buddha: “When we understand the nature of desire, it falls away by itself.” A look at the Hindrances with a vow to release them with mindfulness and compassion allows true happiness to arise in our hearts.

You have the answer!


Always we hope
someone else has the answer,
some other place will be better,
some other time
it will turn out.

This is it.
No one else has the answer,
no other place will be better,
and it has already turned out.

At the center of your being,
you have the answer:
you know who you are and
you know what you want.
There is no need to run outside
for better seeing,
nor to peer from a window.

Rather abide at the center of your being:
for the more you leave it,
the less you learn.
Search your heart and see
the way to do is to be.

— Lao Tzu


This poem was read by Mark Coleman at the end of the first sit of the third morning of the Mindfulness Facilitators retreat I recently attended at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. The poem filled me with such a shiver of delight. It’s true! It’s true! No one has my answers! Yet I am chasing here and there looking for permission and approval, looking for the green light, instead of trusting my own inner wisdom.

And yes, how often have I thought a change of location might be a solution to some perceived problem, as if it is this place and not the patterns of my thinking mind that are causing my current my unhappiness.

And wanting to get past this difficult time into some other future time when it will ‘all turn out.’ Oh yes, I’ve been there. I have lived whole portions of my life, especially my younger years, almost completely in the future, daydreaming about when things will all work out.

I’m guessing by the request of co-retreatants for Mark to please please please post this quote, that it touched them too, and is a common human experience, this reaching out for answers from other people, other places and other times.

So I share this quote with you in case it also speaks to you, addressing some deep-seated yearning you may or may not have noticed before.

The poem takes us back again and again to this moment, this one and only moment, this point of reality where all the power resides. We see how the practice of meditation strengthens our ability to be present, to live fully right now. We can notice how we want things to be different, but we are less likely to be deluded to believe that someone else has our answer, somewhere else is the solution, some other time things will be better than they are right here right now.

We carry our patterns with us. If we have a pattern of discounting our own ability to access wisdom through quieting down, centering in and opening up to the infinite clarity of being, then we will always feel the need for others’ confirmation before we trust what we know.

If we have a pattern of believing that another location will miraculously resolve all that is restless and disgruntled within us, then we will always be daydreaming about other houses in other cities, other jobs, other partners — and we will never deepen our connections right where we are. We won’t plant our garden and then we’ll tell ourselves how ugly it is.

If we have a pattern of believing that someday we will be happy, then we won’t bother to notice the joy possible in this very moment, if only we would open our senses to it.

This poem truly captures the heart of what we learn from meditation practice. And when it was read at 7 AM in the meditation hall at Spirit Rock after 45 minutes of sitting, it was like a rock dropping into a still pond, creating a huge impact and lots of ripples within me. Ah!

The Hindrances make us go deaf and blind

The Five Hindrances* cause a kind of blindness and deafness. How can that be? You can probably provide your own example. If there is some issue that sets you off when a topic comes up on the news, that’s a perfect time to notice how every time it comes up, there is that same circular pattern of anger, the same volatility of emotion, and a repetition of thoughts on the matter that blot out all else in that moment. Can you even hear the news or have you gone off into your own inner rant? In that moment, if someone were offering some brilliant solution to the very problem that upsets you, you would not hear it because the volume of your angry rant is ramped up so high. If anger is not something you experience often, you might notice it in someone else. (If you do, it is skillful just to notice, not to offer unasked-for instruction on the Hindrances!)

Greed too has a blinding/deafening quality. When desire or craving arises, we may have a difficult time tempering it. Only justifications to fulfill the craving are admitted into our thinking. Yes, another hindrance might chime — self-judgment, shame or despair, perhaps — but we are blind or deaf to the calm loving voice of compassionate reason.

I remember one time on my way to the refrigerator to fulfill a hunger that had nothing to do with my stomach, I was so consumed in my desire for ‘a little something’ that it was a shock when I heard another voice within me asking if this was really going to appease my desire or was it actually fueling it. Who was that?

I’d never heard that wise voice before in this context because when I am caught up in greed, I am deaf to its kind loving words. They don’t suit my goal or the kindness doesn’t feel deserved. But that one time, for whatever reason, I heard it. Having heard it once, there is a better chance I will hear it again at another moment when such wisdom would be useful in bringing me into the moment, aware of what I’m actually doing.

By noticing the hindrance, naming it as hindrance, and seeing the hindrance as simply an obstacle to clarity of mind, we unlock its hold on us. A calmer, more fully-informed way of being prevails.

We practice awareness to develop the ability to see and hear the wisdom that is always available to us. We practice compassion to be better able to stay present with whatever arises. Our compassionate eyes do not need to look away from what is difficult in the world and within our minds. We can hold it all in an open friendly embrace, neither grasping nor pushing away.

The hindrances of worry and restlessness also blind us. We only pay attention to what feeds the worry, however remote this information may be. The antsy quality of restlessness doesn’t allow for the possibility that it might be okay, maybe even joyful, to simply be here now in this ordinary moment.

Sloth and torpor also cause deafness and blindness. We don’t want to pay attention to any sense within ourselves that calls us out to play, to breathe, to be active, awake, alive. We create what we hope is a safe couch-potato or bedridden refuge for ourselves, but in fact it is not a refuge at all. It is a dulling down, a deadening, an enervating escape. A true refuge is a place where rest refuels, energizes and balances us. As we develop awareness we can begin to see the difference between shutting down and refuge.

Doubt is blind and deaf as well. When we doubt, we punch holes in everything that is offered. (For example, if we are given a compliment, we discount or distrust the source.) We see only the holes, and not the whole of the fabric of being. We even embroider the holes and make them seem more real than the fabric itself. If wisdom were to arise and speak to us, we wouldn’t trust it. And such is the nature of this quiet still voice that it would simply be quiet. It has no agenda, no goal, and all the time in the world since it is beyond time. It is simply there, always available, woven deeply in the fabric of being. But we have to be available for it as well, by sensing into the texture of the fabric of this present moment experience.

Compassion provides clarity.
When we notice one of the hindrances arising or being active within us, that noticing is skillful. It’s awareness! Yay!
But in the next moment the hindrance might draw us back into all kinds of self-abuse. Compassion at this moment makes all the difference in how we proceed. With compassion, we can stay present with seeing clearly what is happening in this moment.

Compassion is not indulgence but an infusion of honesty. It tells us, ‘Hey, these hindrances are universal and a longstanding part of the human condition. The hindrances are not who you are. You are not uniquely flawed because a hindrance keeps arising, anymore than a swimmer is flawed because a wave in the ocean overcomes him or her at some point.’

So we use compassion and universal loving-kindness skillfully when we notice the presence of a hindrance. ‘Aha!’ and then, ‘How human an experience is this!’ With this two-fold noticing, we are able to stay present to witness the dissolving of the strength of the wave of hindrance that might otherwise drown us.

Rejoice! Recognizing the blindness and deafness of the Five Hindrances helps us to dissolve them. When we are present and the hindrances have fallen away, we are grateful. We are encouraged to notice and stay present with this awareness of their disappearance. Rejoice! Notice the joy! Notice the tranquility! Notice the happiness!

The Buddha likened this state of being (at least temporarily) hindrance-free to being free from debt, to being released from prison, to being liberated from slavery, to having safely crossed a dangerous desert, and to having recovered from an illness.

Recently my three-year-old granddaughter had a terrible bout of stomach flu. Such misery! The next day when we visited her, she told us, ‘All that tummy ache. All that poop!’ She was fully recovered, happily dancing about the house. The simple joy of normal life after she had been so knotted up in pain gave her a pronounced bounce in her step, a lilt in her voice, a ready smile, laughing at nothing, when usually she is quite serious about her play. She was rejoicing. Isn’t it great to be alive and pain-free?

Back into the Fray
Of course things change moment to moment, and this sense of gratitude and delight we feel can easily turn into greed for more. ‘Why isn’t it always like this?’ we might complain. Or the fear of losing it arises. A myriad of other thoughts can come along to drag us instantly back into one hindrance or another.

But to the degree we can stay present to see the arising of a hindrance, we can meet it with awareness and compassion. Then it dissolves and we can expand into a spacious delight where we can rest in mindfulness, concentration and absorption.

Naming and Claiming
If we notice a hindrance, we might be in the habit of saying, ‘Oh, I’m the type of person who has this hindrance’? This naming and claiming game is just a divisive diversion. In this moment when we recognize a hindrance, we are seeing clearly. We can be appreciative of this moment of clarity. And we can send loving-kindness to ourselves to create more spaciousness in our heart-mind to hold this new information in a way that will support expansive understanding instead of diving right back into a hindrance.

Metta (Loving-kindness)
We practice metta to remind us that it is available in any moment, to cope with whatever arises. If we discover we are being hard on ourselves, we use metta to gentle up our approach to the challenge at hand. If we are holding a grudge against someone, we can send them metta — not because they ‘deserve’ it, since metta is not a reward, but because when we enter a state of sending metta, we better understand the unitive nature of being. We let go of the isolationist indoctrination of our culture that has had each of us in a tight little knot unable to sense our connection. We might say or think:

May I be well. May I be happy. May I be at ease. May I be at peace.
May you be well. May you be happy. May you be at ease. May you be at peace.
May all beings be well. May all beings be happy. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be at peace.


* The Buddha’s Five Hindrances are desire, aversion, restlessness/worry, sloth/torpor, and doubt.

Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness – The Five Hindrances

If you have been practicing the first three Foundations — being mindful of physical sensation and our relationship to the body; noting feeling tones of pleasant, unpleasant and neutral; and noting mental phenomena (thoughts and emotions) as they arise and fall away — then you are ready to incorporate the Fourth Foundation, the dhammas, into your practice. The dhammas are described as ‘categories of phenomena which highlight how the different elements of the mind are functioning.’

If you haven’t had a chance to practice, then the following is just information to have available. The Buddha taught these four Foundations in a particular order for a reason. But the teachings are of value no matter what door you enter, and it’s possible that something in this exploration will inspire you to investigate the previous foundations and begin your practice in earnest.

The first of the dhammas is called the Five Hindrances. A hindrance is an obstacle to mindfulness. What gets in our way of seeing clearly, of being fully present?

The Buddha offers one analogy that fits very nicely with our jungle/garden theme from last week’s talk. He talks about a bowl of water, but we can just as easily see it as a pond we come upon in the garden of our mind — a reflection pool that, when mind-garden conditions are calm, is pure and clear. In this state, all is visible: The fish swimming in the pond, the rocks at the bottom of the pond, the reflections of the trees. It is like my husband Will Noble’s painting Reflection, where everything is visible. Look at the painting and see if you see all of what is going on. For more detailed view where you can scroll around, click here. (This won’t work on Apple products.) The painting makes an excellent focus of meditation. Not surprising since it came out of a meditative experience and was drawn and painted with meditative attention over a period of eight months.

Reflection, a watercolor painting by Will Noble


Now the Buddha has us imagine what if into this pond a dye was poured. It would color our view of what is happening, shifting our understanding of current reality. This is how the Buddha described what happens when the first hindrance of sensual desire is present.

Sensual desire might be sexual in nature, but it could be any craving for something we experience with our senses. For example, our eyes might have a sense desire to be surrounded by only the most beautiful things. Our sense of taste might be addicted to sweet, salt or fatty foods. Our sense of touch might want every creature comfort, to be cushioned and cozy and warm. Our ears might crave only the most delightful sounds and be distressed at sounds that seem discordant to our ears.

When noticing sensual desire in ourselves, in whatever form it takes, we might recognize a quality of mindlessness, as if we are being led by something so powerful we forget ourselves. We disempower ourselves through our desires, because we are so limited in what we can tolerate. The ultimate effect is that we enjoy so little of this experience of life!

Stop now and think of a sense desire that is a challenge for you. Find some recent instance of experiencing that sense desire. If nothing comes to mind, delve into the past and remember what it felt like to crave something so strongly. Oh come on, there was at least that overwhelming teenage crush! And remember how the thought of ‘him’ or ‘her’ colored everything in your experience? The desire is usually more painful than pleasurable when the wanting gets so powerful. Everything is interpreted through whether it fulfills our craving or not. All else falls away and we get out of balance. Life has a driven quality, shot through with desperation, helplessness, and sometimes self-loathing.

It is said that much of literature is based on this hindrance. Think of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, for example. Here’s a wonderful quote from that tale of runaway desire:  “Vronsky meanwhile, inspite of the complete realization of what he had so long desired, was not perfectly happy. He soon felt that the realization of his desires gave him no more than a grain of sand of the mountain of happiness he had expected.”

“No more than a grain of sand of the mountain of happiness he had expected.” Whoa! Now that’s a cautionary tale — one that we have all told ourselves over and over again in our own lives after each experience of craving, consuming and then sitting with the resulting emotions and thoughts. Being mindful, being present to savor each moment as it is, helps us to actually learn it!

For the second hindrance the Buddha has us imagine the pool boiling. This bubbling boiling quality represents aversion, often experienced as anger or hatred. You can physically feel the boiling quality of being really angry.

In this mind state, when the water is boiling, can we see anything else but the bubbles?  No. We can’t see the rocks, the fish, or the reflections that are present in the calm pool. We are just focused on the bubbles, the aversion, the anger, the hatred. It is all consuming. It is the only thing that exists.

For the third hindrance the Buddha has us imagine the pool filled with algae, stagnant and without movement. This hindrance is sloth and torpor. What great words to describe a sluggish mental state, but the experience of them is debilitating. If we spend long enough on the couch, the easy chair or the bed, there will be insufficient oxygenation to be healthy. Our mind and body shuts down. Life is too much bother. Nothing excites us. The Buddha would no doubt ascribe this state to anyone suffering from depression.

For the fourth hindrance the Buddha has us imagine wind on the water, creating a lot of ripples and obscuring whatever is beneath and making it impossible to see any reflection. This is the hindrance of restlessness and worry. When we feel restless or worried we can’t be mindful of the present moment. We are glued to the future time of our imagination, eager or dreading.

For the fifth hindrance the Buddha asks us to imagine the water being muddy, obscuring our view. This represents doubt. We stir up the silt of the pond with our doubt. In relation to the practice of meditation, we might doubt our ability to do this. Everyone else seems so into it, but our mind is all over the place. Or we might doubt the teacher’s ability to teach or the teachings themselves. This is not just healthy questioning and exploration, but a habituated state of doubt, muddying up our minds. We might also see where in our life we are stymied by doubting our self-worth or our ability to do something that everyone else has told us we are quite qualified to do.

In our analogy of the jungle-garden, we can ponder this pond. As we do we might recognize one or more of the Five Hindrances that keep us from being fully present in the moment, fully mindful. When we become mindful for even a moment, we can check in and notice our mind state. We can think of the quality of that mind state and recognize how it is obscuring our view of things.

We might notice the one, or ones, that come up most often for us: Sensual desire, Aversion, Sloth and Torpor, Restlessness and Worry, or Doubt. This is not to label ourselves or get attached to yet another aspect of identity. It is a way to help us to recognize tendencies so that we can see them as they arise. Just as we learn where in our body we have a tendency to carry tension so that we can go there and release it as needed.

If we recognize these mind states, we are being mindful. That’s cause for celebration, not for judging ourselves for having a mind state that is universally experienced by all of us at one time or another, to one degree or another. Mindfulness is that radiant light that has the capacity to dissolve obstructions.


A silent retreat is ideal for creating the opportunity to notice all of what goes on in the mind with few distractions and responsibilities. If we set the intention to be present, anchored by physical sensation, and the paired intention to be compassionate with ourselves and others, then we create conditions to notice these hindrances. At that point we do not try to banish the hindrance, because that just creates more turmoil in the pond of our mind. Instead we just note it, simply recognize it.

Recognition without judgment is key. When the Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree, he was able to deflect the tempter Mara by saying with compassionate awareness, “I see you, Mara. I know you.’ We too are able to see and know these hindrances for what they are. We can say, ‘Ah desire, I know you.’ or ‘Ah aversion, I know you.’ or ‘Ah sloth and torpor, I know you.’ or ‘Ah restlessness and worry, I know you.’ or ‘Ah, doubt, I know you.’ That recognition is mindfulness in action! It is the bright light of awareness that is all that is required to dissolve all suffering and nurture all joy.