The brain evolved through its reptilian, mammalian, and primate/human stages to meet three needs: avoid harms, approach rewards, and attach to others. In terms of these three needs, animals that were nervous, driven, and clinging were more likely to survive and pass on their genes – which are woven into our DNA today. Try to feel not one bit uneasy, discontented, or disconnected for more than a few seconds, let alone a few minutes.
For these reasons, deep down there is a sense of disturbance, not-enoughness, unease. Feeling threatened and unsafe, disappointed and thwarted, insufficiently valued and loved. Driven to get ahead, to fix oneself, to capture an experience before it evaporates. So we crave and cling, suffer and harm. As if life were a cup – with a hole in the bottom – that we keep trying to fill. A strategy that is both fruitless and stressful.
All the world’s wisdom traditions point out this truth: that the conventional strategy for happiness is both doomed and actually makes us unhappier. The theistic traditions (e.g., Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity) describe this truth as the inherently unsatisfying nature of a life that is separated from an underlying Divine reality. The agnostic traditions (e.g., Buddhism) describe it as the inherent suffering in grasping or aversion toward innately ephemeral experiences.
Call this the truth of futility. Recognizing it has been both uncomfortable and enormously helpful for me, since you gradually realize that it is pointless to “crave” – to stress and strain over fleeting experiences. But there is another truth, also taught in the wisdom traditions, though perhaps not as forthrightly. This is the truth that there is always already an underlying fullness.
When this truth sinks in emotionally, into your belly and bones, you feel already peaceful, happy, and loved. There is no need for craving, broadly defined, no need to engage an unhappy strategy for happiness. And you have more to offer others now that your cup is truly full.
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.
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.
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 and 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.
The reward centers of the brain’s limbic system evolved several hundred million years ago. Their relatively primitive processing pursues short-term gratification and basic sensual pleasures, and inflates apparent rewards – all to get the inner bunny chasing the carrot. As a result, the brain routinely overestimates the benefits of things that are no tthat good for you, such as: consuming sugar, carbohydrates, and intoxicants; playing video games; buying more consumer goods; looking for love in all the wrong places; pounding home one’s point; or being one-up in a relationship.