What do you desire? A better job, pleasure and enjoyments, a better partner, etc?
Do you think “If I had this or that, then I’d be happy?”
Are you constantly postponing happiness? Or find yourself dissatisfied even when you acquire what you desire?
Happiness is elusive. When it comes it only stays for a little while. But it doesn’t have to be that way. This post is about the dangers of clinging to desire and how to learn to let go and be happy no matter what happens.
Desire, the constant in our lives
Not one day goes by without us desiring something. Am I right?
Even if the objects of our desire are peace and happiness, the mind of desire is, paradoxically, the very mind in which peace and happiness cannot survive. I hear it all the time “I’m unhappy (or angry, or frustrated) because it isn’t what I want.” For the past 15 years I have helped countless people struggling with strong desires for drugs, alcohol, sex, food, money, people, power, social recognition, etc. The object of desire is different each time but the story is always the same and it comes down to this:
The more we cling to the fulfillment of our desires, the stronger the clinging, the greater the pain in the end.
The mind of desire is one that says “I want____” or “Wouldn’t it be great if I could have ___” Even if we don’t have strong desires, we want something all the time. We prefer this versus that, we like this and not that. This isn’t necessarily a problem. After all, our preferences make us who we are. But if we cling too tightly to what we want (or who we think we are), suffering is inevitable.
Because we can’t always get what we want, can we?
In fact, our ability to be happy can be measured by our ability to be content with not getting what we want.
The mind of desire doesn’t even let us enjoy the things we want when we get them. Because there is no end to our desires. As soon as we get what we desire, we want more of it or we just want something else. The mind of desire is the one that takes a perfectly beautiful day like today and says “Yes but wouldn’t it be better if I had the day off to enjoy it?” And if we have the day off the mind of desire says “Yes but everyone is at work, I have no one to enjoy it with. Wouldn’t it be nice if my boyfriend/girlfriend were here?” And if we manage to convince them to join us, the mind of desire will crave something else, someone else. Like this. Nonstop. Constantly destroying our happiness and contentment.
Desire destroys relationships
I have spent the past 8 years helping couples learn to find contentment in their relationship by letting go of the desire for their partner to be someone they are not. Of course, change is possible and necessary but the mind of desire is sneaky, even when our partner does what we desire, we want more or we become unhappy with them for other reasons. Just consider how many marriages are ruined because one partner desired someone else and were not satisfied with what they had. The mind of dissatisfaction fuels desire and ensures that we act foolishly and do harm to others.
Sometimes we desire what others have. This mind of jealousy never lets us enjoy the happiness we do have but only fuels competition, envy and sometimes, spite. Social media has not helped matters for it is now easier than ever to witness what others have and to feel down if we don’t have the same. We live in a society that encourages us to go after what we want and to “honor” our wishes and desires in the pursuit of happiness. But it doesn’t take much investigation to realize from our own experience that the relentless pursuit of our desires only brings us anxiety, anguish, jealousy, depression, self-pity. Is the temporary elation of getting what we want worth ruining relationships or being miserable in the process?
The freedom of letting go
Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that we stop wanting things. In fact, even if we wanted to it would be extremely difficult to eliminate the mind of desire entirely. I am also not saying we should not strive to be better or that we shouldn’t enjoy things. But we have freedom and choice. We can do so without clinging to any particular outcome, experience or expectation. That way we can depart in peace, move through the world with ease, be flexible, resilient to criticism or adversity, humble, considerate and keeping a happy mind to boot.
Whether you have strong desires for something or someone or you have a chronic case of dissatisfaction, these four steps will help you overcome and be happy no matter what happens.
Watch your mind.
The very first step is to observe what your mind is doing, what you are thinking, feeling and telling yourself without judgment or the need to change it. In this step you are simply an observer. This practice is extremely helpful in identifying how your thoughts and inner voices contribute to a mind of desire. Most likely, you will find patterns of desirous mind that gravitate toward certain objects more than others. You can then see these patterns in your mood and in your actions. Because what you think, you are.
If you change what you think, you change who you are.
The mind of desire dwells on its object and eventually becomes glued to it, clinging tightly without being able to think about or accomplish much else. If you can stop the dwelling from the beginning the clinging eventually ceases completely. It is the clinging (or craving) that causes the suffering. For example, if we dwell on our partner’s flaws we will eventually get angry at him or her, which in turn causes us suffering.
Without the clinging, a desire is a thought and nothing else.
One way to overcome clinging is distraction. Simply move your mind somewhere else. In the beginning this will be hard and your mind with naturally come back to the object of desire but with practice you can learn to move your mind away from the object until you forget about it completely. Sometimes, what stops us from forgetting the object of desire is simply a habit of mind. Other times we think we need to entertain the object otherwise it might forget us! For example, if we want to hear from a prospective employer we may constantly check our email but this action does not make the other party respond sooner, or at all. These actions are completely unrelated.
For the most part, if we can obtain what we desire, we simply do. In fact, we might feel really good about the fact that we can have what we want. But we don’t realize that this action reinforces the mind of desire and makes us particularly frustrated when one day we’re no longer able to obtain what we want.
What would it be like if you could give yourself what you desired but chose not to?
We usually think that satisfying desires makes them go away. Like an itch that we need to scratch. Sometimes this is true. Like eating when we are hungry. But for certain pleasures, indulgence only leads to the desire growing stronger and stronger until it takes over your mind, your life and your relationships. By practicing restraint you strengthen your self-control which is like a muscle. The more you train it the stronger it gets. Letting go is the practice of overcoming your desires by being able to set boundaries with yourself. If you find this hard to do simply contemplate the disadvantages of being overcome with strong desire all the time and choose the freedom of self-control instead.
This resembles practicing gratitude. Practicing contentment means enjoying what is without the need of it being anything different. This is slightly different from gratitude because it includes negative experiences as much as things we are typically grateful for (mostly positive things).
What would it be like if you could be content even with your suffering?
Of course, if there is something to be done to avoid suffering or to better your circumstances I think you should. But often there is absolutely nothing we can do about our suffering apart from enduring. Why are we so fragile in the face of adversity and pain? We have gone to great length to avoid it often succeeding, albeit temporarily, thus we have little to no experience with frustrated desires. We lack the strength of practicing patience. Even when we are able to endure difficulties we do so with a resentful mind. But if we could see whatever difficulty we are experiencing as a lesson and learn from it we would be able to transform suffering into a precious teacher.
In summary, when you notice dissatisfaction and desire creep up in your mind avoid dwelling on it, refrain from old habits of acting on it and practice contentment with the way things are in that moment. Eventually the desire goes away because everything is temporary.
I want to hear from you! What is your experience with desire and how do you overcome it?