The Trouble With Wanting

The key to finding peace of mind is to see the hidden contradiction behind the state of desire, i.e. wanting. Wanting keeps us in a particularly effective sort of prison, a prison of the mind, and the reason it is so effective is because it is always offering us a prize – a prize that it can never deliver. Another way to explain this is to say that wanting, once we respond to its provocation and turn the wanting into trying, inverts our way of seeing the world so that we perceive everything backwards.

 

This ‘inverted’ state of mind is sometimes called psychological unconsciousness, which is where we live on a very superficial level and don’t have any insight into our true motivation for doing things. One way to explain the ‘thinking inversion’ is by saying that when we are under the influence of wanting, our attention is distracted from the desire itself, onto whatever it is that the desire is about. Desire is a compulsion, and a compulsion that I am unable to obey makes me feel bad, but rather than seeing that the source of my misery and frustration is the actual wanting, I perceive the problem to lie in my lack of success in obtaining what I want. So, if I am craving a cigarette, and there isn’t one there, I say that it is the lack of cigarettes that is the problem and so I apply all my cunning and ingenuity to the task of correcting this problem. Where the inversion comes in is that I don’t see the wanting that has got a hold of me as the true culprit, the true author of my unhappiness – if I did then instead of using all my intelligence trying to obey it, I would turn my attention to the root of the problem.

 

The wanting is telling me that once I obtain the cigarette, then everything will be okay. The wanting only hurts when I can’t get what I want, and so along with the ‘stick’ of the discomfort there is always the ‘carrot’ which is the promise of relief from pain (plus the satisfaction that comes with fulfilling the desire). Therefore, the promise is that when I obey the compulsion successfully, the bad feeling will leave and everything will be fine. In other words, once I get what I want, then the wanting promises that it will quit the scene (since it is no longer needed) and there will be peace of mind.

 

This promise is in fact a deception, because the wanting has no intention of leaving me in peace. The truth is that wanting is insatiable, and no matter how much it gets, it will always want more. To take the example of the cigarette, if I give in to the craving and have a smoke, then of course the craving will leave temporarily, but the one thing I know for sure is that it hasn’t really gone anywhere, it is just biding its time until it is ready to appear on the scene again, even stronger and even more insistent than before. The wanting is like a playground bully, who says that if you hand over your lunch money he will not bother you again. Actually, if you give in once, he will be back again and again, until you finally stand up to him.

 

Another example would be a spoiled child – a child who is always given what he wants, and as a result is never happy, never satisfied. Although caving in to the child’s demands for this, that or the other may bring peace for a minute, the one thing that we know for sure is that it will not last because the more I give in, the more I spoil the child. It only ever gets worse – in all such cases, freedom never comes from taking the easy option.

THE PATH OF ‘NON-VIOLENCE’

‘Standing up’ to compulsions does not mean fighting them, or trying to keep a lid on them. If we do this then we fail to see the contradiction, and so all our efforts rebound on us. The contradiction arises because we want to get rid of the enemy, which is wanting. We want to stop wanting, which means that we are using wanting as a tool to get rid of itself. This is like using violence to get rid of violence – no matter what happens, violence is the winner. My tendency to be dissatisfied with my situation does not go away just because I am dissatisfied about being dissatisfied – on the contrary, it gets stronger and the underlying problem gets worse. It is tempting to fight, even though it is not really achieving anything, because at least then I can feel that I am doing something, at least then I can have the illusion of progress. Once I do start struggling though, I am lost because I lose all perspective, and I am no longer able to see how my efforts are rebounding on me.

 

The only way to ‘stand up’ to compulsions is the way of non-violence, which means allowing the compulsion to be there. Normally, we either obey it or fight it, and the motivation in both cases is to escape from the pressure which it is putting on us. We are unwilling to accept the pain and so we have to do something about it, one way or the other. Yet the pressure the compulsion is putting on us is pure bluff – it threatens us with all our worse fears, but if we are not provoked to react then we find that what we were threatened with never happens. The terrible consequences that I am persuaded will occur if I fail to react are only ever a mental projection, whereas in reality it is the consequences of reacting which are disastrous to me.

NOT DIGGING A HOLE…

Allowing the compulsion, the wanting, to be there is the same thing as ‘allowing reality to be exactly the way it already is’. This is not something we do, but rather it is an act of understanding, which does not seek to change anything. An example of this sort of thing would be a situation where I have said something stupid and hurt someone’s feelings. I am desperate to put matters right, and say something to try and make everything okay again, but I find that whatever I say only makes matters worse. I am ‘digging a deep hole for myself’. As we all know from experience, the only cure for this is to leave things as they are – this is the most helpful thing to do. I am driven by the urge to correct the situation, because I cannot face feeling the shame or embarrassment. By correcting the mistake, I think that I can ‘undo it’, make it as if it had never happened. In order not to go down this road, the road of continually trying to make it better whilst actually making it worse, what is needed is that should accept the pain that I have incurred. This means facing reality and seeing that bad feeling which I am having is unavoidable. What happens then is that I unconditionally accept the mental pain involved, which, as we have said, is not a deliberate action but something that happens naturally (or spontaneously) as a result of gaining insight into the situation that I am in.

BEYOND ACCEPTANCE AND REJECTION

Another way to try to explain the idea of ‘unconditional acceptance’ is by using the example of being forced to spend time with some people whose opinions I strongly agree with. If I argue with them, driven by the need to prove that they are wrong and I am right, then they are just going to argue back. There is no way that I am going to change the way in which they think about things, and all that is going to happen is that there will be bad feeling between us.  Once I see this, then I just ‘let it go’ – I allow them to be the way that they already are and as a result of this there is peace. The essential element of this is that I unconditionally accept the pain of hearing them voice opinions which I do not hold with.

 

This does not mean that I judge them as being ‘wrong’, and then smugly tolerate them, safe in the knowledge that I am ‘right’. That would be a deliberate act, or posture, on my part and as such it is artificial (or unnatural) and therefore it would require constant effort on my part to keep it up. Instead of accepting the people I am sharing space with conditionally (which is to say, on the condition that I know they’re wrong), I accept them unconditionally. No effort or artifice is needed for this, and so there is no strain involved. This is the attitude which is sometimes called ‘beyond acceptance and rejection’. The point about this is that there is no choice involved whatsoever – there am I, and there is the situation that I am in. It doesn’t matter in the slightest if I say YES to that situation or if I say NO to it; my acceptance or my rejection are both equally irrelevant, equally ‘beside the point’. To put this another way, I am free to see the situation being the way that it is, but I am not free to choose whether the situation should be that way or not.

 

We can see the principle of the ‘inversion’ operating here if we look hard enough. When I feel that my acceptance is necessary for the whole process, then obviously this makes me feel like a significant or important part of the equation. I am unconsciously assuming that I am somehow still in control, that I can accept what is going on if I want to. This is plainly absurd though – my likes and dislikes don’t come into it at all. The inversion makes me think that my ‘say so’ is the crucial factor, whereas it is of course reality that is the crucial, all-determining factor. Basically, I am suffering from a distorted or deluded view of things which is a kind of ‘self-importance’ where I think that it is me (or my relationship) with reality which matters, rather than seeing that it is reality as it is that matters.

 

The same distortion creeps in when I judge (or evaluate) something, when I label it as being good or bad, useful or not useful, meaningful or not meaningful. Although on the face of it I am being open to what is outside me, interested in what is going on, actually I am only interested on the condition that I get to have the final ‘say so’, i.e. I am only open to what is there on the condition that what is there fits in with my preconceptions regarding what it should be like. Conditional acceptance means staying in control, whereas ‘no conditions’ means ‘no control’. Unconditional acceptance, therefore, means seeing that my likes and dislikes are irrelevant, which straightaway puts them in their ‘proper place’. The instant I see this my mind is no longer inverted – I am no longer coming at things from an upside-down perspective and I stop thinking that it is my responsibility to ‘do something’ about what is happening.

AN ACCUMULATION OF WANTS

All of this is not to say that we should never listen to our needs, that we should ignore every want. This would obviously be totally ridiculous. Suppose I want to go to the toilet, or suppose I want to get up because I am sitting on a thumb-tack? Clearly I am not going to get very far ignoring these wants. These are adaptive wants, they are motivations which we need in order to function as living beings. However, having said this, we must point out that we are not specifically talking about non-adaptive compulsions such as effect us in neurotic conditions such as addictions, anorexia, anxiety and OCD, although these are plainly deadly enemies of our well being. Rather, what we are getting at is the idea that there is a ‘general tendency to be dissatisfied’ which causes us to be helpless slaves to the niggling urge to correct or improve our situation. This ‘tendency’ is the hidden thief which imperceptibly steals away our mental freedom; the worse thing is that it is accumulative in nature, which means that as time goes on it tends to steal more and more.

LEARNING TO ‘DO NOTHING’ UNDER PRESSURE

The tendency to be dissatisfied is there the whole time, undercover but never far away. To come face to face with it, all we need to do is to stop doing the usual stuff that we do – and wait and see what happens. One way to do this is simply to sit down on a chair (or, even better, on the floor) and refrain from all preoccupations or entertainments for a period or ten to fifteen minutes. Almost immediately a host of little annoying wants will appear like horse flies trying to goad us to react. The first will probably be physical in nature: I will start to feel uncomfortable and so I will want to stretch out my leg or shift my sitting position this way and that. Then there are the mental discomforts which dominate even when I am physically comfortable (as we can see when we sometimes lie sleepless in bed). These take the form of little worrying thoughts and concerns, potential problems that need to be considered, or just random preoccupying thoughts – each one of which will make their claim on my attention.

 

All these thoughts are wants: either they cause me to want to do something, or plan to do something, or work out something; generally, they all compel me to think about the world in their on narrow, claustrophobic little way. These little compulsions, clamouring as they do for a ‘slice of the pie’, eventually spell the annihilation of my mental freedom, which is the freedom not to be pushed around by every little (mental) itch that comes along. We think (or we assume) that we will become free from obeying these itches, because when we scratch an itch it tends to go away, and we get a bit of relief. This is dangerously short-sighted of us though because scratching an itch to get momentary relief from it means that we turn ourselves into ‘slaves of the itch’. We are ‘free to obey our compulsions’ – which is of course no sort of freedom at all. True freedom is not the freedom to do what we are told, but the freedom not to have to do what we are told, which is what we learn from doing the ‘doing nothing’ exercise that we talked about a minute ago.

THE STATE OF PASSIVE IDENTIFICATION

When we carry out the ‘doing nothing’ exercise we are generally surprised by the amount of distractions that we encounter; if we thought before hand that doing nothing was easy, we now learn that it is not! Actually, it is not strictly true to say that all these wants suddenly appear when I do nothing – the point is that normally when a little want comes along I am likely to just indulge it and so the compulsion in question remains quite invisible to me. The reason ‘acting out’ a compulsion makes it invisible is firstly because as soon as I obey it, the niggling pressure ceases, and secondly (and more importantly) because when I automatically act out a compulsion I identify with it. What this means is that I align myself with the pressure so that it feels as if it was me that wanted to do whatever it was, rather than the compulsion that forced me to do it. So I don’t say “I was compelled to switch on the TV”, I say “I wanted to switch on the TV”. It can be seen that this process of identification is the exact same thing as the process of ‘viewpoint inversion’ that occurs when we obey a compulsion. We can also say that that the state of passive identification which we have just described is the same thing as the state of psychological unconsciousness, which we defined earlier as a superficial type of awareness where we do not know what our true motivation for doing stuff is.

 

In a ‘superficial’ sort of a way, it might seem that I have solved the problem of dealing with my wants by automatically acting them out, but all I have really done is to make my problem invisible. Not only is it invisible, it has been given the upper hand and this hand grows a little bit stronger, and a little bit heavier, every day. When I take a break from my normal more-or-less unconscious (or routine) behaviour pattern I am privileged to get a glimpse of just how powerful and insistent my tendency to be dissatisfied really is, and this insight is not usually very pleasant. From one point of view (my everyday, inverted point of view) I simply see this experience as a pain in the butt, I see it all as a bit of a nuisance or annoyance – my reaction is to exit the experience as soon as possible, and never go there again. If I could, I would make sure that I never have to encounter such uncomfortable little gaps in my life; if I could, I would wallpaper them all over with unconscious (or unreflective) living.

DROPPING MY RESISTANCE

From the other point (non-inverted) of view, I would see this experience as a marvellous opportunity, a chance for me to drop my habitual resistances, my automatic reacting to wants, and regain my inner freedom. Being able to see the problem is not a bad thing (which is what I automatically tend to think), it is actually a great piece of luck because unless I can see the problem I cannot ever stand a chance of overcoming it. If I am willing to confront the ‘uncomfortable-ness’ of my exposed tendency to be dissatisfied, then the situation can change so that it is no longer my master. In order to stay in the discomfort zone of ‘not doing’ all I need is the insight to understand that it is pointless being dissatisfied with my tendency to be dissatisfied; instead of fighting against this tendency I unconditionally allow it to be the way that it is. As we have said before, this is not an automatic reaction (or a measured, calculated response) but a spontaneous and intelligent appreciation of things as they actually are.

THE PROLIFERATION OF NEEDS

On last point that we ought to consider is the constitutional difficulty that we experience in seeing ‘doing nothing’ as a solution, and putting this into practice. This has a lot to do with the type of society which most of us live in – we have to remember that a consumer society is bound to encourage the proliferation of wants because each want that comes along translates into a ‘product’ which can be sold, or a ‘service’ that can be marketed. This means that money gets turned over and profits get made, which is of course what keeps the whole show running. In a consumer society the more needs there are, the better it is for everyone. What would happen to the rat race if none of the rats wanted to chase after the glittering prizes any more?

 

The right to satisfy all of our petty needs is enshrined deep in our culture. You can have whatever you want – just so long as you have the money to buy it, that is! The ideal state is to be wealthy enough to buy anything we set our heart on, and yet the richest person (the person no one says “NO” to) is also likely to be the person with the least inner freedom. This is another example of our backwards way of thinking – we imagine that we can become happy by chasing our desires and the more we are able to satisfy our wants the better off we think we are. But in reality, there is no happiness or peace of mind to be had this way. Paradoxically, true freedom is not ‘the freedom to realize all of our goals’ (which equals ‘the freedom to successfully obey our wants), but freedom from having to have goals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What You Cling To You Lose

mirage.jpg.scaled500

‘What you cling to you lose’, the Buddha is reported as saying (or ‘what you don’t let go of you lose‘, which comes to the same thing). “Aah,” we might reply in all our Western sophistication, “but if we’re not holding on to it then we don’t have it anyway and so what’s the difference?” What’s the difference between losing because we’re holding on to it and losing it because we never tried to win it in the first place?

 

Another thing the Buddha might have said however is that when we cling we create a false self. When we hold on we create the illusion of who we think we are but actually aren’t. Once this is taken into account then it changes everything – not only do we lose whatever it is we are so determinedly clinging to (and experience therefore the anguish of loss that goes with this), we’re suffering in vain because it wasn’t us who wanted it in the first place but ‘the mistaken notion of who we thought we are’. We’re suffering in vain because we’re not really the clinger who loses – we just think we are.

 

When we cling we create, by this act, ‘the clinger’, but this clinger is not at all who we are. The clinger is the false idea of who we are; the clinger is the false self, the ‘self who we are not’. To this false self, to this clinger, to this ‘attached one’, the thing that is being clung to is of course very important indeed. The strength of the clinging is a measure of this importance and the strength (or rather, the pure desperation) of this clinging goes off the scale. The urgency (or rather desperation) of our clinging has no end, no limits…

 

The ironic point about all this however is that ‘the thing that is being clung to’ is desperately important only to the clinger and the clinger (as we have been saying) isn’t who we are. The thing we are clinging to is desperately important to the false self, to the ‘mistaken idea of who we are’, but not at all important to who we really are. How can we be so sure of this? Simply because what the false self, the ‘clinger’, the ‘attached one’, is clinging to is actually itself.

 

The attached one, the clinger, only really cares about one thing and that is itself. What else would it be attached to? It is not attached to anything other than itself, and never could be. We can understand this very clearly just as soon as we see that clinging is how we create the self. That’s the whole point of clinging, that’s the ‘secret agenda’ behind this whole tiresome business of attachment. We naively imagine that when we grasp we are wanting to obtain something to benefit the self, something to enhance or augment or accessorize the self but this isn’t true. The bottom line is that what we’re doing when we cling (or strive) is to create the one who clings, to create the one who strives…

 

It could be said perhaps that from a psychological point of view what we’re  trying to obtain by our clinging and striving (to / for whatever it is that we’re clinging / striving to/for) is an increase in our sense of ontological security. This is true, but what constitutes ontological security for the false self is the belief that it actually exists when it doesn’t! ‘Striving for ontological security’ is the very same thing as ‘striving to exist’, therefore.

 

This is a tremendously frustrating sort of a business, obviously. When we play the game which we don’t know to be a game (the game that we exist as this concrete self when we don’t) there is only one thing that really matters to us and that thing is obtaining a type of security that just isn’t possible for us. Obtaining the sense of security that we are so painfully missing (necessarily missing, since the false or attached self doesn’t actually exist) is more important to us than anything else. It is desperately important to us in fact and at yet the same time as being desperately important it is at the same time flatly impossible. This isn’t just ‘a tremendously frustrating situation’, it’s the most frustrating situation there ever could be! It’s also the situation we find ourselves in every day.

 

In one way this strategy might be said to be working for us. It works for us in the sense that we get to believe very firmly indeed that we are this concrete self, for good or for bad, for better or for worse. We REALLY DO get to believe that we are the wanter, the striver, the clinger! The other side of the coin is however that we have to base our life on believing that we can obtain something that we can’t actually obtain, and at the same time avoid something that we can’t really avoid. We’re always ‘straining in a futile way’, therefore, and this straining is suffering.

 

The straining is futile because there is never a satisfactory outcome, because we can never ever get the result that we want to get (although it on occasion might for a while seem to us that we have). In another sense – as we have just said – the painful straining isn’t futile because we have created a self. As Alan Watts says in one of his talks, this painful knot of futile straining is the self! By striving to achieve the goal we create the striver, the wanter, the hoper. By planning and scheming we create the planner, the schemer. Is the planner or schemer ever happy? Plainly not, but who cares? Ultimately, it’s not being happy we care about but possessing – however temporarily – a misleading sense of ontological security. It’s believing that we are this ‘concrete self’ that matters, not anything else.

 

The wanter and the striver, the schemer and the planner, cannot ever be happy, obviously. If we’re wanting then by definition we’re not happy. By definition we are suffering. We haven’t got what we think we need, so how can we be happy? We have something else instead of happiness though – we have a workable substitute and the substitute is the excitement we experience when we (falsely) believe that we really are going obtain what we are so determinedly looking for. This ‘enjoyable excitement’ is a fool’s paradise, however – it’s all just a mirage that’s about to vanish into thin air the moment I close my hand on the prize. And the greater my excitement was beforehand, the greater the let-down is going to be afterwards when the mirage slips through my fingers (as it always does, as it always has done, as it always will do).

 

Once the prize has slipped (yet again) from my fingers then there is nothing for it but to go chasing after the next ‘object of desire’; I have to start playing the game again so that I can receive the next dose of enjoyable excitement. I have no choice apart from ‘playing the game all over again’ because this is the only way I know of getting to feel good again. I need this feeling of pleasurable anticipation – I am addicted to it, I am a slave to it. All I know is the euphoria of hope and the anguished let-down of loss and I crave the former just as much as a hate and the fear the latter. This attraction to euphoria and aversion to dysphoria is what traps me in the ultimately unfulfilling cycle of conditioned existence therefore. This is what traps me in the game of samsara.

 

Not only have I made myself into a slave of the enjoyable excitement (which is ‘the rapture of self-creation’) therefore, I have at the same time set up another master over me – that master being the negative excitement (or dysphoria) which is dread and anxiety. What I am in dread of is also only an empty mirage, but it is very real to me because that is the game I am playing. Because I want so much to believe in the concrete self, I have to be a slave to the fear that comes with it. The ‘addictive excitement’ of which we speak is nothing other than the excitement of creating the self but any pleasurable excitement which I manage to gain in the game is always going to be counterbalanced or cancelled out later on by unpleasant variety! This ‘pleasurable excitement’ is what Daisaku Ikeda calls the state of rapture. Because I crave euphoria so much, I have to make myself subject to the dreadful scourge of dysphoria. In order to have what like I also have to have what I don’t like. If I am to believe in the ‘positive’ euphoria-producing projections then I also have to believe in the ‘negative’ (dysphoria-producing) ones.

 

So in this game not only am I compelled to be forever chasing after attractive illusions, I am also compelled to be forever fleeing the frightening ones. This game – the game that I am playing – is the game of the self, and this is how I CREATE the self – by planning and scheming, by hoping and striving, by constantly chasing after attractive illusions and running away from repellent ones.