Is Desire Causing Your Suffering?

I have been thinking a lot lately about the idea of desire and its relationship to suffering and wanted to share some thoughts with you. I have heard before that desire is the cause of suffering. However, I don't think that is quite right. It is not really the desire that is problematic. Desire is human and natural and gives us motivation to accomplish, produce, and contribute. It is when our desire turns into feelings of want, need, and longing for, that it becomes problematic. It is this longing that as it intensifies becomes the uncomfortable and mind-consuming craving, which then results in (what Buddhism often refers to as) clinging. We start to grasp and hold onto what we want, not letting life ebb and flow as it should. We become desperate seekers of what we crave and then cling to its existence. So, it is when desire turns into craving and clinging that we experience suffering. Our mind is no longer free; we are no longer in flow or balance. To keep suffering in check, we must also keep our desires in check as well.

But how do we do that? That word that comes to mind most when dealing with my own push and pulls in life, as well as in helping others, is BALANCE. Balance is so often the answer. The world is made up of duality. That is the beauty of yoga, which literally translates to union. Yoga is the union of these dualities: the contraction and the release of muscles, the work and the relaxation, the spiritual and the physical. But whether you practice yoga or not, BALANCE is often the key to these dichotomies. If desire is not bad, but the excess of desire (as well as the inhibition of desire, think depression), then what we need is balanced desire. So how do we do that (I know, I asked you that already).

Well what is the balance of desire:

  1. Appreciation. Appreciation or gratitude is what keeps our desire in check. It is okay to want to improve, to create, to contribute (remember, that is all a part of desire), but at the same time as we are seeking more or seeking different, we need to appreciate what is in front of us, what is in the here and now. Not only do we feel satisfaction and happiness when we appreciate, as Tal Ben Shahar says, "When we appreciate the good, the good appreciates." Therefore, by acknowledging our blessings, our blessings also increase. If we are looking to create more in our lives, we can start by appreciating what we have already created in our lives. It can only grow from there.

  2. Enjoy the process. Too often we are so focused on the outcomes of our desires that we forget to enjoy the process of achieving our desires. It is not just the outcome, but the journey, that counts. And many have said that it is the journey that counts even more than the outcome. Be sure to savor the experience of getting there. Enjoy every stepping stone. And when it doesn’t feel so enjoyable, try being grateful for all that is occurring to bring you further in your journey.

  3. Be open along the way. If we are so focused on the prize or the end result, what we want to acquire or achieve, we just miss the hidden opportunities along the way to make it happen. We might just push aside anything that doesn’t match that golden outcome, not realizing that it was a stepping stone. We can frustrate ourselves by trying to climb the mountain in one giant leap. Acknowledge the steps in between and be open to the size, shape, and color of them all. They might not be what we expected.

  4. Let Go. When you are harnessing your desire towards a certain outcome, learn to let go. Take appropriate action steps, but then let them percolate. Don't meddle or try to force. This is what Buddhism calls, Right Effort. This is very important in balancing our desire and keeping ourselves in check. When working with your desires for good, periodically ask yourself, Am I using right effort? Does this feel like I am forcing an outcome to happen? Some people are prone to too much effort and others not enough. Take an action step and then release it. Allow it take roots before rushing to the next action.

  5. Breathe. I will probably say this one a lot. Breathing is obviously crucial to living, but conscious breathing helps us to slow down, regulates (brings into balance) our parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems, and helps to clear the mind. If we find our desires becoming too big, if we are feeling that sense of craving or clinging, stop and breathe, slowly and deeply. Try breathing in to a count of 4 and out for a count of 6. Longer exhalations really help to enact the relaxation response in the body. It is hard to crave, cling, and force our way through life when we are feeling relaxed and clear.

  6. Permission to be Human (in the words of Tal Ben Shahar). One of the greatest lessons I have ever learned came from my teacher and mentor Dr. Tal Ben Shahar. While a simple lesson, not an easy one, for any of us who struggle with perfectionistic tendencies. It is very easy to get caught up in the land of shoulds,as we move towards improving ourselves or setting about our goals. We should do this; we should be that, we should have our desires in check. Sometimes our desires are going to get away from us. Sometimes we will experience craving and clinging. We are only human. I once heard Pema Chodron speak about a lecture with the Dali Lama in which the Dali Lama was informed that we Westerners use our spiritual practices to beat ourselves up. These practices that are intended to help us create better lives; we use to tell ourselves more ways that we are falling short. That is not the intention of this article, nor should be the intention of any self-improvement. Giving ourselves the permission to be human, is crucial to letting go of the shoulds, letting go of beating ourselves up, letting go of the self-flagellation. We are all human; we are all doing the best we can from moment to moment. The object is to keep moving towards our goals or outcomes, but we will get tripped up along the way. Progress is never a linear path. It never has been all throughout history. Give yourself to permission to make mistakes, permission to learn and grow, and permission to change at your own pace, which means sometimes losing the reins on your desires and having to pull them back in again.

Be Well,