The reason that we suffer is simple: to paraphrase the Rolling Stones song, “we can’t always get what we want.” And in not getting what we want, we create conflict for ourselves and others. It may seem simplistic to reduce all our suffering to our unmet wants, but if we take the time to look closely at our situation, it becomes evident that the Buddha’s teaching on the source of our distress is exactly right. We suffer because we have something we don’t want, we want something we don’t have, or we have something we can’t keep. If we think of the concept of craving (Pali, tanha) as a triune, then its three faces are avoidance, desire, and clinging.
The first face of craving is avoidance. It turns away from the pain that comes by craving for what we have that we don’t want to go away. No one wants to grow old, yet most of us do—or we hope to, once we realize that aging is a privilege, given the alternative. None of us want to get sick, and especially not for long periods of time. We certainly don’t want to die, although we most decidedly will. These three “signs” of existence, as the Buddha calls them, may be different in context from one life to another, but not in fact. And although we understand that resistance is pointless, to accept the conditions of life feels so much like defeat, that we’d rather fight than surrender to the inevitable. It feels like a betrayal, the way things are set up—like there’s a bug in the system or a few lines of fine print no one bothered to point out when we signed the contract to live our lives.
“I was a good husband, a good father,” a patient once said to a therapist friend who worked in a nursing home. “I did my job, I paid my taxes, I even climbed a few mountains. Why the hell is this happening to me?” By “this,” he meant getting old; he meant losing control; he meant letting go of everything he’d worked so hard to get. It’s not easy to disabuse ourselves of the fantasy that if we check the right boxes, we’ll somehow be spared the indignity of our decline. But the fact is that from the moment we’re born, we’re already dying. No matter how rich, how famous, or how powerful any of us become, none of us are exempt from these three signs. Yet few of us are willing to carry the truth of our fragility or the certainty of our deaths. We’d rather look for security wherever we can find it.
There’s a story of a fisherman who’d been struggling to feed his family. Every morning, he’d go out on the ocean, cast his net, and, invariably, he’d haul it in almost empty. This pattern continued until one day, when he left early with his brother and, after only an hour, pulled in a catch so big that it threatened to capsize his skiff. Carefully, the fisherman tied up the bulging net and stowed the catch in his boat. He then grabbed a piece of coal from a bucket and drew a big X on the side of the boat under the gunwale, or the upper edge of the side of his boat.
“What are you doing?” asked his brother.
“This is a great fishing spot!” the fisherman said. “I’m marking it so that we can come back tomorrow.”
If we can’t fight old age, maybe we can fix youth in place. If we can’t avoid death and the anxiety that comes with it, maybe we can keep them at bay with the pleasure that comes from having money, or good looks, or a nice house, or a prestigious award. If the first kind of craving is avoidant, the second is grasping. It’s the face that looks toward its goal, which is very simple: to get what we want because it makes us feel good, not bad. This approach to living seems so obvious, so reasonable, that it’s almost absurd to question it. Who wants to feel pain? Who doesn’t want to feel pleasure? Isn’t pleasure natural and desirable? Indeed, pleasure by itself isn’t a problem, nor is our wanting it. We’ve all felt the rush of joy that accompanies all kinds of pleasant moments: digging our toes into sand, smelling the fragrant steam coming from a pot of stew, receiving an unexpected windfall of money, finding an elegant solution to a persistent problem.
The difficulty comes from grasping itself, which is relentless and impervious to the truth of impermanence. Yet we all know that vacations end, scents fade, money is spent, another problem replaces the first.
There’s nothing in Buddhism that says we can’t or shouldn’t enjoy life’s modest or magnificent wonders. The problem isn’t enjoyment either. The difficulty comes from grasping itself, which is relentless and impervious to the truth of impermanence. Yet we all know that vacations end, scents fade, money is spent, another problem replaces the first. Things shift, they break, they get lost, they decay. People leave or die. Everything that is, wanes, and no amount of effort can stop this passing. But as with old age, sickness, and death, our general response to this constant change is distaste. We don’t like change, and we don’t like it when it happens to us. When it does, our first response is to go looking for more things. More wine, more sex, more clothes, more likes, more titles, more trips—which makes desire a perfect, self-sustaining system. Without interference, it’ll spin endlessly from seeking to grabbing to losing to seeking again. And although we could accept impermanence and focus on figuring out where else we might find lasting satisfaction, it seems much easier to just hold on to what we have. This is the third face of craving.
The orientation of the first face is avoidant, the second is grasping, and the third is fixated. Its sole preoccupation is to keep things as they are. Of the three types of thirst, this is perhaps the most painful and unnatural—like sticking your tongue to a frozen mailbox. Holding on always comes at a cost: primarily, disappointment, and, peripherally, exhaustion, because things are neither lasting nor dependable. Getting what we want is hard enough, but to keep what we have is impossible. It’s simply not the way things work.
In one of those strange confluences that happen every so often, the day I started writing this article my bicycle was stolen. It was a distinctive bike—a purple beach cruiser with a basket and a rear-mounted, custom-made crate that fit my dog, a good load of groceries, or a five-gallon water jug, as needed. It was graceful in a midlife sort of way, and I loved it. So I’d be lying if I said it didn’t hurt when I walked out of my doctor’s office and saw only absence. It felt like a boundary had been breached, as if someone had entered my personal space without my consent. But then I thought, who created those boundaries? What is stealing when the something that was taken was never really yours? What is the meaning of “mine” and “yours” when the boundary that separates us fades, like everything else that’s conditioned? I’m not condoning stealing or any other invasion of privacy. Boundaries exist for a reason. But in working with craving, it’s useful to take a close look at those limits and see what happens when we enlarge them. Or when we question the nature of want, of having or owning, and of the owner.
The late Bhikkhu Nanananda once said that “conceit” (belief in an independent self that is somehow superior to other selves) is misappropriation of public property—that is, of the four elements of earth, water, fire, and air. The Buddha said that conceit is the last defilement to fall away before full awakening.
A bhikkhu thinks thus: ‘This is peaceful, this is sublime, that is, the stilling of all activities, the relinquishing of all acquisitions, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, nibbana.’ In this way, Ananda, a bhikkhu could obtain such a state of concentration that he would have no I-making, mine-making, and underlying tendency to conceit in regard to this conscious body; he would have no I-making, mine-making, and underlying tendency to conceit in regard to all external objects; and he would enter and dwell in that liberation of mind, liberation by wisdom, through which there is no more I-making, mine-making, and underlying tendency to conceit for one who enters and dwells in it. (Ananda Sutta AN 3.32, trans. by Bhikkhu Bodhi)
Releasing ourselves from I-making and mine-making doesn’t prevent us from enjoying life’s pleasures. On the contrary, it helps us delight in them even more, since we’re able to acknowledge their transiency and value. Whether what we hold is a bicycle, a cherished memory, or our own precious body, letting go of craving allows us to carry these things more lightly.
My teacher always says, “Practice when it’s easy,” so here it is, a tiny loss to prepare me for the true relinquishment of my conscious body. Like my bike, my body—which has also done an excellent job of taking me from one place to another—is on loan temporarily. Like my bike, one day, it too will disappear. It’s my sincerest wish that I am able to let go in that moment with some modicum of grace and acceptance. In the meantime, I hope that the one who has my bicycle enjoys it as much as I did. I hope they find happiness and fulfillment.
It’s definitely true that we can’t always get what we want—and it’s precisely because of this that we can thoroughly enjoy what we have, for the time being.
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