In Buddhism, desire is viewed as a manifestation of craving. Many of us desire situations in our lives to be different, while others desire parts of our self to be different, feeling that we are not good enough just as we are. This sense of inner poverty and lack drives so much of consumer society: wanting this hairdo, or this latest designer brand of clothing, or even the latest cosmetic surgery. Even as mindfulness practitioners, many of us desire our experience of practice to be different—the present moment seldom comes up to scratch! These are all manifestations of desire and expressions of the craving mind that constantly wants more and more.
Another manifestation of craving is the desire to pursue constant entertainment—anything rather than being in touch with the present moment. This desire fuels our habit of distraction, which takes the form of perpetual thinking, daydreaming, and dwelling on issues, even though this thought activity unsettles the mind. We can notice the wanting mind the next time we reach for our phone when there is nothing else to do, or the next time we idly flick through the myriad TV channels on our flat-screen TV.
At a subtler level, this desire to escape our moment-by-moment experience is a desire not to feel—a yearning to be unconscious and numb. We can see this tendency pervading so much of modern life. It can lead to addictive habits that help us to numb out, such as alcohol, drugs, or the next TV box set.
In the practices that follow, we focus on learning how to recognize the wanting mind in ourselves. We will learn to pay attention to how craving and wanting play out in our experience and how this inflates our sense of self. We will see how lessening the power of craving enhances our capacity to enjoy life and increases our sensitivity to the richness and diversity of our experience. This is the discriminating wisdom that emerges from the energy of desire when craving and wanting decrease.
Noticing How Desire Feels
Start by bringing your attention to the flow of your breathing, slightly deepening your in-breath and lengthening your out-breath. Feel your feet on the floor and the weight of your body on your seat. Once you feel settled, pose a question to yourself in a slow and reflective way: “What do I want right now?” Your attention might go from desiring a cup of coffee, to surfing on the Internet, to lusting after someone you fancy, even to yearning for enlightenment! Desire is subtle, complex, and ever changing. Then notice how the energy of craving and wanting feel in your mind and body—perhaps there is a tightening of the throat, a tensing somewhere in the body, or a widening of the eyes. You can then pose a second question: “How do I want things to be different from how they are now?” Once again this may relate to your immediate state of mind, your financial situation, your relationships, or your life in general. See if you can tune into the feeling of dissatisfaction with the present moment and the craving for something better, and notice how this affects the way you think and feel. Simply acknowledge what the energy of wanting and craving feels like for you. Conclude the practice by bringing a brief gesture of kindness to yourself by placing your hand on your heart.
Being Aware of Desire in Daily Life
As you go about your daily activities, form the intention to become aware of your wanting mind. Then notice the varying ways that craving and wanting affect the way you think, feel, and act. You may want to feel more relaxed and spacious, yearn for a cappuccino, fixate on an item of clothing in a shop, fantasize about someone you are attracted to, or idly daydream about sunny, exotic holidays. See if you can tune into how wanting feels in your body, how it causes your mind to fixate, and how it feels uncomfortable until you get what you want. Every now and again, when you notice yourself wanting something, decide that you are not going to have it. Notice any emotions that come with thwarted desire, such as anger or fear, and any stories you tell yourself about why you should have what you want and should have it now! Conclude the practice by bringing a brief gesture of kindness to yourself by placing your hand on your heart or some other part of your body.
Related: Working With Desire
Through doing these practices we become familiar with how desire manifests in our lives and how it seeks to take control of our mind. We may all recognize times when we become aware of a desire only after we have satisfied it, such as when we eat the last cookie or click the “buy” button on our smartphone. If we don’t recognize desire as it is happening, we are ruled by it. If we can recognize our desires in the moment that they occur, there is a possibility of doing something different, such as having a glass of sparkling water rather than yet another glass of wine.
Having reflected on the power of desire and the intensity of the wanting mind, we may then find it useful to look back on our lives and acknowledge how desire can be a hugely destructive force—from burning ambition that consumes us, to lust that destroys marriages, to rampant desire for material things. This helps motivate us to work in a more mature way with desire, which involves cultivating its antidote as well as liberating the enormous potential for vitality and intelligence lying within this emotion.
From From Mindfulness to Insight: Meditations to Release Your Habitual Thinking and Activate Your Inherent Wisdom, by Rob Nairn, Choden, and Heather Regan-Addis © 2019. Reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications.
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