Wanting what we have – Part 2

‘We can eventually stop using practice in the service of a curative fantasy of being made out of stone, immune to the pain of the world.’

Barry Magid

We’re not made out of stone – it’s very normal for us to have desires which are slightly addictive, to be caught up in patterns of wanting more than is necessarily good for us. I was speaking with a worker at an alcohol and drug rehab facility recently, and he thought the next addiction they may need to treat is the addiction to smartphones. The way most of us use our smartphones may not be ruining our lives, but can easily pull us away from being in the present moment. Our addictions can be escapism, or a form of self-medication to try and cope with deep emotional pain. It’s often easy to identify addiction in others – your boss is addicted to work, or the son of a family friend is living on the streets and taking ice. It can be much harder to pinpoint it in ourselves. What mindfulness meditation asks us to do is notice the often very subtle ways in which we are pulled away from presence and into some kind of numbing – whether it’s the fourth glass of wine, the compulsion to buy more than we need, or the fact we once again spent a lot longer on Facebook that we’d originally intended.

Mindfulness can assist us in two ways. For a start, it can help us to identify the patterns in our life which pull us away from being present. These can be strong, such as in a full-blown addiction, or quite subtle. Both are challenging to work with – a full-blown addiction obviously has a great deal of power, and we need a lot of support and time in order to heal from it. The subtle addictions, on the other hand, can be very elusive. After all, there is nothing wrong with the occasional escapism, or making ourselves feel better by indulging in a treat, or avoiding something unpleasant to focus on more positive interactions. When are the escapism and avoidance just a normal part of life, and when do they become problematic? Mindfulness meditation can help us to become much clearer about what aspects of our life are helpful in the long term, and which are holding us back and limiting our potential for present-moment awareness.

The other way in which mindfulness can be helpful is by developing greater resilience, and the ability to stay with difficult feeling states instead of always having to escape or block them out. In psychological language, this is called building greater affect tolerance. Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the pioneers for the clinical uses of mindfulness in the West, describes a practice called ‘urge-surfing’, which will be the topic for next week’s blog.

Weekly practice idea:

Sit down for ten minutes in a quiet place, and notice the flow between presence and distraction. What does it feel like for you? Is there anything which stands out for you in particular?

Anja Tanhane

Wanting what we have

‘Happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have.’

Anonymous saying

When we look at our lives, most of the time we have fairly clear ideas about what we’d like more of, and what we’d love to do without. All cultures and religions have guidelines about which desires are considered acceptable, and which are strictly forbidden. There are usually also some grey areas, where the rules are less clear. And of course, in a rapidly changing world, within even one Church congregation there can be a wide range of views on subjects like same-sex marriage, corporal punishment, women as priests and so on.

Many of our desires are survival-based – the desire to have enough to eat, adequate shelter, to be safe from harm and so on. Usually we also have a desire to be free from pain and suffering, though this desire might be subjugated to a higher purpose, as in the case of a marathon runner who chooses to endure quite a lot of pain and suffering in order to reach her goal.

Desires motivate us to not only survive, but also to prosper and flourish. The downside of our desires can be that they tend to be addictive. If we meditate regularly, we can be quite surprised at the constant array of various desires parading through our mind. Some of these might be lofty – ‘I want to reach enlightenment so that I can liberate all other sentient beings’. Some are a little more prosaic – ‘I’ve really got to have some chocolate, NOW!’ Other desires might feel shameful, or at least somewhat embarrassing. One of the reasons why sensual desire is seen as a hindrance to meditation in traditional Buddhism is the way in which desires pull us away from simply being present in the moment. Sometimes this can be very intense – when we fall in love, for example, and can’t think of anything other than our beloved. Yet even if we are meditating with great concentration, really being mindful of the moment, we can still be engaged in what Zen teacher Barry Magid calls our ‘secret practice’ – our deep, often well-hidden wish for life to be somehow other than it is. And while our more obvious sensual desires can make it more difficult to remain present during a meditation, our ‘secret’ desires about what meditation should be can be a significant hindrance in keeping our practice going long-term.

Next week we look at some of the ways in which mindfulness can be used to work more skillfully with our desires – not through denying them, but by being more clear about their place in our life, and the various directions they want to pull us in.

Weekly practice idea:

Sit for ten minutes in a quiet place, and watch the range of desires emerging in your mind. What do you notice?

Anja Tanhane