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