My niece, Beatrix, is like most children. She wants. She wants more. She wants more and more and more.
For her recent birthday, Beatrix received a set of “Critter Creatures,” along with their special playhouse. This set-up got about an hour of play before Beatrix was asking to go online and find more creatures. Specifically, she was aiming to use a Target gift card, another birthday present, to increase her collection.
Suddenly, and all too quickly, the creature set she had wasn’t good enough. It just wasn’t as fun to play with, knowing that there was so much more, and seemingly better, to be had. I marveled at how the universally human desire-mechanism was already in full force for Beatrix at such an early age.
As adults, desire wreaks havoc in every aspect of our lives. We can’t enjoy the home we have, for instance, once we see someone else’s that’s more spacious. We can’t celebrate our romantic relationship once we see another prospective lover who’s more beautiful, clever, wealthy, or whatever other quality we’re currently craving. We can’t enjoy our career once we focus on one that offers more freedom, power, or prestige. And of course we can’t enjoy our physical bodies when faced with the media barrage of those that are more svelte and toned.
So, what of it? Are we destined to a life of desire that snatches us from the joys of what’s present already, right now, in this moment of our experience? Luckily, no. There’s a simple practice that allows us to separate desires that propel us forward in directions we truly want to go from desires that leave us feeling perpetually empty and unsatisfied.
Here’s how the process works. First, we must become aware that we’re in a “fit” of desire. That requires recognizing desire’s inner grip, the way both our mind and body literally clamp down when we focus on something that we want but don’t yet have. As soon as we’re aware of this grip, we can put it under the microscope. By that I don’t mean analyze the desire, or otherwise dissect it. Instead, I mean that we can look at it both dispassionately and compassionately. We can experience it directly, up close and personal.
Putting desire under the microscope isn’t about the object that we’re craving – it’s about the craving itself. How does this sense of craving feel in our body? What does it do to our quality of consciousness? Do the thoughts generated by this body/mind state have a particular content or quality?
When we experience any desire directly in this way, something amazing happens – its grip releases. Even if only for a moment or two, the new house or lover or job that’s been obsessing us no longer holds such sway. This temporary reprieve is all-important. It allows us to gain perspective about, and assert control over, the previously overwhelming desire function. Fighting any desire, by contrast, only serves to increase its strength.
Putting desire under the microscope is also crucial for another reason. Recognizing that we can diminish desire’s grip without succumbing to it offers us a way forward in our lives that’s peaceful and joyful. Desires will never stop coming, regardless of how much therapy or meditation we experience, or even how much we practice the process I’m recommending here. But with each new desire that comes we now have a new, empowering option.
Rather than turn on what we have and fixate on what we don’t, instead we can relax into what we have. In such a relaxed state we can accept the arising of any desire simply as a form of information. It lets us know that something appeals. This appeal becomes data to consider, peacefully and joyfully, along with all the other forms of information we receive about the topic at hand from all the other available sources.
At six, Beatrix is not ready to hear very much about this liberating approach. She just wants more creatures. Her unexplored wanting is a kind of self-erected prison.
How about you? Are you in the same kind of prison? Which desires are holding you captive? Are you ready and willing to escape?