Sitting with desire I

The cause of suffering, it is often cited of Buddhism, is desire, attachment or craving. We suffer because we crave what we (think we) don’t have. And we crave any number of things, both tangible and ephemeral — ice cream, a bigger house, a bigger car, someone to love us, we may even crave a more fulfilling spiritual life.

One rids oneself of suffering, as we are told in the Four Noble Truths, by following the Noble Eightfold Path:

Wisdom (Sanskrit: prajñā, Pāli: paññā)
1. Right view
2. Right intention

Ethical conduct (Sanskrit: śīla, Pāli: sīla)
3. Right speech
4. Right action
5. Right livelihood

Mental discipline (Sanskrit and Pāli: samādhi)
6. Right effort
7. Right mindfulness
8. Right concentration

LollipopIn my view, these are tools to keep the hunger in perspective, rather than at bay. For, as many would acknowledge (and I can vouch for!), the craving, the wanting, the longing, is never fully eliminated, just kept humming in the background, like the low notes of a symphony. To crave, to want, to yearn, is part of of the human condition, isn’t it? We emerge from the womb crying out for comfort. And we spend the rest of our lives trying to fill the void left by the instance of primary trauma.

If desire is indeed a primordial condition, how do we sit with it? How do we sit with the hunger of the soul, which can manifest as all other kinds of hungers, for wealth, fame, esteem, accolade, comfort, sexual fulfillment, and so on.

I reckon the first step is to separate the wanting from that which is wanted.

I volunteer at a charity shop on Saturdays and for the past two weeks, I have been lusting after a leather jacket priced at £24.99. Given that I entered the month of January overdrawn on my account, spending £24.99 (approx. USD50) on a leather jacket I don’t need is, by any account, a bad idea. Morbidly, or pathologically, if you prefer, I hung the jacket on the rail right in my line of vision, and it has been a very illuminating experience watching my mind work through the various narratives for how I might justify purchasing it: ‘leather is long-lasting’; ‘it’s cheaper than on the high street’; ‘I’m buying from a charity shop, I’m doing a good deed’; ‘I get a 20% staff discount’; (and my favourite, the Zen justification) ‘don’t overthink it, it’s just as valid to be in the moment and buy it’. What have I said about the lies we tell ourselves?

Now, is the cause of my suffering (dukkha), my craving for the jacket, or the jacket itself? Is its smoothness, its softness, its flattering of my figure, its apparent value for money, the reasons why I want it? If I’m honest, those are not the source of my craving, merely the justifications for it.

Substitute the relatively inanimate object, the jacket, with a relatively animate one, another human being, and the same consideration applies. Is the cause of my suffering, my craving for So-and-so’s attention/love/respect/desire, or So-and-so himself/herself?

What does it mean to want somebody for themselves? Do we ever engage another person in and of themselves who is not also partly made up of our projection of who they might be? Put differently, does who we think is in front of us exist in the same way separate from our perception of them? Call it a version of the paradox of Schrodinger’s Cat, or that old philosophical conundrum: ‘If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one to hear it, does it make a sound?’ If we aren’t there to project ourselves and no one there to reflect us back, do we exist in the way we think we do?

I don’t necessarily mean that we put on false fronts when we relate to people. On the contrary, I believe all the fronts are true, even the false ones. But I believe that we re-make ourselves in each moment as we relate, which is why I also believe that the best relationships are the ones that are continually re-made and re-affirmed in each moment. If we value each moment for what it truly is, there is little room for regret and loss, and perhaps even less for fantastical projections into the future.

What do we do about the craving that continues to surface though? There will always be new jackets, new cars, new phones, new loves — how do we sit with the desire that arises within us?

Cont’d Part II.

Image source: Stock.xchng


3 Responses to Sitting with desire I

  1. Pingback: Sitting with desire II « A Question of Mindfulness

  2. Starfire says:

    Hey there

    Interesting article – I’m glad I found it!

    I know for myself that separating out the craving sensation from the craved object is a critical first step to deciding the best way forward for myself.

    One thing I have discovered via self-observation and experience, rather than through someone else telling me that it was so, is that I pretty much *always* have some background level of craving going. The feeling just kind of… attaches itself to a given object, concept or person. And yes, as soon as I’ve acquired said object, concept or person, the craving just reattaches itself to the next thing in the queue 😉

    Having seen this pattern playing out over and over again in my life, it’s easier now, when I become aware of a craving, to simply note it and experience it as craving. Possibly where my experience diverges from my understandings of traditional buddhist thought, however, is that once I’ve identified a sensation of craving, it doesn’t always feel like suffering to me.

    Sometimes, it’s kind of fun – there’s an amusement value in standing back, watching myself experience the craving; feeling it, while keeping in mind that it is simply a feeling. It’s not about the thing I’m craving, it’s about the sensation of craving. There’s a kind of ‘Huh. Interesting. Look, there I am. I’m craving.’ kind of feeling about my response.

    Sometimes, I’ll act on my craving. Other times I won’t. But always, I’m fascinated to watch myself respond.

    Thanks for making me think about this.



  3. hitchhiker72 says:

    Hi Starfire,

    Thanks for reading. I’m always interested in other people’s experiences.

    ‘however, is that once I’ve identified a sensation of craving, it doesn’t always feel like suffering to me.’

    I’d say you’ve managed it — once you’ve objectified the sensation of craving, the general dissatisfaction becomes almost irrelevant, or at least, doesn’t take centre stage any more.

    I had a glimpse at your blog. Fascinating. Will be reading a bit more later.

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