Naming the Wanting Mind

This human world is sometimes called the desire realm because so much of it runs on desire and wanting. How to relate wisely with desire and wanting is a central question to all who wish to live with inner well-being and freedom. We can start by bringing mindful and loving awareness to desire and wanting. We can observe wanting and grasping without condemning it, and begin to learn to be aware of this aspect of our nature without being caught up in it. We will gradually see that there are healthy desires and unhealthy desires, those that lead to well-being and those that lead to suffering. Then we have a choice which to follow. To begin to better understand, experiment when desire arises: let yourself feel it, naming your experience “hunger,” “wanting,” “longing,” or whatever it is. Name it softly the whole time it is present, repeating the name every few seconds, five, 10, 20 times until it ends. As you note it, be conscious of what happens: How long does this kind of desire last? Does it intensify first or just fade away? How does it feel in the body? What parts of the body are affected by it—the gut, the breath, the eyes? When it is present, are you happy or agitated, open or closed? As you name it, see how it moves and changes. If wanting comes as the hunger, name that. Where do you notice hunger—in the belly, the tongue, the heart, the throat?

The point is not to be rid of desire but to understand it. When we look, we see how many times wanting creates tension—that it is actually painful. We sense how frequently it arises out of a sense of longing and incompleteness, an underlying feeling that we are not whole. As we hold the longing and incompleteness in loving awareness it gradually loses its power. We relax. Observing more closely we notice that desire is also fleeting, without essence. Desire is actually a form of imagined satisfaction that takes over our body and mind. Of course, at times it seems very real. Oscar Wilde said, “I can resist anything but temptation.” When we are caught by wanting it is like an intoxicant and we are unable to see clearly. Our wanting and desire can become powerful blinders limiting what we see. We only see what will fulfill it and what gets in the way.

Step back and look at desire tenderly, with kind attention. Do not confuse the wanting mind with pleasure. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying pleasant experiences. Human incarnation entails both pleasure and pain, and enjoyment is a wonderful aspect of life. However, the wanting mind continually grasps at the next pleasure. We are taught in this culture that if we can grasp enough pleasurable experiences quickly, one after another, our life will be happy. By following a good game of tennis with a delicious dinner, a fine movie, then wonderful sex and sleep, a good morning jog, a fine hour of meditation, an excellent breakfast, and off to an exciting morning of work, over and over, our happiness will last. Our driven society is masterful at perpetuating this ruse. But will this satisfy the heart?

What happens when we do fulfill wanting? It often brings on more wanting. The whole process can become tiring and empty. “What am I going to do next? Well, I’ll just get some more.” George Bernard Shaw said, “There are two great disappointments in life. Not getting what you want and getting it.” The process of being driven by desire is endless, because peace comes not from fulfilling our wants but from the moment that dissatisfaction ends. When wanting is fulfilled, there comes a moment of satisfaction, not from the pleasure, but from the stopping of grasping!

As you name the wanting mind and feel it carefully, notice what happens just after it ends, and notice what states then follow. The issue of wanting and desire is a profound one. You will see how often your desires are misplaced. An obvious example is when we use food to replace the love we long for. Geneen Roth, who works with eating disorders, wrote a book called Feeding the Hungry Heart. Through the practice of loving awareness, we can sense how much of our surface desire arises from some deeper wanting in our being, from an underlying loneliness or fear or emptiness.

Often when people start a meditation or spiritual practice, the wanting mind will become more intense. As we take away some of the layers of distraction, we discover that underneath are powerful urges for food or sex, or for contact with others, or powerful ambition. When this happens, some people may feel that their spiritual life has gone awry, but this is the necessary process of unmasking the grasping mind. We get to face it and see it in all its guises, so that we can develop a compassionate and skillful relationship to it. Unhealthy desire causes wars, it drives much of our modern society, and as unconscious followers, we are at its mercy. Few people have ever stopped to examine desire fearlessly, to feel it directly, to discover a wise relationship to it.

In Buddhist psychology desire is divided into many categories. Most fundamentally these desires are separated into painful desires and skillful desires. Painful desire involves greed, grasping, inadequacy, addiction, and longing. Healthy desire is born of love, vitality, compassion, creativity, dedication and wisdom. With the development of loving awareness, we begin to distinguish unhealthy desire from dedication and skillful motivation. We can sense which desires are free from unhealthy grasping and enjoy a more spontaneous and natural way of being without struggle. When we are no longer caught by unhealthy desires, healthy passion and compassion will more naturally direct our life.

Understanding, freedom, and joy are the treasures that understanding desire brings us. We discover that with healthy desire is a deep spiritual longing for beauty, for abundance and completeness. Then we discover that we search for these because their seeds are already within us. In truth, we are whole. Holding desire with loving awareness can lead us to discover this. One teacher of mine said, “The problem with desire is that you do not desire deeply enough! Why not desire it all? When you struggle, you don’t like what you have and want what you don’t have. For a free heart, try an experiment. Want what you have and don’t want what you don’t have. Here you will find true fulfillment.”

By studying desire, we begin to discover a deep possibility of well-being and freedom in our spiritual life.

This excerpt is taken from the book A Path with Heart

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