July 31, 2012

Taming the Want Monster. ~ Toni Bernhard

Getting a Handle on the Second Noble Truth.

How many times in your life have you smiled and shook your head in disbelief at how strongly you thought you had to have some material thing or some experience—that “if-I- don’t-get-it-I’ll-die” type of desire?

Now you look back and it’s just one more item on that list of “wants” that no longer has any hold over you. This desire is the topic of the Buddha’s second noble truth, and it is the source of much of the suffering in our lives.

We don’t experience this desire as a preference, instead we experience it as a need—as if fulfilling the desire is essential to our happiness.

When I was a child, I was easily swept up in this type of desire. For several years, all I wanted was a horse and I begged my parents every day. Now I look back and see it as my parents did,“You can’t have a horse in the middle of Los Angeles! Where would you keep it? Where would you ride it?” At the time, none of their attempts to discourage me mattered, because all I wanted was a horse. I thought that if I had a horse then I’d be happy for the rest of my life. Perhaps you can remember being caught up in a similar desire when you were a child.

I look back and laugh at that kid with her “out-of-control desire” for a horse, but the fact is, I can still want something so badly that it feels as if I have no control over that intense feeling of need. It can feel as if my happiness is completely dependent on satisfying this need.

Here are some of the “wants” that periodically come up for me:

  1. Regaining my good health (I’ve been chronically ill since 2001).
  2. Being able to go to Los Angeles to watch my granddaughter dance.
  3. Being able to travel with my husband.
  4. Going for a long long walk—as long as I want it to be.

Is there something in your life that you want so badly, that it feels as if your happiness depends on getting it?

A friend of mine calls this “the want monster.” When her kids were young, she used this phrase to help them become aware of the tendency to want everything that appeared pleasant to them: a material thing, an experience. If they were in a toy store and started madly grabbing for stuff, she’d remind them that this was just the want monster and that it need not be satisfied. If they thought that they couldn’t be happy unless they went to Disneyland, she’d simply remind them, it’s just the want monster.

We tend to think that if we can just get the right thing or have the right experience then we’ll be happy. However, the type of happiness that comes from satisfying the want monster is short-lived, because nothing is permanent. Eventually, that toy will wear out and that Disneyland trip will end, and soon the want monster will find a new target of desire.

Even getting my health back won’t make my life trouble-free. When I reflect deeply, I realize that the type of happiness that depends on getting exactly what I want is not the type of temporary happiness that I’m looking for. I’m looking for happiness that comes from being content with my life as it is, whether I’m able to satisfy the want monster or not.

This happiness comes from making peace with the fact that life is mixture of pleasant and unpleasant experiences, both successes and disappointments. This type of true happiness comes from opening our hearts and minds to fully engage in each day, even though we know there may come a day that the want monster goes hungry.

I’m muddling along with this practice, but I’m working to tame the want monster by recognizing that it will arise, and although it will whisper in my ear that it’s one of those have-to-have-it-or-die desires, I will let it pass. I can just watch the wanting as mental chatter—an event in the mind that is arising, hanging out for a while and then passing away—leaving me free to engage fully with whatever this particular day has to offer.


Toni Bernhard is the author of the How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers, winner of the 2011 Gold Nautilus Book Award in Self-Help/Psychology. Website: www.howtobesick.com




Editor: Maja Despot

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