I used to have an image in my head that scared me to death.
It was myself as a doddering old man in a flannel bathrobe, all alone at a kitchen table leafing through a newspaper—the stuffy, one-room apartment smelling of burnt coffee and…well, old man.
The image terrified me so much, in fact, that I made it my life’s mission to do everything possible to not become this brand of hideous reprobate. So I became involved with a woman and agreed to start a family at the tender age of 42.
Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out as initially planned. I passively agreed that it “just made sense” that we should move into the house that she grew up in—that still included the mother she grew up with.
It was a beautiful house after all—seven acres in the country and a magnificent place to bring up children. Plus, “think of the free childcare we would get” with Grandma living right there.
There’s no need to rehash the painful details, but I found myself shopping for an apartment five years later. I was also craving intimate connection so terribly by this time that I had it in my head it’d be just as easy to find a new partner as it was to find new living arrangements.
Not so. There were a few days I spoke to an old ex-girlfriend that convinced me that the past should stay right where it was. Then there was the 72-hour period when I joined and quit three different dating sites. Finally, there were the dates I went on with women friends that just seemed awkward and forced.
To be perfectly honest, by early summer, I was having quite a bit of difficulty maintaining my usual positive outlook. I seemed to be expending way too much energy trying not to be depressed.
Taṇhā is a Buddhist word that loosely translates to “desire.” Unfortunately, as with many attempts at trying to translate these terms, “desire” is a weak explanation.
The literal translation of the word is “thirst,” and as many Buddhist teachers point out, it is the “unquenchable thirst.” It’s the need for all things to be as we wish them to be—and this is just not realistic. Not only that, but if they actually did turn out as we’ve longed for them to in one moment, it would not be long before a new desire took shape, and we’d be chasing this. That is why it is referred to as “unquenchable.”
I was having a conversation with my friend Rory, a successful writer in Manhattan, when my revelation became even clearer. She was explaining to me that she actually prefers solitude to being in a relationship, and as I listened and almost mindlessly agreed with her point, I began to ask myself why it was that I was pursuing a lifestyle—with such intensity—that I did not really want.
There is a metaphor of “the moth and the flame” that Thai Buddhist monk Ajahn Jumnian used to illustrate this perfectly. The poor moth is so attracted to the light given off by the flame that all other things around it seem dark and non-existent. The moth expends all of it’s energies to fly toward the flame—and this, as we know, is fatal. The allegory is poignant, because when we chase the thing that we convince ourselves is the single hurdle to our happiness, we are destined to be disappointed.
The good news is that we can change. As the Buddha said, “Just as, of all trees, the balsam is the most soft and pliant, in the same way, I don’t envision a single thing that, when developed and cultivated, is as soft and pliant as the mind.”
So to become truly free from the chains of Taṇhā—the unquenchable thirst—we must:
1. Let go of our story. In Western culture, we have a tendency—through no fault of our own really—to compartmentalize everything we experience as either what we want or what we don’t want. I say “no fault of our own” because when you realize that the average American is subjected to somewhere between 5 to 10,000 advertisements per day, you begin to see why we attach such unhelpful stories to just about every experience we encounter.
“I don’t have a lover because I am undesirable,” or “This car I drive makes me seem unsuccessful,” are great examples of this. It doesn’t take too much imagination to figure out that the motives behind Madison Avenue’s attempts at making us feel this way is simply to sell products. To achieve a more mindful presence, we must be willing to question and oftentimes expose these stories for the lies that they are.
2. Stop comparing yourself to others. Years ago, this was a bit easier. Yes, when our neighbor installed an in-ground pool in their backyard or came home with a new Cadillac, we could assume they were doing well—but today, with social media, the subtleties are gone. Now we get to see a pictorial of the whole car-buying process, the engagement, or the dinner date, and we ask ourselves why we’re home watching old television shows on Hulu and everyone else is living the dream.
Much like we need to question the story we try to sell ourselves, we need to be skeptical with what others are advertising about their lives. It’s not so much that we need to doubt the sincerity of what we see on Facebook, but it needs to become immaterial to us. It only deepens our self-imposed despair and increases our “thirst.”
3. Get truly mindful. Every moment of our life is different from the last, and it is this that makes it beautiful. It is in our best interest to reach a state of mindfulness that transcends the need to label all of our experiences as bad or good: this is what I want to happen; this is what I don’t want.
When we become conscious of our own breathing and truly get inside the moment, it becomes impossible to get lost in our futile stories of what will makes us happy or not happy. We stop trying to control everything and make events turn out the way we think they should turn out. We are more attuned to the natural rhythm of life. This is the magic space that many Zen teachers refer to as “just this.”
There is a quote from the Buddha in which he implores us to abandon what is “unskillful.” It is my firm belief that he was referring to this story-spinning most of us do almost every moment of every day. This running commentary as we make our way through life diminishes the beauty of what we experience.
Whether we are washing the dishes or watching a summer sunset as exquisite as an oil painting, there is splendor everywhere when we become mindful enough to rebuke our “unquenchable thirst”—and instead, focus on conscious breathing and being present in the moment.
Author: Billy Manas
Image: Flickr/Johnny Ainsworth
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Copy editor: Callie Rushton
Social editor: Taia Butler