In the Buddha’s teaching of The Four Noble Truths, the first truth is that suffering exists.
The second truth states that all suffering has a cause. In Buddhism, attachment and desire are often the root causes of our misery.
While we usually think of desires as sensual, like sex and drugs, desire can refer to all sorts of cravings: material things, freedom, people, stability, the past, fulfillment, sex, happiness, and so on.
The list of our cravings is endless. We yearn for what is unattainable and hard to achieve or maintain. We fixate on what we believe can make us happier or bring us more comfort and gratification.
Our culture has led us to believe that excessive consumption is the key to happiness. But, according to Buddhist philosophy, that exact desire for more is what often leads to more suffering.
We might find ourselves wondering how it’s possible to live without desire, and therefore live without suffering. Well, it’s not possible.
We can’t eliminate desire. Some of the things we crave are needed for our survival, such as food, water, and sex. And other things we crave are often motivation for us to do and be better. Thankfully, Buddhism doesn’t condemn desire itself and doesn’t ask us to eliminate it either.
There’s a concept called the “middle way,” which can help us understand desire and the ways we can deal with it.
The true Buddhist meaning of desire is to want something that is absent. But even when we get what we desire, we can become greedy and crave something more or something better.
As Steve Hagen, the Zen priest, says:
“Whatever we take hold of, if we pursue it long enough, only points to meaninglessness. And so, we fear there might be only meaninglessness. But the feeling of meaninglessness would never arise if we do not reach for what is not there.”
Therefore, we can minimize our suffering when we stop craving what is not present. If we understand where desire leads, we can deal with it in a more conscious way. Consequently, we learn to differentiate between wholesome and unwholesome desires.
We do this by deciding what we truly need and what we don’t. Craving food when we’re hungry is wholesome. If we didn’t satisfy this desire, we would starve to death. But if our desire to eat is motivated by ego—like eating when we are bored or stressed—then we are giving in to an unwholesome desire.
The lesson here, according to Buddhist ideals, is that we need to find the middle way. We need to learn to live in a materialistic culture without getting dragged down or consumed by it.
We must accept what we have right now. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to become better people, get better jobs, or pursue what’s best for us—but we should aim to achieve these things mindfully, without becoming attached to the outcome. If we get what we want, then good for us. If we don’t, we shouldn’t feel defeated.
And when we do get what we want, we must be careful not to sink into greed or attachment—because then the solution becomes the problem.
That said, the most important step toward dealing mindfully with desire is to understand it. To find happiness, we must first be happy with unhappiness. Our mind is constantly unsatisfied—this is why our desires increase with time—so we must train our minds to feel content with what we have right now. Then, we pursue what is wholesome and drop what isn’t.
Meditation is a great tool to help us accept what is happening in the present moment. We learn to deal with thoughts as they come and go, without clinging to them, and accept whatever sensations arise in our bodies.
Additionally, embracing the notion of impermanence helps us realize that everything is temporary. Whatever arises, passes later. Life is a cycle of birth and death, and once we truly understand this—not just on the intellectual level—we can grasp that our cravings are transitory.
And, only then, can we experience desires without becoming attached to their presence or hoping they last forever. We understand their ephemeral nature and enjoy them in the present moment.
By understanding that whatever we buy, find, or experience will soon change, we can eradicate the greater part of our suffering.
Author: Elyane Youssef
Editor: Nicole Cameron
Copy Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Social Editor: Catherine Monkman