If I told you to sit in the corner of the room, and get up whenever you want, how long do you think you’d stay?
Chances are, not long. From my meditation experiments I’ve learned that it takes about ten seconds of sitting still before one feels an impulse to do or change something. Wants begin to appear, and start barking orders. Stand up. Get a glass of water. Stop wasting your time trying to meditate. Go eat some grapes. Get something done, jeez.
It’s amazing how quickly and ferociously these wants arrive on the scene. The brain is constantly generating them, and they become especially apparent when you attempt to sit still and do nothing. It becomes almost unbearable, and relief happens almost instantly when you act. Doing anything at all keeps the mind busy so it has less time to come up with suggestions and demands about what you ‘need.’
This is why it’s easier to watch television than sit and do nothing, even though watching television doesn’t really get us anywhere better. Merely distracting oneself from the incessant mental shouting of wants is probably the most common strategy of responding to them, and it does work to some degree.
Multi-billion dollar industries are built on exactly this impulse. Television, video games, smartphones, iPods. Distraction is easily one of the most profitable commodities of the 21st century.
Take away those distractions, and wants plague us. If you don’t believe me, invest the next 20 minutes sitting with no external stimulation and see how comfortable an experience it is. For most it would be a marathon.
Buddha talked about this problem 25 centuries ago: the origin of all suffering is desire. No wants, no problems.
Imagine if people could just sit happily and never be struck with the need to do anything. Would people still be racing around, cutting each other off in traffic, and fretting over red lights? Would we still feel angst about making more money, having a flatter stomach, or finding the perfect relationship? Would we still eat the whole Ben & Jerry’s, have that third drink, or keep clicking the Stumble button until 2am?
No, there would be none of that trouble. But nor would people be creating great works of art, walking in the park, or caring for their children. If we didn’t want anything we’d never eat, never protect our bodies or our reputations, and never reproduce. Wants are nature’s way of making sure we survive.
As I explained in Why Happiness is Such a Struggle, nature keeps us alive by keeping us dissatisfied, through ceaseless wanting. As a part of this cruel survival mechanism, things we want are made to look more appealing than things we have.
It’s a simple and effective program, this endless appetite for action and acquisition. It keeps us alive and kicking, but not necessarily happily alive and kicking. It just keeps us moving eternally towards something, and away from where we are.
There’s no question that as humans, we’re stuck with wants. But how do we keep them from making us miserable?
The Rock and the Hard Place
If you were to indulge every want in the most direct manner possible, you’d be a walking disaster. You want those new shoes, so you put them on and walk out of the store. You want your overly chatty aunt to leave you alone, so you say, “Leave me alone, overly chatty aunt.” It’s 10:15 on a Monday and you don’t want to be at work, so you just go.
Clearly there are consequences to fulfilling wants without some level of forethought. So we naturally learn some “want management,” though we might not think of it like that.
Very young kids haven’t learned these things yet. When they want something they look at you and say flatly, “I want that.” And when they don’t get it, they get disproportionately upset.
Adults do it too, we just do a better job at hiding it — though we’re not necessarily above pouting, whining, or scowling. It hurts to want something you can’t have. Kids tend to broadcast their disappointment, while we adults direct it inward.
So in a way, we’re caught between a rock and a hard place. When you feel a want coming on, whether it’s the thought of stopping at Starbucks or the thought of skipping your workout, it seems there are two choices:
- The Rock: Give in to the want — Give your mind what it’s asking for. Coffee and muffin, an evening with no responsibilities, whatever reward you dreamed of. Feels so awesome, at least for the moment. But it almost always has a cost, in money, excess calories, time, or self-respect. Make a habit of this option and you’ll gradually lose your ability to refrain from indulging.
- The Hard Place: Refuse to give in to the want — Say no! Grit your teeth and motor past the donut shop before temptation grabs the wheel. This choice is often accompanied by a rush of acute stress and then a lingering feeling of deprivation and general letdown. Later you may feel proud of yourself, but it still sucked at the time, and there will certainly be an endless supply of temptations to battle like this. Make a habit of choosing this one and you may have trouble letting joy into your life, and when you do you might not trust it.
Both of these common sequences result in suffering. It’s kind of depressing to think about. We can always fantasize that we’ll eventually reach a level of maturity where we’re above all these petty temptations. Is there a way to deal with wants that isn’t painful?
Want Management 101
Monks and other ascetics have gone to great lengths to master what I call want management, vowing silence, poverty and chastity in an attempt to distance themselves from temptations. Dealing effectively with wants takes a lifetime to master, but we can make pretty significant improvements just by recognizing that want management is a skill, and we all do it already in some way.
Some people learn decent want management skills from their parents and peers, others learn very ineffective approaches. Like so many other behaviors, we don’t always realize when we’re teaching it or learning it. If you find yourself running afoul of temptation on a regular basis, consider how your parents or guardians dealt with their wants.
As soon as you become conscious of your wants as they happen, you begin to see better ways to manage them. Here’s a quick step-by-step guide to get started:
Relax, and remember what a want is.
Two properties of wants: a) they will never stop showing up, and b) the only lasting effect of them is what you do in response. Any kind of craving will emerge out of nothingness and disappear back into it. The want itself is just a fleeting sensation; it can’t hurt you, even though it can appear alarming or even threatening. If you don’t respond with an action, no harm can be done.
Wants are insubstantial, forceless, ethereal non-things. Not too scary if you can relax and stand your ground. Life was fine before this latest want arrived, and if it wasn’t, it’s not as if fulfilling this sudden urge will change that. It’s just a want, one of many thousands, I’ll deal with it as the small annoyance it is.
Observe what happens in your body.
The human body is a very sensitive system. When the mind does something, the body usually reacts in some way. Depending on the stimulus, it could be increased heart rate, shallow breathing, fidgeting, salivation, or lip-biting, but in particular, watch for tension in the solar plexus. This abdominal tightness is a dead giveaway that there is an attachment present, and it is the hallmark of suffering of all kinds: dread, shame, desperation, longing, or worry. Whenever you feel in any way bad, check the solar plexus, you’ll see what I mean.
This tension is something that most of us feel many times every day whenever we encounter some kind of emotional sticking point. It’s a highly conditioned reflex that almost always means “life is not okay at this moment.”
It is probably not uncommon for people to carry such tension with them for a whole day, or even a whole lifetime. Simply relaxing it signals to the body that there is no reason for alarm. Let your body rest calmly in your seat, or on your legs if you are standing. It’s amazing how difficult it is to stay tense when you let go of that tightness in the abdomen. Watch for fist clenching, lip biting, or any other fidgeting too. They all betray a clinging mind.
Understand that there are no needs, only wants.
This is a tough one to get used to. We throw around the word ‘need’ all the time, and it’s almost always an exaggeration. I need a drink. I need to be there by 9:00. I need to get out of here. What we call needs are just wants, and a want is really just a preference. You won’t die just because things don’t happen exactly as you’d prefer.
Telling ourselves (or others) that we need something is really just an act of self-deception. We’re setting up an imaginary situation where we feel like we’re eliminating the possibility of something less preferable than what we want, by telling ourselves we ‘need’ this or that. The truth is we have all not gotten what we ‘need’ many, many times in our lives, and we’re all still here.
Be careful with the word need. If you can admit to yourself that it’s just a want — a preference — then you’ll eliminate a lot of angst from your life.
Identify the costs of indulging the want.
Since wants come and go endlessly throughout life, it’s a good policy not to let them cost you anything as they pass on by. Most wants will at the very least cost you time, so default to a gentle “No thanks” as your response to sudden wants. This reinforces a belief that your life was perfectly fine before this latest urge came over you, and indulging it will only introduce liabilities, in the form of wasted time, lost money, undermined self-control, excess calories, or some other lasting cost.
Most wants, when looked at in this way, are revealed to be temporary snags on your attention that are harmless unless you treat them like needs. They’re like little scams, mental door-to-door salesmen selling you floor polish you “can’t live without.” Shut the door before they really get into their spiel.
Return your attention to where it was when you were interrupted by the want.
The fine art of letting go is not much more than acknowledging the interruption, and returning your attention to what you were doing when you were interrupted. If you were working, dive right back into your work. If you were playing, play on. Your attention is always going to be somewhere, so you can’t just “not think about it.” You have to consciously put your attention somwhere where it is useful, and return it every time it wanders back to the want.
If you aren’t in the midst of working or some other attention-demanding activity, you can always put your attention into your body. Bringing your attention into your body is a foolproof way of returning to the moment, out of the realm of thought and into concrete reality. Anchor your mind on what’s going on in and around the body. This “returning your attention” is a fundamental skill in meditation and is indispensable for preventing your thoughts from running away with you.
Awareness is Half the Battle
Just taking a moment to consciously manage wants when you notice them helps to create a little bit of space between you and the desire. That space creates some proverbial “slack in the line,” so that even if there is still an attachment, it’s not very taut, so you aren’t jerked back and forth by it.
If you have not done very well historically at managing your wants, simply slowing down and making the point of managing them consciously can be enough to begin to unhinge long-standing habits. Start with some small, regular indulgence. Pick a day and go through these steps instead of doing what you usually do.
I used to stop at Tim Horton’s every day before work and buy a banana nut muffin and a large coffee. It wasn’t going to kill me, but it was costing me three dollars, 250 calories and fifteen minutes a day, five days a week. I decided one Sunday night that I wouldn’t get it on the Wednesday of that week, but I would let myself stop every other day if I wanted.
That Tuesday ended up being the last time I ever went. I noticed myself wanting it for a while after that, but at those moments I found it even more gratifying to drive by, look at the train of idling cars in the drive-thru, and utter a gentle “No thanks” in my mind.