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Three Things We All Need to Know About Desire

pink donut

The Main Street strip in Mount Pleasant, Vancouver, is a mile-long stretch offering every sense pleasure you could think of. Craft beer. Sushi. Third-wave coffee. Trendy clothes. Pizza and burgers. Ergonomic furniture. Artisanal ice cream.

Last month, on my first night back in civilization after a seven-day silent retreat, I spent most of the evening slowly walking that strip.

Still hyper-aware and hyper-patient from the retreat, I kept noticing something my mind usually only does in the background. Maybe fifteen or twenty separate times, I noticed myself getting really excited about acquiring something—a slice of pizza, a book, a dessert, a coffee—and then I noticed that feeling dissipate.

Each of these cravings came and went in turn, and the experience was the same every time. There were five or ten seconds of really intense wanting—Yes! That! I could have that! Then there was a minute or so of lingering enthusiasm, maybe some money-related rationalization about acquiring the tweed-faced notebook or blueberry-lavender ice cream in question.

But if I just kept walking past the storefront, the feeling ran out of steam very quickly. Five minutes later, I could remember it, but the emotional pull was all but gone.

Desires begin vanishing as soon as they arrive, yet our responses to them can have far reaching consequences. What we tend to do during those pivotal seconds can make all the difference between good health or poor health, retiring at 40 or at 70, and being generally happy or generally miserable. 

It’s not much of a stretch to say that poor “Want Management” skills create virtually every problem in society—corruption, addiction, violence, debt, corporate amorality, crappy products, environmental destruction and every other lamentable thing in your newspaper.

Given that wants and cravings essentially drive society, it’s quite astonishing that we don’t get much training in responding to them, or even recognizing them when they’re happening.

The false choice we learn as kids

As children, the adults in our lives tried to manage our desires by simply telling us that we can’t have the thing we want. The candy, the toy, the TV show that was going to come on next—they said no, we can’t have it, and if necessary, physically prevented us from having the thing.

We suffered quietly, or loudly, every time. Our young minds quickly determined that every desire produces one of two outcomes: getting the thing, or suffering over not getting the thing.

Then we grew up and began to earn our own money, and now Aunt Sally can’t stop us from buying all the candy we desire. Our tastes have usually changed, however, to more costly things like clothes, furniture, cars and booze.

We learn only very slowly, if at all, better skills for dealing with—or even recognizing—this endless torrent of emerging wants. Some wisdom develops over the years, partly through run-ins with credit card debt, health scares, addiction, and other dark learning experiences.

Just acknowledging a few easy-to-overlook realities about desire goes a long way towards helping us create healthy, life-improving habits. It can get a lot more sophisticated—Buddhism is essentially a 2,600-year study of desire management, and it’s no accident that my experiences on Main Street came on the heels of a silent retreat.

That may not be your cup of tea, but there are at least three things we all need to know about the nature of wanting.

1) Desires appear constantly

You’ve experienced millions of desires and there will be millions more. Yet we operate as though we only want a finite collection of things, and life is a quest to obtain those things so we can finally relax and feel stable and happy.

But something’s fishy there—if you were to write down in a journal all the things you find yourself wanting, the result is obviously not a list of the things required to make you happy. “50th Anniversary Commemorative Sergeant Pepper jigsaw puzzle” is not a vital ingredient to my well-being.

Even listing a single day’s worth of wants would make it obvious that desire is just an evolutionary function set on permanent overdrive—More security! More stimulation! Fat and sugar! Sex! Status! All the things! Clearly there’s no plan here, no roadmap to well-being, just a monkey with a megaphone and an endless list of demands—each of which costs something to fulfill.

2) Desires are a kind of pain

We often think of desires as pleasant, because we associate them with our fantasies about acquiring the thing in question.

But if you pay attention to wanting itself, it’s a tense, breath-shortening feeling, one that makes the present moment a lot less tolerable. In consumer societies, we often relieve this tension habitually by paying the desire off—going ahead and acquiring the thing, sacrificing some measure of money, health, or self-respect to do it, even if we know better on some level.

If you want to see the pain of desire, separated out from soothing expectations of actually getting the thing, tell your child you’re going to get ice cream, then tell them you’ve changed your mind. The child hasn’t gained or lost anything, but simply putting that desire in her little mind, without the promise of relief, creates so much distress that it’s clearly a cruel thing to do.

Also notice that at some point the desire subsides, even if the ice cream was never delivered. All tantrums end, no matter our age. But the suffering is real, and once we hook our little hearts on some appealing object, the pain can stretch from moments to hours, and by that point it has nothing to do with ice cream.

3) Desires don’t last

This was obvious during my post-retreat saunter in Vancouver, but normally it’s hard to see: desires don’t last very long. They are very-short-term spasms of the mind, and this is a vital point to recognize if you want to be financially stable, healthy, principled, and able to keep a manageable schedule.

Imagine you’re home with your partner, on a super-ordinary night, watching Weekend At Bernie’s on Netflix. During a particular scene, you feel a surge of excitement as you’re struck with an idea:

Hey! *I* could have a boat! I could be cruising the waves, wearing a white captain’s hat, lit up by golden-hour sun rays.

Without recognizing this idea for the momentary spasm it is, you decide “Yes! I will have that! I can swing it. Fred has a boat and I make at least as much as he does.” Later, still excited, you Google boats, prices, and read a Boat Owner’s FAQ.

What could have been a 90-second mental digression during an ordinary Tuesday movie night instead became a years-long saga of financial pressure, including a much later retirement date. Only very occasionally does this situation deliver some of the idyllic (but unnecessary) wave-cruising pleasure you daydreamed about randomly that time on the couch.

We might think our desires for big, costly things must arise from correspondingly deep, meaningful needs, but really, it’s just the mind going “Yes! That! I could have that!” for the millionth time.

By remembering any of these points during that initial flareup of wanting, we can avoid the extremely costly “appeasement” route. You can notice that you want something, and instead of slipping into negotiations mode—how great it would be, how you can justify it—you can go, “Ok, desire #10223235 has arrived. It won’t be here long, and in the mean time, I will not let it shake me down.”

***

Photo by Marco Verch
Deanna July 10, 2017 at 12:46 am

I have been reading your blog for a couple years now and have never felt so inspired! you have a way of taking what we all know in some way, some how deep down but just can’t put into words and you- put it into words!

There’s a BIG need for science communicators right now, you could really take this gift you have a make differences in all sorts of areas, not just self improvement.

But anyawy, whatever you choose to do is fine because you will be inspiring people no matter what!

You know how the You Are Not So Smart Podcast, right? They have a great episode about “disability bias” but even if you just google it I think you might find it gets you thinking about desire in different ways, too.

I’ll bet MMM would make this a guest post on his blog, too! It’s very relevant to what he’s about too.

David Cain July 10, 2017 at 9:14 am

Thanks Deanna. Originally this draft included a few paragraphs about one of MMM’s strategies for building wealth, which is simply delaying action whenever we want to buy something. Wait until the next day and see if you still want it, and chances are the desire has died down or is gone completely.

Brady July 10, 2017 at 12:53 pm

I could sense some MMM influence in that last point on delaying desires!

Deanna July 10, 2017 at 4:21 pm

For me, that works for things like lattes or cloths, but I’ve been wanting things like a motorcycle and sphynx cats for a couple years and desire has not died down! Those aren’t spur of the moment purchases though they are incredibly unesscairy! Thanks again David.

Kevin July 10, 2017 at 2:19 am

Great post David, and it is so true that desires are generally fleeting. Retailers have figured this out some time ago and have then tried to reduce the barriers to purchasing to maximise on that ‘fleeting feeling’ – Amazon have got particularly good at it with things like one-click purchasing.
BUT – living to the age of 90 in a state of mindfulness is one version of happiness but what if our psychology is no more than that of lab rats pushing a button to get a treat? Maybe living to 50 but having a great time is another version of happiness? Are we in danger of foregoing everything for a spartan existence? In the same way that ‘you can’t take your possessions with you’ you can’t take mindfulness either?

sally July 10, 2017 at 2:52 am

One of the interesting observations about desires is that they are not necessarily correlated with happiness. “All the things” one may buy, that are cool for a little while, then clutter your place, don’t know what to do with them, feel bad that you now want to throw it out etc. Or all the alcohol, a bit of fun and a lot of headache. All the fat and sugar, and all the angst of being fatter than you’d like or less healthy.

So to be able to observe the desires, and make good choices anyway, can actually increase happiness.

Thanks for the read David, another good idea I can practice :)

Lola July 10, 2017 at 5:01 am

Very though provoking….

Ashley Kung July 10, 2017 at 8:50 am

I would say that this article isn’t about denying yourself every single desire you ever have. It’s about learning to stop the initial impulsive, automatic reaction, so that you can then choose to respond to those desires that might actually be necessary, or that you would actually benefit from. I think his point is that very few desires turn out to be things that are necessary or beneficial or that will have any effect on our long-term happiness.

David Cain July 10, 2017 at 9:19 am

Amazon is a perfect example of marketers exploiting this. Every click they can eliminate from the sales process is millions and millions of dollars in sales they wouldn’t otherwise make, because they know the heat of desire is so precious.

Working more skilfully with desire doesn’t necessarily lead to a spartan existence. With respect to purchasing, it just leads to smarter purchases. Whether you spend all your money on ice cream or save it for retirement, you’re still buying something. But what would you rather buy? Years of freedom from corporate servitude, or a bunch of fleeting pleasures that were gone the day you paid for them?

Barry Armstrong July 11, 2017 at 6:06 pm

I believe you have the right idea Kevin. I’ve been joking for many years about quitting smoking and drinking, giving up red meat, butter, eggs, sugar and salt. I do it because I want to live longer or – the punch line – will it just seem longer.
The old maxim of all things in moderation is perhaps more important.

Curtis M Michaels July 10, 2017 at 2:24 am

I figured out why I look so forward to reading your blog. You know how to tap into that genius we all have the potential to tap into, and you do it regularly and courageously.

I’ll be coming around here for as long as you are, I suspect.

David Cain July 10, 2017 at 9:19 am

Thanks Curtis, I’ll be here a while

Maja Meier July 10, 2017 at 2:45 am

Thank you David, great post as usual! I’m always looking forward to them.
One thing I spend far too much money on are books. Great and inspirational ones! – but I live on a very small pension (I’m 65). I’ve found out that when I put the titles into my wishlist first, promising myself I will get them the next day, they will often stay there and will not be bought in the end.
I’ve just decided to do this with every desire from now on! I’ll create a wishlist- folder on my desktop where everything will go first. By promising myself that I will buy it later, the feeling of “But I need this!” will be satisfied for the moment and I’m sure when I look at that list again, I’ll realise that I can live without all this stuff.
Hi from Switzerland (English obviously is not my mother tongue, I hope I could make myself understood). Maja

Lorrie B July 10, 2017 at 7:29 am

That’s a great idea! And don’t forget about libraries (I’m assuming there are libraries in Switzerland?) for the marvelous opportunity to borrow books…. I have a HUGE book collection, it is the only thing I allow myself to “want” and “buy”…. anyway, I really like your idea of putting all your wants into a file and looking at them at a later time.

David Cain July 10, 2017 at 9:22 am

Books are a big one. I have spent way too much on books that I didn’t even end up reading. And of course, almost all of us live near a library, where we can get more books than we need. So clearly those purchases are not just about acquiring things to read — we can all read for the rest of our lives for free — the impulse book purchase must involve some other desire, for something new and exciting, for the high of buying, something…

Zoe July 10, 2017 at 2:55 am

So many thoughts and feelings about this…
I just had a similar experience with Buzzfeed. Opened up an article that looked interesting, and immediately saw about 10 others that I wanted to read. Do I need them? No. Do I feel, even as I’m reading them, that I just want to get a move on and reach the end of the list so that I can do something more productive? Yes.
I think it’s almost easier to learn to avoid this stuff on a larger scale. When I was little, I really wanted a pool in our back garden. My parents did as well and we eventually got one… and hardly ever used it. It was a pain to clean and the neighbour’s cat ended up drowning in it. As much as I love swimming… it was a terrible decision. And now that our neighbours want to persuade us to buy a pool with them (an above-ground one, to go on the building’s communal terrace), my answer is no. It’s just not worth it.

David Cain July 10, 2017 at 9:26 am

It’s really interesting that we can feel desires for things we don’t really want. Something can be appealing, compelling, but still not actually that great to have. I feel that way about a lot of sweets and holiday treats. I like the idea of eating a boxed chocolate about ten times more than I like the experience of it. Clickbaity articles are a good one too: even though I know it cannot possibly be that great, I still have a pretty strong desire to see why “Number six will blow your mind!”

Zoe July 14, 2017 at 4:15 am

It’s very insidious. I’m currently on day 4 of a high protein diet and I’m becoming more and more aware of these fleeting “wants”. When it’s not time to eat (and I’m not even hungry), suddenly my brain will go “I could have a treat right now.” Because I know I’m not going to follow it up with an action, it’s a lot easier to recognise it for what it is.

Simon Kemp July 10, 2017 at 3:59 am

Great article as always David.

“…just a monkey with a megaphone and an endless list of demands…”

:) :)

aman July 10, 2017 at 4:29 am

Great line, I had to chuckle at this :)

Lola July 10, 2017 at 5:50 am

I thought it was so funny how he likened our physical response to Desiring something as our brain throwing a tantrum the ice cream analogy was perfect

Elisa Winter July 12, 2017 at 5:03 am

I love this line. Bumper Sticker worthy.

aman July 10, 2017 at 4:27 am

thanks for another great post David. What about more substantial desires, i.e. to do with career, relationships, health, etc? So let’s take career. How does a person recognise that inkling for a new/next job,career or way of making money is truly meaningful, and not just some fleeting desire that they’ve intensely latched onto? What was it that made you realise that writing, about the human condition, is what you really “desire”?

David Cain July 10, 2017 at 9:29 am

There are definitely wholesome desires, and they’re easy to spot when you start to notice and question your desires. The problem isn’t what we desire specifically, it’s that we desire so many things and they all have a cost. Obviously we do want things that can improve our health and career prospects. The point is to notice that feeling in real-time, which gives you a chance to examine what you’re really being compelled by.

Lola July 10, 2017 at 5:33 am

Oooohwe David this is not a new thought to me I have been aware of this for quite some time although I usually give in to my desires if I have the money filling an emotional void, but having the money and HAVING the money are two very different things for me, the cost for me seems to be emotional what do I need for my emotional well-being at that time and will it do more harm in another area of my life than good for my emotional well-being right now. Sometime is ice cream the answer…
I really appreciate you not going into the long list of effects of giving in to the desire please save that for another post good effect or bad.

David Cain July 10, 2017 at 9:32 am

> but having the money and HAVING the money are two very different things for me

Can you explain what you mean by that?

Lola July 10, 2017 at 10:25 pm

It’s like having the money in your pocket but it’s not necessarily disposable income you should probably be doing something more responsible with it hence my dilemma if I’m in a bad frame of mind nothing responsiblei s going to get done with that money.

Marco July 10, 2017 at 5:52 am

Thought provoking post David, as usual I really like the everyday examples you use.
However, as thoughts have been provoked, I’m now considering the difference between ephemeral desires and deeper, more fundamental ones, such as desire for love. When I apply the same patterns you describe above as to the fleeting nature of wants, it is harder to reconcile with, for example, a yearning desire for a significant other in your life, or a better relationship with your friends and family, or a deeper connection with the people you meet in life.
These seem not to be the kinds of desires that recede with time, rather recurring ones, not so much wants as perhaps needs.

My question therefore is this: Should needs that cannot be, or are very difficult to be satisfied, be regarded and treated the same as shorter term, more meaningless desires? Should we let go, and accept the reality of the situation if those yearnings cause us pain, even when they mean so much to us?

David Cain July 10, 2017 at 9:37 am

My question therefore is this: Should needs that cannot be, or are very difficult to be satisfied, be regarded and treated the same as shorter term, more meaningless desires?

The point isn’t to have a standard treatment for desires, but just to recognize what it feels like to want something, which gives you a chance to examine whether it really makes sense to indulge it.

Essentially they’re all in the same pot though, as far as I’m concerned. Even if you consistently experience a desire for a partner over the years, it is not a constant, uninterrupted feeling. It just appears in certain moments.

Even though a particular desire for a sweet or salty snack is an ephemeral thing I feel at one time on one day, I’m pretty sure I’ll be desiring sweet and salty things very regularly for the rest of my life, because I am subject to lifelong biological and cultural conditioning that continues to spur desires for those things.

We don’t necessarily have the ability to “let go” (i.e. get rid of) desires, but once we’re aware of them, we can learn to refrain from indulging the desire when we know it’s not really doing anything good for us.

Lynski July 10, 2017 at 7:33 am

“Clearly there’s no plan here, no roadmap to well-being, just a monkey with a megaphone …” Hahaha!

Excellent imagery!!

Tonya July 10, 2017 at 8:07 am

Great post! I do think desire mixed with our ability to get almost anything instantaneously these days could potentially be a recipe for disaster. I found that just taking a moment or a day or two to think about things I want, especially if they involve a significant amount of money, really helps. One of my biggest “problems” is thinking that a purchase is going to help me achieve a certain goal, like having a ripped body or something, so just yesterday I almost walked into a Target and bought a Vitamix. But it’s the IDEA of a Vitamix where the pull came from. That piece of machinery itself is not going to make me ripped. I have the power to do that right now with what I have. If I just take some time before making a purchase I would see that. Now if I really thought that blender would make a big difference in my life and I gave it a LOT of thought and had the budget for it, then so be it!

David Cain July 10, 2017 at 9:42 am

One of my biggest “problems” is thinking that a purchase is going to help me achieve a certain goal, like having a ripped body or something, so just yesterday I almost walked into a Target and bought a Vitamix.

Totally, and marketers have been exploiting this since effect since the 1950s. They sell things to us not based on the virtues of the product, but based on the version of ourselves we think the product will help us be. They do whatever they can to make us think we’re buying a better life, with ripped abs and vibrant skin, and we barely realize that we’re only buying a kitchen appliance.

There is a great documentary on this phenomenon, called The Century of The Self.

Annalise July 10, 2017 at 8:29 am

I received your blog post yesterday in my inbox. I have to admit that I haven’t always made the time to read every post I receive from you, but yesterday I recognized that I had the “desire” to make reading your posts a “must do” and here we are. I want to express my appreciation to you for enriching my life in more ways then you could possibly know. You always give me a lot to think about and I have made changes to my life due to it. Thank you for reminding us all of what’s truly important, of what truly matters. For these simple yet, truly important lessons. In gratitude, Annalise

David Cain July 10, 2017 at 9:42 am

Aw thanks so much Annalise.

Mrs. Picky Pincher July 10, 2017 at 8:46 am

You know, I learned how to control my desires better by reading the book “Siddhartha.” There were a lot of great moments in the short read that made me see that physical desires aren’t something worth aspiring for.

David Cain July 10, 2017 at 9:44 am

Classic

Ashley Kung July 10, 2017 at 9:09 am

It seems that we are all primed with hair trigger reactions to many things, desires included. One thing I’ve been thinking over recently is the idea that building up our tolerance for certain experiences (e.g. experiencing a desire without acting on it, as you write about) can help us respond calmly instead of react emotionally. I’ve also learned the hard way that if we are reacting emotionally, 9 times out of 10 it will be an overreaction. I’m all about finding ways to appropriately respond, instead of overreact.

I think another important takeaway from this article is that the peace, patience, and clear mind one gets from a retreat doesn’t have to end when the retreat does. You’ve shown that the real insights often come after the retreat, when you bring that mindset back with you into the hectic and chaotic environments of everyday life. I hope everyone takes note of that and remembers not to slip immediately back into old habits or old ways of thinking after a retreat ends.

Thanks!

David Cain July 10, 2017 at 9:49 am

A lot of our biological conditioning is totally hair-trigger, yeah. I guess we are geared for short-term survival first, long-term survival second, and well-being isn’t selected for as far as I know, except the minimum required not to interfere with the first two. So that leaves us pretty impulsive and open to bad decisions, especially in terms of long-term consequences.

In my experience, the patience and clarity following a retreat does fade to some degree, unless you continue practicing 18 hours a day, which almost none of us do. But it does give you permanent insights, and tends to bolster daily practice so that you can retain as much of that clarity on an ongoing basis as possible. Each retreat I go on I end up devoting more time to my daily practice afterward, because it is just so valuable.

Mike July 10, 2017 at 9:30 am

Hi David — long-time reader and first-time commenter. Great post here, as others have said.

Something I wanted to share – a potential #4 for your list of things that people also discuss/contemplate about desire:

#4: Allowing a desire to be felt….but then ~consciously letting it go~ is quite often a euphoric and instantly joyous/giddy experience. It feels simply GREAT to realize that a desire doesn’t have power over you, and that it doesn’t own your right to happiness!

Seriously. There’s something amazingly freeing and empowering about the conscious,
In-the-moment realizing that you CAN be just as happy (and most likely even happier!) by not succumbing to the lure of whatever the specific desire is.

In those moments of clarity when one is able to know and say to themselves, “Yes, this desire is very powerful and real…but (oh my gosh…) I ~don’t have to respond to it to be happy~…..”

Such awesomeness to finally unlock this particular “mind trap” and see for the first time that we really *can* be just as happy as we wish, at any time! And that that happiness is ***completely independent of our met (or unmet) endless desires.***

If that one realization doesn’t suddenly make you more powerfully happy and free in one instant than the successful pursuit of a thousand desires….then I’m going to propose it hasn’t fully sunk in yet. :)

Btw, THANK YOU David for creating and nurturing what feels like the web’s best center of compassionate thought, feeling, and effort towards understanding (and improving, as you say!) our shared human condition! Always a mind-looked-forward-to and welcome mind-stretching treat to read your latest writings. (And the comments/thoughts of the highly insightful readership as well.)

David Cain July 10, 2017 at 9:50 am

Totally agree — the experience of refraining is extremely empowering. It really feels like bonds coming off, to know that you aren’t depriving yourself of anything, you aren’t forcing or hoping or willpowering yourself, you’re just doing the better thing, and you’re free to do it.

William Leslie July 10, 2017 at 9:38 am

Consumerism is America’s true religion and we’ve all been indoctrinated from birth. Besides asking ourselves “Can I afford it?” we need to ask “Can the Earth afford it?” If we don’t find another way to be in this world, one that treats Nature not like a department store with a Going Out of Business sign on the window but as a friend – or even lover – with similar needs to our own (like health and flourishing) we won’t have an amenable environment to pursue those things in life truly worth desiring; love and meaningful work.

David Cain July 10, 2017 at 9:55 am

I totally agree. Unfortunately, when people are having a hard time responding to desire in ways that benefit themselves in the long term, they certainly won’t be doing it in ways that benefit future generations or people they’ve never met. But I think they are connected. When you start to practice refraining from indulgence for self-serving reasons, you start to see how powerful and fulfilling it is to do the right thing.

Meaningful work is a huge part of the equation too. We work meaningless jobs because they pay a lot, and because our work is meaningless, we spend more money on diversions and entertainment so that we can tolerate our lives. This purchasing keeps is dependent on these jobs, and so on.

Joseph July 10, 2017 at 10:38 am

One thing I noticed that you didn’t include, but fits into the formula is that when you feed that voice that wants everything, it actually gets bigger. It is satisfied in the moment, but it’s almost as if, by conceding, your rational mind empowers your id to want more/bigger things. If left unchecked (by say, financial limitations) it grows into a monster that can never be satisfied. I think this is why lottery winners burn through incredible sums of money and even incur debt at the end.

David Cain July 12, 2017 at 9:27 am

Yes, definitely. I’m not sure what the mechanism is, but the more accustomed we are to dealing with desires via appeasement, the stronger they get.

Richard July 10, 2017 at 12:05 pm

Log time reader, first time leaving a comment.
I’ve been getting your blog posts sent to my email for a few years now, usually opening and skimming; you’re about 50/50 on if I go on to read the entire post. In relation to me ‘getting better at being human’ this was one of your better posts that I can use in recognizing and managing daily desires. It also brought me back to my childhood when my mother and father would speak of “delayed gratification” and while they were talking more in terms of going to college vs going right to work, it still brought back a wonderful memory of my parents and my childhood long since gone.

Thanks keep writing, and I’ll keep reading….at least half the time. :0)

Diane July 10, 2017 at 12:09 pm

Thank you for this. An important reminder as I get back on track re: healthy eating and eliminating needless expenses this week.

Michelle Kowalski July 10, 2017 at 12:46 pm

A couple years back I stumbled onto a localized awareness of the phenomenon of desires not lasting very long. But I did not extrapolate what I learned to managing desires in other arenas of my life. Let me explain. When I went to a department store, I would play a game with myself. In addition to the things I had come to the store to get, I would put absolutely everything else that caught my desire into my shopping cart. I knew this would immediately quiet down the desire instead of having it rage on while I walked past the desired thing. And then, when I got to the checkout, I would remove from my cart every single thing that had been an impulse grab. Which was so easy to do because the desire for them had fled. I learned that this would be the end result from working as a cashier. While at work, I would keep a little running list of all the things I saw customers buying that I also wanted. At the end of my shift, when I was now in a position to go and shop the store myself, I noticed I didn’t really want mostly any of them anymore.

David Cain July 12, 2017 at 9:30 am

That is pretty interesting — what gave you the idea to do that? I know there have been times when I’ve noticed my desire had died off for something in my cart/basket, but I still bought it anyway.

HCT July 10, 2017 at 12:47 pm

I have noted a pattern of addiction (or desires), namely alcohol, sugar, smoking and drugs in my family stemming back generations.

I did a tour of AA, it helped for what it was worth, it did not dig into the core of addiction, desire and the closely related. I note that, many who are subject to addictions, already believe in a Higher Power and interact regularly.

In fact my family, and I would venture to say many American families, for generations have been faithful followers of Christianity with “addictions” running neck-n-neck.

Challenged (i.e. curious) to determine what’s missing, knowledge is power. I am on a quest to methodically eliminate unhealthy addictions or “desires” (smoking, alcohol, drugs that appear to be lineage-linked) from my life and be an example for others to follow.

Fully unmasking; to defeat the enemy one must study, understand and be able to predict its every move with a level of precision. I think understanding “desire” is a factor in helping to mask-off and defeat the enemy.

It just occurred to me in coming to a close, the “desire” to unmask and defeat the enemy seems different from the “desire” to, say smoke?

Keep up the good David.

David Cain July 12, 2017 at 9:36 am

We definitely have desires for a reason — to give us the emotional drive necessary to compete for and secure resources. So we do desire healthy things too. The problem is desire is a very brute-force way of having us secure important resources, and without applying any discernment to it, it gets us into trouble. In a consumer society it is especially troublesome because we’re surrounded by hyper-desirable goods and treats, because marketers have gotten very good at exploiting the psychology of desire.

Brady Faught July 10, 2017 at 12:52 pm

I hope you enjoyed your time in Vancouver! Main street is fantastic, I know all about that blueberry-lavender ice cream :) Where was the silent retreat, on the island? That is definitely on the bucket list, I look forward to hearing about your experience.
This makes me think of Marie Kondo’s tidying book. She says once you effectively tidy and reach a point where the only things you possess are those that spark joy, you reach a point of having no ‘wants.’ I think I’ve gotten close on this, but that consumer desire always bubbles to the surface…

David Cain July 12, 2017 at 9:36 am

The retreat was just outside Nanaimo. I love the island.

April July 10, 2017 at 5:05 pm

As I opened this post, I was mindlessly snacking on a package of M&M’s. I saw them on the counter, and even though I’m not hungry, and even though it’s almost dinnertime, there I was eating them. The content of this article felt like a (well-deserved) slap in the face. Now the important thing is to keep this in mind the next time around.

David Cain July 12, 2017 at 9:41 am

Food is one place where desire is particularly troublesome, because 99.9% of our evolution took place in environments of frequent food scarcity, and now in the 21st century consumer societies it is cheap and plentiful and loaded with sugars and fats, which used to be relatively rare. But the desire is just as high strung as ever. Combine this with some highly refined marketing techniques, and we have a major problem on our hands. Vigilance around food is essential to staying healthy in these societies. Having said that, avoiding treats at all costs probably is probably only going to backfire. We need to allow ourselves to indulge sometimes, but it’s easy to convince ourselves repeatedly that that time should be now :)

Anna July 11, 2017 at 12:48 am

Hello David,
being into zero waste and therefore avoiding plastic has given me such a sense of freedom from these fleeting desires for stuff. Yesterday i went into one of these shops where everything is cheap and mostly plastic and i suddenly had a desire for an egg swing chair….It was on sale,i felt the desire and then saw there was plastic on it….what a relief! I dont have to decide anymore whether to buy or not! Some people may think its wrong to practice such denial but i absolutely LOVE having not much choice. Sale periods are not stressful anymore at all and shopping is so simple. I read Something about how a man cannot walk across the desert holding a 10kilo weight but he could do it if that weight was a child that would die if he didnt do it. Not succoming to all these desires is a pleasure for me now because i am saving the planet from plastic pollution.
great article

David Cain July 12, 2017 at 9:43 am

Hi Anna. Having some non-negotiable personal rules for yourself can be incredibly freeing, you are so right. Certain categories of trouble are just off the menu from the outset. We tend to think of personal rules as a kind of constraint but in my experience they tend to make life a lot easier.

Abhijeet Kumar July 12, 2017 at 1:03 am

I wonder what the source of desires is. This is still early days for me, but I have an inkling that most desires are a result of suppressing our emotions — several layers one by one. When we have a pleasant experience, and then another experience that feels the exact opposite, we don’t like that feeling. We don’t want to feel it even though it would have only been temporary. And this creates a story of running away, not feeling the feelings we don’t like, and … until we know it, we have expanded our list of desires, strengthened them in intensity.

I would want to separate this from drive to do something. Drive to taste good food. Drive to enjoy great experiences. There is openness. Unlike desires where it is more closed.

David Cain July 12, 2017 at 9:49 am

It seems clear to me that desire arises from very fundamental biological drivers. We are organisms that need reasons to eat, mate, and stay safe. So we have these very forceful emotions prodding us to act in certain ways. Those forceful emotions are uncomfortable to experience, and we find relief in heeding them. This is always short-term relief though, because the need for food, mating opportunities and other resources never abates, so the desires always return.

But now that we’ve developed all of these higher mental capacities, such as the ability to create concepts and picture the future, we have a chance to become aware of this process and respond in more sophisticated ways to the present-moment appearance of desire.

Abhijeet Kumar July 12, 2017 at 3:25 pm

I get your point, desires are instinctive. It is the way nature has programmed us to participate in the crazy game of survival and evolution. Also, another excellent point, nature doesn’t want our well-being by default. It is something we do consciously.

The things I said about desire above are more appropriate for compulsive desire. Desire itself is not as bad as compulsive desire. After a 7 day retreat, you felt the desire for that slice of pizza, but there was enough space for you to not get tied to the pull.

Abhijeet Kumar July 12, 2017 at 3:59 pm

Another interesting thing that came to my mind was the behavior of some other species. They can demonstrate altruism, non indulgence in many cases, to the extent they seem prudent (like we think we are). Being conscious is an interesting phenomenon for sure.

Lad July 12, 2017 at 2:26 am

Thanks for this excellent post. Allowing time between desire and response is a great way to see if you really needed the thing you so desperately wanted yesterday. But what if the desire remains? For example, you’re following a strict diet and resisted the temptation for pizza last night, but it still remains tonight. How do you know when a desire is actually servicing a deep, meaningful need?

David Cain July 12, 2017 at 10:01 am

But what if the desire remains? For example, you’re following a strict diet and resisted the temptation for pizza last night, but it still remains tonight. How do you know when a desire is actually servicing a deep, meaningful need?

Good question. I think it’s important to recognize that a desire for the same thing can recur, but that doesn’t mean it was present the whole time. Craving pizza two consecutive nights is not the same as literally feeling a desire the entire 24 hours between those two instances. So in both cases it was still a short, episodic experience.

But there are certain things we will experience repeated desires for our whole lives, particularly ones to do with food, sex, or other sense pleasures. That’s really just the human condition. We can develop tools for dealing with that though, namely the ability to be mindful of desire as it’s happening. Meditation is the most direct way I know to develop that, and it’s the reason my repeated desires in Vancouver were so easy to notice and refrain from indulging — I had just spent almost the entire previous week meditating in some form.

How to know whether a desire is servicing a deep, meaningful need is a different question, and for the most part we can figure that out pretty easily by thinking about it for a moment. We’re smart creatures — we know that ice cream is not going to do anything for us beyond the sense pleasure it provides in the eight minutes it takes to consume. But to examine the desire with the smarter parts of our brain, we have to recognize it as it is happening.

It should be clear though that most desires are not servicing anything important, and so we should be suspicious of them by default. That’s a good enough starting point.

Jodie Utter July 12, 2017 at 11:50 am

It took me a long time to stop staring at that doughnut, I read your post before eating breakfast. So I won’t do that again. I’m feeling like I just sat down with Yoda for a chat about desires. In that I knew most of this content innately, but when someone calls it out and puts words to it, and backs it up with real life, hard won wisdom, it brings the knowledge up from the depth and makes it so much more accessible, and memorable, and actionable. Posts like these fortify the masses and make us stronger in our abilities we weren’t fully trusting of. Thank you for that. And also for the referral to MMM I found in your comments.

Cathryn July 12, 2017 at 8:02 pm

David, I enjoyed this post. It made me remember growing up with my sisters and brother and begging mom and dad that we wanted this thing or we wanted that thing. Their wise response was “now you know what it’s like to want.” In retrospect, it was a great lesson.

Burak July 19, 2017 at 3:15 am

David, this post really “improved my quality of life in real-time”. Thanks a lot!

Heather July 19, 2017 at 12:23 pm

Thanks, David, for this very timely post in my world. The picture of the donut you used in conjunction with the post about sums up the desires I’m attempting to move away from. I know I will feel and look better if I get my calories under control, but damn, this monkey mind is bossy!

Bernie July 26, 2017 at 12:55 pm

“Desire is a contract you make with yourself to be unhappy until you get what you want” – Naval Ravikant

Love this quote.

John Smith July 31, 2017 at 12:27 pm

Desire have a power. It makes success. Every one have desire to success. Thanks for writing this article.

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