The Endless Cycle of Desire


There is a story about the Dali Llama. He was in New York speaking at a 3-day conference. The driving route to the conference snaked through streets lined with shops fronted by shimmering windows. Behind their store front glass were display groupings of cameras, electronic products, and musical instruments: a warren of chrome, dotted with dazzling colored plastic shapes. The Dali Llama took in this sight with his usual equanimity.

On the drive, on the second day, as he passed the same stores, his countenance lit up with his famous infectious, animated smile. He turned to his driver and with childish enthusiasm said, “I don’t know what those things are, but I do know I want them!” With his usual clarity and simplicity he stated a profound truth.

The Buddha saw with the same clarity, the role such desire plays in the way we create personal suffering. He said, “When the mind starts craving, suffering inevitably arises.” The Buddha recognized desires, as natural strong feeling states. Such strong feelings then morph into a personal narrative where we tell ourselves that the fulfillment of that desire is necessary to our well being; that without capturing that object or person of desire our world will collapse. Our reactive mind becomes dominated by the obsession that fulfilling the desire will lead to bliss and boundless happiness. That existential anxiety will be quelled.

Instead, the Buddha argued that the experience we seek never lives up to the desire-expectation, and even the modicum of joy we experience once we get our wish is short term. He also saw that obtaining the desired object just fed more cravings, which led to more desires, and the cycle of endless longing (Samara) began again. Identifying with desire sets us on the endless wheel of life with no closure. It leaves us disappointed and empty. Man even creates anxiety through his cravings, so anxiety is part of our humanity, not an illness to be medicated. Craving is an addiction.

Buddhist psychology recognizes that that which we experience as desire is but an intricate web of thoughts attached to strong feeling states. They are thoughts, like any other thoughts but due to our history, certain thoughts are imbued with strong emotion. When emotions are strong, we fear losing that emotional state, regardless of whether it is healthy for us or not. After all, how many politicians have we seen, brought down by lustful fantasies they acted upon? If we neutralize the emotion, we can see clearly the thoughts for what they are: transient fantasies, just like the thousands of thoughts we have each day.

In Buddhist meditation we observe rather than identify with the desire. Identification with desire is called the reactive mind. Once triggered by desire, the reactive mind embarks on an endless cycle of craving, an obsession, which forms the core of anxiety. Buddhist meditation cultivates the observational mind, where we observe our desires without judgment or identification. Through such observation we see the transient nature of desires; desire as just another state of mind, which rises and falls, and ultimately transforms into other mind states, which are also transient.

We delay action through such observation. Through observation we see the strong emotion for the wave it is. It rises and then falls. The strength dissipates. Excitement is replaced by calm. We then observe the narrative for what it is, just another thought. Just another experience. We view these experiences through curiosity and humor, not through the lens of craving. We may or may not continue to pursue that object or person, but we do so with a deep understanding of the transient nature of our desire, and the realistic limitation of what obtaining that goal can bring us. We do so without obsession, without attachment, and ultimately with acceptance of what occurs.

Mark Epstein’s book “Thoughts Without a Thinker” discusses the observational mind with clarity and wisdom.

~ Dr. Michael Abramsky


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