Beyond Wanting

Strolling around the local farmers’ market, I noticed my mind flitting off toward each bunch of lettuce or giant chocolate chip cookie saying, do I want that, do I want that, do I want that? It surprised me and showed me that we, perhaps especially we Americans, are taught wanting as a fundamental way of relating to life. (I did want the giant cookie, in case you’re wondering.)

We start this education at a young age. What do you want Santa to bring you for Christmas? What do you want to be when you grow up? And then we become more sophisticated about it. What kind of kitchen cabinets do you want? What are your career goals?

In Buddhism, there is a practice of directing loving kindness, or Metta, toward oneself and others. In one guided Metta meditation I listen to, the leader reminds the listeners that deep down all beings want to be happy. The problem is, the giant cookie will not ultimately get us there.

There’s nothing wrong with selecting cabinets one enjoys, but if you’re like me, the amount of energy we put into these decisions and the expectations we attach to their results do not align with reality. In investing ourselves and our happiness in the particular outcome we chose, we might miss out on what life is calling us to.

We have settled for wanting when we are made for longing. We can’t find the depths for which we long in any exterior thing or accomplishment that we want or any solution that we can invent inside our own heads. Life is offering us more than we can know or even imagine.

To find the unimaginable, we must let life lead. We must allow what we encounter to open us to our own becoming. We must live in the midst of our longing as it calls us into being. Only there, in that ever-changing moment, will we truly come home to ourselves.

Only there will the words of the Metta meditation come to fruition: May all beings be well. May all beings be happy. May all beings find peace.

How to Cultivate Pervasive Unsatisfactoriness

This week, my life kindly provided a perfect demonstration of what Buddhist teaching calls “pervasive unsatisfactoriness.” Sometimes this idea is translated as “suffering,” but not being satisfied better describes my habitual state of mind so much of the time. The Buddha does not recommend this state, in case you’re wondering.

But if you want to try it out and your unsatisfactoriness is not pervasive enough, if you feel enlightenment creeping up on you, here’s a quick way to fix that. Start by getting attached to an outcome, say, catching the van to work. Any outcome will do, but if you want to try the advanced track, choose an additional outcome that makes the first one difficult to achieve, say, sending a particular email before leaving the house. Now—and this is the tricky part—base your happiness on attaining both of these outcomes. Finally, sit back and watch as your peace of mind evaporates.

I had front row seats at this show while driving to the van stop at the last possible minute. For one block, the SUV in front of me drove at a glacial twenty-eight miles per hour, and my life was ruined. Then he turned, leaving the road empty before me. The sun burst from behind a cloud. The bluebirds lined up to sing a chorus in the magnolia trees. Life was looking up. Then I checked the clock and returned to panic.

The lightning quick change in my outlook showed me that we really are making it all up. In the space of a few seconds, I went from crushed to rejoicing and back again. Our states of mind and emotion are often no more lasting, no more substantial than that, yet they’re so convincing that we mistake them for reality.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t have emotions or that we shouldn’t recognize the emotions we have, but we might not always want to take them so seriously. Sometimes they indicate a deeper reality, and sometimes, like this time, we use them to keep ourselves dissatisfied.

“Right now, it’s like this,”—as an unattributed quote I saw recently said—is the only road toward satisfactoriness. We need to remember both parts: “right now,” not forever; “like this,” not the way we wish it were. From that place, we can act effectively and—here’s the tricky part again—leave the outcome to God.