Neuroscientist Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain, offers us some practical suggestions on how to give up too much hankering after what we want. He says “We can avoid some pain, suffering, and frustration if we change the way we relate to our desires.”
For starters, be aware of wanting inside your own mind. Try to notice:
- The ways in which desiring itself feels subtly tense or uncomfortable.
- The emotional pain of not getting what you want. Including disappointment, frustration, discouragement—perhaps even hopelessness or despair.
- The frequent discrepancy between the rewards you expected to get from a want, and what it actually feels like to fulfill it. Similarly, notice that the anticipated pain from the things you want to avoid—especially things that would be good for you to open to or go after—is usually worse than the discomfort you actually feel. In effect, your brain is routinely lying to you, promising more pleasure and more pain than you will actually experience. The reason is that the pleasure and pain circuits of the brain are ancient and primitive, and they manipulated our ancestors to do things for their survival by overselling them about apparent opportunities and over-frightening them about apparent risks.
- The costs of pursuing the things you want, and the costs of trying to avoid some of the actually beneficial things you don’t want. What is the cost/benefit ratio, really?
- The ways that every pleasant experience must inevitably change and end.
Next, imagine you are observing your wants from a great distance, like seeing them from on top of a mountain as if they are down in a valley below. Let them go like clouds in the vast sky of awareness. They are just one more mental content, like sensations, thoughts, or memories. Don’t give them special status. They are just wants. You don’t need to act on them. Usually, they’ll just pass away after awhile.
Then, on paper or in your mind, make a list of problematic wants:
- Things you’ve wanted to get but are either not good for you or others, or come with too high a price.
- Things you’ve wanted to avoid, but are actually good for you and others.
Live with this list. Stare at it. Listen to what it says to you. Perhaps talk about it with others (maybe a therapist). Then make a plan for what you are committing to do about it. Honor this plan; if possible, tell others about it.
I know what I am suggesting here about these two lists is a big deal, much easier said than done. I’ve been grappling lately with a couple of my own items on these lists, and it’s not easy. But we can be aware of our issues forever—even mindfully aware!—while still never doing anything about them.
After you’ve stared at the garden for awhile…it’s time to pull weeds and plant flowers.