Once we’ve been alerted to the dangers of our compulsive or obsessive desire (the first of the five hindrances), how can we address it?
The first step is to diagnose the problem: how does a specific desire drive us in an unhelpful or unwholesome way? Do we daydream about owning things that we see in the possession of others? If there’s a task or a conversation we want to avoid, is there some activity that will temporarily divert our attention? During the day, do we look forward to the first drink of the evening? Have we convinced ourselves that it’s luck or innate gifts (as opposed to persistent work) that makes a peaceful heart possible? We may have to observe our own motives and intentions closely to discover any unhealthy desires that are not immediately obvious.
With the hindrance of sensual desire, we need enough mindfulness to know with some confidence when we’ve rested enough and when it’s time to get up; to know when we’ve eaten enough and it’s time to stop; when we’ve talked enough and it’s time to be quiet. With practice, we can find these points of “just enough”.
It’s when a mendicant who has sensual desire in them understands: ‘I have sensual desire in me.’ When they don’t have sensual desire in them, they understand: ‘I don’t have sensual desire in me.’ They understand how sensual desire arises; how, when it’s already arisen, it’s given up; and how, once it’s given up, it doesn’t arise again in the future. (from MN 10.4, translated by Sujato Bhikkhu)
The level of mindfulness referred to in the quote above is not immediately available to everyone – it needs to be developed over time. If we are steady in our practice (both sitting and walking around), we can learn to be aware of the presence or absence of sensual desire, and also what conditions allowed it (or caused it) to come about. Was it unskillful attention to advertising or conversation? Was it a sense of entitlement? Failure to consider any negative aspects associated?
Now that the specific craving is here, how can we take the urgency out of it? Can we see that it is a passing thought? That it will dissipate if we don’t dwell on it? Can we recognize that following our desire might lead us into places we’d rather not be? Can we just keep still in the knowledge that we are in the grip of a desire that may or may not make any sense in the context of our lives?
If we can figure out what caused this particular desire to pop into our body/mind, can we prepare ourselves to notice the cause or causes earlier next time? This is the model for working with all the hindrances. They are slippery fish, sensual desire, ill-will, and the rest. Can we catch them in our consciousness long enough to investigate them?