Working with desire

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?

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The conundrum of desire

Sensual desire and ill-will, the two hindrances that top the list (of five) in the Pali canon, are evolutionarily useful, attracting us to desirable conditions and keeping us from harm, but they can also seriously obscure our vision. Both are intimately connected to sensory experience: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.

Sensual desire is the only one of the hindrances that has enjoyable aspects. When we want something and our desire is satisfied, it feels good – there’s no denying it. At the same time, most of us have also experienced the frustration of not being able to fulfill our desires. At the extreme, addictive behavior is the result of the hindrance of sensual desire without moderation or mindfulness. A recovering alcoholic once said, “I was always two drinks short of feeling good.” Anyone addicted to intoxicants, shopping, sex, social media, or anything else knows the gnawing feeling of unsatisfied, unsatisfiable desire.

Desire itself can be wholesome or unwholesome. The desire to eat when we are hungry is wholesome, and the desire to eat because of an unthinking impulse is not. The desire to remove pain so we can be at ease is wholesome; the craving for a life with zero discomfort usually leads to unhappiness. The desire to practice for the end of dukkha is a wholesome desire, and can be constantly renewed.

Usually as we grow from middle age into old age, sexual desire gradually becomes less urgent. In youth and middle age, however, being sex-obsessed can seem quite normal. Who has not experienced an obsession with sexual desire? Whether it’s satisfied or not, it can take over our minds and bodies. In this way, our perceptions of ourselves and others may be persistently colored. Just like the Buddha’s metaphor of trying to see our face reflected in a bowl of water that’s been colored by dye, everything we see looks like or reminds us of X (fill in the desire du jour).

For some people, sensual desire is the most obstructive hindrance; it’s a big part of their genetic and psychological make-up, of their self-image. For other people, other hindrances predominate. One hindrance is not better or worse than another, and all must be addressed if we are to free ourselves from obsessive craving. The drive to fulfill our sensory desires can make calm and mindful meditative states impossible.

What do we want most often? What desires drive us? To hear praise? To own something flashy? To have the best food, real estate, car, travel? Money? Fame? Oblivion?

As we start to understand our own desires, we can observe when we are using them to divert us from seeing our current conditions. When we flee to the computer or television, to socially distracting environments (in person or on-line), we are using sensuality to escape reality. But teasing apart our fundamental human needs and the desires we seek out for superficial relief or distraction can be a tricky business. We need to start with a willingness to spend some energy on awareness of what we are doing, saying, and thinking.


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What’s holding us back?

It’s been five years since we considered the five hindrances, so it seems the right time to re-visit them in a bit more depth.

In the Buddha’s teachings, the five hindrances (Pali: nīvaraṇa) are:

  1. Sensory desire
  2. Ill-will
  3. Lethargy and drowsiness (“sloth and torpor” in earlier translations)
  4. Restlessness and worry
  5. Doubt

Each of the hindrances represents a category of experience common to all of us unenlightened beings. They are primary “grist for the mill” of awakening, the most common obstacles on the path. Without being able to at least temporarily suspend their power, we can’t experience the blissful concentrated states the Buddha describes. Perhaps more urgently, the hindrances are obscuring and agitating forces in our days, and as we learn to recognize and address them, a more peaceful life may unfold.

In the Saṅgāravasutta (SN 46.55) the Buddha gave 5 similes to illustrate how the mind can be obstructed by each of the five hindrances.  The mind, when influenced by the five hindrances, is like clear a bowl of water altered by different contaminants or situations. In these similes, the aspirant is using the bowl of water as a mirror. (The following translation is from Sujato Bhikkhu)

1. Sensory desire – Suppose there was a bowl of water that was mixed with dye such as red lac, turmeric, indigo, or rose madder. Even a person with good eyesight examining their own reflection wouldn’t truly know it or see it.

2. Ill will – Suppose there was a bowl of water that was heated by fire, boiling and bubbling. Even a person with good eyesight examining their own reflection wouldn’t truly know it or see it.

3. Lethargy and drowsiness – Suppose there was a bowl of water overgrown with moss and aquatic plants. Even a person with good eyesight examining their own reflection wouldn’t truly know it or see it.

4. Restlessness and remorse – Suppose there was a bowl of water stirred by the wind, churning, swirling, and rippling. Even a person with good eyesight examining their own reflection wouldn’t truly know it or see it.

5. Doubt – Suppose there was a bowl of water that was cloudy, murky, and muddy, hidden in the darkness. Even a person with good eyesight examining their own reflection wouldn’t truly know it or see it.

We’ll have a look at each of these challenges in turn. The similes describe the ways in which the hindrances cloud our vision and make us believe we’re seeing things as they are when in actuality our perception is distorted by our mental/emotional state.

The Buddha advises us to investigate each of the hindrances in four ways. They are:

  1. knowing the hindrance,
  2. knowing the causes of its arising,
  3. knowing the causes of its cessation, and
  4. knowing what prevents their arising in the future.

This reflection can be done when a hindrance makes itself known (when greed, ill-will, laziness, restlessness, or doubt is present) and also on reviewing after the fact. We’ll be using these instructions as we look at each of the hindrances and try to figure out how they work in our own lives.

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A most revealing quote can be found in the biography of Ajahn Chah (Stillness Flowing by Ajahn Jayasaro):

[Ajahn Chah] still did not find meditation easy. But he persevered, constantly observing what worked and what did not. His biggest frustration was that he felt more at peace when he was not meditating than when he was. He reflected again and again on the fact that the more effort he put into meditation, the more his breathing became laboured and the less his mind would settle. It seemed meditation made things worse rather than better. And then he made an important discovery:

“My determination had turned into attachment. That’s why I got no results. Things got burdensome because of the craving that I carried with me into practice.” (p.49)

Could this be a description of how we feel about meditation? How do we think meditation (or simply mindfulness) should make us feel? If we don’t immediately experience a quiet mind, do we assume we’re incompetent? If meditation feels like hard work, how likely are we to continue doing it?

In the Pali canon we are simply instructed to “know” our physical and mental experience, to methodically investigate (1) our bodies and breath, (2) our feelings (like, don’t like, don’t care), (3) our thoughts, and (4) “dhammas” or the particulars of how we frame experience. What may not be immediately clear is how to stop all the other processes that go on all the time: judging, comparing, hoping to skip to the good part, expecting immediate results, etc. It’s as if our minds are running at their usual speed of 60mph (~100km/h) and we hope that by sitting down and closing our eyes our speed will drop to zero quickly, if not instantly. Most of us have discovered that meditation doesn’t work like that, but how do we respond? What options do we have besides giving up, putting meditation in the “too hard” basket?

As a thought experiment: how low can we set our expectations for an individual meditation session?

We could start by committing to five minutes of disconnecting from our normal experience, sitting in an upright and relaxed posture and repeatedly bringing our attention to our immediate body sensations, or to in-breaths and out-breaths, or to a short mantra, or to counting our breaths (up to 10). If we start by setting our intention and finish by assessing the activity, not in terms of success or failure, but by what we noticed, then that will count as a meditation session.

Some people find recorded guided meditations helpful. We can try them and do the same “before and after” assessment: what did we notice? Is our physical and mental state any different from when we started? If so, in what way?

Some of us have found that reading a short section from a dharma book, or repeating a chant that helps us settle our minds, can launch a meditation session that’s productive in the sense of allowing us to track our experience without commentary or projection.

If we let meditation be an investigation of our direct experience, as it’s happening, we may more easily become engaged with this vital, non-conceptual process.

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More on the aggregates of clinging

Considering the aggregates associated with clinging is a practice that can lead us to release clinging wherever it comes up. While we had a look at the first three in the previous post, it seems right to spend some time understanding the fourth and fifth.

As a reminder, the 5 aggregates associated with clinging are:

  1. bodily form,
  2. feeling (liking and not liking),
  3. perception (naming our experience),
  4. formations (thoughts and emotions), and
  5. consciousness.

 …formations [4] provide the foundation of clinging to “why I am” acting in a certain way, and consciousness [5] furnishes the basis of clinging to experience as “whereby I am”. To counter such clinging, the required medicine is to direct mindfulness to the impermanent nature of each of these five individually and also to all five in combination. (from Mindfully Facing Disease and Death by Analayo Bhikkhu, p. 214)

The Pali word here translated as formations is saṅkhāra, which can have various meanings depending on context. In the realm of the aggregates, it generally means what we create with our minds and imagination: our opinions, projections, plans, fantasies, etc. One type of formation is self-justification. If we do something impulsively, we often backtrack so quickly to figure out why we did it, that we are unaware that the justification is appearing after the action. If someone were to ask us why we were doing or had done something, we might make up an explanation on the spot, and believe it ourselves. This is not evil, it’s a product of human nature that we would do well to be aware of. Even without conversation, we are rationalizing our behavior to ourselves all the time. This is the “why I am” acting in a certain way that Analayo Bhikkhu refers to above. The question is, can we see what an arbitrary and (mostly) uncontrollable process this is? Our emotional minds work faster than our rational ones, so we are most often catching up, or cleaning up, behind our thoughts, words, and actions. Only deliberate mindfulness can help us modulate this process.

The last of the aggregates associated with clinging is consciousness, the “whereby I am” that Analayo Bhikkhu refers to. Descartes articulated the belief that “I think, therefore I am”, that our ability to think (or consciousness itself) is what creates “me”. This is a true statement — by thinking, we create and re-create a sense of self; but is it absolutely necessary for thinking to have an owner? What happens if we have a stroke and part of our consciousness is closed off? What happens to “me”? Or as dementia increases? People often say that their loved ones left when their minds departed, but their bodies and feelings are still active, so what is “my self” really made of?

Analayo Bhikkhu wrote: Practice is proceeding properly if one is clearly aware of the process character of all aspects of what one might cling to as “I”. Effective mindfulness reveals that none of our physical or mental experiences is fixed, all is in motion. We would do well not to attach too firmly to anything that we know is likely to change very shortly.

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The Deathless

When Buddhist teachers talk about “the deathless” as a transcendent state, beyond life and death, nibbana, what are they talking about? It’s not the death of the body, it’s the end of identifying with the body or any of the other activities associated with the body and mind. This can be a confusing theme in the Buddha’s teachings, but let’s have a look at it anyway.

The five aggregates are in fact five activities (“heaps” of activities) going on most or all of the time, and to which we cling as if our life depended on them. Our life does not depend on them, but our identity, our sense that we are in the driver’s seat, does depend on clinging to these basic doings of body and mind.

Classically, the 5 aggregates associated with clinging are:

  1. bodily form,
  2. feeling (liking and not liking),
  3. perception (naming our experience),
  4. formations (thoughts and emotions), and
  5. consciousness.

… the physical body tends to be clung to as the location “where I am”, feeling provides an opportunity to cling to “how I am”, perceptions provide the foundation of clinging to “what I am”, formations provide the foundation of clinging to “why I am” acting in a certain way, and consciousness furnishes the basis of clinging to experience as “whereby I am”. To counter such clinging, the required medicine is to direct mindfulness to the impermanent nature of each of these five individually and also to all five in combination. (from Mindfully Facing Disease and Death by Analayo Bhikkhu, p. 214)

So, we come back again to the fundamental usefulness of mindfulness (sati). For those of us who cannot imagine seeing the body as anything other than “where I am located”, we can direct our attention to the obvious details that tell us we are not “in charge” of our bodies. Bodies get sick when we don’t want them to, they get old, fat, lumpy or wrinkly; we have an entire litany of discomforts that we may experience in a normal day. We get tired or overflow with nervous energy.  At the very least, an “I” that depends on the body is an unreliable pilot.

Perhaps even easier to see is the changeability of feeling; we like and don’t like hundreds (perhaps more) things every day, sometimes without noticing and often without remembering. We’re annoyed by waiting at a traffic light, we’re attracted to a lovely bit of food or the aroma of coffee. It passes by so quickly; can these fleeting feelings really be “how I am”?

We can really get stuck on “what I am”, based on our perceptions. We are SOMETHING – kind, selfish, smart, stupid, angry, loving, unworthy, deserving of more, etc. Is there any consistency beyond change? And yet we cling mightily to the notion that “I am _____”. It turns out that we have the option of releasing the clinging and just being, without taking on a limiting identity.

We can do this experiment: when we notice sensations in the body, or likes and dislikes coming and going, we can apply calm, mindful awareness. Is an owner of this experience absolutely necessary? Or could it be just a natural phenomenon, arising and disappearing, based on causes and conditions?

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Facing the end

The last of the three “messengers”, and the three universal forms of dukkha, is death. While all of us know, at least intellectually, that no one lives forever, most of us are determinedly reluctant to allow this knowledge to be fully integrated into our lives.

And yet, the “messengers” can also be teachers.

Frank Ostaseski is a mature and skillful Buddhist teacher, founder of the Metta Institute, and co-founder of the Zen Hospice Project. His 2017 book, The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully, is a gem, full of rich stories, and may be useful to all of us in various ways. Because I don’t think I can improve on the invitations themselves as a description of how to make death a teacher in our lives, I’m going to simply introduce them and encourage you to look more deeply if you’d like  ( ).

  1. Don’t wait
  2. Welcome everything, push away nothing
  3. Bring your whole self to the experience
  4. Find a place of rest in the middle of things
  5. Cultivate don’t-know mind

Putting these principles into practice can help us face our own death and help us to be fully present when others are dying; they can support us in our grieving and in our ability to support others who are grieving. The invitations are not so much instructions as investigations; there are no pat formulas.

What would it feel like to not put off what’s important? To live every day as if it could be our last? How would life be different if we opened ourselves fully to everyone, not pushing away anything, including our own discomfort? If we brought our whole self, our love and skills and vulnerability, to every experience? How can we learn to generate and maintain a place of rest in our hearts that we have access to even in times of distress? Can we allow ourselves to be open and unsure? To not be the expert, the one who knows, the one who directs?

All of us have these qualities to some degree, either as potentials or as realized characteristics.

From the book (p. 128): Try it sometime. Sit with another person without a solution to their problem, without playing a role. No analyzing, no fixing, no meddling, no mending. Listen generously, as if the other person has all of the resources that they need inside of them. Just respect and receive what is being offered. It’s not even important that you understand. Imagine your listening presence is enough, exactly what is needed. Often a receptive silence heals more than all the well-meaning words.

Each of us will find this proposition (listening generously and respectfully) more or less possible. We can’t fake bringing our whole self to the experience; but we can learn with practice. We can start with smaller issues and see how it goes. Sitting with people in distress, for whatever reason, is difficult – it’s work, but it’s work of the most beneficial kind, for ourselves and others.

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