How To Tame The Wanting Mind
By Carley Hauck
Have you ever wanted something so badly that you prayed for it, you saved up for it, and/or you worked really hard for it? Then once you got it, you thought, “Hmmm, this wasn’t as great as I built it up to be and now I want something else”?
The mind always yearns for something more. It might desire a new experience, a pleasant feeling or sensation, or crave the acquisition of something that it feels will bring pleasure. However, the experiences, sensations, and/or pleasant feelings that we strive for don’t last and we often find ourselves wanting more. The one thing we can count on in this life is impermanence and continuous change. Here are a few examples of impermanence:
• You have been saving up for this really amazing trip and all the right conditions are in place to take it and go. You think, “This is going to be the best vacation ever!” You go on the vacation but there are some hiccups along the way and it doesn’t quite meet your expectations. You now need something else: a vacation from your vacation.
• You get the long fought for promotion at work and think, “Now I have everything that I need to be successful.” Instead of feeling happy with this success, your feelings change. You realize this added promotion has a lot more responsibility and stress than you bargained for. You now want a job with less responsibility.
• You pass by your local café and see a tantalizing pastry and think, “Wow, that chocolate filled croissant is just what I need to get through my morning meeting.” You eat it and it is delicious, but that feeling doesn’t last. Your meeting is still unpleasant, and you want another dessert to distract you.
Greed is one of the three defilements or unwholesome states of the mind, (greed, aversion, and delusion). The defilements of the mind is a common teaching in meditation. If we feed thoughts of greed and encourage them to grow, by repeating them over and over in the mind, they will manifest into unwholesome and unskillful actions, causing harm to ourselves and others.
I have been studying and practicing meditation for the past 15 year and, as part of my personal study and practice, I take two weeks of silence each year. When I am silent for days at a time I become intently aware of impermanence. Over the course of the day, my mind may have many thoughts of greed, aversion, and delusion. With mindfulness, I can be aware of these thoughts and, instead of feeding them and acting on them, I can step back and observe them. This allows me to experience greater peace, joy, contentment, and wisdom instead of acting on these negative thoughts.
Our society often conditions and encourages us to look outside of ourselves for happiness. The notion that this moment is not okay as it is encourages wanting minds and overconsumption. I have been regularly traveling to Pasadena, in Los Angeles, for work. After a long and very fulfilling day of teaching and consulting on mindfulness and well-being with one of my worksite clients, I felt the desire to go on a summer walk through the downtown streets of Pasadena. On my walk, there were lots of stores and tantalizing sale signs. As I window-shopped, I observed how my mind grasped at the idea of acquiring various sale items. Finally, I was lured into a store and decided to try on a beautiful mandala necklace that was 50% off, and quite a deal at $30. It was very becoming with my outfit and the sales associate, of course, shared her glee at the prospect of my buying the necklace. Fortunately, mindfulness was present, along with my desire to purchase the necklace, and I wisely asked myself these questions:
“Carley, do you need a mandala necklace?”
“Will you really wear the necklace?”
“Probably, some of the time; but I have other necklaces and really only wear one necklace on a regular basis.”
“How many other necklaces or jewelry items do you own that you don’t wear?”
“Will buying this necklace really add to your greater contentment?”
“Is more buying and consuming, for wanting sake, good for the planet?”
After listening to my inner dialogue, I thought, “I am going to pause and if I still really, really want the necklace in a few days or a week, then I will come back for it.” That was it and I walked out of the store, with no buyer’s remorse and enjoyed the rest of my summer walk. What I really wanted was the walk and the necklace was just a pretty distraction.
Practice: Becoming Aware of Desires
Close your eyes and come into a comfortable posture. Tap into your breath and the body.
• Think of something beautiful. Bring to mind something you want—that you REALLY want. See the image in your mind—or if you’re at a store or art gallery, you can admire the object for a few minutes. How does it feel in the mind, the body? Let yourself really feel it. Imagine yourself almost having what you want….feel the tension there in the mind and body, you are so close to having it. It is almost within you grasp….
• Let it go. Take a deep breath and let those feelings go. As a similar practice in Mindful magazine suggests: “Embrace the object for what it is, brilliant, without needing to be possessed or protected by you.”
• Take stock of what you have. Shift your awareness to something that you have right now. Let yourself appreciate it. It could be your health, loved ones—just notice how this feels. When you let go, how does it feel in the mind and the body to have enough right now? Each time you feel hooked by wanting something, notice the sensations of this and then bring your awareness back to what you have. A helpful saying that I use when I notice the wanting mind is, “I have everything I need right now.”
Each time you feel hooked by wanting something, notice the sensations of this and then bring your awareness back to what you have. A helpful saying that I use when I notice the wanting mind is, “I have everything I need right now.”
Greed is fed and encouraged in our culture because we are taught that more is always better. This is demonstrated by a greedy thirst for power, success, profit and gain throughout the world. The focus on fossil fuels for our increasing energy needs, the collapse of our environmental systems, and the emergence of climate chaos, are the direct result of the human mind that sees everything as an object to be owned and exploited or simply taken for granted. Climate change is being driven by the actions of humans and it is one of the most pressing topics of our time. By training the mind to see ourselves and our desires clearly (as fleeting), we can make a wise choice.
Are we supposed to never want? No.
Are we supposed to let go of any desire that feels satisfying? No.
There is a difference between a desire or craving that causes harm and is excessive versus a desire, for example, to love well, be generous, and add to the world in a meaningful way. A practice I take on for myself is to observe my thoughts of greed and ask myself questions that help me create a healthy relationship with those desires. This prevents me from becoming overly attached to the possessions that I have or want to have. When we feed thoughts of greed, it cultivates more greed, but when we let go of thoughts of greed, it brings rise to generosity, a wholesome quality. Generosity is one of the skills of well-being. When we know we are enough and have enough, we can be more generous and let go more easily. True contentment is not about acquiring more, but being satisfied with greater simplicity and fulfilled by what you already have.
When we know we are enough and have enough, we can be more generous and let go more easily. True contentment is not about acquiring more, but being satisfied with greater simplicity and fulfilled by what you already have.
Less is More: 5 Simple Practices
1. Find the optimal amount. There is a middle ground. Through investigation and awareness of desire, you will understand what the optimal amount is. True well-being coincides with ultimate satisfaction or contentment. What feels like just enough? Is it one piece of cake or two? Is it a 10 minute or five minute shower ?
2. Savor the Moment. I have taken on a simple practice of savoring moments. I savor my green tea in the morning, the taste, how I feel as I drink it. I savor the laughter of children, the smiles I see that transpire between loved ones, co-workers, or friends. I savor seeing clouds pass in the sky. Have you ever sat and watched clouds pass by? There is something utterly satisfying about just being with the wonder of clouds and nature. Clouds don’t pass by quickly, so while you are watching and noticing, you can soak up some sun at the same time. Double savoring!
3. True Nourishment. I have been teaching on the concept of true nourishment for over a decade. True nourishment is how we feed the mind, body, and heart. What feeds your mind? Thoughts of love and compassion or criticism? What feeds your heart? Knowing that deep down you are enough. What feeds your body? Eating slowly, tasting, savoring? Moving, dancing, singing, affection, play? What truly nourishes you? When you tap into this answer, you will be more content with less.
4. Want v. Need. We are bombarded with things to buy, read, and consume multiple times a day and if we aren’t centered, greed takes the reigns. Marketing has us believe that this latte, new pair of shoes, or new technology will make us feel lasting happiness, but this is NOT true. When you are aware of desire creeping in, ask, “Do I need this or want this? If I have run out of toothpaste, then yes I need to buy more toothpaste, but when the newest cellphone comes out, and I already have a phone which works great, do I need a new phone? No. Start asking desire questions and let wisdom be in the front seat.
5. Cultivate thoughts of enough-ness. Neuroscience has found that the brain is malleable and therefore trainable. Let go of thoughts that stimulate greed and plant seeds of enough-ness. Try practicing this thought for 90 seconds a few times a day: “I have everything I need right now.”
Being mindful of desire is a practice. The more you are aware, the habit pattern of desire will begin to lose its power. The qualities of contentment and generosity can then become stronger. To increase your motivation to be mindful of desire, take on this practice as a way to benefit all beings. When you want less, you become more generous. There is less impact on the earth, and the whole world benefits.
“If you look at what you have in life, you’ll always have more. If you look at what you don’t have in life, you’ll never have enough.” —Oprah Winfrey