You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes you just might find
You just might find
You get what you need.
Keith Richards and Mick Jagger
“Craving creates an illusion, a misperception, a deluded mental reaction, which causes the mind to contract into stress and anxiety. If this state is avoided or released, the mind is naturally calm and luminous.” Phillip Moffitt
My elderly friend Walter hoards things. To enter his home is to arrive in overwhelm and congestion. He once owned an “antiques” store; when that closed, he simply moved its contents to his already teeming house and garage and yard. On the floors and extra old furniture and appliances, overflowing the shelves and corners and closets, filling the sleeping and bathing spaces, are mounds of disorganized clutter – papers, old clothes, unopened mail, unread books, magazines, lists and broken tools. The piles, he says, offer him a sense of familiarity and security. He says he will read or fix or sell or recycle or use it all some day. In any case, he is reluctant to part with even the smallest item for fear that he will let go of something crucially important for his happiness.
I understand. When I examine my own mind, I often see: “me, too.”
While my home and external surroundings are simple and tidy, on close reflection I see that my internal mental world is often that of a hoarder.
Habitual preferences, old views, repeating thoughts, emotions, memories, beliefs, opinions, stories and behavioral strategies that have long since outlived their usefulness clutter and crowd my daily reactions and awareness. The fact that these arise is not a problem; it’s how the mind (brain) works. Suffering, the Buddha teaches, arises when I attach to these, when I identify them as “me or mine,” when I habitually hang on and reinforce them and am unable to simply let go.
For instance, this morning, I saw the mind wanting to cling. I had called to check on the delay of some home maintenance that was scheduled to be completed last month, only to be told that it had been again rescheduled, now for next month. While I managed to remain composed in speaking with the agent on the phone, I can still feel the tightness of anger in my throat and chest and the busyness of a mind that ruminating with objections and plans, trying to figure out how to control this and make it work out how I want. A mind that is determined to control something over which I have no control. This holding on is suffering, dukkha.
To see directly both the external situation and my internal experience is good Dhamma practice: the first noble truth of which the Buddha speaks. There is Dukkha. In the mind, there are views and opinions about how things should unfold; there is holding on in mental activities whose primary redeeming characteristic is that they are familiar, flowing through the mind and nervous system in predictable patterns. I see this, too, if and as I follow the day’s news. The mind gravitates to “friends” and “enemies” and to approval and happiness or rejection, grief, despair and overwhelm. Like Walter’s old furniture, they are all at once stressful and, at the same time and in a strange way, comforting. The patterns of mind are known, familiar. The mind wants to ruminate, to keep rehearsing them. They enable me to imagine that when I suffer, the cause is “out there,” often in supposedly ignorant and incompetent others. There is wanting to not feel what I feel: uncertain, disappointed, anxious, confused. I can even imagine that greed or aversion or ignorance arising in the (my) mind are both appropriate and necessary in order to function in the modern world. I can be like Walter, determined to sustain this baggage as somehow necessary and useful. Nevertheless – and also like Walter – for me, this is dukkha: suffering. Simply seeing this is a beautiful gift of practice.
Without first seeing this, I might mistakenly try to use my meditation as a means to find spiritual, or even more conventional, security and happiness by indulging or acting out or denying or figuring out or fixing or refining or escaping or drowning out or spacing out simply moving around my mental clutter. Without noticing and investigating the mental activity for its true character and its real usefulness, I am, like Walter, compounding suffering by simply adding the busy-ness of thoughts and views and effort in the form of more struggle into my already crowded mental house. Without the clarity of the first noble truth, I might, in confusion at one extreme, attempt to use my meditation practice to try to find peace by ignoring what’s there, or to quiet discomfort with a silent and blank emptiness. At the other extreme, I might exhaust myself with working hard to protect and sustain what I like, or by endless efforts to fix – or at least tidy up – all of this internal and external muddle.
The thing is, the Buddha saw, everything in life, conditioned by an endless stream of past and present causes and conditions, is in continual change. All conditioned phenomena functions according to laws of impermanence and infinite causes and conditions spreading back through time. In the present, it all simply does what it does. My wanting things to be otherwise does not change this. The second noble truth invites me to investigate, to consider and come to recognize how this all actually works. Happiness, it teaches, does not arise from simply getting what I want or from not getting what I don’t want. Unhappiness, the Buddha teaches, arises from craving for things to be otherwise. This is not the simple desire of preference. It is a tight and stressful hoarding: a craving that causes me to try, rigidly, to hang on without inquiry. It is a relentless effort try to stop the rivers of impermanence and to control what is not, actually, under my control. I suffer when I cling to an insistence that life be other than it is.
So, what am I to do with the internal contents of the mind and with (apparently) external events, with all of this “stuff?” Internally, how do I navigate my emotions? Externally, how do I navigate with a contractor who doesn’t keep her word? Our teachings invite us to be in the present moment, just staying in the present moment by being awake, knowing, and aware. How do I do that?
It starts with consent. With allowing, with permission for both the external event and my experience of it to be, simply, what it is. It requires me to first notice but then let go of indulging in all sorts of the additional mental clutter: the mind’s stories and ruminations about why this is happening, about its similarities to other events in my past life, about what it all means about who I am and who the other is and about what really should be happening instead, about what I or others should be and should be doing. It requires me to consent very simply and directly to what anger, confusion and disappointment feel like in the mind and body. When I look closely, there is heat. There is a tightness in the chest and throat. There is a sadness, even, a drooping in the face, a wetness behind the eyes. “It’s like this now.” If I don’t keep retreating into story and rumination, I find that the feeling, while unpleasant, is quite manageable. There is kindness and compassion. Ouch. Stress is like this. As I allow the experience, it shifts and softens.
In the fullness of this allowing lie the clues about any action that needs to be taken. Look and see, the Buddha invites us. Investigate. What is needed, possible, available? Internally? Externally? As I examine the details and options in this particular case, investigation reveals that a wholesome response for me seems to be primarily internal, in letting go. In simply not doing what is not helpful. In care for myself as I encounter these difficulties of human life. Maybe even care for the agent who, I see, is also not really in charge of the contractor’s decisions and actions. Maybe even for all beings who, in this moment, struggle with not getting what they want. In other circumstances, there might be a call for strong and forceful action of some sort. But, for me, in this case, not here, now. Life is like this. Even those old associations that get triggered by this event. The invitation of practice is toward letting go. They are past. I need address only the experience of the moment which undoubtedly includes the remnants of those other long past experiences. All can be healed in the tender light of kind presence.
There is clearing. A move into patience. A smile, even. A bit more freedom. Life is like this. Not always difficult, but sometimes. Nothing to hold onto here. Time to let go, internally, externally: today’s wild ride.