“Who among us has not suffered from the ache of desperately wanting
what we can never have?” Victor Byrd
When I was 10 years old, I desperately wanted a pair of silk lounging pajamas. All my friends had them, I urgently told my mother. I had images of myself lying in perfection and elegance at home, freed from the cares of my young world. I would then be part of the “in” crowd at school. I could share stories of my own possessions and my own body and mind perfectly arranged to bring complete comfort and happiness. Bless her; in response to my pleas, my mother actually seriously considered stretching our meager family budget to buy me silk lounging pajamas. Such is the pressure of our own and others’ wanting.
The Buddha called this wanting tanha, or hunger: “…a craving (that) is the ensnarer that has flowed along, spread out, and caught hold, with which this world is smothered & enveloped like a tangled skein, a knotted ball of string, like matted rushes and reeds.” We can all recognize in ourselves and our clients this sense of being caught in some form of tangled, knotted craving or wanting for something that may or may not be available and that, even if it does come to us, never quite brings the promised completion of happiness and peace.
Yet, all beings do want to be happy. We can all recognize the goodness of that wish. The Dalai Lama has famously said “I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness.” What will bring happiness has been an inquiry of hunters and gatherers, seekers, thinkers and philosophers from the beginning of time. Over two thousand years ago, Siddhartha Gautama wandered the land contemplating the ways of happiness. In similar ways, this search for happiness is very likely a prime motivation in our clients coming to us and even in our own motives to become psychotherapists or healers. We each desire happiness and the alleviation of our own and others’ suffering.
The Buddha’s teachings continually underscore the goodness and the possibilities of that wish. Further, his teachings, invite us to, today, explore happiness in the same way that he did so many years ago, not in some abstract form by thinking about the question, but like a modern scientist. He invites us to undertake this quest by patient and diligent inquiry: by observing our own minds and seeing for ourselves what leads to suffering and what leads to the end of suffering.
In exploring the mind’s tendencies, we learn from modern research that the mind (brain) is genetically programmed; we are hard wired to turn toward the pleasant and to avoid the unpleasant. It makes sense. As simple organisms and later as mammals living in the wild, the beings that were able to perceive and avoid the dangerous and the unpleasant were more likely to avoid becoming someone else’s dinner. It is normal. It is how human life, the human brain, simply is. It is good. As a survival strategy, it has helped us eat food that is not poison, care for our young, and not get run over by elephants.
We can observe our tendency, however, to take this too far. In the process of turning toward sensory and social pleasure, we begin to see that we tend to grasp too tightly. Doing so, we lose the simple happiness that is present in life as it is. We forget that life on this planet is limited. When we look closely, we see that no sensory experience is complete, permanent or under the control of our personal will. Yet we still try to make that sensory experience fill what can be, for each of us, an insatiable hunger for pleasure and security. If one chocolate chip cookie is good, two will be better. If a certain amount of wealth is good, maybe just a little more will make us more secure. If a relationship is nourishing, we ask it to be perfect. Even further, we keep ourselves on the surface of things, overlooking the deeper, non-conditioned happiness that is always available.
The legend has it that Siddhartha engaged deeply in this inquiry; he wandered for years, contemplating the ways of suffering and the path to happiness. On the night of his enlightenment, deep in inquiry, he had a memory of sitting as a child under his father’s rose apple tree, receiving and delighting in the pleasant, the beauty of the sun and sky and earth. He remembered that for him as a child, at the very same moment as he opened to the beauty, he had also seen pain. He had then opened his heart in compassion to the suffering of the ants whose homes were destroyed and who frantically carried their eggs away, and the bugs and worms sliced to death by his father’s plow. He realized – deeply and profoundly – that the path to happiness and freedom was a middle path – not too tight, not too loose. Later, as an enlightened being, he taught a path of awareness of deep experience in the moment and of profound release of the hunger for it to be otherwise. He taught a path of openness to impermanence and interconnection and to what the Taoists call the 10,000 joys and the 10,000 sorrows of life on this planet. Freedom, he saw, required us to learn to know it all, experience it all, embrace it all, and to then release our grasping to it all. He invites us to cultivate the capacity to rest with equanimity in the relentless and impermanent unfolding of this precious life.
In our confusion, we miss the balance. We often hunger for the pleasant in a way that is driven, relentless, sticky and full of clinging and desperation. Ajahn Sucitto speaks of it as being “launched “into suffering. “(We find) the desire to pull something in and feed on it, the desire that’s never satisfied because it just shifts from one sense base to another, from one emotional need to the next, from one sense of achievement to another goal. It’s the desire that comes from a black hole of need, however small and manageable that need is.” We mistakenly keep insisting that life must be pleasant, must work out on our terms if we are to be happy. This is, in Pali, kama tanha, being caught, imprisoned in hunger for pleasant sensory experience: one of the forms of the sticky craving that overlays our experience of life when we insist that life be something other than it is. In being caught in this, the Buddha often called us “uninstructed worldlings,” who misunderstand how things actually work and what, truly, will lead to happiness.
In our spiritual practices, then, we inquire and we cultivate awareness. We develop the ability to discern ever larger, wiser and more wholesome perspectives on these ordinary turnings toward physical and social nourishment, survival and happiness. Like the Buddha, we learn over time to make wise choices. We delight in the joys of life with a light touch as we also learn to let go.
Without silk pajamas, I somehow, with my mother’s guidance, was able to let go. I grew to see through the deluded mind in which I thought of those pajamas as my ultimate and only source of happiness and my mother as the obstacle to that. As an adult, I now see the much richer and tender happiness of having a mother who saw her daughter’s suffering and opened in compassion and care to even consider making such a sacrifice for a silly girl.
Delighting in the pleasure of silk or even in the comfort of being like my friends or even now in the tender recollection of my mother is far from evil or wrong. It is what we do. When it is raining, we desire the protection of an umbrella and, when available, we go back to the house to get it. When the desire becomes hardened into a hunger, however, an insistence that life work out some particular way, we can go far astray. We can spend tremendous energies pursuing at great cost the many varieties of pleasures – for food or sex or drugs or cars or electronics or recognition or safety. We can cling to hunger for the perfect house or the perfectly comfortable relationship or the perfect conceptual understanding of how life works, or even the perfect spiritual attainment. We can turn anything into dukkha. We can mistakenly imagine that these will insulate us from the normal ups and downs of life – what the Buddha called the eight worldly dhammas of pleasure and pain, gain and loss, praise and blame, fame and disrepute which come to every being.
As I was with my mother begging for the pajamas that would heal my life, as therapists, we often find that our clients ask us to help them solve a problem or to make their own solutions work that may not, in fact, ever work as they imagine. As they approach sickness or aging or death, or simply life’s normal ups and downs they can find themselves quite ill prepared and very impoverished, indeed. Like my kind mother, our challenge is to know these confusions first in our own selves. As we cultivate our own discernment, wisdom, clarity, kindness and compassion – over time and in small, manageable ways – we cultivate the ability to use our wisdom and our skills to walk, together with our clients, through the universal confusions and challenges of this human life.