Desire Vs Suffering: Buddhism 2.0

I took several classes on Buddhism in college and even went to study in Sri Lanka in 1986, where I attended the University of Peradinya, in the central highlands of Kandy, a fantastic place. As part of my field research, I wanted to know what it was like to be a monk so I became one for 30 days. I took vows and lived in a monastery on the remote island of Dodandua off Sri Lanka’s Southern Coast with about 20 other monks, some of whom were also westerners. Most of my day was spent working toward achieving “enlightenment” by ridding myself of desire. In Buddhism, desire is the root of the cycle of suffering (Samsara) and the way you free yourself from it is to meditate for long periods of time. For anyone who has ever tried this, it’s extraordinarily difficult for two reasons:

Chris getting his monk on, 1986, Sri Lanka
Chris getting his monk on, 1986
Sri Lanka

1. Most people don’t have time to sit around for long periods of time in meditation
2. Trying to get rid of desire is like trying to not think about a monkey. The more you try to get it out of your mind, the more it won’t go away.

Desire is hardwired into our brains so that we can acquire the things we need to survive and procreate. We can’t say desire is good or bad, it just is. Even if we tried to ignore the constant bombardment of advertising and the temptations that are everywhere around us, that craving we feel for something or someone is part of what make us human. To deny this is only to deny our humanness.

So here’s what I got out of sitting all day long (besides pain in my butt cheeks): desire is unstoppable and endless. Desire is the ocean, and we are swimming in it. We suffer when we become attached to a specific state or outcome that’s different from what actually is. So instead of trying to get rid of desire, we should embrace it, as well as all its endless possible outcomes.

This is what Buddhism calls ‘detached awareness’; you know you’re swimming in desire and you’re just enjoying swimming without being attached to any one particular outcome. This is not the same as resignation or justifying failure; it is a resourceful way of thinking about success. After considering, “how does this desire fit with my values?” you can enjoy the process of setting meaningful goals and working toward them. At the same time you are aware that any number of outcomes are possible, which helps you to recognize those resources and opportunities to help you succeed, and not suffer when you fail.

So what if the stakes are higher? What if you’re struggling to pay the rent, feed your kids or under pressure to meet a critical deadline? How can you be free from suffering under these conditions? Suffering results not only from attachment to a failed outcome, but in the process of worrying about failure, and being attached to the fear of failure. As Deepak Chopra says, “To worry is to pray for what you don’t want.” Worry only intensifies attachment to the fear of failure and closes off avenues of possible action, which increases the chances of failure.

Instead, focus on what you do want – clarify and sharpen that desire and allow yourself to swim in it. This saturated emotional state created by a positive vision of what you want, opens up your awareness to new ways of achieving it. It helps you create new pathways to win.

My ‘great realization’ was that I was free to enjoy swimming in my desires without having to fight against them, or become attached to only one outcome to be successful. It not only motivated me to achieve things I never thought I would, but to enjoy the freedom of the creative process without fear of failure.