Buddhism teaches that selfish desire is at the root of all suffering. So to proceed with Right Intention, we should seek to free ourselves of desire. This intention in itself, is a selfish desire. To want to rid our selves of something is still a want. To seek nirvana, enlightenment, the Kingdom of Heaven are all selfish desires, no matter if we tell ourselves it’s in the service of a greater good. We are wanting machines. We are created out of desire for the purpose of desire; food, comfort and procreation. To deny ourselves these things is to deny our very purpose.
We can cloak our desires in any religious garb, but seeking to be ‘good’ is no different than seeking to be ‘bad’, which are just situational inventions by which we label the actions or results of our desire. We can’t stop ourselves from wanting something, we can only choose to want something else. It’s maddening for us to want to stop our self. This is like saying I want me to not want something. It’s the snake eating its own tail.
We are results seeking animals, created to seek fulfillment of our desires. When one is fulfilled, we cannot help but want another. This endless cycle is what Buddhism calls Samsara (the wheel of suffering), because we can never fulfill every desire and every desire leads to another, which traps us in a routine of endless wanting and unfulfillment. But the trap is not desire, it’s attachment; longing for the past or a tomorrow that never comes.
When we’re attached to a desired outcome and it goes unfulfilled, we suffer. We may become obsessed with trying to understand why it didn’t go according to plan, or try different tactics to make it happen. We learn that persistence pays off, but mostly we just repeat the past and continue get in our own way.
How can we want something and at the same time not be attached to it? It seems like a lie to say “I’m really hungry but if I don’t eat, that’s OK too.” There’s a false choice between the fatalism of believing it’s all in God’s Plan and the nhilism of nothing really matters. To release ourselves from the trap of endless wanting is not to deny ourselves the pursuit of pleasure or to let Jesus take the wheel. The open secret to continuous fulfillment is to abandon ourselves to the wanting of everyday life without becoming fixated on a Right Way of doing it. As my meditation teacher taught me in Sri Lanka over 25 years ago, “Enlightenment is right under your nose”. In other words, be mindful of the present moment, and everything mysterious and wonderful will reveal itself to you.
In the words of Chinese Zen master Linji:
You must not be artful. Be your ordinary self. You yourself as you are. That is Buddha dharma. I stand, I sit; I stretch or I eat; I sleep when I am fatigued.
The ignoramus will deride me but the wise man will understand
The harder we try to understand what happiness is, the more it eludes us. The harder we work towards being perfect, God just moves the goalposts.
And so we suffer, like hungry ghosts, trapped in the duality of who I am vs. who I should be, or what I should do or have. This doesn’t mean we should abandon all of our noble goals. Most of my career has been spent teaching people how to enjoy the process of the present while working toward a self-owned meaningful future, without being afraid to fail spectacularly in the process.
Anyone who buys into the spiritual racket that we must sacrifice, pray and suffer to attain some kind of enlightenment, is condemned to a lifetime of self-frustration, fear and guilt. We are stuck with ourselves, so we might as well dispense with all the spiritual phoniness and get on with sharing the joy of creating. When we look to the heavens or gaze at our navels in search of Ultimate Reality, we take our eyes off the beauty of ordinary life, and miss the perfection in ourselves and the creation of everything around us.
To abandon ones’e self to ordinary life, without getting tripped up in circular philosophical arguments or trying hopelessly to understand what God wants, is to know what God wants. To abandon our beliefs about The Path to salvation, is to be truly saved.
“You’re free to do as you like and also as you don’t like, to be free and to be bound, to be a sage and a fool.”
— Alan Watts