I received a request recently to write about "wanting" and how to work with that. I have a number of things to say on the topic, but I thought I'd start with a previously published blog which nicely sets the stage. Here it is:
One of the most fundamental and helpful spiritual principles that I know of is this, that the less we need the happier we are. I don’t know if people are unaware of this, are too attached to things to let them go, or just don’t care, but the world, obviously, is far from living from this understanding. Let’s look into this principle a bit and see what’s there.
On a material level the focus of most lives, as is often said, lies in the accumulation of possessions. Now, there’s nothing wrong with having things—I like things myself, in fact—and there’s nothing wrong with working to acquire them. The trouble starts when we begin to want things not because we need them but because we see them as a substitute for real happiness. As with any other sort of distraction, acquiring something brings momentary relief from the stress of not being the “right person”, from the feeling of failure or inadequacy, from loss or the inability to satisfy deeper desires, and so on. If we do not know how or unable to take care for those deeper needs in ourselves, then I suppose it makes sense to pacify them by fixating on an outside thing, but unfortunately it doesn’t work for long. Nothing outside us can heal us or make us truly happy—even something as powerful as the love of another person. The only way to real healing and deep happiness is to see through the cause of our suffering, let it go, and embrace the human that we are in unconditional love and acceptance.
What are we seeking, anyway, in the accumulation of things? When you think about it, it seems an odd practice to pile up things you don’t actually need, because everything you own you have to take care of. As the saying goes, whatever you possess that you don’t need possesses you. Material things require a great deal of time and attention to maintain—you have to clean them, declutter them, lube them, empty them, repair them, upgrade them, improve them, not to mention taking them out and putting them away over and over again. In the case of other people, which are our most expensive possessions (if they are in fact possessions and not collaborators in a happy life), you have to flatter them cajole them, berate them, improve them, disapprove of them, and a thousand other things. So why in the world do we want so many?
We want things because we imagine they will produce particular feelings. In the case of an external thing that we don’t really need, it’s never really about the thing: we are using the thing to produce an emotional state that we crave. This is a radically backwards and complicated way to go about having what we want, isn’t it? Much better is to just have it—something that is possible outside of conditioned mind. All we really want is to feel loved, to feel like we belong, to feel useful, and so on, and these things, luckily, are available whenever we let go of everything else. Ironically, our pursuit of things tends to produce the opposite of what we hope for: instead of providing what we need on an emotional level, the practice pushes it further and further away. To experience love, peace, joy, and every other happy thing, we need merely to let go of wanting other than what is right now—that’s it. It’s the simplest thing in the world, and yet almost nobody can do it.
Someone who is present and in a state of unconditional love for himself/herself is without the false needs that drive most of humanity. This is the reason why we are the happier the less we need: happiness is wholeness, and we need excessively when we are not whole. To be self-abandoned is to be without the one essential ingredient of real happiness, which is oneness with Self, the same as Life. In that state of isolation we throw possessions into a bottomless ache, hoping it will somehow be filled. To return to oneself, to live in unconditional love and acceptance for oneself, is to fill the emptiness with something divine that satisfies forever.
We must be careful as we tiptoe our way through this territory, however, because we are trained as children to be without needs. To be a good little girl or boy often means to not need anything. As a result we learn to suppress our needs in order to survive. This is not the same as the liberation I am speaking of, obviously, and might be said to be it’s opposite. It gets really subtle and tricky here. For example, I personally am terribly good at not needing things, but that is not necessarily free, as I have a conditioned need to not need. In it’s effect this is no different than “needing” a new car. To be truly free from attachment to outside things is not to suppress what we naturally need as humans, but rather to heal the separation from ourselves that occurs as a part of our social conditioning.
When that happens then we’re just people who need what people need, and no more.