How to Make Desire Your Most Powerful Teacher

One of my favourite dharma teachers – Gil Fronsdal, of Insight Meditation Center in California – has a powerful talk about desire.

Before you say, “Meh. I know how Buddhists roll when it comes to desire, and it’s bad news,” hold on.

Because Gil doesn’t trash desire. Rather, he suggests we become students of desire.

The idea is that – through the mindful, curious attention of a student – we get to know our desires really well. We learn when and how they arise...where they live in the body-mind...and where they lead.

Listen to Gil’s talk here. (It’s under 15 minutes.)

Why’s this important?

Well, first, because not all desire is bad. Without desire, there’d be no life. No creation. No inspiration.


desire can fuel expression of true self...or it can be self-extinguishing.

  Photo by   Alexander Krivitskiy, Unsplash

Photo by Alexander Krivitskiy, Unsplash

Desire arising from a heart place – from somewhere deep within and connected to true self – is a beautiful, precious part of being human.

Meanwhile, more surface desires are less about connecting...and more about disconnecting from self and others.

Rather than making us feel settled and nourished, surface desires have a desperate, greedy quality. A feeling of wanting, wanting, wanting...and then wanting more.

They also tend to gather momentum of their own. As that momentum grows stronger, habits form. The “wanting energy” becomes self-perpetuating.

Such desires are exhausting (with all that wanting, wanting, wanting) and alienating, removing us from ourselves and creating separation between us and others.

So how do we become students of our desires?

And as students, how do we learn to discern between desires that are helpful and self-affirming...and those that are unhelpful and alienating?

  Photo by Anna Sastre, Unsplash

Photo by Anna Sastre, Unsplash

It might look this way...

When desire arises, notice it, name it, then pause. In this pause, before acting, ask yourself two questions. Both involve considering consequences but from different angles – one abstract, one less so:

1. Is this a “connecting” desire or a “disconnecting” one?

Will acting on it make you feel more connected to and settled in yourself on a deeper level? Or will acting on it make you feel more disconnected from yourself and your needs?

2. If you act on this desire, how will you feel as you're falling asleep tonight?

Does acting on this desire lend itself to spaciousness and ease...or contraction and agitation? The latter may show up in a obvious way (full-on guilt and regret, for instance) or a subtle one (underlying restlessness or difficulty getting settled, perhaps).

Example:

Trevor, on lunch break following a crazy morning at the office, pops into the local co-op for something to eat. He feels agitated from an earlier conversation with his boss and nervous about an afternoon meeting. He wants something but isn’t sure what. There’s an undercurrent of wanting, wanting, wanting.

“Hmmm,” he thinks upon passing the dessert counter. “How about a box of those frosted, locally made cupcakes? You know what’d go great with that? An extra-large mocha latte.

“Oh, but there’s that thing I said I’d try. Noticing desire – naming it. Well, I’m waiting in line anyway...that counts as pausing, right?

“Now for those questions... Is this a connecting desire? Will it make me feel more settled? Uh, no. I mean, it might sort of feel that way...until I finish the third cupcake. But, yeah, not exactly helping me feel connected. I’ll still leave here anxious and stressed...and without ever really ‘checking in.’

“How will it feel tonight, as I’m laying in bed before falling asleep? Oh, I know I’ll regret it. I mean, it’s no big deal – everyone deserves a treat now and then. But I’ll likely feel more restless and agitated...and have even more trouble getting settled.”

  Photo by   Justin Veenema, Unsplash

Photo by Justin Veenema, Unsplash

Where’s this headed?

Well, the better we get to know our desires (and the more skillful we get at discerning among them), the more we expand our sphere of choice – the sphere of our choices.

The more expansive and clearer this sphere gets, the greater our capacity to:

1. Set aside fleeting, unhelpful and disconnecting desires.

2. Touch into something deeper – into our heart’s true desires...ones that are self-affirming, helpful and connecting.

As Gil puts it, we grow our capacity to self-monitor and, with unhelpful desires, to not give in. We learn to say: “I won’t pick that up right now. Let it be. Let it be.”

The result? Deeper desires – ones sourced from our heart – have a better chance of being heard...and acted upon.

What are you desiring right now? Is it connecting or disconnecting? I'd love to hear in the comments!


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