You are unhappy, and it’s because you want things. This is the most important concept to understand and the most impossible behaviour to change.
You want to be somewhere else. You want to be with someone else. You want something more. This is how you’ve lived for every minute of every day since you were born.
You probably feel some level of unhappiness now, doing something you don’t want to do. How much of your life have you spent with this dissatisfaction in the back of your mind?
Sometimes we actually get what we want. Then what? Does the feeling go away? Maybe for an hour or two. Maybe for a day, or a week. But inevitably this uneasiness creeps back in.
The desire has returned. You feel incomplete. You feel unhappy.
Desire is in our DNA
Desire is programmed into us through evolution. Those who didn’t want to survive didn’t survive. Those who didn’t want to reproduce didn’t reproduce. Desire is an extremely useful tool. Humanity has made progress due our dissatisfaction with the status quo.
But that same feeling — the one of dissatisfaction — that’s the reason why you’re unhappy.
Types of desire
There are three types of desire:
- We want to feel pleasure; such as eating delicious food, or taking an island vacation
- We want to become something; perhaps a great athlete or a successful CEO
- We want to get rid of something
The first two are straightforward. They may also seem like the “easiest” to overcome: just stop wanting such impermanent things. Be grateful for what you already have.
Some people try this. They become disillusioned with fleeting happiness and so they try to remove their desire for it. Maybe they become ascetics, giving up all possessions and ambition, wanting for nothing and eschewing comfort.
But what has happened now? Their disillusionment has led them to the sneakiest of desires. The desire to get rid of desire.
Letting go of desire
There is only one way to let go of desire, and that is to observe it. You cannot engage in it, and you cannot try to eliminate it. To try is to fail.
When you notice yourself wanting something however, you have created a small separation. There is “the want”, and there is the person observing “the want”. These two things are separate. Noticing desire means you are no longer immersed in it.
The observer affect
In physics, simply observing a thing changes it. This is called the observer effect. Thinking also has an observer effect. When we observe a thought, two things happen: we disassociate from the thought, and the thought is changed.
Desires are just thoughts. They are ‘very important’ thoughts, according to our brains. Our brains give them a lot of weight. This makes desires hard to disengage from.
The good news is that you don’t have to stop your brain from thinking these thoughts. Nor should you try. Don’t give up your dreams. Don’t stop planning that vacation. Don’t stop trying to improve yourself.
Just observe. Notice the desire behind the thoughts, the need that your brain feels. When you do this you’ll see it’s just a conditioned response. Don’t try to get rid of it, because to try is to have desire. Just recognise the disassociation you feel. The space which you have created.
Over time, the space will grow. In in that space, without ever trying to give anything up, you will find content.