Not “Wanting” What We Want (and not “not-wanting” what we don’t want)… On Purpose

Wanting what we want is a pretty natural way to feel… natural and imprisoning.

It is silly to say we should “not-want” what we want… silly and very helpful.

Becoming what we are means first to become what we are not, and it is only through the action of volition that we become anything at all. But volition is not as simple and straightforward as it seems.

Action could be thought of as whatever we think, say, or do. We become what we act. We are ALWAYS engaged in action, and whenever we act, we act on multiple levels:

  • we unconsciously set biological motivations that shape our very perceptions of the world;
  • we filter those already-filtered perceptions through the values that we create based on the interaction of our past experience, our present environment, and our desired ends (our motivations);
  • we unknowingly prime ourselves and possibly even physically (and automatically) act out our response to our perceptions;
  • we then (and only then!) consciously “know” what we want, what we perceive, what we like/don’t like, and whether we have what we want or not;
  • at this point (after unconscious assessment and at the beginning of conscious assessment), we begin to formulate intentions of “action” that will lead us toward achieving our goals or maintaining our success for as long as possible – I use “action” in quotes here, because throughout this list that is what has been happening already: ACTION!
  • lastly, we take the plunge… we “ACT”! (emphasis added for irony… we are always acting): we willfully think, say, or do something

This long sequence of action occurs in a very short time frame – mere tens of milliseconds fly by before we are halfway through this string of “acting”; several hundred milliseconds later, our conscious minds catch up.

Why is it worth knowing that the unconscious mind is already rolling down the road as the conscious mind is just starting the car? Enter: “WANTING”

Call it wanting, desire, preference, urge, craving, yearning… it is something that is chosen for you before you know it. You see cake: you want; you hear something enticing: you want; you feel something pleasant: you want… it happens before you decide for it to. It is a part of your perception.

Our choice: allow “wanting” to be in control of our attention – essentially steering the direction of our moment-to-moment experience – or see the want and willfully decide to “not-want” instead.

This does not mean we can keep ourselves from having desire necessarily. It just points to the freedom to notice desire and generate some distance between ourselves and the feeling of “wanting”. Desire cannot survive unless we feed it. “Pure desire” or “wanting for wanting’s sake” is simply the process of an individual feeding desire by allowing it to choose the next action of thought, speech, or body.

It could be said that the error of wanting is that it heaps suffering on top of pain. This could be shown to be true because all of what we don’t want is painful (in some way or another), so we push away from it; and inherent within all the things we want is a fear of losing it, so we helplessly try to hold on to it. In each case, it is like we are trying to prolong the ringing of a bell. “So if I can’t want anything”, you might ask, “what then?!”

Becoming what we are means first becoming what we are not. This statement points to the strange truth that to get what we really want (and I would wager that 100% of people really want to experience life with happiness, roughly speaking), we may need to stop wanting it.

Trying this out for yourself will take practice. For the sake of simplicity (it is simple, just not easy), start with something inconsequential like the feeling of your posture. Actually, this is a great place to start because the body provides us ample opportunity to want and not-want… we are very familiar with bodily pleasure/displeasure and comfort/discomfort.

Sitting with a straight-but-relaxed spine, focus on your posture by sweeping the body with your attention. Imagine gently placing your attention on each part of the body as you work your way up from your toes: feel the feet on the floor, notice the ankles and how they connect the feet to the legs,… (continue up the body) … feel the pressure of your upper legs and buttocks on the seat, sense the lower back rising up toward your neck, notice each sensation of the skin and muscles of the waist, ribs, stomach, sternum, chest, mid-back, shoulder blades, shoulders, upper arms, forearms, wrists, hands, fingers,… feel any tension or relaxation in the neck, lower skull, back of the head, around the ears, temples, crown of the head, forehead, feel the small and strong muscles in and around the eyes, sense the cheeks, nose, jaws, feel the lips press together, and the chin…

As you sweep the body, notice the feeling-tone of each sensation: pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. These feeling-tones correspond to the intentional stances of “wanting” (holding on to) and “not-wanting” (pushing away from) and the more ignorant state of consciousness of “not-knowing”, respectively.

I will leave the talk about “knowing” or “not-knowing” for another time… right now, simply notice the feelings of pleasure and displeasure pulling you toward even the slightest degree of wanting or not-wanting. Pain in the lower back: not-wanting; warm legs on a cold day: wanting; stiffness of the neck (and probably impatience): not-wanting; calm or relaxing muscles: wanting.

You see, there are always a multitude of ways we automatically “want” or “not-want” what we experience. Curiously playing with the possibility of Recognizing, Accepting, and Investigating them, we can begin to carve out a little room for seeing all of experience as “Not-me” (i.e. we experience wants and not-wants, we are not identified with them) – “RAIN” to borrow an acronym from Dr. Rick Hanson. We begin to see the nature of what we want (and don’t want) is impermanent and unreliable – we will always want something and, if we get it, we will be fearful of losing it; and there will always be things we don’t want that we continuously try to avoid. This is the habit of chasing the horizon trying to get somewhere special: you will likely end up lost or just right back where you started.

Not “wanting” what we want (and not “not-wanting” what we don’t want) is a way to maintain an interested but even mind in any circumstances. Seeking to get what we want or avoid what we dread is a task of changing experience – paying attention to the mind and the body in this non-reactive and non-interfering way does not change experience: it deepens it.


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