Today’s killjoy subject, how to manage desire, comes to you courtesy of my extended love affair with Buddhist teachings.
The Buddha discovered that something called ‘attachment’ to desire equalled the root of all of mankind’s suffering and at this stage in life, I agree with him.
Trying to control desire though sounds neither fun nor feasible. So what’s your average desire-ridden specimen to do?
Buddhism didn’t only give us the problem, it gave us the solution, which is basically a thing called detachment.
This post explains how to practice detachment, along with some other ways to better manage desire.
How does attachment to desire cause suffering?
So how does attachment to desire lead to suffering?
Let’s take a common desire – to make a lot of money – and see how being heavily attached to that causes suffering:
- You want to be rich because you believe that it’s necessary to be rich in order to be successful. This position is not only stressful, but it immediately robs you from present moment satisfaction. You believe that you aren’t currently enough.
- Another layer of suffering is added on if you don’t take any steps towards fulfilling the desire, or you get frustrated from realising it some other how.
- Taking action doesn’t improve things much, because you suffer along the path to pursuing the desire for money. You may wind up compromising on what’s meaningful to you, for example.
- Think that the problem is solved once you are close to achieving the desire? Guess again. The highest anxiety comes when you actually come close to materializing your desires. This time the suffering comes in the form of fear of loss.
- When you do attain your desires, and even if they surpass your expectations, habituation sets in. The joy you felt initially diminishes.
- You find something new to want.
This might seem like quite an extreme example. But in reality, we are often just as attached to this when it comes to the things we want, whether that’s money, romantic partners, jobs, etc.
The first step to better manage desire
The first step to gaining freedom from the unpleasantness of being attached is to acknowledge to yourself that you are attached. By acknowledging your attachment, you acknowledging your suffering.
When you don’t acknowledge your suffering, you hide, repress or deny it to yourself.
Depending on how in denial you are about your attachment, this might cause you to project your desires onto others.
For example, you might secretly accuse others of being status-driven or greedy, when you yourself desire status and wealth. The problem with having shadow sides to your personality is that they tend to keep you from realising your potential.
Individuals that had religious upbringings, certain personality styles, and people who grew up in an environment of repression, need to be doubly aware of any tendencies.
Practicing acceptance is how we integrate those desires and traits we haven’t been acknowledging.
How to manage desire through practicing detachment
Okay so you know you’re attached. What do you do in order to gain freedom from the disturbing thoughts and feelings that attachment creates?
You practice a thing called ‘detachment’. Detachment is the state where you’re aware of your desires, but you aren’t suffering from them.
In my experience, there isn’t one single thing that helps you to become detached. You have to do a multitude of things.
It starts with a mindfulness practice. Through practicing mindfulness and meditation, you learn to observe your desires. I wrote about exactly how mindfulness changes everything here.
The next step is practicing acceptance, which ensures that you aren’t trying to repress your desires or escape them. It is a very healthy emotional habit.
You can try practicing gratitude, which helps you to anchor a state of contentment in the here and now.
I think the highest impact thing you can do to train a detachment muscle is to develop your self knowledge and self-awareness. I have done this through learning about my ego, my Enneagram type, and my Myers Briggs type, in addition to just basic reflection.
The combination of these skills makes you a more detached person, because you naturally become less identified with the thoughts, feelings and things that you’re so fused with ordinarily.
Seeing desires through
Although it is not actively promoted by the Buddhists, another way to manage desire is to see it through. This helps you to manage desire indirectly, because it helps you to know yourself (provided that you bring insights to what you learn).
For example, let’s say you have the desire to gain significance in your field. Going through the pains of fulfilling that desire allows you to experience its fruits. Sometimes in that process, you get tired of the striving and start to question the inherent meaning in the goal.
I think that there’s a lot to be said for ‘been there, done that, got the tee-shirt’, where possible. Not only does it help you define your values to yourself, it’s a great way to knock FOMO (aka Fear of Missing Out) on the head.
Driving your desire in a more positive direction
A final way to better manage desire is to learn to drive our desires towards intrinsic goals, rather than extrinsic. This is something you do naturally as you grow wiser.
Intrinsic goals are those which are inherently satisfying to pursue because they satisfy deep psychological needs. They are goals based on your core values.
We set extrinsic goals, however, to pursue ego-related objectives, designed to quell our fears and insecurities.
I wrote about how to set better goals for yourself here.
So that’s what the Buddha (and me) have to say about managing desire. I think it’s all pretty sane.
Own the suffering that attachment is bringing into your life. Practice mindfulness, acceptance and gratitude to help give you some freedom from that suffering.
See some desires through – it’ll help you to know yourself, which is important.
With awareness, eventually you’ll learn which desires are a path to a more satisfying life, and which will just leave you feeling empty.