Yes, as you may have guessed, this is sort of a trick question. Of course you can desire other things, but only if you are prepared to experience suffering. In my journey as a yoga teacher and mental health professional, I see how unfulfilled desires can leave us feeling disappointed, defeated and dampened. In comparison, fulfilled desires can leave us feeling elated, ecstatic and excited. On either end of this spectrum, we are experiencing emotions that can feel intense and thus lead us away from a place of peace and stillness. This is not to say that desire should be removed from your life, but that they are meant to be either a desire that can be fulfilled immediately or let go due to its uselessness in attaining a state of peacefulness. It is likely many desires will resurface, but attaining this state of peace can be the one true desire that we keep coming back to time and again.
Here I'll explain why desiring anything other than peace leads to suffering. We'll explore popular perspectives on how personal desires take us away from peace. You’ll also learn how Buddhism and mindfulness can help to explain why peace is the only aspiration we should have in this human existence if we want to experience a life free from suffering.
Desires Take Us Away From the Present Moment
"If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.” ~Unknown author
As a mental health professional, I can say that modernized assessments of depression and anxiety would disagree with these simplified representations. Still, I believe it has validity, so I have shared this quote with clients and it has served many of them. It tells us how the mind can bring us away from a state of peace when it is trying to exist in any other time beside the present moment.
(Here are also 3 Ways to Stop Anxiety With Yoga.)
Eckhart Tolle wrote, “Stress is caused by being ‘here,’ but wanting to be ‘there,’ or being in the present, wanting to be in the future.” Tolle writes about how the past can take up unnecessary space in our mind, whether positive or negative. If we focus on past pain, we experience present suffering. Yet if we hold onto past pleasure we set ourselves up for inevitable disappointment. Instead we can simply observe our thoughts to detach from the mind’s desires. If we simply observe our desires from an unattached perspective and become focused on the present moment, we can avoid a painful separation of our self that ultimately causes suffering. If we focus on our desires, our present self cannot fulfill its purpose by living in the now. We feel a painful separation within ourselves that can produce symptoms that cause emotional disharmony and could even be diagnosed as depression or anxiety. If we live this moment in complete presence, we feel an alleviation of stress and feel peace. Many desires can feel incredibly intense and controlling of our psyche, but the less attention we feed into our desires then the weaker they may become over time. In fact, we can count on every desire to eventually pass whether or not we work to fulfill them.
Forget the Chase
Desires by their very nature take us away from the feeling of peaceful acceptance and move us into a goal-oriented and anticipatory state. Many people become addicted to this chase. Imagine you desire a new outfit. You may experience brief pleasure when you get the outfit and even when you wear it for the first time. These feelings will fade and you’ll want another. It was not the outfit itself you desired, but the momentary high we experience when we fulfill a desire. We begin to live in a state of perpetual desiring, chasing that high. This is the case for any desire and it is amplified when the desire itself produces a physiological reaction, such as substances or romantic relationships. This is when the desiring mind can wreak havoc on our sense of peacefulness.
Peace Lives in Acceptance and Non-Attachment
Buddhism teaches that life is painful, but suffering is optional. In life, we become identified with our desires. The mind’s ego is only concerned with itself and it is the ego that is doing the desiring. Desiring happiness inherently results in suffering. When this desire is not fulfilled, we experience suffering in the form of disappointment, anger or sadness. It can also be said that desires have no end. When one desire is fulfilled, another will always manifest. The third noble truth in Buddhism affirms that practicing non-attachment to our desires is the only way to control them and end our suffering. That is, peace is only attained through detaching from our desires and accepting what exists in the present moment. We must accept that peace already lives within us, and that fulfilling our ongoing desires cannot bring about the lasting sense of peace that we are seeking. In that place of peace, we may feel as though every possible desire is fulfilled at once.
Rewiring the Brain
Mindfulness is rooted in Buddhism and is the practice of focusing on the present and allowing yourself to accept thoughts through observation. This tool is growing in popularity in mainstream therapeutic interventions due to its effectiveness in rewiring brains, especially those that have become prone to stress and anxiety due to trauma or other life difficulties. The mind that is stuck in a state of desiring, wanting, searching, worrying and stressing over-stimulates the brain’s amygdala — a part of the brain that contributes to how we experience emotion and our survival instincts. The desiring brain with an overactive amygdala begins to live in a state of fight-or-flight, experiencing fear, anxiety, panic and constant stress. This has been shown to contribute to lowered immunity, affecting your quality of life and longevity. Mindfulness allows us to make peace with our desires by letting go of attachment to positive or negative experiences and allowing ourselves to just be. Research including brain imaging has shown physical changes to the amygdala in individuals who meditate regularly and participate in other mindfulness practices.
Always Coming Back to Peace
The brain is often overstimulated in our modern hectic lifestyles. We can desire money, relationships, property, food, substances and many other things that can ultimately contribute to us suffering and experiencing separation of self. Working towards fulfilling the desire of peace brings us to a place where we have no choice but to be present. By remembering that your only true desire is peace, you give yourself a tool to bring yourself out of the anxious desiring mind. Each time you notice yourself experiencing an uncomfortable state like stress or anxiety, ask yourself “What am I desiring?” By bringing the desire into your consciousness, you are better able to honor it, assess if it’s possible to fulfill immediately and if not, then allow it to pass, repeating this process over and over as needed. This practice allows for that sense of peace to come more naturally and automatically over time. Eventually, fulfilling the desire for peace becomes a lasting habit.
(Continue reading for how The Art of Mindfulness Is a Masterpiece of Moments in the 'Now' (5 Tips on How).)