“Who among us has not suffered from the ache of desperately wanting
what we can never have?” Victor Byrd
When I was 10 years old, I desperately wanted a pair of silk lounging pajamas. All my friends had them, I urgently told my mother. I had images of myself lying about in comfort and elegance at home, freed from the cares of my young world. I also could be part of the “in” crowd at school, admired and fully accepted and safe among my peers. I begged for those pajamas as my path to a more perfect life, one that would bring final and complete comfort and happiness. Bless her; in response to my pleas, my mother actually seriously considered stretching our meager family budget to buy me silk lounging pajamas. Such is the pressure of our own and others’ wanting.
The Buddha called this wanting tanha, or hunger: “…a craving…with which this world is smothered & enveloped like a tangled skein, a knotted ball of string, like matted rushes and reeds.” I can recognize this in my young sense of being caught in the knots of my desperate wanting for pleasure, for recognition by my friends and for the perceived safety of that social inclusion. I can recognize it in my adult longings for those same things: tangled cravings for qualities that may or may not be available and that, even if they do come, never quite bring the promised completion of happiness and peace.
Yet, like all beings, I too just wanted to be happy. We can all recognize the goodness of that wish and that inquiry. The Dalai Lama has famously said “I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness.” My body and mind are genetically programmed, hard wired to turn toward the pleasant and to be alert to, and then flee, the unpleasant. It makes sense. My ancestors who were able to find what was nourishing and escape what was dangerous and unpleasant were more likely to maintain the protection of their social groups and more able to avoid becoming some predator’s dinner. My seeking happiness was normal. It is how human life, the human brain, simply is for all of us. It is good. As a survival strategy, it has enabled humans to eat enough food that is not poison, to care for our young and one another, and to not get run over by elephants.
I can easily smile at my young self. Even today, however, I can observe the same tendency to take this turning too far, when an ordinary receiving of pleasure or recognition or safety or security turns into a desperate craving. If one chocolate chip cookie is good, two or three will be better. If a certain amount of acknowledgement or wealth is enough, maybe more will make me even happier. If a relationship is nourishing, I ask it to be perfect. Even further, my hungers keep me on the surface of things, overlooking life’s simple delights as well as the deeper, non-conditioned happiness that is always available.
Legend has it that young Siddhartha saw these hungers and engaged deeply in inquiry. At first, he thought that the way to freedom was to completely destroy his wanting and he had diligently practiced asceticism until he was very nearly dead. On the night of his enlightenment, however, he had a crucial insight as he remembered a memory of his happiness, sitting as a child under his father’s rose apple tree, receiving and delighting in a deep tranquility and the rich beauty of the sun and sky and earth. He remembered that at the very same moment he had also seen much pain in sufferings of the ants whose homes were destroyed as they frantically carried their eggs away and of the bugs and worms who were sliced to death by his father’s plow.
As his heart had broken open to it all, Siddhartha had realized, then, that the path to happiness and freedom was a middle path, not too tight, not too loose: one that included both pleasure and pain. Later, as an enlightened Buddha, he taught a path of knowing and accepting both the pleasures and the limits of each present moment, a path of release of the craving – the insistence – that it be otherwise. Freedom, he saw, requires of us a learning to know it all, experience it all, embrace it all with a light and generous touch. He taught a path of cultivating the capacity to ride, with equanimity, the relentless and impermanent unfolding of every dimension of this precious life.
In my confusion, I can so often miss that balance. Even now, I can hunger for the pleasant in a way that is driven, relentless, sticky and full of clinging. Ajahn Sucitto speaks of it as my being “launched “into suffering. Caught in this place, I can mistakenly keep insisting that my life – or this morning’s news – must be pleasant and must work out on my terms if I am to be happy.
As a child, my wish for the comfort, security and belonging that silk pajamas seemed to offer was far from evil or wrong. It is human and what we all do. Even now, when it is raining, I desire the protection of an umbrella and, when available, I go back to the house to get it. Nevertheless, without silk pajamas, I grew with my mother’s help to learn then that my life and my relationships were OK.
Today I continue to inquire into my longings, practicing more and more with a much lighter and more balanced touch. I’m able to discern more wholesome action as I allow – again and again – my life to simply teach me what is wholesome and what is needed. Over and over, I am called to engage more spaciously with all of life’s delights and disappointments, to allow awareness of the experiences of pleasure and pain, gain and loss, praise and blame, recognition and disregard to all unfold in their own ways and out of my control. There is a more happy release and, often, a sweet letting go.