What a statement, “I want.” It’s natural for all of us to want, to crave for things. We crave for family to still be alive, for memories, emotions, safety, and happiness.
However, I’ve noticed that my wanting is less about material things and more about me being right. For example, when I see a younger kid riding his bike without a helmet, I think to myself “He should be wearing a helmet.” I’m wanting for that child to do the right thing and wear a helmet (making me right), but in reality, I have no control over that situation. Even if I walked up to him and started yelling at him to wear a helmet, he probably wouldn’t do it anyways.
When we want, we experience dukkha. Dukkha is a Pali word (Indian dialect) that doesn’t have any literal translation in English, and so most westerners translate dukkha as suffering. However, I prefer “dissatisfaction” or “unpleasentness.” Dukkha includes pain and sorrow, but also melancholy and those “bleh” days.
One reason we experience dukkha when we want, as the Buddha teaches, is because everything changes. We usually crave for things to last, whether that’s the company of an individual we really enjoy, a memory to stay fresh, or continue experiencing the same emotions. In reality, no moment is the same as the previous moment. You may stay still for eternity, or sleep for days, but the world will continue revolving and changing. This principle of constant change is called anicca.
Another reason we experience dukkha when we want is our unawareness of anatta, or the emptiness of the everything. Anatta a a “high-level” concept, but think of it like this: we, as people, are a result of everything around us. We were created by two other people, and everything we consumed to keep us alive and help us grow (food, minerals, water, air) were not “us.” Then what really makes me, “me?” The Buddha explains that every human has five “aggregates” or skandhas that create the world around us. We experience the world around us through our sense organs (eye, ear, tongue, nose, body) and the interpretation of what we are experiencing through our brain (considered the sixth sense organ in Buddhism). The skandhas are as follows: form, sensation, perception, mental formations, consciousness. Essentially, there is an object, the eye “senses” (sees) the object, the brain interprets the object and associates it with other familiar things, mental formations occur due to this, and consciousness arises.
How Do I Extinguish My Wanting?
This question is the pinnacle of Buddhism. Let me first address the two principles I just mentioned: anicca and anatta.
When we become mindful of anicca and realize that everything will change, we can start realizing the craving really doesn’t do us any good. We already know that craving causes us to experience dukkha and we now know that craving can’t keep anything here permanently – the universe will carry on and things will change, so why do we still crave? Stopping the wanting is a difficult process, because wanting isn’t just for material things – it can also be for situations to occur/not occur, for you to be right, etc.
This is because we fail to recognize anatta.
The inherent truth of reality is that it’s an illusion. If everything we feel and sense is simply an interpretation of our brains, then there isn’t really a “real” world – it’s a matter of interpretation. Everything we are is a creation of everything else, which means there is no distinct “me.” There isn’t an “I” or “me” in any which way, which does mean Buddhism fails to accept the Freudian principles of the id, superego, and ego.
Ben Mikolaj, a friend and teacher at Rocky Mountain Insight, said it best:
When we are ignorant of the illusion of reality, we start sorting our life into situations we want to have and not have, people we want to see and not see. Our ignorance breeds wanting, which breeds ill-will/hatred.
“Ignorance” is a very strong word, but it literally just means “not knowing.” We are unknowing or unmindful of the effects our wanting has on others.
However, the most important “cure” to craving is the Eightfold Path.
The Buddha said in his Four Noble Truths (listed in order as follows): inherent in life is dukkha, the reason we experience dukkha is our craving (tanha), we can cease experiencing dukkha if we cease our craving, and there is a path which leads to the cessation of dukkha.
The Eightfold Path is the literal “practice” of Buddhism. Read more about the Eightfold Path here »
The Buddha taught that there were three marks of conditioned existence: dukkha, anicca, and anatta. Craving causes dukkha and our unknowing of anicca and anatta causes us to crave.
In the words of the Buddha: “There is no fire like passion, there is no shark like hatred, there is no snare like folly, there is no torrent like greed.”