The Art of Desire
by: Kristine Madera
If you’ve been on this planet for more that ten years or so, then you’ve probably heard the evils of instant gratification—it makes you lazy, selfish, a bad citizen, and the queen of them all, fat, to indulge your every whim. But I would argue the opposite. When practiced as a life art, instant gratification and desire can make you more focused, more selfless, a more authentic person, and yes, even thinner.
If you watch a young child, their whole existence is about instant gratification, from eating to getting picked up, to needing to be changed they make their wishes known and the (hopefully benevolent) grown-ups in their life will snap to and fulfill the wee one’s whim. It was a great system, until you got a sibling or three, or started school, or otherwise began to learn that every little thing you want was inconvenient. Parents begin to pitch the story that easy acquisition is either bad for your character or bad for your health, or both. There is a valid point to this parental thwarting of desire, but as so often happens, the lesson taught and the lesson learned are so dissimilar that they could be opposites. The lesson parents wanted to teach is, of course, that many of the good things in life require patience and persistence and self-control, so better to learn it earlier rather than later. Very true. The problem is that at a tender age, what we want is so fundamental to survival—food, basic comfort, the assurance of love from our parents—that when we lack them, life really is uncomfortable. Desperation consumes our young minds and tempers tantrum, lips pout, tears rage until Mom sends us sulking to a Time-Out and that hard lesson of deprivation, or maybe whips out a cookie from the secret snack compartment in her purse to return our little world to bliss.
The lesson too often learned is that there is no pleasure in the gap between a desire and the fulfillment of that desire. It wouldn’t be so bad, except that somewhere along the line the desire grows from a cookie before dinner to a milestone in your education or career, or to the loving feeling you attach to a long-term relationship, or to retirement and playing with the eagerly awaited grandchildren. No danger of instant gratification with these kind of goals, but if you learned the lesson that there is no joy in the gap between the goal and the acquisition, what you get is a net deficit of pleasure. And that’s a shame, because desire itself can be a whole lot of fun.
The Buddhists claim that desire is the root of suffering, but I would say that it’s our relationship to desire, rather than desire itself that causes the suffering. Desire is a constant in life, like an itch. You may think that scratching that itch satisfies the itch, but another itch will eventually arise, in a different place perhaps, but it’s an itch nonetheless. So you scratch that one, too. You do it so naturally that you don’t even have to think about it—itch, scratch, itch, scratch, on and on, taking no notice unless the itch is unbearable, like from a cluster of mosquito bites or poison ivy. You can learn to ride out the itch (another Buddhist favorite) because if you wait long enough, that itch will pass, excruciating as it may be in the interim. Desire is like that, too. I no longer want a Barbie Dream Car, much as it had seemed a life and death longing thirty-something years ago, but there are still plenty of things I desire.
There is another approach that lies somewhere between reflexively scratching the itch and suffering as you ride out the longing: learn to enjoy desire. It’s not so outlandish. If desire weren’t inherently pleasant there would be no porn industry or retail layaway plans. Enjoying the desire is the instant gratification of feeling the way that you think your goal will make you feel while still working toward that goal. One of the little secrets of life is that the goal that you think you want isn’t what you really want. What you really want is the emotional state that goal represents to you (love, acceptance, achievement, security, freedom, etc.), and what you really, really want is probably three or four emotional layers beneath that.
Don’t believe me? Let’s take that idea out for a test drive with something easy, like ice cream. In the calorie-free zone of your own imagination, choose your favorite flavor, your favorite bowl and spoon. As you anticipate scooping the ice cream, pause and focus on how you feel. Is there a feeling of celebration, like at a birthday party? Maybe it feels purely indulgent, like a silk-lined robe, or rebellious, or a little naughty. Whatever it is for you, really savor it. It’s a delicious feeling isn’t it? You can get a lot of mileage out of a feeling like that without ever having to actually eat the ice cream. People rarely eat things like ice cream to satisfy physical hunger; they eat them for the emotional pleasure that they attach to the food. It can be a great dieting strategy to practice savoring the emotional qualities of the comfort food you think you crave while you stick to sensible eating in real life. Because what you want, I’ll say again, isn’t primarily the ice cream, it’s the feeling it represents. I’d bet you’ve experienced it; once you eat the ice cream—or whatever—the associated happy feeling passes, and it leaves you unsatisfied in a hollow, hungry sort of way.
Long-term goals are the same way. We’ve been conditioned to think that a solid career will satisfy the longing for achievement, that money will ensure security, that true love will fill the holes within and make us feel complete, and a whole host of other misrepresentations. No wonder then, when we get down the road in our career, or stash some money away, or find the love of our life, and the resulting emotions don’t rock our world the way we had anticipated, that we move the goalpost to a larger perceived emotional payoff—to another rung up the corporate ladder, a bolder stock strategy, divorce court—as if that were the principal problem.
But life is a lot more fun and satisfying if you look at your goals, explore the emotions you’ve attached to them, and begin to experience the emotional state that you want even as you are moving toward your goals. Want to play along at this game?
To give you a sense of how to play, I’ll bare my emotional soul as an example. Like many people, I have a hankering for abundance, specifically financial abundance. When I imagined myself with the money and income that felt really abundant to me, it was easy to feel that abundance provided a sense of fun and freedom that the lack of abundance did not. But that was just at the surface. As I stayed in the feelings and images and prodded deeper, I realized that I equated money with security, and even deeper, money with safety. Below that was a deep sense that I felt unsafe in the world, that I didn’t have a legitimate place in it, that I didn’t belong. So the feeling I wanted from abundance was to belong in the world, and that’s a lot of baggage to put on the number of digits on a bank account. Why did I associate money with belonging in the world? No idea. I can tell you from my work with clients that we get caught up in all sorts of things that, looking back, can seem like no big deal. They stem from spontaneous strategies to survive a painful moment, or decisions about the world or ourselves made when we are feeling most vulnerable. Not that people haven’t had some really horrendous experiences, just that it is often the little things that trip us up because they lie so far outside of awareness. What I can assure you is that once you have the jewel—the core feeling—at the bottom of the emotional rabbit hole, you have your ticket out, which we’ll get to in a moment.
If you want to play, pick a goal that you have in your life—personal, professional, whatever. Close your eyes and see yourself having achieved that goal, keep the vision as you begin to feel what it feels like to have achieved this goal—really get into the feeling. Identify the surface emotions in that feeling, and then sink deeper and deeper, like peeling through the layer of an onion. It may take several visits to sink all the way down. It’s fine to sit with a layer for days or weeks before you go further. Be gentle with yourself. When you feel like you have gotten to the core jewel then use this next strategy to dance out of the rabbit hole.
When you have your core desire—or your core fear as in my case—you begin to focus on the emotion that you truly want to feel. In my case, I began to look back on my life, from the very earliest to now, and looked at all the ways that I really did belong in the world—the people who drew me into their groups or otherwise reached out to protect me, the friends who embraced me, a family that loved me—and bit by bit, I stoked those feelings until the tipping point at which the fear crumbled under the evidence that I really did belong, and I no longer had to remind myself of it. Once I felt I belonged, I felt safe, secure, freer; able to relax and have more fun regardless of the bank balance at the end of the month.
If your feeling is a core desire (achievement, excellence, love, etc.) rather than a fear, then focus on intensifying that feeling until it is present in your life all the time, a central part of your experience of who you are. Do this by remembering all the times that you did, for example, achieve something—you learned to walk, speak, read, do math, throw a ball, made friends, all sorts of things; just keep tapping into those successes to amp up the feelings you want to incorporate into your life, and grow them they feel so real, so present that you are fully reaping the emotional benefits of your goal while still in the process of bringing that goal into being. (If, in fact, that particular goal is really the most appropriate for you; if not, being absorbed in the feeling of the success you want will direct you naturally to an even more authentic goal.)
This isn’t a one-time shot. Like all habits worth cultivating it takes practice and persistence to change the go-to mental wiring around desire and emotional gratification. It’s also not about the factual account of your life; it’s about your emotional relationship with it. You can’t change the fact that your dad walked out on the family when you were ten, or that you had to repeat the eighth grade because you were sick half the year, but you can absolutely change the way that you feel about it. You are (mostly) in control of your perception—and your emotions.
The naysayers out there may claim that if all you needed to do to have a great life is to sit on the couch and vision yourself into bliss, then nothing would get done, we’d all starve. I say that you can’t hold these kinds of feelings and visions for any length of time without them propelling you faster and further into your most satisfying, authentic life. But blissing yourself out can be a great way to pass a rainy Saturday afternoon.
It’s also not about depriving yourself of actual, real-life pleasure. Every once in a while, you should go ahead and eat the ice cream.
Kristine Madera is a speaker, writer and Certified Clinical Hypnotist & Hypno-Coach living and practicing in Asheville. Find out how she can coach you to use your desire to be your most authentic, joyful, successful self at www.MindWiseHypnosis.com. She is also the co-author of How to Meditate with Your Dog: An Introduction to Meditation for Dog Lovers.