Naming the Wanting Mind

~Jack Kornfield

As we work to observe the wanting and grasping without condemning it, we can learn to be aware of this aspect of our nature without being caught up in it. When it arises we can feel it fully, naming our experience “hunger,” “wanting,” “longing,” or whatever it is. Name it softly the whole time it is present, repeating the name every few seconds, five, ten, twenty times until it ends. As you note it, be conscious of what happens: How long does this kind of desire last? Does it intensify first or just fade away? How does it feel in the body? What parts of the body are affected by it-the gut, the breath, the eyes? What does it feel like in the hear, in the mind? When it is present, are you happy or agitated, open or closed? As you name it, see how it moves and changes. If wanting comes as the demon hunger, name that. Where do you notice hunger- in the belly, the tongue, the throat?

When we look, we see that wanting creates tension, that it is actually painful. We see how it arises out of a sense of longing and incompleteness, a feeling that we are separate and not whole. Observing more closely we notice that it is also fleeting, without essence. This aspect of desire is actually a form of imagination and accompanying feeling that comes and goes in our body and mind. Of course, at other times it seems very real. Oscar Wilde said, “I can resist anything by temptation.” When we are caught by wanting it is like an intoxicant and we unable to see clearly. In India they say, “A pickpocket sees only the saint’s pockets.” Our wanting and desire can become powerful blinders limiting what we see.

Do not confuse desire with pleasure. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying pleasant experiences. Given the many difficulties we often face in life, enjoyment is wonderful to have. However, the wanting mind grasps at pleasure. We are taught in this culture that if we can grasp enough pleasurable experiences quickly one after another, our life will be happy. By following a good game of tennis with a delicious dinner, a fine movie, then wonderful sex and sleep, a good morning jog, a fine hour of meditation, an excellent breakfast, and off to an exciting morning of work, happiness will last. Our society is masterful at perpetuating this ruse. But will this satisfy the heart?

What happens when we do fulfill wanting? It often brings on more wanting. The whole process can become very tiring and empty. “What am I going to do next? Well, I’ll just get some more.” George Bernard Shaw said, “There are two great disappointments in life. Not getting what you want and getting it.” The process of such unskillful desire is endless, because peace comes not from fulfilling our wants but from the moment that dissatisfaction ends. When wanting is filled, there comes a moment of satisfaction, not from the pleasure, but from the stopping of grasping.

As you name the wanting mind and feel it carefully, notice what happens just after it ends, and noticed what states then follow. The issue of wanting and desire is a profound one. You will see how often our desires are misplaced. An obvious example is when we use food to replace the love we long for. To explain this, one Buddhist teacher, Geneen Roth, who works with eating disorders, wrote a book called Feeding the Hungry Heart. Through the practice of naming, we can sense how much of our surface desire arises from some deeper wanting in our being, from an underlying loneliness or fear or emptiness.

Often when people start their spiritual practice, the wanting mind will become more intense. As we take away some of the layers of distraction, we discover the underneath are powerful urges for food or sex, or for contact with others, or powerful ambition. When this happens, some people may feel that their spiritual life has gone awry, but this is the necessary process of unmasking the grasping mind. We get to face it and see it in all its guises, so that we can develop a skillful relationship to it. Unskillful desire causes wars, it drives much of our modern society, and as unknowing followers, we are at its mercy. But few people have ever stopped to examine desire, to feel it directly, to discover a wise relationship to it.

When we study Buddhist psychology, we discover that desire is divided into many categories. Most fundamentally these desires are then separated into painful desire and skillful desire, both aspects stemming from a neutral energy called the Will to Do. Painful desire involves greed, grasping, inadequacy, and longing. Skillful desire is born of this same Will to Do but directed by love, vitality, compassion, creativity, and wisdom. With the development of awareness, we begin to distinguish unhealthy desire from skillful motivation. We can sense which states are free from unskillful desire and enjoy a more spontaneous and natural way of being without struggle or ambition. When we are no longer as caught by unskillful desires, our understanding grows, and both healthy passion and compassion will more naturally direct our life.

Understanding, freedom, and joy are the treasures that naming the demon of desire brings us. We discover that underneath skillful desire is a deep spiritual longing for beauty, for abundance and completeness. Naming desire can lead us to discover this truest desire. One old teacher of mine said, “The problem with desire is that you do not desire deeply enough! Why not desire it all? You don’t like what you have and want what you don’t have. Simply reverse this. Want what you have and don’t want what you don’t have. Here you will find true fulfillment.” By studying desire, we begin to include all of its possibilities in our spiritual life.

This excerpt is taken from the book, “A Path with Heart“