“A feeling of aversion or attachment toward something is your clue that there’s work to be done.” -Ram Dass
Have you ever been in a situation where a friend wants something from you that you just cannot give them? Perhaps it is your time, your energy, or your attention. Maybe you love that person deeply and want to support them, but the timing is off and it just isn’t possible. You do your best to say “no” compassionately, but it doesn’t go over smoothly: the friend becomes angry or upset with you for not fulfilling their desire. It is difficult to be faced with blame or have emotions projected onto us, and it can cause our own defensiveness to arise.
Now think about a situation where you were the person wanting something from someone else. What happened when they were unable to meet your desire? What did you feel? What was the story you were telling yourself about that person? For many of us, the result is frustration, sadness, resentment, or even self-pity. We may create a narrative about that person being bad or wrong, or a story about ourselves being unlovable or unworthy. If we become consumed by these thoughts and emotions, we can even spiral into mental health symptoms.
The problem isn’t the desire itself: it is okay to want time and energy from the people in our lives. What becomes an issue is when we are so attached to our desires that we lose ourselves and struggle to cope with the reality of the present moment. Becoming consumed by things that are out of our control causes a deep type of suffering that feels unbearable. Waiting for an external circumstance to change also limits our options for well-being…we all deserve peace of mind, now! Healing from depression, anxiety, and anger involves looking within.
The example above is connected to desires that show up in relationships. But sometimes the thoughts we have are not related to another person. We can also desire something from ourselves, or from life itself. If the desire continues to go unmet and we have an ongoing reaction that is creating emotional challenges, it is worth looking inward and seeing if we can free ourselves. Since this whole process often happens automatically, the first step is to notice in our minds which desire we are becoming attached to. Here are some examples:
Common Thoughts Connected to Attachment to Desire:
o I want things to be different than they are
o I want to be somewhere else in my life
o I want to be someone else
o I want other people to be different than they are
o I want others to validate me
o I want to be seen/perceived in a certain way
o I want my body to look different than it does
o I want someone to fix my problem
o I want to be liked
o I want my problem to go away
o I want to be happier
o I want more (insert material item)
o I want only good things to happen to me
It’s important to be clear that this conversation isn’t suggesting we shouldn’t have needs. As humans, we naturally have psychological needs such as love, belonging, connection, trust, purpose, self-expression, and security (amongst others). Part of therapy is becoming attuned to our real needs, learning to give ourselves what we need, and building relationships in our lives that encourage our well-being. The challenge is that we aren’t very good at differentiating between a true need and being stuck in a desire.
For example, having a desire for validation is not bad. It feels good to be recognized or acknowledged by others. Validation fosters connection, trust, and love. But if our self-worth relies on the validation of others, this can become problematic. It isn’t unusual to seek validation from people who either cannot give it to us or refuse to give it to us (this is a very common dynamic between adult children and their parents). The important question then becomes, what happens to your sense of self when that person doesn’t validate you? Are your feelings of worthiness based on the opinions or actions of others? If we continue to seek what we cannot receive from others, we can move into a state of hopelessness, helplessness, and despair. When we are attached to our unmet desires, our nervous system is set off and begins alerting us: “There is a big problem here!” And when that happens, we can panic and end up making decisions that aren’t right for us. We cannot trust the mind to make healthy decisions from a place of crisis. People who have cut relationships out of their lives and later regretted it know what this experience is like.
Becoming aware of our attachment to desire is about getting unstuck in our minds. It is not about avoiding emotions and thoughts, which are part of the human experience. The purpose of this work isn’t to invalidate our feelings, to pretend something doesn’t impact us, to act like we don’t care, or to come into a state of perpetual peace and happiness. The intention is to check-in with ourselves and see if our minds can ease the suffering we are experiencing. Then we become free to use our intuition to make decisions about how to approach the issue in our life.
Here is a diagram called Levels of Mind, from David Hoffmeister (a well-known spiritual teacher who is guided by the book A Course in Miracles). He points to desire as the deeper issue underlying our beliefs, thoughts, emotions, and perceptions. Let’s take a look at some hypothetical examples…
Imagine you are a parent and you take your toddler to the grocery store where a major meltdown ensues:
Perception: noticing people staring at you and your child
Emotion: anger and anxiety
Thought: this is humiliating
Belief: I am a bad parent
Desire: I want my child to stop screaming to prove to others that I am good
Now imagine that you are telling your friend a story about something that upset you and they don’t respond in the way you wanted:
Perception: noticing a blank stare on your friend’s face
Emotion: disappointment and sadness
Thought: nobody ever cares about how I feel
Belief: I’m unlovable
Desire: I want others to validate my worthiness
And finally, imagine that you are struggling with body image and you look at yourself in the mirror:
Perception: you see a stomach roll in the mirror
Emotion: fear and disgust
Thought: I am so fat
Belief: my stomach should be flat at all times
Desire: I want my body to look different than it does
Looking at the three examples above, we can see how difficult it would be to make healthy, rational choices in those moments, especially if our desire is unconscious. We can end up blaming the external circumstances for why we feel the way we do. And, even though the situation is influencing us, it is the deeper levels that are hooking us in and creating a vulnerability.
In therapy, we look at all levels of the mind to begin healing from depression, anxiety, and anger. We begin to observe our perception more closely as we move through life, rather than going on auto-pilot. We learn to stay with emotions and process them effectively. We start to let go of thoughts and beliefs, rather than feed into them with reactivity. And finally, we become sensitive to the underlying desires that may be keeping us stuck in the other levels, preventing peace of mind.
Attachment to desire is painful and causes us to lose touch with our options for wellness. The purpose of this exercise is to watch how the deeper dynamics of our mind affect our mental health. When we get curious and explore these patterns, we begin to see how we can let go of suffering, even if the pain we are experiencing in life is unavoidable. Then we stay with our experience, process the emotions necessary, let go when it is time, and take action when necessary.
Mindful Awareness Exercise:
Think about a situation recently where you became angry, sad, or anxious. Now try to fill out the Levels of Mind:
Perception: what did you notice in that moment? (environmental triggers)
Emotion: what emotions came up for you?
Thought: what were the thoughts running through your mind?
Belief: what did you believe about yourself, others, or life in that situation?
Desire: what did you want in that situation?
Reflecting back on your example, was your desire affecting your peace of mind? Imagine what it would have been like to let go of the desire in that moment (even just briefly). Does your mind try to create any reasons why you shouldn’t let go? Just take time to observe what comes up without judgement.