When traveling in Turkey a number of years ago, I crossed paths with an Israeli woman who was trying an experiment: she was following her impulses. She would only sleep when she was tired, she would only eat when she was hungry, and she would only move when her body craved movement.
I was reminded of her last year when I heard of a student at our school doing the same thing. As an experiment, he was following his impulses to see what life felt like. He had a number of late nights and rough school days, but he stuck with it.
Most of us listen to our desires as if they’re significant and pointing us in some direction that we really want to head. As if the mere idea of refusing our cravings is in some way refusing a part of ourselves. As if the the objects of our desires are what we’re really after and would really lead to happiness.
The objects of our desires are not what we're really after, and the happiness they lead us to is not everlasting.
So, what do you really want?
The first thought that comes to mind for me is a Tesla (any model, please), abundant passive income so I never have to work again, good health for me and my family, and the ability to travel any where at any time.
But that’s not what I mean when I ask what do you really want? I mean what do you want as a way of feeling or being. That’s really what we’re craving anyway. We think it’s the object of our desire that we really want, but it’s not. We are really after the feeling we get to feel when that craving is met.
It really seems like desire is an emotion that can only be satiated by getting what we’re craving. While doing so can satiate our desire at least temporarily, our desire is perhaps not really even pointing to that specific object. What if, like fear, desire is actually pointing somewhere beyond the object of our desire?
Just like fear, desire is a clear emotion - we all tend to know what it feels like. Whether it pulls us strongly or subtly, desire seems automatic and it’s nearly always present to some extent or another. Like fear, desire comes with some of the oldest and most primitive parts of our brains. And as with fear, it’s a really good thing that we feel desire.
You see, the obvious desires are biological in nature and highlighted by biological impulses. Other desires, cravings not sourced in biological needs or desires, are more like longings. In both cases, our desires serve one purpose: maximize reward. When we maximize reward, we increase our chances of survival. Well, that was at least true earlier on in our life as the human creature.
Today, however, maximizing our reward by satisfying our specific cravings is no longer a signal of greater survival. In fact, in a world abundant with unhealthy ways of satisfying our cravings, desire often points in a direction that hurts our survival chances. Sugar, sex, substances, video games, netflix, etc. - when we follow those cravings for too long our quality of life diminishes.
This is because our cravings have never been about these objects of desire. Our cravings are about our well-being.
Let’s take an extreme example of desire: addiction. Those of us who have struggled with addiction of any kind or any level know the strength, danger, and possible pain of desire, as well as the all-too-common interpretation of desire as immoral or wrong. However, we might just be misinterpreting our desire.
Joe Bailey, a psychologist, addiction counselor, and author (one of my favorites), has written that addicts, like the rest of us, are really just looking for a path to a feeling of well-being. Addicts have allowed themselves to consistently find that feeling in substance use. Joe suggests that our desires are always pointing us in a single direction: toward well-being. If we can see beyond the specific, momentary object of desire to the source of all our desire - a feeling of well-being - we might find some additional will-power to skip the cookies and appreciate a feeling of health or turn off the iPad and head to bed.
Fear and desire are always pointing to one place: well-being. It may seem like our desire is about that shiny or sweet object laid in front of us on the table, but it’s not. Mostly, our fears and desires highlight insecurities that we feel, and the fears and desires point us toward feeling secure and well.
It’s not actually Chick-fil-a that I want - I’m looking for a feeling of satiated well-being. It’s not really the alcohol that I want - I’m looking to feel good, secure, and self-expressed. It’s not really winning the argument with self-righteousness and justification that I’m after - I really want to feel loved and supported for who I am.
Here’s a magic question that helps us see through the cravings and fears of the moment to the well-being we’re actually looking for: What do I really want?
Just like with fear, look beyond the immediate objects of desire to where the desire is really pointing. And then remember that true well-being isn’t something we ever have to go looking for, because it’s always with us - always has been and always will be. Allow your inner wisdom to highlight what you really want, and the craving for those Doritos might just disappear.
For me, it's to be unconditionally in love with life, at ease and compassionate, and to be acting in line with my commitment to the well-being of all life.
What do you really want? No need to push, but don't hold back.
Thank you for engaging with my work. ❤️