You Can’t Have What You Seek

Jan 5, 2020 | Shared thoughts

Photo by Matthew Lancaster

But you can see your desires and aversions in a new, liberating light.

If you want an ice cream cone, you can probably get one. The same holds for most material possessions, so long as you can afford them. We score little successes like this most days, feeling a desire and meeting it. Some shortfalls are harder to fill — true love, work with meaning, financial independence. But at least in theory, we can achieve these ends.

You can also escape things you dislike. If a downpour disturbs your afternoon stroll, you can duck into a cafe. We take medicine to alleviate pain, hide behind pillows when the movie gets too scary or diet to lose those few pounds, all with some partial success.

What, then, do I mean when I say that you can’t have what you seek? If we boil these examples down to their essence, we see that they involve getting what we want and avoiding or escaping what we don’t want. And although we can acquire or achieve with impressive frequency, although we can discard or dodge with admirable efficiency, the holes we fill and blights we escape always give way to new ones!

We get the ice cream cone but then want a drink to wash it down with. We find true love but then crave time and space for ourselves. We find work with meaning but then want a bigger salary to support our ice cream and soda spending! Perhaps we get what we seek and then demand assurance that we won’t lose it. At heart, what we think we want is one of two things: for this moment to be different (get something I lack or discard something I dislike) or for this moment to resist change in the next moment (to hold on to what I have).

No, we can’t change the present moment or stop the flow of reality, but we can’t help wanting to. Something in us, the world and life won’t consider the race won. There is no finish line. It’s not just that our seeking may be a marathon rather than a sprint. It’s that we’re on a treadmill, running just to stay in place. Our seeming progress leaves us no closer to breaking the tape and throwing our hands in the air. This isn’t just an anti-materialism declaration. The same applies for experiences, relationships and even spiritual growth.

Although there is no end to satisfying your wants or escaping your dislikes, there is a deeper current to this stream of life. Consider the possibility that success in this race of desire and aversion is not your deepest longing. What if you are not in the event to rack up points but to experience every step of it — unfiltered — with your full self?

Might that be what it’s all about? Then why are we so misguided, thinking we must filter life to collect the good and eliminate the bad? Why do we want less than the whole of life? The thing is, for most of us, life simply has this sense built into it. This unseen assumption colours our experience, which is all part of the race. One view is that our early life suggests that we need to filter reality in this way to stay safe, to survive. Perhaps we must as vulnerable children in awe of life’s chaotic creativity.

One implication is that we needn’t beat ourselves up for labouring on the treadmill. For most of us, it is part of what life — or at least a stage of it — is. But maybe the filtering strategy — the endless drive to pursue one half of reality while fleeing the other — though appropriate for our child selves, is unnecessary and unhelpful once we have developed into adult humans. Maybe we can look another way at the desires and aversions we experience as part of our humanity.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to see how the race felt if we tested an alternative assumption about our purpose or aim, if we trialled whether splitting reality into seeking and fleeing was necessary or worth doing? What if we are meant to experience the bad just as we are the good? If we realised that, how would life change? If we recognised that there was no finish line, no way of winning the race, how would that alter our participation in it, our experience of it?
I’m not sure, but I’ve had glimpses and hints. Perhaps you have too?

Sometimes I experience an itch or drive for something — an acquisition or achievement — but I am not captured by it. I see the desire; I see it as a desire. But I see it in a way that doesn’t include an automatic launch into pursuing it. The same sometimes happens with fear or discontent. I hear the inner voice rejecting the moment or resisting change. I note it, even feel the call, but I am not bound by it. Sometimes, I just take interest in it. I’m curious about it. At times, with desires and aversions, I experience them but remain free of them.

Can we cultivate this capability? Can I, can you, get better at this? Might we access untapped capacity for engaging, face forward, with the full spectrum of life? I feel drawn to try. That desire (!) may just be another in the race, but perhaps I’ll check it out. It’s not a finish line, but it is the next stretch of the course for me, so I’m going to take part fully!

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