The Two Types of Desire: Wisdom and Craving

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If you’re anything like the rest of us, you probably want a lot of things.

Personally, I want to contribute to society.  I want to be an awesome writer who just sits down and effortlessly pumps out thousands of words of brilliant yet accessible writings.  I want to feel great all the time.  I want to be perfectly aware when I meditate.  I want to go for a walk in 70 degree weather every day, preferably with fragrant cherry blossoms or colorful leaves in my periphery.

In spiritual circles, these desires often get a bad wrap.  The messaging seems to be that you shouldn’t want things.  Nonsense!

As my teacher, Sayadaw U Tejaniya, often said, “just as craving wants thing, so too does wisdom want things.”

The basic difference has nothing to do with the object of desire and everything to do with the feel of desire.

Consider healthy eating.  Once upon a time, I had no desire to eat healthily, and, in turn, my body was out of tune, low energy and more prone to illness.  It was harder to live my truth.  Not having that desire wasn’t wisdom—it was foolishness.

But there are two ways to desire healthy eating.

Nowadays, when I go to the grocery store, I usually have a clear, calm and gentle mindset that simply knows to grab the fresh veggies and fruits, the whole foods and other healthy choices.

This is wisdom operating—it feels peaceful. 

There is no thought stream second guessing myself.  I’m not anxiously avoiding the candy isle for fear of being overtaken by a craving.

However, sometimes I do select things that aren’t the healthiest (like chocolate covered almonds!), but I don’t berate myself for doing so.

There may be a little craving-desire that reached for the chocolate, but a companion of wisdom is self-love, and even when we aren’t perfect, wisdom still shows up in the depth of our self-acceptance.

Inversely, a good chunk of my four years in Latin America and Asia, I desired to eat healthy, but had a difficult time finding healthy options.

I would often be irritable and annoyed, thinking “why is it so hard to find a damn salad!?”  Or, “stop putting so much freaking sugar in everything!”

This escalated to epic proportions when I was a monk and could literally only eat the things given to me twice a day.  I was trying to be a vegetarian in a meat culture, and soon became iron deficient.  I was also super annoyed with how oily and heavy the food was.

Yes, I had a noble desire to eat healthy, but when I didn’t get it fulfilled, I would become noticeably bothered.

This is craving operating—it feels agitated.

For you, maybe it comes up when your favorite fruit is out of stock.  Perhaps you fantasize about excellent physical health, losing weight or having a morning smoothie.  Maybe you’re nervous about not meeting your dietary needs.  Or, maybe you have resistance when a friend proposes a restaurant you don’t like.

This goes way beyond food.

Consider all the personal desires I initially listed.  Consider the following list, and see if any of them apply to you (or think of some other ones that are more central to your life):

I want to provide for my family

I just want to make it through the day
I want to be successful
I want to be loved
I want to make a difference in the world through (_____)
I want to love
I want people to be nice to me
I want to accept myself
I want to be excellent at time-management
I want stay continually motivated and inspired

It’s totally normal to have desires like these, to want to “improve” ourselves; however, the key distinction is the felt sense.

If you notice that trying to fulfill desires, especially when you fail, produces a feeling of tension or agitation, then that’s craving-desire.

If the process of trying to live those desires feels peaceful and relaxed, then you’ve stumbled onto wisdom-desire.

Wisdom-desire exists in the center of the great quote by Shunryu Suzuki, while craving-desire exists only in the second half:

“You are perfect just as you are; and you could use a little improvement.”

An excellent way to slowly move towards wisdom-desire is to study yourself:

Pick one of your desires that leans towards craving.  Start to observe how it manifests across the day.  What sort of thoughts are involved?  How obsessive-compulsive are they?

Most of all, what sort of felt sense accompanies it?

What you’ll notice is that the more deeply you become aware of that felt sense, the more you’ll see how it’s inherently painful.  This is what happened to my craving healthy food as a monk.  I began to realize it was more painful to resist eating meat as well as the heavy and oily food than it was to just eat it.  I let go, and felt peaceful and clear once again, even though I still had the desire to eat healthy.

Just study yourself; and, please please please, don’t have a craving-desire to turn your craving-desire into wisdom-desire!  Just notice.  Self-acceptance.  One day at a time!