This reflection appeared in the newsletter from March 15th, 2022.
Around a decade ago, I spent a few months in Nepal oscillating among travels, trekking mountains, and intensive meditation retreats. It seemed that wherever I would go, someone would put a cup of tea in front of me. Usually, it was a fairly bland & uninspiring black tea, but sometimes it would be a “milk tea,” which added a big dose of flavor, texture, and satisfaction. Ahhh, how I loved getting milk tea!
Fast-forward to February 2020 and I was back in Myanmar for a month with my teacher, Sayadaw U Tejaniya. At that point, it had been four years since I had disrobed as a monk. In reflecting on those four years since I had last seen him, I had the thought that life often felt like that bland black tea I had frequently drank in Nepal.
Sure, the benefits of meditation on my life were obvious. I felt pretty at ease in my own skin and rarely became reactive. I didn’t really seem to have big swings into anxiety, depression, anger, shame, or other common afflictive states.
And yet, life often felt a little dry and bland. Looking for a remedy, I would turn to various interesting and enjoyable activities, like hiking, traveling, movies, games, reading, relational intimacy, or even various forms of spiritual practice. Basically, I felt some core-level unrest and was looking for things that might help make my life feel fuller, like milk tea!
After I reported all this to U Tejaniya, he cut through all the noise and simply said,
“that’s just craving.”
After pausing for a bit, he sensed that I hadn’t fully “got it,” and continued, “life is neither blah nor wonderful. Life is just what is it. Just this. When you can deeply see the way craving distorts your perspective, it loses its power over you. Then there’s no more blah, no more sense of dry, no more need for things to be fuller. There is only peace.”
This has been one of my basic practice instructions the past couple of years: to identify, learn about, and release craving.
On a broad level, craving’s basic job is to be unsatisfied. When things are going well, craving wants more. When things aren’t going well, craving wants something different. Even when craving gets what it wants, it usually wastes no time finding something else to want!
It’s helpful to differentiate craving from what we might call “wise desire.” Craving carries with it some degree of agitation and a sense of I-won’t-be-okay-unless-I-get-what-I-want, whereas wise desire tends to feel balanced and isn’t so ruffled when things don’t work out as planned. To put it another way, where craving has expectations, wise desire has aspirations.
In turn, I still often do many of those same behaviors & find them beneficial: hiking, movies, meditation, social intimacy, and so on, but I now pay a little more attention to my motives. Are these actions driven by a sense of lack; of looking for something to fulfill me? Or are they coming from a place of balance & wisdom?”
In my meditation practice, when I notice boredom, indifference, irritability, impatience, apathy, or something similar, I often hear U Tejaniya’s voice popping into my mind, “that’s just craving.” Similar to how seeing smoke lets you know there is fire somewhere, all of these afflictive states let me know there is craving somewhere “under the hood.” I like to keep this reflection in mind: when craving is absent, there is peace; when craving is present, there is agitation.
Anyhow, my intention in offering this reflection is mostly to encourage you to be more aware of how craving operates in your life, as much the minutiae of your inner reality as in your broader life choices. The more you are aware of it, the more workable it becomes, and, by extension, you might start to see that when life gives you bland black tea, true satisfaction does not come through adding milk; it comes through dropping into the fullness of what’s already present.