There’s a price to everything you want

Buddhism on how suffering stems from our own desires

Let’s imagine for a full 24 hours that you had to keep track of every single thing you wanted for a whole day. From the moment you clumsily smack your phone’s morning alarm to when you’re brushing your teeth before bed.

Throughout the day you’ll probably find yourself wanting little things. You might be hoping that your train to work won’t be delayed in the morning rush-hour and make you consider buying a car, you might be craving salmon sushi rolls for lunch, or be thinking about a future job promotion.

By the end of the day you would lose count of the number of little things you wanted or count a number you wouldn’t even fathom for yourself. There are just so many things that we want to happen a certain way every day!

You probably don’t think of yourself as some kind of egocentric and materialistic person. After all, ego-centric and needy people are those kinds of people who buy their way to happiness one Gucci belt at a time and indulge in caviar, throwing away money, and Ferraris right?…

Well not really.

Before counting every single thing you wanted to go your way for the whole day, you might’ve even considered yourself more on the minimalistic side of things. But after counting through how many things you want each day, your own perception of how much you desire would likely change very quickly.

A question that arises here is that out of everything we want throughout our day, how many of those things actually go our way?

What if you woke up and the morning commute was just an absolute mess? Everyone’s jammed packed into one train because of a 20-minute delay, some person brought their screaming 1-year-old and stroller on to give the packed subway car some more ambiance. When you go for that refreshing sushi lunch the place is fresh out of salmon. To top it all off your job not only declines your promotion request but now they’re notifying you that you’re getting laid off in two months.

What kind of luck is that? You might just feel like life is just slapping you in the face that morning- it’s just one of those days.

It’s safe to say you wouldn’t be in the best mood if all that was the highlight of your day, and you probably wouldn’t be very happy if this happened all the time. But let’s take a step back and break down why we feel bad when these things don’t go our way in the first place…

Buddhism: on desire

If we broke down that “stressful morning” I put you through you’ll realize it’s not that bad per se. Yes, your commute was rough but that’s how subways are in most major cities. Yes, the sushi spot ran out of salmon; well you can’t control that fact so might as well try something even more amazing for lunch like Eel sushi! Your boss is laying you off? Other jobs exist in the world that may have you on a less stressful commute and may have sushi spots with even better salmon rolls.

In the end, most of what you would call “suffering” in your life can be sourced from things you want to go your way and things that don’t go your way.

This wanting of the little things to go our way can be simplified under the umbrella term of “desire”.

Buddhism breaks down desire further down into two ideas:

  • Tanha: Things people continuously desire beyond what they can get (Ex: Social status, immortality, material wealth)
  • Chanda: Things that people want exactly as much as they expect (Ex: Non-hellish commutes, basic income, running water)

Buddha realized that for most people their default state is dissatisfaction and suffering, aka Dukkha. We bring this state of suffering onto ourselves when things don’t go our way and our desires are unmet.

Buddha argued that there are three things that people do when they desire things and that these three things also happen to be roots of our own suffering:

  1. Attachment: Associating your own personal being with what you want, and allowing the presence or absence of that thing to drive your psyche and alter your judgment.
  2. Aversion: We pointlessly make ourselves suffer by reacting to when desires aren’t fulfilled with sanction, frustration, and anxiety.
  3. Ignorance: When we blissfully believe that by satisfying a certain desire, that everything will suddenly feel and be good, happily ever after. That there is no downside or cons to the thing we want.

In Buddhism these can be referred to as The Three Poisons, they’re the things people do which ultimately lead to them suffering from their own wants. So in order to reduce our suffering in life Buddha argued it makes sense to avoid these 3 poisons like… poison!

Making sense of your “suffering”

Thich Minh Niem, a famous Buddhist monk I personally follow summed up the point really nicely in his book Understanding the Heart: The Art of Living in Happiness

Suffering is not a defect of life. Actually, there is no suffering in the deepest sense, for suffering is created by our minds. Because our conscious mind doesn’t operate in the right way, it creates reactions against situations that it considers contrary to its operation- this is suffering. It is thus fortunate that our conscious mind is a flexible thing that can be adjusted.

If we have our conscious mind and the ability to work around the negative reactions when things don’t go our way, then surely there is a way to reduce our day-to-day “suffering” not only from all these micro-mishaps we inevitable face daily, but from bigger disasters too.

Translating this into day-to-day terms, you want to be able to identify the moment you react to something that's contrary to what you want- from the smallest train delay to the biggest job rejection of your life. In the end, good things or bad things don’t truly exist. As foreign as that may seem, objectively, things are just things.

Reducing suffering starts with being more mindful of your current situation. In order to reason our animalistic reactions to things not going our way, we first need to be aware of the reaction itself. From there we can break down the negative emotions associated with things going against our agenda.

My own framework for this mindfulness and breaking down the negative reaction goes as follows:

  • First identify if the reason you feel upset: fundamentally is this because something didn’t work out in the way you wanted it to?
  • Then ask yourself: “Is this not working out really the worse thing that could happen to me?”
  • Realize that whatever this thing is, it’s not the worse thing that could ever happen to you.
  • Finally ask: “Does this make sense to spend my emotional energy and time on? No? Dope, let’s acknowledge this feeling and then move on.”

It is really important to note that this is not to be confused with balling up your emotions inside you and saying “this is okay”. That’s using discipline and willpower to address your first reactions which is a recipe for a mental breakdown or explosion, not inner peace with your situation.

The key difference between this framework and balling your emotions is that one uses your willpower while the other uses self-understanding. When talking about inner-peace and reducing your emotional stresses you’re best off accomplishing it through self-understanding and acknowledging your emotions as they come and go.

Desire is deep-rooted in all of us and I myself have not even come close to mastering control over my desires by any means. I just hope that by sharing these frameworks with you we can both aim to better ourselves in a clearly laid out process that Buddhism shows.

  • We as people want a lot to go in our favor from the day-to-day, let alone for the grand scheme of our lives
  • Through the eyes of Buddhism, our aversion, ignorance, and attachment to desire are why we suffer from the things we want.
  • Through self-understanding and approaching the small things which upset you through the day, you can reduce “suffering” from your day-to-day life.

Let’s aim for a day where we can happily ride the jam-packed, 20-minute delayed subway trains with the ambiance of screaming 1-year-olds, all while not having our favorite lunch being sold for lunch, at a job we’ll soon be leaving. By being aware, having structured reasoning, and understanding our natural emotions, we can all work to reduce our perceived suffering each day.

If you want to look more into some intro-level Buddhism, I’ll list the sources that I used below:

Sources

  1. Philosophize This! Podcast introducing Buddha, his story, and fundamentals of Buddhism
  2. Recommended book: Understanding the Heart: The Art of Living in Happiness by Thich Minh Niem

Undergraduate builder & researcher @UofT in the crossroads of computer science, immunology, and genetic engineering.

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