Monday, September 16, 2013

How to Practice Conscious Wanting

Something I've learned is that it is normal, if you are alive and engaged and enjoying the gifts the world has to offer, is to want.

I'm not totally clear on the why of wanting--why it seems to be written into the very fabric of human DNA--but I am clear on the reality of it.

I've seen how natural it is in my own two children. My 3.5 year old sees what the world has in it, and he just wants some of that goodness! My baby, only 9 months old, is already grasping and taking and holding whatever she can get her hands on.

And it's not a good thing or a bad thing, as I've also learned. It just is. We are alive, and we want. I've spent a long time passing judgment on wanting as a negative thing, tinged with moral decay and poor spiritual health. As though the state of wanting is a one-way ticket to hell. Jeez, did those Puritans do a number on me from across the centuries or what!

That's not to say that wanting can't send you to a hell of your own making. Just that it is actually neutral. Wanting is like money in this way. Money is just a means of exchange, a currency. What meaning you attach to it and how you habitually relate to it creates your experience and your enjoyment or suffering. And so the same goes for wanting.

Wanting is just a part of our nature, as pervasive and eternal as hunger. Any problems that come with wanting are related, I think, to a deformation in some other aspect of our lives--and then we begin to go beyond wanting and either move into envy or acquiring, depending on our means and our character.

Just as our drive to eat to satisfy hunger can be healthy and normal or disordered and a sign of an underlying dis-ease--physical or mental/emotional--our drive to want can be healthy or it can be disordered.

If you are looking for distraction, or self-worth, or a feeling of security, your wanting can lead you to acquire what you don't need or can't afford. If you don't have the money to acquire what you think you must have to create these feelings, you will find yourself either envious or discontented or worse. If your character allows it, you may even find yourself using deception or outright theft to acquire what you want but can't purchase.

And that's just for the things that money can buy. There's a whole other order of wanting that can cause even more suffering for the very fact that money can't buy it: love, friendship, freedom, relationships, family, etc.

Another manifestation of disordered wanting is that you deceive yourself into believing that you, unlike every other human on the planet, don't want. This generally is accompanied by a pretty healthy dose of self-righteousness and a good deal of self-convincing. This one is harder to spot as a disorder, as it doesn't make itself as obvious--no debt, no clutter, no addictive behavior.

Indeed, you can't necessarily look at someone's bank statement or home or possessions or Facebook friend list and know whether that person has a healthy relationship toward their instinct to want or not. You can really only evaluate your own relationship to your wanting, and decide if it's healthy or disordered.

You probably already know the answer, but here are a few questions to get you thinking if you're really not sure:
    1.    When you are in a state of wanting, do you begin to fantasize about a certain outcome or feeling you will have when that thing is acquired? Do you tell yourself a story about what will happen in the future when you get that thing?
    2.    Do you feel pangs of jealousy, envy or judgment when you see others possessing what you want but do not have?
    3.    Do you tell yourself that you don't need x, y or z because wanting that thing is stupid, selfish, invalid or some other dismissive, negative judgment?
    4.    Do you see your desire and wanting as a force in yourself that you're either ashamed of or wish would go away? Or, even more extreme, do you believe you actually don't want anything?
    5.    Do you spend more than you have or pursue unethical/illegal behaviors to get what you want?
    6.    When you do get what you want, do you have feelings of guilt, self-loathing or sadness?
    7.    How do you currently feel about the things and people in your life? Do you value them, or do you barely notice them now?

Don't panic if you find yourself answering these questions and finding that you're uncomfortable with the answers. I think, if you are a normal human being, raised in the culture of consumerism, that you will find that you have misused your instinct to want to try to generate feelings that comfort and soothe you. But, you're an adult now, and you get to decide if you want to want in a more conscious way.

What follows are some guidelines that I've found helpful in my own life for handling the wanting in a thoughtful, compassionate, and authentic manner.

    1. First, you have to acknowledge the wanting. It does you and no one else any good to pretend that you don't want. I actually think those who remove themselves to a mountain top or a monastery may appear as though they don't want what the world offers, when it is actually an inability to practice their spiritual path while being tempted and finding no other way to control the impulses but to detach fully from the world. Incidentally, I'm not judging here. If that is what works for you, it is what works. However, I, personally, prefer to remain in the action of the world, with all its evils and temptations and challenges. It is where I, personally, find my path. So, bottom line, acknowledge and accept. You are human. It's OK.
    2.  Practice gratitude for what you already have. I've said it before and I'll say it again, but there is no more powerful foundational practice--meaning it will underlie all your other practices, spiritual, relational, emotional, etc.--than that of gratitude. The more you appreciate the gifts and blessings in your life, the more content and satisfied you will be. This will begin to take the sharp edge off of that hungry, devouring kind of wanting.
    3.    Celebrate, don't covet, what others have. OK, maybe for a split second you can say to yourself, ah, that looks so nice--to have a magazine-perfect home, or to have a charming family, or to have a healthy relationship with a spouse, or to have that shiny new sports car. But, once you've named the thing you are wanting, celebrate it without judging. Appreciate and generate feelings of generosity--that house is so beautiful--yes, that's awesome! Or, how amazing that people create and people buy beautifully engineered, gorgeously designed sports cars! Or, I am so happy that she has a beautiful, healthy family she gets to enjoy--the world needs more happy families! Envy and covetousness does you no good. Celebrating, on the other hand, improves your relationship to things and people, and leaves no guilty aftertaste.
    4.    Eliminate sources of "wanting influence" in your life. For me, this means advertising, magazines, shopping in stores and online. Yes, you will see ads, magazines and you will need to shop. No, you do not need to invite those things into your home. Cancel cable, or DVR your favorite shows so you can skip commercials. Don't shop for recreation--shop only to replace or purchase what you need. Cancel magazines that make you feel inadequate--that's really what most of them exist to do: tell you you have problems that they can solve.
    5.    Get clear on money. As I've said, for me this means "counting" as practiced in Julia Cameron's The Prosperous Heart: Creating a Life of "Enough" Evenually I'll get comfortable with this practice, and do a budget. Once I know what money flows in and out, I will know when it's okay to spend, how much to spend, and this will eliminate some of the emotional energy that surrounds money.
    6.    Don't berate yourself for wanting. Negative self-talk never, ever gets you anywhere but a one-way ticket to Guiltville, with a side trip to Selfloathington.
    7.    Allow yourself a wish list. This goes for things you can buy, as well as things you can't. (From the sports car to a spouse or a baby or a bestselling book.) If it's really important to you, you'll come back to the wish list and eventually get what you need. If it's not, and more an impulsive want, some distance and the visual of seeing it written down will usually clarify whether the want is a conscious one or an emotional one. Again, you can't be alive without wanting, so it's OK to want, and this is a great way to clarify your wants and validate the conscious ones.
    8.    Operate from a starting point of minimalism. This doesn't mean you have to actually practice minimalism, though it's what I, personally, am striving toward. But a minimalist always asks themselves what the true cost of something (beyond the price of acquisition) is: What will it cost to maintain? What space will it take up? Is it energizing or draining? Is it beautiful or ugly? Does it align with my values and who I am, authentically? Do I really want this or is it to satisfy some other impulse--to distract, impress, maintain a fiction or fantasy about who I am or how I live?
    9.    Give. For those of us raised in a mindset of scarcity, this is a huge challenge, which is why it's so important. But if you're practicing gratitude and you're feeling clear on the flow of money, this gets easier. And it reminds you that others want and need, and that you can give of time and money to connect, vitalize and fulfill your (hopefully) higher purpose. And the more you can give, and feel how good it feels, the more your wants become clarified and conscious.

So there you have it--some thoughts and ideas for how to manage your wanting and make it a more conscious force in your life. Cause really, it's not going anywhere. You may as well get to know it and make friends with it, and realize how profoundly wanting consciously can improve your life.

Please let me know in the comments if you found this helpful, and what your relationship with your own wanting is like.

With all my love,

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