Freedom from Desire and Satisfaction


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mkanaga's picture

For me, desire is one of the biggest stumbling blocks in my practice. I spend way too much time thinking: I could practice much better if __________; my job didn't get in the way, my neighborhood was quieter, I won the lottery, etc. Practicing with where I am and what I do have can be difficult, but I'm trying to learn to be happy with the "precious human existence" I do have, and the opportunity for practice it provides.'s picture

Our friend Marie Howe speaks beautifully to what you are practicing with in this poem to her brother:

What the Living Do by Marie Howe

Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.
And the Drano won't work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up

waiting for the plumber I still haven't called. This is the everyday we spoke of.
It's winter again: the sky's a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through

the open living-room windows because the heat's on too high in here and I can't turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,

I've been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,

I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.

What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss—we want more and more and then more of it.

But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I'm gripped by a cherishing so deep

for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I'm speechless:
I am living. I remember you.

TZANI's picture

And I remember you too. Peaceful comfort to see a familiar reflection in others around you, be it their words, art, smiles, gestures, imprints... Thank you for sharing this poem. There is no end to more and one way I've found reprieve from its mania (as a byproduct moreso) is to remember that there is no divide, no duality. One day I saw the sun shining on a strangers face while I was in shadow - suddenly my cheeks burned as I felt the sun embed itself in and warm my own skin even though I was still sitting in shade. Just from witnessing this woman close her eyes, tilt her head slightly back, and enjoy the warmth and light on her face, she unknowingly shared her experience with me and the exchange manifested itself physically. When I stumble across these little gifts...or nudges... that awaken me from myself - I just become arrested in complete awe of life. This poem stirred up this memory for me and for that I am grateful.

Robert Jusei Chodo Campbell's picture

What a beautiful example of no separation.
A stranger enjoying the gift of sunlight unknowingly sharing the universe with another.
Thank you for your story,'s picture

Good morning! Chodo and I are wondering how these two practice points, freedom from desire and satisfaction, are alive in your ordinary daily life. For example, when starting your car, seeing someone you love, waiting for the subway and it just is delayed.

TZANI's picture

The other day it dawned on me that I've taken green traffic lights for granted for the past 20 years. It was as if I suddenly became hyper aware that at any second they could change color and affect me personally and my response was somatic, I felt stressed suddenly at all that is fleeting and beyond our control even within something designed specifically to create control and order. There is sometimes what seems to me to be too much awareness in the minutia of life and the line can become blurred for me between over-conceptualizing and therefore feeling a little insane and then on the other hand noting, accepting, and immediately letting go (mainly because I've spent this whole life over-conceptualizing and it always just brings me back to the exact same spot where the only option left is to let go). Is there a point when the madness subsides and serenity seeps in a little more consistently? I feel at this stage of my practice that I'm teetering between the two realms (madness and liberation).'s picture

In my experience, it just takes time. Day by day of caring practice. Recently I was speaking with a group of meditators who all struggled with this teetering. For me it has been to allow what is present to be present. Is, Koshin

rgneuman1's picture

Having no preferences to me means having no favorites. It is our inclination as human beings to choose favorites among the people and things that surround us, and to bestow the bulk of our compassion on those people and things, and reserve little to none for anyone else. Having no preferences means having compassion equally for all without limit or reservation. Show compassion for the poor by ensuring they are treated as human beings of equal value to you and to all. See, to the extent that you are able, that they are fed, sheltered, and cared for equally to you and to all. Do what you can for organizations working at the root causes of poverty and homelessness so that the cycle of that particular suffering can be broken.

Use your meditation practice to make yourself aware of and vulnerable to your own suffering and the suffering of others. When you are able to sit with a particular feeling long enough to find out what causes it, you can then use that discovery to find the source of suffering in others, which may not be where you expect to see it. Then you can use what you know to help alleviate it.

All that exists rises from and fades to nothing. Everything passes, so cherish what you have while you have it. Make the most of it while it's here, and when it passes on to nothing, remember its impact on you. There are only two things you can control in life: your actions and your reactions. As Pema Chodron remembered in the introduction to one of her books, one of her elderly neighbors once advised her when she was a child: "Don't you go letting life harden your heart."

Richard Fidler's picture

Nice post. I've copied it and printed it so I can keep it in mind.

rgneuman1's picture

Aw, thanks! Glad I could help.

Richard Fidler's picture

I am not sure I can live a life free of desire. Who does not want poverty to end, sickness to heal, the Earth to flourish? Who does not want to enjoy a good meal, be with friends, listen to good music? Who wouldn't prefer the quiet of the countryside over the noise and polluted air of the city?

If I cannot be free of desire, I can be free of clinging to outcomes. If my political candidate does not win, I can walk forward to the next election without regret. I can accept my condition of health even if it stays the same or gets worse. I can be content with my oatmeal at breakfast, with a solitary day spent following my own pursuits, with the birds outside as my only music. And if the noises and odor of traffic overwhelm me, I can find quiet and ease even wherever I am.

If desire is about money, fame, and sex, then I can do without those things. But if it is about peace and well-being, then I desire them with all my heart. It is just that I will not feel disheartened when things do not turn out the way I would like them to. I love the story you both told about your friend whose life became smaller and smaller--and still he did not complain. Not only that, he said his life in that tiny room was as if he was in Heaven. That is the way of a real Buddha.'s picture

Dear Richard, thank you for your thoughtful posts. Yes, John's life became so simple and sweet--like heaven as he said. I also like to think about Avalokiteshvara in her many forms. When she is in the animal realm, she is animal like. In the god realm, she is god like. When in the demon realm, she is rathful. Chodo gave a beautiful Dharma talk on this ( I always like to remember that a Buddha has many forms--gods and demons are all invited.

rgneuman1's picture

Re: "Who wouldn't prefer the quiet of the countryside over the noise and polluted air of the city?"

I understand where you are coming from, but this desire/preference for wide open, quiet spaces is holding you back. You may need to find the source of it, because by feeding it, you are preventing yourself from being open to the moment-by-moment experience of being wherever you are. I'll share an anecdote to explain what I mean, and what I believe you are missing out on in terms of your practice. You are by no means alone on this, but I had a breakthrough about this very preference several years ago, and what I learned may hopefully also be of service to you in your practice.

I served in the Peace Corps in Thailand from 2003-2005, and while I was there, I was assigned to a very small village of approximately 200 households in a remote part of the Northeast. The district that my village was part of was so small that it had only one paved intersection and traffic signal.

I loved it. I loved everything about living there, from how fresh the food was to how quiet the neighborhood could be at night. I loved how slow the pace of life became the further you were from a city, and how that slowness gave me time to get to know my neighbors, housemates, landlord's family, and friends. I rarely had fewer than seven people to dine with each night, and dinners would last for hours because we would spend so much time talking during the meal under the stars.

I loved my comfortable village life and routines so much that whenever I had to leave for a conference or a trip back to the US to visit family, I always rushed back to the village.

The summer of my last year, I had a trip planned to visit family in Ohio, and then spend a few days in NYC before returning to my village. I dreaded going to New York, even though I had been many times before. I dreaded how busy it was and how quickly everything and everyone moved. I thought I would be miserable to be so far from my village comfort zone.

Despite my trepidations, I decided on the train from the airport to the City to focus my energies on being in New York instead of wishing I were back in my village. Traveling anywhere upends routines, so I would just allow it to happen, and try to get what I could out of my four days there.

It worked. I wrung every minute out of those four brief days, and when it was time to fly out again, I was happy to go back, but also happy to have had the experience I did. It remains one of my favorite vacations to this day.

I think practice is partially about learning to be happy wherever you are, learning to love different kinds of energy and learning to appreciate different places. I hope you figure out how to do that. I hope we all do.

Richard Fidler's picture

I've been enjoying missing the green lights in traffic these days. Sitting under the red light gives me a chance to take a deep breath and ask myself "What's the hurry?" And stuff spilled on the floor doesn't bother me the way it used to. Nor plastic bags caught in trees. Nor the toddler who lives in the apartment overhead endlessly running back and forth.

But the main problem I have does not have to do with distractions: it has to do with not caring about poverty, children uncared for and uneducated, social injustice, and environmental degradation. Is that what the Hsin Hsin Ming's "having no preferences" really means--blowing off poverty as if it doesn't matter? I hope not.

rgneuman1's picture

Please see my comment to TZANI. It was meant as a reply to you, but my wires got crossed somehow.

Robert Jusei Chodo Campbell's picture

I certainly don't live without desires my life is full of them, from the moment I wake in the morning it's an endless stream of wanting things to be different. It's too hot it's, too cold, there's no almond milk in the fridge I don't want soy milk. The subway is at a standstill on the west side if I lived downtown I wouldn't have to "suffer" the commute every morning. Forget about sex, money and fame this is all before I even get out of the apartment. For me what it boils down to is, I have to accept that I will probably always want many of the things in my life to be different, and that this is just an aspect of my being human.

The Hsin Hsin Ming (The book of nothing) by the 3rd zen patriarch begins with:
The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. When love and hate are both absent everything becomes clear and undisguised. Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart. If you wish to see the truth then hold no opinion for or against. The struggle of what one likes and what one dislikes is the disease of the mind.

This is a very important verse for me, if I can remind myself constantly
( which of course I fail at) that my preference for things to be other than what they are sets up an entire community of naysayers in my mind then my day becomes less stressful. I can enjoy the slower train ride if, for instance, I really take in the person(s) sitting opposite me notice them, realize "Hey they too have to get to work" We're all in this crowded subway car together the Mass Transit Authority is not conspiring against me personally. Sure I picture myself in an air conditioned limo gliding down the highway and yet.............this is what I got. AAAAAH just this.

Richard Fidler's picture

I have read that passage in the Hsin hsin ming, but never let its words sink in. Now when I examine it carefully, I must confess I am confused. Having no preferences is a good thing--but is it? Would we not all prefer peace to war, knowledge to ignorance, good health to bad health? Shouldn't we act to promote those things? Were certain Zen Masters of Japan mistaken when they used their religion to encourage kamikaze pilots to kill others for sake of the country?

If a teaching makes sense to me, I can wear it like a suit of clothes, but until it is clear in my mind, I stand apart from it. This teaching about desire is problematic to me since certain desires--like wanting a clean, wholesome planet--seem natural and healthy, every bit consistent with the Buddhist vow to save all beings. Are there two classes of desires--selfish ones and ones related to making lives better? Are they treated differently in Buddhism?

celticpassage's picture

I think it means exactly what it says.
If you do desire peace over war or a wholesome planet over a polluted one, then heaven and earth are set apart.

Robert Jusei Chodo Campbell's picture

Hello Richard
you raise good points, desiring a clean wholesome planet, natural & healthy seems perfectly logical
I dont consider myself an expert in any field certainly not the teachings of the zen masters. I share only from my own understanding of the teachings.
I found contemplating this line particularly helpful when working with Hsin Hsin Ming
" When love and hate are both absent everything becomes clear and undisguised"
To me this implies the possibility that actually there is a moment, a nano second perhaps when we realize there is no good/bad right/wrong love/hate desire/no desire. That moment of realization for me is what the teachings are about. And then I want chocolate not vanilla!

rgneuman1's picture

I understand the point of the Four Noble Truths to be that suffering is caused by *attachment* to people and things, not to people and things themselves, and that what ends suffering is the cessation of attachment. This can apply to ideas, too. I'm sure we all can cite examples from our own lives of people who have devoted themselves so fully to an idea or a cause that they ended up isolating themselves from anyone who did not hold the same ideals. The attachment is so strong that it consumes everything in one's life and heart.

Fill your life; surround yourself, but do not cling to what surrounds you. Have ideas and ideals, but keep them as guides instead of controls. Let your surroundings build your compassion, and your compassion heal the world, one moment at a time.'s picture

Beautifully said.
What you are saying reminds me of our Four Bodhisattva Vows:

Sentient Beings are numberless; I vow to save them.
Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to put an end to them.
The Dharmas are boundless; I vow to master them.
The Buddha Way is unattainable; I vow to attain it.

They are impossible, and yet we vow to set our life in this direction. One teacher talked about vows being like the North Star. We depend on the North Star for guidance, and we don't expect to arrive there.



rgneuman1's picture

I have never heard the North Star analogy. It's very apt.

Alison9's picture

Thank you for sharing your calm, thoughtful energy with us. It made a difference to two people here.'s picture

The wonderful thing about expressing oneself is that we make a difference. Our students remind us of this all the time—just by how they walk into a room and engage in eye contact. Alison, you reminded me if this too! Thank you.

savtagee's picture

Thank you for identifying the moment to moment stress and exhaustion of desire in each moment. Instantly present with what is. I did not put the word desire in that awareness of my stress, even though my life is so simple. whew's picture

Whew is right! That's why we need each other—the jewel of sangha!

Sophie3's picture

Thank you. I really enjoyed your manner and your wisdom. I especially loved the story of John, and the other guy (ex wall st) who had really learned what is enough. I often feel a lot of pressure to appear to be striving for more. To be content with what you have often challenges those around you - makes people uncomfortable sometimes. Ultimately, however, I would hope that contentedness can be somewhat contagious. Sometimes, one needs to avoid the media and advertising for a while to find what desires are really inside, and what are just a result of pressure from outside - to be seen to be striving and wanting.'s picture

Dear Sophie, Thank you for your thoughtfulness. It is a pleasure to share John. He is still teaching us! What I find helpful is realizing that contentment is also just a moment, and it does enliven me to be around people practicing being satisfied with what they have. It is such a joy to share the path! Bows, Koshin