What Do You Really Want?

Take time to discover your deepest desires, says Brother Phap Linh. By shining the light of mindfulness on your volition, you’ll find more freedom.

Brother Phap Linh
2 January 2024
Photo by Olga Nayda

What do you want, and is it okay that you want it? Is it okay to want things? Do your desires bring you in the direction of happiness? Or do they sometimes bring you in the direction of suffering and regret?

There’s a popular notion that the practice of Buddhism is about removing all desires, about not wanting anything. But is that correct? What does Buddhism have to say on the topic of desire? 

What did the Buddha himself want? What did he want when he left his life of luxury as a prince? A life that for most people alive today would seem to be the thing we’re supposed to want, and that maybe we do want. How many of us wish for more comfort, leisure, wealth, and security? How many of us wish we could live in a bigger, more beautiful house? How many of us wish we could enjoy the best foods, entertainment, and company—that we could satisfy all our desires?

The Buddha had all those things, and yet it seems like he wanted something else even more. He must have wanted it very badly if he could find the strength to walk away from what so many of us have been struggling to get. Buddhism in the West has sometimes been understood as a nihilistic religion—that the Buddha’s quest was for extinction, a kind of nothingness, or blankness. But I’m not sure that would have been motivation enough for him to walk out one day, cut off his hair, and live as an itinerant monk in the forest, with no comfort or luxury. 

So, what do you want? What do you really want? Do you want what people around you want? Do you want what your parents wanted for themselves, or what they wanted for you? Do you believe things would be better if you had a different job, boss, or partner? Do you wish your situation was different? Or do you wish that you were different? 

So many questions. When I investigate a topic like desire, I find that the best way to approach it isn’t with my mind. If I approach the question only at the level of habitual thought and speech, even at the level of what I think I know about Buddhism, I can get mixed up. I find that the part of me that speaks first can be quite noisy and confused. But I know from experience that there’s a very different way to approach these questions, one that my teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, taught me to rely on, and that’s the way of silence. 

If I want to know what kind of wanting is driving me—what kind of wanting is right now occurring in the background—then I need to be very still and silent. The more still and silent I can be, the more these background impulses reveal themselves to me. 

In my experience of quieting my mind, I realize how little I know about what’s pushing and pulling me, and why. What I do know is that I don’t like to be pushed or pulled. And every time I get to see and feel a little more clearly what it is that’s driving me in that very moment, I have a bit more freedom to smile and quietly say, “No, thank you.”

There’s a popular take on wanting things, which is that if we don’t have what we want, it’s because we just don’t want it enough. According to that view, the answer is just to want it even more. According to the “law of attraction” you can have whatever you want, if you only want it enough. According to this way of thinking, you can manifest the life you want just by visualizing it clearly. This presupposes the idea that having what you want will satisfy you. 

Generally, we don’t question the idea that wanting things is good, and getting them is better. But Buddhism teaches us to look at the wanting itself, at the state of wanting, at how it feels in our body. We can ask ourselves, “Is this what I want? Do I want the wanting? Do I want to experience desire in the present moment? Does it feel good?”

Photo by imphilip / stock.adobe.com

Buddhism is a present-moment-based approach. The present moment is the only moment we have to live, so we should take care of it; we should be attentive to its quality. It’s so easy to give up a present moment for something in the future—to give up peace now for a peace that never really comes. Perhaps we should take more care. 

In the Buddhist tradition, volition—the energy of intending or wanting—is a kind of food. It’s something that nourishes us. This is a very different way of understanding intention or volition from the one that’s usually held in our culture. Usually, the question is more about how to get what we want—that seems to be the important thing. But Buddhism invites us to look at the wanting itself, and to be careful because we may already be eating the wanting. And maybe eating that isn’t good for us. What kind of wanting or volition do you want to eat? 

We know there are foods that bring us ease and well-being and other foods that make us sick. So, if desire itself is food, then do we get to choose what kind of desire to eat? The Buddha uses the image of two strong men dragging us toward a pit of burning charcoal to describe the power of our desires over us. If we feed the wrong desire for too long, it becomes like two strong men dragging us against our will. When we see where our desire is taking us, or what it’s doing to the planet, we no longer want to pursue it, but then it’s too late. We’ve been eating that desire for so long that now it’s stronger than we are, and we cannot resist being pulled into the pit of burning charcoal. 

I contemplate the question like this: If Buddhism is not about removing all desires, but about cultivating the right kind of desire, then there must be a kind of volition that would feed us, and the eating of it would not burn us. And if there is such a volition, then what is it, and how can I cultivate it?

One could say that there are two kinds of desire: one is for ourselves, and one is for others. What I observe is that all the things I want for myself don’t really give me peace because they imply that there’s something I lack—something I should have or be—and as long as that is so, my present moment is never enough. But when I think of the suffering in the world, when I think of my loved ones, my friends, all the people I’m in touch with, all people now alive, and all people who’ve ever lived and who will ever live, and all beings in the more-than-human realm, and throughout the entire cosmos, throughout all of time, then another kind of wish spontaneously arises, not for me, but for all beings. What do I wish for them? I wish peace, I wish freedom from suffering and anxiety, I wish understanding, joy, and happiness. And the wishing of that peace and well-being is not hurried; it’s not striving. The wishing itself is peace. It’s well-being right now in this moment. 

This kind of wanting is its own reward. Everything is already enough—I am enough, and this moment is enough. We don’t need another moment. This one is good enough already. And it’s my deep, powerful wish that everyone could be in touch with that realization. Even those I perceive as doing harm, as being caught in harmful desires and practices—for example, the desire to extract more oil and profit at the expense of thousands of lives, even millions, perhaps billions, of lives in the future—even those people, what can I wish for them except boundless peace and well-being? In fact, especially for those people, I wish well-being because I know that if they could touch peace, they would not continue to despoil the earth and profit from the suffering of others—their greed would be quenched, and they’d be satisfied with simple things. 

In meditation, I can relax my body, be with my feelings—my grief, anger, frustration, shame, and disappointment—and allow joy to be born in my heart, permeating my being. In meditation, I can allow my body to be as it is, a little asymmetrical, sometimes painful or tense, and I can surrender to my breath and follow it into stillness and silence, rest and release. When I sit like this, allowing everything that’s there to be there fully, I find that the surface layers of wanting—my intentions for the day, my desire to check off items on my to-do list, or to satisfy others’ expectations of me, to be a good person, or to realize my artistic dreams—all these things get quieter and more still, and then I find in me just the desire to be free from pain, free from sorrow. As I continue to settle into meditation, even that desire to be free from pain transforms into a desire just to care for the pain and sorrow with tenderness, with infinite love. 

Photo by iStock.com / foto76

And that desire—which I can’t really say is mine or me—that desire is already a kind of peace. The desire of that peaceful, quiet, gentle, tender love is love itself, is freedom itself. It’s release from the endless toil of life, and the feeling of being the victim of circumstance starts to dissolve. That’s something I can only enjoy now, not later. 

When I enjoy that peace, that gentle current of relief, of healing, the feeling is that I’m not doing something in order to heal in the future. There’s no way to healing. Healing is the way—and it’s now. And that’s all I wish for, for myself and others. I visualize the look in the eyes of my father, of my mother, of my loved ones, and of all those who are experiencing hardship, poverty, hunger, or suffering. I look into their eyes, which are also my own, and I feel the tension and strain, the feeling of not being at ease, the worries and regrets. When I am in touch with humanity’s collective unease, all that I can possibly wish for us all is to feel tenderness, to experience the healing balm of arriving in the present moment and knowing that it’s enough.

My teacher used to challenge us to identify our deepest desire. He’d instruct us to go into the forest, to sit at the foot of a tree and ask ourselves the question: what is my deepest desire? This may feel a little scary, because what if our deepest desire is not very noble or inspiring? We may be afraid of what we might find—I know I was. But really, the asking of the question is the practice itself: by asking the question, we shine the light of mindfulness on our desires, and when we see them, we get more freedom; we start to cultivate the kinds of desires that bring us in the direction of peace and well-being, and we start to release the desires that bring us, individually and collectively, in the direction of suffering and destruction. So just asking the question “What is my deepest aspiration?” can help us examine the desires and dreams that our parents and society have transmitted to us, and then choose to cultivate only the kinds of desires that bring us in the direction of freedom, of peace. 

So let’s not be afraid to ask this question of ourselves, individually and collectively: what is our deepest desire? Because if we don’t, then our desires are like two strong men, dragging us toward a pit of burning charcoal. Only by courageously and honestly examining the food of volition that we’re eating can we get free from this powerful force that’s dragging us toward the collapse of our civilization and the destruction of so much beauty and diversity of life. 

When we can recognize what’s pushing us—in our personal life, and as a society—we already have a degree of freedom from it. And then we may like to investigate how it feels to wish for all beings in the entire cosmos to be free from suffering. If we discover that it’s actually pleasant to wish that, then we could perhaps choose to cultivate only that desire, individually and collectively. A society that prioritizes the well-being of others is the possibility and promise of collective awakening.

Brother Phap Linh

Brother Phap Linh is a monastic in the Plum Village tradition. Before ordaining, he studied mathematics at Cambridge University and worked professionally as a composer.