How to Stop Your Desires from Ruining Your Life
We all have desires. It’s part of our human experience. But desires can be a double-edged sword, motivating us to accomplish our goals or contributing to our despair. Learn more about motivations behind desires and how to stop your desires from ruining your life.
“Throughout the ages and across cultures, thoughtful people have argued that the best way to attain happiness is to master our desires, but throughout the ages and across cultures, ordinary people have ignored this advice.”
William B. Irvine, On Desire: Why We Want What We Want
Lately, I’ve been praying for something I desire and waiting on God to answer my prayer. I’ve recited the Scripture from Psalm 37:4 that reads, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.” I went back and forth questioning, “Are they my desires?” or “Are they desires that God gives to me?” I never quite understood where the desires came from, but just settled in my heart and mind that my desires should align to what I believe a loving God would want for me as well.
As I was examining and wrestling with my desires, it led me down this rabbit hole of trying to understand what I want and why I want it. Essentially, what are desires, where do they come from, and why they matter.
To desire is to have a strong feeling of wanting something you don’t have or wishing for something to happen. We can’t escape desires. They are a part of what makes us human. We are wanting beings. William B. Irvine said, “We are awash in desire at virtually every waking moment.” Essentially, there is not a moment that goes by that we are not wanting something. Everything from love to ice cream, he wrote.
“Desire animates the world,” Irvine said. “Banish desire from the world, and you get a world of frozen beings who have no reason to live and no reason to die.” Powerful statements that punctuate the universality and the importance of our desires.
There is an intensity to desires. In Desire is the Language of the Heart, Aubrey Coleman writes that our desires are a window into our hearts. She asks the reader to consider how their desires reflect what they value most. Here are some of her questions:
Do you most desire companionship or someone to know and love you?
Do you most desire a career that gives you purpose or achievement that gives you recognition?
Do you most desire financial security and freedom?
Do you most desire the body of your youth and contentment in your skin?
Do you desire an orderly home and a thriving family?
Do you desire endless time and days of ease?
These all sound like such perfect desires, don’t they? Who would answer “no” to any of them? I was left scratching my head when I read that Buddhist teachings warn against desires because they are the root of our suffering. I resolved that desires in and of themselves can’t be the problem. Clearly, there are desires we have for positive living, desires that motivate us toward our highest good, our goals and dreams.
So, when do desires go awry? Just as positive desires can come from the heart and reflect our innermost values, not so positive desires have an origin as well. They can come from hearts and minds, from our egos, and not be connected to positive values. Perhaps harmful desires come from our shadow selves. Consider these desires:
Do you desire to outshine your coworker so that you receive the promotion and recognition?
Do you desire to look more youthful because you are afraid of growing old?
Do you desire a new car because your neighbor just purchased one?
Do you desire a partner because all your friends are married?
Do you desire alcohol, sex, or drugs because you’re battling inner trauma?
Desires can come in many forms. They reflect what is going on inside us. And that’s why it behooves us to understand ourselves so that we understand our desires. I believe when our desires come from a place of love, generosity, abundance, self-belief, and compassion, we get the type of desires Coleman mentioned above. However, when desires derive from fear, scarcity, self-doubt, or unresolved trauma, that’s when harmful desires can take over.
But another truth we must understand about desires is whether they are helpful or harmful, they can still lead to suffering. That’s right; even desires that come from a loving place can cause pain. Because to constantly want something you don’t have or wish for something to happen that may or may not happen can lead to disappointment, frustration, self-doubting, sadness, or depression. Think of a woman who desires to birth a child, but who is having difficulty getting pregnant. Or the man who wants to provide for his family but has gotten laid off from his job with no new prospects in sight. Or the person who desires to lose weight to avoid illness but can’t seem to shed the pounds regardless of how little they eat and how much they exercise.
Desire is a strange thing. What I have learned is that our desires do not guarantee us that we’ll get what we want. And even if we do secure the object of our desire, it rarely leads to lasting fulfillment. We are wanting beings. We tend to replace one desire with another and another and another. What are we to do to stop our desires from ruining our lives? We must master our desires, so they don’t master us.
Four Steps to Master Your Desires:
- Be aware of your desires. We are oblivious to many of our desires until they become more intense. But I believe that at every turn in our consciousness, we should ask ourselves what we want. Being aware of your desires will enable you to make conscious choices. Start small with asking yourself what you want for dinner; what you want from the conversation you’re going to have with your partner, manager, or coworker; what you want to get out of the project you’re working on. Build the discipline over time to become aware of what you want. It will help you in every area of your life.
- Understand why you want what you want. Once you know what you want, ask yourself why you want it. Why is the desire important to you? Does it come from a healthy place of love, generosity, etc., or from a place of greed, scarcity, perfectionism, or fear. Knowing why you want something can help energize you toward positive desires and shut down negative ones before they are allowed to take root and grow.
- Cease manic striving. Incessant striving to manifest your desires or to achieve can lead to burnout and a fixation on what you can’t control – the outcome. The meditation, Receiving Mode, by Andrew Martin on Insight Timer, has been a wonderful resource to me when I find myself grasping or striving for my desires. The meditation reminds me that sometimes we receive exactly what we want or what is best when we relax and let our desires come to us. He says, “When we are in receiving mode, we draw things to us. When we are grasping or reaching for something, we’re actually chasing away the very thing we’re so eager to manifest.” One example is when someone finds their soulmate after they have stopped searching desperately for “the one.” Or the woman becomes pregnant when she and her partner stop trying so hard to conceive. The other point here is to give things a beat. We don’t always have to be in striving mode. As soon as one goal is accomplished, we’re on to the next goal. Stop. Take a break. Relax.
- Practice appreciation and acceptance. We can control our minds, hearts, and our energy toward our desires. But we cannot control the outcome. We will master our desires when we learn to be grateful for what we already have. Irvine said we will experience tranquility when we “have a sense that we are lucky to be living whatever life we happen to be living – that despite our circumstances, no key ingredient to happiness is missing.” Acceptance is a state of mind. It is accepting the outcome for what it is and believing that even when we don’t receive what we want, we can still have a happy and fulfilling life.
I am cultivating these four steps as I wait patiently and confidently for the answer to my prayer. It may come as I desire, or it may not. But now I know that the outcome does not determine my happiness or well-being. I do.
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