The Wanting Mind

Whether we’re yearning for another cup of coffee or a better job, we spend a lot of time and energy just wanting. Here’s how to observe – and calm – the endless tide of want that can catch us in its undertow.

Take a moment and answer the question, “What do I want?” For now, don’t even bother with the grand version of that question — as in, “What do I want out of life?” — just take inventory of what you’re wanting right this minute. It probably won’t take long for you to come up with a whole slew of possibilities: A job promotion? A nap? Better task lighting in the kitchen? More time with your loved ones? All of the above?

OK, now turn the question around: What do you have?  And does it make you happy?

If you’re like most people, you can rattle off the first list pretty easily. But you may find it a little harder to describe what you already have that brings you happiness. This is because our brains are constantly seeking excitement, enhancement, achievement and plain old pleasure — and we live in a culture that promises all of the above, 24/7.

These are the desires of “the wanting mind.” They’re not without value — a sense of striving allows us to pursue our dreams — but the drive for more and better has a dark side. “The wanting mind cannot be satisfied,” explains Vicki Robin, coauthor of Your Money or Your Life (Penguin, 1999). “As soon as you get the ‘more,’ you want still more, and that thought in and of itself will cause dissatisfaction.”

This insatiable mind is a breeding ground for unhappiness, in large part because it keeps us from focusing on our true values, explains Brent Kessel, author of It’s Not About the Money: Unlock Your Money Type to Achieve Spiritual and Financial Abundance (HarperCollins, 2008). “When you’re constantly distracted by this part of you that just wants to feel good — better than you feel now — you tend not to focus your resources on your deepest desires, the ones that are really heartfelt.”

Left Brain, Right Brain

If you’ve ever seen a human brain, you know that it falls neatly into two halves, connected by a tiny, dense structure called the corpus callosum. The right half dwells in the here and now by collecting sensory data, while the left half sorts and categorizes information. The right half of our brain trades in images, while the left half thinks in language.

The left half of the brain is responsible for both our to-do and our to-get lists, explained neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor at a Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) conference in Monterey, Calif., in February 2008. “It’s that ongoing brain chatter that connects me and my internal world to my external world. It’s that little voice that says to me, ‘Hey, you gotta remember to pick up bananas on your way home.’”

The left brain, in other words, is the home of the wanting mind: It’s in charge of our desires.

Bolte Taylor has a unique understanding of brain anatomy. She not only spent a lifetime studying the brain, but in 1996, she suffered a debilitating stroke that shut down her left brain for eight years. On the morning of her stroke, a blood clot in her brain grew large enough to switch off her left brain entirely, “like someone took a remote control and pushed the mute button,” she said.

“Imagine what it would be like to be totally disconnected from your brain chatter that connects you to the external world.” she continued. “Any stress related to my job, it was gone . . . And imagine all of the relationships in the external world and any stressors related to any of those, they were gone . . . And imagine what it would feel like to lose 37 years of emotional baggage. I felt euphoria.”

Granted, she couldn’t remember her own telephone number — or even what a “number” was in the first place. So the goal is not to bludgeon the left brain into silence, but simply to know how and when to quiet it — both in order to achieve a better sense of inner peace and to enjoy a more pervasive sense of satisfaction.

Of course, there’s more than one way to quiet the wanting mind. And if all you’re looking for is temporary relief, you may very well be able to get it at the store. “You buy a new pair of jeans that look great on you, and you feel satiated,” says Kessel.

But even though those jeans may be part of our wardrobe for months or years, their effectiveness at quieting the wanting mind is likely to be short lived indeed. Within days, hours or even minutes of purchasing the jeans, our minds are likely to become fixated on a new object of desire  — which is why we may find ourselves shopping for new shoes or a new car the very next day.

“The great mistake we make is that we attribute our temporary feeling of happiness to the object itself, to the new jeans,” says Kessel. “The reality is that the absence of wanting is what gives you pleasure.”

Heartfelt Desires

That’s not to say we can’t still revel, at least to some degree, in our material pleasures, says Robin, it just means we’re better off seeking more lasting satisfactions — the kind that relieve our wanting at a deeper level.

The point, as one of her teachers put it to her, “is to connect fully with what you desire” — not the little guilty pleasures, but the more fundamental desires that fuel them. If you ask yourself why you want a new car, for example, you might discover you’re hoping it will help impress your coworkers. This realization may in turn reveal a longing you feel to enjoy more confidence in your job performance. And underneath that may lie a still deeper desire to improve your job mastery and sense of professional achievement. This understanding may lead you to consider a variety of changes that bring a level of satisfaction that no new car could ever touch.

There’s nothing wrong with taking pleasure in the various joys that life brings — whether new cars or old friends — note Robin and Kessel. If fact, the more fully and actively we appreciate what we have, the less vulnerable we’ll be to the wanting mind’s “next new thing.”

Confronted by a wanting mind that’s always asking for more, however, we must also become adept at discerning which desires are most likely to bring us lasting joy. Kessel counsels us to look beyond desires that spark a “childlike urgency” and focus more on our deeper yearnings. Our heartfelt goals are marked by three characteristics, he says: They’re beneficial to others, we’re willing to work and wait for them, and they are things we feel that we have to do before we die.

By becoming less reactive to the desires of the wanting mind, and more aware of the tricks it plays, we can gradually learn to take more pleasure in the abundance all around us. “We live in a world that is constantly giving us pleasure,” says Robin. “My goal is to just take pleasure in waking up in the morning, to take pleasure in my life. The more grateful you are, the more receptive you are, the more pleasure you’ll get.”

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Joseph Hart is a freelance writer and contributing editor to Utne Reader.

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