Turning Straw Into Gold

Life through a Buddhist lens

Taming the Want Monster

The if-I-don’t-get-it-I’ll-die type of desire that we think is tied to happiness

How many times in your life have you smiled and shook your head in disbelief at how strongly you thought you had to have some material thing or some experience—that “if-I-don’t-get-it-I’ll-die” type of desire? Now you look back and it’s just one more item on that list of “wants” that no longer has any hold over you.

When I was a child, I was easily swept up in this type of desire. For several years, all I wanted was a horse. I begged my parents for one every day. Now I look back and see it as my parents did: “You can’t have a horse in the middle of Los Angeles! Where would you keep it? Where would you ride it?” But at the time, none of their attempts to discourage me mattered. All I wanted was a horse. I thought that if I had a horse, I’d be happy the rest of my life. Perhaps you can remember being caught up and driven by a similar desire when you were young.

I look back and laugh at that kid with her out-of-control desire for a horse, but the fact is, I can still want something so badly that it feels like a need over which I have no control. I experience it as more than a preference (like, for example, to watch a particular TV show). It feels as if my very happiness depends on fulfilling the desire in question.

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Here are some of painful desires that periodically come up for me:

  • Wanting to regain my good health (I suffer from chronic illness);
  • Longing to travel with my husband to all the places we used to go;
  • Desiring to go on outings for as long as I want to.

Is there something in your life that you want so badly, it feels as if your happiness depends on getting it?

A friend of mine calls this “the want monster.” When her kids were young, she used this phrase to help them become aware of the tendency in their minds to want everything that appeared pleasant to them—a material thing, an experience. If they were in a toy store and started madly grabbing for stuff, she’d remind them that this was just the want monster and that it need not be satisfied. If they thought they couldn’t be happy unless they went to Disneyland, she’d remind them…it’s just the want monster.

We tend to think that if we can just get the right thing or have the right experience, we’ll be happy from then on. But the type of happiness that comes from satisfying the want monster is short-lived because nothing is permanent. That toy will wear out. That Disneyland trip will end. Soon our happiness gives way to a new target of desire.

Even getting my health back wouldn't make my life trouble free. When I reflect deeply, I realize that the type of happiness that depends on getting what I want is not the happiness I’m looking for because I know it would only be temporary. I’m looking for happiness that comes from being content with my life as it is, whether I’m able to satisfy the want monster or not.

This happiness comes from making peace with the fact that life is a mixture of pleasant and unpleasant experiences, successes and disappointments, easy times and hard times. This happiness comes from opening our hearts and minds to engage each day fully, even though we know it may be a day in which the want monster goes hungry.

I’m muddling along with this practice, but I’m working to tame the want monster by recognizing that it will arise and that, although it will whisper in my ear that it’s one of those have-to-have-it-or-die desires, it need not be satisfied. I can just watch the wanting as mental chatter—an event in the mind, arising, hanging out for a while, and then passing away—leaving me free to engage fully with whatever the present moment is offering.

Note: The theme of this article is expanded on in Chapter 4 ("Want/Don't Want: The Unquenchable Thirst") of my book, How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and SorrowThe chapter contains several exercises for learning to work skillfully with the "want monster."

You might also like my article "Constant Complaining: Does It Serve Us Well?"

© 2012 Toni Bernhard www.tonibernhard.com

Thank you for reading my work. My most recent book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.

I'm also the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers

Using the envelope icon, you can email this piece to others. You can also subscribe to my blog (see the choices below my picture). I’m active on FacebookPinterest, and (to a lesser extent) Twitter.

Toni Bernhard, J.D., is a former law professor at University of California at Davis. She wrote the award-winning How to Be Sick and, recently, How to Wake Up.


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