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Alex Lickerman M.D.

What Do You Want?

We don't often know ourselves what we most deeply desire

Photo: David Berkowitz

"What do you want?"

What question could be more basic—or more imperative—to answer? From publishing a bestselling book to getting married to taking our next breath, the narratives of our lives are driven ultimately by the desires we feel. But as simple as the question may be, identifying the answer is often anything but.

Research suggests that our conscious minds aren't so much in charge of the decisions we make as they are great rationalizers of them. Which means they often collude with our unconscious minds to craft stories about why we do things and even why we feel things that are just blatantly untrue. We often have far more invested in seeing ourselves as virtuous, noble, fair-minded, and good than we do in recognizing the truth: that we often want things and therefore do things that make us base, selfish, self-righteous, and unjust.

All of which is to say that sometimes we may not actually know what we want. Or, even more commonly, we may not know why we want it. Though we all feel as if we have a uniquely accurate perspective on our own thought processes, sometimes we have even less clear a picture of our true selves than those around us, whose vision isn't as obscured by the positive bias with which we unconsciously can't help viewing ourselves.

Sometimes, on the other hand, our desires our so intense, so raw, and simultaneously so seemingly unattainable that we ache with even the thought of them. Sometimes desires are so intense they possess us and unbalance us, causing us to behave in ways we find abhorrent, but that we seem somehow powerless to avoid.

And sometimes our deepest desires reflect our deepest pain: we want our parents' love, long denied us; to have a dead parent back with us; to be healthy again; to accomplish something; to be important or remembered. All these desires, whether consciously apprehended or not, are the true drivers of our behavior. Thus, if we're genuinely interested in self-improvement, we can't be satisfied with the easy answers our conscious minds often feed us for why we do the things we do. Rather, we need to consciously acknowledge what we really want, whether something we're unlikely to be able to get, something we're ashamed of wanting or think we shouldn't want, or something that strikes us as irrational to want.

In Nichiren Buddhism, the concept of "earthly desires are enlightenment" teaches that when we pursue our desires real value accrues not just from attaining them but also from the wisdom we gain in the process. Climbing a mountain may fill us with a grand sense of accomplishment, for example, but such a feeling will eventually diminish or even fade away entirely as new challenges in our daily lives continue to confront us. But the ability to challenge and overcome our desire to give up when we're in pain is a lesson that will never leave us for a moment and ultimately serve us far more than even the joy of accomplishing the goal that taught it to us. Thus, no desire (that is, as long as it doesn't involve intended harm to oneself or others) is entirely without merit, even the ones we wish we didn't feel. All have the potential to teach us something important.

This, then, is what I want: I want my son to be happy and safe. I want my wife's business to succeed beyond her wildest dreams. I want my upcoming book to become a bestseller; I want it to educate and entertain readers; I want them to find their lives improving as a result of having read it.

I want my day job to be easier. I want people to be nicer to one another. I want politicians to be honest. I want to live until I'm ready to die. And I want—I want desperately—to know how it all works: What causes consciousness? What happens when our lives end? Is the Universe truly infinite? How did it start?

Pausing to ask yourself just what exactly you want—not what you think you should want or what others want you to want or want for you—without judgment can often be a surprisingly emotional exercise, but it's an exercise by which I think we'd all be well served. So I invite you to do just that in the comment section—anonymously or not—if only to see how your desires strike you when they're staring back at you in print. You just might find yourself surprised by what you write.

Pre-order Dr. Lickerman's book, The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self, which will be published in late 2012.

About the Author

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.