I’ve just returned from a weekend of silent walking on the Malvern Hills. We walked nine miles south, and camped overnight, and nine miles back the next day. It was in the middle of the heat wave. Walking up to the top of Black Hill, where there is no shade, in the hottest part of the day, was a struggle – but the views at the top were breath-taking. Somehow the hard work and my aching legs made the view even more beautiful than usual, and the cool wind at the top was a real treat.
On a cold day I’d have complained about the cool wind at the top, but in that moment it was perfect. This is often the nature of desire – we long for something to move us out of an uncomfortable situation. Usually after a while the new situation becomes uncomfortable, and we long for something else. How many people have said it’s too hot, that were complaining about the cold a few months ago?
Our desires are inevitably frustrated: we long for a chocolate cake, eat too much and then feel ill, we can’t wait to go on holiday and when we get there we just want to come home again, and we always complain about the weather.
One way out of this is to simply stop wanting things. That sounds like a pretty boring life, and it sounds like an impossible path to walk. It’s far better to get to know what we want, and how our desire works, and take it from there.
If desire is always taking us towards something different from the present moment, sometimes it’s appropriate to look for something to appreciate in the present moment , and sometimes it’s appropriate to ride the wave of desire, knowing that it is not leading you to a place of eternal happiness, but a place that you will want to move from at some point. Maybe I’ll go downstairs and enjoy having a snack. I know that if all I do is eat snacks, I’ll soon be sick of it, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t enjoy the first one.
Getting to know our habit patterns around desire and frustration means that we can also take life a little more light-heartedly. Knowing that desire is a wave that always wants to move forward means we can take its cry of “This one thing will make you happy” with a pinch of salt. We can enjoy where it’s leading us, without being taken in by its impossible promise.
There’s a place for discernment too, of course. Some desires are bound to lead to trouble, some are neutral and some lead to positive, pleasurable places. Learning to say ‘no’ sometimes, is just as important as learning to say ‘yes’. I’m reminded of Achaan Chah saying if the student strays too far to the left, you tell them to go right, and if they stray too far to the right, you tell them to go left. We can say the same about desire. Sometimes it needs keeping an eye on, and sometimes it’s taking us to exactly the right place.
Sometimes self-denial is good full-stop. There are some things that are simply unhelpful to indulge in at all. Sometimes just a period of self-denial is helpful. There’s nothing better than a meal after a fast day, and the lemonade ice-lolly I bought from the ice-cream van, half way through the walk home on a hot, hot Sunday, was the best I’ve ever tasted.
This first appeared in All About Malvern