A Buddhist Guide to Controlling Your Desires

#1 — Stop aimlessly chasing them.


No later than 1 BCE, the great Buddha: Siddhartha Gautama, sat amongst his monk followers — addressing their questions on life, and how each of them could achieve self-awakening.

Throughout their discussion, he tasked himself with answering one of life’s greatest mysteries:

How exactly does one become enlightened?

His answer came in the form of a parable, which has since been recorded in the Chiggala Sutta:

  • Suppose the entire Earth — the sea and land, has been covered underwater by a great flood. And imagine I stood at a random point on the planet, and tossed a small stone in it. That stone floats on the surface of the water, randomly moving with the tide – wind from the north would push it south. And a gush from the east would push it west.
  • Now, suppose a blind sea-turtle is swimming through these waters. Because of it’s lack of vision, it swims around in a random motion — and, according to the parable, this turtle only comes to the surface once every one hundred year. It does this aimlessly, with no idea of its location or relation to the rock I have thrown.

Now ask yourself: would that sea-turtle’s head ever hit that stone?

His followers replied:

“It would be a sheer coincidence, lord, that the blind sea-turtle, coming to the surface once every one hundred years, would hit the stone.”

And, Buddha replied, the odds of you achieving enlightenment are the same. Its attainment is a mere coincidence. It’s not achieved by pursuing it. Rather, it’s a state you happen to stumble upon when you’re fulfilling other day to day tasks.

It seems the same is true for many of life’s great pleasures — happiness, love, joy. They aren’t achieved by looking for them. Instead, their attainment looks to be a mere coincidence – a happy accident, if you will.

Some call the attainment of these pleasures fate, others luck. But, regardless of what causes them, you can increase their likelihood.

So let’s talk through a few of the Ancient lessons the Buddha offered when his followers failed to achieve the state of Enlightenment they so desperately craved.


Pursue Other Tasks

Buddhist’s have faced a paradox for years — a hurdle they haven’t yet been able to jump over.

That being the paradox of enlightenment.

Enlightenment is the cessation of all desires. It’s the realisation there is no self, and so there’s nobody to become enlightened in the first place.

It’s for this reason that anybody pursuing Buddhist practice in the hopes of achieving enlightenment, will never actually achieve it.

Because by acting in the hopes of attaining a state of Nirvana, they are acting out of desire. And you can only achieve that state when you don’t desire anything.

Worse still – because enlightenment is the realisation there is no self, anybody who exclaims: “I am enlightened” is in fact, not enlightened. Because in doing so, they are claiming there is a self, or an “I,” who can attain that bodily state.

In essence, they have missed the whole point of enlightenment.

It’s for these reasons the Buddha insisted his followers not pursue enlightenment itself. But instead, pursue other tasks that increase their chances of reaching this self-awakening — and they must do these tasks for their own sake, rather than out of desire.

On Buddha’s account, the task they should pursue is contemplation. If they want to stand any chance of achieving enlightenment: they must practice meditation and wellness for no reason at all, and especially not in the hopes of achieving something.

And it seems Buddha was on to something here. Many of the pleasures we crave in the 21st Century can’t be achieved by chasing them — love and happiness, for example, can’t be forced.

And when you do force these feelings they are typically disingenuous and fake — these certainly aren’t the great pleasures we crave.

Instead, to attain them, like Buddhists, we must undergo other tasks for their own sake. In effect, we must forget that we even want these desires in the first place: and in doing so, we are creating the opportunity for them to arise naturally.

It’s only when we least expect it, that we will find these great pleasures.

So go and learn a new hobby, go out drinking with your friends, or read that book you’ve always wanted to. Do these for their own sake — overtime, you’ll find the joy, the love, the happiness you have been searching for.

“Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.” — Buddha.


Cultivate Gratitude Without These Pleasures

One of the key messages the Buddha highlights in his sea-turtle parable, is just how unlikely it is that you will ever be enlightened.

In fact, of the billions of people living on the planet right now, only 2 or 3 will actually achieve it – and that’s if we’re lucky. Buddhism is a game of lottery, and the odds are so incredibly low.

Of course, the pleasures you so longly crave aren’t like this — they aren’t that unlikely. Chances are, you will experience love or happiness at some point in your life.

But you might not any time soon.

It could be years before you find that pleasure you long-for. And that’s ok.

The great thing about life is that there are hundreds, if not thousands of great pleasures — so even if you haven’t yet attained that one pleasure you so crave, you have still been blessed with hundreds of other pleasures.

In fact, when the Buddhist monks were told they probably would never attain enlightenment, they didn’t enter a state of depression or existential spiral at the thought of not getting what they wanted.

Instead, they learnt to cultivate selfless gratitude — appreciating the things they did have, rather than the things they didn’t.

And the Buddha encouraged this way of life.

In that very same parable, he taught that every human birth was worthy of gratitude — because the chances of each of them even being born was so small, the fact they exist is something to be appreciated.

He would often instruct a monkto take his ground cloth into the forest, sit at the base of a tree, and begin “gladdening the heart” by reflecting on the series of fortunate circumstances he found himself in.

And the same applies to you.

You may not have yet found love, or that job promotion you long for — maybe one day you will, or maybe you won’t.

But you need to stop fixating on the things you don’t yet have. Instead, find contentment by cultivating a genuine appreciation for all the things you do have. The life you have been gifted, the sips of a warm coffee on a cold winters day, or the deep meaningful friendships you have right now.

“A wise person will be satisfied and grateful if six out of ten times things work out in life the way one wished” — (The Scriptures of Won Buddhism, p. 211)


Appreciate The Present Moment

Life’s great pleasures are often happy accidents. They occur when we least expect — and that’s what makes them so special.

And so, as shown by the paradox of enlightenment, to attain them, we almost have to forget we want them.

You can achieve this by undergoing the Buddhist practice of contemplation — appreciating the present moment.

This means focusing on the thoughts, feelings and sensations that are arising and falling right now — rather than worrying about things that might happen in the future.

So stop desiring for things to be different in the future, at the expense of not appreciating what’s happening right in front of your eyes.

Stop hoping and praying that you’ll be happy in the future. And instead, realise that you have everything you need to be happy already.

Appreciate those late night chats with a dear friend, the warm breeze as you walk home, or the soft feeling you have when hitting your bedsheets.

“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.”


The Takeaway

Buddha’s parable of the sea-turtle carries with it an important truth — aimlessly chasing after our deepest desires hinders, rather than increases, our chances of ever attaining them

So instead of pursuing them, we can increase our chances of fulfilment by:

  1. Pursuing other tasks for their own sake, rather than as a sub-conscious, and desperate attempt to find love, happiness or meaning. Instead, understand that these pleasures will arise naturally, almost as a happy accident.
  2. Cultivating gratitude for the things that we do have: the life we have been blessed with, and the opportunities that are open to us. Doing so ensures you experience some of life’s great pleasures, even if you never attain that pleasure you crave.
  3. Life’s greatest pleasures are unexpected, happy accidents. To achieve them, we often have to forget that we even want them — so that when they do come along, they matter that much more. To achieve this, appreciate and focus on the sensations you have in the present moment: instead of craving future experiences.

Doing so will not only increase the chances of finding the pleasures you so deeply desire — but when they do arise, you will have developed a deep sense appreciation that makes them so much more valuable.

And if they never do present themselves, you will also learn to be content and at peace, focusing on the things you do have. And suddenly, these cravings being left unattained is no longer the end of the world.

“If by leaving a small pleasure one sees a great pleasure, let a wise man leave the small pleasure, and look to the great.” — Gautama Buddha

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