The Desire for Things to Be Different
May 01, 2024

Sometimes you hear that the craving that causes suffering is the desire for things to be different. That’s partially true, partially false. After all, the desire to get better concentration, the desire to get rid of your defilements, to abandon unskillful qualities, develop skillful ones—that’s part of the path.

There may be some pain that goes along with that kind of desire. That would come under what the texts call renunciate pain—when you realize that there is a goal that can be attained, that other people have attained, but you haven’t attained it yet. It’s a painful thought, but it’s a thought that can motivate you to practice. In fact, you can’t practice without that thought. That kind of desire for things to be different should be encouraged.

The kind of desire that shouldn’t be encouraged is the desire for the principles of cause and effect to be different from what they are.

There are cases in the world outside where you can make a change and you can make a good difference. This is why we practice generosity; this is why we practice virtue. That kind of change outside is also useful.

But there are times you find yourself presented with raw materials from your past karma—and this can be anything from sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, to other people, situations outside that are beyond your control—and if you go butting your head against those things, it’s a lot of wasted energy and a lot of unnecessary pain. A lot of discernment lies in seeing where you can make an effective change, where it’s worth your efforts, and where your efforts are wasted.

Right now, you can work with your breath. Given that you’ve got this body sitting here, and that you’ve got some skillful attitudes and some unskillful attitudes in the mind, you can work with those, and then you do your best to make them better. In doing so, you’re going to find out which ones you can make better by trying.

The attitude that says everything should be accepted, accepted, is nowhere to be found in the Buddha’s teachings. It’s certainly not to be found in the Forest Tradition. Even in cases where the ajaans are portrayed as specializing in letting go, they let go selectively.

There’s a story that Ajaan Chah tells of when he was invited into the palace one time. After the meal, the king came to talk to the three ajaans who’d been invited: He was complaining about how he was caught between the soldiers and the students. There were some student demonstrations going on. The soldiers wanted the king to side against the students. The students, of course, wanted the king to side with them.

So he asked the ajaans for their advice. The first two ajaans basically said, “Practice equanimity.” But Ajaan Chah said, “Well, equanimity is useful, but you have to apply wisdom at the same time.” So you don’t just let go, let go, leaving things as they are. Have some good sense about what you should let go and leave alone, and what you really have to work on.

Of course, the big work is inside—that’s the lesson of right view. We suffer not because of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, or tactile sensations. We suffer because of our own cravings. Craving for sensuality, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming—these things come from inside and they come from a long chain of causes inside, which we’re going to explore as we meditate. That’s where the real suffering is.

After all, arahants can live in the world and they can live in some pretty rough circumstances without suffering. Ajaan Mun told Ajaan Fuang once of one rains retreat when his main diet was bananas. It got so that when he smelled his arm, his arm smelled like bananas. But the place where he stayed was good for meditating, and that’s what matters: that you find a place where your practice goes well. At the very least, the surroundings are not detrimental to your practice, and that gives you the opportunity to focus inside. This is where the real victory is to be found.

All too often we want to gain victory over other people outside, but as the Buddha noted, that kind of victory always leads to karmic results that you’re not going to want. If you win out over somebody else, they’re going to want to get revenge. But if you win out over your defilements, they may sneak around and try to seem to get revenge from the side, but then it’s just a matter of fighting them off inside. There’s no bad karma involved.

So look at the things leading up to sensual craving, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming.

Sensual craving is your fascination with thinking thoughts of how you would like sights, sounds, smells, tastes, or tactile sensations to be. This can be in any context: the context of lust, the context of hunger, the context of loneliness, wanting a particular person to come and fill that loneliness, fill that emptiness. You can fantasize about these kinds of things, but what does it do for you? It just points your desires in all the wrong directions.

Then there’s craving for becoming: You visualize a desired object, person, situation, thing, and then, as you think about it, it appears in a world or in the context of a world, and you could take an identity within that world.

Our thoughts can create these types of becoming many, many times in a day. And it’s also how we get reborn after we have to leave this life. You find that you can’t stay here in this body, and something will appear to the mind and appeal to the mind, and all of a sudden you find yourself there—often without having investigated the surroundings too carefully or taken a good look at what you have to become in order to find that thing.

Then there’s craving for non-becoming: You have a certain type of becoming, which is that identity in that world of experience, and you don’t like it. You’d rather have it destroyed.

This, too, can happen both in the course of daily life and at the moment of death, when you decide that you’d rather go for oblivion: You’re tired of the pain of human life, nothing else seems attractive, and you just want to wipe things out. Yet, as the Buddha discovered, that just leads to more becoming. That’s not the way out.

These are the things we have to watch out for. These are the desires we have to be careful about. The way to get past them is to turn around and look at the things that lead up to them.

You look at dependent co-arising and it seems daunting—all those factors—and sometimes it’s hard to understand how the Buddha would have come up with that particular order of things. When you look deeper into the explanation of all the factors you find that it’s quite complex. It’s not just a cycle or a line—it’s got many feedback loops.

The important point is that most of the important factors happen prior to sensory contact. In other words, the issue is how you prepare your mind to experience that contact through your intentions and perceptions and other mental factors. The other important point is that if you bring some knowledge to these different connections, you can turn the connections from a cause of suffering into part of the path away from suffering.

So when we’re practicing concentration, we’re trying to get back to this level of the events in the mind just as events in the mind, and see if we can bring some knowledge to them.

There’s the factor of fabrication, saṅkhāra, in which case you have three. You’ve got the bodily fabrication, the breath; verbal fabrication, how you talk to yourself with directed thoughts and acts of evaluation; and mental fabrication, perceptions and feelings. These can lead to bodily actions, verbal actions, mental actions that can have affect for a long, long time.

But you want to look at them just as events right here and now. So, look at your breath just as an event, right now. The way you talk to yourself—try to look at how you talk to yourself, and see it in the Buddha’s terms: Which part of it is the directed thought, where you choose a topic? Which part is the evaluation, when you start making comments?

Just look at it at that level: choices of topic, comments; choices of another topic, comments, more comments, more comments, arguments, discussions, questions, answers. If you bring some knowledge to these processes on this level, you realize that you can create a state of concentration out of these things.

That’s a much better use of them than the way we normally use them, where the topic is, “This person I don’t like,” and then the comment: why you don’t like them, and why you’re justified in not liking them. Try to take these processes and get some good use out of them instead. After all, bringing knowledge to them doesn’t mean you simply watch them. It means trying to manipulate them in a way that leads to something skillful.

The same with the factors of name and form: Under form, you’ve got the elements of the body: earth, wind, water, and fire; or solidity, energy, coolness, abd warmth. Just notice how these four types of things actually make up your sense of the body as you feel it from within. So instead of thinking of it as your body, it’s just that there’s warmth, there’s the energy of the breath, there’s a sense of solidity, and there’s coolness. Just see it in those terms.

As for “name,” the events of the mind, the texts talk about perceptions and feelings, again, acts of attention, acts of intention, and contact among these things. Just learn how to look at these things on these levels.

A good way to do that is to say, “I’m going to set up an intention to stay with the breath. And then I’m going to pay attention both to the breath and to the mind to see if it’s going to stay. And try to use a perception that helps me stay.”

Think of the breath as a whole-body process: Your shoulders are breathing, your arms are breathing, your ears are breathing, your forehead is breathing, every part. See what that perception does. It makes the breath—and the sense of ease when you breathe comfortably—easy to spread around.

So you look at these things simply as events. But you don’t just look, you learn how to manipulate them, as events, in a skillful way. The word the Buddha uses for ignorance, avijjā, can also mean lack of skill. Vijjā, knowledge, can also mean skill. So bring some skill to these factors, and you can find that you can undercut a lot of the things that would lead to those unskillful forms of craving.

When there are other things to grab your attention, other things to work with, you can see very clearly when the mind is going off in the wrong direction, because you’re more sensitive to these events as they come.

You begin to see, “Ah, I used to shape them in really unskillful ways, the topics I chose, the comments I made, the perceptions I had, the things I paid attention to, the intentions that I nurtured. I wasn’t doing them with much insight, much understanding, and certainly not any skill. That’s why I suffered. But now I can learn skills around these things.” That’s going to make a difference.

You begin to see which of your desires actually are skillful desires—like the desire for things to be different: When is that skillful, when is it not? You can see in the events that lead up to these things. And you can counteract the ones that would lead to the unskillful desires.

So the Buddha maps it all out. Our problem is we’re not interested in his map. We have our other maps: maps of the world as we want it to be. And when the world doesn’t fit into our maps, we get upset.

There are times when we can change the world, and we can do it skillfully. That’s why we practice generosity and virtue. That’s why the Buddha emphasizes those two activities so much—because those are the best ways to approach the world, and make things different from what they are—in a skillful way—to create the environment where you have more opportunity to turn around and see where the real problem is, which is inside.

Bring some skill to that as well. That’s how you gain a victory that can make a genuine difference.