Yesterday’s talk at the Universalist Unitarian Church in Cleveland Heights went really well. The questions from the audience were great.
One person asked about how Zen helps a person overcome desire.
As you may know, the standard version of Buddha’s Four Noble Truths goes, 1. All life is suffering, 2. The cause of suffering is desire, 3. To overcome suffering, give up desire, and 4. The Noble Eightfold Path is the way to give up desire.
I generally don’t like to get to scholarly in these talks. The main reason I don’t get scholarly is because I’m kind of a dope when it comes to that stuff. So I try to answer questions based on personal experience instead.
One of the very practical effects that the practice of zazen and my attempts to follow the ethics outlined in the Eightfold Path (basically “don’t be a jerk”) is that desires have come unhooked from the idea that satisfying desires will make my life better. This has been extremely freeing. I no longer worry about my desires. I can desire whatever I want, and I can desire whatever I desire as strongly as I want. This is because I rarely feel the need to satisfy the desires that come into my mind.
Normally, when you desire something, that desire is hooked to a thought that says, “If I satisfy this desire, my life will improve,” or “I must satisfy this desire or else I will not be happy.” So you chase after whatever you desire in the hope that you can catch that thing and thereby either improve your life or avoid misery.
When I was saying this to the folks in Cleveland Heights last night I tried to come up with a real life example. Here’s the example I came up with.
I want a milkshake. This was true. At the moment I said that last night, I really did want a milkshake. In fact, I’ve been wanting a milkshake for about six months now.
I think I’ve been driving my girlfriend, the lovely Adriana, crazy with this. I keep saying I want a milkshake. Because it’s true. I do want a milkshake.
But every time we end up in a place where they sell milkshakes I don’t get one. We’ll be out somewhere and I’ll mention that I want a milkshake. And Adriana will say something like, “Shake Shack is around the corner. Their whole thing is milkshakes. It’s right there in the name. Go get a milkshake already!”
And I’ll be like, “Nah… I don’t really need a milkshake.”
It didn’t occur to me until I was explaining this to the audience last night that I’m doing a very Zen influenced thing. Probably the much more Zen thing would be to not even mention my desire for a milkshake. And I’ll work on that.
But when I say I want a milkshake, I mean it. I honestly do want a milkshake. But I also know that drinking a milkshake won’t really fix anything. It might make me happy for a few minutes. But then it’ll be over and I’ll just have a bunch of useless calories inside me, making me fat. I’ll probably also feel kind of bloated and gross because that’s how I usually feel after drinking a milkshake. I want the milkshake. But, even though I want it — and I mean like I really, really want it — I don’t have that corresponding sense that getting what I want is the best thing that could happen.
This is relatively easy when it comes to milkshakes. It’s not quite as easy with other desires. But I’m getting there.
I’m not trying to prove to you that I’ve overcome all desire. I haven’t.
I’m trying to illustrate how incredibly useful it’s been to be able to unhook desire from the thought that satisfying a desire will necessarily be a good thing. This allows me to be very free in my desiring.
Desire isn’t so sticky anymore. It’s just there. Like any other thought. It appears in my head. But then, if I don’t fiddle with the thought too much, it fades away. If it comes back again, I can do the same thing. Leave it alone and let it fade out in its own time.
It’s hard to say exactly how this relates to the Eightfold Path of ethical behavior. But I can see how it relates to zazen. When you’re sitting zazen, it’s not always the most pleasant thing you could be doing. In fact, trying to sit very still for an extended period can make desires start popping up all over the place.
The main desire that pops up for me every time I do zazen is, “I want to be doing something else. Anything else!” I want to jump up and run out of the room. Sometimes the desire to stop doing zazen is so strong it’s almost overwhelming.
Sitting with that desire again, and again, and again, for years and years leads to a different way of relating to desire. I started noticing that I didn’t really need to respond to the desire to go do something else. In fact, it felt better not to respond.
Gradually I began to relate to most of my other desires in the same way. I could assess them more rationally and see more clearly which desires were worth trying to satisfy and which ones weren’t.
The desire for a milkshake is a pretty obvious one. Nobody really needs a milkshake. They are tasty, for sure. But they’re not really food. They don’t do you much good at all.
Anyway, after the talk was over some people went around the corner to Tommy’s restaurant and bought me a peanut butter milkshake.
It was delicious!
Come see me at the Highland Square Library in Akron, Ohio this coming Saturday morning (Oct. 12, 2019) at 11am.
And see Zero Defex this Friday (Oct. 11, 2019) at Jilly’s Music Room in Akron (show starts at 8pm with the Psychlones, followed by Tufted Puffins) and Saturday night at Annabell’s (also in Akron, and I’ve no idea when we go on that night)
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October 11, 2019 ZERO DEFEX at Jilly’s Music Room, Akron, Ohio with The Tufted Puffins and The Psyclones. The show starts at 8pm
October 12, 2019 11:00 am LIVE Letters to a Dead Friend About Zen Podcast Highland Square Library, Akron, Ohio
October 12, 2019 ZERO DEFEX at Annabell’s Lounge in Akron, OH with Distort Hope and a bunch of other bands
October 25, 2019 Venice, California LIVE Podcast at Mystic Journey Bookstore
November 8-10, 2019 ZEN & YOGA RETREAT Mt. Baldy, California
ALL THESE EVENTS TAKE PLACE WHETHER I’M THERE OR NOT.
Every Monday at 7:30pm there’s zazen at Angel City Zen Center (NEW TIME, NEW PLACE!) 2526 Kent Street, Los Angeles, CA, 90026 Beginners only!
Every Saturday at 10:00 am there’s zazen at the Angel City Zen Center (NEW PLACE!) 2526 Kent Street, Los Angeles, CA, 90026 Beginners only!
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IT CAME FROM BEYOND ZEN and SEX SIN AND ZEN are now available as audiobooks from Audible.com! You can also get Don’t Be a Jerk, Hardcore Zen, Sit Down and Shut Up and There is No God and He is Always With You in audio form — all read by me, Brad Warner!