Your Cravings are Making You Miserable

It turns out I was doing my meditation wrong. Apparently what you’re supposed to do is go through a set of stages that start with counting each individual breath, and then focusing on the breath, and then focusing on the sensation of the breath.

For example, stage one requires you to count after each exhale.

–       Breathe in, breath out….1

–       Breathe in, breathe out … 2

–       Breathe in, breathe out….3

And so and so on until you hit 10.

I was taking five seconds to inhale, and five seconds to exhale for each breath and counting along the way.

Once I figured that out, I still sucked at meditation. My mind was drifting off all over the place. At what point I wondered if anyone had trademarked this meditation technique.

What a stupid thought to have while you are meditating!

The upside is that meditating is very relaxing, so much so that I have nearly dozed off each time I have done it.

Better than Nyquil….

But I digress. What I want to talk about is the role of “cravings” in Buddhism.

The word “Tanha” is literally translated as “thirst,” and it is the root of all suffering (according to Buddhism).

There are many types of desires or thirsts, but it spans a few broad categories: sensual desires (food, sex, power, etc.), aversions (avoiding pain), and the desire to be (to make something of yourself in the world or craft a unique identity).

We learned from the Stoics that we can only be free if we desire things within our control, which is really only our mind or thoughts.

The Buddhists are saying something similar with their statement about cravings: we’re unhappy when our cravings aren’t met. And since the world is constantly changing, we are nearly always in a state of unfulfilled craving.

Except the Buddha took the idea much further. It’s not just that our cravings aren’t met, it’s that we cling onto this idea of the self that has cravings. There is no self!

This is not really an intuitive concept, but I think the film the Matrix did a good job of illustrating what it’s like to understand that the self as you know it is an illusion. When Neo takes the red pill, he becomes aware of the fact that his identity as he knows it (working stiff) is an illusion. It was a carefully constructed plot by the robot overlords to keep him enslaved (this is where it diverges from Buddhism).

Instead of fighting robot overlords to fight our ignorance, Buddhism teaches people to follow to Eight-Fold Path, a guide to living justly and in a way that is likely to lead to enlightenment.

Now, this is a far different from what modernity says will make you happy.

Our consumerist culture says you need to buy stuff to fulfill your cravings.

This is fairly obvious to many people.

What’s more subtle is the modern alternative to consumerism.

Take this blog post from the Gen-Y oriented website, Elite Daily. It’s called

You Don’t Have To Be Rich In Your 20s: How Much Money You Should Actually Be Making.

One of the big ideas is this post is that pursuing money excessively is not the path to happiness.

Money also puts you in chains. Money keeps you shackled against the grain. It keeps you confined to tedious jobs and daily routines. It makes you scared to leave and terrified to die. It broadens your horizons while confining you to four walls and water coolers. It makes you scornful and petty. It makes you selfish and cheap.

Money is the only thing that can give you freedom while taking it away. It turns men blind, thinking it gives them sight. It destroys relationships and families as quickly as it creates them. It’s a necessity we live with that becomes the only thing worth living for.

It’s the root of all evil, the doer of all good and the very thing that defines our existence. We secure it in boxes and show it off in the form of new shutters and Cadillacs.

Good so far. It looks like the author is wise and is rejecting consumerist culture.

However, she then starts promoting a list of activities that money should be used for which seem very superficial.

You should be making enough to go out once a week and get drunk enough to cab it home, but worry about affording brunch the next morning.

You should be making enough to smoke weed but worry about where your next eighth will come from.

You should be making enough to eat lobster, but only when in Maine.

You should be making enough to buy a car, but only because it’s falling apart and you’re gonna use it to travel across states. 

You should be making enough to buy a new computer, but only because you are going to write a best-selling novel.

The author traded purchasing material goods for experiential ones, mostly involving drinking, drugs, food, and travel.

I get the sense that modernity is tricking us into thinking we are enlightened because we are starting to reject stuff in favor of experience, but really, it’s just trading one craving for another.

Drinking is not ultimately fulfilling. Neither is food or travel. In small doses they are pleasurable, but then we revert back to our default state of unmet desires.

What’s strange is that we know which activities will make us happy and fulfilled. It’s not drinking or traveling, it’s treating others well and contributing to society in a meaningful way. It’s about not being distracted by trivial or superficial and learning to understand the nature of the world.

If we continue to live solely to justify our cravings, we will never be happy. We’ll just move on from one craving to the next and then back again, continuing to be miserable.

So let’s take the red pill….

  • Less_Antman

    Long-time practitioners of Buddhist meditation often speak with great amusement about the incessant nature of the monkey mind in the midst of all their attempts to quiet it. So perhaps you don’t suck at meditation at all. Personally, I enjoy the comedy of feeling I’m making progress and then realizing that I just spent my entire meditation session thinking about what a good job I’ve done of transcending the self.

    I’m not at all sure that there is a particular technique needed in meditation. I’m beginning to wonder if it is a matter of spending a few minutes each day paying attention to the mind, whether that means focusing on breathing, thinking of a mantra, chanting a phrase, or just watching the thoughts come and go, so that you’re paying attention the next time your mind accidentally comes to rest for a few moments (before the inevitable restart). The occasional moments when I’m fully alert yet have a quiet mind are so inspiring that I don’t mind their rarity. After years and years and years, no lights, no visions, no cosmic consciousness, but a realization of how simple it is to be happy. Not easy, but simple.

    I’ve never been inspired by the goal of transcending the self. I’d rather look at the universe as a magical game that comes and goes, much in the spirit of the late Alan Watts. Or to paraphrase Woody Allen, once I achieve oneness, I hope to graduate and move on to twoness.

    • Self-congratulatory transcendence….I like it 😉

      General mindfulness is a good practice. Difficult to remember to do….

  • Ashish Nair

    If you haven’t already, you should definitely check out Sam Harris articles on meditation. Its a fresh perspective, one from experience, neuroscience background, and secular thought/philosophy – quite different from what else I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot). I don’t want to say its too different of course – its still meditation – but its refreshing to have it plainly and cleanly explained. To be more relevant to this entry in your blog, here’s are two nice links; how to meditate, and a discussion on the self.

    Btw, from experience, it is helpful to learn meditation in a progressive way, sort of like the method you outlined here. If you’re having lots of trouble with using breaths as the focus, maybe try focussing on the body, “feeling it” for lack of a better term, something like what Eckharte Tolle talks about. I made up a technique along these lines, if you’re interested, let me know.

    • Thanks for the Sam Harriss rec. I took a look at the first link. It’s interesting that the religious aspects of meditation turn a lot of people off, and that he makes it accessible via the neuroscience/secular perspective as you mentioned.

  • Ariana Pintor

    Hi! You should check “Wherever you go, there you are” by Jon Kabat-Zinn. It gave me a new perspective about meditation. Before I was worried about not quieting the mind, dozing off etc. but in this book I found out that that’s part of meditation because that is what *is* and meditation is about observing and being present with what is. Just a suggestion!

    • I came across it but haven’t read it. Thanks for reminding me!

  • Mariangel Silva

    When I started to meditate I didn´t have a clue where to start. Neither i wanted to get lots of books or do intense research, to only start after i have read them all. I wanted to start as son as posible, before a could get distracted by somet other idea. Instead i posted a question in Quora and after getting few answers, the one that helped me the most, was: Start doing it!! it was so simple…. i just sat with straight back and followed a guided meditation on YouTube, after that i got my own way that worked for me, i dont know if it has a fancy name, or whatever, i do my own meditation, just trying to observe my thoughts,… no counting, just let them pass, like if u are on a car looking thru the window. Maybe after you are confortable with that, you can go onto one more advance and fancy.

    • I find that just getting started is a good technique in many cases.

  • elizabeth

    There are different types of buddhist meditation. Many meditation references online as well as most centers will teach you for free or donation. 🙂