You Can't Always Get What You Want

This article first appeared in Tricycle Magazine, Summer 2004.

With renunciation life begins.- Amelia Barr, All the Days of My Life

Where compassion is the wish that others not suffer, renunciation is the wish that I not suffer. What causes me to suffer? Wanting. Renunciation, then, means not so much giving up things, desires, or a way of life, but to give up desiring itself. But to do so is not so easy.

One way is to live with few wants or needs. When the pattern of wanting is not constantly stimulated by life circumstances, the mind becomes calm and clear, and in that clarity, you find freedom from wanting. Such, in essence, is the monastic way: external renunciation creates an internal environment that leads to freedom.

Most of us, however, live in circumstances that constantly stimulate desire: desire for security, desire for emotional fulfillment, and desire for identity. We need an internal approach to renunciation, and, for that, we need to understand the nature of these desires.

One way we seek to satisfy the desire for security is by having — having a job, a bank account, a house, good looks, etc. Yet, a violent storm, a car accident, or an upheaval in the financial markets can eliminate in a moment what we regard as ‘mine’. The fact of death shows us that even our life isn’t ours.

As for emotional fulfillment, who hasn’t felt a sense of disappointment, perhaps betrayal, in a close relationship when we see that he or she does not (and cannot) give us what we yearn for so deeply? The themes of love and disappointment that have inspired art, from Greek tragedies to modern pop songs, give eloquent testimony to the difficulty of satisfying emotional needs.

Identity, too, is an ephemeral goal. Our star-studded culture pushes us to find out who we are and to take pride in being a unique entity. The sense of self, however, is a shaky ship. The more solid the identity, the more we feel a need to defend it. Even at the height of success, many people experience a restlessness, a dissatisfaction, a need to do more, earn more, own more, or receive more recognition. It’s as if a small voice still whispers, “I don’t know who I am” and drives them relentlessly on.

Why do we pursue these desires if they cannot be satisfied? The mechanism of desire is based on a belief: I am incomplete as I am now. Desire is misdirected yearning that tries to correct the imbalance created by that belief. The belief, in turn, is based on a misperception: I am separate from what I experience. We reach out to the world of experience, identify objects that sing the siren song of completion, and strive to get them.

Renunciation begins with the recognition that these ventures cannot succeed, i.e., we are going to die, our emotional needs will never be met, and being “somebody” separates us from the world. Such recognition may be painful initially, yet it contains three keys that open the doors to freedom.

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