Caught In The Craving Storm

Do you ever get one of those days where your mind just never seems to stop squealing for things, like a toddler in a supermarket? I want one of those, oo, no wait I want one of those, no I want both of those, and one of these too. This is just the workings of craving of course, what Buddha tells us is the cause of all of our problems. But craving is something of a slippery fish to work with because it has the potential overwhelm our senses to the point that we can’t see what is happening to us, and leave us blind to the best course of action.

But difficult as it can feel sometimes, it is possible to work with our cravings and to learn to not be taken over by them. The key, Thanissaro Bhikkhu says, is working with our intentions. He adds that one of the Buddha’s most incisive discoveries is that our intentions are the main factor that shapes our lives, and that intentions can be mastered in the same way as any skill. [1] This can be seen as a reassuring fact, that it isn’t willpower or unwavering concentration that we need to make the difference, but instead it is close work on our intentions: on what we really want, instead of what we think we want in that particular moment.

I’ve been noticing that there are times when it feels as if what probably started out as a fairly innocuous desire for something mundane very quickly spiralled out of control until the mind feels like it is desperately flying off in every direction looking for anything that might provide some relief from the incessant feeling of craving. I call these types of experience ‘craving storms’, because it feels like being caught up in a tornado and a thunderstorm at the same time. The energy of the experience is cumulative, it just seems to build and build until it feels more powerful than your will to resist it; and the speed of the mind leaping from one potential source of pleasure to another is like bolts of lightening, the mind feels like it is positively sparking with activity but the direction of travel is totally unpredictable.

The usual remedy for craving, as prescribed by the Buddha, is the application of wisdom, but what I saw during my craving storms was that the mind and body had become so completely swamped by the sensations of craving that wise reflections didn’t seem to have much of an impact. I did manage one wise reflection though, I thought to myself that if the overwhelming sensations are being caused by craving then perhaps I should develop some factors that are the opposite to craving. The kind of craving that was sparking my mind off so much was one based around a sense of lack, a feeling of wanting something I currently didn’t have, so I hypothesised that the counterpoint to these feelings might be to cultivate thoughts of generosity, and a sense of having enough.
This is the kind of response that the Buddha tells us to try in the Vitakkasanthana Sutta, where he gives five approaches to use whenever our meditation is being pushed off track by unwelcome thoughts, the first one being:

“Just as a skilled carpenter or his apprentice would use a small peg to knock out, drive out, and pull out a large one; in the same way, if evil, unskillful thoughts — imbued with desire, aversion, or delusion — arise in a monk while he is referring to and attending to a particular theme, he should attend to another theme, apart from that one, connected with what is skillful.” trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu

This is also an approach outlined in the four right efforts, where unskilful states are to be abandoned and skillful states are to be cultivated. I decided to try reflecting on times when I had been generous, because these were times that I clearly felt like I had enough because I was willing to give some of it away. Reflecting on our good actions rather than being an egotistical exercise can be very skillful for many reasons, such as reminding us of our generosity and inspiring us to make more generous acts, but in this case it was an effective antidote to the craving storm because it generated a good feeling both physically and mentally. That uplifting feeling was enough to take away the discomfort of unmet cravings and break the cycle, allowing me to then apply some wisdom to the situation.
But even when we know the downsides to craving and we are experienced practitioners, how is it that we keep falling prey to it? In the Mahali Sutta the Buddha tells us:

“… if form were exclusively stressful — followed by stress, infused with stress and not infused with pleasure — beings would not be infatuated with form. But because form is also pleasurable — followed by pleasure, infused with pleasure and not infused with stress — beings are infatuated with form. “ trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu

The issue is that there are such things as pleasant feelings, if everything in the world was either unpleasant or neutral then we wouldn’t become ‘infatuated’ with the pleasant things. Yet these pleasurable things in the world are not everything that we want them to be, and at some point we start to ask ourselves if it is worth all the hassle:

“…if form were exclusively pleasurable — followed by pleasure, infused with pleasure and not infused with stress — beings would not be disenchanted with form. But because form is also stressful — followed by stress, infused with stress and not infused with pleasure — beings are disenchanted with form. Through disenchantment, they grow dispassionate.” trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Using the analogy of a fish swallowing a hook baited with a worm, Price neatly sums up that the problem with following our desires blindly is that, “The worm is attractive but delivers little satisfaction to the fish.” [2] Once we have swallowed enough hooks we learn that the worm is a trap and that we will get nothing from it, yet still we fall for it time and time again:

“Though we have many times taken the bait of sense-pleasure and suffered the inevitable pull of the hook, each new worm that comes wiggling through the water excites the heedless man.” from Radical Buddhism by Leonard Price

We get hit with a double whammy, because not only do we not remember the pitfalls of taking the bait, once we have fallen for the lure the urge to swallow more hooks seems to grow exponentially. How easy is it to only have one biscuit out of the packet? Or only eat the recommended serving size out of a grab bag of nachos? Or worse, once you’ve had those two biscuits now you fancy a few nachos too. Satisfying your desire doesn’t lessen desire, it only makes more desire and in the Monkey Sutta (SN 47.7) the Buddha uses the analogy of a monkey that grabs hold of a hunter’s trap that has been coated in sticky pitch to show how this process ends up with us trapped by our endless desires. To try to release his stuck hand, the monkey uses his other hand to try to release himself, but it gets stuck to the pitch too. So next he tries using his foot to pull his hands free, but it also gets stuck, then he tries using his other foot, which also gets stuck, and then finally he presses his nose into the pitch in a final attempt to get free from the pitch but it too gets stuck. The sticky pitch is craving for sense pleasure, when we grab hold of it we get stuck but we think the way out of it is to grab for more of it, but instead of being released from our cravings we get completely stuck in them.

Monkeys seem to be the ideal foil for reflecting on the unwise pursuit of desire in the suttas, this verse from the Sutta Nipata illustrates the futility of endlessly grasping for one thing after another:

“Leaving the old through craving for the new — Pursuit of longings never from bondage frees; It is but letting go to grasp afresh As monkeys reach from branch to branch of trees.” v791 from The Worn Out Skin by Ñanaponika Thera

Likewise this verse in the Dhammapada compares the headlong rush for one desire after another to that of a monkey in search of fruit:

For a human who lives life heedlessly
craving increases like a clinging creeper,
he rushes from one place to another
like a monkey desiring fruit in the forest. trans. Bhikkhu Ānanadajoti

At the heart of the mechanism of this craving and clinging is the five khandhas – form, feeling, perception, fabrication, and consciousness. Through treating these five types of experience as ‘happening to me’ we come to misunderstand the information that is coming to us from our senses, and it is by clinging to these misperceptions that we develop the concept of having a stable, continuous self. And it is through this continuous clinging that our craving steadily accumulates until it creates so much disturbance in our system that we struggle to see the issue clearly:

“For him — infatuated, attached, confused, not remaining focused on their drawbacks — the five clinging-aggregates head toward future accumulation. The craving that makes for further becoming — accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now this & now that — grows within him. His bodily disturbances & mental disturbances grow. His bodily torments & mental torments grow. His bodily distresses & mental distresses grow. He is sensitive both to bodily stress & mental stress.” trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Caught in the tornado of craving and desire, our grasp on the real picture gets so dulled that we become especially prone to self-delusion, easily giving in to the excuses that our mind comes up with to justify our capitulation to our cravings, or our endless pursuit of them: “I can’t help it”, “what harm could it do?”, “everyone else is doing it so why shouldn’t I?”,”denying yourself all the time is just as dangerous as giving in all the time”, “it’s about the middle way isn’t it?” In his article “Pushing the Limits: Desire and Imagination in the Buddhist Path”, Thanissaro Bhikkhu describes this excuse making machine as being like lawyers fiercely defending your deep rooted habit of chasing after pleasure, and they certainly seem to have a skill for sounding persuasive and plausible. Price though succinctly sums up the real reason behind most of our excuses for yielding to cravings:

“In considering the lure and danger of sense-pleasures, it is not difficult to see that most of us will ultimately defend our indulgences, not from logic but from the blind urge, “I want.”…The trouble here, as is so often the case, is one of self-deception. Although we may say we understand the danger of sensual obsession and the advantage of restraint, our weakness shows that in fact we do not.” from Radical Buddhism by Leonard Price

But the way to deal with sensual obsession as Price calls it, isn’t to just try to go cold turkey. We need to be weaned off of our addiction to sense pleasure and our cravings for it. This is a job that has to be done carefully, because as Thanissaro points out, if we do it unskillfully then instead of uprooting craving we just flip it over into its mirror state, which is aversion. [3] Importantly, he suggests that:

“Unskillful desires don’t really give way, though, until you can show that other, less troublesome desires actually can produce greater happiness.” from Pushing the Limits by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Desires aren’t exclusively unskillful, some are skillful, such as the desire to practice, the desire to cultivate your own capacity for goodness, and of course the desire to let go of unskillful desires. At the start of our practice is it understandable that we don’t have enough experience of the rewards of our skillful desires for them to hold much sway over the enormous gravity of our cravings, but as we go along the path we clock up more direct experience of the peace and clarity that comes from making skillful choices, and it becomes easier for us to ‘just say no’ to whatever temptation is coming up for us. The gradual path of training that the Buddha suggested even seems to be set up to give us a head start: the first stages of practice are the cultivation of good actions and generosity, so even from the first steps of practice we have access to a reserve of the results of skillful behaviour to call on when we need to persuade ourselves to make the skillful choice.

Ultimately it is ignorance that maintains our propensity to craving, and it is through the development and application of wisdom that we finally see through the illusion and stop falling for those baited hooks. But the development of that wisdom is founded upon the rewards that we get from harnessing our skillful desires; the uplifting feelings that come from generosity and kindness prove to be more satisfying than the hollow satisfaction of sense desires, and the calming effect they have on our system allows our mind and passions to cool. With our minds calmed we can look at the situation with greater clarity, and in that clarity is where our wisdom will start to grow. It does take a moment of awareness to recognise that we are in the middle of a craving storm, but one moment is all we need. As soon as we can see what is really going on then the ball is back in our court, we can take control of the situation and guide ourselves away from whatever unskillful desires we think we need to satisfy.

If a quick reminder of the futility of chasing cravings is enough, then that is all that is needed, but if you are really in the middle of a storm then using the cultivation of a different experience might be what is required to bring the storm to a halt. I find that just sitting down to meditate, while often our first port of call to try to settle ourselves, can often make little impact on the whirling vortex of thoughts and desires though. A craving storm is a fully embodied experience, every part of your mind and body feels consumed by it, so using practices that have equally powerful embodied outcomes could be what is needed to more directly to counter this sometimes. Metta practice, reflection on your good actions, walking meditation, mindful movement, chanting, any of these could work if they have a noticeable impact on both your body and mind. I don’t think it just works by swapping one kind of good feeling for another though, I think there is something in these embodied practices that not only fills that empty feeling of unsatisfied craving, but also more importantly interrupts the thought processes that perpetuated the storm and drops your mind into a different mode of thinking. Once the grip of craving has loosened it feels like you get your mind back, and once you come to your senses a bit it is then easier to make wise choices.

Taking an uncompromising approach to dealing with craving though can be just as unskillful an action as just giving in to the cravings; stubbornly clinging onto trying to wisdom your way out of it ‘because that’s the only real solution’, when it clearly isn’t working will just add more upset to the system, and might even send you rebounding into even more cravings. It occurs to me that in the UK if someone has any kind of upset to deal with the first course of action is often to give them a sweet cup of tea, not because it has any medicinal qualities but because it delivers a small shot of physical comfort, a little soothing, which is sometimes takes the edge off it enough to help the rest of the mind-body system to regulate itself. So maybe sometimes we need the practice equivalent to a sweet cup of tea first; and once things have calmed down a little then we can start working on the wisdom. And actually who is to say that the wisdom that uproots craving doesn’t sometimes take the form of recognising when to tackle a problem head on, and when to use another tactic. The Buddha did give us some simple principles to recognise what qualifies as Dhamma to help us to steer ourselves away from dogmatic positions and towards pragmatic and outcome focused approaches:

“These qualities lead to dispassion, not to passion; to being unfettered, not to being fettered; to shedding, not to accumulating; to modesty, not to self-aggrandizement; to contentment, not to discontent; to seclusion, not to entanglement; to aroused persistence, not to laziness; to being unburdensome, not to being burdensome’: You may categorically hold, ‘This is the Dhamma, this is the Vinaya, this is the Teacher’s instruction.” trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Following the path of practice isn’t about blindly following rules and procedures, it is about always checking in to see what the results were and whether those results were in line with the over all aim of the practice. So if you find yourself in the middle of a craving storm, muster up all the self-honesty that you can and see if you can find an approach that genuinely lessens the feelings of craving, calms the system down, and gives you your clarity back, and if it happens to be a sweet cup of tea then that might be as wise and skillful an action as any other.

Photo by Anastasiia Chepinska on Unsplash


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