Non-Desire and Strategies for Happiness

When we commit ourselves to a practice sometimes it can be easy to forget that what we are ultimately aiming for is some kind of happiness. We can get so caught up in mastering particular techniques or work so hard on our mindfulness and ethical behaviour that we end up perpetually earnest, feeling like we have made little change to our levels of suffering. But the fruits of our efforts can be enjoyed before we reach the end of the path and it can be useful to remind ourselves that while the journey is hard it shouldn’t be without moments of joy, so it is useful to look at the path from the perspective of happiness every now and again.

This week I found myself pondering two different ways of thinking about happiness and practice: Jean Klein’s ideas about non-desire and Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s strategies for happiness. On the face of it they seem to come at the problem of happiness and practice from very different directions, but I had a hunch that although different there was a connection between the two.

I first heard Jean Klein’s ideas about non-desire from Ajahn Viradhammo; he read out a passage from Klein during an online retreat I was attending and it really stuck with me. Klein was French, and although his area of practice was Advaita Vedanta some of what he says has a resonance with elements of Buddhism. He described his ideas about non-desire like this:

“Let us observe what happens when a desire is satisfied. We see that the gratification of a desire is nothing but its death and that therefore, when we are in search of bliss, we really are pursuing nothing but the death of desire. This proves that our ultimate desire is ‘non-desire’.” [1]

There was something about this statement that really grabbed me; even though I hadn’t investigated it from that perspective before it seemed to ring with a note of truth. Taken as I was with this idea, I investigated my experience of wanting something, and I found that what I was really looking for was the part in the process where there was no more desire. Desire is desperately uncomfortable, that state of wanting and lack; the pleasure really comes with the feeling of relief when the want for something is over.

Everything we want, in Klein’s way of thinking, is for the purpose of ending that feeling of wanting. We can see how this could be the case if we think about eating. We eat because we are hungry, but we don’t often eat for the purpose of feeling full – the aftermath of that fine meal or delicious cake we have been dreaming about can often be a few uncomfortable hours of feeling stuffed to the gills -really, we eat to end the feeling of hunger.

Klein’s way of presenting our pursuit of desire and what it is that actually provides the feeling of satisfaction had quite a profound effect on my way of seeing things, and it helped me to see that, for me at least, my relationship with thinking also following this same principle. I  think about a problem to try to solve it, to find some kind of resolution for it because I want the problem to  end, and when I feel like the problem has ended the thoughts stop.

But I’m not actually ending ‘the problem’, because the issue I was trying to resolve wasn’t really ‘the problem’, the issue I actually wanted to resolve  was my thinking. It was the thinking that was causing the distress, not the actual incident that I was calling ‘the problem’. I saw that the thoughts I was having were an attempt to make the thinking stop, I was thinking to end thinking.

Klein’s state of non-desire has, I think, a parallel with equanimity in Buddhist practice:

“What any desire really aims at, is a state of non-desire. This non-desire is a state in which we demand absolutely nothing. “ [1]

As I have written in previous articles about the Brahmaviharas, equanimity, or uppekkha as it is in Pāli, plays a key role in the development of our practice. Through cultivating the other three Brahmaviharas of metta, karuna, and mudita, we gradually lessen our reactivity to sensory experience and that matures into equanimity, the state of equipoise where we remain unmoved by phenomena. When we get to this point we want nothing, we neither want anything to be added to our experience nor anything to be taken away, everything is fine just as it is.

As is the way in Vedantic approaches, Klein talks about this state of non-desire in terms of bliss. But the problem as he sees it is that when we get to the state of non-desire, we don’t recognise that it contains bliss, or anything else for that matter, instead we perceive it as empty and immediately bring up a new desire to fill it with something:

“… ‘non-desire’ appears to our normal consciousness as being blankness. And yet it is in this ‘blankness’ that we must try to probe with open eyes, so as to discover its true nature. In fact, this nothingness is experienced by everybody in infinitesimal gaps which occur between thoughts, each time one desire dies, giving place to the next.” [1]

Rather than recognising this state as one to be treasured, when we misperceive it as empty, we actually see it as a negative state, as one that we don’t want to be in. This is reminiscent of how equanimity is sometimes seen in a negative light too, as a flat state with no emotions. But as Klein goes on to say:

“If from time to time we experience moments of stillness and deep attention turned towards these gaps of nothingness, little by little the emptiness will reveal itself as being full, and finally as supreme plenitude.” [1]

It is only by looking closely to what we experience in that state of non-desire or of equanimity that we will come to appreciate what is really there, and why it is of benefit to us.

The  aim of what Klein says about our desires being to bring us to non-desire echoes what Thanissaro Bhikkhu says about how the Buddha came to develop his path of practice:

“He imagined the ultimate happiness — one so free from limit and lack that it would leave no need for further desire — and then treasured his desire for that happiness as his highest priority.” [2]

The Buddha too was looking for the end of desire, and Thanissaro Bhikkhu has an interesting way of envisioning the path of practice as being built on various strategies for finding happiness that will in stages eventually take us to the right place to realise that final ultimate happiness the Buddha uncovered.

As Thanissaro Bhikkhu often says, the Buddha said that all actions are attempts at happiness, so he perceives everything we do as on some level as somehow related to finding happiness. Even if we are aware of what we are doing or not, he feels that we employ particular strategies for gaining happiness. He suggests that the sense of self is one of these strategies, and that we deliberately (but largely unknowingly) use it to help us to access happiness.

Key to this idea is the sense that self is not a ‘thing’ or object, but it is instead an activity. Our sense of self is not fixed and stable, it is created by the mind in response to sensory phenomena. How we respond to the five khandhas, or the aggregates as Thanissaro refers to them below,  is how we develop a sense of self:

“As it turns out, each of the aggregates is also an action. When you take on the idea of form in the mind, there is actually a decision in the mind to take on that form. That decision is an action. Feeling is also an action, perception is an action, fabrication is an action, as is consciousness. If you cling to any of these activities, that too is an action: the act of taking delight in repeating that activity again and again”. [3]

Much of the Buddha’s teaching is devoted to explaining in various different ways that the five khandhas are not-self, but the basic mistake we make is that we create a sense of self out of our interactions with five khandhas. What Thanissaro Bhikkhu suggests is that while this is a mistake, because it ultimately leads to our suffering, the reason we do it is actually as a deliberate tactic to gain happiness.

When we interact with a khandha, a feeling comes up in response; we want to keep the feeling or we want to get rid of the feeling, and in the process a self is created which allows us to create a story or imagine the possibilities of how to keep that feeling going. Or instead a self is created when we are currently experiencing an unpleasant feeling, which allows us to create a story about the unpleasant feeling and imagine ways to make it stop.

But we are so used to engaging with all of our experiences via a sense of self that it is incredibly hard to separate that feeling of self from our experience – to the point that we cannot imagine what it means to operate without it. It takes a lot of investigation, but through meditation and insight we can gradually gain direct experience of having experiences but without a sense of self being created, or at least if it is then it isn’t given prime importance. We can know that it is there but we can also know that it doesn’t have to be listened to.

For me this experience of operating without using self is one that I get when I use radiation style Brahmaviharas meditations, and when I get into absorption in concentration practices, and this echoes Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s thoughts on how we gradually make the shift from using self as our strategy for happiness to using another approach instead.

The question Thanissaro Bhikkhu tells us to ask ourselves is ‘how we can gain long term happiness?’ When we investigate the experience of what it feels like to mediate the world via a sense of self, we can quickly find that it is mostly an uncomfortable one. The happiness that we can gain through the use of the self is, ironically, not self-supporting, it relies entirely on transient and uncertain conditions, and this often causes us to experience discomfort and disappointment because those conditions are not the way we want them to be.

But while it is true that a sense of self can lead us to short term experiences of happiness – after all we wouldn’t use it as a strategy if the effort we put into it never paid out – those moments will always change and end, and as Ajahn Chah pointed out, they are never a sure thing. Pinning your hopes on the unpredictable, changing conditions of the world to provide you happiness is always a risky bet.

When we see this, we start to ask ourselves if there is a more reliable source of happiness. This more reliable source is enlightenment, the end of the path, when we are freed from the bonds of desire and want for nothing anymore, when we have reached a state of non-desire.

But getting to that point is a gradual process, and Thanissaro Bhikkhu sees a key step in this as developing concentration practices. In the process of learning to do jhana practices, you will eventually reach an experience of equanimity. This is only temporary though, and usually only lasts for the duration of your meditation, but these brief glimpses are enough for you to start to realise that there are other approaches that provide happiness. Realising that concentration is a strategy that you can use for happiness instead of self is, for Thanissaro Bhikkhu, the turning point that takes you away from your old way of doing things and sets you in the direction of awakening.

There are several suttas where the Buddha talks about the wholesome pleasure of concentration meditation as being the crucial replacement for worldly pleasures because it allows you to stop chasing after sense desires, such as MN14 [4], but I’ll be honest and say that until recently I had always taken this to mean the intensely pleasurable states of rapture and joy that you experience in the first and second stages of jhana. I saw it as being the case that these blissful states were so similar to worldly blisses – but more dependable and less complicated to gain – that you decided to choose them over worldly pleasures.

But what I’ve interpreted from using Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s ideas is that there is another mechanism where concentration works to change our choice of pleasures, one where we use concentration as our default means of interacting with the world instead of using a sense of self as we normally do, and that doing this is a better strategy for gaining long term happiness.

I know that this isn’t necessarily an intuitive idea to grasp, but let me start by explaining what I mean by using concentration as a means of interacting with the world, and by world I mean the sense world, our sensory inputs. Normally when we experience a sense contact, it triggers a feeling – pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral – and in response to that we generate a sense of self that interacts with the feeling. Either we use the self to make more of it, or we use the self to get rid of it. In this way we describe using the self as a strategy, it is a tool that we are utilising to increase the pleasure we already have or to get pleasure by getting rid of displeasure.

But this creates its own problems because as I’ve mentioned already, the kind of happiness that you can get from using the self is totally dependent on conditions that are mostly outside of your control, so it is in reality a fairly high risk/low return strategy.

As a strategy it also backfires on us when we are dealing with unpleasant feelings because it makes the experience of unpleasant feeling last longer too – it is the second arrow [5], the one where we add more suffering to the problem we have already got.

When we look at how counterproductive it is to use self to deal with unpleasant feelings, we can see why Thanissaro Bhikkhu suggests that using concentration is a better strategy. If you think about it, we don’t actually need to do anything to get rid of displeasure. Because conditions are always changing anyway, if we just wait then the condition that was causing our displeasure will end, and the displeasure will end with it. To tap into this inherent property of the world we need to use a different strategy, we need to stay with the moment of displeasure and simply wait for it to end. How do we do that? We concentrate, and by concentrate I mean we keep our attention on one thing and don’t allow ourselves to react to anything else. By using concentration as a strategy the unpleasant feeling is never added to, it remains as just the first arrow, and it usually passes much faster than if we allowed the kind of stories that self creates to become involved.

You might prefer to call this mindfulness instead of concentration – we maintain mindfulness on something, such as the body, the breath, the equanimous mind state, whatever it is, and don’t allow ourselves to be taken over by the feeling of displeasure. You might prefer to call this being in the now, or present moment awareness, but to me these terms are all pointing to the same action – we make a determination to make one thing the focus of our attention and not allow ourselves to be distracted from it. We might not think about it this way but doing this is a strategy that we are using in the hope that it will bring us more happiness than operating in our default, self-focused mode does.

But if these are strategies for happiness then how does that connect to all of our desires being ultimately for reaching a state of non-desire? Using concentration as a strategy when you experience a pleasant feeling obviously isn’t going to do anything to add to that pleasant feeling, so on some level you are giving up on some potential happiness compared to using a self-strategy – although that happiness is always uncertain. What you get instead is a different kind of happiness, the happiness of not wanting or needing anything to be different: equanimity, or non-desire.

I really understood this point after I had been working on understanding Thanissaro Bhikku’s ideas about strategies for happiness through practicing with them. I started by spending some time investigating in what ways my actions were all part of a strategy for happiness, and I saw how a sense of self would keep popping up and engineering some kind of wish, goal, or plan to get happiness and avoid unhappiness.

But just observing this, and there was a lot of it to observe because it was constant, wasn’t providing any sense of relief for me. In fact it was a pretty stressful exercise because my mind was very busy looking at the sense of self and working out how its actions could be understood as attempts at gaining happiness.

I decided I needed a bit of respite from the amount of mental activity that these observations were creating, and I recalled what Jean Klein’s key approach for reaching non-desire was. For him the most important action to take was to stop the thinking process, because it is in the moments of stillness between thoughts that non-desire is residing.

I realised I had been letting my thoughts go on a bit and the inside of my mind was quite noisy, so I was happy to put some effort into dropping my thoughts for a while. But at the same time I was concerned that just not thinking was only a temporary solution, so I wondered how it was possible for it to contribute to long term happiness.

When I pondered the role of concentration as a strategy I realised the reason I had never thought about as a strategy before was because I had treated the moments between thoughts as an absence, an emptiness. I hadn’t seen that there was a something there; it wasn’t empty at all but it was, in fact, pleasant.

This is where I saw the connection between Klein and Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s ideas; the need to recognise the value and pleasure that we experience when we stop thinking and stop engaging with the world through a sense of self, and start learning to keep the mind still. It is only when we start to appreciate the times when we are not using a self have a pleasurable quality of their own that we are able to make the choice to pick that kind of pleasure over the kind that the self-strategy can get.

For Thanissaro Bhikkhu we come to appreciate this by repeated experiences of the pleasure of concentration, and the realisation that the pleasure of concentration is better than the kinds of pleasure that using self can bring.

For me the penny dropped when I realised  just how bad a strategy for happiness using self actually is, how much suffering it causes, and understanding that something, anything, must be better. I saw for myself that concentration was a better strategy because I experience less stress when I use it. There is a trade-off though, because the stable pleasure of equanimity is not the same as the rare-but-intense highs of pleasure engineered through a sense of self, but when you frame the question as being about your long term happiness instead of short lived thrills then you can see that it works out as a better deal.

Moment to moment, chasing the highs that you get when you use self as your strategy might occasionally get you more peaks of intense happiness than using concentration and staying with the experience will, but when you add up all the misery it creates in the process then you can see that over the long term chasing those highs will saddle you with a ton of lows too, and not just little downers but major heartaches. Using concentration as a strategy for happiness won’t get you those kinds of highs, but it will spare you all of those lows, and let’s be realistic, there are very few people in the world whose life is comprised of more highs than lows.  

I’ve realised that using self is actually a terrible strategy for happiness, because when a sense of self gets involved in anything I do, I pretty much always experience some kind of suffering because of it. I’ve experienced some incredible moments of sheer bliss, happiness, and pleasure in my life using self as the strategy to get it, but now that I have clocked up the misery that also comes with that approach I can honestly say that it isn’t worth it, not when there is another tactic that gives happiness without creating suffering at the same time too.

I wasn’t really ready to give up the self before but I am now, now that I can see more clearly that there is a way to be in the world without using it that creates less problems. If what we really desire is the end of desire, a state of total calm, peace, and equanimity, then using self as a tactic will never get us there because the outcome is too uncertain, and it actually creates suffering when we use it to deal with unpleasant feelings. Using concentration as our strategy to respond to our experiences of the world doesn’t create any new desire and it doesn’t create any extra suffering, it allows the pleasant and unpleasant to be as they are. When we can do that then there is nothing that we need to be different,  and we reach that state of non-desire, of total peace, of true happiness.  

Image by Michael Strobel from Pixabay

References

1.      Jean Klein. Be Who You Are. Shaftesbury Dorset: Element; 1993, 1989.

2.     Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Pushing the Limits: Desire & Imagination in the Buddhist Path. 06/06/2018. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/pushinglimits.html. Accessed 21 Sep 2021.

3.     Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Selves & Not-self: The Buddhist Teaching on Anatta: Talk 2: Out of the Thicket and Onto the Path. 15/05/2018. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/selvesnotself.html#talk2. Accessed 21 Sep 2021.

4.     Bhikkhu Sujato. Cūḷadukkhakkhandhasutta: MN14. 30/08/2021. https://suttacentral.net/mn14/en/sujato. Accessed 23 Sep 2021.

5.     Bhikkhu Bodhi. Sallasutta: The Dart SN36.6. 30/08/2021. https://suttacentral.net/sn36.6/en/bodhi. Accessed 24 Sep 2021.

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