issue 25 Winter/Spring 05
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Wishful Thinking

How do we handle those burning yearnings? Surveying his life, Nagabodhi reflects on the highs and lows of craving

I had been calling myself a Buddhist for two or three years before I opened a basic book on the subject. I'd heard of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path of course. Back at school a progressive religious eduction teacher had devoted a couple of lessons to Buddhism. But I had stumbled on the Dharma properly some years later in a short anthology of scriptural texts while trying to make sense of an accidental mystical experience. I didn't really understand what I was reading but I immediately resonated to the metaphysical hum I heard beneath the words. Somehow I knew I had come home.

For several years I happily trod a path of irregular steps. I had no teacher, no sangha. I can't say I really believed in that sort of thing. For me the power of Buddhism lay in the hit I got from an occasional dip into an inspirational text. When I did finally bite the bullet and began a systematic study of the Dharma, I had a shock. Here was quite a different landscape, a genteel world of old books in tattered covers written in old-fashioned English. The books even smelt old and musty and seemed to have been written by old and musty people. The lists, formulae and analyses that filled their pages were relentlessly methodical, confident ... and amazingly boring. All the same I found comfort in their old-world atmosphere, and spent many happy hours wrapped in their quaint embrace.

I'll be honest. Much as I enjoyed that atmosphere, I'm not sure how seriously I really engaged with the words. Feeling more and more strongly that I was a Buddhist, though for mainly intuitive reasons, and now (somewhat to my surprise) practising alongside other Buddhists in a small and intimate sangha, I'd reached a point where it felt impolite to know so little about the subject. But to my eye, at face value, some of those basic teachings seemed either simplistic or counter-intuitive.

Take the second Noble Truth: 'The cause of suffering is craving'. I really struggled with that one. That the first Noble Truth should be 'the truth of suffering' seemed reasonable if somewhat arbitrary. And I could see how craving sometimes caused suffering for myself or others, or both. But I couldn't see why craving should be singled out so ruthlessly. Nor could I really see how or why it should have been branded as the cause of suffering.

This was no cavalier reaction. I knew a thing or two about craving. I had done a lot of it. I'd been doing it all my life. A list of things I'd craved would serve as a pretty good set of chapter headings for my life story up to that point. A cardboard cut-out helicopter that came free with the Beano magazine, a red football, a Raleigh bicycle with a curved crossbar, a transistor radio small enough to deploy during compulsory Quaker meetings at school, cigarettes, sex, a good stereo system, love and fame.

These were not things I'd merely wanted at some point; these were objects of devoted longing that had pulsed and glowed in my mind for a while like beacons marking the way to a brighter future. Somehow, I'd felt, life would be better, more complete, more as it should be, if I had them. And I'd done pretty well. I'd got a few of them. And they hadn't hurt. For sure I'd grown out of some, moved on to new and better objects of craving. But I hadn't really suffered, yet, much, had I? Well all right, the helicopter had broken after a few goes, and the football had burst absurdly early in its life. My lack of confidence in the area of sex - combined with five years of incarceration in an English public school - had left me pathetically if almost fruitlessly obsessed with the business; and although my first venture into the arena of love had left me heartbroken, I'd come out of the experience a Buddhist.

So I was unbowed. To nurture and then satisfy a decent craving still seemed like a reasonable and harmless way of giving life a lift. My Buddhist practice might in time refine and even one day elevate me to a realm of being where craving was not an issue; but I didn't feel much urgency around it.

'Desire is neurotic when it seeks from its object more than the object by its very nature is able to give, or even something quite different from what the object is able to give.' My teacher Sangharakshita's words made perfect sense (well, I'd been a smoker for years). Yet even though they gave me pause for thought I can't pretend they changed my life. This wasn't simply because my tendency to crave went so deep, was often unconscious, and expressed fundamental delusions that went to the heart of my idea of myself. It was mainly, I think, because I believed in craving. Like the character in the film The Matrix who knows the steak he is eating is an illusion and yet wants to continue enjoying the taste, I liked the way craving worked.

It made such sense. Life is nasty, brutish and short. It is fragile, unreliable, uncertain. Conditioned things are impermanent, insubstantial and unsatisfactory. Real fulfilment, real happiness - whatever that is - is hard to find, a cosmically big ask. So why not squeeze all your longings, all those feelings of non-fulfilment, all those anxieties, insecurities and unnameable fears into a longing for something you can actually get your hands on - like a football, a warm body or a cigarette? So what if the satisfaction doesn't last! So what if it sometimes doesn't work out. There's always another one waiting round the corner. And the mechanism of craving is so well-oiled that in no time at all it's up and running again, and a new object of craving glows as fiercely and compellingly as the last.

You don't have to be rich, good-looking or clever to crave. Anyone can do it. Everyone is doing it. There's no shortage of fellow feeling, no lack of encouragement. Much of the world runs on it.

When I was in my teens my parents sent me to a country house in the Home Counties for a three-day introduction to careers in industrial management. I recall just two things from the experience. I remember how a young man from Harrow School who sat next to me in the dining room was expelled from the course for pinching our waitress's bottom. And I remember a talk given by the marketing director of a multinational company on the theme of advertising and 'latent need'. At any moment, he said, there was something people wanted, or were on the brink of wanting, even though they knew nothing about it. The challenge of good business practice was to identify that latent need, make it conscious, and then meet it. Even at that age, with the scant resources of a schoolboy, I knew exactly what he was talking about. And it was good. Bring it on, I thought.

There's a Chinese proverb that runs, 'Be very careful what you wish for, as you will probably get it'. I heard those words for the first time when I was in the throes of an intense craving for a particular person's affections. Well, 'Whoopee', I thought, 'Good for the Chinese, and good for me!' And, Lo, the Chinese sage was right. I got my wish. A few years later the relationship came to a sticky end. Battered and bruised, the lady in question and I finally parted. I won't say I regret the relationship, nor that it was all a terrible mistake ... But from then on I did finally detect in myself a modicum of caution. I may not do it nearly as often as I should, but these days I try to remember to take a thoughtful moment now and then to consider whether the fulfilment of a new craving really will make the difference my intoxicated mind is hoping for.

This doesn't make it easy to head off craving or even to see it coming. I've also learnt over the years that craving is pretty hard to root out, hard even to want to root out. And I've discovered that the business of elevating myself to a level of being where craving no longer operates must demand a tad more out of me than I've so far put in.

Still, I've had my moments. I remember coming back from a meditation retreat to discover that our community had been burgled. Opening a drawer and discovering my camera - probably the most valuable and precious thing I owned - had been stolen, I sadly uttered the word, 'Blast', closed the drawer, and moved on to something else. 'Blimey', I thought 10 minutes later, 'That was pretty cool!' Even now, when I fall prey to a frenzy of outrage over a lost book or even a car park with no spaces, I remember that moment of contented non-attachment and wish I could be like it more often. Such a wish, such a hope, even the faith that spiritual practice has the power to grant a deeper level of happiness than that afforded by the satisfaction of craving, keeps me going, keeps me hoping.

More typically though, those moments have been riddled with humiliation. Once, a lover who was dumping me for another man eyed me with a benign exasperation born of her new-found detachment and said, 'You look just like a kid who isn't getting what he wants'. Between you and me, I couldn't help feeling she was doing poor justice to the scale of her betrayal and the grandeur of the tragedy engulfing me. But somewhere deep down, among the screams of agony, a little voice suggested she might have a point.

I can't be the only person in the world who has lusted after a better, faster computer and then spent more money than I could afford, only to switch it on the next morning and discover that ... it's only a computer. And I bet I'm not the only Buddhist who has walked into the countryside on the first morning of a retreat to hurl his cigarettes into the bushes, and who has then found himself scrambling around with a torch come nightfall, desperately wondering where they fell and whether the afternoon rain might have ruined them.

Of course some of my craving has brought suffering to me or to others, but I've 'got away with' a lot. And most of it has been relatively innocent. What mainly bothers me, though, is that feeling of stupidity associated with a lifetime of craving. How foolish and how sad to have wasted so much time in a world of fantasy, longing for things that were not only unworthy, but really displacements of a deeper, more authentic longing.

Sangharakshita once suggested that all our ephemeral desires are nothing more (or less) than a long-circuiting of our desire for Enlightenment. Well, he made a good case, I can see what he meant. And sometimes I even heed his words. I may not always see how my cravings are nothing less than twisted expressions of my aspiration for Enlightenment, but I am getting better at recognising that they may be symptoms of a longing for something deeper than their immediate object. When the poo really does hit the fan and a bout of intensely frustrated craving sends me howling to my meditation cushion, the veils of illusion can sometimes seem tantalisingly thin.

The trick of course is to feel that same sense of urgency all the time, or at least a bit more of the time; and even to feel it when, craving-wise, things seem to be going pretty well. Progress in that department is slow and irregular. But I don't like the prospect of being pushed around for the rest of my life by a procession of cravings. I don't relish the idea of my latent needs being tampered with by Mara, let alone by men in suits who work for multi-national companies. I know I'm not yet immune. I will cheerfully fall victim again and again. But I'm working on it.

I have a friend who spends a lot of his time working with people who are preparing themselves for ordination into the Western Buddhist Order. After years of heart-to-heart conversations, trying to understand people's motives, giving feedback, wandering with his charges through the mazes of their minds and lives, he has fallen back on a simple strategy. When someone tells him they are considering a major life change, which is pretty obviously based on a manifestation of craving and which could have an enormously complicating impact on their spiritual life, he no longer spends hours discussing the pros and cons of their plans. Instead he simply says, 'Oh that's interesting. Tell me, though, how is it going to help you gain Enlightenment?'

So, maybe, if I can remember, and if I'm not too driven by my wants to pause, next time I feel a craving coming on I'll try to give myself the same treatment. 'Oh, that's interesting. But how is it going to help me gain Enlightenment?'

One day at a time, eh?