Buddhists talk about the difference between wanting something and clinging to it. Wanting things is good; without desire we would be dead. Clinging to those things, however, can be very harmful. Let me explain this with an example so you can understand the difference between wanting something and being attached to its outcome.
A Good Example
Wanting to be promoted isn’t bad, as long as you’re not attached to it and do it for the right reasons. Let me explain.
You have no control over being promoted. You can only control your actions, but not the outcome. So ask yourself, “what can I do to improve my performance at work?” and do those things. You can also talk to your boss about promotion opportunities. If you see it’s not going to happen, find a different company to work for or start your own.
But don’t do what a lot of people do. Don’t think “if I get promoted, everything will be all right.” Things are what they are, not what they “should” be. The more you’re attached to what things should be like, the more suffering you’re bringing upon yourself.
Wanting things isn’t bad as long as you act with integrity. Spreading gossip about your co-workers so you look good is a terrible idea.
Step #1: Desire Fewer Things
I said that desiring things isn’t bad, so why am I suggesting that you desire fewer things? It makes you question what you want and whether you really want it. For example, you might want a new car because your neighbor got one. This will make you aware of your need for recognition, which, with practice, you can start to let go of.
This will take a lot of pressure off your shoulders. Believe me: I used to have a huge ego and I needed other people’s validation all the time. I was always worried about what others thought of me. I wanted to appear successful, smart and good at everything.
I still have a lot of those things, but I’ve started letting go of my ego a few years ago and it feels amazing. Now I spend most of my time doing what feels good and I no longer care if others don’t agree with me or even if they don’t like me. I’m not like that all the time. Sometimes my ego takes over. But I’ve learned to be mindful of it and once you bring awareness to something, you’re ready to let go.
By desiring fewer things you’ll let go everything that doesn’t really matter so you can focus on what’s really important to you.
Step #2: Desire Without Grasping to a Certain Outcome
Can you want a promotion, work hard to get that promotion, but be happy whether you want it or not? Can you be happy with what you have and who you are now? In other words, if things didn’t change, could you find a way to be happy anyway?
Your first reaction could be to say “no”. This is because we’re such a goal-oriented society. It looks like if we don’t want more, we’re losers. But, what’s wrong with being happy right now, with the way your life is, not what it should be?
A study shows that after six months, people who suffer accidents that leave them in wheelchairs return to the same happiness levels they were at pre-accident. This is because they finally accept their new reality instead of wishing it were different.
A disabled inspirational speaker once said to his audience, “before the accident I could do 10,000 things. Now I can do 9,000. Why focus on the 1,000 things I can no longer do?” Someone in the audience asked, “but aren’t you always wishing your legs worked?” The speaker replied, “I used to, until I realized that wishing wouldn’t make my legs work. I’m happy with who I am.” Kudos to him for having the guts to accept his reality.