“I know what I need. I know what I want,” you tell yourself. You trust your desires, and following them you hope to ride into the sunset—another happy ending. Or is it? Could you be miswanting? According to psychology professor Daniel Gilbert, people mistake how much happiness they will gain from achieving what they desire; whether a car, a new spouse, or a piece of cake—when we do gain what we desire, it is never as good as what we calculated. This mistake, Gilbert explains, makes us victims of miswanting. You desire, then aspire, and if you’re lucky, you acquire. But then what?
“I can’t get no satisfaction.
I can’t get no satisfaction.
Cause I try and I try and I try and I try.
I can’t get no, I can’t get no …”
-The Rolling Stones
This is the theme song to life as we know it. But it’s time to change the soundtrack. Understanding this flaw of miswanting, the yoga texts of ancient India seek to redirect the sincere seeker to the true object of desire that results in real spiritual fulfilment.
NEEDS AND WANTS
It’s easy to distinguish between needs and wants.
Our needs are what our body must have to survive: we need to eat, sleep, mate, protect ourselves.
Wants, on the other hand, aren’t essential to sustaining life. Whereas all conscious beings have needs in common (generally speaking), wants are what make you an individual. “I want a Ford and not a Toyota.” Or “I want chocolate ice cream, rather than plain vanilla.” And we think that our wants will make us happy. Certainly, there is no question of happiness if particular needs are not met. But wants are like extra spice you sprinkle on your life, thinking, “This is what I want to make me happy.”
The equation for happiness seems simple enough. Needs + wants = satisfaction. But has such a simple formula ever produced a happy civilisation? Fulfilling life’s basic needs has become problematic, even for the animals.
For example, drivers will not be surprised to see a hawk in the middle of a highway trying to salvage some roadkill before a car travelling at 100 kilometres per hour strikes it dead. Fulfilling a basic need can be life-threatening for such birds of prey. Similarly, many humans struggle for life’s basics—food and clean water. However, in First World countries, where food and clean water are in abundance, we find another extremity, obesity. Everyone needs to eat, but when our needs become wants and we want to eat more than needed, we create problems for our natural environment, others, and ourselves.
“The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” (Mahatma Gandhi)
ALL I WANT IS NOT TO WANT
Bhagavad Gita, the most well-known yoga text, insightfully explains why we “can’t get no satisfaction.” Krishna, the master of the yoga system, explains that desire burns like fire—and a fire is never extinguished by a constant supply of fuel. It just gets bigger and bigger.
“Thus the wise living entity’s pure consciousness becomes covered by its eternal enemy in the form of lust, which is never satisfied and which burns like fire.” (B.G. 3.39)
Frustrated with desire you may think, “All I want is not to want.” Is this possible? Can the fire of desire be extinguished for good?
Author and bhakti-yoga teacher Devamrita Swami, shares the fascinating story of a Buddhist monk whom he met in Thailand, who was originally from the United Kingdom. Many foreigners would visit the monastery where the Buddhist monk had been a practising abbot for the past thirty years.
His practice was to meditate on the incoming and outgoing breath, what the Bhagavad Gita calls pranayama. The breath is actually material, not spiritual. Although pranayama certainly reduces material distress, a person cannot approach the spiritual reality through such material methods.
The monk told Devamrita Swami how he had constructed a bamboo hut in the jungle outside the monastery, where he meditated for five years on the incoming and outgoing breath, tolerating sickness, changing weather conditions, and mosquitoes.
He began to think he was making a lot of progress. But what was that progress? Becoming detached from material desires—from his needs and wants. One day, however, from a large transistor radio strapped to the back of a passing villager’s bike, blared the ‘50s song, “Tell Laura I love her. Tell Laura I need her.” Being old enough to remember that song, he suddenly felt tears glide down his face. Astonished, he thought, “Why, when I hear this sentimental pop song, are tears coming from my eyes? I don’t understand. After so much practice, I still haven’t annihilated desire.”
When the monk asked for his insight, Devamrita Swami explained,
Like it or not, we all have an eternal loving propensity. We want relationships. We want the flow of loving relationships. And you can’t falsely get rid of that. You tried to ignore the reality, thinking that the goal of reality is to annihilate the self, annihilate all desire. But just see—one song from the ‘50s blows your whole agenda away. This desire comes from the soul—it’s coming through matter, that’s true, it’s coming through the body and mind—but originally it comes from the soul. The soul wants connection. But can the soul be satisfied connecting to matter, whether physiologically or psychologically? No, the soul can only be satisfied by connecting with the Supreme Soul, Krishna. That is the lesson of Bhagavad Gita and it is one that will get to the root of all human problems today.
FISH OUT OF WATER
Devamrita Swami raises an interesting point. How can the soul, being spiritual by nature, be satisfied connecting to matter? Is this existential crisis, the problem of desire, pointing to the true nature of consciousness? The premise of Bhagavad Gita is that the nature of the conscious self is spiritual—thus by interacting with matter you “can’t get no satisfaction.”
His Divine Grace Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the modern world’s foremost exponent of Krishna consciousness, explains:
Everyone in the material world is engaged in all kinds of political, philanthropic and humanitarian activities to make material life happy and prosperous, but this is not possible. One should understand that in the material world, however one may try to make adjustments, he cannot be happy. For example, if you take a fish out of water, you can give it a very comfortable velvet bedstead, but still the fish cannot be happy; it will die. Because the fish is an animal of the water, it cannot be happy without water. Similarly, we are all spirit soul; unless we are in spiritual life or in the spiritual world, we cannot be happy. ” (Krsna Consciousness: The Topmost Yoga System)
The unit of spiritual consciousness attempting to find satisfaction through matter is like a fish’s attempt to live a comfortable life outside water. Regardless what matter the conscious self is given— Ray Ban sunglasses, a pair of Timberlands, a Versace T-shirt, or a lingerie model girlfriend—it cannot find satisfaction in these material things alone. Struggling to fulfil our needs and wants will not give us lasting happiness. We are not matter and therefore matter cannot satisfy us.
The needs and wants people strive to fulfil, though important on a material level, do not nourish the true self. Until we learn the art, culture, and science of gratifying the spiritual self, then all we will know is temporary stimulations and the empty feeling that comes from miswanting.
CHANGE THE SOUNDTRACK
The most effective way to spiritually surcharge your life is to change the soundtrack. Instead of singing along with Mick Jagger and how he couldn’t find no satisfaction, despite the fact he is worth over $300 million, try chanting the Hare Krishna maha mantra.
The secret to being in the world but not of it lies in this mantra yoga technology. “Man” means the mind, and “tra” means to free. Using the power of sound to affect consciousness has been long recognised. As the English philosopher and statesman Sir Francis Bacon stated, “The sense of hearing striketh the spirit more immediately than any other senses.”
The sound of the maha mantra, Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare, frees us from material existence and reawakens our true, spiritual identity. Adding this chanting to your life makes the true you happy on the deepest level.
Whether you are miswanting or stoking the fire of material desire, there isn’t any hope of finding lasting satisfaction, nor in extinguishing the flames of desire altogether. Humanity must address this deeper existential issue by delving into a whole new level of existence. Bhagavad Gita and the maha mantra gives us access to this level of ourselves. So why not change the theme music to your life and see what lasting happiness awaits?