Spirituality

It is the essence of all great religious traditions.

How to Want What You Have

Here is a simple method for putting it into practice.

by Timothy Miller


If you were asked to summarize the teachings of Jesus Christ, Mohandas Gandhi, and

Gautama Buddha in one simple sentence, how would you respond?

I'd answer, "Learn to want what you have."

For instance, Jesus says, in Luke 17:21, "The kingdom of God is within you." In other words, learn to want what you have. If you already possess the kingdom of God, it's pretty silly to spend your life piling up ever more wealth, status, or romantic love, in the hope that it will bring you satisfaction.

Gandhi says, "Civilization is not the infinite multiplication of human wants but their deliberate limitation to essentials that can be equitably shared by all." In other words, learn to want what you have.

The first three of Buddha's four noble truths (loosely translated) are: "All living things suffer. The cause of suffering is desire. The antidote to suffering is the renunciation of desire." In other words, learn to want what you have.

Other admirable teachers and traditions have conveyed the same message. We might consider a verse from the Talmud: "Who is rich? He who is contented with his lot." Or we might consider Henry David Thoreau, who writes, "A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can do without." Ram Dass, summarizing essential Hindu teachings, advises, "Be here now." What you want and fear is in the future. What you regret is in the past. What you have is right here, right now.

When I speak and teach about wanting what you have, it's not uncommon for someone to say, "I'm supposed to want what I have, huh? Well, I've got a crappy car that won't start half the time, a bad back, and a lot of debts. Is that supposed to be good enough for me?"

It's an honest question, which deserves an honest answer. I sometimes reply, "Okay, then hate what you have. Feel better now?"

My smart-aleck reply raises one of five good reasons to want what you have: If you spend your life telling yourself that you skill haven't gotten all the wealth, status, and romantic love you deserve, you're not going to have much fun. You will make yourself vulnerable to anxiety, depression, or chronic anger.

The other four reasons are:

1. When you are greedy, envious, competitive, selfish, and vain, you are not very likable, and will probably cause pain to the people who love you and depend upon you.

2. The crust of the earth does not contain enough iron ore or petroleum for all people to have all the automobiles they desire. The same principle applies to many other resources and consumer products. If too many people try too hard to satisfy all their desires, environmental collapse will inevitably follow.

3. Greed, resentment, and excessive ambition lead to poor judgment. One bad decision wipes out the benefits of a hundred good decisions. For this reason humility, compassion, and self-restraint are practical, empowering guidelines for daily life, paradoxical as that may seem.

4. Most of the world's great spiritual traditions teach that self-importance, envy, greed, and hatred are the great obstacles to direct religious experience. Wanting what you have means systematically and persistently restraining self-importance, envy, greed, and hatred. In doing so, one opens the door to deep religious experience.

 

The final item, direct religious experience, is my primary concern. Consistent with Hindu andBuddhist tradition (and some Judeo-Christian tradition), I take the view that deep religious experience can never be adequately explained, justified, or debated. It must be experienced, personally.

Religious history is full of methods for opening oneself to the possibility of deep religious experience. Many of these methods have been simple and practical, at least for the people to whom they were intended. The best methods have addressed ordinary people, using the language and symbolism of their own particular era and culture. All essentially teach wanting what you have. The problem for contemporary Americans is that these traditional methods are hundreds or thousands of years old and were really for people whose daily lives were vastly different from our own.

When I sat down to write my book, How To Want What You Have: Discovering the Magic and Grandeur of Ordinary Existence, I wanted to articulate a method for opening the door to deep religious experience that ordinary Americans living ordinary lives could understand almost immediately and practice without reservation.

In the process of developing the methods described in my book, it struck me that while wanting what you have may seem simple in theory, to actually put it into practice is extremely difficult, requiring clarity of purpose and consistent effort, renewed repeatedly, every day.

Although I am satisfied with the traditional Hindu and Buddhist approaches to direct religious experience, I am not satisfied with the traditional explanations of why wanting what you have is so difficult. I have a different explanation, consistent with recent developments in biology and the social sciences.

 

Why It's So Hard

Maybe it's embarrassing, but it's true: Human beings are animals. Our brains are animal brains and our minds are animal minds. Contrary to what we were taught in college, we are not born as blank slates. We are born filled with instincts. Every infant knows how to grope and smell its way toward a nipple and start sucking. We are also born full of instinctive aversions, inclinations, tendencies, and desires. Some of these are evident in infancy or early childhood. Even newborn infants prefer a smiling human face over a frowning one, and a symmetrical human face over a distorted one. No one adult or child needs to be taught to avoid spiders; that comes naturally. On the other hand, modern humans are amazingly blase about dangers that did not exist in the ancestral environment, such as smoking, alcohol, or driving without seat belts. We have no instincts to tell us that these things are dangerous.

All inborn instincts, inclinations, aversions, and desires have one ultimate goal reproductive success for the individual who possesses them and acts upon them. This explains, for example, why attractive people have a much easier time finding mates than unattractive people. What we thoughtlessly call "physical attractiveness" in modern times is actually a set of indirect signals indicating that the person in question is likely fertile and relatively free of disease, parasites, and genetic defects.

Such signals may not be very useful in modern times, nor are they infallible. In fact, in modern times they are often arbitrary and oppressive. Nevertheless they served an important purpose under ancestral circumstances. Far too few generations have passed since the development of the modern way of life for the genes that determine these preferences and inclinations to have disappeared from the human species.

This way of looking at the human animal helps us understand why it is so difficult to want what you have. Under ancestral circumstances, for thousands of generations, physical survival and reproductive success were always in doubt. Those individuals who worked, fought, and competed most relentlessly and cunningly were the ones most likely to pass their genes on to the next generation, where the process was repeated. In other words, it's human nature to be somewhat greedy, restless, ambitious, and self centered. We are the ultimate progeny of those ancestral people. Cooperation was important in ancestral times, too, but it was balanced with competition, just as it is today.

When old thinking habits are systematically altered, problematic emotions often resolve themselves, and bad habits often disappear almost effortlessly.

If you are serious about learning to want what you have. This is useful information. It tells you where to look for the source of the problem, which in turn tells you how to solve the problem skillfully. The problem lies not with television, advertising, capitalism, modern values, or the way your parents raised you. The problem lies at the core of each person's nature. We are born with hungry hearts, and unless we take concerted action, we die with hearts still hungry.

 

A Rational Method

My ideas about wanting what you have began with a personal and spiritual quest. Given my hard-headed, skeptical personality and my admiration of science, I was unable to accept supernatural explanations of the events and feelings that shape people's lives. Yet I knew that life has a depth dimension, and that the greatest tragedy is to live in ignorance of it. I had experienced life's depth dimension in meditation, in the small epiphanies that occur in daily life, in the teachings of many wise religious leaders and philosophers, and in art, music, poetry, and literature.

For several years, I struggled with a seemingly impossible paradox that demanded resolution, a sort of Zen koan: If supernatural forces and personalities do not shape our lives, then how can life have any depth to it? The answer, when it finally came, was simple: The ultimate purpose of life is not to satisfy normal human desires nor to avoid pain or death.

Many people understandably hope that supernatural beings and forces will help them satisfy their desires and soothe their fears. This kind of thinking can be called "spiritual," but "superstitious" is probably a better word. Life's "depth dimension" is irrelevant to ordinary human desires. Life's depth dimension opens to us when we understand that our ordinary human desires and fears are nothing special.

The next step was to develop a nonsuperstitious method for wanting what you have. That was easier. I found a simple, practical, and rational method for wanting what you have right in my own back yard, so to speak. I'm a clinical psychologist. Mostly what I do all day is help my clients resolve their fears, heartaches, humiliations, grudges, and bad habits. Fifteen years of accumulated clinical experience coupled with modern scientific evidence tell me that cognitive psychotherapy is the simplest, quickest and most reliable way of accomplishing these goals. It occurred to me that the theory and technique of cognitive psychotherapy might be adapted to the problem of wanting what you have.

Innumerable accounts of cognitive psychotherapy have appeared in popular books and magazines recently, so I won't belabor it here. The essential idea is simply that emotions and moods are involuntary, whereas conscious thoughts are voluntary. It's possible to substitute new, carefully chosen, productive patterns and habits of thinking in the place of old, harmful patterns.

Altering habits of thinking is often easier than altering habits of behavior. When old thinking habits are systematically altered, problematic emotions often resolve themselves, and bad habits often disappear almost effortlessly.

I suggest a method for wanting what you have derived from cognitive psychotherapy. In the same way that unfortunate thinking habits can be deliberately altered to resolve anxiety, depression, or anger, they can also be altered to reduce resentment, greed, envy, and self-importance. To facilitate wanting what you have, I suggest developing new habits of thinking that revolve around three synergistic principles compassion, attention, and gratitude which, in my opinion, are necessary and sufficient for wanting what you have. If you look closely at any time-tested systematic method for spiritual development, you will find it recommends these three elements in one form or another, though the terminology will vary.

 

Compassion

There are many ways to define compassion, none of them entirely satisfactory. Compassion isn't just kindness or empathy, though these will often arise from the practice of compassion. Neither is it wimpiness. It's possible to assert or defend yourself compassionately. Perhaps it's best to understand compassion as the intention to see the Divine in each person. This approach breaks down the illusion that any one person is ultimately any better or worse, more or less important, than any other person. In the same way, it breaks down the illusion that some people are more entitled to get what they want than others. Again, it breaks down the illusion that some people deserve to suffer while others don't.

It's almost impossible to carry out the intention to be more compassionate without a systematic method. The essence of the cognitive method I suggest is to understand that everybody wants about the same things (wealth, status, and love) for about the same reasons. The main way humans differ from one another lies in the strategies they employ to satisfy these desires. Some people try to win status by lifting weights; others by reading difficult books. Some people try to win wealth by speculating on pork bellies; others by fixing cars.

To put this understanding into practice, you systematically develop and rehearse specific compassionate thoughts and behaviors you can then apply in the compassion-challenging situations that inevitably arise in your daily life. For example, if you are often exasperated with wings in the park, you might develop some compassionate inner conversation intended to challenge your usual belief that you are a superior person or that they deserve their dire circumstances. Making the effort to do this produces several good results: You no longer poison yourself with your own hostility; you don't take your poisonous hostility home to your friends and family; and you become more likely to concern yourself with the welfare of unfortunate strangers. All of these results make you more capable of finding the Divine in the people you meet every day.

 

Attention

Among Buddhists and Hindus attention is often called "mindfulness." Related Judeo-Christian principles include reverence, awe, and humility. The principle of attention is aptly summarized by the adage, "Life is a great thing; try not to miss it." The most common ways to miss it are to live too much in the past or in the future or to make unnecessary value judgments about the present. By developing new habits of thinking, it's possible to commit these unfortunate errors less frequently.

Direct religious experience arises only in the present, typically under rather ordinary circumstances. The memory of past religious experience soon fades, or gets distorted by subsequent events and desires. Anticipating the future with greed or fear interferes with direct religious experience. If the Divine is anywhere, it is right here, right now. Inattentive ways of living close the door to direct experience of the Divine.

Cognitive methods can facilitate practicing attention in daily life. Learn to review your habitual thoughts so as to identify those thinking patterns that contradict the principle of attention. For example, you may find that when you play with your children, you secretly resent the time it takes, or wish you were free to be doing something "more important." You may be sneaking glances at the television news while your child takes her turn. This way of living wastes your time and energy, and causes you to devalue the life that God has given you.

When you believe your present activities are not important enough to deserve your full attention, and behave accordingly, your beliefs fulfill themselves. If you implicitly declare the events of your daily life unimportant, they will seem so, and seeming so, they become so. On the other hand, if you develop the habit of acting and thinking as if each moment is divine, that prophecy will fulfill itself.

 

Gratitude

The Divine can take many forms: A kind gesture, either given or received, a bird's song, a good belly laugh, a great sexual experience, a good meal, and so on. It is presumptuous and self- defeating to discount the importance of the many good things you enjoy, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. I sometimes advise my students to play what I call the "gratitude game." Choose some small, unimportant object from your environment at random. Challenge yourself to find reasons to be grateful for it. Then reflect upon those reasons for a moment, and see how deeply you can feel the gratitude.

Here, I'll play a brief round. A cheap old AM transistor radio has been gathering dust on my desk for years. I doubt I could get a dollar for it at a garage sale. Hmmm, it still works. I scan through the stations. It offers a staggering variety of free information and music of every possible type. A hundred years ago, not even the richest human being on earth could have hoped ever to have this much music and information continuously available. To get it for free would have been inconceivable. Now I'm getting an old song that's always made me smile. It's tinny, but it's still musical. If I close my eyes and open my heart to the feeling of gratitude, gratitude comes to me.

A cognitive approach to gratitude is so easy and obvious, it seems hardly worth mentioning. Yet I'll bet you don't know a single person who does it regularly. Simply develop the habit of counting your blessings whatever they might be many times every day. The only trick is to disregard fears and frustrated longings while you are counting your blessings. Otherwise, they tend to spoil the experience of gratitude.

 

How to Be Rich, Lucky, and Wise

Compassion, attention, and gratitude are synergistic. Each makes the other two necessary; each makes the other two possible. Remove any one of the three and you are left with an unbalanced way of life. Without compassion, spiritual practice becomes self-centered. Without attention, spiritual practice becomes an exercise in self-deception. Without gratitude, spiritual practice becomes joyless.

Compassion, attention, and gratitude each point in the same ultimate direction from a different point on the map of human existence. If you practice any one of these three principles with deep understanding and zeal you will likely discover the other two. For example, deep gratitude for the good people in your life, regardless of their flaws, eventually teaches the lesson of unconditional, universal compassion. How can we describe the ultimate direction to which all three principles point? We cannot. As the Tao Te Ching puts it, "He who knows cannot say; he who says does not know." And yet, examine any truly convincing description of peak religious experience. Such descriptions are quite diverse, yet every one contains clear references to compassion, attention, and gratitude.

People already comfortably established in a traditional religion may find that these methods help them think, feel, and act according to the standards set by their church, temple, or spiritual teacher. In this way, they may be able to develop a deeper relationship with the supreme being recognized by their religion.

On the other hand, if you lean toward agnosticism or atheism you may find that wanting what you have constitutes a broad and sturdy method of personal growth all by itself.