How to Control Desires In Buddhism: Accept Them

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Radical Acceptance" by Tara Brach. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Is it sinful and wrong to have desires? How can we shut our desires out? What do our desires tell us about our true feelings?

Many mainstream religions, from Judaism and Christianity to Buddhism and Confucianism, teach that desire causes suffering. This does not mean that we should try to shut out and ignore our desires. In fact, we should welcome and accept our desires, examine them, and let them pass.

Keep reading to learn the principles for how to control your desires in Buddhism.

Desire and the Wanting Self

Want to know how to control desires in Buddhism? First it’s important to know why we feel desire. What we desire often relates to childhood needs that weren’t fulfilled. For example, someone whose parents didn’t acknowledge his talents might feel a constant desire for attention and validation. As with everything, there will be a physical aspect to his desire as well: Maybe he feels it as an aching in his chest, coupled with a thrill-seeking excitement that drives him to show off for people.

There’s also a physical reaction when our desires aren’t met. We draw in on ourselves, covering and protecting a vulnerable core. We experience shame for having those desires, and fear that we’ll never feel fulfilled. If our desires repeatedly go unfulfilled, we create an association: Wanting leads to fear and shame. This persistent collection of feelings creates the core of a wanting self: One that constantly feels desire, yet is afraid and ashamed of it.

Wanting selves will seek ways to escape from those painful feelings. We might dissociate from our physical bodies, or seek ways to numb the feelings with endless distractions. We might get lost in our own minds, caught up in obsessive thoughts and self-recrimination, looking for a way out while digging ourselves in deeper. 

When our needs aren’t being met directly, we start looking for substitutes. Like the person whose parents didn’t appreciate his abilities, we might constantly seek to impress others with our skills and knowledge. We might endlessly chase money and power, or seek the more immediate satisfaction of food or drugs. However, all of these methods only strengthen the desires and their associated feelings: deprivation, isolation, and unworthiness. 

The desires and the strategies we use to escape them become so much a part of our lives that they start to feel like part of us. For instance, someone who constantly seeks alcohol and sex might see himself as a “party animal.” He’s become so caught up in his substitutes, so alienated from his real, unfulfilled desires, that he thinks that’s who he really is.

Accepting Desire

Many mainstream religions, from Judaism and Christianity to Buddhism and Confucianism, teach that desire causes suffering. While this can be true, the lesson is often delivered with a lack of nuance that only makes matters worse. We come to believe that all desire is sinful, and that feeling it is a sign that we’re flawed and selfish. We berate ourselves for experiencing natural urges, and we fear the intensity of our own passions. 

This incorrect understanding of desire leads to a natural—but equally wrong—conclusion. We think that somehow ridding ourselves of all desire is necessary for spiritual growth. An old Chinese story illustrates this misunderstanding, and how it’s common even among deeply spiritual people. 

The Old Chinese Story About Desire

There was an old woman who had allowed a monk to live on her land for 20 years. She reasoned that after so much time, the monk—who was at this point a man in his prime—must have found some degree of enlightenment. She decided to test him: Rather than bringing the monk his food personally, she asked a beautiful young woman to do it for her, and to embrace the monk before she left. 

Later that day, the old woman talked to the monk and asked what it had been like to be so close to such a beautiful woman. The monk replied that it had been like a dying tree rooted in a cold rock in winter; in other words, he’d felt no warmth, no life. 

The woman was furious. She called the monk a fraud, threw him off her land, and burned down his hut. 

Her response is confusing to people who misunderstand desire. To them, the monk’s answer seems virtuous. However, the monk was rejecting his experiences rather than meeting them with Radical Acceptance, then allowing them to pass. That’s not what enlightenment is. The woman understood this basic principle, and the monk didn’t—that’s why she considered him a fraud. 

Let the Desire Pass

Instead of shutting down like the monk, we can encounter our desires using mindfulness techniques. When we find ourselves gripped by desire, we should begin by taking a pause. Don’t immediately chase after what you want; instead, recognize what’s happening to you and take a step back to observe your experience. 

Since desire manifests as physical sensations, we can recognize and name those sensations to take away some of their power. Once that’s done, we can invite Mara in for tea: We can accept those feelings as our reality of the moment, and allow them to pass through us without ruling us. 

For example, the monk from the story could have recognized that he felt the warmth of a young woman’s body pressed against his, and the physical—perhaps sexual—responses it created in him. Having done that, he could have accepted those experiences and allowed them to pass away without any lasting impact. 

A key realization that comes from such mindfulness is that those desires and experiences aren’t our fault. We don’t create them, and we’re not to blame for them. They simply exist, and it’s up to us to accept them for what they are. This realization frees us from the fear and shame that come with unmet desires. We come to understand that experiencing desire doesn’t mean we’re flawed or sinful people—we’re simply people who have natural experiences. 

The True Desire Beneath Desire

When we open ourselves to desire, we may realize that what we want in that moment is a substitute for what we really long for. For example, someone who’s fixated on a particular person, caught up in romantic and erotic fantasies, might be covering up a deeper desire for love and belonging. 

In other words, accepting our desires and examining them more deeply may give us insight into what forms our own wanting selves. What are the core desires we have? What have we been doing to try to meet those desires—what substitutes have we been using? What do we really want?

Through Radical Acceptance, we can free ourselves from the narratives we’ve built up around desire. The stories we tell ourselves about being victims of desire, fighting against desire, being people who chase unhealthy urges because we need something more than what we already have. 

By continually accepting our desires as they arise, we may find that our ideas about what we desire become both deeper and simpler. For instance, we may move from desiring a particular person to desiring love, or acceptance, or comfort. Going a step further, we might realize that what we truly desire is available to us at any time. 

Tara Brach on Desire

Tara Brach shares her own experience with accepting desire. She was caught in powerful erotic fantasies about a particular person. At first she was ashamed of these experiences and resisted them, thinking that they were hindering her spirituality. However, when she realized that they were in fact part of her spirituality, she opened up to the desire. 

Brach realized that it wasn’t actually that particular person she wanted. Rather, she wanted to love and be loved; that desire was coupled with fear and regret about all the opportunities she’d missed while focused on work or other mundane things. 

She also realized that she didn’t need a romantic relationship to love or to be loved. She could open herself to the world, experiencing and appreciating everything and everyone in it. With that realization, she felt a connection to everything from the grass and trees around her, to the birds that would eat seeds out of her hands, to the other people she was meditating with. The experience wasn’t permanent, but she was able to tap into it more than once by remembering that sense of openness and longing. 

How to Control Desires In Buddhism: Accept Them

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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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