2nd Noble Truth of Buddhism: The root of all suffering is desire.
“You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you might get what you need.” ~ Mick Jagger & Keith Richards
I was in the 6th grade the first time my dad took me to the James Lick high school Invitational Basketball Tournament. It was a neighborhood institution that kicked off the holiday season. The gym was packed. I was mesmerized watching players run back and forth in a choreographed ballet to the soundtrack of basketball shoes squeaking on the polished maple floor. Cheerleaders jumped, chanted, twirled, and fired up the crowd. The whole scene was intoxicating.
I’ll never forget the excitement I felt watching the winning team cut down the nets as a souvenir and seeing the all-tournament team clutching trophies at center court as the crowd cheered. From then on, one of my dreams was to play in the tournament. I looked forward to someday standing on a ladder to snip a little piece of the net as a champion and imagined holding an all-tournament player trophy of my own.
Six years later, I had my chance. As a senior at James Lick, I was co-captain and starting shooting guard for the varsity basketball team. We won our first game on opening night. I had a good game and earned a top 10 spot on the all-tournament vote tally. So far so good. For the first time in my life, I understood what it meant to want something really bad. My stomach churned with excitement and anticipation.
After the game, a bunch of students celebrated the victory at the neighborhood Round Table Pizza. My teammates and I walked into the place like conquering heroes. On the way home, my friend lost control of his car and crashed it head-on into a telephone pole. A few hours later, I was sitting in the Kaiser emergency room as a doctor stitched the deep cut on my forehead. My dad looked at me with his signature furrowed brow of disapproval.
The doctor said no to basketball for a week. I was miserable the next day at school and the day after. It felt like my dog had died all over again. I suffered sitting on the bench wearing jeans and a letterman jacket watching my team lose the next two games. Something that I had wanted since the 6th grade went up in smoke right before my eyes. There would be no nets to cut down, no all-tourney trophy to hold at mid-court, no cheering crowd.
Eight years later, I had another chance. I was pacing the sidelines in my second season as the head varsity basketball coach at my high school alma mater. My team was playing in the championship game of the tournament. I wanted to win that game so much that I could taste the silk net that we would cut down when the game was over. The other team had different plans. At the end of the first half, it was still a close game, and then it wasn’t. We lost by a wide margin.
My insides literally ached from disappointment. I couldn’t sleep and barely nibbled at mealtime. Each time I walked into the gym in the weeks after the tournament, I second-guessed my losing game plan and rehashed the visual of that car coming face-to-face with an immovable object 8 years earlier. Wanting high school basketball glory had been so intense that the letdown was brutal.
Looking back on the events of 1980 and 1988 seems so quaint now. My intellectual journey of spiritual and philosophical discovery has opened my eyes about what causes so much pain and suffering in our personal lives. Throughout history, sacred texts, philosophers, and psychologists have told us that temptations and cravings are sure paths to unhappiness and sorrow.
According to Hebrews 2:18 “he himself has suffered when tempted.” While sitting under the Bodhi tree, the Buddha realized that desire leads to suffering. Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius put it bluntly, “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it.” Swiss psychologist Carl Jung said, “Desire without forethinking gains much but keeps nothing, therefore his desire is the source of constant disappointment.” The bottom line is that desire isn’t our friend.
Even though we have 2,500 years of wisdom to turn to, we keep making ourselves miserable. I was so tempted by the romantic illusion of cutting down the net in front of a cheering crowd as coach and making the all-tourney team as a player that my craving to achieve these desires was more powerful than the game itself. In the end, the pain and suffering I brought upon myself wasn’t caused by the game. It came down to not getting what I wanted.
Read that paragraph again.
It’s an eye-opening realization that’s worthy of deep reflection. Was I distraught because we lost the game or because I wanted to win so desperately? Those two thoughts might sound the same, but they’re different. Looking back on many of the darkest emotional chapters of my life, I’ve come to accept the universally recognized philosophical truism that desire and temptation cause suffering.
Last year’s Covid pandemic is a perfect example of this belief. Nearly every conversation with friends and family shifted to frustration, impatience, and unhappiness about having to wear masks and not being able to have a “normal” life. The desire to see friends, go to a restaurant, visit loved ones in the hospital was overwhelming. The CDC reported that “40% of U.S.adults reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse” last summer
As the classic Rolling Stones song goes, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you might get what you need.” We tied ourselves in knots over things we wanted to do, but we needed to stay alive and out of the hospital. Most people who tried to follow the guidelines are still here. Can you imagine how less complicated life would’ve been if we accepted the restrictions without the emotional damage we inflicted on ourselves?
Does that mean we shouldn’t have desires or want things? Do I want to live my life without having to focus on transplant issues on a daily basis? Do I want to drink lots of beer and have a bunch of Mark’s hot dogs? Do I want to walk my daughters down the aisle? Do I want to live long enough to spoil grandchildren? The answers to these questions are yes, yes, yes, and hell yeah! The reality is that God commanded the first 2 wants and He will dictate the last 2 as well.
If I had my way – which I’ve clearly learned that I don’t – I would eliminate the word want from my vocabulary. When the thought pops into my head, I try hard to think it through before I say it, even to myself. Life is a tough gig. If these very smart dead guys are to be believed, we bring emotional pain onto ourselves. I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt.
There’s a story that’s often attributed to the Buddha that shows up in all kinds of inspirational and feel-good memes. There’s like a 99.9% chance that he never uttered these words. Whoever said it brings clarity to what I tried to say in the last 1,100 words or so. Take some time to think about it. It just might give you a different perspective when desire takes over your mind, heart, and soul.
A man asked Gautama Buddha, “I want happiness.
Buddha said, “First remove I, that’s ego, then remove want, that’s desire.
“See now you are left with happiness.”