In my last blog post I wrote about The First Noble Truth. The First Noble Truth about life that the Buddha observed is that life is filled with a particular kind of suffering called dukkha. In the Second Noble Truth he described the cause of human suffering as craving. Let’s see if we can connect how craving is related to our suffering in the following.
When we talk about craving in this context we’re talking about a Pali (the ancient religious language of the Buddha) word, tanha. Tanha roughly translates into English as thirst or desire. I personally like the use of thirst in this case because it is something we can all easily relate to in a direct and physical way. Have you ever been really, really thirsty? Perhaps you were out hiking on a hot day and ran out of water and when you finally got that drink it tasted sooooo good. But just before you got that drink all you could think about was getting that drink and how good your life would be if you got it, right? You would fantasize about how good that first sip would taste. That’s tanha in a nutshell.
Tanha, the kind that leads to human suffering, isn’t really about the kind of normal desire that leads us to wake up in the morning, make coffee and breakfast and go to work. That’s one of the big misconceptions of Buddhist psychology, that Buddhists are trying to become desireless zombies. In Buddhism normal human desire isn’t a problem. We need that kind of desire to do stuff, in fact Buddhism itself wouldn’t exist without some desire to relieve ourselves and others of suffering, right? So when we talk about tanha, we’re talking about an almost obsessive craving of wanting something with the idea that our problems will go away or that our lives will be so much better if and when we get it. As one of my teachers Will Kabat-Zinn described, tanha is a kind of intense feeling we get from the gut, an almost primitive kind of urge that’s different from ordinary desire and want.
What exactly do we crave in modern life? Certainly it can be money and the material goods money can buy like cars, large homes, and luxury items we don’t really need or can’t afford. We see bankruptcies and the like all the time in America because we’re conditioned to use credit cards and borrow money and overextend ourselves financially. Other areas of craving that are less obvious that we frequently encounter are cravings for attention, love, admiration, respect, and connection. Jack Kornfield during a training session I attended once asked rhetorically, “How many of you here have made of fool of yourself for love?” We all laughed nervously knowing he meant all of us in the room.
Moreover, we also crave to feel good and cling to this “feeling good” feeling. That can take the form of addictions to food, drugs or alcohol, sex, shopping, our phones, the internet, or gambling to name a few of the more common ones.
When we experience tanha and we really get caught up in it, we start doing things that are ultimately harmful to both ourselves and others in an effort to satisfy the craving. We lose all track of what we’re doing. We literally temporarily lose our minds.
As the Buddha noted this is something to explore within ourselves and our own experiences and see if it is true for us. In the Third and Fourth Noble Truths the Buddha outlined a pathway to step out of this cycle of craving and suffering. More on this in future postings.
With Loving-Kindness to All,
Winfred Ark, PsyD
As always, if you find yourself struggling with mental health issues please seek a professional’s help. Blog posts not intended to replace a professional’s advice.