While our healthcare & essential business heroes are facing fear every day at work during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, many of us are left at home to suffer our unfulfilled desires. This may be a new experience for many of us, living as we do in an age of instant gratification and endless choice.
If you're anything like me, the sudden decrease in food options and entertainment afforded by stay-at-home orders is giving you the opportunity to meet your Desire.
I met my Desire a few years ago during the 3 years I spent living in an Ashram in India studying Yoga and Sannyasa. During my course, I had no control over the food that was provided, and generally did not leave the walls of the Ashram. We did not have cell phones or access to computers. We did not have romantic relationships, nor did we have much social time. We lived and breathed our studies and lived a Yogic Lifestyle. It was a deep dive.
It didn't take long before I met my Desire. It took many forms. The one I suffered most frequently and intensely was food cravings. Ashram diet is extremely low in salt, sugar and fat, as well as very low in caffeine. I didn't realize, until my options reduced so drastically, how much I was accustomed to following the whims of my mind. I began having the most intense dreams of food. Huge tables laden with everything I was missing like chocolates, cinnamon buns, sandwiches made with soft bread, coffee, cake, pasta. I was like an addict. I was an addict. I realized that I had been an addict the entire time, but that I hadn't had the opportunity to realize it.
As this experience intensified, I was shifted into a room with a roommate who was not participating in the same course I was, and thus did not commit to observing exactly the same disciplines. She kept whatever food she liked and had somehow stock-piled some sweet treats and other foods all over her side of the room. The rooms were very small, and only contained two beds against a wall with about 6 feet between them. And a small wardrobe to share for our clothing - 2 shelves each. The rest of the room was basically filled with food - I don't even know how it was possible. There was food everywhere, stacked upon itself in tiny towers of big desire.
Right now, amidst this pandemic, we are locked outside of our desires. Businesses are closed, parks closed, restaurants and bars also closed. We can not get in even if we tried. However, in this situation, I was locked inside a room with my desires physically in front of me, and yet I could not rightly have them. It was quite maddening, to say the least. It became a sink or swim situation for me, and I had to quickly figure out how to deal with it. But, you too may also be locked in a room facing your (internal) desires, whether it be for entertainment, variety, novelty, socializing, or food. Maybe now is the time to reframe our perspective on our cravings. It is time to meet your Desire for the first time.
Desires have so many forms. They are always shifting. When we fulfil one desire, it is not extinguished; instead, it throws fuel on the fire and desire grows. If we suppress desire, it grows double. Why? Because we have not yet dealt with the source.
So what to do?!
Desire, as we learn in Yoga, is fundamental to life. Desire propels action. Without it, we would be stuck. Desire itself really isn't the problem. Suffering is the problem. When we suffer because we can't have what we desire, that is a problem. Whether we are suffering boredom, food cravings, or loneliness, what we need to do first is acknowledge the desire that we are suffering. "I am aware that I am intensely desiring a tender, juicy steak from The Keg." Next we can redirect our mind to a more uplifting desire. "I would rather not suffer this steak which I cannot have. I do have some potatoes and flour, and I could really enjoy some homemade gnocci for dinner." Then, we can redirect our attention somewhere else. "Maybe I'll read a little, or start on making that gnocci." (I also learned that a lot of the time when we're craving something, we're really just thirsty and need some water, FYI!)
We need to strengthen our mind's ability to shift focus like that, and be able to maintain concentration on that new focus. This ability is cultivated by participating wholeheartedly with alert attention and creativity in even the most mundane of daily tasks, which there is more than ample opportunity to do right now! Unfortunately, though, spending a lot of the day binging on Netflix will have the opposite effect, and harm our ability to shift mental focuses and maintain prolonged periods of concentration.
The importance and value in experiencing boredom cannot be overlooked in daily life. When one enters into the depths of boredom - and if we do not repeatedly turn to instant and mindless time-passes to rescue us from our boredom, such as television- it means that we are on the cusp of entering into creativity, for boredom is often a transition and a propeller into great creative endeavours.
Last year, we sold our tv and since then we have engaged as a family into so many projects that I am sure we otherwise would not have like regular baking, piano playing, reading and art projects together. We still watch a show on the computer or phone from time to time, but it is much less tempting, and also much more enjoyable since it is a treat. I have particularly noticed how, since reducing our screen time, my toddler will enter into a phase of boredom, and find his way out of it all by himself with some incredibly imaginative open-ended play.
We can retrain our minds to desire what is available to us, is positive and is uplifting. We can desire to be free from suffering. We can learn to cultivate contentment by finding ways to be grateful for what we have, rather than focusing on what we do not have, which almost always produces suffering. We can train our minds to acknowledge our feelings, and then move our attention to something different. And finally, we can sit in a place of boredom in order to discover and express the creativity within.
When I lived in the Ashram, I remember one day making a list entitled "Happiness Is" and on that list I placed various food items and activities which I desperately missed from home. I remember "sandwiches" in particular. Do you think I ever get excited about sandwiches now that I have been home for 5 years? No! Because it is all relative. I have free access to sandwiches now, so I desire something else that is more restricted, like restaurant food, or a date night at a restaurant with my husband (which is very difficult with a baby and a toddler). Yet, for a period of time, I truly felt and believed that happiness was SANDWICHES. It is so funny now. I laugh as I write this, but I was really suffering it then.
What I gradually began to realize through Ashram life, Yogic Lifestyle and my studies was that Freedom, being truly free, did not mean having the means to follow every whim of my mind and desire. Real freedom meant freedom from compulsion, guiding myself toward positive desires, and gratitude for what I currently had. It is being able to flow and find contentment - through gratitude - with what Life is currently offering you. It is being able to enjoy what you have. And being able to be without it when you can't have it. As the wise Sheryl Crowe has said, "it's not having what you want, it's wanting what you've got" (vs the common "wanting what you can't have" syndrome).
It's so simple in theory, but it takes practice to experience the shift inside. Yet, even though it takes time to practice and experience this new mentality, I find that having a new context for understanding can make all the difference. It is empowering and hopeful, as we are no longer simply victims to the situation, but are given a chance to become the master of our mind.