Several thousand years ago a guy named Shakyamuni was sick of the cushy life his father had created for him. He realized that life was more than soft pillows and fine food. So one night he snuck out of his palace, abandoning his wife and child, to discover what life was really about.
For a while he sat with a group of hardcore monks. They starved themselves, ate feces, stood for hours, and engaged in all forms of self harm in order to free the mind for the body. Shakyamuni was a devoted follower. He did what they did. Ate what they ate and generally beat the crap out of himself.
He gained understanding but he didn’t find what he was looking for. So he quit. Walked away from his friends who all called him a failure and a traitor. He ate some rice, got some rest, and then wandered off to sit under a tree. He simply decided he would sit there until he found enlightenment. And so he did. One morning as the sun rose in the east, he obtained his goalless goal. Finally at peace with himself he got up and went out to teach the world what he learned.
On the most basic level the Buddha taught that in life there is suffering and that suffering is caused by our desire for things we want, aversion towards things we don’t want, and ignorance of the way things actually are.
The good news is that we don’t have to just accept it; we can change it.
I’m not a Buddhist scholar nor have I claimed to master any of what the Buddha taught, but recently a client and dear friend asked me about how we do this. He asked me to share my strategy to stop being attached to my desires, my aversion and ill will, and my ignorance.
So here is my imperfect method and approach to following the Buddha’s teaching.
How to let go of desire
People tend to think that if they satisfy their desires, then they will be happier. They think, if my kids behave a certain way, then I’ll be happy. If I don’t lose my patience, then I’ll be happy. If I can do something really new and interesting, then I’ll be happy.
But satisfying desires never makes you happy, at least not for very long. Yes, it will feel good for a little bit, but ultimately it won’t solve the problem of suffering.
The first step to letting go of your attachment to desires is to notice whenever you’re telling yourself a story about how satisfying a desire will solve your problems. This seems simple but can be quite challenging. You were raised on these stories. You are told these stories daily. “Buy this and you will feel happy” is a the core of 90% of our advertising.
This story isn’t true, but in order for you to see that, you must first notice when you’re telling this story to yourself.
Next, you have to stop believing this story. Look into your desires and see how empty they really are. Do you really think your children’s obedience will solve all of your problems? Do you really think getting that hot girl will totally change your life?
The final step is to actively seek out ways to dispel the myth of the satisfying desire. Practice letting go of the things you want when you don’t get them. Develop an appreciation for difficult circumstances. Instead of seeking your desires try instead to notice how things are right now and find satisfaction in that.
With each of these tiny actions you can demonstrate to yourself that when you see the story of desire as false, you begin to realize that you can be joyous and happy even when your desires aren’t met.
How to let go of aversions or ill will
Aversions are simple, negative desires. They are things you don’t want to have happen or things you don’t want to get.
Ill will is simply aversion personified. People kill other people, because they want to control them. They want them to behave in a certain way, because they think if only the whole world acted in the way they wanted their suffering would end.
Things happen whether you want them to or not, people almost never behave the way you want, and even when they do the results are unsatisfying.
Destroying everything and everyone you don’t like won’t change your suffering. Instead you have to learn to see your aversion and ill will for what it is.
The first step is to acknowledge when you’re feeling averse. Whenever you feel angry, irritable, frustrated, or judgemental simply acknowledge what’s going on. There’s nothing wrong with feeling averse. There’s nothing wrong with having ill will. The only problem is when you think that other people are to blame for those feelings.
Next you must accept that no amount of destruction will solve your suffering. You could never destroy enough behaviors, circumstances, laws, or ways of thinking to satisfy you.
Suffering has nothing to do with creating exactly what you want, and it has nothing to do with destroying what you don’t like. Suffering is simply caused by our attachment to this idea that the world we see should match the image in our minds. But it never does.
The final step is to actively lean into your aversions. Try to love your enemies. Try to appreciate things you don’t like. Notice your irritations without reacting. Don’t give into the story, the energy. Just notice what you want to destroy and instead let it be.
How to let go of ignorance
Ignorance is hard to let go of, because you’re often not aware that you’re holding onto it.
The first step of letting go of ignorance is to have wise friends. Friends who will talk to you and tell you when you’re being a dumbass. Friends who are trying in their own way to find a path out of these stories to something more meaningful. They may not notice your minor ignorances but at least they’ll notice your blatant ones. So find some people who are wise or at least trying to be wise. Find some people of practice and spend time with them.
Next you need to acknowledge your own ignorance whenever you see it. To stop trying to create a world in which suffering won’t happen. This is the world you were born into. Nothing in your vast knowledge can free you from it. Nothing you will learn can give you a way out. Instead you have to accept that you don’t know what’s going on. You have to ask yourself the hard questions again and again. You have to live the questions without getting attached to your answers.
Finally and most importantly you have to be willing to see “the truth”. You have to experience what it means to see your desire arise, to not act on it, not grasp it, and to watch it fade away. You have to experience what it means to see your aversions, your ill will arise, not act on it, to not grasp it, and to watch it fade away.
The ignorance the Buddha talked about is the ignorance of how things really are. You want to believe that if you get what you want and destroy what you don’t like, then you’ll be happy forever. It’s what you’ve been taught your whole life. Our whole economy is based on this idea. Our government is based on these principles.
But it’s not the truth. The truth is that satisfying desire and destroying annoyances won’t make you happy. If you want to be happy you have to let go of these things. You have to step into a space that is large enough to hold both what you want and what you don’t want. You have to let go of your attachments even to ideas of who you think you are. You have to sit and become willing to see life for yourself.
I know this isn’t the kind of truth you want. Because this kind of truth doesn’t come from a top ten tip list. It’s the kind of truth you only get to, by sitting quietly and seeing with your own eyes. What’s really there.
To truly let go of ignorance you have to see what’s real. Which you can do in small ways every day or maybe one day in a very big way if you decide that what you will do.
I struggle everyday to let go of my desire and my aversion and I fail A LOT!! I get grumpy, I get horny, I want something sweeter to eat. I want there to not be a line at the store. I want to believe that if I just change one thing everything else will get better.
So I do my imperfect practice, I make my numerous mistakes, and I just keep trying to see what is real.
Meditation is key to letting go of suffering, but starting a practice can be intimidating. If you’d like to learn how, I have a free 5 min a day meditation course you can sign up for here.