Image for The Gathering Pod A Martha Beck Podcast Episode #99 When You Want Not to Want What You Want
About this episode

What can we do with desires for things we can’t have? This week Martha talks about the experience of wanting. She explains how to turn wanting into an experience of peace and abundance. (Originally aired: October 9, 2022)


Martha Beck:

Well, here we went, go. We just passed a hundred on Facebook. I think I need to tip to this, there. Ah, now I have my whole head. Okay, welcome, welcome, welcome to the Gathering Room. I am so happy to have you all here in my basement with me. It’s super fun and I’m so happy to be in the room with you wherever you are, not in a creepy way at all. But I’m in your house, just think of it that way. Okay, so today’s topic is what I call wanting not to want what you want, when you don’t want to want what you want.

This is a little step up from where most people spend their time, most people spend their time just wanting stuff and being frustrated that they don’t get what they want. And then after a while, some people get so tired of wanting stuff that doesn’t come, that they start fighting the wanting. And there are some people who at this point can take what’s known as a spiritual bypass. So instead of saying, “I really, really want a car that is reliable and takes me to work on time,” or whatever, they say, “It’s okay that the car, it breaks down. I’m just going to meditate and I’m going to offer it up to whatever divine force and it’s fine, it’s absolutely fine.” But it isn’t fine, underneath, you can feel that they’re still not fine, right? They’re trying to make it fine.

So this week I had conversations with two friends. One friend was saying she wanted something to happen in her life, it hadn’t happened yet and she really, really was longing for it to happen. And she was talking about ways, she’s trying to stop that longing or analyze the longing so she can let go of it or whatever because it’s very uncomfortable. Then I had another friend who has a hard time breaking from anxiety, my favorite topic, anxiety. And she was telling me that wanting not to be anxious wasn’t working for her as well as a little trick that I am going to teach you in a minute. And then I had a third encounter, and this is happening often these days on The Gathering Room, Life Lessons Lila.

Having a two-year-old is so illustrative of the human condition. And one of the things about two-year-olds is they want what they want and they don’t know how to not want it, even if they know that you can tell them till you’re blue in the face, that it will make them ill, that it will be dangerous. No, they cannot stop wanting it and they don’t know how to deal in their bodies with wanting something so much and not having it.

And I remember feeling this way. Well, last week, no, but well into my adult life, I was, excuse me, I think I had some kind of, I had a cold, it wasn’t COVID, anyway, I tested negative. Anyway, I was sitting with Lila and I was having my special probiotic drink and she wanted some. And I said, “No, this is medicinal. It will make your tummy feel bad and I won’t give it to you.” And this poor child looked at me as though the entire concept of evil had suddenly sunk into her brain, like her eyes went nine sizes too big. And she opened her mouth like Edvard Munch’s Scream, I could see every tooth in her mouth and all the way back to her tonsils.

And she just started thrashing and howling. She didn’t want the drink that much, she was tired. She wanted the drink and then she couldn’t have it, it was right there, she couldn’t have it. And the tension of wanting something and not being able to have it. See, here’s my theory. My theory is we are not in our essence, really material beings, we’re spiritual beings having a material experience. So for a spiritual being, everything is connected, for that to matter. When Jill Bolte Taylor had her left hemisphere stroke, everything was connected, she felt completely one with all the vibration in the universe and she’s nothing but vibration, you are nothing but vibration. There’s no such thing as missing something that’s part of you. You don’t miss your pancreas because it’s there. If somebody took it away, you might but if you are in the all, if you’re a spiritual being, you can’t miss something because it’s part of you, everything is part of you.

So then you wake up in a little human body and you’re two-years-old and there’s something and you experience the feeling of wanting to connect with something and that experience is denied. And it’s such a freak out because, and I remember thinking this as a kid, this is not the way it works. You don’t get separated from things, from people, no, this is wrong. I still feel this way about a lot of things like people who’ve died, people I love who have died. It’s like, “No, it doesn’t… No, you don’t go away, don’t be crazy.” And I know the logical truth, but that’s just what where my heart is. And I saw this dawn on Lila’s face, in living color in front of me. And really it was the same thing as my friend who’s longing for something and can’t, it’s not in her life yet and she can’t control that. And my friend who wants to not be anxious, but she is anxious, so.

And the methodology that I remembered because of that second friend reminding me that I had actually written it in a book, I’d completely forgotten. And in all fairness, I stole it. I did attribute it and I will tell you who it’s from now it’s from Nisargadatta Maharaj, this very cool Indian dude who lived in the 20th century and sold cigarettes out of a little shop in Mumbai and was enlightened. And he got enlightened, sit up in his little smoke shop and people would come in from all over the world and he would talk and say the most amazing things. His book, a book written of discourse of his teachings called I Am That, is one of my obsessively beloved possessions.

So in that book, one of the things Nisargadatta says is, “The mind is interested in what happens while awareness is interested in the mind itself. The child is after the toy, but the mother watches the child not the toy.” So Lila was losing her crap, looking at what she wanted, not the toy but the drink. But I was watching her, not the drink. My friend was longing for something that hasn’t happened. I see the longing, I’m watching her, the part that is longing. My other friend wants to be free from anxiety, I’m watching her the part that is still anxious. And I’m doing that with absolute compassion, I have no reason to feel anything else. The trick here, the trick Lila has not learned, and actually a lot of adults haven’t learned, is that suffering comes from attachment to desire. It does not come from desire.

People read Buddhism and they say, “Oh, suffering comes from desire.” That is not what the Buddha said. He said, “Suffering comes from attachment to desire.” You could have all the unfulfilled desires in the universe, you can be aching with hunger and loneliness and longing and as long as you’re not attached to the longing, you’ll be safe. What does that mean? It means that you’re looking at the toy and you are the child. But if you can move back a step and become the mother watching the child not the toy, then the real you is the part that’s not stuck in the unmet need, it’s surrounding everything. So I made up an exercise for my book this last little while, still working on my book. And I like this exercise and I want to teach it to you right now.

If there’s something that you want and you can’t have it like, oh, I don’t know, immortality, infinite wealth, I mean go for it, want anything, want what you want, you’re not going to be able to get around it. If you repress what you want, it’ll come bursting out in some other way or you’ll end up like somebody who doesn’t smoke for a day and then smokes eight packs to compensate or whatever. So instead of fighting the desire, watch the desiring person, the person who’s so frustrated with love. So I picked up Lila when she was screaming and thrashing and she’s got a head like a wrecking ball, I’m here to tell you, and she doesn’t mind where it goes when she’s upset. But I have learned to put a safe hug around her and just say, “Wow, you really want that? I get it. I really, really get it. You really, really want that.” And within two or three minutes, she was completely calm and actually happy. I’d contained it for her.

So this is the way I do this exercise, for adults, when we’re not even in the same room with each other and we can’t give each other safe hugs, first, I want you to imagine that the part of you that is longing or wanting and is suffering from the wanting is a little child sitting across from you. So just a little sweet toddler sitting there, trying to figure out this physical body, this physical universe going, “This is not the way it’s supposed to work. I know it isn’t.” So there she is, there he is there they are, see yourself as little. And even if you don’t like yourself, this little part of you, it’s another person. So you have to be nice to it, okay? It’s a baby, don’t be mean. If you have to fake it, fake it but do be gentle and be grown up about it.

You look at the part of you that wants, and you pick it up, you put it in your lap. This little two-year-old, you let it thrash and you say to it, “Oh, those are huge feelings, aren’t they? I really get it. I really get it.” And as you think this, the child turns into a sort of mist and seeps into your own body. So now the child is inside you, but you’re still saying to him or them, “It’s okay, I’ve got you. You’re all right. Oh, it hurts to want something and not get it, I know. I really…” Let yourself feel that, “I’m right here, I got you.” So keep that going until you can really feel compassion for the child.

Now, zero in your attention on that compassion and allow it to take visible form as light, like a mist of light that is love and it suffuses you and the child, okay? And it becomes so bright and so warm and it starts to emanate through your skin and it starts to glow brighter and brighter and it’s coming out, it’s creating a big field. And instead of getting dimmer, it gets more and more brilliant and brighter and brighter as it goes out.

And you can just let it go out as far as it wants. It might be like a skyscraper, it might reach to the end of the universe. It might be 10 feet tall, whatever it is, it’s bigger than your body. So now, become that field of light, which is the compassion, and look down inside yourself at the physical you, who is sitting there, whatever age you are right now, and aim all that compassion at the whole of you, the little child inside and the adult sitting there and say, “From this field of light, I’ve got you. I know, I know. It’s so much, it’s so big. It’s so hard to be a human. I so understand that, I’ve got you. I’ve got you, I’ve got you. I won’t let anything bad happen to you. You just feel everything you’re feeling, just go as long as you want.”

And just keep doing that for a while until you can genuinely feel a compassion for the part of you that wants, without being identified with the want. You’re just there to love the one who wants. And when you can do that, when you can be the field of compassion, imagine it really big and really bright and now it’s going to pull back into you. And as it does, it still doesn’t get dimmer, it still gets brighter and it becomes more and more concentrated and more and more focused. And then it pulls itself into your skin and just shines right from underneath the surface of your skin all over. And it’s going out to the whole world saying, “I know what it’s like to be you. I know what it’s like to be human. Oh, it’s so hard. And sometimes you want something and you can’t have it and that is awful, genuinely, legitimately awful. Throw a fit, kick and scream, I’ve got you. You’ve got this, you’re going to be okay. We’re together, it’s okay.”

I’ve talked in the past about how one of my heroes, Chris Voss, the FBI hostage negotiator, used exactly this strategy to keep terrorists from killing their hostages. He became a field of empathy and compassion that would say to them, “Oh, you want a helicopter and $20 million? Gosh, that sounds, oh, it sounds like you really want that.” I’m not even exaggerating, this is exactly what he says in his book. “Gosh, you really want a helicopter, but I can’t get one for you, but I’m right here. I’m right here and I know how that feels. Oh, it must be awful, tell me everything.” And then the terrorist would tell him everything and he’d say, “Oh yeah, the injustice that your cult or whatever has undergone, I totally see it from your perspective. I totally get it. I’m right here.”

And not always, but a lot of the time, the terrorist or whoever it was would simply free the hostages because what we really want is to be held in the wanting and to know that someone loves us in the experience of unmet wanting that is the absolute, excruciating lot of every physical and especially every human being, because humans can imagine what they might have and better than animals can. So we have this terrible distance between what we want and what we actually have. And as long as we state blended with it, we suffer. But the moment we become the field of compassion saying, “Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah. You’ll get over this. I’ve been to this, I’m bigger than this. It’s going to be okay. You’re right, it’s not supposed to work this way. You were right to notice that,” that’s from one of our child rearing books. “You are right to notice that and it is awful the way that works and I am here.”

And then, the mother is watching the child not the toy and your whole life is being the mother, watching the child, internalize these experiences so that you can experience the sweetness of lacking and then having, of loving and then receiving, of being hungry and then eating, being tired and then sleeping, all the things that make human life so incredibly powerful as a source of emotional energy. And I think that’s what our souls are here to get, this intense emotional experience. So now I’m going to take some questions from the great and magical Rowan Mangan.

Dr. Donna comes in first, not so. I think Dr. Donna comes in first pretty much every time. She says, “When you find it challenging to hold that child because the culture is saying you can’t want that, and there is resistance to the wanting, then you say, “Oh my God, you’re right. The culture doesn’t let you have that. You were right.””

We have this favorite, I have a favorite parenting guru right now called Dr. Becky, and she says, “When a child notices something like racism or sexism or poverty, and they say that can’t be the way it works.” She says, “Tell them you were right to notice that. The culture is probably wrong and you’re right, trust the feelings in your heart.” And then you break away from the culture, you do things that are countercultural because it feels true to you, that’s the whole point of integrity. So yeah, people are not going to always support you in holding your wants kindly. They’re bad, do it anyway. They can’t stop you, they could put you in prison. They still can’t stop you from loving the part of you that wants to be free even if you’re not free. So it’s irrepressible.

Judah says, “How to deal with the grief afterwards? How to deal with this new world that does not include the thing you want? The feeling is so much worse than just ignoring the desire.” That is actually, I spent the first, I’d say 18 years of my life in clinical depression. I mean I might have not been depressed as a very young toddler, but I was very depressed by the time I was in first grade. And I remember the numbness of not feeling my desire for anything and it seemed pointless to do anything other than kill myself, seriously. And people are shocked by that. Oh, that’s what I wanted, I wanted to be dead. And then when I was 18, I got myself a little therapy and I faced the actual pain of being separated from the things my heart desired. I don’t know, being raised to think of myself as not a second class citizen because that’s how Mormon women are raised to think of themselves, things like that.

And the pain of it, it came with anger, it came with grief, it came with a lot of intensity. There was weeping where for years I hadn’t cried, couldn’t cry. And I came through that experience to know that the only way out is through. And that going straight into our pain, the pain of not having what we want and letting ourselves have that pain and saying, “Boy, this hurts, I’m right here.” That actually is what turns the raw material of suffering into joy, into strength, into peace. If you hold anger and you don’t try to change it, it becomes compassion. If you hold desperate need and you don’t let yourself avoid the feelings, it gives way into this ability to receive and to experience joy that is the opposite of the negative feeling. It only happens if you go through it and ignoring the feeling means you’ll never go through it. You’ll be stuck on the other side and you won’t be feeling much of anything.

And to me, that was clinical depression. And I would do anything. I would feel anything rather than go back there. And it doesn’t last very long when it’s horrible. Okay, Ellen says, “I want my son with special needs to make progress and relieve my worries. Do you have to become okay with just living with worry or does doing this help to relieve the worry?” Oh, we’re right in the same camp Ellen. I’ve got my kid with Down syndrome. He’s upstairs singing, his little sister, Lila, said to me today as we walked past, she said to Roe, “Adam crying. No, Adam is singing,” but it’s very soulful. And I tried worrying about his progress and it never did anything. So then I noticed that wanting him to be different never helped.

So then I realized that the problem in the room was me because I thought he should be different from what he is and that’s okay, I was right to notice that. It hurt that he never really became able to speak intelligibly, for example. He really struggles with that still, that used to hurt a lot. And then I just realized the problem in the room was me. And if I have embraced what Adam is, I can love him. I can love myself, and I can find ways to hear him speak when he doesn’t speak. And it opens the door to all this magic. It becomes, the raw material of the pain always turns into something precious and divine, you guys, something beautiful. And you don’t have to wait to be back in the spiritual form to feel that. It’s right here, right now when you can become the one who’s watching, the one who wants.

I’m the Valerie says, “Dear Martha, I have learned from you and practiced a lot, I feel it is my truth. Sometimes in the moments of hurt, I think, “Yeah, now let’s love the hurting part,” but I can’t get further to the feelings so I can’t do it and I get frustrated with myself and can’t do it. Do you have any advice?” Well, the part of you that wrote that, Valerie can still say, “Oh, I’m now frustrated because I can’t let go. I can’t love the part of me that wants, that’s frustrating.” Okay, good. You were right to notice that, love the part that’s frustrated because you can’t love the other part that’s frustrated. You just love whatever part you can grab hold up, whatever’s closest, you just grab it, hold it and say, “Oh honey, I know it sucks. It’s awful, God is horrible.”

Yes, it’s great on the other end, but it is horrible. To say anything else would be like to say to a woman in active labor, “Oh, that shouldn’t hurt.” It hurts, it’s just that something wonderful is happening and you can hold yourself through the labor and delivery of that incredible something. So you’re already seeing the layers of yourself and at some point you’re going to find a you that you can love, and that’s where you start always.

Crystal says, “Question about desires, how do you know when to move on or give up from a desire that is not coming about? When to keep trying a bit longer and when to accept it may not be for you?” This is what I always tell people, if it’s something you want and it’s not coming, you may have to get rid of the want, but if it’s something you yearn for, then you are going to get it. However, the things we yearn for are often sort of disguised as things we want, but they aren’t going to come in that form.

So say you want a great job, you want somebody to come give you a great job and it just keeps not happening and not happening and not happening. And then one day you’re reading a book, I was reading Seth Godin’s Tribes on a plane once when this happened. And I went, “Huh. He says that if you have a thousand followers online, you can find a way to support yourself without a job.” That was the answer to the wanting of a stable income. I thought I wanted a job, I did not want a job. I wanted to figure out my own way to make money in the world, so what I yearned for was financial security and freedom. What I wanted was a job, but that’s not the way it was supposed to come.

So if it’s not coming, not coming, not coming, I suggest you let go of it now, but not in a way that says, “It is not for me.” That’s also a way of grappling with the desire, grasping it in or pushing it away, those are still both reactive measures. They keep you in the child wrestling with the toy, “I want it, I can’t have it. Oh, I mustn’t want it or [inaudible 00:25:05],” become the mother now, right now.

Become the one holding the part of you that wants any little thing that isn’t getting it. I did, if you’re starting dinner and you’re hungry and you want to take bites off your plate before everybody else begins, but you’d really like to wait until everybody gathers. You could sit there and go, “Oh, I know. I know it’s hard not to munch.” Or you can munch and say, “I know it’s embarrassing to be munching away while everybody else isn’t,” whatever. You just keep loving the part of you that wants anything at all. And then that part of you is not in any resistance to what is.

Michelle be the change says, “Hi, Martha. Can you explain this in regards to the tragic sudden loss of a loved one or a young newly wed spouse?” Yeah, it’s the same thing. You just have to hold them longer. You have to hold the part of you that is brokenhearted as long as it takes. And here’s the thing, if you really give into the grief, I watched this when Adam’s friend, Joey’s mother died and his father had already died, so he was now an orphan and he understood, he has Down syndrome but he understood this very well. And we were at the funeral and his mother’s body is right in front of us.

And Joey was on one side of me and his sister Jill was on the other. And someone started playing a flute and Joey made a sound, oh, Adam was sitting between me and him, and Joey made a sound of so much anguish. I had never heard anything like this. It was the most grief I had ever heard in a sound. And I literally sort of threw Adam to the floor and grabbed Joey and hugged him as tight as I could and he just screamed.

And I just held him and held him and the intensity was unbelievable. I mean real. I did actually remember giving birth at that moment. I felt like he was doing that, being ripped open. And here’s the thing, it lasted about 90 seconds and just as they say, it takes 90 seconds for the hormones to rush through the body and if they don’t meet with any resistance, they flush through and they come in waves. This is why labor isn’t just one long sustained push. It would kill everybody who tries to give birth, right? But it comes in waves so you get to recover. We’re designed to do that. And if you have a terrible loss like that, you just know that the waves will be very, very huge and that they will last awhile. And you create an environment where that grieving can go on and it’s the place of death and rebirth.

We always talk about it in my coach training, is the place where people end up looking for coaches and therapists and whatever is when they’ve had a loss and that kind of horrible loss. You have to build a cocoon because the pain that comes through you will melt you down to nothing and then it will recreate you as something unbelievably beautiful and powerful. I always compare it to a samurai sword that gets flattened and pounded thousands of times and then it comes out the finest piece of machinery humans ever invented. So if I always say, “If God wants to create a samurai sword, he takes the best materials on earth and then beats that crap out of them for a long time,” so that’s how it is.

Christina, hi, Christina. She says, “Tell us more about the real magic that happens once the field of compassion is formed. I’ve seen it the magic from time to time, but I can’t quite create it on demand.” That’s a really good point, Christina. And the key here is the word demand because that means the mind has come back in, “Ooh, I want to do it now. I want it to work according to my brain,” but it’s not working according to the left hemisphere of your brain, according to calculation. It’s happening according to the field of love itself. I felt you guys go into that. Once I had you turn and look down at yourselves, the energy dropped quite a bit but when I was first asking you to imagine the light coming out, I could feel it very intensely. If you can hold that, just the consciousness of compassion without caring what happens in the physical world, your body maybe care what happens in the physical world, but you are the field of compassion, watching your body care about what happens in the physical world.

What you want to have happened is the toy, but you have to watch the child, not the toy. And when you do that, the weird thing is, that toy start popping up like magic everywhere. And the challenge then is not to attach to them because you’ve got them. You’re just as relaxed and loving when you’ve got something, is when you don’t have something. Things come, they go, it doesn’t faze you because you don’t want what you don’t have and you don’t want what you do have, enough to suffer about it. You just enjoy whatever state you’re in at any moment.

So last of all, Constellations in her bone says, “What happens when you’re longing already is in spirit, yet not in the same geological place, make any sense?” Sure, I’ve had that with places, with houses that I’ve lived in, that I’ve seen before I moved there, with people who are far away from me all the time, with people who’ve died, with events that aren’t here in time, but I feel that they’re meant to happen.

So all of that, since I believe our spirits exist outside of time, it’s all present in the energetic sense. And then the body is moving through this line of time, which is baffling because like Lila knows that she’s meant to get what she wants, but to have it not happen in her line of time, she’s never had that before, not in this body. So almost the whole of my life, I’ve been practicing knowing that everything I want that is apart from me geographically is still connected to me. Everything I want that is apart from me in time is still connected to me, from my youth to my death. Everyone I’ve ever loved and everyone I ever will love is right now connected now, here. And this is what you find when you actually become the mother who watches the toy, that you leave the line of time and it’s all present in every moment.

The reason I made it light was that, that’s what I think we’re made of. And at the speed of light, time stops and everything is present. So you can feel that in an energetic, spiritual way while you watch the body go through these very intense and ultimately very beautiful experiences of being beaten into samurai swords or melted down and reformed as butterflies or whatever metaphor you want to use. To not have to want what you want… Okay, I’m getting all turned around. I was trying to give a big finish and instead I wanted it and it just wasn’t there in the line of time but now it is.

When you’re able to want, without wanting not to want and without needing the thing, you want to be there in presence, it is already present. That is a great paradox of a spiritual life. So remember that little exercise, remember to love the child in front of you. Take her in, become the great source of compassion, love all of you now and watch everything in your life come to you without needing to struggle.

Thank you so much for being here. [inaudible 00:32:57] My watch just said, I’m not sure I understand. I don’t either, nobody understands. It’s amazing. I want you all to come back for The Gathering Room next week, but if you don’t, I’ll be fine. Love you all, bye.

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