You are not sure how you got here, standing in the dark kitchen, your puzzled face illuminated by the light coming out of the open refrigerator. All you know is that you want something, and there is hope you will find it in the leftover chocolate cake sitting on the shelf. This haunted search is familiar to most of us because we live impelled by desire. We hunger, we experience a fundamental and pervasive dissatisfaction with what is, and expend enormous amounts of time and energy in striving to attain a better external circumstance and a more satisfying state of mind.
As you have probably recognized, reducing this craving is not easy. Much of our mental energy is focused on getting what we want. Fortunately the path of mindfulness is built around recognizing, loosening, and eventually liberating ourselves from this constant craving and grasping.
There are three components to overcoming the craving that leads to excessive consumption. The first is examining the “wanting mind,” the second is becoming more savvy about how your attention gets fixated on what you want, and the third is learning how to transform this fixation into an offering.
Examining the Wanting Mind
“Wanting” is a universal phenomenon, and our mental list of what we want is seemingly endless. We wake up in the morning and ask, “What do I want today? What do I want to eat, what do I want to buy, how much do I want?” Wanting, when it goes beyond our basic, ordinary needs, is an expression of a longing for something either more than or different from what we already have. There is a sense of being fundamentally unfulfilled. It is well worth looking more deeply into the nature of wanting, recognizing how you know wanting is there, and naming it.
When you become familiar with recognizing and naming wanting, then it will become easier to notice when you are captured, and therefore you will more likely be able to free yourself. You can also get more specific about the elements of wanting or craving by naming what sense is activated and what it is seeking. For example, craving is arising through seeing—seeing a form I want. Or craving is arising through tasting—wanting pleasure from tongue contact. You may even notice a craving for ideas, for mental stimulation.
The practice of meditation is a fundamental way of becoming more familiar with your mind, and getting used to observing how states of mind arise, are noted, and then dissolve. With practice you can become better at noticing the “I want” state of mind, letting it arise, looking at it, and letting it go. By observing desire itself and by letting it go again and again, you can bring a more settled and satisfying sense of equanimity into your life instead of being constantly subject to a never-ending series of desires.
The second component in diminishing craving is to notice when your attention has become fixated. A fixation is a narrowing of attention onto one thing that we are strongly attracted to or repelled by. If it is attraction, a very compelling momentum is created to get the object of fixation, including having thoughts about the object as well as feeling a physical sensation, something like a hole that needs to be filled.
Having a fixation also includes the tendency of the mind to embellish the desirable qualities of what you want, while ignoring the “downside,” the undesirable aspects or the future consequences. By using conscious awareness to break your fixation of attention, you can separate wanting from getting. Imagine your child is being carried out to sea by a strong undertow. You would not try to fight with the undertow (the object) but would grab your child (your attention) and pull her back to shore. If you practice becoming more aware of your attention as an aspect of your mind that you can actually take charge of and use as a support, you can notice when it has been kidnapped and deliberately take it back. The breath-centered meditation practices, such as shamatha, are very good for training your attention not to wander. When you notice your mind has gone astray, has been “carried out to sea,” you simply bring it back to the neutral object of attention, in this case the breath.
Another way of loosening fixation is to offer the object of your desire. I have made it a practice to leave a small portion of food on my plate and I mentally offer it at the end of the meal, saying something like “May all beings have enough to eat.” I’ve noticed that this has several results. First, it reduces my speedy and mindless eating tendencies. Second, it makes every meal feel like a shared universal experience. Additionally, when I actually offer the food I feel warmth in my heart, a momentary radiance of compassion that both softens and uplifts my own state of mind. By starting with our own mind, we can begin to reverse the craving that often drives our behaviors.
You can do an offering practice with anything that has aroused your craving state of mind. With food, setting aside a small portion before eating as an offering will slow the speed and interrupt the habitual patterns that often drive overeating. Offering this portion of food at the end of the meal by placing it outside can signal that you are finished eating, and prevent mindlessly continuing. When you notice craving arise while shopping, you might wish that all beings have the warmth and comfort of the cashmere sweater you crave, and actually open your hand in a gesture of offering it to them. This can cause an actual shift in brain activity from a narrow “me” focus to a more connected and empathic part of the brain. Test this for yourself. Most people feel happier when released from the “I want” state of mind into the more openhearted feelings arising from kindness and generosity.
The next time you find yourself “standing at the refrigerator door,” stop and notice. What am I doing here? What do I feel in my chest, my heart? Can I give it a name? Recognize your attention has gone in search of an object for your wanting, has fixated on something external to try to quell the pain of your longing and dissatisfaction. Bring your attention back to simply being present with what you are experiencing. Sit down for a moment and hold that feeling in compassion. Be fully present with this wanting, as it is, with an open heart. Perhaps put a comforting hand on your chest. Then you can offer whatever you are struggling with by saying something like, “May everyone have the food they need, the happiness they seek, and may they attain relief from the suffering of a dissatisfied mind.”
Freeing yourself from grasping can actually increase the pleasure you can experience from the objects around you, whether you own them or not. You can recognize attraction itself, and relax into it as an experience of appreciation rather than of wanting. The object is all the more precious if it is then let go, freeing you to continue experiencing your world without getting stuck. Attraction is not a problem, trying to glue yourself to the object of your attraction is where the pain arises.
In summary, there are three steps to reduce craving and lead a more satisfying life: recognize the wanting mind; relax your fixated attention; and offer the object of your desire—psychologically, physically, or both. As individuals, we have the opportunity to redirect the momentum of wanting into one of generosity and caring. This will go a long way toward transforming your mind and relieving the intense dissatisfaction that drives your craving.
Sasha T. Loring is a psychotherapist and mindfulness retreat leader who has been teaching meditation for more than thirty years. She is the author of Eating with Fierce Kindness: A Mindful and Compassionate Guide for Losing Weight.