“Men are not free when they are doing just what they like. Men are only free when they are doing what the deepest self likes.”

D. H. Lawrence

I love the work I do. It is fun and endlessly interesting for me to help others with technology. However, there are times where I feel like I MUST get something done or else my day is going to be a failure. Worse yet, I feel like if I don’t get that thing done then I’m not very good at my job. It’s in those latter times where my work, or the way I do it, can suffer. I’m not doing it for the love of it, I’m doing it for something else entirely.

The desire to achieve is one of many of my desires that I can recognize as something that is helpful and that I love. But achieving can also slip into something I need and must have as a substitute for other unmet needs, and all sorts of problems arise for me as a result.

Can I better recognize when I’m doing work because I love it versus needing it as a substitute?

Understanding the nature of desire, and recognizing the ways in which desires can control us and contribute to us feeling unworthy, is the subject of the sixth chapter of Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach (reading as part of my amplify goals this month). This chapter builds on the previous, starting with the trance of unworthiness (Chapter 1), how Radical Acceptance can break that trance (Chapter 2), how pausing is the foundation of Radical Acceptance (Chapter 3), how to treat our experience with unconditional friendliness (Chapter 4), and the importance of paying attention to physical sensations in the body (Chapter 5).

Desires are not the enemy!

Before you start thinking that desire is bad, Radical Acceptance teaches that desire is not to be something that we are shamed of but rather desire “is the greatest force, the greatest energy in the world.” We can and should enjoy our lives and all that life has to offer.

The catch is that no matter how gratifying any experience may be, it is bound to change.

This lack of permanence is at the heart of what makes us so uncomfortable about desires.

We are uncomfortable because everything in our life keeps changing—our inner moods, our bodies, our work, the people we love, the world we live in. We can’t hold on to anything—a beautiful sunset, a sweet taste, an intimate moment with a lover, our very existence as the body/mind we call self—because all things come and go. Lacking any permanent satisfaction, we continuously need another injection of fuel, stimulation, reassurance from loved ones, medicine, exercise, and meditation. We are continually driven to become something more, to experience something else.

Satisfying desires with substitutes

So desires aren’t bad, it’s just that satisfying them is temporary. As soon as that satisfaction subsides you start wanting more. We also frequently substitute the fulfilling of our daily desires for our deeper needs. Like my need to make an impact at work (which makes me feel like I belong) in order to cover up the deeper fear of me being an inadequate husband, father, friend, etc. This continual striving for temporary substitute satisfaction becomes our identity. We are dependent on a single thing to feel whole and we become “the wanting self”.

When we can’t meet our emotional needs directly, the wanting self develops strategies for satisfying them with substitutes. Like all strategies underlying the trance of unworthiness, those aimed at winning love and respect absorb and fixate our attention.

Work is far from the only domain we substitute gratification. It could just as easily be having one too many drinks, over-exercising, getting high, or any habit we do automatically or obsessively.

While having a job is usually necessary to meet our basic survival needs, where and how we work is also a key domain for substitute gratification: Work becomes an indirect means for trying to win love and respect. We might find what we do entirely meaningless, we might hate or resent our job, yet still hitch our desire for approval and connection to how well we perform. […]

…sometimes that voice of insecurity and unworthiness arises, and I listen to it. Suddenly writing or preparing a presentation is linked to winning or losing love and respect and my entire experience of working shifts. The wanting self takes over. While I always intend to give a wholehearted effort, now that effort is wrapped in fear. I’m anxiously striving to be “good enough” and to reap the rewards. My love for what I do is clouded over when working becomes a strategy to prove my worth.

Radical Acceptance teaches us to recognize and accept our wanting self through an additional layer of mindfulness that builds on recognizing emotions and physical sensations.

By creating a space to accept and explore the part of us that needs something as a substitute versus the part of us that loves something just for what it is, we can (gradually) make better choices.


Practicing “not doing”

A mindfulness exercise included in this chapter is to pause when you feel in the grip of wanting and to build on the physical sensations work in the previous chapter to check in on what is really missing from your experience.

When you pause, become physically still and pay close attention to the nature of wanting. What does your body feel like when wanting is strong? Where do you experience the sensations of wanting most fully? Do you feel them as butterflies in the stomach? As agitation in the chest? As aching in the arms? Do you feel as if you are leaning forward, tumbling into the future? Is your mind tight and speedy? Or sluggish and dull? Notice if your experience changes during the minute or so of pausing. You might ask yourself, “What is missing right now?” and listen with your heart.


For my previous entries on Radical Acceptance, see the following:


Comments welcome!

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