Paradox of Desire

There was a saying that I heard when I was in my early twenties. I don’t know where it came from, but I attribute it to Buddhism. It went something like this:

“If you want it, you can’t have it. The moment you stop wanting it, you’ll have more than you ever dreamed.”
If you find out where this quote is from, please tell me!

For some reason that quote stuck with me through the years and decades, and has helped shape how I think and act. It’s particularly potent in situations where I find myself struggling to get what I want, frustrated that it’s taking so long, or feel stuck with no path forward.

What this saying provides for me is the understanding that getting what you want is often a paradox, meaning in order to get what you want, you have to stop trying to get what you want. Once you stop the trying, you’ll stop the struggling. You’ll stop the frustration. Eventually you’ll stop the desire. And that’s precisely when it just falls into your lap.

Let me illustrate.

Have you ever seen a guy sitting on a park bench, covered in pigeons?

How did he get the pigeons to be all over him? The answer is that he realized that acting on his desire is counterproductive. It’s a paradox.

He wants the pigeons on him, but what would happen if he tried to put the pigeons on him? What would happen if he stood up to chase them? What would happen if he reached out to grab them? What would happen if he closed his fingers around one of them as they sat on his hand?

They would fly away. They would evade. They would squirm and flap and peck until they were free. They may even stay away for the rest of the day. He might need to quit, come back and try again the next day. After consistently doing this day after day, some pigeons would learn to just stay away from him altogether. What he wants would then be forever out of his reach.

Instead what does he do? He stays calm. He stays still. He lets the pigeons come, but most importantly, allows them to go if they want. He needs to let go of his own desire to control the outcome so that the pigeons feel safe and comfortable to be around him. At no point can he make any sudden moves to catch or capture one of them. They stay because they are free to go.

In my life, this has made a world of difference in my relationships.

  • I want my family to take more self development courses, but I can’t make them. And here’s the key to this metaphor: the more I try to make them, the less likely they are to do it.
  • In dating, there are definitely people I wanted to stay. Trying to control them to stay has the opposite effect: it will make them want to leave. The key is to choose the ones that choose to stay, knowing they are free to leave.
  • In business, when choosing who to work with, I’ve spent so much time chasing after people, following up with them, making sure they show up to meetings. Those partnerships tend to be imbalanced: I’m putting in so much more work, not just in doing the tasks I’ve agreed to, but also in keeping them on task and on target. Now, I choose those who show up of their own free will. If they haven’t responded, I’m not going to make them respond. There’s also nothing wrong with not responding. That resentment is caused by attachment to the desire that people respond. Again they’re free to leave if they want, which means I hold no grudges against them if they do.

In your life you may notice people who act this way. It’s sometimes referred to as “digging your heels in:” the more you insist, the more they resist. When this happens, you need to let go of your intentions. You need to let go of your desire to have it go the way you want. Let the other person be free, and make their choice. Some people stay, other people go.

When they go, know that you will have feelings about it. Detaching yourself from your desire does not mean being a completely unfeeling, unemotional person. You’re allowed to be sad when they go. You’re allowed to be happy when (if) they come back.

Choose the ones that keep coming back.

Did this blog bring up something for you?
Are you facing something that just isn’t going the way you want, and you’re struggling, frustrated, or stuck?
Considering this metaphor, what do you see there is to do now?

Please tell me, I’d love to know!
You can email me: Steve@CoachSteveYang.com

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