To reach satisfaction in all
desire its possession in nothing,
To come to the knowledge of all
desire the knowledge of nothing.
To come to possess all
desire the possession of nothing.
To arrive at being all
desire to be nothing.
— St. John of the Cross
The instruction to desire nothing is very common in spiritual teachings. But, it is very difficult to actually do. For one thing, desiring nothing in and of itself is a desire. So, to actually successfully follow the instruction you have to completely stop wanting anything including the desire to completely stop wanting anything.
If we desire anything it indicates that we want something other than what we have right now. It indicates unhappiness with the present moment. In other words, it suggests that we are not accepting things as they are. So, one way to begin to “desire nothing” is to simply accept everything as it is. Easier said than done! We are designed to constantly strive to change control and improve ourselves and our environment.
To “desire nothing” does not mean that we don’t seek things. Our bodies seek air, water, and food in order to survive. But, we don’t have to desire air in order to breathe. The body will take care of breathing without our paying any attention to it or feeling any desire. The difference is one of simply allowing it to be as it is and not trying to control or interfere in it. Just let nature take its’ course, without interference.
To the mind the instruction to “desire nothing” is an anathema. But, the instruction is not to the mind, it is to the awareness that underlies all. It is basically telling the mind to cease and desist and let our basic underlying nature take over. Just be! Just let everything be as it is, without thought, judgment, or control.
We can’t control the mind. It is going to attempt to control our experience regardless of our attempts to stop it. So how do we “desire nothing?” We simply let the mind do its thing and not latch onto it and believe in it. We simply let it go. We watch it but we don’t feed it. We let thoughts flow through awareness like clouds through the sky. Just experiencing them but giving them no attention. This will result in the mind slowly, slowly, slowly quieting down. It will never completely stop. It will just provide more and longer gaps between its actions. In these gaps between thoughts we can “desire nothing.”
What St. John was driving at was that in order to attain an awakening, an enlightenment, we must stop chasing after things. We must stop attaching to things. We must stop desiring them. This would suggest that “desiring nothing” is a prerequisite for enlightenment. But, could St. John have cause and effect confused. Perhaps “desiring nothing” is actually results from awakening rather than the other way around. Regardless, if “desiring nothing” is a component of enlightenment then by practicing “desiring nothing” we can move closer to an awakening.
Contemplative practices are techniques to help quiet the mind and bring about a state of “desiring nothing.” Each practice moves us towards non-judgmental awareness, towards accepting things as they are, in other words, towards “desiring nothing.” For St. John the practice was contemplative prayer, for the Buddha, it was meditation, for the yogis it’s yoga. There are many paths to the same goal. But, all involve practicing being in the present moment and accepting it just as it is.
So, engage in contemplative practice and learn to “desire nothing”
“The root of suffering is attachment.” – Buddha
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies