When you were a baby, you knew what you wanted. When you were hungry, you reached for food. When you wanted to be picked up, you lifted your arms. When you were curious about something, you stared at it until you were bored. 

At an early age, however, if you were like most people, you were taught that desire is dirty and it’s bad to have needs. Maybe you were told that other people knew better than you, and you decided it was safer to go along with what they wanted than to speak up for yourself. If you shared big ideas, you might have been told you were “too much.” If you were shamed or rejected or ignored, you might have come to believe there was something wrong with you for wanting what you wanted. 

Our society equates “being needy” with abdicating responsibility for our own needs, clinging to someone in hopes that they’ll meet our needs, and blaming them for falling short. This confabulation leads many people to believe it’s bad to have needs in the first place. Our society also equates “being needy” with living in poverty. If you have lived in poverty, you may have internalized notions that having needs was somehow less-than. Or, if your basic needs are met and you witness many horrible things happening to other people, you might think it’s selfish to consider your own needs. 

Consumer culture warps our relationship with desire. On the one hand, it breeds entitlement, the belief that some people deserve something just because you want it. On the other hand, it says that anyone whose desire deviates from the norm of the straight, cis, white man is aberrant and must be suppressed (unless a profit can be made, of course). 

Many religious teachers, including Buddhists, decry the wildness and intensity of desire and conflate desire with attachment. But Buddhist teacher, Tara Brach, debunks these teachings in Radical Acceptance. She writes: “The Buddha never intended to make desire itself the problem. When he said that craving causes suffering, he was referring not to our natural inclination as living beings to have wants and needs, but to our habit of clinging to experience that must, by nature, pass away… Relating wisely to the powerful and pervasive energy of desire is a pathway into unconditional loving.”

In a world that denigrates desire, reclaiming desire is a radical act. When we discover our deepest desires, we access the stamina to walk, step by step, over enormous distances to craft a life in service to the people we love. When we name our needs and desires, we remember who we truly are. 

So what is desire anyway?

I use the words “want” and “desire” somewhat differently than most people. When I speak of desire, I’m not talking about clinging to something that isn’t actually good for you, becoming attached to an idea, being addicted to something that doesn’t meet your needs, believing that someone else needs to change in order for you to be happy, or blindly pursuing “happiness” at another’s expense. 

When I speak of desire, I’m talking about the life force energy that is moving through your body, compelling you to act in service of yourself and the people you care about. When I ask you what you want, I’m listening for the voice of your callings, inner guidance, aspirations, hopes, dreams, intentions, purpose, vision, longings, and needs. 

When I ask you what you want from life, I mean just as much what life wants from you.

And what are needs?

In the 1960s, Marshall Rosenberg began creating Nonviolent Communication (NVC). He initially developed the methodology while working on racial integration in schools in the South, and since then, NVC has been used in workplaces, schools, homes, social justice movements, and even high-conflict zones like Israel and Ireland. In the NVC framework, “needs” are the fundamental motivators for all of our actions, our deepest human longings. Needs are universal qualities that contribute to a sense of fulfillment and wholeness such as connection, physical well-being, meaning, autonomy, and play. All human beings have the same essential needs; it’s how we choose to meet them that varies. 

The ability to discern what you want and need is like a muscle. If you’re like many of my clients when they first come to me, it may not be one that you’ve practiced using much. But good news! Just like your biceps or abs, with consistent practice, you can strengthen your ability to identify what you need and want in a relatively short period of time. 

Practice: Paying Attention to What You Long For

To strengthen your ability to hear your desire, I invite you to ask yourself: What do I really want (or need or long for) right now? 

Yes, I mean right now. Grab a piece of paper and a pen, and set a timer for five minutes. Then, write down whatever comes up in response to the questions: 

  • What do I want right now?
  • What do I need right now?
  • What am I longing for right now?

Write down whatever arises and keep going for the entire five minutes. Notice how the three questions feel in your body.

Your answer maybe something like a cup of coffee, a nap, to learn what I want, a new job, to go on a trip cross country, or any other number of possibilities. 

Choose your favorite of the three questions and write it on a couple of index cards. Place them where you’ll see them throughout the day.

Ask yourself this question when you wake up, when you go to sleep, and throughout your day. If you commit to asking, this question will take no extra time at all. The more you practice, the easier it will be to identify what nourishes you and the more aligned your decisions will be with your needs.

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Much love,

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