My essay on The Paradox of Desire is about how wanting something can make us less likely to achieve it. The more we yearn for something we don’t have, the more dissatisfied we become with our present reality. While this dissatisfaction can be motivating, it can also be draining. To the extent that wanting something prevents us from appreciating what we currently have, it can steal our source of fulfillment and renewal. But if we are pursuing a long-term goal, it is precisely such a feeling of renewal, stemming from gratitude, that we’ll need if we are to endure.

This observation is motivated by many situations I’ve experienced in my own life. I will share one example that concerns writing, and by extension other creative projects.

For much of my life I’ve had a huge backlog of essays that I’ve wanted to complete. The strength of my desire to make essays gave rise to an equally strong sense of alarm and frustration at my inability to get these projects done. I thought I could fix this by preserving more time for writing and by cutting out distractions. That’s not to say I didn’t value fun and leisure – I did! – but I had high expectations of it. If I took time away from creative work, but I didn’t happen to have a wonderfully relaxing and restorative leisure experience, I’d begin thinking I should cut my losses and get back to work as soon as possible. This mindset put me in a constant state of struggle against the bulk of my life – all of the humdrum moments when I wasn’t “making progress” on a creative project and I also wasn’t having a great deal of fun at something else.  All of those average, plain, ordinary, boring moments became increasingly stressful, because instead of finding ways to appreciate them, I would think I should be doing something else, something better, something more productive or more fun. I would feel upset to be “stuck” in a situation where I didn’t want to be, a situation that offered little “value.” 

What I finally realized is that all of this tension, all of this resistance against non-ideal uses of time – all of this distaste for inefficiency, suboptimality, and ordinary boringness was the precise thing that drained my energy and made it harder to create. For example, if I had to do housework for two hours before I could write, and I spent those two hours doing the work grudgingly, getting through it but simultaneously wishing I didn’t have to do it, then when I finally got my time in front of the blank page I’d “show up” in a state of exhaustion. If I had spent two hours feeling annoyed and stressed, I’d be worn out when my coveted opportunity arrived. On the other hand, if I found some way to see the housework in a positive light – as something that enabled my writing rather something that stole time away from it – then after those two hours of housework I could approach the page with some sense of calm and renewal. The writing would then go more easily.

This observation helped me realize that appreciating everyday moments – especially those lackluster, tedious, annoying moments that we wish we could avoid – is more than a way to be calmer and happier as a person. It’s actually the single best, most helpful thing I could do for my long-term creative goals. Savoring the present, especially when we perceive a circumstance as unfortunate or non-productive, is actually a way to be more productive in the end.

These days, when I find I’m annoyed that some burdensome task is taking my time away from a writing or music project that I’d rather be working on, I tell myself that the single best thing I can do to help the creative project succeed is to notice whatever value there might be in the present situation, to lighten the weight and stress associated with the burdensome non-creative task, to stop resisting it and to start find something good in it – because that resistance uses up my creative energy, but finding something good in a tedious or annoying situation is a way to practice creativity.

How does this relate to the larger point I described in The Paradox of Desire? I’ll spell it out. Looking at my desire to write an essay, I see that it has a positive and a negative component. On the positive side, I’m excited about what I might create. On the negative side, I’m dissatisfied with the circumstance of not having finished the project yet. 

Since the essay doesn’t seem to be getting done on the strength of my excitement alone, I look for motivation in my negative emotions. While I could appreciate the fact that I’m alive, I’ve had the opportunity to practice my writing over many years, I’ve got valuable things to say, and I’ve got some time to write… instead I magnify my dissatisfaction. I do this in search of a “jolt” that will help me move forward.

I think of how unacceptable it is that I’ve poured so much time into the essay and I still haven’t gotten it done. I think of how it’s only one of hundreds of my essays that are incomplete. The clock is ticking. I’m hoping that the pain and urgency of this situation is going to finally motivate me to get past the obstacles that are in my way. 

Now I start thinking of my life in terms of writing time versus non-writing time and I conclude I need to maximize my writing time. This perspective makes all the non-writing time more stressful, because I’m seeing it as detracting from my goal. And so my strong desire to finish the essay has actually led me into a state of struggle and exhaustion that harms my chances of getting the essay done. Wanting so badly to the finish the essay creates an inner dynamic that makes it harder to finish. 

That’s the main point of The Paradox of Desire, how the very act of wanting something can prevent it from happening. But as I say at the end of that piece, there’s a way out. It’s to periodically refocus on positive motivations and appreciation. In this case, that means remembering why I want to write the essay and why I’m excited about its message; it means valuing the progress I’ve made so far; remembering the essays I’ve finished; being thankful for the chance to write; and not giving so much airtime to the thought of how “bad” it is that I haven’t finished yet. It means looking straight into the eye of the present situation where the essay isn’t yet done and thinking I’m OK, I’m fine, I’m whole, and there are good things I can see here. Earlier in my life, I’m not sure that I would have known how to reorient my viewpoint like this, even if I had intended to, but meditation provides a way. ■

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