What Do You Want?

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“What do you want?”

What question could be more basic—or more imperative—to answer? From publishing a bestselling book to getting married to taking our next breath, the narratives of our lives are driven ultimately by the desires we feel. But as simple as the question may be, identifying the answer is often anything but.

Research suggests that our conscious minds aren’t so much in charge of the decisions we make as they are great rationalizers of them. Which means they often collude with our unconscious minds to craft stories about why we do things and even why we feel things that are just blatantly untrue. We often have far more invested in seeing ourselves as virtuous, noble, fair-minded, and good than we do in recognizing the truth: that we often want things and therefore do things that make us base, selfish, self-righteous, and unjust.

All of which is to say that sometimes we may not actually know what we want. Or, even more commonly, we may not know why we want it. Though we all feel as if we have a uniquely accurate perspective on our own thought processes, sometimes we have even less clear a picture of our true selves than those around us, whose vision isn’t as obscured by the positive bias with which we unconsciously can’t help viewing ourselves.

Sometimes, on the other hand, our desires our so intense, so raw, and simultaneously so seemingly unattainable that we ache with even the thought of them. Sometimes desires are so intense they possess us and unbalance us, causing us to behave in ways we find abhorrent, but that we seem somehow powerless to avoid.

And sometimes our deepest desires reflect our deepest pain: we want our parents’ love, long denied us; to have a dead parent back with us; to be healthy again; to accomplish something; to be important or remembered. All these desires, whether consciously apprehended or not, are the true drivers of our behavior. Thus, if we’re genuinely interested in self-improvement, we can’t be satisfied with the easy answers our conscious minds often feed us for why we do the things we do. Rather, we need to consciously acknowledge what we really want, whether something we’re unlikely to be able to get, something we’re ashamed of wanting or think we shouldn’t want, or something that strikes us as irrational to want.

In Nichiren Buddhism, the concept of “earthly desires are enlightenment” teaches that when we pursue our desires real value accrues not just from attaining them but also from the wisdom we gain in the process. Climbing a mountain may fill us with a grand sense of accomplishment, for example, but such a feeling will eventually diminish or even fade away entirely as new challenges in our daily lives continue to confront us. But the ability to challenge and overcome our desire to give up when we’re in pain is a lesson that will never leave us for a moment and ultimately serve us far more than even the joy of accomplishing the goal that taught it to us. Thus, no desire (that is, as long as it doesn’t involve intended harm to oneself or others) is entirely without merit, even the ones we wish we didn’t feel. All have the potential to teach us something important.

This, then, is what I want: I want my son to be happy and safe. I want my wife’s business to succeed beyond her wildest dreams. I want my upcoming book to become a bestseller; I want it to educate and entertain readers; I want them to find their lives improving as a result of having read it.

I want my day job to be easier. I want people to be nicer to one another. I want politicians to be honest. I want to live until I’m ready to die. And I want—I want desperately—to know how it all works: What causes consciousness? What happens when our lives end? Is the Universe truly infinite? How did it start?

Pausing to ask yourself just what exactly you want—not what you think you should want or what others want you to want or want for you—without judgment can often be a surprisingly emotional exercise, but it’s an exercise by which I think we’d all be well served. So I invite you to do just that in the comment section—anonymously or not—if only to see how your desires strike you when they’re staring back at you in print. You just might find yourself surprised by what you write.

Next Week: Tribute To A Hero

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  • What do I want?

    Enough time and drive.

    On the verge of retiring (9/1/12) I want enough drive to write the stories I’ve got in my head and enough drive to learn to manipulate the paints to show the pictures I see. Tired of “finding the time” to do what I want to do; I want to be able to fully commit and fully engage.

    (I hope not to be an ironic example of why one shouldn’t wait to do what one has always wanted.)

    I also want to know what the photo at the top of this week’s article has to do with the topic…

    Jean: Regarding the photo, I couldn’t find a picture of a couple embracing (to represent desire) that I liked in Flickr’s creative commons that wasn’t x-rated, so I chose this one to represent something (men, at least) desire.


  • I just want a peaceful life. I want to work; I like to work. I want to make enough money to support my modest house and my modest car, feed and clothe my children, and have enough left over to go out for dinner pretty much whenever I want. I want to see friends and family from time to time, and just hang out and talk. I want others to think I’m a good man. I want to give something to people that helps them find peace and success in their lives. I want my children to grow up and figure out what they want, and to go get it.

  • I want to be pain-free. Or at least, in less pain. I want to grow flowers in my garden. I want to be able to sit calmly and feel the warmth of the sun. I want my children to be at peace, and to be content.

  • I want to be a successful researcher that does creative, groundbreaking research in my field. I want to connect with other human beings on intellectual, emotional and spiritual levels. I want to be a good partner, daughter, sister, and friend. When I die, I want to die without any regrets.

  • I want to matter. I want to accomplish something significant that helps somebody somewhere have a better life.

  • I’ve been practicing Nichiren Buddhism for twelve years and it seema that for the first ten, I had an idealized view of what it meant to realize my desires and attain happiness. I met someone who my desire for was so strong that by the time I realized how wrong she was for me, the act of distancing myself from her led me to perceive a seeming abyss in my life. Talk about earthly desires leading to enlightenment! It changed my view of what I had previously wanted, or thought I wanted. I have found that my wants now revolve around self-development and a sense of accomplishment and self-fulfillment, to avoid pain in the future.

  • I had a really stressful day today doing anesthesia in a busy labor and delivery unit. I saw a mother cradle her dead baby, stillborn at 38 weeks. I ran from room to room doing evaluations and giving boluses, trying to reassure mothers that we would make them comfortable and fathers that their wives and babies would be okay. I had to eat my lunch in 5 minutes between cases. And at the end of the day, when I was just trying to keep things moving so that I could get caught up and get the last c-section started I inadvertently made a nurse feel that I disrespected her in front of her patient. As we stood outside the room and she told me how she felt I initially sensed my own feelings of defensiveness rise up, and then suddenly, consciously, I let those feelings float away and I quieted my mind and I listened to her and let her tell me how she felt and then I apologized and told her that I was glad she told me how she felt and that I didn’t intend for what I said to be taken that way. She accepted and we parted ways.

    And what I want is to be able to do that and be that way every day.

  • Especially for my daughter and her daughters, one of my greatest “wants” is for females to live in a world where they are not bombarded with images and messages that they are sex objects.

    Despite your response to Jean, I am confused, amazed, and yes, disappointed, but I guess it’s telling that even you seem to be clueless as to what it’s like to grow up in a world that degrades women every place one looks. (I feel quite certain you would never put up an image of an African-American person eating watermelon.)

    Maybe I am just cranky right now (as I’ve written here before, I am in 24/7 pain), but I couldn’t quite believe my eyes that even here we are meat on a pole. And one of my own personal wants is to be able to express myself, even when it hurts to do it, knowing I may upset someone else.

    Liana: Sorry that you took it that way. But I see your point and will change the picture.


  • While my first reactions to the original photo that illustrated this post were surprise and disgust, on reading further it seemed to be a good fit for the discussion of desires we unconsciously hide from ourselves and behaviors we rationalize. I am more comfortable looking at a cupcake, but my discomfort with the objectified woman is more consistent with my discomfort in admitting to emotions that are not “nice,” like anger. The questions you raised make us cringe as we wrestle with our desires and motivations and strive to be better, more honest people. What I want is to live more consciously so I won’t act in ways I have to rationalize.

  • “And sometimes our deepest desires reflect our deepest pain.”

    I wish our son had not died by suicide at age 24. We were in shock. I wish he had been able to express what was bothering him. I wish we had not left our phone at home when he tried to make his last call to us.
    Two years have gone by and the pain comes in waves like the tides. I wish the pain was not so intense.

    Karen: Ugh. My sincere condolences.


  • I want to be outsiden in the sunshine watching my horse eat grass while I drink tea. I want to be confident that me and my partner will be financially secure. I want to be a nice person and happy in my own head. I want to be cheerful and contented.

  • Your words are important. Thank you for reminding me with your posts that there is happiness…and it doesn’t come easy. Self-reflection is not something we take the time to do and it’s good to be reminded.

  • All I want is to give people I meet words of hope and courage to carry on with their lives as most people have problems nowadays be it financial, relationship, illness. I am contented with my life but to loss my daughter was heartbreaking for me. I want to have a chat with her in my dreams, to ask her so many questions. Most of all I want to stay healthy, see the world, and to carry on with my Gakkai activities.

  • Thank you for this piece…it is timely for me.

    I want to feel a sense of mastery in work that uplifts others.
    I want to love myself and others with my whole heart.
    I want to create peace and grace.

  • I know that my mother’s dementia, which has taken from her the understanding of why she needs to eat and drink, will lead to her death. I want my five sibs and I to be able to handle this with respect for each others’ feelings. Perhaps writing this publicly will help me to contribute to that process.

  • I want to NOT have to remind myself that I CAN—that I am able—that I am not limited.

    Life is funny in the ways it chooses to teach us lessons. And my education started when I was just a kid and my hip began slipping out of the joint. It took about a year for it to be diagnosed—since the my pediatrician said I was suffering from growing pains…or possibly just a deep need for attention since I just gotten a little brother.

    So there were many decades and other surgeries and other pins…and lots of *I can’t*. Feeling limited became an understanding.

    I had a hip replacement in Oct. And for the first time since I was a child I feel physically strong, stable and without pain. I can do anything—that is what I remind myself now. As I run. As I walk for miles. As I take a flight of stairs fast. As I put on 3 inch heels. 🙂

    I can do anything. And I must be awfully stubborn to have to learn that lesson in such a carefully crafted way.

    I’m very excited for your upcoming book, Alex. I am writing one myself—I know the hard work involved.

  • Yay. There’s lots of things I want. Like to slim cown so I could better play beach volleyball 🙂 But right know I would love to be better able to fight my depressions. … And to be able to tech my kids the values that I consider crucial in life. And to learn to live the present moment fully. And to …

  • I want to not want.

    Susan: I’d argue there are good reasons not to want this 😉 which I talk about in my upcoming book (Chapter 7: Let Go).


  • Truly impressive, Alex, to see that picture gone. I was not just happy, but very surprised. I appreciate that you truly heard and respected what many women find upsetting, if not offensive.

    So what do I want now?

    More people who listen and care as much as you do!

    Liana: 🙂


  • Alex, thank you so much for this blog, and specifically this post. I’ve been browsing the site for about a month, but this is my first post.

    What I want:

    I desperately want to discover my purpose, or what the purpose of my life is. I want to find a way to enter into a state of mature masculinity. I want to learn to value-delayed gratification and long-term success, over instant gratification and fleeting pleasures. I want to play music! I want to cultivate meaningful relationships in every area of my life. I want to be able to let go of a certain bitterness I feel towards my parents and my upbringing. I want to meditate and realize God. I want to stop watching television. I want to cultivate a fresh and spontaneous sexuality. I want to be open to people and experiences. I want to be a source of inspiration and positivity, not depression and dread. I want to find a meaningful and fulfilling way to earn money. I want to find healthy and productive ways to enjoy the good times, and healthy and productive ways to cope with the bad times. I want to make peace with my father. I want to be a sincere person. I want to be stronger than the doubt and anxiety I feel in my being. I want to cultivate self-control. I want to have conscious control over the cravings I feel. I want to view the universe as a friendly place…

    Well, the list goes on and on! I suppose I could write until my fingers turned blue. It felt really good to “say” a lot of those things. To put them down in a place where they will be potentially viewed by others. Thanks for the opportunity.

    Matthew: I’m glad you took it.


  • I want everyone to feel less pain and more joy. I want everyone to understand each other’s needs first, and wants second. I want the world to advance with compassion.

  • I want my older sons to create happiness and fulfillment in their lives (and not forget my birthday!). I want my son who has Down’s Syndrome to enjoy a high quality of life until he passes away, which I hope will be before me so that I can be there for him until the end.

    I want to accept my husband of 38 years for who he is and let go of my anger at who he isn’t. I want meaning and creativity in my life until the end. I want to help others and not feel guilty all the time that I am not doing enough for tikun olam. I want to stay physically and mentally healthy and independent for many years and have the strength and possibility of choosing how to leave my life when I feel the time has come.

  • I want to be physically and mentally healthy into late old age. I want to use my creative energy to solve problems that make life better for the people around me. I want to find a way to live contentedly in the midst of a culture that has many features that I find abhorrent. I want these same things for my two sons and their families.

  • I want to find love again. I’m afraid it will end like it has in the past, with horrible long-lasting heartbreak. I’m strong, but not strong enough to endure that again. …or at least that’s my view on it.

  • I am deeply touched by all of the above people opening their hearts and writing what they want. In my case, I want to feel well again, not so plagued by the harpies of numerous medical issues. If I can’t feel well again, then I want to be able to accept that and not feel so overwhelmed by it all. Thank you, Alex, for giving your readers the opportunity to open their selves to others.

  • I want to be more grateful for what I have and am. And I want more of what I struggle with: self-confidence, compassion, light-heartedness.

    I want to learn and grow in the Buddhist principles of letting go, living in the moment, and mindfulness.

    I want to understand what I must do for my son, who will never live independently. I want to prepare myself to make the hard decisions that will come in the future.

    I want to be more and more a healer.

    I want to be more at peace, truly believing and living that things are “unfolding as they should” (Desiderata).

  • As always, I appreciate the touchstone provided by this blog, and the opportunity it always provides for self-reflection.

    I desire clarity and courage—an understanding of my life’s purpose, and the fearlessness pursuing it may require.

  • “…the ability to challenge and overcome our desire to give up when we’re in pain is a lesson that will never leave us for a moment and ultimately serve us far more than even the joy of accomplishing the goal that taught it to us.”

    Thank you. You have no idea how badly I needed to hear this today:-)

    Kristel: You’re so very welcome.


  • Thanks Alex for always having such thought-provoking posts!

    Here’s my “I want”:

    I want the most beautiful, happy, healthy, loving, fun, inspiring lifelong marriage with my “kick butt” husband/partner for kosen-rufu that is wayyyy better than I could ever imagine!

    I want us to have happy, healthy babies (the old fashioned way) and raise them to be awesome Bodhisattvas of the Earth who make me appreciate every moment I chanted and took action to overcome our fears about being capable parents.

    I want our careers to be fulfilling and fully sustain the development of our family and daily lives and enable us to have rejuvenating SGI meetings at our home which is also a wonderful place for us to refresh ourselves and have fun with family and friends.

  • I appreciate the openness of those contributing. It allows me to be open and that leads me to say…I want to be free of this heartbreak of 3 years…Seems like too long, but I still miss so much of HIM….I want to be ENOUGH…I want a lighter heart and peace…

  • I want courage, compassion, determination and patience. And the moon, I want the moon and to feel my heart open wide enough to embrace it.

  • Until recently I have always been one that knows his own mind and has been more comfortable with himself than most people I know. The last few years this has not been true. I have been torn between logic and emotion.

    I guess in times turmoil and stress is when most growth occurs. Growth rather than stagnating may be what I want the most.

  • I want to be part of a loving family.
    I want to know what it feels like to be loved so much you don’t even think about it.
    I want to do something fresh and energising with my life.
    I want to stop being afraid of being afraid.
    I want to accept my failures kindly.
    I want to accept other people’s failures kindly.
    I want to resign as managing director of the universe.
    I want to trust life and not work so hard to hold things together.

    Kate: I especially liked (and related) to that second-to-last one.


  • I have thought about my greatest want all week & how I would respond. But since I read Karen’s post I don’t care about my want. It doesn’t matter. My want is trivial.

    So I will focus on a need:

    I need to leave my spouse if I want to be an independent person.

    I need to have the “dog of my heart” back home.

  • First of all I want that cupcake in that picture, and to savor it slowly. I also want to be free of fibromyalgia which is my constant, unwelcome companion of the past eight years. I want my mother who is dying of lung cancer and dementia, not to suffer, and hopefully to forgive me for having to put her in a nursing home recently.

    I want to wake up each day and count my blessings. I want, and have, real love. I am not a Buddhist, but I have studied the religion and find some of it useful. I study many religions, but not very comfortable aligning myself with any of them completely. I half jokingly call myself a Zen Christian with Native American spiritualist leanings. Whew a mouthful indeed, but actually the truth.

  • This is what I want:

    I want to stop hating myself for not being intellectually gifted.

    I want someone to find a cure for cystic acne and irritable bowl syndrome.

    I want to be free of shame and embarrassment from lack of basic math skills.

    I want to stop comparing myself to others.

    I want to stop living a lie, but I’m not convinced God can provide for me if I do.

    I want to make a wage large enough so I can buy a hamburger anytime and put a little in savings.

    I want to be the victim of a fatal car accident sometimes.

    I want to be lucky enough to buy a woman a ring someday.

  • I want to be happy. I want to be loved! And to feel love for the people in my life. I want things to be open and easy between me and my best friend again. I want to meet more friends—to connect and to bond with people that I really like. And maybe in doing so, to find a partner to share some of my life with. I want to be touched.

    I want to jump in a lake. I want to take my dog hiking. And to teach her to come when I call, and not to steal things off the counter even though it’s funny. I want to be a good person. I want to be wise (or at least become wiser). I want to understand people, and myself. I want to make a lemon bundt cake. I want to EAT a lemon bundt cake. I want to eat a lemon bundt cake without feeling guilty about it. I want to jump in a lake naked.

    I want to start drawing again. I want to tell stories. I want your book to come out so I can read it! I want to go back in time and go to Hogwarts. I want to eat a lot of vegetables. I want dying to be “an awfully big adventure.”

    I want to go for a really, really long walk.

    Wow… I feel good! I wasn’t feeling “bad” but I feel better now than I did before! Cool.

  • Unfortunately, I, like most people, WANT a lot of things; however I hope that my intellect can describe what I really want and that is peace. I want to walk on the grass in bare feet and like you wrote, “to live until I’m ready to die.” Thank you for reminding me to think about my values instead of my desires. I don’t know exactly what I need, and I fight the fight against my base desires.

  • I want to be a good, compassionate doctor when I graduate medicine.

    I want to be healthy, content, and a good listener.

    I want to eat well.

    I want to meet a nice guy.

  • I WANT… what a luxury to think about what I want… it feels really selfish and frivolous though—but here goes…

    I want to have time to rest and recuperate. I want to have my husband back again healthy and whole. I want my day job to be easier and less demanding. I want to have people take my work and not argue with me about it. I want to paint and tell stories in my paintings. I want to be a good person that people love. I want to live a peaceful life. I want to affect people emotionally and make them feel good about themselves. I want to built a memorial to my husband so he will never be forgotten. I want to be less angry and stressed out. I want to be safe and not worry about whether I can manage the financial obligations of my life. I want to laugh again. I want a better floor, no carpet, a good fridge and a nice lawn.

  • I am about to write one of my first college essays and now I am really glad I have found this blog—it gets you thinking. These essays are all very similar, asking you about what a very important moment in your life was blah blah…but the real thing behind finally starting your college essays is that you are deciding what you want to do basically for the next 4 years…mhhhh…for me this is a head-scratcher because at this moment how will I know if what I want now is what I will want in 2-4 years…e.g., two years ago what I wanted was entirely different than from what I want now…therefore growth must be the factor of change in this decision…so if this is true what is the point of asking yourself what you want if you know it will change…

    Another thought to that…according to the main text above reflecting on what you want can really help you (which I believe is true)…then maybe there are 2 kinds of wants…1. the wants that change and 2. the desires that have always been there in the back of your head. Here is the thing…I know what I don’t want.

    I know that I don’t want to be alone in the future…so therefore what I want is a lot a friends maybe a companion…hehe makes sense..and this way it is sort of easier…one problem though I already have a lot a friends, which would mean that what I want in life I already have and I am content with…:D ultimate goal reached.

    However this is of course not the only thing…but step by step, by asking yourself what you don’t want you could figure out what you truly want or need in life.

  • […] No one has ever died saying they wish they worried more. A great blog post about figuring out wanting and what we want can be found here – what’s even better is the […]

  • I want have a good job, I wanna pay my debts, I wanna have sufficient amount of energy in my daily life, I wanna be loved and I wanna love. I wanna be just, I wanna be fair, I wanna be true. I wanna be myself and love myself, I wanna forgive and I wanna let go the past.

  • I want to find out what I really want.

    I used to know. I used to be so sure. Now… all wants sound so artificial. I used to think “I want to be a writer, I want to write great stories,” but right now this seems so empty, like I’m only scratching the surface.

    Write about what?

    Why write?

    Recently, this is almost a material need to me, something that I like and would like to have, but, like a new lens for my camera, is something that wouldn’t fulfill me even if I had it.

    I want to fill this hole inside me. But I don’t know what it is. I don’t know what causes.

  • @ Cindy:

    Cindy, are we ever sure, is there a guarantee that the things we want will fulfill us, will be “enough”?

    I think you are transitioning between “That was then—this is now”. You say you used to know . . . and now you don’t know.

    There is no fault here.

    You must take a leap and perform experiments to see if what you want is really what you want. It will be “Aha!” moments for you. It is probably a period of growth.

    Be brave.

  • What I want:

    To be able to move into my own apartment by my daughters 10th birthday and make it a place she can to stay with me anytime she wants.

    To remain strong in my battle to be aware of whats internal or whats external each day as they come.

    To be the woman I never knew I wanted to be until I started my recovery a year ago.

    Jessica: Good luck!


  • I want my beautiful daughter to become healthy & happy. I want this as she has tried to kill herself 4 times in the past 3 years. It is exhausting, and painfull to live with a person with borderline personality disorder. She is my heart.

  • I want:

    To be happy again with the love of my life
    I want him to want me back too
    I want to be happy for one full year…at least
    I want to love those I feel hate for from hurting me
    I want to be successful in a career I can love
    I want to spread love to others every day
    I don’t want to forget the little things
    I want to be able to relax for one full day and let it all go
    I want to be loved again by the man that I love
    I want God to make me whole again.

  • I want world peace.
    I want people to respect each other whoever, wherever they are.
    I want no discrimination between peoples or cultures.
    I want the world to fight with love not hate.
    I want to be happier than is imaginable.
    I want to be able to find the right kind of work for me so I can become independent, do my art work, live and work from home and build my dream.
    I do not want riches for I believe they are only inside me.
    I want people the world over to give gratitude and appreciate what they have and focus on that instead of focusing on what they “haven’t got.”
    I want everyone to chant nam myoho renge kyo and show actual proof and to receive conspicuous and inconspicuous benefit in their lives.