“What’s wrong with doing what you want?!”

GalleryImage_1491_2975_2723f9This was the question put to me recently by a young adult. In the way it was phrased it wasn’t really a question… more a statement implying that everybody knows that it’s good to do what you want. That to be able to do what you want is the freedom worth striving for, and if the opportunity arises surely anybody sane would take it…. after all, doing what you want makes you happy… right?

It depends… if you’re talking about transient happiness maybe… but if you’re talking about a more profound satisfaction, one which is equally at home with the happiness and sadness integral to being connected with the world, then the starting point for that comes from spending some time getting to know who you really are – beyond any stories you or others might tell – rather than spending time doing whatever it is that you think will do the business.
Maybe this particular groove, which seems to fit you so well at present, leads to a ditch which gets deeper and deeper – so deep that perspective is lost, and any talk of your infinite nature sounds like so much gobbledygook.

Isn’t it likely that if I do what my ego dictates I just become a puppet of my own desires? Isn’t it likely that the more I make satisfying these desires my priority, the more validity I give them, the less important everyone else’s wants and needs are to me… and so I’ll become even more egocentric and selfish. My ability to make a wise decision about what’s most appropriate to do, considering all involved, diminishes.  I become blinded to my impact on other people and ignorant of the detrimental consequences for myself…as the ego-skin thickens the sense of being separated from ‘others’ and the ground of being increases. Then the world is seen and valued  depending on how well it fits in with my priorities, with the thinking that I should be able to get what I like and do what I want.

And if I’m blocked in the fulfilment of my desires I will be unhappy. Sure enough, eventually, the world will block me because, strangely, it does not come into being in order to fit around, and satisfy, my ego’s changing shape.

It’s a bit like in Hogarth’s the Rake’s progress… the likelihood of the rake seeing the error of his ways and making amends diminishes as he ‘progresses’….the potential is always there but no realisation of  wisdom…so it’s ‘I can’t get no..o.. satisfaction!

Just doing what you want is not the road to freedom.

Talking with teenagers in school many of them believe that getting what you want will make you happy.

I say that that might be so for some people… for a little while… but that I know many people who got what they wanted then found that there was no lasting satisfaction in that achievement. Often, however well they do as far as their external circumstances go, there is a sense of dis-ease, or unsettledness, on the inside which shows itself in how they feel about themselves, in their behaviours, and the way in which they relate to other people. Often there is a great effort made to try to show worthiness, their value, to parents, relatives or friends. This is so sad because it implies that their sense of having value rests on approval from people who cannot be relied upon to give this for ever, if at all. In any case if the approval is based on prestige or status or wealth or some particular deeds, some factor which is not even symbolic of their particular being… a manufactured display…it’s always unsatisfactory, at ‘one stage removed’ from the one seeking approval.

One man I tell them about started a company determined to make enough money to buy himself a very expensive sports car. He succeeded… but that didn’t quite do the job so he bought another the same, and then he bought another of a different type. None of this satisfied his longing for acceptance, for the the love of his mother, a love for which he sometimes cried.

The factors for the continuity of these symbols are in any case  unstable and so there is also anxiety around losing them or having them outshone or devalued….

In St Tropez the yachts are arranged smallest (with the smallest floral arrangements) near the quayside with the yachts and floral arrangements getting larger as you walk out along the jetty over deeper water.  The satisfaction of some of those in the larger yachts, as they walk past the smaller yachts to shore, shrinks when a massive yacht belonging to a Russian oligarch comes into view… all black glass, black uniforms, black ropes and fenders, but… a botched mooring leaves the onlookers with a sense of superiority. All in all samsaric vision’s not such a pretty sight. Who can be at ease as they squander all this energy in trying to show that ‘I’ve arrived’?

I remember the advertisement of an expensive watch manufacturer which made the statement ‘Wear a ‘… ….’ to show you’ve arrived!’ Arrived where? Arrived at a place where you able to spend a lot of money on a wristwatch…it doesn’t actually say anything at all about your own state.

As for being the envy of one’s friends…what a ghastly idea!

The young friend i referred to earlier had been, as part of an exercise at work, looking at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
I’ve included a couple of extracts from Wikipedia below… Wikipedia is very handy for this kind of thing but there are issues… one of which made me smile. A famous musician was discussing correcting an error in his Wikipedia entry. It was something he knew very well, something like his date of birth, but each time he altered  the entry it was changed back… he was able to watch this happening in front of his eyes and gave up after the third attempt!


“The term “self-actualization” may not universally convey Maslow’s observations; this motivation refers to focusing on becoming the best person that one can possibly strive for in the service of both the self and others.[3] Maslow’s term of self-actualization might not properly portray the full extent of this level; quite often, when a person is at the level of self-actualization, much of what they accomplish in general may benefit others, or “the greater good”.

From what this friend was saying i think that ‘self-actualisation’ is sometimes being mis-construed, interpreted as having the freedom to be able to shape your life in the way you want. Also, in the model she was given, the higher level of self-transcendence (below) was absent.


In his later years, Maslow explored a further dimension of needs, while criticizing his own vision on self-actualization.[8] The self only finds its actualization in giving itself to some higher goal outside oneself, in altruism and spirituality. “Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos

Then there’s non-dual realisation…when the true nature of self and other is experienced as awareness within which manifestation arises….
I used to encourage myself in dharma practise by saying if you aim for the top you might just get there, but if you aim for something lesser you surely won’t.
However, what if you don’t know that there is a top to aim for ???….or someone takes the top off your mountain…?

Anxious striving in samsara ties us in knots and in dharma practice also it takes us further from where we want to be… the open state… because as we gather ourselves up and apply more effort there is more a sense of solidity and grasping  with that.  I know because I’ve tried it… and become exhausted… but then there’s a  direct invitation to look differently.
“Sit on your bum and get enlightened now” as James once said…that too can seem like a ‘mountainous’ injunction! But he knows the nature of the mind;  his directions are clear as to what to do when you are sitting on the climbing ropes.
Coming across teachings on resting in the nature of mind, relaxing into spaciousness are a blessed relief…it’s always there, wherever you find yourself… and all the busyness can’t improve your true nature, it just kicks up the dust and makes it more difficult to see.