Each article in Balanced Achievement’s ‘Conscious Questions’ series focuses on a particular question that you can ask yourself to increase your levels of success, happiness, and fulfillment. By consciously asking yourself transformative questions that are geared towards inner exploration and personal growth, you will be able to get in touch with untapped creative resources and find innovative ways to get the most out of life. In this article, we look at the question ‘What do I want in life?’.
The lavish lifestyle of a Hollywood star, the bankroll of a Wall Street executive, the body and relationships of a supermodel, these are the things we tell ourselves we desire. But is this really what we want or are we allowing society to influence and dictate our way of thinking? Although we don’t consciously recognize the fleeting feelings of joy provided by life aims commonly held in the Western world, it is certain that they’ll eventually leave us unfulfilled because they’re bound to the ultimate reality of impermanence.
In fact, when we allow our happiness to be dependent upon external acquisition and achievement, we very much put ourselves in a position that’s similar to a hamster running on a wheel or a dog chasing its own tail.
Truth be told it’s lasting fulfillment that we’re after and although we naively assume otherwise, no amount of money, material possessions, social status, or sex can supply us with that. Fortunately, however, by consistently and persistently asking ourselves ‘What do I want in life?’, we can discover the appropriate ways to increase our happiness and get the most out of life.
Conditioned to Crave the Impermanent:
When we really think about the ways in which the vast majority of people go about creating the sustainable levels of life satisfaction they crave at the core of their beings, it becomes clear to see how a number of psychological processes govern their thinking, decision-making, and behavior. Unquestionably the process of social influence, in the forms of socialization, conformity, and social conditioning, plays a significant role in shaping us as individuals, and unfortunately, it’s not always in the most beneficial ways. Of course, learning from and emulating the behaviors of others helps us maintain our place as valuable members of society, but when it comes to creating lasting levels of fulfillment, the approaches we learn are all together misguided.
To explain why this is the case, it can be helpful to introduce the spiritual term of impermanence which tells us that all material objects, mental cognitions, and emotional feelings are subjected to a cycle of continuous change, decline, and dissolution. Despite the fact that it’s literally impossible to argue against this truth, most of us still remain ignorant of it and continue to go about finding fulfillment in all the wrong ways. For example, the nice car we so desperately want eventually breaks down. The emotional high we get from a pay raise eventually wains, as do those from starting a new relationship.
It’s precisely because we tie our fulfillment to impermanent objects, ideas, and feelings such as these that we remain unsatisfied with life. Moreover, it is certain that unless we take the reigns of our minds, which we can do by asking ourselves conscious questions such as ‘What do I want in life?’, we’ll continue to remain unfulfilled as we search to find permanent pleasure in what’s ultimately impermanent. Noah Levine, a once troubled juvenile turned celebrated Buddhist teacher, tells us:
We are addicted to pleasure, in part because we confuse pleasure with happiness. We would all say that deep down, all we want is to be happy. Yet we don’t have a realistic understanding of what happiness really is. Happiness is closer to the experience of acceptance and contentment than it is to pleasure… Though pleasure is in no way the enemy in our search for happiness, it comes and goes. When it’s here, we tend to grasp at it; when it’s gone, we want more.”
Differentiating The Ego’s Drives From Our Deepest Desires:
By looking deeply enough at the happiness we experience from external achievement and material acquisition, we can gain insights into how the ego’s drives for financial success, social status enhancements, and bettering our possessions produce desirable emotional feelings for a little while before they inevitably fade away. Subsequently, after this happens, we foolishly start searching for joy by setting out to achieve the same objectives, in slightly different forms, that give us the temporary state of fulfillment that evaporates with time. Therefore, if we are to stop this cycle and move closer to living with the sustainable levels of satisfaction we’re really after, it’ll be imperative to understand the difference between our ego’s drives and our most deeply held heart desires:
The Drives of The Ego:
The desires that we have at the level of the ego are typically driven by socially influenced ideas that revolve around external successes, professional status, and material possessions. When we ask ourselves ‘What do I want in life?’, it is certain that the ego will respond with answers such as ‘A new tv’, ‘A nicer house’, ‘A better car’, ‘A higher salary’, or ‘More sex’.
Although our ego tells us that these things are the path to happiness and fulfillment, the truth is that they’re ultimately unsatisfactory because of their impermanent nature. As we’ve already pointed out, the happiness we experience from buying a new car, starting a new relationship, or getting a pay raise will always evaporate with time. The late great British philosopher Alan Watts tells of this dilemma:
Man suffers because of his craving to possess and keep forever things which are essentially impermanent, and as soon as man tries to possess them they slip away. This frustration of the desire to possess is the immediate cause of suffering.”
The Deepest Desires of The Heart:
Whereas achieving the goals of the ego inevitably lead to disappointment and frustration, carrying out the deepest desires of the true self sets us on a path toward lasting levels of joy. When we get in touch with what is often referred to as the soul and ask the question ‘What do I want in life?’, we’ll hear many different answers such as ‘To grow’, ‘To heal past wounds and mend broken relationship’, ‘To help others’, ‘To develop myself as a person’, ‘To work in a field that I am truly passionate about’ and ‘To connect with people at a more intimate level’.
It is certain that if we are to find the fulfillment we most intimately seek, we’ll have to start following desires such as these. As the immortalized Sufi mystic Rumi tells us:
Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.”
Asking Yourself ‘What Do I Want in Life?’:
By consciously asking ourselves ‘What do I want in life?’ on a daily basis and exploring the vastly different answers that come from our head and heart, we’ll be able to systematically reconnect with our most intimate desires. It is certain that when we persistently ask this question with mindfulness and curiosity, in search of truthful understanding, the fog of our minds will clear and the signposts to lasting fulfillment will come into clear view. Only with these insights in hand, and the roadmap to sustainable levels of life satisfaction laid out in front of us, can we begin pursuing the aims that will ultimately bring us the meaningful feelings we crave.
It’s for these reasons that regularly asking and acting upon the heartfelt answers to the conscious question ‘What do I want in life?’ can be such a liberating and life-affirming practice for us to undertake. As the celebrated Hindu sage Paramahansa Yogananda once told us:
Freedom means the power to act by soul guidance, not by compulsions of desires and habits. Obeying te ego leads to bondage; obeying the soul brings liberation.”