Note: I was asked to write an article for The Peaceful Dragon newsletter. I've reprinted the article here for posterity.
Earlier this year, my daughter (who was three at the time) and I were having an argument about the cleanliness of her room. She was adamant about not wanting to clean her room because she couldn't. I was adamant about her cleaning her room because she should. Either way, it ended in tears (hers, not mine) and her storming into my office declaring, "I want a new Papa!" and then storming off to the living room to cry. I guess her room was too messy. Moments later, she comes back to my office still sobbing. I looked at her and asked, "Do you still want a new Papa?" She looked at me and between the sobs she said, "No, he would be just as difficult." I was stunned and I almost fell out of my chair in hysterical laughter. I asked her to repeat herself to make sure I heard correctly and so that I wouldn't make her cry further by laughing at her. I'm not sure if I was stunned because she didn't want me to be her Papa or that I was being taught a life lesson by a three year old. Probably a bit of both. I got over the former (she has told my wife that she wants a new Mama), but I'm still stunned (and impressed) over the latter.
How many of us go through life wanting something more, something different? Thinking that our lives would be better if only we had that red sports car, a new husband, boyfriend, girlfriend, wife, parents, new shoes, that little black dress, that silk shirt, and/or the latest and greatest widget, gadget or thing-a-ma-bob! Or how about in our own practice? We'd be better if we could remember our forms, have this or that body type, or if our partners were shorter, taller, skinnier, or fatter we could execute this or that technique much better. We become so attached to the outcome of what we want, we lose sight of the moment.
In the Ch'an (Zen) tradition, expecting to be satisfied by the want, desire, or need is what creates suffering and stress. Notice I didn't say the actual want, desire, or need was the culprit. It's the expectation of the outcome that creates the suffering or stress. You can want, desire or even think you need ice cream. But, as long as your life isn't driven by the need for ice cream, or the expectation of having ice cream, you will not experience suffering or stress if you don't get the ice cream. We can also take attachment to the extreme of addiction. Desiring the outcome of something so much, that we will destroy ourselves, steal from our neighbors, or even kill in cold blood just to attain it. We have many addictions; some serious (drugs, alcohol, nicotine) and some not so serious (caffeine, food, television). It's not that we really want the cigarettes, the drugs, or to sit in front of the idiot box. It's the outcome of doing those things that we desire and expect. The sooner we realize that expecting an outcome leads to our suffering and stress, the better our lives will become.
My daughter wanted the outcome of not cleaning her room so bad, she wanted a new Papa. Or, was she just being a typical three year old? I'd like to think my daughter has an advanced understanding of life, the universe and everything, but maybe not. Not too long after that episode, we had the same argument and again she stated "I want a new Papa!" Maybe she's telling me that I need to be less attached to the idea of her having a clean bedroom.