Lessons from Poison Ivy – Fulfilling our desires and wants

Published on Nov 10, 2021

One of the things we need to educate ourselves is the nature of wanting. Because if we don’t understand wanting, and we are directed by the misunderstandings around wanting, then, the results will be suffering.

Studying the nature of wanting

If we understand wanting, and understand the nature of wanting, then, we can liberate the mind from suffering. Studying something means you have to reflect, and studying something is not the same as believing something. If you believe that wanting is wrong or bad, that’s not study. That’s just an opinion that someone has maybe given you. Or if you think that just by following all your wanting is going to give a result, and you don’t watch cause and effect, then, that also wouldn’t be study.

The capacity to study is also the capacity to reflect.

Not only can I do things in the world, participate in the world, I can notice how I am participating in the world.

Not only can I feel inspired, I can notice that I feel inspired.

Not only can I feel disappointed, I can notice that I feel disappointed.

Without awareness and reflection, we are simply reactive animals. We get some stimuli, like and dislike, we react to that. There’s no real freedom. But reflection isn’t the same as just thinking about something. I think it’s more profound. It’s actually observing cause and effect, and the flow of things.

What are we seeking?

So, the question would be:

  1. Are we seeking the fulfilment of our desires?
  2. Is that what we are seeking and can that ever work? And are we looking to always have what we want?

Well, I would suggest that what we are looking for is the end of wanting rather than an object. You notice when you get what you want, is it the object that is bringing peace or is it the end of wanting? I would suggest that it is the end of wanting and the object is actually a distraction. 

So, you get the object, the experience, the emotional experience, or the relationship or whatever, and for some moment, wanting falls away, and you think it’s the object.

Because you think it’s the object, you try to pursue the object again, but then you can’t get it.

Wanting that stems from ignorance

Wanting can be intelligent or it can be ignorant. Like my body, it is body with wants. Its biological nature is that it desires comfort, it fears pain, it needs food, and emotionally, it likes companionship and love. That’s the kind of biological make up. So, wanting is not wrong. But wanting, of course, has its limits. So if I think that my fulfilment comes from fulfilling my wanting, then what do I do with the reality of life? I’d feel frustrated. I’d feel averse, or fearful, or whatever.

But if I study wanting, how it works in the mind, how it operates, then you become a witness to Dharma — the Dharma of wanting.

One of the analogies in the text, which I found useful is the analogy of a skin disease. It is about ignorance.

Say, in Ontario where I’m from in Canada, we have a plant called the poison ivy. The ivy has a chemical, liquid form, that comes on to your skin. When it comes on to bare skin, it creates a toxic reaction on your skin, and you’ll get rash. When you scratch it, it rips open the blisters, and the blisters spread, and you get more rash, and it will itch even more.

So, I’ve had poison ivy, and it (my skin) really itches. Then, I try not to scratch it. When I have a shower, it would drive me nuts, and I would scratch it. And you know, it felt so good.  Of course, after the shower, I looked. Oops! Now I’ve got more of the disease; now I have more itching than I had before.

So, I made the determination, I put some calamine lotion on  I said, “I’m not going to scratch.” Of course, an hour later, I forgot.  And then, I scratched again.  “Ah, it’s so good.” At that time, my desire was fulfilled. I was getting what I wanted – I got the end of itching. But! Oh, oh. Now it’s all on my arm.

At some point, in this little drama of the itching and scratching, I have the insight that I need to forgo short-term satisfaction and pleasure, for long-term end of the disease. I have to forgo, the short-term pleasure of scratching, if I am going to put an end to the disease.

And that takes determination, and intelligence. Now, the itching is still there. That’s the problem. Just by saying to myself that I will not scratch, it doesn’t put an end to the itching. So, the temptation is to scratch, scratch, and scratch. “Come on. Just a little bit.” But the insight, and the renunciation of that would say, “no, I’m not going there.”

True freedom

Now, the thing about wanting that is not based on wisdom is that the mind is always  going out into objects. Thoughts, emotions, gadgets, relationships, memories, and the desire mind then, seeks fulfilment and satisfaction in objects.

And I would suggest that objects can never satisfy desire because their nature is transient, and they are out of your control. They arise depending on causes and conditions. So, then you have the insight that true freedom must be the end of wanting, not by getting what I want, but by forgoing the pursuit of wanting for the long- term end of the disease and that we’d call Nibbana.


The above is a transcript of a snippet of the talk given by Luang Por Viradhammo in 2018 at Nibbana Dhamma Rakkha Singapore. The full talk can be found on BuddhaDhamma Foundation’s Youtube channel.

Luang Por Viradhammo is the most senior Thai Forest monk in Canada and currently the Abbot of Tisarana Buddhist Monastery in Perth, Ontario. He was ordained as a monk in 1974 by Ajahn Chah at Wat Nong Pah Pong monastery and became one of the first residents at Wat Pah Nanachat, the international monastery in north-east Thailand.