Coping with Craving and Desire

Head and shoulder of Buddha statue - mindfulness helps us cope with craving and desire

The Desires of Andvari

The Norse myth about the dwarf Andvari tells of craving, lust, foolishness, and death. As retold by Liz Greene and Juliet Sharman-Burke, [1] Andvari is walking along the river one day when he sees the reflection of gold among the rocky riverbed and falls in love with the glittering metal. But the gold is guarded by the daughters of the river god, Father Rhein. Like the Sirens of Greek mythology, these young nymphs lure men with their unattainable beauty.

When Andvari sees them, he longs for them with a deep and relentless longing. He calls to them desperately, rushing toward them with open arms.

Laughing, the maidens drift away. Over and over, though the dwarf tries to clasp them in his arms, they slither away like water slipping through cupped hands. Just out of reach, they tempt him with their bodies, rejecting and humiliating him with their actions and their words.

Head and shoulder of Buddha statue - mindfulness helps us cope with craving and desire

Seeking Satisfaction Outside Ourselves

Andvari reels with the sting of their disdain. Frustrated in his attempts to satisfy his sexual desires, he spurns that which he once wanted, becoming bitter and vengeful. If he cannot have love, he will have wealth.

Like we so often do, Andvari seeks satisfaction outside of himself, but as are all our addictions, these young nymphs are but illusion and empty promise. They offer no true happiness. What Andvari seeks is not there. Like him, we may think the drug or game or distraction will soothe and satisfy our cravings, but it only intensifies them. Left with emptiness, cruelty, and ugliness, we grow bitter and vengeful.

Yet Andvari does not learn from his experience. He still thinks he can find happiness in pleasure, in riches, in power. Remembering the gold, he leaps into the water and gathers the nuggets to him. Crying out in horror, the nymphs promise they will give the dwarf the pleasure he seeks if only he will leave the shining metal where it lies.

Forsaking Love

But Andvari refuses. “I want nothing of your love,” he shouts. “I forsake love. And in this way, I will gain all the power of the gold.”

So it was, for Andvari knew, as did the maidens, that anyone who renounced love would gain from the nuggets the ability to forge a powerful ring. With that ring, Andvari would be able to create an endless supply of gold, and perhaps even better, he would gain control over all the other dwarves.

Andvari forged this ring, and the ring became his life.

How many of us have lost ourselves to some drug, or food, or hobby, or image, or cause, or collection, or career, or status? Passion and fervor are wonderful attributes, yet they so easily become unmanageable. Such slavery to our desires cannot last forever, though. Eventually, we will falter, grow sick, lose family, lose freedom, lose hope. Some of us wake up before our world crumbles around us. Andvari did not. His gold and his power had to be forcibly taken from him.

Impetuous Loki

To continue with our story, though, we need to leave Andvari underground with the rest of the dwarves and travel to the upper Earth where three gods are walking along a different river. There were Odin, the chief god whose own lust for power caused him to give up one of his eyes; Hoenir, who helped create human beings; and Loki, the trickster god. Bathing in the water was what looked like an otter, and feeling mischievous, Loki threw a rock at the creature and killed him.

Skinning the beast, the three gods continued on until they came to the home of another god, Hreidmar. This god welcomed them in, and after a short welcome, the three proudly displayed their catch.

Hreidmar’s response was not what they expected, though, for in the pelt he recognized the skin of his beloved son, Otr, who took the shape of his namesake animal during the day. Hreidmar was aghast. Calling to his other sons, he had the three gods imprisoned. Together they agreed to let the gods live if Loki would bring back enough gold to fill and cover the skin of Otr’s body.

Loki Steals the Gold

Loki knew the one place he could go to get that much gold. Descending into the underworld, the trickster god used his wits to seize the gold, and the ring, from Andvari. Nothing of this world lasts forever. Even the strongest person grows sick and dies, and riches only tempt thieves, and power tempts challengers.

Helpless now and furious, Andvari cursed the ring so that whoever possessed it would come to a bad end. Although the dwarf was left impoverished and friendless, he perhaps found satisfaction thinking how the curse might fulfill its promise.

Having been given the ring with the rest of the gold, Hreidmar was killed by his son Fafnir, who lusted after the riches himself. Then, lost in his greed, Fafnir turned into a serpent. Eventually he was killed by another of his brothers.

When our cravings and desires overwhelm us, we so often come to a bad end.

Craving and Harm Avoidance

In their book, Living with Our Genes, Deam Hamer and Peter Copeland correlate this tendency to get lost in addictions with the personality trait of harm avoidance. Harm avoidance is ingrained. Expressed early in a child’s life, the trait makes one anxious, fearful, often tired, and depressed. Those of us who score high in harm avoidance don’t like to try new things. We are emotionally sensitive, blame ourselves easily, and are distressed by harsh words. We’re “always waiting for the other shoe to drop.” [2] We easily become frustrated, angry, and bitter.

If we test as strongly harm avoidant, we may have trouble controlling our urges and cravings. We might eat too much, smoke cigarettes, take drugs, hoard possessions, and lust after sex and money. “Desires are perceived as irresistible, even if they later produce remorse,” Hamer and Copeland write. [3]

Andvari was probably harm avoidant. To make things worse, he felt scorned and rejected. No one cared for him, comforted him, helped him understand that he didn’t need sex or wealth to be valued and loved. The dwarf never had a chance to heal.

Desire and Risk Takers

Not that harm avoiders are the only ones at risk of addictive and unmanageable behavior. Those of us with low harm avoidance scores tend to be risk takers, impulsive, and aggressive. We like the thrill of the chase, the excitement of danger. Adrenaline can be its own addiction. As teenagers, we probably defied authority, experimented with drugs and sex. This can lead addictions, including ones to lust and greed and control. Indeed, a research study published in Science Daily showed that such personality types have a high incidence of alcoholism. [4]

Not only do these two personality traits show up early in our lives, they are, according to Hamer and Copeland, some of the “most persistent aspects of personality.” [5] So is it hopeless? Could Andvari have done nothing to help himself, to change, to find true happiness? If we’re harm avoidant, are we destined to get caught up in one addiction or another, in depression or anger or fear or despair? If we are risk takers, are we destined to get lost in one wild scheme after another?

Mindfulness Meditation to the Rescue

Not necessarily. Brain science helps us understand how harm avoidance and risk taking work and why they’re associated with addiction. It also teaches us that the brain is malleable. With help, we can change and grow, learn to see the world in a new way, and choose how to cope.

One technique that can help is meditation. Studies show that, compared with control groups who practiced relaxation without mindfulness, mindfulness training reduces cravings and increases self control, whether one has an active addiction or not. Mindfulness meditation mitigates the activity of the amygdala, the part of our brain that regulates fight or flight, decreases our craving, and reduces the incidence of relapse. Even when stressed and hurting, those who practice mindfulness experience fewer cravings than those who don’t. [6]

Other Ways to Cope

Mindfulness is not the only answer, of course. Medication-assisted recovery has become popular, such as long-term Suboxone therapy for people addicted to heroin and naltrexone for alcoholism.  Cognitive therapies can bring relief. Simply surrounding ourselves with support can make a major difference. Addressing the underlying trauma can free people from their compulsions.  Religious traditions, beliefs, practices, and communities protect us from the overwhelming lure of desire. [7]

In his book The Trauma of Everyday Life, Mark Epstein tells the story of Yasa, a wealthy contemporary of Buddha. Yasa had all the delights he could possibly want, including lovely women to dance and sing for him, to pleasure him, and to sleep by his side.

Facing Impermanence

One morning, after a long night of feasting and enjoying the company of a handful of beautiful women, Yasa woke up to find them all sprawled around his room, asleep. They were disheveled, some drooling, their hair tousled. Yasa was appalled and horrified at how ugly and weak they looked. He ran to Buddha who helped him understand the nature of impermanence, that no matter how much we wish to pretend we will always be young and virile and successful, our bodies age, our fortunes change. Nothing remains the same.

Epstein writes that although some Buddhist teachers claim that Buddha warned Yasa against any sensual pleasure, that is not the case. Rather “he showed him the defilement and the vanity in sensual pleasure: the way people use sensual pleasure to avoid dealing with the truth of insubstantiality.” It’s not pleasure that is wrong; it is our attachment to that pleasure. [8]

After all, how can pleasure be wrong in and of itself? Without desire and even craving, we could not survive in a world where we must eat food, procreate to carry on the species, and protect ourselves from the elements and disease and predators. What we don’t know how to do is moderate our cravings, temper our desires.

Redemptive Love

Although many tools exist that can support our recovery, we are less likely to reach for addictive behaviors and substances if we have known unconditional love.

Andvari suffered because he never knew such love. In Richard Wagner’s series of operas that tell the story of Andvari and the magic ring, The Ring Cycle, redemption comes in the form of love. After Andvari loses his beloved ring, the gods grapple for it and the hero, Siegfried, kills for it. Finally, the compassionate Brünnhilde, the maiden who loves Siegfried, but loses him to another woman and then to death, snatches the ring and throws it into the Rhine where the river maidens reclaim it. Then she climbs onto her lover’s funeral pyre and dies. Ultimately, Wagner’s telling is a story of the many facets of love, including love gone awry, and love redeemed. [9]

Brünnhilde knows that wealth and power are meaningless if we have no love.

Choose Life

Sometimes our addictions feel like cursed rings of power that we must destroy before they destroy us. At times, we must indeed die to ourselves to become whole again. Yet Buddha holds out the hope of a gentler way. Recognize our pain; learn to tolerate it. Release our attachment to all that is impermanent, which is just about everything. Simple, even easy in a way, yet also immensely difficult.

Admitting our lives are not exactly as we would have them is the first step to change. If only Andvari had been able to see himself as he truly was and recognize that the nymphs he so desired were just an illusion, his story would have been entirely different. If only some loving teacher had shown his this.

We can learn from his mistakes. In community, we can guide and nurture one another. Release the ring. Choose life.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. Greene, Liz and Juliet Sharman-Burke, The Mythic Journey: The Meaning of Myth as a Guide for Life, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000, 205-210.
  2. Hamer, Dean and Peter Copeland, Living with Our Genes: Why They Matter More Than You Think, New York: Anchor Books, 1999, 57.
  3. Ibid 58.
  4. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, “High Novelty-seeking And Low Avoidance Of Harm Contribute To Alcohol Dependence,” ScienceDaily, ScienceDaily, 5 March 2009, <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/03/090303161303.htm>, accessed January 20, 2018.
  5. Hamer and Copeland 59.
  6. See Tang YY, Tang R, Posner MI, “Mindfulness Meditation Improves Emotion Regulation and Reduces Drug Abuse, Drug Alcohol Depend, 2016 Jun 1;163 Suppl 1:S13-8. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2015.11.041. Review. PubMed PMID: 27306725,  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27306725,accessed January 20, 2018, and Witkiewitz K, Lustyk MKB, Bowen S., “Retraining the Addicted Brain: a Review of Hypothesized Neurobiological Mechanisms of Mindfulness-based Relapse Prevention,” Psychol Addict Behav, 2013 Jun;27(2):351-365. doi: 10.1037/a0029258. Epub 2012Jul 9, Review, PubMed PMID: 22775773; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3699602. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22775773, accessed January 20, 2018, and Taren AA, Gianaros PJ, Greco CM, Lindsay EK, Fairgrieve A, Brown KW, Rosen RK,Ferris JL, Julson E, Marsland AL, Bursley JK, Ramsburg J, Creswell JD, “Mindfulness Meditation Training Alters Stress-related Amygdala Resting State Functional Connectivity: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2015 Dec;10(12):1758-68. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsv066. Epub 2015 Jun 5, PubMed PMID: 26048176; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4666115, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26048176, accessed January 20, 2018.
  7. See Ringwald, Christopher D., The Soul of Recovery: Uncovering the Spiritual Dimension in the Treatment of Addictions, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Ringwald reviews some different spiritual approaches to addiction, assessing their efficacy where possible.
  8. Epstien, Mark, The Trauma of Everyday Life, New York: Penguin, 2013, 107.
  9. See “Wagner Documentary: In the Eye of the Ring,” Video Mithic Video Classics and Centre Culturel des Capucins and Bibliotheque Nationale de France, English version edited and narrated by John G. Deacon, Nibelheim, France: Mithic Video Classics, 2001. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CvpIbfslS9w accessed January 19, 2018; also Rawlings, Eric, “The Story,”   https://people.well.com/user/woodman/singthing/ring/story.html, 1999, accessed January 20, 2018.

Photo by Sabine Schulte on Unsplash

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *