• Deric Hollings

Desire and Disturbance


Recently, I was asked about the difference between desire and disturbance. Specifically, what are the elements which differentiate the experience of wanting something and suffering associated with desire?

REBT and Buddhism

Before I delve into this matter further, I think it would be useful to draw a comparison that others have also noted. Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) has been juxtaposed with Tibetan Buddhism and Zen Buddhism.

When working with clients of varying faiths—and some with no connection to religiosity at all—I’ve received challenge to my use of concepts that are similar to Buddhism. I welcome the criticism while valuing a response to the critique.

It was many years ago that a Christian woman told me meditation, mindfulness, detachment, and other elements of my approach to mental and behavioral health were practices she could not abide. They were said to contradict her religious faith.

For the current blog entry, I’ll refer to this person as Wilhelmina, though this isn’t her actual name.

While some profess that Buddhism is a religion, and others reject the claim, I retain no interest in the matter. Likewise, I do not identify as a Buddhist.

Still, it is worth noting that some REBT concepts relate to the Buddhist Four Noble Truths. Per my limited understanding, they are:

1. Duhkha – Per one source, “Its literal meaning is ‘that which is difficult to bear’. It can mean suffering, stress, pain, anguish, affliction or unsatisfactoriness.” Still, it is commonly interpreted as “life is suffering.” This element merits further examination.

One resource offers the following clarification:

· The dukkha of ordinary suffering in reference to the physical and mental suffering associated with birth, growing old, illness and dying.

· The dukkha produced by change concerning the anxiety or stress of trying to hold onto concepts of situations, people, or things that are constantly changing.

· The dukkha of conditioning in relation to a basic dissatisfaction pervading all forms of existence, due to ignorance of the fact that all forms of life are changing, impermanent, and without any inner core or substance—all regarding dissatisfaction and a sense that things never measure up to our expectations or standards.

2. Samudaya – One source states, “The cause of suffering is craving.” Another reference clarifies, “[T]he lust, passion, hunger, and thirst for forms, feelings, perceptions, volitional formations and consciousness is the source of suffering.”

3. Nirodha – One site claims, “The end of suffering comes with an end to craving.” A separate resource continues, “It is the complete cessation of that very craving, giving it up, relinquishing it, liberating oneself from it, and detaching oneself from it.”

4. Marga – Per one source, “The path leading to the end of suffering is the Eightfold Path.” This set of principles outlines a “path which leads one away from craving and suffering.”

One could understand how Wilhelmina may conclude that Buddhist concepts differ, in some way, to Judeo-Christian values.

Ignorance is defined as maintaining a “lack of knowledge, education, or awareness.” Where Buddhism is concerned, I’m operating from an ignorance-informed perspective. I don’t know what I don’t know.

I simply cannot opine as to whether or not a Christian practicing Buddhist techniques is good, bad, right, wrong, or otherwise. A cursory review of the aforementioned sources leads me to conclude that the Four Noble Truths aren’t dissimilar to how I practice as a counselor and social worker.

Am I promoting Buddhism? Not necessarily. Suppose I stated, “Firstly, avoid speaking lies, slander, harsh words, and indulging in frivolous chatter (gossips, idle talk etc.),” which coincides with Buddhism’s Noble Eightfold Path.

How does this differ from biblical teaching in reference to lying (1 Peter 3:10-11), slander (Psalm 101:5), harsh words (Proverbs 15:1), and gossip (Ephesians 4:29)? Perhaps we can agree there is some overlap.

Likewise, having completed advanced practicum training in the principles and practice of REBT, I can identify similarities between REBT and what little I do know of Buddhism. For a more in-depth understanding about my approach to REBT, I invite you to review a blog entry I posted entitled Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT).

To summarize, REBT uses the ABC Model to highlight the Epictetiannotion, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” I think of Samudaya in this regard.

People frequently maintain that an action (A) leads to a consequence (C). Wilhelmina learns of similarities between Buddhism and REBT (A) and is said to become upset with non-Christian principles presented in therapy (C).

However, REBT maintains that rather than an A-C connection, we disturb ourselves with beliefs (B)—this creates a B-C connection. Though not always, these beliefs tend to manifest as should, must, or ought statements.

In this case, Wilhelmina learns of similarities between Buddhism and REBT that I use in sessions (A) and she thinks, “This shouldn’t happen, because Buddhism doesn’t harmonize with my religious teachings [B].”

As a result of this unhelpful belief, she disturbs herself into an angry disposition (C). This is an A-B-C connection that could use disputation (D), leading to an effective (E) new belief (B).

For the current written submission, I won’t go into how disputing (D) an unhelpful belief (B) system works. What is important to understand is that we tend to disturb ourselves with rigid and extreme attitudes.

Albert Ellis, creator of REBT, is noted as having stated, “There are three musts that hold us back: I must do well. You must treat me well. And the world must be easy.”

Samudaya is said to describe the “causes (or roots) of suffering.” This is in accordance with rigid beliefs with which we use to disturb ourselves.

Understanding that it isn’t the thing that disturbs us, though our interpretation of the thing by which we disturb ourselves is fundamental. To simply observe and desire is akin to describing the world.

Where we tend to experience disturbance and suffering is when we prescribe that the world must function according to our will. Whether understood as Buddhism, REBT, Christianity, or otherwise, this knowledge can help us detach from “suffering, stress, pain, anguish, affliction or unsatisfactoriness.”

Desire and Attachment versus Disturbance and Suffering

From the REBT perspective I use, there is nothing inherently unhelpful or unhealthy about desire. It’s when the desire is paired with demands of ourselves, others, and the world that self-disturbance may occur.

Here are some examples of desire that aren’t inherently unhelpful:

· I want a promotion.

· I’d like a new car.

· I wish I had a romantic partner.

· It sure would be nice if I had more money.

· I hope for world peace.

· I dream of one day owning a home.

In sessions with clients, desires are explored and often used to enhance treatment goals. For instance, someone desiring fewer instances of physically violent outbursts is something with which I work.

As well, I assist people with managing expectations, because we cannot control all elements we tend to think we can. For more information about how little control a person has in this regard, I invite you to read my blog entry entitled Circle of Control.

When we use demands, what once were simple desires can transform into rigid commands. Here are some examples of desire plus demand which may lead to disturbance.

· I must have a promotion.

· I have to have that new car.

· The person I’m attracted to ought to accept my advances.

· I should have more money.

· There must be no war.

· I better one day own a home.

Rather than simply admiring people, things, events, and experiences we’d prefer, attachment to the outcomes are fueled by prescriptive demands. If the cause of suffering is craving, demands are on the proverbial menu.

Ellis once stated, “If you didn’t musterbate, then you wouldn’t awfulize, terrible-ize, catastrophize, say, ‘I can’t stand it!’ and put yourself down. If you only stuck with, ‘I’d like very much to do well, but I never have to,’ then you wouldn’t […] disturb yourself.”

Ellis is also credited with having coined the term, “[S]hould-ing all over yourself.” In this regard, I think of Golgothan, the “shit demon” from the film Dogma, who stated of himself, “Not born; shit into existence.”

As explained by one source, “The insightful and humorous idiom, ‘Stop shoulding on yourself,’ can be an easy reminder to forgo ‘shoulds’ (akin to the same phrase with an expletive, it implies something unfavorable, unproductive, etc.).”

Musterbating oneself into a frenzy can lead to a sticky situation. Likewise, things can get pretty messy when shoulding yourself. Who needs the mess?

In sessions, I encourage clients to speak as they do when thinking to themselves. This creates more realistic content with which people are familiar. After all, who among us thinks, “Golly, gee willikers, I gosh darn sure would like a new car”?

Combining rigid demands with extreme consequences can create a should show of an experience. Here are some pragmatic examples of demanding desire with catastrophizing predictions.

· I must have a promotion; otherwise, my boss can kiss my fucking ass!

· I have to get that new car, because without it, people will think I’m a bumbaclot joke!

· The person I’m attracted to ought to accept my advances, and if not, fuck my life!

· I should have more money, because this bullshit economy is killing me!

· There must be no war, and it will be awful if assholes don’t bring about world peace!

· I better one day own a home, because I’m sick and tired of being the jerkoff that still lives with his parents!

We tend to believe the words we tell ourselves. Notice the difference between expressed desire and that which is accompanied by rigid demands and extreme narratives.

This is the difference between desire and disturbance. Desire is simply a want. Demanding that our desires be filled can lead to self-disturbance.

Attachment to a desire can lead to suffering. Whether through REBT or Buddhist principles, outlined herein is the relationship between desire and “suffering, stress, pain, anguish, affliction or unsatisfactoriness.”

Just as the Nirodha and Marga offer resolution to suffering, so, too, does REBT. Rather than musterbating or shoulding, we can think to ourselves and speak to others in a more healthy and helpful way.

Expressing preferences without demand, and acknowledging how little control we have in an uncertain world, may be a useful place to start. Here are some examples of desire with detachment from rigid and extreme attitudes:

· I want a promotion, and if I don’t get one, I have other available options.

· I’d like a new car, though if not now, I can begin saving for one.

· I wish I had a romantic partner, and if not now, perhaps in the future I’ll find one.

· It sure would be nice if I had more money, and without additional funds I’ll need to rethink my financial situation.

· I hope for world peace, and it’s unlikely that will ever happen.

· I dream of one day owning a home, so saving is a priority.


I think the elements which differentiate the experience of wanting something and suffering associated with desire are—in the most literal sense—all within our minds. The (A)ction of a desire isn’t the problem.

Rather, attachment to a (B)elief is how we disturb ourselves into (C)onsequences of unhelpful emotions, unpleasant bodily sensations, and maladaptive behaviors. It’s as simple as A-B-C.

(A)ction – Wilhelmina learns of similarities between Buddhism and REBT that I use in sessions.

(B)elief – She thinks, “This shouldn’t happen, because Buddhism doesn’t harmonize with my religious teachings.”

(C)onsequence – Wilhelmina then experiences anger, tightness in her chest, and she begins shouting about secularism in psychotherapy.

In this example, I would work with Wilhelmina to (D)ispute the unhelpful (B)elief so that an (E)ffective new belief could be achieved. This promotes REBirTh of (B)elief s which lead to (C)onsequences that may better serve Wilhelmina.

Not unlike the process of rebirth of which I’m aware regarding Buddhism, REBT offers an opportunity for us to approach our disturbance in a new way. As such, it enables us to approach desire in a more healthy and help manner.

As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.

At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!

If my approach to REBT sounds like something in which you may be interested, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.

Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW

Photo credit, fair use


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