We crave physical comfort. We crave intellectual stimulation. We fear discomfort and boredom. We somehow have convinced ourselves that if we cling to what we love, if we worry and fret over it, it can't be taken from us. We live as though the act of worrying about what might happen will magically keep bad things away.
We thirst for existence. We want, somehow, to persist forever. We fear that we will cease.
Yet we long also for non-existence, in the sense that we yearn to be released from this world and its pains and vexations once and for all.
These three forms of craving, Buddha taught, are the basis of all suffering, what he called 'dukkha'. Virtually all the woe of humankind stem from these forms of craving, tumbling and stirring inside our hearts and minds. Our greatest pains are all self-inflicted.
All three of these desires rise out of a confusion about change, and about who we are. We think we are persons or individuals--separate entities that persist through time, with bodies that come into existence and then cease to exist. But we are mistaken. What we call a person, Buddha called a 'stream'. We're a ceaseless flow of constant change, there is nothing permanent about us. Yet there is nothing destructible about us, either. We are a conglomeration of five aggregates: the physical body, awareness, sensory perceptions, volition, and conceptualization. These five aggregates create the illusion of a separate self, but there is no separate self. For what we actually are is an infinite number of conditions which have manifested themselves, and which cannot be created or destroyed.
If you have a beginning, when did you begin? Was it when you were born? Was it at your conception? The truth is, you can't find 'coming into being' as an event or actual experience. If you have an ending, when do you end? Is it when you cease to be able to conceptualize? Is it when your heart stops beating? Is it when the last vestiges of your physical body have broken down into dust? The truth is, you can't find 'ceasing to exist' as an event or actual experience.
Thus you have no beginning and no end.
So what does that have to do with craving and clinging? We crave and we cling because we believe that things last forever, or certain conditions last forever, and that we can hang on to them and keep them forever. But this is not so. Just as we have to beginning and no end, conditions have no beginning and no end, the only thing that is ceaseless is the constant ebb and flow of continuous change. This is what the Buddha called 'impermanence' or 'emptiness'.
Good times come and go. And bad times do the same. Still we spend much of our time trying to get the good times back. We fail to notice that the good times arrived of their own; likewise, the bad times appear even though we spend so much effort trying to keep them away. We don't want them, but bad times are out of our control as much as good times. The times we don't want will come (and go) no matter what we do to control the situation. Good times do the same. Thus, beyond simply living fully in each moment, we should realise that such control is impossible, a pipe dream. When we realise this, we have found the dharma-path, the middle way.
In his book, Buddhism Plain and Simple, which I highly recommend and which I have cribbed from for this post, Steve Hagen tells the story of a Zen student who felt he just couldn't take the austerity of his monastery any longer.
'I can't take this, I want out,' he told his master.
'Okay, then leave,' the master said.
As the student started toward the door, the master said, 'That's not your door.'
'Oh, sorry,' said the student, startled. He looked around for another door, headed toward it. The teacher said, 'That's not your door.'
'Oh!' The student looked and saw little door behind the teacher which was used by the teacher's attendant. He started toward it. 'That's not your door!' the teacher shouted.
Bewildered and exasperated, the student said, 'What do you mean? There is no other door. You told me I could leave, but there's no door to leave by!'
'If there is no door you can leave by,' said the teacher, 'then sit down.'
We can only be here. We can only be in this moment. There is no door to leave by, there is nothing to cling to. There is only this moment. So stop worrying. Stop fighting it. Stop protesting. Stop trying to prevent the vain imaginings of your mind. Stop trying to escape. Sit down in the floor and live this moment.