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Do You Have a Hard Time Figuring Out What You Want?

Knowing what you should do is not the same as knowing what you want to do

I stink at figuring out what it is I want. As a miniscule example, just this past Sunday, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to decide if I was going to practice yoga despite the fact that it was a prescribed “rest day” because of the new moon.

The details of my inner debate are actually revealing:

  • I should probably practice so my schedule this week doesn’t feel whacky.
  • I should probably not practice because I’m supposed to rest today.
  • I should probably practice because I always love the way yoga after church makes my day feel even more spiritual.
  • I should probably not practice because I should walk the dogs.

You can see that the most often repeated word above is “should.” Never once did I ask myself what I wanted to do. And if I had, I can pretty much guarantee that I wouldn’t have known. I would have defaulted right back into trying to figure out what “should” happen.

Should is external while desire comes from within

Should, according to Google Dictionary, is used to indicate obligation, duty or correctness. What we should do is not at all reflective of what we might want to do. To respond to a “should” is to respond to an external pressure. It is meeting someone else’s (real or manufactured) expectations.

What we want to do comes from within. It is purely about ourselves. And somehow, to me at least, what I want always feels small, insignificant and selfish in comparison to life’s “shoulds.”

What’s that all about? Well, for a long time, I attributed my reluctance to connect with what I want to yoga’s teachings about desire.

Desire and yoga

Yoga philosophy teaches that desire takes us out of the moment. When we’re caught up in desire, it is impossible to embrace this precious moment that life has given us. When we’re busy wanting something, we are distracted from all that we have. Desire leads to discontentment. Acceptance leads to a peaceful, present state of mind.

I buy all of that. I really do. But what is missing in this understanding is that there is real value in knowing what you want. Getting in touch with your desire adds another layer to your self-understanding (which is a foundational goal of the practice of yoga, by the way).

Desire as a way to better know yourself

In fact, wise men and women across religious and spiritual disciplines teach that connecting with the desires of our hearts is key to understanding our “call” or “purpose in life” or even what makes us special and unique. St. Ignatius of Loyola created an entire process for discernment in the 15th century. More recently, Henri Nouwen wrote an entire (excellent, by the way) 167-page book called Discernment to teach his readers how to figure out what they want.

The type of desire they’re talking about clearly extends beyond “Do I want a salad or a sandwich for lunch?” or “Do I want to practice yoga today or not?” But I’m here to tell you that if you struggle with these small moments of knowing what you want, it’s likely that you struggle even more with big decisions.

In other words, each time we tune into what we want for lunch or what we want to do today is practice for larger moments of discernment.

Following your heart’s desire feels clear and good

So, what did I choose to do on Sunday and how did I choose it? As I was leaving church, I was still on the horns of my (somewhat ridiculous) dilemma. I walked out the doors into a breathtakingly beautiful day. The sky was blue, the sun was bright, the air smelled and felt like spring.

As I paused to soak in the beauty of the morning, what I wanted became crystal clear. Every part of me – body, mind and spirit – wanted to be outside. I was suddenly overjoyed at the prospect of taking my dogs for a long walk.

My moment of pure desire pulled my focus inward where I could feel and understand what I really wanted. Knowing what I wanted in that moment felt very different than I do when I try to figure out what I want by looking outward (which I do habitually) to determine what is correct.

The prospect of feeling as certain and as happy as I felt Sunday morning inspires me anew to get better at connecting with what I want when making all the little (and not-so-little) choices that fill my days. After all,

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.
– Annie Dillard

And we all have the power to choose, in the end, to be happy.


Would you like to better at figuring out what you want? Beginning a yoga practice or embarking on spiritual direction can really help.