Desire Posted: June 5, 2010
Desire controls and moves human beings as if they were puppets. Desire is the motivation that lies behind every action, the power and energy that causes all movement. Desire incites men to make the most incredible efforts. However, few stop to observe and analyze this force, which is so central in their lives. In spite of the fact that most people suffer from desire, almost no one asks the question: What is desire? What are the origins and roots of this powerful energy? Is it possible to live free of the slavery of desires? Can our effort to satiate our desires lead to satisfaction? Does our happiness depend on gratifying our desires?
What is desire?
Desire—or an appetite which may be intellectual, sexual, physical or emotional etc.—is an acute inclination of the will towards acquiring a particular enjoyment or pleasure. Desire is born from the tendency to repeat pleasant sensations produced by specific sensory experiences in the mind. Often, that tendency can be transformed into anxiety and even an uncontrollable need to overindulge that particular appetite.
According to Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 CE), the origin of desire is found in man’s disobedience to the law of God. We may read in his famed work De Civitate Dei, or The City of God, book XIII, chapter 13: “He rejoiced in his own freedom to act perversely and disdained the service of God. Therefore he was deprived of the obedient service that the body had until then rendered to him.” Just as man disregards the will of God, the body ignores the needs of the soul.
In the same way that the human being is separated, disconnected from the divine will, the mind and the body develop desires which are in conflict with the interests of the soul. As is mentioned in the New Testament, in Galatians (5:17) “Because the desire of the flesh is against the Spirit and that of the Spirit is against the flesh; and these are opposed to each other, so that you cannot do what you want.”
However it will not help us in our spiritual search to memorize the opinions and conclusions about desire which have been stated by Plato, Hegel, Kojéve, or other philosophers. Rather it is essential to discover what desire is, in and for ourselves. The truly religious person does not settle for thinking about and recycling old ideas, but seeks instead to observe and look within himself, since religion is revelation.
Desire and Suffering
Desire forms part of a process that has its origins in jñāna or ‘knowledge’, which is mind, thought, the past, memory, etc. From jñāna is born cikīrṣā or ‘desire’; then pravṛtti or the ‘will to act’, followed by ceṣtā or ‘motor effect’, and finally kārya or ‘action’. Desire is a movement that ‘vitalizes’ and is ‘vitalizing’, in turn, for the ego. What is difficult to determine is if ego is the origin of desire, or vice versa. Desire and the ego not only reinforce each other, but they are so interconnected that they are practically the same phenomenon.
At first glance, a fan in motion appears to be a solid circle, an optical illusion caused by the great speed at which its blades are turning. Similarly, the movement of the desires offers a sense of solidity to the “I”-idea, or ego. This movement from ‘what is’ to ‘what we wish to be’ brings with it the sensation of being ‘something’ or ‘someone’.
To desire is to suffer; desire is misery. Our pain begins with the arousal of our craving. After having obtained the object of our desire, our pain continues with the fear of losing it, and the final suffering comes when it is really lost. We suffer if we want a million dollars, because we must make great efforts to obtain it. But after we accumulate the million, we suffer from fear and worry over losing it, whether due to fluctuations in the dollar and stock market, or changes in our business. Sooner or later, in a temporal universe, a transient world, where everything that is born, dies, we will suffer the loss of the object of our enjoyment.
When people hear that the cause of suffering is desire, many decide to repress their desires. However, repression only turns desire into an obsession. Others simply want to stop desiring anything. Soon they realize that the desire to ‘cease to desire’ is nothing more than a new desire. Then they desire as well ‘to stop desiring to have no desires’, and so on, successively. In this way they find out that it is impossible to break this vicious circle.
‘To desire not to desire’ is repression. Any effort to repress desire is nothing more than a manifestation of the desire to liberate oneself from desires. Ceasing to suffer from desire through any effort to control or repress is impossible.
Desire and symbols
Alfred Korzybski stated that “The map is not the territory”. This phrase contains a very useful concept for the understanding of the origin of desire. This expression, later used by Bandler and Grinder and the popular system of Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP), refers to the fact that we create a map with the information acquired through the senses. In a map, cities are represented by points and roads, by lines, but these are only symbols. In reality, we don’t live on giant points or travel on lines. In the same way, we create images, symbols, or in other words, we create a map of reality and we are not operating directly on the territory itself, but from our own interpretations about our surroundings. What we consider to be ‘reality’ is nothing more than a map constructed with our subjective interpretations of reality.
All desire is preceded by a sensation. At the root of desire is an emotion or a feeling. If our perception of the mental symbol stimulates in us an agreeable and pleasant emotion, the desire is born to pursue that object in order to enjoy the pleasure it will produce in us. If the symbol produces a disagreeable sensation, we will try to avoid it. But, if we stop to analyze the situation, we will see that what we really want is the sensation, and not the object, person, or situation in itself.
We create symbols in such a way that words, forms, ideas, persons, names, etc, become signs. We form images of places, objects,words, persons, and even of ourselves. Each symbol becomes associated with a specific emotion, which is a subjective reaction related to our specific interpretation of that symbol. For example, money, clothes, the school where we study, the neighborhood where we live and the car that we own, are symbols that determine our social position, or our success in life.
Suppose that we want to experience the sensation of being respected by others. In our life, we have noticed that people are respected if they have a very big house, the latest model car, a lot of money and expensive clothes. When we associate these objects with the respect of society, the desire to obtain them is born. However, we do not desire these objects to enjoy them, but to obtain the specific feeling of being respected and appreciated.
Desires pursue nothing real, but only chase after feelings and emotions. When we want money, we aren’t looking to collect green or blue pieces of paper; what we are seeking through money are sensations of power or security. However, the sensation of power is not power; the feeling of security does not necessarily mean we are secure. Similarly, we strive to build a relationship with a partner in order to feel loved, we sing and dance in order to feel appreciated, etc. However, feeling loved does not mean that one is really loved. So, in the end, after all our efforts we have nothing substantial in our hands, but only a handful of emotions. Left only with these sensations, we have the feeling that it is not enough, so we try to repeat the experience. This leads to our becoming attached to the object, situation or person that prompted that experience. Trying to satisfy desires is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline; in the end we only find ourselves more dissatisfied, and with a greater appetite.
The problem of desire
Physiological desires are not harmful in themselves, but are simply intended to protect us by warning that we must sleep, eat, relieve ourselves, etc. Since they exist to maintain and preserve our organism, they are more like needs than desires. However, such needs must be distinguished from internal or psychological desires; that is to say, desires not just for specific objects, but for the emotions that accompany these objects. These sensations disconnect us from reality and separate us from life, since desire only looks towards the future, while reality occurs solely now. Desire separates us from ourselves, distancing us from what we are and propelling us towards what we want to be. For this reason, desire is a central obstacle on the spiritual path.
To desire is to renounce the real world in order to turn it into a world of theories, hopes, expectations and fantasies. He who surrenders to desires is converting reality into dreams. When we live trying to satisfy our desires, we are dancing to their beat and not to our own. We will never attain fulfillment in life by trying to satisfy our desires, but only by transcending them.
Desire and fear
The Spanish word for fear, miedo, stems from the Latin word metus and Greek word deimos. In Greek mythology, Deimos (Terror) is the son of the goddess Aphrodite. His father is Ares, god of war, and his twin brother is Panic, or the god Phobos. Their sister is the goddess Enyo (Horror), goddess of war. In Roman mythology we find Metus’s equivalent in Fuga, who is the son of Mars, the god of War; and Venus , the goddess of Love.
Fear is an emotional disturbance provoked by the presumption of danger. The risk may be real or a product of our imagination. Fear originates in the suspicion that what is happening is in conflict with our desires.
It is surprising to see that the difference between desire and fear is merely verbal; these two words are aspects of the same phenomenon. Desire and fear are not different, but correspond to two sides of the same coin. Both stem from memory; that is to say, they are thought and time. Both desire and fear are equally involved in rejecting and escaping from ‘what is’. Fear of poverty leads us to desire riches, fear of solitude prompts the desire to get married and form a family. If we observe ourselves, we may perhaps discover the presence of fear in our relationships. Our longing to receive warmth and attention from a ‘loved one’ may be nothing more than an expression of our fear of solitude. Without understanding the intimate relationship that exists between desire and fear, it is difficult for us to understand how people who say they love one another, can be aggressive towards one another, can be jealous, and transform their lives into a genuine hell. Wherever there is desire, there will be fear, and wherever there is fear, there will also be violence, jealousy, the desire to control, and the longing to possess.
To live without desires
To understand what it means to live without desires, we must understand that it is not to possess a lot. Rather, it is to need nothing. Wealth doesn’t lie in having a lot, but in not desiring more. What impoverishes us is not wastefulness, but increasing desires.
A multimillionare drinks very expensive wine, enjoys gourmet meals, and goes on vacation with a private jet. A middle class person stays in his own country to vacation in a budget hotel at a local resort. A low-income family unable to permit themselves even this luxury, must devote their entire summer to working in order to eat. When we observe the different standards of living of the people around us, it appears that success in life means having more freedom to satisfy one’s desires. However, both the millionaire and the worker suffer from the same desires. The only difference is that the former has more freedom to satisfy them than the latter.
Most of us feel restricted and seek freedom to enlarge our space. However, freedom does not lie in possessing a huge cage, but in having no need to leave it.
Similarly, we have the mistaken impression that we will find satisfaction by satiating our desires. However, people who try to gratify their desires live in discontentment, because satisfaction is not related to the appeasement of our desires, but is living in the now and being what we are.
Desire for God
If we live life striving for money, fame, sex and honor, we are considered to be materialists. If we realize that the material does not bring happiness, then we mistakenly believe that we should change our desires to other, more “spiritual” desires. So, in place of material desires, we wish to be saints and to reach paradise; we aspire to the realization of God and enlightenment. However, desiring God, the truth and enlightenment does not necessarily mean our desire is spiritual. As long as these words are symbols that awaken specific feelings we wish to reach, we will remain in same place.
As long as we harbor the desire to escape from what we are and to transform ourselves into enlightened beings, as long as we desire to escape from where we are to become situated in paradise, nothing will have changed in us. We will have only changed the symbol “money” for the symbol “God”, and the symbol “fame” for the symbol “enlightenment”. As long as desires continue distorting our minds, what we desire is not, and cannot be, God or the Truth. As is stated in the sacred Bhāgavad-gītā
(chapter 7, verse 20):
kāmais tais tair hṛta-jñānāḥ
taṁ taṁ niyamam āsthāya
prakṛtyā niyatāḥ svayā
“Those for whom the desire for objects has ceased without wisdom or discernment, worship the demigods impelled by their own natures.”
The nature of a sincere desire for God is essentially different from other desires. It is completely different from the desire to experience the sensation of security that we feel when hearing the word ‘God’ or the sense of superiority that accompanies words like ‘enlightenment’ ‘spirituality’ or ‘religion’. It is not another of ‘my’ desires, that ‘I’ may experience, obtain or acquire something. Egoistic desire is personal desire, which is called in Hebrew, within Judaism and Hasidism, ratson atsmi, and which is referred to in the Kabbalah as ra, letters that, joined together, signify ‘evil’.
The authentic desire for the truth is destructive because its direction is the dissolution of any concept, idea or conclusion about what we are. It is a desire that contains within itself all imaginable desires. The desire for God is expressed as a desire for absolute freedom, infinite love and truth, and unlimited expansion. It is the only desire that is not quenched by doing something to satisfy it. It is a desire that, in order to be satiated, must not be limited but rather ignited and set ablaze. We must yield, surrender to this desire and place ourselves in its hands. We must follow its trail, tracing its footsteps until we reach the place from whence it has come. We must rest in this desire for freedom and allow ourselves to be drawn towards its source.
The desire for enlightenment is not ours, but it is the Self, desiring us. It is not man desiring God, but the divine call, deep in the human heart.
Desire and the present
Because thought is time, there is a very intimate relationship between desire and time. I am not referring to time of the clock and calendars, but to psychological time. Internal time is the movement from what was, towards what we wish or want it to be. Without time, desire cannot exist. The movement of desire is thus the movement of mental time from ‘what is’ towards what we desire it to be. Desire is the intention to repeat tomorrow what we experienced yesterday.
If we attentively observe the question of time, we will become aware that only the past and the future can be called time. The present, the current, the now, is atemporal. Since desires are not related to the present, to what is, but to what we wish or desire it might be, desire by its future perspective, cannot live in the present. Thus, by situating ourselves in the now, desires disappear like magic, with no effort.
From this we can conclude that desire is our way of rejecting and escaping from the present moment.
Desire has become our life pattern. We don’t live in the present, but in constant expectation of the future. Tomorrow we will enjoy, tomorrow we will be happy, tomorrow we will attain bliss. Tomorrow is what is most important, what is valuable. We relate to the present only as a means and not as an end in itself.
The slave of desire does not live but simply passes his life preparing to live. Until his last breath, he continues preparing to enjoy himself in some future paradise. The life of the servant of desire is one of absolute discontent, in which he nurtures the hope of feeling satisfied in some future moment when the situation, the person or the desired object will be attained.
Place yourself in the present, in this moment, in this instant: be in the now. Only in the present will you become aware that you are the only one responsible for your misery. Only in the now will you encounter the emptiness which is so filled with everything. Only this present moment will teach you that if you do not find your satisfaction here, you will not find it anywhere else, and that if happiness is here, it is everywhere. It is here where you will experience that nothing is lacking, where you will experience only the deepest gratitude. It is here where you will find life, existence, reality.
To transcend desire does not imply its repression, but the wisdom to transform the present moment into your entire life…In the Bhāgavad-gītā (
chapter 2, verses 71-2) we read:
Vihāya kāmān yaḥ sarvān
pumāṁś carati niḥspṛhaḥ
sa śāntim adhigacchati
“One who lives detached and has abandoned all desire, has renounced all sense of possession and is divested of his ego, attains true peace”.
eṣā brāhmī sthitiḥ pārtha
naināṁ prāpya vimuhyati
sthitvāsyām anta-kāle ‘pi
“That is established in the Absolute. After reaching there, there is no confusion. If in the hour of death, one is found in this state, he remains established in the Absolute.”