Most spiritual traditions, especially the Eastern ones, tells us that desire is suffering. These teachings ask us to let go of desires and develop nonattachment, so we can be truly happy and at peace. There seems to be this opposition between desires and enlightenment.
Something inside us realizes that this is true and profound.
But another part of us is unwilling to let go of attachment to certain things, and sees this message as anti-life, or feels that it is needlessly harsh and repressive.
“Oh, no! That talk again? Why don’t you don’t ask me to love all equally because we are one, and meditate on the Supreme?! That’s much easier.”
If you are a spiritual seeker and this dilemma is inside of you in one form or another, then this article is for you. I have put a lot of time into studying, experimenting with, and contemplating these subjects, and this post is the summary of my understanding on this important subject.
In my own path I have suffered the consequences of misunderstanding these truths, leading to both excesses of indulgence and repression—so I feel that sharing my perspective on these things can help avoid trouble for some people.
This is not a pessimistic article, but an exploration of the raw truths of human existence, the trap of desire, and how we can live better with this reality.
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The Nature of Desire
What is desire? It’s a strong pull, a feeling that I need to have something, do something, or experience something. It’s a natural expression of the essential human search for happiness and fulfillment.
Other words that express different nuances of this phenomenon are: craving, longing, hankering, greed, want, wish, urge, thirst, passion, ambition, etc. Spiritual teachers and texts talk about desire in this very broad sense, encompassing all these definitions.
Desire and fear are the two driving forces behind all human activities—including the search for enlightenment.
Desire is suffering
While we may argue that all forms of desire involve suffering to some extent—as the Buddha said—some types of desire moves us forward in life, while others create a lot of trouble with no real benefit. Therefore, since we are creatures of desire (and will be so until full enlightenment), let us look at how we can better work with this reality.
The first step is to develop a better understanding of how clinging to earthly desires creates suffering.
Let’s take as an example a very common desire: money / possessions.
- The moment we strongly take on this desire inside ourselves, we immediately resign ourselves to a condition of unahappiness in the present moment. We believe that once we have X (whatever that is for you), then we have the right to be happy. We are telling ourselves a story: that we can’t be happy until then.
- If we don’t take any steps to fulfill that desire, but keep it inside of us, we experience frustration and dissatisfaction.
- If we do take steps to fulfill it, we find that often the path to getting what we want is paved with failures, frustrations, anxiety and striving. Happiness is again delayed, and some form of suffering is happening right now.
- Once we achieve the desired object, we often realize that the experience is often not as glamorous and satisfying as expected. The joy it brings is short-lived, which leads us to believe that we need to increase the quantity or the quality of the desired object.
- Moreover, there is now some anxiety in wanting to keep the desired object, and fear of losing it. Protecting what now “belongs to me” is a source of further stress and worry.
- Even if the achievement of our desire indeed surpassed our expectations in all levels (which is rare), and even if we can keep that object for a long time, with minimal effort (even rarer), still… Still, there is a wearing away of the original experience of joy or pleasure in that thing. Boredom sets in. Unavoidably.
- When that happens, what many people do is to change the object of desire, or “put the finishing line a mile ahead”, and start all over again.
Behold the cycle of misery that clinging to this desire brings!
A variation of this process happens with almost every desire, especially the self-centered ones. (As we will see in the next section, some types of desires partially to escape this “cycle of misery”.)
Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. (author of one of my favorite psychology books, The Willpower Instinct) calls desire the “brain’s big lie”. She explains that when your brain recognizes an opportunity for a reward, it releases dopamine, which creates feelings of arousal, but also anxiety and stress. She concludes by saying that most people confuse this wanting with happiness. (Most forms of advertizing capitalize on this fact!)
McGonigal further explains that unfortunately dopamine doesn’t have a “stop” signal, so the reward system activates even when you know from past experience that the reward won’t live up to the promise. Your brain’s reward system uses the promise of happiness (desire) to keep you pursuing the goals, whether or not they will actually make you happy.
Hence, masters like the Buddha said that desire is suffering.
Working With Desire
Focus on desires that bring real joy
Does this all mean that we should take an anti-life approach and just vegetate?
We are creatures of desire, and transcending all desires will take a very long time. Pretending that that’s not the case, in an act of ambitious spiritual heroism, is likely to backfire.
What we can do to live a deeper, more fulfilling life, is to channel this tremendous force to higher goals—goals of growth and service.
This idea is also echoed in Western Psychology. Professor Edward Deci, one of the world’s leading researchers on human motivation and author of the book Why We Do What We Do, talks a lot about the difference between intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. Here’s how he puts it:
The researchers found that if any of the three extrinsic aspirations— for money, fame, or beauty—was very high for an individual relative to the three intrinsic aspirations, the individual was also more likely to display poorer mental health.
For example, having an unusually strong aspiration for material success was associated with narcissism, anxiety, depression, and poorer social functioning as rated by a trained clinical psychologist… In contrast, strong aspirations for any of the intrinsic goals—meaningful relationships, personal growth, and community contributions—were positively associated with well-being.
People who strongly desired to contribute to their community, for example, had more vitality and higher self-esteem. When people organize their behavior in terms of intrinsic strivings (relative to extrinsic strivings) they seem more content—they feel better about who they are and display more evidence of psychological health.
Shifting our energy to desires for growth and service is one skillful way of driving this powerful force more wisely.
The journey to fulfilling these nobler desires can still bring in some pain, but the rewards are much greater. Thus, we can use the “higher” (or more refined) desires to catalyze our energy, thus automatically transcending the “lower” (or less refined desires) desires along the way.
Or, to put it in terms of the Three Gunas: we let go of tamasic desires for rajasic desires, and rajasic desires for sattvic ones. In other words, moving from “worldly desires” to “spiritual desires”.
There is also another way of transcending most desires: developing a sense of contentment and joy here and now.
A powerful and sweet medicine for the fever of desire is contentment.
The more you naturally feel well inside yourself, feeling psychologically “enough” just as you are, and comfortable in your own skin—the less likely you are to hanker after smaller desires.
The mistake most people make is believing in the “brain’s big lie”—that contentment is the fruit of achieving your desires. Still other’s think that your level of contentment is simply determined by pychological or genetic disposition.
Yet, in spirituality, contentment is clearly known to be a practice—something you can develop. According to the Buddha, joy (mudita) is one of the four “Divine Practices”. Likewise, contentment (samtosha) is a highly spoken of practice in the Yoga tradition.
Cultivating positive attitudes, empowering self-talk, and a disposition towards joy are some of the means to develop this natural inner state of contentment. Some traditions of Yoga (hatha, kundalini, kriya) recommend practicing certain breathing exercises and postures to help raise your energy levels, which naturally makes you more cheerful and “self-sufficient”.
Similarly, in the Positive Psychology movement, the practice of gratitude is promoted as one of the main ways to increase your sense of subjective well-being. It’s about learning to love and appreciate what is.
Meditation is also a unique way of developing contentment. As concentration really deepens, you start experiencing feelings of joy, rapture and bliss that don’t depend on anything external. This makes the process of letting go of desires much smoother—simply because you fill yourself with something more permanent and dependable, from within. It also allows future desires to come more from a place of fullness, rather than a place of neediness or anxiety.
That is why it’s important to find bliss in your practice—it just makes everything else so much easier. Some techniques bring about feelings of bliss quicker than others. Experiment and find out for yourself.
Desires and Enlightenment
Enlightenment is a state of completeness.
In it, there is no need to desire anything else.
Spiritual masters state that human beings can achieve a state called enlightenment, in which there is a constant experience of perfect peace and happiness. In that “state” there is no need for desire or fear; because nothing is ever missing, nothing is ever wrong.
We, the rest of humanity, are driven by desire and fear—be they selfish or selfless, gross or subtle, material or spiritual.
In the path to achieving this supreme state of enlightenment, the advice given is to let go of all desires. However, the implicit teaching here is that the desire for enlightenment must be kept (and even strengthened), otherwise there will be no energy or motivation to undergo the needed practices.
Therefore, the essential driving force of desire is to be transmuted, not extinguished. If you were able to extinguish all desires right now, most likely what you would experience is extreme depression—and not happiness.
Besides, as I argued in this article, for 99.99% of seekers enlightenment should be taken as a north, not as a hard goal. Likewise, it is impractical to try to “get rid of all desires” all at once, or to try to get rid of some desires too soon. That can lead to a split personality, repression, and shadow sides – not exactly the path to enlightenment!
We also need to keep in mind that most of these eastern spiritual texts were written by monks, for monks. Most of them were much more developed and committed to the path than the average one of us will be after a lifetime of practice!
That doesn’t mean these teachings are not relevant to the “person of the world” in the 21st century. Their understanding of the human condition and spiritual potential is as accurate now as it was then. Yet it means that we need to contextualize them, and to build the necessary steps to fill in the gaps, so that we can walk the way at our own pace. And not suffer the path!
Which takes me to the next point.
In the path of transcending desires, there should be no self-violence of any sort.
Because not only this is ineffective, but it creates shadow sides that will need to be dealt with later on. This is not true nonattachment, as it’s not rooted in peace.
Instead, there should be only conscious choosing – the letting go of one joy for a higher joy. Our evolution in the ladder of desires should be an organic growth (natural and not forced). That is why I prefer to use the word transcending desires—rather than cutting out, stopping, eliminating, and other similar verbs that we see in this literature.
Having said that, in the path there is also place for moderation and abstention. These strengthen the will power and can be helpful tools, depending on the case.
It feels like a sacrifice if you are asked to give up something that you love. But it is not a sacrifice if you have played enough with that thing until the point of exhaustion (which comes quicker if you fulfill your desires mindfully). This is a way to naturally get tired of it, like a child growing up from playing with toys. Or, rather, the desire gets transformed into something else.
Let us be wise and careful about this idea, however, lest the ego uses this as an excuse to just do whatever it wants.
Letting go of the lesser for the greater
Another “organic” way of transcending desires is to have a taste of a “higher bliss”, or develop a deeper understanding of the pains involved in pursuing certain desires. Then, with a little exercise of willpower, you can easily move away.
Sometimes this comes naturally; at other times, it comes through a process of tasting the fruits of your ambition, with all the suffering and pleasure we spoke about above.
Weak desires can be removed by introspection and meditation, but strong, deep-rooted ones must be fulfilled and their fruits, sweet or bitter, tasted.
— Nisargadatta Maharaj
We all have some ingrained desires. Things we really want to experience, do, or achieve in this life. There is a feeling that if we don’t pursue those things, we will be miserable.
Joseph Campbell says, “follow your bliss”. Well, yes. We are programmed to follow our bliss, because bliss (ananda) is our essence.
But follow your bliss wisely. Contemplate constantly. This means asking ourselves these two question:
- Is your bliss really blissful, or is it only the trap of dopamine?
- Is this path harmful to others and myself, or is it part of a greater possibility for growth and service?
And when finding a higher bliss, have the courage to let go of the lower bliss. It is simply a small fee to be paid along the way. You will not miss it.
Achievement as a path of transcendence
Personally, I have found that the journey of achieving a worthy goal can, itself, be a path towards desirelessness. If it is an intrinsic goal, as we saw above, even better.
For example, let’s say there is a strong desire in you to become an influential person, well-known in your field. Suppressing such desire is not going to do much good. But going through the pains of fulfilling it, through ethical means, will allow you to experience the fruits you so longed for.
In this process, you can eventually “get tired” of it. Eventually, it ceases to be important for you, because now you have seen through it, you have lived through it. You are freed from this particular feeling of “lack”, from that void.
The itch is gone.
Goal-oriented individuals may find that striving for a form of achievement can be an integral part of their spiritual path. Not only is it a way to transcend a particular itch, but it is also a journey of personal growth in many aspects.
In order to achieve something big in your career, sport, art, or personal life, you will need to develop many personal skills or virtues. On the way to your goal you will be stretched in every direction, and your ego will be somewhat “churned”. Because you may find that often ego is the greatest enemy to your achievement, even in material goals.
There is nothing unspiritual about having a goal. All great spiritual masters had clear, all-absorbing goals. Otherwise, what would have motivated the Buddha to abandon his life of luxury in the palace, and roam about the forests doing all sorts of austerities, if not a burning desire for something higher?
So if you are striving towards a meaningful personal goal, and also are spiritually-minded, then go along your path as a way to enhance and test your spiritual practice. Look for the parallels and “transferable skills”.
And, once you achieve a goal, don’t be in a hurry to chase after another.
Resist the temptation to simply set another goal, of the same type, to keep you busy chasing it. Take the time to review your life, contemplate, consolidate the lessons, and see where your heart is pointing next.
Let us also not get attached or conceited about any achievement. “Ah, now I am so and so…”. Keep empty, keep innocent. You’ll be much lighter. You’ll be able to flow with life better, and will be more sensitive to perceive some hidden gems.
Living life mindfully, reflecting, growing, and asking the hard questions—these are important elements in the path of transcending it by living it.
Before giving, the heart rejoices.
During giving, the heart is purified.
After giving, the heart is satisfied.
— Gautama Buddha
In this post, we explored more deeply the nature of desire, and the many forms of suffering it brings. Desire, together with fear, are the two core driving forces behind all human action. Until we attain full enlightenment, they will always be there, so we better learn how to direct these forces wisely.
Channeling our energies to higher desires, such as growing and serving, is a way to transform this energy. The path of achievement in itself can be an expression and test to your own spiritual practices.
Living mind more mindfully, by carefully investigating your own experience of life is a great way to naturally outgrow some forces of desires that are causing you pain, and delivering very little.
On the other hand, the practice of contentment—through the means of wise self-talk, gratitude, and meditation—is an effective way to overcome “lower” desires, social pressure, and psychological urges, and be happy here and now.
Desire promises happiness, but it doesn’t deliver it.
True fulfillment is not there. Instead, let us focus most of our energy either in serving, or in delving deeper into the unconditioned happiness that only spiritual realization can give.
On a practical level, knowing that every desire takes up energy, the art of transcending certain desires and focusing on other ones is simply an expression of our ability to prioritize. What the enlightened masters urge us to do, when asking us to give up all desires, is indeed to prioritize the realization of inner happiness above all other things, until it consumes our lives fully.
In this path, there is no need to be violent with yourself. It defeats the purpose.
Follow your bliss, always.
Just get better and better in discerning what the higher bliss is.
[Cover image attribution: www.trueactivist.com]