Understanding the spiritual nuances of desire provides insights into its role in our journey to enlightenment.
Explore the spiritual perspective on desire, its link to ego, strategies to handle it, and wisdom from religious teachings and ancient tales.
In the realm of spirituality, the concept of desire is both intricate and enlightening, shaping our journey towards higher wisdom.
Spiritual and religious teachings from many traditions caution the seeker against desire by declaring if you want access to peace, wisdom, and freedom, you must free yourself from desire. But is that even possible? Is it a reasonable goal? What do we know about the power of desire?
Just a little investigation into the occurrence of desires reveals that they are pervasive, innumerable, persistent, insistent, and by the way—natural. The senses are naturally inclined toward their objects which then stirs desire in the mind.
"When a desire is satisfied, a temporary calm appears in the mind, and we feel happy. We credit the experience of happiness to the satisfaction of the desire rather than to the calmness in the mind which has revealed our innate happiness. Once we realize our happiness is inherent, we don’t have to keep chasing desires to find it again."
—Yogacharya Ellen Grace O'Brian
Some desire concerns basic survival or well-being, like desiring water when we are thirsty. But most of it is beyond basic. It's just the mechanism of ego. Oh, "I like, I want, it's mine," and so forth. It's the ego's attempt to prop up a sense of separate self.
Desire, in and of itself, is not the problem. It's attachment and aversion that turns desire into a problem. Here's how it is described in the 2nd chapter of the Bhagavad Gita: v. 67-71, translated by Eknath Easwaran.
When you let your mind follow the call of the senses, they carry away your better judgment as storms drive a boat off its charted course on the sea.
Use all your power to free the senses from attachment and aversion alike, and live in the full wisdom of the Self.
As rivers flow into the ocean but cannot make the vast ocean overflow, so flow the streams of the sense-world into the sea of peace that is the sage. But this is not so with the desirer of desires. They are forever free who renounce all selfish desires and break away from the ego-cage of " I;' "me;' and "mine" to be united with the Lord.
We can't eliminate desire if it is natural and connected to basic, life-supporting instincts. So how do we keep it from running amuck?
There are two things we can do:
Renounce selfish desire.
Selfish means—being self-centered, concerned with our profit or pleasure, or lacking consideration for others. Most of our wanting is attempts to prop up our ego—thus, it is self-centered.
One of my favorite poems by Kabir begins with this question: I said to the wanting creature inside me: What is this river you want to cross?
When I notice incessant desires arising, I cite that poem to myself, and I ask two questions:
Both of those questions are "enlightening." The first question sends me back to my essential Self. The soul, my essential Self, is not the wanting creature. The soul is whole, full, complete, and free from desire. On the other hand, the "wanting creature" wants lots of things. Remembering what I am, breaks the spell of desire. Then I can discern if something I do want or need is appropriate or relevant. Usually, it is something like rest, time in nature, or just some fresh air. Most often, it will be something that contributes to well-being and supports my ability to be wise and compassionate.
Cultivate peace regularly.
The second strategy to keep desire from running rampant and taking our soul's peace is to cultivate that peace regularly.
Paramahansa Yogananda included a Bengali chant, Desire, My Great Enemy, in his book Cosmic Chants. He noted it was a favorite of his Guru Swami Sri Yukteswar:
Desire, my great enemy,
With his soldiers surrounding me;
Is giving me lots of trouble, oh, my Lord.
That enemy I will deceive,
Remaining in the castle of peace
Night and day in Thy joy, Oh, my Lord.
I use this chant as a desire-busting strategy as well. When we have cultivated a steady meditation practice, we can return to "the castle of peace" at will by turning our attention and awareness within—a breath, a moment of remembrance, does it.
Remaining in "the castle of peace" – the fullness of divine remembrance –changes our relationship with desire. When we are in that spiritual fullness—the fullness of love, wisdom, and joy—we are not only free from egocentric desire, we naturally attract to us whatever is needed. Paramahansa Yogananda termed this phenomenon of attraction "desireless desire." We notice that without striving or pursuing, situations naturally unfold gracefully, in harmony with the highest good.
Spiritual and religious teachings from many traditions caution the seeker against desire by declaring if you want freedom, you must free yourself from desire. But is that even possible? Is it a reasonable goal? What do we know about the power of desire? Paramahansa Yogananda spoke about desireless desire and the one desire that leads inevitably toward freedom.
The primary reason the spiritual traditions identify desire as an impediment to wisdom and compassion is that it is a tool for strengthening the ego. It props up the ego and blocks access to intuition, soul guidance, and inner wisdom in the moment.
Desires are about the future—what we want. The divine, soul-guided life requires openness to the present moment. Divine grace, love, and wisdom are revealed to us when we are open to it. When we are too caught up in what we want, we miss what life is offering.
I recently watched a television show that had a very poignant scene in it. A group of men were sitting around a table at a restaurant late at night. One by one, they reflected on moments of being so focused on what they wanted that they didn't see clearly what was right in front of them.
One man spoke about being so desirous of his son's success that he completely missed seeing and supporting his daughter's potential. Another man spoke about how after his wife passed away, he looked around their apartment and saw only stuff—only things. He talked about how they had thoughtfully invested their time and energy into everything they selected for their home—how it was their life.
But at that moment, he saw that it was only things. And their children would at some time decide what things were worth keeping, giving, or throwing away. The point was not that desiring a lovely apartment was wrong; it was about the human tendency to become so involved in what we want that we can't fully see what we have. Steadfast wisdom is the opening of the eye of the heart—the ability to be receptive to Life's grace and beauty in the moment.
Here is a cautionary African tale told by poet Robert Bly in his book "The Soul is Here for Its Own Joy."
Once there was a man who raised a few cows. He loved and tended them, praising them each day for their beauty and thanking them for the milk they gave. One day he noticed that the amount of milk was less, and each following day became even less.
He decided to stay up all night and find out what was happening. As he watched his cows and the night sky, he saw a star that grew brighter and brighter as it came closer and closer to earth. When it landed just a few feet from him in his cow pasture, he could see a luminous woman inside that ball of light. The light disappeared when her feet touched the ground, and she stood before him as an ordinary woman.
He asked her: Are you the one who's been stealing milk from my cows? She said yes! I really like the milk from your cows. He said you are beautiful. Will you marry me? If you marry me, we can care for the cows together, and you can have the milk.
She said, yes, I will. But there is a non-negotiable condition. I brought this basket with me; you must never look in it. No matter what. No matter how long we are married. Never. Do you agree to that?
Yes, I do agree, he said. So they were married. They lived happily together until one day, she was out tending the cows, and he was alone with the basket. He began to reason, but his discernment was clouded with desire.
He reasoned that she is my wife now, so this is actually my basket too. And it's in my house, so it should be considered mine. After reasoning this way, he opened the basket.
When he opened it, he began to laugh and couldn't stop. The basket is empty, he exclaimed. There is nothing in the basket! Nothing, absolutely nothing!
About that time, she returns and asks him: Did you open the basket? Through his laughter, he says, I did! And there is nothing in it!
She tells him. I must leave you now. I must go back.
Wait! No! he cries out, don't go, don't leave me.
She says I have to leave now. What I brought with me in the basket was Spirit. It's amazing that human beings think Spirit is nothing." Then she was gone.
The story provides an important lesson about understanding the nature of our desires and the divine spirit that can be hidden beneath them. Let the awareness of Spirit fill your heart and mind. Be free from ego-driven desire. Live in the soul, and your desireless desires will be fulfilled naturally.
© 2023 Ellen Grace O’Brian