The Value of Desire

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Desire is a tricky thing when it comes to the human psyche. It is usually seen as the beginning of man’s downfall. The Bible depicts Eve’s desire for the apple as the beginning of sinful temptation; the Bhagavad Gita wtinesses Lord Krishna urging Arjun to ‘act without desire’.

In the New Age, however, desire is seen as the motivator of success. Having goals, aspirations and desires to better ourselves is encouraged. Looking back on religious texts, we in the West generally see the rejection of desire as an attempt to control the masses – take away people’s aspirations and rule over them more easily so that they will be subjugated by guilt and fear. Maybe there is some truth in this, because fear of punishment is something that keeps society in check after all. But on a much deeper level, on the level of heart and soul, what is the relevance of desire? Can it be truly useful for our betterment, and if not, can it be so easily rejected?

In The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, a wonderfully concise book by Deepak Chopra, the author discusses the value of desire as the primary motivating force of humanity’s progress. At the same time, he advises ‘detachment from desire.’ I found this very hard to grasp, for the desire is in itself a form of attachment to something, so how can you have a desire that you are detached from? For instance, if I want to be rich (desire), I obviously have some longing. If I became detached from wanting to be rich, would it still be called a desire?

Then I started to see this idea of desire in Chopra’s book more in terms of preference. I might prefer being rich to being poor, but I don’t have a strong longing or need for it, so I can be emotionally detached. This puts the idea of the old religious desire into perspective. What the texts were really warning about was not aspirations in themselves, but the attachment and neediness that comes with those aspirations. Hence, Krishna urged Arjun to act (towards a goal), but let go of the need to win (the battle). Why was it so important to let go of the attachment that came with having ‘desires’? Because the attachment feeds the ego, the belief that we are separate entities that need something ‘out there’. Why is the ego described as such a bad thing? Because it makes us believe we are something we are not; it separates ‘us’ from ‘the world’ and starts within us all kinds of misconceptions that lead to suffering. The ego is a psychological construct we hold so dear that we are willing to hurt ourselves and others to protect it. And the ego is closely linked to desire: it is those desires we have become attached to for our own sense of worthiness to stay intact. So along with the attachment to a desire is the FEAR that our world will collapse if we don’t get our desires. This fear is a intuitive knowing that we are chasing after something which will ultimately cause us pain, as a mirage in a desert. Knowing all this theoretically makes little difference, though!

Rupert Spira’s talks focus a lot on the desire for happiness as the primary motivator within all humans. It is the search for happiness that keeps us going until we realise we actually never find happiness out there. It is the despair at knowing this that makes us give up. It is the giving up (relinquishing of desire) that leads us to turn inward. After much pain, like the prodigal son, we turn towards what can never be found in the ‘world’. It happens to us through repeated struggle and suffering, it cannot be forced by following the dictates of texts and applying superficial knowledge. As Rumi said, “the heart must be broken several times until it opens.”

Awakening

When I started thinking spiritually around 15 years ago, going to meditation centres and reading spiritual texts, the word ‘awakening’ did not come up much. Now it seems to be everywhere in spiritual circles. Anyone who has entered the realm of spirituality will have come across the idea of spiritual awakening. There are two layers of meaning here, and the second layer goes pretty deep into a place that’s hard to even explain, a non-place, if you will.

The first aspect of spiritual awakening has been popularised by the work of Eckhart Tolle, which has reached millions of us across the planet. The Power of Now emphasises again and again the immense importance of living in the present moment, mentally. This means not dwelling in the psychological aspects of past and future, but being in the moment without mental commentary. Another writer that drew attention to this in the West is Ram Dass, author of Be Here Now. The awakening spoken of here is mainly to wake up from mental ‘unreality’ into the reality of the present moment. The whole art of Buddhist mindfulness meditations focus on this.

But there is a second layer to awakening. This one takes us down the rabbit hole, and it is the waking up from our perceived identities. This act of questioning or knowing who we are starts in the present moment but takes us beyond into the realm of timelessness. Time is understood as an illusion by those who can live in the present moment (neither past nor future can be experienced except in the present moment as memory or imagination). But those who take awakening to the next level of questioning their own identity (the process which Sri Ramana Maharishi called atma-vichara), enter a level of awareness in which even the manifestation of the present moment loses its objective qualities: they no longer experience a world outside of themselves, but rather experience themselves as the consciousness in which the world is appearing. This is why the world, in Vedanta and Buddhism, is referred to as illusion. It is not a magic trick but rather that our concepts, superimposed onto it, have made it unreal to us. The fact that we hear the word ‘awakening’ so much now is evidence of the fact that our shared consciousness is waking up from the illusion, albeit in faltering steps…

Unperturbable Byron Katie

I have been reading some of the works of Byron Katie. Her main process is simply called “The Work”, or “inquiry”, which, by name, is reminiscent of Ramana Maharishi’s “self-enquiry”, but has a different approach and format. In her books, A Thousand Names for Joy (a discussion of The Tao Te Ching) and Loving What Is, Katie explains her main process which involves questioning thoughts we hold to be true, and effectively deconstructing our beliefs so we realise nothing is inherently true.

I admit that I was slightly blown away by reading A Thousand Names for Joy. Katie’s way of describing the world is so unconventional that I could only read a bit at a time. But I always wanted to come back. Katie confesses she had been depressed and suicidal for many years. She describes a moment of transformation in which a cockroach crawled across her foot, and she realised she no longer needed to suffer by believing these things that went through her mind, called thoughts. She doesn’t believe in mind-control; she speaks of accepting whatever comes up, be it anger, remorse, loss, death, birth, or whatever, and advises questioning our beliefs around these occurrences.

Poetically written with sensual turns of language, her ideas resonate deeply with the philosophies of Advaita Vedanta and Buddhism. But she had never been exposed to any eastern teaching: she didn’t even know what “namaste” meant and thought that when people greeted her with the Sanskrit word (meaning “the god in me sees the god in you”), they were actually saying “no mistake”, because according to her awakened way of living, reality makes “no mistake”.

The book has excerpts from her work with different people suffering with different issues. One man she writes about was a prisoner who held a great deal of anger. He wrote down the reason for his rage, which was that he could not forgive his wife for burning their house down, which resulted in his daughter losing her life. Deeply traumatic to read about, Byron Katie described how this man was able to do The Work or inquiry in order to see that he didn’t need his daughter to be alive, and he could not know for sure that she was truly gone. There are many other excerpts relating to people’s issues with jealousy, fear and possessiveness.

Katie also describes a moment when her bag was stolen. She says she felt a great joy at wondering about the treasures the thief would find in her bag, that were no longer meant for herself. Another incident she describes is being held at gun point by someone who wanted to kill her. She felt little fear, knowing that the attacker could not have done anything other than believe his thoughts.

I found it wondrous to read Katie’s book, and I think she is a great example of someone who is living the truth of spiritual oneness. In Ramaji’s book, 1000, he lists the levels of consciousness of current spiritual teachers, and he has ranked Byron Katie as enlightened. I agree that only someone with an enlightened awareness could have written such a book.