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.”

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