The Value of Desire



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.”

The meaning of sin

I have been thinking lately about the seven sins. Although I don’t believe everything I read in religious texts, I think the Bible has some value here. I tried debating the logic behind the seven sins, but finally came to the conclusion that, actually, the logic makes sense.

The first consideration for me was, why is a particular quality essentially ‘wrong’ or sinful? Is it because it’s harmful to society, to the government, or to ourselves? I came to the conclusion that, from a religious perspective, God represents love. So a quality is considered wrong if it goes against the impulse to love (one’s self, one’s neighbour, family, friends, society). Hate, envy, greed, anger, lust, pride, sloth – they all block out love. Love is the feeling of caring for another as selflessly as possible, and loving one’s self on a deep level rather than loving our egotistic fashionings (which are sure to change). The problem with love is – if love depends on the idea of an enduring self (something which will last forever) then what if there is NO enduring self at all? If the person you loved became a ‘sinner’, would you still love their ‘inner’ self, knowing that they were inherently ‘good’? If you can love one person like that, why not everyone? Buddhism says there is no enduring self, only flux and change. So, where does love fit into that?

I haven’t lost all hope yet. I do believe in an enduring self. That’s why we can feel compassion for almost anyone in the world, because we recognise another soul’s inherent energy as being from the same source as our own energy. And the reason why we become closer to some people more than others is to do with the varying experiences we have on earth, and the karmic relationships we have built. That’s why once certain experiences and karma change, our relationships tend to change too.

Going back to sin, if we see God as representing our original source, and if we see our essential nature as love, then it follows that we should avoid everything that blocks out feelings of love. This is in our best interest as well as in the interest of society at large. But I find it very unhelpful to focus on what we need to avoid, so instead I’ve made another list of what it is we need to embody…

Anger -(needs to change into)- Compassion

Envy – Admiration

Pride – Humility

Greed – Generosity

Lust –  Love

Sloth – Perseverance

Gluttony – Satisfaction

In our lifetimes, a certain number of errors are inevitable. No matter how hard we try, some of us cannot become saints right now. You will notice in your life that you made certain mistakes without realising, and other mistakes you tried to avoid but you were not able to control. If you make the same mistake again and again, then you are choosing to suffer again and again until you reach a greater understanding and eventually become strong enough to avoid making that mistake – like learning to balance on a bicycle. But along with the karmic inevitability we have predestined for ourselves, there is a small element of choice. In this small field of free expression, we are the creators – here, we choose to exercise the Seven Virtues.