Desire is a very powerful force in human life, and it is perhaps the most enigmatic issue that we encounter on the spiritual journey. Some teachers tell us that all desire is (ultimately) from God, and that the heart of every desire is the Divine seeking expression in this world. And yet other spiritual teachers tell us that “Desire is the root of all suffering.” It’s no wonder that so many of us feel confused or conflicted when dealing with desire.
Desire is an essential part of life. Virtually every life form has the desire to survive and to reproduce. As human beings we are born with desire. Desire is at the core of our human identity; our sense of self is inseparable from our wants, needs and values. Desire motivates us to take action; for better or worse, desire shapes the course of our life.
In this blog I hope to bring some clarity to this matter because the skillful use of this powerful energy is essential to our spiritual practice.
At the core of every desire is the One Life seeking to express itself in the world of form. If we look at the very deepest roots of desire, we could say that desire does emanate from God, the source of all life.
For most life forms desire appears in the form of instinct. This instinct is preprogrammed and typically changes its expression very little in the course of a plant or an animal’s life. But humans are a different animal altogether! Although our basic instincts are similar to those of other animals, the way these instincts are expressed is deeply influenced by our conditioning. The primary vehicle for our conditioning is culture, which for humans is “second nature.”
If we look at basic drives such as hunger or reproduction we see that at the core they are basically the same for humans as for animals. However, the way these desires are satisfied differ radically between animals and humans; and will even vary a great deal from one human culture to another. For humans instinct provides the raw energy but conditioning shapes the expression of that energy.
At the deepest core of every desire is the Divine seeking expression, but this energy is channeled through our biology and shaped by our conditioning. The actual expression of desire may not look at all divine; it may even appear demonic, and yet its essential nature is of divine origin.
Regarding desire as the source of suffering, it should be said that it is not desire per se that is problematic, but it’s craving that causes suffering. Craving is desire with attachment to outcome; craving occurs when we become fixated on the object of our desire. Most craving is influenced by our conditioning.
We may not know when desire has become craving until we don’t get what we want; if craving is present then suffering will ensue. The degree of suffering we experience is proportional to the degree of attachment to the desired outcome.
How to transform craving into simple desire without attachment and without suffering? We may find ourselves in a quandary if we are attached to getting rid of our attachments! The only way to escape this double-bind is to bring clear nonattached awareness to the experience of desire.
This may not always be easy because our craving may be the result of some deep cultural conditioning. We are inundated with messages that tell us what we can’t live without. It requires effort and practice to sustain nonattached awareness. (And, at times we may also need to engage in some form of behavior modification. Support and recovery groups may be helpful.)
Conditioned behavior feeds upon repetition and unconsciousness. As we bring nonattached awareness to the experience of desire we are able to separate natural and healthy desires from the conditioning that converts these desires into craving. By refraining from unconsciously acting out our desires and being willing to experience the underlying thoughts, emotions and physical sensations we begin to free ourselves from the tyranny of our conditioning.
As we bring our unconscious suffering into conscious awareness we began to feel the full intensity of it. If we can stay awake and not run away from this suffering it will gradually dissipate and we eventually emerge into a life of freedom and abundance.