Overcoming Desire As a Preliminary Step on the Spiritual Path

Whether one looks in the yoga texts of India or one reviews the spiritual practices adopted by seekers around the world, we see, consistently, the recognition that the seeker must find a way to overcome the powerful urges and desires that draw out the senses and entangle the seeker in the illusory satisfactions of fulfillment of desire. Desire can take many forms, and the most egregious forms have come to be called generally various types of sin. While different cultures may define the specific term “sin” somewhat variably, the essential point is that extreme desires drive one to actions which are dissipating, degrading or harmful, physically and/or psychologically.

In the West, we see various schools of discipline including monastic austerity, stoicism, philosophical distance, devotional prayer, and various forms of meditation, along with others. In the yoga texts, particularly in disciplines such as Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, this has been codified into a series of preliminary practices intended to loosen the bonds of desire, calm and purify the senses and the mind, and prepare one for the deeper practices of meditation needed to finally break free from the hold of the desire-mind and the pull of the senses.

A basic theme emerges, which Sri Aurobindo has described: “Sin is the working of the lower nature for the crude satisfaction of its own ignorant, dull or violent rajasic and tamasic propensities in revolt against any high self-control and self-mastery of the nature by the spirit. And in order to get rid of this crude compulsion of the being by the lower Prakriti in its inferior modes we must have recourse to the highest mode of that Prakriti, the sattwic, which is seeking always for a harmonious light of knowledge and for a right rule of action.”

The soul must decide to support the increase therefore of the sattwic tendency to reduce and overcome the force of the rajasic and tamasic Gunas in their play. “The sattwic will in our nature has to govern us and not the rajasic and tamasic will. This is the meaning of all high reason in action as of all true ethical culture; it is the law of Nature in us striving to evolve from her lower and disorderly to her higher and orderly action, to act not in passion and ignorance with the result of grief and unquiet, but in knowledge and enlightened will with the result of inner happiness, poise and peace. We cannot get beyond the three Gunas, if we do not first develop within ourselves the rule of the highest Guna, Sattwa.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part I, Chapter 2, The Synthesis of Devotion and Knowledge, pp. 266-267