The Difference Between Suppression and Rejection of Desire

Suppression of desire can be compared generally to the compression of a spring. The spring increases its latent energy by being compressed and eventually, when it escapes the compression stage, it responds powerfully. When desires are suppressed, they gain in strength and eventually burst forth with tremendous intensity.

Spiritual practitioners frequently make the mistake of confusing suppression for rejection of desire, and in so doing, they do not eliminate desire, but actually intensify it. This can have its expression in forms of violence directed at oneself or others, in narrow-minded moral judgments rendered on others and in various forms of fanaticism. The ‘holy inquisition’ is an example of an attempt by religion to suppress desire through the misguided development of moral codes and self-created judges who were given societal power to enforce that code. The terror that was unleashed, and the corruption that occurred among the powerful provide examples of the type of results that stem from suppression of desire.

Rejection of desire, on the other hand, is based on a refocusing and re-tuning of the being and its receptivity, such that the focus is no longer on the desire, but on the higher purpose and calling that is moving the individual beyond desire.

Nietzsche famously held that the superior man was ‘beyond good and evil’. Dostoevsky, in Crime and Punishment explored this idea in the form of an individual who held himself to be a ‘superior man’ and thus could, with impunity carry out a gruesome murder to gain the wealth he needed to survive and save his sister from an unfortunate marriage. The individual buckled under the pressure of the crime he had committed. Yet the real issue of the story is the illustration of the false premise underlying the impunity expressed by the so-called superior man. Beyond good and evil, beyond morality, actually can have a deep spiritual significance, not through lowering the standard of action, but through evolution to a higher standard through transcendence of the entire framework of vital desire and the attachment to various ideas of success in the world tied to the fulfillment of desire. This occurs through the re-tuning process that shifts the standpoint from that of the ego and its gratification to that of the Divine with an alignment for the divine purpose of the existence in the individual’s life and action.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “The rejection of desire is essentially the rejection of the element of craving, putting that out from the consciousness itself as a foreign element not belonging to the true self and the inner nature. But refusal to indulge the suggestions of desire is also a part of the rejection; to abstain from the action suggested, if it is not the right action, must be included in the yogic discipline. It is only when this is done in the wrong way, by a mental ascetic principle or a hard moral rule, that it can be called suppression. The difference between suppression and an inward essential rejection is the difference between mental or moral control and a spiritual purification.”

“Your theory is a mistaken one. The free expression of a passion may relieve the vital for a time, but at the same time it gives it a right to return always. It is not reduced at all. Suppression with inner indulgence in subtle forms is not a cure, but expression in outer indulgence is still less a cure. It is perfectly possible to go on without manifestation if one is resolute to arrive at a complete control, the control being not a mere suppression but an inner and outer rejection.”

“The difference between suppression (nigraha) and self-control (samyama) is that one says ‘I cannot help desiring but i will not satisfy my desire’, while the other says ‘I refuse the desire as well as the satisfaction of the desire’.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Desire, pp. 291-296