Desire — and the Need to Control Desire

People believe that suppression of the vital forces that are actuated by the force of desire can lead to imbalance and mental illness. For this reason, Western psychology has recommended the moderate expression of these forces, and has generally counseled having a healthy vital life that does not try to suppress the desires as they arise. It is also true that an attempt to control desire, done incorrectly, can lead to extreme imbalances and we see in the attempts to torture the body to overcome desire, or the attempt to shame a person into abiding by the cultural expectation, are unhealthy both for the individual and for the society. People have the idea that somehow by satisfying a desire they are going to bring it under control, but generally this proves to not be true; rather, it feeds the desire which can then reoccur. There are those who attempt to satiate the desire through extreme indulgence. This too does not work, and can lead to imbalances and unhealthy fixations. People can also be attached to the energy that flows with the force of desire, whether fulfilled or denied, and they begin to treat it as part of their fixed identity.

Why is it important to bring desire under control in the first place, and how can this be accomplished? Yogic psychology treats desire as a vibratory pattern that invades the being and takes over control if allowed to dominate. The ‘mind-stuff” becomes disturbed and distracts from the yogic practices. Fixation on controlling desire only enhances its force. Sri Aurobindo and the Mother have examined this issue at depth, and their prescriptions in this regard are the subject of a major portion of the current text.

Dr. Dalal observes: “The fact that repression of the vital leads to disturbances is well-recognized both in psychiatry and yoga, and therefore need not be elaborated here. What is not recognized in psychiatry is that the free expression of the vital, too, produces disturbances. Even though most psychiatrists would recommend moderation in the satisfaction of desires, such a recommendation is based upon common-sense and physiological considerations rather than on psychiatric principles. For psychiatry knows of no specific psychological disturbances resulting from an excessive satisfaction of desires. And as for the normal expression of desires this is deemed not only perfectly all right but indispensable for maintaining psychological health.”

“Yoga, on the other hand, looks upon desiring per se as a disturbance. The metapsychology of such a view is expressed in the following words of the Mother:”

“To have needs is to assert a weakness; to claim something proves that we lack what we claim. To desire is to be impotent; it is to recognise our limitations and confess our incapacity to overcome them.”

Dr. Dalal continues: “As for the free play of desires, yoga holds that (per the Mother) ‘this brings on fairly serious disorders.’ “

Dr. Dalal goes on: “The essential morbidity of the untransformed vital nature is particularly evident in masochistic tendency to continue clinging to a disturbance and to wallow in it. Sri Aurobindo refers to this trait in the following extract from a letter:”

“…a habit of the human vital — the tendency to keep any touch of grief, anger, vexation, etc. or any kind of emotional, vital or mental disturbance, to make much of it, to prolong it, not to wish to let it go, to return to it even when the cause of disturbance is past and could be forgotten, always to remember and bring it up when it can. This is a common trait of the human nature and a quite customary movement.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, Introduction, Disturbances Associated with the Vital, pp. xix-xxiv

Anxiety and Fear

Anxiety and fear are constant companions in life for animals, as well as for human beings. Becoming food for a predator is an existential fear that stalks the animal kingdom, but it is not just this fear that human beings engage in. There is fear of failure, fear of being humiliated, fear of being attacked, robbed, raped, or arrested. Fear of being scammed or scapegoated. Fear of loss, fear of injury, fear of illness, and fear of death. There is also the constant undercurrent of anxiety that represents a low level manifestation of fear. We are anxious about being late, about being early, about being laughed at, about whether we will be accepted in a social setting, about whether we will get ahead in our job, or whether we can keep up with our friend circle in terms of material well-being and comfort. We have anxiety about missing out on something and on missing an appointment or a transit schedule. We have all kinds of fears, phobias and anxieties too numerous to mention. Our life is constantly experiencing anxiety and fear and for some people, this can be a paralyzing state of existence.

Dr. Dalal writes: “Besides desire, the vital is the spring of a host of other disturbing feelings. One of the chief vital disturbances is fear. As a rule, human beings are constantly subject to fear, though very few are aware of the continual undercurrent of fear. As the Mother observes:”

“The normal human condition is a state filled with apprehensions and fears; if you observe your mind deeply for ten minutes, you will find that for nine out of ten it is full of fears — it carries in it fear about many things, big and small, near and far, seen and unseen, and though you do not usually take conscious notice of it, it is there all the same.”

Dr. Dalal continues: “It is not surprising, therefore, that anxiety, which is simply ‘fear spread thin’, is the commonest of all psychiatric symptoms.”

Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, Living Within: The Yoga Approach to Psychological Health and Growth, Introduction, Disturbances Associated with the Vital, pp. xix-xxiv

Desire and True Need for a Yogic Practitioner

Today’s civilisation is fixated on possession and ownership of material things, and people are generally respected and honored for their ability to accumulate resources. This has led to extreme inequality in terms of the resources available for use by people on the planet, as a very small number of highly successful (in a material sense) people control ever-larger resources, while vast numbers of people go hungry or live a life of privation and suffering from physical want. The entire culture is permeated with suggestions, images and pressure to acquire and ‘own” more and more.

For a practitioner of yoga living in the world today, it is therefore quite easy to be misdirected by the acculturation and expectations of society and thereby to be misled into both attachment to material objects and their accumulation, and a confusion about what things are necessities and what things are artificially constructed ‘needs’ based on suggestion and pressure.

Sri Aurobindo’s guidance in this area is clear and helps the practitioner of yoga see through the confusing and conflicting ideas about material life. At the same time, while not directed towards a more general population, this advice can be very helpful for people at all stages of development in their lives. There is no doubt that the society has become highly distorted in the way it allocates and utilizes the precious bounty of the planet, and there is no doubt that something needs to change in this regard to restore some sense of balance to the relation between people and the world we all share. Those not practicing yoga actively may find that a new relation to their use and possession of material things will help them achieve a level of peace and happiness that is so frequently absent when they are caught up in the cycle of accumulation, use and disposal that comes with the acquisitive impulses of today’s society.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “Desire is a psychological movement, and it can attach itself to a ‘true need’ as well as to things that are not true needs. One must approach even true needs without desire. If one does not get them, one must feel nothing.”

“The necessities of a sadhak should be as few as possible; for there are only a very few things that are real necessities in life. The rest are either utilities or things decorative to life or luxuries. These a yogin has a right to possess or enjoy only on one of two conditions — (1) If he uses them during his sadhana solely to train himself in possessing things without attachment or desire and learn to use them rightly, in harmony with the Divine Will, with a proper handling, a just organisation, arrangement and measure — or, (2) if he has already attained a true freedom from desire and attachment and is not in the least moved or affected in any way by loss or withholding or deprival. If he has any greed, desire, demand, claim for possession or enjoyment, any anxiety, grief, anger or vexation when denied or deprived, he is not free in spirit and his use of the things he possesses is contrary to the spirit of sadhana. Even if he is free in spirit, he will not be fit for possession if he has not learned to use things not for himself, but for the Divine Will, as an instrument, with the right knowledge and action in the use, for the proper equipment of a life lived not for oneself but for and in the Divine.”

“As for the inconveniences, you should take them as a training in samata. To be able to bear inconveniences is one of the most elementary necessities if one wants to enter into the true spirit of yoga.”

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

Aspiration: the Desire of the Soul for the Divine

Some people interpret the need to eliminate desire as becoming essentially cold and unmoved by anything. They even treat desire for the Divine realisation as something to eventually be eliminated. The subtlety and narrowness of the path makes it easy to stray in one direction or the other, and dealing with the impulses of desire is no different. Sri Aurobindo places the desire for the Divine in a totally different light as he defines it as aspiration of the soul, and not a ‘desire’ in the normal vital sense. Of course, this aspiration must be pure and untainted by demand, or any form of vital posturing. The aspiration of the soul for the Divine is the essential lever to shift the focus and attention away from the ego-personality and help thereby achieve the shift from the ego-standpoint to the divine-standpoint.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “The desire for the Divine or for bhakti for the Divine is the one desire which can free one from all the others — at the core it is not a desire but an aspiration, a soul need, the breath of existence of the inmost being, and as such it cannot be counted among desires.”

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

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

Overcoming Desire Without Suppression or Indulgence

The mental consciousness likes to frame issues in terms of black and white determinations, as ‘either/or’ considerations. So we tend to swing from one extreme to the other. Either we try to indulge ourselves in fulfilling desires, in some cases with the idea that by satisfying the desire we will overcome it, or else we undertake harsh suppression of the desire and utilize all kinds of punishing methods to enforce this suppression. It is rare that we find a way out of the conundrum that both of these methods, by fixating on the energy of the desire, are actually strengthening its hold! Sri Aurobindo describes the method he recommends which, over time, attenuates the hold of desire and frees the yogic practitioner from its clutches.

For the human ego-personality, which craves the excitement and energy of ‘doing’ something, the idea that one actually simply removes oneself from active involvement in the desire is a difficult concept to accept. Yet with practice one finds that the process of detachment, and observation with a calm view as if from outside oneself is actually the leverage needed to free oneself from the clutches of the desire-soul.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “… if you want to do yoga, you must take more and more in all matters, small or great, the yogic attitude. In our path that attitude is not one of forceful suppression, but of detachment and equality with regard to the objects of desire. Forceful suppression stands on the same level as free indulgence; in both cases, the desire remains; in the one it is fed by indulgence, in the other it lies latent and exasperated by suppression. It is only when one stands back, separates oneself from the lower vital, refusing to regard its desires and clamours as one’s own, and cultivates an entire equality and equanimity in the consciousness with respect to them that the lower vital itself becomes gradually purified and itself also calm and equal. Each wave of desire as it comes must be observed, as quietly and with as much unmoved detachment as you would observe something going on outside you, and allowed to pass, rejected from the consciousness, and the true movement, the true consciousness steadily put in its place.”

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

Two Options for the Seeker to Eliminate Desire

When the spiritual aspirant hears that he must eliminate desire from his consciousness, he frequently takes this as a message of ‘renunciation’ and thereby determines to live an isolated life free from the efforts involved in living in the world and interacting within the societal framework. Even when he tries to live quietly in the forest, or the desert, or some kind of monastic retreat setting, he finds that desire follows him there. There eventuates then a struggle or battle to try to defeat the promptings of desire and in some cases, the seeker even resorts to mortification of the flesh and other types of abuse to ‘punish’ the recalcitrant body and vital being for giving in to desire, or, at the very least, constantly fixating on it. These methods however, tend not to work!

Whether one fulfills the desire, or aggressively suppresses the expression of the desire, the focus and attention remains tuned to the vital-physical centre where the desire arises. Further, by taking ‘ownership’ of the desire, the seeker believes that he must excise something that is part of his own nature and personality. Giving full license to the desire in the guise of ‘exhausting’ it also tends not to work. The seeker can deal with desire by moving outside the frame within which it is active, thereby taking the position of the neutral or disinterested observer of the action, rather than being involved and controlled by its energy.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “When one lives in the true consciousness one feels the desires outside oneself, entering from outside, from the universal lower Prakriti, into the mind and the vital parts. In the ordinary human condition this is not felt; men become aware of the desire only when it is there, when it has come inside and found a lodging or a habitual harbourage and so they think it is their own and part of themselves. The first condition for getting rid of desire is, therefore, to become conscious with the true consciousness; for then it becomes much easier to dismiss it than when one has to struggle with it as if it were a constituent part of oneself to be thrown out from the being. It is easier to cast off an accretion than to excise what is felt as a parcel of our own substance.”

“When the psychic is in front, then also to get rid of desire becomes easy; for the psychic being has in itself no desires, it has only aspirations and a seeking and love for the Divine and all things that are or tend towards the Divine. The constant prominence of the psychic being tends of itself to bring out the true consciousness and set right almost automatically the movements of the nature.”

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

The Source and Origin of Desire and the Mechanism of Its Action in the Being

An individual experiences a craving, an urge, a desire and automatically tries to fulfill it through some action. If it is hunger or thirst, the individual wants to eat or drink. If it is a more complex desire, something that cannot simply be accomplished, the mind is brought into the picture to determine a way to succeed in that desire’s accomplishment. We rarely reflect on where and how these desires arise, and what the mechanism is that makes them conscious within us, at least to the extent of pushing us into action. Sometimes desires are expressed that run contrary to the rules or customs of society and the individual may have a guilty conscience for doing something frowned upon in society. For those who seek to quell desire in order to practice a spiritual discipline of some sort, there can be a feeling of guilt that arises when the desire gets fulfilled, with the sense that somehow the individual is the source of these desires.

There is, however, no inner ‘desire-generating mechanism’ within the individual being. Sri Aurobindo examined the source of desire and found rather that they originate outside oneself in universal Nature. The individual receives the vibration from outside and if he is receptive to those waves, he translates them into a feeling, an emotion or a thought that brings about an awareness of a felt need.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “All the ordinary vital movements are foreign to the true being and come from outside; they do not belong to the soul nor do they originate in it but are waves from the general Nature, Prakriti.”

“The desires come from outside, enter the subconscious vital and rise to the surface. It is only when they rise to the surface and the mind becomes aware of them, that we become conscious of the desire. It seems to us to be our own because we feel it thus rising from the vital into the mind and do not know that it came from outside. What belongs to the vital, to the being, what makes it responsible is not the desire itself, but the habit of responding to the waves or the currents of suggestion that come into it from the universal Prakriti.”

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