Making Peace with Desire
I am sitting in my chair at home in the country, looking out on the green hills. There is everything right here to satisfy me: birds, flowers, animals, trees, reasonable comfort, loyal companions, and the precious opportunity of selfless service. Right here is everything I need for complete happiness always. But as I look out of my cottage window I see a camper in the distance traveling along the road. Somewhere in my mind is the uneasy stirring of a desire to jump on that camper and go out chasing rainbows, to find the pot of gold at the end. This belief that somewhere out there is the land of joy dogs our footsteps wherever we go. As long as we look upon joy as something outside us, we shall never be able to find it. Wherever we go it will still be beyond our reach, because “out there” can never be “in here.” On the other hand, if I can find joy here and now within myself, I shall of course have it everywhere, under all circumstances. This is what Jesus means when he says, “The kingdom of heaven is within.”
Objects of desire depend on what is “in here,” within us, for their value. As long as I have a desire for chocolate cake, it gives me some pleasure. When I lose the desire, chocolate cake loses its appeal for me. I can have it right on the table in front of my eyes; as far as I am concerned, it has ceased to exist. What gives value to any object of desire is the desire itself.
It is the nature of desire to pass.
When a boy meets a girl and holds her hand for the first time, he expects the thrill to last forever. One year later the touch of the same girl means nothing. When attraction is physical, it does not take long for the desire to fade and disappear. Then the boy thinks that the touch of another girl will bring him lasting happiness—only to be disillusioned again. This can only repeat itself over and over. The trouble is neither with the girl nor the boy; it is the nature of desire to pass.
The mind may be described as an endless series of desires. One desire rises, is satisfied, and disappears, to be followed by another and another and another. It is the nature of the mind to desire, and the nature of desire to change. Any attempt to find an abiding state of joy by satisfying desires, therefore, is doomed to fail.
As long as I desire a yacht, for example, I believe I will find lasting happiness by sailing on it. There is, of course, a certain satisfaction in owning one’s own yacht and sailing into the Caribbean. But this satisfaction can last only as long as the desire lasts. As the desire begins to subside—as it must—the satisfaction also begins to diminish. When the desire disappears at last, in the place of satisfaction, boredom sets in.
There is nothing wrong with desire. Like electricity, which can light a home or electrocute the tenant, desire is neither good nor bad. It is the most powerful force we have to drive us to action. Tragedy comes when desire is not subject either to the intellect or to the conscious will. Then we have a powerful vehicle speeding without anybody in the driver’s seat. Imagine all the cars in your hometown coming out of their garages and going about anywhere they like without drivers. How many accidents there would be, how much damage to life and property! The same thing takes place among nations, races, families, and individuals, when we pursue our personal desires. I go after what I desire, you do the same, and sooner or later we collide.
Prison of Duality
The vast majority of human beings spend their lives in the pursuit of money and material possessions, pleasure and prestige. These are fleeting goals that burst like bubbles when we pick them up. The man who is trying to make a million dollars, for example, is more a victim of his desire than its master. His eyes are so fixed on his own profit that he often is not aware of the welfare of others.
The fine arts too have their limitations. They may give delight to many, but as long as an artist is ego-centered he cannot perceive the whole. He is confined to his own individuality as limited by the senses—the eye or ear.
Scientists too are limited by the prison of duality. They sit “here” and study stars or bacteria “out there.” The most powerful intellect is still a limited instrument, which cannot help cutting things into parts. It ignores the living whole in which the parts act and react on one another continuously.
In order to see life as one indivisible whole, we have to shed all desires for personal pleasure, profit, prestige, and power. As long as these motivate us, we look at life through our individual conditioning. We see life not as it is, but as conditioned by our desires. I can know you fully only if I am you, and that can never be as long as I am I. To know anyone or anything fully, I must shed what I have come to believe is my personality—to use the precise Sanskrit word, ahamkara, that which makes me “I,” separate from the rest of the world.
In order to see life as one indivisible whole, we have to shed all desires for personal pleasure, profit, prestige, and power.
This is what Mahatma Gandhi meant when he said that his greatest ambition was to reduce himself to zero. I know of no great artist or scientist with this ambition. When Gandhi succeeded in reducing himself to zero through many, many years of spiritual discipline, he saw life as an indivisible whole in which any injury done to the tiniest part is injury to all. This realization of the unity of life made him abjure violence, showing convincingly that nonviolence or ahimsa is the greatest force upon the face of the earth to bring together nations, races, and families in love and service.
We should never forget this vital distinction between the cultural contribution of the great artist and the spiritual contribution of the great mystic. To me the twentieth century is not the space age but the Gandhian age, because it was Gandhi who showed us in these times how to live in harmony with the eternal law that all life is one. This he did not by painting pictures or composing songs on the unity of life or by traveling to the moon, however valuable these may be, but by facing without violence some of the most threatening problems of our age.
Of course, civilization has been enriched greatly by artists, scientists, and statesmen of genius. But it is great mystics who bring it back to its right course and give us through their own life an inspiring glimpse of the shining goal toward which all creation moves through trial and error. Gandhi has shed his mortal body, but his immortal spirit, the Atman, can be experienced wherever people turn away from violence.
One of my friends was warned by an acquaintance not to let meditation turn her into a zombie. I hear this from many people who are afraid they might lose their personality if they eliminate the sense of I, me, and mine from their consciousness. I remind them that the word “personality” is related to the Latin word persona, a mask. In Alexander Dumas’s novel, the supposed twin brother of Louis XIV was forced to wear an iron mask for so many years that it became part of him. However hard he tried, he could not take it off to reveal his real face. All of us are like this. Through many years—or many lives—our minds have developed habits of selfishness and separateness through endless efforts to satisfy desires for personal pleasure and profit, power and prestige. If we can throw away this mask of separateness, our real personality, the Atman, shines forth in beauty, wisdom, and love.
Without personal desires, some people ask, how can there be any motivation for action? The best answer to this question too is the life of Gandhi. As long as he was playing games with his personality, young Gandhi was content to spend his days in London eating his barrister dinners, practicing the violin, and trying to learn the foxtrot. But later on in South Africa, when he turned his back on personal pleasure and profit so he could serve the thousands of cruelly exploited Indian laborers there, Gandhi found immense inner resources of which he had never dreamed. While living to satisfy his private desires, he had no access to this treasury of love, wisdom, courage, and inspired action. But once he renounced the petty, paltry motive to live for himself, he found continuing motivation at the deepest levels of consciousness for leading a long, healthy, active, fulfilling life.
The Real Operator
When you live for yourself, driven by desires for personal achievement, you cannot help believing that you are the operator, the one who does everything, the one who is at the wheel. As a result you cannot help getting caught in the results of your activities, elated by success and dejected by failure. Even great humanitarians seldom glimpse the magnificent truth the mystics try to show us: the real Operator is not this little, personal "I" but the Atman, our real Self. Not understanding this, they get consumed by anxiety as to whether their efforts will end in victory or defeat. Gandhi worked tirelessly for the uplift of the Indian people, but by renouncing “the fruits of action”—any personal benefit—he freed himself from the oppressive sense of being the operator or doer.
“You have the right to action,” says the Bhagavad Gita, “but not to the results of action.” Anxiety about results—fear of not getting our own way, fear of not getting the results which seem to us to be the best—causes depletion and exhaustion. If we can work hard toward a selfless goal using selfless means, giving up every desire for the fruits of action, we shall work at our best in success and defeat. Then even defeat becomes an opportunity.
“You have the right to action,” says the Bhagavad Gita, “but not to the results of action.”
It is not possible to be detached from the results of action without some deep degree of spiritual experience. The deeper our spiritual awareness, the more we have freed ourselves from the tyranny of self-will which makes us believe that we are the agents of action.
“How do I free myself from the belief that I am the operator? How do I empty my self of self-will in order that ‘Thy will be done’? How can I know what is my will and what is Thy will? How can I empty myself of myself and become, in Saint Francis’s words, a perfect ‘instrument of Thy peace’?” These questions are answered in meditation when we practice it sincerely, systematically, and with sustained enthusiasm. The answers do not come through voices or visions, but through slow, steady growth in discrimination and detachment. As old desires lose their power to drive us, veil after veil falls away from our eyes, leaving our vision calm and clear, able to take in the whole where before we saw only our own small corner.
It is when I see only my own corner of life that I believe I am here and joy is out there. Once I see the whole, in the climax of meditation called samadhi, I know I am there as well as here. I am in everyone and everything, and everyone and everything is in me. No more do I need to chase rainbows; no more am I driven by the need to possess people and things. I am complete.
This is an excerpt from Climbing the Blue Mountain: A Guide for the Spiritual Journey by Eknath Easwaran, and is reprinted with permission from Nilgiri Press.
Eknath Easwaran came to the United States from India as a Fulbright exchange professor in 1959 and founded the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation in Berkeley, California, in 1961. His books include Meditation, Gandhi the Man, and Take Your Time: How to Find Patience, Peace & Meaning. For more information, please email, or call (800)475-2369.