The Pursuit of Pleasure: Understanding Your Cravings


Yoga philosophy offers an intriguing image—that by its own intrinsic power, the Immense Reality veils its purely blissful nature and simultaneously unveils the world. A glow of original bliss continues to shine in everything here, like light in the sky before sunrise. This glow radiates in us as well—ultimately leading us to journey toward the Reality within. Yet for all its promise, the journey often begins in confusion. Spiritual intelligence has not yet awakened, and we crave pleasures instead.

For those who meditate daily and cherish the idea of enlightenment, this has become the basic problem of life. In meditation we catch glimpses of profound tranquility and joy—only to find that not so many moments later we are arguing with ourselves over which video to rent. When we observe ourselves we see that this juxtaposition of tranquility and appetite occurs every day. We see, but do not understand, our cravings.

Craving separates us from love, from wisdom, from the source of consciousness itself, and it creates pain.

Despite our efforts to manage them, cravings are deep-seated and powerful. They weave themselves into the fabric of every action and thought. As the writer of Ecclesiastes said, “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.” Craving separates us from love, from wisdom, from the source of consciousness itself, and it creates pain. Resolving this pain requires becoming aware of how we identify so completely with our cravings that we substitute these false identities for the Reality within.

The Signs of Craving

Outward signs of craving are easy to recognize. Every day we are surrounded by skillfully communicated ideas about what will lead to happiness in the late twentieth century. Magazines and television incessantly repeat the message—selling food, entertainment, sex, automobiles, alcohol, cigarettes, clothing, culture, books, and intellectual theories. When we tire of commercialism, religions offer equally well-packaged images of salvation. The daily drenching conditions us. We become thoroughly habituated to seeing life as life is presented.

But recognizing craving within ourselves isn’t as easy as seeing it in the culture. Somehow craving seems more charming when it is our own. We all know that the objects of craving change throughout our lives. Children crave sweets, exciting games, recognition, and attention. During adolescence sexuality awakens and for decades our world is transformed by it. In middle age the preservation of family, work, or wealth occupies us. As death approaches, we crave solace. At each stage of life, we make an automatic connection between getting what we want and being happy. Whatever we crave—whether it’s a more powerful position, a sexual partner, or some form of recognition—we believe that our happiness lies in fulfilling our desire.

Few of us, however, recognize or admit the ferocity with which we are attracted to the objects of our desires. “Surely,” our imaginary sense of reality argues, “the world beckons. It is not me chasing the world.” It becomes easy to deny our persistent and serpentine pursuit of pleasure. If we see our entanglement for what it is, we do so only subconsciously.

So we really must start from the beginning with simple questions that lead us forward. What is craving? How has it become such a prominent part of our lives? Can the process of working with craving be a means for awakening spiritually? Strangely enough, the place to begin our search for answers is with a story about death.

Kabir and the Cremation Ground

This story is about the great Indian saint Kabir. Knowing of Kabir’s spiritual mastery, a seeker went to his home to ask for personal guidance. The aspirant was met by Kabir’s wife, who explained that her husband was away, attending the cremation of a friend. She said that the seeker would find Kabir at the cremation ground, and that she could identify him by a feather in his hat. But when the seeker arrived there, she was perplexed—everyone, without exception, was wearing a feather.

Following the cremation, as the crowd began walking away, the seeker watched for signs of the great saint. She was surprised to find that, sometimes after a few steps and sometimes after many, the feathers on the heads of the mourners vanished, one by one, into nothingness. Finally, some distance from the cremation ground, only one man remained with a feather. It was to this man that the seeker now addressed herself: “You must be Kabir.” “Yes,” came the reply, “but how did you know?”

This story dramatizes the temporary emotional and spiritual effect that death has on ordinary people and compares it with the realization of a sage. Death wakens in us all, if ever so briefly, an awareness of life’s transience. This awakening is the beginning of wisdom and is represented in the story by the feather. Everyone at the cremation ground acquired a feather as they witnessed their friend’s body return to ashes. But as they turned and walked away, this awareness vanished. In the end only Kabir’s feather remained.

The Consequences of Craving

What disturbs the contemplations of those of us who are less than saints? If we, whose feathers disappear, were to question ourselves, we might find that the thoughts disturbing us are simple and surprisingly trivial. We might discover that, in us, wisdom succumbs to ordinary cravings.

What disturbs the contemplations of those of us who are less than saints?

For example, recently I watched a documentary in which a man was explaining what he believed to be the cause of his high cholesterol. He started by describing a breakfast laden with fats. He said that as soon as breakfast was over, he began thinking of the next meal. This meal would also be loaded with fat. And so it went, with virtually his whole day taken up either by eating or preparing psychologically for the next meal. I don’t think he was exaggerating—he had only recently recovered from a massive heart attack and quadruple bypass surgery.

Suppose, prior to his heart attack, this man had been at the cremation ground. What would have been on his mind following the cremation? I imagine he might have been thinking about food. Perhaps he would have invited the person who walked with him to join him for a meal “to talk and remember the

departed.” His craving would have subtly inserted itself and the momentum of his habits and desires would have carried him back into life. His feather would vanish in a few steps.

The point, of course, is that everyday cravings carry each of us back into our own isolated worlds. It is not so much that we fail to register the effects of life and death as that we fail to detach ourselves from the pleasures of life. We become so enticed by the images of our own craving that we cannot put them down. This also explains why death is such an unwelcome interruption. It is rude. It snatches us away in the midst of our own craving. As long as we are anchored to our cravings, we will approach death cautiously and leave it forgetfully.

The point, of course, is that everyday cravings carry each of us back into our own isolated worlds.

Up the Corporate Ladder

How does craving arise? Suppose my supervisor asks me to work overtime to complete a project that has an urgent deadline. The extra money I earn helps me pay a credit card debt, and I also buy a small gift for my wife. My family is moderately inconvenienced by having supper later, but, to be truthful, the time at work is a relief from the constant bustle at home. Thankful, my supervisor asks if I would be willing to help again in the future. I readily agree to it, feeling some prestige in his offer. I imagine my career advancing more rapidly.

The next opportunity for overtime occurs much sooner than I expected. Apparently, another employee has cut back on his hours. My wife is disappointed that I will miss a dinner we had planned with her family but admits the extra money is useful. This time, I identify myself as part of an elite overtime “team.”

By the third opportunity I have already planned how the extra money will be used. When my wife objects to the time away I mention that my supervisor is really expecting me to work. Although the inconvenience to my family is increasing, in my mind, the recognition I am receiving at work is well worth it. I even begin to conceal the voluntary aspect of the work and carefully protect my choice to work overtime from being challenged. My identity has become invested in the new role, and I crave the extra money, the break from family activities, and the new-found career prestige.

If we wanted to outline the steps in this process, they would look like this:

  1. An experience occurs that seems pleasant at first.

  2. “I” instantly bind myself to this experience.

  3. Thoughts of recreating the experience are embedded in my memory, prompting me to act at the next opportunity.

  4. Thoughts of losing this pleasure disturb me.

  5. “I” protect my identity and its cravings, opposing any resistance to them.

These steps are familiar to all of us. They have special significance to yoga students, who will recognize them as the five kleshas—the five afflictions described in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. Each of these steps describes a different aspect of a process. Craving is really the entire process, not simply the attraction we have toward pleasure.

When craving arises, it sets this entire chain of events in motion. But the outcome for any one of us is uncertain. Suppose, for example, that my craving is for friendship. Who has not had the misfortune of choosing a friend unwisely? When the choice of friends arises out of loneliness and a craving for friendship, we often find ourselves in the company of others who share our craving. The result is a dependent relationship that eventually leaves us unsatisfied.

Many so-called negative emotions result from cravings. When we obtain the object of a craving, we become proud and protective. When we fail, we experience anger. When someone else gets the object we had fixed our thoughts on, jealousy develops. Dependence leads to depression. There are other negative emotions, all having their root in the five stages of craving. Craving begins with attraction and inevitably ends with isolation and hostility.

Craving Is in the Mind

A major clue to recognizing and working with our own cravings is the realization that cravings are thoughts. Cravings are thoughts about enjoyment. They are mental images, not things in themselves. If we observe our thinking process we can recognize these images. Sometimes they are concrete, like the memory of a pin-up in a locker room; other times they are ephemeral, like the image of an exotic place we have never visited. How do these images arise?

A major clue to recognizing and working with our own cravings is the realization that cravings are thoughts.

When something pleasant happens, it is free of the familiar conflicts, pains, and divisions of life. It feels good. The experience passes through us. But we want that pleasant moment to last. We think about it, nurture it, and plan how we can experience it again. We “own” it in our thoughts.

Thought, however, is not experience. Thought is different from experience. The modern teacher Krishnamurti suggests that if you sit quietly for a moment you will feel within yourself the space—the mental identity—that thought creates in you. Thoughts are the substance, the walls, the movements within this private space. We can know its boundaries because we use words such as “you and me,” “yours and mine,” “me and my mind,” to describe them. We give this space in us the label “I.” This creates many automatic divisions between me and the world.

Craving is a trick this space plays on itself. It is the means this created “I” uses to reinforce its identity and assure its continuation. By grasping, it tries to unify itself with pleasurable objects. The method it uses for creating this oneness is to make the object “mine.” The object cannot be “mine” in reality, so it becomes mine in imagination. Praise is given to “me.” He is “my” son. In this way, the fantasy of union is psychologically played out each time the object of craving is remembered.

Thinking about a pleasure reawakens to a lesser degree the pleasure itself. But it is not the experience. It is thought. Thought sustains the pleasure and gives us the illusion that we can own it. Active words—“I need, want, like, wish for, fancy, dream about”—reflect this. They are words that convey motivation and the hope of possession. Each word is a variation on the same theme. If we think it unlikely that we’ll be able to obtain the object of our desire we say we have a “wish that. . . .” When the object of a craving is accessible, we “want it.” And to the degree that we see a desire as affecting our own personal happiness, we cling to it.

So each craving has its own small identity. When I see a vacation cottage that really attracts me, I have a desire to own it. Then, I imagine, I can enjoy it again and again. I make efforts to own it. With each step in the process, an identity is anchored in me around the cottage. This identity creates separation between me and others. The separation occurs precisely because of my thinking about owning it. The cottage and my craving for it become a whirl of energy separate from the whole. This separate identity is my “I.” This process of identification and separation is repeated again and again.

Craving Is Never in the Present

One of the interesting things about craving—and about thinking for that matter—is that it is never in the present moment. It is always about past and future moments. Sages say that the present instant can be experienced directly in awareness. Unfortunately, thought veils the present through a mask of conditionings, comparisons, and expectations. We compare the present to what we have already experienced and expect it to provide experiences along the lines of our craving. In this way, the present is veiled whenever one of the false I’s casts its shadow on experience.

One of the interesting things about craving—and about thinking for that matter—is that it is never in the present moment.

Suppose I have become used to a late afternoon cocktail. As I drive down an unfamiliar street, my glance moves along the storefronts. My cocktail time has nearly arrived. I quickly pass by a plant shop that specializes in bonsai trees and a small vegetarian restaurant offering fresh juice. A store selling rare used books catches my interest for a moment (I have a collection of James Joyce first editions), but next to the bookstore is . . . a bar! I find myself stopping the car, wondering if “the inside of the bar is as charming as its exterior.” I enter the bar, imagining to myself that I have seen the whole neighborhood.

Mental conditioning defines what we see and do not see, what we hear and do not hear, and what we pay attention to and do not pay attention to. Some of this conditioning is purely mechanical. For example, if you have just seen an advertisement for a new automobile, you will begin to recognize it everywhere. The advertiser directs your attention and hopes to awaken your desire.

But much of what we sense as our personal interest in the world is the result of already well-established cravings. They lie in the bed of memory and direct our attention hither and thither. This can clearly be observed in meditation, when concentrating in the face of craving proves virtually impossible. Reducing the potency of these cravings and loosening our identification with them is the work of spiritual life.

Freedom from Craving

Everyone has had at least a fleeting experience of being in the present moment, relatively insulated from craving. For some, listening to music seems to do it temporarily, replacing thought with a flow of sound and feeling. Sometimes a forest walk or a mountain experience fills all our senses simultaneously, treating us to moments of near transcendence. Athletes describe moments of intense concentration in which thought is replaced by the perception of a slow-moving flow of action. At the moment of climax, sex seems to carry the lover to a brief instant beyond thought. All these moments convey something of the flow of life itself—not its cravings.

But for all the intensity of these moments, each can become the source of attachment and dependency in its own right. Yoga is really not so much about temporary moments of absorption as it is about transcending craving itself. For the student of yoga, everyday moments become opportunities for

transcendence through the development of relaxed attention. When everyday tasks of life are performed with relaxed attention, a quiet change begins to occur. The satisfaction that formerly depended upon gaining pleasure in experiences now is gained from relaxed attention itself. Craving loses its potency.

An interesting example of this inner transformation is given by Saint Theresa of Avila. She tells in her letters of an elderly woman who in her youth had experienced visions of Christ. This was common (and popular) among young women of that time and place (sixteenth-century Spain). As a result of these visions the woman had taken monastic vows. She was given a variety of menial tasks to perform as part of her daily duties. When Theresa asked her years later if she continued to have visions, the woman replied that she had not had any for many decades. She explained that her faith no longer depended on visions—they were a bother. Attending to the tasks she had been assigned had gradually filled her with such contentment that whether God existed or not made little difference to her.

Another example of relaxed attention is the experience of meditation. The small space of mind, identified by the boundaries of “my” and “mine,” is described in many meditative traditions as a cloud floating in a vaster space. Meditation is said to be like a path to this vaster space. Where is one’s true identity? It is not in the confined space that we identify as “me.” It is in the sky-like nature of our mind—utterly open, free, and limitless, having the radiant clarity of awareness. In this space, sense experience is transcended.

Does that mean that one who attains freedom from craving will become passive and docile in this world? Apparently not. The picture of reclusive and self-absorbed meditators retreating from human contact is probably just another of the confused images we have about the nature of things. In our pain we imagine freedom means retreat, and alternately envy and berate those imaginary sages who we fancy have forsaken responsibility for the tranquility of their caves.

What might such an egoless desire be like? Perhaps it takes the form of compassion, for, as the scriptures tell us, desire to help others is the only motivation of a true yogi.

While mental craving may be superseded, desire persists. That is the message of the sages. What might such an egoless desire be like? Perhaps it takes the form of compassion, for, as the scriptures tell us, desire to help others is the only motivation of a true yogi. Pure desire is a source of delight, and a realized soul lives in a constant state of delight. In the words of the sage Vasishtha:

That desire which existed even before contact with the object, exists even now and forever; it is natural, therefore sorrowless and free from impurity. Such a desire is regarded by the wise as free from bondage.

Sage Advice for Attenuating Cravings

When the intelligence is still unawakened one should fill two quarters of the mind with enjoyment of pleasure, one part with study of scripture, and the other with service of the guru. When it is partially awakened, two parts are given over to the service of the guru and the others get one part each. When it is fully awakened, two parts are devoted to service of the guru and the other two to the study of scriptures, with dispassion as the constant companion. —Yoga Vasishtha

About the Teacher

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Rolf Sovik
President and Spiritual Director of the Himalayan Institute and a clinical psychologist in private practice,... Read more