Table of contents
- Spiritual Traditions View Desire as a Cause for Suffering
- But what is so wrong with Desire, really?
- Is it possible to renunciate desire?
- But what exactly is Desire?
- Renunciation of Desire is Radical
- How do ancient traditions propose we eradicate suffering?
- In Summary
Spiritual Traditions View Desire as a Cause for Suffering
Spiritual traditions originating in the East aspire to liberate us from existential suffering (Dukkha). They approach desire as the cause of suffering. Therefore, they suggest that we relinquish desire. But desire and passion are central motives in our lives. Do we really want to give up our desires? Can we actually do so? If so, how?
In the Yoga Sutras, sage Patanjali offers two means for quieting or restraining the fluctuations of the mind. Abhyasa – persistent practice, carried out devotionally and consistently over time; and Vairagya – dispassion, non-attachment, or the renunciation of desire (see Sutra I.12 and read more about Abhyasa & Vairagya).
In his first noble truth, the Buddha describes the reality of suffering and dissatisfaction (Dukkha) that accompanies our sense of existence. In his second noble truth, points out that the cause of Dukkha is thirst. (Tṛ́ṣṇā in Sanskrit, Taṇhā in Pali) – our never-ending desires and cravings that cannot be quenched:
It is the craving that conditions renewal of being, which is accompanied by passionate pleasure, and takes delight in this and that object: namely, sensual craving; craving to become; craving for annihilation.The Buddha (2nd Noble Truth)
“Craving to become” is our desire to express ourselves, to create, to develop. “Craving for annihilation” is the impulse to avoid life, fear, withdrawal, and suicide.
But what is so wrong with Desire, really?
When we crave and cling, we end up suffering because reality is continuously changing. We will not be able to hold forever onto the things that bring us happiness and joy. We will not always be able to reject or eliminate painful or unfortunate experiences.
The formula is straightforward: clinging + transience = suffering
Holding on to possessions, status, relationships, or anything else for that matter, is ultimately doomed to lead to suffering. The nature of things is impermanence. The people closest to us who bring us joy will not always be there. The property we accumulate with great effort cannot be taken with us to the grave in death, etc. Therefore, it is of interest to investigate the ancient traditions that speak of renunciation, dispassion, and non-attachment as a means to eradicate suffering.
These traditions hold that suffering does not originate in external circumstances. But rather is a fundamental, inherent tendency of our consciousness. Disatisfaction, to crave what we do not have as well as to be aversive to many aspects of reality. For the most part, we seem to want ‘something else’, rather than being happy with the current state of affairs. Our happiness is tarnished by the fear of its own termination.
The problem is not so much with wanting things, but with clinging to things. It is all right to enjoy life, but what happens to us when we cannot receive what we crave? What happens if reality is different from our wants and expectations?
For example, you plan a vacation and imagine all the goodies you’ll enjoy. Yet, the actual vacation can never be quite as you imagined or expected it to be. Maybe the hotel you booked is not as nice as you thought, maybe the weather is not as you wanted it to be and so on. So, instead of enjoying the things as they are, you are captivated by your own expectations.
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Is it possible to renunciate desire?
Desire is natural and inherent to our existence. What could be more natural than wanting the pleasant and pleasurable and rejecting the unpleasant and painful?
When we are cold, we crave warmth, when it is hot, we crave coolness. When we are hungry, we crave eating. We long to live in comfort and well-being. When we are lonely, we crave company, we crave to be appreciated, respected, and loved. We want to purchase the new iPhone, the fancy car and whatnot. We crave health and security and to enjoy tastes, sights and sounds – all worldly sensory pleasures. When we are bored, we want to be interested, we want to develop, learn, progress and improve. We want a relationship and a satisfying sex life, we want to love and be loved. Sometimes we long to have children and when we do, we want them to be happy and successful and to respect and appreciate us.
The list goes on and on… There seems to be no end to our desires. Desire is a central drive, a motivation for almost all of our actions, including for our spiritual practice. Who wouldn’t want to achieve awakening, nirvana and become a Buddha? Is it even possible to live without passion?
Not to mention, our capitalist society encourages desire, the slogan “Increase your desire” appears on billboards and advertisements. We are encouraged to want more, to want what others have, to consume more. It is the very engine of the capitalist economy. For someone living in such a culture, it is difficult not to be influenced. What was not long ago deemed a luxury is viewed these days as a necessity (mobile phones are an example). It is difficult for us to accept the idea of giving up our desires. Renunciation of desires is an idea that sounds very foreign and strange to the average Western ear.
There are many words in the English language that are a part of the semantic field of will and desire. Intention, longing, yearning, wishing, ambition, appetite, need, will, motive, impulse, passion, desire, clinging, craving, greed, and addiction, to name several.
When you consider the end of this continuum – addiction, you can understand the suffering caused by extreme forms of desire. The addict must absolutely obtain the object of his desire and do so urgently. If they don’t, they endure intense suffering and may even commit horrific crimes without intending to. So strong is the need!
Regardless of the word used, it is interesting to observe the experience of longing, or desiring. What do we feel in our body when a desire arises? What is happening there? Where do you feel it and how? What happens when the desire cannot be satisfied, when it is impossible to get rid of something that robs us of our joy? What is our response? Do we react strongly, just like an addict, or can we contain the disappointment. Can we understand that this is the nature of things, that it is not always possible to satisfy every desire, accept it, and move on?
Generally, we can say that Western, Jewish and Christian philosophical approaches view suffering as an inseparable part of life. In psychological therapy, we try to understand the cause of suffering and lessen it. Yet, for the most part, we believe that it is not possible to live without suffering at all.
In addition, there are lofty aspirations and worthy goals for which we are willing to suffer. Even if we are not enchanted by the capitalist goals of accumulating property and power, there are still worthy goals we hold sacred, for which we are willing to fight and suffer. Goals such as equal rights, justice, freedom, democracy, access to education and medicine for all, etc. We are ready to fight to ensure that these goals are accomplished, even if that fight involves suffering.
This sentiment is expressed in Leonard Cohen’s song Passing Through: “Men will suffer, men will fight, even die for what is right, even though they know they’re only passin’ through”
It is clear to us that we need to fight against dictatorial and fascist regimes, which trample the basic rights of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right to criticize and protest. And we are ready for a struggle that involves difficulty and suffering.
We also advocate for technological progress. Technology improves the quality of our lives and makes them comfortable. Without desire, how can we move forward? Could the great inventors who discovered electricity, build computers and sent people to the moon do so without desire or sacrifice?
But, as Eastern traditions perceive it, and in the approach of yoga and Buddhism, all this does not matter very much. The basic causes of suffering: illness, old age, and death are not treated by technological progress or social justice. Only turning our attention inwards, in an attempt to understand the root causes of suffering can teach us to avoid suffering.
Perhaps exaggerating (but with a kernel of truth), one can argue that in terms of yoga, there is not much value in the achievements of science and technology. It is not very important to reach the moon, while we suffer here on earth. It is better to direct our efforts to live life without suffering rather than to try and improve our living conditions. The basic causes of existential suffering (illness, old age, death) are always waiting for us. We are guaranteed to encounter them sooner or later.
Generalizing again, we westerners seek to diminish suffering, but the traditions that stem in the East aspire and even offer ways to be freed from suffering all together. It is a radical approach that claims that it is possible to live without suffering.
One should carefully note the difference between pain, or an unpleasant experience, which is a fact, and the mental state which results. For the ordinary, unskilled person, who has not fulfilled his spiritual journey, pain causes suffering. But the Eastern radical claim is that it is not necessary and that it is possible to change our perception of reality in such a way. That we can experience physical or mental pain, without suffering.
This is a big and challenging question that can sometimes take a lifetime (or more) of practice. I will try to shortly point out the different paths offered by these traditions:
One path, largely represented by the classical yoga of Patanjali, advocates turning one’s back on worldly-sensory pleasures (Bhoga). Disolve in inner inquiry and meditative absorption.
The yoga sutras of Patanjali propose a different use for the senses; instead of letting our senses flow outwards towards external objects (sights, sounds, smells, etc.), we should direct them inwards, towards our inner realm – this is the fifth limb of Ashtanga Yoga – Pratyahara.
Following the senses, the consciousness can be stabilized and turned inwards to explore the inner reality and discover the eternal, unchanging essence – the deep infrastructure of awareness – Purusha, or Atman. Yoga holds that each of us has an undying inner essence of pure awareness. That it’s is the basis of our consciousness. In his inward journey, the yogi comes into contact with this reality. Thereby, the yogi discovers within himself supreme and unconditional happiness (Ananda).
When the yogi experiences Ananda, the sensory impressions and passions that arise in their wake, lose their grip. The yogi no longer needs to lean on any external sources of and can rest in divine peace and bliss. Enlightened yogis describe this bliss as surpassing all ephemeral joys and pleasures that can be obtained by satisfying earthly desires and cravings.
This path disconnects the yogi from action in the world, and is largely intended for hermit monks who devote themselves completely to inner inquiry and meditation. You may feel that you are not ready to detach yourself from this world, from all the joys that come with a life of creation, love, and service. In such a case, the way, proposed by the Bhagavad Gita, may be more suitable (see below).
The Buddha’s Approach
The path offered by classical yoga and by the Upanishads is based on a metaphysical assumption regarding the existence of a permanent cosmic essence, which is abstract and unchangeable – the Brahman, and its individual counterpart, the Atman. When we grasp the Atman we are connected to this eternal wholeness and easily renounce all cravings.
The Buddha, however, denies the existence of such an abstract, eternal essence. Instead, he proposed to meditate in order to observe deeply and understand the source of our fluctuating desires . Then, recognizing the desires as they are, one realizes that clinging onto desires is the source of one’s Dukkha, and thereby, letting them go.
The Buddha observed that even the desire not to desire is in itself a desire, and as such – a source of suffering. His solution, therefore, was not to resist desires but to understand the internal dynamics of the consciousness that gives rise to desires, and thereby to let go of them.
The Buddha offered practical guidelines for living in a way that will gradually allow us to let go of all cravings and clinging (excuse me for over-simplifying his deep and intricate teachings), namely – the fourth Noble Truth
The inspiring myth of the night of the Buddha’s awakening, tells of the demon Mara. The lord of temptations and desires, who was devastated by the possibility of Buddha’s awakening (which will deprive him of his powers), and sent his armies to threaten the Buddha. It is said that the ‘mind of the great being did not move‘. While sitting there, unaffected by Mara’s threats, Mara’s arrows turned into flowers… Seeing that the threats did not work, Mara sent his beautiful, young daughters to dance in front of the Buddha to tempt him and shake his calmness. Still without success!
The prevailing meaning of ‘the middle way’ that the Buddha had taught, is not to indulge in sensual pleasures on one hand. Not to practice extreme austerities and deny the basic needs of the body on the other hand. Yet, there could be another meaning: when facing pleasant (temptations) or unpleasant (fear) sensations. One should not ignore and suppress them, but also not be moved (mentally) and not react in a habitual, automatic manner.
By observing the bodily sensation generated by our perceptions of the world calmly, without ignoring and repressing them, but also without reacting to them, we can learn to let go of our natural tendencies of clinging and aversion.
The main message of the Bhagavad Geeta is summed up in sloka 47. In the second chapter , where Krishna says to his disciple, Arjuna:
To action alone hast thou a right and never at all to its fruits; let not the fruits of action be thy motive; neither let there be in thee any attachment to inaction.Translated by S. Radhakrishnan
In other words, the Bhagavad-Gita does not preach detachment from the world; on the contrary: ‘let there be in thee any attachment to inaction’. Instead, we must act in a different way, act without clinging to the fruits of our actions!
I, and probably you, the reader, like all ordinary people, work in order to obtain fruit, to reach some desired result. For example, we study to obtain a degree or acquire a profession. We go to work thinking about the salary that will arrive at the end of the month. We exercise to become fitter, etc. If you look deeply at the motive behind the actions you take, you will probably almost always, discover that there is a conscious or unconscious expectation for some kind of fruit.
The message of the Bhagavad-Gita is revolutionary: action should not be done for the purpose of the fruit. We have no right to the fruit, only to the action itself.
If we work for the fruit, in order to gain a profit, or to promote things that are important to us, and cling to the desired future result, then, if the result is not achieved, we will experience disappointment, frustration and failure. That is, we will suffer on one level or another. However, if we do not crave the fruit and concentrate on the quality of the action, acting according to the dictates of our conscience, without clinging, then we will not suffer, even when there is no fruit.
The fruit is in the future and therefore is always imaginary. Since we have very limited control over reality, it is possible, and perhaps even probable, that the result will not be as we imagined it. Then we are disappointed. However, if our action is correct and is carried out skillfully (that is, without longing for fruit), then we can continue to be involved in the world, but in a different way.
The Bhagavad-Gita, therefore, offers a revolutionary way of acting in the world, acting without craving for the fruits of our actions.
In order to train ourselves towards meditative absorption and inner happiness that is unconditioned by life’s circumstances (the Yogi’s path). Learning to observe the nature of desires and let go of them (the Buddhist approach), or to act without craving the fruit (Bhagavad Geeta), a deep transformation of consciousness is required. Such a transformation cannot occur only through intellectual understanding and requires prolonged and dedicated practice. Yoga is a practical philosophy. Contrary to the theoretical philosophy we have come to know, yoga is interested in explaining the inner and outer reality. It is not for intellectual satisfaction, but to teach us to suffer less (or even eradicate suffering altogether). This can only be achieved through practice, observation and inner inquiry.