Accepting Our Desires
Each living being on this planet is born with desires. Most animals have desires related to pleasure and hunting for food, but a human life is unique since it also comes with desires at various other levels. Human beings are the only species that go beyond basic survival instincts to question the purpose of their life.
In today’s world, there are certain spiritual and moral teachings that profess suppression of desires to purify the mind or to be closer to God. Vedānta on the other hand, says that it is completely valid and natural to have desires. Instead of making a person feel bad about having them, it teaches and encourages a person to use their intellect to evaluate desires and fulfill them or release them in a healthy manner.
We all understand that desires, when unchecked, can lead to sorrow or obsessive tendencies. Every desire that we try to fulfill leads to many emotions, like joy in the fulfillment of or sorrow in being denied fulfillment of a desire. As we race to fulfill our wants and avoid the pain of having our desires thwarted, our choices and mental state becomes less and less stable as they yo-yo between further and further emotional extremes. So the bigger question is, if desires are completely valid, then how should we approach them so that we remain in a state of balance no matter what the outcome of our effort to satisfy them? Vedānta, provides us a map for the same.
Vedānta says there are four goals of human existence, namely - Dharma, Artha, Kāma, Moksha.
Dharma relates to living life with nobility, following a good value system and conscious living. Artha relates to fulfilment of the basic needs of our life. For example, having a job so that we can pay our bills, have a house to live in, and have food to eat is necessary for survival. Kāma relates to experiences of pleasure, for example, going on vacation, buying things that we like, listening to music, etc. Moksha relates to attainment of the ultimate desire, which is for liberation from the cycle of suffering and desires by understanding one’s true spiritual nature.
Acharya Shunya mentions that according to Vedānta, we must first be honest with ourselves and evaluate where we stand in terms of our desires in life. It is very likely and natural that we would have some Artha and Kāma desires along with having a desire for Moksha. It is important to accept them and not try to bury them as that will lead to agitation. Once we understand this, we can then begin to evaluate our desires through different lenses provided by Vedānta.
Choosing the Nature of Desires
Firstly, we should check if our desires are binding or non-binding in nature. Binding desires are those which lead to agitation of the mind due to our attachment to them and trap us in a cycle of suffering. Sometimes we must stop ourselves from blindly satisfying these desires. For instance, imagine we really love the feel of cashmere sweaters. We already have a few at home, but we see a new color in the shop. It is very expensive and we do not have the money for it, but we go ahead and max out yet another credit card to buy the pleasurable thing we cannot afford and will feel guilty about later. When we understand this desire for the greedy pleasure of having more expensive clothes than we need or can afford, we know this is a binding desire that will cause us more suffering and will choose not to act on this desire.
Non-binding desires are those which are pursued dharmically and they do not trap us into a cycle of generating more desires. Even when we experience a natural desire that is binding, we can find a way to satisfy it in a non-binding way. For example, say we crave sweets. Before our higher mind can stop us when we have had enough, we greedily eat up too much of whatever packaged and synthetic sugar we can find, and then we feel physically and mentally sick later. Alternatively, to satisfy our desire for something sweet in a non-binding way, we can bake or purchase fresh cookies made with healthy organic ingredients and sit quietly, savoring the pleasure of the taste and stopping when we know we have had enough. We will feel satisfied and in control of our desires, not plunged again into a cycle of suffering by them.
Vedānta is practical in that it places Dharma as a foundation for first satisfying Artha and Kama, while the desire for Moksha will reveal itself once these basic needs are sufficiently satisfied dharmically. If a human being is constantly struggling with putting food on plate, then how will the thought of liberation come? Hence it is important to fulfill our worldly desires so that a spiritual desire may bloom. It is important to note that though Moksha is also a desire, it is a desire of the highest kind.
By emphasizing Dharma first, Vedānta teaches us to meet our desires ethically and not in an unchecked manner. Once we are mentally calm and not agitated with innumerable desires, can we walk the road to Moksha. Otherwise we will be constantly swaying from one desire to another, leading to us falling away from our ultimate goal. A person with unchecked desires will get agitated due to their attachment of wanting the desire to be fulfilled.
Choosing non-binding desires is satisfying our desires while aligned with the law of “Karma Yoga”. Karma Yoga, teaches us to becomes like a gardener in the field of life. It teaches us to put our intention into sowing the seeds of dharmic action, watering them, providing the right nutrition to the soil but not be attached to the outcome of that effort. The sprouting of the seed depends on various factors with some not being in our control. A gardener can only focus on doing what it can and not get into an argument with the weather as to why it rained when it was supposed to shine. Planting is in our hand and not the sprouting. With effort the seeds will eventually sprout hence there is no point being upset about anything. Our effort has to be in the nature of the seeds we plant and the process of nurturing them, not the outcome. For example, suppose we have a desire for professional success. To satisfy this urge, we work hard, are respectful of our coworkers, go for extra training as needed, and bring our best attitude to the office each day. We pursue success without cheating or taking credit for others’ work to get ahead at any cost. Contentment and Self-approval fills us as we see ourselves move up the professional ladder and this desire does not trap us in unhealthy thought patterns or bring about other binding desires in us. This Dharmic approach to actions in life is liberating and “Not Binding”. This keeps us motivated and persistent. As we keep planting seeds of karma with actions that are non-binding pursuits of our desires, over lifetimes the inevitable garden of our desires will transform overall into a field naturally full of non-binding desires.
Choosing the Quality of our Desires
Second, we must evaluate if our desire are sāttvic, tamasic or rajasic in nature. Sāttvic desires are ones which not only support us but also those around us. Tamasic desires are one which are self destructive, for example, a diabetic patient knows that it must not eat sweets but still eats them as he or she is refusing to listen to their intellect which knows better. Rajasic desires are one which make one work only for self-good. For example, suppose we cooked a dish which we really like but in order to prevent it from being shared, we hide it in the fridge and only eat it in absence of others. Hence once we are aware of this, we must evaluate from what place our desire is coming from. We can meet our desire to earn money but not by stealing someone else’s or causing someone else any harm. If we earn ethically and also share our abundance with others to whatever capacity we can, for example, by helping an organization working with animals, then it not only helps us but also the society at large. Sometimes it may be important to let go of some desires as they run counter to our spiritual aims in life.
Gradually this process will lead to contentment and a stable state of mind which will help us on our path to Moksha. Acharya Shunya gave an example from her own life. She said that when she started her Ayurveda practice, she would accept payments from her patients for the clinic sessions to fulfill her artha and kāma needs. She did not suppress her artha and kāma needs but pursued them ethically. She earned through her clinical practice and helped the patients on their path to physical and mental health. Since she practiced Karma Yoga and always placed Dharma before pursuing her desires, gradually as time went on her artha and kāma needs were stably being met, she went to a state where she no longer “needed” that check but the urge sometimes came from within to write a check to a patient in need or give free medications. Hence filtering our desires through the sieve of Dharma to see what is binding us and what is setting us free and pursuing our desires by following Karma Yoga brings us closer to our ultimate goal of Moksha.
This article comes from Hamsa magazine. We welcome you to enjoy reading each magazine to benefit from summaries of and heartfelt reflections on Vedika founder and Acharya Shunya's teachings, written by students of her Spiritual Studies Program.
The author Vidya Deepa Gupta started studying with Acharya Shunya in 2012. She performs sevā as part of Vedika’s Audio/Video team, writes for the The Hamsa Magazine and leads a special mantra chanting group as part of Vedika’s Spiritual Studies Program.
Learn more about how you can study Vedanta with Acharya Shunya in her Vedic Spiritual Studies Program.