Desire & spiritual development, some thoughts

Desire has a bad name in certain spiritual circles – but in others it’s hailed as the fundamental source of all spiritual growth. In that debate I’ve always stood in the first group, but from reading I.K. Taimni’s ‘The Science of Yoga’ (a commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali), I see that it’s really all about the level on starts from.

Taimni’s style is not easy to read – but I can hardly do better than quote him in this case – so bear with me (pp. 394,395):

The forces set in motion by our thoughts, desires and actions are of a complex nature and produce all kinds of effects which it is difficult to classify completely. But all these leave some kind of Samskara or impression which binds one in one way or another for the future. Thus our desires produce potential energy which draws us irresistibly to the environment or conditions in which they can be satisfied. Actions produce tendencies which make it easier for us to repeat similar actions in future and if they are repeated a sufficient number of times may form fixed habits. In addition, if our actions affect other people in some way they bind us to those people by Karmic ties and bringing pleasant or unpleasant experiences to ourselves. Our thoughts also produce Samskaras and result in desires and actions in accordance with their nature.

If, however, we analyze these different kinds of mental and physical activities we shall find that at their base there are always desires of one kind of another which drive the mind and result in these thoughts and actions. Desire in its most comprehensive sense is thus a more fundamental factor than in our life than our thoughts and and actions because it is the hidden power which drives the mind and body in all kinds of ways for the satisfaction of its own purposes.

… of course, ‘desire’ is not an apt word for the subtle power which drives the mind at its higher levels and which binds consciousness to the glorious realities of the spiritual planes. The word used in Sanskrit for this power which works at all levels of the mind is Vasana. … Vasana is the universal power which drives the mind and produces the continuous series of its transformations which imprison consciousness.

To understand this quote, we first have to remind ourselves of the basic levels of consciousness most spiritual traditions, including theosophy, take into account. We usually assume that desire is an emotion. Perhaps it is – but the levels of consciousness aren’t nicely separated from each other as though they are the different ingredients to a meal in the fridge. Our desires shape our thoughts and actions as Taimni rightly notes. Similarly our thoughts influence our actions and emotions.

What Taimni is basically saying is that the most primary force in this dynamic isn’t our thoughts, but our desires. He’s also saying that there are desires which are selfish, animal, worldly etc. But there are also desires that work at the higher levels – he notes that although these can hardly be called desires in the usual sense – but he doesn’t use another English word, instead he turns to Sanskrit to explain it. The implication is that in English there isn’t a word to differentiate between lower and higher desires.

However, in psychology there is such a thing: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This hierarchy starts with the most basic of needs: physical comfort, food, sex etc. It moves up to safety, love, esteem (by ourselves and others) to end with the top part: self actualization – morality, problem solving etc. For our purposes it is useful to note that at the end of his life Maslow added a level even beyond that. Beyond self actualization is self-transcendence.

Psychologists assume that for any level to be reached, the levels below have to be satisfied. A person cannot be truly creative if they don’t have food, for instance. But a person who functions at a higher level who doesn’t have food for a time, will only temporarily prioritize that. They will return to the higher level as soon as they can.

So what does that mean for us: following our desire is what we will do regardless. It is useful to become conscious of those desires, so we can purify and steer them.

The basic question is: does this hierarchy really exist? That is: are these needs really dependent on each other? Poverty is an ideal in many spiritual traditions, which puts the people who practice it at the lowest level. Does that mean they are no longer spiritually growing?

I think Taimni might answer that as long as the body subsists and is healthy, the higher levels can function.

9 thoughts on “Desire & spiritual development, some thoughts”

  1. Yes – ultimately that’s one aspect of it. The desire for enlightenment also is said to ultimately be a hindrance to the attaining of it (in Zen).

    I wonder whether what they really mean is that wanting it TOO much is a hindrance – or that any desire at all should be left behind. Or in other words: isn’t the energy that keeps us moving (which is implied in the above definition of desire) necessary for any attainment, including Nirvana and Adeptship?

    I can’t really talk about how it is at such levels of being – I do know that this energy is such an essential part of life, that I can’t imagine it any different. For ordinary people, surely, the only difference between stagnation and progress is this energy that keeps us at this path – whether it’s channeled through daily meditation, contemplation, study or work for others.

  2. Thank you for your thought provoking post.

    This is a subject that has definately been on my mind from time to time. Categorizing desire as an emotion seems to work. The Law of Attraction, as well as some other positive thinking works often point out that getting your emotions behind the things you want is the key to bringing them to you. Having worked with affirmations for over 20 years I can truthfully say that the emotions are more powerful than any higher mental sort of chosing. This also has an end result that often will make you think and realize what your true desires are.

    For instance, perhaps your family always expected you to go to West Point and you have it in your list of affirmations – I’m going to go to West Point. But in your heart, you know you do not want that life, you don’t have that visceral desire. The Universe will create circumstances that keep you from West Point, and push you in the direction of your true desire – maybe writing or being a healer. Eventually, you’ll look at that affirmation one morning and think “You know, I don’t really WANT to go to West Point – I like my life as a healer” That’s a sort of extreme example, but I’m just trying to illustrate my point.

    I also have to agree that from the first time I was exposed to that heirarchy of needs I’ve had my doubts about it. In my own life, there have been times when having food and a roof over my head was a matter of constant struggle. However, even while I was struggling to achieve a basic material security, I still held on to my desire for a higher spirituality and strove to be the kind of person I wanted to be as far as honor, honesty, and living up to my own standards. Some people may toss all that aside just to get a meal, but I never would. That may not be true for everyone, but I think it may be far more true than someone who never had that struggle might realize.

    Thank you, as always, for a thought provoking post.

  3. What is the relationship between this sense of “desire” and the will? I am talking of that deep, determining faculty that, for most of us, is not really under our control (try dieting when the time isn’t right, for instance).

    Regarding the role of Zen in desire, perhaps its the same as “effort”? It is essential: without effort, practice is sloppy and deluded.

    Words are coarse, inadequate tools in any language. They work well for familiar, common experiences. If we happen to have had the experience, we might be able to comprehend the words used. But it is a mistake to think that words convey meaning.

    Most people who regularly practice zazen would have some idea of what “right effort” means; but these words convey nothing to someone without that life-experience.

  4. Fay – yes, that’s a way of interpreting the Law of Attraction that works for me. Though I’m sure there are plenty of people not lucky enough to get only what they really want, instead of what they think they want. Some people succeed at things they end up walking away from because it isn’t in line with what they truly are.

    Christopher – sure, words are always an issue. I’m no regular Zen meditator, so perhaps I’m not one to talk on the subject in the first place.

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  6. I may still be in the first group, but ‘desire’ can be defined differently–I suppose Taimni was using ‘desire’ and thought as synonyms sometimes. In that case it can be a thought and reasonable, but even instinct or emotion is a type of intelligence that is reasonable in its context. That is not to say that it cannot be purified and controlled by the intellect controlled by intuition controlled by inspiration–mostly it needs to be. Inspiration has to do with will and what one’s highest undifferentiated consciousness chooses. In that case perhaps it is more like a decision than a desire.

    As in Platonism I do not think desire is more fundamental than thought, but the ‘principles in man’ are all called levels of spirit-soul–or grouped into sheaths or bases–and the higher 3 consciousnesses of the latter are grouped into undifferentiated consciousness in a dualism or even monism. Then desire has to be under control of the will because that is under control of divine will–one’s own and presumably that of the Logos, i.e. Divine Monad… or as you may prefer to say, Adi-Buddha. (?) Of course that brings us to the topic of ‘divine desire.’ First of all it may be to create reality to experience ‘itself’ as non-divine beings but then it is to be selfless and for the beings to also be selfless. I know not what Vajrayana completely says about desire, but as a Mahayana person who is trying to be a Bodhisattva desire seems either problematic or mostly irrelevant compared to the logical reasoning that has some control over it all.

  7. If “desire” was replace with “intention” would it change anything? Best thing to do is check both words definition. I live with intention, then idea, then into action.

  8. yr blog gives me an idea that how many people can have the same wavelength.without much dwelling in buddhi vilasa mean intellectual satisfaction right kind of meditation after observing some very essential moral precepts has the ability to satisfy most of the debated question in the past about human existence.maslov’s hierarchy certainly not appicable to all.even the experience of joy in non perception state is also impermanance in nature.desire itself has the nature of returning to the same of its origination subject to feeling of equinimity towards it .

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