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.