Is desire the only obstacle to liberation? The mind balks at the question immediately. What about anger, lust, envy, sloth and all the rest? Why does desire merit more attention than they? Where does one start in such a maze? Yet what is anger but frustrated desire, what is lust but frustrated desire? Envy is the same, and as for sloth, far from being a desireless state, it is only one step further back in the investigation. Far from having the clarity of desirelessness, it is desire for an effortless existence on the lowest level—torpor—a negation of all that human endeavour signifies; and desirelessness in yoga, or anything in yoga for that matter, implies great efforts
Desire is all-embracing; so fundamental to our existence that we mistake its origin. Ordinarily we equate it with the will to live and cannot envisage life without it in some form. But it does rather depend on what this will to live implies, and Vedantins give it a deeper meaning than the mere blind tenacity to hang on to life at all costs that is usually accepted. They say it is innate longing for expansion in each individual; the longing to transcend the difficulties and frustrations of everyday life, the longing to be conscious of our existence in, and unity with, the most fundamental part of our nature, the Self or Brahman.
We often identify it wrongly with a desire for more money, beautiful possessions, experiences of every kind, even with love or happiness. But what we aim at is already our own nature. We do not need to seek it outside ourselves. Vedanta is categorical on this point. “Bliss does not reside in objects.” There can be no compromise.
Because this identity with Brahman is our nature, it is natural to us. Why, then, cannot the fulfilment of these natural desires we pursue bring us satisfaction? If we are the All, why cannot identification with the richness and diversity of the world give us this sense of identity? To a Westerner, what is natural is accepted as being that which pertains to his human nature, and often his animal nature, the two being so close akin. But Vedanta says his real nature is not this; it is Brahman; Existence, Consciousness, Bliss: that which is self-revealed and which does not depend for its manifestation on objects; and so we must accept a reversal of our usual thought-process on the word ‘natural’ from the very outset.
To know the immutable Brahman is the purpose of our life on this earth. If our objectives are limited to the sense-objects then our lives will be limited also, and the more material our objective, the narrower our life. Fascinating though the world is, no amount of study of its mysteries will help to understand its meaning. We may experience a sense of communion with the great forces that keep the world-process in being; a poetic and fleeting sensation, not of permanent value: it gives no lasting satisfaction, and, more important still, no liberation from pain and rebirth. Escape from the individual shell has become identification with the material universe; the senses are still outgoing, and only when they are turned inward is there the possibility of knowledge of the Self, Brahman.
The universe will be known as pervaded by Brahman in time, but this is not the same experience as identity with the material world, and it is not reached through objects, but by renouncing them. Once the vastness and purity, the universality of the nature of Brahman has been glimpsed, then these same characteristics are recognisable in the world around us. If we study a rose, hoping thereby to reach its essence, all that we find is its colour,form or fragrance—the parts of it that are not Brahman. But if, after meditating on Brahman, we are given a fleeting sense of His presence in the rose, it will not be because of the flower’s form, but in spite of it, that we find its essence.
The Self is too subtle to be pointed out or meditated on in a material sense. Continual and tireless refining of the mind is necessary before we can begin to apprehend such subtlety. Desire for this expansion, then, cannot lead us to Brahman through contact with sense-objects. We have to recognize from whence it springs. We have to discover the real source of desire and to learn to understand the way in which it becomes distorted by the time it reaches our conscious mind before we can be in a position to reverse the process of “getting and spending and laying waste our powers”.
A taste for desirelessness does not come automatically. A glimpse of the beauty of the Self is given to us now and then to encourage us in the early stages of the path. But once having had a taste of this bliss, all else is found wanting. Not that this means that desirelessness happens overnight. Far from it; desires are like the vigilant driver, close behind in second gear, ready to overtake at the first opportunity. So often, just because we have forgotten what our real nature is, we are fooled by these minor desires. The mind is very gullible, and will happily accept quite fatuous arguments until after the desire has been partially fulfilled, and then, to our dismay, we realise that yet again we have been overtaken unawares.
Once the desire for Self-knowledge becomes paramount in our lives, other desires are absorbed in it. It is the lesser desires which are the obstacles to liberation; for as long as we see objects as separate from ourselves we are incomplete and likely to pursue them. The smaller our minds and narrower our interests, the further we are from this expansion we seek. As long as we relate things to ourselves continually and the mind is kept centred on ourselves and our wants, so long will we be prevented from any chance of expansion. We are impelled to return again and again to this narrow little world superimposed on the physical world because of this clinging to objects that we persist in thinking will give us satisfaction. It is the very thought that fulfilment of temporal desires gives satisfaction that binds us; and not until we know the Self as the source of all satisfaction will we be free.
The Gita, at Chapter II, verse 70, gives us a clue here.
“He attains peace, into whom all desires enter as waters enter the ocean, which, filled from all sides, remains unaltered, but not he who desires objects.”
If we take up a firm attitude of rejection, the whole inner nature stiffens; and yet relaxation should be one of the cardinal practices of yoga. Again, if we continually reject something which used to attract us, the desire is still there, submerged and likely to make unwelcome appearances which we begin to fear and dread, thereby strengthening its power over us. A very negative and unsatisfactory state of affairs.
Renunciation is not a spurning of life. Objects and relationships are still beautiful in their way, but it is a limited way compared with the goal of Self-knowledge and has to be transcended. Desires contradict Self-knowledge. If this is to be our goal, even the most laudable desires must go, such as those to perform good works. These can help to purify and discipline the mind, but because they are concerned with name and form they can never reveal the eternal. Work can produce, modify and purify, but it cannot reveal.
We cannot know the Self until the state of desirelessness has become habitual. Shri Shankara says that study is the way, and that the knowledge gained by it is strength enough to support us and a sure shield against being dragged down by the senses. It does help if we can say, “Yes, these things are attractive, but there is a greater attraction in the Self, which is what I am more interested in, so the smaller attraction must be swallowed up in the greater”. Active acceptance of the situation and a forward look toward the goal help, whereas a long-standing fight with the complications of lesser desires only ties us up in truly Gordian knots, and wastes a lot of precious energy.
Freya Stark wrote that if what we do is different from what we believe there is no chance of happiness for us. So we have to try to bring our action into line with our thought. Faith means living by what we believe in, even if the results are not very startling to begin with.
Putting a stop to the false identification with objects must become habitual, so that the glory of the Self, which is our glory too, can reveal itself. The Self is not the individual, the individual is the Self. The Self does not confine itself, it is the individual who expands to Selfhood, because the whole complication of desire and desire’s offspring has dropped away and we are free to glory in our own true nature.
The longing for this expansion will never let us rest, because we are what we want to experience directly. Until we know our own Self we are living at second-hand and living to no purpose because we are continually frustrating our own deepest need. When we know Brahman as our very Self then there is no need for any other knowledge. We are free and subject to no material thing.