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Desire and Desirelessness

Sow a thought,
reap a desire.
Sow a desire,
reap a habit.
Sow a habit,
reap a destiny
  -Old Hindu Saying


Desire: bad. That's what was drummed in me as a young suburban, Catholic boy. However, some desires were considered acceptable by mainstream society - the desire to be a good citizen, to help others, to become president. But those desires in the arena of sex, drugs, and rock and roll – these value laden desires were (and are) the source of enormous inner and outer conflict and turmoil. It appears that society is set up to acknowledge all desires that support its continuation and survival as 'good' and all others, particularly ones that have anything to do with any kind of sensual pleasure as 'bad'. A lot has been written about the taboo against pleasure in post-modernist writings.

Of course, as a young programmed Catholic believer, it was told to me that Jesus said that the thought or desire for a particular act was just as much a sin as engaging in the act itself. Thus, I was totally damned! “Man, what a rip-off! – I've created a sin around something (usually a sexual fantasy), even though I only thought about it and never did it?” Talk about the worst of both worlds!

Certainly a lot has been written about the kind of warped mentality that springs forth from the Judeo-Christian psychic world space of guilt, shame and fear, including numerous comedies. And to top it off, as many of us grew into adulthood and embraced Eastern esoteric religions, we absorbed those teachings regarding desire and filtered them through our rose colored, coke-bottle thick glasses, and converted an often completely different point of view into a Judeo-Christian personal mini-cult within our own psyches. When it dawned on me, after many, many years of earnest practice and commitment to Hindu and Sufi teachers and practices, that I was simply relateingfrom a Judeo-Christian guilt-ridden psychic posture, I felt devastated and humiliated. Instead of absorbing the transmission of a teacher/teaching, I was morphing it, mutating it into something that was utterly foreign and warped – absorbing it into my own brand of psychic confusion, turning it on its head.

When I realized that my relation to teachers was simply one relating to the angry punitive Judeo-Christian God (a role which some teachers seemed to enthusiastically embrace), I gave up, realizing that I had to re-orient my entire world view, and have a purging of my past, so that I could truly absorb the real teachings in front of me.

I must also say that guilt, shame and fear are not a monopoly of the Judeo-Christian psychic space – my experience with Hindu and Buddhist scenes made it clear that there was a heaping dose of those psychic attributes normally associated with Judaism and Christianity in the far eastern based religions.

But I digress - the purpose of this essay is not to lambaste the negative results of the religions of the world, but to speak about why desire is normally thought of as a 'negative' trait, or an obstruction to freedom.

The 'Problem' with Desire

So why all the taboo regarding desire in just about every religion and spiritual tradition? Putting aside the 'story' around desire that emerges from classic Judeo-Christian guilt, what would be the esoteric reasons for considering desire something that should be eradicated?

  1. Desire takes us out of the present and presence of awareness and being.

    In order to desire something, a conception must arise that results in an image of a perceived state in the future in which the desire is met. This already brings a plethora of phenomena into the picture, namely time and space! Awareness and pure Being transcend the matrix of time and space and through desire, non-dual Awareness is lost.

  2. Desire objectifies the other, creating a solid object phenomena.

    A great deal has been written about the objectification of women in feminist literature, and that is one major example of objectification. Underlying the social and gender issues is the basic dharmic law that by desiring an object, it gives it life and brings along with it an assumption that it is real, solid, and obtainable. This may be extrapolated into inappropriate forms of worship, such as in the case of fascination with movie stars, creating a life to an imagined persona that has nothing to do with the actual person.

  3. Objectifying the target of desire ultimately solidifies the self.

    Creating an object of desire automatically creates a solid, substantial self that can acquire the object in question. Thus desire is a central foundation for the illusion of a separate self.

  4. Desire creates/increases a sense of separation between self and object/other

    Desire automatically perceives a distance between the object of desire and the imputed self that is desiring the object. This immediately sets up a sense of separation between self and other, as well as a sense of lack, loss in not having the object in one's possession.

  5. Desire creates greater conceptualization, discursive thinking, and various arisings (no pun intended) in the gross and subtle bodies.

    The whole mechanism of desire brings numerous aspects of the body-mind into activity and excitement. Mentation, hormones, emotions, feelings, energies are all kicked into gear when a desire occurs, and the type of 'internal' activity will be modified depending upon the status of the object of desire. And when owned, it very often will result in grasping onto another object of desire, when the current object ultimately fails to fulfill the individual. The twins of hope and fear are aroused within the mechanism of desire, the hope that the desire will be met, and the fear that it won't be, and this is a fundamental activity of human suffering.

It's been said that this is a desire realm, that the universe is in existence because of desire, and that if we managed to blow planet Earth out of existence, a new one would have to be created (or, alternatively, we'd be reborn in a similar sphere) simply because of our Earth-bound desires. And it has been said that if all beings eradicated desires of all kinds, samsara, the realm of phenomenal existence would be emptied. Though the cosmology or modern astrophysics would probably disagree (i.e. who created the desire for existence in the first place?), there's enough evidence to support that we bring things into existence by the sheer force of desire, most often by acting on those desires – though there have been many occasions of 'synchronicity', where one would be thinking about or hoping about some person, place or thing, and magically circumstances would occur in which whatever was being focused upon comes into one's life. It has happened to me many times.

[For example, there was one occasion in 1981 where I wanted to go see my guru, but he was going to be in a distant city, and I was out of work and out of money at the time. Several days later, I got a job painting a house in which I had previously lived. One day, as I was entering the house, I looked at a pile of mail that the current resident left in the foyer. Sitting on top was an envelope addressed to me from the New York State division of internal revenue, containing a more than overdue refund check. There was the money for the trip!]

The Ego and Desire

The ego can be seen in light of desire, in fact it can be seen as nothing but the mechanism of desire: it's function is to provide inner content (that will ultimately drive behavior) so that an individual can survive and flourish. This is natural part of personal development and there is nothing inherently wrong or incorrect about ego – there is nothing endemically aberrant about wanting to survive! However, certain ego drives generate all forms of behavior (rationalized in any way, shape or form) that represents the most brutal aspects of man's inhumanity.

Underlying the drive mechanism of ego is hope and fear. With every object of desire there is both the hope that it will be obtained and the fear that it won't. Hope and fear are shadows of each other and one does not arise without the other. Classic Buddhist thangkas have dharma protectors standing on the twins of hope and fear, crushing them, and setting individuals free from their bonds. The food of the ego is hope and fear – it thrives on them, can't exist without them, and when hope and fear are extinguished in a realized individual, the ego mechanism is transformed and purified (though still extant).

Categorizations of Desire

Desire comes in various forms, and the types of desires are innumerable, from the most beatific to the most hideous, depending upon the consciousness of the individual. But here is a simple categorization of the types of desire:

  1. Desire To Exist

    A very ordinary and common desire in all sentient creatures, though death will render it the greatest blow to its own vanity. This is self desire, but as there is one apparent 'self' there are an infinite number of others to that self, and it the desire and hope of that self that the objects that give it pleasure, security and all positive qualities will last forever. Unfortunately, due to a 'flaw' in the machinery of the universe, this is not the case, all objects must perish sooner or later, personal or impersonal. This falls into the classic Buddhist extreme view of eternalism, the mistaken view that things inherently exist and will stick around forever.

  2. Desire To Not Exist

    This desire is the opposite of the above, a nihilistic sentiment that comes with the understanding that existence is not going to be ultimately fulfilling, and thus the conclusion that its opposite must be the truth. This is also a case in suicide victims; life is so painful that the extinguishment of it is thought to be an answer. In contrast to the desire for things, there is its opposite – the aversion of persons, places and things considered 'undesirable', unpleasant, painful, a sort of reverse desire. Aversion is the 'dark side of the moon' of desire – we want to get rid of something that exists instead of wanting to bring into existence something that doesn't exist. And in Buddhism there is the extreme view of nihilism, that is based on an exclusive identification with the inherent emptiness of all phenomena.

  3. Desire for Experience

    The most common kind of desire in the human realm is for an experience of some kind, most often pleasurable, fulfilling, secure, powerful, etc. Almost all individuals want experiences of some kind because the basic ordinary life is so painful and full of suffering (though that is itself an experience), that by having a pleasurable experience, the burden of suffering can be eliminated. Unfortunately, the nature of experience itself is temporary, generating addictive tendencies ranging from mild (i.e. caffeine) to the most horrific, such as drug addiction or the addiction to power (“Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac” –Henry Kissinger).

  4. Desire for Knowledge

    Those of mental persuasion or those who have seen through the ultimate unfulfilling-ness of experience will have desire for knowledge as a means to step over, get on top of, or avoid the unpleasantness of life. Of course, some desire for knowledge is natural and benign, as in many scientific endeavors, but from a personal standpoint, if one scratches the surface of the desire for knowledge, what lies underneath is the stuff of the aforementioned fear and hope.

  5. Desire for transcendence

    When even knowledge and experience are seen through for what they are, the desire for a transcendent existence may come into play. Though most often, the desire for transcendence is a desire to have an 'experience' of transcendence be eternal (which fits into categories 1 and 3 above), there is a true and real impulse for abiding in the ultimate nature of phenomena, or to merge with God, however it is framed in a religious or spiritual circumstance. But even this too must ultimately be transcended, as the very desire for the truth, as stated by so many, is the very obstruction that is preventing the truth from being known. You cannot, identified with an apparent self, eradicate desire, simply because wanting to eradicate desire is itself a desire, in a never-ending cycle.

Ultimately, there's no difference inherently between any of the above categories, save the target of the desire. The mechanism of desire is the same: an apparent self (or a group of selves) wants to obtain some perceived goal or object (illusory or 'real') or remove the perceived distance from itself and its target.

Spiritual Orientations to Desire (and Form)

For those not familiar with a particular taxonomy given by those from the Dzogchen Buddhist lineages, these good fellows have broken down orientations to desire, and form in general into three separate divisions, in order of profundity:

Sutra Approach

Desires and attachments are negative quality and thus anything that may bring up or enhance such must be physically avoided. Thus the classic approach of renunciation – the issue of sexual desire is approached by avoiding sex, becoming a chaste monk or nun. Generally a world negative view, since just about everything in the world tugs at our senses in a seductive way.


The Tantric approach is to transmute a 'poison' into a benefit. In the most famous strategy of tantra, in sexual tantra, passions are transformed into a transcendent form, and spiritual growth is established by utilizing what is commonly avoided in the sutric approach, above. It is analogous to the western alchemical approach of turning lead into gold.


The Dzogchen approach (but not exclusively Dzogchen) is to allow whatever arises, whether it is considered 'good' or 'bad' to simply arise in awareness, to let the experience be there without necessarily acting upon it and to watch it disappear, like the rising and falling of waves in the ocean. This mature approach gives the benefit of breaking the mode of labeling and relative conditioning, as well as giving enough space (and time) to all phenomena so that their underlying nature can be directly known. This quality of non-aversion (in addition to non-acceptance) undermines the solidity of anything that arises, and disempowers it allowing one to see the empty and open nature of all arisings.


Desirelessness is considered a profound and ultimate condition that is sought by those on the spiritual path, but how does a desire laden individual become desireless? And is that really the ultimate?

As stated above, any attempt to become desireless is a futile strategy, as it is born of desire itself – the desire to become desireless. As stated in both modern psychology and esoteric spirituality, that which one tries to avoid simply gives it greater life and solidity. Thus trying to become desireless, if attempted enough, will turn the whole world into a fire burning passion pit. And there are numerous examples, particularly in the Catholic Church, where the vow of celibacy had been turned on its head, creating very serious and damaging pedophiles.

The desire for what is other than arising must eventually be transcended - it is the great obstacle to pure awareness, and a source of subtle tendencies and resistances that form a backdrop of stress and suffering felt internally.

The issue or problem of desirelessness boils down to a severe misunderstanding of what one is essentially: Desirelessness is not a condition or state to be reached. Desirelessness is already the case as a quality of one's inherent nature. You are at the core desireless.

Desirelessness is our natural condition, as it is essentially identical to intrinsic awareness. Witness Consciousness or Rigpa, not being a thing or phenomena, is simply a non-dual capacity of awareness. It is self-aware, not supported by any causes or conditions, and it is dispassionately aware of objects, recognizing their nature to be inherently identical to itself: empty, open, radiant. Witness Consciousness or Rigpa is not something that has to be searched for, obtained or attained, it is inherently the core of ordinary awareness, when an individual possessing awareness has been freed from karmic obstructions that prevent the recognition of its inherency.

Thus one does not have to achieve desirelessness, simply recognize, identify with and stand as basic awareness. This may grow in capacity over time over all situations through effective practice. Or this may occur in a more haphazard fashion, as one bottoms out from the endless addiction to seductive objects in the phenomenal realm. This wonderful event, which may be initially disguised as profound despair, is a style of the 'dark night of the soul' where hope is burned through all the way, giving rise to a transcendent hopelessness that is equivalent to desirelessness. Then true equanimity has occurred.

Desirelessness and Passion

Desirelessness does not make for some deadpan, extinguished, passionless existence, but in fact the space in which desirelessness occurs allows for transpersonal passions to arise, which are impersonal and universal and because of their lack of limits are far more profound than ordinary human passion based upon an assumed separate self. These may be compassion, joy, love, non-attachment, bliss - these are synomymous with freedom itself.

Thus if one has truly grown (and not generated a bypass or ended up down some conceptual dead-end of trying to mimic desirelessness) one does not become passionless - it is that ordinary passions are subsumed over time by transpersonal passions and desires. Even if the persona of a realized teacher appears to have an impersonal, dispassionate quality, this is in contrast to the bliss and radiance that the individual imparts and makes him or her very attractive to people seeking the bliss of the truth.

Any quality of 'dry' passionlessness found in an individual is a function of conscious or unconscious repression of known (or unknown) passionate qualities or the inability to be in touch with ordinary and extraordinary passion. The paradoxical thing is that the more you stand in the still, open quality of basic awareness, which may seem 'dead' (from the point of view of ordinary concepts), the more alive you become. This is due to the fact that binds and contractions which prevent more profound qualities from being present are released.