In the last century (!) millions of people listened to a vinyl Beatle croon:
I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in,
And stop my mind from wandering.…
I’m filling the cracks that ran through the door
And keep my mind from wandering.…
As a friend of mine listened to it with vacuous admiration, I asked her: “Do you know what that song is about?” What a sour note to intrude into her beatific coma! It did not need to mean anything, and she told me so.
“But it does,” I crudely insisted. “It is about meditation. If you analyze the words, they are describing the way meditation repairs the inner consciousness and makes it fit for ‘living in.’” Something clicked, even though I had not really expected it to, and it was not long until she, too, was stopping up the holes and filling the cracks through daily meditation.
Long before that inane little ditty with the profound message, Buddha had said:
“In the same way that rain breaks into a house with a bad roof, desire breaks into the mind that has not been practicing meditation” (Dhammapada 13)
What is wrong with desire? I have been reading oriental philosophy for over forty years, and the books unanimously point to desire as one of the major symptoms of ignorance and sources of suffering. But usually this is not explained, merely accepted without question. Blind acceptance of even the truth can bear no positive or lasting fruit, so we need to know: what is wrong with desire?
Desire as an effect
Desire springs from the root illusion that we are not complete, that we need something we presently lack to be a whole being. Even more, there is the illusion that “things” can satisfy and bring fulfillment and produce happiness, that “things” can make us more than we are–that without “things” we are minimal or nothing. Being addicted to “things” we naturally assert vehemently that “things” are “necessities” which all sensible people will pursue with their whole strength. Desire is the denial of our own essential being and the affirmation of the non-existent value of “things.” This two-edged sword cuts off the head of our discrimination and renders us truly senseless. Desire is the deadly fruit of ignorance and delusion.
Desire sensitizes us to the objects of the physical senses and desensitizes us to the presence and the call of the spirit. Consequently Krishna says:
“Restless man’s mind is, so strongly shaken in the grip of the senses: gross and grown hard with stubborn desire for what is worldly. How shall he tame it? Truly, I think the wind is no wilder” (Bhagavad Gita 6:34).
Desire as a cause
As a cause, desire is immeasurably destructive. Here are a few things about desire revealed in the Bhagavad Gita.
One of the first things a spiritually awakening person sees with painful clarity is his inability to do the right and avoid the wrong. Religion usually posits a “devil” of some form who is responsible for this. Consequently nothing lasting is accomplished in the struggle to do the right and avoid the wrong. Only when the real “devil” is discovered can we intelligently deal with the impulse to wrong action. Krishna states the fact: “the chains of desire bind you to your actions” (2:39). End of case. Desire is the culprit that we are nourishing in our own breast while demanding that God “deliver us from evil.”
It is not God, but we ourselves who need to act, for Krishna assures Arjuna that when a man is“free from the things of desire, I call him a seer, and illumined” (2:56). And: “He knows peace who has forgotten desire. He lives without craving: free from ego, free from pride” (2:71). For ego and egoism are the source of desire, which is a symptom of their dominance. Desire binds, but “when a man can act without desire,…no bonds can bind him” (4:41). Otherwise: “Man is a prisoner, enslaved by action, dragged onward by desire” (5:12).
“Self-controlled, cut free from desire, curbing the heart and knowing the Atman, man finds Nirvana that is in Brahman, here and hereafter.…Holding the senses, holding the intellect, holding the mind fast, he who seeks freedom, thrusts fear aside, thrusts aside anger and puts off desire: truly that man is made free for ever” (Bhagavad Gita 5:26, 28).
“When can a man be said to have achieved union with Brahman? When his mind is under perfect control and freed from all desires, so that he becomes absorbed in the Atman, and nothing else” (6:18). “Devotees enter into Him when the bonds of their desire are broken” (8:11). Otherwise: “They are addicts of sensual pleasure, made restless by their many desires, and caught in the net of delusion. They fall into the filthy hell of their own evil minds” (16:16). For: “He who…acts on the impulse of his desires, cannot reach perfection, or happiness, or the highest goal” (16:23).
Desire as religion
When negativity begins to experience the pressure of scrutiny and attempts at its eradication, its most common trick–like other germs, bacteria, and viruses–is to mutate into an unrecognizable form, the most unrecognizable of which is externalized religion. Krishna unmasks this, telling Arjuna:
“Men whose discrimination has been blunted by worldly desires, establish this or that ritual or cult and resort to various deities, according to the impulse of their inborn natures” (Bhagavad Gita 7:20),
and get what they desire–righteously!–and thus remain bound and in darkness. Nor is Krishna pointing the finger at religions outside India; He is speaking of Vedic religion itself:
“Thus go the righteous who follow the road of the triple Veda in formal observance; hungry still for the food of the senses, drawn by desire to endless returning” (Bhagavad Gita 9:21).
Such desire-based religion binds its adherents to the wheel of birth and death. Wherefore:
“When the whole country is flooded, the reservoir becomes superfluous. So, to the illumined seer, the Vedas are all superfluous” (Bhagavad Gita 2:46).
“When a man has achieved non-attachment, self-mastery and freedom from desire through renunciation, he reaches union with Brahman, who is beyond all action” (Bhagavad Gita 18:49).