A walk down a city street can tell you a lot about the power of desire. Just notice where your eyes are drawn—to a sleek pair of shoes, to the new CDs in a music store window, to a vibrant bouquet. The fragrance from a Greek restaurant invades your nostrils, and even though you just ate, you’re suddenly hungry. And so it goes, block after block, until by the time you get where you’re going, your senses are throbbing with stimulation and you’ve put out enough energy for a full day’s work. In fact, following desire’s lure, you could find yourself headed for a destination (or credit card charge) you never intended.
Well-managed desire can inspire you to action and help shape your life. Unmanaged desire—well, distraction is the least of it. Even Brahma, the ancient, ageless creator of the universe, turned into a hormone-crazed teenager when inflamed with desire. In fact, his story reveals the power of desire and what’s needed to turn it into a force for good.
The Birth of Desire
Brahma didn’t mean to create the god Desire. He had just finished creating the original sages and the young goddess, Dawn, when a beautiful young man appeared out of nowhere, holding a bow and a quiver with seven arrows. Fascinated, Brahma named the boy Desire. “You will kindle longing and excitement in all creatures,” he said. “Your arrow will be called the inflamer, and anyone you shoot will fall under your sway. In this way, beings will come together in love, and the dance of this world will continue.”
With that, Desire shot his first arrow—straight at Brahma. Lust and longing surged up in the great deity, and without thinking he seized the beautiful goddess Dawn and threw her to the ground. But before he could have his way with her, a voice came from the sky—the voice of Shiva, the lord of yoga, who had witnessed everything through his meditative vision. “Brahma, have you forgotten that she is your daughter?” Shiva cried.
At that moment, Brahma realized this new force might not be entirely controllable.
The story doesn’t end there, and its aftermath gives us the best clue about managing our own desires: One day, so the tale goes, Brahma summoned Desire and instructed him to aim his arrow at Shiva. The well-being of the universe, Brahma said, depended on getting Shiva to come out of meditation and hook up with his eternal consort, Shakti, who had recently taken form as the goddess Parvati. Besides, Brahma was secretly eager to see Shiva lose his cool.
The Derailment of Desire
But when Shiva felt the prick of Desire’s arrow, he opened his third eye and let loose the laserlike fire of enlightened awareness, and Desire was pulverized. Of course, the young god was immortal, so the loss of his body didn’t affect his capacity for disturbing the peace. His arrows continue to excite blind desire in all of us—with ever greater success, says the myth, since we can’t see him.
Shiva’s third eye represents the power of awareness, the only force strong enough to stand up to desire. But not necessarily destroy it, as some traditional interpretations would have it. Shiva’s gesture expresses one of the true gifts of yoga: the capacity for insight, born out of meditation, which can help you see into your desires—and then to discriminate between those that are good for you and those that are not.
The Desire to Create
Desire is the impulse that precedes any action; without it, not much will happen. Scratch a person who succeeds at anything—from a great yogi like Ramana Maharshi to a corporate heavyweight to your friend who directed a movie at age 25—and you’ll find a powerful fund of desire. Of course, when desire is channeled toward productive activity it’s called something else, like aspiration or motivation. Still, wanting is wanting, and all desire is in some way creative.
At first glance, an ambition to transform your consciousness through yoga seems to have little to do with, say, an ambition to write novels or to get married, and even less to do with a momentary yearning for pizza or ice cream. These desires come from very different levels of consciousness. A pizza craving is fairly superficial—a product of the manas, the seeking mind, which tends toward experiences that satisfy the senses. A desire to write or to marry arises from deeper samskaras, the karmic tendencies that created—and continue to create—your personal self. The wish for transformation is an impulse of your higher Self, the part of you connected to the All, and it wants you to experience that wholeness through your body and mind.
Yet whether deep or superficial, all these desires have the potential to manifest results. Your life situation at this moment is to an amazing extent the product of the desires you’ve held—often desires that you forgot long ago. As one of the Upanishads says, “As a [person's] desire is, so is his destiny. For as his desire is, so is his will; as his will is, so is his deed; and as his deed is, so are its consequences, good or bad.”
Knowing how to direct the power of desire toward growth can help you create a life of beauty, love, and even enlightenment. On the other hand, if the desires you follow are unhealthy, if you have not brought them fully to consciousness, or if you continually follow the distracting impulses of momentary desires, you’re likely to find yourself in situations that don’t serve your highest goals.
Your Brain on Desire
Desire is tricky because of the way our brains are organized. Our spiritual disciplines and conscious goals involve processes lodged in the neocortex, the late-maturing “higher brain” through which we make rational decisions. Yet each of us also has deeply rooted fears, instinctive emotional responses, and survival needs locked up in the much older limbic system—brain regions not always subject to conscious control.
Synapses in the older parts of the brain fire more quickly than in the cortex, which is why a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder goes into spasms of terror at the sound of a motorcycle backfiring—his cortex knows it isn’t a car bomb exploding, but his amygdala knows only that this sound once meant “Get down and shoot back!”
If you’re not conscious of the root of your desire, you may default to impulses that shoot up from your more “primitive” parts, which can be in direct contradiction to what you consciously want or know is good for you. Even healthy desires have levels of motivation we’d rather not look at, which is why we sometimes find ourselves acting against our own integrity or causing harm to ourselves or others.
The antidote to compulsion is consciousness. Most of us send ourselves a signal when we’re about to do something we’ll regret—call it compunction or a feeling of guilt—a signal that, if we pay attention, tells us, “This way lies trouble.” It’s a sign that we need to bring Shiva’s laser beam of awareness to the situation.
Buyer Be Aware
The beam from Shiva’s third eye is a wonderful symbol for empowered intuition. When gripped by strong desire, you operate on automatic pilot, acting out a set of responses programmed into your primitive brain. To break the trance—so that you have choices—you need to train yourself to notice the moment when desire arises, to question the desire, and to pause. Ask yourself, “Do I really want to do this? What will the consequences be?” Creating that awareness is a major step toward breaking free of the compulsive pull of certain desires.
One of my students works with awareness as a defense against maxing out her credit cards. When she feels herself drift into her favorite store, she asks, “What am I feeling now? How will I feel when I get home with more clothes I don’t need?” Often she can get herself out of the shop without buying anything, and without feeling regret.
Once you’ve brought a desire into consciousness, you can discern where it might lead—and, if need be, channel it into more productive arenas. A great training ground for observing the ebb and flow of desire is meditation. As you sit, you’re assaulted by desires: The urge to scratch an itch. A yearning for the coffee you hear brewing in the kitchen. But you’ve committed yourself to sitting for a certain amount of time, and you know that if you give in to such a desire it will derail your meditation. So you keep sitting.
Simply by observing desires as they spring up in meditation, you develop the witnessing part of your mind—the knowing awareness that can hold steady amid your mental and emotional currents. This is the indispensable tool for knowing when to follow a desire and when to let it go.
Your Heart’s True Desire
In the Tantric approach to redirecting desires, you take the impulse for pizza or new clothes or romance and then transmute it so that it fuels your deeper goals. This requires contemplation and also a sense of priorities.
One contemporary teacher, Swami Anantananda, suggests asking yourself, “What do I want by getting what I want?” You can apply that query to almost any desire, with surprising results: “What do I really expect to get from eating that brownie? What do I really want from a dream lover, or from making $100,000 a year?” Your first answer might be intimacy or security. But if you keep asking (“What do I want from intimacy? What do I want from security?”), the answer will almost always be something like happiness, fulfillment, love, or peace of mind.
The desire for happiness is really the bottom line, the underpinning of all desires. Once you realize that, you’re in a position to ask yourself the deeper question: “What would it take to be happy right now, in this moment, whether or not I get what I want?”
My friend Lisa spent her 20s tumbling from one obsessive love relationship to another. Then she began reading Sufi poetry and was struck by the way the Sufis approached God as a lover. It occurred to her that perhaps the all-or-nothing love she was longing for wasn’t something she could get from a relationship with a man, that maybe it was a longing for the great Love, for divine love.
So she threw herself into practice and uncovered the source of that love inside herself. Today, her relationships are free because she no longer expects them to serve purposes they weren’t made for. Instead of fighting her love addiction, she has learned to divert it so that it serves her own growth.
When you learn to identify your deepest desires, you can truly take advantage of desire’s creative power. That’s when intentions, instead of being wishes or fantasies, become powerful engines that awaken your life.