Desire: Your Secret Superpower
How to welcome and work with this powerful force
In my last post, On Orienting, I talked about the need for each of us to orient ourselves in life, and what that might feel like in different contexts. Orienting is a natural instinct and a skill that exists within all of us—it just needs to be brought out, and in that post I suggested some ideas on how to do so. Check it out if you haven’t already.
In this post I would like to address the question of what to orient around. The hint from the last post, derived from the definition of the word ‘orient’, is that we orient around, or using, light. The light of the sun and stars in the outer world; the light of our inspiration, values, beauty, and goodness in the inner world.
I also wrote that we each have a secret power inside us, which guides us already towards what we value, and that is desire.
In many spiritual circles, this word is a bit of a taboo, something to be quashed or at the very least, severely restrained. Desires bring attachment, and attachment means suffering, right? (Substitute temptation for attachment and sin for suffering in the Judeo-Christian traditions). That’s one way to look at it—the renunciate’s way, the way of detachment.
On the tantric path of intimacy, of connection, of finding the Way in the world, desires are sacred. They are the energy of the cosmos, wanting and longing to experience itself and creation in all the ways that are possible. They are the impulse to act, that moves us towards what we long for and inspires us to create whatever we love more fully in ourselves and our lives.
A little background
Desire comes from the Latin de sidere, meaning ‘from the stars or heavenly bodies’. It became desiderare, ‘to await what the stars will bring’, and then transformed into ‘to long for, wish for; demand, expect’. We all know what desire means now, so I won’t define it. But maybe you didn’t know that an archaic form of the word also means ‘to feel the loss of’. Maybe desire is that ache in your heart calling you back home to your true self, and the fire in your veins showing you the way.
Following our desires is one way to orient ourselves in the world. I don’t mean madly scrambling to get everything you want materially, or superficially, or even spiritually. We see enough of that all around, and it clearly doesn’t lead to any kind of fulfilment or lasting happiness. In this, the spiritual traditions we know are 100% spot-on accurate. I’m talking about desire as the journey of discovering what your deeper self is truly here for, in this body, in this world.
Why are you here?
What do you want from your life?
What have you been born to experience?
Who are you meant to be?
The answers to these questions, even when not articulated in words, are the rising stars that we can orient around throughout our life, the guiding light that we can follow towards meaning and purpose.
Most of us, myself definitely included, shy away from probing what we really want because we are so afraid of the disappointment of not getting it, or of losing it when we do. But desires are meant to be experienced in their entirety:
the tender vulnerability they nurture in our hearts when we come to know them,
the sense of kinship and understanding when we realise that each of us harbors these secret places of longing inside;
the wild energy and unshakeable self-awareness they give us;
the alternating hope and anxiety and uncertainty that comes from not knowing whether they’ll be fulfilled;
the hurt and the grief and the disappointment when we fail to achieve them, or when we lose something cherished
and the longing for them even then.
Not all desires are meant to be fulfilled, but all desires are meant to be experienced.
They are a way in which life moves through us, an aspect of the energy of the universe seeking form and expression. A life without desire, like a life without emotion, is not worth living. Suppressing deep desires too hard, for too long, leaves you drained, lifeless, cut off from your own energy and life force, unaware of your self—like our old friend Rabbit from the story of the Chinese zodiac (see previous post to recap).
Ironically, it is in this state of un-knowing that we become vulnerable to messages and manipulation (advertising, social conditioning) telling us to seek fulfilment exclusively in the banal, the material, the superficial, or the Other. Do you think Rabbit’s mad scramble towards the end of the Great Race is a symptom of the latter, or was he following his true heart’s desires? Who knows? Sometimes even we can’t tell. It is in the journey towards whatever calls us that we find out, provided we cultivate a degree of self-awareness, clarity and discernment.
Before I go any further, I want to acknowledge that this is really a powerful topic, ideal to explore 1-1. It tends to bring up a lot of confusion as well as a lot of energy, both of which can be a little intimidating on your own. So if you’d like some support and the benefit of another perspective as you uncover and investigate your desires—you can book a 1-1 coaching session with me, where I will guide you through the following steps (and some more), in direct relation to your questions, your life situation, and your personality.
How to deal with desire
Now on to the heart of the matter. The following are 7 ideas I have found to be helpful when working with my own desires and witnessing or supporting others with theirs.
1. Liberate your thinking
The main thing to know when embracing desires is not to confuse their outward manifestation—the object of desire—with the desire itself. Desire is an energy that can take form in innumerable ways. There isn’t only one way to meet any particular desire. Getting stuck on one way, or one aspect, is where desires turns into attachment, which is what all spiritual traditions are constantly warning us about.
2. Feel the elemental energy of desire
The next thing to know is how to meet the energy of desire in yourself, without getting taken over, carried away, or overwhelmed. This is where the Elemental model really helps: feel the energy of desire as one or more of the Elements (Earth, Water, Fire, Air, Space). The Elements are the essence of everything; everything is made out of them. They’re like the meditator’s equivalent of atoms, only you can feel and perceive them directly without fancy equipment.
Where and how do you feel the Fire of your passion, or the Watery flow of longing, or the excitement and anticipation of Air? Can you let your desires touch the vast openness of Space, or be grounded in the stability of Earth?
Another way the elemental model helps is by reminding you that everything you perceive is part of nature, and therefore natural. This overcomes the tendency to suppress or distort what we don’t like or can’t accept.
Desire, lust, longing— Anger humming in your blood. Confusion, jealousy, bewilderment, Swirling in your head. Catch the first hint as passion rises, The first quickening heartbeat. Embrace that vibrancy With a mind as vast as the sky. Witness the elemental motion of emotion: Fire burning, illuminating, Water gushing, cleansing, Air inspiring, soothing, Earth supporting, holding, Space expanding, embracing. You are in the temple of desire. Go deeper still and rest in essence, Awake to infinite spiritual energy Surging into form. —Radiance Sutras 78
The Elemental model is hugely helpful for all our impulses: emotions, desires, instincts, creative forces, and even interactions with others. I plan to devote a full month to the Elements at some point this year, so please subscribe if you’re keen to learn more about them.
3. Learn to tolerate (and even appreciate) the Push-Pull
All desires have two forces nested within them:
the outward-directed Push, that motivates us to reach out for something, to step outside of the known and comfortable and touch the novel, the exciting, that sparkling thing we want
and the inner-oriented Pull, the act of returning the beloved to the self, bringing back whatever is desired and holding or keeping it close to you.
In developmental movement, there are two major patterns that we each learn as infants, called Yield and Push, and Reach and Pull. These patterns are alive in every phase of development, from simple to complex. Think of the classic pattern that infants often demonstrate: pushing against the ground to rise up and grab onto someone or something, and then pulling that person or thing back towards them.
I found it very interesting to see this overlap in two distinct traditions (tantra and movement); but at the same time, it’s not really that surprising, is it? Infants are motivated by desires, because that’s how they survive, and how they learn about the world around them.
As adults, part of the struggle we have with desires is this seeming opposition, the way our desires constantly tug us In and Out. Many times we don’t give ourselves enough time in the rebound, or the ‘In’ phase, to cherish what we have achieved or been given. Maybe this is why practices of gratitude, blessing and appreciation are so nourishing for us.
With practice and discernment, we can learn to witness and experience these two forces as a dance, a two-step sending us out into the world and then drawing us back into ourselves. Everyone will have their own rhythm—the key is in accepting both phases. There is actually nothing particularly alien or exotic about this. Awareness enjoys being able to spread out and encompass the whole spectrum of the outer and inner worlds. The world is part of us, and we are part of it, and desires are one way we can surf the waves of that connection.
4. Drop down into it
Another way you can meet the energy of desire is by diving down into its core, recognizing and naming it. So for example:
I want a new t-shirt. Why? Because I’ve outgrown most of mine. No seriously, why? I don’t like the ones I have. Why not? They don’t suit me any more. OK, so the new t-shirt is a way to express a new identity? Yes. And what is this new identity about? I want it to be beautiful, and to make me feel beautiful. So you want to express beauty. Hmmm, yes. I want to embody my idea of beauty. What is that? Something elegant, simple, pure. Something of quality, that lasts over time.
From the t-shirt we arrive at a desire for beauty, with certain specific qualities. This then frees me up, because if I can’t find a t-shirt that I think is beautiful—well, there are many other ways I can embody this idea of beauty. It also gives me a direction with regards to what kind of t-shirt I’m going to seek out. It gives me the self-awareness to know what I consider to be beautiful. And finally, it gives me permission to accept my desire, because there’s nothing wrong with wanting or appreciating beauty.
Of course, sometimes these explorations yield the realization that this specific target (person, place, experience, object) can’t meet my true desire, or my underlying need. That’s when we need to re-orient and find another way, or alternatively accept it, mourn, heal and move on. Much of life is healing from the wounds of unfulfilled, dying desires, at the same time as we learn and explore and navigate the fresh desires that are continuously blooming within us.
If you want to explore this process more, I would recommend checking out the Needs Inventories used in Non-Violent Communication. Examples here, here, here and here.
5. Take a bird’s eye-view
There is one more model that might be helpful when it comes to desire. This is the idea of the Purusharthas (‘the aims of human life’) from Hindu philosophy. These are the four meta-desires, or orienting aims, that we all share as human beings. They are:
kama · काम · sensual fulfillment, pleasure, beauty
artha · अर्थ · abundance, wealth
dharma · धर्म · honor, righteousness, duty, responsibility
moksha · मोक्ष · liberation, freedom
These meta-desires are at play all the time, in everyone; specific or smaller desires usually fit into one of these categories. Much of the time we experience all four of them in dynamic interplay (and sometimes in tension) inside us. Importantly, all of these meta-aims are valid and useful, on both an individual and a societal level. There is a time and place for all of them; none are to be dismissed or denigrated.
The purpose of exploring your desires is to feel and know them intimately, rather than to analyse or pidgeon-hole them. This model is helpful in understanding what you’re longing for, what its place is in the bigger scheme of things, and whether it’s worth pursuing.
When you are flowing through the purusharthas in your own way, there is the feeling of living the life you were designed for.
6. Deepen and discern
What if you dive down and find that the quality at the bottom of your desire is something ‘bad’—vengeance, for example? One option is to drop down slightly deeper, or expand your awareness a little further. That One Bad Thing is unlikely to be the only thing alive in you, or the only desire you feel.
In my own case, my desire for vengeance comes out of the feeling of being hurt, betrayed, maligned. It comes from my need for fairness and justice in the world, and for agency and power as an individual. Underneath that, way deep down, there is also the tiniest flicker of a desire to heal and be free from whatever wounded me to begin with, to create a better world where this doesn’t happen, and maybe even (at some point in the future) to forgive those who hurt me, at least so I can let it go and move on.
Accepting desires doesn’t mean that every one of them gets acted out or pursued. Desires pair with discernment—the ability to know what to pursue and what not to, to know what you’re capable of and what would be too much. Also the ability to (fore)see the likely outcomes for other beings, should you choose to pursue this desire. Is this desire of yours going to lead to pain for others, or for yourself down the line?
7. Remember your ethics
Everything, including desire, is nested inside our ethical framework. There’s no point exploring spirituality, tantric or otherwise, in the absence of ethics. So if a desire violates your ethics, it is not to be pursued in the outer world. The code you choose to live by creates a field of safety around you, and keeps you from transgressing the boundaries of other beings. Desires that violate your honour can be explored internally or with a sideways approach, in the space of meditation, dreams, therapy, creative expression etc. This gives the original energy at the source of such desires a chance to be felt, moved and healed—without harming anyone else.
Exploring desires in their depth brings clarity of vision, an extremely valuable quality when you are trying to orient yourself, and what our friend Rabbit lost when he fell asleep at the wheel. I want to repeat that no one is saying that you should follow or try to fulfil every single desire you have: that would be impossible, not to mention immensely fatiguing. Some desires are worth orienting yourself around, others are meant to live secretly unfulfilled in your heart, and yet others can be fulfilled in partial ways, or in dreams and imagination. The point is to know the difference.
By freeing yourself to embrace and explore all your desires, you give yourself the energy to keep going in life, aligned with your deeper self and with the guidance of the ‘heavenly bodies’. I hope that these thoughts have opened up the possibility of some self-exploration, and especially planted the idea that you don’t have to fear, control or suppress your desires. Instead, you can let your desires gently awaken within you and serve as your guiding stars as you orient yourself within the movement of your life.
Thank you for reading. I’m curious whether you learned anything, whether this post sparked ideas, associations, questions or thoughts in you. Let me know in the comments.
If you enjoyed this post, feel free to share it with friends, and subscribe to receive more like it directly in your inbox. My next post will be a meditation on Beauty and Desire that I recorded specially to go with this one. If you learn by listening or contemplating, that is going to be perfect for you.
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I love the idea of dropping down into desire to find out what the desire is truly for. When I was studying non-violent communication it was enlightening to understand that behind each judgement was a feeling and need that could be met in thousands of ways. This is the same with desire.... longing... what do we really long for?
I love this Vaishali. You have such a lovely way of writing and there is so much to unpack and learn. Thank you x p.s. I love the needs practice from Non Violent Communication too.