Sally Kempton

Doorways to the Infinite

Managing Desire

A street in New York – or any other big city – is desire’s playground, the perfect place to chart the ebb and flow of craving. You’re drawn to a pair of shoes, to the the beautifully spare bed in the window of Ligne Rossi, the Italian design emporium. A slender woman dressed in thrift-shop elegance saunters by, and you wonder if a few wardrobe changes would make you look like that. You pass a bookstore and imagine your own books in the windows. A Greek restaurant invades your nostrils with delicious smells. Block after block, you’re fielding desires – many of them contradictory, and all of them distracting. By the time you get where you’re going, your senses are zinging with stimulation, and you feel as if you’ve done a full day’s work. All that has happened is that you’ve let yourself get pulled here and there by the lures of desire.

Face it: one way or another, we have to learn how to work with our desires. Well-managed, directed desire is a powerful ally – a force that can inspire us to action and help us shape our lives. Unmanaged desire – well, distraction is the least of it. The yogic texts knew what they were talking about when they compared desire to a fire that can cook your food or burn down your house. Even Brahma, the ancient, ageless creator of the universe turned into a hormone-crazed teenager when inflamed with desire.

The story of how Brahma lost it – and of what happened later – is my favorite parable about desire. In the way of myths, it offers us images that can bore deeply into our consciousness, and teach us from inside about desire’s primal power, and what it takes to turn it into a force for good.

The Birth of Desire

Brahma, the ancient, ageless creator of the universe, didnâ’t mean to create Desire. It happened more or less by accident. With a great act of will, he had manifested the first sages in the universe, and brought forth the first goddess, Dawn. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a beautiful young man appeared, holding a flowery bow and a quiver with 7 arrows.

Surprised but pleased, Brahma named the boy Kama, or Desire. “Your job is to kindle longing and excitement in all creatures”,he said. “Your arrows will be called ‘the inflamer’, ‘the mystifyer’, ‘the deluder’, and when you shoot one of these arrows into anyone – human, animal, or god -he will be fall completely under your sway. In this way, beings will come together in love, and the dance of this world will continue.”

Brahma, of course, was well aware of the creative power of desire. What he was about to realize was that desire, once kindled, can take you on some strange byways.

For, no sooner had Brahma spoken then Kama shot his first arrow – straight at Brahma. Lust and longing surged up simultaneously in the great deity, and without thinking about consequences, he seized hold of the beautiful goddess Dawn – technically his daughter – and threw her to the ground.

But before he could ravish 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 that this force might not be entirely controllable.

The story doesn’t end there, and it was the aftermath that gives us the best clue as to how to manage desire. One day, (so the tale goes), Brahma summoned Kama and instructed him to aim his bow at Shiva. The well-being of the universe, he said, depended on getting Shiva to come out of meditation and hook up with his eternal consort Shakti, who had taken birth as the goddess Parvati. As you might have suspected, Brahma also had a personal motive. He wanted to show Shiva that he too was not immune to the arrows of love.

Desire Pulverized

But when Shiva felt the prick of Desire’s arrow, he opened his third eye, and let loose the laser-like fire of his enlightened awareness. Kama’s body was pulverized into ashes. Of course, the young god was immortal, so the loss of a body didn’t affect his capacity for disturbing the peace. His arrows continue to excite blind desire in all of us – even more so, says the myth, since we can’t see him.

And, as any student of Indian mythology knows, Shiva and Parvati did get together in the end.

Power and Insight

Though there are many interpretations of this story, I’ve found two of its insights particularly useful as I’ve threaded the narrow path between healthy and unhealthy desires. First, of course, the story reminds us of the unstoppable quality of desire – a force that is nothing less than the eternal power behind all manifestation. Most important, if we know how to read the story, it reveals the real secret of dealing with desires. Shiva’s third eye represents the power of pure awareness, which is the only force powerful enough to harness desire. Not destroy it, as some traditional interpretations would have it–though there is no question that in the higher stages of yogic awareness, ordinary desire disappears, or becomes transmuted into ever-subtler forms. No, Shiva’s gesture expresses one of the true gifts of yoga: the capacity for discerning insight, born out of meditation, which alone can channel and transform the energy of desire.

Desire as a Creative Force

And awareness really is the key to working with desire, because desire is too powerful and important a force to be fought with, repressed, or mindlessly indulged. Desire is literally the expression of the life force itself, which means that you can’t do without it. The tantric texts identify desire with the will power of the creative Shakti, the primordial force that is the source of creation. Desire is the original impulse that preceeds any action, and 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 major movie at age 25, and you’ll find a powerful fund of desire. Of course, when desire gets channeled towards productive activity we give it a different name, like aspiration or motivation. Still, wanting is wanting, and all desire is creative.

At first glance, your ambition to write best-selling novels, your wish for your boyfriend to marry you, and your aspiration to transform your consciousness through yoga seem to have little to do with one another, and less to do with your momentary yearning for pizza or ice-cream. And it’s true that these desires come from very different levels of your consciousness. The pizza craving is fairly superficial – a product of the manas, the seeking mind, which has a natural tendency to run after experiences that satisfy the senses. The desire to write or to marry arises from your deeper samskaras, the karmic tendencies that have created – and continue to create – your personal self, with its skills and tastes and very particular personal destiny. The wish for transformation is an impulse of your higher self, or Essence, that part of you that is naturally connected to the All, and intends for you to experience that wholeness through your body and mind.


Yet whether deep or superficial, all these desires have the potential to manifest results  -results which might be as concrete as the piled up pages of your novel, the ten pounds you put on as a result of giving in to your desire to eat ice cream, or as subtle as the decision to spend your vacation taking a yoga retreat. Your life-situation at this moment is to an amazing extent the product of the desires you’ve held – often desires that you forgot about long ago.

Layers of Desire

The good news here (as the growing literature on intention will tell you) is that if you know how to direct the power of desire towards growth, it can help you create a life of abundance, love, and even enlightenment. The bad news is that, if the desires you follow are unhealthy or not brought fully to consciousness – or if you continuously follow the distracting impulses of momentary desires – you are likely to find yourself in situations that don’t serve your highest goals at all. And sometimes, it seems as if you just can’t help it.

Desire and the Brain

Part of the problem here has to do with the way our brains are organized. Our spiritual disciplines and conscious goals involve processes lodged in the neo-cortex, the late maturing ‘higher brain’ through which we make rational decisions and weigh choices. Yet that’s not the only active part of the brain. Each of us has deeply rooted fears, emotional instincts, and survival needs locked up in the much older limbic system, brain regions that are pre-rational, instinctual, and not always subject to conscious control.

The older parts of the brain fire much more quickly than 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 that it isn’t a car-bomb exploding, but his amygdala only knows that this sound once meant to get down or shoot back! In the same way, a dedicated yogini who has no intention of having kids may find that her limbic brain’s intention to become a mother is so compelling that it overrides her more ‘rational’ desire for freedom – and she finds herself pregnant.

These unconsciously motivated fears and desires are the ones that come up as compulsions. When we’re unconscious of where our desires are coming from, we may often find ourselves defaulting to impulses and compulsions that shoot up from the more ‘primitive’ parts of ourselves, and which can be in direct contradiction to what we consciously want or know is good for us. Even healthy desires and ambitions have shadowy aspects, levels of motivation that we’d rather not look at – and this is precisely why we sometimes find ourselves acting against our own integrity, or causing harm to ourselves or someone else.

Shadow Play

I recently watched two yoga teachers playing out such a shadow scenario. One, Larry, had a small yoga studio in a big American city. The other, Ben, is a national teacher. The two studied with the same master, and are good friends. When Ben lost the lease on his studio in Berkeley, he decided to move to Larry’s town. He found a place that seemed perfect – except that it was literally around the corner from Larry’s studio. He called Larry to make sure his friend wouldn’t mind. Larry did mind – he felt that the presence of this more ‘famous’ teacher in his neighborhood would take students away from him. Ben pooh-poohed Larry’s instinct, telling his friend that he was just being fearful, that there was enough for everyone, and not to worry.

Ben opened his studio, which became popular almost immediately. Larry’s studio lost clients and eventually folded. Their friendship will never be the same. Nor will Ben’s relationship to his yoga community. Even while they admire his success, his friends no longer find him trustworthy.

Though Ben rationalizes all this with talk of destiny (“It was meant to be like this”) and the law of the market (“Mine is the better studioâ”), in his heart he knows that he could have found a studio space in another part of town rather than turning up on Larry’s doorstep. “The truth is,” he told me, “I knew I’d be cutting Larry out. I just didn’t want to look at it. I wanted to do what I wanted to do. I feel really bad about it, especially when I remember that what goes around comes around”

What would have saved the situation was consciousness and self-inquiry. Ben had a funny feeling that what he was doing wasn’t really ok – otherwise, he wouldn’t have asked Larry how he felt about it. That ‘funny feeling’ – call it guilt or compunction – that rises in us in response to certain impulses, is invariably a red flag, a signal that says, “This way lies trouble”.  When I get that weird feeling, I’ve learned to take it as a sign that its time to bring Shiva’s laser-beam of awareness into the situation.

The Fire of Awareness

The beam from Shiva’s third-eye – the fire of awareness – is a wonderful symbol for the empowered intuition – the force that wakes us up. When you’re gripped by strong desire, you are nearly always in a trance-like state. You’re 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 trance sets in.

If you can stay conscious at the moment when a desire grabs you, consciously look at it, then ask yourself a trance-breaking question like “Do I really want to do this?” you’ve taken the major step towards breaking free of the compulsive, primitive quality of certain desires.

One of my students has begun to work with awareness as a defense against maxing out her credit cards. When she feels herself drift like a sleepwalker into her favorite store, she begins to do intense self-inquiry. “What am I feeling now?” she’ll say to herself, watching her arms rip blouses from the hanger. “Do I really need to try these on? How will I feel when I walk out of the store with 3 pieces of clothing I don’t need?”  She reported recently that three times out of four, she can get herself out of the shop without buying anything, and without regret.

The capacity to stay awake when gripped by desire is one of the great gifts that yoga can offer us. Once we’ve brought a desire into consciousness, we have choices. We have a chance to discern where that desire might lead us; whether it’s an impulse of the soul, a message from destiny, or a distraction we should let go of. We can look at how the desire fits in with our other priorities. We can, if need be, figure out how to channel it into more productive arenas. But we can’t do any of these things without conscious awareness.

Observing the Play of Desires

The best training ground for observing the ebb and flow of desire is meditation. As we sit for meditation, we’re often assaulted with multiple desires. The urge to scratch an itch. The desire to sample the coffee you can hear brewing in the kitchen. The impatient feeling that it’s time to get on with your day. An image of your college boyfriend suddenly surfacing, along with the memory of the last good time you had together and a strong urge to jump up and look him up on Google. But you’ve committed yourself to sitting for a certain amount of time, and you know that if you give into any of these desires it will derail your meditation. So you keep sitting.

Simply by observing desires as they spring up in meditation, you naturally develop and strengthen the witnessing part of your mind – that knowing awareness that can hold steady amidst your mental and emotional currents. That witnessing presence is the key to real discernment, the one indispensable tool for anyone who wants to spend time investigating desires, getting to the bottom of her impulses, and discovering her own personal yardstick for when to follow a desire and when to let it go.

Channeling Desires

When we’ve brought awareness to our desires, we can begin to work with them, to channel them into more productive arenas. This is the tantric approach to desire – you take the impulse that longs for pizza and romance and caffeine and new toys and find a way to transmute it so that it fuels your deeper goals. This takes contemplation and also a sense of priorities.

One teacher I know suggests asking yourself the question, “What do I want by getting what I want?” You can apply that query to almost any desire, and the results are often surprising. What do I really expect to get from eating that sweet? What do I really want from the dream lover I pine for, or from the recognition I hope to achieve, or from making 100,000 a year?  Your first answer might be”intimacy” or”companionship” 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 are, once again, in a position to ask yourself whether it might be possible to feel happy without necessarily getting what you want. I often do this by practicing gratitude, thinking of all the great things in my life – or even of all the terrible things that could have happened to me but haven’t.

My favorite example of someone who knows how to channel desire is my friend Lisa. She spent her teens and twenties falling from one obsessive love-relationship to another. The tendency played havoc with her career, and wasn’t all that good for her relationships either. In her late twenties, she began reading Sufi poetry, and was deeply struck by the way the Sufi’s approached God as a lover. It began to occur to her that perhaps the all or nothing love she was longing for wasn’t really something she could get from a relationship with a man, that maybe it was really 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, she is a deeply peaceful person. Her relationships are free because she no longer expects them to serve purposes they weren’t made for. I admire Lisa’s approach to her own compulsions. Instead of fighting the love-addict tendency she diverted it into an avenue that deeply served her own growth, and that ultimately has allowed her to have everything she ever wanted.

When we’ve learned to identify our deepest desires, the longings of our soul, we can truly take advantage of the creative power of desire. That’s when our intentions, instead of being wishes or fantasies, become powerful engines that awaken our life.

Working With Desires

Are you wondering whether a particular desire is healthy or unhealthy?

Here’s how you find out.

First, bring the desire fully you’re your conscious awareness.

Notice the words associated with the desire. Especially, pay attention to the feeling quality of it. Notice where you feel it in your body. Notice the emotional state it induces. Do you feel excited? Do you feel uncomfortable?

Once you’ve identified what the desire is, and how it feels like to be in a state of desire, ask yourself:

1) How does this desire fit in with my greater priorities?

2) Will following this impulse hurt others? Will it hurt me?

3) Does it take me closer to my higher self, or will it create more barriers between my soul and myself?

4) Is it beneficial to other people as well as to myself?

5) What will I have to give up if I follow this desire?

6) What will I have to give up if I don’t?

7) What do I really want by getting what I want?

Turning a Desire into an Intention

Once you’ve identified what it is that you really want, articulate it. Even if it is something that feels vague, like “to be happy” you can still put it into the form of an intention. You might say, “My intention is to experience happiness in an intimate relationship.” Or “My intention is to experience happiness no matter what is going on in my life.”

Dissolving Desires: Shiva’s Fire

(This is an advanced tantric meditation technique, but even for a beginner it’s fun to try.)

Sit quietly, and begin to observe desires as they arise. As soon as you notice the desire, pull your attention away from it. As you do, you should feel a pulsating energy in your mind. Let yourself focus on that energy for a moment or two. Notice how it vitalizes you. You’re experiencing the energy behind desire – an energy that can take you right into deep meditation, if you can stay with it.