Sinful Desire?

This will be my last word, for now, on desire. So far I’ve summarized the Eastern view on it and dealt with two of the questions that inevitably arise: How do we motivate ourselves if not by desire? and Are there not healthy forms of yearning?

To round out the discussion, let me point out that although one post was titled “The Road to Hell Is Paved with Desire,” I did not mean to imply that desire is sinful in the usual sense of the word.

We in the West are conditioned by Judeo-Christian theology. Within these religions, there is a presumption that God judges our actions and condemns our sins. Lust, greed, sloth, wrath, pride, gluttony, and envy are all related to desire in one way or another. When we yield to these “seven deadly sins,” and hence to our base hungers, God rebukes us. Or so we are told by the Abrahamic lineage.

This kind of thinking is at odds with the views of Eastern traditions. The Hindu God is a complex entity with many facets and manifestations. But if God appears in personal form at all, he (or she) is more a companion and neutral witness than a punitive judge. The Hindu and Buddhist concept of karma implies that we are free to choose and suffer the natural consequences of our choices. If we elect to cause harm, we will reap darkness in this or future lifetimes. If we choose compassion, we will receive mercy in kind, eventually. The emphasis is on inevitable cause and effect, not just desserts.

In spelling this out, I am not claiming that one view is necessarily right and the other wrong. Rather, my point is that both Divine punishment and Karmic consequence deal with ultimate effects, not immediate results. In contrast, these essays were not written to suggest that desire leads to a hellish afterlife or unhappy future birth, but to misery in the here and now. Craving creates hell on earth.

Desire causes suffering automatically. It is not sinful in the sense of leading to eternal damnation. Nor do we necessarily accrue bad karma if we choose to live by desire. But if we bank our happiness on satisfying wishes, on constantly adjusting our circumstances to meet our expectations, we are doomed to suffer disappointment. This is a utilitarian judgment, not an ethical one.

The many questions that arise when one proposes rejection of desire become less important when we see things this way. Those who prefer to live passionately, or who feel strong hungers and enjoy pursuing them, are perfectly free to do so. Such people are neither unworthy nor unspiritual. They are free to ride the stormy waves of yearning, satiation, and more yearning. No doubt they can, as much as anyone, find realization if they want it badly enough. They can choose ethically supportable desires and reject destructive ones; they can hunger for social justice and world peace; they can elevate their passion to mystical ecstasy and so counterbalance the grinding frustration of appetites.

But those of us who tire of the roller coaster, who seek equanimity, can find it by rejecting the promise of desire. We can see how pursuit of hungers leads to nagging dissatisfaction. We can transcend the yearnings of body and ego, and move to a deeper and quieter space within.

Yes, there will be a price to pay. Life will lose its power to stimulate and arouse. But we will gain steadiness and profound insight in exchange.

The choice is ours and ours alone. The universe will love us either way.


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Sinful Desire? — 8 Comments

  1. You wrote,”The universe will love us either way.”
    I.M.O. That kind of thinking is “psychotic”. The universe does not know you or I exist.
    On the planet earth, given a chance, life will try to eat you if it can.
    Why? because its hungry. You eat life or life eats you.

    Pink – Get The Party Started lyrics (psychotic)

    Everybody’s waitin’
    For me to arrive

    Everybody’s dancin’ and
    They’re dancin’ for me

    The inverse of the Universe loves you is “Paranoid Schizophrenic”.
    Where instead of the Universe loves you, the Universe is OUT TO GET YOU.
    The universe is just trying to make a living.

  2. Mark–

    I agree that the flip side of understanding universal love is fearing pervasive hate. The expanded mental state of both the mystic and the psychotic reveals the hidden power of the cosmos in ways unavailable to the more ‘rational’ mind. Does this mean such intuitions are fiction? From our prior conversations I know we differ on this point. But for my part, the immanence of cosmic affection for me and all life is not theoretical, it is part of my daily experience. The atheist perspective is valid, but it is not proven. There are many conceptions of the universe consistent with scientific theory that permit expanded consciousness and a cosmos that participates in its own formation. You choose to reject such notions, I choose to live by them. One, both, or neither of us may be wrong (see my post Yes & No), but personally I find life more meaningful and rich with purpose when I open myself to the arms of creation. Maybe it’s delusional, but it’s effective. To each his own. Thanks for the comment.

    And by the way,the belief that the universe is “just trying to make a living,” implies awareness, yes?


  3. “Yes, there will be a price to pay. Life will lose its power to stimulate and arouse. But we will gain steadiness and profound insight in exchange.”
    Will, I fear that if life ever loses its power to stimulate and arouse, we will be a population of steady and insightful zombies!
    Just saying….

  4. Mary–

    I may break my promise to quit writing about desire to address your concern in the next post. For now, however, rest assured that the steady and insightful state is not at all zombielike. It is free of agitation and unbridled sensory arousal, but it is filled with love, bliss, and a deep appreciation for life. A fair tradeoff in my opinion. But as I’ve tried to make clear in this series, it is a personal choice. Everyone gets to take the path that feels best. No judgment. In any event, I doubt we need to worry that the world will soon be populated entirely by realized beings freed from desire’s tethers. Hunger still appeals to the majority.


  5. Will,

    The word desire means “of the Father.”
    De – of
    Sire – Father

    Desires are good things, IMO.
    In other words, our desires are good things, as long as they are in keeping with what is best for us… without yearning to have what belongs to others, or what is not in our best interests to have/achieve.

    Those are my thoughts on the subject.

    Be well,


  6. Will,

    IMO, desires can be as meaningful as “inspirations.”
    In the spirit, our inspired.

    True desires can also come from the spirit.
    The key with all of this is to check that what we need/want is not from the ego, but from a much better place – namely, the Spirit.

    My best,


  7. Duane–

    Your comment and those of others show me that this is: 1. A difficult topic to write about and 2. Not a simple question of yes or no.
    It is probably not possible for most of us to completely eliminate desire. I do think that those who attain such freedom will also attain deep spiritual realization. They will become one with the cosmos, which contains all and embraces all.
    On the other hand, those with intense desire for connection with God may also attain a higher state. So will those who help others in an effort to realize their intense desire for justice and equality. So there must be desires that are edifying.
    At the same time, most of our minute-by-minute yearnings lead to frustration. Further, the ego can grasp at any attainment and try to claim it, and so poison the best qualities with self-aggrandizement. It is probably such grasping, more than anything, that makes desire so dangerous.
    So I agree with your take on all this, for the most part. Thanks for the comment.


  8. Will,

    I think we agree on some (or most?) of this…

    You wrote:
    “… most of our minute-by-minute yearnings lead to frustration. Further, the ego can grasp at any attainment and try to claim it.”

    I agree.

    Anyway, thanks for the ‘food-for-thought’.