Anatomy of desire : creatinge emotional balance through spiritual self awareness
By Marshall Govindan Satchidananda
Have you ever wondered why your desires are so compelling ? Why you can suddenly feel irritated, even angry when unexpected obstacles prevent you from getting what you want ? Have you wondered why subsequent frustration can make you depressed when you are tired, but aggressive when you are feeling strong ? Have you noticed how your thoughts depend upon your feelings ? Do you find yourself fretting over the small stuff in the business of life ? Do you notice yourself complaining repeatedly for little or no reason ? What makes you get excited ? What makes you feel bored, full of inertia ?
If you want to be a master of your life you must understand why and how desires and the subsequent feelings and emotions arise within you. You are responsible for the desires that arise within you! And you are also responsible for how you respond to them. But understanding the “anatomy of desire” is only the first step. After understanding comes the necessary work of transforming your human nature so that you can develop spiritual and emotional well being.
Who are you? The Anatomy of the subtle body
Developing emotional well being begins with the fundamental question: “Who Am I?” People suffer because they identify with their physical body, passing emotions and thoughts. After some spiritual introspection one realizes that one cannot be something which is here one moment, and gone the next. Ones’ body, emotions and thoughts are continuously changing. One can only be what always is, what never changes.
What part of you always is? What part of you never changes? The enlightened ones, the spiritually realized tell us that Who you really are is The Witness Conscious within, the inner Seer to your life’s drama. It is experienced behind the thought “I am.” Not “I am this or that” but simply “I am.” Indeed, it is the formless, timeless core of being, your soul, the spiritual body if you will. It is the secret psychic being , the divine element within you. It also becomes your guide, which knows the truth, the good, the true delight and beauty of existence when you are consciously your soul, and when mind, life and the body take their true place as its instruments.
The soul, the psychic being, moves through this world using the four vehicles known as the physical body, the vital body, the mental body, and the intellectual body. According to yoga, the anatomy of the human being is not limited to our physical body, but is actually composed of several concentric bodies, or sheaths of energy-consciousness, from gross to subtle levels.
1. The physical body: the material, visible part of the human being, including the body consciousness at the cellular level which acts without any mental will of our own or even against that will;
2. The vital body: the field of human nature which is made up of desires, sensations, feelings, passions, energies of action, will of desire, possessive and other related instincts, anger, fear, greed, lust, sorrow, joy, hatred, repulsions, pride, small likings and disliking, preferences, etc. The mental and the vital are mixed up on the surface of the consciousness but they are separate forces in themselves.
3. The mental body sense-mind; that part which has to do with cognition, perception through the senses, the reactions of thoughts to things, the putting out of mental forces for realization of an idea; the expression of ideas through speech.
4. The intellectual body: reasoning-mind; that which analyzes, synthesizes and constructs ideas from signs, indications and gathered data; mind is a subordinate power of Intelligence. Mind takes its stand in the standpoint of division, actually forgetful of the oneness behind, though able to return to it by the illumination which occurs when the individual transcends himself or herself, and becomesconscious of the Ultimate Truth and Reality underlying all names and forms.
5. The spiritual body: the eternal true being or Self of the individual; the spiritual consciousness is that in which we enter into the awareness of Self, the Spirit, the soul, and is able to see in all things their essential reality and the play of forces and phenomena as proceeding from essential Reality.
Each of these five bodies interacts with one another continuously. However, we usually ignore their action as our consciousness is absorbed in their play. Being able to discern and distinguish the functioning of each of them develops gradually through the practice of meditation and awareness training in daily life.
Egoism: a case of mistaken identity with the vehicles of your gross and subtle anatomy
But the above first four “bodies”are only vehicles for our soul or spiritual body,, Furthermore, they are continuously changing. While repetition of emotions or thoughts or even physical sensations creates the illusion of permanence, in fact there is nothing permanent about anything related to these bodies. Like the snail, whose nervous system is so undeveloped, that it does not notice for several seconds that an obstacle has been removed from its path, so the human brain fails to notice the fundamental background behind all phenomena, which is conscious energy, and consequently we falsely identify with what we are not. This limitation is egoism: the habit of identifying with physical sensations, emotions, feelings and thoughts simply because they often repeat themselves, creating the illusion of permanence. And therefore, if I am the body, the emotions, and the mind, then whatever I do to make them feel pleasure or to avoid pain becomes a primary source of motivation. Actions, words and thoughts, when often repeated form habits, and consequently, we develop habitual likes and dislikes. So, when we feel the impulse of a desire, for example, to engage in any particular activity, for example eating ice cream, or to feel a particular emotion or even to dwell on certain memories, it is done with the sense of “I am” this feeling, this memory or this action. We hear the mind echoing the desire impulse with statements like: “I need to do this,” “I think” or “I’m depressed.”
Recognizing the Vital Body, the seat of desires and emotions
We are fundamentally animals, but with an evolved nervous system, which enables us to conceive of perfection, recognize our imperfections and devise strategies and apply willpower to bridge the two. But like all other animals we do have a vital body, which is the seat of our emotions and desires. Desire is the basic manifestation of the vital body. The vital body, more subtle than the physical, but grosser than the mental body, enlivens us with its energy. It constantly penetrates and influences, even corrupts the functioning of all other parts of our being. The vital is that part of our complex human nature that contains in itself all the effective potency for action. All our dynamic urges, bubbling enthusiasm and the intensity of passion have their seat here.
One is conscious of the vital body whenever ones feels apathy, sadness, fear, pride, anger, lust, courage, or even a desire for love or acceptance by others. There are literally dozens of distinct variations for each of these emotions. They all arise essentially out of a need by the ego to be loved or to control. All of these many types of emotions become desires when instead of detaching from them, instead of recognizing the fundamental disturbance they create to our well being, we indulge them in fantasy or act to realize them. In contrast to what manifests in ordinary human nature, it is instructive to reflect upon what the great 20th century sage, Ramana Maharshi said, when asked to describe his state of enlightenment: "Now nothing can disturb me anymore." If the mood of the vital becomes disturbed, it may lead to serious consequences in (1.) causeless sorrow or grievance; (2.) complaining; (3.) the slightest hindrance to what one wants engenders a sense of rancor, impatience and injured innocence; (4.) a proneness to psychological aggressiveness; (5.) obstacles in the path to realizing a desire disturb one’s composure; (6) expectation of praise from others; (7.) making “mountains out of molehills”; (8.) morbid pleasures, perverse fascination for the sorrow and suffering of others; (9.) recalling those weaknesses of nature which one have already been rejected; (10.) turning spiritual life into a dry desert, depriving it of its sweetness and inherent bliss; (11.) resistance towards the spiritual aspirations and efforts to purify oneself of habitual desires. While on the positive side, it constantly seeks delight in life’s experiences, it has no power of discrimination.
Life seen from the perspective of the vital
Here are some typical experiences involving the vital body:
1. A split second after hearing your spouse complain about something you forgot to do, your vital body feels guilty and defensive;
2. At the airport you hear an announcement that your flight has been cancelled and a moment later your vital is feeling anxiety. At the same time, you intellectual body is saying “what am I going to do? “And then “I need to call so and so.”
3. Physical hunger pangs and weakness provoke the vital feelings of impatience and nervousness.
4. Remembering the death of a loved one, you feel depressed, and then look for something to eat as compensation, and you find yourself wondering about life after death.
5. Watching the news on television, you hear someone make inflammatory comments about your favorite politician, and as your mind begins to debate what they said, your vital releases feelings of frustration.
6. After looking at your watch and hearing your mind say “I am late,” your vital releases impulses of impatience and pushes you to move faster.
7. At a social gathering you feel excited and happy as you talk to others. Your own vital body is exchanging and sharing many such feelings with those with whom you are talking. This exchange causes you to talk more, drink more, and to suspend at least temporarily the mood of depression you have been feeling for many days. You are feeding off of the vital feelings of others.
8. Your roommate is bored and depressed. You feel depressed too. Consequently, you spend many hours watching television, which in turn stimulates a whole range of vital impulses as you empathize with the emotions expressed dramatically by television actors, and relieve your boredom.
In the above examples we can observe that sometimes the vital body initiates a chain reaction involving the physical, mental and intellectual (example 7 and 8) but sometimes, it is the intellect, which initiates the reaction of the other bodies, including the vital (example 5). Most often, it is the mental body which initiates the chain reaction (examples 1, 2, and 6). Either you see, hear, smell, taste or hear something, or you do so in your imagination, for example, you fantasize what will happen on your date this weekend, and then begin to feel excitement, trepidation, lust, or fear. Notice that the physical body can provoke a reaction in the vital (example number 3) or the reverse may occur (example 4). By tracing the chain reaction back to its source, we can determine whether there is a habitual reaction, which is causing us to react the way we do to life’s happenings, and if so, heal that source of suffering. Becoming aware of the interplay of the five bodies is the first step of what is referred to as “self-study” and “purification of desires,” which we will turn to in a later section, but first let’s discuss how society has organized itself to protect its members from the potential damage of the uncontrolled vital passions.
Suppression, Expression and Starving of the Vital Body’s Desires
Because of the vital body’s lack of discrimination, to curb its impulses and appetites, as soon as humans began to organize themselves socially, rules, laws and moral codes were adopted. And ever since, humans have had to suppress their feelings in order to adjust to the social norms of their times. Today, an army of psychologists and therapists supports individuals who seek to heal the consequences of such suppression. We are encouraged today to express our emotions in talk therapy and innumerable other approaches of modern psychology. Expression of emotions is considered to be superior to suppression, at least in adjusting our behavior to the norms of society. But only up to a point. Beyond that point, vital impulses have become medical conditions in the Western, material culture, and its high priests, psychiatrists, (which in the original sense of the term meant “physicians of the soul, the psyche,”) have relied heavily upon prescription medicine to control our emotional roller coaster, and tendencies to self destruction. They have largely failed to fulfill their larger mandate: to heal our psyche, or soul’s suffering. The vast majority of us are suffering from neuroses, and never before in human history have so many been trying to control their desires with prescription medication. Alcohol and recreational drugs remain the over the counter mood altering agents of choice, followed by television and other forms of mass media entertainment.
Among religious or spiritual adepts who have sought to liberate themselves completely from the vital body’s tyrannical movements, in monasteries or hermitages, starvation of the vital has been the ruling strategy. Until or unless an individual goes on a long retreat, one has no idea of what that involves or of how dominant a role the vital and all its servant desires has in one’s life.
Introduce yourself to this traditional spiritual approach. Turn off the television, unplug the phone and computer, observe silence, fast and avoid your usual forms of distraction for several days at home, or preferably somewhere far away. The vital will constantly tempt you with restless longing for distraction and when resisted throw you into the inertia of dry boredom. But this approach can be powerfully transformational.
Spiritual aspirants learn to channel their vital energy through meditation into a new Witness perspective of life. They learn to slow down, cultivate calm, and if they persist to purify themself of desire and habitual behaviors. It is a long process, and few have the perseverance or even the inclination to leave the world behind for as little as a few days or weeks.
Mastery of the Vital Desires
Today, while human nature presents to us with the same challenges and resistance to change, we no longer have to isolate ourselves from the world in order to master the desires of the vital body. All of the knowledge, techniques and spiritual wisdom needed to spiritually purify ourselves of egoism and desire has been published or is even available on the internet. But most of us are still influenced by organized religion, which unfortunately still tries to control us by inciting fear of damnation or karmic retribution. Religion focuses on external forms: personalities, symbols, belief systems, ceremonies, architecture etc. The spirit is formless. So how can it be communicated? How can it be realized? One must turn within and learn to silence the roar of the vital and mental. The spiritual is not to be attained. It lies within us 24/7. It is in bliss all of the time. But we ignore it because of the distractions created by the vital and its servant desires. Spirituality has nothing to do with attaining; it has everything to do with letting go of what we are not, and being Who we truly are.
What is usually lacking among most spiritual aspirants is the realization that only by controlling and mastering from moment to moment, in the midst of the busy events of their lives, the impulses of vital desires and mental fantasies, can we ever reach spiritual, emotional well being. Ignorance of this due not only to organized religion, as cited above, but also to the “spiritual materialism” of our times, wherein spirituality is confused with visionary or psychic experiences, powers, channeling disembodied entities or other sensational states, as well as becoming “special” or having “special experiences.” But it is only when you are ready to be no one special and to experience nothing special you are in fact beginning to walk on the spiritual path. Because as long as you are special, you are apart from everyone else. And when you become one with everything in the spiritual dimension, you are no longer separate, no longer special. It is only the ego that is interested in specialness. And, consequently, it is not by finding someone “special,” however evolved spiritually they may, that you are going to heal your own vital neuroses.
In a mature, integral spiritual approach, we seek to convert the vital by quieting its movements, becoming more conscious of its play, using enlightened reason to curb it, and finally by turning its dynamism towards the realization of the True, the Good and the Beautiful. Having glimpsed these distant peaks, which metaphorically speaking lie on the horizon of our soul’s perspective of eternity, one cultivates an ardent aspiration for the conversion of the vital into a pure and perfect instrument of the Spirit.
Having established a foundation of patience, perseverance and indomitable will not to give up, the spiritual aspirant proceeds through the following stages of self-discipline or sadhana:
1. Observe carefully your inner field of experience, noticing the appearance of impulses, feelings and emotions, and with insight identify what the vital is seeking to achieve by the suggested action or reaction; observe and discern the desire, fear, pride, depression, possessiveness, greed, despair, need to control , etc. in all its nakedness, without disguise.
2. Keeps as one’s mantra “Not to manifest it in action;” taking the firm resolve that not until one regains ones composure of mind and heart and regains one’s inner liberty completely, he or she will not act out the suggested dictate of the impulsive vital. Repeat: “I shall not do it.” Even a partial success will pave the road to eventual victory.
3. Build up the Witness consciousness, bringing it more and more into every event and circumstances. Cultivating calm detachment, cease to identify with the thoughts, emotions, desires, impulses which generally absorb your consciousness causing you to “dream with your eyes open.”
4. Reason with the vital, keeping your goal of spiritual Self-realization, and emotional well being in view. Tell it: “You are throwing away Self-mastery and Bliss for a transitory passion, a vain and cheap pleasure or satisfaction in the vanishing present moment.” “Why make a mountain out of a mole hill?”
5. Use your willpower starting with small challenges to your emotional equilibrium, and gradually progressing as you develop strength. To develop your willpower: (a) develop clear discrimination, the ability to detect and recognize the desires and impulses of the vital ; (b) become convinced of the necessity for developing a spiritual life, by study of spiritual classical literature and deep reflection on the truths expressed therein; (c) enshrine within your heart a constant and intense love for the Divine, in whatever form you hold dearest, or as Truth, Goodness or Consciousness itself; (d) awaken a constant aspiration for progress and perfection in mastering the vital.
6. First in meditation, and then in daily life, go beyond the mind to the psychic, or soul level of your being, and invoke its power and light to convert the vital movements. To do so, witness the mind, then transcend it, and finally silence it. The vital always attempts to make the thinking mind its servant, so you must rise above the mind into the perspective of pure Witness consciousness, and from there calm the tumult of the vital movements. With a silent mind a higher intelligence will begin to act through you with clear directions and wonderful power.
7. Evoke the luminous life force which lies deep within you, making it replace the desire filled surface movements of the vital on the surface of the mind. It is a radiant Divine Power, full of peace, strength and bliss. Make this higher force active in the daily habitual field of action and reaction.
8. Not the last step, but one which must accompany all of them: send a steady and sincere prayer from your heart to the Divine, appealing for the action of its Grace to subdue and neutralize the vital impulse which is troubling you at that moment. Nothing can resist the force of such Grace, and if the prayer is sincerely expressed, one can never doubt its efficacy. No resistance of the vital can long withstand this force.
Why the vital must be transformed?
Aspiration is what your soul feels. Desire is what your ego feels. Your soul aspires for the “True, the Good, the Beautiful” which lies at the heart of the spiritual dimension of our being, and potentially in every relationship, every experience, if you can see things from its perspective. The soul aspires to see the One amidst the many. Ther soul aspires to free itself from ego-born suffering: “I need,” “I want,” “Poor me,” “I am afraid.” Your soul aspires to reunite with the fundamental Reality underlying everything which the mind makes separate and divided.The perspective of the ego is a dead end. And the vital is the ego’s most powerful servant. Until the vital switches its allegiance, and fully collaborates in the aspiration to realize the “True, the Good, and the Beautiful,” and “The One,”it will continue to provide unceasing desires, obstacles and great suffering, as described above. That is what our human nature is programmed to do. As Sri Aurobindo put it, “We need a revolution against our human nature.” We can see not only the need for radical change, but also the potential for change. To manifest it however, one must discern the impulses and movements of desire, not indulge them in our imagination and not allow them to manifest in action. Whether the desire involves attraction or aversion, greed, lust, boredom or fear, whether you are getting what you want or what you don’t want, all desires are a trap of the ego, and bring certain suffering. They all contract your identify back into “the little me” who is missing something, and who is consequently suffering
Lasting happiness cannot be found in things which do not last. It is found only when we enjoy every moment from the perspective of our soul, which finds delight through continual awareness, as the Pure Witness Consciousness. Only then can our soul, the psychic begin to lead us and begin to bring down a higher power and consciousness. The more we remove the influence of the vital body, the more our psychic being or soul can communicate to us its truth and guide in things both great and small. It happens here and now, during everyday situations, when we see things from this deeper perspective which permits us to see the One in the many. We begin to live in the eternal now of infinite possibility and freedom from desire. Spiritual realization becomes then not the goal, but the starting point of a complete transformation of human nature at all levels. We are a work in progress. We need not succumb to the habit patterns of our old human nature.
We have the shining examples of many great souls who have shown us the way to integrate God realization and effect human perfection including Jesus, Buddha, Ramakrishna, Gandhi, Babaji, Ramalinga and Sri Aurobindo.
May their example and words of wisdom guide and inspire us all as we aspire to realize our Divine potentiality.