Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

Desire for Objects

flower picture

We can look at the process in more detail through the consideration of material objects as a supposed source of happiness. Most of us will have experienced the situation of desiring something to such an extent that much of our spare-time thoughts were devoted to thinking about it, how to go about getting it, what it would be like to have it etc. And, unsurprisingly, if we did finally obtain it, it is very likely, for a short time at least, there was a feeling of genuine happiness. Unfortunately, we will certainly have also discovered that the feeling did not last.

Suppose, for the sake of an example, we say that X very much wants a surfboard. He lives close to the sea and spends hours watching others surfing, envying their control, poise and wishing he were feeling the excitement etc. Then, one day Y has a serious accident in a particularly large wave. Y decides he never wants to surf again (which he couldn’t do anyway until all of his fractures have healed) and gives his board to X, who is now blissfully happy.

There are several points that may be made regarding this example. First, the happiness could not in any sense have been in the surfboard. Many people (e.g. me!) would never even want one and would feel no particular positive emotion to receive it. Even Y will now probably feel only negative emotions towards it. Happiness cannot be in any object. If it were, the manufacturer of such objects would rule the world. The increase in prosperity in the west over the past century has given us material possessions beyond the dreams of previous generations but it hasn’t brought about any increase in happiness. People in the third world, without even electricity to fuel many of the things that we now consider essential, are frequently happier than we are. And money is nothing more than a means for obtaining objects.

Also, even though Y was presumably made happy by the surfboard when he originally obtained it, he is clearly no longer made happy by it. And if X were to be given another surfboard the next day by his favourite aunt, he would not be likely to be twice as happy. In fact, he might well feel a bit aggrieved.

And, if the surfboard were taken away. X could find something else the next minute, which could bring equivalent happiness.

Secondly, what we want is itself only an idea, a product of our own particular genetic make up and environmental upbringing. X may want a surfboard but Z, from a family that spent time listening to music rather than going out to play sports, may well want a violin. What I want, and what I think that I need, depends upon who I think I am.

Thirdly, the idea (of what I want or need) is only a thought and we cannot choose to have thoughts – they simply ‘arise’. And we are not our thoughts or our emotions.

Fourthly, the happiness that results when the desire for the surfboard is satisfied does not last. As soon as we get used to having the desired object, we are back to our ‘baseline state’ of normality and ready for the next desire to kick in. There is also a tendency, as we grow older, to supplant the trivial desires of childhood (e.g. for a piece of colourful wrapping paper) for more sophisticated ones (BMWs, holiday homes in the Bahamas or whatever). So, if we wish to be as happy as possible, a good suggestion to begin with is to keep our desires as simple as possible so that they can easily be satisfied.

The tendency of today’s society is continually to try to impose the latest fashions upon us so that we are continually wanting something new. Is it surprising that we seem to be less happy now than in previous generations?

Our usual state is that we feel limited and insecure – i.e. we believe we are the ego. When we desire something, we have the feeling that we lack the desired object, that somehow we are incomplete without it. We want to feel ‘full-filled’ and complete. We identify with the desired object and mistakenly imagine that it will give us this completeness, however temporary. At the moment of obtaining it, that perceived emptiness is filled and we feel satisfied and completely ourselves. Momentarily there is nothing that we want. The phrase ‘satisfaction of the desire’ is a key one – the obscuring influence of the desire is no longer there. Obtaining the object, we feel that we are temporarily made complete. The desire that obscured the knowledge that we are already complete is lost.

We are not looking outwards away from ourselves for some thing that we perceive as a lack. We are at peace and content in simple knowledge of our true nature – which is existence, consciousness and happiness. This is, and was, always our true nature. The imagined limitation and the lack, manifested as a desire, simply took us away from it. But objects can never ‘complete’ us in this sense and we know it, even if only subconsciously. As soon as we look, we find that we still see the objects as separate and the spell is broken.

All that happens in such moments of happiness is that the ego temporarily disappears, leaving the real Self to shine through. Exactly the same happens during attention, when we are so intent on a task that we are unaware of passing time or our surroundings. It happens during dangerous sports, for the same reason. Providing that we are in control, the need to give all of our attention to the rock face or the seething rapids means that there is no place for ego or mental distractions. We are completely in the present.

There is no end to desire whilst we consider ourselves to be limited. As one desire is satisfied another is born, continually adding fuel to the fire and taking us away from the happiness that we seek. As Swami Dayananda said, it is not what I want that is the problem, it is that I want. As long as we continue to perceive ourselves as limited, as lacking something that will make us complete, we will continue to search for this elusive (and, of course, non-existent) something outside of ourselves.

And we could never be content with ‘limited’ happiness. We want the complete and everlasting variety. This is yet more proof, if more were needed, that we will never find it in anything in the outside world or in mind, thoughts or emotions. These are all finite and temporary. Happiness must transcend time, space and causation; must be beyond mind and intellect; cannot in fact be in anything outside of ourselves.

We must supplant all other desires with the single one of endeavouring to discover our true nature. This will also have the effect of turning our attention back towards ourselves instead of outwards to the illusory external ‘things’. Of all desires, the desire for self-realisation is the highest. Along the way, there are two sources that can reliably remind us of our true nature – meditation and deep sleep. Meditation is a state of absence of thoughts, i.e. absence of mind or ego. And in deep sleep, there is Consciousness only – again no ego. It is those moments when we ‘forget ourselves’ when we feel most alive and happy. Only forgetting ourselves permanently, i.e. eliminating the ego completely, can bring lasting happiness.

The true nature of the Self within is everlasting bliss. When the mind is switched off, as in deep sleep, this state is temporarily experienced. Unfortunately it is not consciously realised and, upon awakening, we believe ourselves to be back in the illusion of our day to day lives where we feel at the mercy of the supposed events going on around us. When the ego is dissolved and the unity of the Self is recognised, it will be known that this bliss is our true nature, our permanent condition.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always--
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

(T. S. Eliot. ‘Little Gidding’ (Four Quartets). Faber and Faber.)

Other Discourses in this Section:
The Unreal Spiritual Path The Real
The Unreal The Spiritual Path The Real
We are not the Body A Brief View of Advaita Adhyaasa - the Nature of Error
Control of the Ego How to Act - Karma Yoga There is Only the Self
States of Consciousness The Process of Enlightenement Fate and Free Will
Meaning and Purpose   We cannot think or talk about Reality
Pleasure and Happiness   Time, Change and Memory
Desire for Objects    


Page last updated: 08-Jul-2012