What Do We Really, Really Want?

Exploring the root nature of desire - Urmila Pandey

Reading time: 5 minutes

Desire is one of the defining attributes of the human mind. Every waking moment is occupied by some want or the other. But I am not talking about the want for basic things like food, shelter, clothing etc., for that is a universal and natural survival instinct common to all living beings.

In particular, I am talking about human yearning, hankering, craving, longing and obsessing for something or the other in this material world. The relentless pursuit of sensory gratification, the desire for wealth, material possessions, name, fame, success, power, appreciation etc, is a peculiar characteristic of the human species.

Earning money for the sustenance of the body and the maintenance of the family is one thing. But making more and more money to be able to buy more and more stuff is another kettle of fish. The persistent hankering for something to see, hear, taste, smell or touch; the compelling need to be with someone, the compulsive thinking about how to get what one wants. And even when you get all this, the mind yearns for some more of the same or something else.

These are conscious desires. Then, there are latent desires lurking in the subconscious mind and deeper to that are the impressions of previous experiences that shape our desires. These pop up in the conscious mind from time to time, and that gives rise to the thought, 'I want XYZ.'

Our wants may differ, but the root desire that propels these wants is the same – the desire for happiness, fulfilment, and meaningfulness. Not only do we want joy, but we want it to be lasting and unlimited. At the same time, we want to avoid all types of pain. This is what the mind seeks universally.

Thus, although it may seem that we are pursuing delicious food, beautiful sights, luxurious clothes, fancy cars, melodious sounds, sexual intimacy, companionship, power, wealth, success or bungee jumping – in effect, we are all pursuing lasting happiness. We all want the unadulterated joy that never diminishes or goes away. But what we get instead are fleeting pleasures.

No matter how much you gorge on a favourite food item, no matter how many concerts you attend, no matter how many beautiful places you visit, no matter how much you indulge in acts of intimacy, no matter how much you party – the pleasure doesn't last. That's why the mind keeps looking for more and more of the material world, hoping to feel fulfilled. In the bargain, all we get is a momentary pleasure.

The root of all desire is the desire for permanent happiness unadmixed with pain. This is what we really, really want. The problem, as the sages point out, is that we are looking in the wrong place. We are pursuing people and objects, but how can the impermanent world give us lasting joy? How can we derive lasting fulfilment from an ever-changing world?

Moreover, it is worth pondering over why do have this desire at all? Why does every person seek happiness? Our sages answered this question through the wisdom of the Upanishads (ancient scriptures). There is more to our identities than what meets the eye. We are not this mortal body; we are not this changing mind. And what we are in reality explains why we seek joy.

Our reality is the ever-blissful absolute existence, say the Upanishads. We don't know this because of the veil of maya (cosmic delusion). If I don't know that my very nature is bliss, it is easy to understand why I seek joy in the outside world. The desire for things and beings in the material world is only because bliss is our essential nature, but we don't know it. Hence, we keep looking outside.

The path of spirituality is the path to know this very truth of our higher reality. And it is not a question of blind faith. So, even if your intellect says: why should I believe in what some ancient scripture says? It is okay. Use it as a working hypothesis and test it out for yourself. Just as a microscope is needed to see micro-organisms, we need specific tools to 'see' the higher reality.

The path of knowledge, the path of devotion, the path of yoga or the path of selfless karma – these are the various 'tools' to reach the ultimate truth. All we need to do is explore with an open, rational mind. We have tried so many ways of being happy forever in this world and failed. Why not give this path a try? Who knows, although we may start the journey in belief, we could end up 'seeing' what we believed in.


Urmila Pandey

Practising medical doctor in the UK with a keen interest in philosophy