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The Yoga of Needs and Desires

It happened. An historical event—the magnitude of which none of us have known before—just happened. Covid-19 unleashed shockwaves into nearly every aspect of ordinary life. Suddenly, habitual activity came to a sharp halt. In a matter of days, the lockdown stripped away our routines, the action patterns that define identity. Society divided into two: the essential and the non-essential workers. How and why those categories were defined opens up huge existential questions. Right now, as slowly governments across the world begin plans to “open up”, we need to think clearly about what the lockdown taught us. What is truly essential? And even more important, why? Those questions loom, and it matters profoundly how we confront them. Does opening society mean getting back to former ways as soon as possible? Or is it about envisaging something new? How can the insights this great social experiment brought into focus be incorporated into a more just, a more enlightened society?

The subtle anatomy of yoga metaphysics understands the hierarchy of human needs according to the functioning of the chakras, those energy vortexes of the subtle body that direct desire. Most people—and so society as a whole—operate upon the level of the lower three chakras. The root chakra, the mooladhara, governs basic survival, whatever the physical organism needs to sustain life. Only with adequate food can human desire rise out of the mooladhara and turn to the reproductive concerns of the next chakra, the svadhisthana. Starving people don’t generally seek out sex, never mind enlightenment. With sexual urges satisfied, human desire ascends to the manipura chakra, the seat of self-empowerment. Personal power, control, and the amassing of resources that both symbolise and extend personal power become the final focus of life. For most people, the higher chakras remain dormant.  

During the strictest phase of the lockdown, governments restricted all commerce to needs associated with the mooladhara. Only food outlets, pharmacies, and industries directly supporting food and medicine could function. Doctors and nurses became the “front-line” heroes, and rightly so, their sacrifice, stamina and commitment a credit to the honour inherent in their profession. But other essential workers were also making an heroic contribution, from those mopping the floor of the hospital to those stacking the shelves in the supermarket—also risky activities of personal sacrifice for the good of all. Without those ordinary jobs—poorly-paid and not commonly respected—more deaths would have occurred.

Though I do not belong to that group of society, I suspect, looking at it from the outside, that those essential workers—galvanised by a profound sense of purpose—abandoned themselves wholeheartedly to their service. Providing food to sustain the general population and medical care for the sick and dying took all their attention. Because more work than ever needed to be done, the lockdown did not thrust them into existential crisis, unlike many of the “non-essential workers” who had plenty of time to contemplate things. 

A good part of the population suddenly became redundant, their work no longer useful, their habitual activity suspended, and in many cases their livelihood snatched away as well. A middle ground also took shape rather quickly. Various industries radically reorganised, with survival mode revealing creative new vistas of possibility. It was truly astonishing how rapidly what would have been dismissed as impossible a month earlier soon became the norm—every type of office work, home-schooling, business conferences, even yoga classes and social gatherings all conducted via the internet. 

Obviously, viable stay-at-home alternatives for certain jobs just don’t exist. Some industries have shut down for good, and it remains to be seen if, when and how they may resurrect. Loss of livelihood is a heavy burden. I know, because I’ve been there, and my heart reaches out with sincere compassion to you who are in it. However, I also know that material loss (and life itself is material) can also sharpen the mind. For yogis, it can open up the pathway to the higher chakras.  As Samuel Johnson’s famous words articulate, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Material loss gives a taste of death, and it’s the ephemerality of all things material, particularly the body itself, that opens the mind to Spirit. 

Those of us who’ve spent the last couple of months with our habitual activity wrapped up in cling film and tucked into the back of the fridge have had plenty of time to reflect upon the quality, direction and meaning of our lives.  As individuals and as a society, never has the opportunity for radical change presented itself so universally. 

What shall it be? So much could be said about the larger societal questions we face. It’s an exciting time, a turning point in history, motivating me to follow commentary on politics, economics and ecology as never before. Yet as fascinating as all that is, my perspective here is personal—informed by spiritual insights that have benefitted me profoundly, and I hope can benefit you. 

Under the enforced minimalism of the lockdown, I’ve been contemplating the question of needs versus desires, discerning the way this abstract issue plays out in my personal life. Though certainly not immune to the shopping bug, I feel energised by simplicity as well. I’ve always loved selecting just the right items to pack into my carry-on luggage, reducing my possessions to a few essentials so as to set off towards adventure with the least baggage possible. I love too the spiritual insights of Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.  Along with all the practical advice, its Zen undercurrent explains how letting go of stuff liberates, clearing space for psychic transformation. Objects get invested with emotional bonds, which can either imprison or liberate us. Discerning which object does what belongs to the spiritual practice of aparigraha, one of the yamas of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga. And Kondo’s measure, “Does this give you joy?” is actually quite a useful criterion, especially if joy to you means bliss, in the sense of ananda.  

Though the question of needs and desires is profound, it’s predicated upon another question that logically comes first. Namely, need for what? Both needs and desires depend upon some purpose. Generally, needs concern what’s essential for survival—functions of the mooladhara and svadhisthana chakras. Basic survival is straightforward: all species in both the animal and plant kingdom need certain things to sustain life. The lower two chakras govern those areas, and the urge behind them belongs largely to biological instinct. 

Desires concern what lies beyond. Not a matter of biological instinct, purposes beyond basic survival arise out of a field of knowledge. The scope of our awareness determines how far desire can ascend along the chakras. For most of society, desires remain focused upon third chakra urges, because the field of knowledge generally available supports personal ego enhancement. Power, status and the acquisition of luxury items all belong to the desire for self-empowerment, and the particular object they cling to depends upon the field of knowledge which presents itself. This is THE fundamental principle behind marketing and advertising, which are essentially forms of education (or mind-manipulation, if you like). If you didn’t know about that red Ferrari or Prada handbag, if it didn’t trigger some urge for self-definition, you would never desire it. Self-identity takes shape according to the objects one clings to. 

Desire is not a bad thing, however, even though some interpretations of the spiritual path may suggest that. Trying to squelch desire is futile, a dark trap that captures many. Desire is the life force that animates everything! Desire is Prakriti, who is primal energy or the goddess. It is Shakti—in love with experience and in love with Shiva. Shakti’s desire creates all movement in time and space, upon all planes of reality from gross to subtle. Shakti seeking Shiva is the essence of life. It’s sunflowers tracking the dawn, salmon swimming upstream, nanoscopic photons propagating light upon the quantum plane. It’s the human soul yearning for God. Desire motivates it all—or call it love. Love is the resonance between two, the mystery of duality, portrayed as the cosmic dance of Shiva-Shakti.  

The young prince Siddhartha Gautama who became the Buddha encountered four sights in quick succession that instantly inspired him to seek higher truth. An old man, a sick man, and a corpse passed by, awakening him to suffering and the ephemerality of life. Then the vision of a monk in meditation crystallised what was to be a world-transforming insight. The four sights together formed a new field of knowledge, lifting desire out of third chakra concerns. Siddhartha immediately abandoned palace life, its luxury no longer intoxicating beside the higher truth he had intuited. In a flash of intuition, the four sights transmitted the knowledge that life involved more than sensual pleasure, which up to that point had been his entire world. Desire propelled him outward in his journey, and seeking answers to ultimate questions was his purpose. In the end, enlightenment came under the Bodhi tree, an awakening of inward Truth, which transformed him into the Buddha.  

Sometimes it doesn’t take much. Something from the outside inspires it. A shower of grace descends and an electrifying injection of spiritual knowledge dissolves delusion, deconstructing third chakra ego identity in an instant. This knowledge has nothing to do with the intellect, with study, or even with sadhana. Though those things can trigger it, so too can something quite ordinary, even improbable. Thirty years of diligent practice may not inspire it, but then in a simple moment of ordinary life it ignites, effortlessly, spontaneously and unbidden.   

The coronavirus pandemic has generated in me a yearning for simplicity. I’m still assimilating what feels to me personally as another turning point. Meanwhile, I’m sorting out clutter, both physical and mental, to see better the landscape that remains. Perhaps for you the shock of the pandemic and whatever loss it’s triggered in your life has brought certain questions to the foreground. A glimpse of that field of higher knowledge on the horizon can generate wonder about what’s coming next. To paraphrase Johnson, there’s nothing like a direct encounter with death to focus the mind upon what truly matters.  And so we return to the original question. Beyond the needs of basic survival . . . What is essential? What do you truly desire, and why? 

The anahata or heart chakra lies above the manipura. When third chakra preoccupations release their hold, the heart chakra gets activated. And it’s truly “a happening”, there’s nothing you need do or can do to force it. It happens through grace, not effort. Cultivating the conditions you think most likely to precipitate it is not a bad way to pass the time, so continue with all the practices you love—if you truly love them. But be aware, the cosmos might have other plans for you. So pay attention. In particular, watch what’s happening in the flow of life. 

When your anahata chakra awakens so many dilemmas just go away. You hold your plans lightly, trusting the way will become clear at each step. Boundaries of self become porous as consciousness naturally expands into other perspectives. Self and other, life and death, past and future . . . it blurs into One—both with and without distinction. It depends how you look at the parts, with eyes of Shiva or eyes of Shakti. Love and compassion flow from your heart. Tears of joy arise even as you may grieve for the long dead.

Spiritual knowledge is your foundation rock. All desire—ultimately—emerges from and returns to it. But you can relax, because seeking is just the game of life. Spiritual knowledge is an eternal presence. It always has been. You just might not have noticed it before. After their long road of trial and tribulation through the land of Oz, Dorothy and her companions realise that the object of their seeking was with them all along. The scarecrow, the tin man, and the lion looked within and saw that brains, a heart, and courage belonged to their birthright. And Dorothy, who only wanted to go home, finally understood that she carried home within. No matter where she found herself, home could be there too. Just click the heels of those ruby slippers together three times, the Good Witch told her, and you’ll be home. 

For us too it can be that simple. Our spiritual home we carry within, no matter where the vicissitudes of life may carry us. And the most unlikely trigger from ordinary life can show us the door. Perhaps the greatest gift of this lockdown has been the space it’s given to pay attention to signposts usually obscured by our routines—and the silence to look within and discover for the first time the boundlessness of our own heart.

Om shanti 

2 thoughts on “The Yoga of Needs and Desires”

  1. Dear Marianne,
    I have been looking forward to hearing your insight on all of this.
    I remember on the yoga retreat in Puglia a few years ago you said,based on Jyotish,that in 2020 a major global crisis was going to happen.
    Your article is so good,it articulates so much in a really clear way and brings together all of the strands of human experience in this really unusual time.
    Thankyou and best wishes to you in beautiful Sardinia!❤️

    1. Thank you, Rachel! These are certainly strange times. I remember talking about the coming crisis for 2020 on that retreat in Puglia, and now it is here with the full force of its reality—with those carefree days of Puglia feeling like a different life. The aftermath of the pandemic will continue for quite some time, with other tensions erupting out of economic hardship, psychological unrest and political/social agitation. It’s happening now in America. But it’s important to remember that time is cyclical. These things will pass. But even more important is the way these shocks to ordinary life can wake us up to the truly extraordinary. Every moment contains a potential doorway to the miracle of our Inner Life. Everyone is not destined to be an activist for justice on the world stage, but everyone—in the fullness of time—will find their way home, just like Dorothy!
      Much love to you dear Rachel. Hope to see you again before too long. ❤️

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