Breaking the Cycle of Desire

Understanding our ‘positioning’ and the five fold acts of consciousness to move beyond frustration

A comedian once put it well. ‘I’d hate to break it to you ladies,’ he said. ‘And you probably don’t realize it. But every time a man sees a woman he makes a kind of calculation. His mind is going: Could I have sex with you or not? And this happens constantly and automatically.’

When this mechanism comes to light, when it manifests in a man, some people call him a macho and his behaviour sexist. But it is merely a tendency that exists in all humans towards all objects that surround him.

Wait. Did you just call women objects? I certainly did. And I call men objects too.


For if there is one thing that is certain about the human condition, it is that s/he is a subject among objects. It is obvious. But it is impossible to overstate the importance of this observation. I live, as a human being, from my point of view. All my sensations and experiences seem to belong to me. The world and everything in it, even other people, appear as a collection of objects to me, that I, the subject, am experiencing.

It is like this for everyone. Everybody experiences themselves as the absolute central point of convergence of experience. There is not one center of the universe. There are many. As many as there are people. We live in an ‘omnicentric’ universe.

Relationship to objects

The relationship between humans and the objects that they experience is a complicated one. It is not complicated by necessity, but there are mechanisms at work that make it so.

Suppose I want something. That’s clear enough. But maybe I cannot have what I want. Now it becomes complicated. What do I do? Throw a tantrum?

Whenever I encounter something I am either attracted or repelled by it. This is the very first relation: a magnetic one. There is a third possibility. That is that the object does nothing in me. I encounter it as neutral and I am able to cognitively or emotively ignore it.

So whenever we encounter something there are three general possibilities:




If we succeed in these no problem arises. But if we can’t get what we want or if we are unable to prevent from experiencing that which we seek to avoid, complications come into being.

Suppose I see a beautiful woman and the dynamic of desire kicks in. But I realize that I don’t dare to go up to her. My desire is frustrated.

I must now do something, mentally, to counter my desire. And this countering costs a tremendous amount of energy. We do this constantly with objects in the world and this is at the root of our contraction.

Negative, Positive and Neutral Mind

In yogic teachings there are three types of mind. There is the negative, the positive and the neutral mind, and these are often misunderstood, especially the neutral mind.

Positive mind corresponds to expansion and experiences that can be had. Positive mind looks at a situation and assesses what is good about it, how it can be elaborated and how it presents us with new opportunities. Negative mind relates to the aspects of a situation that are dangerous and that we might seek to avoid.

A classic example is this: you are in a car and you see someone else coming at the intersection. He would have right of way, but is still far off. Positive mind causes us to think that we will reach the intersection first if we just step on the gas. Negative mind says no, we will never make it. And neutral mind ‘knows’ what is going to happen.

In this view neutral mind is equated with a kind of intuition.

When we look at the dynamic of desire and avoidance, however, neutral mind plays an important role on a much lower level in the mindscape. Neutral mind is there to neutralise thought and emotions whenever the mind cannot afford to be polarised.

And this is the case very often. We are in the office, full of any kind of desire — for vacation, a colleague — and we cannot afford to act on it, because, well, we are in the office. This is the bread and butter of our experience. So there must exist a faculty in the human mental make up that is able to extinguish these desires whenever they come up. Or alternatively, a faculty that is able to counter any unpleasantness that springs forth for being forced to go through experiences that we resent. How do you face another meeting with that loud coworker without erupting in holy anger and righteous violence?

Back to the example of the beautiful woman.

Suppose I see a beautiful woman and I want her. Desire, pure and simple. But now I realize that I don’t have the guts to go up to her. Frustration of desire. Now we have an object or our attention that we are once are attracted to as well as meaning to avoid! The definition of a femme fatale. Unable to deal with the situation, I pretend that I don’t even see her.

But the example works equally well with pizza. I want pizza (desire) but I am trying to lose weight (avoidance) and so I try to ignore it, or eat something less fattening.

Now this ‘eating something less fattening’ is a universal tendency called sublimation. And we do it often on an emotional plane. Where we cannot afford to have an emotion so we transfer it to another area of our life. And this makes us twisted in ways unimaginable.

We see that the human subject has such a complex relation to the objects around him, we wonder how it is even possible to live. In the case of the beautiful woman we have, in this order: (1.) desire, (2.) the frustration of desire when we realize we can’t have her, (3.) the desire to avoid her, (4.) the inability to avoid her because she is so attractive to us that we are unable to put her out of our awareness, and finally, the attempt, (5.) however awkward, to ignore her. (Some of us have an qually complex relationship to the objects in our fridge.)

So with one object, we have all possible ways of relating. Without, and that is the irony of the situation, having an actual relation! Boy, how complicated. Being driven by desire is an endlessly exhausting way to live.

So what can be done about it?

Before we get to this, let us look at the dynamic of desire in closer detail.

Cycle of desire

Before a desire blossoms as a desire it exists as a thoughtform, as a feeling (when we talk about the level of the mental, thoughts belong to it, but so do feelings.)

From a thoughtform we develop an appetite, a desire, and brings us to action. Through acting we have an experience. And the experience gets lodged into memory, giving fuel and structure to future thoughts and feelings. There is either an outer or an inner stimulus that triggers this cycle.

Now what is important to realise that there are several points where we can interrupt this cycle in some way. We are blessed if we can interrupt the cycle at point A. This means the blocking of all thoughts before they arise.

We can demonstrate to ourselves that this is very hard to do, by simply sitting down and blocking whatever thoughts come to us. Try it now.

Did you succeed? Don’t worry, almost no one can do this. Thoughts inevitably come up constantly.

So if it is impossible to block thoughts as they arise, the question becomes: how do we relate to them as they evolve.

Turns out there are several ways.

Point B. If we sit down to meditate, becoming aware of our sensations and feelings as they arise, we create a distance between us and them. We no longer completely identify with those thoughtforms because we are watching them. In this way we lessen their hold over us, and we can prevent some thoughts growing into full fledged desires.

This is the way of classic meditation, where we, mostly, sit down and let the subconscious release.

When we apply willpower when a desire has come over us, to prevent the desire culminating in action, we are applying pressure at point C. Willpower methods of quitting smoking or restraining ourselves in a weight loss programme are good examples of this. And also the reason these things so often fail. Because it is simply extremely hard to reign in a desire that is already developed fully. The entire psychosomatic system is geared up to have the experience of it. The glands are secreting, the hands are ready to grasp and reach for the cookie. It is as if a mouse is trying to stop an elephant from going forward.

At point D the desire is already had and the action has already followed it. This is the point where karma yoga works at. In karma yoga we work for a non-selfish good. To do so engages and satisfies the organ of action, and suspends the gratification of personal desires significantly. They may still be there, but again, they have less of a hold over us, because we have chosen to use our energy for action for another good. « I — ness » and « mineness » are effectively overcome in this way.

At point E we have had the thought, allowed it to develop into a desire, acted on that desire and had the experience that came with it. Then, we let go of it, and prevent it to be reabsorbed into the rigidity of our memory system.

This point E is where tantra works at. It is the point where we can change how an experience is affecting us, by changing our understanding of it, while we are experiencing it. This is why it is sometimes said that tantra is the practice for the Kali Yuga. The Kali Yuga, the ‘dark times’ that will live in, are characterised by rampant consumerism, greed and violence. At the same time our ability to concentrate and be disciplined is at an all time low.

When we are able to have experiences without judging ourselves for them they end up in our memory system in a different way. They do not become sources of guilt and shame and we are able to experience the next cycle as a fresh occurrence.

Do not underestimate to power of changing your understanding of experience!

Living with desire

When you contemplate this cycle you may eventually ask yourself: Do I want to live with or without desires? As soon as we consider the sheer amount of suffering our desiring accounts for, the question becomes inevitable.

For myself, I have come to the conclusion that desires themselves are inevitable. But I also know people that have tried to shut desire out of their lives. And I have found that even with sitting meditation, there is more desire than I can process through it. Therefore, I must learn to live with desire.

If we go through our experiences with awareness, it requires a constant vigilance. It requires more vigilance than just two hours of sitting meditation. But then, you ride your desires like a cowboy (or cowgirl). It does not mean that the desire needs to be fulfilled. There can also be the frustration of desire. But that frustration itself points to an enjoyment of the play of life that is behind the experience.

This is the connection with the so-called body of bliss. You are connecting to it when you are satisfying a desire with the understanding that is gives you an experience of wholeness. But pleasure and pain are two sides of the same coin. And the body of bliss can be connected with even in frustration, the pain just becomes part of the theatre of life, and you are simply enoying this bittersweet drama.

5-fold act of consciousness

At the root of all this lies what is called the five-fold act of consciousness. Creation, Sustenance, Destruction, Concealment and Grace. The first three correspond to the classic three-fold qualities that make up the universe, the gunas. Grace and concealment refer to the state of either being connected with the whole, or having lost touch with it. It is in concealment that we lose sight of the origin and meaning of our experiences and it is grace whereby we become aware of our wholeness again.

Individually it works in the same way. A thought arises: Creation. We have seen with our little experiment that nothing prevents a thought from arising, and thoughts are arising constantly. This is the divine creativity. A thought is entertained for a while, can go through the cycle of desire, — Sustenance — and eventually ceases to exist: Destruction.

The act of concealment that follows has to to with the ego self. There is an appropriation of the arising and passing away of thoughtforms and desires. And it is a though a veil is draped over the divine energy and God herself is the actor in the divine play of creation. This is what we call maya, and through the attraction of maya we forget the underlying reality of our experiences.

Much of yoga, much of meditation, is therefore something very much like remembering. However it is not remembrance in the form of ‘conjuring up a memory’, but it is more like a reconnection to the living presence of the divine energy.

It is as if we are watching a play. And the nature of the play is such that one actress is playing all the roles. But because she is so good, we don’t recognize this. We are completely pulled in by this drama, have too little psychical distance of our appreciation of it. It is as if we are storming the stage in order to keep Othello from strangling Desdemona.

We do thisall the time when we do not take the time to integrate our experiences and they come back to haunt us. When we experience something and are not attentive to the reaction it produces. What is well to remember that it is not us, but the divine presence that does the concealing in us. There is no reason to feel guilty about it.

Grace happens when concealment is overcome and ignorance becomes wisdom. This is the moment where we realize that we are not two. This is the moment where individual consciousness is able to overcome the limited perception of itself and find itself merged in the whole.

Witness consciousness

The first necessity is to understand who we are. When we are training in meditation we are first asked to watch. For example to watch the sensation in our body or the thoughts that pass before our minds eye. We learn that these are just thoughts and sensation and we need not identify with them.

This is called ‘witness’ or ‘observer’ consciousness. There is much goodness to learn from this. But it also presents a problem. Or actually two. The first is that that we put a distance between ourselves and the object. We are, as it were, observing our experiences and saying ‘THIS IS NOT ME, THIS IS NOT ME’. But the truth is: IT IS ME. All of it, without exception.

It is just not ‘mine’.

Who are you?

We are putting ourselves at a certain remove from what we are observing and therefore not fully in the experience of it. We see many meditators like this, dead fish. No, instead, it is possible to be a passionate observer, to be a meditator participating in the center of life. In fact meditative consciousness can be found at the heart of experience. If maya is a tornado, we must be at the calm center of it.

The second problem with witness consciousness is the problem of identity. With witness consciousness there is still ‘someone’ that is trying to be a witness. But consciousness is not personality bound. The problem, or the question, here becomes: Who is the seeker? This question, which recedes further and further back can ultimately be answered by ‘I AM’. The final ground of us, is being itself. But what is this being? It is space and spaciousness, and it it with this spaciousness that we find ourselves, not as an object in it, but as a participant to it.

And for meditation ultimately nothing more is needed, to be effortlessly aware of the space surrounding all contractions. By becoming aware of the contractions of mind and emotion we lessen their hold over us. It makes us able to relax. This relaxation is the first requisite for becoming more ‘ourselves’. This is why Trungpa said that all of our psychological problems can be reduced to our relation to space. If we have no way to properly relate to space and spaciousness, we would have no way to see things in perspective. We’d go crazy.

And many of us are.