Fitness Magazine

The Power of Desire

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Nina

The Power of Desire

Spiral Staircase by Marie Lossky
(@Marie.Lossky on Instagram)

“We live in an environment so different from the environment that natural selection designed us for that we have these counterproductive feelings, like fear of public speaking. So evolutionary psychology gives a back story, explaining why it is that we so often are misled by feelings ... and then Buddhist meditation tells us what to do about that.” —Robert Wright 
After writing my post The Power of Negative Emotions, when I heard about this Fresh Air interview with Robert Wright (author of Why Buddhism is True), I just knew I had to listen to it. I knew that Wright was going to be talking about natural selection/evolution and its relationship suffering, which I had just explored in last week’s post. And although his book is about Buddhism not yoga, I had a feeling the themes he was going to explore were going to be ones that I would find yoga philosophy as well. And that turned out to be so true! In fact I was quite amazed to hear him say:
“And, in fact, people may have heard that Buddhism says that life is full of suffering, and it's true that suffering is the translation of the word dukkha. It's a respectable translation, but a lot of people think that that word would be just as well translated as "unsatisfactoryness." 
Of course, the word dukkha is a Sanskrit word that is traditionally used in the yoga texts, including the Yoga Sutras, to mean suffering. For example, here it is in sutra 11.16, which gives us some good advice:  
Heyam duhkham anagatam
Suffering that has yet to manifest is to be avoided. 

It makes sense that this word would be used in both traditions because after all the Buddha was a yogi. Anyway, in this discussion, Wright focused mainly on desire. 
“This was in the Buddha's first sermon after his enlightenment is that a big source of our suffering is that we crave things, we want things, but then the gratification tends not to last. So we find ourselves in a state of almost perennial dissatisfaction.” 
This is also an important topic in the Yoga Sutras, which lists “attachment to pleasure” as one of the five afflictions that cause suffering: 
2.3 The five afflictions (klesas) which disturb the equilibrium of consciousness are: ignorance or lack of wisdom, ego, pride of the ego or the sense of ‘I,’ attachment to pleasure, aversion to pain, fear of death and clinging to life. —Edwin Bryant 
Basically Wright said that natural selection rewards people for seeking out pleasure rather than pain, because "pleasurable" activities, such as eating and having sex, are necessary for staying healthy and producing as many offspring as possible (natural selection is all about reproduction!). But this desire for pleasure also leaves us perennially dissatisfied because one pleasurable experience leads to desire for another:
“If it were the case that any of these things brought permanent gratification, then we would quit doing them, right? I mean, you would eat, you'd feel blissed out, you'd never eat again. You'd have sex, you'd, like, lie there basking in the afterglow, never have sex again. Well, obviously that's not a prescription for getting genes into the next generation. So natural selection seems to have built animals in general to be recurrently dissatisfied. And this seems to be a central feature of life — and it's central to the Buddhist diagnosis of what the problem is.”

So along with our powerful urge to plan for the future, this primal desire for pleasure creates suffering and interferes with our ability to find contentment. Of course, it is fascinating to see how early on yoga and Buddhism recognized the same basic human afflictions that scientists who study human evolution now identify as impulses resulting from natural selection. But even though the scientists might be late to the party, I think their perspective helps us to understand the reason why these feelings are so powerful. And knowing that “natural selection” is what is really motivating us will also help us realize when the feelings we’re having are not productive or appropriate for our current situation. 
Finally, both yoga and Buddhism tell us that meditation is what allows us to quiet these primal impulses and learn to let them go. The NPR article quoted Richard Wright, "I think of mindfulness meditation as almost a rebellion against natural selection.” He added:
“Natural selection is the process that created us. It gave us our values. It sets our agenda, and Buddhism says, 'We don't have to play this game.' "
For information on using meditation for cultivating equanimity, see Meditation and Equanimity.
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