What is Desire and How to Deal with it


I’ve been thinking a lot about desire as a major problem of the mind lately. I took the liberty to wildly mix some theories from yoga and spiritual discourse with post-structuralist philosophy. The following becomes a bit theoretical in the end but it’s eventually very practical to be clear about what it is the mind does that creates unhappiness and dissatisfaction, both on the individual and societal level.

Personally, Jiddu Krishnamurti helped me to discover a thought mistake that is my habit and to eradicate a resulting unhappiness. And it was fun to blend in a little Deleuze and Guattari. I see a wild beauty in their theoretical notions and models and many, many parallels to yoga philosophy. Which is not so astonishing regarding the fact that Anti-Oedipus was published in 1972 and thus influenced by the anti-war hippie movement and the related interest in Eastern philosophies.

Last but not least I relate the concept of desire to the Law of Attraction. In the end of this post I sum up some practical steps I find helpful to deal with negative emotions and blocks that come from desire.

The Difference between Joy and Desire

Let’s start with some definitions. Firstly, I want to distinguish desire from joy. What is joy? Imagine a moment in which you simply enjoy the beauty of nature, a good meal or the embrace of another person. This is joy. According to Krishnamurti, the mind has the unhealthy habit of creating an image of this moment which in turn creates a want for more. You enjoy a delicious piece of cake. It’s so good! You finish the piece and want more although you are full. You create an image in your mind of the joy you just experienced (the first piece of cake) and want more. That’s desire: the image in your mind of something resulting in a want.

Similarly to Krishnamurti the post-structuralist philosophers Deleuze and Guattari also point out that you never directly desire an object but the image you create in your mind of the object – or to say it with Marcel Proust (whom Deleuze quotes in the interview below):

You don’t desire a woman, but a landscape enveloped in the woman.

Thus, the object is always seen in relation to the subject, as a means to produce identity.


Fulfilled and Unfulfilled Desire

The next notion Krishnamurti defines is pleasure. Pleasure is fulfilled desire. You crave the cake, you have a piece. Pleasure however must be differentiated from joy. Joy always happens in the moment, before any conceptualization of the moment. As soon as a concept arises, it’s not joy anymore. Then it becomes pleasure. Pleasure already entails the desire for an object and thus a mind made concept of the object of desire in your mind. Unfulfilled desire results in frustration, sorrow, grief or anger.

Fear as a Result of Thinking

Pleasure is linked to fear, the fear of losing or not attaining the object of desire. You remember a past event that didn’t go well and are afraid that it might happen again. Krishnamurti gives the example of the biggest fear of all: the fear of death: „If I die immediately, there would be no fear. It would be over.“ Fear is thus a result of thinking. Plus, fear is linked to time.

Physical and Psychological Time

Krishnamurti distinguishes two different concepts of time: a) physical time and b) mental or psychological time. Physical time is the time we need to get from A to B or the cycles of the moon, sunrise and sunset and so on.

Psychological time by contrast is man made. It’s the movement in the mind from what is to what ought to be. And this is where we get into trouble. The human mind constantly reflects on: I will be this, I will have that, I’ll achieve this and so on. It’s connected to hope, the hope for a better life, a better future. It’s also a means of identity construction; that’s why it’s so powerful. It gives purpose. But this purpose is only temporary: I am this, I am that, I want this, I want that. Thus you constantly create and recreate your ego identity, which brings about separation/duality and as a result frustration, fear and sadness.

Observing the What Is

I don’t have this now but in the future I can achieve it. This is a movement away from the current situation, the movement from what is to what will be. Why is this a problem? By escaping the what is, it cannot be resolved. For instance if I feel sad and I analyse my sorrow and make a concept of it, I escape the what is and move to the what ought to be. Thus the what is, my sadness, stays as is. If I by contrast observe myself in the moment of my experience of sadness, putting my full attention on this observation, the sadness vanishes. Try it!

Being In The Moment

That’s why Thich Nhat Hanh or Eckhard Tolle and all the other spiritual leaders and authors don’t get tired of stressing the importance of being in the moment. You find it in zen. In awareness. The yoga sutras. And so on – the problem of psychological time really lies at the heart of it all. It’s an illusion, but a powerful one. And we live in a cultural matrix that supports this illusion and has supported it for thousands of years.

Desire as Lack and as Creative Force

There is a problem with Krishamurti’s conception of desire. You had a joyful moment, you want more, that’s desire. Krishnamurti thus emanates from a concept of desire as lack. Though this concept wonderfully shows us the functioning of desire in the mind, it ignores another aspect of desire: Desire is the driving force on this planet. It literally makes the world go round. If desire ends, the production of the worldly projections would immediately stop and we would all fall into a state of enlightenment and eternal silence. Our karma would be resolved, the world could end. As long as there is desire, there is wordliness.

Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus

Critizising traditional Western philosophy, the post-structuralist philosophers Deleuze and Guattari also stress this creative power of desire. Plato, Freud or Lacan understand desire foremostly through the notion of acquisition insofar as it longs to aquire something that it lacks. By contrast, heavily drawing on Nietzsche’s Will to power and Spinoza’s Conatus, Deleuze and Guattario in their Anti-Oedipus suggest a concept of desire as productive force. For them, desire produces reality through something called autopoiesis, that is the constant production and reproduction, organization and re-organization of a specific system, in this case the production of the self by the subconscious. For them, individuals constantly produce desire.

Which basically means: We create our own reality through what we project out: our desires, our state of consciousness, our subconscious wishes and expectations.

The Law of Attraction

Does that ring a bell? Sounds like The Law of Attraction, right? The belief that by focusing on specific positive or negative thoughts the individual energetically attracts exactly the circumstances and situations that mirror their state of mind and “prove” the validness of their thoughts. Life situations can thus be changed by changing the mind’s focus. Aren’t thoughts eventually desires too? Subconscious wishes or expectations that project out and thus become a creative force of reality production.

You find similar approaches in the works of Bob Proctor, Rhonda Byrne, Dr. Joe Vitale, John Assaraf, Dr. John Demartini, Dr. Denis Waitley, Michael Bernard Beckwith, Jack Canfield. They all occupy themselves with one question:

How can we improve our lives through the creative power of our minds?

As beautiful as their findings are, the theory lacks an explanation for the interrelationship between individual and social reality production. If everything I experience is merely a projection of my own inner state of consciousness then the other people in my life are somewhat reduced to their alleged function to teach me something. Right?

How Individual Desire Relates to Societal Desire

Deleuze and Guattari’s model explains how the production of individual and social realities relate. Their term desiring-machine illustrates how the desire production relates even to larger scale social systems of desire production and explains eventually how capitalism is produced. The multitude of individual desiring machines in Deleuze and Guattari’s model are all connected to each other which explains an interrelation between individual and bigger social desires.

With regard to structure and agency, the philosophers offer a dialectical model: „There are no desiring-machines that exist outside the social machines that they form on a large scale; and no social machines without the desiring machines that inhabit them on a small scale.“

Desiring Machines, Social Machines and Resistance

Thus, individual production defines social production and vice versa. The production of individual desire is embedded into the matrix of the so-called social machines, larger scale desiring-machines that form the matrix of culturalization in which we move. It’s impossible to create desire outside of this matrix; even forms of resistance (the so-called war machines) will always in some way (and if in disapproval) relate to the dominant mode of desire production.

At the same time these social machines of desire production are eventually only created and recreated by the collective desiring machines of individual desire production. That means: Your thinking and desiring is somewhat restricted by the bigger structure you live in, that is today’s Western capitalism. This is why resistance movements often at some point become integrated within the larger system. Within this structure though, there is space for individual agency: If we educate our mind and become more and more aware of the things we project out, we actively influence and eventually help altering the societal plane.

How to Deal with Desire, Negative Emotions and Blocks in your Life

If you experience a negative emotion, become aware of what happens in the mind:

  • The negative emotion arises because a desire is not fulfilled
  • But its root is the desire itself and the mind’s habit to create desires
  • That is, the mind creates an image of an object that promises joy and results in a want
  • If you follow this image, you move away from the current moment that you experience as a moment lacking in something due to desire
  • Stop thinking about what ought to be
  • Keep in the what is and observe

On a more general level:

  • Identify the problem areas of your life. Which subconscious desires project them?
  • Consciously change negative desires (expectations of negative outcome, etc.) into positive desires
  • That means: Don’t focus on the problem, focus on the positive outcome instead and thus actively create the change.


Photo Credit: Joshua Earle via Unsplash