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Beyond Willpower: Mastering Our Desires

In our previous exploration of the Bhagavad Gita (Chapter 3, Verse 34), we delved into the Limitations of Willpower. We saw how deeply ingrained tendencies and desires can influence even the wisest among us. This begs the question: if ingrained conditioning holds such power, and we have limited willpower, then how do we go beyond willpower, to help us with our spiritual journey?


Let us recap the verse [1] that sheds light on this very question, guiding us beyond the limitations of sheer willpower:


इन्द्रियस्येन्द्रियस्यार्थे रागद्वेषौ व्यवस्थितौ |तयोर्न वशमागच्छेत्तौ ह्यस्य परिपन्थिनौ || 34||
indriyasyendriyasyārthe rāga-dveṣhau vyavasthitautayor na vaśham āgachchhet tau hyasya paripanthinau
In each of the senses abide attraction and repulsion for the objects of the senses. One should not come under their sway, for they are way-layers and foes.

This verse delves into the constant battle we face – the allure of sensory experiences and the potential pitfalls they hold. Our senses constantly bombard us with tempting sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and touches. Left unchecked, these desires can become our masters, leading us down paths that may not be in our best interest.


The Sensory Gateway: Where it Begins

Our journey towards understanding how actions arise begins with our senses. Sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell act as gateways through which we experience the world. Every interaction with the external environment bombards us with sensory information. A delicious meal, a breathtaking view, a comforting touch – these experiences trigger a cascade of responses within us.


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The Dance of the Senses: Attraction and Aversion

The verse highlights the inherent duality within our senses (indriya). Each sense experiences both attachment (raga) and aversion (dvesha) towards its objects. The sight of a delicious cake might trigger a craving, while a loud noise might evoke irritation. These automatic attractions and repulsions are deeply connected to our prakriti.


Remember, in our day-to-day life, prakriti manifests in our reactions, our likes, and dislikes. As we interact with people and objects, emotions like anger, desire, and greed bubble up – these are reflections of our past conditioning.


The metaphor of a mirror is used to illustrate this point. Our karma serves to polish the mirror of our prakriti, but it cannot create the reflection itself. The reflection represents Brahman, our true essence. In simpler terms, karma can help eliminate impurities from our minds, but it cannot grant us enlightenment/moksha/liberation/God Realization; whatever is that we are striving for.


Shaping Our Reality: How Sensory Input Molds Our Desires

Our prakriti, shaped by past experiences and attachments, influences our desires. These desires, in turn, guide our choices and actions. These actions further expose us to specific sensory experiences, perpetuating the cycle and reinforcing our prakriti.


Imagine a person with a strong attachment to social media (developed through past experiences). Their prakriti, influenced by this attachment, fuels a desire to constantly check their phone. This desire leads them to repeatedly expose themselves to social media stimuli, further solidifying their attachment and shaping their prakriti even more.


From Fleeting Feeling to Guiding Force

These emotions, however, are not merely fleeting experiences. As verse 34 suggests, repeated exposure to specific stimuli strengthens the emotional response. A child who consistently receives praise for drawing might develop a strong positive association with artistic expression. This association can evolve into a deep-seated passion for art that shapes their future pursuits.


Our emotions, fuelled by repeated sensory experiences and likes/dislikes, don't exist in isolation though. They give rise to desires. The child who loves art might yearn to hone their skills, leading them to seek out art classes or practice drawing regularly. These desires become the driving force behind our choices and actions.


From Thought to Action: The Cycle of Samskaras

The Gita's teachings go beyond these initial attractions and repulsions. The verse doesn't ask us to simply suppress our desires through willpower. Instead, it highlights the role of samskaras (past impressions) in shaping our reactions. Our prakriti, influenced by past experiences, generates initial thoughts (vritti) in the mind. These thoughts, if we dwell on them, can become desires. As we nurture these desires, they can transform into speech and ultimately lead to actions (karma).


Imagine a child seeing a delicious cookie. The sight triggers a thought (vritti) – "I want that cookie!" If the child dwells on this thought, it can become a strong desire. This desire might then be expressed verbally ("I want it!") and ultimately lead to the action of grabbing the cookie (karma).


Breaking Free from the Cycle: Awareness and Discernment

The true mastery lies not just in resisting desires, but in becoming aware of this entire process. Krishna, the central figure of the Bhagavad Gita, emphasizes this point:

"tayor na vaśham āgachchhet (You should not be controlled by them, but be the archer)"

Here, Krishna uses the metaphor of an archer. Just as an archer needs to be mindful and discerning before releasing an arrow, we need to be aware of our thoughts before they transform into an action.


The verse doesn't ask for complete suppression of all thoughts or desires. We got to ask ourselves, what is coming out of my prakriti? is it helpful for my spiritual path or not? We do that all the time, anybody who's disciplined. We all use a form of discernment in our daily lives. When working on a project, we control our impulses and focus on tasks that move us forward. We just need to extend this discernment to our spiritual journey as well.


Interrupting the Cycle at the Source

By becoming aware of our initial thoughts (vritti) and recognizing their link to past conditioning (samskaras), we can interrupt the cycle before it takes hold. What we nourish at the level of the mind, that itself becomes speech and action. And not only that, what we nourish at the level of the mind and what we give vent to, which we manifest as speech and action, that again goes back into our samskara and becomes part of our prakriti. It's a loop.


The Bhagavad Gita isn't the only ancient wisdom text to acknowledge this cycle of thoughts and desires. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, another foundational text from India, describes this process using the term chitta (consciousness). Patanjali states:

"Evam Vrithi sanskara chakram, avarthanam"

Our thoughts (vritti) leave impressions (samskara) on our consciousness (chitta), and these impressions, in turn, influence future thoughts. It's a self-perpetuating loop (Chakram).



Image Credit: Kim Witten Coaching


Imagine yourself browsing online and being tempted by an impulse purchase. By becoming aware of the initial thought ("I want that!") and recognizing it might not be helpful, you can interrupt the cycle. Instead of dwelling on the desire and adding to your samskaras, you can consciously choose to divert your attention.


Understanding the Cycle: The Key to Transformation

By recognizing this intricate dance between senses, experiences, emotions, desires, and actions, we gain a deeper understanding of ourselves. We can begin to see how our prakriti, though deeply ingrained, is not set in stone. By consciously observing our sensory experiences and the emotional responses they trigger, we can choose to engage with them differently.


The Bhagavad Gita highlights the importance of this awareness. By taking control of our sensory input and the desires they fuel, we can begin to reshape our prakriti in a more positive direction. This self-awareness empowers us to make conscious choices that align with our values and aspirations, leading to a more fulfilling existence.


For instance, indulging in a delicious dessert might trigger feelings of pleasure, leading to a craving for that specific taste (attachment or raga). Conversely, encountering a foul odor might evoke disgust (aversion or dvesha). Over time, these repeated experiences with our senses solidify these attachments and aversions, deeply influencing our prakriti.


The Power of Decision: Cutting Through Temptation

The Bhagavad Gita emphasizes the importance of discernment in managing our desires. This concept extends beyond simply recognizing unhelpful thoughts; it also involves the power of decision.


The word "decision" comes from the Latin "decidere," which literally means "to cut off." (de = off, Caedere = to cut, which is also the root word for cesarean). While this might sound restrictive, the act of making a decision is actually liberating. Imagine yourself standing at a crossroads with countless paths before you. The vastness of options can be overwhelming and paralyzing. Making a decision, even if it means cutting off other possibilities, allows you to move forward with focus and clarity.


So, to decide means to CUT not SELECT


Image Credit: Freepic/Midjourney


Cutting Through Temptation (Preyas vs. Shreyas)

The Gita introduces two important concepts: preyas and shreyas. Preyas refers to that which is immediately pleasurable or desirable, while shreyas refers to that which is ultimately beneficial for us.


In the context of making decisions, the key lies in distinguishing between preyas and shreyas. When faced with a choice, especially regarding our desires, we must ask ourselves:

  • Does this choice align with my long-term goals (shreyas)?

  • Or is it simply driven by fleeting pleasure (preyas)?


By making a conscious decision to cut off options that lead to preyas, we free ourselves from the constant temptation and focus our energy on pursuing shreyas.


Training the Mind: From Choice to Control

With consistent practice, we can train our minds to harness our thoughts and desires. Every time we are faced with a decision, we have the opportunity to reflect on the available choices and choose the one that aligns with our spiritual path. Over time, this practice of discernment becomes second nature, empowering us to make choices that lead to lasting fulfillment.


Making decisions isn't about limitation; it's about liberation. By harnessing the power of decision and distinguishing between preyas and shreyas, we can navigate the world with greater clarity and purpose, ultimately progressing on our journey of spiritual growth.


As long as there is a viable (available) option (more than one choice), the temptation is always there. So, the idea is to make a choice and cut the remaining choices off completely.


Transforming Our Desires: A Gradual Process

Transforming our desires is a gradual process, not an overnight feat. Here's why:

  • Deeply Rooted Patterns: Our samskaras, the impressions from past experiences, are deeply ingrained in our subconscious. Changing these patterns takes time and consistent effort. Imagine trying to reshape a piece of hardened clay – it requires patience and focused application of pressure. Similarly, transforming our desires requires persistent awareness and mindful choices.

  • Awareness is Key: The first step is becoming aware of the cycle of thoughts, desires, and actions. By observing our internal world without judgment, we gain insights into our conditioning. This awareness is like shining a light into a dark room – it allows us to see the patterns that were previously hidden.

  • Weakening the Grip: With consistent awareness, we can start to interrupt the cycle before desires gain momentum. Each time we choose not to act on an impulse, we weaken its hold over us. It's like slowly loosening the grip of a tight fist – with each conscious decision, we free ourselves a little bit more.

  • Cultivating New Desires: As we detach from old, unhelpful patterns, we can cultivate new desires that align with our spiritual growth. These new desires, such as compassion or self-discipline, become the driving force for our actions. Just as a gardener cultivates a new crop, we can intentionally plant seeds of positive desires that will blossom over time.


Practical Tools for Transformation

Here are some practices that can aid in transforming our desires:

  • Meditation: Meditation helps cultivate present-moment awareness, allowing us to observe thoughts and desires without getting swept away by them.

  • Self-Reflection: Journaling or spending time in quiet introspection can help us identify recurring patterns and triggers for our desires.

  • Developing Discernment: Studying spiritual teachings and reflecting on ethical principles can help us distinguish between helpful and harmful desires.

  • Building a Supportive Community: Surrounding yourself with like-minded individuals who share your spiritual goals can provide encouragement and support on this journey.


Remember: Patience and kindness are essential. Celebrate your small victories and don't be discouraged by setbacks. As you persist on this path of self-awareness and discernment, you'll gradually break free from the cycle of conditioned desires and experience a life filled with greater purpose and peace.


The Path Forward: A Journey of Awareness

The Bhagavad Gita acknowledges that this is not an easy feat. It requires constant awareness and a commitment to mindful living. However, by understanding the connection between our senses, likes and dislikes, and prakriti, we can embark on a transformative journey. By taking control of our sensory experiences, we gain greater control over our desires and ultimately, shape our prakriti in a more positive direction.


Beyond the Verse

This verse serves as a springboard for further exploration. Consider these questions:

  • What are some of the ways your senses can lead you astray?

  • How can you cultivate greater self-awareness around your desires?

  • What practices can help you achieve a balance between enjoyment and attachment?


The Bhagavad Gita's wisdom is as relevant today as ever. By understanding the power of our senses and developing strategies to manage them, we can navigate the world with greater clarity and purpose.


While this blog post has explored the influence of sensory experiences, it underscores the importance of going beyond mere intellectual understanding and cultivating a deeper awareness of our prakriti.


In our future blog posts, we'll delve further into verses from the Bhagavad Gita, on overcoming the influence of prakriti. We'll discuss concepts like cultivating sattva (goodness), overcoming rajas (passion) and tamas (inertia), and ultimately achieving a state of equanimity that transcends the limitations of our inherent nature.


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