Desire, Self-Consciousness, and Ahaṃkāra: Phenomenological Reflections
What is the relationship between desire and suffering in spiritual traditions? The following phenomenological reflections on the problem of desire in yoga are being updated.
What the ego finds most troubling is that its reality—i.e., the extent to which it ‘matters’ in the real world, its sense of itself—depends on the will and recognition of other people. To ‘matter’ in the real world means mattering to other people; its reality—i.e., the extent to which it ‘matters’—depends on others. It could never be ‘self-sufficient’ or ‘self-existing’. It has no control over what others choose to recognise. And so it attempts to attain what it thinks will add weight to its own existence (e.g., fame, money, status, power, etc.). It, in other words, uses these things to make others acknowledge the weight of its existence.
But the unbearable background dis-ease persists. And to cure this dis-sease it looks to acquire more. The more it wants to matter—the more it needs the recognition of others—the more others become a tool for or a threat to its own mattering. It becomes more conscious of itself and its status (i.e., self-conscious) and less tolerant of its vulnerability and lack of inherent substance—more overprotective of itself and less tolerant of the anxiety of its lack of infinitely-grounded finite existence.
The ego cannot solve this problem by acquiring things that demand recognition because no amount of recognition will be enough to solve the problem. The problem is the dis-ease that it was attempting to cure with recognition. And this dis-ease was never caused by its lack, but rather by its self-denial. This dis-ease was in its refusal to tolerate its lack of substance. This dis-ease is ultimately in its refusal to release its self-consciousness (and its attempt to accumulate wholeness for itself) and, ultimately, to realize something about itself: it is always already a participant in the wholeness that exceeds it and which provides the conditions for the possibility of its own existence.
Instead of being able to sit with the dis-ease at our core, we run from it, obsessively looking to make ourselves matter more (and deal with the resulting pain of being unsuccessful in doing so to the extent that we want). And this desire to escape (or “transcend”) the insubstantiality of our ego—to literally become something—is deeper than any individual desire. This most primitive desiring precedes our explicit self-conscious desires (such as, I want a new car/house/partner/job/body, and/or more money/fame/status, etc.). It is desire—which is the most primitive form of our self-consciousness—that confirms my existence to myself (even if I’m “unsuccessful” in becoming something). Desire is not something I learn to do/have but is rather always already, even before I am explicitly self-conscious. Desire confirms my existence as a real, active thing with determining power: it is being the experience of being compelled beyond myself, to transcend myself, to consume. In desire, I am defining reality in terms of my own needs and not on its own terms. Money/fame/status, etc. all allow me to lay claim to their acknowledgement of the (increased) weight of my existence. Desire also confirms my existence as a real, passive thing that can be compelled/impelled: desire strikes me (as something that is not me) but does so seemingly from my own inside—it appears to me as my desire. In desire—this most basic relationship to appearing—I find myself, I find a self, so to speak.
...the yogin isn’t primarily concerned with explicit, self-conscious desire. Any analysis of desire that begins with explicit, self-conscious desire is already too late.
If I find myself impelled to rid myself of desire—if “I want to get rid of my desire”—this wanting only confirms the very thing I am trying to subvert. For this reason, the yogin isn’t primarily concerned with explicit, self-conscious desire. Any analysis of desire that begins with explicit, self-conscious desire is already too late. Desire, in other words, is not an imaginary thing that one may or may not have, but is rather constitutive of having a self.
Instead of focusing on explicit, self-conscious desire, the yogin relies on practices that foster direct awareness of self-consciousness as always already produced by desire. The yogin is interested in making its way to the original impulse to be (a) something, but not in order to eliminate this impulse, but rather to accept it, to real-ize it, to make direct contact with the fact that its self, the ego, is a construction, the product of the pre-personal appropriative habit/activity of ahaṃkāra: I-making. And this is also the realization that allows the construction—the ego—to be more freely and easily re-constructed. In other words, becoming comfortable with anxiety is becoming comfortable with the very thing that you are: freedom—the uncertainty of being undefined. And, in becoming comfortable with your freedom—i.e., with yourself—you release others from the relentless grip of your compulsive need for their recognition and release yourself of the burden to hold onto others (and the world) in ways that allow you to stay “on top” of your anxiety and maintain (the security of) your identity. Instead, you recognize their freedom and receive their free recognition—i.e., recognition borne of their own free will and not via your claim to centrality (via your accumulations)—and this free recognition is the very kind that contributes to a healthy sense of yourself.
But, of course, if you prioritize making this realization so that you can achieve freedom or recognition or some form of personal perfection—i.e., acquire bulletproof mental health or the respect of being “spiritual”, etc.—you’re really only reinforcing the problem... and continuing to deny your freedom (and, therefore, your very Self).
The Yoga of Yoga further discusses the issue of desire as it pertains to suffering. Of course, our freedom is of a determinacy: Prakṛti & Puruṣa: Phenomenological Reflections discusses our (inextricably “entangled”) existential situation, and Self-Awareness & Other People focuses specifically on how we are inextricably entangled with other people. Yoga: A Phenomenological Approach outlines the object and general method of yoga philosophy, while What is Phenomenology? (Part 1: Defining Phenomenology) provides a heuristic introduction to phenomenology.
Further Reading in Western Philosophy:
Commentaries on the theme of pre-personal desire abound in the texts of the Dharma religions. For those looking to explore the theme of pre-personal desire in western philosophy, see Section B (entitled, “Self-Consciousness”) of G.W.F. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Canadian philosopher John Russon provides a rich and accessible discussion of desire in each of his three books on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit: The Self and its Body in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1997, see pp.53-76), Reading Hegel’s Phenomenology (2004, see pp.59-69), and Infinite Phenomenology: The Lessons of Hegel’s Science of Experience (2016, see pp.14-15 and pp.77-95, the latter in which Russon also considers Deleuze & Guattari’s study of desire in their 1972 book, Anti-Oedipus.).
For more on the basic articulation of the problem of anxiety and the ego, see the work of David Loy. For those with some background in Continental philosophy and psychotherapy, consider his book, Lack & Transcendence: The Problem of Death and Life in Psychotherapy, Existentialism, and Buddhism (2018 , Wisdom). For spiritual aspirants looking for an introduction to thinking, consider his book, Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution (2008, Wisdom Publications). In this context, a more practical discussion of sitting with anxiety can be found in Judy Lief’s 2022 article, Unraveling Anxiety.