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Freedom from the bondage of desires

Answer: The ancient rishis taught us that unfulfilled desires cause suffering. The more desires we have and want to fulfill, the more we suffer when they remain unfulfilled. Therefore, freedom from desires leads to freedom from suffering.

While this is certainly true, it seems unnatural to be totally free from desires. Suppose an person who has gained liberation, enlightenment, moksha, is asked, “Would you like tea, coffee, or a cold drink?” Would the enlightened person reply, “I have no desires, so it doesn’t make any difference to me.” Such a reply would be quite strange. If an enlightened person enjoys tea, he or she would certainly say, “I want tea.”

It would be helpful here to distinguish the difference between two different kinds of desires: binding desires and non-binding desires. A binding desire is a desire whose non-fulfillment causes you to suffer, and a non-binding desire is one whose non-fulfillment does not cause suffering.

To illustrate the difference, suppose a young child looks in the kitchen cabinet for her favorite breakfast cereal—Fruit Loops. Even though there are five other boxes of cereal, if there are no Fruit Loops, she will cry, “Mom! Where are my Fruit Loops?” She would suffer because of her binding desire for her favorite cereal. You, on the other hand, might go to the same cabinet looking for your favorite cereal. If it were not present, you would simply choose another box without any further thought. Because your desire was non-binding, you would not suffer when your desire went unfulfilled.

If you were to have thousands of unfulfilled desires, and all of them were non-binding like the desire for your favorite breakfast cereal, then you could remain perfectly content. But if you had just one binding desire remaining to be fulfilled, that would be sufficient to rob you of contentment and make you suffer.

So, freedom from suffering is achieved when we are free from all binding desires, even when non-binding desires remain. The secret to overcoming desire is not to become desireless, but instead to transform all our binding desires into non-binding desires.

To become free from the bondage of desire is essential for our spiritual growth. Unfulfilled desires often make us miserable, and when we are miserable, we usually make others miserable as well. We want contentment, but contentment remains elusive due to unfulfilled desires. Therefore, we must address this challenging question, “How can we become free from desires?”

First of all, let us admit that we can never satisfy all our desires. When one desire is fulfilled, another arises. Desire is frequently compared to fire. A fire is always ready to consume more fuel; it is never satisfied. A common Hindi word for fire, anal, is derived from the Sanskrit analam, “not (an) enough (alam).” If fuel were fed into a fire and if the fire could speak, it would never say, “Enough!” In the same way, the fire of our desires can never be satiated.

When food is served onto your plate, you will eventually say, “bas, enough.” But several hours later, you will be hungry for more. All our desires are like this—satisfaction is always temporary because other desires soon arise.

Sometimes, we are told that we must willfully give up our desires. Some spiritual teachers and authors tell us to renounce our desires, but they rarely tell us how to do so. Suppose a person with great fondness for drinking tea decides to give up tea as a spiritual practice. All day long, he can willfully choose not to drink tea. But what would he be thinking about throughout the day? Tea! With will power, you can give up objects of desire, but will power cannot remove the desire itself.

If we cannot satisfy all our desires or willfully renounce them, how will we ever become free from desires? In fact, we do not get rid of desires; we outgrow them. Recall a toy that you were very fond of as a child. How did you get rid of your desire for that toy? You outgrew that desire. And how did you outgrow your desire for that toy? You found a better toy! This process—outgrowing one toy when a better toy is acquired—continues into our adult lives. When a better, newer automobile is purchased, the desire for your old car is outgrown. The desire for your present house will be outgrown when you can afford a nicer one.

In this way, you have outgrown many, many desires. As you matured, you outgrew all your childish desires. And as you mature spiritually, you can outgrow all your worldly desires.