Desire and Original Sin

When desire goes “wrong”

Managing the pressure to thrive



The Buddha teaches that the root of all our suffering is craving or misplaced desire.

Life of Mindfulness


Crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavour.

Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern) in The Asphalt Jungle


Sometimes taṇhā is translated as “desire,” but that gives rise to some crucial misinterpretations with reference to the way of Liberation.  As we shall see, some form of desire is essential in order to aspire to, and persist in, cultivating the path out of dukkha [“unsatisfactoriness”].  Desire as an eagerness to offer, to commit, to apply oneself to meditation, is called chanda.  It’s a psychological “yes,” a choice, not a pathology.  In fact, you could summarize Dhamma training as the transformation of taṇhā into chanda.  It’s a process whereby we guide volition, grab and hold on to the steering wheel, and travel with clarity toward our deeper well-being.  So we’re not trying to get rid of desire (which would take another kind of desire, wouldn’t it).  Instead, we are trying to transmute it, take it out of the shadow of gratification and need, and use its aspiration and vigor to bring us into light and clarity.

Ajahn Sucitto – “Turning the Wheel of Truth – commentary on the Buddha’s first teaching”



See also:  Pleasure


long term

vs. seeking

short term




vs. seeking





vs. seeking



flourishing that

applies only to self

vs. flourishing that

applies also to others


flourishing that

makes us fat

vs. flourishing that

keeps us fit



compulsive need


take it or leave it




vs. flourishing



Ego defences

“Ego defence” is another term for “coping mechanism”, in keeping with the Healing Principle.  This is where we take measures to protect ourselves from some kind of real or perceived threat to our comfort and well being.  (“Fear” is usually the operative word, whether conscious or unconscious.)  They can be classified as, for example:  







adaptive (“sensible”)


maladaptive (“foolish”)







We can say that among other things, the ego consists of:  thoughts; patterns of mental activity; and associated emotions.  Depending on the person and the time and place, these patterns of activity can be more or less fixed.  

An example of a subconscious ego defence is passive aggression: unconscious aggression.  Malevolent attention-seeking, trying to get under someone’s skin in order to cause harm, is a subconscious, neurotic ego defence.  Bullying is based on the fact that natural selection is relative to those around us: if we put someone else “down”, that makes us “up” in comparison.  To try to get under someone’s skin is a way to avert loneliness.  Another common ego defence is to want to control situations and people around us.  

Examples of  mature, conscious ego defences are calm, good-natured strength and assertiveness; learning from mistakes; or transforming bad experiences into art.  

It is said that there are probably more different ego defences than there are people.

We can see that, really, these are all ways to seek flourishing.  



The ego wants everything for itself

The ego tends to want you to have and to own and to control everything and everyone around you.  This corresponds to “selfishness” in the Definition of Goodness.  



Attachment to the goals of the ego; and letting go



Angels fly because they take themselves lightly.

G K Chesterton



Emotions are caused by separation from our goals: either we want to arrive at some pleasing state, or else we want to get away from an unpleasant state.  

Both of these imply a movement, a pressure, a motivation, to travel away from the stillness of accepting and resting peacefully in the present moment.  Buddhists call it “arising”: a passion and thoughts arise.  We can also call it “arising” as in “getting up” from where you are now to go somewhere else.  

The ego is a blind, evolved, natural machine for looking after your interests, and it doesn't always take a conscious long term view.  

To this end, everybody’s ego has certain blind, evolved goals for looking after what it thinks is right for you right now.  One way that people differ is in how attached they are to these goals.  In meditation we learn to temporarily let go of them.  

Some of these goals can include:  self-interest;  expectations that things should be a certain way;  control over other people and one’s environment.  Perhaps you can think of others.  

Of course, in moderation, these are all healthy.  But for the ego to blindly insist on attaching itself to these goals can make ourselves and others very unhappy.  This also has the effect of dulling the freshness and joy of our perception of life, and uses up a lot of mental and emotional energy and causes needless drama and karma.  



Arising and getting carried away

When thoughts, desire, aversion, arise, we can be carried away by them.  Step outside of them and observe them, and they can lose their power over you.  






The ego makes you feel bad:  negativity bias;  the smoke detector principle

Since the ego has evolved for survival rather than happiness, it makes perfect sense that we notice and care about negative things much more than positive.  To that end, most of the mind-talk of the ego is negative in character.  



The ego makes you feel bad:  operations for your self-interest:  

Isolation vs. oneness

The ego will tend to keep you in a little isolated bubble all on your own, rather than feeling at one and connected with the world and other people.  Anything that keeps you inward-looking, or “opposed” to the world and other people, will make you feel cut off, and therefore, anxious and miserable because of aloneness.  These factors can include:

So relax your ego, relax and connect.   Your ego is a machine for looking after you; but sometimes it just gets in the way.  In trying to protect you, it may just make you feel even more insecure by cutting you off from others.  


The surprisingly easy way to reduce your anxiety (“say thank you”)

The Independent


See the definition of goodness.  



Attachments: seeking fulfilment in your “empire of awesomeness”

In the interests of your self-interest, your ego will aim to build up your Self with all kinds of external attachments: your “empire of awesomeness”.  



Normally, as human beings we are psychologically attached to a large number of constructs, such as hopes and ambitions for the future, beliefs and ideas concerning life and the world, the knowledge we have accumulated, and our image of ourselves, including our sense of status, our appearance and accomplishments and achievements. These are accoutrements which become attached to the sense of self but which are not actually a part of our true nature. At the same time, there are more tangible attachments, such as possessions, jobs, and other human beings whose approval and attention we might crave. ... We feel that we are ‘someone’ because we have hopes, beliefs, status, a job and possessions and because other people give us approval.

However, in states of despair and depression all of – or at least some of – these psychological attachments are broken. This is the very reason why you are in despair: because the constructs you’ve been depending for your well-being have been removed; the ‘scaffolding’ which supported your sense of identity has fallen away. Hopes and beliefs are revealed as illusions; your possessions and status have been taken away, your friends or lovers have rejected you. As a result, you feel naked and lost, as if your identity has been destroyed. But at this very point you are, paradoxically, close to a state of liberation. You are in a state of detachment. Your Self has been released from external constructs. In an instant, therefore, the pain of despair and desolation can switch into a state of freedom and joy.

Steve Taylor – “Spiritual Alchemy – when trauma and turmoil lead to spiritual awakening”



Someone with a rigid ego feels generally discontented and lacking, because of their feeling of separation from others and the world, and because of their strong, negative internal thought-chatter.  We tend to attach to external supports in an effort to put right these feelings of discontent and lack.  Attachments strengthen the structure of the normal ego.  They take up a lot of energy, attention and other resources, so if we remove an attachment we feel liberated, and energy is freed up that can be used for perception.  Consequently perception feels much more fresh and alive.  


Attachment to people  

Do you love them, or just need them?  If our ego is attached to another person because of our own self-cherishing, then our love can be tinged with selfish desire.  There’s a lot of truth in the saying, “if you love someone, set them free.”  

... real love exists without attachment.  ... if you really love someone, there is no separation between the two of you, and so no attachment.  Rather than being attached to them, you're actually one with them.

Steve Taylor – “Out of the Darkness – from turmoil to transformation”



Letting go






Every second of every day: consciously, unconsciously and biologically, we all experience the pressure to thrive.  

The ideal is for this to manifest in healthy ways that make ourselves and others happy: that produce good long term results.  

Often, inevitably, given the way we are put together, it is expressed in unhealthy, unhelpful, unskillful ways that lead to poor long term results, making ourselves and/or others unhappy.  This aspect is equivalent to what is known as Original Sin: none of us can entirely get away from this tendency.  

Wisdom and delusion

A lot can go wrong if the pressure to thrive is not managed properly.  We can end up “thriving” in ways that are destructive.  Therefore, it needs to be managed, and guided by wisdom.  This is one reason why “delusion” – lack of wisdom – is said to be a cause of suffering.  

The following list is an initial attempt to enumerate the main ways that the pressure to thrive can end up making ourselves and others unhappy.  


  1. Enjoyment now over long term benefits later  
  2. Seeking to thrive through “crime” or unethical means
  3. Maladaptive unconscious ego defenses or coping mechanisms
  4. Relying on sensual pleasure to make you happy
  5. Attachments
  6. Restlessness
  7. Striving
  8. Clinging to experience
  9. Discrimination: non-acceptance
  10. Excessive worrying
  11. The ego: conceit, separateness, self-protection
  12. The cruelty of culture and religion




1.  Enjoyment now over long term benefits later


Smile now, cry later





Cry now, smile later


Thriving comes in two basic varieties: short term or long term.  

By definition, the short term lasts for a short time (now/today/tomorrow), while the long term lasts very much longer (weeks, months, years).  

Sometimes, we are faced with an either/or choice: we can take our pleasure now, or we can forgo this in favour of long term benefits later; but we can’t have both.  

A goal that we have “now” feels much more urgent than some goal we don’t have “now” but will have “later”.  The present-moment pressure to fulfil the present-moment goal tends to be much stronger than the present-moment pressure to fulfil the future goal.  

So it is very tempting to give in to enjoying ourselves right now even though this may lead to negative consequences later on.  

The ego is prone to give in to the emotions (liking / wanting, or their opposites) and the emotions can be like sirens that beguile the sensible grown-up ego into getting their own way.  

This applies equally to anger as to desire: whenever we act in the present, we need to keep an eye on the long-term consequences.  

Ultimately the choice is yours.  To forgo a present satisfaction in favour of a future one requires self-control: moderation and restraint.  Self-control is like a muscle, in that the more you exercise it, the stronger it becomes.  



2.  Seeking to thrive through “crime” or unethical means

Unethical behaviour: inflicting unnecessary harm, or failing to give someone the good treatment they deserve, is, according to Buddhism, the result of greed or hatred.  Greed is wanting and pursuing something so much that you forget about the effects of your actions on others, or on your own long term well being; and hatred is disliking and not wanting something so much that this leads you to inflict harm deliberately or to neglect treating somebody well.  

Both greed and hatred are expressions of the individual pressure to thrive (chasing the desirable or avoiding the undesirable) that fail to take account of the needs of others.  They can both be seen as self-preservation at the expense of others or at the expense of one’s own long tern well being.  



3.  Maladaptive unconscious ego defenses or coping mechanisms

The ego is there to look after you, and that’s obviously a good thing.  But the ego, as an evolved set of psychological mechanisms, has been selected for survival rather than happiness value.  So there are times when it does not keep a well trained eye on the long term and the bigger picture.  It has both conscious and unconscious aspects.  By definition, the unconscious aspects can by-pass the knowledge, attention and control of the conscious mind.  

The ego employs coping mechanisms or “ego defenses”.  These can be rational and well thought out, or they can be unconscious.  The unconscious ones are invisible to the user and therefore, potentially, the most troublesome.  A good example, and possibly the most widespread, is “attack is the best form of defense”.  When we feel threatened or uncomfortable in whatever way, it is logical, in a sense, to want to attack [somebody, anybody].  But thinking this through with regard to what really seems like a sensible way to proceed, we see that this kind of behaviour is usually destructive to our long term happiness.  

Even though we try, we may not be able to find a straightforward way to change this destructive behaviour, and it takes self-awareness and honesty to even identify it in the first place.  But identifying it is the first step towards curing it.  The surest way out is to fix the underlying reason why we feel insecure.  Meditation can be a great help: just to step off the merry-go-round for a few moments can have a profound effect on the ego.  



4.  Relying on sensual pleasure to make you happy

Sensual, visceral, in-the-moment pleasure is necessary for our quality of life.  A life without pleasure, and the prospect of pleasure, is just a cruel soul-destroying burden.  But pleasure is the “icing on the cake” of life, and nobody can grow strong and well-nourished if they just eat the icing on the cake.  



5.  Attachments








Angels fly because they take themselves lightly.

G K Chesterton


The idea of “attachments” refers to the “empire of awesomeness” with which we naturally like to surround ourselves: those external things that we imagine belong to us and that we rely on to support our identity and sense of well being: to make our “self” feel bigger, better and happier.  

But this makes the “self” very cumbersome and awkward.  It's like carrying 15 suitcases and bags everywhere we go, and it hurts if people step on them, or if we worry about them getting damaged or lost.  

If we let go of our psychological attachments then we find an identity that is deeper and more real.  The energy and attention that we used to invest in our attachments is made available for increased perception, presence, vitality and creativity.  


... the urge to accumulate is a response to our sense of incompleteness and fragility.  We try to bolster our sense of self by adding possessions, achievements, and power, in the same way that an insecure king continually builds up a castle and reinforces its walls.  Alternatively, we become overly attached to preexisting aspects of our identity, such as our appearance or our intellect.  We derive a sense of specialness from them, which also serves to reinforce our fragile sense of self.  But these efforts are no longer necessary when we wake up because that sense of incompleteness and vulnerability no longer exists.  ...

Awakening brings a shift away from accumulation to contribution.  The energy that people invested to try to alleviate their own psychological suffering is now redirected to try to alleviate the sufferings of others.  

Steve Taylor – “The Leap: the psychology of spiritual awakening”


Attachments can be seen as one of the misguided attempts of the ego to look after you: one of those times when survival and long term happiness do not match up.  

There are two kinds of attachment: one is things we attach to ourselves to make ourselves bigger, the other kind is being attached to someone out of affection.  

6.  Restlessness

Restlessness occurs when we experience some internal or external object that is not as we would like it to be.  In other words, when there is something “wrong” within us or in our external life; when we are not thriving as we would like.  

Assuming that we wish to stop this restlessness, there are several steps we can follow:  

Moral transgressions are a common cause of internal restlessness: when we have a nagging sense that we have done wrong, or that we failed to do right.  The unwise delusion of using a destructive method of thriving leads to suffering.  


An effective way to reduce restlessness is to spend time in the company of friendly like-minded people.  

Suffering of impermanence

Everything changes.  If we cannot accept and embrace this, it is bound to lead to restlessness and suffering.  In this case, delusion leads to suffering.  

Suffering of conditioned existence or dependent origination

Everything depends for its existence on other causes and factors.  This has profound consequences: it means we cannot just wave a magic wand and expect things to be the way we wish them to be.  As with any thriving, the right conditions have to be in place.  This may be easy, or difficult, or impossible.  Whatever, we are partly at the mercy of circumstances.  Again, if we cannot see and accept this unfortunate fact of life, then our delusion will lead to restlessness and suffering.  

This also implies that in order to stop feeling restless: in order to thrive in the way we would like, it may be necessary to change our circumstances; or else accept that they cannot be changed easily, or perhaps at all.  




Where you are, and what you have,

never seem quite good enough.

‘There must be something better,’

says a voice inside your head –

a more comfortable seat, a more beautiful view,

a better place than where you are,

a better life than the one you live.


But something better never satisfies you –

it still leaves something missing,

something still doesn’t seem quite right.

And every time you change your place

you wonder if you should have ever left

the place you started from.


So don’t go anywhere.

Don't succumb to the allure of the other.

Tell yourself that this is the place you’re meant to be,

at least for now.


And then you’ll sense something far better

than the dissatisfaction of desire –

the ease and grace of acceptance;

and of truly being where you are.


Steve Taylor



7.  Striving

Striving is when we focus on the goal rather than the journey.  The journey is important; it is where we live moment to moment.  In the present moment, we help to create the future.  If we are not taking the right steps, we may not achieve our destination.  The opposite of striving is diligence: when we slow down, relax, and mindfully experience all that we are doing in the present moment.  



8.  Clinging to experience, and letting go of experience


Surrender becomes so much easier when you realize the fleeting nature of all experiences ...  You then continue to meet people, to be involved in experiences and activities, but without the wants and fears of the egoic self.  That is to say, you no longer demand that a situation, person, place or event should satisfy you or make you happy.  Its passing and imperfect nature is allowed to be.  

And the miracle is that when you are no longer placing an impossible demand on it, every situation, person, place or event becomes not only satisfying but also more harmonious, more peaceful.  

Eckhart Tolle“Stillness Speaks”


What a miserable day.

He didn’t have the decency to return my call.  

She let me down.  

Little stories we tell ourselves and others ...

How simple life would be without those stories.  

It is raining.  

He did not call.  

I was there.  She was not.  


Eckhart Tolle – “Silence Speaks”



Clinging to experience, catching at experience, is when the ego continually asks “what’s in it for me?” or, with the opposite value: “what’s in it not for me?”  This is understandable, since the ego is acting blindly and unconsciously in its mission to ensure that you thrive and survive and/or reproduce.  

Clinging stops us from feeling relaxed and comfortable.  If we stop clinging to and catching at experience, we can slow down and feel more relaxed and comfortable when going about our daily life.  

Clinging to grudges

We have a tendency to cling to petty grievances, when this is usually a waste of our time and energy and leads to unnecessary negativity.  Often it is better to simply let go of the grievance.  See reciprocity, forgiveness.  


9.  Discrimination: non-acceptance


A significant reason for prolonged emotional distress relates to attempts to avoid or control your experience.  

Bhante Samitha  



10.  Excessive worrying




11.  The ego: conceit, separateness, self-protection




12.  The cruelty of culture and religion (doing wrong in the name of doing right)  




When cultural or religious values conflict with basic human goodness, which one is right?  

Like the moon, religion has a light side and a dark side.