What are the origins of desire?

My first response to this question was to consider the primary experience of “wanting” – where “wanting” might first be felt – from the perspective of becoming newly born:

The Birthing of Desire


I want to move!

I want more room – more space!

I want this squeezing to stop!

I want the hurting to stop!


I want the warmth I have lost!

I want the holding I have lost!

I want the sounds I have lost!

I want the soft light, soft dark I have lost!

I want the place of just being I have lost!


Is anyone there?

I want you.


Now…is “wanting” the same as desiring?  My daughter-in-law pointed out that the way we regard the word “want” has changed from the original sense of lacking something required or essential1 to a more selfish “having a desire to possess” (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/want).   This possibly reflects the increased value we give to being an individual that has arisen over historical time.

William Irvine2 looks at the connection between desire and motivation, seeing that some types of desires are far more motivating than others.  His conclusion is that hedonic desire (clearly emotional) is far more motivating than non-hedonic desire (seemingly intellectual).  The intellect tends to form “instrumental desires” that lead towards something more rooted in emotion.  There are “chains of desire” in which it can be hard to determine the origin.  But if there is motivation then there is emotion.  He points out that “emotion” and “motivate” come from the same root: “movere,” the Latin for “to move”.  What he calls the “wellsprings” of desire lie in the classic approach/avoidance response – our wanting to feel good and avoid feeling bad.  This response can be seen in just about any life form that can move at all – and it is about surviving and thriving.  From the Buddhist perspective, this leads to attachment and aversion, both forms of what is called “craving.”  I intend to explore the Buddhist view of desire at a later point, but, as my above poem indicates, it may be necessary and natural to be pushed beyond avoiding feeling bad – and feeling bad may be necessary in order to connect with feeling good.  How good it can feel when a pain disappears!

Looking for origins is a never-ending backward glancing.  Behind the infant is the desire of the two people who came together, with varying desires, to create the embryo.  When looking at creation mythology I found a number of myths about “original parents” – and their desires.

Prapto3, a Javanese movement teacher who inspires and informs me, likes to tell one of these stories.  Here is my recalling of it as he told it in June 2015:

Shiva wants to be married – to have sons, make his own community.  He falls in love with a beautiful woman, like fire.  They go on honeymoon, riding the buffalo through the cosmos – Uma is in front, Shiva behind – over the south ocean of Java.  There is a beautiful sunset.  They see the stars coming – the shining of the sky – colours changing – at the same time, the moon is coming.  Uma is so beautiful in stillness, like a flower opening.  Shiva’s desire awakes.  Shiva is lost in desire.  She is flower fire in the cosmos shining!  Shiva wants intercourse.  Uma says, “Please, don’t or the cosmos will see us!”  Uma wants to go home and prepare.  Shiva says, “No! Now! Really, I need it!”  But she didn’t want to.  Uma refuses.  Shiva is angry.  Both become demonic.  Uma goes down and becomes Queen of Demons.  Shiva’s ejaculated sperm drops to the ocean and lots of demons are born – grow big – eat!  The God of Oceans says, “You cannot eat others.  Go ask your father for food.”  Up to Shiva all the demons go.  Shiva breaks his fangs.  He makes them into the God of Time, Kala.  He sends the God of Time down to Uma.

After the story, Prapto said, “The man cannot understand the meditation of the woman.  Always wants penetration of Emptiness.”

I realise I have wandered all over here.  But “wanting” is a thread through it all.  What else is emerging?



  1. Little W, Fowler, H W & Coulson J (revised & edited by C T Onions) (1964 edition) The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles, Vol II (p2383); Oxford; Clarendon Press.
  2. Irvine, W B (2006) On Desire, Why We Want What We Want; Oxford, New York; Oxford University Press.
  3. If you want to have a look at Prapto (Suprapto Suryodarmo) moving, try http://www.darc.media/suprapto-suryodarmo-stone-is-not-just-stone/ Filmed at Avebury the same month he told the above story, I am moved by the stillness of the stone, the inner stillness in his movement and the restless traffic beyond.


Author: MaryAb

Born in upstate New York. Moved to the UK in 1971. At home in Devon.

Author: MaryAb

Born in upstate New York. Moved to the UK in 1971. At home in Devon.

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