Contemplative psychotherapy for individuals, couples, and groups in New York City.
The First Hindrance: Sensual Desire: Q & A with Geri Larkin
I always desire what I don’t have: friends, food, lovers, material possessions. It seems like I never have what I want at any moment, that I’m always thinking, “What if...?” How can I learn to satisfy this desire with what I do have?
My experience has always been that it’s an enormous relief just to admit to myself that I’m obsessed by a desire for something. First, I can stop trying so hard to pretend that I don’t want something that, in fact, I do want. Second, most of the time something I think of as an overriding desire is often more a moment of “wishful thinking.” Often seeing our desire simply as what it is - a desire - allows it to drop away, or at least loosens our hold on it.
The few times when that hasn’t worked, though, gratitude or metta practice has made me sane again. Instead of getting caught up in the desire, I literally start to list all of the things I’m grateful for, starting with the fact that every time I breathe out, my body breathes back in. I suddenly notice all the different colors in my teacup, the sound of the chickens outside. I call a friend, pull out an old journal to remember a former boyfriend. Then I sometimes try a lovingkindness meditation, or chanting, for everyone else caught in the bittersweet cycles of desire.
I am in a committed romantic relationship, but I still feel desire for other people. How should I handle these feelings?
Four kinds of misfortune come
to those who commit adultery:
disturbed sleep, and
a bad reputation
are already known.
There is also the risk
of being reborn in hell.
—The Still Point Dhammapada
Desire happens; it doesn’t make you a bad person. People are attractive. They flirt. We fantasize. There is no doubt more than one soul mate for each of us. On the other hand, a solid relationship where two people can take refuge in each other as great spiritual friends, helpmates, and lovers is well worth defending. But how, in the face of desire for someone else?
A powerful antidote is focusing our attention on devotion to our mate. During the Buddha’s lifetime, one of his best friends was King Pasenadi, whose wife, Mallika, was completely devoted to him. When Pasenadi was thrown into jail, Mallika covered her body with honey to provide him with sustenance. Cherishing our mate is a warrior’s weapon against falling into a relationship with the wrong person (yes, that is anyone who is not our mate). It reminds us how much we love this person who shares our bed and how important she or he is to us. Our devotion might take the form of cooking fresh vegetables for dinner instead of microwave stir-fry. Or putting fresh sheets on our bed. Or going for an evening walk together. Taken singly, these actions are little things; writ large, they are a love poem.
If that doesn’t work, Buddha reminded the nuns and monks studying with him that everyone gets sick, ages, and dies. In one case, Buddha made this point by conjuring up a vision of a beautiful woman and making the vision visibly age right in front of a group of her admirers. They got his point: Everything is impermanent, even beauty. Even desire.
Geri Larkin is the founder and guiding teacher of Still Point, the first Zen Buddhist temple in Detroit. She is the author of Love Dharma: Relationship Wisdom From Enlightened Buddhist Women.