In Defense of Desire

Tricycle speaks with Buddhist psychotherapist Mark Epstein about making peace with our deepest longings.

Courtesy of the San Diego Museum of ArtYour book Open to Desire is described as a “defense of desire.” Why is a defense necessary? Many people think that if they want to pursue a spiritual path, they have to be free of desire. They view desire as the primary cause of suffering. I think this is a misunderstanding. Clinging—not desire—is where we get stuck, and it’s possible to embrace desire without clinging by infusing it with awareness. Desire, in fact, can be a powerful meditative tool on the path to enlightenment.

How so? Buddhism teaches that to understand selflessness, you have to first examine the self as it actually appears to you. A meditation on an emotion as fundamental as desire is especially useful in this light because it uncovers a strong sense of “I”: I want this. I wish I could have that. We get to know ourselves through the process of allowing—rather than denying—our desires. The interesting thing about Buddhist psychology is that it suggests that the closer you can get to actually holding the self as it appears, the more opportunity you have to gain insight into its insubstantial nature.

Can you elaborate on how this might work? We can treat desire the way we treat everything else in meditation. This means accepting it as it is, not pushing it away and not holding on to it. In Eros the Bittersweet, a big inspiration for my own book, the Canadian poet and classicist Anne Carson points out that desire implies the presence of three things: the lover, the beloved, and that which separates them. In other words, there is always a gap, an obstacle, impeding the union desire seeks. This obstacle seems like a problem, and we want to get rid of it. This is clinging. I propose that if you relate to desire in a different way—if you learn how to simply dwell in the gap it opens up—then desire can become a teacher in its own right. In practical terms, this means learning to desire without expectations.

Would that necessarily mean sitting with the desire unfulfilled? Well, the nature of desire is that it’s always at least a little bit unfulfilled. Resting in the gap—without either rushing to satisfy the desire or foreclosing the possibility of that satisfaction—is a literal attempt to open to desire in its totality, to understand it, and through this insight to come to an understanding of oneself. Denial of the desire is just another way of trying to eradicate the gap, which is what desire wants: Ultimately, desire seeks fulfillment. The practice I’m talking about encourages one to move toward that which one desires, witnessing the whole process along the way, and not simply getting lost in dissatisfaction. This approach challenges one to go wholeheartedly into one’s life and one’s desire, and also to accept whatever comes of that pursuit.

What, then, of the practice of renunciation? To experience desire without falling into the trap of clinging isn’t something so easily done. No, it isn’t. And I am truly respectful of what can be learned from renunciation. It makes room for contact with a deeper kind of desire than the everyday urges that typically arise in our lives. Renunciation can be especially useful when there’s an addictive or compulsive quality to a person’s relationship with the world. In such a case, an ascetic approach allows enormous freedom from one’s habitual way of relating.

     But there is always a question of balance. In the history of Buddhism, the monastic tradition of renunciation came first. Later, the limitations of that approach—people getting too removed from the spiritual opportunities and challenges of life in the world—pushed succeeding generations and cultures to reconfigure their understanding and implementation of the Buddha’s teachings. The pendulum swings back and forth with regard to desire—how to come to terms with the outside world, how to imagine enlightenment. Teachers and teachings arise that approach things from different angles.

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