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.

I’m suggesting that the meditative path includes desire. Too many people have tried to simply push desire away, only to get stuck, or to find it errupt in their lives in destructive ways. Opening to desire without succumbing to its fixations provides an alternative to those for whom a simple denial of desire has meant a denial of their very experience of life.


An excerpt from Dr. Epstein's latest book, Open to Desire:

When I began to work as a psychotherapist, after completing many years of medical and psychiatric training undertaken after my introduction to Buddhism, I discovered how important it was to be able to admit to, or “own,” one’s desires. Freud’s initial emphasis in psychoanalysis, in fact, was all about helping people plagued with forbidden desires.

Many sincere people, drawn to Eastern spirituality, are in danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. In identifying the cause of suffering as desire, they struggle to eliminate it from their being. A number of these people have come to consult with me, wondering why their spiritual pursuits have not brought them the peace of mind they were expecting. To sit with them in a room is to feel someone pretending. There can be a closed, shut-down, anxious, or fearful quality underlying the way they express themselves. When I maneuver them into a willingness to be more honest about their desires, a different feeling emerges. They become more present, alive, open, and tender. The brittleness disappears. It becomes easier to breathe. All of the feelings that I associate with meditation, that I want to make accessible to people through the medium of psychotherapy, open up when people become able to treat their desires as their own.

There is more to desire than just suffering. There is a yearning in desire that is as spiritual as it is sensual. Even when it degenerates into addiction, there is something salvageable from the original impulse that can only be described as sacred. Something in the person wants to be free, and it seeks its freedom any way it can. This is one of the major insights to have precipitated out of my study of the psychologies of East and West. There is a drive for transcendence that is implicit in even the most sensual of desires. While there are certainly currents in both Eastern and Western spiritual traditions that dismiss or denigrate desire, encouraging us to forsake it through renunciation or sublimation, there is another, more controversial, alternative that I have found necessary in helping my patients.

Known in the East as the tantric, or “left-handed,” path, desire, in this view, is a vehicle for personal transformation. It is a yoga in its own right. Rather than treating it as the cause of suffering, desire is embraced as a valuable and precious resource, an emotion that, if harnessed correctly, can awaken and liberate the mind. In this way of thinking, desire is the human response to the discontent described in the Buddha’s First Noble Truth. It is the energy that strives for transcendence but, if it is to truly accomplish its goals, the seeker must learn to relate to it differently. He or she must learn how to use desire instead of being used by it. In this sense, desire is the foundation for all spiritual pursuits. As the well-known contemporary Indian teacher Sri Nisargadatta, famous for sitting on a crowded street corner selling inexpensive bidis, or Indian cigarettes, once commented, “The problem is not desire. It’s that your desires are too small.” The left-handed path means opening to desire so that it becomes more than just a craving for whatever the culture has conditioned us to want. Desire is a teacher: when we immerse ourselves in it without guilt, shame, or clinging, it can show us something special about our own minds that allows us to embrace life fully.

From Open to Desire, ©2004 by Mark Epstein. Reprinted with permission of Gotham Books.

Image 1: A Glimpse of the Loved One, eighteenth century India, opaque watercolor on paper, 9 × 5.875 inches; courtesy of The San Diego Museum of Art (Edwin Binney 3rd collection).

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