The Merry-Go-Round of Desire

An Interview with Mark Epstein: A contemporary psychiatrist uses ancient Buddhist wisdom to make sense of desire in our everyday lives.

In the nine years since publishing his first book, Thoughts Without a Thinker, Mark Epstein, M.D. has done more to pioneer the meeting of Buddhist and Western psychologies than any doctor in this country. Now turning this cross-cultural gift to the polarizing topic of Eros, Epstein continues to break new ground in his forthcoming book, Open to Desire, envisioning a middle path where lust for life-questioned in some dharma circles-is no longer seen as the enemy.

Trained at Harvard, Epstein, whose other books include Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart and Going On Being, is a longtime meditator who lives in New York City with his wife of twenty years, Arlene Schechet, and their two teenage children. One chilly afternoon last fall, attired in a black T-shirt and khakis, he met with me in his basement office to talk about this thorny issue of desire.

—Mark Matousek

You are working on a book about desire. Why desire? After studying Buddhism for thirty years, I realized that people have this idea that Buddhism is about getting rid of desire. I don't think that's true, so the book is a defense of desire, really—an exploration of the Middle Way, trying to chart out an approach to desire that isn't about indulging, necessarily, or repressing.

Why does desire need defending? From the Western, Puritan point of view, it's always been seen as dangerous, devilish, the enemy. From the Eastern spiritual point of view—as adopted by many Western practitioners, at least—it has the connotation of something to be avoided, a poison. As a psychotherapist, I've been trained not to avoid the so-called "real stuff'—anger, fear, anxiety—and this certainly includes desire. Desire is the juice. It's how we discover who we are, what makes a person themselves. I wanted to try to explore how to work with it more creatively.

Many of the ancient stories of the Indian subcontinent, like the Ramayana, the epic tale of separation and reunification of the lovers Sita and Rama, explore desire in an expansive, imaginative way. In the Ramayana, Sita is kidnapped by the demon Ravana and separated from her lover, Rama. Ravana wants to possess Sita totally. He is enthralled by her but can only see her as an object. Sita resists this, and in her isolation and imprisonment she deepens her own desire for Rama. The separation that Ravana brings about helps her to get more in touch with the nature of her own desire. I was intrigued by the way desire and separation are intertwined in the tale, as if you can't have one without the other. There seems to be a teaching there about what constitutes a true union. I've been reading over these stories to try to bring back some of this ancient wisdom.

We should probably define our terms. Are we talking about sexual desire? Carnal desire? I'm taking the psychodynamic view that all desire is really sexual at some level. Freud once said that he wanted to show that not only was everything spirit, but it was also instinct. One of the wonderful things about the Indian perspective is that it doesn't make the same distinctions between lower and higher that we are used to. Lower and higher are one. There is a much more unified view, so that there is no question but that the sensual contains within it the seeds of the divine. The view in the West, at best, is that things are organized in a hierarchical way, with sensual pleasure being a lower rung on a ladder that reaches coward the sublime. In the Indian view, it's not a rung, it's the entire ladder. So I'm trying co keep a focus on sexual desire throughout.

With the same general implications of clinging and attachment?
The question is whether clinging and attachment are an intrinsic part of desire. Sometimes in Buddhist scripture they really seem to be talking about desire in a more celebratory way. When I make my defense, I like to make that distinction. The Buddha warned against the clinging and craving that arise when we try to make the object of desire more of an "object" than it really is. If we stay with our desire, however, instead of rejecting it, it takes us to the recognition that what we really want is for the object to be more satisfying than it ever can be.

The Buddha's teachings emphasize that because the object is always unsatisfying to some degree, it is our insistence on its being otherwise that causes suffering. Not that desiring is negative in itself. We can learn to linger in the space between desire and its satisfaction, explore that space a bit more. In my interpretation, this is the space that Sita was in during her separation from Rama. When we spend more time there, desire can emerge as something other than clinging.

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