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.

Or addiction? Yes. Desire becomes addiction after you have that first little taste of something—alcohol, great sex, getting stoned—that comes so close to complete satisfaction...then you start chasing it. The same thing happens in meditation: having that first bit of bliss, then it's gone. You want the perfection back. But you're chasing something you've already lost. If you stay with that widening dissatisfaction and think, "Oh, yeah, of course," then insight can begin to happen. In that gap.

So our relationship to desire is the problem.
That's the point I'm trying to make. Different teachers have different approaches to this: some recommend avoidance of temptation or renunciation, while others talk about meeting desire with compassion. Another strategy is to recognize the impermanence of the object of desire for instance, by countering lust with images of how disgusting the body really is.

Other teachers say that desire is really just energy that we have to learn how to use without getting caught by it. This is traditionally found under the rubric of Tantra, but it appears throughout the Buddhist canon. There's the famous Zen story in which the Buddha holds up a flower, and only one disciple grasps his meaning and smiles. There are many interpretations of this story, and mine is perhaps unorthodox. But the flower, in Indian mythology, seems to be the symbol of desire. Mara, the tempter, shoots arrows of desire at the Buddha, and the Buddha turns them into a rain of flowers. Kama, the god of Eros, shoots five flowered arrows from his bow. When the Buddha holds up the flower, he might be saying, "No big deal." Desire is something that can be met with a smile.

As a therapist, do you believe that it's possible to reject desire in a healthy way? Of course. There's something very useful about the capacity for renunciation. I think that renunciation actually deepens desire. That's one of its main purposes. By renouncing clinging, or addiction, we deepen desire.

Think of Shiva. In the Indian myths, Shiva is the great meditator, the supreme renunciant. He was so absorbed in his meditation that the gods once tried to rouse him to come to their aid in a battle by sending Kama to wake him. But Shiva reduced Kama to ashes with one glance from his third eye. He was so powerful, he could incinerate desire with one look. But the world could not survive without Eros. The gods pleaded with Shiva, and he resurrected Kama as easily as he had destroyed him. He then left his meditative absorption and turned toward his lover, Parvati. They had sex for the next thousand years. The bliss of their lovemaking was the same as the bliss of his solitary meditation. This is the essential teaching of Shiva: that tapas, the heat of renunciation, is the same as kama, the heat of passion. One deepens the other. The Buddha's point, I think, was that by renouncing clinging we actually deepen desire. Clinging keeps desire in a frozen, or fixated, state. When we renounce efforts to control or possess that which we desire, we free desire itself.

So it's selective renunciation. I think so. Because you don't want to snuff out the love. They say that the Buddha taught each of his disciples differently. He could look at each of us and see where the clinging was.

It may not be so much that we have desire as that we are desire. Trying to renounce desire is like trying to renounce yourself. This isn't the way to see the emptiness inside. But clinging is different. We can renounce clinging without estranging ourselves from desire.

Selective renunciation deepens desire because you separate out what's addictive. You free up the erotic? The question would be, What is the truly erotic?

Enlighten us.
I think it has something to do with playing with separateness: trying to erase it while at the same time knowing that we cannot. There is a tension between the control we wish we had and the freedom that is naturally present. There were great religious debates in seventeenth-century India about which would bring you closer to divine desire: being in a committed relationship or having an adulterous one. And the adulterous relationship won out because of the quality of separateness, of otherness, that the illicit relationship had. The relationship between husband and wife in those days was more about property. The woman was completely objectified; everything was scripted. There was no room in that relationship for the quality of hiddenness that makes something erotic—or of teasing.

In Japanese garden design there is a principle called "Hide and Reveal." They make a path near a waterfall so that you can never see the waterfall entirely from anyone vantage point. You can only get glimpses of it—there's something in that that relates to the erotic. In psychodynamic language, this is the ability to have a relationship between two subjects, instead of a subject and an object. Can you give your lover the freedom of their subjectivity and otherness? Admit that they are outside of your control?

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