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.


Which in turn could help us remain unattached... Any attempt to attach too much will only lead to frustration and disappointment. But attachment is a tendency that is endemic to our minds. We can't just pretend it's not there, but if you can keep coming back to the truth—that what we desire is not ours in that sense—we can confront our own grasping nature, which, if seen clearly, self-liberates.

What are some of the practices, skills, that someone caught on the merry-go-round of desire can use to find the Middle Way? Meditation is the basic tool for that. In training the mind in bare attention, not holding on to pleasurable experiences and not pushing away unpleasant ones, we can learn to stay more in touch with ourselves. When we practice in this way, pretty quickly we can find out where we are stuck. The mind keeps coming around to the same basic themes. One of my first Buddhist teachers, Jack Kornfield, writes very movingly in his book A Path with Heart about his early experiences in long-term meditation at a monastery in Thailand. His mind was just filled with lust. He was freaking out about it, but his teacher just told him to note it. Despairing that it would never change, he tried his best to follow his teacher's instructions. And what he found was that, after a long period of time, his lust turned to loneliness. And it was a familiar loneliness, one that he recognized from childhood and that spoke of his feeling of not being good enough, not deserving enough of his parents' love. I think he said something like, "There's something wrong with me, and I will never be loved." Something like that. But his teacher told him to stay with those feelings, too; just to note them. The point wasn't to recover the childhood pain, it was to go through it. And eventually the loneliness turned into empty space. While it didn't go away permanently, Jack's insight into something beyond the unmet needs of childhood was crucial. This is one way to unhook ourselves from repetitive, destructive, addictive desire. It lets us go in a new direction—it frees desire up.

The way we try to extort love or affection from people can be very subtle. Or we may use food or drugs or television or whatever else to try to get that extra something. When we don't get it, we wonder what's wrong with tis. And the layers of addiction are never-ending. An alcoholic can stop drinking, but that doesn't mean he's not using sex to the same end, you understand. These layers extend all the way down to someone in a monastery, who can still be addicted to some pleasant feeling in meditation. In Buddhism they say that the most difficult addiction to break is the one to self.

The other tendency in meditation is to push away what we don't want, but aversion constitutes self as much as desire. This can lead to the anti-erotic, anti-celebratory, anti-emotional tendency among some Buddhists. This keeps them feeling more cut off than they want to be.

In a culture of addiction—with overavailability of nearly everything—isn't the learning curve especially steep when it comes to confronting desire? One thing that has helped me think about this is the psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin's theory that there are two kinds of desire. A male desire (present in both sexes), which knows what it wants and is going after it, which is all about trying to obtain satisfaction. And a female desire, not just in women, which is more about interpersonal, and intrapersonal, space. The male desire is about doing and being done to, while the feminine desire is about being. Think of a baby at the breast. In one version, the breast is trying to feed the baby—it's forcing itself into the baby's consciousness, or the baby's mouth. In the other version, the breast just is. The baby has to find it, discover it, for herself. It's almost like our culture is hip to "male" desire, assaulting us constantly with "you want this, you want that." It's so much in the object mode that it doesn't yield the room for what she's calling a feminine desire, which is "Give me some space to know what I really want."

What do you think about transcendence of bodily desire as a healthy path? Transitionally, it might be valuable for people at certain times. So much of our conditioned experience is spent in the lower part of our body. And it's certainly helpful for the sick body. You want to know that your mind is more powerful than any of that, that you're not only that but exist psychically, emotionally—on many levels all at once. I remember when I would take classes with Ram Dass, and he would only teach from the heart up. He would lead guided meditations where the energy would only circulate from the fourth through the seventh chakras. It was always implicit, though, that we would bring the energy back down to the lower chakras eventually.

But transcendence as the ultimate thing, I haven't found that to be helpful. It seems like the only idea that really makes sense to me is this one: samsara and nirvana are one. Dissociating yourself from any aspect of who you really are is only a setup for future trouble. The ultimate thing has to be a complete integration of all aspects of the self.

In your own evolution as a lover and practitioner, has your relationship to desire chanqed, hit walls—have there been tangles? Not to get too intimate...
It's always been a question for me. When I first started to practice, I was mostly aware of my anxiety. But as my mind started to calm down, I began to notice my own desire more. As if desire and anxiety are two sides of the same coin. I've always had a basic view, I suppose, that the Middle Path was the only way to go. Getting to know my first meditation teachers helped. I remember after one of my first Vipassana retreats with Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, I went into town with them to eat in a restaurant. I think they must have ordered meat or something—they had no pretension about them. It was such a relief. I didn't need to idealize them; their humanness was very obvious and very touching. For me it meant that I didn't have to try to be something other than what I was.

That's one of the main things that encouraged me to become a therapist—the relief I felt at not trying to be other than I was. Suzuki Roshi used to talk about using the manure of the mind as the fertilization for enlightenment. That's how I felt about accepting who I was. I understood that I had to make use of whatever I actually was—not pushing it away was as important as not holding on to it.

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