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.

I'm interested in this question of transformation. Can laypeople actually transform desire? How much of this is imagination? Tantra is all about the capacity to imagine. Once you understand the emptiness of phenomena, you have the freedom to imagine another reality—superimpose another reality on this one. It's just as real as this one, which you've already understood is empty.

So the energy isn't actually changing? The energy isn't actually changing, no.

"Transformation" is a misnomer, then. Is imagination as important in connecting sex and love, do you think? I think sexual desire is the physical attempt to reach the other, coupled with the intuition that they are forever out of reach. A famous psychoanalyst named Otto Kernberg speaks of sexual union as the experience of a lover revealing himself or herself as a body that can be penetrated and a mind that is impenetrable. You feel these two things simultaneously. Sexual desire has both the male and the female element: the attempt to possess or take over the other, coupled with the impossibility of ever really grasping them. And it's out of that combination that love, empathy, compassion—all those other feelings—emerge. Through realizing the lover's otherness.

That's the basis of love?
I don't think that's the basis of love, but that's what happens when you're in love. Being able to appreciate, feel compelled by, the infinite unknowability of the other. It's a mystery you want to get closer to, where there's a yielding but not an ultimate merger. Both of you remain free.

Sex is a real vehicle for experiencing this. Which is why, in Tibetan Tantra, they use sexual relation as a metaphor for what is realizable through advanced practices. Sexual relation is as close as one can come in worldly life to experiencing the mingling of bliss and emptiness that is also understandable through solitary meditation practice.

Yet sex and mindfulness are not necessarily great bedfellows. Lots of us use, or have used, sex as a great way to get unconscious. Yet even with the senses overwhelming us, there's still some awareness there. And it may be that very sort of awareness, of mind at the brink of going under, that's most powerful. The moment of orgasm is classically seen as a doorway to higher consciousness, but most of us don't stay there for very long. In fact, we run away from it, a little bit afraid of how overwhelming it is. As I understand it, Tantra is about staying within that doorway longer, to rest in the bliss. That's what you train yourself to do. The nonconceptual bliss that you can only really taste through intimate sex, or spiritual practice.

Which is obviously very easy to become addicted to. Yes.

How does pleasure differ from joy, do you think? Buddhist psychology says that every moment of consciousness has pleasurable, unpleasurable, and neutral qualities. Even after enlightenment, these feelings persist. They don't go away. But joy—the Pali word is sukkha, the opposite of dukkha, or unsatisfactoriness—is a fruit of realization. The capacity for joy increases as the attachment to the self diminishes. In the end, everything becomes sukkha. You know, even dukkha becomes sukkha. So I think it all becomes pleasure.

Yet pleasure has such a bad rep in the Buddhist world. And that's unfortunate. Because the Buddha taught not only abour suffering, but about the end of suffering. Desire is only a problem when we mistake what's ephemeral for an object, something we can permanently grasp. It's only suffering because we don't understand. You know, this knowledge is encoded in the great Buddhist monuments, or stupas, that were built at the height of Buddhism's flowering in India. Surrounding the central mound of the stupa—where the ashes or bones of the Buddha or another enlightened being were stored—was a processional area where visitors to the stupa could circumambulate in a kind of devotional walking meditation. Bur enclosing the processional area was a great circular railing carved with all kinds of sculptures. These sculptures were often of all of the pleasures of worldly life, and they often included erotic scenes, couples in all forms of embrace, goddesses with trees growing out of their vaginas, these kinds of things. And you had to pass through these scenes, or under them, to reach the processional area. The pleasures of worldly life were the gateways, or portals, to the Buddha's understanding, as symbolized by the central mound. They are blessings that lead us further toward the Buddha's joy.


Image 1: "The Great Adept Ghantapada" (Detail), Courtesy of
Image 2: "Guhyasamaja Manjuvajra Father-Mother Buddha," Courtesy of

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