Understanding and opening up to desire

Once you understand that desire is dynamic, it can go from being an affliction to becoming your teacher

Pencil portrait of man and woman in a state desire desire

I’d like to suggest a book by Mark Epstein, called Open to Desire. It’s written by a Buddhist psychotherapist who is a former student of Ram Dass. Obviously, the subject of the book is desire, and how Buddhism has a bit of a split personality regarding it.

Desire, like sex, is something people make themselves uncomfortable over. Many people are scared of their feelings—of what’s going on just under the surface. We tremble a bit—such is the power of our desire.

Epstein describes Buddhism’s ‘right hand path’ as the path of the ascetic — on this path, the solution to life’s drama is renunciation. This is the idea that desire leads to trouble, and the only way to avoid trouble is to repress it, fight it, ignore it, or meditate it to death.

Buddhism’s ‘left-hand path’ is Tantra — on this path, the things our bodies experience become the tools of awakening. Desire becomes the energy for action leading to transformation.

If you think about it, that’s how we actually use the word.

Desire is the feeling that lies in the gap between what we have and what we want. Desire is the emotional or vibrational pull toward change. Desire is the burning drive to bring something new into being.

Desire is dynamic

The problems come when we forget that desire is dynamic. It’s a driving force.

As we desire, we are driven to make, to create, to merge, to enact. In other words, desire at its best causes us to move forward; it empowers new realities.

Things go off the rails when we attempt to possess [cling to] what we desire. To lock it down, own it, marry it, make it “ours”.

The paradox is that desire want us to get turned on enough that we actually do something with our lives, but the feeling of desire is chargy, and therefore addicting. So, rather than acting and moving on, many attempt to maintain the feeling of desire by possessing the “object of desire”. It’s confusing the feeling with the external object.

Clinging is all about trying to freeze something dynamic — trying to make it “hold still.”

Epstein writes:

But this kind of satisfaction is impossible because the qualities that we project onto the desired object—of permanence, stability or “thingness”—do not really exist… The disparity between the way we perceive things and the way they actually are is at the root of our struggle with desire. Once we learn to make that disparity part of our experience, however, desire can be a teacher rather than an affliction.” [p 69]

Plagued by clinging

Most of the people I work with are plagued by their clinging.

They are looking for the perfect partner. They are looking for the perfect life, the perfect career, the perfect mind-set. But perfect is a static list of characteristics, and ignores the dynamic nature of life.

My clients tell me they want to be happy. As if there is a permanent state called happiness that someone, with effort, could cling to all the time, despite the reality that all of life is change.

I want to loosen their fingers from the death-grip they have on the object[s] of their desire, so that they can accept the paradox of their desire—you can never hold on to anything, including your illusions.

Buddha on desires

The Buddha said, in the first of the Four Noble Ideas, that “life is dukkha.” Epstein writes that the Sanskrit dukkha, [the word usually translated suffering] actually means something closer to “pervasive unsatisfactoriness.”

An example of dukkha is a potter’s wheel that is off-balance, and therefore always squeaks, annoyingly. Neat, eh? When you are miserable, isn’t that what life feels like? It’s not quite right, annoying, irritating, anger-provoking.

And then, the Buddha said [The Second Noble Idea] that the cause of dukkha was attachment to desire, which is better defined as grasping or clinging to desire. Thus, it is not the desire—the feeling—that gets us. It’s our endless demands for more of what we want, less of what we don’t want. It’s our ignorance—our clinging to our confused mental picture of the object of our desire.

This confusion is captured in the song title, “Hooked on a Feeling.” [B J THOMAS]

Note the lyric, “I’m high on believing that you’re in love with me.” The person is hooked on the feeling of believing, and none of that is external—it’s not about the other person. It’s a mind game—the writer is turned on by his own feelings!

Why suffering happens

Suffering happens as we try to freeze reality.

We feel the heat of desire and passion, and addict ourselves to the feeling. We look at the object of our desire [person, place, or thing] and instead of interacting with “the dynamic reality,” we go into our heads and create a story.

Our suffering comes from our attachment to our stories—our fixation with how we think things ought to be.

We then attempt to make the other person into the thing that we desire—into our very own “it.” We turn a dynamic person, for example, into a category, like “My husband” or “My wife.” We then fixate on our story about “how a wife ought to be” [for example] and make ourselves miserable when the “object of our desire” doesn’t match the fixed story.

People do this to avoid the hard work of relating to an ever-changing reality. And they despair [or change partners] when they realise the futility of this form of clinging, which doesn’t stop them from playing the same game with the next desirable object! The only way out is to find a way to stop clinging.

The Two Paths

The ‘right hand path’ suggests dealing with this tension and pain by rejecting or renouncing desire.

The ‘left hand path,’ being open to desire, is to accept it, respect it, and use it to work with the reality of dynamic living.

Passion, without grasping, is a way to open ourselves to encountering the other person as a real, dynamic human being.

This type of relating is an internal decision to

  • be passionately engaged in an exploration of the gap that exists between myself and another.
  • explore the gap between another and my perception of another.
  • acknowledge that I can only know “of” another—and that my knowing is more about me than about another.

So, how do we open up to desire, after all?

Oddly, it’s as simple as acceptance. I accept that nothing stays the same, and that there is always a gap [and therefore a tension] between what is and what I desire. I use this tension to relax into being comfortable with my discomfort.

As I find the comfort of desire, as opposed to the pain of clinging, I can choose, moment by moment, to be in an intimate, flowing relationship with all of life.

Meditate on this: I am who I am, and my desire is a part of that. If I observe my desire as opposed to clinging to it, the desire will lead me to notice what I am doing, and allow me to step away from clinging to simply ‘being in the moment.’

Life is an endless tension between what is and what we desire. That is the nature of life.

The way to work with the tension is to simply be present with it in a non-grasping way.

Once I see that life is as it is, I can learn to be in my life, as opposed to trying and failing endlessly, to fix it.

Once I stop playing god, in other words, I can simply be me.

Like I have another choice…

An earlier version of this article was first published in the September 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

Magnifying lens over an exclamation markSpot an error in this article? A typo maybe? Or an incorrect source? Let us know!


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here