Mark Epstein’s book Open to Desire gives us permission to explore desire without shame. He gives us carte blanche to use desire to propel ourselves into a state of dissolution, where we are unburdened by craving or avoiding. This is a place completely free and expansive, where we have a profound experience with the totality (both pleasure and pain) of our consciousness. He implies that desire isn’t ultimately about merging with its object because we can’t possibly merge completely with something that isn’t solid or stable. Once examined closely the object dissolves into its constituent parts. Is a book really a book or is it paper, binding, cover, ideas and words? Is the paper in the book really paper or is it water, pulp and a manufacturing process? Which singular ingredient makes it paper? The book is there as is the paper, but its definition is a construction. We construct notions of ourselves and others in a similar fashion.
When desire arises in the imagination, it may feel like something we either need to satisfy (grasp) or push away. We often attempt to circumvent desire because we perceive it as too painful to bare. After all, who wants to be comfortable with longing for something we can never have? We could be sitting looking at clouds in the sky and perceive the shape of a dragon or a cat with sun glasses. We get caught up in that imagined object for a bit, marveling at it and giving it meaning. If we look away for a moment and return to capture it again, it is gone. If we try to stare too hard at it to ensure we grasp it, we may see something else. We can’t really form that exact image again, no matter how hard we try. Often times, another image will appear in that search for the original image and it too disappears. Objects (images, sensations, emotions) of desire appear and disappear in the landscape of consciousness over and over again. It is endless.
In the case where craving takes the place of desire, we latch on to the object. We allow something outside of ourselves to have complete power over us. We’ve managed to dig our claws into the object that our brief moment of desire initiated. But what are we digging our claws into? The object may be an image or image / feeling of someone we wish to be intimate with in some way. In this case the appearances in the imagination are much stronger than the cloud example above. This embodiment is vivid and evokes within us very strong sensations of craving. We get fixated and feel compelled to possess it. A story may run in our mind with various scenes and scenarios involving the human object of our craving. It is something that if we allow it, becomes quite elaborate and enthralling. Craving throws us into the cycle of stress and trauma. We search for something, are triggered by an appearance, we grab it, we get temporary satisfaction, the feeling disappears and we are triggered by the next thing all over again. We find ourselves deeply invested in turning this imagined human form into something that we are indeed capable of possessing. We aren’t imagining the person, they exist, but like the book example they aren’t what we’ve mentally constructed.
If we push desire away, we perhaps avoid the strong wave of craving, but may deny ourselves a chance to fully experience desire. In avoidance, we cut off desire or make it into something shameful or bad. Epstein points out how Freud saw this happening in his clients in the form of pathological guilt and shame. Desire in this case, becomes something that we blame ourselves or others for creating somehow. We end up feeling guilty and looping around stress and trauma again. It isn’t necessary and often not helpful to feel ashamed that the image or sensation appeared, nor are we responsible for it. All sorts of factors are to “blame” for these imaginings. We have the whole biopsychosocial model to contend with when it comes to the appearance of desire. The biopsychosocial model is a confluence of our primitive and modern brain system, our upbringing, culture, genetics, coping, social skills and more, all of which play into mental formations or appearances. In between the extreme of craving and avoiding is where desire dwells. It is the gap or moment between extremes. It is the subtle longing that if we tune into is always present. Desire isn’t an object, nor does it create one. Desire is a space where we get a glimpse of the ineffable “other”. Epstein believes when we are with desire we are getting in touch with ourselves, because we too are ineffable.
A lot of this stuff gets played out in intimate relationships. The “other” serves as a gateway to desire and helps us enter the gap where it dwells. This is the space were we experience things that we cannot pin down. It is the nature of desire itself. If we are able to feel comfortable in this space, we get a taste of the transcendent and the ability to thoroughly enjoy the intimate relationship by recognizing the indescribable in both ourselves and others. We are basking in eachother’s autonomy. This gap evokes our own mystery, because we both have that sweet bitter longing in common.
It is important to point out the pitfalls of a mysterious “other”, which should be examined more thoroughly than is presented here. Simone de Beauvoir wonderfully expounds upon the idea of “other” in The Second Sex. To de Beauvoir the very notion of other, when mystified, contributes to a cascade of oppression that leads to wars, sexism and racism. This is problematic in Tibetan Buddhism where we have a subservient position for ordinary women, juxtaposed with an extreme reverence for the Dakini (enlightened female bodied deity). In this tradition, the ineffable other takes the form of a Dakini (female bodied sky dancer) who appears and dissolves dancing throughout space (awareness) or what Pema Chödrön refers to as groundlessness. In some Tibetan traditions, the meditator imagines themselves as a Dakini, effortlessly navigating the groundlessness of consciousness. This other is the conundrum of the subject (experiencer). This is meant to translate to the elusive beauty within us and is open to us in a state of desire. In ordinary life this often translates to abuse of power and invalidation of the other.
When the object of desire is removed or exposed as a temporary appearance, we may feel heartbroken. However, this is an opportunity to open up to impermanence. If we are able to settle into that desire and disidentify with the object, we find a place of great spaciousness. This allows us to get past the subject (self) and object (other) and connect to the joy that we experience in each other’s presence, as well as a feeling of deep comfort in our own presence.
In future posts I will provide reflections and meditations on desire.
Open to Desire: The Truth about What the Buddha Taught – Mark Epstein
The Second Sex – Simone de Beauvoir
Civilization and Its Discontents – Sigmund Freud