Open to Desire: Embracing a Lust for Life Insights from Buddhism and Psychotherapyby Mark Epstein
It is common in both Buddhism and Freudian psychoanalysis to treat desire as the root of all suffering and problems, but/i>
Bringing wisdom to a fresh and compelling topic, Mark Epstein shows how desirecan be a teacher in its own right, helping us to reconcile our conflicting thoughts about it from both a Buddhist and a psychological point of view.
It is common in both Buddhism and Freudian psychoanalysis to treat desire as the root of all suffering and problems, but psychiatrist Mark Epstein believes this to be a grave misunderstanding. In his defense of desire, he makes clear that it is the key to deepening intimacy with ourselves, one another, and our world. An enlightening tapestry of psychotherapeutic practice, contemporary case studies, Buddhist insight, and narratives as diverse as the Ramayana and Sufi parables, Open to Desire brings a refreshing new perspective to humanity's most paradoxical emotion.
Proposing that spiritual attainment does not have to be detached from intimacy or eroticism, Open to Desire begins with an exploration of the dissatisfaction that causes us to both cling to, and fear, desire. Offering a new path for traversing this ambivalence, Dr. Epstein shows us how we can overcome these obstacles, not by indulgence or suppression, but by learning a new way to be with desire. Full of practical advice, this is a lasting guide for finding peace both in ourselves and in our most highly charged interactions.
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The Baby and the Bathwater
One of my favorite stories comes from the Sufi tradition of mystical Islam. It is a tale that tells us exactly what we will have to face if we endeavor to walk the path of desire. A man sits in the center of a Middle Eastern marketplace crying his eyes out, a platter of peppers spilled out on the ground before him. Steadily and methodically, he reaches for pepper after pepper, popping them into his mouth and chewing deliberately, at the same time wailing uncontrollably.
“What’s wrong, Nasruddin?” his friends wonder, gathering around the extraordinary sight. “What’s the matter with you?”
Tears stream down Nasruddin’s face as he sputters an answer. “I’m looking for a sweet one,” he gasps.
It is one of Nasruddin’s most endearing qualities that he speaks out of both sides of his mouth. Like desire itself, teaching stories about Nasruddin always have two aspects. Nasruddin is a fool, but he is also a wise man. There is an obvious meaning to his actions, containing one kind of teaching, and a hidden meaning, containing another. The first meaning jumps out from the story right away. It is the basic message of both Buddhism and Freudian theory. Desire never learns; it never wakes up. Even when eliciting nothing but suffering, it perseveres. Our indefatigable pursuit of pleasure keeps us doing some awfully strange things.
Certainly, Nasruddin is modeling our lives for us: Struggling against the tide of disappointment, we continue to search for a sweet one. As his friends must be wondering as they gaze at him incredulously, would it not be better just to give up? In this version of the story, Nasruddin is rendering a conventional spiritual teaching. Our desires bind us to the wheel of suffering. Even though we know that they bring us pain, we cannot convince ourselves to relinquish our grip. As Freud liked to say, there is an “unbridgeable gap”1 between desire and satisfaction, a gap that is responsible for both our civilization and our discontent.
But Nasruddin’s perseverance is a clue to how impossible it is to abandon ship. He is an enlightened teacher, after all, not just a fool. Like it or not, he is saying, desire will not leave us alone. There is a hopefulness to the human spirit that will just not accept no for an answer. Desire keeps us going, even as it takes us for a ride. As Freud was also fond of saying, desire “presses ever forward unsubdued,”2 pushing us to find and make use of our creativity, propelling us toward an elusive but nonetheless compelling goal.
Nasruddin’s parable models the solution to desire’s insatiability as well as the problem. His desire is undeterred, despite the anguish that it brings. In his unself-conscious weeping, in his implicit acceptance of both the perils and the promises of longing, lies a hidden wisdom in relationship to desire’s relentless demands. Nasruddin makes no apologies for his desire; it persists unperturbed despite his apparent suffering. Nor does he fight with his tears in an effort to make them go away. Both sadness and longing are left undisturbed. Though cognizant of his own folly, Nasruddin does not desist. He seems to know that, despite his tears, there is pleasure that comes in the looking.
I am drawn to this story because of the way it embodies both the disturbing and the compelling nature of desire. As a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, I am confronted every day with clients whose stories resemble Nasruddin’s. Over and over again, they engage in behaviors that from any rational standpoint they should abandon. Their frustrations spill out in my office like Nasruddin’s tears. I am tempted, at times, to respond as Nasruddin’s friends do. “Why not just stop?” I want to say to them. “Why not just throw in the towel?” As a therapist who has been influenced not just by the insights of psychodynamic theory but also by the wisdom of Buddhist psychology, it would be easy for me to take this position. One reading of Buddha’s teachings certainly suggests that the only solution to neurotic misery lies in forsaking desire altogether. Much of Eastern thought is based upon the idea that renunciation is the key to spiritual and psychological growth. “Why search for pleasure if that search is the cause of suffering?” ask many teachers from the East. But over the years I have come to appreciate that, while there is a time and a place for this kind of logic, desire can be an important ally as well as a foe.
In defense of desire
In thirty years of trying to integrate the psychological wisdom of East and West, desire has become for me the pivotal concept that links the two, the fulcrum upon which they both rest. When I first discovered Buddhism, I was taken with its nononsense appraisal of the human condition. “All life is suffering,” the Buddha taught in the first of his Four Noble Truths. Physical illness and mental illness are suffering; not to obtain what one desires is suffering; to be united with what one dislikes or separated from what one likes is suffering; even our own selves—never quite as substantial as we might wish them to be—are suffering. When I learned that the word that the Buddha used for suffering, dukkha, actually has the more subtle meaning of “pervasive unsatisfactoriness,” I was even more impressed. “Suffering” always sounded a bit melodramatic, even if a careful reading of history seemed to support it. “Pervasive unsatisfactoriness” seemed more to the point. Even the most pleasurable experiences are tinged with this sense of discontent because of how transient and insubstantial they are. They do not offset the insecurity, instability and unrest that we feel.
The Buddha’s Second Noble Truth, of the cause, or “arising,” of dukkha is traditionally translated as “The cause of suffering is desire.” While I now appreciate that this is a mistranslation, it is still the most common understanding of the Buddha’s insight. Desire, and all that it connotes, have taken on quite negative connotations for many of those who are drawn to Buddhist thought. In the first decade of my involvement with Buddhism, as I traveled to Asia, did many silent meditation retreats and immersed myself in the nascent Buddhist culture then springing up in the West, I witnessed a general valorization of the state of “having no preferences,” a demonization of desire. The world is not a problem for a person with no preferences, we told each other, echoing an overlooked and then rediscovered novel by a contemporary of Freud’s, Robert Musil, called The Man Without Qualities.
Upending the usual way of approaching desire in our culture, which is to indulge it either mindlessly or guiltily, this “counter”cultural perspective seemed, at first, fresh and inspired. Putting aside the conventional rush toward comfort and security opened up time and space for spiritual contemplation. However, in actual fact, it often degenerated into a group of people unable to decide where to go or what to do. Even going out to a restaurant posed insurmountable problems. “You decide,” one person might say. “It really doesn’t matter,” another might reply, and a general paralysis would result with no person willing to reveal his or her true preferences. Apathy ruled. For want of desire, life’s vitality began to evaporate.
The problem with denying any aspect of the self is that it persists as a shadow. Clearly, it is not possible to eliminate desire by pretending it is not there. It resurfaces, insistently, as Freud indicated in his famous phrase, “The return of the repressed.” With a regularity that has been mirrored in more traditional Western religious communities, those who believed they were stronger than their desires were proven wrong. As the French say, “Chassez le naturel, il revient au galop.” Chase away the natural, and it comes back at a gallop.
Open to desire
When I began to work as a psychotherapist, after completing many years of medical and psychiatric training undertaken after my introduction to Buddhism, I discovered how important it was to be able to admit to, or “own,” one’s desires. Freud’s initial emphasis in psychoanalysis, in fact, was all about helping people plagued with forbidden desires. Psychotherapy, in the hands of Freud and his followers, became a means of allowing people to close the gap between their wishful conception of themselves and who they really were. More often than not, this meant learning to accept and tolerate wishes and urges from which a person had become estranged. As I began to treat my own patients, I was given a special window into the particular struggles of those engaged in a spiritual path. Because of my immersion in Buddhist thought, many of those who sought me out for therapy were themselves drawn to the spiritual. In fact, one of the things I was struck by was how prodigiously people had been using the Eastern spiritual traditions to try to serve a therapeutic function. With my own patients, I was privileged to see how fundamental the issues of desire remained, even after years of spiritual pursuit. What I observed has led me to write this book.
Many sincere people drawn to Eastern spirituality are in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In identifying the cause of suffering as desire, they struggle to eliminate it from their being. A number of these people have come to consult me, wondering why their spiritual pursuits have not brought them the peace of mind they were expecting. To sit with them in a room is to feel people not quite at peace with themselves. There can be a closed, anxious or fearful quality underlying the way they express themselves. When they become more honest about their desires, a different feeling emerges. They become more present, alive, open and tender. The brittleness disappears. It becomes easier to breathe. All of the feelings that I associate with meditation, that I want to make accessible to people through the medium of psychotherapy, open up when people become able to treat their desires as their own. This is why the story of Nasruddin has such poignancy for me. As he defiantly indicates, there is more to desire than just suffering. There is a yearning that is as spiritual as it is sensual. Even when it degenerates into addiction, there is something salvageable from the original impulse that can only be described as sacred. Something in the person (dare we call it a soul?) wants to be free, and it seeks its freedom any way it can. This is one of the major insights to have precipitated out of my study of the psychologies of East and West.
There is a drive for transcendence that is implicit in even the most sensual of desires. While there are certainly currents in both Eastern and Western spiritual traditions that dismiss or denigrate desire, encouraging us to forsake it through renunciation or sublimation, there is another, more controversial, alternative that Nasruddin points to in his story and that I have found necessary in helping my patients.
Known in the East as the tantric, or “left-handed” path, desire, in this view, is a vehicle for personal transformation. It is a yoga in its own right. Rather than treating it as the cause of suffering, desire is embraced as a valuable and precious resource, an emotion that, if harnessed correctly, can awaken and liberate the mind. In this way of thinking, desire is the human response to the discontent described in the Buddha’s First Noble Truth. It is the energy that strives for transcendence but, if it is to truly accomplish its goals, the seeker must learn to relate to it differently. He or she must learn how to use desire instead of being used by it. In this sense, desire is the foundation for all spiritual pursuits. As a well-known contemporary Indian teacher, Sri Nisargadatta, famous for sitting on a crowded street corner selling inexpensive bidis, or Indian cigarettes, once commented, “The problem is not desire. It’s that your desires are too small.”3 The left- handed path means opening to desire so that it becomes more than just a craving for whatever the culture has conditioned us to want. Desire is a teacher: When we immerse ourselves in it without guilt, shame or clinging, it can show us something special about our own minds that allows us to embrace life fully.
When the Buddha taught his First Noble Truth, he elaborated the gnawing sense of incompleteness that underlies much of our experience. As if he were describing the Second Law of Thermodynamics (that every isolated thing is moving toward a more disorganized state) or Freud’s reality principle (that pleasure cannot be maintained indefinitely but must always give way to unpleasure), the Buddha evoked the unrest, instability and uncertainty that color our lives. In the face of these qualities, which he called the three marks of existence, we all feel yearning or longing. In the psychodynamic world, this yearning or longing is sometimes described, in the language of the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, as the depressive position. In the curious reverse language of psychoanalysis, the depressive position is considered a developmental achievement because it acknowledges the feelings that come with an acceptance of separateness. The ability to see things the way they are, not to expect constant gratification but to understand that all things are limited, is what allows for personal growth.
Desire is a natural response to the reality of suffering. We feel incomplete and desire completeness; we feel unrest and desire ease; we feel insecurity and desire comfort; we feel alone and desire connection. Our experience of life, our very personalities, are shaped by dukkha, and our response is infused with desire. Desire is the crucible within which the self is formed. This is why it was so important to Freud and why it remains the essential kernel of psychotherapy. If we are out of touch with our desires, we cannot be ourselves. In this way of thinking, desire is our vitality, an essential component of our human experience, that which gives us our individuality and at the same time keeps prodding us out of ourselves. Desire is a longing for completion in the face of the vast unpredictability of our predicament. It is “the natural,” and if it is chased away it returns with a vengeance.
In the Sufi tradition that Nasruddin exemplifies, human yearning is understood to be a reflection of God’s desire to be known. To the Sufi, God is hidden, but wishes to be found. The clue to God’s presence lies in the depth of our longing. Only by dwelling in the insatiable, and infinite, quality of desire can the Sufi begin to appreciate God’s nature. While I have been much more drawn to the non-theistic tradition of Buddhism, where the notion of God is deemed irrelevant to a person’s spiritual strivings, the Sufi perspective on longing is not far removed from the left-handed path. The infinite can be known through an acceptance of, and opening to, the unending quality of yearning. My interest in writing this book, in fact, is to correct the still-dominant misperception that Buddhism strives to eliminate desire.
The actual word that the Buddha used to describe the cause of dukkha was not desire, it was tanha, which means “thirst,” or “craving.” It connotes what we might also call clinging: the attempt to hold on to an ungraspable experience, not the desire for happiness or completion. As a therapist who has spent the past thirty years engaged in an integration of Buddhism with psychotherapy, I have seen how crucial this distinction can be. To set desire up as the enemy and then try to eliminate it is to seek to destroy one of our most precious human qualities, our natural response to the truth of suffering. Buddhism was not intended to be a path of destruction, it was a path of self-understanding. It did not seek to divide and conquer, it sought wholeness and integration. Hidden within its vast panoply of teachings, in fact, was a way of working with desire that completely contradicts the usual interpretation of Buddhism as encouraging renunciation and detachment. These teachings about the enlightening potential of desire were traditionally kept secret, because of their tendency to be misunderstood and abused, yet without them, the full value of the Buddhist approach cannot be appreciated.
In its path of desire, Buddhism has a natural counterpart in contemporary psychoanalysis. Both traditions encourage an appreciation of the important links between the spiritual and the sensual: the ways in which erotic experience can be transcendent and spiritual experiences erotic. In a metaphor that Freud would undoubtedly have approved of, the Tibetan Buddhist model for the awakened mind is orgasm, because it is only at the climax of lovemaking (in worldly life) that the veils of ignorance drop away. There is an understanding in both traditions of the multidimensional levels of what we call the self, the ways in which we can be seeking comfort, closeness, pleasure, affirmation, release and oblivion all at the same time, from the same persons, places or things.
Awakening to desire
What distinguishes the tantric, or left-handed, path is its recognition that desire itself can be transformed through a process that is at once mental, emotional, psychological and spiritual. This is a path that involves not so much physical exercise as mental exercise, a gradual change in the way we relate to desire, in which longing becomes a teacher in its own right. The key to this path is to make desire into a meditation. This idea strikes many as anathema. It is much easier to set desire up as the enemy and isolate it from everything else that we value. When it is split off or demonized it can still be enjoyed guiltily but it never has to be integrated with our loftier impulses. We can continue to look down on desire, or on those who are desiring, when we are not in the grip of it ourselves, and thereby preserve some spurious notion of superiority. As Freud suggested many years ago, there is something vaguely disgusting about desire, something that might have its origins in a repugnance that many feel toward the genitals. “All neurotics,” Freud noted, with his characteristic deadpan humor, “and many others besides, take exception to the fact that ‘inter urinas et faeces nascimur (we are born between urine and feces).’”4
It is this shame or reticence toward desire that has marked most of the spiritual traditions of both East and West. To paraphrase Nietzsche, who described the Christian attack on erotic desire, Christianity didn’t kill eros, it just made it vicious. From the Puritanism of American culture to the Eastern view that the seeds of suffering lie in the endless pursuit of passion, much of the world is deeply conflicted about a trait that virtually all people share. Yet for me, this divisive approach is no longer tenable. The separation of the spiritual from the sensual, of the sacred from the relational, and of the enlightened from the erotic no longer seems desirable. Certainly, seeing how impossible the division has proven for the countless spiritual teachers of every tradition who have stumbled over their own longings has been instructive. In addition, having a family and a relationship has made it abundantly clear to me that they require the same dedication, passion and vision that a spiritual journey demands. Now that spiritual life is in the hands of householders rather than monastics, the demands of desire are front and center, not hidden from view.
Desire is one of the most misunderstood concepts in Western spiritual circles. In groups that come together to learn more about meditation or yoga, it is a question that is almost always at the top of the agenda. The notion of detachment, which is fundamental to an Eastern approach to life, now seems more problematic than it used to, given the need that most people feel for intimacy. The Buddha left his wife and young child, after all, to begin his spiritual search. Is this the model we are trying to live up to in our relationships?
At a recent conference in New York City, for example, someone asked the writer and Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor about this issue:
“I have no trouble understanding the idea of non-attachment in meditation,” the questioner said, “but when it comes to my marriage and family, I don’t get it. Why is non-attachment even a positive thing to aspire to?” Attachment, even desire, seemed to the questioner like something to be supported in the interpersonal realm, not something to be overcome.
Stephen motioned to his wife, Martine, who was just coming into the room. “My wife says it is like holding a coin,” he said, and he held out one arm with his palm up and his fist closed. “We can hold it like this,” and he emphasized the closed nature of his fist, “or we can hold it like this,” and he opened his hand to show the coin sitting in the center of his palm. “The closed fist is like clinging,” he said. “But with my hand open, I still hold the coin.” Buddhism, Stephen seemed to be implying, actually imagines that desire can be held lightly. The distinction between the closed and the open fist is the distinction between clinging and desire. Although the Buddha saw the cause of suffering in craving, he did not say that the cure was to simply eliminate desire. His “direct” path was actually much more circuitous.
Before his enlightenment, the almost-Buddha actually did try to eliminate desire from his being. This was the more obvious approach to the problem of desire and was already well established in his time. India, even then, was a land of renunciates. In accordance with the spiritual practices of his day, the future Buddha engaged in all sorts of austerities designed to rid his soul of longing. He sat on a stone seat, fasted and punished himself in every imaginable way; there are famous sculptures from what is now Afghanistan showing his emaciated body with his ribs jutting out from so much penance. His asceticism was said to have no match in ancient India.
But the Buddha found that he would kill himself with such practices before achieving any kind of lasting peace of mind. In taking his penance to its logical extreme, the Buddha realized that the world would not tolerate his elimination of eros. It would eliminate him instead. He concluded that there had to be another way and went on to evolve the route between austerities and sensory indulgence that became known as the Middle Path. This is a tricky place to dwell, a between space, that Stephen was also pointing to in his example of the open palm. It is a space where desire is not pushed away but where its inevitable failures are also tolerated, where we open to it just as it is. In this place, one does not reject pleasure but one is not dependent on it either. Desire is given room to breathe while the desirer is urged to examine its qualities. “Look into the nature of desire,” counseled the great Tibetan yogi Padmasambhava, “and there is boundless light.”5
The path of desire
The Buddha’s path did not focus on desire as an enemy to be conquered but rather as an energy to be perceived correctly. The Buddha was interested in teaching us not only how to find our own freedom, but in how to stay in affectionate relationship to other people. While he counseled his followers to be lights unto themselves, he also recognized how much we need each other to make freedom possible. There is as much emphasis on compassion in the Buddha’s teachings as there is on wisdom, and it is clear that one route to the development of such compassion is through the investigation, not elimination, of one’s own desire.
In this approach is a very sophisticated psychological path, one that is mirrored and supported by our own tradition of psychoanalytic psychotherapy, also devoted to the intensive study of desire. These are the two traditions that have most influenced my own work as a therapist, and it is their accumulated wisdom with regard to desire that I wish to explore in this book. It is a task that I could never have undertaken, however, if I had not been exposed, early in my career, to the psychological wisdom contained in the ancient traditions of India.
The Indian subcontinent, while as ambivalent about desire as everywhere else in the world, is nevertheless filled with a reverence for the enlightening potential of eros and the tenderness of the human heart. It is a land profoundly influenced by an ancient appreciation of desire, one where this openness has shaped the culture. From its sacred cows, symbol of the Mother, whose milk and dung provide nourishment, fuel and shelter, to its sacred temples adorned with symbols and scenes of divine eroticism, India is suffused with the colors, smells, fabrics, flavors and faces of devotion. Its monuments, even those dating back two thousand years to the first flourishing of the Buddha’s teachings, are architectural representations of the transformation of desire; and its myths, Hindu epics like the endlessly repeated love and adventure story the Ramayana, which figures so prominently in this book, teach its listeners how to turn their own love relationships into aspects of the divine. India is rich in the natural resources of human emotion and it holds a model for desire that is much more integrated than our own.
In my introduction to India, I was offered a peek into a culture steeped in the path of desire, one in which pleasure is the image of the divine state: where it is the ladder, not just a rung reaching toward the heavens. In a certain way, the Indian approach is a reflection of the Freudian one. For Freud, everything was sexual, even desire for God. In his famous comments about religious experience, which he called the oceanic feeling, he reduced the oneness that is knowable through mystical insight to the erotic experience of the infant at the mother’s breast. In much of Indian thought, however, everything is spiritual, even the desire for sex. The most sacred temples are built on a model of deified eroticism.
My own view is that both are true. Each dimension mirrors the other. Freud understood that our erotic lives contain a distilled, essential, stripped-down version of the enormity of our psyches, while the Indian traditions recognized that attention to the erotic landscape opens up transcendent understanding. As Freud once admitted in a conversation with a prominent existential psychiatrist: Everything is instinct, but everything is also spirit.6
In this work, I have focused on Hindu myths, Buddhist teachings and psychoanalytic theory. In my discussions of worldly desire, I have concentrated primarily on intimate life and sexual yearnings. In keeping with Freud’s discoveries and with my own training as a psychotherapist, I have found that an unabashed observation of intimate life permits a clear perception of otherwise hidden dynamics of the psyche. This is not to suggest that desire is only sexual, but that within sexuality we can find a model for much of human experience. Within the psychotherapy world, this reduction of things to their sexual bedrock has, in fact, moved somewhat out of fashion. As the schools of what have become known as object relations and relational psychotherapy have grown in popularity, there has been a profound recognition that individuals are seeking relationships and affirmation as much as sexual discharge or erotic release. Yet I have chosen to remember the erotic underpinnings of human psychological experience and to focus on them whenever possible; not to exclude the relational and spiritual but to show how all three: the sexual, the interpersonal and the spiritual, exist on one continuum and are part and parcel of one another. As we open to desire, things do not become less sexual, they become more erotic. Desire seeks wholeness and desire seeks bliss—and it can find them in unusual places. My endeavor in this work is to keep intimate life in focus, using it as a template for an exploration of what is essential, and spiritual, about desire. I want to try to keep the baby from being thrown out with the bathwater.
I have divided this book into four sections, based on the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, charting the path that desire can take us on if we are able to use it for spiritual growth. Each section begins with a quotation from a famous Hindu epic called the Ramayana, a story of thwarted love between a man and a woman who, unbeknownst to them, are also incarnations of God. The Ramayana charts the same course that my four sections describe: a progression, driven by desire, from incompleteness to wholeness, a metaphorical depiction of the path of desire.
The first section, For Want of Desire, is based on the way things usually are. We think that we exist apart from the rest of the world. Our desires are urgent and conditioned by duality. We feel incomplete and are aware of our own flaws and imperfections. Love relations, and desire in general, are driven by objectification, not by openness. We feel “in need” and the “object” of our affection has to gratify us. It never quite does the trick and we have to deal with the gap between self and other, the gap that desire cannot bridge. We think we know all about desire, but, in fact, we are not open to it at all.
The second section, Clinging, describes what happens when we start to realize that there is no such thing as an ultimately satisfying object. This is where the first confrontations with clinging take place, since the obstacles to our growth, called fixations in Buddhism, originate in the effort to find an ultimately satisfying object. In this phase of spiritual development, a certain kind of renunciation is necessary, in order to differentiate craving or “thirst” from desire.
In the third section, The End of Clinging, comes the flowering of subjective life. When desire is not denied or suppressed, but instead allowed to grow in the light of there being no ultimately satisfying self or object, a tremendous development of inner life is possible. The finding of a third way with desire, not denying and not grasping, is what the Buddha’s psychology makes possible. Out of this new approach comes the ability to empathize with another’s personal experience. No longer relating to others as “objects” that exist solely to gratify or deny us, a person in this phase is able to transform his or her intimate experiences into spiritual nourishment.
The fourth and final section, A Path for Desire, describes the essential principles that allow us to get the most out of desire, to use it rather than being used by it. When desire is no longer used to attack a world that is perceived as separate but instead immerses us fully in the pleasures that surround us, a new kind of satisfaction is possible. At that point, even the bathwater has potential.
• I •
FOR WANT OF DESIRE
Ravana looked at Sita and he thought—Mine.
Ramayana (p. 176)
The grandest and most vivid portrayal in all of Indian mythology—indeed, in all of the world’s mythologies—of the enlightening potential of desire can be found in an ancient Hindu epic, the Ramayana. One of India’s most popular tales, the Ramayana, 25,000 verses long, is a story about the movement from clinging to pure desire. While it is a Hindu tale, it embodies a universal wisdom, one that is also vividly portrayed in the Buddhist path of desire. The Ramayana describes, in mythic form, the journey that is possible from clinging to non-clinging when desire is acknowledged as a path in its own right. Its main characters, the lovers Sita and Rama, are buffeted back and forth between union and separation throughout the tale, aided in their attempts to reunite by a famous monkey named Hanuman. Like the Buddha’s teachings, the Ramayana, written sometime between 220 b.c. and 200 a.d., was carried all over Asia, only recently reaching the West. Its stories adorn the walls of Buddhist temple complexes at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, built one thousand years later, and it is still performed in predominantly Muslim Indonesia, where its vitality has survived long after the decline of both the Buddhist and Hindu religions. While it is a Hindu tale, its lessons have been embraced by peoples of many different religions.
I read the Ramayana for the first time on my honeymoon in Bali and Java and was amazed to see its stories acted out in dance, puppet shows and theater while I was grappling, in my own internal way, with the implications of the story for my marriage. It seemed as if, during my month’s immersion in the tale, I was living it, reading it and seeing it everywhere. When my wife and I had children, the Ramayana was one of the first long stories that we read to them. When my daughter, at around age four, first entered a synagogue, she whispered to me, as she gazed at the tabernacle where the Torah is stored, “Is that where Hanuman lives?” The universality of the story was not lost on her either.
While the love that connects Sita and Rama is never in doubt throughout the long separation that defines most of the story, it is their desire for each other that keeps them seeking reunion. One way of reading the Ramayana is as a teaching in how to use desire in the service of love: how to use the inevitable expanse that one finds between lover and beloved as a vehicle for greater wisdom and compassion. While the imaginative structure of the Ramayana is completely different from a modern psychodynamic text, its message is one that can be easily translated into the psychological language of our time: The gap between lover and beloved is the space where the most critical emotional and spiritual work takes place.
This is not the conventional interpretation of the story, of course, one of the most popular in all of South and Southeast Asia. For some, it is merely a fantastic adventure story, the tale of a huge battle between the exiled prince Rama and his army of animal helpers on one side; and the demon king Ravana and his force of unrepentant rakshasas, a race of powerful beings living on the island of Lanka who have managed to kidnap Rama’s lovely wife, Sita. For some it is primarily a story of devotion centering on the monkey- god Hanuman, who is something of a trickster but who is completely at the service of Rama, saving his life and rescuing his wife from the evil demons. For others, it is a divine romance, a tale of undying love between Sita and Rama, two aspects of one divinity whose separation from each other is purely illusion, acted out for the benefit of their devotees.
While lessons about desire are indeed present in the story, they are not what is commonly attended to, at least not consciously. Sita and Rama are certainly lovers, but Rama (unbeknownst to him) is an incarnation of Vishnu, an aspect of God. It is standard practice, in fact, to see all of the passion in the story as an allegory for the love of God. It is easy, under the spell of the divine, to ignore the teachings about human desire that are implicit in the tale. My old friend and teacher Ram Dass (whose own Hindu name means, “servant of Rama”) virtually scoffed at my interpretation when I presented it to him. “Rama and Sita are pure people,” he reminded me. “Human desire goes in a different category. The ego has many desires; the only desire the soul has is to merge with God.” While there is truth to what Ram Dass told me, I do not entirely agree with him, at least as far as accepting the strict division between what the soul wants and what the ego wants. This splitting apart of the self into lower and higher is one of the unskillful tendencies that the Ramayana story addresses. While it is inevitable to some degree for desire to go astray, the denigration of desire can itself become one of the ways that its wisdom is thwarted. To see desire as limited to the realm of the ego and therefore always potentially dangerous is to miss its true nature. Ultimately, the power of desire can be harnessed for spiritual growth. This is the message of the Ramayana.
There is an amusing story from the Zen Buddhist tradition of Japan about a Zen monk scrawling a poem across the face of an erotic painting of a courtesan. He wrote the following:
Up and down,
Up and down,
I’ve got a lot of Endurance—
Doesn’t anyone notice my true purpose?1
The Ramayana is the story of desire’s discovery of its true purpose: the overcoming of the clinging or craving that the Buddha described as the origin of suffering. What is remarkable about it is that this overcoming of clinging is accomplished in the context of an ever-deepening and intensifying passion. While the tendency of desire to fragment, to split itself into lower and higher, instinctual and spiritual, or human and divine, is the subtext of the tale, desire’s ability to resolve these splits is the story’s essence. In the Ramayana, this split and its resolution are acted out literally. Part of the reason for the tale’s longevity and popularity, I believe, is that the difficulties faced by its protagonists are our difficulties also. Like Sita and Rama, we all have to learn how to navigate the waters of our most intimate relationships, face the loneliness and separateness that come with love, and confront the demons that keep us from knowing the divinity of our desire.
The Ramayana begins with a fierce battle between gods and demons. Much of heaven is laid waste and the demon king, Ravana, extracts a boon from Brahma, the highest of the gods, that he shall be unslayable by every creature of Heaven and of the underworlds. But Ravana, like the human ego he comes to represent, is careless and proud. He neglects to request protection from humans and animals, not thinking that they could ever be a threat. In recognition of his oversight, the great gods Vishnu and Lakshmi are propitiated by the other gods into taking human birth. Vishnu splits himself into four parts and incarnates as four brothers, with Prince Rama of Ayodhya the eldest and strongest. The goddess Lakshmi incarnates as Sita, fated to be Rama’s wife. In their human forms, Rama and Sita have no consciousness of their divinity, but they are nevertheless virtuous and honorable as would befit their heavenly lineage. Rama is groomed to take over the kingdom of his father but after the treachery of his stepmother is persuaded to abdicate the throne in favor of his half-brother while accepting a thirteen-year banishment to the forest accompanied by Sita and another half-brother, Lakshmana.
In India, the forest is the equivalent of the unconscious. It is the place outside of the rules and regulations of the home where spiritual seekers have always taken refuge. In the Buddha’s story, the forest is where he goes to search for truth after discovering the reality of impermanence and suffering. In the Ramayana, the forest is a place of magic and mystery, populated by all the hybrid characters of Indian mythology. It is in the forest that the fated confrontation between Ravana and Rama unfolds.
It is Ravana’s desire that brings him into Rama’s orbit and Sita’s desire that leads her astray. Ravana spies Sita and is smitten by her. He convinces a wizard friend to change him into an enchanted deer to capture Sita’s attention when she is alone at her campsite, waiting for Rama and Lakshmana to return. Against her own better judgment, she follows the deer, and soon she is spirited away in Ravana’s golden chariot, south to Lanka, land of the demons. The splitting of conventional desire is established by this kidnapping. Ravana is the king of ego and sensual longing, but Sita, after the deception of the deer is revealed, remains focused on Rama. As if to demonstrate this, at the moment of her abduction she drops her jewels into the waiting arms of two onlooking monkeys, pivotal characters who later in the story assist Rama and serve as his emissaries. The description in the story, which was meant to be sung in the Sanskrit verses of the original, is very beautiful:
Sita reached down her hands and broke the anklets off from her legs and let them fall down on that plain-looking hill. She took off her earrings and dropped them. Sita let all the ornaments of Anasuya fall, and she tied Guha’s necklace in her yellow scarf edged with gold and dropped it also. Ravana did not notice. He sped away, and Sita’s hair streamed out on the wind, and they left behind the two monkeys.
The two monkeys watched with their yellow-brown eyes never blinking, while Sita’s gold and silver bells and bracelets fell ringing down and crying. The yellow scarf flashed down like lightning; the silver ornaments were the Moon and white stars dropping.2 Sita is suddenly and precipitously reduced to the common human predicament: She is cut off from God and is at the mercy of ignorance and instinct. The thing that makes her, in Ram Dass’s words, “pure,” is that she remembers her beloved and resists the co-opting of her desire. Sita is not desireless and not asexual, but her desire, after the brief interlude with the deer, is entirely focused on Rama. Although she is tortured by the multiheaded Ravana, emblem of addictive desire, she has no difficulty resisting his utter objectification of her. While Ravana’s desire is to possess her completely, he is endlessly rebuffed in his quest. Sita cannot be swayed, although her faith in Rama is not as unwavering as her repulsion of his enemy.
While it is easy to scoff at Ravana’s hubris, it would be a mistake to dismiss him too easily. He is not an unsympathetic character. He may be a demon, but in his entreaties to Sita, he can sound remarkably human. Ravana is us, trying to possess the objects of our affection, trying to merge with an objectified and idealized beloved. In his belief in the power of “objects” to satisfy his hunger, he exemplifies the clinging of the Second Noble Truth. He does everything he can to earn Sita’s affection. He reminds me of a patient of mine: a big, likeable, energetic, extremely intelligent and sensitive man who often complained that his wife refused to have enough sex with him.
“I pay lots of attention to getting her aroused, to getting her off,” he would tell me, as if I thought he was selfish. “Why doesn’t she want it as much as I do?” He could hardly wait for his children to go to sleep so that they could “get randy,” but she would all too often tell him politely that she was not in the mood.
“What is arousing for her?” I asked him one afternoon, and he became suddenly morose. He scanned his memory for a long time in silence. Then he remembered something that had happened not so long ago. His wife had asked him to help move some boxes that were cluttering up their front hall. If he would move the boxes, she had said, she would be more in the mood. He had been dismissive of her hint; it had not made any sense to him. Yet that was the only clue that came to mind. The story was all the more poignant because of the association that followed:
“My own father never did anything nice for my mother,” my patient softly recounted. “But he would come up to her from behind and grope her breasts in front of us.”
My patient was like Ravana when he had trouble empathizing with his wife’s point of view, when he wanted simply to possess her without taking her desire into account. His failure to have his way with her, however, opened up the possibility, in my office, of newly appreciating her separateness and accepting his own. This was the key to a deeper connection. It was strange to him that the boxes in the hall could have anything to do with their sexual relationship, but this acknowledgment was the prerequisite for a rekindling of desire in their relationship. The Ramayana tells a similar story. Sita and Rama have to find their way back to each other once they are established as separate persons, divided by an ocean and under the siege of the demons. They may be divine, but on earth they have to act out the human predicament.
Rama, incarnation of Vishnu, unsuspecting manifestation of God, is bereft when Sita is taken away. Cut off from her, he seeks help from the monkey Hanuman and a host of other animals. Hanuman, the embodiment of devotion, brings Sita’s jewels to Rama and then takes a gold ring back to her as a symbol of Rama’s unflagging love, a ring given to him by Sita’s father at the time of their marriage. Sita welcomes Hanuman, takes the ring and gives him one more jewel, a pearl mounted on a gold leaf that her father had tied into her hair on the day of her wedding. She refuses Hanuman’s offer to fly her back to Rama, insisting that he come to free her himself. Sita demands nothing less than complete reunion, even if it takes an epic battle to accomplish it.
Son of the wind
Rama is able to free Sita only by securing the help of Hanuman. Hanuman, the monkey- god, son of the wind, is the bridge between the two lovers, the vehicle that helps them overcome the obstacle of possessive ego that has come between them. Both the wind and the monkey, in Indian thought, stand for the mind. As the son of the wind, Hanuman’s crucial role in the story suggests how important the training of the mind is for overcoming the gap that desire leaves in its wake. Hanuman’s role is to bridge the gap that ego creates: to break down the tendency to objectify the beloved and open up an appreciation of the subjective, and ungraspable, aspect of another’s experience. Hanuman taps the creative potential of the human imagination. He fills the intermediate space between lover and beloved, the space that must be trained in meditation in order that desire not fall victim to frustration and disappointment. Hanuman represents the inner life that the confrontation with dukkha opens up. But his job is to help differentiate pure desire from the clinging that tends to obscure it.
Hanuman’s exploits fill the central part of the Ramayana. It is he who discovers where Sita is being held captive and he who journeys to furtively meet with her. In one famous leap, he straddles the ocean between India and Lanka, and after confronting Ravana he sets the entire city on fire with his burning tail. Returning to Rama, he recruits an army of talking animals to build a massive bridge across the ocean to set the scene for the final climactic battle in which Rama can finally rescue Sita and bring her home. It is only at this point that Rama discovers his divine origins.
In the Ramayana, Sita and Rama’s physical separation is a metaphor for the separation of subject and object or lover and beloved. Sita’s rescue depends on a third force that can bridge the distance between them. Embodied by the monkey Hanuman, son of the wind, this liminal character is the key to the resolution of one of desire’s most persistent dilemmas. For in a certain way, desire does not know quite what to do with itself. It seeks union, possession or complete satisfaction, but never completely achieves it. As the Buddha recognized in his First Noble Truth and as Freud agreed many centuries later, there is a residual dissatisfaction in even the most satisfying experience. The object always disappoints.
Hanuman’s character demonstrates the way through this problem, the most crucial aspect of the path of desire. In creating a bridge to Lanka, helped by an animal army recruited to the cause of reuniting the separated lovers, Hanuman shows that it is possible to break down the tendency to objectify both the self and the beloved. In confronting the tendency toward objectification, Hanuman and his helpers function the way the transitional object aids a young child in a psychodynamic model: A bridge between self and other is created that makes an appreciation of their fluid natures possible. For instance, when a young child plays imaginatively with a favorite stuffed animal, one of the things that happens is that his or her inner life is deepened. The “transitional” function of this play is to help the child tolerate a separateness that would otherwise feel overwhelming. Play helps a child not take separation too seriously. In helping Sita and Rama reunite, Hanuman shows them how deepening their intimacy depends on how they understand the gap between them.3
Desire is central to the story of Rama and Sita. It rips them apart but ultimately brings them together again. As symbolized by their jewels, which they pass back and forth through the intermediary of the monkey, their desire eventually fuels their reunion. When Sita casts her ornaments down, she lights up the sky with her desire. Like shooting stars, they burn brightly and then fall into the care of the monkeys, pivotal characters who symbolize the ability to harness desire’s fiery energy. Part of Sita and Rama’s spiritual work is to figure out what to do with their desire: how to manage it and how to use it in the service of their love. Their struggle is our struggle. How can we prevent desire from being hijacked by the divisive force of clinging? How can we use desire to help us know the divine?
Desire can be a stubborn problem, one that can seem interminable. At the very close of Freud’s life, in one of his final notes found scrawled on a single page of paper, we can see him still wrestling with his version of the problem:
The ultimate ground of all intellectual inhibitions and all inhibitions of work seems to be the inhibition of masturbation in childhood. But perhaps it goes deeper; perhaps it is not inhibition by external influences but its unsatisfying nature in itself. There is always something lacking for complete discharge and satisfaction—en attendant toujours quelquechose qui ne venait point. . . . 4
Freud’s French phrase is his definition of desire: “always waiting for something which never came.” In this phrase, Freud rubs up directly against the First Noble Truth of discontent while unknowingly referencing Sita’s plight in Lanka. Nothing seems quite right. Even pleasure disappoints. There is always a residual sense of something lacking. But the Ramayana affirms something else, just as the Buddha did. While one aspect of desire’s nature is certainly the gap between satisfaction and fulfillment, desire’s ultimate goal is to free us from clinging. Sita’s lover does come to her. To counter Freud’s pessimism, we must travel the path outlined by the Ramayana. It is our own clinging, the cause of this “something lacking,” that the yoga of desire seeks to help us with.
Desire, in its most fundamental form, recognizes the sense of incompleteness that is endemic to the human condition. It seeks a freedom from this incompleteness in any form it can imagine: physical, sensual, emotional, intellectual or spiritual. But like Sita entranced by the golden deer, we chase phenomena we can never truly possess. Yet as Sita learned through her various misfortunes, desire can be freed from the tendency to cling. As this happens, the sense of “self” and “other” becomes transformed as well.
These are the discoveries that Sita makes, imprisoned in the sinsapa grove by the demon king, wondering if her lover has forsaken her. First, Hanuman comes to her, bringing with him the promise of a bridge to her own separateness. Then, Rama arrives. A new kind of union becomes possible: one in which she becomes more than the object of another’s desire; where her own voice, separate though it may be, is answered. Only then can her true oneness with Rama be appreciated.
As the Ramayana makes clear, desire has a vision that is paradoxical, a vision that can both confuse and enlighten us. It can make us feel ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time. We can be as pure as Sita, as demonic as Ravana, as devoted as Hanuman, or as skeptical as Freud. Whatever our stance, we cannot escape its importance in our lives. Perhaps this is why the Buddha was careful to hold desire so lightly in his teachings. For desire, in its paradoxical nature, in its ability to simultaneously breach and maintain the space between lovers, in the way it both connects and separates, and in the manner in which it forces us to reconcile love and hate, is often as close as we come to liberation in our regular lives. Like the animal-headed goddesses who guard the entrances to some ancient Indian temples, desire summons, ties, binds and maddens, even as it ushers us toward innermost bliss.5 It is desire, after all, that makes us seek liberation in the first place.
Meet the Author
Mark Epstein, M.D., is a psychiatrist in private practice in New York City who lectures frequently about the value of Buddhist meditation for psychotherapy. His previous books include Thoughts Without a Thinker, Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart,and Going on Being. He is a contributing editor to Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and has written many articles for Yoga Journal and O: The Oprah Magazine.
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