Thursday, October 20, 2011

Open to Desire

I’ve just gone back to Mark Epstein’s Open to Desire: The Truth About What the Buddha Taught (Gotham Books, paperback edition 2006). As intelligent as it is accessible, it holds up wonderfully to a second reading, and I suspect to a third down the road. A Jewish-Buddhist psychiatrist in private practice in New York, Epstein makes a clear and convincing argument for desire, and particularly for sexual desire, as a tool for spiritual growth—providing we see desire clearly for what it is.

He’s at pains to tweak some unfortunately standard English translations of the basic principles of Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths. Epstein rephrases them more or less as follows: that all life is marked by pervasive dissatisfaction; that the cause of this dissatisfaction is our constant attempt to cling to the illusory promises of fulfillment; that to genuinely relinquish that clinging eliminates the cause of our dissatisfaction; and that we can overcome clinging by following Buddhism’s Eightfold Path of right living, action, and attitude.

He’s saying that, contrary to many assumptions about Buddhist teaching, it’s not desire we have to eliminate. Instead, we need to renounce attachment to a false image that turns the Beloved into an object, a vehicle for achieving what we want. If we don’t, the alternative is “chasing the dragon”: endlessly shopping for the ideal lover, the perfect experience, the mind-blowing orgasm, the hot scene to end all hot scenes. It’s not pretty when hunger and thirst feed only themselves: when, on the altar of an illusion, we sacrifice the reality of the life that unfolds before us and within us as a glorious, unpredictable, and fleeting gift.

If we instead experience desire mindfully, it becomes a great teacher: it leads us to recognize that what we yearn for always exceeds what we grasp. It reminds us that lack is fundamental to the reality of our lives, and that paradoxically we can only live fully when we embrace that fact instead of trying to escape it. Mindful desire invites us to accept that what we most truly long for always lies Beyond what we grasp after or strive to retain. We come to understand that the Beloved is not an object, but an unknowable Other with a life of his own that we can witness as a miracle and honor face to face but never possess—that our task (and our pleasure) is to go on desiring without clinging.

Here (p. 108) is Epstein at his most precise and, to me, most compelling: “The therapist, by not gratifying, but not rejecting, the unfinished cravings … models a new approach to desire. By examining those cravings in the nonjudgmental space of the therapeutic encounter, the therapist encourages a renunciation, not of desire itself, but of the clinging that comes to obscure it.” Though he’s talking about the therapeutic relationship in particular, I find myself thinking that to behave like this toward my partner, toward my friends, toward those whose lives touch mine in small, daily encounters, is a high, challenging, and worthy aspiration.

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