Dreams, Wanting, and the True Nature of Desire

Desire is a problem. Desire is the path to liberation. Desire is an illusion. Desire is the greatest gift of consciousness.

Two competing models of desire flit past in the storyline of my life day after day.

One identifies desire as The Big Problem, the source of suffering. We must respond with disengagement; learn to desire nothing and you can avoid disappointment. We don’t mind not having something unless we really wanted it. And we don’t mind losing things (as much) if we can disconnect from wanting to keep them.

With this group, I spend weekends on the cushion, sitting in silence together, occasionally checking in on how we’re doing. “I’m getting bored with the story I’ve been telling for the last 10 years. It’s sort of turning into being hungry. I’m thinking about chocolate a lot. Also, my back hurts and I don’t know what the hell I’m doing here.” “Yup. Me too.”

Back to the cushion.

It’s intellectually compelling, stands up well under scrutiny, but it’s also very, very hard to work with. Years hard. Lifetimes hard.

Through another stream of thought I am connected with people (women, mostly), who identify desire as a gift which can be harnessed to steer us through a complex and multi-demanding universe. We want things because they are missing from our lives; desire is a survival mechanism that makes sure we eat enough (and the right things), become and stay connected with other human beings, and eventually make more of us. We can learn to work with it to fulfill our destinies. It is a source of power.

This is far more emotionally convincing. But it is frightening at the same time. It is the key illusion we are called to confront by the other stream of thought. And we sense intuitively that embracing it uncritically (or, even more, having the people around us embrace it uncritically) leaves us subject to the whims and vagaries of internal states, a certain route to uncertainty and drama.

We have been told (for thousands of years) that we cannot be trusted with this. Desire is too heady, the stuff on which the ego sustains itself, sure to destroy anything it touches, unglue society and turn us into monsters. Best to distance myself, distrust my inner voice, use external measures to tell me whether I am making good choices.

Dedicating myself too thoroughly to desire, I can imagine abandoning promises and the people who depend upon me, trusting somehow that “the universe” will pick up the slack.

Perhaps the universe will, but sometimes what I desire is to run away from my children and hide under a blanket for several days. To trust this fully, I have to also believe that I will first make sure that the children are taken care of during that time, and that I will eventually tire of my blanket and come back willingly to the life I chose in the past.

Yet questioning every single desire, setting aside all needs for attention, for love, for amusement, for relaxation, insisting that my body just take it when I don’t sleep properly, work too much, and run at high stress week after week, is equally a path to disaster. It is a different kind of disaster, and one that hits me more than the people around me (at least at first), but disaster nonetheless.

There is something to desire. It keeps us from dying, it keeps us moving forward, it keeps us connecting with one another and pulls us forward. Somewhere between “I am under 10 feet of water and need to breathe but I’m going to make myself wait to prove that I’m not governed by the whims of my body” and “I want that computer so I’m going to buy it even though it means I won’t be able to pay my rent” there is space for a healthy relationship with desire.

It’s just not obvious where it lies.

Desire In Practice

I’ve wrestled with this for years… on and off the mat, on and off the cushion. Desire… I want this… I don’t want that… I don’t want to want this, but I do… I don’t really want this, but I’m assured that I should.

From The Traditions (a wide range) I learned to pay attention to the texture of desire. To work with, not desire itself exactly, but the experience of it.

What does it feel like? Where does it centre itself in my body? Is it a pull or a push? Seeking or avoidance?

And more, what does this desire feel like? For food, for love, for sex, for power, for another kitten, for another baby, for more education, more intellectual stimulation, more vegetables, more ice cream…

I learned that, no matter how uncomfortable it is to sit with, I will not die without the object of my desire (unless it is air when I am under 10 feet of water). I learned the question, “What am I missing in this moment?”

This was useful when I found myself unexpectedly separated from my companions at a ghat in India, without shoes. “Shoes,” I thought. “My friends,” I thought. And then the question arose again, “And what are you missing in this moment?” And I looked around, and knew that I didn’t really need my shoes and my friends in that exact moment, there was time for the situation to resolve itself, and I was missing the chance to embrace being completely on my own in a strange situation and feel the majesty of it.

Beauty! I sank into the moment and released the anxiety. I’m in India!
(So are a billion other people, so on the one hand, “So what?” But on the other, “EEEE!!!”)

Eventually my friends brought back my shoes and we went for pizza.

Desire: overcome.

Desire as Blessing

The flip side of that story is that I had ridden the wings of desire to the ghat in the first place… I had arrived there via a series of irrational decisions, made for no better reason than, “I want that.”

I had gone to India on a whim, had chosen the ashram without doing much research, and had decided to say, “yes” when offered opportunities (that didn’t involve drinking the water). I had let myself be steered by desire, and this was where I arrived.

An hour or so earlier I had turned from trailing my fingers in the water to see the barest sliver of a new moon over the river and thought, “I never could have planned this.”

I didn’t get a picture of the moon, as I was experiencing it in fulness. Several days later, though, I had the chance to cross what my family had called, “The Monkey Bridge”. Laxhman Jula, India. November 2012

So, which is it? Is desire a thorny path to pain, or a liberating path to joy?

This is where we embrace the power of “and”. Each of those positions has something to contribute, but we need to remain aware, awake, conscious… there are subtleties (and not-so-subtleties) to the experience of wanting, of lack, of pursuit… and there is a difference between a whim and a deep calling. There is a difference between lust and the core sensation that whispers, “This. This fulfills me.”

That trip to India fulfilled me.

Desire in a Conscious Universe

“What you are seeking is also seeking you.” — Rumi via Coleman Banks
“You can never get enough of what you don’t really want.” — Eric Hoffer

Both these approaches to desire have at least one thing in common: they are founded upon worldviews that posit a conscious, or aware, or self-organizing, or communicating universe.

Desire can become/indicate a connection with something deeper, whether that is beauty, divinity, a universal consciousness, or memes, genes or mathematical equations. (Possibly.)

But in a universe which is self-organizing, thousands of things are calling to you at any moment. The patterns of hatred, loathing, destruction, addiction… these are “seeking” you (in the sense that they are sustained by and need people carrying them on as patterns) just as much as love, abundance, joy and pleasure.

It is up to you to feel out the difference between them.

If you are in need of the kind of nourishment that only comes from plants, all the fast food in the world will not fill the gap. Coffee is not a reasonable substitute for rest. No amount of meaningless sex will fill the need for love and intimacy.

Substitution is fundamentally unsatisfying, but you can do it for a long time, especially in a consumer culture that thrives on misidentifying deep needs. If you don’t notice that you are doing it, if you don’t know your interiority well enough to ask yourself, “Is this what I really want?” you risk chasing the wrong thing into an abyss.

It will quite happily continue to drag you along behind it.

It is not just a question of following or rejecting desire, it is knowing the texture of your personal experience of desire so that you can tell the difference between the draw that carries you to a place of wholeness, and the one that drags you into an unfillable hole.

A Meditation on Desire

Here is a basic exercise I use near the beginning of a workshop to get people in touch with the differences.

First, call to mind something that you are pretty sure you want. This is not the time to work with your heart’s desire, the longing that has called you since you were a child… this is more on the scale of “a piece of dark chocolate” or “a walk on a warm afternoon” — something that you can reasonably get with a little bit of effort, and that doesn’t trigger any addictions.

(In a whole workshop, we can get to the point of working with those harder things. But we’re going to start with something smaller here.)

Spend a couple of minutes thinking about that thing. Really imagine it, get to the point that you know how good it would feel to have it. Let yourself want it, and pay close attention to what that wanting feels like. It should be a nice clean feeling, light, pleasurable. If you find yourself drifting into craving or obsession, take a step back and find something lighter. (Also, make a note of what that messier emotion feels like; you may to revisit that later.)

Once you’ve got a good sense of what that clean yet simple desire feels like, imagine instead deciding to redirect your desire toward something that is not-quite-but-almost what you actually want. In the case of dark chocolate, this might be really cheap chocolate, or carob wafers. If you were working with a walk, you might imagine your preferred location, but on an afternoon that is a little too misty to be truly pleasant.

Again, spend a couple of minutes with this sensation. You are particularly paying attention to the differences between the two: wanting and almost-wanting. Or perhaps, diverting attention. Sublimation. Substitution. Will this sate you? Will it clean the desire? What would constitute enough of this not-quite-right thing?

In my workshop, we also work with trying to make yourself not want something you really do want, and trying to make yourself want something that you don’t really want, but that you think other people think you should. If you are finding these exercises helpful, you may want to go forward and explore those sensations.

As you try out these variations on desire, you may find yourself surprised by how many different sensations masquerade as wanting. The ways in which we trick ourselves are myriad. The ego (the philosophical ego, not the psychological one) can easily lead us terribly astray.

But we can work with it. Really, we can.

We just have to practice.