Friday, June 19, 2009

The Wisdom of Desire

One of the long-term blocks for me against Buddhist thought was that I was not interested in renouncing desire, which always seemed too much like renouncing one’s humanity. But that, as therapist Mark Epstein shows in Open to Desire: the Truth about what Buddha Taught, his latest rendering of the insights of Buddhist psychology for Western audiences, is not an accurate rendition of Buddha’s teaching.

Buddha renounced asceticism. The question is far more how to think of desire and how to experience it. Words (and thoughts) are abstractions, simplifications from reality. Thus, Zen Buddhism talks about mind-to-mind transmission of Buddha’s understanding from master-to-master, outside of the limitations of words and thoughts. Hence the story of Buddha holding up a flower, all his monks looking puzzled except for one (Kasyapa) who smiled and to whom Buddha then announced the passing of dharma.

Thus also the collision between the purity of desire and the messiness of reality. To put it another way, the (misleading) simplicity of desire and the (actual) complexity of reality. Do we focus on the desire and what it provides and teaches, or the satisfaction, with all its potential to fall short of our “pure” imaginings?
Epstein is interested in the ‘left-handed path’, most notoriously expressed by Tantric ideas (which are a strong part of the Buddhist tradition, particularly in Tibetan Buddhism), which accept that, in Epstein’s words:
There is a drive for transcendence that is implicit even in the most sensual of desires.
Basic to Buddha’s teaching is that there is no “self” over and above the thinking and experiencing person. So, Epstein argues:
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.
Epstein divides the book into four sections—one on desire, one on desiring going wrong, one on how to let go of such “clinging” and the final part on how to get the most out of desire rather than being used by it.

Desire comes from incompleteness so, in Epstein’s words:
... it is a natural reaction to the human predicament … In searching outside of ourselves for wholeness, however, we set ourselves up for clinging.
To give the object of desire (person or thing or whatever) more reality (that is more psychic power) than they actually have.

Epstein connects the idea of hungry ghosts—beings always seeking nourishment that they are not equipped to digest—with transference—the experiencing of the traumas of old, unfinished, relationships in new ones: which, of course, they cannot satisfy or deal with (particularly if one is unconscious of the source of the behaviour). Thus, were renunciation comes out of self-awareness, the effect is not to dampen desire but to liberate it. It becomes itself, rather than what it cannot be or do. I was, as I have already posted, particularly struck by this in connection with interactions between parents and children and the consequences thereof.

By living in the moment as it is, rather than as it can imagined to become or be a substitute for, we get far more out of desire. Modern psychology of happiness suggests that no-mind is the way to happiness. It is also the best way to learn new physical skills.

Epstein suggests it is dangerous both to think of emotions as not being part of us—repressing them—but also to think of them as us—surrendering to them, as if there is nothing more to us.

Epstein provokes thought and understanding. He points out that Buddhism (alone of the great evangelical religions) did not spread by conquest. Buddhism also co-habits with other religions much more readily than the other evangelical religions do. Yet, as a friend reminded me in a conversation on MSN™, in Japan, Zen Buddhism became part of a package that (to use his words) generated kill-bots to an extent rivalled only by contemporary Islam (see also my review of Zen at War). All religions have their shadows and misuses.

I have found wrestling with Epstein enormously productive. From simple things like sitting in a waiting room being mind-stilling time rather than mind-agitating time. To much more profound matters, like getting over depression.

It is not a magic wand, one has to work at it. And one can have periods where understanding is blocked and progress is frustrated. That is usually because one is trapped within one’s beliefs and self-image, not willing to step outside it, to stop clinging.

Which can, of course, be quite scary. But it can so easily block oneself off from being open to sense of wholeness, energy, well-being.

Epstein uses Buddhist, Hindu (particularly the Ramayana), ancient Greek, Judaic references interweaved with his cases from therapeutic practice and his own experiences to make his points. This, along with his pellucidly clear proses, creates a sense of openness and connectedness, as if understanding can flow from many places and is open to all.

A very helpful text.

No comments:

Post a Comment