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Open to Desire – Book Notes

Open to Desire: The Truth About What the Buddha Taught
Mark Epstein

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.
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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.
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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.
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Desire keeps us going, even as it takes us for a ride.
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there is pleasure that comes in the looking.
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position. One reading of Buddha’s teachings certainly suggests that the only solution to neurotic misery lies in forsaking desire altogether.
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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.
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“Pervasive unsatisfactoriness” seemed more to the point.
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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.
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The problem with denying any aspect of the self is that it persists as a shadow.
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“Chassez le naturel, il revient au galop.” Chase away the natural, and it comes back at a gallop.
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desires. Freud’s initial emphasis in psychoanalysis, in fact, was all about helping people plagued with forbidden desires.
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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.
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In identifying the cause of suffering as desire, they struggle to eliminate it from their being.
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When they become more honest about their desires, a different feeling emerges. They become more present, alive, open and tender.
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Even when it degenerates into addiction, there is something salvageable from the original impulse that can only be described as sacred.
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There is a drive for transcendence that is implicit in even the most sensual of desires.
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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.
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He or she must learn how to use desire instead of being used by it.
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“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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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“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.”
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The distinction between the closed and the open fist is the distinction between clinging and desire.
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“Look into the nature of desire,” counseled the great Tibetan yogi Padmasambhava, “and there is boundless light.”
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The Buddha’s path did not focus on desire as an enemy to be conquered but rather as an energy to be perceived correctly.
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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.
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the sexual, the interpersonal and the spiritual, exist on one continuum and are part and parcel of one another.
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The gap between lover and beloved is the space where the most critical emotional and spiritual work takes place.
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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.
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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
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objectify the beloved and open up an appreciation of the subjective, and ungraspable, aspect of another’s experience.
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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.
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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.
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Desire was an important issue in the Buddha’s time, just as it is in ours. The Buddha emerged in an era dominated by a struggle between materialism and asceticism.
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Much as in our time, there seemed to be only two choices: Surrender to desire or try to get rid of it completely.
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The Buddha’s teachings were remarkable because they made room for a smile about desire.
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Bhikkhus, there are these two extremes that ought not to be cultivated by one who has gone forth. What two? There is devotion to pursuit of pleasure in sensual desires, which is low, coarse, vulgar, ignoble and harmful; and there is devotion to self-mortification, which is painful, ignoble and harmful. The middle way discovered by the Perfect One avoids both these extremes; it gives vision, gives knowledge, and leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nirvana.
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the Buddha left plenty of room for an exploration of desire. His teachings on the subject can be roughly divided into two categories: the right-handed path of renunciation and monasticism in which sensory desires are avoided and the left-handed path of passion and relationship in which sensory desires are not avoided but are made into objects of meditation.
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While his early exhortations encouraged his disciples to follow in his footsteps and renounce the householder life, as the Buddha’s teachings spread and took root, their relevance, even for the everyday life of passion and relationship, began to be revealed. It is in this context that the Buddha’s flower sermon, understood by the great Kasyapa, is especially relevant.
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First Noble Truth is that all of life is tinged with a sense of pervasive unsatisfactoriness because of how fleeting and insubstantial everything is. His Second Noble Truth is that the cause of this discontent is clinging, “thirst” or craving. His Third Noble Truth proclaims the possibility of an end to the problem, and his Fourth Noble Truth explains the Eightfold Path of mental, ethical and relational training that can bring this about: the so-called Middle Path.
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In the right-handed path, the Buddha’s followers turned away from the pursuit of sensory pleasure, but in the left-handed path, they allowed themselves to come face-to-face with the gap that desire always comes up against, as well as any pleasure that it might bring.
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The spiritual search and the sexual search were bound up with one another. Perhaps it is for this reason that the split between the two has never seemed quite right to me.
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The opposite of anxiety is not calmness, it is desire.
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Anxiety and desire are two, often conflicting, orientations to the unknown. Both are tilted toward the future. Desire implies a willingness, or a need, to engage this unknown, while anxiety suggests a fear of it.
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meditation showed me that the other side of anxiety is desire. They exist in relationship to each other, not independently.
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These friends and teachers alerted me to an underlying, and sometimes partially hidden, theme in Eastern spirituality in which the sensuous is not set up as the enemy but is linked with the sacred.
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We can know God in the act of feeding everyone, and while being fed. Touching desire, meeting and gratifying another’s desire, lets us know God. Even such a simple desire as hunger, the foundation of our basic needs, is a window into the vastness of the universe, as Krishna’s mother found when she pried open his dirt-smeared little mouth.
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In this way of thinking, spiritual happiness is separate from physical happiness, and the only possible approaches to sensual pleasure are indulgence, which is anti-spiritual, or suppression.
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As the Dalai Lama has described it, “In the early Buddhist traditions, desire was viewed as a poison to be avoided. The later Mahayana view was not to avoid the poison, but to antidote it with the appropriate remedy. In Tantra, desire is seen as a potent energy to be used on the path to enlightenment; just as peacocks in the jungle thrive on poisonous plants and transform them symbolically into the radiant plumage of their tail feathers.”6
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the analogy that is always used to describe the truth of “no-self” is that of orgasm. The self falls away effortlessly under the spell of love.
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Where possession is not possible, love can grow. Ganesh, the doorkeeper, guards the entrance to the human heart.
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But as many a Zen master has come to appreciate, there is value in being uncomfortable. If we learn to attend to it in a meditative manner, it can bring us to the state of openness and stillness that Buddhism so values.
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Balance comes when we learn to be off balance, not when we hold ourselves aloof. It is from this place that our inner life grows.
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The obstacle that comes between is always clinging. And clinging is driven by the hope that something or someone, somewhere, has some kind of ultimate reality.
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The tendency to look outside of myself at critical moments has continued to bedevil me. The yoga of desire does not protect from such tendencies. Rather, it encourages us to make them into the path itself.
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Desire moves us toward climax, but its resolution is anticlimactic. It can be maintained only if it remains unfulfilled.
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He saw the task of therapy as helping people move from a place of neurotic misery to one of common unhappiness, and, for him, that was movement enough.
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“Love,” wrote Otto Kernberg, who has devoted the better part of his long career to the study of intimate human relations, “is the revelation of the other person’s freedom.”
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His lust was not only lust, but a way of seeking closeness and comfort.
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He knew this to be a core belief about himself, but instead of closing down around it with self-pity, he opened to it in the spirit of acceptance.
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This core belief about himself was structuring much of his experience of the world. It was his own self that felt flawed, and much of his eroticized desire was prompted by a wish to make this imperfect self disappear.
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The Buddha taught that all self-images are empty in this way and that the residual loneliness that we feel even in the midst of love is caused by attachment to these self-representations.
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By staying with the feeling a little longer, instead of rushing to an old judgment about it, she opened up other possible meanings.
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People are not objects, and, in the Buddhist way of thinking, even objects are not objects. People and things do not exist in and of themselves in any kind of lasting way. They are all ultimately impermanent, insubstantial and, if we are not very careful, disappointing.
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Aristophanes, in a parable quoted by Plato and resurrected by Freud, assumed that we were all descended from hermaphroditic ancestors who were cut in half by Zeus. Ever seeking our lost other half, we spend our lives trying to resurrect a lost unity,1 searching for a wholeness, or union, that might bring us back to ourselves. This is a dangerous fantasy because it overempowers the object of desire, setting it up as capable of providing a satisfaction that is not in its nature. The path of desire requires something more (or something less) than an imagined unity with the beloved.
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Maybe he could discover something by coming close to the behavior but staying with the need, rather than rushing to have it satisfied.
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He sounded like someone who finds help in Alcoholics Anonymous after trying any number of other approaches to stop drinking. The daily vow of abstinence, backed by an ethical motivation and, in the case of the 12-step programs, the shared support of a community, can effectively counter the obsessional dead ends that we know as addiction.
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But the Hungry Ghosts have not reached this stage of development. They are motivated by a deprivation that, in most cases, has not been accepted, digested or metabolized.
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As children tend to do, they take too much responsibility for what they are feeling, blaming themselves instead of understanding that the roots of their difficult feelings lie in traumas that have already happened.
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Juliet. Renunciation of clinging is the first step in grieving the pain of the past, the prerequisite for forgiveness and a more unfettered desire.
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The gratification that the Hungry Ghost seeks cannot be found in the form in which it is imagined. Only when that drive is forsaken can the real work begin.
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The desire to know oneself more deeply is often rooted in the feeling of never having been known.
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“Renunciation,” he replied, is an emotion that can contribute to peace of mind. “It is the first step to really, thoroughly determining how vulnerable we are to suffering. If we understand how utterly vulnerable we are, and recognize that these mental afflictions make us so vulnerable, then we can see the possibility of the mind becoming free of those mental afflictions.”
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Rather than renunciation being something that we impose on ourselves, as the Western mind, steeped in Protestantism and the Freudian superego, tends to conceive it, it can be something that emerges out of self-awareness. The Dalai Lama described it in more detail for his listeners.
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there is an enormous amount of emotional content to it. It entails a radical disillusionment with the whole of samsara. And so, whether you call it disgust or disillusionment, it is a profound sadness with respect to the mundane.
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The first two critical tasks of the left-handed path reveal themselves in his explication: the willingness to look at the gap that desire creates—what the Dalai Lama called “the nature of suffering”—and the ability to see the clinging that results—what he called the “sadness with respect to the mundane.”
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Renunciation need not mean a turning away from desire, but only a forsaking of the acting out that clinging creates.
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In psychological terms, we could say that so much desire is trapped in the vain attempt to get what we never had as children that we do not even know where our desire can actually take us.
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completion by consumption. In this approach, the self is felt to be in competition with every other self for the scarce resources necessary for survival. We could call it a Darwinian approach, in which survival of the fittest is the ruling tendency of the mind. The renunciation that emerges when we start to recognize the limitations of this tendency allows for the growth of empathy and compassion. There is a strange sense of no longer being the center of the universe.
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Sometimes I just close the door on everything and everyone and eat until I feel sick.”
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Instead of seeing her situation clearly and processing the traumas that had befallen her, she was succumbing to the lure of craving.
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When renunciation arises out of self-awareness, its function is not to dampen desire but to liberate it.
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Rather than compulsively seeking satisfactions that can only eventually disappoint, restraint keeps people closer to their emotional vulnerabilities. As the Dalai Lama pointed out, this can be sad, but ultimately a relief.
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Cut off from themselves because of the traumas that unfold in their early lives, they learn to put on a mask in order to cope with the demands of their worlds.
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To be cut off from one’s self like this is to set up a scenario of clinging, as exemplified by the Hungry Ghosts.
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In order to feel better, she had to learn how to go within.
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The acting out provoked by clinging does not always take the form of addictive behaviors—it often is restricted to compulsive thoughts.
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Who knew what she might discover if she let go of what she already knew?
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Shiva cultivates a substance called tapas, the heat of asceticism, something like an alternative Freudian libido, that is said to accumulate through the power of yoga and meditation. This heat, derived from the guarding of the senses, inflames the mind of the yogi and gives it resonance.
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Those who perform austerities, who deliberately withdraw from the pursuit of pleasure, are said to “perform tapas.”
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Both desire and tapas are forms of heat that can be substituted for one another. They are embers that kindle each other’s fire.
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Shiva, it is told, was such a disciplined yogi and had accumulated so much tapas that when Kama, the god of passion, disturbed his meditation one day, Shiva reduced him to ashes with a single angry glance from his third eye.
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Persuaded of this by his fellow gods, Shiva, with another glance, raised Kama from the dead.
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after Kama’s resurrection, Shiva emerged from his meditation and embraced his lover Parvati. They commenced a period of sexual intercourse that went on for a thousand years, the bliss of which equaled what he had found in his yoga.
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Their pleasure, it is said, was the divine state, and it was made possible by the heat of their tapas.
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As Shiva and Parvati made abundantly clear, meditation and passion, at least in their case, were two sides of the same coin.
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the withdrawal in meditation is not done to try to eliminate desire but only to deepen it.
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“naked awareness,” the mind’s capacity to see deeply into its own essence.
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In an infinite series of multiple lifetimes, the traditional Tibetan argument runs, all beings have in fact been our mothers, and we can cultivate kindness toward them by imagining their prior sacrifices for us.
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“All that attention comes with a lot of expectations,” I began. “Western parents don’t feel that their children already are who they are—they feel that it is their job to make them who they should be. They treat their children more as objects than as individuals who already are themselves. Children feel this as a burden.”
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“A pressure. And they develop an armor to guard against it. The anger is a reflection of that armor.”
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“All the energy is going into the resistance,” I explained. “But inside, the child feels empty. They don’t know who they are or what they want. They can’t feel their own desire; they know only anger. The anger that comes from being treated as an object. Their emptiness is not like what is described in Buddhism, where emptiness connotes something akin to freedom.”
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When the false self predominates, there is no sense of that anymore—a person becomes cut off from himself—from his “incommunicado element”—at a deep level.
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They could stop treating their parents as bad objects, and begin to explore themselves as subjects: breaking down the false self that obscured the light within.
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Your joy is your sorrow unmasked The selfsame well from which your laughter rises was often-times filled with your tears. And how else can it be? The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
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Just as sorrow, in Gibran’s vision, creates a space that joy can fill, so does renunciation create a space that desire can more freely inhabit.
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By turning away from the compulsive dead ends of clinging, possession and consumption, a person can learn to dwell more fully in themselves.
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The more commonly accepted form of desire, the one that is usually associated with masculine energy, is the familiar one of possession, acquisition and objectification. In this version of desire, the self actively tries to get its needs met by manipulating its environment, extracting what it requires from a world that is consistently objectified.
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“The male element does while the female element (in males and females) is.”1 The male element is involved in activity, while the female element is all about being.
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By preventing the object from ever being known completely, the design encourages the viewer to imagine the invisible parts.
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For when we accept the fact that no adult person can satisfy all of our needs, we are on the road to appreciating our adult partners for who they are, not for who we wish they would be.
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“It is joy to be hidden, but disaster not to be found,”9
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“You need to be simple—not a simpleton,”
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In suggesting that dharma means living life fully, he was impressing upon Jack that no aspect of his personal experience needed to be rejected.
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In true Buddhist fashion, Munindra was undermining the most common psychological stance that we bring to our lives: the belief in ourselves as isolated, alone and in need, the attachment to the separate self. When we approach the world in this way, what we get from it is never enough.
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the first lesson of her meditation was to observe her own reactions, rather than acting on them precipitously.
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In Winnicott’s view, much of our suffering stems from a lost capacity for this sort of waiting, an exclusive reliance on the male, object-seeking, mode of relating.
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it is possible to stay open and desirous without jumping at the first, and most obvious, possibility.
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Non-purposive means having no fixed agenda, but it does not mean being closed or shut down. It is the approach that gives access to the “female” dimension of space, the one that facilitates growth.
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the key thing about sexual yoga was the willingness to renounce grasping while in the midst of intense desire, without abandoning eros altogether. This ability, which is another way of describing the yielding of the masculine object-seeking mode to the feminine one of simply being, is meant to open up the possibility of the “shared contemplation” of yogic union.
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Bob saw how much he blamed himself for the inevitable demise of his first marriage. He had not really let go of his ex-wife, or at least not of his feelings of failure in the marriage. His incomplete mourning interfered with his ability to give himself over to more current passions.
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Clinging to any state, no matter how idealized, only perpetuates suffering.
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In contrast to the more well-known paths of renunciation and asceticism, the path of sensual awakening—the left-handed path—takes ordinary passion and uses it to develop the mind in a manner analogous to what can occur in solitary meditation.
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This is done by introducing a person to the gap between satisfaction and fulfillment, and encouraging him or her to enter that space instead of avoiding it.
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Whether it is approached through solitary meditation or sensual desire, the highest yoga of Buddhist meditation involves mingling bliss and emptiness in an experience known as non-duality.
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The female desire for release from object status is loud and clear. And this desire is valued as the foundation for the liberating wisdom that we all crave.
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While male sexuality is like a vertical thrust, a woman’s can become all-pervasive.
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In a twist that Freud might have appreciated, the female perspective on desire is seen as ultimately liberating. Embracing it gives a peek into the underlying and fundamental nature of reality, from whence we all spring.
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The movement from object to subject, as described in both Eastern meditation and modern psychotherapy, is training for this union, but its perception usually comes as a surprise, even when this shift is well under way. It is a kind of grace.
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The emphasis on sexual relations in the tantric teachings makes it clear that the ecstatic surprise of orgasm is the best approximation of this grace.
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In love, we pursue the Other, only to find that he or she is inaccessible, while in meditation we pursue the self, only to find it equally ineffable.
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Yet sometimes, unpredictably, in the midst of these pursuits, when the balance in the mind is right, an experience that we designate as oneness jumps out.
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At its best, desire has the capacity to reveal the underlying nature of reality, to help us discover our natural state.
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The ego can never successfully take itself as the subject of awareness.
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As the tantric adepts describe, there are moments when we stumble into a complete surrender of the object-based relational mode, when we swim in the subjectivity of the other. The “non-dual” nature of things can then be understood.
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It was the transience of the physical world that was unnerving his friends, he decided. They were guarding themselves against a feeling of sadness that was an indivisible part of appreciation.
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For want of desire, they stayed aloof. They preferred the permanence of an incomplete mourning to the transience of a world that moved them but made them afraid.
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“Just as the waters in the high mountains improve by falling, so do a yogi’s meditations improve by dissolving.”
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You are Narayana who moves on the waters. You flow through us all. You are Rama and Sita born out of Earth and Ravana the Demon King, you are Hanuman like the wind, you are Lakshmana like a mirror, you are Indrajit and Indra, you are the Poet and the Players and the Play. And born as a man you forget this, you lose the memory, and take on man’s ignorance again, as you will, every time.
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In one direction lies clinging, the attempt to make the object more than it can be; and in the other direction lies non-clinging, where the gap between what is expected and what is actually found can be tolerated.
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Beholding art means giving it enough space to let it speak to us, to let us find it, even if we do not completely understand what we are looking at.
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We have to challenge the fundamental orientation that we have in the world as we try to make sense of our place in it: the tendency to identify with our own experience and to separate self from other.
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“We are not responsible for our feelings,” he
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While the acceptance of desire is certainly essential to deepen the experience of self, it is not necessary to assume that this desire is “ours.” It is easier to accept if we see it as coming from a mysterious place.
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Emotions are like the gods of the old world, linking us to our souls. When we repress them, we are totally cut off, and stuck in our impoverished selves. But when we identify completely with the emotions, when we think that they are us, we are letting the gods trick us.
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From this perspective, the arising of desire becomes an opportunity to question, not what we desire, nor what we do with desire, nor even how we make sense out of desire, but what does desire want from us? What is its teaching?
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As in the Ramayana, where gods and animals have to work together to discover the intersubjective expanse of what it means to be human, we need partners in order to realize who we are. While psychotherapy and meditation offer reliable venues for this exploration, our love relations do also.
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