Blog: Radical Acceptance of Desire

Blog: Radical Acceptance of Desire

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When I was first introduced to Buddhism in a high school World Studies class, I dismissed it out-of-hand. This was during the hedonistic days of the late ‘60s, and this spiritual path seemed so grim with its concern about attachment and, apparently, anti-pleasure. Buddhism seemed to be telling me to stop seeking after romantic relationships, forego having good times with friends, avoid the highs of marijuana and give up my adventures in nature. In my mind, freedom from desire would take the fun out of life.

Years later I would realize that the Buddha never intended to make desire itself the problem. When he said craving causes suffering, he was referring not to our natural inclination as living beings to have wants and needs, but to our habit of clinging to experience that must, by nature, pass away, and that relating wisely to the powerful and pervasive energy of desire is a pathway into unconditional loving.

I first saw a glimpse of this possibility many years ago in what might be considered the hotbed of desire: romantic relationship. I’d been divorced for several years, and had met a man who seemed to be exactly what I was looking for. In our few casual encounters something had clicked and I was infatuated.

In the midst of the typical rush and excitement of such connections, I left for a weeklong meditation retreat. In the six years that I had been practicing Buddhist meditation, I’d attended a number of such retreats and loved the states of clarity and presence I touched there. But this time, instead of settling into even a semblance of mindful presence, my immediate and compelling draw was to the pleasures of fantasy. I was in the throes of a full-blown “Vipassana Romance,” as such fantasies have come to be known.

In the silence and austerity of retreat, the mind can build a whole erotic world around a person we barely know. Often the object of a VR is another meditator who has attracted our attention. In the time span of a few days we can mentally live through a whole relationship—courting, marrying, having a family together. I’d brought my fantasy person with me from home, and this industrial strength VR withstood all my best strategies for letting go and returning to the here and now.

I tried to relax and direct my attention to the breath, to note what was happening in my body and mind. I could barely complete two cycles of mindful breathing before my mind would once again return to its favorite subject. Then, with a stab of guilt, I’d remember where I was. Sometimes I’d look around and take in the serenity and dignity of the meditation hall. I’d remind myself of the freedom and joy of remaining present, and of the suffering that arises from living in stories and illusions.

This didn’t make a dent—the fantasies would take off again almost immediately. Hoping to get out of my head, I tried doing longer walking meditations on the snowy paths surrounding the retreat center. As my mind churned relentlessly onward, I felt self-indulgent and ashamed of my lack of discipline. Most of all I was frustrated because I felt I was wasting precious time. This retreat was an opportunity to deepen my spiritual practice, and there I was, caught up in wanting and off in the future.

After several days I had a pivotal interview with my teacher. When I described how I’d become so overwhelmed, she asked, “How are you relating to the presence of desire?” I was startled into understanding. For me, desire had become the enemy, and I was losing the battle. Her question pointed me back to the essence of mindfulness practice: It doesn’t matter what is happening. What matters is how we are relating to our experience. She advised me to stop fighting my experience and instead investigate the nature of wanting mind. I could accept whatever was going on, she reminded me, but without getting lost in it.

While often uncomfortable, desire is not bad—it is natural. The pull of desire is part of our survival equipment. It keeps us eating, having sex, going to work, doing what we do to thrive. Desire also motivates us to read books, listen to talks and explore spiritual practices that help us realize and inhabit loving awareness. The same life energy that leads to suffering also provides the fuel for profound awakening. Desire becomes a problem only when it takes over our sense of who we are.

In teaching the Middle Way, the Buddha guided us to relate to desire without getting possessed by it and without resisting it. He was talking about every level of desire—for food, sex, love, freedom. He was talking about all degrees of wanting, from small preferences to the most compelling cravings. We are mindful of desire when we experience it with an embodied awareness, recognizing the sensations and thoughts of wanting as arising and passing phenomena. While this isn’t easy, as we cultivate the clear seeing and compassion of Radical Acceptance, we discover we can open fully to this natural force, and remain free in its midst.

From Radical Acceptance (2003)

For more information go to: www.tarabrach.com



17 thoughts on “Blog: Radical Acceptance of Desire”

  1. Melissa McKay

    Thank you for your teachings… I share your talks at my yoga studio and with meditators and they get a lot out of them. I did want to ask a question about a couple of points you made in this blog… http://blog.tarabrach.com/2012/07/radical-acceptance-of-desire.html

    I often hear teachers say that we eat out of desire. But from my understanding of the meaning of Tanha… it is the desire for an experience to be pleasurable. So if we eat from that place we choose foods that would please our senses. Otherwise we could eat from Metta and we would choose foods that have strong nutritional value and allow the pleasant, unpleasant and neutral to unfold as it is going to anyway. I think even sex could be acted out not in just sense seeking… it could be a form of giving if we are more concerned about the other person more than ourselves. I know that the Buddha said also that Upadana is also why we suffer but it’s clearly stated that Tanha is too. I think it’s important to differentiate between our needs which are simple (food, shelter, clothing, medicines) and our wants which are endless… feeding our needs is an act of love and wisdom, but as the Buddha pointed out feeding this thirst of craving is insatiable and the craving itself keeps us disconnected from life and peace and happiness. Life unfolds in pleasant unpleasant and neutral experiences all of the time whether we seek pleasure or not… in the seeking pleasure we make ourselves suffer. I found for myself in not seeking pleasure and acting from more wholesome places, life often unfolds more pleasurable fro
    I understand the intention to dispel the myth that pleasure itself is wrong or bad and to create a relationship with craving that is accepting and loving. The difference between identifying something as unwholesome with wisdom and an open heart that simple knows what leads to suffering rather than identify something as “wrong” which is not wisdom and closes the heart is important to make. But this article to me (and please tell me if this is incorrect) … almost seems to say that the Buddha never said that desire (Tanha) leads to suffering.
    Anyway, the purpose of my writing is for understanding as I hear what is written in the blog often and desire clarity around it. Thanks for what you do and your teachings.

    Be well and happy,

    Melissa

  2. Darlene Lancer, MFT

    Tara,
    Your post offers valuable insight to relating to desire, which as a an addiction and codependency specialist, I often suggest to clients. Your story mirrors the experience of addicts and codependents – whether it’s preoccupation with food, drug, or a person. Sitting with desire, but not acting on it – at least immediately, gives you an opportunity to investigate and feel the emotions that drive obsessions and compulsions. Learning to contain those feelings and yearnings and to meet your needs in healthy ways builds inner strength and is an important part of recovery. Your post reminds me of the Buddhist story of the monk and student walking in the woods, coming upon a woman who begged for help to be carried across a river. The monk gave her assistance despite rules forbidding monks to touch women. An hour later down the path, the student asked his teacher why he’d carried the woman. The monk replied, “I set her down an hour ago, but you’re still carrying her.”
    Darlene Lancer, MFT
    Author of “Codependency for Dummies”
    http://www.whatiscodependency.com

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