Desire as Hungry Torrent or Quiet Stream

rushing water, shoreline, IndonesiaRecently, I’ve been reading about the blending of Buddhist psychology with western psychotherapy, especially the ideas about desire. I used to think that Buddhist teachings considered desire itself to be the cause of suffering and dissatisfaction with life.

Not so, according to western interpreters like Jack Kornfield, Phillip Moffitt and Mark Epstein. They describe desire itself is an energy of life, a will to do things that can be turned toward healthy or destructive ends. Trying to get rid of desire itself is impossible.

Creating a False Self

Instead, you need to become aware, to observe it as a force you can experience in a balanced way rather than follow slavishly as the key to your happiness.

The problem is getting so attached to the things you desire that nothing will satisfy you until to get them into your life. They become idealized, they glow with a promise of fulfillment. You feel you won’t be happy with anything less, and you become obsessed.

You’ve created an idea of yourself that depends on everything you don’t have. You are constantly trying to complete the perfect portrait of a false self.  It’s a tortured way to live, toe-balanced on the edge of a cliff.

Fulfillment through Fantasy

Maybe I’m distorting the ideas to fit my experience, but this conception of desire and attachment has given me a way of understanding a turning point in my own recovery.

For a long time, I felt controlled by intense feelings of the need to change my life. I believed I could escape the depression and sense of inadequacy that plagued me by breaking away from my family and work. If I could start over with a new partner, new work, a new home, I could be happy and fully myself. The question was whether or not I would be bold enough to go for it.

Being bold meant breaking boundaries, hurting people, disrupting lives. There were times when none of that mattered. I wanted to drive through the barriers to satisfy the desire, the hunger for the new life I had to have.

Stepping Back from Disaster

I was absolutely convinced of the real possibilities in these fantasies, getting out of my family, leaving for a different life, but after a time I stepped back and noticed something obvious. I had been creating so many grandiose visions of perfect futures that they all started to look the same.

The image of a hungry river came to mind.

As a river roars down its steep course in a torrential flood, it pulls everything with it. Tons of soil and sand are sucked up and held in a roiling suspension. But when the river slows, meandering through flatter lands, the water drops its heavy burden. The soil and sand settle out to form silt on the river bed.

My own drives and longings seemed like that raging river, picking up whatever came in their path, while racing toward the ideal of a perfect life. But there came that moment when I saw the absurdity of what I was longing for. How could I be fantasizing about every women, every type of achievement?

Looking at Desire Mindfully

It was crazy, even laughable. I had slowed myself down in this race, and suddenly the fantasies dropped away. I could see the longing itself, the energy and wild imaginings. I had spent vast amounts of time obsessing and trying to act out these waking dreams while neglecting the needs of my real relationships and worklife.

I didn’t feel as if I’d suddenly been enlightened or had achieved a form of detachment through meditation, yet it was definitely a working form of mindfulness. I couldn’t take the fantasies seriously. I could observe them, I could feel the energy of the longing, but I was no longer controlled by them.

From that time on, I focused on the realities of my life, the people I loved and needed to be with – mindfully but also passionately. The energy is still strong but I direct it toward a healthier life, one that enriches me but also, hopefully, the people I’m closest to.


Have you lived through an experience like this, imagining fulfillment – or the end of depression -only by getting something into your life that lured you as the answer to whatever you felt was wrong or missing? Were you able to step back before it became destructive?


11 Responses to “Desire as Hungry Torrent or Quiet Stream”

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  1. Lisa says:

    This is an interesting perspective and I would have to say, yes, I’ve found myself caught up in the “ideas” of a new life to the point of really believing them. I’ve seen myself as super successful, executive level business owner, charming, someone whom everyone likes, whatever it is that makes me feel better about myself. The “hungry torrent”.

    The only problem is, I recently had to leave my job and I still don’t have another (I just got told yesterday, after an interview, that I was overqualified for a part-time job, after I’d dumbed down my resume. Ugh.). I have finally come to the realization that I don’t have any close friends, and I hide in my house, venturing out only once in awhile when I can’t stand the loneliness anymore. I’m working on that friend thing, but it’s hard. The “quiet stream”.

    Before I read this post, I had already started the process of re-evaluating who I am, what skills I really posses, what gifts I can contribute to my community. Real gifts, not gifts I’ve created in my head. It’s a tough reality to face when the people in the career community to which I belong (or thought I belonged) start using words I no longer understand or care to comprehend anymore. I think that’s my clue to make a career change. This process has taken a great deal of effort in which I have to take that step back from every possible decision I’ve faced and decide if I’m making the decision in a mindful or fanciful way. I’m still not comfortable with my new reality since the breakup of my marriage, but I’m trying to make the best of it rather than fantasize it away.

    I believe we have to be careful, though, that we don’t allow the pendulum to swing the other way and completely debase ourselves into nothingness, believing that any goal we reach for is unobtainable because it *might* not be realistic (fear plays a part here). Sometimes we have to take that leap and make a new reality.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Lisa –

      It’s always been hard for me to tell the difference between a realistic goal and one that lives only in a mood – one of my upswinging anything-is-possible moods. I think the sign you mention of the need for a career change is a good one. I spent years in a field that became a turn-off – and I gradually realized I had little to share on a personal level with most of the people I worked with. I began on a surge of enthusiasm but that had more to do with the excitement of starting something new rather than a commitment to that profession. It is easy to go to the other extreme and dismiss every ambition as unrealistic – or to be hypercritical because we evolve and grow over time and perhaps need to change the type of work we do. It took me a while to accept the reality that I like to start things and get bored as the challenge disappears into the routine.


  2. I don’t really have an example, but I have also been reading buddhism with psychotherapy. and I just find Buddhism very pacifying and calms my mind, and minimizes a lot of pain I feel
    Noch Noch

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Noch Noch –

      I find that too, especially when listening to some of the great teachers as they lead meditation sessions. I’ve never been to one, but tapes and videos can be quite powerful. There are also writers whose words have a deeply calming effect as they describe Buddhist principles – that’s a great art in itself.


  3. Evan says:

    Once I was very stressed, had been to a meeting and needed to get home to get changed to go to a wedding and doing this by public transport. I was feeling rushed and hassled. Then the thought came to me: But I could die before I even get home. That broke the mood – I was still moving just as quickly and with the same goal but the attachment was broken, I felt lighter.

    This is only a trivial thing but I do think it is the kind of thing you mean.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Evan –

      That’s a great example. Breaking the mood of rush and tension is no small thing. Bringing down the stress level is probably the most important thing you can do to stay healthy. There’s enough stress over things that really matter, so finding ways to stop the small stuff from eating at you is crucial.


  4. Judy says:

    This is a really thoughtful piece of writing, John. I’ve never looked at desire in this way before. I think there was a time when I imagined an end to my depression by leaving my husband, but I wouldn’t have called it desire, really; it was more of an escapist fantasy. And I think something inside me “knew” that my depression would probably follow me no matter where I went.

    I’ve always had a difficult time even knowing what my heart’s desire is because I became conditioned to believe that nothing I wanted or would have wanted really mattered. Somebody else was always in control and there was always a price to pay for pursuing a dream or enjoying anything. I’ve recently realized that it’s still happening. I’m sick of making decisions based on whether or not someone is going to be angry with me or hurt or disappointed in me and I wish I could just snap my fingers and be done with it.

    It almost sounds like a big adventure to me to even think of pursuing some desire that might get me in trouble! Probably about the only example I can think of was when, at the age of 14, I decided I was going to be a nun and got to escape my home by living in a boarding school. Yes, come to think of it, that did present its own set of problems and certainly was not the idyllic life I had dreamed about. There were more rules and regulations than I had at home, but the big difference was that there was much less emotional abuse and no physical abuse. That almost makes me laugh when I think of it – the best part was the absence of the negative. A real goal worth shooting for, no?

    Thanks again for putting things out there that make me think a little deeper.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Judy –

      Becoming a nun may not involve the absence of the negative in every case. Try reading Karen Armstrong’s memoir The Spiral Staircase. It’s about her leaving the cloister and adapting to the secular world. She found that as a nun emotional life was strongly discouraged and problems like depression and anorexia dismissed as theatrics, lack of discipline or excessive emotionalism. The mother superior refused to hear of treatment for such problems, yet a close friend of Armstrong’s nearly died because she could not get help for her severe eating disorder. Apart from fantasy, though, I can relate to the difficulty you’ve had in giving yourself permission to let your desire push past someone’s anger or judgment. I still run into that every time I sit down to write – I’m good at imagining the reader over my shoulder getting turned off or angry and so I have to keep dodging self-censorship.


  5. Donna-1 says:

    Yes, I have experienced and encouraged this imagining. Are fantasies ever “real”? Well, you can realize truths from experiencing fantasy, like you did. So in a sense, this fantasizing is neither good nor bad. Unless, as you said, you let it become the hungry river that collapses the foundations of your life and sweeps them away into something you never intended. In reality, a fantasy lived out destroys the fantasy, too. Many times I have considered packing up and moving to Arizona. It was a place through which my family drove when I was a kid. I absorbed the beauty of the desert, the colors of the evening skies. It was like an aurora borealis not coming from the sky, but from the land. It charmed me, enthralled me. Even now, 40 years later, it seems like the perfect place to live. I would move there and leave everything else behind and hopefully leave all my family’s expectations (I wouldn’t tell them where I was going.) I wanted to be where I could sit outside in the evening and breathe in the seeming purity of it all. Well, guess what. Arizona has Gila monsters, scorpions, spiny cacti, heat that can eat you up. But I saw it all through the window of an air conditioned car, moving at 80 mph where the details begin to blur. Arizona also has all the personalities I would be leaving behind, I could not even reinvent my own personality. And when you’re in Arizona, I imagine you fantasize about being in Colorado. What’s “real” and what counts is right here where you are right now, with the relationships you’ve managed your own way for decades, with the problems and the joys of those relationships. I think God even fantasizes about a perfect world and arriving at one eventually. But will it be what He expects when He gets there?

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Donna –

      As one who has spent a lot of time in Arizona, I can agree that the basics of putting a life together wouldn’t change that much, despite being close to some very powerful and beautiful places. Trying to live the fantasy is definitely the best way to kill it and leave you more desperate than ever. Of course, it’s not much better to hang on to the fantasy you never get to live if it keeps you from being fully alive where you are.



  1. Storied Mind says:

    Desire as Hungry Torrent or Quiet Stream…

    Desire as Hungry Torrent or Quiet Stream Recently, I’ve been reading about the blending of Buddhist psychology…

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