Recently, 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?