desire + optimism

Around a year ago I had what Maslow calls a peak experience. It changed my life: I’m significantly happier, pretty much free of anxiety, and find it easy to dip into flow states. I continue, however, to want many things, and for a while this disturbed me. After all, many interpretations of Buddhism suggest that desire is the root of all suffering and the best solution to pain is to… uh… give up wanting. But from I can tell it’s pretty much impossible to be of and live in this world without straining towards particular outcomes, and moreover both desire and pain act as important links to meaning. In light of this I’ve been trying to reconcile fulfillment with desire.

At first glance, the problem with desire is that the object of desire is never object enough. We want stability and perfection, but no living being can provide anything but a transient shifting intimacy. Not even actual objects are object enough. We’re always recreating the urgent desire for oneness we experienced with our parents in infancy: to be assimilated, to be completely overcome, to surrender. A child’s impulse acted out by an adult body. Mark Epstein: “Desire is the physical attempt to reach the other, coupled with the intuition that they are forever out of reach.”

But my belief after reading Mark Epstein’s excellent book is that it’s not desire that causes suffering: it’s clinging. We should try to want without clinging, without being possessive or addicted: to renounce ourselves to the inherent disappointment of desire. What this looks like in action is to want something, to understand fully that regardless of whether you get or not you’ll be dissatisfied, and to stay with the wanting, observing it carefully. Desire bends us to its will, but when we recognize it as a force separate from ourselves we begin to learn. I watch myself as I want, as I want to want, and I draw no conclusions. I unfold in the gap between the imperfect and the utopic.

Mariette in Ecstasy: “We try to be formed and held and kept by Him, but instead He offers us freedom.” This echoes, of course, the Otto Kernberg passage where he talks about how love is the revelation of the other person’s freedom: “The contradictory nature of love is that desire aspires to be fulfilled by the destruction of the desired object, and love discovers that this object is indestructible and cannot be substituted.” It is in wanting to possess the un-possessable that we learn to relate to the impenetrability and fundamental elusiveness of another person’s experience. When we generalize this we understand that the disappointment of wanting is how we learn the nature of our world.

Schopenhauer: “Man can do what he wills, but not will what he wills.” As far as I can tell, it’s not up to me whether or not I stop wanting: it’s a gift to want things, a gift to get what you want, and a gift to lose it. We’re destined to relinquish everything we have. Jack Gilbert: “The Lord gives everything and charges / by taking it back. What a bargain.” I like this apartment with the light rushing in and the leaves rustling outside the sliding doors but I’ll move out of it in a few months. I’ll lose this particular chapter of my life, this hibernation in the middle of lockdown surrounded by close friends. I love my body but I won’t have it forever: it’ll be taken from me by an accident or an ailment or if I’m very lucky, slowly over time by old age. I’ll lose S, I’ll lose my friends. I love nature, but we’re rapidly destroying the earth we live on and it’s the only one we have.

I know all of this to be true, but I continue to want to preserve the relationships I have and the world I live in. To me, a healthy relationship to desire acknowledges the transience and imperfection of every relationship we have: to people, to objects and to the future. Our love for the world can’t be dependent on whether we think it’s going to endure forever. When we’re threatened by loss, as we are now in the face of, say, wildfires ripping through California, we can’t give up trying to tend and preserve the world we live in, trying to create a culture that isn’t destructive. We inhabit our desire to improve things even as we know that our optimism can only ever be a cruel optimism.

In Rilke’s famous poem, “Go to the Limits of Your Longing,” he writes:

God speaks to each of us as he makes us, 
then walks with us silently out of the night. 

These are the words we dimly hear: 

You, sent out beyond your recall, 
go to the limits of your longing. 
Embody me. 

Flare up like a flame 
and make big shadows I can move in. 

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. 
Just keep going. No feeling is final. 
Don't let yourself lose me. 

We yearn for solidity but we only get uncertainty. We try to predict the future and time takes way everything we have and everything we know. From The Lightness: “The bad news is that you’re tumbling through empty air with no parachute: the good news is that there’s no ground.” Maurice Blanchot writes that God is present in absence. Similarly, real ecstasy comes from empty space: not what is there but what is lacking. It’s the ecstasy of transience and imperfection.

I think that God is liminal, and that what we’re straining for is always God, though we rarely know it: we want something beyond buying and using and relentless forward motion, and our lingering dissatisfaction is what reminds us something else is possible. We notice that waiting for the package is better than receiving it, that the moment before the kiss is always better than than the consummation, but knowing that disappointment is inevitable doesn’t halt our anticipation. The delta between what we want and what we get is the entire span of our lives. From Fire Sermon: “A Zen master once described enlightenment as Lots of space and nothing holy.”

It’s comical sometimes, how impatient I am. I want you to text me back and I want the weather to change so I can go skiing and I want to buy those dumb clunky tofu-colored Hoka sneakers and I want tretinoin to hurry up and clear my skin and I want very badly for the pandemic to end, I want to be in Paris again riding the Pompidou escalator like the annoying tourist I am, I want to hold a handstand for a minute, I want to finish my book, I want and want. But learning to live with the wanting, staying with it, is what transforms my frustration into understanding. My desire is proof that the flawed and withholding world we live in is all we are, all we have, all that is.