i n t e g r a l c o u n s e l i n g i n s t i t u t e
June 2005 Book Review and Quotes Archive
Open to Desire
Embracing A Lust for Life
Insights from Buddhism and Psychotherapy
By Mark Epstein, MD
Mark Epstein is well known for his books integrating Buddhist philosophy, psychodynamic psychotherapy and the
usefulness of meditative practice in therapy. Using "case" examples from his therapy practice and mythology
from Buddhist and Indian spiritual traditions, he presents a new perspective on the troublesome phenomenon of desire.
Desire is a particularly interesting emotion in Western culture and I think the American struggle with it is uniquely
poignant. The notion that all suffering is rooted in desire is recast as an issue of clinging to the desired object, not a
problem with desire itself. Desire in fact, as the author asserts, can be a useful practice as one investigates it's
meaning in one's experience. The gap between the object of desire and the desirer "is the space where the most
critical emotional and spiritual work takes place", he states. He further emphasizes the gap between the desiring
and the object (person, feeling, thing) that is always "tinged with a sense of pervasive unsatisfactoriness", if you
buy the First Noble Truth of Buddha's teaching's. Clinging and craving causes this discontent according to the
teachings. Epstein's reinterpretation involves a view that one must go into this experience of unsatisfactoriness,
to face the lack of complete satisfaction. The desire for full merging with the love object, be it your husband or your
shoes, can be made a focus of mindfulness. I appreciated Dr. Epstein's challenge that spiritual life and sensual pleasure
are not incompatible, but the tendency is for people to either indulge or suppress such desires.
Dr. Epstein emphasizes the desire we feel in love relationship as, of course, the most potent of forces and where we
can learn the most from our desire. To want merging to replace the loneliness and separation that are intrinsic to
love of another being is the natural state of our conditioning. Without possessing love grows and the gaps or disparities
that desire creates can be fully experienced and learned from. Love makes us feel separate yet only when viewed
from a stance of self and other or subject and object. Buddhist teachings tell us it is only attachments to self-
representation such as these that create the sense of loneliness. Awareness of "being" is a reconciliation of the
dilemma. He notes," the primary function of formal Buddhist meditations to create the possibility of the experience of
"being," my work as a therapist has shown me that the demands of intimate life can be just as useful as meditation
in moving people toward this capacity." The author makes the point that while desire in any form, seeks
satisfaction or completion, there is another level of awareness, without egoistic or dualistic qualities where we can "be."
Through many stories of both his clients processes of discovering and through tales from Indian spirituality, Epstein weaves
through topics of male and female desire manifestations, sex and tantric practices, addictions and psychoanalytic
interpretations of desire. Overall, I enjoyed the clinical examples of how Epstein works wit these issues of desire in the day
to day of human relating. I bogged down in the mythological stories but I think he offers his examples in a variety of modes
that are accessible for a range of reader perspectives. His Buddhist ideas are fairly traditional but the way he integrates
psychotherapy and eastern philosophy is impressive. The book ends with advice regarding how to work with desire and to
tolerate the gap between expectation and what is experienced suggesting meditation, psychotherapy and love relationships
as the most helpful modalities. If we see desire as a more impersonal force and shed the shame we tend to wrap around
it, we may inhabit more fully the lives we lead in the phenomenal world of doing, I think Dr Epstein's view of opening to
desire values the world of relationship and our conditioned tendency to cling as a golden opportunity for spiritual practice,
a notion often neglected in other Buddhist writings.
Review by Shelley Norton Ph.D.
June 2005 Weekly Quotes
“Breathe long, slow, and deep like there is no hurry. Sing like no one is listening. Dance like no one is watching. Dream
like there is no waking. Laugh like it's your belly's last. Love like there is no tomorrow. Live like there is nothing left to lose.
Now, take the first breath of the
rest of your life.”
"Intuition is often taken to mean making a choice or forming an opinion without analytical or deductive reasoning. A broader
meaning is a faculty for
apprehension of the whole."
"I'm not sure
that personal choice and karma can be separated from the cultural
context of morality."
"It's sobering to contemplate the many events and encounters that lead to such a pivotal moment in one's life. Singly, they
seem almost random, and they could have resolved differently. Seen as a sequence, they can evoke the indifferent majesty
of predestination. I didn't know or care if this trip would last
more than a week - I was going to give it all I had while it lasted."