Book Review: Open to Desire

Open to Desire: The Truth About What the Buddha Taught - Mark Epstein

In Open to Desire, Epstein discusses desire and its potential use along the path of enlightenment, the so-called "left-handed" path.  In this path, a practitioner may use desire, and its inevitable failure to provide the satiation of its purpose, as a mindfulness practice.  The best parts of this book, in my opinion, are the introduction and a few chapters at the end.  I enjoyed those sections quite a bit.  I may be a little too concrete for Epstein's abstractions and metaphors.  I was also quite frustrated with various portions where Epstein attempted to assert various Biblical stories, Indian myths, and tantrics could be reinterpreted to support his narrative.  Overall, I think the message would have been better served in a much shorter, less convoluted form.

Nonetheless, I've provided quotes below that I found intriguing:
As my Buddhist teacher, Joseph Goldstein, always makes clear, as an object of desire, that which we long for causes suffering, but as an object of mindfulness it can lead to awakening. The trick, as far as Buddhism is concerned, is to accept the fact that no experience can ever be as complete as we would wish, that no object can ever satisfy completely. In the right handed path, the Buddha's followers turned away from the pursuit of sensory pleasure, but in the left handed path, they allowed themselves to come face to face with the gap that desire always comes up against, as well as any pleasure that it might bring.

Allowing ourselves into desire's abyss turns out to be the key to a more complete enjoyment of its fruits. By experiencing desire in its totality: gratifying and frustrating, sweet and bitter, pleasant and painful, successful and yet coming up short, we can use it to awaken our minds. The dualities that desire seems to take for granted can be resolved through a willingness to drop into the gap between them. Even living in the world of the senses, we can be free.

Desire teaches us, not just by gratification, but by constantly undercutting itself, by never being entirely satisfied. It rubs our faces in reality by always falling a bit short of its goal. This is desire's secret agenda, to alert us to the gap between our expectations and the way things actually are. In so doing, it shows us that there is something more interesting than success or failure, more completing than having complete control.

Jack's revelations while meditating in the Thai monastery were spurred on by a very important insight, one that Buddhism always stresses in its approach to alleviating suffering. By observing his mind so closely, Jack zeroed in on a central self-image that was unconsciously ruling him. "There is something wrong with me and I will always be rejected," he found himself thinking. This core belief about himself was structuring much of his experience of the world. It was his own self that felt flawed, and much of his eroticized desire was prompted by a wish to make this imperfect self disappear. Once he could see that there was nothing ultimately real about this particular view of himself, it began to lose its central dominance in his psyche. The experience of such a core belief dissolving into clear space freed him of a burden that he had been carrying since childhood. The Buddha taught that all self-images are empty in this way and that the residual loneliness that we feel even in the midst of love is caused by attachment to these self-representations.

Like Freud's friends, most of us are conditioned to look for fulfillment for our desire. When it is not forthcoming, or not lasting, we tend to withdraw. Rather than rejoice in our lovers' evasion of our attempts to control them, we feel dejected. In the face of unreliability, we retreat into our known selves. Our mourning paralyzes us, and our desire gets derailed. Freud proposed an alternative, one that in the East is personified in the path of desire. It is possible to be in a state in which desire is valued, not as a prelude to possession, control or merger, but as a mode of appreciation in itself. "Doing," as Winnicott would say, becomes balanced by "being."