The great Tibetan yogi Milarepa spent many years living in isolation in a mountain cave. As part of his spiritual practice, he began to see the contents of his mind as visible projections. His inner demons of lust, passion, and aversion would appear before him as gorgeous seductive women and terrifying wrathful monsters. In face of these temptations and horrors, rather than being overwhelmed, Milarepa would sing out, “It is wonderful you came today, you should come again tomorrow … from time to time we should converse.”
Through his years of intensive training, Milarepa learns that suffering only comes from being seduced by the demons or from trying to fight them. To discover freedom in their presence, he has to experience them directly and wakefully, as they are.
In one story, Milarepa’s cave becomes filled with demons. Facing the most persistent, domineering demon in the crowd, Milarepa makes a brilliant move—he puts his head into the demon’s mouth. In that moment of full surrender, all the demons vanish. All that remains is the brilliant light of pure awareness. As Pema Chodron puts it: “When the resistance is gone, the demons are gone.”
This story of Milarepa came to mind during a retreat I was on many years ago, when I was in full resistance to what is often called a “Vipassana Romance,” or, a romantic illusion or fantasy about a person that fills the mind with desires. In my eyes, these desires were like demons consuming my spiritual life, ruining my meditation retreat.
When I finally recognized the battle I was in, it occurred to me that perhaps my Vipassana Romance was not the enemy of my meditation practice after all, but a natural experience that could serve my awakening. What would it be like to greet the demon of desire, to “converse” with it as Milarepa had?
Over the next few days, each time I realized I’d been lost in one of my flights of romantic illusion, I would note it as “erotic fantasy,” and pay close attention to the sensations in my body and the emotions that were arising. No longer avoiding my immediate experience, I would find myself filled with waves of excitement, sexual arousal, fear. Now, instead of resisting these feelings as demons, I just practiced accepting them and, with some curiosity, exploring them further.
The pressing ache in my chest opened into a deep grief—grief for all the lost moments of love, moments I’d missed because I’d been too preoccupied or busy to stop and open to them. I moved back and forth between erotic passion and this profound grieving about how separate I felt from what I really longed for. When the sensations of craving or sorrow became particularly intense, I tended to become lost again, thinking about what was missing in my life, fantasizing about ways I might fulfill my longing for love.
While I didn’t judge the fantasies as “bad,” I could see how they prevented me from being in touch with my actual experience. They kept me from tender presence—the gateway to what I most deeply longed for.
Although I became less immersed in my stories, I could see I was still holding on, trying to control the charged energies moving through me. My habitual reins—tightening my body, entertaining a running commentary on what I was doing—stopped me from letting go into the intensity and hugeness of wanting.
Late one evening, as I sat meditating alone in my room, my attention moved deeper and deeper into longing until I felt as if I might explode with it’s heart-breaking urgency. Yet at the same time I knew that was exactly what I wanted—I wanted to die into longing, into communion, into love itself. At that moment I could finally let my longing be all that it was. I even invited it—“Go ahead, please. Be as full as you are.”
I was putting my head in the mouth of the demon. I was saying “Yes,” surrendering wakefully into the wilderness of sensations, surrendering into the very embrace I was longing for. Like a child finally held close in her mother’s arms, I relaxed so fully that all boundaries of body and mind dissolved.
In an instant, I felt as if my body and mind were expanding out boundlessly in all directions—a flowing, changing stream of vibration, pulsing, tingling. Nothing separated “me” from this stream. Letting go entirely into rapture, I felt as open as the universe, wildly alive and as radiant as the sun. Nothing was solid in this dazzling celebration of life energy. I knew then that this was the fullness of loving what I love.
This love is what we all long for. When we bring Radical Acceptance to the enormity of desire, allowing it to be as it is, neither resisting it nor grasping after it, the light of our awareness dissolves the wanting self into its source. We find that we are naturally and entirely in love. Nothing is apart or excluded from this living awareness.
I realized that the “one I love” was everywhere, including within me. When we don’t fixate on a single, limited object of love, we discover that the wanting self dissolves into the awareness that is love loving itself.
The Buddha taught that by being aware of desire, we free ourselves from identifying with it. With Radical Acceptance, we begin to shed the layers of shame and aversion we have built around our “deficient, wanting self.” We see through the stories we have created—stories about a self who is a victim of desire, about a self who is fighting desire, about a self who tumbles into unhealthy desires, about a self who has to have something more, something different from what is right here, right now. Radical Acceptance dissolves the glue that binds us as a small self and frees us to live from the vibrant fullness of our being.
Longing, felt fully, carries us to belonging. The more times we traverse this path—feeling the loneliness or craving, and inhabiting its immensity—the more the longing for love becomes a gateway into love itself. Our longings don’t disappear, nor does the need for others. But by opening into the well of desire—again and again—we come to trust the boundless love that is its source.
Adapted from Radical Acceptance (2003)
Check out Tara Brach’s “True Refuge,” available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.
Hello dear Tara,
As an introduction, I’m a dear friend/family of Debra and George Taylor. And also know your sister from CIIS; taught one of her grad courses.
I’m writing you because I am in the midst of a dissertation/book on Attachment theory and Spiritual Awakening. The dissertation is focusing on Longing.
I would love to talk with you about our mutual interests and furthermore to see if you would be willing to be formally interviewed for the research project.
Thanks so much for considering this. I will look forward to your reply.
Ahria Wolf, MFT, PhD. cand.
I’ve passed your message on to Tara’s publicist, Ahria.