When I was first introduced to Buddhism in a high school World Studies class, I dismissed it out-of-hand. This was during the hedonistic days of the late ‘60s, and this spiritual path seemed so grim with its concern about attachment and, apparently, anti-pleasure. Buddhism seemed to be telling me to stop seeking after romantic relationships, forego having good times with friends, avoid the highs of marijuana and give up my adventures in nature. In my mind, freedom from desire would take the fun out of life.
Years later I would realize that the Buddha never intended to make desire itself the problem. When he said craving causes suffering, he was referring not to our natural inclination as living beings to have wants and needs, but to our habit of clinging to experience that must, by nature, pass away, and that relating wisely to the powerful and pervasive energy of desire is a pathway into unconditional loving.
I first saw a glimpse of this possibility many years ago in what might be considered the hotbed of desire: romantic relationship. I’d been divorced for several years, and had met a man who seemed to be exactly what I was looking for. In our few casual encounters something had clicked and I was infatuated.
In the midst of the typical rush and excitement of such connections, I left for a weeklong meditation retreat. In the six years that I had been practicing Buddhist meditation, I’d attended a number of such retreats and loved the states of clarity and presence I touched there. But this time, instead of settling into even a semblance of mindful presence, my immediate and compelling draw was to the pleasures of fantasy. I was in the throes of a full-blown “Vipassana Romance,” as such fantasies have come to be known.
In the silence and austerity of retreat, the mind can build a whole erotic world around a person we barely know. Often the object of a VR is another meditator who has attracted our attention. In the time span of a few days we can mentally live through a whole relationship—courting, marrying, having a family together. I’d brought my fantasy person with me from home, and this industrial strength VR withstood all my best strategies for letting go and returning to the here and now.
I tried to relax and direct my attention to the breath, to note what was happening in my body and mind. I could barely complete two cycles of mindful breathing before my mind would once again return to its favorite subject. Then, with a stab of guilt, I’d remember where I was. Sometimes I’d look around and take in the serenity and dignity of the meditation hall. I’d remind myself of the freedom and joy of remaining present, and of the suffering that arises from living in stories and illusions.
This didn’t make a dent—the fantasies would take off again almost immediately. Hoping to get out of my head, I tried doing longer walking meditations on the snowy paths surrounding the retreat center. As my mind churned relentlessly onward, I felt self-indulgent and ashamed of my lack of discipline. Most of all I was frustrated because I felt I was wasting precious time. This retreat was an opportunity to deepen my spiritual practice, and there I was, caught up in wanting and off in the future.
After several days I had a pivotal interview with my teacher. When I described how I’d become so overwhelmed, she asked, “How are you relating to the presence of desire?” I was startled into understanding. For me, desire had become the enemy, and I was losing the battle. Her question pointed me back to the essence of mindfulness practice: It doesn’t matter what is happening. What matters is how we are relating to our experience. She advised me to stop fighting my experience and instead investigate the nature of wanting mind. I could accept whatever was going on, she reminded me, but without getting lost in it.
While often uncomfortable, desire is not bad—it is natural. The pull of desire is part of our survival equipment. It keeps us eating, having sex, going to work, doing what we do to thrive. Desire also motivates us to read books, listen to talks and explore spiritual practices that help us realize and inhabit loving awareness. The same life energy that leads to suffering also provides the fuel for profound awakening. Desire becomes a problem only when it takes over our sense of who we are.
In teaching the Middle Way, the Buddha guided us to relate to desire without getting possessed by it and without resisting it. He was talking about every level of desire—for food, sex, love, freedom. He was talking about all degrees of wanting, from small preferences to the most compelling cravings. We are mindful of desire when we experience it with an embodied awareness, recognizing the sensations and thoughts of wanting as arising and passing phenomena. While this isn’t easy, as we cultivate the clear seeing and compassion of Radical Acceptance, we discover we can open fully to this natural force, and remain free in its midst.