Rejecting the wanting self



“We have been raised to fear … our deepest cravings. And the fear of our deepest cravings keeps them suspect, keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, and leads us to settle for…many facets of our own oppression.” – Audre Lourde

In the myth of Eden, God created the garden and dropped the tree of knowledge, with its delicious and dangerous fruits, right smack dab in the middle. He then deposited some humans close by and forbade these curious, fruit-loving creatures from taking a taste. It was a set up. Eve naturally grasped at the fruit and then was shamed and punished for having done so.

We experience this situation daily inside our own psyche. We are encouraged by our culture to keep ourselves comfortable, to be right, to possess things, to be better than others, to look good, to be admired. We are also told that we should feel ashamed of our selfishness, that we are flawed for being so self-centered, sinful when we are indulgent.

Most mainstream religions — Judeo-Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Confucian — teach that our wanting, passion, and greed cause suffering. While this certainly can be true, their blanket teachings about the dangers of desire often deepen self-hatred. We are counseled to transcend, overcome or somehow manage the hungers of our physical and emotional being. We are taught to mistrust the wildness and intensity of our natural passions, to fear being out of control.

Equating spiritual purity with elimination of desire is a common misunderstanding I also see in students on the Buddhist path. This is not just a contemporary issue. The struggle to understand the relationship between awakening and desire in the context of the Buddhist teachings has gone on since the time of the Buddha himself.

A classical Chinese Zen tale brings this to light: An old woman had supported a monk for twenty years, letting him live in a hut on her land. After all this time she figured the monk, now a man in the prime of life, must have attained some degree of enlightenment. So she decided to test him.

Rather than taking his daily meal to him herself, she asked a beautiful young girl to deliver it. She instructed the girl to embrace the monk warmly — and then to report back to her how he responded. When the girl returned, she said that the monk had simply stood stock still, as if frozen.

The old woman then headed for the monk’s hut. What was it like, she asked him, when he felt the girl’s warm body against his? With some bitterness he answered, “Like a withering tree on a rock in winter, utterly without warmth.” Furious, the old woman threw him out and burned down his hut, exclaiming, “How could I have wasted all these years on such a fraud.”

To some the monk’s response might seem virtuous. After all, he resisted temptation, he even seemed to have pulled desire out by the roots. Still the old woman considered him a fraud. Is his way of experiencing the young girl — “like a withering tree on a rock in winter” — the point of spiritual practice? Instead of appreciating the girl’s youth and loveliness, instead of noting the arising of a natural sexual response and its passing away without acting on it, the monk shut down. This is not enlightenment.

I have worked with many meditation students who have gotten the message that experiencing desire is a sign of being spiritually undeveloped. While it is true that withdrawing attention from certain impulses can diminish their strength, the continued desire for simple pleasures — delicious foods, play, entertainment or sexual gratification — need not be embarrassing evidence of being trapped in lower impulses.

Those same students also assume that “spiritual people” are supposed to call on inner resources as their only refuge, and so they rarely ask for comfort or help from their friends and teachers. I’ve talked with some who have been practicing spiritual disciplines for years, yet have never let themselves acknowledge that they are lonely and long for intimacy.

As the monk in the Zen tale shows, if we push away desire, we disconnect from our tenderness and we harden against life. We become like a “rock in winter.” When we reject desire, we reject the very source of our love and aliveness.

Adapted from my book Radical Acceptance (2003)

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5 Comments. Leave new

  • I don’t think this is what Buddha taught. You need not be in touch with your desires to have compassion and warmth for another individual. So this example of the monk who was unresponsive the young, beautiful girl was ok for his path to nirvana (the cessation of all desire) and then when he could take or leave it then he could return to realm of the living with true compassion and understanding. So it’s the modern notion of Buddhism is you are espousing here and not the original. In north America, it is such “feeling culture”. Children, adults are encouraged to feel, feel, feel and go ahead and cave into their desires. Constantly. I mean would the Dalai Lama have arousal towards that young woman! And then not act upon it???? I don’t think so. This would be tantamount to allowing yourself to experience the fruit and not eat it! Why go there anyway? I think that indeed all arousal and desires originate in the mind and body. It is a tamed body and mind that understands because of observing over and over again these desires arise, that one understands that it originates because of a whole host things, upbringing, society etc. but still it is in the mind. I over the years have learned a lot of my own desires or often impulsiveness and watching them and becoming aware of them in formal meditation as well as in every day life, they have slowly but surely dissipated. And this story about the Chinese woman – why give this example? Perhaps this time period was the beginning of introduction to Buddhism? And the general populace hadn’t really accepted it for them selves? I think you are misleading people to accommodate your own desires and culture.

  • Oh Sorry about being a little reactive in my earlier comment. And yes of course I read every single write-up/article in this publication. As I am also a meditation teacher and forward this newsletter to my long term students and specific articles.

    To reiterate the above comment. I just meant that individuals merely accept and observe all phenomena in the body and mind with an “awareness”. Whether, it be thoughts (which obviously includes desires & wants)/feelings & emotions or sensations in the body. And by repeated observing all phenomena in this aware manner, they slowly but surely happen/occur less and less so or completely dissipate eventually. One has to be aware of it firstly to realize that it is desire or a want and then to observe it. Even loneliness! That when it is repeatedly observed, the thoughts, the sensations and feelings/emotions with it, it too responds by happening less and less. For what is Nirvana, but complete detachment. Having repeatedly (over years and years) watched all human phenomena, and all desires/wants.. whatever “IS THERE” in the body and mind, it will eventually disappear. Even the feeling of HUNGER as Buddha and other long term meditators have witnessed and shown. So the mind/body impulses, after giving signals of needs/desires and wants etc. have ceased to affect the individual any longer. Because the individual through practice has learned not to react to things/thoughts/emotions/desires & wants any longer. This includes “arousal” as in this article your example given.

    So it’s not possible to know exactly what stage of this repeatedly observing things and how far along he was on his achieving nirvana unless we actually asked him. But the fact that he was like a stone and not warm to the beautiful girl would suggest that he hadn’t quite attained that. For when one has complete cessation of all desire, and can take anything or leave it, then one can return (like Buddha). Because to show warmth and compassion and be able to appreciate beauty is another faculty. One does not need to have an “AROUSAL” to experience this.

    And reiterate my earlier comment about the Dalai Lama, he would think the young girl is beautiful, show her warmth BUT NOT BE AROUSED for presumably, he would be past that kind of arousal. Due to his life long meditation practice, he would be beyond that kind of arousal. That’s all I meant.

    Look I appreciate, the need for North American’s to bring Buddhism to the level of the average individual so they can understand and there by embrace it. For it is wonderful so called religion or really a philosophy. But that must simply be done by meditating and EXPERIENCING for the individual themselves and not by teaching what they should do. For then it in the realm of other faith based religions.

  • Hi, Amera.

    It sounds like you’re now agreeing with Tara Brach. She too thinks that desire should be experienced and allowed to pass, rather than repressed. I’m glad to see there’s agreement.

    I’m not sure why you think the Dalai Lama is beyond sexual desire. He’s talked more than once about having to deal with sexual attraction, for example, here and here.

  • Tara,
    As always, this is an article and a topic that resonates within me. Personally, I need to take the time to fully experience and appreciate (for that moment) any unusual or strong feeling(s) that I may experience. Actually, it helps me to ‘process’ the event and my reaction. I attempt to do this without any judgement of myself. It seems I can then more easily detach from the whole event, the feelings and the experiences.

  • the pointer is awareness…. but this requires obserseration and analysis…which is taught first then emotions are understood and accepted…. so all depends upon learning and teacher


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