Reflections on the Meaning of Love

Romantic Love – Part III

Buddhism and Desire

Buddhist psychology recognizes desire as an intrinsic part of the human personality – something to be worked with skillfully, rather than eradicated, as some mistakenly equate with the philosophy.  Gil Fronsdal, who holds a Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies from Stanford University, wrote that “Desire is so inherent to the human condition that life without it is almost inconceivable. It is probably more accurate to call us “human desirelings” than “human beings.” Anyone wishing to live a wise life needs to explore deeply the nature of his or her own desire.”

As any human being can attest to, “desire” can come up in myriad number of ways.  Toward another person that you like or love, as is the case with romantic love, or with any type of ambition or wanting, such as desire for career advancement, or something as simple as want for a nice meal.

In a talk entitled “Investigating Desire,” Dr. Fronsdal, who heads up the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, CA, distinguishes between healthy and unhealthy desires.  Buddhist psychology states that unhealthy desire is what leads to suffering. Healthy desire, on the other hand, is a necessary and useful part of existence.  After all, without desires, we wouldn’t really get anywhere in life.

Dr. Fronsdal likens unhealthy desire to that of craving: a compulsive, obsessive quality that often leads to tension in both body and mind. Craving tends to focus on the more superficial level of sensory pleasure, grasping at what it wants tightly, with an “I have to have this” sense of urgency.

Healthy desire, on the other hand, is more like aspiration, and comes from a deeper place that is characterized more by ease and inspiration.  Dr. Fronsdal gives a basic example of the difference between desiring the liquid of water vs. the liquid of liquor, to distinguish between a healthy wanting vs. more of a craving, depending on how one is relating to it.

Unfortunately, even healthy desires can turn into craving if not held lightly. In a different article entitled “The Spectrum of Desire,” Dr. Fronsdal writes that “One way aspiration becomes craving is through expectation. At its best, aspiration has an openness to possibility without a need for anything to happen. This doesn’t mean that we don’t act on our aspirations, but that we don’t cling to their success. There is something satisfying and wonderful in a healthy aspiration that is not dependent on outcome.”

So, how does all of this relate to passionate love?  Since romantic love is a strong form of desire, it can be a potential source of joy, or suffering, depending on how it’s handled.  Are you approaching the experience of romance with a sense of craving or connecting with a deeper place within yourself that has more ease and wisdom?  Romantic relationships, in addition to offering tremendous pleasure and meaning, are also an excellent opportunity for liberation, on both a psychological and spiritual level.

For example, a place of healthy desire may look something like, “I really like this person and want to get closer to them; I hope they feel the same way, but if they don’t, I know I can find love elsewhere.” Craving, on the other hand, may sound like “I have to have this person, I feel absolutely miserable when we’re not together, I am completely lost without them.” Craving is different from what western psychology terms healthy or “secure attachment,” although the two may seem similar at times. After all, when you enter into a committed relationship with someone, you do develop some healthy dependencies on one another. But, that is different from the highly charged, overwhelming feelings that can be part of “craving” and insecure forms of attachment.

From a Buddhist perspective, desire can lead to the erroneous belief that one’s place of refuge resides outside of oneself.  Rather than strengthening the connection to one’s inner self, where a sense of wholeness and wellbeing is always present, our conditioning teaches us that we will find satisfaction, joy, peace, etc. by getting something on the “outside.”  When it comes to romance, this translates into “the right relationship.”  Beyond romance, it can extend to things like the right car, more money, more muscles, a better haircut, etc. This search can feel particularly pronounced when one is single and looking for a mate, as our culture places much emphasis on getting coupled up.

Buddhist philosophy explains how this type of external-focused searching is never ending, because it’s impossible to find yourself, outside of yourself.  The searching process is also confusing because when we get what we want, we immediately feel something positive.  But, it’s an illusion that this sense of satisfaction comes from the acquisition.  What’s actually happening is that for a moment, our wanting has stopped.  And, with that cessation of wanting, there’s a freedom, a letting go, that brings inner peace.  The feeling of wellbeing is rooted in the letting go, not the acquisition itself.

As most people have noticed, when they get what they want, some time passes – a few minutes, days, weeks, or years – and then the cycle starts all over again. There’s the itch for the next thing.  This is desire and part of being human.  But, it’s important to work with all of this in a thoughtful fashion. Buddhist psychology reminds us to take a balanced approach to life and relationships, recognizing that a big part of our mental nourishment can come from the inside. Connecting with one’s inner self is the nutritious meal – something that we absolutely need to sustain us.  The cars, physiques, and other conquests, while fun and exciting in their own right, are more like the icing on the cake.  As everybody knows, yummy frosting is not integral to one’s survival and vitality, but is something to be enjoyed for its’ fleeting pleasure.

My personal opinion is that meaningful relationships, however, are not the icing on the cake, but are an integral component of healthy nourishment.  As human beings we are social creatures.  In addition to food, water, shelter and meaningful activity, we need some amount of healthy interpersonal contact to sustain us.

So, while it’s natural to want to connect with others, whether it’s through romantic relationships, friendships, or professional ties, it’s important to be clear about how we’re going about this – especially when feelings of desire, of wanting, are strong.   Dr. Fronsdal describes a three pronged approach to working with desire from a Buddhist mindfulness perspective, which can be used when navigating the path of romantic love.

Step 1: Investigation

The concept of awareness is at the heart of Buddhist philosophy.  With anything, and especially love, it’s important to shine a light on your experience.  Ask yourself questions like, How does desire come up for me?  How am I approaching this dynamic?  Am I clinging or holding the process lightly?  What are my intentions?

Getting clear on intentions is particularly helpful.  For example, when it comes to sex, sometimes the desire is purely for sensual pleasure.  But, much of the time, when you look more deeply, you see that there’s a desire for something else; the experience of wanting to be held, seen, or some other type of emotional connection.  Examining your experience will provide a broader understanding.

Step 2: Explore Costs

Fine-tune the investigation process by exploring the “costs” of desire.  Dr. Fronsdal explains how paying attention to one’s somatic state is an excellent way of exploring the relationship to desire. When craving is present, you’ll typically find tension and tightness in the body; emotionally, there’s often a feeling of anxiety or frustration.  You can examine the link between certain thoughts and feelings.  Thoughts with phrases like “have to,” “must” or “should” typically produce more tension. Alternatively, more open thoughts like “would like to have, but can live without” or “I’m curious about this” are associated with less strain.

An interesting point mentioned in one of Dr. Fronsdal’s talks is how fear is often a close companion of desire.  As a matter of fact, studies show that the same areas of the brain light up when one feels desire, as when one feels fear.  When desire arises, it’s common for our mind to then go to the place of “what if I don’t get what I want?”  Or, our mind may take us to “what if I do get what I want?” which is sometimes even scarier for people.  Lastly, it can lead to the thought “what if I get what I want and then it goes away?”  A lot of fearful thoughts there.

Mark Epstein, MD, psychotherapist and author of numerous books related to Buddhism and psychology, discusses how fear and desire are two ways to relate to the unknown.  In the book “Open to Desire: Embracing a Lust for Life – Insights from Buddhism and Psychotherapy,” he writes: “Anxiety and desire are two, often conflicting, orientations to the unknown. Both are tilted toward the future. Desire implies a willingness, or a need, to engage this unknown, while anxiety suggests a fear of it. Desire takes one out of oneself, into the possibility or relationship, but it also takes one deeper into oneself. Anxiety turns one back on oneself, but only onto the self that is already known.”

So, these two authors are describing this see-saw process related to desire and fear. Being aware of this process provides more room to think about it, rather than reacting in a more mindless way, which leads to the next step.

Step 3: Exercise Choice

With more awareness, we are able to make wiser choices, rather than acting primarily on impulse or biological forces.  As everybody knows, unexamined desires can inhibit good judgment.  There is freedom in the ability to choose, even when strong emotions are present.  Mindfulness, whether done in the form of exploring these three steps, or via formal meditation practice, leads to more skillful means of navigating the experience of desire.

As Dr. Fronsdal wrote in “The Spectrum of Desire,” The sensitivity and awareness that come from mindfulness practice support the discovery of our healthy desires and aspirations. Mindfulness not only helps us get in touch with our aspirations, but it helps prevent aspiration from becoming craving. Even though what we might want is healthy and appropriate, if we are not careful, this desire can manifest as craving. Noticing the physical and mental tension, pressure, and uneasiness that come with craving makes it easier to distinguish aspiration from craving.”

All of this can be helpful to think about when involved in the swirl of passionate feelings — one of the strongest forms of desire.  The essential message is that when desire arises, make sure you do two things: be fully aware of what you’re doing and hold the outcome lightly.  Increased awareness and understanding provides the foundation from which to make thoughtful, rational decisions, rather than those based primarily on impulse or emotion.

Next Section: Long-Term Love

  1. Good to hear this here.

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