The dirty on desire

What is the condition of the mind before wanting arises? It is actually quite okay, isn’t it? The mind that is not disturbed by wanting anything at all is peaceful. It is when wanting arises that we feel the itch, but if we scratch the itch straight-away–gratifying the desire immediately without stopping to investigate–we won’t notice how irritating desire can be.

When we are ruled by desire, we fail to see what it really is. Desire is, in reality, simply a movement in consciousness–a wave upon an ocean.–Ajahn Munindo in “What is renunciation?”

Yes indeed, the most peaceful moments are always ones in which there is no wanting or resisting. And, I can say with confidence that I have learned more about the nature of sense desire in renunciation, and in particular celibacy, than all the rest of my life lived…otherwise. I didn’t consciously choose to abstain from sexual activity. Initially it was more a consequence of environmental choices I made in my life–namely to spend an extended period of time meditating in Burma, and thus observing the eight precepts. After some time learning in the fish bowl of a retreat center exactly what desire is like, when I went back into the world, the five precepts were just kind of a given. And as long as I’m still in training–knowing that old habit patterns can out-muscle wise and skillful alternatives, in the absence of a committed relationship, there would naturally be celibacy. Believing a particular train of thought that ran through my head at one point, and in the fear that I might somehow be suppressing desire (e.g., note the delusion of this post), I experimented once (while firmly in the world, mind you). In the language of addiction recovery, we would say I “slipped”. Not that I hold the precepts with such moral fervor, but let’s face it, I’m just disappointed I can’t say I’ve been celibate for as long the x years and y months as I’d like.

Since taking some time off from the normal hormone-induced dating and mating games, a specific insight I’ve had is that while chemistry may be very real, our ideas about the desired person or object, and how we believe it will satisfy the wanting, most definitely are not.

When the thought “I want this” comes up, can it simply be seen? Desire can be seen, and in that seeing there is no desire.–Toni Packer in “Attraction”

Would you believe it’s as simple as that? Would you think that was even a “desirable” outcome of practice? Certainly desire is not a moral issue in and of itself; it’s a very real human emotion or movement in consciousness–whatever you’d like to call it–and it’s going to happen however awake we might be. But the thing is, we are so often slaves to desire. We’re not just aware of desire happening. We enthusiastically believe all the thoughts around a desired object. And our relationships to others and to material things are horribly distorted as a result. When it comes to sex in particular, we may have physical urges due to biological wiring which wants us to reproduce, but does that mean we act on it whenever we see someone that attracts us? No, thank goodness. In an act of renunciation, say, not taking meals after noon, we are taking only that which we need, and we are also allowing desire to come into the clear light. It is only through providing space around an urge or want that we can fully see its effects in the heart, body and mind. And honestly, just as an itch that goes unscratched, it is more uncomfortable than anything else. It’s temporary. And it always is. And if we just go ahead and satisfy it all the time, we don’t really learn that. Nor do we learn how much suffering it can entail if it goes unchecked.

In fact, when we automatically act on urges, we often add fuel to the fire. When there is strong sensual desire, thoughts often become obsessive in nature, the body may become highly charged energetically, and we will likely be spending a lot of time swinging back and forth on a pendulum of greed and aversion. So much energy gets drained by an object the mind can’t drop. I remember a time when this was particularly evident–I thought specifically of the lustful beginnings of a romantic relationship, the “I can’t stand a moment without you!” period, and thought for the first time, “No thanks.” At the same time, I know it’s not the desire itself, but the holding on that is so painful. And whatever it is that lies between the two–desire and holding on–the causal link often remains a mystery. No matter how much I’ve taken the time to just be with the dukkha of desire, it still confounds me!

Then there’s also the hard-wired biological aspects of romantic desire in particular. When I am on long retreat, I virtually always feel sexual attraction at some point. It’s lasted for different periods of time, and has led to varying kinds of insights. Generally speaking, there’s a subconscious review of necessary criteria: Serious Dhamma practitioner? Check. Right age range (and that’s pretty large)? Check. Shared language? Check. (Or not.) Chemistry? Check. Even if thoughts aren’t proliferating about the person and future scenarios, the body just takes over. There’s this motion in place, like “Go! Go! Go!”, as if the body’s only purpose is to make babies and if it sees the slightest supportive conditions…It’s laughable and yet, I sometimes actually think what a curse it is to be young and fertile.

Let me just say, the classical vipassana romance is nowhere near as dangerous as the one that can appear in the kind of retreat environment where you can actually talk with the person you’re crushing on. Overwhelming sense desire. E.v.e.r.y. time you pass by the damn person. Even though this “agony” remains a familiar experience, it’s more fun than it used to be. And I can just say, “Oh look, there’s that again!” It doesn’t spin off into fairy tales as easily and there are increasingly longer periods of respite between the desire-laden moments of consciousness.

I know how badly we all want sex (or even polyamory, see also) to just be okay. Ideally, two mature sexual partners would be totally aware and present and there would be mad unconditional love energy being shared with no remainder (no clinging, no thoughts of the next time, no me or mine). But…I’m not sure that’s every been my actual experience. There’s a lot of ego and, as such, a lot of dukkha–harm to myself, harm to others–involved the moment an interaction heads south of the waist line. Part of that is our own emotional baggage and habits of behavior, part of it is deeply conditioned on a subconscious level from our parents and ancestors. The good news is we can unlearn some of that. We can lighten the load. I’ve now spent two years alone, and I would hope that the insights I’ve gained through retreat, through renunciation, through celibacy, will allow me to engage in a wholly new experience of the love relationship, of real intimacy with another. Where once there was an urgency to be partnered, there is a softness, a slight opening. Where once there was frequent jealousy of perceived threats, there is so much less identification of things being “mine”. Where once there was blind reactivity, there is significantly more thoughtful reflection. Where once there was a desire to be desired, there is now only an itty bit if any at all. Instead of wanting to be desired (for “my” intelligence, for “my” body, for “my” kindness even), I would hope that anyone I would consider slipping back into a looser third precept for is someone interested in being a mirror and being mirrored. In engaging in partnership precisely for spiritual development … And if that’s just not in the cards, that’s good too. More love to spread. Less distraction.

And the wonderful thing is, in the end, whatever may be, if you stay with the experience and you’re seeing clearly, then:

Desire is a gift; it’s about noticing. Everything happens for you, not to you.–Byron Katie

I know this is a very personal subject but I’d be interested to hear other perspectives working with sensual desire in various contexts. For all my arguments of authenticity, please feel free to share anonymously if you’re more comfortable.

A few more words on the third precept, “abstaining from sexual misconduct”, which changes to complete abstinence for monastics and lay people who are observing the training precepts

Ajahn Thanasanti, “Celibacy and the Awareness of Sexuality”, Buddhadharma, Fall 2003

José Cabezón, “Rethinking Buddhism and Sex”, Buddhadharma, Summer 2009

@ Jayarava’s Raves

@ BuddhaNet

@ About.Buddhism

And some sage words on desire

@ it’s all dhamma.

@Tricycle: The Buddhist Review (UPDATE 7/4/2011)

Leave a comment


  1. It seems that many of us have this experience with an attraction during retreat. There always seems to be someone we find appealing, and someone we want to drown. The appealing person often reflects what we see ourselves as being or want to be, in a physically stimulating package, while the person from whom we experience aversion is often simply displaying traits we like least in ourselves.

    Wondering about that, I’ve gotten the impression that (like so many other thoughts and feelings which come up during meditation!), this is going on all the time, but in our daily lives the rest of the process of living distracts us from it. Or fosters it, when we ‘go mad’ for someone. During regular meditation, we observe, and then get on with our distracting lives. On retreat, however, those distractions have been set aside, and we’re left with those, well, arisings.

    Physical attraction is a tought one, as you said, it’s very deeply ingrained and our typical upbringing is not one of immediate mindful contemplation, but of grasping. This is so for other senses as well, other thoughts and feelings, though perhaps less strongly. We’ve had deep sorrows arise, regrets, worries — the full set of hindrances! Intimacy is the most challenging, though, not only because it touches on biological conditions, but because it speaks to that other key aspect of our delusion, the Self.

    Being on your own in this way certainly has its benefits. And, of course, some of us just haven’t found that right mix in a significant other (at least that’s my story, and I’m sticking with it!). The nice thing is that this time, the time for intimacy with just this moment rather than with Other, can help us grow in wonderful ways that can make us better partners in the event we do find someone with whom we can share — this moment.

    • Thank you Ted for the rich comments you’ve added here. Indeed, we either fall in love with or detest ourselves reflected in others. Precisely the illusory nature of desire and aversion–it’s a reflection, a mirage, images and ideas. (On a side note, I’m much more of a greed type admittedly, so the vendetta is a less familiar experience!) And I couldn’t agree more with your statement that this kind of mind game is happening all the time, it’s just that we are distracted and unaware. The beautiful thing about renunciation and more simple practice conditions is that we can’t hide, and in coming face to face with these emotions/mind states we can completely surrender to them because there’s nothing else to do. And then we can investigate and learn. And absolutely be better prepared for intimacy this moment, and the next. Beautiful, thank you.

  2. This reminds me of a story told by Ajahn Amaro. From memory it is something like this:

    A group of young female student nurses spent a day at Ajahn Chah’s monastery and Ajahn Chah made Ajahn Sumedho come along too – he had only been there for a year or so and was of great novelty value and interest – tall and the first white western monk. At the end of the day, Ajahn Chah, who, as you know, was a down to earth Thai, asked Ajahn Sumedho: “What did that do to your mind?”. Ajahn Sumedho said: “I like but I don’t want”. Ajahn Chah was most impressed by this and was inspired to use the reply as the theme for several Dhamma talks.

    This reply on desire illustrates a general way of breaking the chain of interdependent co-arising by not moving from liking (vedana) to the next link desire (tanha/lobha).

    • Thanks Terry. Such a good one-liner: “I like but I don’t want.” I actually read that story while I was at Abhayagiri last month. Here’s something similar from Sayadaw U Tejaniya:

      My teacher once said, “If you want, it will happen. If you don’t want, it will not happen.” What is the meaning behind this? “If you want, it will happen” means if you want because of craving, you will suffer. The first sentence means wanting comes from craving. For example, someone doesn’t like pain. He wants the pain to go away. He wants no pain. The second sentence, “If you don’t want” means if you don’t want through craving or aversion, then suffering doesn’t happen. First “wanting” is because of craving. Second “don’t want” is because of wisdom. First is origin of suffering (samudaya) and dukkha. Second is because of path (magga) and no suffering (nirodha). If you have craving or wanting, lobha, then dosa and aversion come. Craving and aversion are lobha and dosa. But, magga, “don’t want,” is because of understanding that you don’t want craving and aversion. That’s why suffering doesn’t arise. If you want something with craving, suffering will surely arise.

  3. This is an excellent post. I really think it’s wonderful how much attention you have given to this topic in your life – too many of us, even amongst long term practitioners, just aren’t willing to do so.

    I have a different perspective in some respects, perhaps in part due to coming from a Zen background. I feel there are two approaches to waking up to sexual desire. Renunciation is obviously the first, and for the vast majority of us, myself included, a period of renunciation is vital to understanding desire – especially sexual desire. The second approach is to enter into desire with eyes completely wide open. To pay complete attention to everything that comes up when you actually are with a partner acting upon desire. To completely be willing to experience fully as you act upon it, and through that burning through the attachments and hangups you have.

    I’ll be honest. I have long felt that nearly every religious tradition has some serious baggage around sexuality. There are fairly strong undercurrents of shame, repression, and control that lock a lot of people into troubled spots around sexuality. And Buddhism isn’t immune from these issues.

    So, my own path has been one of experimenting. Periods of complete renunciation and just watching what comes up. Times when I was with a partner, and paying complete attention to what was happening. And other times, when I was running on autopilot. I learned as much, perhaps even more, the times that I was actually engaged with a partner as when I have been celibate. In part, this was because the sting of recognition (of the craving, of the falseness of the stories I had about the person, etc.) was so much clearer. It also has taught me to let go of trying to be perfect, to be a person who has to be totally over grasping and attaching in order to be in a powerful, spiritually driven relationship. That the relationship itself might be the vehicle for both of us to break through the dangling chads of craving we might enter into the partnership with.

    I have taken this blended approach mostly because I had – and still have a little bit – a pattern of guilt, shame, and repression around sexuality. And I was finding that the teachings around renunciation and celibacy were just feeding all that, to the point where I remember several years ago, I had a period where even looking at a woman and feeling something was triggering that pattern. In fact, I spent much of a three year relationship muddled between acting out and repressing with a woman who did the same thing. So, after that relationship broke down and ended, I decided to take a different course. And while I still feel like a work in progress, I’m also much more aware of the whole dynamics of sexuality than at any other time of my life.

    • Thank you for bringing up the important points you have here Nathan, and for furthering the conversation at Dangerous Harvests.

      First, I absolutely agree that “the relationship itself might be the best vehicle”. Practice = relationship as far as I can tell. But to be that, it probably requires two very self-aware partners in a sexual context. Second, I want to clarify that I have not taken a lifetime vow of celibacy (no robes yet) and that my preference to abstain is due largely to the fact that I am not in a relationship currently, and the only people I meet living where I do and doing what I do are generally actively dying…And then, I encounter candidate partners in contexts where it’s not super plausible to explore the relationship potential like on retreat. So, my choice is more practical than anything.

      I have had plenty of casual encounters as well as loving relationships with really no guilt or shame attached to the act of sex per se. That’s not my issue. The use of the word “slip” is because I didn’t want to, it didn’t feel good, and all the motivations were wrong. I’ll go into the addiction recovery analogy more over at your discussion…My issue is with the nature of desire itself, its qualities of “auto-pilot” reactivity and self-propulsion. For months at a time I dealt with this in the context of food exclusively, because that was the only outlet I had for sensual desire…I used to spend literally hours fantasizing about what we might have for breakfast! It’s absurd and doesn’t have to be that way. I agree there is a danger in believing that we can perfect ourselves for some imagined future, but there’s also a gut sense that I personally am not so ready to get involved so much so that I’m running out there to find a partner. And, from all I can tell, that doesn’t work anyway ;) So for now, renunciation is a good laboratory for exploring desire, but I’m certainly open to that changing anytime the conditions are ripe for some other learning environment, whenever that may be.

      P.S. Re the religious hang-ups around sex, I guess that’s why atheists supposedly have “better” sex.

  4. Thank you for this thoughtful and complex discussion of desire, especially sexual desire. Over the past five years, with guidance from my teacher, I’ve undertaken an examination of my own sexual impulses, desires, addictions and actions. From one perspective, it’s been rather gruesome. From another perspective, it’s been liberating.

    Gruesome, to gain some deep insight into what I have been “up to” with sexuality, both imagined and expressed.

    Liberating, to gain some shallow insight into the fact that sexual impulses, desires, addictions, etc. can be be “worked with.” That is, they are not hard-wired into my heart/mind, they are not an essential part of who “I” am (well, duh!).

    Although I am now a single lay person, I have made an explicit vow, discussed with my teacher, “not to touch.” This “not touching” involves my own body, of course, but also in the functioning of mind. I find it hard not to touch, in my mind, an attractive woman I see on the street or at the gym; hard, but not impossible, provided that I bring intentionality and awareness to the moment.

    Of course, desire writ large forms the background to this topic. We all know the Buddha’s teachings about the relationship between desire and unease. Given these teachings, it’s interesting to examine sexual impulses. In my own work, I’ve noticed that the urge to masturbate arises solely in response to some uncomfortable feeling (which can range from boredom to rage). And I’ve found that I can work with that and not touch.

    I believe/hope that it’s possible to bring this kind of awareness and responsibility into a relationship. Indeed, this awareness seems to me to provide the basis for relational sexuality (as distinguished from the auto-erotic sexuality common to most of our encounters). Perhaps . . .

    Thanks again!

    • Barry, thank you so much for sharing your practice with us so intimately. What you say about working with the aspect of desire, and not touching even in mind, that it’s “hard, but not impossible, provided that I bring intentionality and awareness to the moment” is so resonant and so poignant to this discussion. Is that not so much what this entire practice is? Intention and awareness. In every moment. I appreciate that as a single, lay practitioner, you choose to approach the third precept in the way that you have. You’ve taken it further than I have certainly! There’s always more to explore and investigate. Yes, hopefully this sensitivity to the movements of mind and heart will be the basis for any and all relationships we engage in. Thank you.

  5. Very fruitful discussion!!

    Sexuality, in and of itself, is an interesting topic simply from looking through the lens of the culture in which we have been born into. I’ve always been interested in the difference between a culture that is “thrown to the wolves” like our secular American tradition (where you really don’t know what you’re getting into, it’s touched on a bit in school, talked about disgustingly amongst friends and experimented with another young person that is just as unclear about sex/sexuality as you are) and cultures that have explicit “rites of passage” where aspects of that passage are discussions around the body and sex. Both of these forms are deeply flawed, yet have their own benefits as well.

    I say all of that because I think that that our national, ethnic, familial and religious cultures that we are born into end up conditioning our thinking around sexual desire in particular ways. So, there is naturally loads of “undoing” that must take place for one to be completely liberated in the experience of intimacy. The last part of that statement is key, “experience of intimacy.” As a boy, to a young man to an adult my programming around sex has been about sex … not intimacy. It has been about the act minus its naturally intimate undertaking. This, I believe, has done much of the damage in our (male) conditioning process as it is completely laced with several threads that act as barriers to experiencing the various dynamics of intimacy.

    I have watched my sexual desire arise and disappear a lot this passed year. I used to have many issues around my desire, will and appetite for sex, while watching my experience of it becoming less fulfilling. As I have become much less drawn towards sexual activity and haven’t been as active as other times in my life I have been able to see the more holistic conditions for intimacy and the animalistic urges for it are not as prevalent. Still there but not as demanding. For me, the word sex in and of itself sends my mind into objectification because of how the word has conditioned how I “see” the act. Conversely, the word intimacy takes my mind into the intricacies of the interaction and the importance of creating a safe space for exploring of those energetic dynamics.

    K, I know you have an aversion to Osho, but I love this statement: “Sex is the seed, love is the flower, compassion is the fragrance.” I have reordered this for myself to say “Love is the seed, intimacy is the flower, compassion is the fragrance.” Genuine, connected love bridging intimacy and the practice of compassion. This helps me to transcend the selfishly egoistic pleasurable aspect of it, to not objectify, allowing me to see intimacy as meditative practice of compassion … which is the total experience of sharing life space with “another”. It’s one movement.

    Naturally, it’s not complete, and is evolving as I am able to continue undoing conditioned thought patterns and habits … but renaming the movement to “explorations in intimacy” helps me to connect the entire experience as one movement that naturally moves through the physical, spiritual and psycho-emotional dimensions – without clinging to one or disconnecting from others. Allowing the movement of that intimacy to decide and be what it is.

    Is that too philosophical? I really feel if we’re not clinging, and we’re deeply connected to love and the interconnected reflection of oneness, it becomes practical. I’m actually looking forward to experimenting with it. :)

    Thanks for sharing, folks. Good stuff.

    • There is naturally loads of “undoing” that must take place for one to be completely liberated in the experience of intimacy.

      Yep. Complete liberation. That’s our aspiration, no? I said to Nathan that it’s not so much about guilt or shame. What I didn’t say is it is so much about the ego struggling for security in relationship to another. The clinging, which is so contrary to the rest of “my” nature and yet so fundamental to the human condition, we’ve discussed. Yes, if we’re not clinging, and if we are truly seeking intimacy, there’s so much potential. And yet, this love, intimacy, compassion triad you speak of should not be exclusive to the sexual partnership, should it?

      • Love, intimacy, compassion are definitely a way of life … you just don’t have “physical intimacy” with everyone. :) I like using intimacy as a replacement for the word sex, but intimacy does enter into all realms and I’d like to find a word that better describes that activity. Hm. Conscious Consummation?

  6. Great post, Katherine! Yes, desire . . . In my experience, all kinds of desire, and not just for sex, have in them the seeds of suffering. Pain from desire not being satisfied, pain from desire satisfied and now what?, pain from desiring what is not now, pain from longing for what is no longer . . . And like you, I find those times when the desire – or its near cousin aversion – arise, so pregnant with wisdom. The feeling of the resulting suffering in the flesh is the most convincing part.

  7. Katherine,

    Sounds like we’re on a similar page here. Some of my response wasn’t directed at anything you said, but experiences I have had with others in spiritual settings. I also knew you hadn’t taken celibacy vows.

    Thanks, though, for clearing up the “slip” comment. That actually happened to me a few years back, having an encounter with a woman I really wasn’t interested in, and it caused me to stop and reflect a lot on desire. It was really clear that I was lonely, having been single for several months. And also acting out of a sense that I was “damaged” somehow, having been abandoned for another by the two girlfriends I had had before that.

    Looking at all of that was really difficult, and I think I’m still working on, although it’s not as hard to face what comes up around this stuff these days.

  8. Very interesting post, thanks for sharing. I can totally connect with the desire aspect and I found for me there is a lot of similarity in the patterns around desire. I noticed that desire around sex, as you hinted at, has a lot to do with feeling validated and ego stroking about being attractive. And if I go into the undercurrent for this desire I find insecurity, longing and my projection on to how I think things should be.

    And, I have very similar experiences in situations where I struggle and things get uncomfortable. For example if I’m banging my head against a problem and I’m making not “enough progress” I tend to crave food and just get up run away from the problem and eat. When I hold it for a minute and go into the underlying feeling of what it is that makes me get up and eat, things get interesting and often painful. That’s where I find the biggest challenge, staying with it, even though it is ugly and uncomfortable. The same holds true for relationship struggles, often times when things get hairy or are not as smooth as the “should be” the desire comes up to distract by watching a movie or having “reassuring” intimacy. Again by staying with the desire and looking behind it I realize that the desire is used as a mask and diversion to pull myself away from uncomfortable thoughts, undercurrents and situations. More and more I realize that by doing so the underlying issues only accumulate and tend to break loose later on in a much bigger fashion and are even more uncomfortable. Which again leads to desire to not deal with it. A vicious circle that is hard to break and keep from reclosing itself.

    I find that acting unreflected on desires, be it sexual, food, entertainment or others, is like putting paint on a rotten facade of a building. It makes it look better and you feel better on the surface for a little bit, the underlying rottenness has not gone away though. You need to face that where it is.

    • Georg, thank you for your insightful comment. Yes, sensual desire is of the same ilk regardless of the desired object. It is interesting how food and entertainment especially are often used for distraction of unpleasant emotions…and as you say reassuring intimacy can be used in the same way. It is so important to check our intentions, and to be with what’s going on in the body heart and mind instead of always acting reflexively. Very happy to have your visit and participation! Love, K.

  9. Pooja

     /  June 20, 2011

    I think we segregate sexuality, we look at it as something different, and sometimes exclusively as desire. Sexuallity isnt a diferent phenomenon, not very different from other various clingings and aversions – of the same nature. Desire arises, in various forms.

    Basically, I tend to see sexual desire as a craving that is very dispensable. Like of you compare this with food, where one has to partake, unlike food, sexual desire is dispensable, very much so, I have to be more careful with food, with the fingers touching the keys …

    Your blog posts are thoughtful, I have been reading these since more than a year now. Thanks for writing this for the benefit of so many like me.

    • Thank you for your additional insights Pooja. Yes desire is desire. But, our explorations of it are different depending on the form–as you point out, because some “desired objects” are optional while others aren’t. I really appreciate your kind words about the blog. So glad you find value in what I share here. With metta, Katherine


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: