Thursday, April 02, 2009

On Wanting

One of the reasons I am glad I became a therapist is that the experience has afforded me the opportunity to closely examine and hopefully better understand the nature of desire and suffering, both my own and that of others. By desire, in this sense, I'm not just referring to sexual desire, though that is a part of it, but a more encompassing definition of wanting - whether it be that extra cookie, a pricey pair of shoes that you purchase with your rent money, a relationship that is ethically and morally off limits, or a peak experience that you wish would never end. In other words a desire that turns into an attachment, which in turn leads to suffering. You get the idea. I don't really call myself a Buddhist, but I do try to be mindful, and I find that some of the secular principles of psychological health find strong parallels and a nice spiritual home in Buddhist traditions.

My most recent painting is about wanting. It's after Johannes Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring". I've seen the movie and the painting is based on that too. I'm not sure if its a precognitive painting per say. But life does have a funny way of providing experiences and situations that tend to bring me face to face with the emotions I am either unconsciously or at a non verbal level articulating at the time I am painting.

I went skiing by myself in Arapahoe Basin the other weekend. I was really looking forward to the quiet beauty of the mountains. After a few runs, however, I was very aware of my aloneness.
Perhaps it was because the conditions were not ideal - a little too cold, windy, the kind of weather that makes one very conscious of their own mortality - especially at 12, 000 feet.
Or perhaps it was because as I have mentioned in this blog before, I am still finding my way in my work as a therapist in private practice, an experience that though fulfilling can be lonely sometimes.

A short while thereafter, I met some really fun smart people on the slopes and had a lovely day. It was exactly what I needed. On top of the world in good company, far away from the minutia of my daily grind. No problems there right? Right. No problems until on the way home where I felt a gut wrenching sadness that the experience was over and I had to return to the uncertainties of my life. I clung to this moment all the next day as I faced the more dreary tasks of my work day. The clinging fostered procrastination - and I dilly dallied on the less preferable aspects of my job: filling out tax and insurance forms. I had become like Goethe's Faust when he makes his pact with the Devil:

"If ever to the moment I shall say,
Beautiful moment, do not pass away!
Then you may forge your chains to bind me,
Then I will put my life behind me.... "

By Monday evening, I became aware of my "clinging" and picked up my go-to book for when I am caught up in an undertow of wanting: Mark Epstein's Open to Desire , a foundational book for passionate people. Epstein is a New York based psychiatrist in private practice who frequently lectures on the merits of Buddhist practices as a component of psychotherapy. In the book Epstein advocates that rather than renounce or shame our desires, we instead place desire in the role of a teacher. When we observe ourselves not wanting to let of an experience, instead of chasing that satisfaction in a consuming fashion, we need to "learn to work with the separation inherent in the the process of desiring".

Its funny how just becoming aware of the clinging gives you permission to let it go. After perusing my dog-earred pages of Open to Desire, I felt more at peace. I realized that it wasn't the ski slope experience that I was clinging to so much as the clarity of living I had in that moment. It feels good to want things, wanting is not a bad thing, nor is wanting to want.

I think too, in addition to cultivating awareness around clinging or wanting states as they arise, its wise to have lots of areas in which to channel one's desires constructively. Identifying these channels will most likely take some soul searching as they will be as idiosyncratic as each of us. For me, desire finds its healthy wavelength in the activities of art making, my profession as an art psychotherapist, yoga, and running.

With yoga as well as running, desire is transformed into moving with intention and thus paradoxically seems to cultivate mindfulness. I really enjoy how focused I feel when I am practicing yoga, all of my desires focused on one point, measured by my breath. In running, well, I'll just hint at a t-shirt that I'm working on making with the following slogan: "Ask me about my demons, I'm trying to outrun".

And finally art as therapy. Art making is wonderful for exposing the "gap" that desire creates as cited by Epstein. Most of the time, the picture in my head is not exactly like the one that is actualized in a finished painting, and as such I must confront the gap that exists between my creative intention and the end product. Epstein states that clinging arises from searching outside ourselves for wholeness - again, the nice thing with art making is that one goes within one's self to find an answer. And even then, sitting alone, painting, I can maybe see the answer from time to time, but I can never articulate it as clearly as I can experience it to myself. This is what is known as the "incommunicado element", as termed by pediatrician and psychologist Donald Winnicot, and reiterated by Epstein. They also refer the incommunicado element as sacred - which I like.

Its been a week now since my post skiing blues last Monday. Reflecting on the tenacity with which wanting held me last week, I am amazed to remember feeling so compulsive. Another lesson with desire - it fades. Today too though, I saw and felt my fair share of wanting. I was wrought with frustration earlier related to paperwork. Rather than grinding that to an unpleasant conclusion, I thought, "Oh yes, I can work on my blog!". And even now - wanting to end this post with some sort of epiphany - wanting to write the perfect blog post on wanting - I will take Epstein's advice to heart and

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