Desire is instinctual. It lives deep in our animal selves. Desire wants what it wants, without rationale, often without full awareness.
Freedom. Pleasure. Rest. Nourishment. These are just a few names for our desire. Desire lives at our core. It can appear abstract and complex through the filters of reason and language, but when followed to its source it is made of basic stuff.
Desire is old. Desire, presumably, was around before words. It is pre-verbal. Perhaps that is why we sometimes have difficulty explaining precisely what we want.
In a baby or young child we see desire in its raw form. Shameless wanting. Shameless demands. Shameless pursuit of desire fulfillment. Shameless satisfaction. As civilized adults we tolerate this shamelessness for a short time and then we begin the work of socialization, which includes organizing desires into boxes labelled “good” and “bad”. As children we internalize these judgements.
Religious, political, family, community and economic ideologies provide us with sanctioned avenues for pursuing approved desires. Other desires we are expected to deny ourselves altogether. Most of us wrestle throughout our lives with the desires we’ve denied ourselves in order to fit into the “good” box and to be accepted in our family and community.
Feeling is unreasonable. Reason is unfeeling.
One of the primary tools we use against desire, our own and others’, is reason. When our wanting makes us uncomfortable we try to convince ourselves to stop wanting what we want.
We live in an age of reason and we tend to think of reason as our saviour from the dark ages of superstition. This may be, but reason can also be the murderer of important aspects of ourselves. The opposite of reason is not just superstition or un-reason. On the flipside of reason is also feeling, and feeling is where desire lives.
Nestled beneath our cerebral cortex (the relatively new and exclusively human part of our brain) is an older part that we share with other mammals. This deeper part of the brain is sometimes called the mammalian or limbic brain. As the conduit for empathy and emotion it connects us to others. It is, by definition, unreasonable. Two fundamental parts of our human selves, rational and emotional, are represented by these two parts of our brain. These two parts, both intrinsic to the human experience, do not always communicate well with each other. Feeling is unreasonable. Reason is unfeeling.
Wanting what we believe we should not have, head and heart find themselves at war. The self is turned against the self. This is such a common occurrence that we consider it a normal part of being human. More accurately, this is such a common occurrence that we tend not to consider it at all. This war against the self may be expressed as drug and alcohol abuse, addictive behaviour, depression, anxiety, even violence and self-harm.
Client couples often arrive in my office with each vigorously representing one or the other of these twin aspects of self – head and heart. The internal split has been projected out onto the relationship with one person taking a stand for reason, the other embodying feeling. In heterosexual couples it is most often the man who takes the position of reason, and the woman who champions emotion (but not always – sometimes it is reversed) –
“He doesn’t care about my feelings.”
As each projects either cold reason or emotional chaos onto the other, neither gets the opportunity to confront (and integrate) the same in their self.
Desire frightens us because it contradicts the ideas we have about our lives, each other and the world. We like to believe that reason is king, and all else its subjects. The logic of reason demands dominion over feeling and so also over desire. In the age of reason, desire is expected to conform to the shape of the intellect. The reasoning part of our brain, of our humanity, wants to understand desire in reasonable terms before acknowledging its legitimacy. This precludes letting ourselves actually experience the desire that is present, however dormant and boxed in.
Paradoxically, we reject desire that we don’t understand, but we don’t let ourselves experience desire fully enough to understand it.
Understanding comes from observation, and observation requires proximity. When we dismiss our desire as bad or unacceptable, we never get close enough to observe it, to feel it and thus to receive its message.
Putting words to desire helps bridge the complex and frustrating gap between feeling and thinking. Language supports the understanding of feeling and, obviously, its communication between human beings. But we must risk getting close to desire if we are to know it well enough to name it. Even acknowledging our desire is, in many instances, deeply taboo. For this reason we keep it hidden, from ourselves even, until we have built enough resource and courage to face the truth of our wanting.
The counselling or therapy process often includes an unearthing of our own awareness around our own desire.
The client/therapist relationship creates a container where it is safe to allow the presence of desire, sexual or otherwise, without the risk of judgement or condemnation. In this space desire can be felt fully without an expectation or requirement to necessarily act upon it. By allowing ourselves to simply get close to our desire through fantasy, visualization, and feeling we can begin to develop a deeper personal relationship with it. With practice, we may see it in its most basic form, free from distortion. Only then can we hope to measure our desire against our internal guiding principles and then choose actions that are truly discerning and wise. Only when we have a direct relationship with our desire can we represent ourselves accurately and negotiate effectively with others to get our needs and wants met.
Recommended reading –
Open to Desire: Embracing a Lust for Life – Insights from Buddhism and Psychotherapy – Mark Epstein
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