From The Under 35 Project: “The Dharma of Desire”

The newest Under 35 Project, which gathers original writings by younger Buddhist practitioners, is Rebecca Jamieson’s “The Dharma of Desire”.

Rebecca Jamieson
22 April 2012
white rose
Photo by Annie Spratt

From my experience, intense attraction to anyone or anything is a sign that there’s a lot of juiciness there – be it bitter or sweet. Whether it’s an old pattern that sucks us into painful thoughts or behaviors, or it’s something new that we’re excited about inviting into our life, attraction is a huge blinking sign that there’s something there to learn.

The key to working with attraction seems to be curiosity. Shambhala Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön says, “Our wisdom is all mixed up with what we call our neurosis. Our brilliance, our juiciness, our spiciness, is all mixed up with our craziness and our confusion, and therefore it doesn’t do any good to try to get rid of our so-called negative aspects, because in that process we also get rid of our basic wonderfulness. We can lead our life so as to become more awake to who we are and what we’re doing rather than trying to improve or change or get rid of who we are or what we’re doing. The key is to wake up, to become more alert, more inquisitive and curious about ourselves.”

Desire is such a powerful feeling – whether it’s wanting a particular person to like us or jonesing after one more brownie or a new pair of jeans – it’s easy to get sucked into desire and lose our mindfulness. Desire itself isn’t a problem – we all want to be happy, loved, safe and healthy. It’s when we start thinking that what we desire will make us happy that things get a little sticky. At that point, we start to get tunnel vision, and our curiosity about what’s actually happening versus what we think should happen can easily fall by the wayside as we stampede towards whatever it is we’ve decided we want. Romantic relationships provide a perfect opportunity to see our desire in all its wisdom and confusion because they are so rich – they evoke both our curiosity and tenderness as well as our confusion and grasping.

About a year ago, I experienced this firsthand. I met Luiz at a friend’s party. We danced for hours, twirling around each other in the dark, making up silly new moves and giggling at ourselves, full of delight. We slipped outside at 3am, sweating and giddy, to howl at the hovering orange November moon. I slipped my arm through his and we walked the cold, illuminated streets together for hours, our breath coming in clouds as we talked, the moon washing his face and hair silver. I felt like I had dreamed him, known him for years, went to bed that night so elated I could barely sleep, thinking: this is it.

Luiz was the first fellow meditator I’d ever been involved with, and the stats looked great: he had meditated for years and was as passionate about practicing mindfulness as I was, plus he was a psychologist, musician, and to top it all off – tall, sexy and one hell of a dancer.

I’d been practicing Shambhala Buddhism for the last seven years and had occasionally fantasized about the joys of dating another meditator – all the things we’d have in common, how much easier it would be to communicate with someone who was committed to using their neurosis as a path to uncovering their wisdom. But after an excruciating breakup with someone I had been deeply in love with, I’d been on hiatus from dating for the past year, and the thought of finding another meditator who I was so compatible with had seemed too much to even hope for. I was in love with Luiz before I could even pronounce his last name.

My fairytale storyline first started showing cracks after our 2nd week of knowing each other. Luiz was going out of town for a tango festival. I tried not to let myself hope that he’d call me from the road, since we weren’t officially dating and had agreed to take it slow. So when my phone showed his number calling, my heart started beating as fast as if I’d just run a marathon. After a bit of chit-chat and pleasantries (heartbeat deafening the whole time), he cut to the chase.

“Rebecca,” he said in his lovely, lilting voice, “there’s a woman here I may want to sleep with.”

My heart came to a dead standstill, then resumed marathon speed, but this time with a sick lurching, accompanied by shaking hands and a slight ringing in my ears. He went on to explain that he’d been in monogamous, long-term relationships his whole adult life and that he couldn’t commit to me or any one person at this point, he needed to be free to explore and have time for himself.

It all made sense, total, perfect sense. I fully supported him in doing what he needed. I said some words to that effect. And then I had the impending sense that I was about to throw up all over my shoes. I had been confronted with my deep desire to get what I wanted exactly how I wanted it. I wanted Luiz to be who I thought he was (The Love of My Life, in shining armor) and I wanted him to act accordingly (ie: do exactly what I wanted him to). My squishy feelings of love were starting to turn into squishy feelings of doubt, and I began seriously contemplating that question we all have to ask at some point or another on the path of romance: was I willing to allow my lover to be himself and try to learn from that, or was I going to turn into a dictator and do everything in my power to make him stick to the script I had all planned out? I decided that I would experiment with dropping my personal script – I didn’t need Luiz all to myself, even though I wanted it that way. Non-attachment, right? I decided I would set out to learn what I could from the experience, even though in the pit of my stomach, I knew I was in for a bumpy ride.

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, the head of the Shambhala lineage, says something about relationships that rings true for me: “Most relationships don’t work out because there’s a lack of oxygen. When we first fall in love, even when we kiss, we are giving space. Our concepts about each other begin to fill it with expectation and attachment. Love needs space. Space says, ‘Don’t be jealous. Don’t try to possess the ones you love.’ Love mixed with space is called letting go.”

And indeed, the space, curiosity and elation I’d felt when I first met Luiz were fading fast, and turning instead into a hot mess of my own neurosis mixed with his. Suddenly, it seemed like almost everything he did was pushing my buttons and I often ended up feeling like a 15 year old around him – awkward and angry. I also had the sneaking suspicion that he was bringing up issues I had with my dad – not a very comforting thought. He loved to debate, often interrupting me mid-sentence to offer advice on fixing my problems, when I just wanted him to listen. I also began to realize that he didn’t just want an open relationship, he didn’t really want a relationship at all – he was aloof when we were in public together and avoided introducing me to his friends. The expectations I had when I first met him were crashing and burning all around me and I didn’t like it one bit. I felt betrayed, even though Luiz had been quite clear about his expectations for our romance from the get-go.

Suddenly, aggression leapt in full-blown, and he went from being the object of my desire to the object of my anger in what seemed like an instant. I spent tearful hours on the phone with friends, trying to make sense of the whole thing, and finally decided to break it off. I explained to Luiz the numerous ways our involvement wasn’t healthy or working for me. Our breakup lasted about 48 hours, then I invited him over and the cycle began again. Despite all my logical arguments for why our relationship wasn’t working, the attraction was still there, and it crushed my intellectual reasoning like a steamroller. Somehow, despite our conflicts in daily life, once we got our clothes off, we were able to delve into incredible trust and intimacy with each other. Sex with Luiz was connected, passionate, intuitive, and I realized with a shock – actually felt healing. How was that even possible with someone I felt so uncomfortable with as soon as we rolled out of bed in the morning?

Buddhist teachings talk about our neurosis as having three main styles, also known as the three poisons: passion, aggression and ignorance. I was already burning through the first two like a Hummer burns gas, so it only made sense that the third poison, ignorance, would be hot on their heels.

I was confused. And my favorite way of dealing with things I don’t understand is to start beating myself up. My relationship with Luiz was bringing up more difficult emotions than I knew what to do with. I’d spent the last year in therapy, making headway on painful issues with my parents revolving around sexual abuse I’d experienced as a child. I’d made tremendous progress on my own healing and my relationship with them, even planning a trip to return home to the Midwest to see them. And now for some reason, Luiz was bringing up all the sadness, anger, fear and insecurity I thought I’d begun to heal. I berated myself for continuing to stay involved with someone with whom I felt so unhealthy. Hadn’t my years of meditating and therapy done anything for my ability to pick a guy?

I spent whole afternoons on the couch, paralyzed by the amount of old trauma and baggage the relationship brought up. But then I would see him and, at least when we were naked and in each others’ arms, I felt safe and connected and sane. This dynamic made no sense to me, and instead of feeling like “this moment is the perfect teacher,” I just felt like a crazy mess.

But slowly, out of the dark, chaotic whirlwind I felt trapped in, something started to dawn on me. My therapist, a very wise woman, put her finger on it: “You’ll be done with this relationship when you’re done. It’s ok to be where you are.” As she spoke, it was as if an enormous light switch had been flicked on, and I felt flooded with relief. In the days that followed, I began to hear a soft, steady internal voice that said simply, “Trust yourself.” It felt as if I’d been stuffed into a tiny, dark, smelly box and was just realizing that I could open the lid at any time and find myself in a vast, fragrant meadow. Very slowly, asking myself what the hell I was doing with Luiz changed into asking myself, with genuine curiosity, what important things I was learning from the situation. Buddhist teachings say that we all possess tremendous clarity and wisdom as the fundamental essence of our nature and that we are never without it, it just gets covered up sometimes. Bit by tiny bit, my natural clarity was starting to peek through.

As the weeks passed, I began to realize that I actually could trust myself, could trust that there was a good reason I was so attracted to Luiz, trust that there was something important for me to learn there, even if it didn’t turn out to be what I’d hoped for at the beginning. I felt the powerful goodness in both Luiz and myself, as well as our confusion, and started to feel compassion for us both, for the habitual patterns we were stuck in, the ways we triggered each other, and how deeply good-hearted we were in spite of it.

I visited my parents that spring. Seeing them for the first time in nearly two years, my heart broke open with the fullness of my love for them, as well as sadness for the pain we’d all gone through. Their eyes were dry, so I cried tears for all three of us, hugging them tightly, forgiving them everything and also knowing there was still a long road of healing ahead of us.

When I returned to Portland, I discovered that the forest fire of attraction that had once raged between Luiz and I had subsided to just a few tame sparks. There was no grand blow out or formal goodbye – we remained on friendly terms but slowly spent less and less time together. I found myself feeling a tremendous sense of freedom and bemused pride, as a person who has just scaled a treacherous mountain or gone skydiving for the first time. I also felt a deep sense of gratitude for Luiz, who had taught me so much by simply being who he was. Somehow, the very thing I’d thought would force me off the high-dive of insanity had given me something incredibly precious, then dissolved back into the space from which it had come.

Now, I thought wryly, I just have to remember this for next time.

Rebecca Jamieson

Rebecca Jamieson grew up in the Driftless region of Southwest Wisconsin and moved to Portland, Oregon in her mid-twenties. She was drawn to Buddhism through the writing of Natalie Goldberg and the influence of a creative writing teacher who incorporated meditation into her classes. Rebecca’s poetry and lyric essays have appeared in Stirring, &review, r(evolve), Cup of Poems, and the Wisconsin Poets’ Calendar.