To be hungry is human. In the human incarnation there is no escaping this fact. Our bodies are designed to yearn—for food, for breath, for connection . . . possibly even for awakening. Without this essential biological impulse, life would stop. As Ajahn Sumedho once said, “Desire is the energy of this realm.” What are you hungry for?
Students often arrive at my door with questions of desire. I’ve made it my work to travel deep into the complex, unpredictable and often painful realm of hunger to understand its workings. Over the past seven years I’ve taken on a deliberate practice of sex, desire and connection. I’ve longed, I’ve feared, I’ve obsessed and I’ve consumed. If there’s one thing I know to be true, it’s that hunger is a beautiful path.
I didn’t always feel this way. I saw humans as uncertain, confusing creatures and the rules of relating as unclear. Sex and desire appeared full of suffering and delusion. So when I discovered the Dharma, I became infatuated by the simplicity of solitude. The joys of retreat were clear for me—silence, stillness and the seeming absence of difficult “others.” I’d rarely felt as at home in the world as I did in the slow-motion unfolding of internal contemplation. I dipped in and out of relationships and work, but nothing spoke like seclusion. At thirty, I began to consider monasticism, robes, Burma. I was invited to begin training as a vipassana teacher under Jack Kornfield at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. The idea of carrying the Dharma forward touched a deep chord inside me.
Yet, at the same time that all of this was unfolding, I started to feel the whisperings of an instinct I call “no part left behind.” As much as my identity was soothed by the promises of renunciation, I knew I was ultimately looking for liberation through inclusion. I longed to know the freedom I had touched in stillness, silence and solitude while living in complexity, connection and motion. For me this would be unconditional freedom: to be able to enter any world, immerse and wake up inside of it.
That meant facing my hunger and surrendering to its undeniable pull into life. For what is desire but the call of life—the mysterious draw to experience food, breath, sex, love, as well as the compelling forces of jealousy, obsession, destruction and darkness? This is not easy work. It is a path of no escape. If you’re to truly wake up inside of these most potent experiences, you must be willing to bring all of you, nothing held back. There is no separation of one thing as higher than another. In the shift from renunciation to inclusion, all becomes equal ground.
And yes, that means getting messy.
Fortunately for me, I discovered a world where messy was considered sacred. That was the world of OneTaste. OneTaste is an organization dedicated to the exploration of desire and connection through the practice of Orgasmic Meditation. Orgasmic Meditation is a structured mindful sexuality practice where one partner strokes the other’s genitals, with no goal but to feel. The intention, whether you are stroking or being stroked, is to bring deep attention to an oft-unconscious arena and cultivate connection where we so often hide. It is not unlike the focus, attention and awareness cultivated through vipassana, only directed into a particularly charged area and flooded with the high-intensity energy of orgasm. If you can stay present and open on the shame-ridden, full-sensation, unpredictable ride of sex and orgasm, chances are you will learn some things you can apply to the rest of your life. And while, at first, a focus on sex and orgasm might seem antithetical to Dharma, I discovered at OneTaste a community of deep practitioners committed to understanding the inner workings of self, desire, relationship . . . and life.
Of course, desire is no exploration for the faint of heart. Entering requires a deep willingness to be moved—most likely to realms otherwise unknown. Most of us know very little about our own hunger. As my friend and mentor OneTaste founder Nicole Daedone has said, it’s not unlike the lands Joseph Campbell refers to in The Hero with a Thousand Faces: a “fateful region of both treasure and danger . . . a distant land, a forest, a kingdom underground, beneath the waves or above the sky . . . a place of strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, superhuman deeds and impossible delight.”
Yes, desire will take you there—to places your identity might not otherwise agree with. You’re setting sail for the sweet husband, two children, a home in Berkeley and an illustrious teaching career. And, all of a sudden, desire whispers. Your ideals and expectations lose ground. The person you believed you were, the one your parents and teachers expected to you to be, slips away. You find yourself called to new lands. You’re attracted to men less-than-conventionally attractive, and certainly more “raw” than “nice.” Visceral connection fills your body with a gravity quite the opposite of transcendence. Your life does not fit within any conventional paradigm of worldly success, no money or children or property to prove worth. But it’s electric and vibrating and very much alive. At least that’s how it went for me.
Now, this is the place many would “call red.” Desire wouldn’t take you anywhere but off-track. The body and its impulses are unreliable and unpredictable. This path is sure to create pain, and suffering, and upset. I heard those very fears expressed by some of my Dharma guides. They didn’t understand my exploration and felt they could not support it. It strayed too far from what they knew to be Dharma. Naturally, OneTaste has clear differences with the Theravadan tradition, where renunciation and asceticism are exalted and the path is upward—clean-cut, light, linear and transcendent. The realm of desire, on the other hand, is a downward path, where the rules are less directive and the road dark. There is no singular moral code or standard presumption. Instead, everything is based on feel, a sense of resonant knowing far more nuanced and much less rational. So, it was at that crossroads that I had to decide. Go forward into uncertainty amidst the voices of disapproval, or renounce the vast world I had just started to touch.
It wasn’t always pretty. This path is called downward for a reason. We’ve held in the raw force of desire for so long that when it opens, it quite often resembles water through a rusty pipe, spurting and spluttering in all directions. We see the examples everywhere—teachers and practitioners taken by the hunger impulse, and the chaos that ensues. Their untamed instinct blowing up their lives as they know them. Seeing the wreckage, we assume wise action is to contain the impulse and get things back under control. Only, it’s an inflated sense of control and containment that most often begins the ugly cycle in the first place.
I chose to deliberately open the pipe, to clear out the rust and sediment of shame and fear and get to the clear unimpeded flow. In less eloquent terms, that means regularly confronting just about every play of ego I can imagine, and wrestling with the accompanying fear, pride, jealousy and vanity. Daily inquiry and sitting meditation help to reveal what’s to be worked with. But most important is that which I discover while engaged with life. Freedom is no longer theoretical—it’s a question of whether I can put myself inside of the knot and then find my way out. Hunger is the practice of alchemy—going into the poison and coming out with the gold.
Desire never shorts you on opportunities to practice. In fact, you could say that desire is the world’s greatest teacher of annica (change) and anatta (not-self). Its whisper enters, you begin to follow, and suddenly it shifts. Or you lock onto the object of your hunger only to find it continually elusive. For desiring does not necessarily mean having. The practice of desire is less about the object of desire than the willingness to follow its call and see where it leads. Siddhartha followed desire’s call beyond the palace walls, but it wasn’t a straight path to the bodhi tree. We all have impulses that draw us down the rabbit hole.
And thank god. Because if we were to hold tight to certainty and identity, were never moved by that force of desire, we might always assume we were in control, that this little self with all its rules, preferences and regulations was the one in control of life. Orgasm is called la petite mort (“the little death”) for a reason. When we fully let go, we become less attached to how life should be or who we believe “we” are. We’re more willing to go into the dark and trust our way around without a map. And that is where we discover if we are, not theoretically, but truly, free.