Tom Waits and the Path of Desire

There’s no prayer like desire. – Tom Waits

How tantalizing his emphatic juxtaposition of the high and the low, the sacred and the erotic, along with his intimation that our desires are a way—powerful like no other—to union with the divine.

And how controversial. Philosophical and spiritual traditions often see desire not as a path but as an obstacle on the way to the divine. The Buddha and Plato, for instance, are often portrayed as preaching a cool-minded rationalism that renounces embodied desires and the world of appearances for the sake of union with a transcendent reality. (I discuss a version of this simplistic view of Plato here.) As a consequence, many spiritual traditions appear to be life-denying.

Fittingly, I found the Waits quote as an epigraph to Mark Epstein’s book, Open to Desire.  Epstein’s book argues that, contrary to a popular view, the virtue of non-attachment does not amount to non-desiring: Buddhism does not teach the renunciation of desire, anymore than Plato does. Rather, it shows a middle way with desire, neither denying nor grasping. This third way can lead to the, um, desired union of the sacred and the erotic.  Arguably, Plato’s dialogues convey an analogous message.

So why are the Buddha and Plato’s teachings about desire so often misinterpreted in our time? As I see it—and here for the sake of brevity I’m not going to defend these claims but merely assert them—these teachings about a middle way are especially hard for us moderns to grasp, or, better yet, hold lightly. Instead, we tend to either deny or to cling ferociously to the objects of our desire, often moving back and forth between the extremes many times a day. A large part of  our extremist tendency is rooted in the powerful influence of Abrahamic religions and modern philosophy, both of which take the view that desires are by their nature impossible to reform: like hunger and thirst, we are subject to them and thus can’t shape or choose them. In short, we have an irredeemably sinful nature. Thus our choice seems limited to whether we embrace or deny our desires—or pray that God’s will be done, not ours.

In other words, we have a view of the soul that mistakenly denies what I think is a true premise underlying those ancient teachings about desire: our desires are educable. (I explore this theme in my book.) It is because they are educable that there is a middle way. We don’t have to renounce desires, nor are we stuck being their slaves. We can shape them. Even, in some cases, to the point where there’s no desire like prayer.

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