Intimacy, Love and the Shadow of Desire
The Buddhist mandala (a symbol for wholeness) is composed of the five elements of earth, water, fire, wind, and space. These elements are wisdom energies that we all possess. They function like a Rosetta stone, helping us decipher the innumerable layers and aspects of ourselves and our interpersonal relationships. As we begin to tune into these elements, they unleash their power to animate and enliven our connection with others and with our everyday life, inspiring us to see, hear, and feel the world with refreshing openness.
The element of fire is about magnetism and desire. When fire energy is dominant in our experience, we have natural charisma, a magnetic charm that captivates other’s attention and can lift their spirits with our infectious enthusiasm. Passion, pleasure, and seduction, as well as empathy, compassion, and creativity are the emotional currency of our fire element.
Fire’s intense energy and vivid color symbolize youthful optimism, joy, and playfulness. It can spontaneously combust into sudden bursts of enthusiasm and exuberance, igniting a creative flight of ideas and visionary possibilities. But our love can also be seductive, superficial, and insatiable, and can jeopardize the very thing that we want most — to be loved. Fire is our friend, but it can blaze indiscriminately, destroying everything in its path. It’s inflammatory nature also fuels aggressive acts and vengeful words, spreading ill will like wildfire and often ending in the ashes of destruction. As light always casts a shadow, the brightness and joyous energy of fire has a dark side.
Passion delivers us into relationship, but relationship becomes the great mirror from which we can’t escape our own reflection. It challenges us to give up hiding and to surrender our hidden corners, to be fully visible before ourselves and before our intimate others. Yet, such exposure can provoke withdrawal as a way to preserve our inner world from visibility, intrusion, and judgment.
The fire of relationship confronts us with the core issues of human existence. Wanting to merge with another, and yet feeling the need to be independent, presents us with a curious paradox. Feeling loyal to our significant others while simultaneously experiencing the perverse pull to be free of such commitments is confusing. The tension between self-sacrifice and self-preservation causes ambivalence in our most intimate relationships. We’re so often caught in the paradox of feeling irresistibly drawn to the experience of intimacy and oneness, while equally desiring separation and independence. For many of us the impulse to become a separate, autonomous being is as strong as the desire to merge with a loved one.
The shadow of desire reveals division within ourselves and our struggle with ambivalence. The word intimacy comes from the Latin intimus, which means “intrinsic or essential and belonging to our deepest nature.” We can’t find genuine intimacy with spouses, family, and friends until we’re intimate with ourselves, but this would involve communication with the very areas we’ve denied or ignored. Interestingly, to be a true individual means to not be divided, suggesting the integration of our many parts, some of which we’ve suppressed.
Romantic-erotic desire brings us into relationship with a beloved partner, where love dissolves the boundaries of separation and relieves us of our painful isolation. This stretching of our ego boundaries promotes our emotional growth, but in opening to a significant other we enter an unknown domain where we have to make friends with fear if we want to be truly intimate.
Authentic relationship is about openness and trust, connection and deep feeling, but the experience of temporary merger with another may threaten us with possible rejection, loss, and abandonment. If we dare drop our defenses and free fall into the mystery of love, our beloved might find us to not be enough, lacking in the substance necessary to sustain a relationship. The shadow of desire holds unreasonable and sometimes impossible expectations of our partners and loyal friends. Our idealization of particular people steals their right to be imperfect and incomplete, to lack the qualities we wish they had.
Many of us struggle with the fear of surrendering too much of ourselves to another, where we might become emotionally engulfed and lose our independence. There’s also the anticipated disappointment that our beloved mate or our cherished friend won’t be able to rescue us from our existential loneliness. Nor do they always mirror us when we urgently need support, which could leave us feeling even lonelier.
The strategy of seduction seems necessary because we believe that we’re missing the very qualities that would naturally earn other people’s love and attention. This assumed lack is the basis of the second Noble Truth, or the cause of suffering—- desire. Put in the context of relationship it’s the basis of our self-deceptive shadow strategy to give love in order to get love. We don’t believe that others will love us or pay attention to us as we truly are, and so we feel the need to draw people in to secure their attention, affection, and love.
The irony is that when we feel cut-off from the energy of our own fire element, even when we do receive love and affection, it doesn’t touch the core of our feeling of unworthiness. Only by making friends with ourselves, accepting and loving all that we are, (maitri in Sanskrit), can we heal ourselves from our feelings of separation and loneliness.
By getting in touch with our intrisic life force, its heat, energy and light, we’re able to feel the natural magnetism that draws desirable others to us, as we’re irresistibly drawn toward them. Our inherent fire energy dissolves our boundaries, suspends our inhibitions, and seduces us into merging with our beloved to rejoice in their happiness and empathize with their suffering. We’re moved by the binding quality of love and compassion, and communication and communion.
Radiating the brilliant flames of our inner fire we can clarify our many aspects in order to establish intimacy with ourself and distinguish healthy from neurotic forms of desire. As we dare to awaken our heart, allowing our fire energy to burn bright, we begin to relate to the world with tenderness and deep appreciation for life itself, with all of its ambiguity, conflict, and complexity. Perhaps this is the greatest pleasure.