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The transformation of desire

30 November, 1999

Saving the planet and healing the human community are at the heart of this passionate reflection on the nature of desire by Diarmuid Ó Murchú.

200pp. To purchase this book online go to www.darton-longman-todd.co.uk



Part One: Corruption
1. When Desire Is Not Fulfilled
2. What About the Phenomenology of Desire?
3. Desire: A Confused Landscape
4. Desire Eternally Postponed
5. Desire and the Preoccupation with Sex
6. The Dislocation of Sexual Desire
7. Our Desire to Be in Control
8. Violence and the Desire for Control
9. Co-opted by Consumerism
10. Political Structures Frustrate Desire
11. Colonising Desire on the Global Market
12. Desire and the Lack of Meaningful Work
13. Desire and Forsaken Memory
 Conclusion to Part One:
 The Enormous Damage We Have Done to Desire

Part Two:  The Rehabilitation of Desire
14. Desire and the Cosmogonic Eros
15. Integrating Desire with the Quantum World View
16. Honouring the Cosmic Desire to Belong
17. When Desire Can Honour Creation’s Paradox
18. The Desiring Fertility of the Nourishing Earth
19. The Bioregional Connection for Desire
20. Befriending Desire as Embodied Creatures
21. Desire Fulfilled in Meaningful Relationships
22. Sexuality: The Desiring Energy of All Creation
23. Developmental Challenges of the New Sexuality
24. Erotic Desire and the Homosexual Experience
25. Bringing Home Our Desires from Exile
Conclusion to Part Two:
The Need to Honour the Primordial Context

Part Three: The Transformation Of Desire
Introductory Note to Part Three
26. Homecoming: A New Metaphor for Transformation
27.  When Desire Can Transcend the Decline of Patriarchy
28. Desiring to Reclaim Our Adult Selves
29.  Discerning Desire in Deep Wisdom
30.  Desire and the Transformation of Consciousness
31.  Transforming Desire in the Dark Night
32.  Desire and the Mystic’s Yearning
33.  The Desire for Soulful Spirituality
34.  Recovering Desire in the Power of Art
35.  Desire Embracing Justice for Liberation
36.  Desire and the New Reign of God
Conclusion to Part Three:
The Restless Heart Brings Enduring Peace!




If we are to avoid the catastrophes that loom on the horizon, rethinking our desires is exactly what we must do. Gil Bailie (1997)


Much unhappiness in our time results from the fact that our deepest desires are neither met nor fulfilled.

Beyond what is imagined by reason, there is something imagined by desire, poetry, beauty. This concept of the imagination bets on life without mathematical certitude; it bets simply because life is worth being loved and lived to the full. Ivone Gebara (2002)

Most people associate desire with happiness in life. We desire to be happy. And for most of us this involves having close friends, meaningful relationships, fulfilling work, a place called home, and an overall sense that life is worth living. Religious belief may add the assurance that many desires not fulfilled in this life will be realised in the next life. This conviction meant a great deal more in earlier times than it does today, and is likely to be embraced by older rather than younger people.

What we desire, and how we might satisfy those desires, seems reasonably clear – at least in theory. In practice, we are dealing with a complex phenomenon, affected by several cultural factors, some very ancient, like religion, others much more recent like advertising and the ways our desires are ‘driven’ today by marketing forces and the power of consumerism. Furthermore, there is the moralistic cultural tone of the word itself. for many people desire is over-identified with sex, for others with power, for others with possessions, and for some with the need to be in charge of one’s life and destiny.

In this opening chapter, I outline our tendency to distort and even corrupt the human capacity for desire. As a species we are often alienated from the very desires that give meaning and purpose to our existence. I then outline the major challenges facing us if we are to reclaim and appropriate our desires in a more integrated and fulfilling way.

Distortions of desire
The following are some of the key obstacles to the realisation of our desires, which in Part One I suggest distort, and even corrupt, our very capacity for desiring. These include:

  • an internalisation of religious values, which in the past tried to convince us that desire could only be satisfied after this life, and not during it, and often leaves us feeling guilty about desire and its fulfilment
  • an over-identification of desire with sex, with sexuality often understood as a dangerous, instinctual drive, morally dubious and needing to be firmly controlled
  • the consumption of desire through the lurid attractions of advertising and marketing forces in our time, often compelling us to purchase and own things far in excess of our needs
  • the fierce culture of competition in which we are never satisfied with ‘enough’! We feel we must be as good as everybody else and often seek power to outwit and dominate others
  • political and economic disempowerment, through which people internalise a sense that they have no real say in the social or political spheres, nor do they see any meaningful way to make a contribution to life on a larger scale
  • the lack of meaningful work, forced on millions in our world through unemployment. Yet, in several Western countries, regular employment leaves many people feeling victimised by exploitation and the under-use of their gifts and talents
  • feelings of inadequacy and fear in a world growing progressively more violent, insecure and unsafe for humans.

Liberating authentic desire
In Parts Two and Three, I explore what desire might look like in a different context. Here I am striving to honour the deeper, spiritual nature of desire. Only then can we hope to rehabilitate desire in a more creative and integrated way in the ordinary realms of daily life. I make some bold and original claims, setting desire in a much larger context and exploring the re-appropriation of desire in a much more challenging and inspiring way.

The new context includes the following considerations:

  • Desire is not merely a human propensity. Scientific developments of the past century, particularly the quantum theory in physics, alert us to a universe imbued with dynamic energy, suggesting that creation itself ‘desires’ to grow and flourish.
  • We humans appropriate this cosmic sense of yearning through our groundedness in planet earth, which in evolutionary terms moves towards a greater realisation of its innate potential, a claim that is basic to the Gaia theory expounding the notion of the earth as an alive organism.
  • Being at home in creation, and being able to engage creatively with it, seems an essential prerequisite for the articulation and realisation of human desire. Several important social, political and economic consequences arise – all of which I explore in Parts Two and Three.
  • Spiritual dimensions play a central role in this expanded vision. The driving force that feeds the desire of creation may be a new way to understand the formative influence of the Holy Spirit, as explored by contemporary theologians like Denis Edwards (2004) and Mark Wallace (2005). I am not merely articulating a spirituality of desire; rather I am suggesting that desire itself is essentially spiritual in nature.
  • Nor must we hastily glamorise these profound insights. The new cosmology informs us that creation thrives through the paradox of creation-and-destruction. Light and darkness forever intermingle. Desire can often be luminous and liberating, but it can also be insatiable and potentially destructive. Skills for discernment (Chapter 33) become crucial at this level.
  • What we previously defined as personal desires, often understood in individual terms, now become not merely interpersonal, but also take on an interdependent significance. There is no such thing as a human desire in isolation. All our desiring belongs to an intentionality that is cosmic, planetary and spiritual in its true essence.
    Therefore the desire for happiness and fulfilment can only be realised in a world where the desires of creation are also honoured. The practical implications of this claim require a radical rethinking of how we work for justice (Chapter 23).
  • Prioritising human desire, especially in terms of privilege and rights, will need to be re-evaluated. The cultural historian Theodore Roszak articulated this concern several years ago when he wrote: ‘The needs of the planet are the needs of the person … the rights’ of the person are the rights of the planet’ (1978: xxx).

Towards a new integration
My primary aim in this book is to help people integrate their desires in ways that will lead to greater happiness and fulfilment. Contrary to several utopias promised in our time, and several panaceas for the realisation of human potential, I am proposing a way forward that requires extensive reform of social and religious behaviours and the institutions that uphold those behaviours. And this is not merely a personal challenge; it is interpersonal in several important ways. It also embraces urgent ecological, political and planetary engagements for our time.

By seeking to transcend the narrow, functional parameters of daily experience I am not advocating escapism in any form. I am proposing a relocation for human meaning and fulfilment, a larger context that will honour reward as well as motivation and pleasure (cf. Schroeder 2004). Innate to our being and becoming are cosmic and planetary dimensions, spiritual and holistic aspects. As creatures of desire, we can only become whole when we honour the wholeness of our God-given context. Then a more enduring and authentic form of happiness becomes possible.


Philosophers analyse desire in a very cerebral way and miss the deeper psychic and spiritual meaning.

Currently, psychologists are considered to be the ‘experts’ in analysing desire, but those of a more rationalistic persuasion prefer the analysis offered by philosophers, particularly those known as phenomenologists. I offer a brief overview of the leading ideas.

Freud heavily identifies desire with instinct and, for Freud, instinct is always questionable, and frequently dangerous. Freudian instinct has a kind of will of its own, invoking intense passion and feeling and driving the human to act in ways that are a threat to reason and rationality. Carl Jung challenged the Freudian view, offering an alternative interpretation of desire that incorporated many insights from the great mystical traditions. But because rationalism is so deeply ingrained in the Western psyche and in the scholarly world, Jung has never gained the popularity or distinction attributed to Freud.

Analysing desire
Meanwhile, Freud’s key concepts were refined and in the process redefined. Freudian psychoanalysis came to be understood not so much as a process for bringing subconscious material to conscious awareness, but more as a study of desire itself (see Fuery 1995: 8). Jacques Lacan is a leading name in this endeavour, with valuable contributions from other French theorists such as Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. French feminists Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva embrace a similar psychoanalytical perspective, keeping the focus of attention more on female desire and its subversion within phallo-centric culture.

Lacan distinguishes between desire, need and demand. Whereas need and demand can be tied to specific objects and relations, desire always exceeds those objects and the subject’s relationship to them. Lacan describes four main features of desire: subjectivity, signification, cultural production and the analytical processes:

Subjectivity: It is in the process of negotiating my desires that I come to a sense of personal identity. My desires are not drives or instincts to be subdued or eliminated, but creative urges that need to be embraced and integrated.

Signification: My desires are always focused on an Other (the signifier), and most of the time I am not consciously aware of this. I am always desiring something I have not got. It may be an object, a person, a dream. The object of my desire is never fully attained and so I go on desiring more. Inevitably this leaves me feeling unfulfilled and incomplete – what Lacan calls a split-subject, at the mercy of Girard’s mimetic rivalry. So for Lacan, the act of desire is both an essential part of being and a process that also jeopardises the sense of existence’ (Fuery 1995: 24).

Cultural production: To negotiate our desires and the entire human culture characterised primarily by desire, we produce structures of communication such as language, religions and institutions. Of particular interest to Lacan, and to many post-modernists of our time, is our use of language mediated through various texts. In this regard, text is not just the written word: it includes the entire repertoire of story, language, communication and artistic expression, through which we try to read reality and communicate with it.

Analytical processes: According to Julia Kristeva, desire is part of the signifying process but, because desire is never totally fulfilled, it does not simply merge with signification; rather, it alters the object of desire. The process of psychoanalysis facilitates a better understanding of our desire to connect, the risk of projecting, and the ongoing task of relating more meaningfully.

Desire has been figured as a slippage, as the alterity of the social order, as beyond satisfaction and quite without resolution, as an essential constituent in the formulation of subjectivity, and as a site of power and control beyond the law which sustains such sites … Desire is in itself extremely complex. Patrick Fuery (1995)

Inherently ambiguous
Those who try to understand desire from a phenomenological angle broadly agree on the following dynamics of desire:

Desire is inescapable. It seems to be a core element in the will-to-life. It is the ‘something more’ that we wish to attain; while rational reason informs us that these attainments cannot be reached, or at best can only be reached in a good-enough way, something deep within the psyche urges us to keep pursuing, and to maintain the pursuit with intensity. It is our desiring that keeps us focused on transcendent meaning.

Desire is full of ambiguity. It embraces a potentiality we deeply yearn for but one that we can never fully attain. And each new attainment awakens other desires. Restlessness of spirit is inevitable, interpreted by religion as a yearning for God (or God’s love) which can only be realised after death in the life of eternal bliss.

Desire for the greater part is a subconscious process. We can negotiate its demands with greater ease when it becomes conscious. There are many ways we can do this, and not just through psychoanalytical or psychotherapeutic programmes. More importantly, however, is the wisdom to recognise the subconscious or partially hidden dimensions of our desiring. I wish to emphasise this point, because no matter what strategies we use – psychological, spiritual or cultural – we can never be totally aware of our desiring; if, indeed, we were ever to become totally aware, we would be so overwhelmed, human survival would probably be impossible.

Honouring desire requires deep wisdom. While the psychological and philosophical literature places the emphasis on the splits, slippages, failures and frustrations of unattained desire, as a species we seem reluctant to face the paradoxical truth of our capacity for desire. This is a gift to be embraced rather than a malady to be got rid of or, alternatively, a primeval curse we grudgingly must live with. Our desire is not about sin or temptation, but about yearning, longing, fulfilment, purpose. We need a deeper wisdom to accommodate, appropriate and embrace desire in a new way.

Striving for the ineffable
The more we try to rationalise the phenomenon of desire, the more it eludes our analysis. Desire, it seems, has something to do with what Paul Ricoeur calls the surplus of meaning. Its object is unattainable, because we are reaching for the ineffable, and we do this because it is in our nature to do so. No matter how abhorrent it may seem to contemporary rational thought and discourse, we humans are programmed for mystery, and that ultimately is the goal of all our desiring.

Desire does not wait until we are free from illusion or anger. Desire itself will guide us, past, and through all our mistakes, pain, losses, and moments of despair. If we can connect with even the smallest hint of this desire, which emanates from the divine image deep within us, then nothing, not even ourselves, can break this thread that leads us home. 
                                                                                                 Wendy Farley (2005)

The phenomenologists seem to regard desire as a distinctive human characteristic. Their terms of reference are quite anthropocentric and, inevitably, reductionistic. They focus very much on the here-and-now, largely bypassing transcendent or teleological features. Some see desire as one more brain-process to be investigated by neuro-science (cf. Schroeder 2004). In the present work I wish to highlight the teleology, the goal(s) which inform our desiring at every stage of its being and becoming. And these goals are primarily cosmic, planetary and transpersonal, as I indicate in Part Two of this book.

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