Twenty-five hundred years ago, Prince Siddhartha Gautama slipped out of his father’s palace in the ancient Indian capital of Kapilavastu. Twenty-nine years old and dissatisfied with his pleasure-seeking existence, he wanted to find the deeper meaning of life. He traveled the roads of India, living as an ascetic and studying with renowned spiritual teachers. After six years, he experienced an awakening and became the Buddha. His insights included the realization that all life is suffering and suffering is caused by desire.

When I first heard of Gautama’s quest and his epiphany, I felt confused. Hadn’t desire driven him from the palace, leading him not to sorrow but to enlightenment?

In any case, I didn’t need the Buddha to tell me desire caused suffering. There was so much I desired—I’d lived in a state of desire for as long as I could remember—and it only seemed to make me unhappy. At home and out in the world, I met with a Greek chorus of disapproval. I wanted to know a lot of things and was always asking why. “If you don’t stop asking so many questions,” my mother said, “no one will like you.” I wanted to be a kinder person, and I worried if I thought I had hurt someone’s feelings. “Don’t be grandiose,” my father said, cautioning me against overblown belief in my power. I wanted my own clothes instead of my sister’s hand-me-downs; I wanted second helpings. You’re a greedy girl. I wanted my parents to get back together after their divorce. You think it’s all about you. I wanted to be taller, to have blue eyes and blonde hair—instead of my Tibetan-American brown eyes and hair—to blend in better in white American suburbia. You’re never satisfied. I wanted to be heard and wanted my opinion to matter, so I didn’t hesitate to speak up. Who do you think you are?

In school, I wanted to excel and went all out to win the running race, the spelling bee, the poster contest. I spent long hours crafting shoebox dioramas to illustrate my book reports, laboring over cotton ball clouds, paper moons and tinfoil stars, Lilliputian clay chairs and beds, embroidered fabric people. Classmates called me Little Miss Perfect and Miss Goody-Goody (no boys were known as Little Mr. Perfect or Mr. Goody-Goody). I wasn’t one of the girls considered “foxy” or invited to play Kick the Can or asked to go steady by a cute guy who would give me his St. Christopher necklace.

In high school, boys finally started noticing me in a more positive light, and I began to feel sexual desire. “Don’t flaunt yourself!” my mother said if she caught me exchanging heated glances with a boy. I felt sullied by my desires and struggled to hide them. I loathed the differences between how society characterized girls’ and boys’ desire-driven behavior:

Girls

Boys

Stubborn

Determined

Bossy

A leader

Selfish

Self-motivated

Arrogant

Confident

On overdrive

A go-getter

Slutty

Studly

On a spring evening in London in 2020, I saw Nora: A Doll’s House, Scottish playwright Stef Smith’s stunning adaptation of Ibsen’s 19th-century play. Three wives and mothers—in 1918 (women’s suffrage in the UK), 1968 (legal abortion and the pill), and 2018 (#MeToo)—are choking on their alienation and rage, their desire for selfhood. Having devoted herself to pleasing her husband, to meeting his and society’s expectation that she fulfill her roles as wife and mother for the larger good of the institution of marriage, each woman realizes that she’s been living like a doll in a doll’s house and has cast aside her self. As she experiences this awakening, she tells her husband again and again, “My heart beats for me.” At one point the three women chant this in unison, over and over, their fury and passion mounting and reverberating in the dark theater. You can hear their hearts beating as their chant swells like the voices of so many women over time: my heart beats for me, my heart beats for me. Not for my husband, my children, my mother, my father. My heart beats to keep me alive.

Walking back to the hotel that night, I thought about the desire that’s always roared in my heart. Over the years, as I left home and made my own life, and as I learned about Buddhism while connecting with my Tibetan roots, I’d discovered there are different kinds of desire. I realized that what the Buddha meant is that craving causes suffering. Craving is represented by preta, the hungry ghosts that populate one of the Buddhist realms of existence, wretched beings with stomachs as big as the Grand Canyon and throats as thin as a piece of hair (“Never enough drinks or eats for them,” my Tibetan grandmother liked to say). Preta desire—tanha, or “thirst”—is a compulsive striving for objects, experiences, and traits that we think will bring us happiness (like being taller or whiter). We’re hamsters racing around in our wheels, trapped in an endless cycle of hungry-ghost longing that spirits us away from our authentic selves.

As a girl and a young woman, I felt I was performing a role on stage, waiting and praying for the curtain to come down.

The drive toward selfhood, on the other hand, is a healthy, mindful desire that leads us within. This isn’t a search for a fixed, coherent self but an embracing of who we are (rather than who others want us to be). Often girls are told this desire is selfish. We’re taught to please, to seek approval no matter what the cost. I learned to pretend I didn’t want another helping of dessert, didn’t know the answer to the teacher’s question, didn’t notice boys, didn’t have an opinion. Ignoring my inner voice—or better yet, extinguishing it—would make me happy because others would be happy with me.

If we stifle our desire for selfhood, it may in time disappear. Then we, too, may vanish, falling into the schism between who we are and the self we present to the world. Or we may be consumed by the tension between the force of our desire for selfhood and the force of our exertion to hide it. Growing up, I was constantly exhausted. For years, I dreamed that I was trapped in a basement where the pipes were leaking and bursting, that I was trying to squeeze through a trapdoor into an attic; I dreamed I was lifting off and flying free over towns and forests and oceans. As a girl and a young woman, I felt I was performing a role on stage, waiting and praying for the curtain to come down.


Girls’—and women’s—desire is dangerous because it threatens the status quo.

In A Doll’s House, Nora’s husband desperately wants to preserve the marriage that has worked so well for him and for society. Seeing that Nora is determined to leave, he attacks: “How unreasonable and how ungrateful you are, Nora!… To desert your home, your husband and your children! And you don’t consider what people will say!”

To his horror, Nora replies, “I cannot consider that at all. I only know that it is necessary for me…I believe that before all else I am a reasonable human being, just as you are—or, at all events, that I must try and become one.”

If we stifle our desire for selfhood, then we, too, may vanish, falling into the schism between who we are and the self we present to the world.

Ibsen said that when writing A Doll’s House he hadn’t “consciously worked for the women’s rights movement” but rather for “the description of humanity.” His view speaks to the larger issue: the longing for authentic selfhood as a yearning for full humanity. Nora doesn’t say, “I am a reasonable woman,” but “I am a reasonable human being.” Her desire to leave the doll’s house is like Gautama’s wish to go beyond the palace walls, to break free from the life he’s living and discover the potential of human existence. For me, “leaving the palace” was a going forth (from the United States to Japan, where I’ve now lived for over thirty years) that allowed me to leave the houses of family and society I’d grown up in. Tempting as staying in the palace can be, because of the force of habit or the fear that others will be angry with us, I understood somewhere along the way that staying wouldn’t lessen suffering, only deepen it.

Entwined with the desire for selfhood is the Buddhist principle of renunciation. At first, I found this paradoxical: isn’t desire about attaining and renunciation about relinquishing? But if, like Gautama, we are to succeed in realizing our full humanity, we have to let go of what lies between us and our authentic selves. Hard as it may be to undertake, this journey is the most essential and human of all, a fulfillment of our story as travelers on this earth.

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