Re-kindling desire in a responsive world…
by Emma Philbin Bowman
But all these were things he could not want, because they were things he could not have, and wanting what you could not have led to misery and madness.
(Clare, 2013: 244)
… desire is to own the wanting …. And in order to own something, there needs to be a sovereign self that is free to choose and, of course, feels worthy of wanting and feels worthy of receiving. That’s why desire is so intimately connected with a sense of self-worth.
The human ability to ‘want’ seems, on the surface of things, such an apparently basic capacity. Nonetheless, for many of us it is not simple – to know what we want, to know how to want, to be capable of bringing forth to others our needs and wishes. Yet this capacity is pivotal: the energies we bring to our wanting and desiring have profound and incalculable influence on how our lives unfold.
Like many of us, I had a fractured connection to wanting from an early age. It was a realm of failure and disappointment, loneliness, mute impotence. There seemed little or no link between what I longed for and what happened. And afterward, in some way or other, wanting came to seem unwise, to be territory that was fraught and tarnished. Desire became largely internal – a source of denial or shame; requests from others seemed more likely to repel than to bear fruit. And so, like many humans, I came intuitively to limit and disavow desires: I learned to want small manageable things – chips on the car-ride home, good coffee – and even now, I tend to want privately, or superficially, but struggle both to stay connected to and to bring forth the kind of wants that might ask things of other humans they might not wish to give me. I could sum this up by saying that, embedded in such desires is what I will call a prior commitment to defeat – a living conviction that things will not go my way. Of course I am not alone. Some version of this afflicts so many of us.
And yet everywhere, analysts, psychologists and spiritual teachers point to the importance and healthiness of desiring; to the power of clarifying our intentions; to the beauty and necessity of entrusting our visions to the world and to each other; to bestowing our desire with the blessing of potential collaboration; to exposing ourselves to a potentially responsive universe; to learning to take yes for an answer, while also learning to survive the inevitable, necessary no’s that come our way.
Full lives require these things. So I want to explore how, as adults, we might re-engage our capacity to want and to desire. And I want to do so by drawing our attention to the echoes between two very different paradigms: Winnicott’s picture of early childhood, and the more esoteric concept that we inhabit a responsive universe receptive to our intentions and expectations – aka the Quantum Field. In essence, this article is about how we might draw on this Field in the process of ‘reclaiming hope’ in a potentially collaborative universe, thereby breaking a pattern of premature adaptation and despondent fatalism.
Those of us whose early faith in the potency and beauty of our wanting was damaged, need to learn how to re-engage with our desires and expose them more often and more faithfully to a world that will sometimes align with us.
From adaptive childhood to adulthoods of subdued desire
We all depart childhood with implicit conclusions about our needs and desires: which ones we can bear to know, whether it is fruitful to express these and to whom, whether we believe the world is predisposed to respond to us. Often, we do not know these stances, we just live them. But they are profoundly influential: much of our future happiness will depend upon whether we emerge from our early years with a buoyant, hopeful wanting largely intact or with a subdued, fatalistic inhibition of this subjective essence. Inevitably, however this capacity falls will radically influence what we evoke from others and from life itself.
As we know, this was one of Winnicott’s central themes. For Winnicott, optimally, a baby finds herself contained by a mother able to park her own agendas sufficiently to give her a temporary taste for her “subjective omnipotence” (Mitchell & Black, 2016: 127). By this we mean that the lucky baby receives what she displays she wants often enough that she learns there is some kind of stable link between her needs and desires and what the world offers her.
This is an extraordinarily potent imprint for the baby: it lets her relax in a safe, attuned world, and feel the creative power of her wishes. It conveys a profound recognition of the value of what is inside her, and lays down an imprint of mutuality in the project of co-creating a world that is good for her.
the temporary experience of subjective omnipotence provided for the infant by the mother’s holding and facilitating remains as a precious legacy and resource. This crucial early experience enables the growing child to continue to experience his own spontaneously emerging desires and gestures as real, as important, as deeply meaningful…
(Mitchell & Black, 2016: 127)
The value of such a beginning is clear. But heaps of us have a different experience of desire and need in babyhood. For many, this foundational era of luxurious potency never happens. Instead, we find ourselves in an unresponsive or ill-attuned world, and develop adaptation or dissociation as a primary impulse, learning to be compliant and vigilant to those around us, and never developing trust in the relevance of our own subjective impulses. The consequences of this may prove insidiously devastating: such babies often become adults who are inclined to doubt their wanting can ever matter or be fruitfully shared. Desires fall mute inside us; gestures of need calcify; we live in diffuse, adaptive, weakened worlds. Disappointment, fatalism and resentment accrue.
if the mother has trouble surviving the baby’s usage of her, if she withdraws or collapses or retaliates, the baby must prematurely attend to externality at the price of a full experience of his own desire, which feels omnipotent and dangerous. The result is a child afraid to fully need and use his objects, and, subsequently, an adult with neurotic inhibitions of desire…
(Mitchell & Black, 2016: 129)
Allan Schore, writing many decades after Winnicott, echoes the profound impact of early misattunement, though his emphasis falls on dissociation:
the chronic, massive psychobiological misattunement of attachment trauma between the infant and primary caregiver sets the stage for the characterological use of right brain pathological dissociation over all subsequent stages of development.
(Bromberg, 2011: xix)
The Quantum Field as a second chance at wanting…
Into adult lives compromised by such ‘neurotic inhibitions of desire’ comes Quantum Field Theory. And I want to look at the promise it holds for those of us inclined to disavow our needs and wishes, who find ourselves, against our will, drawn unwittingly to adaptation, dissociation and self-betrayal.
What is the Quantum Field? Essentially, it is, like Winnicott’s mother, our new responsive universe. And if in childhood we failed to forge a positive relationship that supported our desires, it offers us a second chance to do so. Just as it did for Winnicott‘s ‘lucky baby’, we find that what we wish for affects how things play out in the Quantum Field:
…we are in the quantum field, and [it is] what we put into the field that determines what becomes subjective, so you want to be really careful because a quantum field if we understand it right, magnifies whatever energy you put into it…
This is what makes a map such as the Quantum Field – and perhaps any such gesture of amorphous request or prayer – so potentially transformative. It offers a potent, alternate pathway to the recovery of desire. Part of its beauty is that it does so without evoking the pressure of directly relational hopes.
Rekindling desire: Engaging the Quantum Field
The process of engaging the Quantum Field has many healing elements for the ‘unlucky baby’: for one, it insists that our subjectivity does, after all, matter, and encourages us to build a more respectful relation to our own interior – to attend, as Winnicott’s good enough mother did, to the hopes inside us.
So the first – substantial – gift of this paradigm is this process of internal engagement. Conscious relation to the Field requires us to clarify what we want as if we are worthy of such attention and care. Immediately, this alters something: when we attempt to clarify a wish, we already leave behind the resigned fatalism of childhood for something else – a consultation with our subjectivity – a receptive interest in our own wishes.
The twin acts of valuing ourselves enough to locate what our desire(s) might be, and of identifying the desires themselves, change us. Both movements disrupt an inner culture of neglect, amnesia and self-negation. ‘More’ of ourselves comes into focus; we awaken the possibility of hope, expectation, receptivity. Now that we know what we want, we may move through life with an eye – (even if it is a wary-predisposed-to-be-disappointed eye) – for it.
And this starts to carve a space where something different might happen. Our defended psyche withdraws a little from fatalism and nudges its slow way toward something more open. We cease, in Bromberg’s term, “plundering of [our] life by foreclosing the here and now on behalf of the there and then: a self-cure that effectively prevents [us] from participating in life with spontaneity, pleasure, or immediacy” (Bromberg, 2006: 110). It is qualities such as these that will serve us as we forge a conscious relationship with the Quantum Field.
If we are to receive anything from such an amorphous dimension, we need to be present, alert, sensitive. One of the things I find beautiful here is that this receptivity to the Field’s subtle responsiveness may feel quite natural to us. Specific tendencies and strengths get shored up in humans who withdraw their hope in human others: a rich interior life, hypervigilance to the external, porousness and sensitivity to subtle impacts. And so, the sensibility required to engage at this refined energetic level is one our early shaping has often prepared us for:
…you’re explaining a sense of what interaction happens with the quantum field, and how you can then experience that interaction or the effects of these interactions in your felt-experience. [Yes] So in essence…what you’re instructing people, is to pay attention, to be attuned to what happens… so we’re talking about the attunement, more than just by the way ‘do it by rote’…
(Serge Prengel in conversation with Hendrix, 2018)
When I write about the Quantum Field in the context of this article, I do so with an intuitive rather than scientific understanding of the nature of the Field. And I notice in myself two broad reactions: one is to see it as naïve, clichéd, spirituality ‘light’ – (I am almost embarrassed to be associated with it); the other is to feel its resonance with what I know of the subtlety and grace I experience when truly present – that the universe is more open, more generous and pliable than my habitual self imagines it to be, that grace is far more widely available when we show up less guarded against it.
In a similarly hopeful vein for those of us whose relational patterns seem to betray or undermine us, this connection to the Field encourages us to take our attention away from fixation on specific humans toward something broader – life itself. Particularly when we carry a history of relational distress, we may be inclined to over-value humans as sources of succour, believing they can soothe us more deeply than they can. When we tune our intentionality and desire to the Quantum Field, we vocalise our wish invisibly, to the subtle field that encompasses all of life. In a way, this echoes the position of the preverbal baby: he or she carries a hope internally that cannot be expressed, and yet it is a ping to the universe, a bid for intimacy. And this ping of hope – like prayer – calls out to a responsive world.
If this perspective has value, and I believe it does, we ignore the Field at our peril – and, if the theory is correct, it will respond by offering us repetition of all we have come to expect from life. But when we cultivate a conscious relation to it, the Field offers a second – albeit more subtle experience – of a world that is naturally attuning to us. And it offers this responsive membrane as a ‘practice space’ to our adult capacity, where our resources may be richer than they were in childhood.
Can we explore this invitation, learn to risk our desires again, and expose ourselves to what is given? For some of us, such quiet, subtle movements may prove profound, altering not just our inner relation to ourselves as objects worthy of care, but also what we call into being, what we draw close to us. And over time, the private, interior re-awakening of desire made possible by engaging with the Field offers to form a bridge back to relational desiring. We learn to traverse this bridge every more fluidly and easily, allowing fresh experiences in each dimension to inform the other. Gradually we may come to bring forth our desires with more ease in the world of human others, growing into the “sovereign self” Perel (2019) speaks of.
Emma Philbin Bowman works as a psychotherapist, writer, teacher and workshop facilitator. She is passionate about the dynamic interface between spirituality and psychotherapy, and is a long-term student of meditation and relational inquiry. See www.emmapb.com for info on upcoming workshop on The Art of Wanting.
Bromberg, P. M. (2006). Awakening the Dreamer. Mahwah, New Jersey: The Analytic Press.
Bromberg, P. M. (2011). The Shadow of the Tsunami and the Growth of the Relational Mind. New York: Taylor and Francis.
Casement, P. (2010). Inside Out, Conversation with Therese Gaynor. Retrieved 7 September 2019 from https://iahip.org/inside-out/issue-62-autumn-2010/patrick-casement-in-conversation-with-therese-gaynor-june-25th-2010
Clare, C. (2013). Clockwork Prince. London: Simon and Schuster.
Hendrix, H. & LaKelly, H. Relational Implicit Podcast, in conversation with Serge Prengel, broadcast July 2018, Retrieved 8 September 2019, from https://relationalimplicit.com/zug/transcripts/Hendrix-Hunt-2018-07.pdf
Mitchell, S. A, & Black, M. J. (2016). Freud and Beyond: A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought. New York: Basic Books
Perel, E. (2019) The Erotic is an Antidote to Death. Interview with Krista Tipett. Retrieved 7 September 2019 from https://onbeing.org/programs/esther-perel-the-erotic-is-an- antidote-to-death