desire in a responsive world…


 “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.” 
― Cassandra Clare, Clockwork Prince

“Everybody will get their wants, when they heartily want.” 
― Santosh Kalwar


I’ve written from a few different angles this year on the ‘art of wanting’, and I’m revisiting that theme again with a little more faith and bounce, in the hope that some of us can warm up our connection to desire.

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, irrelevance. There seemed little or no link between what I needed and what happened. Wanting seemed to repel rather than invite fruition. 

And yet, everywhere, teachings point to the importance of desiring – the value of intentional hope, the raw power of wanting, the beauty of entrusting our visions to the world and to each other, bestowing our desire with the blessing of potential collaboration, exposing ourselves to a ‘yes’, learning to survive the inevitable, necessary ‘no’s’ of which ordinary lives are made up.

So I’m taking another tilt at wanting – with the help of two perspectives that opened up a new route for me: Winnicott’s depiction of how our early environment supports or compromises desire in early life, and couples’ therapist Harville Hendrix’ articulation of his growing faith that we inhabit a responsive universe receptive to our intentions and expectations – the ‘Quantum Field’.

What is important here is that those of us whose early faith in the potency of desire was damaged find some way to re-awaken it. That we learn how to re-engage our wishes and expose them more often and more faithfully to a world that will sometimes align with us.  In essence, this is a story about ‘reclaiming hope’ in this receptive universe, breaking a pattern of premature adaptation and despondent fatalism. It invites us to attend both to ourselves and to reality with more nuance, emergence and presence, expressing ourselves more richly, and building the resilience to risk the failure - and the success of our longings.


Let’s begin at the beginning, with a map from Winnicott, about how early desire may thrive or flail:

For Winnicott, optimally, a baby finds him or herself contained by a mother able to park her own agendas sufficiently to give him a temporary taste for his “subjective omnipotence”. By this we mean that the lucky baby receives what he displays he wants often enough that he learns there is some kind of stable link between his needs and desires and what the world offers him. This is an extraordinarily potent imprint for the baby: It lets him relax in a safe, attuned world, and feel the creative power of his wishes.  

Here’s Winnicott on the baby’s experience of early desire: ‘his wish makes things happen…’ He learns to trust the link between his internal needs and hopes and the world that manifests around him. This is not about indulgence so much as building a foundational faith in his own value, in which he experiences being able to co-create a world that is good for him.

‘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…’  

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 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. Such babies often become adults who are inclined to doubt their wanting can matter or be fruitfully shared. We lean up and out – the subjective middle of us lies unvisited. Our core seems at best a side-story or an afterthought – apart from the main action of life.

‘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…’


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.  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 or with a subdued, fatalistic, inhibition of this subjective essence. If the former, we approach life thereafter with the faith that our creativity, wishes and needs matter; if the latter, we will ‘know’ they must be largely cast aside for the sake of belonging.

Inevitably, these conclusions will radically influence what we ‘evoke’ from others and from life itself. Our radar is attuned to look for what it knows. When we are primed for responsiveness and collaboration, we will activate the enthusiasm of others; when we are primed disappointment, our attention will fall on subtle hints of rejection, on what is wrong. Inevitably, in some way or other, all of us are defended. Braced against the sources of past hurt. Wary from certain angles: Wherever hurt, betrayal and disappointment have seared us worst, we have grown guarded, defensive, over-sensitive, occasionally paranoid. And so, without an alternative narrative, we remain primed to expect the blows we know, and this defensive expectation, in the guise of protecting us, deprives us of a more open availability to ‘what happens’…



So here we are: inclined to disavow our needs and wishes, drawn unwittingly to adaptation and self-betrayal, attending to the external as the inevitable price of being here. What if we could learn to own desire earlier and bring it more hopefully to the table? This always seemed a chasm to me. Might there be a way to draw on our interiority and sensitivity - as allies rather than impediments - to our dreams and hopes? Perhaps: Into this adult life compromised by ‘neurotic inhibitions of desire’ comes Quantum Field Theory.  And one of its most valuable contributions is its clarity about the price we pay for any predispositions to disappointment: put simply, it suggests we receive what we expect –

...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 and if you put negative energy into the quantum field it will magnify the negative energy, and that’s why you should never say “I'm gonna have a bad day today,” because the quantum field will then give you a bad day - because that's almost the instruction to the field…


I want to draw a distinction here between the binary language of negativity and positivity and suggest something more subtle is in play: the Quantum Field responds to our predictive expectation. So this is not about an alienated insistence on positivity, or on the force of sheer willpower, so much as an invitation to attend carefully and precisely to the attitudes, expectations and desires we carry toward each moment. Are we aware of the subliminal expectations we flavour our lives with; have we clarified our needs, longings or desires; are we instinctually resigned or open and hopeful? If we are truly in a responsive world, it pays to collaborate in an unfolding, expectant dialogue that includes a sensitivity to all these things, and a connection with our subjective passions. Just as, for Winnicott, the mother was less ‘a separate being’ than ‘the process of the world’ to her baby, so the QF is a constant invisible presence, primed to be highly responsive to all we bring. Essentially, both Winnicott and QFT offer narratives about the potency of forging a positive relation with a responsive universe. [1] 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. 

If this perspective has value, and I believe it does, we ignore the field at our peril - and 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 wishes to attune to us. And it offers this as a ’practice space’ to our adult capacity, which can hopefully tolerate a little more paradox than the simple black/white brain of our early life.‘



befriending INTENTION

This theory 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 fresh relation to our own interior – to attend, as Winnicott’s good enough mother did, to the hopes inside us. Central to this is a process of  [2] internal engagement with ourselves – being willing to clarify what we hope for and want as if it really matters. It does, of course, but some of struggle to believe that. In the past our intentions never seemed to matter, and we have never had much faith in their potency. The Field tells us we need to recover from this rupture, and adopt intention as an ally.


Immediately, this alters something: When we define or clarify a wish, we are already starting to leave behind the resigned fatalism of childhood for something else – a consultation with our subjectivity – a receptivity to the voice within and the hopes we find there. This in itself breaks a habit of leaning out, adapting to ‘whatever happens’. And this turning inside is already a cultural shift for us, raising our consciousness a little, opening up hope.


Having identified our wish of the field, we reverberate differently. The process opens something: now that we know what we want, we move through life with an eye for it.  And this creates a space for collaboration. When we believe we may be responded to, our rhythm of hope withdraws a little from fatalism and moves toward a more open expectancy. We can perhaps pause a little, come to conclusions less swiftly, remain open for signs of what we want to arise in some form.

One of the things I find beautiful in this shift to the Quantum Field is that the stance of receptivity to ethereal realms and subtle responsiveness may feel quite natural to us. Certain strengths get shored up in humans who withdraw their hope in being attuned to: a rich interior life, hypervigilance, porousness, receptivity to the outside. And so the sensibility required to want and receive in this way is one our early shaping has prepared us for.

In a similarly hopeful vein, this connection to the Quantum Field encourages us to take our attention from fixation on specific humans to meet our needs and activate something far broader.  Many of us, are inclined to over-value humans as sources of ultimate succour, thinking they can soothe us more deeply than they can. When we tune our intentionality to the quantum field, we do not vocalise our wish to another, but invisibly, to the subtle field. 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 the responsive subtle field. We open space. We make ourselves available. And this quiet, subtle ‘action’ can be profound, altering what we call into being, what we draw close to us.

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