Some reflections on Mind Matters 3 – Desire & Entanglement

I was fortuitous enough to score some last minute tickets to the Mind Matters 3 conference at the University of Toronto, organized by the Buddhism and Psychology Student Union. Having long been interested in both Buddhist thought and psychology, I thought this event would provide me with the academic environment I have been yearning for significantly since I started working full-time.

Due to the nearly historic snow storm hitting the area on February 8, two of the speakers from the United States, Dr. Paul Fulton and Dr. José Cabezón could not be present at the event and their talks were presented in alternative formats. Ironically, it seems, both the celebrated Dr. Jordan Peterson and Dr. John Vervaeke presented talks that seemed to only somewhat tiptoe around this year’s theme of desire and entanglement.

Since my time at U of T, I was familiar with the influence of Dr. Peterson, and despite his possibly problematic notions about gender, I consider him to be a good influence overall on the academic community at U of T, as I have seen only a handful of professors channel the enthusiasm and engagement in their work as he does (but perhaps that is merely a reflection of the standards of teaching at U of T?).  Dr. Peterson’s talk centred mostly around ideas behind social games and meta-games, and the relationship between the desire to “win the game” vs. “be invited to play again” and by extension doing better in the meta-game. In this framework, our desire, whether that is to win or to just participate in many games over time, shapes our perception of reality and as such, desire obfuscates reality. Biologically speaking, he said, that desire for basic needs, such as food, sex or status, is related to the hypothalamus, an old structure in our brains that is shared with species way down the evolutionary hierarchy. I found these elucidations with regards to the biological basis for our desire interesting and useful, in particular as an applied scientist/engineer with no thorough background on the topic. However, simply by examining the roots of desire, Dr. Peterson failed to incorporate the qualitative evaluation of desire from the Buddhist lens, while only making a cursory statement by relating an anecdote about a woman’s premonition about her own downfall at the beginning of her extra-marital affair from his clinical practice.

Dr. Varvaeke’s talk, slightly more related to the event’s themes, involved transmuting desire into some equivalent of agape, perhaps to counter, the apparently negative nature of desire, as regarded by early Buddhist scholars. His incorporation of Pauline scripture at this juncture was interesting and perhaps the most useful tangent taken by any of the speakers. Still, it seemed that the talk failed at least slightly short of contrasting varied views on the broader concept of desire across the Buddhist diaspora.

The talks of the remaining two speakers, Dr. Paul Fulton (who sent a video lecture) and Dr. José Cabezón (whose lecture notes and Powerpoint were presented by another professor) focused largely on the somewhat sex-negative ascetic ideal held by early Theravada Buddhist scholars. I found the nearly hegemonic focus on this attitude somewhat at odds with and doing an injustice to the broader history of Buddhist thought on sexuality, in particular as part of Vajrayana or Tantric traditions, or sects influenced by Taoist teachings on sexuality, which regard both the extremes of celibacy and licentiousness being harmful. Two aspects that did surprise me was how according to Dr. Cabezón’s talk, Buddhist monks would actively try to suppress sexual desire by a series of mental gymnastics, some of which just seemed sadomasochistic in such ways that would possibly go counter to the teachings of Buddha. In addition to that, I was pleasantly surprised by the acknowledgement of sexual diversity by early Buddhist scholars, who talked about nothing being normative in the realm of sexual desire and that any trends present in populations as merely a statistical fact rather than a reflection of a natural norm.

Overall, I was somewhat disappointed by the lack of diversity in opinion that could have been presented on the theme of this conference. It was surprisingly nice to just sit in a lecture hall an entire day and take notes. In addition to that, I came away from this seminar with a question in mind: if desire can obfuscate reality, can the lack of desire, for any particular object, despite all preconditions to the contrary, also morph our reality and therefore, our actions, leading to a downfall because of the lack of want? Desire, in this case, can refer to an entire spectrum of things, not just sexual desire. As always, thoughts on this are welcome.