Naturalism and Buddhism: An Excerpt from Naturalist Writer Tom Clark on Desire

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Tom Clark is director of the non-profit Center for Naturalism and author of Encountering Naturalism: A Worldview and Its Uses. He writes on science, free will, consciousness, addiction and other topics, and maintains Naturalism.org, an extensive resource on worldview naturalism. I highly encourage you to check out his webiste.

Below is a passage of his I really enjoy. Here is the link of the entire article this came from: http://www.naturalism.org/spirituality/no-hindrance.

Accepting the problem of desire

There are of course many moments in life outside meditation, moments of flow, in which we might feel relatively unhindered. Sensory and sensual pleasures, the exercise of a well-honed skill to achieve an artistic effect, the attainment of a long-contemplated goal – such things fulfill desire. In such moments there’s no conflict between the self-project and what reality affords. There’s nothing wrong or unworthy about such fulfillment, so long as we maintain an ethical balance between self-realization and the needs of others (what that balance should be is a vexed question I’ll happily sidestep here). But whatever satisfactions we allow ourselves, what we notice is that desire inevitably re-asserts itself, and we’re off and running again. Moreover, we know that ultimately it’s a losing game: our fundamental want, to live forever with loved ones in some harmonious ethical abundance, outstrips our meager abilities to control nature. Besides, imagine we did achieve utopia according to some agreed-upon specification. Then what? This is the problem of heaven: getting everything you’ve always wanted, permanently, is only a prescription for boredom. So now what do we do?

Regrettably, perhaps, we’re not confronted with this luxurious question, although maybe some species somewhere in the universe has had to deal with it. So we’re returned to the more realistic prospect of worst case, or just medium-bad case, mind. How can the poor suffering constructed self cope with the fact that it isn’t going to get what it wants, and further, that the whole project of desire is in some fundamental sense unfulfillable?  Perhaps by seeing, through the cognitive lens of science, and feeling, through disciplined attention in the laboratory of meditation, that this is just how it unavoidably is, and to thereby achieve some measure of acceptance. We assimilate into our psychology the fact that every bit of our striving, even not to strive, is one of nature’s causal perfections.

This is not to release ourselves entirely from attachment, or to rise above what’s necessarily involved in being an incarnated person thrust into the world. There’s no permanent, once-and-for-all solution to the problem of desire. For the very quest for equanimity is a project of the suffering self; yet another desire vainly hoping to be permanently realized. The difficult truth of both naturalism and Buddhism is that there’s no bullet-proof, invulnerable position we can take to secure the self from disappointment and dissolution, precisely because it’s an impermanent construction that wants permanence. We are transient configurations of material components, built by natural selection to cling, to want, and the best we can do is to become more skillful in how we play the obligatory role that nature has cast for us, and thus reduce suffering. In emulating, in meditation, the impersonally unhindered working out of the causal transitions nature realizes in all its manifestations, the self might realize that it too, even in its toughest moments, is the equally unhindered working out of one such manifestation. Seeing this, feeling this, we might gain some acceptance, equanimity and compassion, for ourselves and all selves as we turn on the wheel of desire.

TWC, December 2007

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