Integrating Desires

Desire is a basic experience of human life. All day everyday, we are surrounded by pulls and pushes in our environment, towards consumer goods, towards people, towards our goals and unfortunately for some, towards addictions. Desires can become unhealthy when they turn into obsessions and are reinforced habitually. A middle way philosophy countenances two opposing beliefs so as to bring desires in line with what a person truly wants. This can be illuminated by imagining two mules that are tied to each other but that pull in opposite directions to feed upon two piles of hay. The two piles of hay represent two opposing beliefs such as that one wants to loose weight and that one wants to eat cake. Here, there is clearly a conflict between the two. To better understand how this works we have to look to the brain to explain how beliefs and desires are reinforced over time.

The striatum is located towards the back of the brain and is known as the reptilian or motivating part of our brain. This is linked to the front of our brain which controls and reinforces desire. As well as this, we have beliefs that we have built up which act as a way of formatting desire. That is why if you want to change your behaviour you must first change your beliefs. For example, if you have a desire to loose weight, you must first believe that it is possible for you to do so in order for you to stand a chance of being able to strengthen your motivation and control. In this way, desires and beliefs go together. However, it is our environment and experience which makes desire come to the fore. This is how it works. You have a belief that cake is good. You have a tendency to crave cake – you desire it. This leads to the decision to eat the cake and as such, the feedback loop between beliefs, motivation and action is reinforced until it becomes habitual. The conflict comes when you have a belief that opposes another. For example, you believe that you should loose some weight. You have a desire for long term health. This leads you to reject the cake as the desire for long term health is, on this occasion, acting as the driver. At times, you may be aware of conflicts like this within yourself. As in, having a conflict of experience with incompatible actions.

A short term solution of how to bring conflicting desires together is to stop focusing on either belief, instead creating a relaxed pool of awareness. This suspends the conflict, allowing for a relaxed condition from which to reconsider the opposing desires and reframe the beliefs. The two mules eating from separate piles represents ourselves. To stop the conflict, we first have to relax the rope between them in order to generate more adequate beliefs. In a way, what we are hoping to achieve with this sort of integration of beliefs is to avoid absolutisation at either end. However, it takes for the two mules, or conflicting parts of ourselves to become frustrated before it is possible for us to reframe our beliefs.

Exercising self-control of the will may be okay in the short term. However, abating strong desires like this in the long term is much more difficult. Saying no to cake once is not too difficult, but to become absolutist in this belief is not akin to the middle path of desire. What is adequate in the long term is the belief that there is room in one’s life for both cake and health, enjoying cake once in a while may even constitute health. After all, it will do us no harm and will bring us some pleasure.

Desires, at the most basic level, are energy. They are morally neutral, but are associated closely with beliefs. There are different kinds of beliefs though. For example, the belief that cake is good has a narrow range of conditions to make it so. However, the belief that one should loose weight has a wide range of conditions as it has implications for health and other consequences. In the end, the long term aim of integrating desires is not about a battle of the will, it is about attaining peace. In wars, it is well known that invasion and battles only lead to more conflict. With this, I argue that we need an integration of desires for the resolution of conflict within ourselves and in the world around us.

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