Opening Remarks
from Mind and Life XXVII: Craving, Desire, and Addiction
by Arthur Zajonc, President, Mind & Life Institute



Your Holiness, colleagues, and friends, I have been asked to say a few words on behalf of Mind and Life.

As many of you know, this is the 27th in a series of high-level research Dialogues that Mind and Life has held. Regardless of the specific theme addressed, we have always brought together scientists, scholars, and contemplative practitioners from diverse fields in order to address the issue at hand: not merely from an interdisciplinary standpoint, but also from a cross cultural standpoint, as well as from both the first- and third-person perspectives. In this way we hope to get at the inner as well as the outer dimensions of the issue. This unique format was set by the founders of the Dialogues: Francisco Varela, Adam Engle, and of course you, Your Holiness. Mind and Life has remained faithful to this format of discussion.

In taking up the theme of craving, desire, and addiction, we have brought together distinguished neuroscientists and psychologists, clinical addiction specialists, as well as Buddhist and Christian contemplative scholars and practitioners. Our numbers even include one neuroscientist who was an addict for several years himself. This topic is of concern to all people everywhere. We all know desire, and the road that can lead from it, can result in obsession and craving, even addiction.

In the Western tradition, Aristotle wrote of the central importance of truth, beauty, and goodness. The aspirational desire for these was and remains a virtue, but it is one whose shadow side can also be felt when that desire is taken too far. It appears in the cold tyranny of the intellect when it operates without concern for the ethical implications of scientific experiments. The obsessive concern with beauty can lead to sensual excess, whether in pornography, or the self-destructive pursuit of physical perfection. Even the pursuit of goodness can lead to a fascist preoccupation of moral purity and repression. The pursuit of virtue can become its opposite when desire violates the dignity of the other.

In other words, we all know about and suffer because of the excesses of desire. Even addiction is not far from us.

We need, therefore, self-compassion and understanding. We seek this week the deep insight into the root causes of craving and addiction that can relieve suffering in this profoundly human domain, where again and again we fail ourselves, our family, and community.

This week we have brought together individuals who represent the richest possible range of approaches, and at the highest possible level of accomplishment, in the hopes that we might make a modest but genuine contribution to the alleviation of suffering due to the strongest forms of attachment.

This is not a transient concern of Mind and Life’s. We are working with distinguished university and clinical researchers, and designing a study to survey and assess desires, cravings, and addictions, especially in relation to notions of the self. In addition, next summer, 150 young scholars and scientists will come together at our annual Summer Research Institute to continue the work we begin here. I expect Varela research awards in this area will also be forthcoming. I hope that this meeting and these other forms of engagement will make an enduring impact on our understanding of craving, desire, and addiction.

Our work in this area represents a single instance of a larger overall shift within Mind and Life, from basic research into meditation and its effects, to a more applied research agenda.

Basic research will remain key, but we have added a new layer to our efforts, one we hope will be of direct benefit to people. As you know, we have taken this more applied approach also in the area of ethics, education, and human development, what His Holiness has termed “secular ethics” in his book, Beyond Religion. The Mind and Life Ethics, Education, and Human Development initiative likewise seeks to harvest the fruits of these 26 years of Dialogues, conferences, and basic research for a particular educational end: namely the cultivation of the innate and universal human capacities for goodness, compassion, and kindness—from early childhood to adulthood.

Through this new initiative, we are beginning to translate the insights we have gained into curricula for teachers, students, and families. We are doing so in culturally diverse settings with colleagues in the northeast and deep south in the United States; in various parts of Europe; and in India, Bhutan, Japan, and South Asia. Mind and Life is becoming increasingly global. And at the adult end of this initiative, we are developing an Academy for Contemplative and Ethical Leadership, which our own Diana Chapman Walsh will be chairing.

For 26 years you, Your Holiness, have steadfastly walked the path of inquiry together with us. At first it was simply the pleasure of seeking, of discovery, and of understanding that brought us together. But before long we saw the value of the Dialogues and shared them with the world in the form of more than 15 books and several public conferences. Today, our words are being streamed live around the globe. Throughout these years, you have been a guide, a research colleague, and to many of us, if I may say so, you have become a beloved friend.

You have often chosen to speak of friendship at the end of a Mind and Life session. Today, I would like to speak of it at the outset. Spiritual friendship is a precious and rare thing in these times. Modern life challenges the old bases for human relationships and provides little guidance for what is to take the place of the old grounds for such relationships. I would suggest that spiritual friendship can cross all lines of difference, of nationality, race, religion, etc. and can become the new basis for a social order within which we can seek the fullest realization of our human potential.

The Buddha’s name means the one who is awake. In coming together as we will this week to engage vigorously a theme of deep significance, we will wake up each other. In this way, we can become more than we usually are through the spirited dialogue we begin today.

The awakened consciousness of the Buddha may be beyond us as individuals, but I feel it is much closer when we come together as friends, bringing all of who we are to this problem of craving, desire, and addiction, as well to our Ethics and Education initiative. We are more awake, more alive, more fully human when we are striving together as friends.

Ananda is reported as saying to the Buddha that good friendship was half of the spiritual life. The Buddha replied, “Not so, Ananda! Not so, Ananda! This is the entirety of the holy life.”

Within the New Testament, Jesus says to the disciples if you love one another as I have loved you, then you are my friends.

During our time together let us therefore practice friendship.

Thank you for your hospitality, your gift of time, Your Holiness. I want also to thank the presenters and those who have made this meeting possible.

A deep bow of gratitude.