Self & Desire as Seeds of Virtue

Self and Desire as Seeds of Virtue: A Buddhist-Inspired Multi-Method Investigation

Co-PI: Paul Condon, Ph.D.

Psychology, Northeastern University

(Email)

Co-PI: Christine Wilson-Mendenhall, Ph.D.

Psychology, Northeastern University

 (Email)

John Dunne, Ph.D.
Department of East Asian Languages and Literature
Distinguished Professor of Contemplative Humanities,
Center for Healthy Minds

(Email)

Lisa Feldman Barrett, Ph.D.

Psychology, Northeastern University

Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston

(Email)

Wendy Hasenkamp, Ph.D.

Mind & Life Institute, Hadley, MA

(Email)

Karen Quigley, Ph.D.

Psychology, Northeastern University

Veterans Affairs, Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Hospital, Bedford, MA

(Email)

View a proposal of this project, presented at the SMV Project’s 2015 Interdisciplinary Moral Forum. Visit our YouTube channel to view more videos.

This project aims to study self, motivation, and virtue in the interpersonal contexts that characterize daily life through the deep integration of innovative scientific measurement with fine-grained analysis of Buddhist constructs. In various ways, Buddhist philosophers point to the painful nature of experiencing oneself as an autonomous, independent agent, and they promote the benefits of experiencing oneself as a contingent person embedded in multiple, overlapping contexts. They likewise propose an array of contemplative practices integrated with philosophy that seek to lead practitioners to the maximal state of flourishing embodied by an “Awakened One” or Buddha. Two key virtues characterize a Buddha: wisdom and compassion. Wisdom consists in “seeing things as they are” (Skt., yathābhūtadarśana). As an ordinary being, one is said to be caught in the grips of “ignorance” (Skt. avidyā), whereby one is deluded about the nature of reality, especially the nature of one’s own identity. By cultivating wisdom, an ordinary being can come to see that one’s sense of autonomous agency and independence are illusory, and the full development of this realization leads to the endpoint that is Buddhahood. Compassion is a form of engagement with the world that is focused entirely on relieving others’ suffering and ensuring their happiness. This other-oriented style of engagement replaces the self-focused engagement of the ordinary being, and along with wisdom, it constitutes the state of Buddhahood.

The Buddhist traditions that inspire this project claim that ordinary beings already possess the core constituents of Buddhahood. Thus, achieving maximal flourishing does not require one to construct or acquire new virtues; instead, one cultivates core human capacities that are already present, if sometimes only to a slight degree, in all humans. Thus, inchoate forms of wisdoms and compassion can be understood as dispositions that are already present in varying degrees in humans. A second important claim is that the primary context in which virtue emerges is interpersonal relationships. As the influential Buddhist author Śāntideva says, “It is on the basis of other sentient beings that one achieves Awakening”. In other words, the field of interpersonal relationships is where the virtues that become Buddhahood are primarily expressed, and it is also where they are primarily developed.

To examine these ideas, we will use experience sampling methodologies in which partners in a romantic relationship respond to a series of question on their own mobile device when alerted by a smartphone application during their daily life. Using this method, participants will respond to a series of questions designed to indirectly assess inchoate forms of wisdom and compassion. We will also assess interpersonal flourishing through self-reported relationship satisfaction in daily life and during various lab tasks, partner- and other-directed prosocial behaviors measured in the lab, and physiological activity at rest and during relationship interactions. We will thereby evaluate the relationship between key Buddhist virtues, prosocial action, and flourishing. In the long-term, this work bears significantly on Buddhist theoretical claims and has the potential for wide-reaching impact on the implementation of contemplative interventions in society.
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