I recently attended the annual Mind Matters conference, hosted by the Jungian Society and the University of Toronto’s Buddhism and Psychology Students’ Union. Unfortunately, the out-of-town speakers were unable to attend, due to inclement weather, but José Cabezón sent his presentation and a copy of his lecture while Paul Fulton sent a recording.

The year’s theme was desire, of which each presenter gave a very different perspective, although all four had a background in psychology. The entire conference was taped and I believe will be posted on YouTube, so instead of describing what each professor spoke about, I thought I might write briefly about desire in a distinctly modern context. Because it seems to me that desire in modernity is conceived of very narrowly – often in ways that satisfy basic biological drives or in the context of consumer goods – and perhaps because of this narrow view, modern people are in some ways, very lacking in desire. For all our tendencies toward instant gratification from material goods, our neurotic obsession with food, our pervasive preoccupation with sex, we lack a lust for life.

I’m not sure if we can call our modern culture as one of desire so much as a culture of irrational, sometimes rabid, often anxiety-riddled consumption. And sadly, in a kind of puritanical American context, desire becomes twisted into something ugly: addiction, vice, “guilty pleasures” and so on. At best, desire is hijacked into incentive seeking behaviour where we reward or treat ourselves (you deserve it!), a kind of immature mentality in which people are taught to feel entitled to the adult version of a cookie or a gold star simply for behaving well. What happened to ardent desires for more profound, less transient things? A healthy community, or for a deep connection and engagement with nature, or to collaborate in a team? If we cannot yearn for such things the way most people burn with a fervent desire for material (and often unnecessary, disposable) goods, I don’t know how much positive change we can expect to make in the world.

I think the first step to addressing this dearth of more complex, other-oriented desires is to learn about how desire is manufactured in modernity. To start you off, here’s a documentary that was recommended by the president of the Jungian Society about Edward Bernays, father of public relations and population control.

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