Meaning, Part 2 – Buddhistdoor Global
All beings are from the very beginning Buddha.
It’s like water and ice: outside water, no ice, outside living beings, no Buddhas.
Not knowing that he is near, they look for him in the distance. What a pity! It’s like someone in water crying out for thirst; it is like the child of a rich house who has wandered among the poor.
“Meditation Song” by Hakuin*
I talked about my solitary retreat in my previous Meaning article and thought it might be interesting to suggest a sequel. The theme is, of course, inexhaustible and quite a challenge to tackle. But anyway, here are my humble thoughts and questions. As a starting point, I ask myself: what did I bring back from my quest, when I descended from the “sacred mountain” to join the hustle and bustle of the market square? To a certain extent, this is still becoming clearer, but here’s a confession: I have to admit that I succumbed to my penchant for acquiring clothes the very next day, stopping in a shop after returning the car borrowed from my friend.
It seemed like a harmless indulgence, loosely meant as a celebration of alone time, or a little homecoming ritual perhaps. In a semi-conscious and ambiguous way, returning to the fold of society seemed facilitated by shopping: to be engulfed again in that strange and soothing atmosphere of never enough opulence that characterizes this capitalist age. Perhaps I was mistaken in thinking that the somewhat heightened state of consciousness after a long period of meditation would protect me from the mechanisms of runaway greed on which the economy relies.
I felt rather serene, not like I was desperately trying to fill an inner hole. The shop had a calm and pleasant atmosphere, far from the plasticized emptiness, the cloudy-eyed impersonality, the synthetic perfume and the muzak of the malls, which I would have certainly avoided. I tried a few items, part of the “autumn range that had just arrived”. I admired the earthy colors and textures and appreciated the understated and insightful attention from the vendors. I wore my new designer top at home, but didn’t mention the shopping adventure to my husband, who tends not to notice what I’m wearing – there was a hint of shame. This increased over the next two days as I scoured eBay and charity shops for more clothes that would “go with it”. I kept telling myself that this behavior was not in line with my values, which I had newly affirmed during my retirement – values of love, peace and contentment – and yet, I could not do everything completely let go.
Looking back on it a few weeks later, I can see that I was allowing latent chains of addiction to be pulled. But maybe the term “allow” suggests more choices than I actually had? According to Gabor Mate, all types of addiction share certain characteristics: compulsion, preoccupation, impaired control, persistence, relapse, craving, shame and deception.** Whether you are addicted to shopping, work, gambling, drugs and alcohol, the same neurochemical processes and impaired decision-making play out. I can see them all in action to some degree in this sobering and somewhat comforting incident – acknowledging it as a larger phenomenon and less of a personal failure. Modern advertising deftly exploits the neural reward systems that govern vital behaviors such as eating and sex – basically, we’re all prone to craving dopamine shots, and it doesn’t take much to activate these circuits. in relation to lesser needs in the service of economic growth.
The Buddha recognized the human propensity for desire as the main cause of suffering and saw the systematic cultivation of consciousness as a means of breaking free from its grip. I wonder if these days he would add “work for system change” to his message, because of the pervasive and insidious modern forces of consumerism that latch directly onto our plight. He chose the lifestyle of a homeless wanderer, giving himself and his followers what he saw as the best chance at freedom from suffering.
Things are very different now. Colonialism and industrialization have radically and, in an incredibly short time, globally revolutionized every aspect of our experience, the way we relate to each other and to nature, the way we spend our time and our experience of time itself. Some of us enjoy an unprecedented level of physical comfort and a seeming freedom of choice, which our foraging or plowing ancestors would not even have dreamed of, but we are lonely, stressed, overwhelmed, overweight and depressed. . The less privileged want what the rich have. We are overexploiting planetary resources and wasting our beautiful home.
We are also confused about what it means to lead a meaningful life, unconnected to the intimate communities, religious rituals and values we truly trust. It makes us vulnerable to seek relief from our disease in a way that actually helps it – more spending on things we don’t really need, but which are clogging the arteries, both of our blood flow and the ecosystem. Maybe we don’t quite believe the hype of the market, but we’re more entrenched in this new universal credo of consumerism than we care to admit. My shopping addiction is a good example. In his afterword to Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Harper, 2015) Yuval Noah Harari writes:
Seventy thousand years ago, homo sapiens was still an insignificant animal minding its own business in a corner of Africa. Over the following millennia, he transformed into a master of the entire planet and a terror of the ecosystem. . . . Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?
My lonely retirement gave me a break from such temptations by keeping me out of reach of shops and enforcing fast internet. On my walks, I didn’t come across any signs promising “retail therapy”. I wasn’t lured into cafes with enlightened encouragement to “rest up and be kind to yourself.” I dealt with these things more immediately and effectively, just by being present in a calm, non-utilitarian way, with lots of exposure to the natural elements.
One of my meditation teachers, Vessantara, addressing the difficulty we moderns have in truly relaxing in meditation, suggests that we treat it as a leisure activity. But hobbies aren’t as simple as they once were, as Oliver Burkeman says in his excellent book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021). Since industrialization, leisure has been seen as “simply an opportunity for recuperation and replenishment, for the purpose of later work”. And circularly, the allure of work is free time, so now all of life, work and leisure are valued for:
. . . something else, in the future, rather than for himself. . . . There is something heartbreaking about the textile workers of 19th century Massachusetts who told an interviewer what they really aspired to do with more free time: look around to see what was going on.
I think this is great advice for meditation, and for a healthy and happy life more generally: just look around to see what’s going on. Let go of the desire to have that special experience and release the hyper-conscious mindset of making the most of every moment of life. Accepting our impermanence seems to be essential to being more relaxed in our days. It is also the basis from which to define our sense of meaning. It is healthy to think that since we are able to control so many technical aspects of life, it is more difficult to accept that life is so pitifully short, a mere 4,000 weeks on average.
The “make the most of it” attitude can backfire. Burkeman describes his inability to enjoy the Northern Lights while traveling in the Arctic:
As I was about to return to the warmth of my cabin, I was so far from engrossed in the moment that a thought occurred to me, regarding the Northern Lights, which I still squirm about to this day. . Oh, I found myself thinking, they look like one of those screensavers.
I see an engaged daily meditation practice as a way to relearn this art of direct and participatory enjoyment of the moments that unfold in our lives. It takes patience: we have to be prepared to not quite “get it” at first, to notice how we fall prey to the tendency to commodify everything, even meditation, into something other than itself. , a means for a later step. -but-never-experienced “enlightenment”. In fact, this propensity to miss the moment is not just a modern curse. Buddhist masters of old frequently urged their students to turn their attention to the search for freedom here and now, as Hakuin exclaimed, “Not knowing that it is near, they seek it far away.” What a pity!” I hope that ultimately this practice, coupled with critical discernment of cultural influences, will lead to greater resilience and clarity.
In my previous article, I described driving to my lonely retreat while listening to Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral service on the car radio; two completely different ways of looking for meaning: one through solitude, the other through participation in an event of great social importance. Apparently, four billion people watched TV coverage, which is half the world’s population. And a quarter of a million people lined up until 30 a.m. to pay their respects to the Queen while she was in state. Some people have compared it to going on a pilgrimage, a sense of joyful accomplishment of something meaningful and difficult, backed by a sense of camaraderie. Queuing required patience, enduring discomfort, touching and maintaining a sense of purpose in the face of mortality.
We are now approaching the main holiday in the market economy calendar: Christmas. How about approaching it with a similar mindset, focused on meaning (rather than the market)? Are there any aspects that could really nurture us, taking the time to just look around to see what’s going on, maybe? What is the least purchase of things that we can get away with, not out of malice, but as a revolutionary gesture towards true fulfillment? Could we make, rather than buy, things, and give our time and attention rather than material goods? And maybe we could share this quest with others.
* Hakuin’s Meditation Song (Buddhist Center of Bristol)
** Companion, Gabor. 2010. In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. Berkley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
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