All beings are from the very beginning Buddha.Hakuin’s “Song of Meditation”*
It is like water and ice: apart from water, no ice, outside living beings, no Buddhas.
Not knowing it is near, they seek it afar. What a pity! It is like one in the water who cries out for thirst; it is like the child of a rich house who has strayed away among the poor.
I wrote about my solitary retreat in my previous article on the subject of meaning and I thought it may be interesting to offer a follow-up. The theme is, of course, inexhaustible and quite a tall order to tackle. But anyway, here are my humble reflections and questions. As a starting point I am asking myself: What did I bring back from my quest, when I descended from the “holy mountain” to rejoin the hustle and bustle of the marketplace? To some extent it is still clarifying itself, but here is a confession: I have to admit that I succumbed to my penchant for acquiring clothes the very next day, stopping in a boutique after returning the borrowed car to my friend.
It seemed a harmless indulgence, vaguely conceived as a celebration of the time spent on my own, or a little homecoming ritual perhaps. In some semiconscious, ambiguous way, returning into the lap of society seemed to be facilitated by shopping: being engulfed again in this strange, lulling atmosphere of never-enough affluence that characterizes this capitalist age. Maybe I fooled myself into thinking that the somewhat heightened state of awareness after a prolonged period of meditation would protect me from the mechanisms of runaway craving that the economy relies on.
I was feeling pretty serene, not as if I was desperately trying to fill some inner hole. The shop had a quiet, pleasing atmosphere, a far cry from the plastic-encased hollowness, the bleary-eyed impersonality, the synthetic perfume and muzak of shopping malls, which I would certainly have avoided. I tried on a few items, part of the “autumn range that had just come in.” I admired the earthy colors and textures, and enjoyed the unobtrusive and discerning attention of the shop assistants. I wore my new designer top at home, but didn’t mention the shopping venture to my husband, who tends not to notice what I wear—there was a touch of shame. This increased over the next couple of days as I trawled eBay and charity shops to find further items of clothing that would “go with it.” I kept telling myself that this behavior wasn’t in line with my values, which I had newly affirmed on my retreat—values of love, peace, and contentment—yet still, I couldn’t quite let it go.
Reflecting on it a few weeks later, I can see that I was allowing latent strings of addiction to be pulled. But maybe the term “allow” suggests more choice that 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, working, gambling, or drugs and alcohol, the same neuro-chemical processes and decision-making impairment are playing themselves out. I can see them all in operation to some extent in this incident, which is both sobering and somewhat consoling—recognizing it as a wider phenomenon and less of a personal failure. Modern advertising skillfully exploits the neural reward systems that govern life-sustaining behaviors such as eating and sex—basically, we are all prone to craving dopamine hits, and it doesn’t take much to fire those circuits up in relationship to lesser necessities 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 awareness as a way to gain freedom from its grip. I wonder whether in this day and age he would add “working for system change” to his message, because of the all-pervasive, insidious modern forces of consumerism that hook right into our predicament. He chose the lifestyle of a homeless wanderer, giving himself and his followers what he saw as the best chance for liberation from suffering.
Things are very different now. Colonialism and industrialization have dramatically and, in an incredibly short time, globally revolutionized every aspect of our experience, how we relate to each other and to nature, how we spend our time, and our experience of time itself. Some of us have unprecedented levels of physical comfort and apparent freedom of choice, which our foraging or soil-tilling ancestors wouldn’t have even dreamed of, but we are lonely, stressed, overwhelmed, overweight, and depressed. Less privileged people want what the rich people have. We are over-using planetary resources and spoiling our beautiful home.
We are also confused about what it means to lead a meaningful life, untethered from intimate communities, religious rituals, and values that we truly trust. This makes us vulnerable to seek relief from our dis-ease in ways that actually contribute to it—more spending on things that we don’t really need, but which clog up the arteries, both of our blood stream and of the ecosystem. Maybe we don’t altogether believe the market hype, but we are more embedded in this new, universal creed of consumerism than we want to admit. My shopping addiction is a case in point. 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 his own business in a corner of Africa. In the following millennia it transformed itself into the master of the entire planet and the terror of the ecosystem . . . . Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?(415–16)
My solitary retreat gave me a break from such temptations by keeping me out of reach of shops and imposing an internet fast. On my walks I didn’t encounter signs promising “retail therapy.” I wasn’t lured into cafés with brightly illumined encouragement to “rest and be kind to yourself.” I took care of these things in more immediate and effective ways, simply by being present in an unhurried and non-utilitarian sort of way, with plenty of exposure to the natural elements.
One of my meditation teachers, Vessantara, addressing the difficulty we moderns have to truly relax in meditation, suggests that we treat it as a leisure activity. But leisure isn’t as straightforward as it may have been in times gone by, 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 “merely an opportunity for recovery and replenishment, for the purposes of further work.” And in a circular way, the lure of work is time off, so now the whole of life, work, and leisure alike are valued for:
. . . something else, in the future, rather than for itself. . . . There is something heart-breaking about the nineteenth-century Massachusetts textile workers who told one survey researcher what they actually longed to do with more free time: to look around to see what is going on.(146–7)
I think this is excellent advice for meditation, and for healthy and happy living more generally: just look around to see what is going on. Give up wanting to have that special experience and relax the hyper-aware mindset set on making the most of every moment in life. Acceptance of our impermanence seems to be pivotal to being more relaxed about our days. It is also the baseline from where to define our sense of meaning. It is salutary to reflect that, as we are able to control so many technical aspects of life, it is harder to accept that life is so pitifully short, a mere 4,000 weeks on average.
The attitude of “making the most of it” can backfire. Burkeman describes his inability to enjoy the northern lights during a trip to the Arctic:
By the time I was getting ready to return to the warmth of my cabin, I was so far from being absorbed in the moment that a thought occurred to me, regarding the northern lights, which to this day I squirm to recall. Oh, I found myself thinking, they look like one of those screen savers.(138)
I see a committed daily meditation practice as a way to relearn this art of direct, participatory enjoyment of the unfolding moments of our lives. It needs patience: we must be prepared to not quite “get it” at the beginning, to notice how we fall prey to the inclination to commodify everything, even meditation, making it into something other than itself, a means for some later-stage-but-never-experienced “enlightenment.” Actually, this propensity for missing the moment is not just a modern curse. The Buddhist masters of old frequently exhorted their students to turn their attention around to finding freedom right here and now, like Hakuin exclaiming: “Not knowing it is near, they seek it afar. What a pity!” I trust that eventually this practice, together with critical discernment of cultural influences, will lead to greater resilience and clarity.
In my previous article, I described driving to my solitary retreat while listening to the funeral service for Queen Elizabeth II on the car radio; two quite different ways of seeking meaning: one through solitude, the other through partaking in an event of vast social proportion. Apparently four billion people watched the televised coverage, half of the world population. And a quarter of a million people waited in a queue for up to 30 hours to pay their respects to the queen as she lay in state. Some people likened it to taking part in a pilgrimage, a sense of joyful achievement of something meaningful and difficult, supported by a sense of comradeship. Standing in the queue required patience, enduring discomfort, touching in with and keeping alive a sense of purpose in the face of mortality.
Now we are drawing closer to the main festival in the calendar of the market economy: Christmas. How about approaching it with a similar, meaning- (rather than market-) oriented mindset? Are there some aspects that could truly feed us, making time for just looking around to see what’s going on, maybe? What is the littlest buying of things we can get away with—not out of meanness, but as a revolutionary gesture toward true fulfilment? Might we make, rather than buy, things, and give our time and attention rather than material goods? And perhaps we could share this quest with others.
* Hakuin’s Song of Meditation (Bristol Buddhist Centre)
** Mate, Gabor. 2010. In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
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Mindfully Ending Addiction