Tonight I head to the airport. Business travel is wrought with potential hiccups. Flights, taxis, rental cars, hotels, luggage, expense reports, schedules, all on top of leaving the family; this is the business travel recipe that presents so many opportunities for life to get, well, a bit messy.
I’ve traveled, depending on my projects, quite extensively at times, but for the last seven years or so business trips have been the exception, not the rule. When I was traveling all the time, I had developed a rhythm which minimized disruption. Like a choreographed dance, I had everything nearly perfected: when I packed my suitcase, how I packed my suitcase, what time I left for the airport, where I parked at the airport, how I unpacked and repacked for the security line, etc. But now my travel is so intermittent, I have to think through my list each time.
I recall a business trip from January of this year, before I started my mindfulness meditation practice, and the thought of struggling through the business traveler checklist again, had me thoroughly stressed. This stress manifested itself in to shorter tempers with my family and longer sessions imbibing in the days leading up to my departure. Without a doubt, as evidenced by my expense report, the week itself was made more “numbly tolerable” through the liberal consumption of beer and wine.
Fast forward eleven months. With each day, I’m more and more at ease with my thoughts and emotions as they present themselves, and while I still enjoy a beer or a glass of wine, I have no interest in dulling my feelings with more alcohol than my bloodstream and liver can process. I’m still aware of the apprehension that builds when flights must be made, hotels must be checked in to, and meetings must be attended, but now that I’m aware of it, I can simply notice this feeling without feeling like I’m at its mercy.
In fact, it’s interesting; before I started meditating, I would literally feel the anxiety in the pit of my stomach and I used to subconsciously clinch my jaws. Now, I smile, because frankly it’s sort of a trip to objectively recognize and label an emotional response that I’ve always just sort of tangled rather ungracefully with. I know what it is and where it’s from. And in the act of observing it, it sort of just falls away.
It’s hard to clinch your jaws when you’re smiling.
In 1886, Leo Tolstoy wrote a short story called “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” which you may, like me, have read in your middle or high school lit class. In this story, Tolstoy tells us about a man who will be given as much land as he can physically outline by walking. The catch is, the man must create this perimeter and return to his starting point before the sun sets in order for the deal to be finalized. As you may recall, with each hill the man crests, he sees in the distance some other enticing parcel that he’d like to own, and so his perimeter increases. As the man’s greed overtakes him, he loses sight of the fact he must complete the circuit on his perimeter before sunset. He ultimately succumbs to exhaustion before he can close the loop, and dies. In the end, we learn that the amount of land the man actually needed, was the six feet or so of earth removed from the hole he would be buried in. Nice huh? Of all the short stories I read in school, this one and To Build a Fire stuck with me. It must be something about the ridiculously fragile nature of life that lodges these tales in to my long term memory…but I digress. Back to Tolstoy and the idea of man’s ability to trick himself in to thinking he needs more “stuff” in order to find happiness.
This is obviously not a new idea. We all know that for some psychological or maybe even evolutionary reason, the accumulation of “stuff” has become central to the success meme that drives our consumption-based economy and in fact, seems to motivate a large swath of Western culture. We are told, through various means, that things will make us happy. The bigger the house, the bigger the boat, the nicer the car, the better the clothes, the more opulent the watch or blingier the ring, clearly the happier we’ll be. Right? Do we all agree with this line of thinking? No? Well why not?
Anecdotally we see why not in the news almost daily. There are very wealthy people who are miserable. The rich overdose. The famous commit suicide. There is suffering to found in the finest zip codes. But alas, there are also very wealthy people who seem to be quite happy. In the remaining 99% of the pie chart, there are also very poor people who are miserable, who overdose, who commit suicide. But there are also billions of very poor people the world over who are quite happy. So if our happiness just doesn’t have as much to do with how much stuff we have, what’s up with our quest for more of that stuff?
There’s a great joke that Daniel Tosh has where he takes issue with the old “money can’t buy happiness” line. He says something along the lines of, we live in America so who says money can’t buy happiness…it can buy a wave runner…and have you ever seen a sad person on a wave runner? It’s funny and true, to a point. The actual act of riding a wave runner is certainly a lot of fun. But is it fun paying tens of thousands of dollars for a wave runner? Do you derive happiness from filling it with gas or storing it for months during the winter? Is it fun when it breaks down, as it inevitably will? On net, how much happiness does it actually bring? I’m reminded of another joke about boat ownership that goes, the happiest two days in a boat owner’s life are the day he buys his boat and the day he sells it. I imagine that adage is a bit closer to the truth of the matter.
We, me included, get caught up in this idea that we need to adorn ourselves with things and that these things should make us happy. The more stuff we can bolt on to our fragile existence, the more fulfilled our lives will be. A house is not enough, it needs to be a bigger house. A bigger house is not enough, we need a lake house now, or a beach house. One car is not enough, we need two cars, or three cars. Maybe a car just for the weekend. Maybe we need an even bigger house, with a bigger garage to hold all of our bigger cars? And we need outfits, lots and lots of outfits. And shoes, pairs and pairs of shoes. And watches, but not just any old watches, Rolexes and Tags. And jewelry – diamonds, not cubic zirconia. And the toil for more continues.
So this is the rather obvious thought that occurred to me as I stood in the shower a few nights ago (sorry for the visual). We are not our stuff. We aren’t even close. We are only what we are. We can only be in one building at a time, one room at a time, one chair at a time, wear one pair of shoes at a time, tell time with one watch at a time, and so on. We can be either inside or outside. We can be in only one car at a time or on a bicycle or on the train or on a plane, but not all at once. We can be relaxing at the beach or working to pay for our next trip to relax at the beach. We can be at the lake or not. I think back about Tolstoy’s doomed protagonist and recognize that we truly can only occupy just the slightest bit of space at any given time. So where are you right now? How much of the stuff you own is in your sight? Do you even think about the stuff you own that you can’t see? How are you feeling at this moment in the slight bit of space that you are currently occupying and does your stuff have any influence over that feeling?
Here’s what I’m driving toward. If your hours, days, weeks, months, or even years are spent dreaming about some happiness that awaits you in another place at a future date, then you are not living in the present moment. If you are holding your current potential for well-being hostage by making happiness contingent upon your future accumulation of certain material things, then you’re in the trap. This is part of the illusion. Rarely do we stop to inquire of ourselves, have much have I let my happiness become a function of my setting? Is my happiness a function of my possessions? Is my happiness a function of my income, my job title, my neighborhood, my car, etc. Am I wrapping my happiness around what I think others believe about the stuff I own?
I know I’m filling this post with lots of questions, but this type of reflection is important. It’s something I wish my 20 year old self would’ve thought a bit more deeply about, before my 40 year old self stressed over mortgages and car payments and student loans and credit cards. Don’t get me too wrong here; I recognize we need some things. I’m not advocating we sell our stuff and move in to a hippy commune somewhere. And I feel incredibly fortunate to have been born in a country where I can get a glass of clean water from the tap without a second thought about whether or not I’ll be doubled over with dysentery within the hour. So in the spirit of Maslow, what do we really want? We want to be comfortable. We want warmth when it’s cold outside. We want to feel cool when it’s hot outside. We want to be safe from harm. We want clean water and delicious meals. We want to love and be loved. We want companionship. We want to be intellectually challenged. We want to enjoy nature. We want to be healthy. We want to breathe clean air. I think these wants are universal. When we recognize that nothing in our lives is permanent, that everything breaks down, that stuff gets old, that things crumble, that we lose things, that our precious items gets stolen, then we may just start to decouple ourselves from the gimmick that we’ve been sold; the canard that says we need a bunch of nice things in order to be happy in our lives. I mean, how much stuff do you really need?
When you go for over three months without writing a blog post, sometimes it’s best to just sit down with a blank page and start writing. So that’s what I’m doing now.
Let me start by saying I have an idea that resulted from a couple of observations over the course of a couple of days.
Here’s the first one: I was riding my bike to Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park for an early evening hike and some mountaintop mediation, and was waiting for the cross walk to signal my right of way so that I might safely walk my bike across the intersection at rush hour. There was a little old lady, literally, behind the wheel of a car waiting for the turn signal so that she make a left hand turn. The timing of the light was such that she didn’t get the turn arrow, but yet she still had a green light which of course meant she could turn providing there was no oncoming traffic. In the fraction of a second that she hesitated, a middle aged man behind her furiously laid on his horn. This was a crowed pedestrian intersection at rush hour and this guy felt like he would help the situation by blasting his horn at the elderly lady in front of him. She turned, clearly frazzled, and he tailgated right behind her, his fuming face as red as a tomato. I can only hope his road rage subsided.
Here’s the second one: I was reading in my local newspaper, the Marietta Daily Journal, about a mosque that is opening in what we locals call West Cobb. If you’re reading this post from outside of the Metro Atlanta area, let me just provide some context for you. Cobb County, Georgia is, or maybe I should say was, among the most “conservative” counties in the country – the former home of such historical conservative political heavyweights as Newt Gingrich and Bob Barr it was also the county that was blacklisted from the 1996 Olympics for its county commissioner’s embarrassing and now infamous anti-gay resolution. So while the influence of a burgeoning Kennesaw State University and of corporate citizens like Home Depot are certainly bringing more progressive thought to the area, the county still remains, if not blood red, certainly a healthy shade of rose. Given that, one might expect some serious pushback to a mosque opening in this neck of the woods…but alas, this is not the case. The founder of this project, Amjad Taufique, is candid in his understanding of how Muslims are perceived and is aware of the public relations challenges that accompany their movements, so he has gone above and beyond to ensure that this mosque is a good neighbor. And if the lack of protests are any indication, what Amjad has been doing is working.
So those two ideas have been bouncing around in my brain: the quick anger of the general public and the idea that there should be places for people of all backgrounds to go and get their spiritual refill. There are a lot of angry, frustrated, deluded, stressed out, depressed, and hurting people out there and it would seem that affluence is not an antidote. The pursuit of happiness for so many has become an exercise in continued dissatisfaction. Maybe we need to try something different. In the interest of starting something, the project I’m considering is a sort of mindfulness center where people of all religious backgrounds or of none at all, can comfortably go and meditate, reflect, and contemplate without any expectation of coercion, guilt, or judgement. A place to find peace and to practice the techniques that help us understand the contents of our own minds (and the games that it plays). A place to hear talks on a wide range of intellectual, scientific, and yes, spiritual topics, unladen by any pre-existing dogmas or new age hocus pocus. A place from which to organize and spearhead meditation retreats, nature hikes, and community service projects. Ultimately, a place to practice awareness of our emotions, an awareness that helps us to avoid becoming puppets to their whimsy and influence.
Let me know either in the comments section on through the Contact page if you have a place near you that fits this description. I would love to talk to someone who has either started a mindfulness center or who attends one. Stay tuned.
What does it mean when something is accidental? According to Webster it means happening by chance, unintentionally, or unexpectedly.
As that definition relates to Buddhism and to my still new experiences studying it, it is completely accurate. I reflect on my dispassionate personality, my humanistic values, my respect for scientific inquiry, my appreciation of reality, and my celebration of reason and evidence, and it’s as if I have been an “accidental” Buddhist – in a manner of speaking – for a very long time.
This mode of thinking, this philosophy of Buddhism, this way of living that promotes and celebrates kindness toward all things, goodness, and mindfulness, has been in existence for approximately 2,600 years. Over the many centuries since Gautama Buddha achieved enlightenment and subsequently documented his pathway to it and taught it to others; who in turn refined it and packaged it in to a “religious-looking” box now called Buddhism, there have likely been millions of “accidental Buddhists” like me. I wonder just how many of these chance Buddhists lived their lives within one of the world’s other major religious worldviews?
This speaks to an interesting observation about human nature. And that is that kindness, goodness, and even mindfulness, transcend artificial human boundaries. Boundaries like “culture,” “race,” “religion,” “and “nation.” There are universal truths about human nature to be discovered, refined, and cultivated.
The long of it is, that at least for now, I have no plans to shave my head, don a saffron robe, leave my family, and pilgrimage to the Himalayas. But it is very comforting to know that these somewhat nebulous notions of enlightenment, goodness and human happiness, have been documented and practiced for thousands of years. What’s more, now with the benefit of modern neuroscience, we can quite literally see the benefits to our brains that result from mindfulness. In other words, what these dutiful mediators have been telling us is true, is actually true.
And for a born skeptic like me, that has real power.
Since I’ve started studying Buddhism, I’ve discovered that “anger” is a very common topic in the texts. We are after all, a primate species of mammal with all of the survival instincts that, over several million years of hominid evolution, helped us emerge from the African canopy. There is no doubt that one of those primal instincts is the act of fighting. It’s hard-wired in to our brains.
But evolution is just that, evolution. It doesn’t stop. Tribalism no longer benefits us. War no longer benefits us. Violence no longer benefits us. We are evolving, using our brains to understand on an even deeper level, the true nature of reality and the importance of compassion and empathy, both traits which also developed throughout our evolution and which will necessarily have to triumph if we hope to maintain our presence as a species on this planet.
According to the Dhammapahda, the Buddha said,
Guard against anger erupting in your body, in your speech, and in your mind…be restrained with your body, your speech, and your mind, letting go of misconduct in each. Practice good conduct with your body, speech, and mind.
Guard against anger. It seems so easy to let the old violent ape within us take over when we are faced with some conflict, but there is almost always a peaceful solution.
I’ve also grown fond of the Buddha’s saying,
Overcome anger with non-anger, evil with good
So perhaps it was this fresh study on “anger’ that led my unconscious mind to conjure up a scenario in a dream where I absolutely lost my cool.
Of all places, at a prescription eyeglass counter at a department store (I don’t think department stores even sell prescription eyeglasses). My family and I were at the counter to exchange a pair of glasses that we had purchased for a pair with lenses that automatically shade in UV light and the manager refused to do the exchange. In my dream, I become more and more agitated and upset, to the point of yelling and cursing at the manager! All to no avail.
I awoke to the sound of my dog scratching at the back door to go out for his morning “break” but the dream was still very fresh and real. I took a moment to look for the actual emotion of anger and found it trying to find a home in my upper abdomen.
The sun was shining brilliantly outside and the birds were very busy with song and pre-spring activity, so I simply smiled, got up, started some tea, and took my poor dog – who was still waiting patiently by the back door – out in to the cool, crisp, morning air. The anger of course, was long gone.