At this time of year, our whole consumer society is set up to make us itch for more. I mean, don’t you kind of feel like you should be shopping right now? The advertisements, the promotions, the coupons have been coming fast and hard, and I confess to you that I am a sucker for a coupon. I go into the store to replace the mittens with the holes in them, and I totally lose hold of my senses. Suddenly I’ve got my arms loaded down with good deals and sales. Sometimes it only takes the walk outside through the parking lot to come back to my senses. By the time I have my keys in the ignition, I suspect there will be some returns in my future. I know I’m not alone in this, because when I friend of mine posted on Facebook “I went to the store for milk and somehow spent $100” and he got almost 50 sympathetic comments on his status. It is just hard to say “Enough!”
Today, we turn to the wisdom of Buddhism to help us bring some sanity to the season, to return us to our senses as we inhabit a culture that encourages us to want more and more until it is too much.
It is said that the first truth given to us by the Buddha when he rose from his meditation under the Bodhi tree where he achieved enlightenment were the 4 noble truths. These are also the kernel, the most basic of teachings of Buddhist philosophy, and yet also the most advanced. The 4 noble truths are:
1. Thus is the Noble Truth of Suffering
2. Thus is the Noble Truth of the Accumulation of Suffering
3. Thus is the Noble Truth of the Elimination of Suffering
4. Thus is the Noble Truth of the Path that Leads Away from Suffering
So the first truth of Buddhism is that suffering exists. It is further analyzed this way in one of the longer sutras: “Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; association with what is not loved is stressful, separation from what is loved is stressful, not getting what is wanted is stressful.” And what causes this stress, or suffering? According to the second noble truth it is suffering is caused by carving. We “cling to a certain sense of existence, to selfhood, or to the things or phenomena that we consider the cause of happiness or unhappiness.” Or we have craving that things were not as they are. The word for Craving is Tanha, which literally means Thirst, but can also be translated as desire.
I think what happens when we encounter the American Marketing Machine, is that it speaks to our thirst, our craving. We become dissatisfied with what we have and long for more. But the Buddha is talking about not just thirst for superficial pleasures, but the suffering that comes from losing things we love, people we love, our health, it comes from realizing that someday we will lose our lives.
And he says, in the 3rd noble truth, there is in fact an end to suffering, which is good news. In the 4th noble truth he tells us that there is a path to follow to lead us away from suffering. That path is called the Eight Fold path. That is: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. Obviously, if we are doing or saying things that are causing harm to ourselves and others, this will cause us stress or suffering. But the inner work we do with our own thoughts and how we focus our attention is part of that path as well. Cultivating mindfulness helps us retain our equanimity. It cultivates that “inner strength that allows us to be with things the way they are instead of how we wish they could be. Mindfulness practice does not involve trying to change who we are, instead it is a practice of seeing clearly who we are…”
But despite our best intentions, suffering and stress are inevitable. American Buddhist teacher Gil Fonsdel teaches that “It is possible to experience the inevitable pain of life in a straightforward, uncomplicated way….The suffering addressed by the Four Noble Truths is the suffering and stress that arises from the way we choose to relate to our experience. When we cling, it is painful. When we try to hold our experience at a distance, to push it way, that too is painful. We cling to or push away from our experience in an infinite variety of ways”
I propose that in this season of rampant consumerism, business, and dearly held expectations, I think cultivating mindfulness can help us come to a place where we can finally say “enough”. It is not through doing more that we will find that sense, because we know there is always more we could acquire, more we could do. To break the chain of wanting, the Buddhists tell us that we must turn not to more buying or more doing, but inward to our own minds. This is where the wanting begins, this is where suffering and stress arise. I know from personal experience that shopping never leaves me MORE satisfied than when I started. Does this ever happen to you? I go to the store for those new mittens, and realize that there is a new kind of scarf without which I am now itching to have? Now I am dissatisfied, I have another action item on my to-do list and my stress is increased, not decreased.
That example shows the most superficial kind of wanting. But the concept is the same for the big wants- I want a home to call my own. I want a partner when I am single. Perhaps I always wanted to have a child, but never had any children. But Says Buddhist teacher Gil Fonsdel, we can use our small every-day experiences to help us with the big ones when they come. He writes: “If we attend to the small ways that we suffer, we create a context of greater ease, peace, and responsibility which can make it easier to deal with the bigger difficulties when they arise.” [P. 13].
This is where mindfulness comes in. Mindfulness is the practice of bringing all your attention into the present moment. We don’t judge the present moment, we are just aware of it. If something happens that we don’t like, instead of saying “I hate long lines at the cash registers!” we notice the line. We notice our response to it. We observe the anger rising, but we don’t cling to the anger, we just observe it. When we find the “perfect” gift, we don’t get attached to that either. We notice what thoughts and feelings arise without clinging to them, noticing “excitement is rising, pride is rising” Because all things that rise also pass away. If we get too attached to our great prize we won shopping, think how much greater the suffering will be when we drop it on the way to the car and it breaks, or the person we got it for already has one.”
Says Fonsdel, “In mindfulness practice, we learn how to pay attention in the present in moment so that when suffering arises we’re able to notice it. We can take an interest in it instead of running away from it. We can learn how to be comfortable with suffering, so that we don’t act inappropriately because of our discomfort. Then we can begin understanding its roots, and let go of the clinging.” So as we are standing in the mall and notice the craving, the clinging, the stress, we breathe in and breathe out, observing each breath, observing our experience and our reaction to it, without clinging and without judging. We develop an inner observer which exists with equanimity. The more we practice, the easier it is to find that observer. The desire for a new smart phone is fleeting, but the presence of the observer, this will endure, can be with us our whole lives.
Mindfulness also helps us navigate the business of the season. There are an infinite number of actions we can take this time of year- so part of the challenge is to choose the “right action” -- actions which are going to be the best for our emotional and physical health, and for the health of our communities. We choose wisely which of the 100 activities are going to make the healthiest difference in our lives. And then once we have chosen, we mindfully inhabit those choices. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, there was one night where I thought “I’m so glad I passed up the opportunity to see that wonderful show, because I really needed a night home with the family” and there were other days when I thought “I can’t believe I scheduled a day where I have so much to do and visitors on the way” But on good days and bad days, I can be mindful and breathe.
The real danger is not that we won’t have enough time to “get it all done” over the holidays, but that we will not be present to the time we have. In his book “Miracle of Mindfulness” Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes about a friend who was a father of 2 small children who told the monk one day “I’ve discovered a way to have a lot more time. In the past, I used to look at my time as if it were divided into several parts. One part I reserved for [my son] another part was for [my wife] another part of r household work. The time left over I considered my own. I could read, write, do research, go for walks. But now I try not to divide my time into parts anymore. I consider my time with Joe and Sue as my own time. When I help Joey with his homework, I try to find ways of seeing his time as my own time. I go through his lesson with him, sharing his presence and finding ways to be interested in what we do during that time. The time for him becomes my own time. The same with Sue. The remarkable thing is that now I have unlimited time for myself.”
How do we have enough time in this busy season? we breathe. In… and Out… Each breath is my time. Each breath is enough. “Breathing in I calm my body” Breathing out I smile. Breathing In it is a pleasant moment. Breathing out is a wonderful moment.
It is very simple, but not easy. I challenge you throughout the holiday season, to remember to breathe. To continuously draw yourself back into the present moment. Not so that you can experience perfect equanimity, but so that you can just be. Observe anger and frustration as it rises and falls away. Observe joy and satisfaction they rise and fall away. Observe your wanting as you see the new car commercials on tv. Observe that thirst as you see images of happy families, and you know this winter is a time when your family is in crisis. Observe the wanting as you see the ornament your grandmother gave you and you anticipate your first Hanukah without her. Observe the good times too, mindfully, without clinging or judging. Observe the times you get caught up and forget to breathe, and choose to bring yourself back to your breath.
Thich Nhat Hanh talked about eating tangerines with is friend Jim. He said “Jim became so immersed in [his thoughts about the future] that he literally forgot about what he was doing in the present. He popped a section of tangerine in his mouth and, before he had begun chewing it, had another slice ready to pop into his mouth again. He was hardly aware he was eating a tangerine. All I had to say was, “You ought to eat the tangerine section you’ve already taken.” Sometimes we celebrate the holidays in this way. Young children give a perfect expression of this when the open one present after another without stopping to enjoy any of them, and when they are sitting in a pile of wrapping paper ask “is that all?” We adults often feel the same way about time. We are disappoint to find we will have only a short visit from our mother or grandson, and as they come to an end think “it’s a shame we didn’t have more time together” As Hanh says “If you can’t eat a single section, you can’t eat a tangerine” If we can’t enjoy one gift, one moment with a friend, one bite of Grandma’s apple pie, the holiday season will pass away without our ever having tasted it. But sometimes just one moment of connection with someone, one moment listening to the snow fall under the stars can be enough. This present moment is enough.
“Breathing in I calm my body” Breathing out I smile. Breathing In it is a pleasant moment. Breathing out is a wonderful moment.
1) http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/study/truths.html The Four Noble Truths: A Study Guide by Thanissaro Bhikkhu © 1999–2010
3)The issue at Hand: Essays on Buddhist Mindfunless and Practice by Gil Fronsdal p. 17
4) The issue at Hand: Essays on Buddhist Mindfunless and Practice by Gil Fronsdal p. 4
5) The Miracle of Mindfilness! A manual opn Meditation Thich Nhat Hanh Beacon Press 1975 p. 2.
6) The blooming of the Lotus Thich Nhat Hanh
7) The Miracle of Mindfilness! A manual on Meditation Thich Nhat Hanh Beacon Press 1975 p. 5
8) The blooming of the Lotus Thich Nhat Hanh