“Bhikkhus, these eight worldly conditions revolve around the world, and the world revolves around these eight worldly conditions. What eight? Gain and loss, disrepute and fame, blame and praise, and pleasure and pain.
– from AN 8:6, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi
A reader wrote:
“I thought you might like this article which appeared in an Australian newspaper today, which has a similar message – this time coming from an economist…
‘Wealth is relative to desire. It is not absolute. Every time we seek something we cannot afford, we grow poorer, regardless of how much money we have. And every time we stop our hunt for the new and feel satisfied with what we have, we can be counted as rich.'”
It’s not news that capitalism in its many forms relies on built-in obsolescence to keep an economy growing. Nor is it news that most humans have difficulty curbing their desire for new stuff. In fact, as soon as ownership is accomplished, the thrill fades and a new desire replaces the old one. This is not a condemnation but an observation.
Is there a way out of this trap?
A book I’m reading now, Lack and Transcendence by David Loy, points out that as soon as the barter system was replaced by currencies, people started conflating money with personal value. Money was not only valuable because it could provide food and shelter, but started to reflect, although in a distorted way, our value as people. Previous signs of value might have been loyalty, hospitality, diligence, generosity, etc. Can we go back to that system?
Yes and no. On a societal level, probably not. But on an individual level, this is exactly what the Buddha recommended. Rather than evaluating ourselves and others by material measures, why not by beneficial behavior? At some level we do this already – we prefer people who are honest, sincere, and kind to those who are dishonest, insincere and unkind. But do we give ourselves credit for behaving in ways that are trustworthy? When we feel self-conscious or bad, is it because we’ve done something unwholesome?
It is quite possible to look for contentment in our actions and words and not in our acquisitions or outward signs of material success. The invitation here is to make this a conscious substitution – to not accept evaluations of ourselves or others that are based on wealth or status, but to let our sense of well-being rest on the wholesomeness of our intentions and actions.