Sometimes a cartoonist captures a timeless truth.
One of the major ways that we cause ourselves to suffer is by stimulating our own wanting in various ways. We are inundated with advertising, much of it associated with young, sexy models. We watch shows and read magazines that tell us what is popular now, making us feel left out if we don’t have it. Video games delude us into thinking we are all-powerful, encouraging us to choose “virtual reality” over reality.
One of the advantages of getting older is that often we assign more value to relationships and possessions that we’ve had for a long time and our interest in new stuff diminishes. Our wanting is not eliminated, obviously, but the extreme sensitivity to what is newest and shiniest does seem to abate.
And yet, whether our wanting is passionate or more subtle, it confines us, it keeps us un-free.
Wanting = for me
Generosity = for others
When we find ourselves pinched by wanting things or experiences we don’t or can’t have, we might try turning the tables on desire. Rather than grabbing, collecting, yearning for ownership, we could look for ways to give, to be generous, to put others’ needs at the center of our concerns. This is a remarkably powerful antidote to greed.
A related remedy is a practice that my husband and I have taken on. Whenever we spend extravagantly on ourselves, we make a similar-sized donation where it might be appreciated. In this way we block the notion that “it’s all about me”, and move towards, “it’s about all of us”.
One difficulty when dealing with greed is that wanting is a physical experience. Somehow our whole body and mind can seize up when the thought “I want” appears; it can overwhelm everything else, in the same way that rage can overtake us. The joy that comes from letting go is less dramatic. It’s more like the pleasure we get when we take off a pair of tight shoes at the end of the day. What would it take for us to prefer the deeper pleasure of release over the me-centric drama of desire?
For one thing, it would require that we adjust to the truth that our lives will always be incomplete, not entirely satisfying, a mix of pleasures and pains. When we remember this (a version of the first noble truth) we won’t be so easily drawn into the neurosis of thinking that our satisfaction is just out of reach, just over there. No, just over there…