Thursday, August 19, 2004

Of Buddhists and Big Macs

Watching this feature on CBC last night about how Tibetan Buddists aare generally happier, calmer, and less stressed than most people in the Western World got me on to my traditional rant, which I will share with you. It is this: we in Western society do not lead meaningful lives. We have more than everything we need, and we’re just not happy.

Basically my argument is that we’ve completed 1 to 4 in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but instead of pursuing self-actualization, we’ve embraced consumerism. It’s all we have left, if you believe the media. The Western world has long focused it’s attention on material gain, but for much of it, we had religion, which at least gave us some sense of our place in the world. In recent times, many of us have shrugged off the confines of religious belief, and this has left something of a gaping whole in our understanding of ourselves, out priorities, and the world around us.

Now, we’ve become obsessed with the acquisition of material goods as a way of filling that void. It’s become ridiculous. We work outrageously stressful jobs so that we can make money so that we can acquire more “things” that we are told will make us happy. Of course, they don’t. So, we work even harder so we can buy better “things” only to find that those don’t really make us happier either. We consume and consume and are completely defined by our work. What’s one of the first things you ask someone when you meet them? “So, what do you do?” I mean, it’s even one of the main profile questions in Blogger, for Christ sake! Go to other parts of the world where people aren’t as stressed, and no one asks you “what do you do?” It’s immaterial.

Now, everyone’s on Prozac or Ritalin or Valium to control depression, anxiousness, malaise, etc. You just don’t see a lot of Buddhist monks on Prozac. Why? Because they know what’s important. And having the latest PDA, Audi, or trip to Mexico just isn’t it. I’m not saying we should all quit our jobs or go back to believing in a God that, quite frankly is as plausible as Santa Claus. I’m saying the Buddhists have it right. We need to become more introspective, more aware of the “real” world around us, more self-aware, more kind, more tolerant of others, and most importantly, more willing to create meaningful contact with other human beings.

How often have you walked down the street and avoided making eye contact with someone walking 2 feet away from you? How weird is that? It’s part of our whole culture of isolating ourselves and our stuff from each other. We interact at superficial levels now – customer service calls, PTA meetings, speed dating, mass seminars. Real human interaction has come to a standstill. Ironically, through the anonymity of the Internet, many of us (myself included) are reaching out and making “real” contact with complete strangers while foregoing the intimacy of actual human contact. These are strange times we’re living in. Pass me the Prozac.


At 1:04 PM, Blogger Oz said...

I know a guy who gave up everything and moved to a Buddhist monestary. There is something appealing about it, but when it comes down to it, I like things LOL. I like my house, my camera, my laptop, and I love my animals. At the same time, I've considered Buddhism to be my primary religion for most of my adult life. I agree with you that something's pretty wrong with our society when everyone is on prozac (really, it's scary when you realize how many people are on some sort of anti-depressant), but I still haven't quite figured out how to balance it all. Some of my greatest sources of happiness are my writing and my photography, which require things. So things aren't bad per se. It's knowing where to draw the lines, I guess.....

At 6:00 PM, Blogger Diva said...

Hear, hear, to both your post and Ozzilyn's comment.

At 6:19 PM, Blogger Janet said...

That's a tough one. I completely agree that as a society, we are becoming less and less about dealing with and meeting other people, like minded or otherwise. But it's so hard to go against the grain when the society that has been created requires us to make x amount of dollars to get the house, the car etc. It's not a matter of keeping up with the Joneses anymore, it's more a matter of survival. A sick, sad survival, but a sense of survival nonetheless.

At 8:40 PM, Blogger Trillian said...

I think you all make valid points, and I'm certainly not proposing that you give away all your stuff and go live on an island and raise goats. The idea is to find your bliss - find what makes you happy and stop worrying about all the crap that drives you crazy. Oz loves photography - I'm saying, go for it, because it makes you happy - you don't have to feel bad about wanting to own a camera, or wanting to upgrade your equipment.

You have to focus on the things that increase your well being, and stop trying to buy your way into happiness with pointless crap. Is paying an extra $20 a month to get the movie channels going to improve your life? How will getting a plasma tv make your life more fulfilling? It's all artificial and just distracts us from focusing on what's really important in our lives - which is different for everyone. That's all I'm saying.

I'm not going to flip my life upside down, but I do small things. I don't have cable or satellite, I threw away my mobile because I was paying stupid amounts of money for things that bot only didn't increase my happiness, but made me anxious. I spend lots of money on nice wine and I pay someone to clean my house on Tuesday because that makes me happy. And I talk to interesting anonymous strangers on the Internet because that also seems to make me happy! :)

At 10:17 PM, Blogger Kate said...

My response was too long, so I posted it at my weblog.

At 9:42 AM, Blogger Arthur said...

I often respond to the question "what would you do if you won the lottery" with, "I would buy an island, raise goats and make feta cheese!" The thing is I would have to win the lottery to be able to do it, and not just because of the high price of goat raising islands.

It's ironic to me that unless you are born into a simple life, you need to be rich to start living one.

At 9:42 AM, Blogger Arthur said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 3:16 PM, Blogger Wheelson said...

I've been wondering lately, maybe reaching past the second level in Maslow's hierarchy is a mistake? Other animals are motivated by the same "lower needs" that motivates humans. Nature has just produced an animal that is darn good at satisfying those lower needs. I'm wondering if we're a little too good at it? Nature has produced an animal that is so good at satisfying the lower needs that it actually causes us mental problems.

I'm beginning to learn that Buddhism is one of the few things that attempts to deal with this on a fundamental level, rather than creating false hopes that provide only temporary relief.

At 7:14 PM, Blogger Misc Debris said...

Thanks for the links and the thoughts.

A book by Mark Epstein called "Thoughts without a Thinker" (p135) discussed the fact that a study was done that showed that experienced meditators were surprisingly just as anxious as everyone else, but there was a marked non-defensiveness about their anxiety.

This non-defensiveness is probably the hallmark of buddhist response to the sufferings of life. In the west, we certainly try everything we can to escape, deny and run from this suffering. Not only do we fail, but we cause a great deal of harm to the world around us through our efforts.

The truth is that unless we accept the suffering and embrace it with nothing to mediate or mitigate the pain, we will never be able to overcome our own sense of alienation and eventual decay. The commodified forms of happiness are designed to become obsolete or expire in order to bind us to the wheel of the phenominal world of their design, and keeps us ignorant and distracted to the fact that we have always had everything we needed.

At 10:21 AM, Blogger Trillian said...

Arash - that reminds me of a quote I heard not very long ago:

"To use fear as the friend it is, we must retrain and reprogram ourselves...We must persistently and convincingly tell ourselves that the fear is here--with its gift of energy and heightened awareness--so we can do our best and learn the most in the new situation." --
Peter McWilliams, Life 101

At 4:14 PM, Anonymous melissa said...

hi... i don't know you but i found your site somehow and think you're definitely right. it's sad that people are willing to reduce themselves to slavery over silly things.
it's not about the possessions themselves really, its more about the mental grip that people allow those things to have over their minds.

At 10:15 AM, Blogger emily said...

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