[Just one more full day left in National Novel Writing Month! It’s really crunch time writing-wise as this point, quite frenetic. I hope you’ve had a great Thanksgiving. This is the last of the pre-written blogs. Fingers crossed that I’ll be able to report 50,000 words written the next time I post!]
With the end of Thanksgiving comes the start of the consumer shopping season; actually this year it appears that the holiday and the shopping actually coincide. It is so easy to get swept up with the desire to accumulate stuff. I find it particularly difficult to resist what I think of as greed in the guise of generosity, which can lead me to dramatically overspend my allotted holiday gift budget. Often my shopping excess is more about me being excited by having an excuse to buy things than because the people I’ve buying the gifts for need or even want the things I’m buying. I have realized that the best gifts are usually edibles and handmade offerings. But despite knowing that, every year I get swept up in shopping, often obsessing over finding just one more gift, some perfect item to awe and please the recipient. The thrill of the search in these situations becomes more important than the gift-giving itself.
I’ve previously written about why taking less can be difficult when we are overwhelmed by the suffering in the world and think that our actions won’t make a difference. More cynically, sometimes we resist taking less because we simply WANT more. This is hungry ghost mentality. When I fall prey to this during the holiday shopping season, I feel like whatever I have bought to give as gifts is not enough to satisfy my obligations, real or imagined. I must keep acquiring more, and yet, like the hungry ghost whose throat is too small and whose belly is so ravenous, the grasping never satisfies. I’m so certain that the next thing I buy will cure the dissatisfaction I feel. And yet, the Mara of greed can never be satisfied. Once I get the thing I’ve searched for, the thrill of the search dissipates and then the original feeling of dissatisfaction returns. I need yet one more gift in order for people to think well of me. Ultimately, Mara in any of his forms can never be satisfied, causing us to run ourselves ragged in circles of desire, attachment, and disappointment trying to meet his demands.
Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, in his blog post “Very Little Needs and Much Contentment” writes “Our discontent goes on growing, and if we indulge it, so does our addiction. And often at the end of the day, all we are left with is a feeling of regret.” His article expands out to show the effects that indulging our desires can have on the entire world. He urges us to rejoice when we do manage to exercise discipline and to pay more attention to what we have than what we think we lack. He says that these things do not come easily; we must practice diligently. We must constantly be mindful of our cravings and our responses to them.
All of this is challenging enough to bring about in ourselves; it can be extremely challenging to bring about in our children. Many children are already consummate consumers. Just like adults, they are bombarded with targeted advertisements designed to make them feel that they “need” this or that to be happy but lack the awareness and discipline to realize how the ads are influencing what they feel. Common holiday celebrations reinforce consumerism by focusing on the gifts received or the uninhibited eating of sweets. Sometimes it feels like the whole “point” of the winter festivities is a competition of acquisition. By the time kids get to middle school, intense social pressure whispers that they would fit in better if they only watched the right TV shows, wore more expensive shoes, or had the coolest electronics. Parental lectures about the unsatisfactoriness of trying to satiate endless desires often fail to be heard over the messages coming from peers.
In our family, we try to combat the Mara of greed with honest discussion. We talk about the ads and products we see and together we analyze why they use the words or images they do to influence us. When our kids say they want something, we discuss with them whether they “really” want it, just think it “looks cool”, or want it because other kids have it or want it. We also talk honestly about the fact that there is only so much money in our family to go around and we have to make difficult decisions about how to spend it. When they’ve wanted to eat out more at restaurants, we’ve found it very useful to show them how much we spend each week on groceries and how eating out at a restaurant can cost a huge amount of our weekly food budget. We show them at the grocery store how we comparison shop. And we involve our kids with volunteer work so that they get the opportunity to give as well as get. Hopefully these efforts make a difference in how they see and interact with the world.
As for my own Mara-voice urging me to consume and acquire more, the Five Mindfulness Trainings by Thich Nhat Hanh contain this line that I come back to time and time again: “I am aware that happiness depends on my mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that I can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that I already have more than enough conditions to be happy.” I have it taped that quote to my computer, where I am most often tempted to make spontaneous online purchases. It’s a mindfulness bell to counter the Mara of greed, just as is the following core Buddhist teaching, which can be summed up as “you can’t take it with you” or perhaps as “what you can take with you, you can’t buy”.
The Five Remembrances
I am of the nature to grow old.
There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health.
There is no way to escape having ill health.
I am of the nature to die.
There is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me, and everyone I love, are of the nature of change.
There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My deeds are my closest companions.
I am the beneficiary of my deeds.
My deeds are the ground on which I stand.