Today is Sunday, December 4 2022. And we're smack in the middle of what is often called the season of giving. But it also can be called the season of excess. And what I mean by that is a time of year when we're especially likely to be confronted by our cravings, or desires in the pursuit of pleasurable things and experiences. Recently, I came across a blog about minimalist living. And this is how the writer put it describing this time of year. Halloween is followed by Thanksgiving is followed by Black Friday, is followed by Cyber Monday is followed by Christmas is followed by New Year's Eve. And also, we can throw in there Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa. Although those traditions aren't nearly as commercialized as Christmas, and this holiday season, as always, is it is this wonderful opportunity, on the one hand, to connect and reconnect with family and friends, and simply enjoy being together enjoy shared traditions, and just the splendor of the season the displays of lights during this very dark time of year, the decorations, just the whole energy, of celebration. And yet, we live in a consumer culture. And that can entice us to over indulge our time, or money or energy into socializing, eating, drinking shopping. And we can also find ourselves feeling stressed and anxious, especially if we are traveling some way or by plane or hosting a gathering, trying to navigate family and extended family conflicts. workplace conflicts too. And then also this this time of year, we can feel profound loss, missing a loved one.
And then there's the overload. As I mentioned, the commercialization of Christmas, the overload of Chris Christmassy sights and sounds that are harder to avoid shops, restaurants, parks, gyms, any public space. And that can leave us feeling annoyed and agitated, perhaps you might be inclined to get really cynical about it. And especially if it's not a tradition that we happen to celebrate. There are studies that show that there's a notable increase in depression and anxiety, this time of year. feelings of loneliness, despair. And here we have all these advertisements who are that are telling us you know, it's not just advertisements, it's movies and social media, all telling us that this is the most wonderful time of the year. And by the time by the time we get to New Years After all the excesses after trying to weather this perfect storm that can cause us to slide back into old habits. old thought patterns even dropping are sitting practice. After all, that, by the time we get to New Years, we might be wracked by guilt. Regret, resentment disappointment. And, of course, this can happen any time of year we can be wracked by these kinds of thoughts and feelings, but it just, it does seem to be amplified during the holiday holidays. Recently, I came upon a book that I found in the centers, donations area, which is a great place to shop, by the way, found many good things there. The the title of the book is hooked. Buddhist writings on greed, desire and the urge to consume, edited by Stephanie causa. And it's a collection of essays by by some of them are teachers, others practitioners scholars, and it explores the human tendency, especially in this part of the world, to pursue pleasure and happiness, outside ourselves in things in stuff in the possession of material objects, but also the acquisition of experiences, the way we can pursue thrills and adventures, a new romance and new job, something more exciting. Even traveling and moving to a new place, or a new neighborhood, you know, anything that can pull us out of this feeling that our life is kind of drab. And each one of us is complicit to one degree or another in sustaining a culture of consumption. Again, turning outward and finding happiness in stuff. You know, we we humans have always had to consume things, and other to cover the bare necessities of life consumption is not inherently bad, we, you know, we need to eat, we need a place to sleep. And, you know, we often most of us work we have jobs in order to attain those bare bare necessities that that we need. But it wasn't until the early 20th century, where consumption turned into this mass phenomenon into this cultural norm, where it was tied with personal fulfillment and progress. And that was in timing with the Industrial Revolution and the capacity for mass production. You know, old values of frugality and thrift were replaced with the value of progress. And it was measured by and is measured by an endless array of consumer choices, and the expectation that we replace old things with new and better things, even when those old things work just fine. And so we've become socially conditioned to, to find pleasure and satisfaction through things through stuff. And this is part of the terrain of Zen practice for us. How do we work with our cravings, the things we want, that wanting mind when I read a snippet from the foreword of this book, this collection of essays titled hooked and the forward is by Paul Hawken, who's a prominent writer and activist and he provides socio economic and environmental perspective on our impulse to consume.
He says until recently, most cultural at most cultures and religions honored frugality and cautioned against excess no longer Western consumer society the defacto global culture is unique in all of history because underlying it is the highly developed consumption based science called economics. It could even be called a science of graciousness, because at its root, is the belief that in order for nations to prosper, our desires must expand without limit. And grown they have in the US, there are 45,000 shopping malls, employing 10 point 7 million people. Okay, now, this book was published in 2005. So we have certainly far fewer shopping malls. They've closed most many of them. And in place of that we have, you know, this whole infrastructure of online purchases. And along with that, an increase in employment at so called fulfillment centers. And then there's this big shipping and delivery infrastructure. Here he continues, the average American family of four metabolizes 4 million pounds of material every year to support their lifestyle. That's 11,000 pounds a day, 7.5 pounds a minute. This keeps us busy. Yet we are heedless, because we don't see most of that consumption. It is offshore and in mines, stockyards slag heaps landfills, and wastewater treatment plants, billowing gases migrate to the stratosphere and double glaze the planet on behalf of us all. The constant expansion of desire and material goods forms our current definition of a healthy economy.
Actually, you know, one of the things that attracted me to the Zen Center, when I did a workshop, some 20 or more years ago, was the emphasis on mindfulness as it relates to not wasting and to minimizing harm, whether it's to the people or the planet. And here's an example in in the kitchen on a given day, you know, when we're preparing, and serving food, we tried to do so with that without wasting anything. That means taking the time to carefully scrape out pots and pans jelly jar with a rubber spatula. So we're not throwing away anything that we shouldn't be for that that is unnecessary to throw away. And I have fond memories, and I really miss already Bowden Roshi walking into the kitchen, checking us out, making sure that we are sufficiently scraping those pots and pans so as not to waste and demonstrating to himself how to do it. Now that falls on John Sensei, and myself and on the one hand, this might seem like a trivial thing, you know, scraping out a bowl. On the other hand, you know, in the context of the training promote program, it's one of many ways that we learn how to integrate our practice into daily activity and in our aspiration, to do no harm, to do good. And in general, actually being in the training program, is this opportunity to, to live more simply reducing all the stuff that can distract us, and then benefiting from having the mutual support of others. communal living and sitting. Not everyone's in a position to do the training program, even for a short stint. But you can get a taste of that simply by volunteering at the Center for a few hours or a day and an experience that that practice off the mat. it
Okay, back to back to Paul Hawken, he continues. In the Buddhist canon, there are six mind states or realms, one of which is called the Hungry Ghost, depicted as a craven figure with a protuberant stomach, and a long pencil neck, a meandering Rafe, unable to satisfy its insatiable desires. In this realm, attempts to avoid pain by seeking satisfaction cause more pain for oneself and others. It's a useful metaphor, reminding us of the compulsive shopper, the sports addict, the speculator, the megalithic global corporation, hooking poor children around the world, on fast food and hip hop. I don't know about hip hop, I kind of like it, myself. But the The important point here is that our constant attempts to fulfill our cravings, or search for happiness, through consumption of things, only causes suffering, both on an individual and a collective level. The problem that we encounter over and over again, is that getting new, more and better stuff only brings us temporary joy or satisfaction. And if we're constantly then looking for the next thing, to make us happy, we're putting a bandaid on that unease that we're feeling by getting some stuff, we end up in this cycle of working and spending and chronic craving and dissatisfaction. In psychology, there's this concept I came across called the hedonic treadmill. After acquiring some kind of new possession or something, some highly having some highly anticipated experience, even we initially get this boost of energy, it's a it's a jolt of dopamine. But then our level of happiness returns to what it was before. You might think how you felt initially, when you got a new phone, or a new car, if you can afford those things. On the one hand, you're moving up in the world, because you've got this thing, this new thing, yet the dopamine fades. And Emotionally, it feels like we're right back where we were. And the only thing we can do, at least that's this is how we're conditioned is to seek out the next thing. Get the another jolt, and then the next. And then the cycle continues. And it's really amazing how much emotional and mental energy can be conflicted focused on trying to get what we want. So in the process, you know, we're trying to satisfy our cravings and equally avoid our aversions. In the process of that there's this whirlwind of thoughts that we have to confront. It's real, and it's related to habits of mind. And as I said, it seems to be amplified during the holidays. You know, unconsciously there is this expectation that we're going to boost get this boost, when we buy things, we might be tempted to take advantage of all those holiday sales and buy stuff for ourselves. Then we can really get what we want, rather than relying on somebody else to get it for us. But it's also also in the context of giving and receiving gifts. Receiving Gifts, brings us pleasure. It's enjoyable, and especially when we get what we want. And giving gifts also is pleasurable. We can put so much care and thought into getting just the right thing for someone. And again, there's this trail of thoughts how much should I spend? What if they spend more on me? That will be awkward. What if they don't like it? Will they like this? Ocean Breeze scented candle And what if you get that as a gift? Right? You receive it? How do you react? Do you love it? Do you pretend to love it? Do you express gratitude? Do you decline and say, Oh, I'm sorry, you know, it's not for me. I'm allergic to that. Do you just take it and store it away? And forget about it. Read gift, donate, pass it on. Recently, my husband Tom and I were having a conversation with some good friends about this, this very topic. And they shared the story of a few years back receiving this very expensive, very luxurious, down, goose down duvet a blanket from a close family member. And these friends of ours are very environmentally conscious. And they're they eat mostly a vegan diet. And upon opening the president, one of them said, something like this, do you even know who we are? Great, I can feel all warm and toasty now in my bed knowing that these geese have been tortured, you know, to make me comfortable. And he said that out loud. And yeah, he was being honest. On the one hand, you can say but on the other that that response, no doubt really hurt.
I am this kind of this example kind of ties in with a hidden brain podcast that I listened to recently on the on the topic of what's called Emotional currency. This is with a Shankar vedantam. Yeah, it's titled emotional currency. And what I learned is that there is anthropological research that shows we're really hardwired to treat gift giving and receiving as a mutual obligation. Going back in time, before we humans had money before we exchanged money, we exchange things. You know, I'll give you a pig if you give me a chicken. And that wasn't just a transaction in that one moment, but it was also the forming of a bond, kind of a kind of social bond. And there's a early 20th century French anthropologist named Marcel Mauss, who argued that there's not there's an obligation to give, there's an obligation to give, there's an obligation to receive. And then there's also the obligation to reciprocate. And this is shown in early human societies dating back 5000 years ago. So when someone gives you a gift, in part, they're telling you, here's something nice for you, but at the same time, it's also establishing a relationship that implicitly says down the line, you're going to do something nice for me so no wonder there's all this mental and emotional energy that we can experience around buying gifts giving and receiving, it's part of our conditioning
another dimension of that is when that when the holidays end, and we might have this awful feeling that you know we have this new mound of stuff and we don't know what to do with it. We don't know where to put it can feel like a lot of clutter that's just piling up over time. Or we do with it. And on this can share another personal story. Tom and I experience some frustrations in this area around Christmas gift giving with our family and we got to a point this was years ago where we felt like we don't need anything you know, we have everything we need we you know let's Yeah, let's not have Christmas feel like this exchange this transaction. Let's just get together. No gasps let's just get together and enjoy I come our company and have a really nice meal together. So actually propose that to our family. And that didn't go over very well. There was a lot of resistance. Yeah, Christmas isn't Christmas without gifts. It's fun. Also to give and receive, and it is. And then yeah, this anthropological research shows that it's, there's more to it, right, that there's this hard wiring there. So in the end, you know, what we did was we agreed that we would just just focus on the kids, our niece and nephew, so no, no gifts for the adults, just the kids. So Tom, and I bought presents for them. And none of the adults as we had agreed. But sure enough, under the Christmas tree, there were gifts, there are packages with our names on them. And they were gifts from the kids who were too young to go shopping on their own, too young to drive. And also, they were gifts from the dogs. So now, you know, we've learned over time to find the the middle way. Now we go give a get a wish list that includes things that are incredibly practical that that we do use regularly, you know, oh, I need some more toothpaste. Let's put that on the list. Right? Seriously, it'll get wrapped up. So yeah, now we get like a, you know, beautifully wrapped box of laundry detergent from Theo the German Shepherd. You know, that was a good, good resolution.
Now, I'm gonna shift gears just a little bit, kind of broaden out here and read a short excerpt from Charlotte, excuse me, Charlotte Joko, back in Her most recent book, ordinary wonder Zen life and practice. And it's a from a chapter entitled 99.4% of our problems. And then it she points to the ultimate source of our cravings, and the general feeling of dissatisfaction that we have. And of course, that's our attachment to self.
She says, most of us have this one basic question. How can I have a life that makes some sense that feels good, in a certain sense and is and is meaningful? Or satisfactory? To me? It's a fine question. But why does it seem so hard to solve? Something almost always bothers us? If it isn't people, it's situations or the economy, or the election, or something somewhere? Or if nothing bothers us at the moment, there is always the hidden little idea that maybe this won't continue. And it probably won't. We buy stuff, a lot of stuff. And that can be fun for a moment. But most of us who practice are pretty clear. That's not the answer. Of course, what she's talking about is, is dukkha. dukkha is the Pali term for suffering, often translated as dissatisfaction. And it includes a whole range of Mind Body states where we may feel unrest on ease, discomfort, anxiety, grief, sadness, misery, despair, and not just unpleasant feelings and sensations, sensations. But everything, everything that's tangible and mental or emotional, that subject to change to impermanence, anything that that that arises and passes, which is everything and everyone. In his first discourse, the Buddha presented the Four Noble Truths that suffering exists, that it arises is from causes and conditions. And that is the clinging to the delusion of a separate self that thinks it's lacking something. Also, that suffering can be relieved by removing those causes and conditions, and that there's a way to remove them. And that way, is Zen. Most of us probably come to practice motivated by the feeling like we're lacking something that our life should be better than it is. And sometimes it's directly related to some pain, we experienced through a sudden change in our life, could be a change in our health or employment, or relationship. On the other hand, it could also just be this general vague feeling of anxiety about the future. A sense that or life's not headed in the right direction. Feeling feeling bored, in a rut? What's it all for. And so we find ourselves taking steps to try to bring about happiness, to try to make some positive change, change your outlook. And often we do this unconsciously. And it could be that we do it by buying new things. That's what the wider culture is telling us will bring us happiness. But also, you know, yeah, we start exercising more, move to a different place, enrolling new class start a new job, a new relationship. And we especially might do this around the start of the new year, at the New Year's Eve holiday, where we make vows. And, and we're just when we do that, we're just we're just filled with expectations. We want results. We want to change an outlook, a healthier body, and trying to break away from bad habits. And or bring forth new, more healthier ones. That's a good thing. There's nothing wrong with that. But what what becomes problematic is when we get attached to results, we get attached to having certain expectations. Yesterday, we had an introductory workshop here, which itself is an opportunity to make a fresh start. That's what it felt like for me when I did it, some 20 or so years ago. And whether you're brand new, or even if you're a seasoned practitioner, there is this risk that we make the practice the sitting practice into a thing where we objectify it and want to see certain results. We want to see change. We might even get really frustrated that we're not seeing results and give up. Nothing's happening, right? This isn't even worth my time. What am I doing? But actually, there are real tangible results that come may not come right away though. Through daily practice, we do find ourselves over time gradually opening up becoming less judgmental, becoming more generous. A better listener being there for others. And sometimes it's we don't really even realize that this change is happening. Right? It's up but other people notice it in US it might be our teacher or our friends or family.
Okay, back back to Joko again, she was pointing out this question we all have, how can I cheat achieve a life that feels good and is meaningful? Yeah, and sometimes we go chasing all these things outside ourselves to answer that question and we do that for a while before we get fed up. And then only then we do might turn inward
she says, Being Human with the, with the amazing minds that we have, we begin looking for an answer to this question. We're hoping for some magical understanding some vision of life and some great experience that's going to do it. Again, that results. Seeking wanting mind. Zen monk once s the great teacher dazu who Hey, what is great nirvana, the monk was asking the same question. We're all asking, what is the great, wonderful answer? The teacher replied, not to commit oneself to the karma of birth and death is great nirvana? No, in other words, not to commit to this, this cycle of constant craving. The monk continued, what then is the karma of birth and death? And the teacher answered, to desire the great nirvana is the karma of birth and death. Don't get caught on the word karma. dazu hay is just saying to desire this great answer is the great mistake. But we all desire a great answer. So what are we going to do? Our life doesn't quite suit us, we want an answer. And the answer is saying that just wanting the answer itself is your mistake. Where does that leave us? More annoyed than ever. Yeah, we're so habituated to chasing after things. Again, we want want the answer, we want the results. And we all have this deep abiding desire for for a fulfilling life for completion. But we keep looking in the wrong place. She continues, I have an old book that I used to pour over many years ago, it's so old, it was photocopied and is hardly holding together. It's by an English philosopher who called himself Wei, Wu Wei, for whatever reason. He wrote that 99.4% of our problems come from a concern for the self. And there isn't any self. Another way of saying this, is that all our problems, our versions of quote, myself, is disturbed by what other selves are doing, and quote, and there aren't any other selves. We might say myself once the things that others have, but there aren't any other selves out there with things.
Our true self is no self.
There's no giver and no receiver. When we're giving, there's just just the giving.
There's a parable. In this book that Roshi often uses and he highly recommended it to me. It's called Stories of the Spirit stories of the heart. And it is it is a wonderful book. It's a collection of, of stories from different cultures across time. And these stories all reflect different spiritual journeys. So they can really speak to us. They're timeless. And there's one about a fisherman that I'm going to share and then some of you might even remember hearing it before, but it's timely right now. This is how it goes. The rich industrialists and the rich industrialists from the north, was horrified to find the southern fishermen lying lazily beside his boat, smoking a pipe. Why aren't you out fishing? Said the industrialist. Because I have caught enough fish for the day, said the fishermen. Why don't you cat some more? Why would I do that? You can earn money. With that you could have a motor fix to your boat to go into deeper waters and catch more fish, then you would make enough money to buy nylon nets. These would bring you more fish and more money. Soon, you would have enough money to own two boats, maybe even a fleet of boats, then you would be a rich man like me. fisherman said, Well, what would I do that? Then you would really enjoy life. And the fisherman said, What do you think I'm doing now.
So much of our frustration or dissatisfaction comes from our tendency to look outward, to look to gain or get more instead of resting right where we are. And fortunately, we have this practice, that helps us to learn how to recognize how to loosen and free ourselves from that cycle of constant craving, and grasping. not pursuing our crazy cravings, but at the same time, not renouncing them. Taking the middle way, by not by not indulging, but also not denying, simply being beholding, and yeah, resting in the fullness of life that is right here. And he every moment. It's the difference between being fixated on getting somewhere or getting something and a mind that's wide open, wide open to the unconditional wonder that's right in front of us.
And that's how we can truly enjoy the holidays. First, by keeping up with our sitting practice the best we can. And if we fall off course, we don't have to wait until New Years to pick it back up soon as we notice. And it's really is daily sitting that keeps us grounded and less likely to go off the rails in the first place with all those temptations, all those pleasures that are put before us. And we can really enjoy the sights and sounds and tastes of the season. Enjoy group gatherings and gift giving and receiving. As long as we have that presence of mind, a lot less likely to overdo it. And there's no one formula for the middle way. But keeping our sing practice up, will go a long way in helping us figure that out. So in taking the middle way, we can also enter into the marketplace, right we don't need to all out reject consumerism and holiday excess. But we also don't need to be controlled by them. We have to pay attention to our thoughts and feelings and behaviors. And practice helps us to do that. And let's also recognize and mace make peace with the fact that it's a natural human impulse to seek pleasure in things and experiences. We shouldn't beat ourselves up about it. And yet, in practical terms, rewards keep us going keeps keep us motivated. But yeah, we want to avoid obviously acting on impulse. Avoid acting based on judgments of ourselves and others. And it's pretty clear that this consumerist culture that we live in, isn't going to go away anytime soon. Not one of us individually created it and not one of us individually can dismantle it. But if we get fixated on it, then Then we're just creating separation. It's about, you know, cultivating that awareness of the impacts it has on our life, our community, and our planet and making choices. Accordingly, we can choose to limit our exposure to all the messages we're bombarded with, and just not give them the mental space. I'm going to close with some wise words from a French philosopher, Simone VA. And this is what she said. Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity. Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity. In any moment, we have the ability to close the gap that separates us surely through where we place our attention and it's the most generous gift we can give to ourselves and to others.