On Desire

I got a comment on one of my posts asking the following:

Given the Buddhist premise that human suffering is caused by desire, and that we should strive to overcome desire, how can the individual deal with this concept in a capitalist society, and try to live in a non-materialistic way? Do we have to be content with little actions and gestures? Is that enough?

This comment inspired me, not just to comment, but to write an entire musing…

I have struggled with this myself, along the path, but this is where I am am with it at the moment. This goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that, of course, this is NOT an official Buddhist answer (which you will clearly see), but one Buddhist’s feeling on the matter in one point of time.

First, it was interesting for me to hear that a non-Buddhist perception is that of the “premise” that human suffering is caused by desire. Not that this is incorrect, but desire is not THE premise of human desire, which may or may not have been implied in the comment. From what I have learned, I would clarify as to say that desire is actually just one of the many thoughts that contribute to our ignorance, and thus, suffering. Ignorance is defined as the misunderstanding that we, as individuals, create a distinction between ourselves and others. In short, that there is an “I’, or “The Ego”. This creates Desire and jealousy (I want what they have), hatred (they are not like me, or are against me), pride (I am better than them), etc. etc. etc. Really, I could go on and on here. It’s just that in our capitalistic / materialistic society, desire can, for some, seem like a bigger obstacle than others. I, for example, really enjoy clothes / fashion. I struggled with this at one time because I felt that this, at its least, was superficial, and at its worst, harmful to others (I don’t know or look into how or where most of my clothes are made). Also, many of the people I have encountered in the Buddhist community are very well off. They live in big homes and have the best of the best in everything that they have. I was slightly uncomfortable with the idea of material wealth mixing with Buddhism. Like an avocado and grapefruit cocktail – they just did not seem to go together. I, too, felt that a true Buddhist had to live life with minimal THINGS in their life. Interestingly, however, there was the Buddha himself. He was a prince with every earthly comfort available at the time. He set out to find true happiness and in this process, renounced all of these comforts. He learned that renouncing material comforts / living in extreme hardship was also not the answer….and eventually just sat under the infamous Bodhi tree, eventually gaining enlightenment (hugely abridged version of his life).

What has been explained to me, and which makes the most intuitive sense to me, is that it’s not having material things, or even enjoying them, that is the problem. It is the ATTACHMENT to material things that may set us off course. Attachment is a HUGE premise in our daily suffering. We, as humans, attach to people (I can’t live without you), attach to the way things are (what do you mean, my position no longer exists?), attach to things we have (I LOVE my house. IT makes me happy)… It’s absolutely FINE to have material things… even lots of them, if you have the good fortune to have them, as long as you don’t ATTACH to them or attach your happiness / well being to them. For someone who has great attachment to things, renunciation may be a good exercise for them, but there is no premise to say that Buddhists can not have things, or nice things. It is true, however, that contentment is something to practice and strive for. So if an intense desire for things gets in the way of this, then it’s something to look at. But if the root of it is not attaching to an idea that something will make us happier (and I think there is a distinction between getting some pleasure out of something and thinking it makes us happier), then OK! And sure, there are lots of stipulations for monks or nuns where they renounce all sorts of things that us lay practitioners do not…..speaking of desire. Ah-hem. But I digress.

Here’s something tricky about most spiritual paths that I am coming around to realizing. Everyone’s path is totally individual, so ‘desire’ looks totally different for every person. For some, a constant wanting of material goods, living in this material society, would be a huge obstacle for them in finding their true selves. Because they are attached to material things and the desire makes them feel like material things will make them happier. Another person, maybe an artist, who is content to live a life without many material THINGS may have an intense desire for recognition. Even the Dalai Lama has an intense desire – to free all sentient beings from suffering. So, desire comes in many flavors. There are some Buddhist scholars who believe that desire can not be done away with – that it is a human trait. I can not source this example, but I do remember one quote/story/ saying that, as humans, if we took everything away but a cot and a chair (like a monk may have), we become attached to our chair. Hmmmmmmmmmm

Another way I think about it is this – if Buddha said to ‘eliminate desire’, what I would take from that is that in a completely enlightened state, desire does not exist. I can certainly believe that. But even then, a desire for material things – from what I know, enlightened beings still desire for other beings to find true happiness. But, in the world of being human, we live in a continuum of many of these idealistic states. On one end is ultimate enlightenment where we don’t have to give up desire because desire no longer exists. On the other end is, let’s use addiction. Drugs or alcohol, sex, even shopping. Any addiction, the strongest form of desire/attachment, that ultimately causes huge amounts of suffering to the addict themselves plus countless individuals who are affected by that person’s addiction – the addicted individual, family, friends, someone a drug addict robs in order to obtain money, etc. Addiction is an extreme case of desire where having the object/substance of choice does not satisfy, but for a moment, and then desire sets in again. Most of us do not live in either one of these extremes, but somewhere on this continuum.

If all paths are individual, then how do we assess what we need to work on? An honest look inward, or an honest look outward at our reactions is all we need. Sometimes we may need help in seeing it – this is where a guru, teacher, or even your BFF will help. Here is an example – going back to my love of clothes. I don’t think that clothes MAKE me happy. I enjoy having new / nice clothes, but in general, would not consider myself dependent upon clothes or anywhere near addicted to shopping, etc. Then there was my Banana Republic ‘zipper jacket’. It was black number with a tiny dashed pin stripe and I called it the zipper jacket because it had lots of zippers on the pockets, which were plentiful and they stood out and defined the look of the jacket. It fit great, I could wear it with anything, and it even had enough thickness that I could wear it for some warmth in cooler weather, but it was not so warm that I couldn’t wear it casually. I loved this jacket. And if you think that is a crazy statement, then you have never owned a jacket like this. But I would not have called myself “attached” to the jacket. Like any good Buddhist, I thought that if one day it disappeared, I would shrug it off. And then it actually disappeared. Literally, just disappeard. I had it in a bag while traveling in Chicago. We had gone out to a bar and then a restaurant, but I had not taken the jacket out. Later that night I went to put it on, and it was gone. I have no idea what happened to it. I was very upset. I retraced my footsteps of the prior day, calling every possible place that I might have left it. I called multiple times. I stopped by. And then I had to accept that it was gone. AND I had to accept that I was attached to this very material thing – a jacket! It wasn’t even sentimental, like being attached to a wedding ring (ooh – that’s a good one, I am probably attached to my wedding ring!). And then I let myself be human, and I MOURNED the loss of the jacket. It took me a couple days, maybe more, but then I was over it. I still have fond memories of the jacket and if I found one like it, I would buy it again. But instead of beating myself up over my attachment, I could see that it was a great EXERCISE in attachment. And that’s what it is to be on the path – practice, practice, practice.

“Living in a non-materialistic way…” (from the comment), well, we can. Maybe we should. It’s up to the individual and what makes sense on their path. If it means to not suffer with constant wanting and not placing our happiness and well-being in the hands of these material things, then yes. If we deprive ourselves of things that bring us pleasure and try to live in hardship, and thus cause us more suffering, then I wouldn’t be a proponent of this.

One final word in responding to the post – Jean also asked, “Do we have to be content with little actions and gestures? Is that enough?” To this, I would say, do we HAVE to be content? Like, these are not enough? Well, again, that depends on the individual. But small gestures can have huge impacts, so we CAN be content with little actions and gestures. Or we can go out and do something big. Little actions and gestures coming from a person in a good place with the right intentions are far better than grand gestures done for the wrong reasons. And I think the quote that was used in a prior post is quite relevant here, and I’ll sign off on this note:

You may never know what results come from your action.
But if you do nothing, there will be no results.
-Gandhi

Confessions of a Messy Person

Recently, my husband approached me with a recurring request – please be neater. My reaction was similar to our 3-year old’s tantrums with my ranting ending in something like, “you don’t know what it’s like to be me.” He may have anticipated this reaction, given it’s a nerve he’s touched before, and his blank stare told me he wasn’t going to participate into my attempt at distraction. “Whatever – I am just asking you to be neater” was his rational response that I couldn’t really react to, except to say, “ok, but please show me how.” He was more than happy to show me. Let me introduce myself. My name is Carmen and I am messy. Messy is not something that I am supposed to be. Us messy ones have a very bad name out there…and as a mom, I’m really not supposed to be this way. How will I ever raise good little citizens if I can not pass on traits like making beds, putting away toys and shoes (which I do try to teach, by the way) or tidying rooms? Thank goodness my husband is religiously neat (and as a German, it may just be genetic) so that our children have hope. As part of my confession, however, I feel compelled to say a few things.

I realize that us messy folks don’t get to say much in this antibacterial culture that we live in – by definition, misfits in our anxiously neat and clean society. I am not going to say that I am too busy to be neat, even though I am a mother of a 3 year old and a 10 month old and now I’ve gotten this hair-brained idea that I need to be a writer, which means I work full time plus. I will admit I have tried to use this excuse, but I do recognize that everyone is busy, including my religiously/genetically neat husband, so I give up this point.

So, then, a word in my defense. I am not dirty, I am messy. Though, certainly by my friends and family bordering on OCD tendencies, some might contend that I am dirty too, even my husband concedes this point – I am just messy. And what I really want to explain to the world is that mess follows me. I’ve talked this over with other messy people and it’s an agreed-upon phenomenon. I am not asking the American Medical Association to make up a name for my affliction so that I can pronounce my victimization to it. I am just saying that I feel I, perhaps, lack a neatness gene. Ok – maybe I am kind of saying it’s not entirely my fault. But here’s how it is. I love things to be neat. I’m sorry to other messy people who try to demand that being messy is just another way to be. I actually think that almost all messy people would have to admit, even if they haven’t admitted to themselves yet, that neat is good. Feng shui tells us this, and most of us know this from experience: Clutter and mess suck our energy. Also, knowing where something IS, vs. looking for everything for 10 minuets is a real breath of fresh air. But it just doesn’t work like this for me. Here’s how it goes: I clean up my kitchen. I organize, put things away, scrub, set things up how I think they would look best. It gets to a point where I’m tapped. This is clean. It’s tidy. It’s done. Then my mother-in-law comes through (remember, she’s German), and thinking that I have not yet cleaned, up, runs through her procedure, and let me tell you, minutes later, I’m dazzled. It appears more spotless, more organized. It looks like a kitchen in a magazine. But why was I not able to do this? Please, someone tell me.

One of my problems there are miscellaneous objects left over on the counter that I’m not quite sure what to do with. Pictures of my niece and nephew that my sister gave me, a batman ring of my son’s, some old batteries that I’m trying to find out the best way to dispose – things that don’t really have a home. While I know it’s my job to find them one, there are reasons that they kind of “work” here. The pictures, my son likes to look at. His batman ring, if put in the toy-chest would fall to the bottom never to be seen again. The old batteries? If I don’t leave them out, I will forget that I have them, and forget to look up the proper way to dispose of them, and then when I run across them again I will not know if they are new batteries or old batteries. So, even if it takes me 2 months to get this errand taken care of, at least I won’t permanently forget. It’s an interactive to-do list, if you will. And, yes, it’s messy.

I’m not sure how I ended up this way. My mother is a collector of, well, from what I can tell, everything, so clutter is an issue in her house, but she’s one of those OCD people I was talking about in terms of germs and cleanliness. One look at her desk, however, will have you pointing your finger as to where I get this from. But even she points her finger back at me and laughs at my ability to see past misplaced items and a slightly dusty shelf that I am ‘getting to’. Mind you, this is a woman who had to run a bulldozer through my room every 6 months so that there was a path to walk through as I was growing up, so I allow her the finger pointing and the laughing. The irony, or not, considering how the world must balance itself, is that my sister is a professional organizer. Seriously. She gets paid to go into people’s homes and reduce clutter, clean up, and teach them how to do it for themselves. It’s a running household threat from my neat husband to hire my sister to organize our house. I applaud and admire her abilities, but I don’t feel I am that far gone to need professional help….yet. My sister mostly deals with chronics – people with buying or collecting obsessions, who have mental issues with giving things up. People who have rooms full of items – such that they can’t walk into these rooms. People who make me look anally neat. Also, professional organizers are advocates of labels and other such atrocities. No matter how many kids I have, or how chaotic my life becomes, I will not label where things belong. If someone can’t figure out that the bin where most of the stuffed animals reside is where the stuffed animals go, or the shelf with the art supplies is where the crayons go, then we’ve got bigger issues than messiness. My desk ‘in-box’, looks like an in-box (in a very fashionable, raspberry pink and aqua blue kind of way) – I don’t need it to say ‘in-box’. I feel labeling is truly giving up any form of style – it’s pure function over form, and it’s like scraping nails on a chalkboard for me when I see it. Function vs. form is one area that my husband and I have agreed is one of our primary value differences –the only area in which we are flipped in this attitude is in the area of bras – he sees no need for a nude colored t-shirt bra, no matter its extremely high functionality. But I digress. All to say, perhaps it’s my philosophical beliefs that lead me to a messy home? No. I have anti-label friends who still have immaculate homes….and I recognize my own grasping for reason.

On the professional front, I do hire professional help on a regular basis. I have a house cleaner who comes every two weeks. She is another woman who can transform a cluttered, messy console table into a beautiful display of colorful, picture-perfect stacks of items that look like they are meant to be there, not that they are waiting around to be taken care of. I also subscribe to Real Simple – a magazine published by professionals on the subject – and I even read it. I also have a lawn-guy who makes my yard look really neat. On this one, let’s face it, there are simply other things I would like to do with my time…like writing enlightening articles, like this one.

In a world of relativity, I still argue that I’m not that messy, though I do feel it’s something that I may battle (and my husband may battle) for the rest of our lives. Perhaps there is hope,however, because since my 20’s, I have improved 100 fold. For my husband, however, whom I didn’t start dating until I was 32, I’ve improved only a tiny-eensy-weensy-bit. But he does admit improvement, which is already something.

For those of you who don’t empathize with my messy predicament, and wonder how I live with myself, here’s how. In my quest for ‘self-improvement’, I will also continue to live in this balance of accepting me for who I am, and who I am not. I will continue to take responsibility for myself and my household – and will continue to call in professional help where needed. Some day, I may even call on my sister. And in the mean time, I just hope there is perhaps a little more understanding between you neat-nicks and us…uh….’not so neat-nicks’, or dare I suggest, ‘neatness challenged’, and that you revel in the fact that, despite what we say, we would like to be a little bit more like you: A true confession.

The Preschool Saga

When we had Max, we lived in San Francisco, where childcare, along with other life conveniences like housing and parking, is scarce and expensive. As soon as he was born, other mothers told me I needed to start looking at preschools / schools and getting on wait-lists. I scoffed at this idea. Regardless of where I was living, I felt this pretentious behavior was only for the anal retentive. And then shortly into his life, ~ 8 months old, we decided we were moving to Austin, TX. The whispering, nagging voice that had been growing in the back of my head telling me that preschool was looming (in 1-2 years!) and I better get my booty in gear or fail my son in his first educational experience, was hushed. Whew – we were moving to Austin, where childcare was affordable and, from what I heard, available. Excellent public schools abounded and we chose our neighborhood based on an excellent elementary school, even though that seemed a lifetime away. We quickly found an excellent nanny and all was well…. and then I started talking to some mothers in Austin who warned me that, in fact, I was probably late to get Max on waiting lists at good preschools – he was 11 months old and we were discussing schools that he wouldn’t start until 2 or 3! While nannies and primary education abounded, good preschools seem to be scarce everywhere. But I really did not believe what these mothers told me. Again, I thought this might be some pretentious, type-A thing that was not my style. Well, Austin is not a pretentious, type-A kind of place, so when these women talked, I should have listened. Since we had just moved to Austin and I had my hands full with working (worked part-time) and settling in to a new city, I didn’t get around to even looking at schools until he was well over 1 year old. That voice telling me that I was going to fail my son in his first educational experience had not gone away – it was only resting – and it came back with a vengeance.

Let me preface this story with the fact that I do NOT think that preschool is something to worry about. I don’t think it will make or break anyone’s future. I don’t care about sending my child to the “best” preschool, just because it’s the “best.” Or that going to the “best” preschool will get him into the “best” elementary, and that this will domino-effect him into a wildly successful career and blissful happiness later in life. But what I do care about is the here and now. I care that my child’s experience will be loving, gentle, respectful, and above all, crazy fun. Of course, I want him to be learning in the process, so the program needs to be educational as well – defining that thin line between daycare and preschool. This did, however, lead us down a path to some of the “best” preschools in Austin. The ones with long waiting lists that ask questions on their applications like, “explain why you would like your child to attend xxx”, and this question caused small beads of sweat to form because I knew that there was probably a right answer.

Not all of these schools make it very easy, either. They have school showings only at certain times, and even the school showings filled up, so one has to wait for the next round. Orientations must be attended, checks written, all to get on a wait list. There was even one school that has a 4-part lecture series and the children whose parents attend these lectures are given “priority” in getting in. As pretentious as all of this sounds, I’ve learned that it’s not for the sake of it, but really because these programs take themselves very seriously – they take the 4 – 5 hours that they will be caring for your child very seriously, and ultimately, I want them to.

But, alas, after many school showings, orientations and signed checks, we were on wait lists with not a lot of chance of getting in when we had hoped. I had been, just as I was told I was going to be, too late. So our first foray into preschool was when Max was 20 months. I took him to a very local preschool – just down the block – that really, in my mind, was a daycare. I took him just one day a week because he had never ever been dropped off anywhere. He had only had a nanny or me and I thought it would be a good transition for him to learn the idea that whenever mommy dropped him off somewhere, I always came back. I sent him only 1 day / week and over the course of the term, he enjoyed the time there and did learn that drop-off lesson that I had hoped, though he certainly never really enjoyed it (drop-off continues to be a challenge today and he’s over 3!). But I was not impressed with the school – there was pretty high turnover with the teachers and the classrooms were big and chaotic. And then some friends of ours told us about the Montessori school that they had sent their children and how much they loved the school. Though we really loved some of the other Montessori schools in town, I had not heard of this one, so we went to one more school showing, which was how I thought school showings should be – we made an appt with the director and it happened that week. There was no ‘school orientation’ and because our friends had referred us, she could guarantee us getting in. She even suggested that Max start earlier than we had planned – 2 months before his baby sister was born, instead of 2 months after – so that he would have his own routine going when the new baby came, and he wouldn’t be presented with 2 big changes in a short time-frame. I appreciated her insight, even if it did benefit them by having him start earlier. And like that, we were in. After all of the running around and research and visits, we were going to a school, not because it was the “best”, or even our favorite, but because we could get in. And with the resounding recommendation from our friends, I also felt really good about the school.

Now, a year later, Max is finally getting into some schools where we sat on the wait list for 1-2 years. While I have rated the current school average to excellent on different points, overall, we feel it is time for a change, so he will go to another school this fall. And we are back to writing checks, and in one case, even getting letters of recommendation (I can’t keep my own eyes from rolling, so I’m sure yours just did too). I don’t know if these new schools are the “best”, but they seem to be a good fit with our family, which I recognize is the best filter for “best” anyway. I now feel so fortunate that we have choices – and that we are choosing between schools that we really love. After all we have been through, I felt compelled to tell our friend, who recently had a baby, that she really needed to start thinking about preschools in the baby’s first year. She looked at me with that familiar, “that’s only for the pretentious and anal retentive” look. “I know”, is what I said, and patted her hand.

The Cabbie Code

We went to Cancun at the beginning of February and I had a grand plan to write the ‘Cancun Chronicles’ while were there. However, I quickly realized that it was difficult to chronicle a trip where the point was to do nothing. There were a lot of “and then’s”. “And then we went to the beach and then we ate and then we sat next to the pool and then I took a nap.” Of course, you know that I can ramble about nothing, but I’ll save all of that for another entry, perhaps. But one portion of the trip did stand out as noteworthy, however, which was our trip to the airport.

Our cab driver was a remarkably nice older retired gentleman – the only problem was that he should have retired his driver’s license long ago. Austin cabbies are notorious for not having any sense of urgency. Because he was late, we were running late, and we immediately put the pressure on that we needed to ‘make tracks’. I think under normal circumstances, it would have taken him approximately 3 times longer to get to the airport than any other cab driver, but due to our pushing, it only took us only 2 times longer. This was after we stopped pushing because he clearly couldn’t handle any speed over 45 mph. He was not able to stay in one lane on the highway, and when we pointed out to him that he was in 2 lanes, he would slam on his brakes and start going 35 miles per hour, again, on the HIGHWAY. The core of the problem was that he really could not SEE. Mark started dictating intersections, red lights, etc, not to mention the aforementioned number of lanes he was taking up. As you can imagine, we made him very nervous. I think most of his passengers probably sit quietly in the back of the cab, silently praying for their lives. And because he is so NICE, no one says anything to him about it. We have a family of 4 and luggage to match, so Hubbie was up in the front seat with him. Now, if God himself were driving, Hubbie would tell him how to get to heaven, so this guy was going to get directions, regardless. But as soon as it was established that this guy could not drive, or SEE, Hubbie asked if he would pull over and let him drive. While I want to praise Hubbie for being protective of his family, I think there was, potentially, more of a fear of missing our flight. Regardless, evidently it is against the cabbie “code” to allow anyone else to drive. This is what he said – the Cabbie Code. This makes perfect sense, really, that other people are not allowed to drive, but I did have to wonder what this cabbie “code” said about being able to stay on the road. Perhaps something like, “If one can not stay on the road due to fatigue, boredom, drunkenness, drugs or old age, then fain competence. Pretending like everything is just fine will make your passengers at ease.” The Cabby Code – I imagine an old tattered and torn yellow handbook with copied pages of old type-written pages, passed around and down among cabbies through the ages. The original would be rumored to be in the glove compartment of the Yellow Cab in the Smithsonian. I have no idea if there is a Yellow Cab in the Smithsonian, but I think there probably should be, next to Kermit the Frog and Dorothy’s slippers. Then I really started thinking about what else would be in this Cabbie code …

  1. Even if you have a non-smoking cab, smoking inside your cab when you don’t have passengers, is, indeed, acceptable, especially if you have a window open. Your passengers will never notice.
  2. Remember to always gun the gas and slam on the brake all the way to your destination– passengers enjoy the thrill – and then they will be too ill to argue about fares or that you have dropped them off at the wrong location.
  3. Never carry smaller bills adequate to make change. This would mitigate the opportunity to drive around to find the nearest 7-11 to make change, in which case, the riders may give up in frustration and say, “just keep it!”
  4. Never carry a map, no matter how new you might be to a city or if you have never been past the corner bakery in your grandmother’s neighborhood. If anyone asks, you have been driving this cab for 20 years. Even if you are only 22 years old.
  5. Pedestrians? Never heard of ‘em, never seen one.
  6. (addendum added in last 10 years) Talking on your cell phone is a great way to instill a sense of security. Your riders will know you are a real ‘family man’ if you choose to shout at your family members on the phone en-route. Riders then love to discuss family matters – it makes them feel connected to you, and they will give a better tip.

I had a notion to ask him for his copy of the “code”, but was too busy with a baby and a 3-year old to do much reading. As it turned out, the flight was only ~ 20% full, so we got there with time to spare – and most thankfully, in one piece. We called the city to report him – which I hated to do, on one hand, because driving cab is his livelihood. On the other hand, it is only a matter of time before he has an accident and hurts himself or others. Perhaps he could carry on his career, writing Cabbie Code.