Notes on a Buddhist path

No more, please

December 13, 2011 By | 5 Comments

“What difference does it make how much you have? What you do not have amounts to much more.” ~ Seneca

My wise friend, David, asked me not too long ago what would I rather have: all my desires fulfilled or all of them removed?

This time of year is the Olympics, the Academy Awards, the Everest of extreme desires. From malls and storefronts across the land bearded men in red suits beckon us, languid vixens hawk their scented wares, sweet treats of all shapes and costs whisper to us from alleyways and high end shops. Everything it seems is asking us to try it, to buy it, to need it, to gift it, to get more and more because that will fill us and our many, many friends on our gift list.

Last week while waiting for a bus I noticed a poster in the bus shelter promoting the holiday season at my local mall. The tagline was “Find Your Joy.” Contentment, satisfaction, joy, if they were to be bought, wouldn’t last. They couldn’t. The problem with buying that special gift for that special someone is that there will always be a better gift, or another gift, or a new special someone to buy a gift for on an endless merry-go-round of attempted satiation.

In his book, “Who Dies?”, Stephen Levine compares our desires to thirst in the desert. Each craving seems like another mirage, something to get to, something we need desperately, yet once we reach it we witness its ephemeral character and awake from the dream of satisfaction.

“Desire is unfinished business. Whatever has its goal in the future is an incomplete transaction with life….An interesting quality that can be noticed about desire, about wanting, is that what is called satisfaction only occurs in the moving from not having to having. Satisfaction is a moment of release from the pressure of wanting.” ~ Stephen Levine

The pressure of wanting. What an incredible phrase. When don’t we want? Each morning I wake up with the desire for my hot, satisfying cup of tea. After that I ponder what I will have for breakfast. I want to go to see the latest George Clooney movie, I want to get the zipper in my purse fixed, I want to go dancing Wednesday night, I want a new pair of jeans. All of these will appease me, temporarily, but the memory of the tea will fade, I’ll forget what I had for breakfast by lunchtime, I’ll compare George in this film to another one from the past and the jeans will some day wear out.

Lasting joy can’t be found in a box of chocolates, in a smartphone, or in George Clooney (sorry George), anymore than it can be found in hit of crack cocaine. All of our cravings are the grasping for an intangible benefit from a tangible object. Whether it’s a narcotic or a diamond ring, the object has no power to grant us satisfaction. All the perceived benefits we expect to get from the next thing will dissolve like the mirage in the desert after we acquire it. In some cases the feeling of satisfaction may linger with us for days or weeks, but eventually it will morph into another craving for something bigger, something better, all the while teasing us into believing it will last, but it won’t. Just witness the sea of wrapping paper Christmas morning lying matted and torn, gifts abandoned as so many shipwrecks only to see your adorable child not playing with the expensive gift you bought for her, but with the box it came in instead.

There is no greater guilt than discontentment. ~ Lao-tzu (Chinese philosopher 604 BC – 531 BC)

So David, in answer to your question, I will take the latter. Living in a city it’s hard to escape the thousands of pretty, shiny things that caress each of our senses every time we walk out our doors. And yet it is also the best of places to practice. I stopped buying presents a few years ago, although I still succumb to the tactile sentiment of holiday cards. When I receive a present the ancient knee jerk seizure of guilt to reciprocate has faded into gratitude. No live trees are allowed in my building which was in itself a relief knowing I didn’t “need” to go out and buy one, so instead my mantle is bedecked in lights and holly. In the midst of the helter skelter of urbania I’ve had moments of utter peace. There have been the brief interludes when I walk down the street or look into another person’s eyes where all that I desired was the next breath; it was that beautiful. Now that was joy.

What about you? Which would you pick? Can you imagine not buying any holiday gifts or even cutting back your list? I’d love to know in your comments.

To you and yours, I wish you blessings and peace.

The Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

“The Real Work” by Wendell Berry, from Collected Poems: 1957-1982, copyright 1982, North Point Press

Excerpt from “Who Dies?” by Stephen Levine, pp. 39 and 40. Copyright 1982, Anchor Books.

Image credit:   Reuters/David Gray (China), October 2, 2007.


  1. No presents (other than a pair of winter boots for the boy), no cards, no tree, no cookies will come from me. No shopping, no hectic pace, just a contented smile on my face. Oh, I am giving gifts this year…to the birds…building more houses for them to take shelter in this winter. Would I have my desires fulfilled or removed? In time they will all be removed…when that last desire of desires, the breath, is no more. So glad to see Stephen Levine in your library, Tess. Quite the teacher, that one.

  2. Thank you for being on the front line, the city, the assault of greed and money going around and around. I am spoiled to live with no stores and no cars (almost). My christmas spent in the forest and with the family of community. Hopefuly we will succeed to drown out the the ‘wanting’ with music, homemade and other, and give our children some awareness instead of packaging to fill the landfills.
    The balance of humanity is at a crossroads; may lovingkindness conquer All wherever we are.

  3. Thank you, Tess, for this timely reflection.

    I bought an early present for a friend (it required her attendance at the shop) and later heard her telling her mom that she got it at a good price … without mentioning who’d bought it for her. I felt a quick jolt … and then let it go. “The emptiness of the three wheels,” goes a Buddhist chant at meal time, “giver, receiver, and gift.” No-attachment practice!

    This morning I returned to the shop a present I’d bought for myself — an innocent enough act of self-care. But when I got home I realized I didn’t actually need it, that I’d only bought it because I could afford it.

    Good grief!

  4. Further to your post, Tess, these items in today’s Globe & Mail:

    * Last-minute gifts sure to inspire good cheer.
    * Holiday Guide: My kid won’t get the gift he wants. Should I tell him now?

    • Oh my, Peter. The irony of addictive shopping, which is just more and more suffering, at a time of year harkened to bring peace and good will just makes me shake my head in astonishment.

      I wonder, if the gift doesn’t inspire good cheer, can we take it back for a full refund?

Speak Your Mind


Site maintained by Synaptic Systems Inc. - Using the STUDIOPRESS Genesis Framework under WordPress