This is an excerpt from a book I am working on (memoir, essays, poetry) and is about the mental path that brought me to where I am today. This particular piece is from about 10 years ago.
I’m reading various Buddhist things (again and/or still). I finally and more completely understand what the Buddha means when he tells us that desire is the cause of all suffering. We are always wanting something, and regardless of the outcome of that wanting, it leaves us in some type of pain or discontentment. Either we can’t get what we want, or we get that thing and then lose it, or our desire for it goes away after we get it. Hence pain of various sorts and intensities.
When I was younger and read Buddhist stuff, I had trouble getting past that word “desire.” In my mind, it was equated with sex. What’s so bad about sex? I thought. And isn’t detachment a kind of cold and boring way to go through the world? I came to realize, however, that desire applies to many more things than sex; and that, though desire can lead to a lot of pleasure, that pleasure often leads to pain.
But doesn’t that imply removing yourself from the workings of the world in order to be free of desire? –Taking what we think of as the typical attitude of a Buddhist monk, sitting in his monastery or temple, praying and meditating as the world passes by outside? But why should we remove ourselves from the world so completely that the only thing we enjoy is our own enlightenment? And isn’t working toward enlightenment just another craving that we’re trying to fulfill? Which brings us to the old Zen roundabout of not being able to reach enlightenment if you want enlightenment.
Actually though, it’s the desire and not the pleasure itself, or the thing desired, that leads to the pain. You can enjoy pleasure without wanting it, or without feeling that you need it. It’s that feeling of wanting to own something, to hold on to it, that causes the pain.
I can see that selfishness and ego are bad, or can be bad when indulged in too completely and too blindly. And I think our society is chock-full to the brim with ego and selfishness and greed. But we are in the world, and must participate to some degree. I want to eat when I’m hungry, and there are certain possessions which mean a lot to me. I am proud of my books and my mementos, my music collection and my own past creations of poetry and music. When I check my own life for ego and greed, these are the things I come up with, and they go back a long way. I never cared that much about fancy cars or clothes or houses. I could do without all that. But I have always surrounded myself almost obsessively with my books and knick-knacks—my memory objects.
Starting with the round room on Beech Street, I’ve almost always had a chair that was mine specifically, surrounded by my current favorite things. This was my place in the world. If I had one of these located somewhere, then whatever pain and poverty I was going through, it was still okay.
And yes, I have been poor. I have been without a job, without a car, without much of anything. But I have always had a family to fall back on when needed, so I have never been homeless or on welfare. I have always had my place in the world, however poor and unprepossessing it may have been. A safe home base from which to venture out into the world.