Today’s morsel comes from Ethan Nichtern’s One City, a book that looks at what it means to be Buddhist in today’s rapidly evolving world. In this selection, he considers how we misunderstand suffering and perfection in a 24-7 advertised world.
It’s popular to equate Buddhism with the idea that “life is suffering.” Some very simplistic takes of the four noble truths (the first formal teaching that the Buddha gave which addresses the nature of suffering) do make it seem like all Buddhism has to offer is the cold, hard fact of suffering and turmoil. There’s a rap by Nas that has the chorus: “Life’s a bitch and then you die / that’s why we get high.” This isn’t exactly what Buddhism means when it refers to suffering. Suffering is not the nature of our experience; it arises from misunderstanding our experience. This misunderstanding is what we have to face.
The judgment of our own being relative to unattainable perfection—and the feeling of inadequacy that must result from the false comparison—isn’t at all new to the twenty first century. It is the most general formula for confusion, on a very basic level of human consciousness.The discussion of suffering gets a lot more complicated than this simple way of looking at it. However, at its root, suffering occurs when whatever we have—whatever we are—is assumed to be not right—not enough, too much, just somehow off.
In our misguided attempts to solve this problem, we create a tremendous amount of turmoil, because we have to acquire or destroy whatever it takes to move toward the constructed ideal and away from the inadequacy of the present moment. Of course, when we actually do get what we were trying to acquire (next-generation gear, the right apartment, lovers who make our friends congratulate us out loud and talk trash about us under their breath, the most profound spiritual truths), and destroy what we were trying to destroy, the problem stays unsolved. It stays unsolved because our constructed ideal is by definition slippery, always changing; and like a chameleon it easily transforms into something new.The ideal is forever a shifting lifestyle and personal identity, always somehow disconnected from the reality of our moment-by-moment experience.
What we thought was IT a very short time ago is not anymore.What we think will get us by right now will soon no longer suffice. What we actually have, here and now, could never be acceptable, because we already have it. So we start the process over again, acquiring, destroying, manipulating, editing, airbrushing, and Photoshopping the moments of our experience, hoping to catch up with that fleeting ideal in our minds.
Some great thinkers (like Naomi Klein) have written about how companies don’t sell items anymore, they sell the perception of entire perfected lifestyles, in which a whole way of being/consuming in the world is implied and promised.The trick is that within a simple ad for one product, you can get someone to feel simultaneously incomplete without hundreds of other similar lifestyle products. A suburban teenager buys a pair of shoes because he thinks they make him look and feel more urban, more hardcore, more concrete and real. He wants the urban feeling; he’s not really in it for that specific pair of shoes. So any commercial that makes him feel more hardcore becomes an ad for shoes that fit that lifestyle perception in his mind, whether or not it’s a shoe ad. What might nominally be a Lexus commercial also becomes a commercial for everything else that might go with the Lexus lifestyle—the house in a gated community, the intelligent trophy-wife or the heroic (but sensitive) husband, the ivy-league dream realized. I might buy an expensive hooded sweatshirt instead of a Lexus, but I’ve bought into the Inadequacy Principle either way.
The mental impulse to chase an image of perfection is what keeps us coming back for another serving of inadequacy. It’s like a bad remake of an old movie that we didn’t even like the first time.The characters, the setting, the dialogue, and the plot are sort of new each time the script gets reworked, but the whole process is, more-or-less, circular and repetitive. That’s the definition of samsara, the déjà vu cycle of confused and destructive habits.
Of course, our modern culture of manufactured desires only intensifies the feeling of this inadequacy. We are utterly bombarded 24/7/365 by advertising meant to show us something we don’t have (but could rent pieces of, because, after all we’re worth it!).The more bombarded we get, the less space we have to examine how our ideas of perfection are manufactured at the mental source, how they fountain out of our own insecure self-image.
In the age of advertising, even the idea of “living in the moment” is taken out of context. Rather than serving as a means of appreciating what we already have, “living in the moment” is the advertiser’s slogan for justifying indulgence and compulsiveness. Don’t worry what your credit card statement will look like next month—live in the moment, live richly!
When we have no way to rest with the present moment, its ups, downs, and scattered vicissitudes, we become rampant consumers of our own experience and colonizers of our own minds. We start using our own natural resources to impose oppressive ideas of the way we’re supposed to be. This is how I find myself craving the latest iPod when a few years ago a cassette Walkman was more than enough.This is how our thoughts can become a cacophony of all the reasons we hate ourselves (the reasons might change over time, but the cacophony keeps on going). This is why so many people care where that A-list person of the moment eats breakfast. Her imaginary breakfast is a lot less interesting than our own real breakfast, if we actually invested ourselves in tasting it.