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A three-step guide to recovering from the modern addiction to consumerism, social withdrawal, and emotional inauthenticity—from life as you thought it had to be.
1. FINDING PURPOSE WHERE THERE IS NONE
TO LIVE WITH PURPOSE requires that we take a risk to create meaning for ourselves.
In his memoir of surviving in Nazi concentration camps, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl concluded that survival rests upon the realization that life, despite its absurdity, holds an authentic purpose that invariably extends beyond ourselves:
Being human always points . . . to something, or someone, other than oneself—be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is.
It’s worth noting that pleasure and elation are not synonymous with purpose or authentic meaning.
The single-minded pursuit of comfort and ease is an ultimately selfish behavior, best described as a form of drive-reduction behavior: We all have drives, such as thirst, hunger, sex, a search for survival advantage. If these drives are not heeded, they cause stress until they are acted upon. When they are finally acted upon, we feel a sense of satiation and release. For instance, I’m presently thirsty. When eventually I satisfy my thirst with a drink, I’ll feel rewarded. I feel similar things when I buy something that I want, or even check my phone for text messages. These materialistic and reward-oriented behaviors trigger an almost disproportionate emotional response. While eating and drinking might seem to simply fulfill survival instinct, they actually give me the same kind of hedonistic satisfaction as buying something fun; I feel strong and secure.
Unfortunately the buzz—neurally similar to a hit of crack, a toot of cocaine, a line of crystal meth (all of which I explored for myself, thank you very much)—doesn’t last. Like any other drug, eventually the high wears off and we are invariably left feeling hollow, yearning for more. What goes up must come down, especially our emotions. It is the foundation of the second noble truth of Buddhism that even acquiring that which we desire will ultimately always leave us craving—and consequently, suffering—more.
Since we are social creatures, joining a group can help us maintain our emotional well-being. But to preserve our connection with the group, we might find ourselves conforming to its social norms. In extreme cases we can virtually abandon ourselves just to stay connected. If we deviate from the norms of our group, we’ll experience pressure to conform, whether explicitly or implicitly.
Seeking to fit in and belong can cause our estimation of satisfaction and happiness to devolve into nothing more than the pursuit of status symbols and social recognition. But the happiness such achievements provide are short-lived. Connecting with others is important for survival and a general sense of well-being, but the urge simply to conform and comply is ultimately just another pursuit of short-term advantage and pleasure. It doesn’t give our lives any real purpose.
Feeling a sense of purpose is very different from merely feeling pleasure. A sense of purpose, or meaning, arises in me when emails arrive from complete strangers who have listened to my podcasts and are seeking some words of comfort. I don’t simply enjoy the emails. Reading them gives me a call to action, a desire to do something for others. While pleasure provides my self what it thinks it wants, purpose transcends my narrow sense of self. Purpose, a reason for being, must connect to one’s authentic experience.
We transcend meaninglessness only when we think and act beyond merely trying to satisfy our needs. We become authentic, in part, by extracting ourselves from the norm, adopting values that question rather than mimic, and taking on work that reaches beyond ourselves.
The pursuit of meaning and purpose doesn’t support the illusion of security. To find purpose we must take a risk. Helping someone with an illness or addiction, starting a relationship, raising children, or pursuing a meaningful career can require risking both our external and internal resources.
Once we’ve invested efforts into people and areas outside of our narrow self-interest, we may experience some periods of greater anxiety than people who chase after security and approval. Teaching at a Buddhist community, for example, creates meaning for me but requires sacrifice. I live hand to mouth, making a fraction of the money I made in advertising. And while many believe—incorrectly—that advertising is a glamorous profession, few even have a clue what being a Dharma teacher means, much less display any admiration when I tell them it’s what I do. Making life authentic and meaningful doesn’t always make us feel secure or comfortable.
Trying to live a life of meaning also connects my present experience to considerations of karma: my thoughts and actions have future implications, as the Buddha noted in the Kalama Sutta:
Suppose there is rebirth as a result of skillful or
unskillful actions. Then it is possible that after
death someone who acts skillfully will arise in a
heavenly realm with a peaceful mind.
But suppose there is no rebirth, there are no
future lives that result from skillful or unskillful
actions. Still, in this lifetime, one will live free
from hatred, ill will, feeling secure and at peace.
A purpose involves considering the future implications of our actions, rather than looking good or sounding pleasant to others in the moment. I am better able to sort out what my purpose will be on the basis of honesty and a dispassionate assessment of myself.
Our lives don’t come with a user’s manual or even a stated goal. We arrive into consciousness with a will to live, but no real purpose beyond continued existence. None of us are provided a reason for being beyond survival of the species, which is often less than inspiring. So how do we find meaning in a seemingly meaningless universe? We must create meaning for ourselves. To develop a genuine direction in life we must accept the challenge: We were born without a purpose, so we must create one. I am creating my own purpose, right here. I am creating a meaningful life in writing these words, as this organizes my existence toward the project’s completion.
We can take the groundless absurdity of life as a challenge by asking, “How can I create a purposeful life?” Here are some questions that can help us choose our purpose by examining some of our natural inclinations:
- If you had a diagnosis of only months to live, what would you change? What obligations and responsibilities would you put aside? How would you behave differently?
- Reflect on the times you experienced the greatest peace. What do these experiences have in common?
- What are the great ideas you respect from the canon of philosophy or literature or culture? How can you live from this perspective?
- What actions did you undertake five years ago that you feel proud of? What can you learn from these actions?
- What would be your final speech to the world? How would you summarize the important things you’ve learned in life? What have you discovered about life worth expressing to others?
The answers to these questions can help us gain some insight into our meaningful priorities, higher values, and authentic choices. If we want to establish real meaning for ourselves, the meaning has to come from within. As the Buddha taught, we should not base our beliefs and priorities on what is said to be true, what we’ve heard from others, but what we know to be true based on our own experience. The Buddha taught that, if our beliefs and values are to be authentic, we must verify them for ourselves. Similarly these investigations should be free from the undue influences of social pressure. As such, quiet, secluded contemplation can provide a worthwhile setting for these core investigations.
Once we test and develop reliable values, we live our lives guided by them, rather than simply surviving in the roles we’ve acquired at work, or in our families, hobbies, etc. We may find that we are guided by compassion, gratitude, forgiveness, and equanimity.
2. HOW CAN WE CHANGE?
BY 2002 I was no longer satisfied or happy with my work. I was so disconnected from my passion for advertising that I couldn’t remember ever having any. Moreover I couldn’t see how it served any greater good—how it served others. To make matters worse this discontent made it harder and harder to relate to the people around me who took it seriously. Ultimately I had been at the work so long that I was bored and jaded.
The alienation and sense of purposeless made me just want to quit and walk away. I was further driven by the lure of teaching meditation; my love for that was indomitable. At one point that year, I volunteered to start a recovery meeting with meditation at a halfway house for parolees on Avenue D. I’d drop in on a Thursday evening to find no more than two people waiting for the meeting to start. Quite often one or both would be slouched over on methadone as I gave an overview on breath-counting techniques or body awareness. One meeting I taught to three paroled convicts, all of whom spent the entire class facing away from me, staring at a silent television in the background. Even on these occasions I felt far greater fulfillment and purpose than I did winning an award for creative excellence in advertising. This was clearly the direction I needed to go.
However this transition from ad man to meditation teacher was not an easy change to make. Among other things, I had to consider money; since the time of the Buddha, the Dharma is taught only by donation. To charge for teaching the Dharma is to violate its spirit. It’s meant to be available to all, regardless of income, without any pressure to contribute. While teaching brought immediate self-esteem and a feeling of contributing to the betterment of the world, it hardly held any promise of paying the rent or putting food on the table. How would I survive, pay bills, and eat?
I was confronted by this hard reality: If we want change we need to move from vision to action. Without action, our vision is just a fantasy. Taking action to change—in my case, or in any case—is daunting.
It takes a lot of patience and support to make major life changes. Patience—because it is a long path and may take time. Support—not only because social support is good for our moral fortitude, but because being connected to others puts us in touch with a power and a motivation beyond ourselves. In the following sections I give some advice on how to cultivate the patience and support needed to make this kind of change.
Find Work That Benefits Others
A meaningful life is one that connects you with others in a way that contributes to their lasting happiness, as well as your own. The keyword there is lasting; work that does not really contribute to the well-being of others, even if it makes them happy in the short term, won’t contribute to your own happiness either; selling crack and candy won’t make you feel good.
A practitioner should be able to discern unskillful livelihood as unskillful livelihood, and skillful livelihood as skillful livelihood. What is unskillful livelihood? Work that schemes, insults, corrupts, deviously influences and focuses on pursuing personal gain for the sake of gain. This is wrong livelihood. In skillful livelihood one is mindful of self and others. (MN 117)
Start Small and Build Up
While I was an attendant at a retreat, Thanissaro Bhikkhu once said to me, “If you make too many changes at the same time, how will you know which one is creating positive results? If you try out too many things at once, you won’t know what’s working and what isn’t.” And sure enough, I found that bringing about my own change had to be a step-by-step, one-day-at-a-time process.
I spent thousands of hours over the following years learning to present the Dharma, figuring that even if I never got the opportunity to teach, at least I’d thoroughly achieve a new skill. Of course I’d already spent many years studying the Dharma and had met with Noah for his insights, but knowing how to give a Dharma talk naturally was quite a different matter. After a while, I realized that I benefited more from transcribing Dharma talks than from reading. Fortunately the average advertising workday has empty, dull stretches. During the off times, I’d find a talk by a Dharma master on the web, listen to a sentence, hit pause, and then rewrite it out verbatim, as best I could. Over the years I must’ve transcribed hundreds of talks.
Once you have your own one thing to do, it’s helpful to dedicate a limited amount of time to that one thing. You can start out by committing just a few minutes a day to an activity and slowly build up. In my case I devoted no more than ten minutes a day to my transcribing practice; I didn’t want to set too high a goal, which might set me up to fall short of the mark and quit out of defeat. Doing only small bits at a time lets you accumulate momentum without putting yourself under too much pressure.
Lastly it’s helpful to ritualize the activity; doing the activity in the same way, at the same time, same place, etc., will help reinforce it as a habit.
There you have it: One thing, done the same way, a few minutes a day.
Rely on Wise Friends
Surround yourself with trustworthy, empathic people: warm and wise people you can be open and honest with, who don’t try to “fix,” “solve,” or “shame” you. It is important to have people like this: people you can turn to when experiencing difficult emotions so you can express them safely, people with whom you can talk about your difficulties, who can hold your emotions and allow you to process them. The Buddha said that these kinds of people are the “whole of the path.” The Buddha taught:
Choose your friends wisely, for we become like them; someone who wraps rotting fish in grass makes the grass smell foul. Likewise fools leave their mark. But one who wraps powdered incense in the leaf of a tree makes the leaf smell appealing. Likewise the wise leave their mark.
Put Yourself on the Line
It can be helpful to make a formal commitment to change in front of those you care about, the people whose opinions matter to you. It will encourage you to live up to your word.
When I decided to finally give up drinking, in 1995, I realized that making such a dramatic change was likely to fail, as it had in the past. To prevent this I told people close to me—my kalyanamitta—of the commitment and created a sense of accountability. I’d also check in with my friend Craig, who was starting to give talks at the time too, so we’d keep ourselves on track with our progress of becoming Dharma teachers as well. Social support like this can be invaluable when it comes to learning new behaviors. If I failed I would have failed not only myself, but all of those other people, too.
For others that sort of thing might apply too much pressure and attention, but it is very motivating for me. If this sort of accountability seems right, I encourage you to use it.
Be Nice to Yourself
It’s important throughout your transformation that you use the carrot, not the stick, to motivate yourself.
While trying to change yourself for the better, you might find that your inner voice, rather than encouraging you along, is criticizing you and shaming you for every misstep: “What’s the matter with you? Why aren’t you doing better?” This is the stick. Motivating yourself with this kind of internal prodding creates stress. Eventually you come to associate that stress with the goal itself and you begin to procrastinate to avoid the discomfort. That procrastination is sure to hinder your progress.
In order to build enthusiasm, instead use the carrot: Reward yourself with positive experiences and kindness. As a reward for working on a résumé or application, I would allow myself to indulge in some idle internet meandering, or, more skillfully, I’d walk to a favorite spot, take a break with a warm cup of tea, or listen to my favorite music.
Even when you fall short of the mark, though, it’s still always better to handle yourself with care and be kind to yourself. Beating yourself up will not only cause you unnecessary pain but will hinder your progress as well.
Remember That Change Can Be a Lifelong Practice
Don’t expect transformation or success to happen quickly. Some of us may find meditation to be easy at first, especially in its simplest forms of observing the breath or repeating phrases, but while such practices can provide some immediate payoffs, such as serenity, the real insights take many years, if not decades, to experience. As we Dharma punx are wont to say: if you want to see how well your practice is going, take an overview every ten years; any sooner is impatience. It’s better to prepare yourself for the long haul by thinking of this change as a lifelong practice. If you try to make progress on a short timeline, it’s easy to get discouraged when we don’t see the results that we want—as quickly as we want to see them. The truth is that your commitment is not about measurable progress and timetables. You’re not finishing a project; you are pursuing a calling.
3. OPTING OUT: GETTING OVER THE FEAR OF CHANGE
TAKING AUTHENTIC RISKS and making authentic choices can be terrifying—how can we put this fear of change into perspective?
The Drudgery of Daily Life
Twenty-first-century American workplaces are by and large false refuges. Rather than providing us with actual security, they simply keep our underlying unease quiet.
Our economy is fueled by the insecurity of having no meaningful safety nets. Some countries guarantee their citizens the right to work, healthcare, parental leave, and leisure time, but America gives no such guarantees. People are chained to burdensome debts and spiraling rents, not to mention a perpetual fear of illness and injury that can lead to bankruptcy. Over the last forty years, we have eroded virtually all of the social safety nets that Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” legislations once promised. Programs that were started to address healthcare, educational inequality, and urban problems have been entirely abandoned. With the cost of living going up and no appropriate increases in income, the erosion of security keeps many people terrified of quitting jobs that are spiritually bankrupt.
Each year, when I peek at the world happiness reports, the United States no longer scores anywhere near the top ten. We don’t even score in the top twenty. We score somewhere alongside industrializing nations. The happiest places to live, according to meta-analysis by the World Happiness Report, are Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands. What do all of those countries have in common? Social safety nets that allow people to make significant life choices without fear.
The human mind, however, can get used to even the dreariest circumstances. Spending day after day at our jobs, we slowly become comfortable with not only the lash of insecurity, but also the chaos of it all: the grating complaints of dissatisfied customers, the cacophony of a busy office, the honking of traffic, or the stench of a factory farm or sewer. To what end? Just to hold the feelings of insecurity at bay for a little longer. Ultimately we suffer hours in drudgery and disorder in exchange for a false sense of security.
Today’s standard work-to-life ratio essentially ingrains fear and stress; by the end of the day or work week, we’re agitated to the extent we demand desensitization, via the numbing pseudo-connections of “liking” something on Facebook, the neural deadening of drugs and alcohol, the vacuity of intimacy-free sex. It’s no accident that the history of contemporary capitalism is essentially the history of addiction as well. Some of the first imports of capitalism and colonialist enterprise were tobacco, alcohol, sugar, and caffeine; the very stuff that numbs us or excite us while we labor away our lives in meaningless toil.
Buddhism has always critiqued consumerism as a way of life. One of the Dharma’s key insights is that craving only leads to more craving. Shopping, sex, drugs, approval, fame—all are short-term pleasure jolts we habituate to quickly; soon we need to accumulate more and more to experience less and less relief.
The Escape from Daily Life
To make up for the difficulty of daily life, some of us seek material rewards, whether it’s a new smartphone, car, or just a bigger paycheck or promotion. Others may think they’re smarter than that and instead spend their hardearned resources on travel, theater tickets, and so on, telling themselves that it is their experiences that make life really meaningful. Some of us might even seek out deep, spiritual experiences—a spiritual tour of India, a mushroom trip in Yosemite—and we feel that we are truly changed. But do the new perspectives you gain really last for months? Did the trip lastingly change how you handle loss, rejection, frustration, and criticism? Have you found a way to experience life while maintaining detachment?
When people take off six months or a year, go on world travels, soak in strange locales and customs, can you guess how long it takes for the weariness and dismay to return once they are home? A couple of weeks. I meet and talk with hundreds of spiritual practitioners after they’ve returned from pilgrimages. At the time they tell me that collecting new experiences is the ticket to liberation. However we’re all still the same person when we come back from vacation, after we’ve found a partner, or after we’ve done a retreat. The glow only lasts a little while. Even these deliberately deep experiences don’t produce real, needed change.
Therefore, whether we trade our hours for better things, better experiences, or even spiritual journeys, one way or another, we always return to our daily lives, to the insecurity and emptiness.
Change in the Face of Fear
When we understand the perpetual futility of our work-and-escape cycle, it doesn’t take long for us to realize that we must reach for something more meaningful. Taking authentic risks and making authentic choices can be terrifying. But if we are to move forward, we have to get past that fear.
For my part I am fortunate that I worked at a lucrative profession and that I never had a family to support, so that I could take the steps to pursue a meaningful life for myself. Countless others, though, have to live paycheck-to-paycheck like they are swinging from one trapeze to another, just a slip away from apparent doom. They deal with it by either trying to stay hyper-alert to keep on top of it all, or barely alert so that they can tolerate it. Either one leads to a desire to make everything go away and, again, to the escapes of consumerism or experience-seeking at best and addiction and pathology at worst.
But while many of us quite emphatically desire to shift our livelihood into a field that cultivates self-esteem and a sense of purpose, perhaps by benefiting others, virtually all such gratifying work requires some form of training or other commitment of time, energy, or money. And here’s where the yearning for personal growth reaches a daunting obstacle: a swelling of self-doubt or stalling wherein we drag our feet and equivocate, procrastinating at every turn. The nature of this hinderance? Emotional beliefs.
Each of us holds unconscious personal beliefs, based on early life experiences wherein we felt abandoned, rejected, embarrassed; these events leave wounds that remain vividly painful in the dark recesses of the mind. For example, I worked with a very talented artist who continually put off entering her work into local gallery exhibitions, though she very much wanted to grow as an artist. We investigated her stalling by having her visualize what she would experience if she actually went ahead and submitted her work. At first, she expressed positive images of recognition from friends and a renewed vigor in her work ethic; then, however, deeper associations revealed themselves. Entering work for exhibit would leave her vulnerable to criticism and rejection; she would have to face the dreaded fear that she wasn’t as talented an artist as she believed. Indeed, she began to recall occasions in grade school where showing her drawings led to ridicule by other students—painful wounds for any child to bear. So the procrastination actually served a purpose, one dictated by an unconscious belief: it spared her from the possibility of being once again disappointed and hurt.
The Buddha noted the power of unconscious beliefs in a teaching called yoniso manasikara (best translated as “deep understanding”), in which he taught that even our most self-destructive habits have hidden, underlying assadas, or reasons to exist. If we become introverted in social situations, for instance, its because our innermost beliefs equate getting attention with humiliation.
Unconscious emotional beliefs cannot be “told” they’re mistaken, for they are forms of implicit knowledge; as someone who was afraid of water or flying can attest, the fear cannot be rationalized away. We should not criticize or shame our symptoms in any manner.
The path to change is based on an essential understanding of the underpinnings of our fears. Change is scary. In my case it required patiently addressing a wide variety of strong, negative beliefs: I would not be empathetic enough to help others, no one would be interested in my help, and so on. Given my childhood experiences with my dismissive and occasionally abusive father, such fears were actually quite coherent and unavoidable. Nothing would change until I connected with my fear and reviewed with it the various periods in which I risked failure and succeeded . . . my career in advertising was, after all, entirely built on gall, as I had no training or even skills to rely upon when I took my first employment as a graphic designer.
Thankfully, once we expose our unconscious beliefs to all the positive life experiences we’ve overlooked or failed to emotionally imbed, the fear stops appearing to be necessary for our self-preservation, and the procrastination it evokes no longer serves any purpose and will begin to cease. Any change is possible, if we only understand and acknowledge our fears, rather than resist or fight against them.
Facing Our Fears
To address our underlying fear of change, it’s important to uncover our concealed fears and allay their concerns without any self-judgement, which would only add more emotional wounds into the mix.
Close your eyes and visualize setting your new endeavor in motion, for example by taking a class necessary for your new vocation. As you imagine the scenario, you might note the physical sensations of fear or uneasiness arise, as well as other disturbing mental images, until a full array of uncomfortable feelings appear. Once the unconscious fear is accessed, stay with it for a short period, then take a deep, relaxing breath, release the image, and open your eyes.
The next step is to imagine a different scenario: an experience in life in which you took a risk and felt rewarded or successful. (If, after reflecting over a period of time, no memory appears, you may instead conjure up an entirely imagined event). It’s important to linger on positive images for long periods; our neural circuits can imbed negative incidents in less than half a second, but positive occurrences require much longer durations—as much as half a minute for each image—to become moored in our memory circuits.
The deeper purpose we seek does not have to be limited to what we do to bring in a paycheck; it can be found in activities that connect us to others in meaningful, goal-directed interactions. Similarly, silent retreats and secluded meditations are just a part of my spiritual journey. It’s only when an activity allows me to connect with others—authentic exchanges of genuine, spontaneous, human feelings and emotions— that the spiritual life lifts me to its greatest heights.
Maintaining an awareness of the ceaseless flux and change of human experience helps us to face the fearsome nature of change by simply familiarizing ourselves with it.
Take a stroll down any street at an unhurried pace, putting aside any sense of destination or time constraints; simply let yourself walk without a goal; don’t allow your mind to be overly fixated on memories or plans or idle fantasies, which will lure you away from the surrounding sensations. Allow the sights and sounds of the street to saturate your awareness, trying to stick with the actual experience. Note the passing of traffic, horns, city life, or of birds, dogs, and lawnmowers. Then start to focus on the internal states shifting beneath each encounter: the changing rhythms of inhalation and exhalation; the feelings of comfort and discomfort arising in the stomach, chest, shoulders, throat, and face; the shifting moods of the mind—often distracted, sometimes vigilantly alert, attention modulating from unsettled and jumpy to untroubled and clear.
The closer we observe our internal states, the more profound our awareness of the unreliability of all experience. There is nothing to hold on to for stability; all events that appear, either internally or externally, are in the process of passing. We are falling through space and time, but without a ground to eventually crash against. We are falling, forever.