"Anything that appears in your life you regard as something to consume. If you see a beautiful autumn leaf falling, you regard it as prey. You take it home or photograph it or paint a picture of it or write in your memoirs how beautiful it was. You have finally managed to consume it--such an achievement. It was fantastic; you brought the dream into reality. But after a while you become restless again and look for something else to consume. You are constantly hungering for new entertainment--spiritual, intellectual, sensual, and so on."--Chogyam Trungpa, from The Myth of Freedom and the Way of Meditation
Yesterday I spent the day with my husband's family for Easter brunch. The pleasures of this day (and of many of the holidays I spend with my in-laws) are the ritual aspects; the fact that we always have the same meal--eggs, home fries, cabbage salad, fruit-filled muffins, strawberry soup, cousin Susan's delicious Easter bread--rendered more special by the fact that she's highly intolerant to gluten and so has to wear a mask every time she bakes it. My mother-in-law puts up the same kitschy Easter decorations--A paper bunny on the window of the front door that might have been hanging in all of the houses they ever lived in since the 1950's, the same egg-shaped box of jellybeans on the coffee table, a cartoon postcard on the refrigerator of two chocolate bunnies, one with his bum bitten off and the other with his ears missing, one bunny saying to the other "My butt hurts" and the other responding "What?" I love this repetition of food and trimming--it makes me feel like nothing will ever change.
Meanwhile, there is also the pursuit of the new, the desire for change, that excites me. I got an early birthday present of a MacBook Pro from my husband. I had been using one of his ex-company's castoff Dells, circa 1999, and so I was overdue for an upgrade. The new laptop is a thing of beauty--sharp, shiny, powerful, with lots of new features to explore. Once I started using the computer--even before I had learned how to install any software--I was thinking of what accessories would go nicely with it. There's been lots of talk at my office (yes, even a Buddhist publishing house embraces new technology) about the iPad, and even though I've lived without this device for all of my 36 years and been just fine, I find myself wanting it. I'm not even sure what it does--all I know is that it too is shiny and new and desired by many people whom I respect and admire. My ears also perked up when I heard they were developing an iPhone for Verizon. I feel outdated with my stale LG phone from three years ago with no "apps" or even a touch-screen, though it still works (except for the stuck "9" on the front keypad.) Yet I remember the lengths to which I went to acquire that phone back in the winter of 2007. Mike had been in a bike accident and shattered his pelvis. Despite the fact that he was barely mobile, I pushed his wheelchair over many city blocks of ice and snow, determined to get to the Verizon store so we could consult about the new LG NV (emphasis on the "NV," as in, I want this phone so I can be the "envy" of...)
The grasping of the old, the pursuit of the new--both attempts to maintain ego and obscure the fact that life is finite. At least that's how I understand it from the Buddhist teachings I've been reading for almost two years now. I suspect that even the fact that I've been reading various Buddhist books for 18 months could be conceived as spiritual and intellectual materialism. Mike and my in-laws often joke about my love of shopping, and even though I've started to become more aware of the things that truly bring us happiness--family, friends, feeling connected to our community--I still find myself dog-earing the latest Garnet Hill catalog, imagining myself in one of their admittedly overpriced sundresses.
I'm not sure how I can eliminate desire. Is it even possible? I know that clinging to the familiar while hungering for the new brings about suffering. But there's also pleasure in that pain, and even though it's illusory and short-lived, it's still pleasure. I would like to go on having Easter brunch with my in-laws indefinitely, while at the same time I'd like to redecorate our apartment--toss the old green chair and bring in the new sofa and queen-sized mattress. Tradition feels secure--like eating in your favorite diner--and change feels like an opportunity to extend happiness, repeat the novelty over and over with each new acquisition. Even as I'm reading and enjoying one book, I have fourteen more listed on Good Reads that I'm itching to start.
I don't have any answers. I just know that as Americans we believe in our right to the pursuit of happiness, in whatever form that may take. This seems in direct opposition to many of the ideas I'm reading about in my Buddhist books, making it hard to understand--much less to live up to--the Buddhist teachings of ego-lessness.
But, perhaps ironically, I keep on trying.