We’ve all done it. Gazing at ELLE Decor and picturing ourselves at Courteney Cox’s Malibu mansion overlooking the Pacific Ocean. If we could only live there, watching the sunset from the sprawling deck with a chilled margarita in our hand, life would be perfect. Or what about zooming down the Pacific Coast Highway in our new Porsche Panamera, feeling the warm California sun on our face? Whatever our desire, we’ve thought, “Wouldn’t life be grand if that was mine? Wouldn’t everything be perfect? Wouldn’t I be happier?”
Our society is ripe with sophisticated advertising designed to tap into our endless appetite for more. If we could just accumulate enough pleasant possessions, life would be perfect. But falling for this seduction can only end badly. Remember the stories of Wall Street brokers who jumped out of windows when the stock market crashed in 1929? It was as if their identities disappeared with their wealth and life was no longer worth living.
A few months ago, I interviewed Scott Neeson, the former president of 20th Century Fox International who, during a vacation to Cambodia, stumbled upon a garbage dump and came eye-to-eye with a toddler digging for food. Within a year, he had sold his Brentwood mansion, his Porsche and his yacht and left Hollywood for Phnom Penh (my interview with Scott will publish later this month). Talking to him upended my life. I have always logically known that my desire to live in a designer house, to go on the perfect vacation, to have more, wasn’t going to give me lasting happiness. But hearing Scott say it with such conviction — a man who had lived the American dream — made something click: I finally believed it in my heart.
In the months since, many of my lifelong desires have faded away. Suddenly, the cramped 1200–square-foot house we bought when we had one child — we now have three — feels enough. I’ve embraced our tight quarters — even if at times the noise level drives me nuts — and fallen in love with our simple way of life. I rarely buy clothes unless I absolutely need them. I own less shoes than my minimalistic husband. At times, this new sensation makes me feel lost. It’s disconcerting to walk into a clothing store and not want anything. Or tour a “dream house” for sale and feel no desire to own it. On the other hand, a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I’m much lighter. And yes, happier.
How can we overcome our constant desire for more? Where does it come from? And what happens when we finally let go of it? For this month’s Cover Story, with the help of my longtime friend Zenshin Michael Haederle, a Zen Buddhist monk, we explore this topic with step-by-step instructions on how to find true happiness.
Healthy Desire vs. Unhealthy Desire
“Where does our desire for material wealth come from? That’s pretty much the core question, isn’t it?” says Zenshin Michael Haederle. “We come into this world with a certain amount of desire built in. A baby has a basic desire to breathe, to suckle and to be held. We all desire closeness with others and have a need for novel experiences, which is an incentive for us to explore our environment. These kinds of desires or appetites are essential to our survival as living creatures, and they’re basically healthy. Lack of desire for core needs like food and companionship is usually a sign of some sort of illness.”
“The kind of desire we’re talking about here is different: it’s deranged, unfettered desire. In the first of the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha famously said that life is dukkha, a term often translated as ‘suffering,’ although it also has milder connotations of “unsatisfying” or ‘out of whack.’ The second Noble Truth is that this is due to tanha — craving. We constantly thirst for more of what we like and squirm away from whatever we don’t like.”
“The Buddhist thinker David Loy suggests that our desire for wealth and external possessions is linked to our half-conscious intuition that we’re not ‘real.’ He means that we have a sneaking realization that we are not actually the fixed, solid entities we take ourselves to be. This intuition triggers anxiety, a sense of emptiness that we try to quell by frantically accumulating stuff. If I can just get enough of the right stuff (which includes money, possessions, people, experiences, etc.), the thinking goes, the void will be filled. I’ll be tethered to something outside myself that will define me, validate me and make me feel more real.”
Yes, It’s Bad To Always Want More. Here’s Why:
“The short answer: this thirst is unquenchable,” says Haederle. “If we think happiness is about having more, then we will literally never have enough. Many people think, ‘If one Mercedes made me feel better about myself, two would be even better . . . ‘ Pretty soon you wind up like Jay Leno (how many cars can you drive at once, Jay?). In neuroscientific terms, we get a pleasant hit of dopamine when we acquire a pretty new bauble. Before long, the effect wears off, so we want another hit — like a caged rat repeatedly hitting a bar to release food — and we’ll feel crummy if we don’t get it. It’s the classic addiction cycle: the ‘high’ wears off more and more quickly, so we need an ever-stronger dose to get the same effect. The unfortunate truth is we can never accumulate enough pleasant experiences to immunize ourselves from our suffering.”
“There’s a tragic side to this, as well. Buddhism 101 says, roughly, that ‘all is impermanence.’ So, my new car will soon get dirty and dented, my new suit will eventually become threadbare and my beautiful or handsome spouse will grow old and haggard. Knowing that I, the people and the things I love are universally subject to decay is also a powerful source of suffering.”
“Many of us tend to use things as status symbols — the latest iPhone or the new Coach bag — in the expectation that others will think more highly of us. We believe, magically, that the value associated with the object somehow will rub off on us. In reality, this just sets us up for envy and insecurity. It’s certainly not a recipe for living happily and in harmony with others.”
Okay, So How Can We Do This? Five Steps To Get You Started
“We have to start by acknowledging the nature of the problem, and realize that mindlessly repeating the same dysfunctional behavior won’t lead to happiness,” says Haederle. “That will provide the motivation we need to do effect a change. The basic strategy is to start by bringing awareness to this ceaseless cycle of craving and aversion.”
STEP ONE: Be alert to how we’re constantly bombarded with messages to consume more, in the form of omnipresent advertising and marketing (not to mention the subtle and not-so-subtle pressure we feel from our friends). The social impulse to conform with what others are saying and doing is very strong.
STEP TWO: Whenever we feel that itch to indulge or splurge, we can try to just witnessing it as an experience, with a sense of curiosity. What happens if we simply allow that itch to be there, without responding to it or dramatizing it? Does it linger? Will it eventually disappear? We have to find out for ourselves. Observe craving as an experience that has a beginning, duration and cessation. It has no inherent power to compel us to do anything.
STEP THREE: Commit to setting aside some quiet time every day to watch how desires arise in the mind and to feel the accompanying sensations in the body. A daily meditation practice, which provides regular, structured opportunity to do this inquiry, is invaluable. When we sit with our body, breath and thoughts, we can see firsthand how craving arises in every aspect of our experience — in the basic desire for the world to be other than the way it is. We understand that craving does not have to run our lives, if we won’t let it.
STEP FOUR: Remember that it’s about harmonizing our desires with what our body really needs. When we’re hungry, we need to eat. But we don’t need to eat an entire pizza or a pound of peanut M&Ms! We need serviceable clothing, but we don’t need $300 sneakers and $600 jeans.
STEP FIVE: Be kind to yourself through this process. This is not something we muscle our way through, where we grimly congratulate ourselves for all the things we’ve denied ourselves and feel oddly powerful. Sometimes we take two steps forward and one step back. We should forgive ourselves whenever we falter along the path. We’re imperfect creatures — that’s just part of the deal. What matters most is that we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and resume our work.
“Many years ago, I was absolutely fixated on the idea of owning a stainless steel Rolex watch,” says Haederle. “I knew quite a few people who had them, and Don Johnson wore one on “Miami Vice” (I’m really dating myself). To me, a Rolex symbolized invincibility, because it was practically bomb-proof and was watertight to 660 feet. Eventually, thanks to a gift from my grandmother and a employee discount from a relative who worked in a jewelry store, I was able to buy the watch of my dreams. One evening a few weeks later, my wife and I were robbed at gunpoint and the watch disappeared along with the thieves.Insurance paid for a replacement, but somehow it wasn’t the same. And within a few months my life had become unhinged. I became deeply anxious, unable to sleep or think straight. I think the robbery revealed a deep sense of powerlessness and vulnerability I had covered up ever since I was a child. My life became a depressing living hell for the next 2 1/2 years, until I happened to stumble across a book that offered a simple instruction for how to meditate.”
“This process is really spiritual jiu-jitsu. We start with the panicky sense that we’ve hit a wall, that life as we know it rests on a very shaky foundation — that it’s just not working. If we’re lucky enough not to double down on our addictive behaviors (which always makes things worse), we realize that we really have no choice but to turn to confront our fears and the yawning void in the center of our life. Thus, we commit to seeing the endless stream of desires and delusions, just as they are. In doing this, we cultivate the ability to stay the course and maintain an even keel in the face of whatever arises. This offers the potential to live more authentic lives and realize something about our true nature.”
Why It’s Worth It
“If we orient ourselves toward accumulating ever greater wealth and surrounding ourselves with more, newer, bigger possessions, it’s as if we’re living from the outside in, seeing ourselves as objects, preoccupied with how we seem to others,” says Haederle. “When we relinquish those things, living from the inside out, we have the opportunity to live in greater intimacy with our surroundings and with other people. In my book, that’s where real wealth is to be found.”
• Ulrica Wihlborg
All photographs by Ulrica Wihlborg ©2014.
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