I recently came across an interesting quote from Ryokan, the Zen Buddhist monk and poet who lived in eighteenth-century Japan:
I see people in the world
Throw away their lives lusting after things,
Never able to satisfy their desires,
Falling into deep despair
And torturing themselves.
Even if they get what they want
How long will they be able to enjoy it?
For one heavenly pleasure
They suffer ten torments of hell,
Binding themselves more firmly
to the grindstone.
Such people are like monkeys
Frantically grasping for the moon in the water
And then falling into a whirlpool.
How endlessly those caught up
in the floating world
These old words of wisdom immediately brought to mind our modern consumer culture and struggles with credit card debt. How much easier it is to reject the lure of material excess, than to be shackled to unfulfilling jobs (“the grindstone”) to pay for things we don’t really need. For in most cases, those things are inessential to our happiness.
As Ryokan states, we suffer when we get caught up in “the floating world”–that is, the transient world of material pleasure. It’s sort of an ancient way of saying “you can’t take it with you.” Why spend this precious life in pursuit of money, power, or possessions—especially when the satisfaction is fleeting, or worse yet, causes the dissatisfaction of even greater craving?
So how can we resist falling into the materialism of the floating world?
* Avoid advertisements. When you don’t know certain products exist (or how wonderful they’re claimed to be), you don’t want them. There’s no reason to long for them, no pressure to buy them, and no stress to pay for them.
* Don’t follow trends. Magazines and marketers tout the new “must-haves” every season–and make you feel like you’ll be left behind if you don’t purchase the latest and greatest. Acquire things only to satisfy needs, rather than for the sake of novelty or social status.
* Want what you have. Most of us have so much stuff, it seems ludicrous to feel any sense of deprivation. When you’re tempted to acquire something new, spend some time thinking about, being grateful for (and listing out, if it helps!) what you already have.
* “Be” instead of “buy.” Marketers encourage us to identify with the products we buy, and shop as a means of self-expression. Remember: you are not what you own. When you break the spell of consumption, you gain freedom—from advertisers, from debt, and from the rat race.