by Rev. Daizui MacPhillamy
I once heard a country and western song called ‘Faster Horses.’ It was one of those partly humorous, partly philosophical songs about the meaning of life. An idealistic young man meets an old cowboy sitting in a bar, his face weather-beaten, his hands gnarled; the youngster just knows that this guy has the secret to life. So he asks him all sorts of deep questions about what makes life worth living, and no matter what the young man asks, the old timer comes back with the same answer, “Faster horses; younger women; older whiskey; more money!” Well, I thought, that may not say much about the true meaning of life, but it sure does sum up the problem of human existence: we’re never satisfied.
If we don’t have it, we want some; if we have some, we want more; if we have lots, we’re afraid of losing it. Now, the ‘it’ can be anything, but mostly the song had it right: it’s either ‘faster horses’ (power, excitement, fame, things which others envy), ‘younger women’ (which works in the song but strikes me as being a little one-sided—it could just as easily be ‘wilder guys’), ‘older whiskey’ (better sensual experiences of all sorts, and especially ones that make us forget our problems), or, of course, ‘more money.’ This business of never being satisfied may not seem like all that big a problem, but it goes right to the heart of some of the most difficult things in life. If we’re never satisfied, it guarantees that we can never really be completely at peace within ourselves and also that we never get a chance to fully enjoy the simple pleasures that actually do make life worthwhile. How can you be fully present, watching a sunset beside your partner, when half of you is itching to be with someone else, wishing you had your camera, or thinking about how to beat the competition at work? How can you fully enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done when part of you knows that you succeeded at the expense of someone else or have made a product that doesn’t really help anybody? Sure, there is pleasure in a new car, a wild romance, a great new piece of music, a promotion; but how long does it last? And are those the things that actually stand out as having given life meaning, when you look back over your life?
By never being satisfied, it seems that we are destined to rob ourselves of the very things we value most: a peaceful heart, true and lasting love, real friendship, the satisfaction of doing something worthwhile in this world. Instead, we seem to propel ourselves in exactly the opposite direction: into fear, anger, worry, and discontent. Why do we do this to ourselves? How did we get into this mess?
No one really knows for sure, but the answer might be as simple as basic biology. Inside our complicated human brain lies the same simple sort of brain that all the other animals have, and that brain is wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Now, that works just fine if you’re a dog or a cat. Except for those times of the day when you’re on the prowl for the next meal or mate, if you’re reasonably well fed, warm, and dry, then you’re happy; you’re satisfied, you’re at peace. But there’s more to our human brain than just the basic animal bits, and these extra parts allow us to think, plan ahead, fantasize, and the like. This gives us the ability to apply our basic animal tendencies of pleasure seeking and pain avoiding to all sorts of things where it doesn’t work so well. Instead of just hunting for the next meal when we’re hungry, like a dog or cat does, we are capable of scheming on how to get more and finer tasting food, how to store it for later, how to add to the pleasure with drink and music, and on and on. And, because we are able to engage in this sort of thinking and fantasizing, and because it works—it gets us more and better food than we would have otherwise—we tend to go ahead and do it. All of this is fine, and it certainly has value for the preservation of our species. But it comes at a price: since there is no end to how much food we might have nor to how good it might be, we become so lost in pursuing it that we never allow ourselves to be at rest, and we often miss the opportunity to actually taste, and be grateful for, the food right on our plate. And we apply this way of doing things not just to food but to everything in life.
Whatever its reason for being, this complicated human form of the basic animal drives to seek pleasure and avoid pain is part of who we are, and it’s part of what led us to create art and science and all of the things we call ‘civilization,’ so it’s by no means bad. It simply has a cost: vague unhappiness, chronic dissatisfaction, constant dis-ease. Need it have such a cost? I’m afraid so. The reason is that, no matter what goals we set for ourselves using this approach to life, there will always be the possibility of ‘faster, wilder, tastier, more….’ And, since we are wired as we are, it is very hard not to grab onto those possibilities. Furthermore, our complex brains also realize that at any moment it all can be taken away from us. As a matter of fact, we all know that, if it hasn’t been taken away before, in the end it will all be taken away by death. We yearn for something permanent, something we can have, hold, or be…forever. And, since somewhere inside ourselves we know that this cannot be, at least this side of heaven, this desire makes it even more difficult to be completely at peace. So, here we sit: ‘cowboys at the bar of life,’ right in the middle of a world full of simple satisfactions that really matter, drowning our sorrows in older whiskey and dreaming of faster horses.
Nothing Stays Put
Now, why is it that ‘heaven on earth’ cannot be? Why can’t we be satisfied with one really fast horse? Why doesn’t getting the things and experiences we want give us lasting peace and happiness? There is actually a very simple reason for this: in our universe everything is always changing, always in motion. Nothing stays put. And because nothing stays put, there’s no keeping what we’ve got, and no end to what we might be able to get, if only….
What does it mean to say that everything is always changing? Consider material things, ‘stuff.’ Things are never quite the same the next time you look at them. That’s easy to see with fast- changing objects like a burning log or a rotting tomato, but the same principle is true for things that change more slowly; you just have to look harder. The log will not last forever even if it doesn’t burn: in the forest it will break down from the action of termites, molds, and the like, and even if you make it into lumber and put it in a nice dry building, it gradually loses strength and the wood worms and dry rot will get it in the end. You can put the tomato in the fridge, but that simply slows down the process. This book, as another example, is changing, too. The acids in the paper are gradually weakening it; the air and light are yellowing the paper. The chemicals in the ink and paper are moving around and some of them are even hopping off the pages into the air. You can tell that by sniffing the book; it smells like a book because your nose can detect some of those chemicals. And if you did just sniff it, some of what was the book a minute ago has just gone inside your lungs and become part of you!
Really slowly changing or far away stuff like rocks and metal and stars and galaxies change too, but you need special tools to be able to see it because the changes happen in ways we can’t sense directly. The same is true for super-fast changing things like atoms and atomic particles: they are too small and their changes are too fast for us to sense directly, but change they do. And, so I am told, Dr. Einstein and his colleagues have discovered that even the things we use to measure how stuff changes, things like time and space, change too. The whole universe of what we call ‘things’ is therefore really a flow: an ever-changing swirl of space/time/being.
In addition, what holds true for stuff is also true for you and me: we’re always changing as well. You’ve got book chemicals in you now that weren’t part of you a moment ago. You’re growing older every moment, like it or not. The experience I had in typing the sentence above is now gone; it will never return. I can remember it, think about it, dream or have nightmares about it, but they are not the same as returning to that moment. That point in time and space is gone, and, having been through it, I am slightly different now than I was before. So, we too change: we change in body and we change in mind, and at the end of life there is a pro- found and mysterious change we call ‘death.’
This fact of change is a fundamental principle of Buddhism. It is called the Law of Change; the ancient term for it is ‘anicca,’ and it is regarded as a natural law, just like gravity. For a Buddhist, change simply is; no one makes it happen and no one can alter it; no one can escape from it; change is just the way the world works. Because there is always change, nothing that we have in this world is destined to remain ours. Knowing this, it is hard to be fully at peace. Furthermore, because there is always change, there is always one more thing tempting us to seek after it. And because we do chase after such things, we are never satisfied and never happy for long.
How Unhappiness Happens
Recognition of this state of affairs—of this chronic dissatisfaction or uneasiness which results from both our desire for faster horses and our wish to hold onto things in the face of a changing world—is actually the first principle of Buddhism. It is called the ‘First Noble Truth’; other terms for it are the ‘truth of suffering’ or the ‘existence of unsatisfactoriness.’ Both of these expressions are translations of the term ‘dukkha’ in the ancient Indian language of Pali, and no one English word quite captures the whole meaning. For instance, to say that the First Noble Truth is simply that ‘life is suffering’ is misleading, since it implies that Buddhists are some- how obsessed with the painful aspects of life. Actually, the fact that life is sometimes painful is not the real problem. People can handle the occasional pain; it is the constant internal background state of vague unhappiness and nameless yearning that keeps us from being truly at peace. In other words, this First Noble Truth is the ‘faster horses problem,’ compounded by the law of change.
The ‘faster horses problem’ and the law of change explain why our lives have a background of dissatisfaction and unpeaceful- ness, but they don’t fully explain how that happens. What is the actual chain of events that leads to these feelings? Am I, for example, frustrated because I don’t have more money, or does my frustration come from thinking that I deserve more money than I have? Do I feel unfulfilled because I’m not a star athlete, or is it because I dream of being one and don’t seem to be able to do it? Do I actually fear getting older, or does the uneasiness come from the fact that getting older means giving up the things of my youth? It seems pretty clear that what actually distresses us is the second alternative in these sorts of circumstances. After all, there are lots of folks in the world who have less money than we, but who don’t feel frustrated; most people are not famous athletes, and most of them frankly don’t care; plenty of older folks are not dismayed by their situation, and they actually enjoy maturity. Of course, most of the individuals who are not dissatisfied by the things I’ve just mentioned are plenty unhappy about something else. It’s not that they are not affected by life in the same basic way that you and I are, it’s just that they don’t happen to care about the particular things which bother us.
That ‘not caring’ is an important clue to how the process of unhappiness works: we’re only dissatisfied by those aspects of life where we feel a need, where we ‘have a stake,’ where we are attached to something. So it’s not really the lack of a faster horse that’s at the root of the problem; the real basis of the problem is believing that we won’t be happy until we get one. In other words, it is craving for things which seems to be at the core of the problem, and it causes unhappiness in two different ways. First of all, craving (attachment, grasping, lusting, wanting, longing, desire, etcetera) hurts, in and of itself. To be constantly wanting things that we can never fully have, or never completely hold onto, leaves us permanently in a state of frustration, and that hurts. Lusting, longing, desire, and the like are, by their very nature, feelings of being unfulfilled, of being incomplete, discontented, unpeaceful. Because nothing stays put and everything is always changing, no matter how fast our horse is, we condemn ourselves to chronic unhappiness so long as we hold onto the desire for faster horses.
The second way in which attachments rob us of inner peace is by leading us to do things which cause harm to ourselves and others. Some of this damage is completely internal, such as developing a set of beliefs about how the world is unfair or doesn’t care about us. Some of it is external, such as trying to get the raise we desire by unfairly competing with our coworkers, cutting corners on the job to make it look like we’re more efficient, or brow-beating our subordinates. The internal things tend to make us miser- able in ways that we don’t recognize easily. For example, now we’re angry about unfairness instead of being aware of our simple frustration about lack of recognition and reward: we have created a whole new layer of misery for ourselves. And, we have given our- selves a whole new problem to solve: the unfairness of the world. Unfortunately, it is not the real problem, and so trying to solve it just produces even more frustration. The external things some- times work to get to our short-term goal, but always at the cost of creating other forms of suffering in the long run. To use the example of getting that raise, we do things that cause us to lose friend- ship, lose trust, lose self respect, or have the nagging knowledge that we have harmed others.
This observation, that craving or attachment is at the core of how unhappiness happens, is another basic principle of Buddhism. It is known as the ‘Second Noble Truth,’ and a Buddhist would say that if one looks closely enough at any form of unhappiness or discontentment, a core of craving, longing, wanting, etcetera, will be found. The ancient Indian word for this core of attachment is ‘tanha,’ which has the meaning of ‘inner thirst,’ a pretty good term for what we’re referring to.
Is Peace Possible?
So far, I’ve been painting a rather grim picture of life: here we are in an ever-changing universe, trying to hold onto things that never stay put, always being tempted to try to get that faster horse, never really completely at peace with ourselves, and rarely even able to be fully present to experience the joys that do come our way. But this state of affairs is not inevitable, because there is one thing in the whole chain of events that we can do something about. We can’t change the fact of change; we can’t change the fact that our brains are wired to tell us that we always need ‘more’ and ‘better’; but we can change what we do when our brains tell us this. We don’t have to quite believe it. And we are not forced to act on it. We can simply watch our brain produce all of its urgent and tempting messages, and say to it, “No, actually I don’t need a faster horse, thank you.” It is possible, in other words, to do something about the attachment factor: the grasping after, the holding onto, the clutching at. And since that factor is at the very core of the process, changing this one thing can change the whole business.
The idea that we do not have to believe in and act upon everything our brain tells us (or, to put it another way, that we tell ourselves) is, in itself, revolutionary. That we actually do have this ability is easy to see if we use extreme examples. My brain can tell me that I am Napoleon or that the moon is made of green cheese, but that does not make it so; our brains can tell us that we’d like to have all the money behind the bank window, but most of us don’t try to grab it. Yet, somehow, when it comes to everyday things, we just sort of assume that because we think something, especially something about ourselves, it’s true. We assume that because we want something, we are supposed to try to get it. But when you stop to consider it, these thoughts and desires are no different than the extreme ones: they are simply thoughts, simply desires. We no more have to believe that we need a new car than we have to believe that the moon is made of green cheese; we no more have to seek a younger lover than we have to grab the money and run. Thoughts are simply thoughts and desires are simply desires: you can believe them if you choose, you can act on them if you choose, or you can simply watch them rise and fall within your mind, if you choose.
If a person does choose to just watch them go by, after awhile something quite remarkable happens. The individual both starts to recognize them for what they are—just products of your brain—and begins to cease being controlled by them. And this suggests the possibility that there actually might be a way to true freedom and to peace of mind. Our complex human brains may have gotten us into this mess through their ability to take simple animal desires and turn them into never-ending thoughts of longing, but those same brains can get us out of the mess because they have the remarkable ability to step back and simply observe them- selves in operation.
When we do this, the law of change starts to work in our favor. One of the things that often surprises people, when they watch their desires instead of acting upon them, is that those desires do not remain constant. We tend to assume that a thought or feeling which we do not act upon will stay with us and that it will pester or plague us until we fulfill it. But that is not what hap- pens. If we simply observe those thoughts and feelings, without entering into them or otherwise feeding them, they rise and then fall away all by themselves. In other words, attachments, like everything else, don’t last. Since change is a law of the universe, this can be relied upon. And because they do fall away when we refuse to feed them with either thought or action, this means that we have real freedom of choice about them. If we wish to follow along with an attachment we are free to do so, developing it with our mind and acting upon it with our body. But if we wish to give up an attachment, it can be done simply by using our mind to observe itself whenever that attachment arises, in the sure knowledge that the attachment will eventually pass away, just as a wave does in the ocean. There is even a reliable way to do this; it is called ‘meditation’ and it is something that will be explored in detail in a later chapter.
People who choose to simply watch their desires rise and fall start to discover another fascinating thing about them. The more we believe a particular craving or attachment, follow it with our thoughts, and act upon it, the stronger it gets. It arises more often and becomes more demanding of our attention. But desires that we simply observe going by, like waves on the water, do the opposite: they come up less often and are not quite so compelling. Over time, they weaken to the point that they stop being a major force in our mind. It is possible, in other words, to permanently give up or set aside attachments. And that breaks the whole chain that binds us to the ‘faster horses problem.’
How to actually accomplish all of this is a whole other question, which is the subject of the next two chapters. The point here is simply that it is possible. And this is the Third Noble Truth upon which Buddhism is founded: there actually is a way to freedom from the chronic unhappiness and dissatisfaction of life, and that way is to give up the habit of attachment. Put in other words, to set aside attachment is to find peace of mind; it is to live in harmony with how the universe works.
(From Buddhism from Within – An Intuitive Introduction to Buddhism by Rev. Daizui MacPhillamy, published by Shasta Abbey Press 2003.)