Sunday, April 24, 2011

Stuff


To a significant extent our lives have become defined by “stuff”. The presumption is that the more stuff we possess the better off we are. That presumption compels us to spend years and vast amounts of money preparing to one day become sufficiently prosperous to buy lots of stuff. For some, this day comes, we buy stuff and discover that the stuff we valued from a distance does not deliver what we anticipated. But like a poker game, we reason that we have too much invested to withdraw from the game. If our lives are not defined by our acquisitions, what else might work? We don’t know. By the time we reach this imaginary pot of gold (and discover the non-pay off) we may think it is too late to change course, so we hunker down and accept a life of emptiness which we try to fill up with minutia, trying desperately to convince ourselves that the diminishing value of our stuff is good enough.

The Buddhist perspective on this dilemma is instructive and begins by understanding the reasons for this compulsive rush to oblivion. The quest to fathom the basis of this flaw starts with recognizing both the nature of stuff as well as the source from which it arises. “Stuff” could be called “things”. If you look up the definition of a thing you will learn that a thing is an object, an entity, an abstract or artifact. In other words stuff or a thing is something, which can be perceived and measured. It appears to be concrete and containing attributes which are inherently self-sufficient. And this being the case we imagine that we can accumulate and retain things, which will bring meaning into our lives.

We soon learn, however, that things don’t last and even if they would we become disenchanted and bored. So we must constantly upgrade to the new and improved version, which must then once again be upgraded. Why? Because, we reason, surely the next version will fill the emptiness. The old stuff didn’t but surely the new stuff will. The Buddhist solution is to learn from this pattern of despair, not by continuing to repeat the same losing behavior but rather by understanding the difference between things and no-things. Anything and everything must have a source to exist at all. Ordinarily when we contemplate the idea of “Nothing” we think of non-existence. However, there is another way of considering “nothing”—no-thing (not a thing; not an object; not fleeting) in other words the opposite of objective: lasting and substantial.

And what might be non-objective, lasting and substantial? If we can fathom this, perhaps we can change our losing behavior and begin building a life of meaning rather than despair and pretense. In a curious way our own language points to the solution. In grammar school we learn the difference between a subject and an object. “I see you” implies there is a subject “I” which sees “you”, an object. However the conundrum of that statement is the implication that the objective part of a person is the same thing as the subjective part. But what we learn in living is that the objective part of us, just like the objective part of anything, constantly changes and erodes. Only we can’t trade in our objective part for a new and improved model. And the flip side of this awareness is that the subjective side of us never ages, it lasts and is substantial, yet remains imperceptible. Are we to conclude that our true, substantial nature, albeit unseen doesn’t exist? Such a notion is ludicrous. We have become lured into an illogical notion that life is singularly defined by stuff (including our objective nature), which constantly passes away yet ignore the non-objective source from which the stuff arises.
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