Vandalizing Your Gym Equipment

Ever since my days as a pretentious teenage jackass, I have flirted with Buddhism as a useful set of guidelines for daily life. But recently, as the happy-go-lucky hedonism of my 20s has fallen victim to diminishing returns, and as my old mechanisms for self-distraction seem to grow creakier, I’ve returned to Buddha’s teachings more seriously – if not as a full-fledged religious creed, then at least as something deserving of my sustained attention.

For a time, I was far too caught up in life’s many wonderful distractions to really see the appeal in a religion that, at least in some of its grimmer variants, essentially teaches us that everything in life is terrible. But as I’ve achieved many of the modest goals of my youth – having the freedom to work where and when I choose, a modest degree of financial independence and security, a home I can be happy with and the company of good people – I’ve begun to find myself slipping backwards on the hedonic treadmill. I am now presented with two choices: either redouble my old efforts to keep on hitting the fast-moving, constantly zigzagging target of happiness; or, go for an entirely new approach.

And constantly hitting that target can be a tremendously tiring endeavour. It’s not easy to generate endless new variations on The Good Life that will provide fresh new experiences while still fitting within one’s delicate personal balance of new experiences and comforting familiarity, of challenge and of leisure, of fresh internal and external validation. And as each carefully calibrated combination begins to get dragged down by diminishing returns, we have to work even harder to find something new that still manages to meet our precise needs.

In the end, it’s exhausting – Whenever I have a home, I want to move out of it and travel for months on end; whenever I’m traveling, I want to have a home – and so on, and so on. Oh, and I also need to be loved at all times, and to have this love visibly and constantly expressed. See? Exhausting!

Here in the Philippines, where people seem so grounded when compared to the existential angst-ridden cultures of the west, a life filled with simple pleasures and the validation of one’s peers does seem pretty persuasive at first. When I would see how incredibly happy people here seem to be while sharing a meal with friends or family, it’s tempting to believe that you don’t need anything more. And for about a decade of my life, my experiences told me that having fun and being loved and esteemed really was enough.

That may, in fact, be true in a culture where people are so deeply interconnected with their families and social circles, and where most individuals are still heavily occupied with meeting their basic needs outside these moments of bonding and togetherness. So perhaps the staleness and diminishing returns that have set in are not due to some universal attribute of the human psyche, but are the result of my being raised in a culture that teaches constant dissatisfaction – with your possessions, with your body, and even with your own level of happiness. An economic system whose entire survival depends on convincing people who already have everything that they don’t yet have enough probably doesn’t help, either. (Although, as I wrote previously, Filipinos unfortunately seem to be increasingly falling sway to the culture of dissatisfaction, as well – I suppose that’s what you would call progress.)

On the other hand, this dissatisfaction with life’s fleeting pleasures is apparently embedded deep enough in the human condition that it was also experienced by a restless prince named Gotama about 2500 years ago in India. So, maybe there’s really something there.

The advantages of ridding ourselves of all this restlessness, and of our insatiable desires for new experiences and for constant validation, are fairly self-evident. The single-minded focus on fulfilling these desires takes a toxic toll on the psyche, on the environment, and on our fellow human beings, who we use as means toward these paper-thin ends, rather than as ends unto themselves. Perhaps we’re spewing out megatons of CO2 on our way to next international adventure to compensate for the staleness of our daily lives. Maybe we’re dressing up in shiny clothes sewn by Bangladeshi child slaves in order to earn the esteem of our peers, then discarding the clothes once they fall out of fashion. No matter how we pursue these cravings, a colossal amount of waste and suffering are the result.

As I felt this restlessness grow inside me, I began to voraciously consume Buddhist scripture. The more I read it, the more I realized there was something meaningful to be found – something I had never been able to fully appreciate before, either because of the point I was previously at in my life, or because it was too hard for me to separate the power of the Buddha’s teachings from the undeniable flakiness of many of his followers.

One of my favourite things about Buddhism is its approach to morality. Most religions express their morality in terms of our actions or thoughts being just or unjust in the eyes of a higher power. We may act justly to avoid punishment in the afterlife, or we may act justly because we wish to win the love and the approval of a creator. We may even act justly simply because it is the right thing to do, although this sadly doesn’t seem to be as strong a determinant in many people’s ethical decisions as we might hope: witness the convictions of many religious that anyone without faith is bound to become a murderous psychopath.

Buddhism looks at morality from a somewhat different light. The most famous teaching is, of course, karma, the universal law of morality that causes all moral actions to have consequences in this life and the next – not due to some vengeful deity, but merely as a result of the underlying structure of the universe. I don’t believe in reincarnation, and the world contains plenty of very bad people living extremely well, so I can’t accept the idea of karma in the narrow sense that most people understand it.

However, my own experience teaches me that our actions do shape our psyche in the long term, for better or for worse – in the end, we are what we do. Many of the bad decisions I’ve made in my life have the inside of my head a worse place to be, although some of my bad decisions have eventually led to wake-up calls which have, in turn, helped to clear away at least a bit of the spiritual rot. Perhaps karma’s mechanisms of cause and effect are more complex than we can imagine – I wouldn’t go so far as to say that my sins will cause me to be reborn as a slug, though. (And after all, how does a slug make moral decisions that will eventually help him to be reborn as a human being?)

But for me, the teachings on karma are still not as important as the division of actions into the skillful and unskillful, something that is especially important in Theravada Buddhism. I can’t say I understand the different schools of Buddhism perfectly, but I can at least grasp the broad division into Theravada, which focuses more on meditation and personal enlightenment for a select few “spiritual athletes”, and Mahayana, a more inclusive view that focuses on universal compassion, uplifting the masses and guiding them in their daily lives. I hope I am not revealing my snobbery too blatantly when I say that I skew more toward the Theravada school. I guess that’s because I have a lot more difficulty loving other human beings than I do loving my dogs, but I can certainly grasp the idea that hurting other beings for the sake of my temporary gratification is an unskillful way to live. In other words, it’s not only wrong just because it’s wrong (which I’d like to think is the case, though I’m not sure if that’s true in any objective sense); it’s not only wrong because the laws of karma will react against our bad actions (which I only accept in a narrowly non-religious sense); it’s wrong because it shows a lack of skill.

Using other living beings to temporarily satisfy our cravings and provide us with small scraps of fleeting, non-sustainable happiness is simply unskillful, especially when the alternative would be a self-generating, unlimited source of joy. A form of happiness that does not rely on other beings and their pain, and does not depend upon the delusions of constant novelty, shallow gratification and external validation would be stronger, more self-sufficient, more sustainable – more skillful. And although I would recoil at the idea of someone judging me as a just plain bad person, it would be hard to argue with the judgment that I should pursue my happiness in a more skillful way. And – here’s the most appealing part for a borderline narcissist like myself – skill is not something that must be gained by surrendering yourself to a higher power. Skill is something that can be created through extreme internal effort and discipline. In a way, Buddhism tells us that overcoming one’s egoism requires the sheer arrogance of believing that such a thing can be achieved by one’s effort alone (albeit perhaps with the help of a teacher).

The problem is, the pursuit of new experiences and the satiation of the ego are such all-encompassing occupations in most people’s lives that it’s hard to say what’s even left if we take them away. I think that’s one thing that makes Buddhism so daunting, and has made it so much harder to digest than religions that basically promise worldly pleasures magnified many times over in the afterlife. With so many of the world’s religious people taking solace in the idea that they’ll be reunited with their dead relatives in the afterlife, what are we to do with a religion that tells us that even wishing to see a lost loved one again is an unacceptable form of craving?

There are no easy answers, and sometimes I feel like my early forays into the Buddha’s teachings have left me more confused than ever. What I can say at this point is that what I’ve read and lived so far has given me a clearer framework for viewing my life and for assessing my growth as a human being. So far it’s been a lot less fun than the earlier hedonistic phase of my life, but I’m willing to accept it on faith (there’s that word!) that this process of soul-searching will eventually lead to more skillful sources of happiness than the ones I’ve drawn upon in the past. If nothing else, it has certainly given me a greater sense of focus and purpose amidst all of life’s colourful distractions.

For more on my circuitous journey, look for upcoming blog posts that will probably have titles like The Ego Kills Everything, so Kill the Ego and Searching for the Gap.

And finally, while on the topic of skills, here is a closing song upon which to meditate:

2 thoughts to “Vandalizing Your Gym Equipment”

  1. This post really resonates with me right now, although my concerns are of a different kind. I really like your take on karma and your phrasing of the paradox in “overcoming one’s egoism.” I’ve never been into Buddhism, but now I actually am interested.
    I wonder how you, as someone who practices Buddhism, would evaluate personal growth in relation to “significance” (to other people). From a Buddhist perspective, is there happiness to be derived in being /significant/? And how does it address the tension between being significant to a few people (that is, focusing your life on your loved ones) and being significant to the world (that is, focusing your life on the “greater good”)?

  2. Well, I have a lot of trouble reconciling the more selfish and selfless strains of Buddhism. From my understanding, the Theravada school is much more focused on personal discipline and enlightenment, whereas the Mahayana school is much more into the cosmic love side of things. But I suppose the best way I can reconcile them is by saying that someone who has inner discipline will not harm others – kind of a “first, do no harm” type of thing. But admittedly, there seem to be more extreme schools of Buddhism that would basically say that once you’ve achieved enlightenment, you can just sit around meditating all day until you die, and let people find their own enlightenment on their own time. Pretty selfish!

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