There is a famous Buddhist saying: “It is not the appearance that binds you, it’s the attachment to the appearance that binds you.” What does that really mean, and how might it apply to you and me?
If you and I are anything alike, then I know there is a constant hunger in you that longs for something. Just stop and look for a moment, and you will find it. You may be successful, yet still you strive. You may be wealthy, yet still you seek gain. You may be loved, yet you still wander. You feel it, don’t you? Where does the discontent begin? What do you so long for?
You may sense this hunger, but most of the time you ignore it. Yet every day you bury yourself in it. You get the kids out the door, put your time in at work, you fight with your colleagues and then you rush home to do the laundry before watching your favorite show. But then you worry about the things that break, the neighbors who gossip and your loved ones who nag, so you escape to go shopping or to the movies to avoid the squeeze. All the while, you build fantasies for a life of greater success, more fulfilling work, early retirement, nicer cars and better friends.
You may never grow weary of this gnawing feeling, however, because you always have hope. Even if you get fed up with it all, you can always pack up the Airstream, move on, and start over again. Yet you are drawn on by thoughts of when everything will be just right, when you have the garden, and grandchildren at your home in the country, or can escape to a peaceful spot in the forest. You just know that some day it will all turn out, and you will reap the quiet wisdom of your golden years.
So you are always preparing for things to get better. But when you do get your ideal home, you soon find things wrong with it; or when your perfect semi-retirement situation finally works out, you become bored from the lack of excitement. To fill the void, you drink, or turn to shopping, cleaning, golfing, fishing, gambling or whatever addictive behavior it takes to fill the nagging sense of emptiness. You are so caught up in preparing and running after things that you forget to live fully. Then you look back on that time nostalgically, even though you were so wrapped up in whatever you were doing that you missed it.
For most of us, this endless planning, doing, fixing and upgrading is what we call “life.” We have many more glamorous words for it: yearning, questing, searching, craving, striving, seeking or thirsting to do whatever we are compelled to do. It is as gross as our drive to find God in our life, as mundane as needing to clean the house and as subtle as a simple restless energy.
I call it our “hungry spirit.” It is a pervasive energy that is constantly longing for success, freedom, love or whatever it is for finding our place in the world. All our worldly concerns are subordinate to it, and a means to its end. It helps us find and make meaning, and drives us to achieve and do something with our lives. It is the seed of creation and heart of our very evolutionary urge — it is our life force, our life energy. Every act, every word, every thought is a reflection of it in some way.
What, exactly, is this hungry spirit really looking for? Aristotle said it is happiness: “It is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” So we occupy ourselves with it more than any other single endeavor in our lives. That’s why we buy new iPods, iPads and iPhones for convenience, as well as Viagra, breast implants and liposuction for confidence. It is also why we constantly seek new jobs, boyfriends, girlfriends, and experiences — like sweat lodges in Sedona, and Bungee Jumping off the Royal Gorge Bridge.
The trouble is that we are never, ever satisfied. This incessant searching and doing, often feels empty, because it is empty.
The things we pursue appear real, but they are not real. Like a mirage that vanishes as we approach, the satisfaction of reaching a goal quickly dissolves as we reach it. So we continuously replace the old ones with new ones. We go from wanting a new dresser to a new house, from a new job to making more money, and from coffee in the morning to wind up to wine in the evening to wind down. We become swept up in a mindless pursuit of a rainbow’s end. But as Lily Tomlin once said, “The problem with winning the rat race is that you are still a rat.”
All our pursuits are just a simple display — an illusion.
To understand this, we need to look deeper. First consider that all physical forms — including our homes, our gardens, our flesh and bones, and even our thoughts, feelings, and emotions — are made up of something else. They are a combination of at least two or more things coming together. They are compounded or fabricated. For instance, hydrogen and oxygen make water, water and leaves make tea, and tea and bourbon make a hot toddy. Likewise, an insult and pride make anger, loss and attachment make grief, and competition and low self esteem make jealously.
This end product, whatever it is — a physical thing, a thought, or an emotion — does not arise except through its relationship to certain conditions or its component parts. It exists only through interdependence. Like our reflection in a mirror, it appears only because we are in front of it. If were independent, it would appear regardless of whether we are there or not.
Second, this interdependence is subject to constant change. In fact, it is probably safe to say that change is the only constant in life. If anything that shifts is in relation to another thing, and everything is interdependent, then even the slightest change in one thing changes all. This is why, as our physicists show, a butterfly flapping its wings in New York can have an effect on the weather in Tokyo. Likewise, the advent of adolescence can turn a cute, cuddly baby into a miserable teenager, a sudden praise from the boss can turn loathing into joy, and a self immolation of fruit peddler in Tunisia can turn a legacy of tyranny into a movement of hope with ripple effects all around the world.
Nothing in life exists in an independent, permanent state. Nothing. Everything, from vast empires to tiny apple seeds, are made of interdependent and constantly changing parts that waft, wane and eventually fade away.
In essence, then, life is made up of a constant flux of transitory experiences. Those experiences are empty in the sense that they are not truly permanent or inherently existing in and of themselves, and, as we shall see, they are experienced mostly as a concept, a label or an interpretation of the mind.
Third, the problem is that we cling to these experiences as if they really are permanent and do exist. This clinging is our hungry spirit speaking — that incessant urge that drives us on — and it is the seed to all of our emotions. When something happens, or when certain causes or conditions arise, they evoke an emotional response. Emotion is an inherent bias that tells us what we like and dislike. Love, greed, anger, joy, sadness, pride and jealousy are all different forms likes and dislikes, or attachment and rejection. Even indifference, as in not caring, is a reaction, an emotion.
This emotional clinging further distorts and separates from our experience. Like a torch swirled in a circle and made to look like a ring of fire, we are fooled and solidify the ring as if it were truly real. For instance, we rush to anger when we feel criticized and hold a grudge whether the criticism was intended or not, or we spin a flirtation into a sexual fantasy and even visions of matrimony, then hold onto the regret of a lost opportunity when we fail to even reach out.
Look at your body, for example. It is made up of flesh, bones, blood, arms and legs, but you generalize these constantly shifting interdependent parts by considering it a whole and pasting a label on it. You fall in love with the idea of the whole, and cling to it as permanently existing out of pride and vanity. Then you spin it out of proportion by becoming obsessed with a flat stomach, a round butt and trim physique, so you invest in the gym, diets, exercise regimens and organic tea to make it fit your idea of beauty. But your body grows old, you lose your beauty, and eventually you die.
Fourth, these clinging emotions come from a basic selfishness that arises because we also think of our self to be real. We repeat an emotional response each time the same conditions arise (or we think they do), leaving an impression on our minds and hearts like imprints on a page. These imprints then accumulate and form into patterns, and these patterns become our habits, ideas, projections, beliefs, hopes, fears and personality traits that solidify and make up what we believe to be “me” and that you, “I,” truly exists. But this is not the real you, this is just the acquired you.
So like the fire ring, you get carried away in thinking this composite of things is the real you. But if you examine all notions of who are — really investigate them — you will again find just an illusion. When you investigate your body, your feelings, your perceptions, your actions, your thoughts, then you cannot find a truly existing self — or “I” — in any of them. This “I” is not your body, your heart, your brain, nor is it your girlfriend, your home or your job. You cannot put your finger on it. It is elusive. It’s all of those things, but at the same time none of those things. These patterns are nothing more than acquired habits, labels and ways of relating to things that have been shaped and socialized by your parents, friends, media, culture and so on that you make solid or real.
Like reality itself, then, our sense of self is nothing more than a shifting collection of acquired perceptions, feelings and beliefs that we hold onto overtime. The true self is like a vast and expansive palette of open space that has been painted over by the stickiness of “I”. In reality, “I” is just another label.
We can also understand this emptiness of “I” by comparing our views to those of others. Public display of bare breasts in some cultures, for instance, is considered an immoral act, while in others it is a thing of beauty. But as we all know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What might make a woman beautiful in China is small feet, whereas in some places in Africa it is a long neck, in North America a curvy figure and Central America a round one. Likewise, happiness for some might be delicious food on the table, while for others it might be an Audi Quattro; and whereas some consider a gentle touch erotic, others prefer it rough. Who is right?
Our different views of the same thing are shaped in part by our different senses of “I,” which in turn are shaped by our cultures, families and upbringing. They are tightly held habitual patterns that exist both at the individual and collective level and are self-reinforcing. Yet if any of it were real — the way we perceive the world or our belief in “I” — these experiences would be the same for each of us. Nonetheless, we believe them to be so, and manage to harden and aggregate them into tribes, cultures, nation states and all other sorts of other forms of prejudice.
Finally, and here is the most essential point, all this clinging causes suffering. But most of the time, we don’t even know we are suffering. We are caught up in the illusion that we create from all our vanity, ambition and insecurity that then develops into an excessive pride in our looks, acquisitions and achievements, and that finally we run after like a child trying to catch a rainbow in a soap bubble, only to be constantly disappointed. Looking good and not looking bad seem to be our chief concerns. But whatever we do, it is never enough.
As a result, we become the victim of a small mind — a stream of chatter that reinforces an image we already have of ourselves and our world — of wishing, craving, choosing, defending and deciding right or wrong — and whenever that chatter stops, it is a relief. This is like the silence that comes after the constant drone of a jackhammer in the background that suddenly stops after a long time. We become tightly spun in our own cocoon — in a reality that is made of our projections, imaginations, hopes and fears — and make possibilities much smaller than they truly are. We live behind bars of fear and convention and become stuck. We are in a box, and don’t even know we are in a box.
Thus born out of strong individual and collective habit, you, like me, confine yourself to the safe and narrow. You cling to your cocoon and then suffer when you can’t adapt to changing conditions. Every time, for instance, your perceived reality does not match up with your acquired hopes or desires — all of which you think real — you suffer. When someone treats you poorly, or you didn’t get the promotion, or the cashier is too slow, or your boyfriend does not call you back — you suffer. At times you may even suffer irrationally. You might get angry with your girlfriend because you think she should be angry and is not. Or you might worry that she is too possessive, and then worry again when she isn’t. So back and forth you go, whipsawed on emptiness.
On the other hand, you may argue that not all emotion is suffering. What if events go in your favor? What about love and joy? But if you love someone or something, you may fear that they may leave you, that they do not love you as much as you love them, or that you love them too much. So whether it is love, joy, peace, happiness or another positive emotion, there still remains a seed of discontent. As long as your positive feeling is dependent on someone or something else, there is a basic insecurity about it, or fear that it will not last or that you may lose it. Even if all your dreams come true, for instance, that nagging feeling that there should be something more soon returns. It is a suffering of suffering, so to speak — a hungry spirit.
It was the great Buddhist master Tilopa, a millennium ago, who gave the quote that I shared in the opening paragraph. In showing us that “It is not the appearance that binds you, it’s the attachment to appearance that binds you,” he gives us not only the view of how we get stuck, but also the clue to how to get out and live our lives more fully.
The point is that knowing how we get trapped can help us open and make everything more workable. We can unhook ourselves from the self-reinforcing spin to change, adapt, create and even care more about others because now we see there is more than one way of going about things.
Buddhism is a philosophy of life and not a religion. So in sharing these thoughts with you, my hope has been that you can see some of its practical wisdom.
Director, Roy H. Park Leadership Fellows Program at Cornell University