Becoming Generous in a Greedy, Messed-Up World

In Buddhism, we learn that we suffer in this world because of the three defilements of greed, hatred, and delusion.  Greed is driven by the “wanting mind.” We want to acquire, cling to, and desire more of everything from food to fame.  Hate is driven by the “not wanting mind.” It leads us to reject, judge, push away, and avoid the things we don’t want.  And delusion is driven by confusion. We believe that somehow, we can always get what we want and push away the things we don’t want. I don’t know about you, but that has not proved true in my life.

Why are we like this?

Our hearts are locked down when we are caught in greed, hate, and delusion. We feel like we must struggle to succeed, get what we can even if it means taking it from someone else, and not let anyone get ahead of us. It is such a painful way to be in life, yet it is what fuels our consumer, capitalistic culture. And our culture conditions us to live this way.

In addition, our brains are designed to grasp the pleasant and push away the unpleasant in a deluded effort to feel safe and protected. It’s understandable and reasonable to want things to be pleasant and not feel unpleasant experiences, but wisdom shows us this is not the way out of suffering. In fact, it shows us that is, indeed, the cause of suffering because we can never find that spot where everything is exactly as we want it to be.

Greed and the Wanting Mind

For instance, let’s say you are flipping through a magazine, walking down a shopping mall, or browsing online and something pops out at you, and you notice this energy pull you toward an object of desire. In my life, it might be a pair of boots! If I bought every pair of boots that I liked, I would need to build a new closet. Or, if you ate every time you saw something delicious, you would probably feel a little sick to your stomach. The key is to recognize when the “wanting mind” arises and name it. It is just what the mind does and it is not necessary to act on it.

Aversion and the Not Wanting Mind

Every time the “not wanting” or aversive mind arises you can also recognize it. It usually sounds judgmental and critical. This mind can tell you that you are wrong and everything around you is wrong. It says “no” as a first response and always has a reason to reject things. It is easy to see what is wrong as opposed to what might be right in a situation. As my friend and author Rick Hanson would say, “The brain is sticky for negative, and Teflon for the positive. “

Confusion and Delusion

Have you ever been in a situation when you just couldn’t make up your mind? No matter how hard you tried, you couldn’t decide about something. This is delusion. The mind tells you there should be a “right” answer but you just can’t come up with it. In fact, there is usually never one “right” answer, but the answer you choose to make and the subsequent action. Life is just a big experiment and we are always learning. But to the deluded mind, there is no clarity.

What is the solution?

Freedom from suffering then lies in understanding the futility of the battle to have life turn out a certain way. When I put myself at odds with the way things are, I am certain to suffer. So the solution then becomes to” want what you have and not want what you don’t have,” as one famous Buddhist monk, Ajahn Chah, said.

When we let go of the wanting mind, we come to freedom because the energy that we put into grasping and clinging is freed up for other things. When we let go of the aversive mind, we feel the heart begin to open to things just as they are. There is a softening that occurs which opens our eyes and mind to a multitude of reasons why people are who they are and situations unfold as they do. Wisdom and clarity arise from this open heart that allows us to respond with greater generosity, less fear, and more joy.

I recently had a situation where I was judging a decision that someone, let’s call her Sally, had made which resulted in her needing a favor. Sally wanted me to do something for her, but her reason for needing me felt wrong. My aversive mind was judging her, and I convinced myself that I would even be harmed by helping her. I could feel this story so strongly that I began to fear that I would harm myself. My heart felt shut down and I could not decide one way or the other about what to do (the hallmark of delusion). In the middle of all of this, one morning I decided to help someone else out, and I noticed how good it felt. I mean I really felt joyous. It became immediately clear to me what I needed to do with Sally. I wanted to open my heart and be generous. I decided not to judge Sally but respond to her with an open heart.

Almost our entire biology is geared toward protection and defense and our culture teaches us to grab what we want, even if it means taking from others. To work against this conditioning takes great courage and practice. The ethical and philosophical practices of yoga and Buddhism give us guideposts for leading a life in alignment with our values. When I practice them, they never fail. The key is remembering to wake up to our conditioning and make a different choice.