The first noble truth is that life is unsatisfactory.
I’ve always found this idea difficult to accept because life, it often seems, is actually pretty satisfactory. The sun rises in the east, sets in the west, and the toaster oven always crisps my bagels to perfection.
Sometimes I wonder if being cognizant of the first noble truth has somehow allowed me to fall outside its purview, as if unsatisfactoriness were a menacing pothole with a precise location. If I’m aware of it, then perhaps I can swerve around it. Or maybe I simply excel at hedging the truth: I’ll agree that life is unsatisfactory if I can just have the satisfaction of getting this new coffee machine.
It has taken me a long time to come to terms with the fact that the truth, noble or not, isn’t a choice. And I grasped this, I’m embarrassed to say, by cultivating a shopping addiction.
Shopping is a recent obsession. For most of my life, all that I required was that my T-shirts covered my torso and had holes through which I could dangle my arms. However, not long ago, I decided I wanted more from my shirts. Perhaps this was due to the influence of my wife, who patiently and sometimes not-so-patiently pointed out my wardrobe shortcomings, including all the holes in my “Fenway Park All Star Game 1998” shirt. Perhaps this was due to the fact that I had grown up and now had a real job, and the spending money that came with it. Or perhaps this was due to my newfound hobbies, like motorcycling and hiking, and the “shopportunity” that arises from needing proper gear. In any case, sometime in the last few years, I began to covet things.
As someone who had spent most of his life immune to such cravings, I had always considered myself to be beyond their spell. After all, I had made it through college with basketball shorts, a few hoodies, and some sweatpants. As a philosophy major studying Buddhism, I felt above the need for material possessions—plus my attire perfectly matched my scruffy demeanor. So when I first started to buy things, it was with the air of someone making a brief dip into the material realm. Since my body necessarily had to exist within the trappings of the relative world, I might as well dress it in a synthetic, moisture-wicking tee and a merino wool button down.
Before I knew it, I had purchased my fourth motorcycle jacket. I justified these purchases by becoming an eBay savant; out with the old, in with the new. I was the Goldilocks of motorcycle jackets. The first jacket was a little too sporty, the second one a little too punk, the third one a little lacking in both departments, and the fourth one I bought was just right. For the time being.
The problem, I began to see, was that everything was just right . . . until it wasn’t. I would click around on a gear website, order a new product, and feel the momentary satisfaction that came from making the purchase, the endorphins pumping. Then the anticipation would build until the product was delivered. I’d examine it, get a thrill from its first few uses, and then marvel as the aura slowly wore off. Was it possible that shopping did not actually lead to contentment? No, it simply wasn’t the right product! Naturally, I had to order a replacement.
I had plenty of opportunities to reflect on my newfound obsession while meditating. Practice often reveals things that you’d prefer to remain strictly in the realm of the unrevealed. After spending so much time on the sitting cushion watching my tendencies play out, I began to notice this one in greater detail. At first I was in denial: didn’t I deserve a little reward for successfully becoming a full-grown adult? But as I saw the same pattern play out repeatedly, and as I noticed how insidious the craving to accrue more stuff became, I noticed something a little deeper at work.
I never quite considered that the first noble truth could apply so literally. Life, it turns out, is unsatisfactory, as long as we allow our hopes and fears to be the authors of our expectations. And what is advertising if not the direct exploitation of those hopes and fears? My image of that motorcycle jacket is always going to be of wearing it while effortlessly cruising on a serpentine mountain road. It will always be a projection.
But in reality the jacket will always be worn in the present. It will be hot, and I’ll be stuck at a stoplight on my way to work, sweating and suffering, because the moment is always more complex than any presumptions I have about it. Were I to simply experience the moment for what it is, I might find such yearnings superfluous; the rumble of the engine, the breeze as I roll back on the throttle, the weight of the motorcycle as I brake at the next stoplight and plant my feet on the pavement might be satisfying in their own right. Instead, I am disappointed, because the things I crave don’t quite reconcile with the richness of reality. Thankfully there’s a practice that helps us recognize the source of this disappointment and opens us to this richness. And it’s free.
I recently sold all my motorcycle jackets. The motorcycle too. My wife and I bought a condo, and it turns out all my previous spending was chump change compared to this. So we’ve tried to scale back on unnecessary purchases and to be content with the things we have. It’s better for our wallets, better for the planet, and probably better for our well-being.
But, I’ve been telling myself, I wouldn’t have achieved this understanding unless I dove deep into the practice of purchasing. And now, safely arrived on the other shore of pragmatism, I think I deserve that coffee machine after all. The richness of reality is always a little crisper when you’re properly caffeinated.
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