I was having dinner Sunday night with a dear old friend, a singer-songwriter of some repute, and I happened to mention the recent film by Martin Scorsese about George Harrison, “Living in the Material World.” Somehow this led to a discussion about fame, and whether it was a blessing or a curse.
I took this opportunity to introduce, as further fodder for our conversation, my theory of the “5 Seducers That Steal Our Awareness and Contentment” — a riff on a formulation that seems to exist in every major religion, philosophy and code of ethics since the beginning of human society. These are the things we are supposed to watch out for, that can lead to moral degradation and spiritual depletion. In my variation they are:
Actually the list doesn’t sound that bad, right? Quite possibly many of us would pick out two to three items on this list and say, “Yup, that’s what I’m going for in this life. That’s when I feel most alive, most vital, most fulfilled.”
Interestingly, in Buddhism and other religions, if you live the simplified life of a monk or nun, these are exactly the temptations that you are renouncing. But is it possible to live IN this world and relate to these seducers without having our peace, our presence of mind and our compassion for others destroyed?
The allure of these experiences is that they create a heightened state for us and thereby a craving to return to that state when our “ordinary” reality re-asserts itself. I have rarely heard anyone say, “Yes, I have enough fame, enough power, enough money, enough delicious food and drink.” When we hear the siren’s song, we want more.
So coming back to my friend the singer-songwriter, he admitted that he had always wanted more fame. But he also saw it as a toxic substance and couldn’t think of anybody who had it who didn’t seem messed up by it.
By the way, that was one of the most interesting aspects of the George Harrison film — it seemed that toward the end of his life, he was less interested in fame than in practicing meditation and creating a beautiful garden around his house. George seems to have been a kind of worldly yogi — mixing temporal success with spiritual growth.
As with fame, wealth and power also seem to create a kind of vacuum for those who have them. Honest feedback, a critical channel for personal growth, gets scarcer and harder to trust. Clear vision and open-heartedness can be trumped by ambition and pride.
Sensual pleasures can certainly be appreciated and enjoyed in the moment, but they also can tend to produce dissatisfaction and craving. It can be challenging to separate the memory of pleasurable experiences from the fantasy and longing to recreate them.
Our relationship to actual intoxicants can be moderate, but can also lead to a downward spiral of abuse and over-indulgence, often accompanied by a sense of denial and obfuscation.
In most spiritual traditions renunciation and austerities are considered essential practices to highlight and put our craving in perspective. Most religions (think Lent, Ramadan and Yom Kippur) have some period of fasting or abstinence or at least moderation as part of their portfolio for spiritual development.
In Buddhism, during retreats, we have oryoki (monastic style of mindful eating) and one bowl contemplative meals — both intended to foster mindful eating and restraint.
All of us living in the world have to deal with these five seducers in one form or another. We may not be as famous as Lady Gaga, but somebody knows who we are and respects what we do. We may not be as rich as Donald Trump, but we do have to manage our finances and for sure there are others far worse off than we are. To them we actually appear to be rich.
We may not be as powerful as Barack Obama, Dick Cheney or Tim Geithner, but we do have to make decisions that influence the lives of other people, like our family or co-workers. We may not be as rich as the Sultan of Abu Dhabi, but we do regularly feast our senses by eating good food, making love, listening to music, going to the movies, taking a hike in the mountains or a walk on the beach.
And we may not be a substance abuser, but we do periodically ingest intoxicating substances, even if it is only the occasional cocktail, refined sugar desert, coffee or tea.
The $64 question is, can we maintain balance, awareness and open-heartedness while we engage fully in the activities of this world? Can we make the five seducers work for us or will we work for them?
If we work for them, our history tells us personally and collectively that we will be out of balance — dreaming of future fulfillment instead of enjoying what we already have. That is exactly the Buddhist definition of suffering.