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Mark Twain: “Any so-called material thing that you want is merely a symbol…”

Mark Twain Bodhipaksa explores the relationship between hats, iPods, desires, and needs. And also figures out what the Pali for “Palm Pilot” is. Oh, and he also offers a radical approach to dealing with distraction in meditation.

In a piece called “What Is Man?” Twain wrote: “Any so-called material thing that you want is merely a symbol: you want it not for itself, but because it will content your spirit for the moment.”

Twain argues that when you find yourself desiring, say, a hat, it’s not actually the physical object that you want but something else: perhaps something like the admiration you’ll get from your friends for having such a fine hat. If it turns out that your friends don’t like the hat and think it makes you look stupid, then it’s likely that you won’t think the hat is so splendid after all. The hat hasn’t changed, but its meaning has. (Another possibility, which Twain doesn’t point out, is that you might ditch your friends and stick with the hat, which has now become a symbol of how rebellious and independent you are.)

 Happiness comes not from having the right things, but from having the right kind of relationship to our experience.  

Twain’s is a valid point, and I recognize the phenomenon in myself. I’m not just a person who owns an iPod Touch, I have an iPod Touch because I want to be the kind of (cool) person who owns an esthetically-pleasing, well-designed, practical accessory like an iPod Touch. I’m not so much interested in approval from others; even if no one else ever saw my iPod Touch I could take pleasure in knowing that I’m cool enough to own such a wonderful piece of hardware. In fact that self-validation is more important to me than any admiration I might get from other people. Every time I take out my iPod I’m confirming my sense of self; I’m reminding myself of who I think I am and who I want to be.

The “contentment of spirit” that the iPod offers me is strictly temporary, of course. Sooner or later something better (even just an updated version of the same device) will come out and make mine look old and shoddy. Or it’ll simply keep accumulating dings and scratches to the point that I’ll notice it’s flaws more than its marvelous abilities. In fact, right now my iPod is behaving strangely, with odd flashing lines appearing on the screen, and I’m already thinking that I need a cooler, more up-to-date model. Sic transit gloria technologiae.

 The things we desire are all stand-ins, I’d argue, for more fundamental needs

I’d go further than Twain, however, and argue that even the non-material things we crave are symbols. Say I do get approval and admiration from my friends because of my wonderful hat (or iPod). Why is that approval important to me? I’d argue that it’s just another symbol — this time a symbol for a number of deeper needs. I have a need for connection with others. I have a need for love. I have a need to love myself. The admiration I receive because I have a new hat/iPod stands in as a replacement for those needs. I feel connected to others when they admire me: and after all admiration is easier to attain than genuine communication. Admiration may not be love, but it still feels good. When others give me admiration I like myself more because I reckon that if they like me I must be worth liking. And while that’s not me loving myself for who I am, at least it’s something.

So these things we desire are all stand-ins, I’d argue, for more fundamental needs. An unmet need creates a kind of “thirst” (what’s technically called trsna in Buddhism), and that thirst looks for satisfaction. Unfortunately, because we’re deluded we’re often not very conscious of our thirsts, and we don’t understand what it is we really need. We may need to like ourselves better, but we end up with a new hat!

The principles I’m outlining here have helped me enormously in my meditation practice. Every time we close our eyes to meditate, up pops a flood of thoughts about things we desire to have or to happen and things we desire not to have and not to happen. And some of our thoughts just seem random, but they’ve hooked onto some object or other. I believe that all of these distractions are the “thirsts” generated by unmet needs. I’ll give you a couple of examples:

  • One time I was leading a meditation and I happened to notice my Palm Pilot in front of me (this was a few years back). Before the meditation I’d been reading a Buddhist text out loud to the retreatants and I’d placed the Palm Pilot on the little stand that held the meditation bell. Then I found myself wondering what “Palm Pilot” would be in Pali. I was just coming up with a possible answer (talanāyaka) when I came back to mindfulness. And so I wondered what need might I be trying to meet by wondering about such a ridiculous thing. My intuition told me that what I was getting out of this speculation was fun, and that what I needed was to have a sense of playfulness. Having identified what I needed, I was then able to bring more of a sense of playfulness and enjoyment into my experience by relaxing my effort and appreciating the wonder of the present-moment. And I was able to go back into a state of enjoyable concentration.
  • Another time I kept finding my mind turning to critical thoughts about some bad driving I’d witnessed. And a few moments’ reflection helped me realize that my need to feel safe and secure had been violated. What’s more, I hadn’t been empathizing with my own needs, and instead of wishing myself well I was wishing others ill. So I turned my attention from thoughts of the driver who had almost hit my car to the sense of pain I had in my heart. I offered lovingkindness, warmth, and protection to my heart, and soon I found that I felt secure and safe and that the fear and anger had gone.
  • I could offer a hundred such examples. I don’t think I’ve found a simple instance of distractedness where I couldn’t identify some need that was not being met, and where I couldn’t find some other way to meet that need from my own inner resources. I don’t want to suggest by this that we never need look outside of ourselves in order to get our needs met. Some of our needs, for example for support and for closeness, involve other people. Some needs you can fulfill from your inner resources, while in other cases you need to find the inner resources to seek the fulfillment of your needs from outside.

    But I’d suggest you try thinking about your thoughts and feelings as being merely symbolic. Not just symbolic — they point towards our true needs. If we’re prepared simply to sit with our distractions and see what we can learn from them about ourselves, those distractions become teachers. We can follow the trail of our thirsts back into the less-conscious part of ourselves where our needs reside. This takes a little skill and practice. We need to learn not to react to our distractions: not to judge them. We need to learn to identify what our needs are (and the insights of Nonviolent Communication are very useful here), and we need to learn or find ways to meet our needs. But I believe that this approach to meditation offers a powerful tool for finding inner peace, and for letting go of the idea that there is some “thing” we need that will bring happiness. Happiness comes not from having the right things, but from having the right kind of relationship to our experience.


    BodhipaksaBodhipaksa is a Buddhist practitioner, writer, and teacher, and is also the founder of Wildmind. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and daughter, and has a particular interest in teaching prison inmates.

    As well as teaching behind bars, Bodhipaksa also conducts classes at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire. He muses, rants, and shares random aspects of his life on his blog at bodhipaksa.com. You can follow Bodhipaksa’s Twitter feed at http://twitter.com/bodhipaksa.

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Comment from Matthew Brown
Time: November 21, 2008, 4:43 pm

I have noticed in my own teaching the need to keep myself amused (think I’m clever) be validated by my students, and this has really interfered with my ability to be at my best. In fact, I’m wondering if I should get out of the classroom altogether because I have such trouble with this. It is not something I am dealing with in my meditation now, because I’m not currently teaching. But whatever type of job I wind up in, my need to keep myself amused and think I’m a clever fellow, will wind up being an issue. Developing humility that is sincere is not going to be an easy path.

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Pingback from Get behind wants, desires & distractions to your real needs « transformative-living
Time: November 22, 2008, 5:00 pm

[...] Mark Twain: “Any so-called material thing that you want is merely a symbol…” [...]

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Comment from leona
Time: November 22, 2008, 5:18 pm

Thank you so much for this article. I loved your clarity and empathy and your invitation to embrace what actually arises in our experience. For me, “embracing” as part of my practice invites exploration with compassion & wisdom. In my early vipassana days I just noticed, noticed, noticed until I noticed that I had developed my own form of aversion – a cooly, distant and subtle form of self-crticism or self-praise depending on what was arising. By bringing NVC and Focusing into my practice (on & off the cushion) I am learning to be at peace with my heart (and my heart really does have enough space for all of me) and learning to recognise the machinations and patterns of my mind (which would rather not know some of me).
I have written about this quite a lot on my blog:
http://transformativeliving.wordpress.com

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Comment from Tina Marshall
Time: December 1, 2008, 4:49 pm

I found a great post on Peterman’s Eye today about Mark Twain and I thought I’d share….

http://www.petermanseye.com/curiosities/notables-gossip/381-the-first-american-writer

Today is his birthday…so I’m about to go eat some cake in celebration. Cheers!

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