Stop samsara, I want to get off!


Finding contentment in a materialistic world, or, how our author didn’t buy an iPhone, and then did, and then didn’t again.

I admit I struggle with an attraction to shiny objects, and in my mind nothing shines with quite the seductive luster of a latest-model iPhone. When I first heard that the iPhone was in the works, about three years ago, I was filled with what can only be called technolust — a powerful desire to own the latest shiny toy (which at that point was not even available).

So what’s the big deal, you may ask. Isn’t it normal to be full of craving for something you want? And isn’t craving an iPhone a pretty mild form of desire? True, it is normal to experience craving. The thing is that craving hurts. It’s painful to really, really want something. There’s an element of pleasure involved in craving, to be sure, because in our mind we see ourselves possessing the object and so we experience, in our imagination, the pleasure and joy of holding the shiny toy in our eager hand. But that element of pleasure is outweighed, vastly in my experience, by the pain of the sheer wanting.

In English, the word “want” means both “desire” and “lack”

An interesting thing in the English language is that the word “want” means both “desire” (“I want to talk to you”) and “lack” (“I want for nothing”). What I find interesting about this is that sometimes when I “want” (desire) something like an iPhone it points to a “want” (lack) of something in my life. Back when the iPhone was just a glint in a marketer’s eye, I found myself thinking more and more that I barely even needed a cell phone. I had one, to be sure, but I was on a pay-as-you-go plan and even at a hefty 10c per minute I struggled to get through $50-worth of calls in a year. (Yes, I talk on the phone for less than 500 minutes a year. I guess you could say I’m not a big phone user.) And I already had an iPod to listen to music on and a Palm LifeDrive, which was a super-duper PDA (remember those?) that could also play music and videos as well as storing all my contacts, calendars, and allowing me to email and surf the web wirelessly. Basically all my information, media, and telephonic needs were taken care of. So why was I jonesing so heavily for an iPhone?

One obvious answer is the sheer beauty of the product itself. The iPhone is a joy to look at, to hold, and to use (my two-year-old daughter loves zooming in on photographs by spreading her little fingers, and adores swiping through screens. And so do I). And this is one problem — the continuing emergence of better and more attractive technological toys. You buy an iPod (as I had done) and find it beautiful. You just want to look at it, touch it (carefully, so as not to smudge the stainless steel), and play with it. And then after a shockingly brief amount of time a new, improved, model comes out. You look at your iPod (perhaps now 6 months “old”) and it no longer looks as sleek and attractive. It’s now apparent that it lacks the functionality that you’ve seen in the newer models — functionality you now want. And despite your most paranoid of attentions, dings and scratches have begun to dull the luster of your lovely device. Really, you now want — really want — a new iPod.

Samsara is the endless round of desire, disappointment, and renewed desire

And this cycle will continue indefinitely. You succumb to temptation and upgrade, only to find a few months later that your current model is woefully out of date. (I remember going into Best Buy to get some attachment for my one-year-old iPod only to be told that they didn’t stock accessories for “older models”). This is an illustration of what Buddhism calls samsara, or the endless round of desire, disappointment, and renewed desire. In the Buddha’s day iPods, of course did not exist, but the Buddha expressed the dissatisfactions of materialism by saying “Even a shower of gold coins will not take away craving.”

There’s a deeper level to my wanting an iPhone, though. When I crave an iPhone I’m not just wanting (desiring, lacking) a new device, I want (lack, desire) to be The Kind Of Person Who Owns An iPhone. I want to be seen as cool, hip, and ahead of the fashion curve. I want people to look at me and my iPhone and think that I’m as cool as the shiny toy I’m carrying. So I’m craving approval — approval from other people.

But wait, there’s more! Why am I craving approval? Why’s it important for me to be seen as the kind of person who’s cool enough to own an iPhone? Why do I need approval from others? Surely it’s because I don’t give myself enough appreciation. I don’t love myself enough. In the sheer busyness of life, keeping up with writing books, recording, publishing articles online, teaching in prison, doing people favors, taking care of my family, etc, I forget to pause and remind myself that I’m a pretty cool guy. I forget to remind myself that if I let go of craving I can be happy. And because I forget to do this, I feel a “want” of appreciation. And because I feel a want (lack) of appreciation from myself I “want” (desire) appreciation from others. That, I think, gets closer to the root of my painful craving. Without that factored in, whether or not to buy an iPhone is just a question of deciding what technology I need, rather than scrabbling to be seen as a particular kind of person.

If I let go of craving I can be happy

This too is samsara, the endless round of trying to fill a need in an inappropriate way. Getting appreciation from others on the basis of owning a cool gadget is another cycle, not just because cool gadgets don’t stay cool for long (or because other people are not necessarily a reliable source of appreciation), but because it just doesn’t work. Appreciation from others can never replace a self of self-appreciation. Giving myself appreciation is more reliable. It cuts right into the cycle of craving and allows me just to be.

Another way to use iPhone craving as a basis for insight is to appreciate that the object of desire is impermanent. When I find myself craving a new toy, I can visualize it gathering scratches, breaking, and being consigned to the landfill, where it is buried with old banana peels and soiled diapers. Looked at as a process and not as a thing, even an iPhone seems less attractive. (And eventually, by seeing through, once and for all, the shell game that is neurotic craving, we let go of it altogether. That’s we call Enlightenment, but let’s leave that to one side for now).

Anyway, did I buy an iPhone three years ago? No, I didn’t, because I realized that I didn’t need the phone, although it would be handy to having something that was like an iPhone but wasn’t a phone. And then the iPod Touch appeared (something that was like an iPhone but wasn’t a phone), and I sold my LifeDrive on eBay and gave my iPod to my wife. And it was only when my iPod Touch broke, several months ago, that I decided to get the iPhone, reckoning that the ability to check email and get online anywhere would be a handy asset, and that I could simplify the ecology of my pockets by having just one device (iPhone) rather than two (iPod Touch plus cheapo cellphone).

But now the iPhone 3G S is coming out, which has rekindled the whole “should I upgrade” question. But no, I’m not going to upgrade until I have some good, objective reason to. Perhaps when the battery life on my current model is impractically short, or when I can upgrade at minimal cost, I might then decide to get the latest iPhone. For now I’m going to step off of the painful round of samsara, or at least the part that’s involved in craving iPhones. I’ll content myself by living with an appreciation of my own merits — the good qualities I embody and the good things I do — and recalling the impermanence of my objects of desire. And that’s more fulfilling than any shiny new toy.

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13 Comments. Leave new

  • I say I’m a Buddhist because I want people to think I’m the cool kind of person who would be a Buddhist. I say I’m a Zen Buddhist because I want people to think that I don’t care what they think. And if they really think about it, they’ll realize that I’m not really a Buddhist at all – that I’m just me. Or maybe they think that I’m just me anyway, and it’s actually me that’s thinking myself in circles. Remember when Z. Cavaricci’s were cool?

    Good post. The world needs more concrete explanations/analogies like this.

    • Thanks. Yeah, I know at least one highly committed Buddhist practitioner (a household name for many in the UK) who told me that he first started practicing Buddhism because he thought Buddhists were cool and he wanted some of that action. But it seems there can be something self-correcting in dharma practice that encourages people to find more genuine reasons for practicing, and he found deeper motivations eventually. And I have to admit that at times I’ve been proud of being a Buddhist myself because it’s a cool tradition, although I don’t encourage that habit. Fashions change.

      But Z. Cavaricci’s? I had to Google them. I was always rather geeky and never was much into clothes.

  • That was some good food.

  • I remember a few years ago when I bought my first cell-phone I thought it would give me a sort of inner completeness and sense of identity that I didn’t already have. It would be an absolute laughing stock now (that first one was ginormous size). But still they can be useful, even if not ultimately fulfilling. I have resisted getting an iphone. But I can see the convenience of having everything all in one wonderful unit. But maybe it’s a good thing (albeit a difficult thing) to do without email / internet for at least some parts of your day? Anyway great post / great blog. The continuing conundrum on possessions continues. To have or not to have … that is the real question.

  • theconsciouslife
    June 30, 2009 11:11 pm

    Thanks, Bodhipaksa for the enlightening post. I went through the same struggles when I was younger and completely filled with technolust–upgrading computers whenever a new, faster CPU is available, or buying a new PDA because of the new features.

    Like you, I realized that these cravings only lead to more cravings and unsatisfactions with life, as well as lots of old gadgets sitting idly in the storeroom. Good thing that I’ve more control of my cravings now, though I must admit that I still do fall for them once in a while.

  • “…simplify the ecology of my pockets…”

    What a lovely turn of phrase! I’ve been wrestling with the same demons for months now, but managed to hold off on cost/vanity/there’ll be a new one along soon grounds.

    However, viewed from the noble art of de-cluttering perspective, maybe there’s a justification.

    Oh, and it’s cool, too.

    Thanks for the insight.


  • Even though the article is written about material gadgets, I happened to come across it while in turmoil over my relationship with my husband. Sometimes you just want someone to be different and that want causes so much unnecessary pain (for both people). My husband isn’t perfect, but neither am I. I am new to meditation and Buddhism so I don’t know much.But, I think this idea of reevaluating the underlying cause of our wanting is very powerful.

    Thanks for the insight.

  • It’s good, too, to take into account the larger context of the creation of the gadgets we crave, and the constant seeking out of new things for us to desire. It’s not enough that we have all the natural desires that come from being human; we must be practiced upon also by an economic system that requires the creation of novel desires in order to continue growing.

    The desire to appear generous to those who know me has led me very far astray, too. For instance, I don’t own a television, nor do I want to own one. But if I have a family member over to visit me in my new home, won’t he/she get bored? Shouldn’t I have a TV just to be a good host? I think not. But my guest might feel let down. Sometimes I feel selfish just for setting my own priorities about what I should or shouldn’t own.

  • Hey, interesting post. I’ve been thinking about these things lately myself. I bought a jacket a few months ago which is pretty flashy and it cost £100. It was spur of the moment, but my conscience never quite let up on it afterwards. Now I’ve thought about it properly, I’m happy I bought it. I figured, ok, this is a pretty outrageous jacket and I did buy it to portray a certain image of myself i.e. i’m the guy who can wear outrageous jackets. And this in turn is the gimp of another need which is something a long the lines of ‘I hold my individuality dear to me, I’m a strong person, I don’t care what you think’. And these thoughts are in turn the sub-gimps of the further need ‘I want you to know who I am, and respect my individual prowess, so you can accept me, and heck, maybe we can be friends’.

    Now at this point my purchase of the jacket is starting to seem superficial. But I don’t think it is, because out of a store full of jackets… i chose THAT jacket. And I genuinely loved it. I loved the character and the style of it. And for that reason, it was a good purchase, because it’s a reflection of myself, and therefore it holds more value than just ‘look at my outrageous jacket guys!’

    Similarly, with your iPod… if you want a new one… because it’ll give you some joy… then why not? As long as you’re doing it for yourself!

    This post is probably an incoherent ramble, but I’m not in an editing mood so i’ll let it stand!

    Thanks for setting up this website though man, I love what you’re doing, especially with the prisoners. You’re a good example of the impact an active and genuine spirit can have.

    A x

  • Good read/ even better comments from everybody. I usually don’t post stuff ever, just read, but I’m here to thank everyone for their thoughtful words. I will remember this always and it will certainly help me in my journey.

  • just because Im already out of samsara, I dont have a comment.


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