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.