How many of your projects are about gaining something?
There’s an analogy between the simple question about that and the simple question about eating well.
If your experience is like mine, you sometimes find that you have to spend decades wading through confusing masses of information to uncover a simple guideline that works.
That’s certainly true with respect to a simple guideline for eating well. Think of all the different kinds of popular diets that have been proposed in the last couple of decades.
Here’s a partial list: vegetarian, semi-vegetarian, low fat, low carbohydrates, low calorie, South Beach, Atkins, Zone, Stone Age, diabetic, raw food, Weight Watchers, and on and on.
What are the results? Even though two-thirds of us are overweight or obese, we are getting still fatter and fatter and even more burdened with confusion and guilt!
I myself went on and off various diets for many years. I have direct experience whereof I speak.
Eventually, I grew tired of being confused and decided to study nutrition and learn for myself how to eat well.
Guess what I learned? Eating well is simple!
Here’s the simple question to ask whenever you are about to eat something: “Could one of my successful ancestors 20,000 years ago have eaten this (or something very similar to it)?”
If not, be very careful about eating it. Limit it to an occasional treat.
Over time, instead of gaining body fat, you’ll be likely to achieve a healthy percentage of body fat – especially if you also make it a point to move (exercise) in ways similar to the ways they moved.
You’ll tend to obtain most of your calories from natural fats and proteins and very few of your calories from carbohydrates. As long as you stop eating when you begin to feel full, that’s how to eat well.
Notice, though, that being simple does not mean it is easy. 20,000 years ago was before the first Agricultural Revolution. Eating this way will eliminate many ordinary food sources such as products made from grains and dairy products. It will, though, ensure that you are working in tandem with your biological heritage.
End of confusion about what to eat!
Once you understand how to eat well in terms of your health and physical flourishing, it’s a matter of replacing poor dietary habits with good ones.
This is like the situation with respect to gaining (acquiring, possessing).
If you are anything at all like normal, you spend a lot of your energy gaining, or, at least, attempting to gain.
The objects to be acquired are endless. You may, for example, spend time acquiring money, status, a family, excitement or adventure, pleasure, a house or a better house, a motor vehicle or a better motor vehicle, a job or a better job, and so on.
An immediate problem is this: acquiring is balanced by losing. Acquiring and losing are correlative concepts.
Suppose I am successful in possessing the woman of my dreams. We fall in love and commit to each other. For a few weeks or months, living together is as blissful as a honeymoon. Eventually, though, the reality of understanding and living with another person sets in and the bliss diminishes back to normalcy.
We humans are extremely adaptable creatures. Name one important acquisition whose value to you didn’t diminish quickly?
Another problem is this: whatever can be possessed by acquiring it can also be lost by losing it.
Suppose, after a while, my beloved wife runs off with another man? There’s nothing to prevent that.
Suppose your new house burns down. Suppose you lose your pile of money through no fault of your own. Suppose your beloved motorcycle gets stolen? Suppose you become CEO and soon, through retirement or scandal or whatever, you find yourself an ex-CEO? Suppose your beloved husband is killed in a war or your children all die in an automobile accident? Suppose your company implodes and you lose your pension? Suppose the structure of your society collapses?
These kinds of losses happen all the time. Some have happened to me. Most you can watch daily on the nightly news.
In the long run, what is acquiring worth?
In the long run, losing exactly balances acquiring; what is lost subtracted from what has been gained is zero. This is Bradford’s law of conditioned existence!
So, what should we do?
It’s simple: just stop all acquiring activities.
Here’s the simple question to ask whenever you are doing something: ask yourself: “Am I trying to gain something?”
If the answer is “yes,” either end that activity or be very cautious about continuing it.
If you are encountering this guideline for the first time, I am aware how absurd it must appear! It can be a high obstacle to surmount.
Acquiring something for ourselves seems ingrained in nearly all of our activities.
However, a moment’s thought should give you pause. For example, suppose you are a young man interested in possessing a woman. You desire what she can offer you: friendship, sex, status, and so on. What’s the better way to be successful in your acquiring endeavor?
Should you try to take from her the goods you want or should you try to give to her what is best for her? Put that way, wouldn’t you be more successful by giving rather than taking?
However, I’m not just making the point that it is in your self-interest to be a giver than a taker. In business, that’s just a clever way of gaining more money from your clients, customers, or patients.
I’m actually making the point that it’s best simply to forget about your personal self-interest, which is how sages live.
In the oldest Zen writing, attributed to Sengcan [Seng-ts’an] who was the Third Patriarch of Chinese Zen, he advises us to “get rid of” not only loss but also gain. Although we naturally like acquiring and dislike losing, liking and disliking are “nothing but the mind’s disease.” [Rochester Zen Center translation.]
If this seems absurd to you, it’s because you have misidentified your true nature. You think of yourself as a form [object, thing] among other forms who needs to keep acquiring in order to survive and thrive.
It’s true that you are form among forms, but that is not your true nature; instead, it is only a manifestation of your True Nature, which is Being itself.
Realizing your True Nature [spiritual awakening or enlightenment] undermines all drives towards acquiring (or losing).
Isn’t, though, realizing your True Nature itself acquiring something? No.
It is an achievement, but it’s nothing to do with gaining. It’s an uncovering, a removing of obstructions – particularly conceptual obstructions.
In other words, it’s impossible to begin to have (acquire) what you have always been.
In short, Being trumps having. There’s no need for any gaining because there’s no need for any having: you already are everything you need to be.
As always, if you know someone who might benefit from reading this, please pass it along.
Related readings: my Real Overeating Help and the article in Buddhadharma (Summer 2012) by the former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center.