When I was 18 years old, I did a project on Buddhism for Religious Studies.
Buddhism was a trendy religion. Even my atheist father had been to a Buddhist retreat once (he had to clean out his nostrils with salty water every morning, but that’s another story). And I used to say (as did all the trendy liberals) that ‘if I had to be religious, well, I’d probably be Buddhist.’ I mean, there was the Dalai Lama; and that nice sounding chanting in picturesque locations; and reincarnation and being nice to animals stuff (which, as a not-yet-out-of-the-closet vegetarian very much appealed to me). It all sounded/looked in the brochure to be pretty good.
I did a very in-depth project (I was in Norway and nobody cared if I wrote the project or not. I wrote it in English and I’m fairly certain that my teacher couldn’t understand most of it. But I was bored and had gotten it into my head that I could use this project to ‘improve’ myself). And amongst all the reading I discovered that one of the main aims of Buddhism is to not want things. And not just ‘things’, as in the Western definition of ‘things’ (like, matching 1D bedroom suites and cat-shaped iPhone covers and swearing Terry Turtles), but like, anything. You’re not meant to really ‘want’ anything: not a dream job, a dream home, not even a strongly-jawed man with sandy locks from a knitting pattern (or similar) with whom you can make sandy-haired, strong-jawed babies. The reason being that wanting something left you open to the disappointment of not getting it. And Buddhists would like to iron out that whole roller-coaster of life and wanting and disappointment into one nice, straight line of contentment. Not overwhelming joy, no, but not all-encompassing sorrow either. Just, nice, peaceful contentment.
My 18 year old self rebelled at this idea and quickly decided that Buddhism was not for me. Sure, I could probably stand to give up on the all-encompassing sorrows that engulfed me when I ate one too many chocolate biscuits and the scales stubbornly refused to go down, but I just couldn’t bear to give up on that overwhelmingly joy I felt when I finally gave in and ate the entire packet of Tim-Tams in one sitting. In front of the TV. No, no, I’m kidding. My 18 year old self genuinely thought that the roller-coaster of life was what the whole point of the roller-coaster of life was. If… if you get me.
Fast-forward 10 years of sometimes getting what I want, but most usually just getting some watered down version of it. Some kind of, ‘whoops! We almost had it there, but not quite! Better luck next time!’ Some kind of, ‘Oh, I know you actually asked for ABBA’s Greatest Hits CD for Christmas, but instead I decided to get you Avril Lavigne’s debut album’ (there may not seem to be a different to you people, but there was MOST DEFINITELY a difference to me). And I’m starting to see what the Buddhists were on about.
I have noticed a shift in my attitude recently. I’m not saying I have stopped wanting things entirely. No, no I think its worse than that. The only things I’ve stopped wanting are the things that I can’t BUY. I have given up on things that seem just too damn hard, things that require other people’s involvement or consent, and have started to focus on anything that brings instant gratification at the entering of a pin code. I have become the perfect consumer. I want food and clothes and books and airplane tickets and TV shows because all of those things are in easy and ready supply.
It also seems to be a fairly reasonable response to a world in which we are, as individuals, pretty much powerless to affect meaningful change.
And I’m not saying that I’m entirely without desire for the other, more complex stuff. But I don’t generally spend my days day-dreaming about that stuff anymore. To make matters worse, on the rare occasions that I do suddenly want something more complex than a pre-made Sainsbury’s Indian meal, the wanting seems to be that more intense, making the inevitable come-down (gradual or instantaneous) that much worse. The rage, oh the rage! Why did I allow myself to want something completely out of reach again?
I think the worse problem comes when you are suddenly jolted out of your happy consumerist bubble and realise that, actually, you don’t have that much power over the things that you get for money, either. You may think its a simple transaction of ‘I have money, I give you this money for your product or service.’ Its actually not. If anything goes wrong and you complain that you did not receive the product or service you were led to believe you would get, well. That’s when you realise how powerless and little you actually are in this big, bad world.
And that’s when you find yourself throwing a tantrum at St. Pancras Station whilst on the phone to a Scottish man named Douglas who keeps telling you he understands, except that he doesn’t, because how can I person who is talking over the top of you whilst reading from a pre-written script actually take in and understand what you are saying to them?