Envy and Gratitude (9.14.08)
“Zoom!" What was that? That was your life, mate. Oh, that was quick, do I get another? Sorry mate, that's your lot. --Basil Fawlty
We conclude our little tour of the inner meaning of the Ten Commandments with the tenth, “thou shalt not covet.” It is a fitting capstone to our journey, since the injunction against envy is really more of a reward for a life well lived than an ultimatum. For envy is the most corrosive of emotions (or perhaps more accurately, “mental states”), in that it undermines any possibility of personal happiness or spiritual fulfillment. While it often takes the form of longing for what one doesn’t have, it is usually built on an unconscious foundation of being ungrateful for what one has, or even actively devaluing what one has, so that one constantly feels deprived. Thus, envy is often the residue of the inner emptiness caused by unconscious devaluation, "spoiling," and ingratitude.
Ultimately envy is a self-consuming process that leaves nothing but itself standing, like Michael Corleone at the end of Godfather II or Charles Foster Kane at the end of Citizen Kane. Both endings represent envy triumphant. All that is left of Kane is a huge warehouse of meaningless objects frantically acquired during a lifetime spent trying vainly to fill a psychological and spiritual void with possessions. It is appropriate that they are consigned to the fire, as workers absently toss one after another into the flames.
Here we discover a certain confluence between Buddhism and the Judeo-Christian tradition, for Buddha is famous for his wise crack about desire being the source of our suffering. But actually, he was trying to make a point about attachment to desire. Desires will come and go, like smoke driven by wind. It is only when we attempt to hold on to them that they become problematic.
But even then, as I pointed out in One Cosmos, I find it useful to draw a distinction between appetite, which is natural, and desire, which is often mimetic, meaning that it is not spontaneous but prompted from the outside. Many people give themselves entirely over to this process, and lead lives of simply wanting what others seem to want. They are pushed and pulled around by fleeting desires, impulses and passions, but when one of them is being gratified, it gives rise to a spurious sense of “freedom,” when in reality this kind of ungoverned desire is the opposite of freedom.
It is very difficult to avoid this dynamic in a consumer-driven culture such as ours. It’s the kind of cliché that Petey detests, but we are constantly bombarded with messages and images that fan the fires of envy and mimesis. Sri Aurobindo referred to this as the “vital mind,” and the fundamental problem is that it cannot really be appeased. In other words, it doesn’t shrink when we acquiesce to it. Instead, it only grows, like an addiction or compulsion.
Importantly, the vital mind does not merely consist of impulses seeking discharge. Rather, it can take over the machinery of the host, and generate its own thoughts and rationalizations. We’ve all seen this happen in ourselves. Yoga in its most generic sense involves a reversal of this tendency, so that we may consciously yearn for what we actually want, rather than mindlessly willing what we desire. This tends to be a constant battle at the beginning. But only until the end.
I’m currently reading Peter Guralnick’s magisterial biography of Elvis, and it is amazing how elaborate the vital mind can become if left unchecked. It seems that someone can become so wealthy and powerful that they lose the friction necessary to distinguish between fantasy and reality. A sort of hypnotic, dreamlike imagination takes hold, which can become quite elaborate and unnatural. I am sure this accounts for the general nuttiness that comes out of the typical left-wing hollywoodenhead. They are so far from what you and I know as reality, that they are both ontologically and epistemologically (not to say spiritually) crippled.
“Job one” of the vital mind is to foster a kind of I-amnesia, so that we repeatedly fool ourselves into believing that fulfillment of the next desire will finally break the cycle and bring us real contentment, but most of us know that drill. For in that gap between desire and fulfillment lies the hidden key. In that gap there is both anticipation and hope. But like the referred pain of a back injury that we feel in the leg, this hope is misplaced onto a realm incapable of fulfilling it. For, as it is written--probably on a bumper snicker somewhere--”You can never get enough of what you don’t really need.”
This pattern of desiring what we don’t really want or need is well beyond merely affecting our spiritual lives. Rather, it is starting to seriously compromise even our physical well-being. At some point in the last 10-15 years, affluence became a much more serious threat to health than poverty. The levels of obesity, type II diabetes, and other related health problems have become epidemic. Why? Because people are able to live in the vital mind as never before. The Western world is increasingly full of “poor” people whose bodies look like the most prosperous people of the past. They are still impoverished, but it is a spiritual impoverishment that causes them to try to fill the void with food and meaningless sedentary activities, such as television and video games. In a way, they are more poor--not to say pathetic and lacking in dignity--than the poor of the past.
Natural appetites can be satisfied, but the gods of abstract metaphysical desire are omnipotent and require constant tribute. That is one of the paradoxes, for one might think that the spiritually developed person lives in an “abstract” world, while the bovine, slack-jawed grazing multitudes live in the concrete world, but it is quite the opposite. The spiritual person becomes very concretely aware of subtle and fleeting little concrete joys on a moment-by-moment basis, where as the BSJGM’s are only tuned into the most gross forms of sensory overload, whether in music, entertainment, or food (and I imagine the porn industry taps into this same dynamic as well).
Here again we must bear in mind the limitlessness of the human imagination. We can always imagine something better, something that we don’t have. Any clown can do that. Much more tricky is being grateful for what we do have. Thus, the cultivation of humility and gratitude actively counter the vital mind and its constitutional envy. This may initially feel as if we are being deprived of our horizontal liberty, such as it is, and this is true. However, the whole point is to replace that with a more expansive vertical freedom that is relatively unconstrained by material circumstances, excluding the most dire cases.
And, just like my absurcular book, the commandments circle back around to the beginning, back to where we started, with the holographic first commandment that contains all the others: “The secular left turns the cosmos upside down and inside out. As a result, instead of being conditioned in a hierarchical manner from the top down, it is conditioned from the bottom up. This results not in true liberation, only in rebellion and pseudo-liberation, for there can be no meaningful freedom outside objective Truth. The left rejects top-town hierarchies as intrinsically repressive, but the opposite is true--only in being conditioned by the higher can we actually elevate and liberate ourselves from contingency and relativity.”
Or, as Will put it “Like any physical attribute, if the human intellect is not yoked to and governed by the Higher Intelligence, it runs amok and eventually goes crazy. It's taken some time to get there, but currently, the spiritually bereft intellect is basically in charge of most of the world's influential institutions, which of course means the world is in deep stew. As far as definitions of the Antichrist go, I think this would do OK.”
On the spiritual level, there is simply nothing more satanic than envy. The sword of gratitude is our only defense.