Thursday, August 24, 2006

Envy and Gratitude (9.14.08)

Man is so caught up in the toils of mechanical life that he neither has time to stop nor the power of attention needed to turn his mental vision upon himself. Man thus passes his days absorbed by external circumstances. The great machine that drags him along turns without stopping, and forbids him to stop under penalty of being crushed.... Life passes away from him almost unseen, swift as a ray of light, and man falls engulfed and still absent from himself. --Boris Mouravieff.

“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.


Van Harvey said...

"...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."

Is that the point of the injunction to live in the Here and the Now? That you are actively part of that spark struck from the Horizontal meeting the Vertical - not just aware of it when the friction warms up to the point of drawing our attention?

"For in that gap between desire and fulfillment lies the hidden key. In that gap there is both anticipation and hope." but if that gap isn't filled with your active attention, the actual YOU (or maybe Ohm, All,God..?), not the chimera of mechanically spun desire, there will be no filling of the void?

Excellent wrap up for the Top 10 - you do give the One e-Ticket ride

Anonymous said...

from "I AM THAT", Q&A with Nisargadatta Maharaj:

NM: 'Are you happy because you have what you want, or because you do not want what you do not have?'

Anonymous said...

I think behind envy there is, of course, fear. I'm pretty well convinced that 99% of all fear we experience is fear of what others might think of us. It's not the great, abstract fears that do us in - it's the 9 to 5 fears, the pedestrian fears that corrode the soul.

In any event, great tour of the top ten. Next, maybe an esoteric exegesis on the Book of Revs, the 7 seals? That could be a bit "out there", but . .

For What It's Worth Dept: Bob, you may have noticed some readers pointing out links between your posts and synchronistic events in their own lives. I'm always uncomfortable getting "personal", but - last night I was visited by a junior epiphany, you know, one of those simple little Truths, almost a background given, that for some reason, suddenly lights up in neon in the mind. It was this: The worrying concern that we harbor for what we don't have inhibits the gratitude we should harbor for what we do have. Then I read today's O.C. posting and I think, Holy Snakes On A Plane . . .

Maybe I reasoned, unconsciously, that you would write on envy today and from out of this anticipation, I crafted for myself a needed epiphany. Maybe. Or maybe this is a time many of us are riding the same spiritually-informing current, and your giving voice to it validates that there really is such a current.

Anonymous said...

O, how I wish I had a book and a blog and was a master of pithy word-play.

Thanks for the series of posts, Bob. Can't wait to see what's coming next.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of appreciation, I want to say that I appreciate the time and insight you offer so graciously, Bob. This has been an interesting experience.

I apologize if this is a bit off the subject, but I want to qualify my statement about being leftist. In fact maybe some other label would suit me better here. It seems we have a different focus on what it is to be left. I care about equality, human rights and justice. In my opinion communism and atheism are a bastardization of the meaning of “left.” Moreover, what some people think is childish rebellion, some others see as reform. Consider that without reform we might still have slavery and be a territory of Great Britain, and no woman would be educated enough to appreciate your blog. As far as religious rebellion, that is just a negative spin on searching for Truth. The difference between positive and negative reform lies in the mental capacity and motives of the reformists.

Guitanguran said...

I want everything that I have...

Lisa said...

Agreeing with Stu & Will, I envy the magnitude of your writing/thoughts and am grateful that you have chosen to share it with me!

Your writings are a positive beginning to each day! Keep shining that bright light. Thanks.

dicentra63 said...

I apologize if this is a bit off the subject, but I want to qualify my statement about being leftist. In fact maybe some other label would suit me better here. It seems we have a different focus on what it is to be left.

How about "Classical Liberal"? Many of the best "conservative" bloggers used to identify with the Left, but believe that the Left has left them for something entirely different for what they signed on for.

A Classical Liberal upholds the Enlightenment ideals that informed the Constitution and other bedrocks of US society, is not afraid to question his/her own assumptions, would never accept "fake but accurate" facts, and knows the difference between the baby and the bathwater.

And perhaps most important, realizes that people aren't naturally good--we're equally capable of good or evil, depending on what we choose.

As for the Ten Commandments being inverted, isn't it true that the first commandment of Marxism is "thou shalt covet"?

Dennis Prager identifies human insatiability as the primary obstacle to happiness; only when you realize that you really can't get "enough" sex, love, comfort, food, wealth, approval, popularity, or whatever it is you think you want, can you go about the business of being content with what you have.

My definition of Enough: everthing I need and a little of what I want.

SC&A said...

This is most annoying.

The more you write, the better it gets.

It used to be afternoon coffee and a time to unwind. Now, it's coffee and a look through the bobservatory.

Good stuff.

Van Harvey said...

dicentra63 said "isn't it true that the first commandment of Marxism is "thou shalt covet"?"

Not quite, isn't it "Thou shalt demand that thy neighbor shall satisfy thy covetousness"?

And what "Sigmund, Carl and Alfred" said goes for me too - I may have to become a leftist in order to force my Job to grant me paid extended coffee/One COsmos breaks.

Anonymous said...

Another enlightening discussion.

A few years ago there was a T-Shirt slogan that said, "He who dies with the most toys, wins!"
That was about the same time that the film, "Wall Street," made Gordon Gecko's motto, "Greed is good," famous. So much in our culture urges us on to embrace materialism. So few voices on the other side. It is a breath of fresh air when anyone urges less covetousness and more thankfulness.

Thanks for sharing your insights and thank God for this beautiful day and all the blessings it brings.

May I be forgiven for envying you your ability to communicate?

Anonymous said...

Bob, do you know the Shepherd Boy's song from John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress? There was a time when Bunyan (1628-88) was part of most high school curricula in the Anglosphere, but of course he's not PC. Anyway, today's topic made me think of his poem:

He that is down needs fear no fall,
He that is low, no pride;
He that is humble ever shall
Have God to be his guide.

I am content with what I have,
Little be it or much:
And, Lord, contentment still I crave,
Because Thou savest such.

Fullness to such a burden is
That go on pilgrimage:
Here little, and hereafter bliss, Is best from age to age.

There is a lovely musical setting of it by Gordon Jacob, an English composer who died in 1985.

Alan said...

I am thankful for Bob's postings and envious of his ability to write as well as he does.

Anonymous said...


You and me both, brother. Dr. Bob packs more wisdom, insight and humor into a single paragraph than most authors can squeeze out of whole tomes.

This thread reminds me of a quote I remember from a book by Robert Anton Wilson. It goes something like, "A man is not truly sane until he has given gratitude to the whole Universe." When I was younger, I considered RAW a prophet and a huge influence on my thinking; these days, he looks more like a charlatan and a major progenitor of the kind of nihilistic relativism that Bob deconstructs here. But I gotta give him props for that quote.

Anonymous said...

Will Wilkinson "outs" the mind virus of envy, the practical and even religious paralysis of the resentful and envious:

"[quoting another}What’s bizarre about all of these statements is it treats wealth, and in this case specifically income growth, like a phenomena that is independent of individuals and their actions. They treat income growth like it is a natural spring bubbling up from the ground, and a few piggy people have staked out places by the well and take all the water before the rest of us can get any.

The mysterious world of numinous unmoored macro forces that are somehow rigged to benefit just the rich is a world of magic and wonder. Good thing we don’t live there."

Anonymous said...

Относительно давно посещаю ваш блог, но ни как не могу подписаться на rss. Подскажите, в чем проблема? Заранее благодарна.