In age of spiralling environmental catastrophe, it’s not hard to find statistics documenting our enormous human capacity for consumption. Europeans spent $11 billion on ice cream alone last year, globally we spent some $400 billion on narcotics.[i] It’s claimed the average person living in the United States uses 300 shopping bags worth of raw materials – weighing as much as a large luxury car – every week.[ii]And so the data continues: endless facts and figures about the horrifying amounts of oil, metal and water we fritter away. Even the data itself overwhelms us.
Though it’s tempting to think of these times we live in as some new low point in humanity’s propensity towards excess, it’s worth pointing out that other eras too show evidence of decadence, profligacy and extravagance. Roman Emperor Elagabalus, who ruled between 218 and 222 A.D., is said to have murdered his dinner guests by suffocating them under a mountain of rose petals; to have fed his dogs only goose livers; and to have been married four times before the age of eighteen. Nero built a brand-new palace in Rome so huge that, if it had been completed, it would have spanned a third of the city. Its walls and ceilings were inlaid with precious stones.
Harrowed by endtime statistics, media pundits suggest we curb our natural drive towards bigger and better and faster objects by appeal to our better selves. ‘Zero waste’ restaurants are opening up, there are ‘low impact’ development projects, and ‘carbon neutral’ flights. Less is more, we are told, and small is beautiful. Implicit in these greener, leaner activities is the hope that we, as a species, via our capacity for higher reason or perhaps some innate moral compass, will move towards a more harmonious stewardship of planet earth, our basic needs at one with the capacity of the biosphere to provide for us.
My suggestion is that this hoped-for evolution is not only unlikely to occur, but that it’s very premise rests on a basic misunderstanding of our human condition. For most humans on this planet, life unfolds within certain accepted parameters. One of the most basic of these – the fatal flaw, if you will, when it comes to any possibility to live less greedily – is the notion that objects bring happiness.
Let’s explore this notion a little. And let me define exactly what I mean by an ‘object.’
An object is something you can apprehend, something outside yourself. So it might be a loaf of bread, a Porsche, a holiday, a new job, a love interest, or a meditative state. An object, in this sense, is anything out there in the world that is going to complete ‘me’. This is the basic commodity upon which the quest for happiness is transacted.
One of the great thinkers on the subject of human motivation was Abraham Maslow. In 1943, his psychological theory ‘The Hierarchy of Needs’ laid out quite accurately the human drive towards the acquisition of objects. Maslow suggested that, at the primal level, we need to have our physiological needs of shelter and sustenance met, at a level beyond that we seek love and esteem, and finally we come to seek some understanding of the universe: a process Maslow called ‘self-actualisation.’ Already in parlance, this phrase ‘self-actualisation,’ had been coined by the organismic theorist Kurt Goldstein for the motive to realize one’s full potential. In Goldstein’s view, it is the organism’s master motive, the only real motive: “the tendency to actualize itself as fully as possible is the basic drive.
So what is it, I wonder, about the human condition that forces us to keep seeking once our needs have been met? As Maslow’s hierarchy suggests, once our basic hungers have been sated, subtler ones quickly rise up to take their place. While we might start with a primal yearning for food and shelter and clothing, acquiring those things simply means that other objects of desire – romantic partners, success in business and so forth – quickly replaces them. I remember once talking to a successful friend of mine, a happily married venture capitalist with two houses, about this very subject. Something of a foodie, my friend perfectly expressed this conundrum by explaining that after a delicious meal at a fine restaurant he usually orders an espresso, then a cognac, then perhaps a cigar. Each one is supposed to tick an imaginary box in some unnamed place within the psyche, resulting in a sense of total satiety and completion. ‘But the thing is,’ my friend bemoaned with puzzlement, ‘no matter how far you push it, you never get there.’
What we can conclude from this is something fundamental to the business of being a human being. Objects do not bring happiness. Greek mythology offers us this lesson in the form of Tantalus, who was made to stand in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree with low branches, with the fruit ever eluding his grasp, and the water always receding before he could take a drink. Upon hearing this story it’s easy to lament poor Tantalus’s fate as one of the cruellest tortures imaginable. Until one realises, however, that this is exactly the situation we’re all in anyway, whether or not we choose to acknowledge it.
One person who discovered this was the Buddha, in around the sixth century BCE. He placed the Pali word taṇhā, which means ‘thirst’ or ‘craving’ as the root cause of human suffering. Taṇnhā… is a reflex,’ writes Buddhist scholar Ajahn Sucitto ‘It’s the desire to pull something in and feed on it, the desire that’s never satisfied because it just shifts from one sense base to another, from one emotional need to the next, from one sense of achievement to another goal. It’s the desire that comes from a black hole of need, however small and manageable that need is.’
So how do any of us comes to grips with that ‘black hole of need’ and become free of suffering? Is it simply by recognising that objects do not bring us happiness or is there further to go? When one has come to this point we are in the process of seeking what Maslow calls ‘self-actualization.’ Having exhausted our search in the world of things, relationships, experiences and states we find ourselves becoming interested in spirituality, or what some people called ‘inner work.’
The term ‘inner work’ is useful here, because it shows that, perhaps the first time, we are no longer looking in the world of objects. When we have exhausted the search ‘out there’, disappointed enough times by the failure of objects to bring us home, we come to the world ‘in here’: the world of our own experience. The meditation practices of Buddhists, Sufis, Gnostic Christians, Taoists, Bahá’ís, Yogis and Advaita Vedantins offer a wealth of means of doing this, but their goal is the same: to explore the validity of the ‘self’ we take ourselves to be, and ultimately become free of it. No matter how alluring the world of objects and things, nor for how many years we attempt to make the world deliver us that elusive sense of peace, we will all arrive, sooner or later, at what Huxley called ‘the doors of perception.’ Only by examining and exploring this insatiable hunger which propels us, relentlessly, through the world can we find the deep rest which was the only thing we ever wanted in the first place.