Greed is a major driving force of our times. The wheels of commerce and consumption have made greed legitimate to a point where not being greedy is a sign of being a loser, a misfit. Of course, you don’t openly call it being greedy – you call it ambition, go-getting, and other fancy names. Whether it be politicians willing to risk their careers or reputation by becoming party to scams, businessmen willing to ignore the consequence of their decisions, or sportspersons willing to let down the very essence of the game, greed is no longer seen as a sin, especially if you can get away with it. Yet, it is also one of the greatest causes of suffering, cutting across classes and masses. Even the wealthiest are not spared as they crave and slog to possess more and more. Those who are lower down on the "wealth" ladder suffer as they pine for what the world tells them will make them happier, wiser, sexier. The cycle is endless for all. No one ever turns around and says, "Hey, I got there!"
Why does greed play such an important role in our lives? Where does it come from, and what is it supposed to do for us? Why do even the enlightened and the educated fall prey to it? Is there a way out? I will try and share what I believe in this regard, and I promise to be kind. The thoughts expressed here are not based on an academic understanding of greed but on my personal experiences, so there may be times when what you read might be at variance with what is taught in “mind schools.” If you don’t like it, leave it.
It is hard to distinguish between greed and need, since greed manifests itself in the mind as a need. It needs to in order to thrive. This distorted perception of need can arise from a host of factors. At the core of these factors is a deluded sense of self, but that is taking things to a philosophical level. So let’s look at what causes this greed business to happen.
The two things that lead to this misconception – that having more leads to happiness, power, success, whatever – are 1) an incomplete understanding of the self and environment and 2) the experience of deprivation, fear and insecurity. To a great extent, these are the result of parenting, but as adults looking at greed within (and around) us, we need to go back, identify the flaw in the script we wrote for ourselves, and rewrite it in the light of wisdom and compassion. Of course, our learning will help us become better parents and spare the future generation the trauma of having to piece together unnecessarily fragmented lives.
As an embryo, a fetus, a child has very little understanding of the distinction between self and environment; it is only in the first few months after birth that it learns to distinguish the two. The experience of the child in those early months determines whether it will perceive the environment as a dependable ally or a hostile threat. More often than not, it is the latter. Most of us do not respond positively, even as adults, to the lessons of power and abundance that our environment offers. Instead we identify ourselves as powerless and at the mercy of external forces. This leads to great insecurity, and the only way we can protect ourselves from this is by doing all we can to have more. This is where kids learn to cling to their toys, refusing to share, wanting to grab at toys of other kids. Let me not embarrass you with grown up examples. Bottomline, learning to see the oneness of self and environment is a crucial lesson in the journey towards maturity – a lesson in responsibility, and a lesson in compassion.
Deprivation – whether it is material or emotional – especially in early childhood can lead to a psyche where no amount of compensation later in life seems to fill the void, the insecurity. Think sex, think addiction, think money, think shoes and bags and gadgets and clothes, and you will know what I mean. One learns to view want with fear, with an obsessive compulsion to own, to possess more and more, to hoard. Another universal experience with deprivation is the switch to substitutes, and once again, it is not always a conscious choice. Parents are often glad for television since it gets the kid to stay engaged, to eat, or even to fall asleep. Other examples of early childhood substitution are the security blanket, the favorite teddy, the thumb, etc. Seems harmless, right? Extrapolate it to early teens and you will get the picture. Extrapolate to adulthood, and you won’t know where to start.
Another concept that is relevant here is the concept of attachment to self, and the need to survive. Leaving aside our civilizational constructs, even at an organism level, the need to survive is a basic drive. This need to survive is fueled by desire, by the duality between pleasure and pain (so that we don’t have to break our heads over what we should or shouldn’t do to survive). The problem with this part of the picture is that if we have not trained (or been guided) to see desire as a stepping stone to gain deeper insight into the nature of self, it actually works against us.
Desire not only keeps us alive, keeps us integrated, but it also allows us to experience the relationship between cause and effect in deeply personal ways, in ways that are best suited to help us learn those lessons. Unfortunately, desire has been much maligned, and most religious/spiritual schools attach a negative connotation to it – ultimately making it even more sinfully attractive. The point is that without desire, we would never have got where we have got. The desire to know, the desire to be, the desire to overcome, the desire to be desired – these are what have made us who we are as a species. Yet, this very same desire – if not seen in perspective – is what created the ghetto and the sub-Sahara, the Fat Man and the Maoists in their various manifestations.
In between the understanding of desire and the understanding of the self is the entire funny business of attachment – the Styx of maya. Honestly, this is a bridge that one gets to cross only when one must, so we will stay away from it for the sake of the present discussion. For now, we will treat the self and desire as ground realities that need to be dealt with, not transcended with doses of metaphysics or asceticism. Try telling a Bong that his Hilsa in mustard paste is maya!
Selfishness arises when we fail to see the interconnectedness of all things. The mythology of the film Avatar is a very simple example. Desires are a way to actualize our potential and to end the ceaseless arising of consequence (let me know if you find some other way to do that, will you?). So in every sense, the core dynamics of greed is not something evil. It becomes evil when we see it as a replacement for our true worth, our true place in the scheme of things, our true purpose for being.
We are all but expressions of the abundance that is existence. We are all part of a collective journey to experiencing that abundance. We are all bound by our responsibility to make our environment a nurturing one. If the seeds of greed are not sown by us, we do not need to worry. The seeds of greed are sown not only by pursuing greed, but also by focusing on want. What we need to do – as children, as adults, as parent – is to celebrate the abundance, the bonding, the warmth of being part of this amazing life. We can create safe spaces in our little worlds where desire and want are seen as lessons, as stepping stones for larger aspirations, and not as deprivation or injustice. We can create communities where we learn to explore ourselves as part of a larger mystery (klingons, mind melds, and jedi syntax, for example). We can create spaces where we learn to see our humanness as a springboard to experience divinity. I digress. You get the idea, I am sure.
The technology is simple. Like a stone that has not been worked upon by the sculptor, we are pure essence. As life works on us, we take on distinct form, we become more defined. Sometimes, the sculptor misses our essence. Sometimes, we allow sculptors other than the divine sculptor to work on us. Regardless, the essence still remains. No matter how far we have gone down a road that does not take us where we need to go, you can still turn around and find yourself.
The first two world wars were caused by greed and insecurity. The third war has to be the one that eliminates these poisonous weeds. And the reason I say this is simple. If we do not put greed back where it belongs, it will consume us like a disease and prevent us from being capable of calling ourselves a civilization. It might seem that the forces against this thinking are so huge that our efforts at creating islands of contentment are insignificant. Let me assure you that you are not alone. There are millions who are living lives of deep commitment to responsible living. There are millions who are learning the difficult but rewarding lesson of basing their sense of self worth on who they are rather than on external, outward things. As you are reading this, you are not only changing your destiny with your intent to make a difference but you are changing the destiny of mankind. May the force be with you. Always.
[I was drinking Brown Thunder from our Blend of Tea catalog while I wrote this post, just in case you would like some too! Or in case you want to know what you should not be drinking! :) ]