Friday, August 20, 2010

The Middle Way

I was at a wedding last week-end. The bride and groom are young - mid-20s - and full of more positive emotions than you'd expect in the average newlyweds. They have very good emotional intelligence - something more useful in navigating life's ups and downs than basic I.Q., according to several studies I've seen. That ability to roll with the punches and stay positive can pull a person through rough patches, and make the smooth patches more likely!
A wedding is about many things, including the future - which we tend to associate with looking up. (The Chinese character for "tomorrow" means literally "bright day.") We enjoy attending weddings because of the amazing energy given off by the couple at the centre of their family, friends, and community. Celebration and exultation feel good - everyone knows that.
The opposites, mourning and despair, feel bad. Most people try to avoid them at all costs (even if the experience of very low mood can bring new insights and depth). However, almost no one tries to avoid exultation. It's wonderful to feel high on love or joy or pride - what possible downside could there be?
Buddhists advise the Middle Way: neither extreme joy nor extreme sorrow. Extremes tend to distort thinking, and place too much focus on the self (which is supposed to be "forgotten" in the scheme of things). Balance is key.
Dancing with a large group of people to very joyous music (see photo) - in fact, most fast dancing - brings about changes that easily veer into exultation, even ecstasy (removal of the self). An experience like that is too be savored, but in moderation. Too much joy, like too much sorrow, interferes with attention. And attention is a crucial aspect of dealing with life - through all its inevitable ups and downs.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Consumer Disconnect

I'm back - but not from a vacation in the usual sense. I have been in town the whole time, but enjoying a break from my routine. It has nothing to do with work (though that has changed to accommodate the "vacation") and everything to do with a rediscovered friend. When two old friends can talk this easily after decades of separation, they can either cry over the lost years, or celebrate the reconnection and hold onto it tightly (this time). So far, my friend and I are doing the latter. Onwards and upwards, time's a'wastin'.
The great wealth to be found in interpersonal connections versus material wealth is evident to any lonely heiress sitting in a penthouse with a silent phone. But that truth is never so strongly felt as when we actually experience that connection ourselves, and realize we wouldn't trade it for the fanciest house or wildest vacation.
I sometimes feel, in this blog and in my day-to-day mutterings, as if I am a broken record, going on and on about friendship, love, attachment, and connection on the one hand, and the fallacy of materialism and the consumer ethic on the other. So it is good to see that I am not alone in my proselytizing. A cultural "meme" may be gaining speed, likely due to economic necessity rather than philosophical enlightenment - but so what? Where you get your epiphany doesn't matter as much as the getting it in the first place.
Check out this NY Times article in the Business section of Sunday's paper. It employs the usual examples of people "downsizing" and simplifying their lives, supplemented by testimony from academics about how true happiness is found in other people and the activities that bring us together (e.g., trips, classes, sports) not in heaps of things.
I look forward to a day when such articles aren't published because, d'uh!, we already know this about our species. Love: great! Stuff: not so important.