To Have or To Be…

by Rosalie Dores on 12th January 2016

‘Always bear this in mind, that very little indeed is needed for living a happy life.’

Marcus Aurelius,  180 AD

Western societies place premium value on the concept of individual freedom, as a pathway to happiness. We are encouraged to express this freedom by purchasing consumer goods. Corporations and multi-million pound advertising industries are dedicated to convincing us that we need to ‘get’ something in order to be happy, to have, is to be happy. This is not an accidental approach to selling goods but a rigorously thought through and highly manipulative approach. Adam Curtis’s award winning documentary ‘The Century of the Self’, a must see, traces the roots of our current consumer culture, back to the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud. Freud’s groundbreaking theory of the nature of human desire was intended to alleviate human suffering. However, his nephew Edward Bernays, who invented the public relations industry, and its early use of propoganda, exploited his uncle’s findings to manipulate peoples unconscious desires for financial profit. From his work grew what we now know to be a highly powerful and influential advertising, marketing and media industry.

It is undeniable that in the West we enjoy a materially high quality of life and yet so many of us are experiencing existential lows: anxiety, depression and discontent. We have so much, and yet feel we have so little. Karl Marx, the great Socialist thinker put it this way:

“The less you are, the less you express your life, the more you have, the greater is your alienated life.” 

Erich Fromm, psychoanalyst and philosopher, wrote an influential book on this subject poignantly titled, ‘To Have or To Be’. This distinction that Fromm speaks to, is fundamental to our enquiry in the practice of mindfulness.  As we cultivate awareness through an ongoing practice we can begin to notice how much of our ‘doing’ is connected to an intention for having, goods, money, reputation e.t.c.  The more we invest objects with the capacity to bring us happiness, the more time we need to devote to getting them, and taking care of them. Not only do we ‘spend’ our time, the most precious resource we have, to getting more, we move further and further away from the capabilities we have at our very fingertips, and the possibility for fulfilment in the here and now. The Dalai Lama says:

“Man, surprises me most about humanity. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”

Living mindfully runs counter to the dominant consumerist trend, being mindful brings us closer to a simpler kind of happiness, that doesn’t cost the earth, quite literally. At the beginning of the eight-week MBSR course we take an ordinary routine activity, eating, and invite people to engage with it with all of their senses. I often comment after people have experienced the raisin meditation for the first time, and shared such rich, textured and animated experiences, that a person listening in, just would not guess that we are talking about a raisin. We take something very ordinary, engage all of our senses, and it becomes more vivid, and we more alive! We find fulfilment, not forever and always, but in the moment, and isn’t it the case that moments are all we have. We don’t need much to experience our aliveness. Franz Kafka puts it this way:

‘You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.’

People experience that as they become more fully available to their experiences in any moment, life becomes more fulfilling, satisfying, happier, even in the most ordinary of moments. They experience the street they have walked down for ten years in new and refreshing ways. They feel closer to a child, because they are actually fully present while reading a bedtime story. It is not necessary to buy something, we are not dependent on someone or anything else to complete our experience.

To know ourselves, our full capacities, we need to slow down and pay attention, to ‘listen’ to ourselves. As Derek Walcott says, ‘ to love again the stranger who was yourself’.  The more we look outside ourselves for ‘things’ to make us happy, the more estranged we become from ourselves. As we set aside time each day to meditate, to attune to the simplest of experiences, breathing and/or bodily sensations we slowly but surely come into contact with a fuller sense of who we are and what makes us tick. We attune to our natural intelligence, rather than constantly seeking outwardly for entertainment, distraction, satisfaction, we look to what we already have, we become simpler in our needs. The capacity to be simple, not only takes pressure off ourselves, but also the people around us, the world we live in, and importantly this planet that we call home. At this time, it is essential that we take these steps, not only for ourselves, but for the survival of all species. We might take the quote below, from an anonymous source as a guideline for practice:

‘Happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have.’