Friday, May 12, 2006

Sermon: "How to Want What You Have" (Delivered 4-23-06)

Opening Words (From “How to Want What You Have” by Timothy Miller)

This is the precious present. When you were younger, you probably longed for many of the good things you now possess. If you have a home, a job, a car, a spouse, a child, a stereo, an education, or things of this nature, there was probably a time in your life when you thought, “If only I could have these things, I would always be happy. I would want for nothing more.” There have probably been times when you suffered severe worry or severe pain, and you thought, “If I could just have a normal, secure, and comfortable life, I would be contented, and I would always appreciate it.”

This is the precious present, but strangely, few people know it. Chances are, when you are older, you will look on back on those days back then and think, “I was younger then. I was thinner. I had better health. I had more sex. I was more spontaneous. I worried more than I should have, but I wish things could be a bit more like that now.”

Reading (From “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” by David Foster Wallace)

For this essay, the author is sent by a magazine to take a Caribbean cruise. At first he is dazzled by the opulence, excess, and extravagance. But then, a few days out, they pull into a port right next to a more opulent, more excessive, more extravagant cruise ship. Wallace writes:

“Because the other boat is lined up right next to us, almost porthole to porthole… I can stand at the rails and check each other out… The other boat is blindingly white, white to a degree that seems somehow aggressive and makes our boat’s own white look more like buff or cream. The other boat’s snout is a little more tapered and aerodynamic-looking than our snout, and its trim is kind of fluorescent peach – and the beach umbrellas around its pools are also peach – ours are light orange, which has always seemed odd given our white-and-navy motif and now seems to me ad hoc and shabby. The other boat has more pools… On all its decks, the other boat’s cabins have little white balconies for private open-air sea-gazing.

“The point is, standing here, I start to feel a covetous and almost prurient envy. I imagine its interior to be cleaner, larger, more lavishly appointed. I imagine its food being even more varied and punctiliously prepared, the ship’s Gift Shop less expensive and its casino less depressing and its stage entertainment less cheesy, and its pillow mints bigger. I spend several minutes fantasizing about what the bathrooms might be like on the other ship.

“This saturnine line of thinking proceeds as the clouds overhead start to coalesce. I am suffering here from a delusion, and I know it’s a delusion, this envy of the other ship, and still it’s painful. The Dissatisfied Infant part of me – the part of me that always and indiscriminately WANTS… is insatiable. In fact its whole essence lies in it’s a priori insatiability. In response to any environment of extraordinary gratification, the insatiable infant part of me will simply adjust its desire upward until it once again levels out at its homeostasis of terrible dissatisfaction…

“Once again, I become perturbed. The absence of 22.5 pound dumbbells in the Health Club’s dumbbell rack is a personal affront… And they don’t even have Mr. Pibb; they foist Dr. Pepper on you with a maddeningly unapologetic shrug when any fool knows Dr. Pepper is no substitute for Mr. Pibb, and it’s an absolute goddamned travesty… or at any rate extremely dissatisfying indeed."


You wait for summer then you wait for rain
You wait for darkness then you wait for day
You wait for August then you wait for May
You wait to get up then you wait to play
You wait for someone who will make the wait worth the wait.
(Lyrics from the song “The Wait” off new Built to Spill record, “You in Reverse”.)

I'm not sure how many of you read self-help books. I don't all that frequently, but when I do, I have this tendency to turn them into "other-help" books. Maybe some of you do this too. Like, there may be a chapter on compassion and I'll think to myself, "You know who could really stand a lesson on compassion is so and so..." Or the book will bring up the subject of living generously. And I will think, "I should lend this book to so and so. He could stand to learn a thing or two about generosity." You get the idea.

I say this, self-deprecatingly speaking, so as to let you know my original chain of thought when I sat down to read the book entitled, How to Want What you Have by Dr. Timothy Miller. I ate it up. Precisely, I thought. The last person to criticize a sermon of mine: "That person should just want what they have." The last woman to break up with me. Certainly she could have used a book about wanting what she has... well, HAD if truth be told. And for that matter, my favorite baseball player who took more money to play for a rival. He could definitely stand to read this book, then he'd still be playing for my favorite. You get the idea.

So, why was I reading this book, How to Want What You Have anyways? The answer is that I had been assigned it. For the last year, a group here at SMUUCh led by a couple of psychologists have met as a small group to study this book and to try to apply its teachings to their lives. Then, at last November's Auction, a consortium of folks purchased the sermon that I annually offer to the highest bidder and gave me this topic to preach on. In preparation for delivering this sermon, I read the book and experimented with applying its principles to my own life (as opposed to applying its principles to other people's lives as I was repeatedly tempted to do). I also had a phone interview with Dr. Tim Miller who lives in California, and finally, I met with the How to Want What You Have Class and interviewed them on their experience of applying the book to their lives.

I should probably take a little bit of time and try to explain to you what this book is all about. How to Want What You Have is written by Tim Miller, a cognitive psychologist who borrows from Buddhist teachings as well as the science of psychology. When people hear the title, they tend to conclude that the book is about anti-materialism, voluntary simplicity, not being greedy for material possessions, not wanting stuff. But it is actually quite a bit deeper than that. Miller suggests that the basic Buddhist teaching that "Desire is the root of all suffering" is accurate. In fact, he says that "desire" is a biologically driven instinct within human beings. Western philosophy and religion tell us that we should cultivate our desire for and inclination to do things that are good for us and the world and that we should curtail or resist our desire (or temptation) for things that are bad for us. But Miller, following the teachings of Eastern religions, rejects such dualism insisting that almost all desire is the same. He is talking about a wanting what you have that cross-sects all parts of life. Wanting the stuff you have. Wanting the life you have. Wanting the pain you have. Wanting the negative and the positive.

Let me pause right here and say what a counter-intuitive idea this is. To say that all desire is the same is to say that your desire for a yacht is the same as someone else's desire for universal health care. It is to say that your desire for a humongous diamond ring is the same as someone else's desire to be loved. A middle class person’s desire to make enough to save a little for their children's college fund is the same as the desire of the baseball player making 10 million dollars per year to be making 12 million dollars per year.

How to want what you have would say, counter-intuitively, that after only the most very-basic conditions of your existence are taken care of (essentially having a source of food and shelter) that all desire after that is the same and it is the root of all suffering.

This is still troubling, isn't it? Because, after hearing this you are probably thinking the same thing that I was thinking: “Well, so, then what is the incentive to do anything? Why should the person who wants that promotion work hard for it? Why should the person who wants – oh, I don't know: gender equality or racial equality or no more homophobia – why should they bother to work for it? Why should we get married or stay in a relationship? And what about all those kinds of wanting that we might tend to believe are legitimate expressions of desire? – wanting to be treated with respect; wanting a healthy relationship; wanting justice to roll down like waters and peace like an ever flowing stream?”

Just when you think you've outsmarted him, Tim Miller gets all Zen on us and explains that desire can get in the way of, can sabotage, our deepest desires from coming true. The person who is so consumed by a desire for, say, prison reform, may not be able to fully appreciate a small victory, may drive off or alienate potential allies. A person who wants someone else so badly may cling to them such that they pull away. The best way to get something, may be not to want it too badly.

David Foster Wallace writes that inside each of us there is a Dissatisfied Infant that will adjust its level of dissatisfaction in order to find fault with even the most pleasing of environments. "Why can't our beach umbrellas be more like theirs? How dare you not have Mr. Pibb?... the audacity!" Doug Martsch, the lead singer of Built to Spill (this is called a point of ministerial privilege) sings that sometimes desire leads us to want to be wherever we're not. When school is in session you wait for summer vacation. When it is vacation you wait for school to be in session. You wait for the weather to get nice then you complain that it is too dry.

In the place of desire, Timothy Miller suggests a course of three spiritual disciplines designed to help you to want what you have, and to re-enchant yourself with the magic and grandeur of ordinary existence. These three disciplines are compassion, attention, and gratitude.

We naturally desire for others to be different than they are. We wish to control the way they are and take their actions personally. Miller suggests practicing compassion to others. For each person who annoys you, Miller suggests theorizing reasons to help explain, or humanize their behavior. The person who cuts you off in traffic – they probably have something extremely important to do requiring them to drive aggressively. The person who is inconsiderate: they probably misspoke, or didn't realize how hurtful their words were, or didn't intend them.

We naturally desire things to be different than they are. We spend time regretting the past or worrying anxiously about the future. We fixate on how much better things could be or how much worse they could be and, in doing so, we waste the present. Tim Miller suggests practicing Paying Attention... telling ourselves that these are the good old days. These are the good old days.

Finally, we naturally want things to be better, different. We take the world for granted. Miller suggests practicing Gratitude in order to help overcome desire. At one point, Miller suggests that if you can think of nothing else to be grateful for, be grateful for earthworms that churn the soil and helps the grass to grow.

In speaking with members of the class about their experience practicing the principles of "How to Want what you Have", all agreed that their lives were better as a result as a result. All agreed that to do it well required practice. All agreed that it was something that you can't just do once and find benefits down the road. It was something you needed to work at for years. And finally, each disagreed as to which element was more difficult to practice. One person felt that paying attention to the present moment was the hardest. Another felt that compassion was her biggest obstacle.

When I asked members of the class what part of the book was most important to share, most of them felt that I should send you away with some homework. If you were wanting to give this How to Want What you Have thing a go, here are two simple exercises I might recommend. The first exercise is to try keeping a gratitude journal. Each day, pick a different thing to try to practice gratitude for. On day one, practice gratitude for every bite of food or drink of water that passes your lips. On day two, practice gratitude for any entertainment you experience: music on the radio, etc. On day three, practice gratitude for public utilities: that you get water when you turn on the faucet, that you get electricity, that you get to drive on paved roads. On day four, practice gratitude for plants that give us the oxygen we breathe. On day five, you get the idea....

A second exercise I might recommend has to do with compassion, which is truly a difficult thing to practice. To give you an example, Tim Miller describes trying to imagine your family visiting a public park and winding up setting up your picnic right next to a group of unfamiliar, unattractive people who play loud, unpleasant music, build illegal smoky bonfires, and allow their trash to blow around in the wind. In response to this situation an uncompassionate thought would be: I just wish all the unpleasant, unattractive, bad mannered people in the world would just disappear. The compassionate response would be to think: these people wish the park was all theirs, in exactly the same way I wish it were all mine.

Your homework, if you choose to accept it, is to keep track of the people at whom you get annoyed and frustrated and angry. When you feel yourself getting this way, put yourself in their shoes and try to imagine what circumstances would lead you to behave in the way they behave.
When I spoke on the phone with Dr. Miller, he called this "universalizing": what is it only human for a person in that situation to do? Of all the things in the book, this is probably the most difficult thing to, in my opinion.

Last December I had an hour-long phone conversation with Tim Miller. I assume you're interested in what he had to say. The first thing I told him was about my tendency to transform self-help books into other-help books. He laughed. He concurred with me that it was true that other people's problems are always easier to solve than your own. He offered that most people are predisposed against being persuaded. He offered an aphorism from Samuel Johnson: "Never expect agreement if a person's livelihood requires disagreement." What that means is that most people have good reasons for doing things the way they do them. Forces and factors that lead them to think their strategy for dealing is best. Montaigne once said that "If someone asks you for advice, find out what advice they are looking for and give it to them."

Another question I asked Dr. Miller was about the nature of desire. Can desire be contained within a single functional area while compassion, attention, and gratitude are practiced in another. He seemed to think that in most cases, desire in one area will cross-contaminate other areas. Take for example a person with a stimulating, successful professional life and a disappointing family life. This person will tend to develop a resentment against the former, blaming it for contributing to the former. He gave me the example of someone who long-dreamed of being the CEO of his corporation only to find, once this desire was realized, that his position was lonely, and grueling, and exhausting and that what he desired was to spend more time with family. (You could easily imagine someone with neither of these of these things -- neither family nor meaningful work saying, “If I had even just one of these, I would be happy.”)

So, based on what I've said this morning, are you buying it? Do you buy that it is possible to want what you have? And further, do you buy that you can actually want what you have without turning into a lazy, shiftless, directionless person?

I think I do and I would further note that some of the world's greatest figures – Gandhi, King, Mandela – seemed to be able to demonstrate tremendous compassion, powers of attention, and fierce gratitude in the midst of leading ambitious social change movements. Paradoxically, wanting what you have empowers transformation.

When it is August, be in August. When May, be in May. When in darkness, be attentive to the darkness. In day, be in day. These are the good old days. This is the precious present. Amen.