All the fast, sleek Greyhounds assemble at the starting line. They all covet the same thing. They are looking to retrieve the rabbit that lies in front of them. Saliva drips down from their mouths as they dream about their tasty prize. They are blinded by their greed and fail to notice the truth. They will not catch what they seek.
I am an American. Ever since I was little, my society has told me what was important. Life is about accumulating more and more it told me. That it the American dream. You haven’t made it unless you own a big house with a guest room, a 50 inch flat screen TV, leather sofas, a laptop, a blackberry, an I-pod shuffle, and another 50 inch flat screen TV, you know, for the guest room.
Some might call that a stereotype, but it’s really not that far off. Maybe your thing isn’t televisions. Maybe your thing is hiking. I am guilty of owning 6 packs, 3 sleeping bags, several pairs of hiking shoes, a dozen cool-max shirts, more than a dozen pairs of hiking socks, 3 fleece hats, and 5 pairs of long underwear that I don’t think I’ve ever worn before. While some of those things were gifts, I have bought many items I didn’t need because they were “on sale.” Guess what? If you don’t need something, and it’s on sale, YOU STILL DON’T NEED IT!
That is the image of success in America. Owning more stuff. Indian revolutionary Mohandas K. Gandhi would call that robbery. “Possession seems to me to be a crime, I can only possess certain things when I know that others who also want to possess similar things are able to do so. But we know…such a thing is an impossibility. Therefore, the only thing that can be possessed by all is non-possession, not to have anything whatsoever. Or…a willing surrender…” [i]
Not to possess anything? If you’re like me, you are attempting to discount this statement or rationalize it in some way to make YOU seem not as selfish. The problem is, deep down, you know he is right. It’s not right when a millionaire lives in an 8 bedroom mansion monstrosity when on the other side of town, another man is forced to sleep under nothing but a box. It’s not right when a man driving a Mercedes with gold rims can drive past a homeless man begging for food. The common argument is that the millionaire or the Mercedes owner worked harder to reach their “status.” That may be so, but it still doesn’t make it right that they should be so selfish to excessively spend “their” resources on themselves while the poor suffer needlessly nearby.
Gandhi’s method of non-possession is about more than striving for equality. It is a transformation of the heart and mind. It is about getting the proper perspective of your place in the world and breaking the egocentric mindset of “my” and “mine.” We are all going to die someday, and we will not be able to take any materialistic possessions with us to the grave. On that day will the car you drive be “yours?” On that day will you be able to call the house you live in “mine?” No, they will belong to God, to the world, as they always have and always will. Scientists believe that our solar system has existed for over 4.5 billion years. If you live to see your 100th birthday, you will have lived on Earth for only .000000045% of its existence. Taken in that context, the thought that somebody could have the arrogance to call anything “theirs” is almost laughable.
Nevertheless, this idea is a tough sell in our culture. You work hard, you make money, you buy something, and then you OWN it. It’s “yours.” Why is it yours? Because you “earned” it. That logic is accepted without question and it turns what could have been selfless service into a selfish sense of entitlement.
Famous Behavioral Psychologist B.F. Skinner might reason that external rewards (money) are necessary to keep people working and society moving. It’s like rewarding your dog with a treat when he performs a trick. The problem with this is that it turns free people into slaves of reward. People no longer do things because they feel inspired to do it, but because they feel they HAVE to do it to receive the reward at the end. After they get one thing, they want another thing. It turns into a never ending cycle like a greyhound race where the dog chases an artificial rabbit around a track. No matter how fast he runs, the exhausted pooch never does catch his rabbit. Likewise, I believe that is where the path leads for those of us wanting more and more. No matter how much stuff we accumulate in our materialistic race, we will ultimately fail to catch what we are seeking.
Not surprisingly, the More Mentality can lead to a lot of unhappy people and America is full of them. People hate their jobs but they slave away anyway because they feel it’s the only way they can make a decent living. This leads us to the question: Do people hate their jobs because they just do or do they hate their job because they feel enslaved to it?
External rewards have a way of eclipsing the soul force of a person. Psychologists would call this decreasing a person’s intrinsic motivation. Next time you’re at a park, watch a little child go down a slide. They get so excited, they are beaming. They yell out one of those delightful screams that can’t help but make you smile. They go down the slide not because of some reward they receive at the end. The act of going down the slide is the reward! I believe in that moment you catch a glimpse of that child’s soul. Now imagine a parent starts paying that child to go down the slide. Will they still enjoy it the same way? Once the parent stopped payment, I doubt that child would have much use for slides anymore.
Imagine for a second that we lived in a world in which everybody adopted Gandhi’s method of non-possession. There would be no worries of theft because everything would belong to everybody. People would consume only what they needed. The concept of external reward would not exist. In this world, free of the slavery of money, I believe people would live with the joy of a child on a slide…their soul on full display. Unfortunately, changing the hearts of 6.5 billion people is no easy task. But if every last one of us made a sincere sacrifice to regard nothing as our own, I believe that world would be inevitable.
This idealistic vision may seem impossible. But it starts with just one person giving up one thing. Anybody can do that.
[i] The Essential Gandhi, Chapter 4, p. 55