I’m in the midst of facilitating an online course on ethics, and woke up today to another news story that left me feeling absolutely gutted. All week I’ve been contemplating what the Buddha referred to as the three poisons: greed, anger and delusion. These are the mental attributes that keep us trapped in “samsara,” also known as “the cycle of meaningless, painful existence.” I’ll digress to mention that I’ve come across a perfume named Samsara, as well as a health spa, and a chain of retirement homes. (You probably want to give that retirement home a miss).
In recent years greed seems to have become venerated by our culture. Obscene levels of wealth and conspicuous consumption are admired, and wealth has become confused with wisdom. We somehow accept that a tiny minority of people control the vast majority of the world’s resources, and that there’s nothing wrong with CEO’s making hundreds of times what their workers make, or taking bonuses even as they bankrupt their companies. The spokes-model for anger has stepped on to the world stage and is happily churning it up, misdirecting it at scapegoats; and delusion is being propagated everywhere, by fake news writers, interest groups, and sadly, the White House. “Alternative facts” are being offered even in the face of evidence to the contrary. It’s enough to make a yogi have a breakdown.
Before we can tackle greed, anger and delusion in the world, we have to work with the greed, anger and delusion in our own hearts. We have to see how these mental states come up in our own choices and in our own actions. I am actively struggling with them all, and the place where I see their ugly heads come up is during my meditation practice. Mostly, they are rooted in fear.
Fortunately, there are antidotes to the three poisons. The first is generosity: we try to be as generous as our means can permit. We actively work to balance self-care with caring for others and to appreciate the gifts we have been given (such as living in a safe haven with enough food) without clinging and allowing fear to cause us to take more than is necessary. Saving for a rainy day is wise, but no amount of money can save us from violent dictators or environmental disasters. Generosity can build communities and reduce the kinds of suffering we actually can do something about, like hunger or isolation. Generosity is the antidote to greed.
The second antidote is metta or loving-kindness. When we can stop seeing people as ideas and concepts and instead see them as individuals with unique lives it’s possible to break through the anger. I heard an interview on CBC with a rancher whose property was being crossed every day by heavily armed drug runners. When I heard him speak, rationally, about how frightened he was and how worried he was about his children I understood why he wants a wall. I’m not sure that a wall is the answer, but I can see a real person with a valid perspective trying to solve a problem in the best way he knows how. I can’t be angry with him. Empathy (loving-kindness) is the antidote to anger.
The third antidote is wisdom. In the face of delusion and lies we can educate ourselves, we can do research, we can support news organizations that have reporters who are accredited and trained, who have a code of ethics, and who support factual, unbiased journalism. As newspapers and news stations struggle to stay alive because of plummeting revenue we will need to step up our support. We need to care about whether what we read is true, and test it out for ourselves. Wisdom requires that we keep our minds open and be willing to be proved wrong. Also, it requires a healthy dose of skepticism when browsing around the internet.
Greed, anger and delusion were concerns in the time of the Buddha, and are just as concerning today. I’m hoping that if we can get more proactive on the antidotes we might avert some preventable suffering, so that innocent lives may be saved.
Wishing you generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom,
PS I’d love to hear your comments. How are you coping? Are any of these antidotes helpful? Any concrete steps to suggest?