Crave On!

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Mountains of sweets for Diwali displayed at a roadside stand, Lumbini, Nepal

“Hi, I’m Jud,” he said, extending a hand. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”

“Hi, I’m Jeff.” It was all I could think of to say, thrown off by his spontaneous manifestation as I sat reading the book he’d just published. “Do you know if this is any good?” I joked, holding up the book.

“Nah, I wouldn’t believe a word of it,” he smiled, disappearing down the hall.

His full name is Judson Brewer, his title, Director of Research at the Center for Mindfulness. His new book is called The Craving Mind, and, according to the subtitle, explains “why we get hooked and how we can break bad habits.” Our sort of strange encounter took place at the UMass Medical School Center for Mindfulness as we both waited to be interviewed for an upcoming PBS documentary about the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program that was started at the Center some 38 years ago by Jon Kabat-Zinn. I recently participated in the eight-week MBSR course, and Jud, as you know, is the Director of Research at the Center… I’m imagining that he’ll figure more prominently in the documentary than I will.

It’s a pretty interesting experience to be interviewed
for a TV show. In the finished product, I’ll be one of the talking heads sitting next to a bunch of books or a plant or something, not looking at the camera, and apparently talking aloud to no one. The person that I’m apparently not talking to is the interviewer, who sits off camera and whose voice will not be heard. Her job is not only to ask me questions, but to act as a sort of silent coach from the sidelines. If I’m making a point that’s particularly relevant or useful to the focus of the documentary, she’ll smile enthusiastically, nod encouragingly, or make that rotating hands “say more” gesture.

The interesting thing is that I noticed pretty quickly that I liked the smiles, the nods, and the gestures, and that I wanted to say things that would elicit those responses from the interviewer. The even more interesting thing is that I didn’t make the connection between my conditioned behavioral responses and the book that I’d been reading. If I’m honest about my motives, my desire wasn’t principally to contribute meaningfully to the documentary; my desire was to be liked. I was craving approval like a Nepalese boy craves the sweet, sticky cashew balls in the photo at the top of this post (it all comes full circle; the Universe has no loose ends).

What was that craving all about?

I didn’t have an awareness of, or a name for, that craving for approval until after the interview was finished and I had walked out of the Center for Mindfulness. Before starting my car, I paused to read from Daily Reflections, a book of brief selections from Alcoholics Anonymous literature that I usually read from in the morning. Ironically, I had mindlessly forgotten to do so that day. Excerpted from a book titled The Language of the Heart, the reading reminded me that

“this very real feeling of inferiority is magnified by [my] childish sensitivity and it is this state of affairs which generates in [me] that insatiable, abnormal craving for self-approval and success in the eyes of the world.” [1]

This isn’t an easy pill to swallow, a less-than-pleasant defect of character to face in one’s self. The good news is that I’m not alone. So common is the human tendency for approval-seeking that it’s addressed pretty explicitly in the Buddhadharma.

The Loka Dham, ma, variously translated as Eight Worldly Conditions or Eight Worldly Concerns, consists of four pairs of opposite states, among which are Fame and Disrepute. Attraction to Fame and aversion to Disrepute keeps us bound to the comfortable familiarity of Samsara, likewise with Praise and Blame, Gain and Loss, and, of course, Pleasure and Pain. In contemplating these Eight Worldly Concerns, I’ve long felt that Fame is a concern that doesn’t much concern me, as I’ve never been concerned with being famous. Lately it occurs to me, however, that the Fame that the Buddha referred to wasn’t necessarily of the variety that lands one’s face on the cover of the Rolling Stone; it has to do more generally with the desire to be looked well upon by others. That concerns me.

As an anonymous friend of mine is fond of saying, “What other people think of me is none of my business.” Holding this thought in mind offers me a glimpse of the freedom that’s available to those who can truly stand in equanimity between the poles of Fame and Disrepute. Awareness of this karmic tendency to crave approval inches me a little closer to the center of the spectrum. Thank God I’ve never wanted to be famous. Hopefully this PBS documentary won’t bring in too many offers…

[1] Anonymous (1990). Daily Reflections, New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., p. 103.

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7 thoughts on “Crave On!

  1. Quite a thought, you’ll be asked to do the interview again! Once is enough, and the Eight Wordly Dhammas I find just give an explanation of what’s happening, not much relief from the ‘suffering’ of the experience. There is the thought of the professional actor, how does he do it? Having a multitude of selves, he can become this or become that and remove himself from the part when the production is over. Can’t be easy…

    • jeff says:

      an interesting observation, that the Eight Worldly Dhammas merely point to the problem, yet offer no solution… although awareness of a problem is the first step out of it. What’s important here is that Fame and Disrepute, Praise and Blame, Pleasure and Pain, Gain and Loss are all, in the words of Zen Master Seung Sahn “not good, not bad.” The problem lies solely with our attraction or aversion to any of those conditions.

  2. Yes that’s it, it’s our attraction or aversion – I seem to remember something about the tendency to get engaged with stuff when there’s no need, can’t remember how it was actually put. Ajahn Chah I think. Maybe it’s all included in what you say that awareness of the problem is the first step out of it. And as you get more skilful it’s maybe not the first step it’s the only step out of it, there and then. Identify what it is… oh that thing again, okay.

    • jeff says:

      …not the first step, it’s the only step… I like that. Funny how I tend to make it more complicated than it is…

  3. Here’s something I found last time I was looking at the Eight Wordly Dhammas

    Gain/loss, status/disgrace, censure/praise, pleasure/pain: these conditions among human beings are inconstant, impermanent, subject to change. Knowing this, the wise person, mindful, ponders these changing conditions. Desirable things don’t charm the mind, undesirable ones bring no resistance. His [or her] welcoming and rebelling are scattered, gone to their end, do not exist. Knowing the dustless, sorrowless state, he [or she] discerns rightly, has gone, beyond becoming, to the Further Shore.

    AN 8.6 Lokavipatti Sutta: The Failings of the World
    Thank

    • jeff says:

      I remember reading that post and feeling, as you said, that finding the middle ground between extremes was no longer a luxury, the hobby of the “spiritually-minded,” but rather a necessity for the maintenance of sanity… silver linings often take the form of increased pressure to follow the Dharma. “Desirable things don’t charm the mind, undesirable ones bring no resistance.” More and more, I find comfort not just in these words, but in the actual condition. Thank you for passing along this text of the Lokavipatti Sutta .

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