When I began attending Vipassana meditation retreats many years ago, I kept hearing the teachers point out the three Poisons, or three Unwholesome Roots that lead us to suffering as: “greed,” “hatred” and “delusion.”
As my practice began to ripen and unfold, I started clearly seeing how my mind was steeped in ill-will and delusion. However, I didn’t see much greed. Boy, was I delusional! After several years of intensive practice, I gradually began opening up to an ocean’s worth of internal greed! Wow! I had so much resistance to opening up to and accepting – greed. Whenever greed appeared, I shot myself with subsequent poisonous arrows by feeling resistance, shame and disappointment. After all, how could I have greed? I was such a generous person, right? It was a gradual process, but once I began accepting and exploring greed, my meditation practice really began to soar! The internal greed also began to loosen its stronghold.
This article is intended to support you in your spiritual practice, as it explores GREED: it’s origin, how to recognize it in yourself, and how to work with greed skillfully.
Our human history, starting with ancient times, has been marked by turmoil, conflict, and violent interactions, on all fronts. The Buddha was intensely aware of these human tendencies and sought to offer people a refuge from the difficulties and cruelties that continue to bombard our lives today. Part of his prescriptive path implored others to see and recognize how the poison of the mind: greed – adds suffering to all of our lives, individually and collectively.
Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed. –Mahatma Gandhi
So what is greed? In its most basic form, greed is a desire for something we think will gratify us.
Desire by itself is not negative. In fact, desire is biologically pre-programmed into humans to improve our ability to survive. If we didn’t desire to eat, we’d starve to death. If we didn’t have basic human desires for warmth, shelter, love, etc…., our human race would probably no longer exist.
But, there are two kinds of desires: wholesome desires and unwholesome desires. As you can probably imagine, wholesome desires are the ones we want to partake in. A desire is wholesome, when it eventually leads one to any of the following: balance, simplicity, friendliness, creativity, freedom, wisdom, generosity, or compassion. After all, rock-n-roll, dancing and our arts are direct results of someone’s creative desire.
Yes, you guessed it. Unwholesome desires are the ones we want to avoid, because they feed directly into GREED. If you aren’t sure if a desire is unwholesome, check internally to see if it is accompanied by any internal emotional, mental, or physical discomfort, and/or if it is mingled with any of the following, including: jealousy, fear, anger, rivalry, competitiveness or resentment. If so, then you’ve most likely got yourself an unwholesome desire that is feeding greed.
Greed: A biological drive run amuck.
Now to make matters even trickier, we have to keep a close eye on our desires at all times, because even a wholesome desire can deteriorate into an unwholesome desire. And as we know, unwholesome desires co-habitate with greed. If any kind of restlessness, worry, or fear arises around a desire, greed has most likely taken over the wheel, and any subsequent actions motivated from this place, will typically be unskillful, unconscious, greed-driven actions that can easily lead to the over-consumption of goods, services, and even sensual pleasures.
Unwholesome desires run amuck, leads to heedless consumption with no regard to consequences. This eventually leads to our developing addictions, and addictions easily destroy lives.
Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction. – Erich Fromm.
Now, humor me as I jump on my soap box! We are programmed by our society to be greedy! We live in a desire-filled, greed-driven society. Our culture romantically celebrates unwholesome desires as indicated by the lyrics of some of our most popular music. Desire for material possessions is rampantly promoted thru our advertising and communications. I receive emails from popular stores regularly offering me the ability to pre-order the next new I-Pad or video. God only knows, that I won’t be able to wait until the product comes out on the market. It’s no surprise that people are infected with the need to run out to buy the latest and greatest versions of every techno-gadget you can imagine! As a society, we are foaming at the mouth to be able to acquire – THINGS.
If that’s not bad enough, people of great wealth in our society are respected and often seen as our role-models. The human race is poisoned with the collective, cultural view that wealth is equal to worth – with the higher one’s wealth indicating the higher one’s personal worth. This leads many people to scrambling through their days in search of this elusive worth through the accumulation of greater wealth! Because of this prevailing mindset, many wealthy people also feel entitled to and feel no remorse in using and abusing others of lower economic classes. This scrambling and abusive cycle is an unconscious disease born of greed. Sadly, most of us already understand that the accumulation of money and possessions cannot bring us true happiness and fulfillment.
The saddest part about greed, is that when we are stuck in a greedy desirous state, our heart closes, and we can’t think about anything else except satisfying that desire. I once did a week-long juice fast, without eating any food. During this week, whenever I was out running errands, it seemed that I smelled food everywhere, and all I saw were restaurants – I even saw restaurants I’d never seen before! I was really obsessed by a greedy desire for food, and I could hardly think of anything else!
Personal greed tends to show up in five areas of one’s life, around: wealth, sex, fame, eating and sleeping. Specific examples may include greedy desires for: power, acknowledgement, comfort, solitude, happiness, companionship, time, knowledge, sex, drugs, alcohol, good times, food, excitement, getting things done, self-protection, and even spiritual materialism, just to name a few.
If you want to lessen the role Greed has in your mind, it will help immensely to develop a healthy mindset that does not feed greed. Some helpful practices include:
- Seeing yourself as an interdependent being connected to others, where your greed negatively impacts others, and your generosity positively impacts others.
- Adopting an open heart that is willing to see your own greedy desirous mind habit patterns, and conditioning. Don’t suppress greed. Accept it, learn from it, and have compassion for yourself.
- Adopting an attitude of non-attachment, in which you lead a life of simplicity.
- Practice renunciation, by quitting or cutting down on unwholesome practices. Taking public vows with your friends, family, meditation group, or religious organization adds a wonderfully supportive component to renunciation.
- Adopt a practice of daily generosity: giving time, energy, possessions, and money to others.
Guided Meditation that helps you work skillfully with Greed.
- Sit in a relaxed, yet alert meditative posture,
- Follow your breathing, while relaxing your body and your mind,
- Pick a personal desire that you know can lead you to experiencing an unwholesome, greedy wanting,
- Open up to and sit with this greedy wanting,
- Open up to the physical sensations in your body associated with this greed,
- Check in with your breath and see how this greed is affecting your breath,
- Open up to the emotions resulting from this greed,
- Be aware of the thoughts that are feeding into this greedy desire,
- Bring in compassion and wrap it around yourself and any sensations related to this process.
- Sit with continued awareness of this greed until it changes and/or dissipates.
Opening up to and sitting with your greed, gives your mind the opportunity to begin to see all of the suffering you experience at the hands of greed. As a result, your mind will start to see the futility, emptiness and pain greed causes, and will begin letting go of greedy mind habit patterns. This process will also help you develop more caring and compassion for yourself and others struggling with greedy tendencies.
People keep complaining about and want to extinguish the rampant greed that exists in our world’s power structures. Sadly, our power structures are merely a reflection of the human race’s collective greed. If we want to change the world, we first have to do the work of dissolving our own internal greed. By doing so, we will be able to take action that is not motivated by more greed, but by peace and compassion. We will also be doing our part of feeding the collective with more open and generous hearts.