I just came back to work from a three-month sabbatical, and I wanted to capture some of the things I learned during that time. Part of my sabbatical was a meditation retreat where an important theme was paying attention to the forces of Greed and Aversion in our minds. Over the course of the retreat and in the weeks since I’ve come to notice that a large amount of my stress is caused by a strange type of Greed that I’ve been calling “Time Greed”.
I capitalize Greed and Aversion here because they represent concepts that cannot easily be simplified into single words. It may be worthwhile to describe these concepts briefly, which I will attempt below, but please be aware that even these descriptions may not quite get at the deeper meaning. If you’d like to know more, look up the concepts of the so-called “Defilements” (another problematic translation) in Buddhist psychology.
Also it’s worth being explicit that even though these words in our language have a negative connotation, in this context they are not meant to be used as judgmental labels. This is a strong habit in our culture, to label experiences as “good” and “bad”, but that is just another form of Greed and Aversion at work. The practice of wisdom is to recognize when certain forces are present in the mind and to discern, through context, if they are wholesome (useful, kind, timely) or unwholesome (not useful, kind, or timely). There’s no need to do much more. If we really truly see that they are unwholesome, they will drop away by themselves, just like you’d drop a hot coal.
Greed, then, is characterized by the mental pull toward some object, thought, or experience. It usually manifests in the body as physical tension and in the mind as a strong desire. This can be anything from the desire for a sandwich to the desire for a different government and also includes very subtle desires like wanting someone to walk faster on the sidewalk. Taking actions when that pull is the motivation can sometimes cause results that end up causing even more problems, for ourselves or others.
The concept of Aversion is similar to Greed, but rather than being a pull toward some object or experience, it represents a feeling of pushing away. We notice this when we want something to stop or to change or to be fixed. That “I have to fix this” thought is very pervasive for me. It’s probably not too surprising to say that acting out of Aversion (sometimes even translated as Hate) can have consequences that are not helpful for anyone.
We can, however, want things (or want to change things) without Greed or Aversion being present. Altruistic, wholesome desires, possibly for the same exact things that trigger Greed and Aversion, do not have that same tension or mental pull. We can want something to happen but not become angry when it does not. It happens all the time. I’d like to pet that dog up ahead, but the dog turns off on a different street. I’d like to eat Indian food, but the restaurant is full and I have to get pizza instead. It’s not a problem. Desire, therefore, is not a problem. It’s our relationship to that desire that causes stress. Greed appears when a desire is held so tightly that it becomes a requirement for our happiness.
With those definitions out of the way, I can explain a bit about what I discovered. Unsurprising to me, I quickly noticed a lot of both Greed and Aversion appearing all the time in my daily life, in both gross and subtle ways. Usually the target of those forces was pretty obvious. I wanted lunch, I wanted someone to like me, I wanted an annoying noise to stop, I wanted someone to behave differently, I wanted to feel different, look different, or to have things I didn’t have. But pretty frequently I noticed a kind of pull toward something, and there didn’t really seem to be anything there.
In these moments, the only thing I could find that I was being pulled toward was a plan. What I wanted was for things to go a certain way in the near future. This usually manifested as a feeling of tension as Greed told me I needed to prepare for, or act on, the next step in my (often unacknowledged) agenda. “Time is running short! Hurry! Get on with it!”, the mind would say. I started to call this feeling, “Time Greed”, and the more I investigated, the more of it I found.
The neat thing about this practice is how little effort it takes. Noticing the feeling of Greed is just a habit of remembering. It’s not always easy to remember, but when I feel that tension, all I really have to do is acknowledge it, and maybe look to see what the target is about. Often, for the less tangled desires, just that investigation itself releases the stress. I see that I don’t really need that sandwich as much as I think I do, and the body and mind relax all by themselves. This has worked too, with Time Greed. I see that I probably won’t be fired if I am a few minutes late to work, and the stress just evaporates. Poof!
Naturally there are some times that I do need to hurry, but they don’t seem to be as often as Greed would have me believe. It’s been a longstanding mantra of mine when I find myself rushing to get a task done, and fumbling at every step, that “if you’re in a rush, slow down to speed up”. Now I can appreciate one of the underpinnings of that saying. Stress does not improve speed, or if it does, the risk and the suffering that come along for the ride are not worth it.