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Getting Unpoor

While there is poverty in New York, there is quite a bit of privilege here too.  Often privilege does not acknowledge itself; it quietly lifts some people through life in a manner that makes living easier.  

For example, a friend of mine recently moved from California to New York into a midtown studio apartment.  During her short time here, she paid for and participated in five or more different classes.  Very recently, she traveled back to California for a brief vacation during Halloween.  She did all this despite the fact that she just finished school and continues to be unemployed. 

Another friend of mine, despite only working one day a week for as long as I’ve known him, has a car.  Granted, his car is almost a decade old; yet, he, for some reason, sees owning and driving a car in New York City as important and necessary.  One day, he was sad because his car broke down.  I knew he worked very little, and I thought that this time his car was gone for good.  Soon enough, magically, his car was on Long Island getting repairs.

An ex-girlfriend of mine came to Long Island to attend graduate school thinking that the middle of Long Island was going to be like New York City – tall buildings and public transportation.  When she arrived, she saw that there were no skyscrapers.  Panicking, she simply called her parents and they bought her a car.

I, on the other hand, came to New York through a sequence of coincidence and awkward manipulation, and spend my days trying not to go anywhere or purchase anything so that I can pay my rent.  I also pay exactly zero percent of my very large debts.  I cannot imagine what it would be like to just go and visit people on a whim, or to take a class because it would be interesting, or to buy a pair of pants because my old pants have holes in them, or to get someone to buy me a car because there are no trains, or to go to a restaurant and not worry about the price.

Woe is me, right?

Buddhist instruction might say to observe, rather than label, experience; Buddhist philosophy might point out that one of the causes of suffering is attachment, and those who have a lot are attached to a lot.  From that perspective, there really isn’t such thing as privilege.  I can own a car, or not own a car; I can visit my father or not; I can eat food at home, or at a restaurant—if I am aware of whatever it is that I am doing in that moment, then I become less dependent upon permanence and attachment. 

Furthermore, poverty can be socially isolating—friendships and relationships are always party based upon your ability to spend money with ease in the same way as your partner or friend—and therefore beneficial to a mindful existence.  Since you are not able to get caught up in defining yourself (for your friends’ sake) by what you own or can buy, you are less likely to get caught up in the reification of some solid sense of self.

So you might say that there is an advantage to disadvantage. You rich folks can keep what you have!  We don’t need it anyway!  It probably sucks to have a car and to have someone pay for it.  It sucks to not pay your own rent.  It sucks to have health care, to travel to see your family, and to eat organic food everyday!

That is true, but it’s not that easy.  To be honest, everyone has to give up their attachment to all the themes and stories that keep us confused and misguided.  One of them—the biggest one I face right now—is that there is SOMETHING that I need, SOMEWHERE that I will get it, and SOME TIME that it will happen.  And no matter how calm I am in my day to day, no matter how content and happy I feel, or how full my belly is, I still have this vague sense that I will eventually GET IT.

The challenge to studying Buddhism when you are not privileged is that you have to give up the hope of ever being happy because you GOT OUT OF POVERTY.  You will not be happier when you are able to travel, when you can go to restaurants, when you can visit your friends in far off lands.  Saying, “I am not happy yet; I will be when finally I no longer have nothing,” is misguided to say the least. 

Yet, getting someone who has no money to believe that he’ll be happier once he realizes he does not need it seems devious and conniving.  What a perfect thing for the privileged to say to the poor.  So, in the end, it is up to each person to decide when she is ready to give up the chase for what will make her happy.

Willing to take the leap with me?  Repeat after me.  NOTHING will make me happy.  NOTHING will satisfy me.  NOTHING is there forever.  I am NEVER going to have ANYTHING.  We will get NOTHING from thinking this.  If I continually grasp for SOMETHING PERMANENT that WILL MAKE ME HAPPY I will suffer continually.

So what do we do?  We live.  We breathe.  We meditate.  We exercise.  We think.  We work.  We connect.  We talk.  We observe.   Remember, though:   there is nothing to gain from this.  We are all at once and everywhere completely empty of a permanent self and getting unpoor is not going to change that.

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