For the past one hundred years or so, American culture has slowly become overwhelmed by the rapid growth of technology and the increasing abundance of material goods. While providing significant advances in standard of living, communication, and knowledge, they have created an environment that conditions us to be concerned primarily with what we can attain and what we can possess. Our society has been excited by consumer goods for the past two or three generations, increasingly oriented towards having the new, the better, the bigger, and the more entertaining. It is as if we have brainwashed into believing that “pursuing” and “possessing” are virtues unto themselves.
When a culture is interested mainly in materialism, its spiritual life diminishes. We become less concerned with who we are in a deep sense, what endeavors are truly helpful, and what is the best way for us to relate to each other. When we do not view our world with our spiritual “eye,” our life becomes confused and our view becomes superficial. Expediency replaces quality, so that we can no longer tell the difference between something good and something that merely looks good. Without spiritual awareness, we are fooled by appearances and become slaves to preferences and fashions. Possessing fashionable goods may provide some assurance that we ourselves are OK, but in their pursuit we short-circuit reflection and selflessness.
In recent years, we have started to realize that fulfilling desires is not sufficient to provide a life of meaning. We are beginning to notice the empty feeling left behind when we emphasize consumption, starting to ask, “What should be my orientation?" "What is the point of my life, how should I live it?” Such spiritual questions reflect a hunger for real meaning. Spiritual practice starts with recognizing the thin, fleeting nature of pleasure, how attachment robs us of understanding by distracting us from living an authentic life. We come to practice seeking for what is real, for something beyond ideas of truth, beauty, and right and wrong. We want to know what that “something” is, to get to the heart of life.
Material things surround us. They stimulate our desires and attachments and can interfere with our understanding, and our relationships with each other, and especially with our peace of mind. Training at the monastery according to a strict schedule limits our choices and accessibility to the people and things that have supported us and provided comfort. But after some initial difficulty, the mind learns to let go and accommodate to its unfamiliar environment, having values different from the so-called "real world." This training helps us give up striving and feel content with a few basic necessities. A carrot becomes magnificent, as does a warm bath at the end of the day.
The most valuable part of monastic training is how it pushes the mind to see itself, to struggle with attachments, to clarify desires and delusions so that they can be accepted, and then let go. So to attend a monastery for a time can be a valuable, life-changing experience. Yet not everyone can take a break from ordinary life to spend time in a monastery: we have to learn how to practice in everyday circumstances.
The vital ingredient for practice is not a special place; it is the deep desire to understand the truth of our life and of our world, which is beyond appearances. In addition, to truly practice, we have to have the courage to accept what we discover about our self, and to continue to practice in the everyday world. It takes determination to continue when practice become physically or emotionally difficult and the attractions of daily life offer an easy escape. However, we can practice non-attachment anywhere, anytime, and we can watch our mind so that we do not become overwhelmed. The most important point is to face our tendencies, to let everyday life be our monastery. Suzuki-roshi said, “I don’t expect every one of you to be a great teacher, but we must have eyes to see what is good and what is not so good.”
When we recognize the limitations of possessions and comforts, we will seek for the balance in our lives. We will turn towards spiritual practice to understand who we are - intrinsically - and what life beyond appearances is all about. A life limited to affluence, comfort, and excitement leaves nothing to fall back on when we ache to understand its larger meaning.
Material greatness is not a measure of the quality of a society or of an individual. Our true measure is seen in our “softer,” non-material relationships - how we support, care for, encourage, and affirm each other. To practice is to feel the presence of “something” greater than what we can see, think, hear, or feel. We practice because we want the greater "something" to manifest in our lives.