The Buddhism of Christmas


Tis the season when my wife and I, as we behold our children reacting to packages and presents arriving in the mail, exchange knowing glances and mumble something about how “Buddhist” Christmas is.

Spouses, as everybody knows, use a sort of shorthand that is unintelligible (and thus usually misleading) to everybody else, so I will translate. It means something like:

Christmas, like all existence but perhaps more so, torments people through the subtle and insidious mechanism the Buddha first described.

Oh, and what was that mechanism?

As is my wont, I will get gratuitously intellectual about all that in a moment, but let’s start with the actual scenario.


Christmas is a time when presents show up unannounced. This is otherwise known as stuff. Uncles, aunts, and other acquaintances send the stuff because, well, it’s Christmas and that’s what one does, whether anybody wants stuff or not.

So the packages arrive — in a household that contains children. In fact, the stuff is meant mostly for those children, and the children know it. How do the children react?


Definition of “child”:

I have read enough academic papers to know that one must, whenever a text threatens to get interesting, interrupt with definitions. Herewith:

Child (noun; plural = Children): A human being who is exactly like an adult but has not yet had sufficient time to practice the adult skill of feigning indifference in most situations of ordinary life.

Back to scenario

Where were we? Oh yes, the presents that are arriving at the door. How do the children react, in the first instance and over the next hour or so?

Exactly as both the Buddha and his contemporary Patanjali (my favorite thinker) would have predicted:

  1. Child A, arriving first: A momentary thrill. ‘Here is something that promises to suspend my boredom. No, I wasn’t actually bored, but now I would be if I do not immediately rip this package open.’ Rips package open.
  2. Child B, arriving split second later: Another momentary thrill. Then: ‘But wait. Sibling has got a head start. She can’t have more thrill. It’s my thrill. Must have.’ Attacks package.
  3. A & B: Conflict. Hair pulling. Tears on A. Time Out for B.
  4. A, having played with toy (because it’s already open anyway, so what can you do?), loses interest. Returns to previous activity and temporary balance/bliss.
  5. B, emerging from Time Out, gets his turn with toy. Notices that A has lost interest and returned to previous activity. Also loses interest and returns to balance/bliss with A.
  6. New package arrives. Repeat cycle.

Sanskrit: duhkha and sukha

Both the Buddha and Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras (as far as I’m concerned, original Buddhism and authentic Yoga are exactly the same philosophy), describe our minds as causing us near-permanent discomfort in precisely the way these toys are tormenting my children.

The word both the Buddha and Patanjali use for this mental discomfort is duhkha.

T.K.V. Desikachar, a great yogi, translates duhkha as restricting or squeezing in this excellent book.

This is noteworthy, because duhkha is usually mistranslated as suffering. Thus, you’ve probably heard the first Noble Truth of Buddhism expressed as follows:

All life is suffering.

Well, actually, the Truth says that all life is duhkha. And suffering is a bad translation (with the effect of turning many Westerners off before they’ve even begun to absorb the rest), because, manifestly, not all life is suffering.

Duhkha is more subtle, so let’s investigate as we usually do: by looking into etymology.

Etymology of duhkha

The Sanskrit roots of duhkha relate to its Indo-Germanic nephews German and English as follows:

duh ≡ du(nkel) ≡ da(rk)


kha ≡ ka(mmer) ≡ cha(mber)

In other words, duhkha is, or feels like, a dark room, an oppressive space.

Its opposite is sukha, a happy, good or light space.

The goal of Yoga, Buddhism and all other Indian philosophy is to exit the dark room and enter the light room.

Remember that this entire time we are talking about our minds. Our mind constantly shoves us into the dark room (duhkha) by conjuring disturbances (called “fluctuations” in the Yoga Sutras):

  • distraction,
  • fear,
  • anxiety,
  • anger,
  • craving,
  • jealousy,
  • disgust
  • boredom
  • etc etc

This does not have to be very profound. If you’re a child, the arrival of a package suffices.

In the Bhagavad Gita, all these disturbances are represented by the Kauravas, the vicious cousins of my hero Arjuna.

The Kauravas of Christmas

Christmas is — aside from a time for cosiness, festiveness and so forth — an intense agglomeration and onslaught of mental disturbances.

For the kids, each package creates an expectation of thrill, quickly leading to a disappointment (= duhkha).

Or to a pang of jealousy (= duhkha).

Or simply to distraction from the activity the child had just been absorbed in (= duhkha).

And for the adults?

Definition of “adult”

Adult (noun; plural = Adults): A human being who is exactly like a child but has had ample time to practice the skill of feigning indifference in most situations of ordinary life.

Adults don’t run to the package and rip it open. They put it under the tree. And they don’t pull your hair when you’re opening your package.

But they walk around all December with that jingly-jangly music in the stores and those trees in the windows and they feel … that they should — shouldn’t they? — be somewhere special, with someone special, feeling special. And is the person next to me special enough, is all this special enough,….?

So they yearn, and they crave, and they’re lonely, and perhaps they envy or regret, and they’re in the dark chamber of duhkha.


But there’s a jail break.

One strand of Buddhism/Yoga invites you to discipline your mind (ie, meditate) for years so that your mind becomes still, thus setting you free.

Another strand, called Zen, guffaws at the hilarious inside joke of it all and simply says: ‘Snap out of it — now!’

That can be easy, it turns out: You put away the packages and the toys, and you tickle the kids, and you all roll around under the tree, in the beautifully light, comfortable room of sukha.


Letting go, in small ways and big


One way to catch monkeys–or so I once saw in a documentary–is apparently to dig a hole in the ground just big enough for a relaxed monkey hand to go in and just small enough for a monkey fist not to come out.

Then you put some goodies in the hole and wait. The monkey then catches itself. It sticks its hand in, grabs the goodies, makes a fist and refuses to let go, even as it sees the hunters casually sauntering up to take it in.

Primates, in short, have a problem with letting go, and that’s how this relates to The Hannibal Blog‘s current thread on stuff. I rarely, these days, find anyone prepared to argue that clutter/stuff is a good thing. Nor, however, do I know a lot of people who have actually done anything about it. It may be that I hang out primarily with primates.

It’s our (ie, primates’) loss, because this not letting go is what makes us so miserable. That’s true in the context of physical stuff piling up, but also of mental clutter.

The Dalai Lama, at the end of this conversation, says that

True happiness doesn’t mean trying to acquire things, so much as
letting go of things.

Not coincidentally, therefore, a primary meditation technique consists of trying to let thoughts go. You sit still and observe dispassionately what pops into your mind. You don’t try to suppress bad, mean, nasty, stupid thoughts, because that would only make them come more–eg, you would feel guilty and angry about not ceasing to feel guilty and angry.

Instead, you “label” the thoughts (‘Aha, anger again.’) and then let them pass out, replaced by whatever comes next.

It’s quite surprising how much crap shows up this way. Even more surprising is that after a while of doing that, the parade of thoughts slows down. Eventually, it might even come to complete stillness, which is how Patanjali defines yoga (union). At that point, you have indeed let go.

So: stuff, clutter, things, illusions, attachments: it’s all there to be let go. Unfortunately we have evolved to hold on to it. Hence passion, literature, civilization, stories … and misery.

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Stuff and clutter on web pages

Mostly, in this thread on stuff and clutter, I’m talking about actual, tangible stuff, stuff you can throw out or hit your toe against. But stuff can be non-material too, cluttering up our brains or … web pages. Mark Hurst is a usability thinker, and has this anecdote from a recent consulting trip to a company–let’s call it Acme–with a snazzy web site:

…Anyway. Acme had a problem: research showed that their website was completely, unforgivably, disastrously hard to use for their customers. And *ugly*, on top of that, as if it was spat from a template circa 1996. So I sat down with the executives, everyone with a stake in the online presence, to help them improve the business metrics by improving their website.

Here’s an excerpt of the meeting transcript, more or less.

Me: One thing customers complained about was the home page navigation. To quote one customer we talked to, “I can’t figure this thing out and I’m leaving right now.” I think it had something to do with the flaming chainsaw animation that follows the mouse pointer around the screen. Is it possible we could remove that?

VP Marketing: Oh right, the flaming chainsaw animation. I’d love to take that off the site, really I would, but I just think it’s so neat, and besides it aligns with our brand message of innovation here at Acme.

Me: But customers would shop more, and buy more, if it wasn’t there. Wouldn’t you like to reconsider that animation?

VP Marketing: Here in Marketing we have to adhere to our brand guidelines, and innovation is central to that, so I’m afraid the animation has to stay.

Me: OK – next up is the customer complaint about the 18-level-deep flying dynamic navigation sub-menus. Several customers said all the menus zipping around the screen made them dizzy.

VP Technology: I know what you’re referring to. That menu system took our technology team six months to code up, and I have to say it’s the most advanced implementation I’ve ever seen, really an awesome job.

Me: The technology is impressive, for sure… I mean, I’ve never seen 18 nested levels all flying in unison like that.

VP Technology: Thanks, man.

Me: Uhh – sure thing. But I’d just like to push back a little on this – the customers did say that the menus were confusing. How about a simpler menu, maybe just a few links to the top-level categories, and that’s it?

VP Technology: Listen, I’m all for simplicity and ease-of-use and all that, I hear you. I really get it. But I have to tell you, Web technology is moving fast, and if we don’t keep up, we’re going to look like Google or something. A bunch of blue links. Borrring.

Me: Allllright. Now we’ve covered the flaming chainsaw and the flying menus, let’s move on to the logo graphic. Some customers complained that they didn’t want to scroll down a full page just to get past the logo, the large stock photos, and the slogan.

VP Branding: What did they say about the color scheme? I’m just wondering, because the green and fuscia palette is really supposed to, you know, bring forth assocations of innovation and holistic thinking, all while blending in with the flames from the chainsaw.

Me: I think I have a plane to catch. (Exit conference door right)

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Stuff and sex: It’s a female thing


The elephant in the room whenever you’re discussing stuff and clutter is sex.

(That’s sex as in gender, although our style guide at The Economist urges us to use gender only for words and sex for people. So the gender of ein Mädchen is neuter, whereas her sex is female.)

I believe we can stipulate that:

women need and keep and hoard, and cannot let go of, stuff much more than men do

Is this controversial? It shouldn’t be. It’s mostly women I’ve talked to who have said as much. If you go into a random house and count things, the odds are that “hers” outnumber “his” (although that need not apply to total weight or size, of course). It’s women who agonize over getting rid of things, not men.

(To pre-empt a Larry Summers situation, this is the time to remind everybody that I’m making a statement about averages and statistical dispersion. Of course, there are individual men who keep more stuff than individual women.)

So the question is: Why?

  1. One possibility is our hunter-gatherer past, which accounts for almost all of our time as a species. Whereas Neanderthal men and women hunted together, our ancestors sent the men to hunt and the women to gather, and benefited from this division of labor. A hunting party travels light. The less you carry the more fiercely you will wield what you do carry, and the more likely you will be to bring your prey back, which is the point. Stuff would only interfere. By contrast, gathering is about stuff, the collecting of it.
  2. Another possibility is that the nesting instinct shows up in females even outside of pregnancy, though perhaps to a lesser extent. Get a male (we’re not necessarily talking about our own species) to build a nest, then fill it up. All the way up. Don’t drop anything.
  3. The previous two points might just add up to a third possibility: That women have a stuff brain but men don’t. I read research somewhere (which applies eerily in my case) that men are usually better at, for example, such tasks as rotating an imaginary object in space, whereas women are better at remembering and locating objects in a crowded drawer that is briefly opened and shut. Men can’t find anything, women seem to find everything. (When I need something, I usually ask my four-year old daughter, and she always knows.)

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Entropy in your home, life, body and mind

Like Fritjof Capra, I instinctively see Eastern philosophy and Western science as yin and yang. They rarely disagree and usually reinforce each other, the East using the vocabulary of metaphor, the West that of empiricism. So indulge me as I apply this instinct to my current thread on stuff.

The Feng Shui view is that stuff, ie clutter, blocks the flow of energy (qi) in your house and, since you are not ultimately separate from the space around you, in you.

The relevant Western analog is that clutter wants to increase all by itself. You have to expend energy to keep your stuff from spreading, multiplying, breaking, rotting.

This idea is called the Second Law of Thermodynamics. “Clutter”, in the argot, is entropy, the amount of disorder in a system. Disorder will increase as surely as water flows downhill (from a high-energy state to a low-energy state). The “system” in question can be:

  • your body, in which entropy manifests as aging and breaking,
  • a glass of warm water that cools (trading the “order” of warmth here and cold there for the “disorder” of lukewarmth everywhere)
  • your house or home office as it mysteriously gets submerged in stuff,
  • the entire universe (which is incredibly bad news for us, since there is no other system that we can decamp to), and
  • almost anything else.

Now, you might object that you can make water flow uphill, and you can warm a glass of water even in a cool room. Yes. But the key insight is that this takes energy, which must be added into the system. You have to pump, or boil, et cetera.

Hence the dilemma of stuff: First the clutter increases, thus (according to Feng Shui) blocking our energy, which is thus unavailable to reverse the cluttering, and so the shit–sorry, stuff–just happens.

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The changing nature of wealth: stuff is out


Let’s return to Croesus for a moment. That’s the guy who gave us the phrase “rich as Croesus” and who learned the hard way about the ups and downs of life. Today I want to use him, the richest of the rich, to begin a brief meditation on wealth, as a way of understanding our modern problem with stuff. Because stuff is what we’re trying to figure out in this thread.

It used to be that wealth was a thingy thing, a state of having lots of stuff, especially stuff that others wanted and did not have. Let’s savor for a moment a brief passage from Herodotus, in which he dwells lovingly on the details of Croesus’ stuff/wealth. This was the porn of the fifth century BCE.

Croesus, in this passage, wants to impress the Delphic oracle, so he gives it lots of stuff:

three thousand of every kind of sacrificial beast, and besides made a huge pile, and placed upon it couches coated with silver and with gold, and golden goblets, and robes and vests of purple…. The king melted down a vast quantity of gold, and ran it into ingots, making them six palms long, three palms broad, and one palm in thickness. The number of ingots was a hundred and seventeen, four being of refined gold, in weight two talents and a half; the others of pale gold, and in weight two talents. He also caused a statue of a lion to be made in refined gold, the weight of which was ten talents…

On the completion of these works Croesus sent them away to Delphi, and with them two bowls of an enormous size, one of gold, the other of silver… Croesus sent also four silver casks, which are in the Corinthian treasury, and two lustral vases, a golden and a silver one… Besides these various offerings, Croesus sent to Delphi many others of less account, among the rest a number of round silver basins. Also he dedicated a female figure in gold, three cubits high, which is said by the Delphians to be the statue of his baking-woman; and further, he presented the necklace and the girdles of his wife.

Necklace and girdles? That sounds like the junk we just got rid off at the yard sale.

This, in other words, was the age of things, of stuff. Almost all people had extremely little of it, so to get any stuff at all was a stroke of fortune, and immediately imposed the need to hoard it and the anxiety of losing it. When you gave people gifts (and I’ll have more to say about gifts in another post), you gave things/stuff, because that’s how worth and sacrifice was defined.

All that is over, at least for the middle and upper classes of the rich countries today. (If you’re reading blogs, you belong to that set.) Our wealth is no longer thingy/stuffy. If anything, an excess of things is a mark of poverty. Any household today, even a trailer in Appalachia, is filled with gadgets that would have made Croesus green with envy.

What has taken the place of things? Two things:

  1. Time. We have so little of it, and so much stuff, that the exchange rate between the two has shifted hugely toward time. If you have money/things but no time, you are poor. Time is now one definition of worth and sacrifice, so when you really want to give a special gift, you give your time. You volunteer, or you spend a few hours of totally focused playtime with your children, or you take time to talk, really talk, with a friend/lover.
  2. Experiences. While the people in the Appalachian trailer haul in more TVs and fridges and toasters, the wealthy now buy themselves and their children experiences. Education is the big one, and that includes piano and tennis lessons, the trip to Europe and the Louvre. In my twenties, wealth was having hiked the Annapurna Circuit, say, or having sat in on a session of the House of Commons. Now, in my thirties, wealth is giving my children the experience of snow in the winter, seawater in the summer, and so forth.

So stuff is obsolete. Out of date. Unnecessary. Not worth anything. Which raises the question: Why do most of us hang on to it anyway, ruining their Feng Shui and making themselves miserable? I’ll try to tackle that anon, but I’m sure you’ve all got your ideas, so let’s have them.

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Stuff = Dead space: The Feng Shui view


As a way of getting deeper into our new thread on stuff, here is a basic way of understanding why clutter is so bad for you: it “kills” space and blocks the flow of energy around your house and in your mind.

That’s how a Feng Shui guy explained it to me when I lived in Hong Kong.

Feng Shui, if you’re new to it, means wind water (characters above), which is entirely unhelpful in understanding what it is. It’s the ancient Chinese version of geomancy–figuring out how to place buildings, furniture and other features of interior and exterior living in such a way that they make us feel healthier, more energetic and positive.

Feng Shui shares the fate of most things Eastern that are becoming fashionable in the West. That is: there are all sorts of quacks and weirdos eager to sell it to you as modern snake oil. If you know somebody who suddenly put mirrors, crystals and fish tanks all over his house, he probably became a Feng Shui victim.

800px-RepulseBay_holeOn the other hand, if you encounter buildings such as this (right behind a great beach I used to go to), you know you’re in Hong Kong. In this case, Feng Shui (ie, the hole that allows better energy flow) makes for idiosyncratic local architecture.

But if you’re lucky, you meet an expert who treats Feng Shui as the subtle application of common sense. I was lucky.

Ki-hanjaLike Chinese medicine (and indeed Indian Ayurveda), Feng Shui tries to optimize the flow of vital energy, or qi.

That qi is the ki in Aikido and the chi (different transliteration) in Tai Chi and the qi in Qigong. In Sanskrit it is called Prana. It behaves a little like electric energy, as it flows between a positive and a negative “pole”, Yang and Yin. When they stick needles into you in acupuncture, they are using the tiny conductors to amplify the flow of qi along certain conduits (called meridians in Chinese medicine, nadis in Ayurveda and Yoga).

What, you may be asking, does any of this have to do with stuff?

Stuff = dead energy

The way this Feng Shui master explained it to me, clutter in your home or office blocks the flow of qi in that space. The space becomes not just dusty but in effect dead.

Think of a corner of your house, or a drawer or a basement or a tabletop, that is hopelessly cluttered with stuff. (I’m using stuff to mean extraneous things here.) You don’t even want to look into that direction because it makes you feel bad. It reminds you that you should clean it up. Perhaps it reminds you of things on your to-do list that you never did because you didn’t want to, and now they’re piling up in that corner. Perhaps there are really important or useful or sentimental things hidden underneath that crap, but how would you ever know, without digging through it? Just thinking about all this makes you …. go somewhere else–anywhere else–and run away from the clutter once again.

And so your house becomes deader and deader with each cluttered corner. You walk through it as through a graveyard. The constricted space constricts your thoughts, perhaps your breathing (in Sanskrit, Prana means both breath and qi.)

So, to you hoarders: It’s not true that storing stuff costs nothing. It costs you more than any accountant could tally up.

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Discussing stuff while getting rid of it


In preparation for this new thread on stuff, I spent much of the day talking and thinking about it at the perfect venue for this sort of thing: a yard sale.

Friends of ours were having one and invited us to piggyback on theirs, so we had a “multi-family” purge on a sun-baked California street corner. My daughter was scotch-taping the signs up around the neighborhood (which is why they are knee-level for a tall adult), and then I hauled our crap, I mean stuff, onto that lawn. And people bought it.

It was cleansing. The families hung out and talked about this odd tyranny of stuff. The other family was getting dirty looks from the mom/mother-in-law, who is a bit of a hoarder and couldn’t quite believe what we were giving away. My friend was walking out with something or other, allegedly a thing of beauty, and his mother-in-law interrupted her phone conversation to raise her eyebrows and say: “That was a wedding present from [so-and-so], you know.”

He chortled. It was his dang wedding, and a fun one, and it’s his dang marriage, and a good one, so where is the law that says he must forever junk up his house with crap, I mean stuff, that he never wanted in the first place?

The ladies did, however, share how hard it often has been for them to part with their stuff. The other mom had already tried dumping the baby things once, and said she was overcome by a sort of “nausea” and had to stop. This time, fortunately, she was ready.

The lads had no memories of any psychosomatic stuff-parting pains to report.

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New thread: A Theory of “stuff”


I have found myself, to my considerable surprise, doing some deep thinking about stuff. As in: Crap. Things. Knick knack. Papers. All that.

The occasion was a move–the before, during and after. My wife and I have been having to confront the cumulative load of stuff in our house and lives, stuff that has to be stored, then moved in order to be stored again. (Irony, anyone?)

If you are a regular reader and remember my feelings about, say, Diogenes or simplicity, or my utter loathing of clutter and complexity, you can pretty much figure out how I feel about stuff.

My wife does not disagree–and fortunately loves me for my eccentricities–but she is nonetheless

  1. female and
  2. not me.

This places her in a sufficiently different vantage point to produce some fascinating and highly entertaining discussions between us and ideas that I want to share with you in subsequent posts.

So I’m starting a new thread (ie tag) called stuff. Talking about things per se would be boring, so we are talking about things only in order to find out more about life and clutter, Feng Shui and simplicity, fear and serenity, and these sorts of things.

As regular readers know, this does not mean that any other ongoing threads–such as the ones on storytelling, the great thinkers, America, Socrates or, of course, Hannibal–will be interrupted, only that yet another one will be woven into them.

Prepare to get stuffed.

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The pitchforked anti-consumerist hordes

I never claimed to be original in fantasizing about the simple, uncluttered ‘barrel life’ of Diogenes. Far from it. I seem to be surfing on the Zeitgeist. The cult of ‘stuff’ is out, the cult of ‘less’ is in.

As always, there is a Cavalier and a Roundhead version of the meme.

Here is one example of the Cavalier version:

And here is one example of the Roundhead version, which is apparently going viral in the nation’s classrooms:

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