On Lack & Happines


ON LACK & Seeking Happiness

Today I want to talk about a feeling that many of us experience – it can be persistent, and it can be the source of much suffering. Many of us may not even be aware of how much it affects us. For much of the world, this feeling is an outgrowth of actual circumstances caused by war, corruption, and environmental degradation.  This needs to be acknowledged. The feeling I am talking about is real,  but for many of us in the Western world especially in America the feeling of “lack” of “lacking” something, an ache for that next thing, or that this “thing” will make everything better or bearable, or make everything OK or worth it, or when I get that my life we be good,

What is it that you feel you are lacking in your life that is keeping yours from truly being happy?

Is it recognition, appreciation, respect, self-confidence, commitment, love? Or maybe it’s something you can buy? Those things that we have come to believe will helps us get the other things, like a nicer car, a bigger house, nicer clothes, a new smartphone – a bigger TV.   Or is our sense of lack tied to comparison and envy?

Looking at this we can see the essence of the first two of the Buddha’ Four Noble Truths. We suffer, are ill at ease, are disappointed, unhappy because we attach ourselves to those things that cannot make us happy to those things outside of ourselves that by nature are constantly changing.

What we are talking about here is relative happiness, not the happiness or bliss that comes from liberation. This kind of happiness comes with dukka – disappointment, insecurity, and suffering.

It is as if we are seeking ourselves outside of ourselves.

In today’s world, it is hard to not live with a persistent sense of lack because we are told a hundred times a day through media and advertising that we are. Our contemporary world survives by creating this artificial sense of lacking, tells us that we are lacking the things and that the only reason we are not happy, is because we don’t have this car, this brand of toothpaste, this brand of smartphone We come to believe that these things, once we get them, will make us happy. End of story.  As David Loy writes,

We start to relate to the world through acquisition

The Great Awakening pg 224

The problem is happiness is not a destination, and acquisition is not really happiness, at best it is only a temporary fix to not feel the feelings you are avoiding. The problem with retail therapy is it only works for so long then you need another fix.

I want to say right now that this is not your fault, but that doesn’t mean you are not implicated in it.  Many of us, no matter how much we may say to the contrary, myself included,  believe that if I can just get this, then I will be happy, or that and I will be happy.

Because we live in a lack-centric society, the wealthiest society in the history where for the vast majority the basic needs of water, food and housing and vast amounts of entertainment are met and still we are plagued by an existential sense of lack. Lacking love, friends, community, acceptance, these are all things that we think we need before we can be happy.  We seek outside ourselves for the happiness we know is out there because we see it all the time in commercials and Facebook, in movies and sitcoms where conflict is resolved in a 30-minute sitcom and 20 somethings working at a coffee shop live in NY in 4000 dollars a month.  

Ultimately, seeking happiness outside of ourselves is fraught with disappointment and suffering. We are dependent on that condition to be happy.  We all know this when we experience the rush of new love that brings bliss, meaning, and rights all the wrongs from before. We are happy, complete till the next morning when something changes and we are left alone in our new emptiness, our new state of lack.

Again this is what the Buddha was teaching us in the four-noble truth 2500 years ago.  Life is suffering, life is disappointment, because attach to thinks outside of ourselves to make ourselves “happy”. The problem is everything is changing constantly – everything all the time – causes and conditions change moment to moment.

When we focus our attention to the things outside of ourselves to be happy, we cut ourselves off from the elements that will bring happiness, not the happiness of having everything we want, but the happiness of not needing anything but what we have and the equanimity to embrace the change of even that but the happiness of not needing anything but what we have and the equanimity to embrace the change of even that.

I appreciate this from, Brian Thompson

There’s always something new to desire, isn’t there? We’re never completely happy. We’re always searching for the next thing to amuse us for a few more moments. We’re always on a quest to achieve, acquire, and obtain! Our sense of lack fuels us. It keeps us busy — but it also distracts us from realizing our true happiness, that which is already within each of us.

Zen Thinking – Is your life ruled by a continual sense of lack? Brian Thompson

How true is this? Our sense of lack motivates us to do all kinds of things, drives our unconscious and conscious behaviors to get that thing we are lacking. And how many times is the unskillful action? How many of today’s problems were the answers to yesterday to satisfying the feelings of lack?

This struggle to get, this folly,  keeps us from our center, cuts us off from ourselves and others. Creates division. Entrenches us into the world of duality – scarcity and can be a source of greed, anger, and ignorance.  

This is not the grounded lack of going hungry because the food bank was close but an existential lack, a psychological lacking born of a fiction of our innate “lackness”, perpetuated by the small ego that needs “stuff” to prop itself up and by preachers, merchants, and other miscreants.  

We learn from Buddhist teaching that we want to center ourselves not in acquisition, that our value and worth are not based on some monetary or social remuneration but is innate. By seeking happiness outside ourselves we become decentered, dispersed.  As Gyomay Kubose Sensei teaches,

You must establish your center in order to make life truly meaningful. Establishing the center is a way to enlighten yourself. From this center life must express itself, it is a matter of life or death.  If life is not continuously gushing forth it will die, life cannot be other than itself where is your center are you content to just exist.

The Center Within – Rev. Gyomay M Kubose

He goes on to say,

This is the teachings of the Buddha each individual is unique and of absolute value is not necessary to follow the crowd or compare yourself with others establish your center and be yourself when does this not by depending on external things but by looking deeply within you find yourself life becomes meaningful and all things open up to you.


The antidote to our sense of lack.

So how do we cut through this delusion of existential lack? We first need to become aware of how we are affected by this narrative. Watch your mind, when you are feeling the sense of lack, feel it. Don’t shop it away.  Say hello to it, offer it a small cup of tea, when you buy something to observe how it makes you feel, happiness, then disappointment.  Look around your house and see if you can remember why you bought this or that? Do you need it?

The second thing you can do is to start a basic gratitude practice. Gratitude is a matter of awareness of all that you have been given, like life itself, it helps us clear through the manufactured longing and inherent illusion of all that we don’t have and think we need to be happy. It also opens awareness of all we already have.  This gives us wisdom when making decisions about what we truly need versus what we want.

Gratitude is more than just acknowledge your good fortune, it is the act of receiving consciously the grace you receive every day. Truly receiving and not taking for granted what you already have helps you in identifying what is truly needed and not getting trapped in desire. Again from Brian Thompson,

Know that your sense of lack is only a thought. It is a desire you’ve latched your mind onto and that you find it hard to let go of. It’s your attachment to the idea of lack that’s causing you pain, not the lack of the thing you want itself.

Zen Thinking – Thompson

Through gratitude practice, we can see that our attachment to the idea of lack is just an idea. Gratitude can be liberating.

It is all a matter of focus and attention.

The fruit of a deep sense of gratitude is happiness.  The happiness of gratitude is the happiness of not needing anything but what we have and the equanimity to embrace when even this changes.

So as you go through your day ask yourself, do I need this or want it.  You will see that we are driven mostly by want. Don’t change your behavior, just watch yourself and your mind.  When you are feeling unhappy, bored observe your mind what stories do you tell yourself, what rationalization and justifications do you use. By doing this, we can begin to free ourselves of much of the extraneous and manufactured desire that assails us. Then we can begin to see the deeper seeded desires that keep us from our seeing things as they are.   I want to close with the words of , Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

You will receive everything you need when you stop asking for what you do not need”

May it be so.

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