A few years ago, it was really common to see people complain about "first world problems". For example, someone my post on social media, "My phone charger won't reach my bed. So I can't check my messages in the morning without getting up. #firstworldproblems" It was a way for people to complain about things while simultaneously admitting that they really didn't have anything to complain about. It's a goofy saying. It makes light of the fact that there are people in the world with legitimate problems like lack of food or unsafe living conditions. And I hope people don't use it anymore. But I'm not cool enough to keep track of things like that. My point, however, is that as Americans we have an amazing life when compared to most of the world.
For example, have you ever thought about the miracle which is the flush toilet? When I was deployed we had to use porta-potties like what you normally find at construction sites. Now that wouldn't have been bad in and of itself except that I was in a warzone, so I couldn't just walk over in my boxers. If nature called in the middle of the night, I had to get fully dressed in my boots and cammies, put on 50 pounds of armor, fumble around in the dark for my M-16, and then walk approx. 30 yards to the porta-potty. After dealing with that for 7 months, I can't use a toilet without thanking my lucky stars for indoor plumbing.
I'd stop short of calling the United States a paradise, but it's pretty close. We enjoy a level of convenience that has never been experienced in human history, and we walk around with cell phones that can get anything from food to new clothes delivered directly to our climate-controlled homes. We're literally surrounded by miracles, so why are we so unhappy?
Why do we live as gods, but suffer like mortal men?
My belief is that in our rush to make life more comfortable for ourselves we've created a cure that's worse that the disease. At any given moment, we are inundated with text messages, emails, advertisements, and a host of other things that strengthen the illusion of a separate "self" which Buddha warned us about 2,500 years ago.
Our egos crave instant gratification, and now they have it.
That's a very bad thing. Because if the illusion of a separate "self" is the source of our suffering, then the ego is the battery that gives that illusion power. And we charge that "ego battery" every time we satisfy our cravings with same-day delivery, microwaveable food, angry political commentary, etc. Additionally, the stronger our false sense of "self" becomes, the more cutoff we feel from the people around us. Recognizing this, is it any wonder that we feel so alone in a society that places total emphasis on our sense of "me" and actively works destroy our sense of "we"?
To be clear, I'm not excluding myself from any of this. I'm a slave to modern convenience just like everyone else. But there's a reason that ancient Zen masters warned against the use of luxurious beds. They felt strongly that a comfortable life made spiritual practice harder. I wonder what they would think of us now?
Did we sell our souls for videogames? Can we ever get them back?
I think we can. But we need to very strategic in our use of spiritual practice in order to counter the negative effects of our modern lifestyle. We need to actually visit meditation centers as opposed to watching videos on YouTube. We need to visit a relative or close friend when we're bored instead of turning on the TV. In short, we need to tell our egos, "no" from time to time and give up instant gratification in exchange for real human connection. Imagine what the world would be like if people did volunteer work for fun instead of "retail therapy" at the mall. I'm not saying that I have all of the answers. But I am suggesting that a text message will never feed our spirits the way a phone call will. And a poke on social media will never warm our hearts like a hug.
Perhaps we should focus less on giving our egos what they want, and focus more on giving our spirits what they need.