Gratitude or Greed?

Last week, I went on a week-long bikepacking tour along the Lost Coast in Humboldt County (pictures here for those interested). For three of those days, we biked along desolate dirt and gravel roads through nearly untouched nature, camping at primitive campsites with no running water (we purified the water from creeks like the picture) and pit toilets. It was a wonderful experience of self-sufficiency, carrying everything we needed (camping gear, food, water) on our bikes.

And then we returned to a campground that had running water, and hot showers. And it was amazing. After four days where we had to pump water at creeks and carry it with us, it was so easy to just go to a faucet and get drinkable water! And a hot shower after four days of biking with lots of hills and accumulated sweat helped me feel like a new person. The night after that, we camped outside the town of Ferndale, and we went out to dinner at a restaurant where somebody brought us food that we didn’t have to carry from a store and prepare – what a luxury!

The experience reminded me of how easy it is to take everything in our lives for granted. Almost every day I take clean running hot and cold water for granted, and only notice it if it’s slow or interrupted for some reason. And yet life without these amenities is noticeably worse in some ways. So why do I rarely appreciate them?

On the trip, I was reading Training in Compassion, by Norman Fischer, a commentary on Lojong, a set of Tibetan Buddhist slogans to train our minds to experience compassion. One teaching that stuck with me on the trip was on the three poisons of Buddhism:

  • Attraction (or greed) is when there is something we want, whether it is an object, a person, an emotion, a state of mind, regardless of whether we can have it.
  • Avoidance (or hatred) is when there is something we want to avoid, whether it is an object, a person, an emotion, a state of mind, and we turn ourselves away from it, regardless of whether it is present in our life.
  • Delusion is when we can’t deal with reality as is, so we cling to a vision of how things are that is not consistent. The stronger version is when we twist our interpretation of reality to match our delusions rather than accepting what is.

I bring up the three poisons because my campsite experience reminded me that I have so much to be thankful for on a daily basis…and yet I mostly focus on what I don’t have (the poison of greed). Instead of noticing that I have a comfortable home, and hot and cold running water, and enough to eat, and a loving family, and the fiscal privilege to be able to afford to take a week off to go camping off the grid, I focus on the things that could be different or better. That is an unconscious choice my mind is making, and I’d like to move towards making a more conscious choice to focus on what I have rather than on what I don’t have.

I don’t have much more to say than that on the subject, but I wanted to share this experience as a reminder that we are confronted with this choice daily. Amusingly, I just realized that I had much the same message in my blog post on Practicing Gratitude from a few years ago, but the message is timeless, as evidenced by the Tibetan slogans being nearly a thousand years old.

When you notice yourself getting annoyed by how things are not the way you want them to be, you are being confronted with the question I pose in the blog post title: gratitude or greed? I encourage you to choose gratitude by taking a deep breath or two, relaxing, and taking a moment to be thankful for what you already have that you might be taking for granted. I have been trying to do that this week as I return to “normal” life after my bike trip, and I have been finding it helpful.

Now that I’ve shared my story, do you have experiences to share about your choice of gratitude or greed in various situations?

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