Enoughness: A Reflection on the 2nd Precept

Is it possible to cultivate a sense of “enoughness” with regard to relationships?

question on index card

My teacher, Josh Bartok Roshi, gave a dharma talk at an all-day sit recently. Which I missed. (I was helping a friend move.) But although I arrived late in the afternoon, Josh shared with me a set of reflections he had handed out. These were lists of “Values based on” various precepts, vows, and liturgical pieces. One stood out for me: A meditation on the 2nd Grave Precept.

In our liturgy book, the second of the Ten Grave Precepts is worded, in its longer form, as

 Self-nature is inconceivably wondrous. In the realm of the unattainable Dharma, not having thoughts of gaining is called the Precept of Not Stealing. The self and the things of the world are just as they are. The gate of emancipation is open. Being satisfied with what I have, I vow to take up the Way of Not Stealing. (p. 48)

The corresponding entry on Josh’s handout is:

I value cultivating a sense of enoughness, with regard to material, relational, and spiritual attainments; and I value entrusting to the universe what belongs to the universe and not arrogating it to myself.

Especially  the first line hit me, and especially, at that moment, the idea of being satisfied with “relational attainments.”

What is this “sense of enoughness,” and how do we “cultivate” it?

I seem to need constant reminders, even though this “being satisfied” and “enoughness” were among the first and most powerful lessons I learned when first I started practicing meditation.

That was nearly twenty years ago now, and I didn’t begin specifically Zen practice till a few years later. But the practice of sitting upright and still and noticing what was going on in my mind revealed to me my mind’s “background hum.”  The question it kept going back to, over and over. And the question was, “Am I happy yet?” There were some variations on this: “Am I successful yet?” “Am I good yet?” or the thought “My life would be better if only I had…” But “Am I happy yet?” pretty much sums it up.

And the answer was, most often, “not quite.” So the background hum was really a sort of background, low-level grumble. Some dharma talks are about the big things in life—sickness, death, the suffering of the world. And so it should be. But the incessant, low-level stuff needs our attention, too.

My background sense was the opposite of “enoughness.” It was a basic undercurrent of unsatisfactoriness. Of lack.

I didn’t initially associate this with “greed,” which seems like a strong word, much less with “stealing.” But I’ve come to realize that the interpretations of the precepts above are correct in making this connection. Even if I’m not trying to get “more than my share,” which is what I usually think of as greed, there is something in this sense of unsatisfactoriness that is about me telling the universe that it is wrong.

Sometimes I feel hard done by—I feel I’m getting less than what I’m due, or what I see people around me having. More commonly, I locate the source of the unsatisfactoriness in myself: “I would be happier if only I were able to…” or a whole list of “I should”s.  I feel that somehow my life has not measured up to what it is supposed to be.

As I said, the reminder to cultivate a sense of enoughness in relational attainments was the one that particularly hit me that day. It put a spotlight on a background hum of which I had been only half aware: “My life is mostly great, but it isn’t really complete because I’m not in a romantic relationship, because I don’t have a life partner.” Huh. That old unsatisfactoriness again.

Well, I’ve been around the block a few times. I’ve been single and in relationships, single and out of relationships, and was married for 15 years. When I reflect on it, I know that whatever state I’m in, it won’t be bliss, or at least not for very long. The particular flavor of  unsatisfactoriness varies by circumstances, but the tendency to hum the general tune does not. If I were in a great relationship, I guarantee I’d find myself filling in the blank “My life is mostly great, but it isn’t really complete because…” with something else. That would most likely be a work issue or a health issue. When things are all going well, I can even make that into a problem: “Things are good. Why don’t I feel happier than I do? I should feel happier.”

So what’s the solution? Just keep telling ourselves, “Be happy with what you’ve got!” and try not to feel the itch of dissatisfaction?

I don’t think so.

At the summer sesshin a couple weeks ago, David Rynick Roshi gave a talk where he referred to David Brazier’s take on the Four Noble Truths, as expressed in his book, The Feeling Buddha. This interpretation is quite heterodox—or maybe even heretical—relative to widespread Buddhist teachings, but is one that I came upon early in my Zen practice and which has always made the most sense to me.

The Four Noble Truths are traditionally summarized as:
1.    There is suffering.
2.    The cause of suffering is desire.
3.    The way to cease suffering is to extinguish desire.
4.    There is a path (encompassing right view, right thought, right mindfulness etc.).

Brazier’s interpretation goes something like this:

1.    That things happen, some of which we find painful. This is noble. This is part of a noble life! Just because we have painful things in our life does not mean our life is somehow inferior.  As we read in the sutra book, “The self and the things of the world are just as they are.”

2.    We have responses to these things, and those desires, thirsts, and the sense of unsatisfactoriness are noble, too. Just because we have feelings arise in response to things does not mean we are doing something wrong. The responses, too, are part of a noble life.

3.    Brazier writes, “The noble truth of nirodha, containment, is this: it is the complete capturing of that thirst. It is to let go of, be liberated from and refuse to dwell in the object of that thirst.” (pp. 185-6)

4.    There is a path.

Containing and capturing, not ceasing and extinguishing. We don’t have to make pain go away all the time. We don’t have to try to prevent our natural response, that feeling of unsatisfactoriness, from ever cropping up. (That project is unlikely to be successful, anyway.) What we do need to do is “contain” that response.

Instead of focusing on the thing our hand it reaching out for, the thing we thirst for, we can take a good long look at the wanting itself. We focus on the hand reaching out to grasp, and what it feels like to be reaching out that hand.

Or I sometimes have a mental image, when sitting zazen, of a silver basin on the floor in front of me. Various things drop in. I can see them, and say “Oh, that soreness in my knee. Oh, that old wanting…”

Back twenty years ago, I wrote a question on an unlined index card, that I still have. I had realized that  “Am I happy yet?” wasn’t serving me well. An alternative that seemed to work better–well enough for me to write down and try to remember to use!– was “What does it feel like to be alive?” What does this chair feel like? How does the air feel on my skin? What does wanting feel like?

Sometimes, when I’ve moved to the second question, the constant “me-me-me” refrain of worry about where I am and what I should be doing recedes, like a wave going back out to sea, and my mind becomes blessedly quiet. As the liturgy book says, “The gate of emancipation is open.”

I think that “cultivating enoughness” is not about not wanting more. Or about  feeling bad about wanting more. It’s about noticing the feeling of wanting more. Or noticing the feeling of feeling bad about wanting more. Whatever is coming up. It’s about getting that tiny bit of distance away from the feeling, that allows it to rise up as simply a feeling, and go away as simply a feeling.

By containing the feeling of unsatisfactoriness and examining it, I can also begin to discern whether is just a case of my mind kicking up dust—as those background grumblings often are–or whether my mind is shooting off based on a misperception, another possibility. Or whether there might be actual information in the feeling that I can and should act on. When this last is the case, and I do take action to change a situation that is painful or unsatisfying, the action is then one based on reflection and choice rather than simply on knee-jerk reactivity.

And in what way is not cultivating enoughness “stealing”? One interpretation might be to think that when I want something more—something I see others enjoying—I am mentally trying to “steal” from them. But I feel that there is a more profound meaning. When I am focused on the object of my desire, I am taken out of myself. I lose that contact with what my life really feels like. I steal the experience of my own life—my very own, unique, precious, messy, imperfect, not-according-to plan life—from myself.


Author: julieanelson

Julie A. Nelson is a Professor of Economics; a writer on gender, ethics, economics, and ecology; a dharma teacher in the Boundless Way Zen school; mother of two grown children; and an avid dancer.

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