Islam does not endorse aestheticism nor vows of poverty frequently found in other religions. It is the duty of a Muslim to work hard and be prosperous so that he (traditionally) or she can care for family and give to charity. What is given to charity is often quoted as a simple percentage, but in reality is defined as “the excess.” (All this I have been told by my professors, so if I’ve been a trusting fool, please school me.) We could learn something from this as lay Buddhists, I feel. But just what is ‘excess?’
In material terms, excess if fairly easy to define. It’s having more than one can use – more water than one can drink, more food than one can eat, more land than one can farm. These are simple physical limitations. However, in modern terms prosperity is measured in money. How do we know when we have too much money? After all, we can always spend more on an ever increasing number of goods, services, and entertainments. Even if we become obviously prosperous, there is always the proverbial rainy day.
As I type this, I sit in the ICU waiting room of the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula where my boyfriend’s Grandma is recovering from open heart surgery. (Shout out to all the wonderful hospital staff looking after her and being so kind to her family.) Open heart surgery is expensive. Retirement is expensive. The future is uncertain, so clearly we need to set aside funds to provide for these things. Aside from conspicuous wealth ala Buffet or Gates, what then is ‘excess?’
Oddly enough, we can all point to it when we see it, each according to our own particular predilections. Today I saw a dog walking down the street on a bright, sunny, fifty-degree day wearing a warm doggie sweater in a climate that never sees snow. In my opinion, that is excess. I’m sure the dog’s person would disagree. Can we even find an objective definition? I am dubious. Perhaps all we can do is find a definition of excess that takes into account the subjective perceptions of humanity. After all, no one wants someone else, perhaps someone they’ve never met who is as different from them as two people could be, placing arbitrary limits on his or her life. Rightly so.
That still begs the question. What is ‘excess?’
I puzzled over this for some time as my boyfriend and I discussed the purpose of giving to charity, how much to give, what (time, effort, money), and to whom. I stated I would give the excess, whatever I didn’t need. However, we’d already recognized the fact that the lifestyle I live and will likely continue with is somewhat more frugal than most. My bar for ‘excess’ was thus quite a bit lower than his, but just how low depended on how each of us defines the term. This depends necessarily on each of our world views and the purpose we feel money (and time and effort) serves in our lives. We talked about self-care, the role of joy, the interconnected nature of global suffering, and how to judge efficacy and impact.
“Why shouldn’t I use that ‘excess’ to buy something to make myself happy?” he asked rhetorically.
That prompted my current brainstorm. Because, see, I don’t believe that things can make me happy. I do, however, heartily admit that lack of some things can, does, and will make me miserable. Many social scientists have looked at this question before, of course, most notably Maslow. To me it comes down to safety, security, and comfort. Once these three things are assured at a basic minimum level, “happiness” then becomes an entirely internal matter. (Meaning it is more dependent on the cultivation of mental and emotional qualities such as wisdom, equanimity, contentment, etc., than external circumstances. This has also been demonstrated in scientific and academic study, though I lack the ambition to dig up the citations at present.)
Of course, that merely extends the question to what is a ‘basic minimum level?’ This is where the subjectivity shows itself.
Safety can be defined as personal physical safety – the assurance that I will not be subject to physical harm or loss of property due to crime or disaster. That seems fairly simple and objective, but requires the cooperation of a great many other people to ensure.
Security is the assurance of some form of stability and/or predictability – that my life will continue in a fashion that I can depend upon and plan for accordingly. Loss of a job, sudden end of a relationship, death of a loved one (particularly on whom we depend) collapse of finical institutions, government systems, and war are just a few examples of threats to our security. Money and material prosperity can do a great deal to ensure security in the face of tragedy. This is why people buy insurance, after all, and why insurance companies claim to sell “peace of mind.”
Finally, comfort can be defined as a lack of meaningful hardship – by hardship I don’t mean inconvenience, annoyance, or effort. I mean back-breaking labor, lack of time for family or self-care, lack of what we in the first world consider basic necessities like electricity and telecommunications, not to mention the even more basic provision of clean drinking water, sanitary sewer, and healthy food readily available. I personally find further comfort in simple things like coffee machines, computers, soft couches, comfortable beds, warm homes, and cuddly animals.
Comfort, I believe, is the most prone to excess. For example, a ‘comfortable’ house does not need a formal living room and a ‘family’ room or a formal dining room and a ‘breakfast’ room. One of the other will do just fine. However, some people feel they ‘need‘ both. This is where we run into problems in my estimation. We confuse want with need. There are a few things I do need for basic comfort and those things are far fewer than I already posses. There are other things I want because they enhance my comfort level. Then there are things that I want because I like them and they may bring me pleasure, but, in the long run will have no impact on the comfort or happiness of my life. That is the excess.
But again, how do we figure out what things will or won’t contribute to our comfort? (Or our safety and security?) I believe we can only do this through a process of deep, ongoing introspection and experimentation. The second part is key and the step we all too often overlook. After all, no mater how long we think about it, more likely than not we’ll end up with justifying our desires. It’s how we’re wired and trained since birth. Our karma will win out, barring spontaneous enlightenment. (Which is why Buddhists practice the Dharma rather than just think about it.)
The best way to determine what truly has an impact on our quality of life is to try living without it. I believe everyone should take a stab at this kind of experimentation at some point in their lives. I don’t mean for a week or two, or even a month, or even a summer. At least a year is necessary, in my estimation. It takes a year to get over our mental whining about how deprived we are and silence all the reassurances that we’ll soon get back whatever it was we gave up. In a year, we start to adapt to this new way of life, take it for granted, and forget all the whining and reassurances. Personally, I recommend three years, just because karma and consumer culture are pernicious weeds that grow back quickly.
As my personal example, I don’t really miss having a car. I do miss eating out. Not having a car is occasionally inconvenient, but is far outweighed by the time, money, and worry I save. Whereas, cooking is the bane of my daily existence and not a chore I enjoy no matter how much I’ve tried to talk myself into it. Had I the money, I would (and have in the past) reduced my cooking to a base minimum. I derive great comfort in spending that regained time in more enjoyable and productive pursuits (for me), like writing or spending time with friends or traveling. Some people, I’m sure, would much rather keep their car and cook every day. That’s okay. Just so long as they don’t take it for granted or do it from habit alone.
So then, excess is that money which no longer has any ability to contribute to my happiness. It cannot buy me safety, security, or comfort beyond what I already possess. I could buy more insurance (assuming I had the money), certainly, but would I feel more secure? I could install a house alarm, but would I feel safer? I could buy the most expensive mattress made, but would I sleep one minute longer or one bit deeper? Unless we do the experiment, it is easy to buy into the assumption that it will. And the people who sell these things will go out of their way to convince us the answer is ‘yes.’
In oder to define excess, it is necessary to play with our lives – to try different things, different ways, modes, and even places of living, to look deeply into our personal, familial, and cultural karma. We shouldn’t do this just when we’re young, but continuously as a process of ongoing cultivation and renewal. Each person’s answer will naturally be different, but I think everyone will find that the external things that truly contribute to their happiness will be fewer than they might’ve thought.
That only leave one more question. What do we do with the excess? I don’t know about you, but I look forward to finding out.