I have bad news for the human race. According to Mickey Singer, we’re not much smarter than hamsters. How so?
Think of a hamster running on a hamster wheel. Trying to get somewhere, but never getting anywhere. Just running in place, day after day, thinking that will get him somewhere, but never making any progress.
How is this analogous to the story of us humans? Because we also pursue the same course, day in and day out, year in and year out, that doesn’t work. That doesn’t get us closer to what we want.
What humans really want
First, let’s be clear about what we want. Here’s how Mickey relates it. If a genie granted you ten wishes, most of you would ask for things like a billion dollars, a relationship partner, kids, seven mansions all over the globe with a Lamborghini parked in each garage, etc.
The truth is that you’d be lying. You don’t want all those things. What you want is what you think all those things will bring you: Happiness. Peace of mind. Contentment.
The outside world can’t make us happy
Bottom line is that we look to the outside world — car, house, wife, kids — to make us feel good inside. The problem is it doesn’t work. It can short term, but never long term.
The new, cool car is great…until it isn’t and we rarely even think about it. The spouse makes you feel fantastic inside, until the bloom comes off the rose and he/she drives you crazy.
Who among us doesn’t know this? That living life this way doesn’t bring us happiness. And yet, who among us doesn’t keep plowing forward, pursuing this same strategy day in and day out, year in and year out?
Like a hamster running aimlessly on the wheel.
And like constantly on running on a wheel, looking to the outside world to make us happy is downright exhausting. Getting all the outside pieces to fit just so…
“Junior aced his math test. And I just lost ten pounds. But my husband is leaving today on a two week business trip. And I think my boss is going to give the promotion to my idiotic colleague who he plays golf with every weekend…”
The bad news for hamsters is that they don’t realize there’s an easy solution: Just jump off the wheel. And stay off.
The good news for humans is that there is an analogous solution to jumping off and staying off the wheel. And unlike hamsters, we humans have the ability to understand and therefore pursue that solution.
What is that solution for us? It’s simple:
Stop living our lives pursuing what we want and avoiding what we don’t want.
It’s the foundation of Buddhism as summed up in the Four Noble Truths:
1. Life is suffering.
2. Suffering is caused by desire.
3. Eliminate desire and we eliminate suffering.
4. Pursue the eight-fold path to eliminate desire.
Doing that is the equivalent of jumping off and staying off the hamster wheel. Which leads to…
Question: If our lives aren’t dictated by going after what we want and avoiding what we don’t want, what the heck are we doing all day?
Answer: We’re being present with what life/God/the Universe/the Tao presents us. We’re flowing with life rather than fighting it. Accepting life rather than resisting it.
How do we do that? Therein lies the rub, as Hamlet famously said. Because transforming that paradigm from want/don’t want to accept/flow ain’t easy.
Why? Because want/don’t want is deeply ingrained in us. After all, we’ve been living that way from day one.
It takes work to step off and stay off the wheel
But this is the work of our lives. And it consists of the daily spiritual work that myriad traditions have imparted for thousands of years. My work involves mostly meditation, mindfulness and letting go of David Gerken. For others it might be prayer, chanting, yoga, qi gong or any number of spiritual techniques.
One way or another, they all point us toward the same thing: moving away from pursuing desires and toward present-oriented living.
I write about these analogies — clouds and the sky, flowers, snow globes, taming stallions, and now the hamster wheel — because I think these images can deepen our understanding of the spiritual path and thereby spur growth.
How might this analogy be helpful to you? Try this. In the coming days, anytime you feel frustrated with life because you’re not getting what you want or getting what you don’t want, imagine yourself as a human hamster running on a wheel. Hopefully, you’ll get a chuckle out of it.
More important, see yourself jump off the wheel; then take a few deep breaths as you calm down and relax into the present moment. Then watch yourself walk away from the wheel.
The fact is that we are smarter than hamsters. But only if we use our intelligence to step off and stay off the wheel…