"Stop losing and start gaining." That's the slogan for Rogaine that I hear every day I'm in the gym. (It's only topped by a local hair transplant surgeon whose motto is, "Every day you wait [to get the surgery], you lose more hair." Ouch!) I must have heard this ad fifty times before I actually heard it. Then it occurred to me--Rogaine is a great symbol for Western society.
We live in a culture whose economy thrives on fixing--or more accurately, 'replacing'--practically everything, even when it isn't broken. The anthem of our brave new world is that newer is better. For instance, at work this year, despite enormous budget cuts the powers-that-be replaced our phone system even though the original was working fine. And the ultimate irony is that the new one doesn't even work; I've been unable to check my voice mail for the past four weeks!
I'm not exempt from this cultural tendency. Last week, my washer started making a strained whirring sound. My wife said, "Let's call the repair man." I shook my head and said, "The last time he was here, he charged us $350 to fix our stove; a new washer is only $50 more!" Luckily I fixed it myself, but my first response was the Rogaine solution--if your hair is thinning, YOU NEED to fix it. Or in my washer's case, replace it. The last thing we as Americans want to do is leave something alone. "Hell no," our culture tells us, "complacency is for lazy losers!" But I'm not so sure I agree.
Another tacit assumption in Western culture is that bigger and more is better. "Stop losing and start gaining," the ad advises. Despite the fact that countless studies reveal that money does not guarantee happiness, most Americans are caught in the rat race. We want more and more and more. "Super size it?" You're damn right!
The unstated belief is that the more gadgets and gizmos and apps I have, the better.
Buddhism takes the exact opposite stance. In fact, Buddhist practice is about losing. Losing our greed and attachments, letting go of fixed ideas and beliefs. Becoming unstuck. It's the mirror that shows us that all forms of grasping are futile; and more importantly, that they are the very source of our pain and discontent. For there is no end to our craving, a fact that advertisers and corporations are more than happy to exploit. No sooner do we satisfy one desire (buy some shiny new toy) than we're drawn to another. And so the cycle goes--what the Buddha called samsara.
What the Rogaine companies of the world don't want you to realize is the fundamental Mahayana teaching that we're already perfect, receding hairline and all.
Buddhism is not about self-improvement; it's about self-realization. It's not some product companies can sell (although that doesn't stop them from trying!), or some fix-it program to help you land the six-figure job so you can buy the McMansion of your your dreams.
Buddhism is about seeing the absolute emptiness of such pursuits, realizing that we don't need Rogaine or some other product aimed at our insecurities (no matter what the corporations tell us). When everything--including us--is already complete, what could we possible need? All we have to do is wake up to that fact.
I find it only fitting that Buddhist monks and nuns shave their heads as a symbol of their abandoning attachment. Sorry Rogaine, you won't get any customers here.
Unlike other medications--for that's what the Dharma is--Buddhism isn't for sale.
"Retail therapy" borrowed with permission from flickr user karsoe.
"I want" photo borrowed with permission from flickr user ATIS547.
"Rat race" photo borrowed with permission from flickr user dullhunk.