According to Buddhist teaching, there are three poisons that affect the mind, creating a distorted lens through which we view reality. These are greed (desire), hatred (aversion), and delusion (wrong view). These roughly correspond to the three types of sensations we encounter: pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. Finally, there are three basic personality types that lean towards one of the three poisons more than the other two, although all of us are affected by all three. I am going to begin with the greed type.
People of this type look at a room full of objects, or a catalogue or department store, and immediately focus on wanting what they see. My mother was a greed type. She was a marathon shopper, bringing home sacks of things almost every day. A typical exchange between us would go like this: “That’s a lovely shade of lipstick you’re wearing, Jane. What is it?” “It’s a Revlon, called [insert name here].” “Oh, really? I’d like to get that shade. Can I try it? Maybe it will look good on me.” And within a day or two she would add it to her collection.
Whenever she travelled with my dad the two of them would acquire Persian rugs, bone china, and artworks to bring home. At the point of my father’s retirement, they had a sizable house filled with beautiful things. The task of downsizing was excruciating, which is why they did only the bare minimum to fit into their retirement home, itself not exactly small. After my father’s death, my mother stayed in that house for four years before moving to my town in the Midwest. Getting her out of there was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, because she wanted to spend hours considering each item, reminiscing about it, lovingly planning either to donate or keep it. I and her realtor ended up calling in a group of men with a truck and hauling off all the stuff she would not be taking with her. She was furious, but if we hadn’t done it she would never have made it out of there at all.
Greed types are hungry for experiences, things, life itself. Greed isn’t necessarily all bad, for without it none of us would be motivated to do the things necessary to keep us alive. We also wouldn’t be able to appreciate the good things the world has to offer. As with the other two poisons, however, greed is rooted in the illusion that we can find true freedom and happiness from what is outside ourselves, and the energy we devote to getting the things we crave can occupy our entire lives, setting us up for frustration and even abuse (think about animal hoarding). The thrill of anticipation is never quite realized in having what we want, and so we soon get bored and want something more.
I think about greed as the feeling I get when I see something that causes me to light up like a Christmas tree. In my case, it’s cake. There’s a scene in the 2013 version of the Great Gatsby that I noticed more than any of the others, in which Jay Gatsby prepares to meet his lady love at Nick’s cottage. He fills the place with flowers accompanied by an extravagant array of cakes, and for the entire scene, the cakes were all that I noticed. A picture of a beautiful cake is often enough to send me to the store to get some for myself.
Greed or desire is a lens through which a person experiences the world. Everything is evaluated as being potentially available to a greed type, who has a bottomless bucket list. While it may seem unflattering to describe someone in this way, we’re only presenting facts to be understood, not moral judgments or criticisms. Insight is the necessary step to letting go, which in turn leads to freedom.