Outer Wealth vs. Inner Wealth
Basic hopelessness affects people regardless of their circumstances. In Nepal, where I grew up, material comforts were few and far between. We had no electricity, no telephones, no heating or air-conditioning systems, and no running water. (…)
Many people didn’t have enough food to feed their families. Even though Asians are traditionally shy when it comes to discussing their feelings, anxiety and despair were evident in their faces and in the way they carried themselves as they went about the daily struggle to survive.
When I made my first teaching trip to the West in 1998, I naively assumed that with all the modern conveniences available to them, people would be much more confident and content with their lives. Instead, I discovered that there was just as much suffering as I saw at home, although it took different forms and sprang from different sources. This struck me as a very curious phenomenon.
“Why is this?” I’d ask my hosts. “Everything’s so great here. You have nice homes, nice cars, and good jobs. Why is there so much unhappiness?” I can’t say for sure whether Westerners are simply more open to talking about their problems or whether the people I asked where just being polite.
But before long, I received more answers than I’d bargained for. In short order, I learned that traffic jams, crowded streets, work deadlines, paying bills, and long lines at the bank, the post office, airports, and grocery stores were common causes of tension, irritation, anxiety, and anger.
Relationship problems at home or at work were frequent causes of emotional upset. Many people’s lives were so crammed with activity that finally coming to the end of a long day was enough to make them wish that the world and everybody in it would just go away for a while. And once people did manage to get through the day, put their feet up, and start to relax, the telephone would ring or the neighbor’s dog would star barking—and instantly whatever sense of contentment they may have settled into would be shattered.
Listening to these explanations, I gradually came to realize that the time and effort people spend on accumulating and maintaining material or “outer wealth” affords very little opportunity to cultivate “inner wealth”—qualities such as compassion, patience, generosity, and equanimity. This imbalance leaves people particularly vulnerable when facing serious issues like divorce, severe illness, and chronic physical or emotional pain.