Original version of my last column published in The Winchester Star (skip down if you’ve already read it):
Sometimes I am overwhelmingly repulsed by the amount of crap I own. I walk around my oversized home and stare at all of the things I’ve accumulated over the years and pray that it would all just disappear. The the electronics, the appliances, the photo albums, the decorations – they are like anchors. The weight attached to all this stuff comes in the form of anxiety, stress, worry: more to care for, more to pay for, more to clean up, more to distract me, more to dust, more to lose, more to get lost in.
Buddhists call this attachment, our need to be connected to someone or something, the cause for all human suffering. While the theory of attachment digs far deeper than the knick-knacks on my bureau, these little manmade treasures are a great place to start practicing non-attachment and create a simpler, less stressful life.
In his book Peace is Every Breath, Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that mindful consumerism is an important part of modern life. By focusing our minds strictly on our shopping lists and taking a moment to consider the real value of a desirable item on a store shelf, we are empowering ourselves to make better choices for humanity and for the planet. Our purchases come from somewhere. Our purchase will end up somewhere, too. While purchases may be fun for awhile, in the end, the desirable items will find a home in a heap of garbage. Along with billions of other once-desirable items.
My New Year’s resolution was to stop buying stuff I don’t need, “giving up non-essential spending” my dear friend KF calls it. Bad news for stores like Nordstrom, Target and Home Goods. Heaven knows how often and easily I have strolled into those stores and loaded up bags and shopping carts with non-essentials – because they were shiny, because they were stylish, because they were on sale, because they scratched my itch to consume.
Consumerism is an addiction. This works out well for manufacturers, I guess. But what is good after all? What is bad? A thriving economy? Sure, that’s good. But what’s the cost? More greenhouse emissions, more waste, more distraction, more stuff? What’s the real price? Sure, we’re happy now, playing with our trinkets and showing off our great taste. But what about our kids? Our grandkids? Honestly, I’m not sure my great-grandchildren will inherit a clean planet. Because at the rate I’m going, in a 50 years my junked picture frames and discarded tennis balls are going to be piled up so high that they just might block the sun.
So I’m drawing the line. Here and now. Walking my talk. This is not easy. Temptation is everywhere. We are programmed to spend spend spend. Social pressures, sale coupons, technology updates, red carpet fashions – all keep us in buying mode. It’s incredibly difficult to turn off the voices in our heads, the ones encouraging us to stand in line and swipe that card. But it’s possible to turn down the volume, with inspiration, commitment and mindfulness.
Originally, I told myself that I’d cut out the riff-raff purchases completely. No more for me EVER! Then I thought, well, maybe just this year. And then I got realistic. I need to start with changing my lifelong spending habit just this month, taking it one day at a time. After this month, I’ll focus on the next month, and then get through that month one day at a time.
It’s interesting. Going into this resolute commitment to stop spending, I thought it would be sort of easy. I mean, really, I’m not THAT spend-crazy. I thought it’d make me feel good, powerful, wholesome. I thought that I’d walk past that store window on Newbury Street and forget the fabulous Stella McCartney dress on display. I’d get home and feel relief that I survived the day without making a purchase. But that’s not the case. Instead I’ve been coming home and feeling frustrated. I want that dress. I’d love to have that dress. I’m still thinking about that dress. I’d really like to see that dress hanging in my closet. I’d really like to wear that dress out to dinner with my husband.
It sounds so petty, doesn’t it? So spoiled and selfish. So human. But aren’t we all this way? Another person’s struggle may not be consuming – it may be thinking judgmental thoughts or overeating, a technology addiction or being a workaholic. None of these bad habits is contained within us – they reach far and wide. Our issues affect those close to us, then those whom they encounter and those people affect other people. It’s a wave of connection that makes your problem my problem and my problem your problem, even if we’ve never met each other. So it’s important for each of us to get healthy and practice wholesome, mindful behavior, even though the caveman in us tells us otherwise.
Detaching ourselves from our humanness is hard work. That’s why we’re not all monks and priests and mystics. But that common bond of human suffering reminds us that we’re all in this together. And when we see that one person is willing to give up pleasures and temptations in hopes of bettering the planet, we become inspired to do it ourselves. Many thanks to those who planted this seed of mindful consumerism in me.
I have a bookshelf tucked behind my bedroom door. Most nights, I scan the shelf, choose a paperback that speaks to me and climb into bed. I might only get through a couple of chapters before sleep overtakes me or before I need to put the book down and reflect on the writing, but I always read the message I need to hear. Time after time, the words in my hand reflect the thoughts in my head. And while I am no longer surprised by the tiny burst of intuition that leads me to that excerpt, I am always amazed.
Right after I wrote this column, I selected Chogyam Trungpa’s Meditation in Action for my nighttime read. Here’s what he wrote:
So there is this possessiveness, this psychological hunger. And this relates not only to money and wealth but to the deep-seated feeling of wanting to possess, wanting to hold onto things, wanting things definitely to belong to you. For example, supposing you are window shopping. One person might be unhappy all the time, and when he sees things he likes, this always produces a kind of pain in his mind because he is thinking, “If only I had the money, I could buy that!” So all the time as he is walking through the shops this hunger produces great pain. Whereas another person may enjoy merely looking. So this wanting to own, wanting to possess and not being prepared to give out, is not really a weakness for any particular thing. It is more generally wanting to occupy oneself with something, and if you have lost or lose interest in that particular thing, then you always want to substitute something else in its place. It isn’t particularly that you can’t manage without a motor car or central heating or whatever it may be. There is always something behind that, something fundamental, a kind of wanting to possess, wanting to own, which is always changing and developing and substituting one thing for another. So that is the real weakness – though not exactly weakness, but more a kind of habit that one tends to form through a neurotic process of thoughts.
I’ll share a little more from this chapter tomorrow morning because I felt the idea was so deeply profound. I’d include it here but but this post is way too long already. 😉
From mine to yours,