On the seductive illusion of consumerism and happiness

We all know the classic tale of how humanity, with its insatiable greed, destroys Mother Earth. With our lack of foresight and lust for convenience and new gadgets, we have pumped so much carbon into the atmosphere that melting ice sheets could raise sea levels by as much as six feet during this century.

Deforestation, disappearing species and our convoluted food system of factory farming and pesticides are all symptoms of our skewed priorities and profit-driven mindset.

You have heard the story a million times by now and I’ll spare you the spiel, because instead of dwelling on the evils of humanity, I’d rather focus on how our less eco-friendly lifestyles affect our psyches. What has our abandonment of an earth-based lifestyle done to us on an emotional and psychological level? When we left the farms for factories and traded in our plows for office computers, did we gain or lose in the end?

I don’t want to use this column to ignorantly romanticize the authenticity of “living off the land.” I realize there were many troubles associated with that lifestyle, including disease, overwork, pests and famine. In many ways technology has improved our standard of living. However, my intuition keeps telling me the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction toward consumerism, modernization and convenience. The weakening state of our earth proves we’re doing something wrong.

I lodge my major complaint against consumerism – the notion that purchasing manufactured goods makes the world go around. For many years I never quite understood why groups like Adbusters treated advertising and product consumption as evils. Then I gradually realized I had grown up learning a lie: that buying more new clothes – ones I usually didn’t really need – would fill a tiny void in my soul. But as soon as a new shirt filled one pocket-sized void, another one would appear. I would need more music, another poster, a new skirt, a cup of coffee, a burrito. The cycles of consumerism kept me coming back for more because eventually those clothes became “outdated,” and I would need to go shopping again.

Soon, I realized that, although I could throw my money and energy at this endless cycle forever, my purchased happiness only provided me with a fickle, temporary contentment that required constant maintenance. My mind was always snooping around for its next fix. Thus, my happiness largely depended on what I owned or how much fun I could purchase. After I uncovered these flaws in the system, I found a deeper and more consistent happiness in simplicity – contentment with less, not more – in appreciating whatever life threw my way, in each moment.

Last semester I visited the Possibility Alliance, a homesteading educational center in La Plata, and this cemented my views. I always had a sense of completeness when hiking through nature that I could never quite grasp when doing homework on my laptop in the library. The homesteaders at the Possibility Alliance use no electricity or other modern conveniences. They bike wherever they have to go and make everything – down to the beeswax candles they use at night. However, founder Ethan Hughes told me, “We don’t go to restaurants or movies, and we certainly don’t go to Aruba for vacation, but we feel like we live like kings and queens. We have a daughter, and we spend time together doing what we care about, and what else is there? If our goal is happiness, then we’re way happier now.”

This comes from a family that lives on $3,000 every year. When I visited there, I could see why. No white noise muddles the air, only the natural sounds of wind and livestock. The air feels warm and peaceful. It’s difficult to explain, but I have a sense when I’m in this place – or any place in nature – that I don’t want or need anything else.

I feel duped by consumerism. It taught me to depend on coffee instead of self-discipline to get schoolwork done, to watch movies when I hung out with my friends instead of interacting with them, to depend on packaged food instead of making homecooked meals and to believe that nature was a novelty to enjoy in my spare time instead of throughout my day-to-day existence. We’ve lost bodies of knowledge about the earth because hardly anyone lives a sustainable, earth-based lifestyle anymore. Considering how little time we spend within an actual ecosystem, it’s no wonder we don’t think twice about harming them.

In addition, the lifestyles we have replaced this one with are not always psychologically healthy. With depression hitting 9.5 percent of Americans according to the National Institute of Mental Health, is it really working for us? Even now, we all spend our weeks chained to our desks. Then by the time Friday comes we have such a strong need to cut loose and communicate with other people instead of our computer screens that we spend all our money at parties and bars. Don’t get me wrong, I am incredibly grateful for the body of knowledge I have acquired at Truman, because it has truly shaped me as a person. But I do feel like my lifestyle is missing something organic and authentic, which is why I hope to someday live “off the grid,” similar to the people at the Possibility Alliance. In the meantime, I can’t mope around about it. I still have a lot of control over my lifestyle, so I am taking little steps toward simplicity whenever I can. I try not to buy anything I don’t need, and I try buying secondhand if I do. I mend my torn clothes instead of tossing them. I save my food scraps for compost and try to buy food from local sources to break down the concrete wall that separates me from where my food comes from. And most importantly, I try to spend a few minutes outside whenever I can.

To build a better world, the environmental movement should consider advocating the benefits of living simply instead of overloading us with tales of our cruelty and greed. Most of us were raised to live a consumerist lifestyle from birth and are taught to buy things to assuage our desires. We need to see that simple living will make us happier, not just ethical.

I leave you with the words of Ethan Hughes: “In the end, we all want to be happy. That’s the simplest summary of the world. We all play really bad means to get it. We’re still going after it, but we think, ‘Oh if I only had another hundred-thousand in the bank I would be happy. If I could only go to two more dance clubs tonight.’ It’s always something in the future.”

For more on the Possibility Alliance, visit:
“Radical Simplicity”
Testimonial from a former resident
My Index article
Ethan Hughes audio interview
The Superheroes (The Alliances serves as headquarters for a volunteer group of bikeriders who ride around the country to do free service)

Let go of a teardrop…gain the entire ocean

If you want something, let it go. Then, you will uncover what you were looking for in the first place.

Today I used a meditation technique to improve my concentration. My attention span typically lasts only a few- look-a-bird! -moments, and my new short-term goal is to develop focus. Here’s the technique I used: I counted each breath, flowing in and out, for ten breaths. And if any distracting thoughts invaded the arena of my focus, I started over.

This was, of course, notoriously difficult. I started over repeatedly and repeatedly. Sometimes I couldn’t even count to two breaths. With a steely determination, I continued…one (in, out), two (in, out)…and as I tried harder, a voice of authority started overseeing the meditation, “fixing” my improper technique.

You shouldn’t try so hard. You should stay in the present. You should observe yourself more. You’re sliding. You’re sliding…

Eventually, this voice became another distraction, and I re-started my counting sooner each time.

Then, I gave up. My mind isn’t used to focusing for this long, I thought. I need a break. And the moment I stopped trying, I was there. My mind was crystal clear, and I counted my ten breaths with ease. Surprised, I stopped and checked myself, and counted ten more breaths without a glitch.

As soon as I started trying again, the same voices and clutter and limitations emerged. Whenever I honestly gave up, I stayed in the present without a problem.

The object of meditation is to let go of the meditator-the part of you trying to do the meditation right. This effort is the voice of your ego (the part of you that needs, wants, desires, and hurts). But when you clear away this ego-clutter of wanting and striving, you are free. And when you are free, you achieve the fulfillment you sought in the first place. You find happiness and peace, by letting go of the need for happiness and peace.

I believe that when we trust ourselves completely instead of obsessively controlling our actions, we will naturally do right. As I wrote in my last entry, love is our very core once we strip away the rest.

Try it right now, as an experiment. Take a breath, and notice how you’re feeling. Don’t try to achieve anything. Just sit…notice that if you try to achieve anything with this exercise, it won’t work. If you’re just sitting, with no underlying intentions, you will feel peace.

What won’t work is controlling your desires- whether you want comfort, possessions, or validation. Let it be. Don’t tell yourself you’re letting go of your desire to stop craving when REALLY you’re just doing it so you can get rid of the craving, because you want to stop hurting. Letting go must be honest, and if it’s not, desire still controls you. Relax- we’re human. It’s natural. (By writing this, I do not imply that I am at some expert stage of “letting go.” It’s not easy for me at all, but it truly works.)

When you stop fearing the loss of what you want, then nothing can hurt you.

Great meditation instruction website here.

Honest Love: how to put yourself aside

Compassion

Love is not what you feel. Love is who you are when you strip everything away.

Why is love important?

Growing up, I remember reading in my first spiritual text, the Bible: “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them…But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great.”

Since I read this, I have consciously and unconsciously sought to fulfill this universal ideal of unconditional love. I probably always will be. Giving of oneself is psychologically healthy and oddly enough, incredibly joyful. However, selflessness is probably one of the hardest tasks we’ll ever face as humans. After all, we are biologically programmed to look after ourselves first. But the rewards of putting oneself aside are abundant. Don’t believe me? Try a random act of kindness and enjoy the happy buzz afterward.

Your endless needs and desires disappear when faced with pure love, and you enter a state of abundant,  selfless giving. There’s a reason why every major religion commands this practice!

If love were easy…

Practicing love seemed nearly impossible during my first attempts. People were irritating. Selfish. Cocky. If I didn’t like someone, I ignored them or talked down to them. I yelled at my siblings. I wanted the last cookie. Though my conscience was strong and my intentions were pure, I could only rarely bring myself to give when I didn’t feel like it, or to love someone I despised. Afterward, I felt racked with frustration and guilt.

Little did I know that those feelings of frustration and guilt were part of the problem itself. You can’t act compassionately toward others until you show compassion for yourself first. Here’s a quote (that I have shamelessly stolen from someone’s Facebook profile page). “Your task is not to seek love, but to seek out the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” -Rumi

These barriers are our defenses. Every time we act selfishly, we are only trying to protect ourselves.

Hate is a symptom that something is not right within oneself. Thus, I cannot rightfully condemn myself nor anyone else for selfish acts. Hatred must be treated with compassion, not more negativity.

Know thyself.

How, then, do we change direction? Compassionately, from within. I cannot stress the importance of being compassionate and nonjudgmental toward yourself. Watch yourself, observe your actions. When you notice patterns of selfish habits, explore them. Ask yourself, why did I do this? I notice that when I’m pushing someone away, I’m usually afraid of letting them in. Maybe this person’s irritating tendency to be clingy or obnoxious is a trait I suppress within myself. Maybe I’m afraid of letting them in because I don’t want to seem vulnerable and weak. Fear, in some form, is at the root, and learning to let go of that fear will bring you closer to natural kindness. Practicing meditation to help you let go of these fears.

Honestly, you will probably screw up. But wallowing in guilt and anger will only add more negativity to the mix.  Go easy on yourself. You have woven these intricate patterns of fear throughout your entire lifetime. They’re not going to disappear overnight.

Eventually, we will cease to automatically think of ourselves when faced with making a sacrifice. We will accept everyone without hesitation, regardless of the way they treat us. Without expecting anything in return (not to serve our own needs). I believe this signifies the ideal state.

Personal growth toward this goal, then, is not selfish. Ultimately, growth is an act of compassion toward everyone in your life. As Leo Tolstoy said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

Here’s a beautiful blog entry on Love & Liberation I’d highly recommend.