What’s Enough? Mindful Consumption in Abundant Times

In yoga class this week I discussed the concept of “nonexcess,” the yogic philosophy called Brachmacharya. Certainly, it is not difficult to see how much our modern lives are consumed with the opposite—excess! We live in a “more is better,” “all-you-can-eat,” “get more for your money,” “buy the new shiny thing” world.

When times were simpler the idea of having excess was not even a consideration. But now, even when we are struggling to get by, the push to consume is so strong that people often find themselves in debt and over their heads in credit card bills. Or, even if you have the money to spend, you fill your closets, bookshelves, drawers, garages and basements with more stuff that frankly you don’t often need.  All you have to do is look at the trash at the curb once a week to see that we are a throw-away society. We don’t fix things, we throw them away, partially because goods are not made to last anymore and partially because we don’t carefully think through the consumer decisions that we make.

What is all of this consuming about? According to Buddhism (and modern psychology), we seek pleasure to feel good and to avoid pain.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting to feel good, but the method for seeking pleasure through the consumption of goods, food, and other excitements usually has limited, transitory value. Once you buy something you like it for a little while and then you’re on to something else. Eating food for pleasure, when you eat too much, ends up quickly feeling unpleasant.

It might be easy to see how our seeking for pleasure can lead to excess which in turn creates our suffering, but let me describe it in a little more detail. When I have a pleasant experience (e.g. seeing my flowers bloom in my garden), my brain registers this as a memory of something good and that I should repeat it for more pleasure. This process explains my many trips to the nursery and my need to make more of my yard into a flower bed. Alternatively, when I have an unpleasant experience (e.g. the deer eat off my flower blooms) and I do something to feel better (e.g. eat a few pieces of chocolate), I have registered in my brain that chocolate is good because it soothes my emotions. These patterns get set down very quickly in the brain and we are off and running–consuming to experience pleasure or to avoid the unpleasant.

To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with seeking pleasure and avoiding pain if we can see clearly how much is “enough” and mindfully consume with comprehension of the potential downfall of heading into “too much.” Life is full of pleasures and I hope you enjoy many every day. Life is also full of unpleasant moments and I wish for you that they are few. But, as they say in Buddhism, life is full of 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows. And, the practice is to meet them all with kindness and curiosity instead of consumption.

Here are three things you can do to get your excess under control and one suggestion for when you consume.

            1. Meditate. When we meditate, we are asked to sit in silence in order to see how desire plays out in subtle and not so subtle ways from moment to moment. When you sit, you will feel the desire to move, to get up, to go solve a problem, to make out your to-do list, do scratch an itch, to go to sleep, to go run, and so on. Moment by moment you will come face to face with your desires and you just watch them come and go. You want to get up, but you don’t. You want to scratch the itch, but you don’t. You want to write down that fabulous idea you just had, but you don’t. It’s not necessarily easy, but you just sit and watch as these desires rise and fall. And, in that process you learn that you don’t have to act on every urge that arises. Off the meditation cushion, you will be much more likely to forego the urges will feel all day long. For instance, this comes in quite handy when I drive past my favorite shoe store.

            2.  Pay Attention With Awe and Wonder. A practice to combat over consuming that I find quite lovely is to pay attention with awe and wonder at life and everything that you have right now.  When we are keenly aware of the grandeur of the simple life in front of us we will feel full—full of gratitude, joy, delight, and interest. Every morning we can wake up with the expression of “Wow.” I have another day to live. Each moment can be an expression of “Thank You.” Remembering to say “thank you” for all of the things that are blessing you in your life on a daily basis can keep you feeling full without spending a dollar. Feel rich from the pleasant experience of your morning coffee, the cat’s purr, the new blossom, the birds’ melodies, the kiss or hug from a loved one, or a call from a friend.

            3. Be Generous. This practice was the first practice that the Buddha taught to his followers. He must have known that this practice alone could heal our souls. There are so many ways that we can give to others. We can give our time, love, interest, belongings, money, smiles, good wishes, service, support, etc. There is no end to the list of things that we can give to others and feel better because of it. Instead of looking around to see where you are lacking, see where you can give.

            4. Shop Local and Fair Trade. These two practices help your community and help the community of people who really need the most help around the world. When you shop local you help your local economy, help the environment, and create local jobs. Fair trade shopping helps people make a fair wage for their goods and products as well as creates a diverse market.  

I just started reading this year’s One Read from the Daniel Boone Regional Library in Columbia, MO, which is Nomad Land: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder. It certainly puts into perspective what you need to live.  It also demonstrates the lengths to which some corporations will go so that they thrive to excess while others suffer.

Live in the beauty of simplicity and feel your heart grow!