Consume or Be Consumed?
Attachment to material things has been a problem for me ever since I was a teenager.
When I started work six years ago, I would hoard beautiful things—clothes, make-up, accessories, books, fine dining experiences—whatever made me feel a smidge of instant gratification. Not only did I love buying things, I loved looking at them. I spent the resources of money and time chasing beautiful non-living things.
Looking back, I admit it was all very consuming. I spent my weekends and some holidays involved in shopping. Singapore’s societal habits, infrastructure, media and group norms supported and encouraged this mindless, unexamined habit of mine. It was almost as if everything circled around the desire for more, bigger, better. But I felt empty, of course, because I was attempting to find happiness through gratification of my senses and objects that temporarily fueled a kind of glee. I use the word “glee” because it was a fleeting, almost childish kind of “happy”—very blind and grabby.
Of course I was blind—blind to the fact that clinging to these material objects was like chasing my own tail, never quite being sure if I got what I wanted even after holding my item of desire in my hands. That lingering feeling of dissatisfaction was growing, even as I hoarded more and more.
About a year ago, I started to question why buying things affirmed me so much. On one hand, it fulfilled many functions in living the way I did. Up to a year ago, I went to parties, clubbing, dinners and did more shopping wearing my nice clothes. It gave me a sense of identity, a sense of self.
“Well-heeled with style and taste” was probably my self-labelled phrase. And I enjoyed it. To feel discerning in the way I chose my items almost defined me. I felt I belonged to an “in-group.” I was literally buying into it.
On the other hand, my self-questioning was starting to reveal to me that I was despairing inside, that I was meant for more, that I could spend my money and time in more meaningful ways, or save it. I felt and still feel a little trapped because I am vulnerable to buying even here, in Bali.
I was conflicted in 2012, then slowly stopped going to the meaningless events and expensive dinners. I thought I had transcended the trappings of consumerism! Yay! I am above you, mindless consumers! I thought. But then I started to spend on books and on yoga clothes and accessories. It was creepy because it was clear that there was some kind of shopping ecosystem I was part of, no matter what my hobbies were (yoga, clubbing, etc).
We can’t escape capitalism, obviously, but I just wished I wasn’t so obsessed. Writing this, I realize that I harbor a feeling of subtle superiority in having certain items. Controlling my desire to spend, I’ve noticed I have a nagging feeling of inferiority when I wear plain cotton—“cheap” yoga clothes—to my glamorous yoga studio. I compare my worth with others on what clothes we wear! I am quite ashamed to admit it, but it’s true. My spiritual pursuit is merely a cover for my “spiritual” consumerism.
In A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle says, “the unconscious compulsion to enhance one’s identity through association with an object is built into the very structure of the egoic mind.” The identity of chic “yogi” is enhanced through association with certain brands of clothes, and my ego may have changed the content (objects of desire) within a year, but the structure of the ego’s wanting, longing and attaining remain the same.
In wanting to consume, I am consumed.
A Deeper Driving Emotion
I decided that since I have to self-inquire, I have to face this madness.
I have quit my job because I know my next phase in life is to be a yoga and meditation teacher. So the cash flow is low, yet the desire to hoard remains as intense and consuming as ever! I want to take personal responsibility for my finances and stick to my financial plan, and I believe I can. As Caroline Myss says in reference to the throat chakra, our will needs to be strong, and we have to honor our word to ourselves in order to strengthen our energetic bodies. But first, I have to get to the root of the problem. It is time to face myself in meditation.
Sitting in meditation today, I delved deeper into this attitude. I conjured a picture of a gorgeous Mika top with a strappy back, and the latest Lululemon pants, then with me wearing them. Next, I witnessed my emotional reaction to this mental imagery. The familiar emotion of wanting to own arose (hello, friend!). Physically, I felt it in my sacral chakra, the area where my womb is. Caroline Myss’ voice rings in my head. Clearly, I need to transcend this tribe’s rule, that owning beautiful things are fulfilling to some extent. Well, it is my small little Singaporean tribe’s rule, at least.
Anyway, for this exercise, I took Jack Kornfield’s advice. He did mention, in the The Path of Heart that in Insight Meditation (as taught in the lineage of Ajahn Chah and his other teacher whose name I forgot), that emotions arise and pass, and that everything is impermanent. He teaches us to observe the emotion.
So I stuck with it. I witnessed the emotion of wanting. I tried the strategy of labeling. So there, with a compassionate and non-judgmental attitude, I labeled it gently in my head: “Wanting… Wanting… Wanting…” After some time in meditation, the wanting kind of passed into a less intense version. I went back into annapurna, observation of breath.
Next, Jack Kornfield teaches us to then witness by dropping into the subtle charge behind the emotion. I repeated the above activity in my sitting, and the wanting arose and passed. And what arose next was like an epiphany! Deep inside, fear rose to the surface. I was feeling fearful that the universe is not good enough, that life will not provide.
That was only part of the reason for my wanting. Going even deeper, sitting longer in meditation, I felt my heart ache. My heart chakra knows something. This is the underlying driving force that was creating all that needing and wanting: I felt unworthy and unloved. Now don’t get me wrong. Mentally, I know I am fully worthy and loved, as worthy as every precious being in this world. This was just a feeling that had no business to be there, but unfortunately it was, humming a steady tune of self-rejection and unworthiness behind all that wanting. It was the driving emotion behind the force of wanting.
I have reached myself and brought the dark part of myself into the light of my awareness. Again, the familiar story of not-enough-self-love is the theme. Time and time again, I have seen in the lives of friends and people who open up to me: they don’t love the self deeply enough. I am convinced this causes a host of problems to fill the emptiness, like wanting, restlessness, voracious ambition, depression, anxiety, clinging, or whatever the karma.
The Mastery of Self Through Love
What can I do?
Luckily, I believe there is hope for me and these other souls yet. I take advice from wise esoteric masters like Jack Kornfield and the Dalai Lama. To face my demons is the key. But I need weapons to face them. The weapons of loving-kindness that I have been using in meditation seem like a good tactic. To then nurture myself so that I may grow strong and formidable in the power of self-love, so much so that my tribe’s rules (the negative ones) bounce off my equanimous self. I must trust that life will provide, that the universe is abundant and I am worthy of the blessings that the world offers. In this way, I do not need to keep wanting.
All this, I must practice in 2013, and in doing so, I might even be able to help others in my society face their problems stemming from self-rejection and self-judgment, and change the rules of my tribe.
However, I can and want to still enjoy things, in a non-obsessive way. Eckhart Tolle says, “we cannot really honor things if we use them as a means to self-enhancement, that is to say, if we try to find ourselves through them.”
Thus, my short-term aim is to find myself through self-love, and then slowly shift my focus from wanting to own, to honoring objects. The ultimate aim is to move from identification with objects, to identification with who I truly am inside, my true nature.
Aparigraha is but one area of self-examination that can help me master my reactions to the challenges (illusions) that make me forget true nature. It is not the external that defines me, but the internal. I resolve to always be in touch with the internal, using internal sight, or insight. I believe I can slowly master myself through the discipline of sitting, walking and living with self-love and insight.
This is powerful practice, so now I thank myself and all my teachers for the revelation. I will also send them loving-kindness. It seems that my self-inquiry has found some answers, and now it is time to put it to practice so that I may be a better person—for the world.
Elaine is a Singapore-based yoga teacher and an insight meditation practitioner. She shares with others how to develop a mindful and positive yoga practice. She believes in the importance of a sense of community and playfulness in yoga.
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Ed: Brianna Bemel