May 21, 2011

Spring Cleaning My Soul: Raga and the Naked Truth of Conspicuous Consumption. ~ Marthe Weyandt

Imagine, for a brief moment, that you must give away all of your worldly possessions, except for one hundred items. What would you keep? What would you give away? And what sorts of emotions would arise during the de-cluttering?

Photo: Karl Sinfield

Relief? Fear? Clinging? Anxiety? Loss of identity?

Enter the 100 Things Challenge. This voluntary grassroots movement, popularized online, encourages participants to embrace greater clarity, organization, personal and financial freedom by streamlining their lifestyles. Stuff, after all, takes a lot of energy to acquire, house and maintain.

My motivation for exploring the 100 Things Challenge is this: I will be moving soon and my place is busting at the seams. My stuff is holding me back from relocating, growing and perhaps exploring opportunities more appropriate for me.

Photo: Paul Walker

What kinds of cultural renegades would do this? Is parting with our prized stuff even fathomable, considering most Americans—even those with the tiniest of apartments— are overwrought with thousands, tens of thousands or maybe hundreds of thousands of things? Maybe one is relocating to an ashram in Nepal? Trekking across Africa with just a rucksack and a smile? Signing a lease for a miniscule New York City apartment sketchy enough to make Hannibal Lechter look over his shoulder before trekking out to Brooklyn for that late night loft party?

‘Downsizing,’ as it turns out, isn’t just something done by corporate CEOs in corner offices, smoking Cuban cigars, sipping brandy and wiping out jobs with a callous stroke of the pen, a hollow cackle and a terrified assistant to do the dirty work. In the current economy, lots of Average Joes are looking to trim a little here and cut a little there: college students, young couples, the single and ready to mingle, retirees.

Mainstream American media and culture encourage us to consume trash TV, food, drink, houses, cars, clothing, money and sex appeal at an alarming rate, a palliative for what ails us.

American society has a peculiar approach to ‘bad’ feelings: sadness, fear and grief, among others. Just like the children’s story where the emperor parades through town with no clothes, we are simply encouraged to ignore these all-too-human feelings, to suppress them as if they do not exist.

If ignorance is bliss, it seems like we should be pretty damn happy already.

Photo: Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig

But somehow we’re not.

And we’re missing the potential for growth that such embracing feelings can provide.

When validation is obtained from external sources, we take refuge in narcissism as opposed to rugged individualism and self-inquiry. As a society, it seems we have lost the capacity to self-soothe. We’re awash in the stuff, stuff, stuff to prove it. And not just physical stuff, but mental stuff like anxiety and control and the necessity to achieve and achieve and achieve ad nauseum.

At first I am incredulous as I survey the apartment. Surely, all of this stuff can’t be mine. Maybe it belongs to some apartment elves. Or maybe it belongs to the Robin Hood of burglars—that rare sort who breaks in and deposits all sorts of random crap before beating feet.

In a yogic sense, raga is an attachment to material goods, relationships or experiences.

I accumulate because it feels safe to do so.

I believe I can control situations through my possessions. Buy the perfect dress, have the perfect date. Serve the perfect dinner party, score some awesome new friends. Pack just the right stuff (preparing for all contingencies) and have a great vacation. In safety, I think I feel freedom. In reality, accumulation actually takes away my freedom by constraining me, weighing me down, robbing me of the chance to explore the unknown mysteries of life, the synchronicities that keep me moving along the strange and crazy road we all share. I sometimes find it difficult to release that which does not serve me, whether material goods, personal commitments or relationships.

Photo: Lululemon Athletica

There are similar analogies to be found in the yoga world.

It would be heartening to believe the yoga world to be a respite from the world, but it has also been co-opted by the doctrine of conspicuous consumption…the dark side of raga. Instead of a mat, a warm body, a sense of adventure, wonder and dedication, we are led to believe we need the perfect Lululemon outfit, the perfect ‘OM’ pendant, designer mats, designer aromatherapy sprays—and the list goes on and on—to be a yogi or yogini.

I have seen fellow students almost knocked over by the after-class rush to the merchandise table at several local yoga classes.

“I think, therefore I am,” becomes translated into, “My butt looks hot in these pants, therefore I am spiritual.”

Yoga doesn’t give two shits about acceptance or validation from the outside, though. Your body will move according to its own law, regardless of whether it is clad in the latest Lululemon or a two-dollar Hanes t-shirt.

But, back to my apartment and the melee inside. If the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, where do I—a mere mortal—start? And when does raga rear its ugly head?

Photo: Waldo Jaquith

1.) Half-eaten wontons from dinner at the Chinese restaurant two weeks ago? No! They will form a delectable stir-fry tomorrow, combined with vegetables, chopped garlic and soy sauce in order to make this a blissful reality. Surely they wouldn’t make me sick. (Maybe I could even throw in a carton of half-eaten rice from the back of the fridge?)
2.) Those jeans with big holes in the knees and ‘Nirvana’ scrawled over the pant legs in deep, angular lettering? Never! I wore them when I was sixteen, after all! They have sentimental value! Maybe a future daughter will someday wish to grace her body with this valuable piece of Americana. True, they would jump out from the insanely packed drawer, like one of those fake spring snakes in a box, but them’s the breaks.
3.) Those old textbooks from college? Hell no. They remind me of a time when all was bright and new, filled with possibility. Truth be told, I haven’t looked at them in at least 10 years. But I like to keep them around, kind of like a toxic relationship. They were very expensive to buy, even at the sketchy bookstore where the proprietor with the glass eye extracts them from under the counter and I pass the money. “Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies,” he said. I slide the books into my backpack and ran.

True, after ten years, the textbooks are as obsolete as Donald Trump’s haircut. If I sold them now I wouldn’t manage enough money for a bag of organic kale.

Photo: Richard Masoner

Also, the textbooks are heavy. Sometimes my bookshelf actually fell over. These days, I could find most of the things in them on the Internet, but still. Besides, I refuse to heed the words of a friend’s brutally honest philosophy professor when questioned by eager students about future employment in the field. “Probably zilch. But you’ll be a hell of a lot of fun at cocktail parties,” he laughs. Then he sort of slumps over.

4.) The list goes on and on. Those tulip and hyacinth bulbs from the Easter flowers? A grocery bag of socks sans mates? The old laptop computers riddled with viruses? A large green felt hat from St. Patrick’s Day? Some day, I tell myself, this will come in handy. A set of fake vampire teeth? Throw it in the junk drawer! Maybe I could someday outwit an intruder. A large plastic turkey? The possibilities are truly endless.

I think I accumulate when I feel as if I lack abundance in my own life.

I feel as if I must go it alone, refrain from asking for help. Sometimes I feel a sort of guilt about having the sorts of things we do have in the West, having the sorts of choices we do have. I think about the time I spent in Africa as an English teacher and I truly lived on 100 things or less. I could sell these jeans and be able to educate three students for a year.

The 100 Things Challenge forces one to look I began to ask the critical questions: What is really necessary to live a fulfilling life? A productive life? Does what is necessary change as one gets get older? Or, is ‘making it’ something more spiritual or metaphysical, found outside the time-honored roads of money, prestige, power, beauty and the accumulation of stuff, stuff, stuff?

Photo: Tobias Vemmenby

I am ready for a change. I open the fridge and extract the won-tons. I take a deep breath. I get rid of them. I place the jeans books in a box intended for the thrift store. I take another deep breath. I give the flower bulbs to a friend, the green felt hat to a neighbor. There is a lot of deep breathing going on here. With a deep smile I tuck the fake vampire teeth back into the drawer. Perhaps, someday—no, today!—they will be a valuable ally in the fight against raga and its illusory nature.

Ninety-nine to go.


Marthe Weyandt is a Pittsburgh-based yoga instructor and freelance writer. She enjoys traveling and spending time in the great outdoors. She is currently learning to play guitar, albeit badly and at frequencies only dogs can hear. She believes in the power of the word, creatively and lovingly rendered, to create positive change in the world. She has a Bachelor’s in English and Religion from Dickinson College and a Master’s in International Affairs from Columbia University. She spent two years as an English instructor with the United States Peace Corps in Madagascar. Check out some of her other work at shazaamazoid.blogspot.com.

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