Last September, when my girls went back to school, I made a quiet promise to myself: I would buy no new clothes for myself until Christmas.
“New-to-me” clothes from thrift shops or yard sales—fine. Just nothing new from any retail markets. This was a way overdue attempt to find a path between the rock of over-consumption and the hard place of my love of new things.
Four months, of course, is not all that long, but this pledge was a toe in the water. An initial foray to bring calm to an existence which, due to our hectic family life, was too often ruled by an unexamined sense of emptiness and narrow-minded entitlement.
The result was just not a healthier bank account and a less crowded closet, but I also discovered (or rediscovered) some valuable life lessons.
The practice, for that is what it became, was a practical, joyful way to create more mindfulness. Gleefully, I realized my relationship with clothes was an excellent place to widen my spiritual practice.
It also turned out to be more fun and much less deprivation that I expected.
Here’s what I learned:
1. Always start with where I am.
I needed to acknowledge my limits. Like any diet, dramatic withholding would simply lead to some type of binge later on. The result would be no shift in consciousness, just heavy mental drama—Puritan vs. Party Girl!—every time I entered a store. As a mother and the main family consumer before the holidays, complete denial wasn’t realistic.
2. The middle path works best even with clothes.
If the idea was to reduce over-consumption, I needed to avoid deprivation on the one hand, and ineffectual vagueness on the other. I went right down the middle—embodying a real change with real limits while allowing for flexibility.
3. No effective change comes without self-acceptance.
The positive side of new clothing, for me, is not necessarily about fashion. There is an element of innocent pleasure that is separate from the compulsion to buy. I simply love walking into a place set up for my pleasure (as most shops are) and looking at colors, shapes and textures.
And sometimes—more often than I was happy with—that satisfaction was completed by bringing some of those colors, shapes and textures home.
So I accepted that it’s okay for me to like new things and shifted my focus.
I’ve always found excellent bargains at thrift stores, yard sales and consignment shops. The difference here was that my decades-old “good idea to be followed” became a rule. I could have new stuff—just not brand new stuff.
4. Doing is often more effective than debating.
I didn’t really need to dissect my habits to change them. By starting with action, rather than attempting again to analyze the situation, I dealt more efficiently with my habits.
Make no mistake, I bring plenty of consumption issues to the table—my fluctuating weight, my feelings that I was not given enough as a child, a “I didn’t get x so I deserve a new sweater” sense of entitlement, regular comparison of myself against others; it’s all there.
But regular examination of all this hasn’t particularly soothed or reduced my impulses. Neither did condemning myself for being “bad,” or “over-entitled”, or any number of chastisements. My closet was still full and so were my children’s.
So I dived in.
5. Mindful consumption provides me with a more nourishing mental focus.
When I actually started walking away from tempting items on store shelves, surrender and acceptance were front and center. I just had to observe and live through the discomfort. And once the discomfort had passed, I was proud of myself for listening to my deeper values.
6. Mindful consumption creates a sense of adventure—it’s me and the universe, baby!
Soon enough, I noticed that just by delaying my gratification, other things appeared, as simple and beautiful as a bunch of ripe grapes hanging in my path. Interesting items that fed that giddy pleasure of discovery. I entered a joyful partnership with the universe in a new area of life.
Some of the goodies? An orange linen jacket with a teal silk lining, a white corduroy Ralph Lauren jacket, a vintage yellow blouse covered with a 60’s-type pattern. None of which were over $30.
At one yard sale, a sweet woman was selling piles of beautiful, hardly worn linens and knits for $5 to $10 in the front yard of her modest home. “I buy so much, I forget what I have,” she admitted. I gained from her struggle, but she was a sobering lesson for me during those months.
7. It’s an inside job—I don’t need a team to succeed.
When I excitedly mentioned my project to a friend or two, I was reminded how loaded this topic is. The looks of guilt and irritation I received, the nervous explanations, the twitchy justifications, were so intense, I decided to keep quiet.
After all, my intention was (and is) to change myself. And the pleasure of focusing my attention and energy on beautiful things that are not part of the impulse-driven, frantic consumption economy was a deep and nourishing personal delight.
8. Mindful consumption creates trust that my needs will be met.
At the start, I admit I found my car turning into my favorite thrift stores much more often than before. But when it became clear that this practice was leading me to a new way of having fun, the emptiness, the cravings, the yelling voices of “I never got…” and “I deserve…” suddenly calmed down.
I was still getting things. I was being filled. Perhaps I could trust that. Perhaps the world has no interest in depriving me—it is simply asking me to look at things differently.
9. Mindful consumption creates moderation.
You might expect that when the four months ended, I made up for lost time and hit the stores like a hungry bear coming out of hibernation. But instead, I was calm and trusting.
My holiday shopping was much more moderate for my whole family, much more focused on creating experience, rather than just providing a big pile under the tree. My holiday “binge” was a used black leather jacket, that new, would have been way out of my price range.
After Christmas, I did go back to buying new, but in a moderate way. I stocked up on staples that I am unlikely or unwilling to buy used, items like leggings, bathing suits, and underwear.
10. Short-term experiments can lead to lasting change.
The winter and spring were lost to a variety of life changes. Now that we are settling into summer, I am considering how to proceed with my consumption habits. I see that it will not work to make grand proclamations about never buying anything new again.
Neither will forcing my preteen children to follow me, (although I have taught them to always check a consignment or thrift store first).
Yet even without the structure of my plan, I simply consume less. I walk into my closet and feel full. I am more discerning in what I like and have increased getting rid of clothes that I know I don’t really need or want.
After the busyness of summer and travel, I plan to start again with my practice for the fall. For now, making this change for a significant portion of each year might be the balanced approach I am looking for.
I am in a partnership with the world, which offers me many delights. As long as I remember that, I can calm down and know that un-marketed, unadvertised gifts are quietly waiting.
Right now, I have enough. That’s all I need to know.
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Apprentice Editor: Jess Sheppard / Editor: Renée Picard
Photos: Courtesy of author