"Consumption, Well-Being and Awareness" by Daniel Barbezat
12 April 2010
The Buddha taught the origin and cessation of suffering. It is said that he sat down to meditate and refused to get up until he had found the key to complete freedom. As is well known, this led to the four noble truths and the eight-fold path of his first teaching at Deer Park. In our own lay lives, we go about our days trying to attain goods and services that will reduce our suffering and make us happier; our consumption is also aimed at reducing suffering. However, over and again, it seems that this process does not lead to an end of suffering! Rather, we seem to act against our best interests: we purchase too much food when hungry, we are very susceptible to advertising and packaging, and we buy stuff we end up not really wanting in order to keep up with the Joneses – a goods race, with us running in place, faster and faster, like the Red Queen’s race in Through the Looking-Glass. What should we do? What first steps can we take from the Buddha’s realization?
First, it is not as easy as “consume less,” or “consume more.” No, not at all – anyway, this would be counter to the open invitation that Buddhism offers: “come and see for yourself” (in the Pali language, Ehipassiko). The first step is simply to become reflective and aware of our relationship to the goods we consume: to be aware of the process by which we attain them and reflective about how they sit in the nexus of all the other goods we could be acquiring and actions that we could be taking. Without being aware, how could we possibly realize and enjoy our consumption? Our only access to our well-being is in the present moment; we have no other access. This reorientation to increasing our awareness makes us more effective consumers, for ourselves and others. For example, when hungry, we might learn to take that into account when ordering in a restaurant or grocery shopping. Note, though, that this can be extended to the full spectrum of our consumption and can affect how goods are distributed across the whole planet. The first step in addressing distribution across nations is our own consumption.
Developing and deepening our awareness of what we are doing as we consider our actions, undertake them, and are affected by them is our most powerful tool in developing our skills as effective consumers. With an increased sense of our consumption, we affect not only ourselves but the whole nexus of consumption throughout an increasingly interrelated global economy. This is the first step toward increased economic freedom on our planet.
Increased awareness can be developed in a variety of ways, from formal meditation practice to notes we leave for ourselves that remind us to slow down and put our forks down between bites at a meal. We can use exercises that encourage examination of our possessions and our acquisition of goods.
Try this: write down some things that you currently want (not things like “world peace,” but goods or services that you are currently interested in acquiring). Just write them down, without any heightened sense of purpose other than listing them. When you’ve written a few of them down, ask yourself, “What other stuff do I want right now?” If any more come to mind, write them down; if not, then put down your pen/pencil and note your reactions as you look at the list. Be especially aware of your mental and physical ease or tightness as you read over them. Do any of them elicit especially strong reactions? Sit quietly and note your reactions.
Now, with ease, mentally let go of them and sit quietly for a moment. Become aware of the temperature of the room, the sounds around you, the sensation of sitting in your chair. Simply sit in an open awareness of your body and your surroundings. When thoughts arise, as they undoubtedly will, simply recognize them and let them float on by. With ease, return your attention to your sense of your body and your surroundings.
Now, on a separate list, write down your most precious items – things that you have and that are your most cherished possessions. Just as you did before, note your mental and physical reactions.
Look at the lists of the two types of goods. How would you characterize them? How or from whom are they received? What is their relative usefulness? Their market value? Consider the similarities or differences among them.
This begins an inquiry that can be informative about the goods that we might be interested in buying for ourselves or for others. For example, one of my most cherished objects is a Clementine peel that my daughter carefully removed and then sewed back up to create an absurdist sculpture of a sutured Clementine. I think about her gift to me when I am buying a gift for someone; I realize that it is possible to create something very personal and wonderful rather than necessarily buying some good or gift card. This has allowed me, too, to let some items go (quite difficult for me!) that I do not use anymore. I am aware of clinging to them, rather than their presence being something that I value or cherish.
The possibilities of becoming clearer and more aware of our relationships between our possessions and purchases are virtually endless. I hope this exercise is one that provides some insight and further develops your relationship with your self.
Becoming more aware is not exactly easy. In fact, initially slowing down and paying increased attention can be uncomfortable. The nature of things can be difficult to face. For example, at any moment, you have many, many wants – at least if you are anything like me! Slowing down and realizing this can be a bit overwhelming: I want ease and I want excitement; I want solitude and I want companionship; I want simplicity and I want a new orange cover for my cell phone that just replaced my old phone. The list goes on and on and on. In fact, I often want these opposites at the same time. Right now for example, you are choosing to read this: what else might you like to do? Perhaps you’d like to be lying on a beach, planning to snorkel at the local coral reef? Taking a short nap? Spending more time with your loved ones? A whole myriad of possibilities cascade before us. You know that you cannot do it all. You cannot. Essentially, you will never get what you want. You might achieve some part of what you believe you want, but if you attempt to satisfy your wants, you are destined to fail because of the endless sense of wanting.
Hearing this, you might think, “Gads, that doesn’t sound very good. I would rather not be more aware of what is happening like this guy is saying. Maybe ignorance is actually bliss.” But the question is, when is not being aware of things as they are actually blissful? Imagine a tiger is in the room there with you. Now, you don’t currently know that, but if you just turn around, you will see it there. Certainly, prior to knowing about the dangerous carnivore near you, you might have felt quite fine. However, wouldn’t it have been better to know that a great cat was in the room prior to your entering? You might say, “Well, yes, if I could do something about it – like not enter the room – then it would be better to know; however, if nothing can be done about it, then better to simply be ignorant.”
As powerful a pull as this might be, one of the most radical and important parts of the Buddha’s teaching is that suffering arises directly from not being with the way things are: from ignorance. Think of it: what a great loss to not know that we will one day die. Nothing can be done about this, yet how essential to our character as human being that we are mortal; how precious life is knowing this.
Even though becoming more fully aware of our conditioned reality can be initially unpleasant, it is the gateway to our well-being and ultimately to the freedom that the Buddha offered us.
Daniel P. Barbezat is a Professor of Economics at Amherst College, Amherst, MA and a recipient of a 2008 Contemplative Practice Fellowship.