Welcome to our second installation of what we are calling Solidarity Thursdays. Each week we will pick a topic and post from our own perspectives on Thursday. Check out the links to Esther Emery and Jaysen Waller’s blogs at the bottom of this post to follow the conversation into other realms. Please feel free to join the conversation yourself by posting a comment or linking to your own blog. Thanks for reading.
“Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?” – Thich Nhat Hanh
We are living in uncertain times. The very fabric of our world is
unraveling transforming around us. We face, as I see it, two major conundrums in these times, and the only thing that can be considered “clear” is the fact that the way we’ve addressed them to date will not be the solution. These conundrums are the global shift in our economies and the threat of global climate change. It is time that we begin to address these issues with regard to their effects globally (with solidarity) rather than from a nationalistic (or self-serving) perspective.
If you listen to or watch the news, or especially pay attention to the cable news programs, you will hear a nearly constant barrage of concern for economic growth and the increase or potential decrease in gross domestic product. It is not unreasonable, from the perspective of the last couple of centuries, to focus on economic growth. It was, throughout that entire period of history, and indeed even before, a measure of civility and progress. Economic growth lifted huge portions of our population out of poverty (though we are still struggling to eradicate it), but the widening gap between our country’s rich and poor is a signal that the paradigm of perpetual growth has reached it’s zenith and is declining in it’s ability to produce meaningful change for the world as a whole. As the global economic power shifts from our unipolar experience of the past century to a multipolar economic map, we are seeing the developing world increasingly concerned with their own economic growth, as they should to a certain extent. Here in the United States we define absolute poverty as a household (of 3) which makes less than $19,090 per year, while in much of the developing world, many households make much less than $1,000 per year. Clearly, raising those levels of income are important to produce a global economy of abundance, but the model that the developing world is emulating strives to bring incomes and consumption levels to par with the West. Bill McKibben argues in his 2007 book Deep Economy that our model of growth in the United States is simply not making us any happier and is indeed leading to the opposite in many cases. In other words “more” is no longer necessarily “better.” Of course, in the developing world, there is still room to grow in order to provide basic necessities like nutritious food, shelter, and access to health and education, but what Mr. McKibben presents to us in this book shows us a way forward that can continue to provide sustenance that keeps us out of poverty and additionally provides us with the happiness and community that we so sorely lack. While it is important to address the very serious threat of poverty as it is seen in much of the world today, shouldn’t we also strive to make those lives actually better – not just stand by as those developing nations and our own poverty stricken citizens strive for a model of personal economic growth that does not, in the end, make anyone happier and indeed contributes greatly to an unbalanced economic reality that widens the gap between rich and poor and commodifies our natural resources without regard for environmental degradation and the further marginalization of poor people that inherently comes with those effects?
One way I believe we can consciously reach for a world of abundance is through practicing mindfulness in our daily lives. I came to the concept of mindfulness several years ago when I was fortunate enough to see the venerable Thich Nhat Hanh speak while he was visiting the Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, CA. He made a side trip to the University of San Diego where I was teaching at the time and led all who were interested in a walking meditation from one end of campus to the other where he was to speak in the University’s Jenny Craig Pavilion. I had read some buddhist thought before, but the simplicity of the concept of mindfulness was new to me, at least in the words in which he described it. I began to see the world around me very differently. I should pause here to say that I am not Buddhist, though I have great reverence for those who practice. I do however, try to incorporate mindfulness in much of what I do since attending that life-changing speech. I was already on a path of greater sustainability at that time. I had become a vegetarian several years before. I was adamant about organic food when I purchased from the grocery store. I had joined the local food co-op. I had dispensed all chemical cleaners and personal hygiene products from my home. I was still, nonetheless, an average American consumer. I still bought more than I needed at prices meant only to produce huge amounts of profit for a small group of multinational corporations. It was only after hearing that speech that I began to slowly apply the concept of mindfulness to my purchasing and to my daily needs.
I am, by no stretch of the mind, achieving complete mindfulness in my life today, and I think it is important to stop here to recognize a key ingredient to the application of mindfulness in your purchasing and daily activities. It’s a process. A long one. And it should be. We learn incrementally what mindfulness is, and in my experience, what it isn’t. For example, as I began to apply this logic to my consumption, I was often deeply frustrated with myself after having made a purchase that I didn’t need to, or after purchasing a product that I later found out was causing more harm than I intended. In some instances I would even throw that product away, which would in turn become a source of personal frustration having wasted something that had already caused harm to me or the world in some way. Each of these experiences for me, as I face new revelations, should be a source of inspiration and opportunity rather than disgrace or self-loathing. Each time I learn something new about how I can affect the world with my purchasing, it is an opportunity to bank that knowledge and apply it the next time I am forced with that decision, therefore expanding my capacity for mindfulness. As Thich Nhat Hanh says in his book The World We Have, “Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?”
So How does one apply mindfulness to their consumption? We are doing it more and more as a society, and there are a number of stores that have capitalized on this trend. The most notable being Whole Foods, which we are all aware of, but we should be cautious and truly mindful as we employ any filter to our purchasing. It is easy to stop short of true mindfulness in these endeavors. Companies like Whole Foods have made this easier still. Yes, you can find some wonderful products that are indeed conscious of many of the world’s problems in a store of this sort. These stores came about as vehicles for delivering alternative products. Many of the products you will find in a store like this carry labels that promise that they are organic and fair trade. Those labels are important, but often they don’t tell the whole story. Additionally, it is easy to make the gigantic leap while in a store of this kind and assume that everything they offer follows a similar set of principles. It is important that we take mindfulness in our purchasing personally and shield ourselves from the co-opting of those ideals by marketing and false promises. We must continually educate ourselves and apply that new knowledge each time we find it necessary to make a purchase. I have certainly come a long way from my first mindful purchase. The first purchases I made like this, though it was well before the speech by Thich Nhat Hanh, and well before I called it mindfulness, was a natural cleaning product to spray my kitchen floors and counters with. I didn’t make the purchase for my own safety, I made it for my cat. It became clear to me that since my cat ate on the floor in the kitchen, and liked to hang out in the kitchen window to watch the beach traffic go by, that I was imposing poisonous chemicals on him every day. I knew I had sprayed the floors and the counters with bleach. I could choose to avoid being in the kitchen after having done so, but my cat didn’t know there was poison on the counter and floor. He was dependent on me and I couldn’t bare the thought of slowly poisoning him over the course of his life. Having made that decision prompted me to go a step further and change the quality of the food I gave him, which prompted me to feed myself better, because if I’m gonna feed the cat well, I should probably care for myself in the same way right? This was my strange experience, but it started a process that has been continuous since that day. 13 years later, I call it mindfulness and my bank of knowledge is much bigger, but it does not stop.
My personal process of mindful consumption now goes much further than the label I read. I now think beyond the information that is available as I stand in an aisle ready to make a purchase. My process begins much earlier now. It begins at home. We have been employing some practices that I didn’t have a name for until my partner Amy and I were discussing this post last night. She pointed me toward a phrase she read in Lorilee Cracker’s book Money Secrets of the Amish: Finding True Abundance in Simplicity, Sharing, and Saving. She uses an acronym to describe her use of goods and decision to buy more. UWMW or Use It Up, Wear It Out, Make Do, Or Do Without. We have been slowly moving toward this ideal and I think it’s a great place to start. Think first… This thing I think I need… Do I need it? Do I have something that does that already? Can I repair what I have? Can I make something out of materials I have on hand that will serve the purpose? This is the first step in mindful consumption. Discerning the real need.
I recognize that this does not fulfill the desire to purchase something new. We live in a culture that tempts us with consumerism all the time. We don’t even have a TV in our house to be exposed to the continuous onslaught of commercials, but we are nonetheless tempted by radio, internet, magazines or simply walking down the street and seeing what our neighbors have the we don’t. There are several times in my life I can point to where I had the feeling that I just wanted to go get something new. I couldn’t explain it really, but I just wanted to go buy something. I came across an article this morning that helped put some of that into perspective. Rick Heller, a journalist and author, wrote, in a November 2011 article at steadystate.org called A Mindful Path to a Steady State Economy that, “Our appetites go through a cycle of wanting and liking — which reinforces further wanting. When we desire something, the brain transmits a chemical called dopamine. When we get what we want and like it, the brain releases internal opioids. The latter are chemically similar to morphine and heroin, which helps explain how desires can become addictive.” If you see this through the Buddhist lens of mindfulness, you can see that you are inviting joys that are ultimately not helpful. To again quote Thich Nhat Hanh, “There are types of joy that can be nourishing and healing, bringing us calm, comfort, making us peaceful and fresh, and helping us to remain clear and lucid. That is the kind of joy that we need. There are other kinds of joy that may bring us a lot of suffering later on… We have to distinguish between the two kinds of joy. One is healing and nourishing and the other is destructive.” As Rick Heller continues in his article, “Mindfulness addresses this challenge by showing how to find novelty in the smallest details of daily life… Mindfulness generates novelty and excites the dopamine neurons not by covering a lot of ground fast, but by delving deeper into familiar turf.” When we mindfully consume and ask the increasingly deep questions as we are aware of them, we begin to reap the benefits of this sustained joy, as well as leaving more for others in the developing world and thus inviting increased abundance for all.
There are a number of other issues to be considered beyond that first question of whether or not we need anything at all. Once we have decided that it is indeed time to make a purchase, what should we be considering beyond what we can read on the label while standing in the aisle? I like to look at it through several different lenses at that point. I consider the environment, workers rights, safety & health, and personal well-being. To address several of these, we must look intently at the supply chain. We live in a world that gathers and assembles goods from a variety of sources. To consider your shoes, you must take in to account that the rubber may have come from South America, the leather from Europe, the fibers and metal eyelets from Asia. These pieces may be assembled in Europe or Asia and then shipped to the United States to distribution warehouses, then to the store. What about the packaging? What about how you get to the store to purchase the shoes? All of this uses energy in the form of oil. All of this affects workers rights at some point in the chain. All of this concerns my safety and health, if not immediately (though it could be if you consider any off-gassing from components in those shoes), certainly globally with regards to the stability of international relations. When looking at all of the different ways the shoes I purchase may affect the world as a whole and my place and peace in it, I may be tempted to simply go barefoot, or as I often choose, to purchase my shoes at a thrift store. In fact, this is my favorite solution if I can find a pair that fits and the soles are still in decent shape. All of the destruction that these shoes have created in the world has already taken place. I am not, if I purchase shoes here, contributing to any increased demand, and am additionally extending the life of those resources already used.
Another way I personally choose to address mindfulness in my consumption is by adopting a vegan lifestyle. It should be noted that I do not consider myself a militant vegan and do not expect the world to become vegan in order to save itself or any other such rhetoric, but I do think that if the world looked seriously at the amount of meat and animal products that they consume, we could certainly make a dent in the cost of our consumption. Raising meat is incredibly energy and resource dependent, and if everyone removed meat from their diet for just 5 or 10 days out of each month it would do much to reduce the threats we face from global climate change and world hunger. In a study dating back to 2000, the Environmental Protection Agency noted that according to the National Corn Growers Association, 80 percent of corn grown in the United States is consumed by foreign and domestic livestock, poultry, and farmed fish. Additionally, the transport of the grain, transport of livestock to commercial feed lots, energy used to process, store and ship the meat produced and the increased methane from those concentrated feed lots contributes greatly to concerns about the environment.
I also mentioned personal well-being as a consideration when employing mindfulness in consumption and by that I mean well-being in the home. How does what we purchase affect our daily routines in the home. This is an element of mindfulness that I need a lot of help with. It does not come naturally to me, nor does it come naturally I think to many people these days. What I’m getting at here is consideration for how what we consume and purchase affects how we interact with our families. I said earlier that we don’t have a TV in our house. This, I think, was a step in the right direction for me when I made the decision to get rid of my TV about 5 years ago. But I’m not even close to honoring the time I have with my family at the level I think would truly transform us into a house of real abundance. We still have a computer that is, more often than not, open and dialed in to some sort of media outlet, be it a social networking site, streaming videos and news, the radio, or just a simple web-search. We still get DVDs at the library and my son watches more Reading Rainbow, Sesame Street, and Nemo than I would care to admit. We don’t spend as much time playing games or simply sitting and talking as I would like, and a lot of it is due to poorly-formed habits that date back decades for me personally. This is a new horizon for me that I am continuously feeding the knowledge bank with in order to inform my choices going forward, and the impetus came from having a child and wanting the best for him and his development. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m not perfect here, but there is something to strive for, and most certainly, my purchasing will affect it, thus, I add it to my bag of tricks.
So what can mindfulness bring us with regards to our consumption? Personally, I believe, we can bring more of the nourishing joy that we need in our lives. I think if we have more of this joy, we will greatly affect the lives of those whom we come in contact with. That’s what we can do for ourselves. That’s the self-serving effect. Much further beyond that, though, is the good we can do for the world. By employing mindfulness in this way, we see ourselves as part of a larger community. We take what we need and leave more for others. We concentrate our purchasing power on manifesting positive change in the world, and we help create a shining example of abundance for the world. There is enough, if we simply choose that it be so.
For more thoughts and viewpoints, please continue reading with Esther Emery at Church in The Canyon Blog and Jaysen Waller at The Metta Garden Blog. Both have coordinated posts with me today on the topic of “Mindful Living” as a part of our Solidarity Thursdays. If you like what you see there or here, please consider following their posts and mine to see where this whole thing goes. It’s very exciting to be writing with others and exploring all these topics have to offer through a variety of lenses. Thanks so much for reading.