Consumerism: What do you really need?

Rampant consumerism in the US offers India a cautionary reminder to rethink what is really important

Woman shopping clothes

This past month I noticed the cover of O, Oprah Winfrey’s hugely popular magazine. The cover shouted in a font size probably up in the 90s “De-clutter your life”. It occurred to me that this was not the first time I had noticed the magazine extolling the virtues of taking the junk out of your life. In fact, it seems every fourth or fifth magazine I see has some article relating to this relatively new concept in human history.

We are overwhelming ourselves at the moment. We have been convinced for a long time that more is better. And I certainly applaud the effort that is being made to help people get it under control. But the truth is I have yet to see an article that deals with the root cause, which is two-fold.

Stop hoarding!

As long as we keep bringing in and getting more stuff, feeling like our value is in things, the clutter and the feeling of being overwhelmed will never go away.

Consumption has become the American way. It defines us. And, as an American, I see how my country has bullied the world into the same insanity. America needs to change this image for it is in an identity crisis. Not only does our obsession with possession cause us stress and confusion, overwhelm us and take our time, money and energy, it is also the cause of the depletion of our natural resources. It’s all connected.

We are overwhelming ourselves at the moment. We have been convinced for a long time that more is better

A few years ago I helped lead a spiritual tour to India and now a piece of my heart will forever beat there. I experienced both, the profound poverty and newfound affluence, a shocking juxtaposition. I also experienced what I think of as the ‘soul’ of India. It is a kind of humble simplicity, a purity of heart. The ancient wisdom of the Vedas still moves through and affects daily life. Meditating on the shores of the river Ganges at sunrise is a favourite memory of mine that I constantly go back to. Watching the yogis practice in the golden light, listening to the recognisable chanting and the ecstatic shouts from those who joined in, plays over and over again in my mind like a favourite song.

It is my heartfelt prayer that abundance continues to come to India for there is great need there too. However, the insane truth is that we in America need what India has as much as India needs what we have. Maybe we can meet each other in between.

Do you really ‘need’ that?

The root cause of all the clutter is a poverty of the soul. We keep thinking, here in America, that we can buy our happiness. That we can buy our children’s love. That with enough money, and the stuff it buys, we can fix anything. Well, we’ve tried that. We’ve beat that idea all to heck and it hasn’t worked. I believe we are starting to come full circle though. Yoga and meditation is becoming more popular every day. But it can’t happen soon enough. We must slow down and breathe. We must find our essence once again.

While in India, I learned a very painful and profound lesson. I did not consider myself a greedy person. I don’t think many of us do. However, my definition of greedy has changed. I now define greed as what is seen anytime someone has way more than what they actually need, and yet they still use the word ‘need’ regularly when referring to things like clothes, pizza, sunglasses, cars, art, electronics, and so on. This use of the word ‘need’ has no relationship to the actual definition of the word. When I use the word in this way, then I have become greedy in my neediness. I call it ‘needy greedy’!

There is another word I have often misused which is similar to need: starve. When I say ‘I’m starving’ when referring to food, it’s like saying ‘I need’ when referring to a pair of pants when there’s a closet full at home.

The root cause of all the clutter is a poverty of the soul. We keep thinking, here in America, that we can buy our happiness

Moment of truth

While co-facilitating the spiritual pilgrimage to India, it was actually on the way to the river Ganges where my mind was forever altered. There was a thick fog as we wandered through the dirt roads and skinny alleyways in the old city of Varanasi. As the sun pushed through, it appeared that the fog itself was emitting a golden light from within. This light reflected off the old walls and temples that make up much of the cities in India. The only sound was that of our footsteps on dirt as we meandered toward the river.

There were 40 or so of us tourists wearing fanny packs, sneakers and sunblock. I hadn’t had much to eat for several days because, when in India, I discovered, you eat pretty much the same food every day. And I, unfortunately, was no longer feeling very grateful for my meals. I had even skipped breakfast that morning. As we neared the ‘Mother Ganga’, I thought several times to myself, I’m starving! I had said this more than once out loud over the last few days.

Then many yards in front of me, from out of the golden light, a person came into view pushing an old wheelbarrow. The dark shadow, silhouetted by the sunlight behind it, looked like a skeletal hanger whose ragged clothes were draped over it. There was something in the wheelbarrow, but I couldn’t make it out, maybe it was wood for one of the many cremation ceremonies.

Whatever it was, we were headed right for one another. I wanted to change trajectory, but my efforts were thwarted by something bigger than my own will. Just a few feet away from the wheelbarrow now, I strained to see what its contents were. As I glanced downward, it moved. A man, who looked older than life itself, struggled to lift his head and open his eyes. He was starving to death, with less skin and bones than the emaciated person pushing him. As we passed, just inches from each other, our eyes met. I saw pain, pleading and death in his eyes. Suddenly, a pang of hunger entered me that was so powerful it sucked the life force right out of my body. I felt faint and dizzy as my eyes glazed over, accompanied by a humming in my ears. I staggered over and took five steps while my left hand reached for the nearest wall to lean on. “What’s happening to me?” I thought, “God help me.”

And I believe God had done just that, but not in any way I could have known at the time. For a moment, I was starving. This is one of the greatest gifts I have ever received. Then, as soon as it came, it was gone. Simple hunger once again. Since that day I do not say “I’m starving” or “I need”. To say so is untrue. When I feel those words coming, I replace them with the truth: “I’m hungry” or “I would like”. This changes me. Then I take a moment for self-inquiry. I try to understand what my motivation is behind the “wanting”. Half the time, the truth is I don’t really want anything. I say a quick prayer for the millions of those on the planet who are actually in need and truly starving.

The gift I received from the man in the wheelbarrow that day was, maybe, the most precious gift of all—compassion. Through it, we can heal ourselves and that’s the start to healing the world.

Do not purchase or accept anything into your life unless you are sure it supports your “soul”. All the rest must go!

A time for reflection

When we say “I’m starving” or “I need”, we are giving a powerful message to our subconscious mind. The subconscious does not discern between exaggeration and truth. It takes what we think and say at face value and manifests it into our life as it sees it, taking great liberties with interpretation. “Starving” and “need” denote lack. They point to the experience of desperation, emptiness, drama, and loss. One way or another, to the degree that we say and think such things, they will play themselves out in our lives in its many and various disguises.

So, step one: Stop bringing stuff in! Do not purchase or accept anything into your life unless you are sure it supports your “soul”. All the rest must go!

And step two: You are perfect and whole, just as you are. A miracle to behold. There isn’t anything “out there” that is needed to complete you. Don’t fall for that trap as countless millions of us in America have. It truly has led to our suffering.

And so, my friends in the mystical and rapidly-changing land of India, it is my prayer that we examine the directions our lives are taking and meet somewhere in the middle. Namasté.


A version of this article was first published in the July 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
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