In each and every moment, love is available to us in such quantities that, even if spread across the span of a natural human life, we could not fully enjoy or appreciate it. Every moment is bursting with life – life abundant, the kind of life that both awakens and nearly (but not quite) satisfies our deep longing for love and joy and peace.
A Sickness, a Religion
Most of us, most days, most moments, completely miss this. Our minds and our bodies are infected with a disease that prevents us from seeing or even imagining that this is possible. I am going to call this disease consumerism – ferociously contagious, debilitating to the human soul, and yet nearly invisible in our culture. We can’t see what is everywhere. We can’t see what is hiding behind our eyes. Consumerism is a restlessness, the twitching of your foot while waiting for a friend to show up for coffee, the compulsive scroll-tap-scroll-tap on your phone. Consumerism says, “I am not happy where I am. Maybe I will be happy in a different place, or a different time. Maybe I will be happy when I have a different job, or when I know more things, or when I meet someone special, or when I free myself from a tiresome relationship, or when I get a new car (house, pair of shoes, dog, phone). Maybe that will be enough.”
The symptoms of this ubiquitous disease are not hard to see in our society. I am talking about things like anxiety, depression, busyness, loneliness, boredom, irritability. If we don’t see these as symptoms of a larger problem, it’s only because they have become so commonplace that they no longer stand out. Who do you know who isn’t busy? How often, in a world of nearly infinite entertainment options, do we complain of being bored? What’s the longest stretch of time (in days, or hours, or perhaps minutes) that you can go without worrying about something? How many people do you know who struggle with depression? How many of us are with people all the time, and yet feel disconnected and emotionally isolated? If you fit any of these descriptions, you are not the exception, you are the norm.
I have called consumerism a disease, but it is also a religion, because it is fueled by a strong underlying belief. Here’s how I would articulate this belief: Contentment is not possible in the present moment. Satisfaction exists in some future moment, perhaps, but not in this one. Never in this one.
Consumerism is fueled by the belief that contentment is not possible in the present moment.
There are two primary manifestations of this belief, both of which can occur simultaneously. The first manifestation is our attempt to change our reality. If my present circumstances cannot bring me contentment, then perhaps I need new circumstances. Let me change my job, or my spouse, or my wardrobe. Let me remodel my kitchen, or buy a new car, or upgrade my phone. Maybe then I’ll be happy. This is the more stereotypical manifestation of consumerism, in which consumption consists of buying new things.
The second way this belief shows up is when we attempt to avoid our reality. If the present moment can only bring discontentment, and I can’t escape it by changing my reality, the next best thing is to be as absent as possible. There are several options available when it comes to avoiding our reality: addiction to substances, addiction to activity/achievement, and addiction to media consumption. All three strategies are characterized by compulsive behavior, some kind of “buzz” or “high,” and withdrawal symptoms when we are cut off from our “drug” of choice.
- Addiction to substances: This is not limited to drugs and alcohol, but includes the compulsive consumption of things like caffeine, sugar, and foods that harm our bodies (or in quantities that harm our bodies). In each case, we are physically consuming something that we hope will make us feel better, or at least numb the pain. There are many causes of addiction, so I’m not going to make the blanket statement that they are all the result of adhering to the religion of consumerism. But if this is a struggle for you, it’s worth considering if the belief that contentment isn’t possible in the present moment is part of the problem.
- Addiction to activity/achievement: This could look like being a workaholic, being obsessed with physical fitness, or keeping your schedule impossibly busy, among other things. This is a tricky one to identify, because it’s accepted and even praised in our culture. We view drug addicts with a suspicious eye; we celebrate successful athletes and business(wo)men. It’s a conversational badge of honor to complain about how busy we are; it’s kind of awkward to say that you have plenty of free time to rest and pursue creative projects. What’s wrong with you? Why aren’t you trying to make more money? Why aren’t you trying to prove your worth? But this addiction doesn’t merely secure our status in society, it also provides a very convenient escape from our inner life. If we don’t have time to process our feelings and we’re too exhausted to wrestle with difficult questions, then we’re off the hook, right?
- Addiction to media consumption: I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but since we as a society continue to feast at the carcass of the dead horse, it seems that more could be said. Looking at our phones has become like breathing in our culture. We do it automatically, compulsively, and often without realizing it. Our phones feel like a vital organ, one that we simply cannot live without. Not sure if this is true? Imagine that later today, you drop your phone on the concrete and then it gets run over by a car. How long could you go before getting a new one? Really challenge yourself on this one – what’s the longest amount of time you can conceive of going without a phone? An hour? A day? A week? How is it that we need, on a visceral level, something that did not exist fifty years ago? However did our ancestors survive? What has changed in our brain chemistry? Since I am planning to write an entire post on phone addiction, I don’t want to belabor it here. Especially since there are many other avenues for media consumption. The point is that our compulsion to fill every waking hour with content from the external world is a very effective way to avoid, and ultimately kill, our internal life. How could we possibly have time to engage our thoughts, fears, and dreams when we are constantly bombarded with external stimuli that beg to be processed? The answer is that we can’t. And the impact? Our creativity withers on the vine, our dreams are forgotten, and our fears have no choice but to manifest as physical symptoms in our bodies (e.g. panic attacks, insomnia, ulcers, weakened immune system, back and neck pain, headaches, high blood pressure, etc.) since we give them no recourse in our conscious minds.
These are the paths consumerism offers us out of our reality and, like many religions, we are intended to be motivated by fear. If I slow my pace of consumption and achievement, what will I be worth? If I don’t fill every moment with activity and noise, what dark chasms might open up beneath me? I may not be happy in this moment, but at least my life isn’t falling apart. If I slow down, who knows what chaos might ensue? Without constant media input and mental exhaustion, how will I protect myself against the memories and fears that threaten to haunt me? I feel their breath at the back of my neck, and so I run faster.
As I’ve said, this religion is held in place by fear of the present moment. If I believe that, in my current state, I am deficient, and that my current reality is unbearable, then of course I will do everything in my power to escape it. But do you see the larger implication of this? It means that I am directing all my life’s energy – energy that was intended to bloom into creative expression, and beauty, and justice, and joy – I am expending all of that energy on anti-existence. I am using my influence to negate the gift of this present moment, which is my life.
A Different Way
But what if these fears are based on lies? What if you – your essence, your being – aren’t deficient? What if your current reality isn’t unbearable? Let me put it more strongly, (try this on with me): You are not deficient. Your current reality is not unbearable. It can be borne, and can be borne by you. You are much stronger than you believe, and even in your weakness – especially in your weakness – you have access to infinite resources of courage and love. In fact, this moment of weakness, of pain, is the portal through which you have greatest access to these resources. What if the fulfillment of your deepest longings can only be found in this present moment, from which you are trying to wriggle free?
What if the fulfillment of your deepest longings can only be found in this present moment, from which you are trying to wriggle free?
And the message of hope continues: This moment – yes, this very moment – is full of infinite possibilities. Contentment can be found in any place, at any time, under any circumstances. And if every moment is full of infinite possibilities, then this moment could contain exactly what you need to escape the clutches of consumerism. This could be the moment you open your eyes to the harm you have been unconsciously inflicting on your body and soul. This could be the moment you begin moving toward a different kind of life.
Is there a name for this different way of thinking, in which we reject the beliefs of consumerism? Not definitively. Courage is certainly a primary ingredient, since consumerism is fueled by fear. It may sound strange, but consider the courage it takes to face any given moment without reaching for the comfort of your phone. We more commonly think of this attribute as self-control, if we think of it at all, but that is a superficial description that ignores the monsters of our subconscious. It is nothing less than courage that allows us to look reality in the eye, unmediated. So please, let’s cease our efforts to develop self-control, because we are missing the point. Let’s instead use our energies to cultivate courage, and I think we will find transformation at the level of our being, rather than just surface-level habits of doing that fall to the wayside as soon as we grow tired or stressed.
It is nothing less than courage that allows us to look reality in the eye, unmediated.
Another possible name for this “anti-consumerism” is Presence. I think this term, perhaps more than any other, captures the essence of what I am getting at. To live in consumerism is, by my definition, to not be awake to the present moment, whether because of fear of what is, longing for what might be, or some combination thereof. But while it may be helpful to have this in our minds as a big picture vision, it’s not particularly helpful when it comes to finding the path out of consumerism. This is because Presence is an outcome made possible by a set of practices, and as a coach I find it more fruitful to focus on the practices than the outcome. So for our purposes, I will use the term “Slowing” to refer to the set of practices that make it possible to live a life of Presence.
What does Slowing look like? Slowing is eating a meal at a comfortable, unhurried pace, without looking at your phone or even reading a book. Slowing is taking a walk for no reason other than to breathe in the crisp fall air and to hear the crunch of leaves underneath your feet. Slowing is sitting on your front porch and staring at the trees, while time passes around you, irrelevant. Slowing is noticing the way your body relaxes when you choose to drive just under the speed limit, because you’re not running late and you’ve got time.
If the long-term impact of consumerism is anxiety and depression, what is the impact of slowing? To put it simply, the natural outcome of this lifestyle is living your life, rather than surviving it, or resisting it, or escaping it, or merely passing the time. But in more practical terms, here are some things you may notice if you choose to walk down this path:
- A greater sense of Peace with yourself and with all that is. An increased tolerance for emotional discomfort, and the ability to feel settled within yourself even in the midst of chaos. (And with this, less anxiety, resistance, and unnecessary suffering.)
- A growing sense of awareness, gratitude, wonder, and delight. (And with these, less boredom, restlessness, and depression.)
- Feeling more deeply connected with God, self, and others. (Less loneliness and despair.)
- An intimate experience of your Belovedness, and a natural flow of giving and receiving Love.
- Greater access to creativity and the Abundant Life you were meant to live.
So how does one walk this path? Slowly. Boldly. Courageously. Moment by moment. One step at a time.
Ok, ok, but what do I do? Lest I leave you with lofty ideas and no place for your feet, let me conclude with a simple plan for action. If you recognize yourself in anything I’ve said – the sickness, the longing, the fear, the religion – then know that even the most deeply entrenched beliefs and habits can be undone.
- Step 1: Recognize your current reality and its impact. If you want some guidance in exploring this, use this reflection tool.
- Step 2: Speak out a desire for change. Even an ambivalent desire is enough to get you started. Ask for that desire to grow, and keep speaking out where you are and where you want to be.
- Step 3: Experiment with small action steps. There’s no rush, so take your time. In the weeks to come, I will lay out 5 Guiding Principles that can serve as a road map to get you started on the journey. I will dedicate a whole post to each principle, and will include example practices to go along with each one. The first principle, which I will feature in my next post, is: Do one thing at a time.
The journey ahead may not be easy – there are a multitude of forces that will push against you as you seek freedom from the reign of consumerism. Our current economy depends on your continued devotion to these ideals, and much of our highly technologized society is geared toward keeping you exactly where you are. And yet…these forces need not determine your destiny. You are a free agent, created in the image of LOVE, meant to reflect a unique facet of the Divine to the suffering world around you. So muster up your courage, and dare to walk with me against the tides of our time into an open clearing where you can breathe, and laugh, and live into the fullness of your humanity.
- What did this post stir up in you?
- Where and how do you see the beliefs of consumerism showing up in your life? (E.g. “I can’t be content until _____________.”)
- If you could be free from fear of the present moment, how would that change things for you?
Ready for more? Find Part 2 of this series, “Do One Thing at a Time,” here.