In front of the meditation retreat center where I live, in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, there’s a small retaining pond that makes for a perfect little ice rink in the winter.
So two weeks ago – the day after my birthday – fellow staff member Nick and I went to a local ski and outdoor sports store, two towns up the interstate, to get our ice skates sharpened.
The store was having a big sale on all their winter gear. Nick started trying things on, and quickly decided to buy a new coat and gloves. I got swept up in his enthusiasm and joined him in looking through the racks.
I tried to remain cautious and aware, while evaluating the brightly colored coats that were marked down by hundreds of dollars. I kept reminding myself that I already had everything I needed, and that living frugally was supposed to be part of my life now.
The reminder worked, until I saw a surprisingly stylish pair of waterproof, insulated boots – hunter green with orange laces.
Suddenly, I knew my other winter boots weren’t really cutting it. I needed these new ones. A familiar electric, greedy feeling took over, as the story of owning these boots wrote itself in my head.
These boots would look amazing on me. They would look great in a picture, which other people would see on social media, and think that I was living an adventurous and fulfilling life up here in the mountains.
People would see me in these boots and think that I was so beautiful and stylish that they would just have to compliment me. My co-workers would be jealous, increasing my importance and “coolness” factor in their eyes.
A complete, unshakeable story was fully written – even before I tried on the first boot.
The “truth” that I had eagerly developed in my head made it very hard for me to hear the other small voice inside me that was telling me I really didn’t need these boots. That this purchase would not, in fact, permanently change me or my life for the better.
I decided to get some new sunglasses too.
As I handed over my credit card, the sticky, goopy feeling of shopper’s remorse that so often follows impulse buying began to settle in.
And, as we drove back to the retreat center, all I could feel was disappointment in myself.
Wrestling With Attachment
This is supposed to be the period in my life when I’m trying to look at money and possessions differently.
When I moved here, I intended to practice rebelling against the dominant culture that says money is the ultimate marker of value – and spending it is an expression of that.
My experience with the boots was really a manifestation of my dissatisfaction with the present moment, and the desire for permanence that we all feel.
The story I had created expressed my belief that I need to be improved, and that an external adjustment would achieve this improvement in a permanent way.
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Most consumer-driven industries base their entire advertising and marketing strategy on this principle. Clothes, cars, and technology are all associated with our image of ideal human beings. It’s a powerful strategy and belief, and a difficult one to resist.
Yet resistance is an extremely good practice – not only to be more aware of your thinking patterns, but also for your bank account.
Emotions drive a lot of people’s purchasing habits. If we were all more aware of why we were spending money, we might find it easier to spend less, save more, and feel better about our finances over all.
Getting Right Back on the Horse
While living in Vermont, my goal is to focus on relaxation, and living with the things I have – even if I’m sick of them or don’t like them any more.
I want to find out whether creating space around something that dissatisfies me –instead of immediately fixing it – will make it less bothersome and important.
Yet, I still spontaneously and rashly spent $100 on a pair of rubber boots.
But that’s why the path of mindfulness and awareness is always about practice. Like sitting meditation, you may get distracted from your awareness– but remember, and come back to it. The path is straying and then getting back on track.
- Pause for a moment of reflection at some point in the purchase decision process prior to buying something.
- Consider whether you actually need and like the item, or if you are driven by impulse or selfishness. Is the item good for you? Good for the world? Are you trying to fulfill deep emotional needs with ephemeral goods?
- Make a conscious decision to purchase the item, or to pass. Either way, cultivate gentleness towards yourself.
I’m going to start using these techniques before I make my next purchase and see if my buying habits are affected.
On my birthday, I told someone that 30 will be the year that I really become an adult and take responsibility and ownership of my emotions.
I’m increasingly realizing that the only thing you can control in this world is how you react to your feelings. You can acknowledge and embrace them, yet still have the space to see all the options.
Next time hopefully I’ll just get my skates sharpened.