I’ve spent the last two weeks doing exactly what I’ve been avoiding for the past five months.
In my last column, I explained how my desire to spend while living in rural Vermont has lessened so much, I’ve been able to save more in the past five months than I have in my entire adult working life – even though I’m making a fraction of what I was previously earning.
I also explained why I think this is: meditation and internal work, plus the absence of many of the external factors that used to trigger my spending.
But, I wasn’t satisfied with just understanding that.
You see, I will eventually leave Karmê Chöling, the meditation retreat center where I live and work, and will most likely move back to a city.
I began to wonder if my newly developed contentment would stick or fade away once I leave my current supportive environment.
So, I decided to perform an experiment on myself by window shopping in nearby towns, perusing my favorite online retailers, and traveling to nearby cities to test my resilience.
A New Habit
What I experienced, quite directly, was that I don’t relate with most new possessions the same way I used to. It seems that my habits and associations have changed from buying in response to desire – to not.
Clear as the mud from which the lotus grows, right? Let’s get a little more technical.
In Hooked – Buddhist Writings on Greed, Desire, and the Urge to Consume, Joseph Goldstein writes in his essay “Desire, Delusion, and DVDs” about how we can understand our desires through the “law of dependent origination.”
“Through paying close attention, we can follow the links of how we get caught in desire – sensing, contact, feelings, desire, grasping, and so on. To be released from this chain of dependent origination, we can work to break the connection between feelings and desire. Each link depends on the others; if any of the conditions cease to exist, the entire cycle of desire is disrupted,” writes Goldstein.
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When I want something, like a great new dress, it’s very easy to get focused just on the dress – how I look good in it, how it’s well-made, how pleasing its color is, etc. I get stuck on the sensing and the contact with the dress.
But if I move down the line to the feelings associated with the dress, I can get a clearer picture of why I want it so much. I realized that what I really want is for people to find me desirable and worthy and that I felt this dress would help me achieve this goal. That reasoning is a little easier to dismantle and interrupt.
When I focus on the feelings around the dress, my perception kicks in and I keep in mind that not only will my feelings probably change about the dress, but that I’m also already an inherently valuable being – even without the dress.
What’s truly amazing, though, is that I’ve been practicing looking at my feelings and my experience so intently and closely through sitting meditation practice that interrupting my habitual desires has become, well, a habit.
I don’t experience the grip of desire as much as I did before I moved here.
In many Buddhist teachings, this practice is referred to as renunciation, which has this connotation of self-deprivation. According to Goldstein, a better word for our culture is non-addiction, which implies freedom.
“Often the issue was excess, not the consuming itself,” writes Goldstein.
“[The Buddha] said it is better to live in a palace and be free of desire than to be in a cave consumed by the wanting mind.”
So what can I renounce to save money next? Maybe Hulu and Netflix…