A helpful reframing of consumerism

Today is Black Friday, which means there’s even more messaging than usual reminding us of how much we “need” and pressuring us to buy. I’ve definitely seen a lot of ads on social media that put me into a scarcity mindset and make me feel stressed out!

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, I’ve been grappling a bit with consumerism and my place in the capitalist economy. One internal move that I’ve been trying to cultivate in response to these ads (this week and before) was to remind myself of how the products being advertised to me were just fixtures aimed at making me feel dependent on my job and thus trapping me in the loop of consumption and exploitation. However, on many levels, this wasn’t actually a helpful thought.

People have many reasons for wanting to do something. When it comes to consumption, there are external reasons (e.g., advertising, social pressures) and internal reasons. Often the external reasons will create/feed into the internal reasons, but I think the core of all the internal reasons is that: We are all suffering. And we think that buying that one thing will make our lives better and thus make us feel happier. A lot of marketing has to do with facilitating the construction of that narrative in your head for the given product, but I think there is some truth to those thoughts and no longer want to act as if materialism is a purely negative capitalist mindset.

For instance, I was talking to my friend Sofia-Jeanne about accessories and clothing when I visited New York a few weeks ago. She said something that really resonated with me, about how, for a long time, she tried to not care about her appearance, because how she looks shouldn’t matter. But she stopped resisting when she realized that, even if she wanted to believe that her external state shouldn’t affect her internal state, it did—and expressing herself through her dress contributed to her confidence and the way she carried herself.

With that in mind, I think that, while it’s true that there are many things that we don’t need that are marketed to us as though we do, there are also a lot of things that we want that we genuinely believe will make our lives better somehow. (How accurate that belief is is something that may be best learned through trial and error. Life is short! And most places offer free returns anyways.)

After identifying the internal reason(s) for why I want something, it’s been really helpful for me to think, “I’m doing this because I want to help myself.” This thought is a gentle reminder that the externally-induced scarcity mindset and anxiety are not(!!) helping me, and allows me to maintain a healthier outlook towards consumerism and my consumption.

Things I’ve been confused about recently

  • How busy should I be? When I first moved to Pittsburgh and started working, I didn’t really know what to do with my weekday nights, but I knew that I wanted to make the most of my free time. Now, I have recurring events 3 out of 5 nights during the week (improv class, therapy, and Chinese tutoring), and I usually have some other type of appointment or performance a day out of most weeks. As I’ve started trying to establish a workout routine and meet up with more people outside of work, I wonder what the right balance between scheduling things, leaving room for spontaneity, alone time, and personal work time (doing chores, personal errands, etc.) is.
  • Senses of self that are Not Helpful:
    • A fungible being/a worker
    • A person completing a list of tasks every day
    • Input/output machine where the output is how something makes me feel
    • Positivity generator
  • Looking to the past as a reminder of what kinds of ways of being are possible, while not being constrained by/stuck in it
  • What do you do/what can you do when you realize that you’re not living mindfully?
  • Consumerist/materialist/convenience-oriented desires vs. minimalism/sustainability. How can I use money to counteract the negative effects that working has had on me? Is it even right to ask that question?
  • Performativity

Thinking about the ways in which I’m constantly dying

It’s really strange to acknowledge this, but I’ve just finished my first month working at Duolingo. Before I started this job, it was hard for me to visualize what working would be like. The fact that it was going to be such a new environment, and even the idea of working full-time (with no definite stop date, for the first time in my life) actually made visualizing the transition impossible for me. When I tried to imagine what working would be like, my mind would literally just come up blank.

This has happened to me at other times too, basically whenever I’m anticipating something very new or foreign, for which I’ve had little context for. For instance, I could not imagine what the Dipabhāvan retreat would be like—I’d never had an experience that I felt like I could base my expectations of the retreat off of.

The strange thing (which I don’t actually think is too uncommon) is that whenever I’m in this kind of position, where I can’t visualize some aspect of my near future, I feel like I’m about to die. And I think it makes sense, because in those periods, the future me just doesn’t exist in my imagination.

I’ve been thinking about this feeling-like-I’m-about-to-die recently, not because I can’t imagine my future right now, but because I recently finished reading Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s In Love With the World: What a Buddhist Monk Can Teach You About Living from Nearly Dying. The book constantly reiterates the idea that the transition between life and death is not just something that happens at the end of your life. We’re constantly dying in small ways, as we shed various parts of our identities. In this way, I was right to perceive myself as about to die before I started working, or before the meditation retreat. The part of me that couldn’t fathom what those experiences would be like died, and transitioned into one that could.

For the past couple years, I’ve been focusing a lot on explicitly cultivating gratitude. Although some of the practices I used to do feel a bit forced to me now, I’ve inadvertently realized that thinking about the ways in which I’m constantly dying really allows me to see the blessings in difficult or uncomfortable situations. For instance, I’ve been feeling frustrated at how slowly I’m picking up the knowledge/skills I need for my job, but when I remind myself that nothing is permanent, and that my identity as a new employee is temporary, I actually feel appreciation for my current confused state. I just imagine that one day I might look back on this time with a lot of nostalgia. When I’ve “figured everything out,” I might miss the uncertainty and all the possibilities that accompanied it. A smaller and more everyday type of example is when I feel impatient while waiting for the bus or an appointment, I remind myself that my identity as someone who is waiting is going to die soon, which helps me to loosen my attachment to the future and future identities/states and brings me back to the present moment.

The only time you can live is the present!

Not wanting the best

Four years ago, around the time I started thinking about design, one of my friends visiting Princeton remarked to me how much he liked the campus, because he could feel all the care that was put into its design. At the time, I (in my head) immediately disagreed with him, one of my dominant objections being: if the people who designed campus really cared about student life, they would make more direct routes (diagonals) between buildings.

I look back on that response now and find it really amusing. Not only have I cultivated a lot more appreciation for Princeton’s campus since then (funny how our experiences shape our perceptions of a place 😊), but my design sensibilities have also evolved. I used to think that good design was all about efficiency—how can I best enable the user to accomplish their goals?—but that’s engineering, not design!

It may be kind of weird to read that, because the logical consequence is not wanting or designing for “the best.” But I think that in design and in life, it’s more important to focus on enabling a range of experiences, rather than on optimality. For instance, it would certainly be more efficient if all of the grass at Princeton were replaced with cement, but what kind of experience would that be? Campus would certainly be less beautiful.

I’ve been reminding myself of this mindset recently while traveling. It’s really easy for me to get stuck into thought patterns like, “I want to eat at the best restaurants” or “I want to make sure I get the most out of this trip.” That’s one of the main reasons why traveling can be so stressful for me (usually in the days right after I arrive, before I remember that “the point of travel is to be flexible”1), because I feel this pressure to have the best experience. I don’t identify as a perfectionist, but this is definitely a perfectionist tendency. Aggressively checking TripAdvisor/Google reviews/Yelp, feeling like I have to check certain places/foods/experiences off a list, documenting everything to prove something to people afterwards… In so many crucial ways, overplanning shelters you from experience. And I’ve realized that having a life full of experiences, a range of experiences, feels so much more rich and desirable to me than a life filled with attempts at getting the best. It’s also really liberating.

I want to close with this quote from Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist that has been on my mind recently. Spoiler alert! The context: after Santiago goes to the Egyptian Pyramids to search for his treasure, he gets beat up and robbed, and doesn’t actually find anything. But in the process, he learns from one of the thieves where his treasure actually is. This quote is from when he goes to that location and starts digging.

“You old sorcerer,” the boy shouted up to the sky. “You knew the whole story. You even left a bit of gold at the monastery so that I could get back to this church. The monk laughed when he saw me come back in tatters. Couldn’t you have saved me from that?”

“No,” he heard a voice on the wind say. “If I had told you, you would’t have seen the Pyramids. They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”


1Ten Years a Nomad: A Traveler’s Journey Home by Matthew Kepnes

Book review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

 

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondō

Given that much of the KonMari method has already entered the public consciousness, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed reading this book. Although I had expected it to serve as a how-to or even self-help book, I found a lot of value in taking it as a philosophical text. Kondō makes insightful points on materialism and presents a novel (to me) perspective on the purpose of tidying/maintaining tidiness. It can be tempting to view some of the practices she advocates, like asking whether or not things spark joy or thanking your belongings, as silly—hence the memes—but taking them in the overall context of the book reveals a fresh philosophy on how we can relate to our environment.

What is the purpose of tidiness? And of the objects that we surround ourselves with? In 1927, Le Corbusier answered, “A house is a machine for living in.” Even before I first heard this quote, I had already subscribed to a similar philosophy: the environment should be designed/organized to serve you, implying a service relationship between a person and their objects.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up not only re-imagines the potential of that relationship (“The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.”) but also establishes a convincing strategy for actually changing your life through revisiting the nature of this relationship. First of all, by going through the process of determining which of your objects spark joy, you train the muscle of actually discerning how you feel about things in general. The former allows you to create an environment filled with joy, while the latter gives you a new lens through which to view your career/relationships/etc. And secondly, by going through this process, our objects regain a sense of preciousness, which I think is really important in our Amazon Prime, fast fashion society. (Side note: this kind of reflection was one of the reasons I also found Princeton’s spring 2019 musical, We Were Everywhere, so thought-provoking and moving.)

Although I didn’t actually do a full KonMari Method declutter, the ideas underlying the method have stuck with me and are very much informing how I’m approaching e.g., decorating my new apartment. Overall, I really appreciated how this book caused me to reflect on the way my internal state affects and is affected by my external environment, and I highly recommend this book to folks interested in organization (and thinking about organization), as well as anyone looking to make a change in their life.

An anecdote about fear

Last September, I posted this status on Facebook:

What are some moments in your life that you look back on and think “Wow, I can’t believe I did that!”?

A few weeks ago—it feels like a lifetime ago! (before Reunions and graduation)—I traveled to Cancún with Elaine, Julian, and Andrea. It was really nice and, for the most part, a very relaxing trip. One of the non-relaxing things that we did was go to Cenote Tamcach-Ha, a water-filled sinkhole that features 5m and 10m diving platforms. I ended up jumping off of the 10m platform three times, which is really unexpected because I’m quite cautious by nature, and each time was terrifying in a different way. For reference, I’ve attached a video of the third jump below, trimmed to remove the 2+ minutes of stalling and hesitation before I actually gathered up the courage to jump.

 

 

Counterintuitively to me, the third jump was scarier than the first, because I knew what to expect—the moments of nothingness in free-fall were now known to me—and also because I put pressure on myself to resist my natural urge to curl up mid-air (which happened during my first jump, and which resulted in some very large bruising that only recently completely faded), since I knew what the consequences would be if I didn’t.

I still don’t really understand why I wanted to jump three times, but even in spite of the bruising, I’m glad that I did, because it allowed me to really notice and reflect on a few manifestations of my fear. I’ve been thinking about these jumps a lot recently, as I try and prepare for my upcoming travels and “adult life,” partially because I still can’t believe that it actually happened, but mostly to serve as a foil to the fear I feel around those areas of my future life.

In the past couple months, I’ve noticed myself feeling more scared about things that I feel like I wouldn’t have been scared of in the past. For instance, one thing that I’m really scared about right now is the 7-day silent meditation retreat that I’ll be attending in July. I find myself wondering if I can even do it (because of my scheduling constraints, I signed up for the advanced rather than introduction level retreat, and I’ve never meditated for that long before…) and feeling a lot of anxiety around the whole thing.

This doesn’t completely alleviate my anxiety, but when I remind myself of how I was able to overcome my fear and jump off of the 10m platform at Tamcach-Ha three separate times, I am also reminded that fear is designed to protect us, but it often holds us back. I knew I wasn’t going to die, but part of me was still convinced that I would, out of a self-preservation instinct.

I’m in a mindset right now where I want to optimize everything, and I think that part of that is that having (a perception of) control over the way things are going to turn out allows me to reduce feelings of uncertainty and makes me feel more safe. Although I feel frustrated at myself for having this urge (as well as many others, like suddenly caring a lot about conventional metrics of success), I acknowledge that my needs are behind it, and I’m trying to treat it as another opportunity for self-exploration and self-growth.   

P.S. After I posted this, I thought of this mantra from the P90X exercise videos I did in high school that that seems relevant: “Do your best, and forget the rest.”