Saturday, August 9, 2014

Materialism and Impermanence:

I've written before about the dangers of attaching oneself too wholly to any belief, persona or 'thing' (see here). Today I wanted to expand on that theory by addressing materialism.

I am by no means a perfect Zen master who needs nothing but rice and milk to survive. I do not meditate on a mountain, nor am I anywhere near as wise as the people surrounding me. I shop, I own such a huge amount of clothing that my wardrobe is literally spewing clothes as I write this. The bookshelves in my room creak and bend in the center, I sleep underneath a shelf of at least a hundred books. I have often described myself as a shopaholic, but I am also a highly interrogative person - and my favourite subject of interrogation is myself. Because of my constantly questioning nature I tend to notice many patterns in myself and others, one being that I shop much more than usual when I am not at my best. 

Let me elaborate: If I am feeling sad, depressed, annoyed, or simply uninspired or under stimulated in my mind I shop. I buy books to try and stimulate the seemingly clogged motor in my head. I buy clothing under the assumption it will make me feel happier or more creative. It doesn't work, at least until I actually read my latest literary purchase. However, the pattern itself draws my attention to something. Something which is not an idea of my own making, but an old philosophical truism cast from students of Epicurus.

Students of Epicurean teachings, including today's Alain de Botton (one of my personal favourite philosophers) knew this teaching to be true:

'Expensive objects can feel like plausible solutions to needs we don't understand. Objects mimic in a material dimension what we require in a psychological one.' - Alain de Botton, the Consolations of Philosophy.

It's easy to be influenced, especially in today's hyper-connected world, toward the carefully-curated lives of the materialists who seem so happy. The rich who sunbathe in Mykonos while we sit in dark, winter-saturated bedrooms feeling less-than. It's easy to scroll through Instagram and see people posting pictures of expensive new shoes, or luxuriously packaged make-up items beside their beautifully crafted faces, saturated in white light, and feel bad about ourselves. It is not at all difficult to make the leap from sad or bored to clicking 'add to cart' and excitedly awaiting our next purchase to arrive in the mail.

Rita Mae Brown said the following:

I believe she was right, but I also believe that if the only thing we're looking forward to in life is a new lipstick arriving in the mail, well, that's pretty sad isn't it? Shouldn't we be following Adam Smith's advice? Smith believed in the following, 'the great secret of education,' he said. 'Is to direct vanity to proper objects.'

Direct the ego and the 'self' - that lustful striving for 'more' we all feel - to something more worthwhile, something that contributes MORE to the world around us. Surely that's a more honorable pursuit, and something that will, in the long run, make us happier? We can turn Nietzsche's will-to-power on it's head and decide that in order to lift ourselves up we should concentrate on our contributions, and not our personal gain.

Remember that we are impermanent, ephemeral objects. We will not last forever, but we can provide a legacy that influences and inspires others. There's no reason why we cannot do this. What will the effect we leave in the rooms behind us be, after we have left them? And if our sphere of influence is wider, what will the effect we create in rooms we never even enter be? 

Xo, Ellen

*Photos taken from google images.