‘I’m glad it’s over’, said my friend Rod on our skype call this morning.
I laughed and then pointed out that he is the one who criticises me (in the way that very close friends can do) for being indifferent to the holiday season and all of its excesses.
I responded, ‘I thought you loved this time of year? It’s your excuse to buy lots of gifts, overeat and drink your really expensive wine’.
Rod replied, ‘I do love it, or at least the build-up and excitement on the day, but now I’ve got the expense of it all to worry about.’
Meaning, my friend paid for some rather grand extravagances over Christmas and New Year on his credit card and is unlikely to be paying the bill off in full this month or even the next.
Rod is in his forties, middle class with two stunning daughters aged 7 and 10, and a sometimes-glamorous wife who lives in an above average sized London house. I can appreciate how easy it might be to get fully swept up in his daughters’ pleading for the latest gadget and his wife’s charming hints for things that sparkle, alongside carry containers with fancy French names on them.
However the thrill that my buddy gets from watching his family open thousands’ of pounds worth of gifts has now turned into a mild dread of having more debt to pay off in this new year, on top of an already above average cost of living.
I can also appreciate how Rod gets lured into opening his wallet at Christmas and unleashing his funds (or rather credit) in to the tills. There are few equals to the experience of seeing delight in the faces of your loved ones, and gifts on Christmas morning are an easy way to prompt such delight. But it’s this weirdly psychotic norm of lavishing objects on each other to create that delight that I don’t really get.
I mostly avoid buying gifts at Christmas and instead prefer to do so at random unexpected times throughout the year. This has the benefit of my gifts (given in my preferred form of experiences) not getting lost in amongst the tidal wave of other stuff that friends and family send our way, as well as ensuring that my eldest son (the youngest is too young to care about
anything other than the packaging that the gifts hide within) is directed towards interesting, fun and bonding experiences with his mother and I. Our aim is to teach both boys that some objects provide value for their aesthetics, practical use and as a gateway to direct experience. What we aim to discourage is any relationship to stuff that makes the object itself important, rather than the experience or practical use it can be a gateway to.
If you think about the objects in your life, it’s mostly our interpretation of our relationship to a thing that provides a sense of it’s value. In the same way that it’s our interpretation of relationships to other people that provide the same.
Having the ability to appreciate and choose what drives my own relationship to wanting more stuff is important because I aim to avoid any unexamined and unchosen pattern of behaviour.
There’s a really useful question from NLP that I tend to ask myself whenever I’m confronted with a desire for an object that has dubious value to my life. It’s simply this,
‘ What will this…(insert item)… give me that I don’t already have?’
Meaning what personal, internal experience and therefore what feelings or rather, ‘state’ will this acquisition provide that I don’t currently have from other objects, or indeed, simply by generating that state by recalling it as and when I choose.
As an example, I currently own one pair of trainers. They’re blue and gray and are apparently designed for ‘cross-training’ whatever that means.
I wear these trainers to the gym, when I go on long hikes in the canyons around LA, when I sprint once a week in my local park and on any approaches to climbing areas. They work for all those roles well enough, come out of the wash looking like new and are moulded to my feet after four years of daily use. It’s not that I’m not tempted every so often by new footwear, but by applying the question, ‘what will this give me that I don’t already have’ to a new pair of trainers, I have yet to come up with an answer worth parting a hundred bucks for.
A new pair of trainers won’t give me a little jolt of buyer excitement, because my values aren’t aligned with the alleged thrill of purchasing.
New trainers won’t stimulate new levels of confidence in me because confidence is a state that arises from successfully moving beyond doubt and challenge and I’ve learned from an earlier lifetime of both already.
New trainers definitely won’t help me look cooler, not even as I clean dishes, change nappies, finger paint, and read bedtime stories to my kids.
Could a really snazzy pair make me more sexually compelling to a member of either sex, and augment my everyday adornment of a wedding ring and at least one constant kid sat upon my shoulders?
Beyond the knowledge that shiny new pumps will pad my feet during exercise, any experience a new pair of trainer promises to deliver my neurology is nothing more than an illusion of the kind that marketers live to create.
You might assume that your wardrobe, or car, or watch or haircut makes you look cool or confident or slick or sporty or whatever, but the reality is that any state you experience in relationship to an exterior stimuli, can also be achieved standing on a street corner, wearing a sack cloth and newspapers on your feet.
“True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.” Seneca
It’s a dangerous but highly profitable lie that tells us hat we need stuff to experience desired states. Any fleeting sensation of cool, confident, sexy or… ‘insert your own desired target feelings’ is and always will be an internal function that can be generated without dependency upon stuff of any kind.
Two thousand years ago, Stoics such as Seneca went out of their way to test their inner resolve by spending days in the streets wearing nothing but a loin cloth, or even dressing in outlandish outfits so that the common folk would laugh at them as they held their heads upright in training to become immune to the effects of the outer world.
I regard the modern equivalent to stoic attitude and training as an absolute resistance against ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ in any form and to dissociate from bullshit advertising that artificially conjures status symbols upon the false promises making you feel better about yourself.
At the cost of rarely experiencing a slither of satisfaction, some elements of our culture place more value on bank balances and what a person owns, over how a person lives her or his life. I know from my own observations when working with a number of billionaires, and also learning from possession free indigenous teachers, that the latter experiences levels of daily appreciation of which the former could only dream of.
Having more stuff and material wealth has little to do with happiness and in fact the contrary likely holds more truth.
Few of us would argue against the importance of creating enough money to eat nutritious foods, live in a safe comfortable home, enjoy time off for creativity, leisure, education, and regular stimulating experiences with the people we care about most. But none of that will we receive from a new pair of trainers, handbag, watch or other object.
Every time we attempt to stimulate feelings or states through the acquisition of stuff, we’re confirming a lack of choice over our inner world with this need of an exterior stimuli to make us feel…
An essential move towards being free and able choose our own lives, is to dissociate from what elements of our culture trains us to believe we need.
Here’s my invitation to you: Before you make another purchase for a non-essential item in your life or that of someone you love, I encourage you to ask,
‘What am I hoping to feel from this purchase?’
Then, without buying anything, recall the last time you felt that feeling’. What does this ‘thing’ give you that you don’t already have available?
I asked my friend, Rod how the Christmas gifts are being appreciated two weeks after their unwrapping? His response, ‘it’s all quietly sitting in the cupboards with the other stuff”.
As – I would add- are the sensations inside us that we hope to stimulate with more stuff.