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How to Avoid Being Enslaved by Consumerism

How to Avoid Being Enslaved by Consumerism
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    “It is preoccupation with possessions, more than anything else, that prevents us from living freely and nobly.” – Henry David Thoreau

    “Much of our activity these days is nothing more than a cheap anesthetic to deaden the pain of an empty life.” – Unknown

    “The things you own end up owning you.” – Tyler Durden in Fight Club

    Beyond a minimum threshold of poverty, money doesn’t buy happiness. Wealth may seem like a solution to your problems, but often it simply replaces the ones it solves. As paychecks increase, lifestyles usually match those increases. This results in the same financial worries and budgeting problems, just with more stuff.

    A preoccupation with owning things is a poor attempt to fill a vacuum. Occasionally stuff can fill that vacuum. Buying that new computer or fancy car might temporarily shrink the hole. But quickly you adapt to the new upgrades and the hole grows, enslaving you to earn higher and higher paychecks with no way out.

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    The Problem Isn’t Out There

    Stuff isn’t really the problem. I’m not a monk living in a temple, forsaking all consumer goods and taking a vow of poverty. I work to earn money and I have a fair number of possessions. Not owning things is not better than owning things, since they simply different manifestations of the same crisis.

    That crisis is the dualistic reasoning that says you can own stuff. My car, my clothes, my girlfriend, my husband, my friends, my anything. By knifing the world into what you have and what you do not, you commit a fatal error in understanding.

    Ownership is an invention. It’s something that doesn’t exist in nature, but a societal construct. In some ways it is a very useful construct. It allows groups to function and interact with each other. The error happens when you focus on this myth so much that it becomes real, and you can’t see any alternative.

    The Lonely Man and the Myth of Ownership

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    Pretend you were the only person on earth. You were born from unknown origins and have always lived alone. Let’s say that you are also completely self-sufficient and can survive complete isolation.

    Now tell me, what would you own?

    You wouldn’t be able to answer that because the concept doesn’t make sense to you. Without other people to compare, trade, boast and compete with ownership is an illusion. There is no stuff that is yours and not yours, just the world.

    This is why forsaking all goods doesn’t free you from the tight chains of consumerism. You are falling for the myth of ownership and fighting against it. But the person truly free of this grasp will realize you can’t fight something that doesn’texist. Canceling the dualistic reasoning of mine and not mine, is the first step.

    Replacing Consumerism

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    You can’t simply deny ownership. There is a mental space that the concept of ownership fills in the human mind. This is a space that can’t contain a vacuum. You can’t simply remove the consumerism and expect that something good will automatically fill its place.

    Some people, in the fight against our preoccupation with stuff, say that this void should be filled with spirituality, people or principles. This is where I disagree. All of those things are great, but they are specific answers for a general problem.

    An equivalent piece of advice might be to tell a man to play the violin after retirement when he has more free time. The advice may work, but it is too specific to be meaningful for everyone. The man might not like the violin, or may not want to play it all the time. Better advice would be a general recipe such as finding a hobby.

    Constructing the Inner World of the Mind

    The general solution to the consumerism abyss is building a stable inner world. Spirituality, relationships, philosophy, learning, ethics are all facets of this bigger idea. This inner world isn’t entirely detached from the material one, instead it’s a new lens for viewing what happens in it.

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    A person with a solid inner world won’t obsess over buying things or forsake the objects she owns. Instead she can view it as a person playing a game would look at the tokens on the board. Seeing past the ownership illusion, she can put all her effort into experiencing the game.

    How do you build this inner world? Throughout time people have come up with many different answers to this question. I think that the answer is so difficult to arrive upon not because it is too hard or complicated. But because of it’s simplicity and intangibility, it is tricky to communicate.

    Simply I believe the answer is learning. Not just the sub-branch of activities that has to do with education, but actually improving your understanding. This comes from a combination of experience, education and thought.

    Experience builds this mental world most directly by showing you reality upfront and unaltered. Education constructs the inner world by expanding the capacity of your thoughts. Finally, thinking sculpts the basic forms presented in experience and education.

    This sculpted internal world is difficult to describe. Many great philosophical thinkers have touched upon it but only from a passing glance rather than direct contact. I don’t believe I’ve managed to describe it directly either, but the idea remains the same. The way to break the bonds of consumerism and see past the mirage of ownership is in building a mind capable of doing this.

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    Scott H Young

    Scott is obsessed with personal development. For the last ten years, he's been experimenting to find out how to learn and think better.

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    Last Updated on August 20, 2019

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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