Image: Wayne Thiebaud
Conscious Post-Consumption Consumer
Disappointment is the best chariot to use on the path
of the dharma
writes Chogyam Trungpa.
Should we welcome opportunities to experience it?
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
There was this cute little Patagonia zip up vest.
I loved the color of it, and the cut. It would look really great on me, and it would get a lot of use. How could I say no?
The “no” was pretty straightforward, actually.
At home, we were in the midst of one of our regularly scheduled buying fasts – which is basically the opposite of a spending spree – and my commitment was serious. I wanted to have that clear headed feeling I get when I’m not tangled up in possession obsession. I observed the loud clamor of my gimme, and I waited.
The Cautious Pause
It turns out lots of us are putting the whole buying thing into low gear. Our emergent behavior has become so noticeable it even has an industry name, the “cautious pause.” According to a study cited in the New York Times, “During a survey of shoppers in November , 60 percent of the respondents said they had recently begun to stop and reconsider clothing purchases before buying.”
A month after my self-denial, my birthday came around. We decided to walk to SoHo and buy the vest as a present. The problem was, the vest was gone, sold out. The uptown store didn’t have any, and the Patagonia website was sold out as well. I got a bit stormy. Why hadn’t I just done what I wanted to do a month earlier? “This is what I get for being good!” I pouted.
I’m the perfect subject for Professors Anat Keinan of Harvard and Ran Kivetz from Columbia, who research regret and consumer behavior. “Many purchase and consumption decisions involve an intrapersonal struggle between consumers’ righteous, prudent side and their indulgent, pleasure-seeking side.” They say their research demonstrates, “that though in the short-term it appears preferable to act responsibly and choose virtue over vice, over time such righteous behavior generates increasing regret.”
Frankly, I’m not so sure I have a prudent side. At best I’m increasingly suspicious about anticipation and satisfaction. But Keinan and Kivetz were right. When it came to having resisted the impulse to buy the vest, I not only felt “increasing regret,” I was right where they said I would be. I was pissed-off at myself for not having snapped up an au courant and enviable item when it was available. (“You’re so stupid.”) I was dying to buy something that would make me feel better.
Virtue fell before disappointment like Goliath with David’s stone in his fifth chakra.
The best thing to do with disappointment is feel it.
“Disappointment is a good sign of basic intelligence,” wrote renowned scholar Chogyam Trungpa. Trungpa values disappointment for its fundamentally unnerving quality.
Disappointment tears down the stability of our point of view, which makes it an excellent instrument for the dharma. Our familiar sense of winning or losing the battle with self judgment vaporizes. If we’re lucky, disappointment will occur suddenly, like the sage Tilopa smacking his devoted follower Naropa in the face with his sandal, so we won’t have the chance to hide.
Have a sense of humor. Don’t take yourself so seriously.
When I was teaching at Kripalu, I often led meditation hikes. The beautiful woods there provide a stunning setting for reflection. However, rainy days would ratchet up the pressure to “make something happen,” otherwise, why bother going outside?
One time, as we were gathered near the foot of a long upward climb waiting for a few participants to catch up, an exasperated hiker asked crankily, “Can’t we get going? We’re just standing here getting soaked and I want to start meditating.” He looked as startled at his words as anyone else, and when he laughed, all of us, recognizing our own stifled impatience, laughed too.
We’ve all caught ourselves taking the elevator instead of the stairs when we claim we want to get back in shape. (Oh, but I go to the gym for that.) Laughing with ourselves at our own efforts to limit our encounters with Ultimate Reality (God, the Universe, High Self) to something doable and, you know, manageable, helps us to see what I call “stable self conflict” – we sincerely want to wake up, but if we’re really honest with ourselves, we can see we’re evasive.
Waiting for a different moment.
Trungpa said instead of evading discomfort, we should stay with the feeling and let it help us. “March directly into disappointment, work with it, make it our way of life, which is a very hard thing to do.”
If we avoid our feelings of unhappiness we’re engaged in a spiritual shell game, according to Trungpa:
If we regard spirituality as a part of our accumulation of learning and virtue, if spirituality becomes a way of building ourselves up, then of course the whole process of surrender is completely distorted. If we regard spirituality as a way of making ourselves comfortable, then whenever we experience something unpleasant, a disappointment, we try to rationalize it.
“I want to meditate, but it’s raining!”
“When I get done with this buying fast, I’m going right out and get that vest!”
We’re always examining our satisfaction or dissatisfaction, trying to manipulate our relationship with ourselves. It’s helpful to look a little further upstream neurologically, in the brain’s reward system, to come to an understanding of anticipation. It can be a challenge to address anticipation clearly and directly. We’re always trying to get somewhere that isn’t here, and anticipation is key to producing a sense of direction. Although we’re keen on cultural or psychological critique of these urges, motivation is just part of our biology.
My favorite thing about Kivetz and Keinan is their observation that how we make sense of things changes with time. Their research shows what produced guilt initially will feel less reprehensible if we just wait it out. What felt good at first produces less satisfaction later. This isn’t good or bad, it’s just what happens. “The passage of time attenuates regret about choosing vice and accentuates regret about choosing virtue because of the decay of indulgence guilt and the intensification of feelings of missing out on the pleasures of life.”
Strong sensation, like that of disappoitment, is where authenticate awareness dawns.
The vest was such a good an example of this for me precisely because it had sold out – I had picked a winner! And then I’d been a loser and blown it! That personal struggle – inside ourselves – that the market researchers are studying is the endless state of attachment to our idea of how things are, or as Trungpa describes it, a “neurotic tendency toward self-evaluation and self criticism” which only contributes to being asleep at the wheel, spiritually speaking. The “intensification of feelings of missing out” which Kivetz and Keinan describe is bottomless anticipation that can never really be satisfied, and, biologically, isn’t meant to be – so there’s no point at all in judging it.
The buying fast is not just a practice of temporary restraint, any more than asana or meditation, or walking in the rain, is an answer in itself. It’s a deliberate suspension of habit in an effort to give reality a fighting chance with our strongly held points of view, to nurture clarity in day-to-day human experience. Nobody can do that for me, I have to really decide to figure myself out. It’s nobody’s problem but mine that habits are likely to take me back into the fast moving water. In terms of spending money, a “cautious pause” is the last thing the retail industry wants anybody to develop:
“We as a business cannot afford to have a customer take a second look and ask, ‘Do I need this?’ ” said Bud Konheim, the chief executive of Nicole Miller. “That is the kiss of death. We’re finished, because nobody really needs anything we make as a total industry.”
A healthy dose of unexpected disappointment was the best birthday present I could have received.
Because I wasn’t trying to transform it or get away from it, as time passed my regret about the vest melted. My experience with sharp disappointment faded and like my hiker friend, I laughed. I felt free to really enjoy what Kivetz and Keinan call “the pleasures of life” – though the pleasure wasn’t in successfully evading disappointment. It’s dharma as Buddhists define it, “life as it really is.”
Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. Chogyam Trungpa, Shambhala Publications, 1973.
New York Times May 29, 2008
Flexing Your Buying Power: Dress for Less and Less
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.