Spree shopping, binging, sales hunting, ceaseless consumerism. These are forms of intoxication, the act of a mind that seeks relief, through external distractions, from the nagging worries and fears that are kept barely suppressed. Shopping is the approved addiction of capitalist countries; during weekends the streets of commerce districts and pedestrian malls jammed, the plazas filled, with patrons lugging bags adorned with the gods of materialism: Armani, Marc Jacobs, Hugo Boss, Gucci and on.
Shortly after the towers fell during 9/11, when a populace was traumatized and fearful, seeking a way to interpret the unfathomable, what were the messages we received from so many elected officials? ‘Keep shopping.’ Apparently consumerism is our way of telling an undefined enemy ‘we’re strong and resilient.’ Today, amidst all the vulnerabilities and discomfort we face living in a country with no safety net, unaffordable healthcare, cutthroat competition for work, we’re bombarded with marketing by cultural icons reminding us to seek security and meaning from an endless array of material objects (Johnny Rotten now promotes a brand butter in English TV spots).
We like to believe that our spending habits—what type and brand of clothing, accessories, personal care products, etc we purchase—result from refined aesthetic choices. Alas, sociologists like Pierre Bourdieu have demonstrated that our tastes and preferences are more often determined by social stratification: in our habitual purchases we’re unconsciously incarnating class attitudes, searching for status emblems that define and maintain our status and station. The refuge that shopping offers is based on status, rather than any real safety or accomplishment.
The neuroscience of shopping is already well understood; the fMRI scans of a sales hunter is similar to those of an addict binging on cocaine, a gambler lost in a spiral of compulsive behavior. Endorphins and dopamine, the natural opiate receptors in the brain that reward us for seeking safety and requisites to survive, are turned “ON”, which feels undeniably enjoyable: the brain has been fooled into believing the purchase—any purchase—will save us from unseen dangers and increase our chances of survival. And so we’re distracted from pressures and obligations of life and, as it feels exciting, the behavior is reinforced.
Unfortunately the iGadgets lose their shine, the clothes their allure, and the bills come due. The daydream of purchasing doesn’t last long beyond the swipe of the credit card or the click of the “buy” button at the end of our online e-commerce transactions. Once again we wake up into an uncertain world with little security or stability. What remains are attics and closets are filled with the artifacts of socially acceptable hoarding.
Fortunately we have a way out of the trance of consumerism:
• We can locate the urge to acquire as its held in the body, often in a hollow feeling in the chest, and use the breath to relax the physical impulses to buy.
• We can bring to mind the circumstances during which we were generous, virtuous or kind, touching the feelings of worthiness and ease that arise with these memories.
• We can reflect on times we were truly peaceful and serene, noting that such instances arose via our deep connection to others and life itself, rather than resulting from a hastily arranged purchase.
• We can open to what’s present in life already, finding ourselves surrounded by a myriad of enriching sensations and fleeting serendipity: the play of autumn’s light through branches of trees, discarded industrial relics, a lingering morning fog, birds that plummet from the sky in hunt of prey.
• We can consider the truth of uncertainty and inevitable mortality, which reveals most acquisitions to be hollow exercises in materialism.
When we restore balance to life we find that shopping is neither a chore nor the pursuit of diversionary excitement; there is some subtle pleasures to be found in the mindful exercise of acquiring the requisite material substances that allow life to continue. So the path of spiritual practice presents us with a way out of the compulsive, intellectually vapid, narcissistic, shopaholic postindustrial service industry world. The journey may be difficult to tread amidst the plethora of cross cultural advertising that points us in the wrong direction, towards all that his surface and material, but it is possible with enough effort and diligence.