By Peter Schaller
If we listen to the hype, the advertising, the perversion of the American Dream, we are clearly supposed to want more, need more and have more. In fact, we are entitled to more.
We should be working feverishly to buy bigger houses, sleeker cars, flatter televisions and more savory meals. The predatory marketing, which threatens us hundreds or even thousands of times a day, insists that we should want all of these things and so much more. Somewhere in this deceitful process, wanting becomes needing.
But at this stage in human development, we understand on a deeper level that there is no peace and no happiness to be found through hording. Jesus was pretty clear about wealth and I have always loved the mental image of a camel sneaking discreetly through the eye of a needle. In the Third Noble Truth, the Buddha also realized that true happiness can only be obtained by removing all desire.
Desire, accompanied by its close companions, ill will and ignorance, cause our deepest suffering.
Learning to want nothing in a world that frantically tries to sell us so much is no easy task. It requires discipline, conscious thought in every moment, and a profound indifference to the indecorous proposals of lustful marketers. While the total elimination of desire can only be reached through enlightenment, we can certainly strive to calm our minds to the point where we become mostly immune to the modern addiction to consumption. Most of us really don’t need more clothes, shoes, electronics, appliances or calories. Wanting less is a firm step towards liberation.
Once we are able to curb our desires, it is natural that we will find ourselves needing much less. We have gotten so far from our own existence that we often forget how little we need to survive—love, belonging, food, water, clothing, shelter, recreation—all with great moderation (except for love and belonging).
The trick is to align the material things that we need as closely as possible to our basic needs, rather than our desires. Every day, our choices must reflect this commitment to providing for our needs, rather than appeasing our desires. Simplifying life in this way brings great peace. When we are freed from the burden of wanting things that we don’t need, life is lighter and we learn to appreciate the simple pleasures of life more profoundly.
We must also be aware of the impact that our desire has on the world.
Our consumption creates a chain of impact on our mistreated planet, usually hidden from our immediate view. Our decisions can have a positive or negative impact, depending on what and how much we consume. It’s no secret that we are quickly depleting the world’s natural resources, so consumption also becomes an issue of compassion. Conscious consumption means selecting goods and services that do not contribute to social, economic and environmental injustice, but rather help to strengthen communities, create sustainable livelihoods and preserve resources. Compassionate consumption requires significant concentration.
Wanting nothing (or less) and needing little can only lead to living more. We are surrounded with so much noise and distraction every day, which makes it very difficult to truly enjoy life’s treasures- good conversation, the smell of wet earth, an orange sky at dawn, the silky flavor of a ripe avocado. Eliminating desires and excessive disturbance takes us back to the essentials of life.
In simplicity there is great joy.
Peter Schaller is an artist and activist who lives and works in Nicaragua. He spends most of his time trying to figure out how to reduce his karmic and carbon footprints. He is the author of After the Silence, a collection of poems, essays and photographs, and he can be reached by email or on Facebook.
Editor: Dana Gornall