Friday, November 5, 2010

Taming Hungry Ghosts

I've been stashing catalogs I've received in a pile, meaning to some day sit down and call these companies' customer service numbers and ask to be taken off their mailing lists, but thanks to the Hamline Midway Environmental Group, I found out an easier, quicker way to cut down on unwanted mailings--I went to this website and got busy.

Still, though, we have quite a few catalogs flowing in to the house these days. I've learned to just toss the women's clothing catalogs immediately into the recycling bin without even looking at them, because they tend to trigger an un-beautiful cycle for me: I leaf through them longingly, imagining myself looking as cool, kicky, and care-free as the models in the photos. I make wish lists of the things I want, agonize over the huge price tags, and then, occasionally, go ahead and order something. Typically, it does not transform me into a cool, kicky, care-free model as soon as I slip it on, and 3/4 of the time, I end up returning it, adding even more to the whole sorry endeavor's carbon footprint. So I'm learning not to even look and to buy clothes only when my wardrobe's worn-out state actually requires a trip to Second Debut, our neighborhood upscale resale shop.

I try to recycle the toy catalogs before they get in to my kids' hands, too, but sometimes they manage to nab one. My son spent most of his day today poring over a Lego catalog and constantly revising his wish list of Lego sets he'd like to have. My daughter grabbed a pen and circled things she wanted in a Target sale mailer.

I don't want to be shaming or judgmental toward them, especially since I'm oh-so-familiar with this compulsion, but I did want to find a way to talk about it with them.

Tonight at bedtime, with the lights out, lying between the boy and the girl, I mentioned noticing that they'd spent a lot of time lately looking at catalogs.

"And YOU spend a lot of time looking at Facebook," my son pointed out. I allowed that that was truer than I liked to admit, and that I thought there were some things in common between Facebook over-use and catalog browsing. Both, after all, were attempts to escape from the present moment in search of that elusive, missing something else that might somehow make us feel complete.

"I was wondering," I asked. "What do you like about looking at catalogs?" I tried to remember how I felt when my mother dismissed the music I loved when I was young as unlistenable garbage, how she insisted I must be trying to look unattractive with the clothes I wore. I wanted to understand what they were getting out of catalogs and look for the good impulses underneath the seemingly unhealthy behavior.

My kids talked mainly about how catalogs satisfied their curiosity about what kinds of toys were out there. They liked imagining what it would be like to have those toys.

"Is there anything that doesn't feel so good about looking at catalogs?" I asked.

My daughter said she felt disappointed when a catalog didn't have a lot of toys that girls would be interested in. Bridger said he didn't like that he was looking at catalogs so much.

I told them about what I liked about catalogs when I looked at them, but also what I didn't like, sharing my own feelings of desire, frustration, confusion, and wishful thinking.

"I mean, you know catalogs are designed to make you feel unsatisfied," I said.

"What do you mean?" my son asked.

"They're designed to make you feel like what you have isn't enough and you need more, so the companies can sell you more products," I said.

My son admitted that there was some truth to that.

We talked about ways we could all cut back on our particular compulsions--their catalogs, my Facebook browsing. I could agree to only look at Facebook a couple of times a week instead of several times a day. I could turn the computer off unless I had a specific reason to use it, so the Internet wasn't so easily accessible. For my kids, we talked about how they could look at the catalogs for shorter periods and put them away on a shelf or in a drawer, rather than leaving the catalogs lying around where they could see them more frequently. It felt so good to finally overcome my fear of seeming critical or judgmental and just come out with my concerns. It felt good to problem-solve together.

In Buddhism, which is the religion I feel most closely aligned with, there is a lot of emphasis on simply noticing emotions without judging them, labeling them, or trying to make them go away. Maybe that's a good place to start with these materialist compulsions. In the Buddhist hell realm, there are beings called "hungry ghosts," who try and fail to feed themselves using outlandishly long, unwieldy. The ghosts are only able to eat once they wise up and use those long forks to reach out and feed one another.

My hope as we head into this holiday season? That we find ways to truly nourish and nurture ourselves and others and don't spend quite so much time teasing our hungry ghosts with Internet browsing and glossy catalog dreams.

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