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Combatting consumerism with Buddhist principles

By Kim Urquhart | Emory Report | March 6, 2012

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The Feb. 29 event was among the special exhibition programs for "Mandala: Sacred Circle in Tibetan Buddhism," on display at the Carlos Museum through April 15.

Why is it that buying something new can make us feel so good? Author Rob Walker has been pondering that for years, in books like "Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are" and in his "Consumed" column for the New York Times. Walker sat down recently with religion scholar and Emory Professor of Pedagogy Bobbi Patterson for a conversation about the Buddhist principles that can help us navigate today's consumer culture.

We are born to crave, they agreed. Yet many of us are in the dark about what triggers our cravings and desires, said Patterson. Our choices as consumers have environmental, justice and economic impacts, she said.

"Can Buddhist practices and concepts, on a day to day level, help us make better, more mindful, ethical choices in the marketplace?" asked Walker.

Buddhism has a good deal to offer, Patterson responded. "All of us are caught in this dynamic of consuming, and we think it will create a self, it will make us happy," she explained. "But none of us gets a pass from the suffering we set up for ourselves in trying to be happy through the things we consume, without mindfulness."

"Buddhism can help us see that craving, like all things, is impermanent," she said.

When Patterson finds herself craving a new Patagonia jacket or a chocolate bar — "fair trade, of course," she laughs — she turns to a breath-based meditation practice.

"By creating enough space, initially by paying attention to your breath," she said, "it gives you a chance to notice the reactions you have. What do I need here? What are the longer term consequences?"

"Like a circuit-breaker moment," agreed Walker.

Talking about the role of emotions in consumer habits and the advertising industry, Walker said he believes "that the larger culture of branding contributes to the moment of emotional impact at the moment of purchase. That industry is focused on everything leading up to the point of purchase, and after that they're done, and you're on your own."

Walker, who coined the term "murketing" to describe the blurred line in today's advertising, noted changes brought about from the economic downturn and the rise of social media marketing, where product endorsements are now coming from your Facebook friends.

"When the economy collapsed there were a lot of pundits coming along saying, ‘this is a fundamental shift in consumer behavior... there will never again be wasteful spending,'" said Walker.  That did change people's mindsets, making them more open to rethinking their relationship to material culture. Walker explained that this is what sparked his interest in Buddhism.

"We have a very specific cultural story in America that has to do with deserving," Patterson pointed out. "It's the great American story, that we are special. Therefore, if you are hardworking and you pull yourself up by your bootstraps, than you deserve the fruits of your labor."

 "To me, this is the point where Buddhism reminds us about the structural dimensions of consumer culture," to think about our choices as part of a larger web, she said, referencing the Buddhist tenets of interdependence and impermanence.

"Everybody in this room is struggling with consumptive choices and with the consequences to the Earth and consequences to justice," she said. What's important to recognize, without self-judgment, is that each of us has the chance "to make some great choices and to increase thriving, one little choice at a time."

The Feb. 29 event was among the special exhibition programs for "Mandala: Sacred Circle in Tibetan Buddhism," on display at the Carlos Museum through April 15.