Whilst channel surfing a few weeks ago I stumbled across a documentary about the brain and the relationship between conscious thought and the sub-conscious, or unconscious activities of the mind. Unsurprisingly, only the tiniest fraction of the power of the mind is dedicated to conscious thought. The vast majority of our brain power being focused on sending billions of messages per second to perform what we would consider to be the simplest of tasks, such as typing this blog post, or driving a car, or digesting a meal, while our conscious mind hardly gives a thought to how we are doing it.
Many of our unconscious behaviours too are a result of years or decades of conditioning, whether it’s an instinctive reaction to danger, the way we respond towards people based on their appearance, or our food preferences. Our habits and avoidances are developed from a young age, heavily influenced by our family, our peers, the media and our environment, often without giving a second (conscious) thought to what we do, why we do it or whether there is another way.
I use the example of eating meat. Most of us have been raised as meat eaters, by generations of meat eaters, in an environment where meat production, processing, marketing and retailing is a global industry worth billions of dollars. We are accustomed to the taste and texture of meat, and many of us hardly spare a thought for what we are eating, why we are eating it, or the impact of our choice on other beings’ suffering or the environment.
As a yogi and a meditator over recent years I have begun to increasingly question my motives, preferences and avoidances and to consider the consequences of my individual actions. I recognised that many of my behaviours were driven by the desire to acquire or accumulate wealth, status symbols or random stuff I had no real need for. In the pursuit of those things I was often making myself unhappy (in a career I no longer enjoyed), lining the pockets of greedy corporates, creating misery for other beings in the supply chain, or contributing to environmental pollution and the increasing global waste problem.
Why have we become so attached to the concept that more is better? Why do we feel so compelled to compare ourselves and compete with our peers? Why are we so driven to ‘advance’ or ‘progress’ when it actually often leads to a regression in our quality of life, or that of others?
I recently came across a quote from American comedian, director and writer Tom Shadyak in this must-watch online video featuring numerous celebrities ~ from John Lennon to Lady Gaga ~ speaking out on fame and materialism;
"Darwin mentioned the word love 95 times in 'The Descent of Man'. He mentioned survival of the fittest twice."
How has our society become so far removed from the truth? Back in the late 60s and early 70s the Western world seemed to be on the right path. Peace and love became mainstream, with more than a little thanks to the Beatles who were significantly influenced by the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda, author of Autobiography of a Yogi. But somehow in subsequent decades we changed trajectory and the rise of individualism and the pursuit of money, power, fame, and personal and corporate greed prevailed.
Since I’ve been writing and researching this post I discovered a recently published book on the rise of neo-liberalism since the 70’s; the ideology that appears to be the root of all our problems. "Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling..." This ideology has become so engrained in our sub-conscious in the past 30 years that very few of us question it or are even aware of the term. We have simply become mindless consumers.
If you’re reading this blog post the chances are you are already rich beyond the wildest dreams of 90% of the world’s population. Yet we all still aspire to a bigger house, a promotion, or more exotic holidays in the distorted belief that these things will bring us happiness or define us as successful. I’m not suggesting for a moment that we shouldn’t have dreams and aspirations, but maybe we could and should be a little more modest or altruistic in our goals, and a little less attached to the modern notion of ‘success’. Rather than mindlessly pursuing bigger/better/more, let’s rethink the status quo.
What do we perceive as quality of life? Chasing a paycheque, or pursuing a passion? Taking a holiday, or creating a life you don’t need a holiday from? Owning a big house, or having a loving home? Once we let go of attachment to material things, status symbols and social pressures, common sense prevails.
Fortunately more and more celebrities are once again recognising and speaking the truth, and little by little we are raising global consciousness. I’m encouraged by numerous social enterprises such as Thankyou, founded by three young undergraduates who wanted to challenge the status quo of the FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) industry and created a company that exists purely to end global poverty.
Needless to say I stopped eating meat, shortly after I changed my career, because I could no longer reconcile either with the pursuit of love, happiness and ahimsa (compassion). When we stop to apply just a little more conscious thought to our habitual behaviours, when we begin to question our motives and consider the consequences of our actions, we can begin to make a significant difference to our own wellbeing, the wellbeing of others, our environment and our future. Informed, aware and conscious consumerism is the path to a brighter future for all beings.