Excessive waste almost defines our era. Be it the 46,000 pieces of plastic per square mile in our oceans, the 36 billion tonnes of CO2 annually pump into our atmosphere, the £28m worth of fashion items Burberry alone destroys over 12 months or the 30% of food that’s thrown out while 800m people starve.
The responsibility lies in three camps and they go hand in hand: government, industry, and us. Does a society that produces such enormous amounts of waste have its priorities straight? How can we examine our own attitudes and behaviours to ensure our lifestyle and efforts are in line with our values?
Our time on this earth is short and precious. When we reflect on our lives we generally look to live as happy and fulfilling a life as possible while leaving this world somehow for the better. Then real life happens, and this intention is left floundering somewhere in the midst of the daily flurry of commitments, relationships, media feeds and utility bills. Mindfulness is a powerful means to reestablishing our awareness of that intention, and our ability to fully live it out.
Most of us manage to carry a least a little of this positive impetus through into our day, clouded as it may be. We are able to enjoy at least some if not the majority of the hustle and bustle of our interactions with life and make progress towards our goals. Yet even still, much of our approach can be haphazard and responsive to whatever situation we find ourselves in, rather than considered and proactively aligned with these intrinsic values. Given how adept many of us have become at systemising all aspects of our lives, from our diets, to our exercise regimes, to our wardrobes, bringing that same level of rigour to our expression of our lives as a whole seems to induce little more than a headache and a trip to the fridge.
Breaking down this basic intention further, we’re looking at a kind of implicit formula for happiness along the lines of wanting
Pleasure (or joy) + Satisfaction (or added value)
to be greater than
Pain + Negative consequences of our actions
If you compare this to financial accounting, we’re ‘in profit’ when that’s the case.
To some extent our minds are constantly making this kind of assessment. We’re hard-wired at an instinctual level to gravitate towards pleasure and move away from pain. This takes care of our most fundamental needs for survival. Meanwhile the human need for self-actualization (thinking, learning, decision making, values, beliefs, fulfillment, helping others) according to Maslow’s famous hierarchy, compels us try to make a positive difference.
This innate system of ours is perfectly adapted for traditional human life, but times have changed quickly and our current cultural climate has shifted the balance of what is appropriate. In particular, our social structures have reduced the number of imminent, serious risks to our survival while at the same time creating a greater volume of low-level potential stresses and stimulants to our nervous system. The upshot is that we have a physical system geared towards running away from occasional wild animals which is being triggered a thousand times a day by social media notifications, emails, and deadlines. Our innate bias for survival is being spun into overdrive, as to which sky-high records of heart disease, chronic stress and other inflammatory-related illnesses can attest.
Waste in the system
The impact on our happiness account balance is twofold. In terms of ‘revenue’, we’re unable to maximise either our pleasure and joy or our sense of satisfaction with life. There is a lot of wasted energy in response to perceived threats which could be directed elsewhere. Worrying, distraction, rumination and needless anticipatory planning or analysing instead of enjoying the moment for what it is. Life choices become rooted in fear rather than our need for self-actualisation. Whole careers are offered up to companies which pay only lip-service to loyalty towards their employees, whose tactics and strategies chop and change and cancel each other out by the quarter, and whose overall contribution to society may well also be dubious at best. Leisure time is spent increasingly on often vapid and false social media content, while our traditional media institutions tumble ever more towards a similar low standard. Or it is spent reactively shoring up our pleasure reserves in response to these pressures; we all too easily find ourselves falling into the trap of consuming things we don’t need or even really want.
In terms of costs, overemphasis on survival is an expensive misuse of energy and tends to overlook the negative consequences of our actions. The byproducts of a reactive mode of being are only now starting to sink into our collective consciousness. Plastic in the oceans and piled up in formerly paradise islands around the world. Chemical pollutants which are causing mass extinction of our animal life. Social injustices that trigger mass uprisings. Dangerous levels of carbon and methane in the atmosphere that trigger droughts which cause famine and political instability. These hidden costs are increasingly starting to manifest in our own lives.
A new paradigm
While viewing things in this light can seem stark and overwhelming, a more productive response is to see every moment is an opportunity to awaken further. We can ask ourselves important questions such as ‘how much do we need?’, ‘how can we prioritise better?’, ‘how do we bring the necessary clarity to our lives?’, and ‘how can we better serve others so that we gain that sense of personal fulfillment?’.
Mindfulness practice serves as a tool to help us on this path. Firstly creating a baseline level of stillness each day with a seated meditation practice cools the survival instinct and allows our parasympathetic nervous system to dominate so that we may begin to flourish. This spills over into daily life, curbing our reactive tendencies and allowing more room for the free flow of unconditioned joy. Marthe Troly-Curtin’s adage ‘time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time’ comes into play in full effect. Our attention and ability to turn towards challenge is improved and we feel more in control. Moreover, seeds of compassion and confidence are sown, which over time grow into the creativity and motivation to better honour oneself and others. We can come up with creative responses to the unique challenges and opportunities of our situation and skillset.
This is not an easy process, but it’s a necessary and ongoing one for genuine fulfillment and the cost is relatively low compared to the alternative wastage that is present in our lives.