After abundance: becoming the 'less is more' generation

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Originally published on Balance Garden

An all you can eat buffet can tell us a lot about our psychology. There is a poignant irony to these offerings which tantalisingly promise a kind of transcendental freedom in the idea of limitless indulgence as a respite from a day-to-day life of constraint. Tempting for sure, yet in practice these situations often foster a mindset of scarcity and survival-oriented behaviour as the suspicion sets in that everyone else is also after the same dessert.

While we may not all be into buffets the same psychology applies in all walks of life. And whether it’s in the dining hall, the shopping mall, the boardroom, the school playground or on a foreign nation’s soil, perceived scarcity causes conflict.

We all know this. We know it in our own lives whenever we panic buy a special offer, when we make compromises on our personal choices out of fear of finding a better alternative, whenever we grasp for ‘more’. A guilty tension sets into the body as we feel the conflict of different parts of ourselves in those moments. We create our own inner battleground over that territory and we move away from a sense of self that feels abundant, genuine and at ease.

Many do face the very real day to day pressures of a life governed by scarcity. Tragically even within our own society there is great inequality. Many do struggle to meet their basic needs. However, if you’re one of the billion or so people living at the top of the economic tree (and if you’re reading this you almost certainly are), we live within a social paradigm that is dominated by the illusion of greater scarcity than actually exists. In fact even for an average citizen, life is now characterised by more abundance than ever before. More than our grandparents, our parents, and even those of us old enough to remember when Starbucks opened in the UK could have ever dreamed of. 

We have so much food that we simply throw away a third of the contents of our fridge and supermarkets toss any produce that’s slightly wonky or bruised into the reject bin. What we do consume is in such excess that obesity-related diseases have become one of our greatest killers. Meanwhile we purchase gym memberships to burn off excess weight and guess what? For the most part we hardly use those either.

Similarly, brands have become adept at creating exclusivity via limited editions, fashion cycles and other sales strategies to make us again feel like we’re lacking something. Anything. The latest cut or wash of blue jeans when we already own ten pairs. Or more and more megapixels on our phone camera when technology already maxed out on the number of megapixels needed to make any noticeable difference to our photographs years ago.

Perhaps most evidently, we see our thirst for more luxury than we’ve ever had before in the travel industry. What was once the privilege of the very few has become relatively commonplace to many of us. The average Brit now enjoys three holidays a year and racks up about 16,000 miles by car, rail and plane.

The hidden costs of our exuberance are starting to dawn on us however. Images of wildlife floundering among seas and beaches of plastic for example have caused public outrage in recent months and increasing pressure is being applied to supermarkets to address their responsibilities in this area. We’re starting to grasp that the real cost of overconsumption is not in our bank balance, our waist size, or even our obesity rates, but in the lives of humans and plant and animal species.

As millions of people are already displaced from their homes each year due to increases in natural disasters linked to climate change for example, we all need to ask ourselves, is it still ethical to be churning out half the average UK annual CO2 emissions per person on my next long haul trip to ‘get away from it all’? These are tough questions and it's easy to look elsewhere or to fallback on a lot of the misinformation that influences popular opinion. But the facts are clear when you look. We tend to blame industry and commerce for the bulk of our oil consumption but actually transport accounts for just as much.

This is where the power of the pyscho-spiritual practices of mindfulness, yoga in it's fullest sense, and buddhism can be of real practical value, serving to guide our ethics and strengthen us to act in ways that serve the wellbeing of the collective as well as ourselves. The term ‘Bodhicitta’ in Sanskrit means a mind that strives towards awakening for the collective wellbeing of all. Beyond surface-level stress reduction, mindfulness-based meditation practices and ways of living can bring us closer to that sense of profound comfort and ease within ourselves that exists whenever we are thinking and acting out of our innate sense of compassion and connection with other beings.

Chogyam Trungpa in his book ‘Shambala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior’ references compassion and insight into our interdependence with all things as 'weapons' against the forces of greed and insecurity that threaten our future, and increasingly, our present times. The more we can internalise that there is no ‘us’ without others or all the animals and species that make up our delicately-balanced ecosystem, and the more we can feel compassion towards ourselves, the more we can tend to them with natural compassion  that springs up as an extension of our self-compassion. We relax our concept of ‘self’ into a much broader, all-encompassing definition. Conservation of nature becomes part of our own health-care regime.

Shifting our collective mindset away from consumption to conservation is a huge deal. We are entrenched in a consumer-based way of thinking, even the most educated among us. Take this blog post in Forbes ‘5 reasons why travel is good for your mental health’ as just a random example from the web from a Google search on why people travel. Like most travel articles, it overlooks the fact that a nonchalant attitude to the hidden costs of regular travel is a large part of the problem which threatens the lands, homes, crops and inhabitants of those very destinations we’re supposed to travel to for a bit of ‘stress relief’ and ‘creativity’. Those same lands which are home to the forests which purify our air or grow plants for our medicines. While it would seem overly austere to cut out foreign travel completely to many Forbes readers, there are many ways to enjoy those same benefits that are less harmful than regular long-haul jaunts. Meditation has been proven to work wonders in these areas, for example. [1][2].

Scarcity will always be a fact of life but needn’t be as pervasive. Energy is potentially eternally renewable and crops, forests and the remaining animal populations can recover under the right conditions. As world populations continue to grow and our environment more challenged, those of us blessed with such incredible wealth, education and privilege compared with the rest of the world must use it to help us find solutions to our own constraints, our fears, and challenges in our own lives so that we can set an example for others and live in a sustainable way. As a line from the ancient yogic text the Upanishads says, 'abundance breeds abundance'. Through embracing a little scarcity we can generate abundance in the things that we all strive for: love, community, a sense of connectedness and belonging, a sense of purpose, deep joy.