Recently, my life went completely down the flusher. My wife, with whom I was blissfully in love, texted me to say she wanted a divorce.
That was a bad day.
I decided I had two ways of coping: I could listen to every sad love song ever made and begin the great "Weep-fest of 2010," or I could shop my sorrows away. During the next six hours, I managed to spend over $300. While under the "euphoria" of emotional devastation, I made a significant dent in my personal savings.
When I awoke the next day, I discovered that the sorrow I felt over my divorce was compounded by guilt for the $300 in impulse buying.
I am not the first to fall to the seductive lure of "shopping therapy." Every day, countless people around the world seek malls, stores and other beacons of commercialism with the sole purpose of finding succor from life's pains.
But how effective is this form of coping? Does it blind us to a better alternative?
Aparigraha is a Sanskrit word that describes the concept of abstention. Don't be embarrassed if you do not recognize this word. The idea of purposeful restraint for one's self-improvement is foreign in our culture. But among many yoga traditions, aparigraha is considered a core practice to master for finding liberation or inner peace.
Our capitalistic culture has created, and continually reinforces, the notion that all of life's aches and pains can be whisked away with the right merchandise. Medicines for headaches, anxiety and runny noses are available at the corner drug store. You can resolve a mid-life crisis with ample monetary expenditures. You can even dull the pain of death with the plethora of coffins, flowers and plots to purchase.
What we fail to accept is the fact that these placebos do not cure our ills, they just provide momentary suppression of the symptoms. But like everything else, what you don't deal with now comes back later with even greater intensity.
The key to avoiding this trap is to learn to develop a healthy sense of self-worth that is in no way based upon the quality or quantity of your possessions. That might be easier said than done. But we stand a greater chance of success if we examine the deeper wisdom found within the concept of aparigraha.
The root word of aparigraha is parigraha, which means to reach for something and claim it for yourself. By adding the "a" in front of the word, it takes on the opposite definition. Aparigraha, therefore, is the act of releasing possessions.
In the ancient world, when Sanskrit was a common language, those who practiced the ideal of aparigraha often took it to extremes. These ascetics endeavored to separate themselves from all but the barest clothing and simplest foods in an effort to gain spiritual purity.
While that practice may be fine for the few true devotees among us, the fact of the matter is that the rest of us have obligations and responsibilities that prevent us from simply throwing all our possessions away. But brace yourself: You don't have to give up all you own to obtain peace of spirit. The reality is that there is nothing wrong with having nice things and taking pride in the things we have earned in our lives. The key is to understand that our possessions are accessories to who we are, not the other way around.
Take a moment and consider the three possessions that you would save from your burning house. Of all you own, these three things help define you and make life worth living. They could include photos, a family heirloom or maybe an irreplaceable piece of art.
Now, consider how little concern you have for the hypothetical loss of everything else you own.
Strange how much we accumulate that we could easily live without.
The idea that our self-worth is tied up in material objects is natural. Nature designed us to build bonds with the things we need to survive. Over the eons, we have learned to create and accumulate things that have little or no intrinsic value to our survival; yet, that same primal urge to bond with our possessions has not evolved the ability to distinguish the urge of need from the urge of want.
We must learn to make a conscious effort to stop and truly consider what is important to us. When life becomes difficult, learn to draw upon what we already have: our friends, family, faith and talents. More often than not, the true source of our peace is something simple and meaningful—and frequently, it's something we don't want to do. Instead, we seek quick fixes—medicines, substances and purchases—to help hide our discomfort.
By learning to trust our instincts and practicing aparigraha, separating who we are from what we have, we can develop a healthier lifestyle and find a greater appreciation for the things we with meaning and who we truly are.
"Shopping therapy" may feel good for a minute, but having more stuff rarely makes an impact on our peace of mind.