Many have the idea that ‘materialism’ — giving high importance to material possessions — is modernity’s big problem. But, materialism is not the problem really, for a true materialist would have a love for beauty, aesthetics and quality. And there is nothing mundane or inferior about such love. Actually, the real problem is not having a love for anything. The real problem is not being able to enjoy whatever material you have. Because you are forever living in the future, always believing there is more that you need. Blaming materialism is getting the wrong end of the stick
If materialism is not the problem, what is?
If materialism really is the problem, perhaps something like minimalism might solve it? But, how much minimalism, is minimal enough? Do we have to get to the point of sleeping on the floor in a bare room with no furniture? Some minimalists seem to aspire to this. Yet, their problem is the same as the materialists — discontentment that comes from not having ‘more’. Only for the minimalists, having less, is more. Their discontentment is with not being minimal enough! We can even see this pattern with ‘spirituality’. This too can become a stick to beat yourself up with. “If I just became that extra bit more spiritual, I might finally be happy one day”, one might lament.
So, the problem is not the degree of the thing per se, whether that is material possessions or spiritual engagement. The problem is that you pin your self-worth to its achievement and forget to enjoy the experience it offers. Because you believe you always need more of it— whether possessions, enlightenment, or divine grace — to feel good about yourself. Materialism, minimalism and spirituality can all so easily become vehicles for chasing happiness without ever finding it. For, contentment lies in first enjoying whatever it is you already have, in this moment.
The ego is capable of hijacking almost anything to defer contentment to some future point. And, that very human tendency is what we must become awake to.
Some even cling to meditation as the path to salvation, with an attitude of “I meditate, therefore I am”. Meditation, like material possessions, may benefit different people in different ways, but not when you turn it into a mountain top to climb with the hope of finally finding contentment someday. And, the ancients were well aware of this danger. As one 7th century zen master put it:
“There are some people with the confused notion that the greatest achievement is to sit quietly with an emptied mind, where not a thought is allowed to be conceived…When you cherish the notion of purity and cling to it, you turn purity into falsehood.” — Huineng
And, this behaviour can creep into anything. I noticed recently that even something as beneficial as ear phones can be co-opted into the service of relentless achieving. Rather than simply enjoy a jog, one might listen to a podcast to make it more ‘productive’. Gone are the days of simply enjoying a run, or complementing it with some music you love. No! It must now be made productive by acquiring some knowledge, so that you can keep on achieving.
The point once again is not that you should never listen to a podcast while jogging. Listen to one if you enjoy it. The problem is that so often, we do NOT enjoy it, but force ourselves to do it anyway . So you see how even something as mundane as a podcast can be hijacked by an anxious mind in its relentless striving to prove its worth. Because we doubt the validity of our being as it is. Because we doubt the validity of simple enjoyments for their own sake.
Materialism is not the problem really
If materialism is not the problem, the same goes for minimalism, spirituality, meditation, or technology. Anything can get co-opted to serve an anxious mind striving for happiness. Yet, rather than getting any closer, you start moving away from it. For, anxious striving that does not lead to contentment, only produces even more anxious striving, ad infinitum. And, much of this often happens outside of conscious attention, without you really being aware that you are doing it.
So, what really needs looking at then, is your mind — your relationship to the thing or activity. Are you doing it for its own sake, or are you chasing achievement, unwittingly deferring contentment to a tomorrow that never comes?
Harsha is a 1:1 coach and independent thinker based in London. He empowers people to find more clarity, confidence and focus in their lives — to cut through the noise, in a world so full of it. Harsha’s new book, Machine Ego: Tragedy of the Modern Mind, is now available in paperback and Kindle through Amazon.