Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Consumption: Week 4 of No New Clothes

Sometime during the last week, I realized that to some extent, my No New Clothes practice had been about old-school renunciation: Avoid what is not not good. I was not doing things I usually do -- going to certain websites (my equivalent of a cigarette break at work), stopping off in certain stores. I've had success -- count: 1 new shirt (which I've already worn twice) -- and I felt I had some insight into why I turn to clothes shopping.

Would that insight hold up to field testing? Let's visit Anthropologie and see.

But first a recap: I'm not a hoarder or a fashionista. My habit's not out of control. But sometimes when I went shopping, clothes were not really what I was seeking. If I didn't buy something, I felt unhappy; if I did I felt guilty.

So I sat with it. And I saw that sometimes when I was trying to get by buying clothes was a feeling of affirmation or admiration or validation. Sometimes I was looking for reassurance or attention, not green pants. (I still want green pants, btw.) And that had to do with the feeling that clothes could cover over the ways I felt that I was not enough -- could make me seem prettier, smarter, younger, whatever.

It helped a lot that I also was working in my practice with the Second Foundation of Mindfulness -- mindfulness of feeling tones. Is the sensation pleasant, unpleasant, or neither? One way to get away from unpleasant feeling tones was to go shopping.

So a couple of days ago I went into Anthropologie. Pretty things. Pretty colors. I tried some on; they just didn't quite work. There was one dress, bright yellow, simple, potentially useful. But when I tried it on, it turned out to be what in my youth was called a tent dress. (I don't think I need to explain.) It was not flattering.

But it's yellow, my inadequacy said. It would be so much fun. You could have fun in this yellow dress.

I noted the unpleasant feeling tone. I noted the anxiety and insistence of my whiny self. I saw clearly that this dress would not lead to fun (at least more than another dress that would not fly up over my head in a breeze). This dress would not make me feel good in the long term. I left the store with no bags and a lightness of spirit.

This is pretty cool.

Do I think this will work every time? No. Will I simply wear the clothes I own because it's what's inside that counts and clothes merely fulfill a need for protection from the elements? Heck, no.

How we present ourselves to the world is an expression of how we feel about ourselves. That doesn't mean that we wear Dior because we recognize our inherent richness. More likely the opposite -- we're using the clothes to prove that we are rich. It's not the specific item of clothing but the care you take with in wearing it that determines what it communicates.

Are you wearing the dress or is it wearing you?

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche made his hippie followers wear suits and ties. How you dress can invoke upliftedness and grace. In the following quote he's talking about an apartment, but it easily could be clothing. If you feel good about your yourself, you take the time to look good, however, you define that, without stressing about it.

You can appreciate your life, even if it is an imperfect situation. Perhaps your apartment is run down, and your furniture is old and inexpensive. You do not have to live in a palace. You can relax and let go wherever you are. Wherever you are, it is a palace. If you move into an apartment that was left in a mess, you can spend the time to clean it up, not because you feel bad or oppressed by dirt, but because you feel good. If you take the time to clean up and move in properly, you can transform a dumpy apartment into an accommodating home. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche
We are on this journey as a community. Read all the Responsible Consumption posts and follow along as we examine our habits.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Consumption: Week 3 No New Clothes

For my participation in Responsible Consumption Month, I had a two-part aspiration. One was not to buy new clothes -- or to examine my actions in that realm. The other was to schedule a home-energy audit.

The second part of that is done. It cost $75, of which $25 will be donated to the local agency that runs the food pantry, shelter, and soup kitchen in my town. I got new water-saving shower heads and washers in all faucets, new compact fluorescent lights (in many instances replacing older model ones), weather stripping on doors to the outside. Mainly, however, I learned that we already do what we can to reduce energy consumption. There were no big fixes, just tweaks.

(photo of grass dress from a 2009 sustainable fashion event at Pratt Institute)

I'd guessed that, but I wanted to make sure we weren't missing anything. I'm pretty good with consumption of actual resources.

One the no-new-clothes front, this week's contemplation had to do with the urge to obtain clothing whose function is already covered. Let's face it, if clothing were simply utilitarian, if all we needed was protection from the elements -- warmth when it's cold, sweat absorbers when it's hot, protection from frostnip and sunburn and hypothermia and nettles and other people's fluids -- when to buy new things would not be an issue. You'd buy them when you need them.

But that's not what we do. Because that's not all clothing is. It doesn't just protect our skin, it provides a means for wordless social communication (or word-full if you choose to wear a T-shirt that says "Blow Me," as I saw in Prospect Park last weekend. The message, I'd say, was open to interpretation.) It's a way we present who we think we are to the world. It's a costume for the roles we play. We can try to fit in or stand out; we can look the part even if we don't feel it.

Playing on those insecurities is big business. Consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of economic activity in the US (including autos, food, gas, and heating fuel). The government reported that in March retail sales hit a record high of $411.1 billion, 24 percent higher than the recession low hit in March 2009. Good news, Wall Street analysts say. Or is it?

The website ecouterre.com reported last week on fashion giant H&M's sustainability report, while noting that fashion is built on disposibility:

The Swedish fast-fashion chain is second only to Inditex, owner of Zara, as the world's largest clothing retailer. Estimates suggest that it sells more than 550 million garments each year, with quarterly profits that amount to more than $412 million.

Now, in what Observer columnist Lucy Siegle, author of To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? , calls an "audacious move," H&M wants to position itself as a paragon of sustainability. Its 2011 sustainability report, released on Thursday to coincide with the debut of its latest Conscious Collection, suggests as much, yet the fact remains that disposable fashion, characterized by hair-trigger turnovers, low-wage production, and rueful longevity, shoulders much of the blame for the planet's environmental and social degradation.

(I added the italics.)

(photo from treehugger.com)

So one way to frame the issue for an environmentally conscious image-conscious person is in terms of resources. If karma means that all actions have reverberations beyond our own sphere, what does the action of buying unneeded clothes do beyond filling my closet?

If I choose to own hybrid cars, recycle twice as much trash as I throw out, swap out my light bulbs and faucets, and wrap myself up in multiple layers all winter long to be a responsible energy consumer, can awareness of the damage fashion does to the world affect my shopping habits?

Here's a great graphic from Ecouterre on the second life of our clothes. There's a longer version here

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Smiling is a Bodhisattva's Practice

I had the great privilege a week ago of watching six of my IDP sangha take the bodhisattva vow. The vow is a major step on the Buddhist path; in it, you vow to achieve enlightenment so that you can help others do so. Or, as it's sometimes said, you promise not to attain nirvana until all other beings have reached it. For all of your lifetimes to come.

Make sense, right? You can't help people get there unless you have some idea of where you're going.

But it's important to note that the vow is to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. You're not there yet. When I took the vow a couple of years ago, in the talks beforehand the teachers emphasized that it's an aspiration, an intention -- no one feels like they can really do this. It's too big. But you know in your bones that you want to, so you do it.

I have always know that this was my heart's aspiration, since the time I was a child, kneeling by bed and saying my Roman Catholic prayers. (So maybe I took the vow in a previous lifetime???) After reciting the prayers I'd memorized, I'd launch into a litany of requests that took just as long: Please, God, stop all wars. Give everyone enough food. Stop the riots, stop the racism. And on and on.

God, of course, didn't do that, and as a teenager I came to believe that it was up to humanity to do it. God helps those who helps themselves. If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.

But the problem, for me, was that it was fueled by guilt. I took to heart the part of the Mass where the congregation said: "Oh, Lord, I am not worthy to receive you but only say the word and my soul will be healed." I appreciated what I had, but I never felt worthy of it, not when so many others suffered without. (I left the Roman Catholic Church, for a multitude of personal and political and spiritual and sociological reasons, after having kids.)

Six years ago I started studying and practicing Buddhism. Auspiciously, that came through Shambhala, which teaches that all beings are basically good. My first meditation instructor was David Nichtern, at a Yoga Body/Buddha Mind workshop; that connection led me to Ethan Nichtern, his son and the founder of the Interdependence Project, and a journey of delight and challenge that has shown me ways to move toward living my deepest aspiration -- to be of benefit to all beings.

But part of the bodhisattva's journey is learning that that you have to care for yourself as much as you care for others. All beings -- including me -- have basic goodness or buddha nature or original nature or whatever you call it. The bodhisattva path asks us to recognize our own inherent richness.

And it doesn't demand that we devote ourselves to doing Big Important Things -- ending war or hunger or poverty -- constantly. It means that you brighten the corner where you are. You can always smile at someone.

During meditation in the morning before the afternoon vow ceremony, we did tonglen, a Tibetan compassion practice in which you take on others' suffering. You generally start with one person and expand to all beings in the same situation (which, let's face it, is all beings). My mind/heart looked around for some suffering that I could connect with. The big suffering seemed remote. And my mind kept coming back to something a friend who was taking the vow said to me that morning: It's nice to see a friendly face.

So I did tonglen for her and for all beings who felt in need of a friendly face to help them with whatever challenges they are facing. May you know that you are good and strong and kind and that you are surrounded by beings who are, at their core, good and strong and kind. May the world be a friendly place.

May I be a friendly face.

It might seem kind of petty when you think about war and famine and climate change and the other problems of the world. But if you bring it back to a personal level, it is huge.

Smiling is a practice of the bodhisattva.

When you produce peace and happiness in yourself, you begin to realize peace for the whole world. With the smile that you produce in yourself, with the conscious breathing you establish within yourself, you begin to work for peace in the world. To smile is not to smile only for yourself; the world will change because of your smile. When you practice sitting meditation, if you enjoy even one moment of your sitting, if you establish serenity and happiness inside yourself, you provide the world with a solid base of peace.

If you do not give yourself peace, how can you share it with others? If you do not begin your peace work with yourself, where will you go to begin it? To sit, to smile, to look at things and really see them, these are the basis of peace work. Thich Nhat Hahn

For an aural experience, listen here. I'm in heaven when you smile. (Van Morrison. Jackie Wilson Said.)

**Top two photos are stock art.
Third photo is Ajahn Amaro, the most purely joyful person I have met.
Bottom photo is Mathieu Ricard, sometimes described as the happiest man alive.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Feeling happens

I've been working lately with the second foundation of mindfulness -- Vedana, which is often translated as mindfulness of emotions or of feelings. It's really less and more than that, and probably is more accurately described as mindfulness of feeling tones.

The Buddha laid out the Four Foundations of Mindfulness in the Sattipattana Sutta. The first foundation is mindfulness of body, which he talked about at length -- from knowing that you're breathing in to knowing that this body will be a corpse and all your internal organs will rot and fall out of your skeleton on the charnal grounds.

The second foundation gets a lot fewer words. Essentially, it’s about the feeling tone that comes before full-blown emotions. It’s an unconscious assessment we make thousands of times a day about every sensation or phenomena we experience. We hear a noise, we respond – we like it, we dislike it – even before we give it a name: “motorcycle.” Lawnmower. Ice cream truck.

The Buddha identifies those feeling tones as pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral.

The automatic responses are the building blocks of judgment. They’re also described as the seeds of what the Buddha called the three poisons – passion/aggression/ignorance, or greed/hatred/delusion. That feeling tone – pleasant/unpleasant/neutral – determines whether we take a protective or open attitude toward the situation.

What we tend to do when we're not aware of the feeling tone that comes before the thought is to tell ourselves a story about why the situation feels unpleasant or pleasant, what caused it, what we can do to change it or to make it stay. This is where we go from mildly miffed (unpleasant feeling tone) to full-blown rage. This is where addiction begins as we reach for something to make the unpleasant tone go away or to hang on to the pleasant one. This is where unskillful behavior abounds. This is where we panic as the unpleasant tone becomes fear and anxiety about it increasing and becoming unbearable.

But what I found this week was that if I could stop at "unpleasant" and not spin a story, it wasn't unbearable. It's the stories -- the what if's, the how-could-he-have-said-that-to-me, the a-glass-of-X-would-make-me-feel-betters -- that make it unbearable. "Pleasant" quickly turns to "unpleasant" if we expect that things will never change.

I first worked with this a few years ago, and I had great difficulty with it. Part of that, I see now, was a reluctance to admit to unpleasant feelings. I was supposed to be happy, no matter what the circumstances, to appreciate life even when it was painful. So many people had bigger problems -- what right did I have to complain about mine?

What's changed now is that I know that experiencing something as unpleasant is neither a judgment of myself or the situation. It's just how it is. I don't have to justify or explain, even to myself, why it's unpleasant and prove that it deserves to be labeled that way. I don't have to defend it or push it away. Unpleasant is a fluid state, as impermanent and ephemeral as all of life, and it will change.

This is the beauty of revisiting the basic, foundational teachings even after you've studied and meditated for some time. Every time you come back to them, you are different and what you find is different. It's an exploration, with kind curiosity, not a competency you have to master to move on.

Buddhism, really, is simple. The Buddha taught suffering and the end of suffering. All the rest of it is elaboration on how to make it happen.

Lama Lhundrop, a Kagyu teacher, writing about the second foundation, says : “Our feelings will be accompanied by awareness, and as we are aware of them and the connected judging process, we can find ways to let go of them, one after the other. Due to mindfulness we can avoid further chain reactions with all the connected emotional trouble.

“Mindfulness of feelings also has the effect that we get to know ourselves better and do not run away from our feelings anymore. They become familiar experiences of great variety but without any special importance. In spite of their great variety they are all the same in one respect: they come and go without leaving traces.

“This meditation gradually leads to non-identification with feelings or sensations. Feelings will then arise without secondary thoughts that create a connection to an imaginary I or self. They are simply what they are: feelings, a flow of experiences, ever-changing.”

Or, as the Buddha is quoted in the sutta: “His mindfulness is established with the thought, ‘Feeling exists’ to the extent necessary just for knowledge and mindfulness, and he lives detached and clings to nothing.”

But (my aside), while being detached and not clinging, we are fully present and appreciative of whatever we encounter in each fleeting moment.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

It's a thing

My mother-in-law was a fashion designer.
(Can you feel the weight of that concept? Did you gasp? It was a Big Deal.)

She was a woman who knew clothes, style, fashion. I was, the first time we met, a 19-year-old who wore boys jeans and button-down shirts, who had gone to a private, all-girls high school where I wore a grey skirt and navy blazer throughout adolescence and never developed a grasp on fashion.

I was far more concerned about that than she was. Sometimes she made clothes for me or gave me samples from her workroom. There was no pressure to wear them and no sense of obligation.

"It's a thing," she would say. "It's a rag, that's all. A piece of fabric."

She wasn't being self-deprecating. This was her view: No matter what it looked like, it was, at its core, a rag. It reminds of the story about Ajahn Chah and his favorite mug; when challenged by his students about his preference for a particular mug, he explained that while he appreciated it, he knew it was already broken. Everything is subject to impermanence, and nothing -- not clothes, not mugs, not people -- goes on forever or is unchanged.

Helen, who would have been 97 on April 4, taught me that clothes should be fun, should make you feel good, should express your view.

What does this have to do with responsible consumption and my pledge to buy no new clothes for this month? As I've pondered my reasons for buying clothes, even looked through websites for pictures of clothes for blog posts, I find my mantra is: "It's a thing."

It's a thing, a rag-in-waiting, a curiosity. It's not lasting happiness, not love, not liberation. Failing to see that leads to suffering.

And hammer pants.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Anthropologie, I can't quit you

I love Anthropologie. It's more than a store to me. I see the front half as sort of a museum full of pretty things I can only look at. The colors, the patterns, the feel of the fabric, the shapes. It's art and architecture that you can actually play with. These pants with that top. That dress with this sweater. Tight. Loose. Patterns. Solids. It's like sending a geeky kid into a Lego store.

I don't buy from the front of the store. I admire. But then there's the back room, where items are generally 50 percent off. There, I buy.

Now, I do not legitimately need any more clothes. I have made my girlfriends promise that if I die unexpectedly, they will each come over and take a few black skirts so that no one person will know how many I own. They are all different, I swear (the black skirts and the girlfriends) in subtle ways.
Does the knowledge that I could outfit a class of funky Catholic schoolgirls stop me from looking at black skirts. No. Clearly the issue is not that I need a black skirt for any occasion. The issue is that I want.

And that, I'm afraid, is at the heart of most of my shopping. Pretty colors. Pretty fabric. Appropriate for some occasion I wish I were at.

What I want is not exactly the clothes. What I want is what I think the clothes do. After a hard day at work, when there is more work than I can do and people are sharp and I feel inadequate, I want clothes to tell me I have value. On other days, when I feel unattractive, I want clothes that are pretty, that cover that over. Or clothes that will get attention -- or respect or love or admiration or whatever I want that I feel I am not getting or am unworthy of.

That's a lot to ask from a pair of ballet flats. And they never bring it for long. In fact, clothes that are asked to be more than they are inevitably bring bad feelings and admonishing internal talk. The committee speaks up: You don't need that, you can't afford that, what is wrong with you? (Note: Any time your thoughts address you as "you," they probably aren't speaking for your inner wisdom.)

So the question is: What do I want? Is it something clothes can give me? Is it something my inner wisdom can give me if I sit with this instead of driving to the strip mall, excuse me, lifestyle center, aka fake town center where Anthropologie is located.

Responsible consumption means buying things because you need the things, not because you thing they can magically provide other things.

It also means knowing who you're buying from. Anthropologie is owned by the same company as Urban Outfitters, which has had some reprehensible products. Wikipedia lists several controversies, but it's missing ones this year over St. Patrick's Day T-shirts that some Irish-Americans found offensive and a card at Urban Outfitters UK that offended transsexuals and their friends. Anthropologie, however, offends only in the occasional incredibly ugly, always over-priced items I see mainly online.

On the plus side, a lot of the good are made in the US.

So Anthropologie, it's adieu for a month. When I feel compelled to come visit, I will instead settle somewhere and look at my mind and what I really want. It may be in my car in the parking lot. And it may be that a dress is just ... a dress. And in that case, maybe I'll come in.

It's fine to take pleasure, to enjoy good food, and to listen to beautiful music. Becoming curious about how we suffer doesn't mean we can no longer enjoy eating ice cream. But once we begin to understand the bewilderment of our untrained mind, we won't look to the ice cream and say, 'that's happiness.' We'll realize the mind can be happy devoid of ice cream. We'll realize the mind is happy and content by nature. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche