What is all this stuff? Books, chairs, clothes, cutlery, bags, shoes, shelves, kitchens, computers, bracelets, shoes...what's it all for?
Julian Baggini whose RSA event I chaired a few months back... recently penned a thoughtful and amusing piece in The Independent: Is Osborne's Dad worth a £19,000 desk? The article explores how we use our 'stuff' to make sense of ourselves:
"A good desk is a kind of proof that you take your writing seriously, and hence, by implication, are a serious writer. A decent computer monitor might be just as important, of course, but such technology is not the preserve of the person of letters, and so cannot provide the same kind of psychological support."
Lest you think this is a politically motivated attack disguised as a casual philosophical insight, the point goes to the heart of many of our most pressing challenges. In a previous post on the madness of economic growth in the context of climate change I made a passing reference to Tim Jackson's phrase 'the social logic of consumption'. The basic idea is that, increasingly, we are what we buy. Through our consumption patterns we tell stories to ourselves about ourselves, and try to convey those stories to the people around us. It is not so much that we need status symbols to fuel our egos, but rather we need to surround ourselves with material objects to give our egos function and form. It is not that our objects are inherently meaningful, but rather through the process of identifying with them we make them so.
As with anything psychologically insightful, the Buddhist's are way ahead of the game. In Buddhist epistemology, 'rupas' are those objects we use to reinforce our sense of self: “We commonly impose distortion on to the object world. We take it as implying ourselves, and in the process create self-material in relation to it. . . . We see in the object signs that lead us to construe a self, and from this create a sense of self. We can say that the object is an indicator of that self. The object is called a rupa” (Caroline Brazier 2003, 62).
Of course in Buddhism this construction of a self is, at the very least, something to be aware of, and usually considered somewhat problematic because it can lead to various forms of maladaptive attachment, and this viewpoint is largely shared by many aspects of modern cognitive science. In addition to Baggini's reappraisal of Hume's bundle theory of the self in the talk above, I would strongly encourage readers to take a look at the work of Francisco Varela who combines cognitive science, buddhism and continental philosophy to give a deliciously rich theory of self and consciousness.
Changes in our fundamental processes of consumption, self-creation, and social comparison are not going to happen overnight. However, the link between the social logic of consumption that is the engine of capitalism - driving economic growth, and the Buddhist insight that our selves are in some ways nothing but these things that we identify with and attach to, are closely linked. One thing that might follow, as was suggested by my colleague Egidijus Gecius in a previous post and in many other sources (and as is the mission underpinning the Garrison Institute in New York State) is that sooner or later you realise that the problems can be understood and, with practice, even experienced, as manifestations of our wayward minds.
And the more that insight sinks in, the more you feel the most productive place to work for social change is at the level of the mind. I was reminded of this while chairing the Matthew Johnstone event on meditation here last week. At the end, I felt moved to say to the audience that the Social Brain Centre is keen to develop work in this area. There are lots of people out there teaching meditation in various forms, and we are keen to start thinking about how to make meditation more mainstream, and socially supported. I would like it to become normal, in the literal sense of being a conventional social norm. What that might look like I am not yet sure, but examples include: meditation on the primary and secondary curricula, a meditation room in every major office building, doctors regularly subscribing meditation on the NHS. All of these things already exist in nascent form, but we haven't reached a tipping point, and meditation is still viewed by many, wrongly, as a somewhat fringe activity.
Coming back to the breath, as it were, it seems I started with material objects and ended with meditation.
Or should that be Om?
Addendum: At lunchtime Matthew Taylor mentioned an RSA event on sustainable consumption featuring two people who had given away virtually all their stuff, and an anthropologist who studied how people related to their stuff. The anthropologist shared his finding that, based on his years of research, the main conclusion was that those who liked their stuff were happier than those who didn't. Somebody in the audience apparently then asked, in the context of an event on sustainability, a question that Matthew considered to be one of the best ever in an RSA event:
"So are you saying we should we should care more about our stuff or less?"
The case for caring less is that we would therefore buy less of it, which is better for the environment. The case for caring more, which Matthew had more sympathy for, was that if you really care about your stuff you look after it, and are more likely to reuse and repair it...which might be even more important.