Learning from failure to lead to success

I cheated on my own Merch Diet, and found out why I can’t stop buying stuff
By Suzan Colón  Published on 10/18/2018 at 10:00 AM EDT
Illustration by Suzan Colón

Some weeks ago, I wrote about taking the Aparigraha Challenge—could I stop buying new stuff for a month? Aparigraha is the Yoga principle of non-hoarding, or not taking more than you need. The post had enthusiastic comments and shares. We were gonna do this thing, together! Go on a merch diet! Tame our inner shopping beasts! Save money and create space in our homes and our minds! Yeah!

So, how’d we do? I was going to share the stories of Grok Nation readers who were into the challenge, but when we asked for stories online, we got only a few responses—some from crickets, and a couple from tumbleweeds. Maybe those first enthusiastic responders had so much success they’ve decided to extend the month to a year. As for me, my Aparigraha Challenge was a total failure… and a complete success.

Before I explain, a little background: I wanted to do this challenge because I’d noticed a recurring trend in my purchases. I keep buying books even though I have a whole shelf of unread books; online art classes that I then don’t finish; and a lot of art supplies to go with the art classes that go unused because, you know, unused art classes.

In Yogic philosophy, repeating cycles of behavior are called Samskaras. I believe Samskaras can be turned from negative cycles into beneficial teachers if we discover what’s driving them. In this case, I wanted to know why I kept falling in love with books and classes and supplies, marrying/buying them, and then ignoring them almost completely, except for guilty looks in their direction.

Meditation provided the insight that I was in a Samskara. An expert provided the other missing pieces. Julie Morgenstern, bestselling author and organizational guru, has had a long and thriving career helping people organize and purge their surplus stuff. I asked her if there was any neuroscience behind the desire to acquire. Are we hard-wired to hoard?

“True hoarding happens in the brain,” Julie said, differentiating between buying a lot of stuff and accumulating so much that it literally becomes a health hazard. “There’s a broken loop in a neural pathway that causes people to have a compulsion to hoard. What’s more frequent is an aspirational, self improvement aspect to our purchases. We think, ‘If I buy these beauty products, they’ll make me more beautiful. This book will make me wiser.’ And so on.

“There’s nothing wrong with self improvement,” Julie says, anticipating my objection. “But in our consumer-focused society, advertising plays into this drive to improve our lives. We start to think that the way to improve ourselves is outside of us rather than in us. We’re not trusting that we’re enough.”

Ouch. That’s one of those realizations that, while difficult to hear, can lead to positive change (when it stops stinging from truth). Most of the books I accumulate are of the variety tactfully known as “personal growth,” aka self-help. The art classes make me think I’ll one day be a really good artist. The art supplies are pure potential, like new yoga clothes bought in December.

That’s all fine; the issue is that I project too much magic onto these items, as though the transformation will occur simply by possessing them. “We like to think we’re the type of person who would read this book or do this thing,” says Julie. But in order to become that person, we have to take the action. Sure, buy the yoga clothes—but then, you have to actually go to the classes.

Another issue is scarcity thinking, which causes a person to buy a ton of whatever it is that will make them think they have enough, or keeping anxiety at bay with retail therapy. The big problem with those is how poorly they work.

Which brings me to how my own Aparigraha Challenge was a failure—and a complete success.

How can both of those things be true? By showing me the true nature of my relationship with the things I was buying. A week after posting the challenge, I saw an online art class I really, really wanted to take. It was on a super sale, which “justified” the purchase. I bought new art supplies to go with it. And I bought a new book. Each time, I waited for that great fizzy feeling that came with Getting the New Thing! Only it didn’t come. The aspirational aspect cat was out of the bag. I knew what I was doing and why. With that truth came what I was really hoping for: change.

I actually completed that art class. I’m using the art supplies. The book… I hope to use it some day, or give it to someone who will. A month later, I still haven’t bought anything new. Not because I feel I shouldn’t, but because I feel like I have enough. And that I am enough. I’m having fun using all the stuff I already have. I feel content.

Some parting words of advice from Julie: “Before you buy whatever it is you’re thinking about, ask yourself, ‘What does this symbolize to me?’” And try my 24-hour rule: Whenever I see something I want, I have to wait 24 hours to see if I even remember wanting it. Once you see what you truly want, you can get what you really need.  

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