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I was half listening to a piece of vox pop radio a while ago and heard what seemed like a priceless comment from a teenage girl: “I’m not materialistic” she exclaimed in a tone of wounded self-exculpation, “I just like expensive things!” I no longer recall the context, but the passage had been edited to make the listener chuckle at the seeming self-deception. I laughed along at the time, but on reflection, I see a sort of logic in her outburst.

There is, after all, a sense in which she speaks for us all. Who wants to be seen as materialistic nowadays? Yet, more of us enjoy unprecedented levels of comfort and access to goods and services than ever before in human history. Taking the pulse of popular culture, the web is awash with sage advice to nurture the ‘spirit’ and reject materialism, only some of it religiously motivated.

Commentators on consumerism suggest that we are beset by envy and possessiveness, and a lack of empathy – traits that fuel the acquisitiveness of which materialism is the expression. Their research appears to track an increase of materialism both in the West and in Asia, although it is unclear to me whether this is more a matter of extent than degree – the ‘democratisation of consumption’ as it were, compared to previous centuries in which access to maximal goods and services was restricted to a narrow elite.

And we are wrong to assume that the ‘West’ is somehow more materialistic that the ‘East’. The myth of ‘eastern spirituality’ was a witting strategy employed in colonised communities, including a number of Buddhist countries, to assert at least one type of superiority over the technology of their western colonisers. Buddhist teachers in Burma, for example, held that Buddhism was heir to a superior mental culture of which the tools were the mental technology of meditation. A number of these teachers also developed simplified forms of meditation practice to increase its popularity, and there is a certain irony that one of these – Burmese Vipassana – was to morph in the late twentieth century into what we now know as the mindfulness revolution. Finally it seems the tables have been turned and the colonisers have colonised!

But, in a way, all of this is spin. Historically, we can see that Asian societies have been just as committed to conspicuous consumption and acquisition-based status as our own, even if the opportunities for this were, until recently, more restricted than in the West. Materialism, and its twenty-first century manifestation consumerism, is nothing more than the belief that possessions are the key to happiness, and this belief is not new and not western.

This was reflected by the Buddha some 2,500 years ago, quite some time before the advent of Amazon and the 24-hour shopping mall. From him we can get a perspective on consumerism, because his view is that, regardless of the degree of access to goods that it enjoys, the whole of humanity is plagued by the incorrect belief that objects can make us happy. For him this is one aspect of an existential problem that afflicts all individuals and binds them into unsatisfying lives. So from the Buddhist perspective, the problem of consumerism is an aspect of being human.

We can understand Buddhism as a system for helping individuals and communities to control and potentially transcend the demands and effects of this kind of materialism. How does that work? The fundamental insight of the Buddha was that everything is impermanent, but that we as ignorant creatures cling to objects, people, relationships, deities, ideologies and so on, in the hope that they will provide ultimate and permanent satisfaction to us. Since they are all impermanent, sadly, we are doomed to dissatisfaction, unless we can gain control of this habit, even free ourselves from it. In practice, this is accomplished as an internal transformation of the individual. The cutting edge of this transformation is formed from progressive degrees of restraint coupled with the willingness and courage to look at oneself when gratification is denied.

I hanker after a new bread maker or that red sports car – I am after all middle-aged – but what happens when I do not grasp after either? If I can sit with myself, refraining from further compensating gratifications and distractions, then in the magical space of my attention there can emerge into awareness a whole gamut of drives and needs that fuel my own materialist tendencies, giving me the chance to understand myself, to allay the whirlwind of unreciprocated need that seeks validation from objects that cannot validate me.

This sounds like psychodrama and one needs to take care that it does not descend into that. The primary means of ensuring that it doesn’t is to balance this internal process of attention with an outward movement of attention towards others through personal generosity, delight at others’ good fortune, and compassion for those in need. Here the individual is taught to reach out to sustain and cherish those around them with unstinting gifts of time, energy, materials goods and money, simultaneously countering their own personal and very human proclivity to identify with their own possessions. While Buddhist monks tend to live simpler lives, they are not forbidden possessions and Buddhist lay people are encouraged to increase their wealth, in the knowledge that this will allow them greater opportunities for acts of generosity.

Meditation can often help with the process of internal attention, but I fear that the contemporary craze for mindfulness as a cure-all for every affliction may not be the hero of the day. Its more popular applications seem little more than the harnessing of a secularised mind technique to the narcissism of the ‘me’ generation.

Some perceptive commentators rue the removal of mindfulness from its ethical and ultimately spiritual context in Buddhism, since it is those that both give it meaning and make it a more powerful tool for transformation.

But it seems clear to me that the human spirit seeks meaning and that despite predictions to the contrary, I do not think humanity’s higher aspirations will be any more crushed by contemporary consumer goods than they were by their pre-industrial counterparts.

Perhaps also, with the seeming failure of some big political narratives, it may be time for a new narrative of personal restraint and responsibility, and I think Buddhism has a role to play in that.

Dr Andrew Skilton is a Senior Research Fellow in Buddhist Studies at King’s College, London. This article first appeared in our Centre Write magazine Staying Faithful?. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.