With fresh eyes…

This video isn’t about what you might initially think.

Unravel from Aeon Video on Vimeo.

The familiar blunts our perspective…

We get so used to how we live that it seems normal.

Seeing with fresh eyes…

We can interrupt this pattern by seeing our society through other eyes, as filmmaker Meghna Gupta gives us a chance to do in her video. When I taught consumer issues, students did a discovery exercise that elicited insightful observations about the consumer culture.This was the task:

Imagine you landed here from another planet. You know nothing about this civilization except that it is populated by  beings that are called humans. You are able to be invisible and observe their daily life without disturbing it. Your home planet has sent you on this mission of discovery so you can report back about what kind of beings these humans are—what they do, how they spend their time, what seems to be most important to them, what personal characteristics are most evident.

So…

What would you report back if you were that visitor from outer space?

P.S. Just before I posted this, I heard a radio report about a website where you can “Book personalized video shoutouts from your favorite people.” What does it say about us that we are willing to pay up to $500 to do this?

Rethinking…

For many years I taught a college course called Issues in Consumer Economics. Based on that experience, I wrote Conscious Spending, Conscious Life: An Uncommon Guide to Navigating the Consumer Culture. Here’s the first paragraph of the introduction to that book:

It is one of the illusions of these times that we can control our world and the people in it—an understandable desire, certainly, because it’s comforting to think we can make everything go our way. For many people, being in control gives them a feeling of security. And truthfully, it is possible to live that way for awhile. But eventually we encounter something beyond our control—an extreme weather event, a dramatic economic downturn, or a serious illness.

At the time, I was thinking of individual money management and being prepared for the unexpected. I certainly had no idea that we would, in my lifetime, experience two of these events at once and collectively—all of us, together, across the world.

I wanted my students to recognize that navigating the consumer culture is challenging, and requires us to be aware, to skillfully use our tools and resources, and to master ourselves and our impulses.

The consumer culture fosters none of that. In fact, it is structured to get us to act mindlessly. Encouraging students to think for themselves—rather than responding in knee-jerk reaction to cultural expectations—was one of my themes.

We are all being invited to rethink…

The double whammy of a pandemic and economic disintegration has shaken our culture to the core. Even the cleverest of us is not able to avoid it, so what are we to do? From my point of view, it seems a shame to miss the opportunity for thinking more consciously about the choices we make. If we don’t embody what we can learn about ourselves in a crisis, we slip back into habitual thought patterns as soon as things begin heading in the direction of normal.

What is “normal”?

Being normal means conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern. It refers to the usual, average, typical, or expected condition. In essence, “normal” is what we get used to, our expectation of the way things are or should be. But notice, nothing in the definition says that normal means the only or the best way.

As we navigate life in a world shaped by COVID-19, we are experiencing an intense disruption of what used to be considered normal. This is the perfect time to ask ourselves if we want to go back to those previously-normal ways of being when this pandemic is over. We might—or we might not—but at least we should think about it rather than default mindlessly to how things were.

If you have an inkling that your answer is “no”—that there are aspects of your life that you do not want to return to—then this is your chance to set the stage for some rethinking,

Steps for Constructive Thinking….

1  Become aware.

Open your eyes and your mind. See what’s going on, even if you don’t like it. See how you are responding (or not) and don’t judge yourself. Feel what you feel, but don’t wallow in it.

Ask yourself questions to help you zero in on what you value. What do you miss? Why? What do you like better in your life now? How might you make the situation better in some small way? Now? In the future? Here’s a question to get you started…

Taking for granted

2.  Capture your insights in writing.

Make a list of your insights…so you remember them when the crisis is over. Without conscious attention, it’s too easy to lapse into previous patterns, losing sight of the new way you’d rather be.

It’s a human tendency to default to what we’re conditioned to consider normal. Examples from two recent interviews of people who were in major cities during and after life-changing events. Author Adam Gopnik has lived in New York for much of his adult life. When asked if he thought things would be different after the current crisis, he said that, based on his experience of 9/11, he guessed not. Apparently, after things settled down, people largely went back to life as before. The same happened after the SARS epidemic in Asia in the early 2000s, according to Mark Machin, President and CEO of the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, who lived in Asia at the time.

Obviously, then, change requires our conscious effort. And capturing your insights is the first small step you can take in the heat of the moment.

3. Get a sense of your “new normal.”

Create your “new normal” by being intentional about it. Imagine it. Feel it. Picture it. Give it a chance to become your expected state of affairs.

Rethinking normal…

In our daily lives, we are not often intentional about our future. Businesses, on the other hand, often use formalized processes to spark creative thinking to keep the business thriving. One of these techniques is “assumption reversal,” described this way in the Business Survival Toolkit:

Assumption reversal was developed by Stephen Grossman, a creativity consultant… The purpose of this technique is to deliberately question your underlying assumptions about a problem to help spark new ideas for addressing it.

…By turning your assumptions on their head and creating a mirror image view, you can generate new ways of approaching problems and issues. …Your original assumptions are not necessarily wrong, but in reversing them you can generate new approaches. There is also the possibility that you may be harbouring false assumptions. If so, this technique will also help you to discover that this is the case and avoid the limitations that this can cause.

Assumptions become deeply entrenched, so much so that we are often unaware of the extent to which they dictate our actions and decisions. It takes deliberate effort—or a crisis like a pandemic—to put us in a frame of mind to reverse our assumptions.

If I were asked what could possibly be beneficial about the experience we’re having now, I would say it is the deep disruption of our assumptions about what is true, necessary, and constructive in our lives.

For further exploration about applying assumption reversal to everyday life, see this recent article from BBC News by Matthew Syed, British journalist, broadcaster, table tennis champion, and author of Rebel Ideas: the Power of Diverse Thinking. He writes, “Our world has changed immensely in the last few weeks but amid the upheaval and distress, there are reasons to believe we can emerge from the crisis with some human qualities enhanced.

Think about it, talk about it…

In these days of physical distancing and staying home, there are a lot more telephone and video chats happening. After you’ve caught up on the news of how family and friends are doing, you might be looking for other topics of conversation. Talking about some of the philosophical issues that are coming up for you is a good way to increase your own perspective.

Conversation starters might be observations or questions such as…

  • I’ve been thinking about…
  • Since I’ve been home more, I’ve noticed that…
  • Do you find you have more time to think these days?
  • In the midst of all this, I’ve been surprised that…
  • After this is over, I think I’ll…
  • What will you no longer take for granted?

I have even found this time of upheaval an opening to talk about death and dying, which was the theme of my writing last year. If you have insights or conversation starters to share, or other comments about any of this, I’d love to hear from you.

If you missed it last week…

A free digital version of my book is available until April 20 as part of Smashwords’ Authors Give Back sale. Download your free copy using this link which takes you directly to my book page. Click on the orange button in the right-hand column that says “Buy with coupon.” It will take you to the cart and show a price of $0.00. You can download the book in whatever form you prefer (epub, mobi/Kindle, pdf, etc…)

Unhooking Your Death from the Consumer Culture

*** Time for this post?  Reading… 9 minutes. Viewing… 4 minutes. Doing something to unhook yourself…up to you.

We live in a time when dying has been sanitized and commercialized—like most of our life experiences. In our consumer culture, commercial interests have taken over all the difficult things we used to do ourselves when someone died. In return, we get to detach from the experience and feel less discomfort.

That wasn’t always the case. Here’s a recollection shared by Nora, a reader who is now 90 years old.

My first direct experience [with death] was probably around the age of 5 or 6. In those days people still often dealt with the death of a family member at home, and my mother was often called on to help with washing of the body. In this particular instance a baby had died and I accompanied her to the farm where the family lived. They were friends. I watched as the baby was washed and placed in a small wooden box, then taken out and buried on the property. I didn’t see the burial, but can’t recall why. I only remember that I wasn’t scared and thought it was completely natural.

That had changed by the time the Baby Boomers were growing up in the 1950s and 60s. By then, the funeral industry was in full swing. Death was outsourced and we didn’t learn, as Nora did, that it is completely natural and not scary. In the absence of such experience, we’ve become fearful of the unknown and susceptible to the death phobia that pervades the culture around us.

Death phobia serves commercial interests…

Continue reading

Conscious Business. Possible?

I’m a systems thinker, and for a long time have been aware of the dysfunctional nature of the economic system we live in. That’s what prompted me to write a book about navigating the consumer culture without being swallowed up by it.

When I wrote Conscious Spending, Conscious Life, my view was that the system needed a drastic overhaul. I talked about the work of alternative thinkers such as David Korten, Ray Anderson, Paul Hawken, and Muhammad Yunus.

If I’d known then about John Mackey and conscious capitalism, I would certainly have written about him too. Continue reading

Financial Literacy: Crucial for all of us

November is Financial Literacy Month in Canada. This annual event acknowledges the need to educate ourselves in a crucial area of life—how to navigate the consumer culture without being consumed by it.

This initiative came out of the work of a task force that travelled the country to assess the state of financial literacy in Canada.  My submission to that task force expressed the view that all post-secondary students should be required to complete a personal finance course in order to graduate.

I was pleased that the final report of the task force recommended that “…all provincial and territorial governments integrate financial literacy in the formal education system, including…post-secondary education and formalized adult learning activities.”

Realistically, this is unlikely to happen. But Continue reading

The consumer culture discourages thinking for ourselves.

paper test 3 3

True freedom comes from exercising autonomy over our lives. The consumer culture discourages us from thinking for ourselves, preferring that we adopt the cultural story about how to live.

Our challenge is to detach ourselves from the cultural story and look at the illusions surrounding freedom and choice.

  • Has the use of credit given you freedom or put you in bondage?
  • Is it an either/or question?
  • If it’s “both/and,” what makes the difference?

It’s something worth thinking about if we want to make our own lives.

Reference chapter: “Power and Money” in Conscious Spending. Conscious Life.

A book I’d have written if I hadn’t been writing mine

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Part 4 of my book Conscious Spending, Conscious Life is about health, safety and integrity of the future. It covers food and toxics, among other things. People are often surprised that I included health in a book about consumerism. But the truth is, food has become the ultimate consumer good—commercially grown, highly processed, and heavily marketed.

Navigating the consumer culture—unharmed—is a tricky task these days. Remaining healthy is one of the challenges. Despite relative wealth and an abundance of food products in North America, we continue to become more and more unhealthy.

Much of what we call “food” really isn’t. The dictionary defines food as “material that is used by the body to sustain growth, repair, and vital processes, as well as to furnish energy.” In a consumer culture, it is so easy to make poor choices and eat a lot that fills us up but doesn’t support our bodies in carrying out vital life processes. The choices we make can end up haunting us sooner or later.

When we become conscious of what we eat and try to do the right thing, we’re faced with confusing and conflicting information to sort through. While I was writing my section about food and toxics, I was frustrated by not having enough space to say everything I wanted to.

So I’m happy to tell you about a book I discovered Continue reading

Courage to change

Laurana with Julie-001

I recently met a young woman who is buying nothing for a year. Julie Phillips (photo) was giving a talk about how this came to be (serendipity, like many of life’s most remarkable moments) and about her experiences during the first six weeks of being propelled into a #DIYLife.

Julie Phillips is certainly not the first person to spend less money and do more for herself,
but I was struck by several defining aspects of her story: Continue reading