Mementos

I have a very strong aversion to clutter.  I frequently assess everything I own and chuck large portions of it into a charity bin.  Why I do this I couldn’t tell you; I admit that it is indeed a bizarre habit especially in an American culture where things define who you are and having more always seems to be better.  If I had to guess, I would say this proclivity is rooted in the notion that I like to be ready to flee the country or make a major life change at any given moment, and having to choose which things to bring would slow me down immensely.  I mean seriously, I have my passport with me at all times and if you say “let’s go to Ecuador right now” I would not hesitate to get on the next plane out of Newark- I’ve done it before and I wouldn’t think twice before doing it again.

But I digress.

Today, I was enlisted by my mum to assist with de-cluttering on a massive scale in our attic.  She had attempted this before but could never decide what to get rid of- however after about an hour I had torn through half the place leaving about a dozen big black rubbish bags in my wake.  Clearly, it is not difficult for me to throw away things that “have memories.”

Think about that.  “Things that have memories.”  Isn’t that a strange concept?  Of course things don’t have memories.  People have memories, but because our minds are so full of other mundane nonsense, we forget them.  To try to avoid forgetting our experiences, we trap them inside things. A ticket stub from a concert reminds us of great music; a dried corsage brings memories of prom weekend.

Three thoughts on this: First, if something was that memorable, how could you possibly forget it?  Perhaps it wouldn’t be in the front of your mind often, but the memory of an amazing experience should be burned into your mind.  Second, how often do you dig through your stuff to go through mementos and reminisce, and lastly does it make you happy?  Obviously I speak only for myself, but when I used to go through boxes of old stuff, it usually made me sad to think of times gone by rather than happy to think of good things that happened.  After I realised this, I went through my then-sizable collection of random stuff that evoked memories and instantly weeded out any that didn’t make me remember something positively delightful.  All I was left with were some old student IDs that showed the amusing progression of the enormous amount of hair I’ve cultivated on my head, a dog chain that I used to wear all throughout high school, and one of my dad’s old shirts.  I kept them because it seemed right, but I can honestly say that even these items I don’t think I would miss.

It may seem foolish to try to forget anything negative that happened, but we’re not really defined by them, are we?  We’re defined by how things that transpired resulted in our developing as humans.  We can’t control what happens, but we control how we process it- and going back to dwell on and re-process events will rarely change anything.  I find that happy memories stick with me regardless of whether or not I have physical evidence of them.  And even better, they get evoked unexpectedly by random events- it’s more common for me to hear a song that reminds me of a really fun night I had or to smell something that reminds me of a special person than for me to go digging through a box yearning for memories of days gone by.

To me, the ideal human condition involves total lack of attachment to physical things and the ability to navigate the world without any baggage.  Our concrete past doesn’t have nearly as much bearing on who we are as people as what we learned from it does.  Memories are nice, but they’re little more than an animal instinct- simply put, even a dog can remember being fed and associate its food bowl with mealtime.  Our true advantage as humans is our ability to remember that we liked Indian food last time we tried it, and to find a new restaurant with similar cuisine; to process the past in a way that allows us to gain a greater understanding of the world we live in- why waste time re-learning things you’ve already done through a box of old junk?

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Marketing is Improving the Human Race

Wow, amazing how six weeks can fly by and still feel like an eternity- for better or for worse.  You’ve probably noticed I’ve been rather neglectful of this project; a main part of my job now is blogging every day so by the time I get home I’m a bit tired of staring at a computer putting thoughts together.  If you’re a marketing/technology/new media type, you may find my company’s blog interesting; if you’re not, I apologise for the shameless plug 😉

Anyway, I was thinking about my job recently, as one is prone to do when spending 40+ hours a week in any given place, and I was trying to reason with myself about working in marketing.  As someone who routinely goes through phases of moderate asceticism and hates mindless consumption, trying to convince people that they need to go out and buy things isn’t really aligned with my values.  But then I realised that marketing really isn’t about that anymore-yes, I know this sounds like denial- but bear with me.

There was a time when marketing and advertising was about reaching everyone and trying to attract the masses to your product and brand a la Mad Men.  But that’s simply not the state of the world anymore- now, consumers and people in general want to be understood.  We’re not loyal to brands the way our parents and grandparents were; we don’t necessarily buy things because everyone else has them or they’re the most expensive or we see a compelling advertisement on television.  We consume to express who we are.  We want to be courted by brands that identify with our values, to find products that align with our personalities.  With the prevalence of social media, we are all our own brand and we take care to project ourselves in a specific way.  How many times have you been in a situation and thought very carefully about how best to tweet about it?  How many times have you taken a photograph with the express purpose of putting it on Facebook?  Whether consciously or not, we all run very careful PR for ourselves- from each Facebook status to the beverages we consume.  If I drink Starbucks, what does that say about me as opposed to someone who drinks organic fair-trade green tea?

I know this sounds like a bit of a departure from my usual “leave all your worldly possessions and live in a tree eating berries and nuts” ranting.  It is- and rest assured, there is still nothing I would love more than to leave all my worldly possessions and live in a tree eating berries and nuts- but that’s not the world we live in today.  People who do that eventually get in trouble for tax evasion.  I maintain that it’s important to stay in touch with nature and journey on your individual path to enlightenment, but it’s also irresponsible to forget that the earth is an ecosystem full of people.  You’re here for a reason, and if you don’t participate in the massive world around you it’s going to be mighty difficult for you to figure out what your dharma is.

But I digress.  Anyway, identity is the type of thing that marketers think of these days.  We’re not trying to reach everyone- we’re trying to reach the correct people.  Because of the colossal amount of data available to us- through traditional demographics as well as digital media- we can target better than ever so rather than being bombarded by noise, you’re only found by the people you want to be found by.  Rather than going out and consuming mindlessly, we’re learning to consume in a way that identifies who we are- for example, instead of going and buying a brand of toilet paper simply because I saw a nationally run commercial for it, I would choose a lesser known but more eco-friendly brand because by placing their message in the correct outlet for their target audience (me) to see it, they made me aware that theirs is a more relevant product to my lifestyle.

I’m not saying that all marketers understand this- obviously we all still get junk mail.  But at the same time, have you noticed that after researching which new car to buy, your banner ads now feature used models for sale in your area?  Have you recently bought a new yoga mat on Amazon and subsequently noticed a lot more advertisements for local yoga studios?  I even got tweeted at by @fiatnow after mentioning that I was shopping for a Mini Cooper, one of their major competitors.

It’s a bit disconcerting to hear that people are gaining such a comprehensive understanding of each other- but in a twisted, bizarre sort of way, it means we’re making great strides as a human race.  We may still be trashing the environment and waging wars against each other, but I like to think that perhaps we’re inching closer to a world of compassion where people identify with each other and create useful things to benefit one other.  And sure, it can be frightening to see just how much marketers know about you- but if it means that I get relevant information about new blends of organic tea on sale at Whole Foods instead of spammy offers to enlarge anatomy I don’t possess, sign me up!

Asceticism and the Human Condition

I was watching The Buddha at the gym the other day, so naturally when I left I was thinking about Siddhartha’s journey to enlightenment.   The phase in particular that was on my mind was his time spent as an ascetic, depriving himself of all worldly  pleasures and experiences in order to achieve spiritual enlightenment.

I think there’s something to be said for this- there definitely appears to be a disconnect between people as spiritual creatures and humans as animals.  This isn’t only the case for humans, though- I think it applies to other creatures too.  All of us are simply souls residing inside our physical bodies- I believe C.S. Lewis said something about that in a far more eloquent way, actually.  Obviously this isn’t a novel idea, but its a dichotomy that any sentient being has to grapple with.  The world can be a dangerous place for a soul seeking enlightenment.

At the same time, it seems naive and a bit irresponsible to just abstain from all things worldly entirely.  Of course, we are defined by our souls more than we are as humans, but is it not relevant that our souls are living in bodies on this place called Earth?  Should we really spend all of our time here trying to escape?  The world is full of suffering, but it’s also full of wonder.  We can learn a lot about our souls from experiencing both.

Of course like all paradoxes that we deal with, a balance must be struck.  I would think it’s helpful to experience one or the other or both walks of life in order to realise that neither is spiritually ideal.  We can’t live like Siddhartha in his early years, lavishly and wastefully.  But we also needn’t constantly deprive ourselves constantly in order to cultivate the higher being residing within all of us.

How do you balance the experience of life with spiritual health?