Sunday, July 30, 2017

Sometimes More is Not Better

Mara here. I'm sitting in an empty Costco. It's 7:00 a.m., the store is lit, and there are a few workers milling about. Someone is on one of those floor cleaning machines that looks like a ride on lawnmower. 

But otherwise it's empty.  And it's quiet. And it's clean.

I'm here because I need new tires for my car. Costco isn't a place I've thought of to get my car worked on, but we got a large Costco cash card when we bought our daughter's car (it was some kind of promotion), so when I needed new tires for my car, we thought, hey, let's use that Costco card.

So here I am. 

There's a rather convoluted story behind how I ended up at the particular Costco I'm at. There are probably four Costco's within ten miles of my house, but this one is further afield. Instead of trying to get a ride home and then have to turn right around and come back to pick up my car, I decided to stay and wait for it to be finished. So here I sit.

It's strange to be in the store without the normal feelings of stress and frenzy I associate with Costco. Usually I'm worried about how crowded it will be and whether or not I'll find a place to park. 

But today I'm just sitting here. I'm not free to roam around because I'm in the little auto repair area, but I can see almost the whole store. It's stacked from floor to almost ceiling with stuff, so years of memories of shopping at Costco start to flood my brain.

I remember I was in elementary school when my parents got a membership to the Price Club. They were members of a small local credit union and that allowed us to get a much coveted membership to this new warehouse-style bargain store. It was amazing! I had never seen anything like it before. My dad and I would get into his old VW van with its metal interior and no air conditioning. I can't even remember if I wore a seat belt. He'd drive for what felt like hours to the closest Price Club. I'm guessing it was probably 45 minutes away, but it felt like a long journey at the time. My hometown was small, so our normal trips to the grocery store meant driving down the road a mile. 

This is why a day at the Price Club was an event. We would plan ahead and make lists of all the stuff we wanted. We didn't just get the normal boring food. We'd get things like bagel dogs, egg rolls, and frozen pretzels—huge boxes of them! Toilet paper was boring, but 48 rolls of toilet paper was amazing! Ketchup was boring, but two half-gallon bottles of ketchup was fantastic! And it seemed like such a bargain. For families who wanted to get a good deal on groceries or household appliances, the Price Club was a great place. And let's face it, as a kid, we didn't think about budgets so having more of everything seemed like the best policy.

In addition, having a Price Club membership was special. Not everyone could get one. The membership rules were much stricter back then, so friends would often call and ask us to get them supplies for school events or for their parties. Everyone wanted to know someone who had a Price Club membership.

So, growing up, shopping at the Price Club was the ultimate grocery shopping goal. One of the things on my list of "adult to do" items was to become a member of the Price Club. By the time I was actually old enough to get a membership, the Price Club had become Costco. My husband and I eagerly signed up for our annual membership and made the trek to the Costco closest to us. 

But those childhood memories of the Price Club that stayed with me all those years didn't match my adult reality. Trip after trip, we discovered that there wasn't anything at Costco that made much sense for us to buy. At the time, there were just the two of us, and we didn't require much. We didn't throw many parties or need to buy supplies for large events. And we didn't have a garage, so there was nowhere to store extra quantities of things.

After a half dozen trips to Costco where we'd buy bags of chips so large that we couldn't eat them before they went stale and cartons of Cup O'Soups that would take up a whole cabinet to store, we reluctantly stopped going. If nothing else, going to Costco over-stimulated my "need" to buy things that were a bargain. Even if buying six tubes of toothpaste was a little cheaper than buying one, it didn't make sense for us to spend $20 on toothpaste when spending $4 got us what we needed. 

I could never figure out how to make budgeting for bulk shopping work for us. Even after our daughter was born, the three of us didn't consume enough to warrant buying pounds of things when ounces of things were more than enough.

Perhaps if we'd had a boy it would be different. (I remember my brother and his friends could clean out all the food in our kitchen in an afternoon.) Or if we'd had multiple kids or even if our kid was was the kind who always has a lot of friends over, then going to Costco would have made sense. But as it is, more for us wasn't better, it was too was wasteful.

This was a hard lesson for me to learn.

I like to joke that I'm a hoarder, which is kind of a horrible joke because there are people who actually suffer greatly from hoarding. I just want lots of stuff. My impulse is to feel as if I don't have enough. For example, when we still got plastic bags at the grocery store, I kept them all. Even when the cabinet I put them in was bursting and they'd spill out onto the floor, I always wanted more. 

There's no "right amount" for me. We either don't have enough or I we have way too much. 

Costco definitely triggers the desire in me for more. It's difficult for me not to buy the 100 pack of granola bars. Or it takes a lot of will power not to buy another 12 pack of Diet Cokes, even though we have three sitting in our garage. This is because a part of me blares out alarms saying, "What if we run out? What if we can't get more? What if I need a granola bar and we don't have any!" But those are false alarms because, the reality is that for most items, if I run out, it's not a big deal. It's not as if granola bars are the only source of sustenance in our house.

We live in an era when stores are open 24 hours. And very few things suddenly stop being available. So buying a dozen of the same item simply because it's on sale—and I might need it one day in the future—is not rational.

It took me decades of constantly wanting to buy more stuff than I needed, of always feeling like we didn't have enough, of struggling to stay within budgets, to finally realize that there really is such as thing as enough and, more importantly, there really is such a thing as too much. 

Physically there was a limit. My closets and cupboards were spilling over with things that we were never going to use. And mentally, I noticed that there was a real drain to always wanting more, to always feeling like I was lacking. And there was no end. Once I got something, my mind immediately moved onto the next thing I felt I needed. I never felt satisfied. I was always putting pressure on myself to get more and have more, which meant I was never happy with what I had.

It's taken years of forcing myself to not buy things and of forcing myself to ask repeatedly, "Do I actually need this? What happens if I don't buy this? If I already have three of these, do I need more?" for the panic that came with feeling like I didn't have enough to start subsiding. I still have moments when I find myself starting to slide back into the "more" mindset. But now I can usually talk myself out of it.

After years of paying for a Costco membership we never used (it seemed so wrong to not have one!), we finally didn't renew our membership. It was only when we were offered the gift card to go along with our daughter's car that we signed up again. There are so many discount stores now, like Target or Walmart, where you can get bargains in smaller quantities, and Amazon has made it so easy to find great deals online that we're not going to Costco very often.

Now, on the rare occasion when we do find ourselves at Costco, we usually don't end up buying anything. Even so, I always still want to buy things. Memories of the 48 variety pack of lunch-sized chip bags make me happy. But spending $20 on chips is a waste for us, so I walk past them now. When we're at the store, I enjoy walking around, getting a free food sample or two. I enjoy looking at the other families who are there with baskets piled to the brim. Most of all I enjoy the freedom of not feeling like I have to buy anything.

I asked my mom about how to handle this tendency to always want more. Here's her answer to that and two more questions:

I feel like everyone in one way or another experiences wanting more than they need. Are there Buddhist practices to help manage those feelings?

I'd say that the best Buddhist practice for this would be mindfulness, which to me means simply paying attention to what's going on around you and in your mind. In this context, I'd say that, first, you should make an effort to become aware of the object of your desire and the feelings of wanting that arise around it.

Then notice how that feels. Is the "wanting" pleasant? It definitely can feel pleasant to envision how happy you'll feel if you get the object. But it can also feel unpleasant. You mentioned this in your piece—how this wanting can trigger a feeling of lack in our lives when, in reality, we have plenty.

This is true for me, not so much about concrete objects, but when it comes to simply wanting something to be different in my life. When I truly pay attention to it, "wanting" doesn't feel good because I see that it comes from feeling dissatisfied with my life in some way, and I know from experience that I only feel good when I accept my life as it is.

So, start by paying attention to how you feel when you're faced with an object of desire—whether it be a concrete thing or something about your life that you wish were different. Does it feel pleasant? Unpleasant? 

As far as trying to manage feelings of constant wanting, it's also important to pay attention to how you feel after you obtain that object of desire. We often say, "If only I can get this, then I'll be totally satisfied from now on." But we don't work that way, at least not in my experience. As soon as we get what we want, our attention turns to something else we want. So we're fooling ourselves if we think that getting what we want will satisfy us for good. 

So what can we do about our "wanting minds"?

I used to struggle with this a lot more than I do now, thank goodness. I manage feelings of constantly wanting, first, by accepting that "wanting" is a natural feeling—it just arises. We can't control that, but we can learn to control our reaction to it.

Here's something I write about in my book How to Wake Up. It's about how to react to that wanting mind. I have a friend who calls it the "Want Monster." When her kids were young, she taught them to identify that intense feeling of want as the Want Monster. For example, she'd have them do it when they'd be walking down the aisle of a toy store and saying over and over, "I want this. I want that." It taught her kids to separate themselves from their wanting minds and to just notice that it was happening. 

She did this with her kids when they were young, but I found it tremendously helpful as an adult. It meant that instead of falling under the spell of constantly wanting, I could leave that wanting on the shelf, so to speak. I could just not take it up by saying, "That's just the Want Monster, but I don't have to feed it." 

I know some people say you can get over "wanting" completely, but I'm not convinced of that. So, for me, what matters is not the wanting itself but how I respond to it. 

You said there's a mental drain to wanting, and I agree. I've come a long way toward taming the Want Monster. It's given me a sense of freedom to be able to simply identify my wanting mind, but to know I don't have to do anything about it. 

[Mara: Yes, for my daughter, I think she feels like she's experiencing actual physical pain sometimes when she wants something.]

I can understand that. Again, I'd suggest becoming aware that that's what's happening. It can take away its hold over you. It's so helpful to know that it's a feeling that will pass. [Mara: And to know that you survive even when you don't get what you want.] Yes, absolutely. With practice, you don't have to be ruled by that wanting. You can acknowledge its presence and then be patient and wait until it passes. All thoughts and feelings are impermanent after all!

Do you remember when you and dad first started going to the Price Club? What did you think of the huge quantities of stuff?

I never liked the Price Club. I don't know if you remember that. It occurred to me while I was reading your piece that maybe that's why you and dad went so often without me. I just don't like big warehouse-type stores with all the concrete. It's a cold atmosphere. So I don't like going to stores like that. I wouldn't go even if I weren't chronically ill.

But your dad is going to Costco today. He doesn't go that often, but  I'm always amazed at the bargains he comes home with. He gets these dog bones that Scout likes. I can buy them online, but they're so much cheaper at Costco and it's the same brand. 

So Costco is clearly a trigger for me and my instinct to buy too much or to get a bargain. Is there anything that acts as a trigger for you and makes you want to acquire more than you need?

Yes, because there's this silly thing I do. I did it when I used to shop in person, and I do it now when I shop online (which is how I do all my shopping now). If something is exactly what I want, I often buy two of them so I don't have to spend hours trying to find the right one again when this one wears out or breaks. So when you ask if I acquire more than I need—I don't need two bath mats, but I have two! 

I obviously don't do this with big items, like a bed, but I just did with a quilt. I found a quilt that I liked so much that I went back online and got another one in a different color. 


  1. When there were just two of us, we had a Price Club membership because we were just starting out and buying furniture and appliances -- the savings on a fridge more than paid for the membership, and as long as we were there, sure, pick up a case of toilet paper. But once we'd furnished the house, we realized that we didn't need three loaves of bread or the ten-pound bag of popcorn. Since we only had a small freezer, one freezer multi-pack was all we had room for. Do we really want to eat nothing but frozen pierogis for two weeks?
    So we let it expire.
    Maybe I'll sign up for a year when I buy a retirement condo and need to get new appliances.

    1. Yes, it's tough with just two people! Going for appliance discounts is a smart thing. But always having to weight the discount with the membership fees...and now there's lots of places to get good prices on things. We buy a lot of things at Ikea now that we used to get at Coscto. But Costco is always the first place I think of! Thanks for reading! --M

  2. I seem to want things that represent the life I think I'd be living if I were well. Recently, I saw a mini portable BBQ- beautifully designed in its own metal suitcase. Instantly,I saw myself on the beach grilling sausages on my BBQ,laughing with friends and staying up all night. I bought it.In my ACTUAL life, however, I barely leave my land-locked county,have friends with grown-up commitments which rule out spontaneous beach trips,and know that I'd probably be in bed by 8pm! This has become an expensive way of indulging my 'being well' fantasy! In that moment of wanting, I have no resistance and being able to instantly buy online using my phone is making the problem worse. I may seriously have to disable my PayPal app till common sense returns!

    1. Yes! The ease of buying things is hard to resist! For me it's my "one-click" purchasing at Amazon. It's so easy to impulse buy. Now what I try to do is add things to my shopping cart and leave it there for a day and go back and see if I really wanted it. It has saved me from many things that I didn't actually "need." Paypal and Ebay have also definitely contributed to my impulse buying. So hard to resist! And I can related to buying things to support the idea of how you want things to be. I often buy things hoping that it will change my life toward a lifestyle that simply isn't reality. For me it's usually kitchen gadgets that I don't need because I don't cook-haha. I keep thinking that one more appliance will make me into one of those people that can make delicious things but so far nothing has been successful! :) Thanks for reading--M

  3. Just returned from Whole Foods, where a "20% off $100" coupon, expiring today, sent me into a tailspin of shopping. As a single person I don't need much, and as I was walking home with my three bags full, I was wondering if the hour it had taken me to assemble them was really worth the discount. And what a lot of strange, indulgent products that store is full of.....but thanks for this meditation. I suffer from the same attitudes as Mara.....Love to both of you!

    1. Hi Elizabeth! I am definitely a sucker for Coupons/discounts. I often buy more than I need to qualify for free shipping at online stores--and then realize if I had just paid for the shipping I still would have spent less and then not had to figure out what to do with the extra stuff I bought. But I am impressed you were able to lug 3 bags of groceries home! I know people who are very organized and get friends to go in with them on these types of bargains. These are the friends who know how to do the super couponing wehre they go to Target and buy $150 worth of stuff for $4. I am the type that takes coupons to the store and then forgets I have them...sigh. Thanks for reading! Hope you're doing great! --M