My mindfulness practice does not, and probably never will, include the habit of reciting a daily mantra. But if I were going to adopt one, it would most likely be the four-word title of this post, “contribute more, consume less.” I’ve been pondering the seemingly contradictory impulses underlying these two distinct activities for some time now.
Consuming always involves some sort of taking for ourselves. Having a meal, using fuel to heat our home or drive our car, purchasing some physical good or service that we need – all highly useful activities, and all intended for the well-being of the one engaged in the act of consumption.
Contributing, on the other hand, always involves some form of giving to others. Donating money to a charitable organization, giving food to a homeless person, volunteering in a political campaign – all equally useful activities, but in contrast to consuming, these acts of contribution are all intended for the well-being of those who are the recipients.
Seems pretty straightforward – consumption for oneself, contribution for others. Each has its own different, distinctive place in the overall scheme of things.
On closer examination, however, it seems to me that these two activities are not all that separate and distinct. In fact, I would suggest that they are actually two highly interrelated components of a single personal attribute – our way of engaging with the highly complex and increasingly global world in which we live.
We are all consumers some of the time, and we can all be contributors at other times. What is significant is not whether we are acting as consumers or as contributors in any given moment, but rather the ratio of contribution to consumption across the full spectrum of activities in which we engage day in and day out. Are we primarily concerned with our own consumption needs, or are we primarily focused on what we can contribute to the world?
Getting back to the mantra we started out with – why contribute more, and why consume less?
To arrive at an answer, let’s consider the act of consumption in light of the Buddhist concept of “samsara”, which we can define loosely as the unending cycle of need-satisfaction-need. Every kind of consuming – from an action as essential as eating, to something as frivolous as downloading another song to our iPod – adheres to this cyclical pattern. Some internal need arises (say, hunger, or boredom with our current playlist), and we have an unpleasant feeling. So we act to satisfy this need (by fixing a meal, or buying a new song on iTunes), and now we’ve replaced the unpleasant feeling with a pleasant one. Until a certain amount of time passes, and then we are hungry again or bored with our music again, and the unpleasant need-based feeling returns, prompting us to engage in renewed need-satisfaction activity.
And so it goes, on and on, endlessly. We are never satisfied in any lasting sense, we are always returning to the state of neediness. Samsara.
The more we consume, the more samsara. And conversely, the less we consume, the less samsara.
Now, let’s examine the act of contribution under this same light. In this case also, there is a dynamic at work. But here, the need that gives rise to our act of contribution (say, a request from an indigent person for some spare change) is external, not internal. But the feeling that arises in response to being presented with this need is internal (perhaps some combination of empathy, sorrow, and possibly a slight twinge of guilt at our own comparative good fortune). In response, we perform some compassionate action (such as giving the person money or food).
This action meets the external need of the other, satisfies the internal feeling their need evoked in us, and closure occurs. While we will surely continue to encounter situations where a contribution on our part is called for, these occurrences will be purely random. They may happen in a few hours, or in a few days.
There is no inherent cyclical return of the needy state waiting to occur in the next few hours, as with cycles of consuming. Samsara is not present. But a deep, long-lasting sense of satisfaction is present in its place.
The more we contribute, the more this feeling of satisfaction. The less we contribute, the less this feeling of satisfaction.
The author of old adage “tis nobler to give than to receive” had it right – perhaps more than he or she knew.