I’d been traveling in so many time zones my body was totally off kilter and I was sleeping at high noon and wide-awake at 2am. I walked the streets in the middle of the night seeing the parts of humanity that 1st shifters never see.
Life at 2am is raw.
You’d expect a city as upscale and Gucci as this one to have hidden all the desperation. During the day they certainly have… however at night the need is palpable as entire families are curled up on the sidewalk longing for shelter but grateful to still be together.
Paris was supposed to be a total let down. So many people told me how much I’d love it, so many movies and films and books romanticized it. Whenever that happens, I expect it to suck. The more people hype a place the more I’m let down. But when I actually showed up in Paris I realized they’d only begun to describe the vibe and I became aware that it might actually be impossible to not fall in love with nearly every inch.
During the day, I observed myself consumed with desire. The people were so beautiful. I couldn’t comprehend how so many beautiful people came to live in one place. The store windows filled with the finest of things money can buy, the advertisements of what the good life should look like.
I thought I knew what high-end was, I’ve been around.
This blows my previous reality out of the water.
I arrived feeling good. I had come from a country with violently different economic conditions where my clothes and physical appearance had zero relevance, they were much more concerned with clean drinking water and finding shelter. But I knew Paris wanted me to step it up and I thought I had brought a few clothes that would have me fitting in reasonably well for an American.
Before I came, I thought I was in decent shape physically. Heck, back home I might even classify it as better than average, although that’s not saying too much.
Now, by comparison to these Parisians, I realize I’m just a total mess.
Sitting in the outdoor cafe’s is as close to Nirvana as I’ve experienced. The smells of fresh baking and strong coffee and a hint of some tweed jacket horn rimmed man’s cigar fill me with the understanding that I’m a long way from home. The language is so sexy it doesn’t even matter who’s speaking it.
I had just come from a land of total non-consumerism, hanging out in monasteries and serving in open-air schools and witnessing authentic joy that’s not fueled by more stuff. I’d fallen asleep on the plane within minutes and woke as we landed so the contrast to my reality was only minutes apart. This was more jolting that I expected.
I once went 6 months without participating in consumerism, mostly. I bought what I needed in advance and made arrangements to keep myself out of all retail environments. I’m very very very convinced that consumerism is destroying our world so I wanted to experiment in walking the talk. I stopped ordering stuff online, consciously turned off any advertisements that I was exposed to. It was hard for a while.. I became so unbelievably clear how much time is consumed with desire and I was able to see with crystal clarity the cycle of desire….. Introduce, want, get, debt, earn, discard, want, get, earn. It’s a cycle that never ends.
I’ve had a million things that I thought if I just had that I’d never need anything again. I don’t remember what a single one of them is however.
During those 6 months, I felt clean. I noticed a new set of desires emerge and realized that consumerism had hidden my more natural ones. I began to desire things like time alone, being outside, my dogs, coffee by the fire. It’s not like these things were gone, but as I became so content with what I already had I began to appreciate it even more.
Mostly what I realized was the cycle of desire. How it swells up within me, then I hold it a while and consider it. How it slowly but surely blinds me from reality. How it grows over time and then a critical moment arrives and I either act and fulfill the desire or I consciously let it go and don’t feed it. It was really profound for me when I realized how it was simply the experience of desire that felt good; the pursuit of it… actually getting the stuff was anti-climatic.
During the times when I let it go and didn’t fulfill my need, I felt better. Much better. The hollowness of buying one more thing was quickly apparent. I was so surprised how happy I was with so little.
Happy with, Happy without. I never expected that result.
This awareness was a massive relief and this 6-month consumerism detox altered me for a while. When I say a while, I mean, perhaps 5 minutes.
When I finally broke my 6-month consumer detox, it felt weird. I had removed myself from the bombardment of desire enough that it felt jarring to witness from a distance just how permeating it is in every ounce of our reality. Nearly every waking moment is geared towards creating desire within us. As a business guy, I recognized the incredible marketing genius of this.
I think the second most radical thing you can do in America is not consume. The first is to not drink. Trust me on this, you are wildly outside the norm and everyone notices.
You can’t help but feel alone.
Almost Alien at times.
Until Paris, I thought I had detoxed myself and made some real headway in this cycle of desire. I’ve pared down my wants and needs dramatically over the last few years…. what I consume is seriously probably one tenth of what it was in 2005 in the height of the market when money was like an alfalfa sprout, replenishing itself almost overnight and mindfulness for me was present but not a consistent companion.
Back then I still was under the delusion that external circumstances were the answer to things.
Within hours of being in Paris, I was no longer good enough for anything. I’m not smart enough, not beautiful enough, not rich enough, not thin enough, not cool enough, not happy enough. Overwhelmed with desire for what everyone else had, I lost the parts myself that I had so recently thought more sturdy than this.
I first became fascinated with the motorcycles and Vespa’s everyone has. Within hours I had a plan to get one and had even Googled an American source. Then came the red scarf a man walking past was wearing. Everyone wears scarves in Paris. Within moments all I could do was search every window for that red scarf. This will satisfy me, now I’ll be ok.
Exploring the insane architecture and grand churches and cathedrals, America’s history dulled with every passing step. It just wasn’t good enough anymore. Why do I live in a place that doesn’t have this beauty? We have no history. We don’t preserve things like these people, what’s wrong with us? Everyone should live on a cobblestone street. I want those house numbers, that mailbox, that incredible roof line, my front garden looks like crap now, even though I’d loved it before I left home.
We climbed to the top of the Eiffel tower and watched a sunset that Hollywood would kill for. We don’t even have sunsets like this in America. For an entire day, I couldn’t find anything wrong with Paris or it’s people and I couldn’t find anything right with me or my little part of the world.
Desire has a way with altering reality. Only a day prior I had been so centered and whole. So connected to my happiness and myself and so convinced I had never been in a better spot spiritually. I was serving humanity and loving people and was face to face with such need. I was absolutely certain I would live off as little as possible and use what I had and give as much as I could to people in need.
Desire wrecked all those plans. I didn’t even remember I had just felt that way. I needed a new bag, the new shoes, that coat. That motorcycle would be perfect. How about an apartment here for the summer?
The next day was raining and we didn’t care. We walked the streets and explored the alleys and just loved as much as we could of the entire vibe. We stumbled into Shakespeare and Co, my bohemian hippy metro funky writer friend said “I never go to Paris without dropping in at this funky legendary landmark of literature” so we had to check it out.
As a writer and sincere lover of words my heart was on fire almost instantly. Painted on the wall read “The power of thought is the magic of the mind”.. My favorite Lord Byron quotes. The smell was deep old musty book, a book that’s been locked away in a cabin for a decade and then discovered.
I was so happy when I noticed it was down pouring outside and we needed to just hole up a while in this mecca. I curled up on a bench on the second floor and read a line from George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman “there are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.” I found a pen and wrote this on my hand before we left.
I needed something; anything to pull me out of this desire and awareness of its grip was my first step back to sobriety.
That night I again couldn’t sleep and set out to walk the streets at 2am. I came across a huge department store window. I stood in front of that window for what felt like an hour.
On display was the perfect red scarf.
Even the Vespa.
Below the window was a ratty old mattress that was so gross I wouldn’t let my dog sleep on it. Huddled together beneath the $600 Cole Haan shoes and the Versace $4400 briefcase was a man and his wife and 3 small children. He was awake and sitting up, staring back at me.
I slowly walked away not sure what to do… I couldn’t reconcile the scene with all my desires on display… both the consumer desires and my more noble desires of service and loving-kindness towards all.
Then I noticed my hand and the words I’d written: “There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it”. I turned around and went and talked with the man while his family slept.
He had broken English but we found our way.
I learned about his situation and his desire to shelter his family, about where they “hide” him during the day so people like me don’t see this part of Paris. As he talked, I kept looking at him and then into the window of desire, then back at him.
Later I told my friend about this moment and for whatever reason she remembered a line from an old Western movie “Bad Companions Bring bad luck” and I thought about how the opposite is so totally true, Good companions bring you good luck. This man and his family helped pull me off the cycle of desire and remind me of my core values and what really matters to me, what I really want, how good I really am, how much I already have, how totally perfect these moments are.
I didn’t buy a single thing in Paris other than a crappy umbrella to manage the rain. When I got home, everything looked beautiful again and I was overwhelmed by my beautiful life and the abundance I’m surrounded by.
My consumerism detox is still a noble aspiration. I believe that less is more and I really want to serve humanity as much as I can. I also know that as Willa Cather said “The world is little, people are little, human life is little. There is only one big thing— desire.” I know I can’t escape it in this lifetime. I’m not willing to do what it takes… I believe to not consume would require leaving common day life and living in the woods. It would take an extreme act of isolation to not at least partially get mesmerized by desire.
Instead, I just do my best, follow the middle path and strive to be happy with, happy without… one day at a time.
“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”― Epicurus
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