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Brene Brown, Buddhism, and #FastFashion

Brene Brown talks a lot about numbing, defined as the activities we do to avoid feeling pain. Some numbing activities are seemingly innocuous - shopping, for example. As a child of the 80s and 90s, I appreciate retail therapy. A good trip to the mall, purchasing a coveted pair of Guess jeans was - whoa, a big hit of adrenaline that could definitely drown out some bad feelings. In the early 2000s, I spent hours vegging out to Law and Order. Now, I just let Netflix queue up the next episode of The Office until my eyes hurt.

I get the appeal of numbing. I think we all get it.

Unfortunately, Brene Brown’s research shows that numbing - any type of numbing, the innocuous shopping or the more obviously devastating binge drinking - doesn’t actually protect you from harm. It may stop you from feeling some pain, for some period of time. However, it will also stop you from connecting to joy and happiness. It stops you from connecting to people and to love. Numbing stops you from connecting to life. In her TedTalk, Brene Brown says, “When we numb [hard feelings], we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness.”

Whew. That’s sad to numb joy and happiness, right? And just in case you’re still thinking that numbing only means the “serious” stuff, like drugs, alcohol or whatever you define as “serious,” let me point you to Brene Brown’s Ted Talk. The Ted Talk is 20 minutes of pure awesomeness, so you should watch it anyway. It lays out all the seemingly safe ways that we numb and why it is in opposition to the things (i.e., joy and happiness) that we actually want.

I first found Brene Brown’s work through the amazing Mary Bermingham, LCSW, who leads workshops based on Brene Brown’s research and curricula. I wanted more joy, happiness and connection. Frankly, I wanted more connection not just to others, but to myself as well. I’d armored up for so long that even I had trouble finding myself. I’m so grateful for the lessons I learned, which continue to resonate in my life.

Now, several years after participating in the workshops, I also see the broader ramifications of these lessons on numbing. I’d wanted the lessons to help myself. While that was - and still is - true, what anyone who follows any, even vaguely, self-help social media sites will recognize from many a meme is that only when we learn to love ourselves can we truly love others. Self-care is community care.

Conversely, when we numb, even in seemingly innocuous ways, we aren’t only harming ourselves. We’re also hurting our loved ones, our wider community, the world.

Numbing ripples out to hurt those around us in two ways. First, numbing dims our light. It stops us from being truly ourselves and sharing our gifts with the world. This is no small thing. I’d love to try to put words around that at some point. However, what I want to focus on today is the second way numbing hurts those around us. Numbing stops us from living in reality. Rather than seeing and feeling the world around us, we’re caught up in the activities of numbing. In those moments, when we’re standing in front of the cupboard blindly eating chocolate chips, or when we’re searching for that new throw pillow, which is definitely going to make everything better, we’re purposefully distracting ourselves from feeling what is really happening in our lives. Because we’re intentionally not feeling reality, we’re also not acting from a rational place that is inline with the choices we would make if we had full information on what is really happening.

Specifically - and make this leap with me - when we numb with retail therapy, we are also thoughtlessly and needlessly fueling the fast fashion industry. I’m saying this for myself as much as anyone. That throw pillow example that I gave earlier was not a random example. At some point, I decided that by finding the perfect throw pillow for my couch, I would also unlock peace and serenity. Look, you don’t have to try on a throw pillow. They always fit. And have you been to Home Goods? So many amazing pillows! Sadly, as Brene Brown predicted, the distraction of shopping has not brought me happiness. I do have a couch cluttered with pillows.

You probably don’t need me to tell you this, but the reason that we can buy cheap pillows, pants, and purses is because the labor and material costs are not accurately represented in the products. Sustain Your Style, The Clean Clothes Campaign and No Sweat all have a lot of research and information to back-up what I’m guessing you already know intuitively: the only way H&M can sell pants for $12.99, or that I can buy a pillow for $7.99, is because the people making them are not being paid what you’d want to be paid. They are not being paid much at all. Data collected worldwide shows that garment workers earn incredibly low wages. The European parliament has used the term “slave labor.” Worldwide, child labor is not uncommon among garment workers or those picking the cotton that become garments.

After you take a breath, I’m going to plow ahead with: “The fashion industry is the second largest polluter in the world, just after the oil industry.” The damage is from the production, manufacturing and transportation of fashion, which all-in requires high levels of water consumption, degrades soil and leads to desertification, puts out greenhouse gas emissions and produces high levels of waste that goes into landfills and our waterways. For specifics, please visit Sustain Your Style.

On top of the horrendous working conditions, the environmental impact is also really, really bad for the people that live on this planet. Climate change means problems for the people that live here - and the biggest problems, and the ones that are happening most immediately, are happening to the people with the least resources, including the impoverished garment workers, including Black and Brown people in the United States, including the global south. Make no mistake, this isn’t an appeal for pity for “others.” It is true that the crisis is impacting some people more and faster than others. But we are all on this planet together and we are all going to be impacted.

Okay, take another deep breath. Finally some good news:

You probably also don’t need me to tell you - in fact, I’m SURE you don’t need me to tell you - those new pants, or my new pillows, are also not going to make us happy. They do not bring lasting happiness. Even the really, really, really, really, REALLY cool new handbag that you’ve been coveting is not going to bring you lasting happiness. It’s not going to bring you joy. It may bring you a hit of adrenaline. In fact, from my experience, it probably will and you will be psyched and proud for a while. But that will wear off. Even the people making the purse don’t want it to make you long-term happy. They’re busy marketing the next purse that you need to buy.

I actually mean all this as good news.

Again, you don’t need me to say this, but I’m going to say it anyway so that you can hang your hat on it: external things do not make you happy. To be clear: I don’t mean that money doesn’t go a long way in making life easier. However, you can have a shitload of money and still be unhappy. Conversely, there are people with less-than-a-shitload of money who feel joy. I also don’t mean to say that there aren’t both specific and systemic traumas that cause real harm. There are. What I am trying to say is that when we use our energy to experience reality as it is, we can let go of some of the things that we chase, that we use to numb, that we hope will make us happy - but that don’t. By focusing our energy on being present, we can make more progress to achieving actual long-term joy and happiness.

So, how do we do this? I want to suggest mindfulness, a general term that gets thrown around a lot these days. I specifically mean practicing a mindfulness of the breath meditation for 5 to 20 minutes a day. By practicing being in the moment, by just noticing and being aware of how you’re breathing, can help you build the muscle of being in the moment when you’re tempted to check out and make an irrational choice - even one as innocuous seeming, on the surface, as going on a $20 shopping spree.

Buddhists have a few centuries of meditation under their collective belts, much of it grounded in the 4 Noble Truths. Tell me if you don’t think Buddhism’s 4 Noble Truth’s resonate with Brene Brown’s more modern findings on numbing. The 1st Noble Truth is that suffering exists. This one is hard to argue with. So, moving on, the 2nd noble truth is about the cause of suffering. What Buddhism says - wait for it - is that we suffer because of ignorance and craving. We are ignorant to reality as it is. We are not feeling our feelings. We constantly crave things to be different than they are. We try to change our external situations - by buying new things, by altering our consciousness with alcohol, etc. - to make ourselves happy. By chasing our cravings and remaining ignorant, we prolong and increase our suffering. Chasing new things does not actually make us happy. As my Buddhism teacher, Lodro Rinzler taught me: “Ignorance of reality...actually clouds us from being able to enjoy the present moment.” Hello!? Is it just me or does this sound a lot like when Brene Brown said that when we numb, we don’t experience joy? Lodro Rinzler goes on to say, “We are ignorant to reality as a result of our craving… This is how we perpetuate our suffering by craving another ‘now,’ looking elsewhere for our satisfaction instead of looking internally and learning to be present to things as they are…” So...I made things worse by burying my feelings and buying that throw pillow? Yep, that’s what I think, many throw pillows later. I think we make things worse both in the “now” and in all the moments that ripple out in our own life and in the lives of those who share this planet with us.

You’ll be happy to know that the Buddhists have a solution for this suffering. The 3rd Noble Truth is literally referred to as “the Good News Truth” and says that we don’t have to suffer. The 4th Noble Truth is like Buddhism’s nesting doll, which first unfolds into the Eightfold Path and then into smaller lists from there. All are worth studying. But, the headline is: we counter ignorance and craving, which cause suffering, by learning to see - and be with - reality as it is. We grow our awareness. We practice meditation. We learn to feel all the feelings. Yes, we will feel some pain. But that pain will pass. It will actually pass faster if we address it head on instead of stuffing it down and ignoring it with numbing. Also, we get to feel all the good feelings too. Love. Joy. All the things that make life LIFE!

With Buddhism and Brene Brown, I invite you to spend 5 to 20 minutes a day meditating. One way to create a better world is to become more present to reality, so that we can act more skillfully in our lives. One Small Stone has meditations on [schedule with link] or there are a whole bunch of great meditations on [list]. See if you can start to rest in the present moment and be with reality as it is. This will help you. Further, it will ripple outward to help us all.


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