I don’t know about you, but I used to get this silent feeling of being empty or of having an unfillable void, and I didn’t really know what to do about it. At those times, I would often end up going shopping, and it would make the feeling go away – at least, for a short period of time. It didn’t last long, though, and I’d have to venture out again, go online, or roam through women’s magazines and look at stuff and dream of how I would feel owning it.
I would browse stores for desirable clothes, cute interior design pieces that felt like they contained the promise of a happy life just by being pretty, or shoes. High heels, sandals, ballet flats. Colorful ones, black ones, classic ones. I was kind of obsessed with shoes. All of it felt like a way to express myself and to convey who I was and indicate my place in the world. I would spend a lot of time and a lot of money – often times more than I actually had. And I remember feeling slightly guilty, and would often hide what I had bought from my boyfriend that I was living with at the time.
When I was in it, I didn’t understand what was driving me other than the desire to look good and surround myself with pretty things (which feels like the most natural urge in our time and age). Something shifted in 2012, though, when I went solo-backpacking in Thailand. With only a small backpack, I felt freer than I ever had. And maybe because my funds were limited, I didn’t really buy much stuff on that trip, but I was happy as ever.
I spent four days of my trip at a small monastery in a silent meditation retreat. I shared a basic room with another woman and wore the same set of white clothes for the entire four days. Life felt so simple, and there was a depth I hadn’t experienced before in sitting through both the desirable and the challenging emotions.
In the fall that same year, I made the move from Denmark to Thailand, only bringing what I could carry in my backpack. Once again, I felt the lightness of having so few things. I intentionally stayed in a small room in a guesthouse. There was no kitchen, just a bed and bathroom, and the only things I had were my few clothes, my laptop, a camera, and some books I would regularly exchange at the used bookstore. I lived like that for five months. Of course, in Thailand there’s such a large street food culture that the part of not having a kitchen wasn’t really a big deal, but having so few things was a huge change for me.
When I was in Thailand, I noticed how I had fewer urges to go shopping. I noticed that when moving around in the city, I didn’t understand any of the commercials or the billboards I saw. Written in a completely different alphabet, many of them just registered as a sort of art to me. Also, since I’m Caucasian, the women and aesthetics in commercials looked different from me, which personally made me relate less to them. I didn’t think about that in Denmark, where I look like the dominant culture and feel much more targeted by all the visual commercials. I think I had underestimated the power of all the subconscious messages I received in Copenhagen, where I grew up.
Instead of going shopping, I spent my time photographing, reading, listening to audiobooks, discovering the city and the country side, doing yoga, practicing meditation, learning qi gong, meeting new people, singing, dancing, drinking coconuts and just observing people, writing, and starting a photo blog.
I wasn’t instantly and always happy. To say that would be a big lie. I had put myself in a completely new and foreign place, where I did feel lonely often, and I was faced with a mental and physical burnout. But somehow all of that forced me to look inside, and I started to become aware of when I would try to run away or numb my feelings. What used to be an unconscious urge that I would regularly feed dissipated.
What felt so liberating to me was that I realized I could take back my personal power by becoming more aware of the underlying things that drove me; the emotions I would try to numb and the desire to express myself. I could then actively decide if I wanted to spend my money and what I wanted to spend it on. Which then again gave me more power to decide how much I needed to work, and what my personal priorities are in life.
I believe self-expression is a core human need, and it deserves to exist separately from having to constantly spend money.
Two years ago, I sold my apartment and everything I owned back in Denmark. I thought it would be difficult, but it was actually easier than I thought. People would ask me if it was hard to let go of things. Yes. I could feel an emotional bond to some things that had been part of my history. But if I allowed myself to feel that, and then shift my mindset and realize it was just a thing, and that no part or value would be taken away from me as a person if I gave it away, then the bond would loosen and eventually disperse. Sometimes I would simply think about when I die; none of the things I own will be mine anymore, and it gave a weird but liberating perspective to the objects I felt attached to.
Beautiful things can still have an almost hypnotic effect over me. My immediate instinct is to just want them, even though I might not need them. When I visited Denmark some years ago I was struck by how many beautiful things there were everywhere, and just by looking at shop windows I could feel this old familiar urge rise in me – an urge to have the things. If I took a step back, noticed the urge and walked past the shop, it would disappear surprisingly quickly. I started using a mantra whenever I would go out in the world where it was almost inevitable to be window-shopping. I would look at things while repeating to myself “things I don’t need”, “things I don’t need”, “things I don’t need”. It really worked for me. I think it created a distance between the things and me, so fewer emotions would be triggered.
I still buy things, and I still value beauty, but the greater personal awareness has led me to find beauty in other places as well. I spend a lot more time in nature now, and creative expression has become a big part of my life. Moving to the other side of the world was an external shift that kickstarted a fundamental internal change, and it feels great to have more power over the decisions I make in my life.
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.“ ― C.G. Jung
This post was originally published on caitflanders.com, August 30, 2017