One year and four days ago, I decided it would be a fun and productive game to not buy anything new for a whole year. My decision came from a feeling of overwhelm every time I walked through my neighborhood on the Upper West Side, looked at anything on the internet, or spoke to friends who vacillated between feeling like we “deserved” shopping as a way to make up for the discontent we felt with our lives and complaining about how little we could afford. From all angles I was being assaulted with messages to BUY BUY BUY, and yet the ostensible payoffs had diminishing returns. The message that I needed to add more things to my life distanced me from people in my life, including myself. Each time I supplemented with a new nail polish or vegan leather bag, choosing things that seemed to align with my values, a part of my wholeness was siphoned off into the whirlpool of consumerism around me. It was a chronic case of dvesha, or aversion—one of the causes of suffering (kleshas) according to the Yoga Sutras. I felt repulsed by my own needs and desires, and wanted to shove them in a closet somewhere far away and lock the door.
I admit this challenge wasn’t as hard for me as it might be for some, given that I started at a pretty low threshold of non-essential (i.e., food and hygiene products) shopping. My appetite for buying clothes had weakened over the last few years, and I had a small library worth of books in my possession that I wouldn’t need to worry about literature. A feeling that bordered on lust when I saw new skin care products also abated since I switched over to the line by my intensely nourishing local apothecary, Brooklyn Herborium, so even trips to Sephora to check out the new serum on the block had decreased.
And yet, I couldn’t be too cocky for long. About halfway through the year, I realized that my real challenge would not be in suppressing need or want as a quasi-martyrdom for the good of the planet. I’d never felt guilty about buying healthy food in abundance, since I know how important it is for me to feel like I have enough of what I can eat on-hand and avoid impulsive, expensive emergency snacks. Food and other body care products were exempted from the challenge anyway, so denying basic needs wasn’t going to be an issue. On the flip side, I didn’t all of sudden find myself pining for the non-essentials I didn’t usually buy. When the need for new clothes, shoes, and housewares arose, though, I was newly aware of the thoughtlessness that comes from regular, new-things shopping. I “need” a dress for a wedding—hop on over to anthrolopogie.com, and browse to your heart’s desire. I “need” furniture for my new apartment—West Elm in every neighborhood is calling out for you to swoon in their crisp mid-century coolness.
In theory, when these shopping opportunities arose, I could have taken the easy way out and bought nothing at all. That’s what I did a lot of at the beginning of the challenge—most of the summer, when I found myself with fewer work-appropriate dresses than I thought I had, I got creative with rotating different separates and walked by stores like they were leper colonies, head down and at a quickened pace. This soon proved to be an unsustainable approach, however; denying myself would not ease any of the suffering I sought to relieve from the start, but only increase my aversion. Just like the way the aroma of coffee takes on an irresistibly ambrosial quality when you’ve given it up for Lent, forced restriction makes temptation ever stronger. In yoga philosophy, the idea of intense attachment (the opposite of dvesha) is called raga, and explained as a furious positive feedback loop: Desire burns through us until we need more and more to feel satisfied.
Over the course of these months, many more of these situations arose in the context of another kind of newness. I moved to a new apartment, I further refined my work arrangements, I deepened old relationships and entered new ones. It was as if I had shed my old attachments not only to things, but to a part of myself that no longer fit. Newly emerged from the chrysalis, though, this butterfly couldn’t go around wearing just her wings. I needed to complete the makeover for the new me, but I couldn’t rely on my old resources to do the job. Putting the No New Things element aside, the things I really needed now weren’t going to be found in traditional retail spaces. I wanted things with a story that rhymed with mine. Things that mattered and would help me give more than I was taking.
Acquiring things I needed and wanted became a whole new shopping experience that lit up and attuned my heart to a deeper frequency of presences and me-ness. I spent hours on resale furniture sites looking for the perfect bookcase, for example, and when I spotted it on Craig’s List the joy both the seller and I felt at giving it a new home was palpable even over email. I felt inspired to pay it forward by posting my own things I didn’t need on Freecycle, Craig’s List, and Poshmark, and like to think that I fed into that mutual feedback loop of satisfaction (rather than the one of trends, which my generations seems to be turning it into). Even the essential purchases were imbued with more intentionality. Whereas I used to blindly grab bags of baby carrots from the fruit stand man on the sidewalk at a dollar a pop, eating them raw and in a hurry somewhere or another, I now questioned how I wanted to feel when I ate instead of what I could get into my body fastest and cheapest. I couldn’t buy pre-eaten food of course, but I could make the effort to know what my body would best digest now—the Earth and I were in agreement about what to feed me.
I learned to love the experience of finding the thing I knew would help improve my life even more than its future utility. I learned to trust that these things had come to me to serve a certain purpose, and that when the purpose changes I have the space to swap out again for something else. The fierce sense of permanence around new things that constricted my breath, dilated my eyes, and sunk my heart with guilt was lifted. I bought things to serve the me I already was, not to be some other, future, better me.
March 19, 2019 came and went without much fanfare. I had had the date in the back of my mind as my year-end celebration and was intrigued to see how I’d react. Would withdrawal overcome me, and lead to a binge at Eileen Fisher? Or would I continue to push my limits and extend the challenge, as I’ve been known to do in the past? Turns out, neither happened. My new mindset had so radically changed my relationship to shopping, that I felt neither compelled to indulge nor to punish myself with more restriction or to make up for the dozen or so slips I had along the way (when the only non-sneaker shoes you have are backless mules and LL Bean Duck Boots, a trip to DSW feels worth a cheat). I was more interested in observing how I felt about the idea of shopping than actually doing anything about it at all. It’s been four days now, and I’ve taken just one opportunity to buy new—a rug for my living room that I trust will lighten and cozy up the space in the way I need it to feel whole in here. When I found it on, yes, West Elm, I knew it was right, so I clicked BUY without hesitation.
Now, I no longer have the same aversion or attachment to new things that once put me such a state of suffering. Having toned my sense of self-satisfaction and awareness, I trust that all of my choices—whether it’s buying something, consuming something, or spending time with someone—will be guided by a deeper sense of questioning than I was once capable of. Whether it’s new, old, or somewhere in between, I welcome the world outside me in, as a means to complement, not weigh down, my newly unfolded wings.