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We're all materialists, to one extent or another.  We all use and enjoy material goods in our daily lives, and most of us simply couldn't get by without them.  And there's nothing wrong with that, as long as the desire for material goods doesn't control us and our actions.

Materialism becomes an obstacle when we start allowing things (or the desire for things) to control us, to keep us focused on things outside ourselves rather than on things that would be truly beneficial to us, such as our spiritual development, our relationships, our learning, our peace of mind. . . .

Materialism is a distraction.  It gives us a direction in which we can focus our attention and our energies that seems to be attainable.  After all, if I want a new stereo system or a closet full of new clothes, all I have to do is pay money or use credit to get them.  I know which ones I want, and I know where to find them.  The people who sell things have made it so easy for us to buy that fulfilling our materialistic cravings never has been easier, which is a very unfortunate fact for the millions of people who are now trapped under a mountain of debt with no realistic way out.

But what are our motives when we pursue our materialism?  Why do we want or have to buy things to satisfy our cravings?  

Are we working towards happiness in life?  If so, we have thousands of examples to see of people who have been "successful" in acquiring material wealth, but who have been miserably empty inside.

Do we feel that we'll reach a level of peace and contentedness by having more things?  Again, we have tons of anecdotal evidence that tells us that the feeling of contentedness that comes from buying something fades rather quickly after the purchase is made, leaving us feeling just as empty as before.

Many people feel that by acquiring just the right material goods, they can make other people see them in a positive light.  In other words, they buy their new car or clothes or electronic gadget in order to impress others.  They're often setting themselves up for great disappointment when others don't react as they think they should.

"Material" as an adjective means tangible, touchable, real, physical.  One dictionary's third definition of the word as an adjective says, "Of or concerned with the physical as distinct from the intellectual or spiritual."  When we become focused on materialism, then, we're spending a great deal of time and energy on something that is completely apart from our intellectual and spiritual selves.  We may rationalize and claim that if we obtain a certain material object then we'll be more at peace spiritually, but that simply cannot be the case.

Charles Dickens knew all about materialism, and he gave us the character of Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol to illustrate the problems with materialism.  As a youth, Scrooge was treated very poorly by his family, which led him to look to money as a form of security, something that he could trust.  His love for money leads him to lose the woman he loves, and after that he leads a lonely, bitter existence as his life becomes simply a quest for more and more material wealth.

The Spirits show, him, though, just how many people are able to be happy at Christmas without the benefit of material wealth, and this helps to lead him to see just how flawed his thinking has been, and just how miserable he has become by focusing only upon the material and never cultivating friendships, relationships, or spiritual growth.  Once his focus shifts from the material to the spiritual, Scrooge is able to become a happy man.

We also see the same thing in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, by Doctor Seuss.  After he steals virtually all of the material reminders of Christmas from Whoville, the Grinch waits to hear their cries of despair as the Whos wake up in the morning.  Instead of wailing, though, he hears them singing--even though they had had material wealth and many presents and a great feast, their focus was still on their spiritual side.  The spirit of Christmas "came without ribbons!  It came without tags!  It came without packages, boxes, or bags!"

It's very obvious that while the Whos enjoy their material goods, they are not essential to their happiness.  They are able to be happy without them.

I know that in my life, I've very often set my sights on some material product, thinking that I'd be much happier if I had it.  Sometimes I spent money I couldn't really afford on something, and sometimes I just charged it, whether I had the money to pay for it or not.  (I'm lucky, though, because I've never had expensive tastes.  I shudder to think where I'd be if I did.)  Never has a purchase made me a happier person, and sometimes after the newness has worn off I've even felt a great sense of regret that I've bought something that I didn't use nearly as much as I thought I did.

Nowadays I have a strategy for determining whether I truly need something, or if this something is simply appealing to my desire for material goods.  First of all, I wait to buy things that aren't essential--impulse buys can build up very quickly.  If I truly need it, I'll still need it in two weeks.  If not, the urge to buy it usually will fade fairly quickly.

I also try to look at my interactions with other people as objectively as I can.  Are we talking about things and gadgets, or are we talking about things that matter, like how to become better teachers or parents or friends?  How do I feel if someone criticizes something that I have?  I truly should feel nothing--the criticism's about the thing, not about me.

I've also been working for a while at getting rid of things that I've had for a long time, but simply don't use.  Each time I get rid of something, it's a very good lesson to me about just how much crap I've acquired, and just how much time and money I've spent acquiring it when that time and money might have been used for something much more constructive.

We're all materialists to some extent, and there are many material goods that are helpful and even necessary to us.  But is our materialism so strong that it keeps us from focusing on the truly important aspects of our lives?  Are we neglecting important parts of ourselves simply because we're focused strongly on attaining material goods?  That's a question that each individual can answer for only him or herself.

No doubt we would all agree with the sentiment:  “There’s more to life
than things.”  Yet much of our lives seem to be spent in the acquisition,
maintenance, and disposal of material goods.  Certainly we cannot enjoy
the basics of food, shelter, and clothing without a concern for things.
The truly important things of life, however, are those which cannot be
encountered by the physical senses, purchased with money, or placed
on a shelf.  When we take a look at what we value most in life, we generally
find family, friends, health, peace, contentment, laughter, helping others,
and communion with God foremost on our list of priorities.


My wish simply is to live my life as fully as I can. In both our work and
our leisure, I think, we should be so employed. And in our time this means
that we must save ourselves from the products that we are
asked to buy in order, ultimately, to replace ourselves.

Wendell Berry
The Art of the Commonplace


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People are realizing that what seemed important
to them in their lives--materialism and
consumerism--doesn't work at all to make
a happy heart.  It actually makes an
unhappy heart.  And an unhappy world.

Sylvia Boorstein


It becomes necessary to learn how to clear the mind of all clouds,
to free it of all useless ballast and debris by dismissing
the burden of too much concern with material things.

Indra Devi


To be content with little is difficult; to be content with much, impossible.

Marie Ebner von Eschenbach


I have no money, no resources, no hopes.
I am the happiest man alive.

Henry Miller

see also:  possessions

We call it keeping up with the Joneses.  They buy a boat and we buy
a bigger one.  They get a new TV and we get a big screen.  They start
a business and we start planning our articles of incorporation and the
first stock release.  And while we're so busy keeping up, we ignore our
soul, the inner voice, that's telling us that it really wants to teach children
to read.  While it helps to identify with each other, we're not the same.
So why compare ourselves on the basis of material things?
   Are you walking a path with heart in your own life,
regardless of what others have?

Melody Beattie

People have had to make up for their spiritual impoverishment
by accumulating material things.  When spiritual blessings
come, material blessings seem unimportant.  As long as
we desire material things this is all we receive,
and we remain spiritually impoverished.

Peace Pilgrim


Possession of material
riches, without inner peace,
is like dying of thirst
while bathing in a
lake.  If material poverty
is to be avoided,
spiritual poverty is to be
abhorred.  For it is spiritual
poverty, not material lack,
that lies at the core
of all human suffering.

Paramahansa Yogananda


Material possessions are often a hindrance toward attaining higher
consciousness.  They take a cunning delight in becoming one's
master while appearing as a benevolent slave.



We know that material things don't offer contentment, but we
still buy more--more of the props and gadgets our culture
tells us we must have in order to be happy and "happening."
Our addiction to consumption distracts us from seeing that
we are disconnected from ourselves, from our truth
and from one another.  Any euphoria we gain from
our material gains is fleeting at best.

Susan L. Taylor


Look then at the material objects of life, and consider
how trivial and short-lived they are and how often
they are owned by scoundrels and thieves.

Marcus Aurelius


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We cannot become saints merely by trying to run away from material things.

Thomas Merton


We had come to believe that the material world was the only reality.
Thus, feeling essentially lost, empty, and alone, we have continually
attempted to find happiness through addiction to external things, such
as money, material possessions, relationships, work, fame, food or
drugs.  As we begin to remember our fundamental spiritual connection,
we can look within for the source of our satisfaction, joy, and fulfillment.

Shakti Gawain


Countries like ours are full of people who have all of the material comforts
they desire, yet lead lives of quiet (and at times noisy) desperation, understanding
nothing but the fact that there is a hole inside them and that however much food
and drink they pour into it, however many motorcars and television sets they
stuff it with, however many well-balanced children and loyal friends they
parade around the edges of it. . . it aches!

Bernard Levin


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When a person's primary objective is to maximize material pleasures while
minimizing discomforts, then life becomes a constant process of "pushing"
(trying to push away from discomforts) and "grabbing" (trying to acquire or
hold on to that which gives pleasure).  With the loss of inner balance that
accompanies a habitual "pushing and grabbing" approach to life, a deeper
pain ensues--that of becoming aware of the ultimate unsatisfactoriness
of the pleasure-seeking/pain-avoiding process itself.

Duane Elgin
Voluntary Simplicity

One of the problems we have is that we cannot just be content
to admire and enjoy, we have to possess and feel we own what
we see.  That can become for many of us an addiction which adds
a complication to our life and takes away our peace of mind.
Craving things becomes after a while a serious
distraction and an obsession.

Joseph F. Girzone
Never Alone


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The more one is inclined, or seduced, to possess, conserve and enjoy
material things, the less one may have to give in the personal exchange
of souls, minds and brains.  By machines our toil has been eased.  We
have, theoretically, more time--free time--than before.  The trouble
seems to be that we have to devote this free time
to what the machines produce.

Artur Schabel

see also:  possessions



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