Shopping is our favorite national pastime. More than the simple act of acquiring needed goods and services, shopping fills a myriad of needs: socializing, time structuring, reward for a job well done, anti-depressant (some people now call buying "retail therapy"), esteem booster, self-assertion, status, nurturance, baby-sitting, even exercise (mall walking is a favorite among cardiac patients). Indeed, a Martian anthropologist might conclude that The Mall is our place of worship, and shopping the central ritual of communion with our deity. Yet "shopping till we drop" has taken on a gruesome meaning, given how we’ve depleted our shop-worn planet. If we keep shopping, we may all drop – and take many other life forms with us. But how can we stop shopping???
The 12-step movement has already embraced shopping as a bona fide addiction. There are "shop-aholics," every bit as driven as alcoholics, and "Debtors Anonymous" is supporting thousands in shaking the credit-card habit. While temperance may be a virtue, however, it will take more than virtue to convert us from our shopping religion. It will take discovering, or re-dis-covering, alternatives to consumption that give us equal or greater pleasure.
Into this void I offer the following list of simple activities one can do, at little or no cost. But shop-aholics beware: don’t let these suggestions devolve into excuses for further splurging! And note that many activities, when done with a friend, take on a whole new meaning; I leave these to your imagination.
1. Go for a picnic. Lunch used to be something you ate. Now it’s something you "do," as in "Let’s do lunch on Thursday." Try "doing" your next business meeting as a picnic in a park.
2. Walk. Walk to work. Walk to the store. Walk around the block and say hello to your neighbors. Walk briskly for 30 minutes three times a week. Doctors say it’s good for your heart. Or walk slowly, concentrating on your breath. Buddhists say it’s good for your soul.
3. Walk with a friend. You might simply enjoy the company. But you could ask, "How are you?"… and then listen to the reply. The steady rhythm of walking allows an intimacy not often achieved while shopping together.
4. Phone a friend. Let your fingers do the walking. Let them know you care. Let them care for you. If you’re on the verge of splurging, phoning a friend is a good way to purge the urge!
5. Hike. Hiking is like walking, only further, steeper, and on trails instead of streets. But beware – "hiking" is more seductive than "walking" to the shopper in you. To walk, you need a pair of shoes and street clothes. To hike you might feel compelled to buy high-tech sneakers, multi-pocketed reinforced shorts, and a day-glo daypack. But people have always walked great distances without such things and survived.
6. Watch the clouds. Get outside – lie on your back in the grass. Observe the process called clouds.
7. Look at the stars. Try focusing on the reality of looking out, not up. You are on a ball in space. These stars are your neighbors. Their light has taken years to reach your retina. Wink back.
8. Read a book. The public library system can get you practically any book in print through inter-library loan. If they don’t have it, they’ll even buy it for you! What’s more, they’ll store it for you. Such a deal!
9. Teach someone to read. Access to the rights and privileges of citizenship is limited for those who can’t read. Tutors are needed in every locale. Empowering another person is one of life’s greatest pleasures.
10. Volunteer. Do this, and you will never be bored again! Unlike work that we must do for money, volunteering is delightfully voluntary. You get to express your values, work on causes you care about, work with people who inspire you, help someone in need, get recognition, feel part of the larger community, forget your own troubles, learn new skills, take on challenges, feel good about yourself, experience your power to make a difference and even get some juicy credits for your resume. In a culture that worships the workplace (a necessary adjunct to shopping!), doing things for free has fallen into disrepute. At the same time, in a culture where so many people are locked into 40 (or more!) hour-a-week jobs, volunteers become powerful free agents able to make change happen when and where it’s needed. Volunteers don’t have to wait for a boss or the government to bless their activities through a paycheck. They just say Yes – and do what needs to be done.
11. Learn to maintain your own car. With shop time costing up to $50 an hour, doing simple maintenance is a real bargain. Beyond the cost savings, there’s a sense of power in being able to fearlessly open the hood of your car and understand what you’re seeing. And contrary to cultural myths, women make great mechanics.
12. Learn a language. People who are mono-lingual exclude themselves from participating in the richness of other cultures. The gentle route to being multi-lingual is through community colleges or do-it-yourself books. For the daring, dive into another culture – and swim! Then go beyond surviving – and make yourself useful.
13. Learn geography. Do you know where your water comes from, what mountain ranges are in your bioregion? Can you read a topographical map? Which nations are considered "Third World" and why? To learn about your locale, be it the neighborhood or the planet, is a magical, engaging activity that leads inexorably to love.
14. Study nature. Learn to identify the trees, birds, animals and flowers in your neck of the woods. Study their habits. When do they flower, fruit or forage? What happens as seasons change?
15. Go to a local botanical park, arboretum or public garden. Now’s the time to stop and "smell the roses."
16. Go to the zoo. It may open your heart to the many species disappearing from the planet at the rate of two per day. What can we do?
17. Go to your local museums. Many are free. By seeing art and artifacts of other cultures and civilizations we come to learn that we aren’t the only (or wisest) ones to have ever lived on earth.
18. Make music. Pick up the instrument you played in high school. Pick up a used one at a flea market. Make a deal to use the piano at your local church. Translating notations on paper into music is ecstasy. Translating the music you have inside yourself into notes on an instrument is ecstasy squared.
19. Make music with a friend … or two. From two guitars to chamber ensembles on up – making music together is an ancient and honored ritual. There was a time, not long ago, when entertainment consisted of singing around a piano or jamming with some fiddles and banjos.
20. Join a choir. Be it a church or a civic choir, singing with others expands you. Christmas caroling will transform your block or apartment building into a neighborhood. Sing in hospitals, in nursing homes or even (!) in shopping malls – anywhere where people are shut away from the vitality of life.
21. Draw a picture. Kids don’t need to be called artists to pick up a pencil and draw. Neither do you. Draw what you see with your eyes or with your mind’s eye. If you’re too indoctrinated with a sense of failure, work with the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.
22. Take pictures. You will need a camera, but that will give you smart shopper practice. Research and compare. Search the want ads. Buy film and processing on sale. Remember, taking pictures doesn’t have to be equipment-intensive.
23. Write. Write on any topic that comes to mind. Write a poem, even if it doesn’t rhyme – play with the sounds and meanings of words. Write an essay about a subject that gets your dander up. Write a story. If you think you have nothing to say, you haven’t listened to your mind recently. It never stops chattering. Take dictation – edit later.
24. Write to a friend. While it may seem simpler to call, you may be able to say in a letter what you wouldn’t dare say on the phone or in person. And your letter may well be cherished and saved for years.
25. Write to a stranger. A prisoner. A pen-pal. You’d be amazed how many people out there need a friend.
26. Write to your congresspeople. Participation is what makes democracy work. If you only communicate by voting, your representatives might not get your message right.
27. Write for human rights. People who are treating other people (or the planet) badly do not like to be watched. Let them know you know what they’re doing. Write first to Amnesty International, 322 8th Ave, NY, NY 10001.
28. Write to the media. Our positive acts – be they planting trees in our neighborhood or calling a citizen’s summit for a healthy city – are multiplied 1,000-fold if they are reported in the papers or on TV. Be the good news.
29. Improvise. You can start out small, doing skits at home (remember charades?). Or join an improvisational theater group; there are more non-actors than actors in them. It keeps your mind limber, and teaches you to think on your feet (a good skill for those purging the urge to splurge). Related activities: "contact improvisation," dancing, all kinds of dancing, spinning around in a meadow until you fall down …
30. Join a club. If you have an interest or a hobby, there’s probably a club for it. You get to learn a lot, get out of the house once in a while, and interact with other nuts like you. Clubs span the whole range from A (Audubon) to Z (ZPG) and all the passions in between.
31. Start a club. Put an ad in the classifieds or on a community bulletin board. Create your own subculture. Be a leader of a parade that doesn’t exist yet. March to a different drummer and see if anyone else is out of sync along with you.
32. Clean your house. There’s nothing like cleaning to get the blood going and the virtue up. Especially useful as an antidote to shopping is cleaning out your closets, basement, attic or garage. It’s perfect "aversion therapy" – you’ll never want to buy another useless widget that will take up space, gather dust and increase your burden of consumer debt.
33. Have a garage sale. It’s nice to be on the other side of the cash register for once. Besides getting rid of junk and earning some money, it gives you a chance to meet your neighbors and your neighbors a chance to satisfy their curiosity about what’s in your closets and drawers.
34. Write a will. Take your housekeeping to another level and parcel out your worldly possessions on paper. After extensive cleaning out, the phrase "you can’t take it with you" may sound like a benediction. Some people have given their treasures to friends and family before they die, so they get to enjoy the pleasure of giving.
35. Write a shopping list. Nothing ruins splurging like a little forethought. Make a list of what you need before you leave the house. Buy only what’s on the list.
36. Splurge … but economically. The pleasure of saying "yes" to the urge to splurge is the same, whether you’re at the Salvation Army or Saks Fifth Avenue, and the morning after is a lot less painful.
37. Splurge … for service. Offer to shop for the elderly and shut ins. Become the "purchasing agent" for your local AIDS or homeless task force. Shelters, half-way houses, hospice houses all need everything from furniture to linens to kitchen utensils. Beg, borrow or buy at bargain prices everything that’s needed for such households. After a few such major projects you might finally have enough of shopping!
38. Splurge … but consciously. A few choice luxuries are a delight – and they don’t have to be expensive!
39. Count your money. Know how much you’re earning and spending. Each dollar represents a portion of your life – you traded your life energy for it. Where is it going? Are you getting fulfillment for each dollar spent? Are you spending your life-energy (money) in ways that support your values? Counting your money, without greed or judgment, is a meditation well suited to the Western mind.
40. Garden. While we don’t "grow" flowers and vegetables (nature does), it’s a joy to create the conditions for your favorite ones to do their thing.
41. Bake some bread. Paeans have been written to home-baked bread. And whole shelves of cookbooks too (shop-aholics beware)! Baking bread nourishes both body and soul.
42. Have guests over to share a meal. Sharing a meal (as opposed to putting on a dinner party) is a wonderful way to express friendship. Breaking bread together is an ancient ritual, and it’s still the primary form of socializing for people in less affluent countries.
43. Do a "heartsharing". After dinner, after the dishes, after you’ve closed the book on the day, turn off the phone and sit down with family and/or close friends to share at a deeper level. The "rules" are simple. Begin with a period of silence. One person talks at a time with the total attention of the others until s/he indicates s/he is through (often by just saying, "the end"). There is no feedback, no cross talk. After a person shares, the most you say is "thank you" – even (especially!) if their sharing totally contradicts your version of reality. The content can be anything from the events of the day to a deep insight into the nature of the divine. All is listened to with total attention and, most important, no judgment. When everyone has shared all they want, heartsharing is over. The end.
44. Touch someone. Non-erotic touching – massage, hair brushing, hugging, stroking, and cuddling – has the power to soothe the "hungry beast," be the hunger physical, psychological or spiritual. Human contact is the most basic form of reassurance we know, and is far more nurturing than a shopping spree. People who are "out of touch" can do drastic things – everything from suicide to homicide and all the numbness in between. So, "reach out and touch someone" is good, basic advice for the recovering shop-aholic.
45. Touch yourself. We’ve been taught to hate our bodies. If in doubt, try this test. Stand naked in front of a mirror and see if you can accept what you see unconditionally. Touching yourself with loving hands converts your judgment to kindness. Self-pleasuring is a wonderful way to nurture your own body, and to learn what gives you pleasure so you can share that knowledge with your partner.
46. Make love. Certainly more compelling than shopping! In an environment of caring and respect, it’s an unsurpassed ritual of union with another and with life.
47. Meditate. Meditation can be a simple 20-minutes-a-day vacation from your outer personality or a lifetime of patient sitting in a monastery. Find a friend, a teacher or a book that resonates with you, and put their simple, clear instructions into practice. Then do it again tomorrow. And tomorrow. And tomorrow. Allow spirit to reveal itself to you in patient daily receptivity.
48. Chant. Unlike singing, which is more emotional and social, chanting is designed to take you to a deeper inner level – where you can experience the truth of spiritual teachings. Almost every mystical tradition includes chanting.
49. Visualize world peace. Spend time thinking about what sort of future you’d like for yourself and for the planet. What is your ideal world? Make it vivid. How do people interact? How is conflict resolved? How do people support themselves and their families? What happens to old people? What one thing can you do this week to bring this world into being?
50. Do nothing. Perhaps the most challenging activity for those of us reared in the West is to do nothing. We’ve been raised on "don’t just stand there, do something." Doing nothing means relinquishing all effort to change things, inwardly or outwardly. Everything is as it should be. It’s all okay. The ability to do nothing is the hallmark of having "purged the urge to splurge." If you can do nothing, you are free.