Practicing Mindfulness At Home: The Need + Want Equation

by Maxwell Tielman

Design*Sponge | Practicing Mindfulness At Home

A few months ago, Martha Stewart broke her iPad. And, as one is wont to do in our socially-networked age, she tweeted about it. In response, The Internet did what it is wont to do in such a situation and fired back with its trademark level of totally irrational venom. As Martha tweeted about the state of her broken iPad and wondered aloud about getting it repaired, first responders were quick to point out that, Martha, you can probably afford a new iPad. Stop complaining. As I read through these various responses, though, I couldn’t shrug the faint feeling I had of shameful self-recognition. My preliminary reaction to Martha’s initial tweet wasn’t Wow! Good for her for getting things fixed! It was, why would somebody who could clearly afford to simply replace her device go about trying to repair it? And then, in that moment, I realized how truly sick my entire generation is. While Martha, bless her heart, still seems to be operating under the WWII-era “Waste Not, Want Not” mentality into which she was born, more recent generations tend to subscribe to a—let’s face it— “Waste A Lot, Want A Lot” world view.

This month at Design*Sponge, we have been pondering the idea of “mindfulness,” especially as it applies to our area of expertise—design and the home. For me, the idea of mindfulness at home begins with the understanding that the “home” expands well beyond the walls of our respective dwellings—it is the outside world, the environment we live in, the air that we breathe. Too often, I see myself and others around me falling into the trap that snares many a post-Baby Boomer American—the idea that our world (and our home) is only what we see in front of us. And this idea is surprisingly, terrifyingly easy to accept. As consumers in the western world, we are wildly separate from the items we consume, live with, and ultimately dispose of. Objects arrive on sanitized store shelves as if by magic and we grab them up, caring little about their point of origin or method of manufacture. At home, we use these objects until they fulfill their purpose, they break, or we simply grow tired of them. Then—more often than not—we put them out on the curb where they are taken away just as magically as they appeared. The average person sees only a tiny fraction of an object’s full life span. We don’t see the sweatshop conditions within which our heavily marked-down products are made. We don’t see the finite landfills where our trash is ultimately hauled off to. We often speak of purging or decluttering our houses at this time of year—but what does that really mean? We are simply handing off our things, displacing them from the visible part of our home to the part of it that we’d rather imagine doesn’t exist.

So. What is the solution? Believe me, I have been trying to figure that out for years. But mindfulness—that term we keep coming back to this month—mindfulness seems like an awfully good place to start. Being mindful of where your products come from, mindful of how you will use them, and mindful of what you can do to fix them if and when they break. Most especially, though, mindful of whether you really even want them in the first place, because this seems to factor into all of the above. I realized a little while ago that many of the products I purchased in the past where placeholders—shoddy constructions that I bought for their low price tag and the fact that they simply did their job (until breaking, that is—which they were bound to do sooner than later). The thing about buying things in this way, though, is that once one of these “placeholder” items break—you don’t really want to fix them. After buying it on the cheap (oftentimes because its costs had been externalized to the environment and underpaid workers), the time or cost involved in repairing it just seems silly compared to simply replacing it. This is, when you think about it, clearly not sustainable.

There is, however, a little trick I’ve been using to avoid this pitfall and curb my own wasteful consumption. All of my purchases, or at least most of them, are made with this simple equation in mind: NEED + WANT, or better yet, NEED+LOVE. When I make a purchase with just one half of these equations in play, whether out of necessity or lust, I will likely only contribute to the ongoing cycle of needless, wasteful consumption. Purchasing with both sides of these equations, though, assures that I will likely use my purchase and hold onto it for a long time.

Here’s a good illustration. Over the past several years, I’ve gone through countless winter coats. Purchased at any one of the faceless stores in the shopping mall, they are easy on the wallet and, for a short time, on the eyes. Without fail, however, after a good winter of wearing, these poly-blend coats will have all but disintegrated, their toggles missing and their fabric misshapen into an unrecognizable, faux-wool blob. In the end, I realized that this was no better for the environment than it was for my own wallet. In an effort to spend less money, I ended up spending more money in the long-run on products I only sort of wanted—products that are now cluttering my closet… or a landfill. In an effort to kick this bad spending habit, I finally bit the bullet and invested in a wonderful coat that I can actually get behind—in terms of quality, comfort, aesthetics, origin, and manufacture. The fact that I actually invested thought, time, and saved pennies into this item makes me actually care for it, so much so that when it frays or breaks, I am quick to repair and maintain it. It should also be noted—something need not cost a lot for it to be a treasure. I have found dozens of things I hold equally dear in thrift shop bins, sale racks, and vintage stores—the key is waiting for what you love!

Over the past few years, I have put these consumption equations into effect around my home. Do I really love this couch? This lamp? This coffee maker? No? Well, I suppose I can make do without a seating area, a reading light, and coffee—at least for the time being. Patience is a virtue—especially, as it would appear, in one’s living space. Learning to wait for the right item (and saving the necessary pennies if it’s expensive) can be difficult, especially for a Gen-Y-er like myself! The pay-off, though, can be great. I can now say that, with few exceptions, I love and care for just about everything in my home. Few purchases have been made without consideration and love (or, if you will, mindfulness) and my home couldn’t be happier!

One of the keys to mindfulness, I think, is self awareness. The ability to see one’s flaws, to know that one will always have flaws, and to confront and claim responsibility for these flaws on a daily basis. I didn’t want this post to come off as too didactic, because in all honesty, I’m not sure how much I have to teach in this regard. I don’t pretend to be perfect or to know all of the answers. What I do know is that we’re all in this together. The important thing is to keep an open mind, to learn as much as you can, and to actively move towards making yourself a better person. Here’s to mindfulness at home, at work and everywhere in-between! —Max

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  • I love this post! I really enjoyed your “Aha!” moment from buying coats. I think many people buy cheap because that’s what they can afford at that particular time, but as you said, it’s more expensive in the long run – financially and environmentally. My husband and I have been moving towards more mindful purchases for awhile. And now that we have our own house, we’re especially careful about filling our home with things we need + love.
    And as for those new, upgraded gadgets…we should really think about what happens to the old ones when we put them out to the curb. Yes, they “magically” disappear, but where do they go? Our excessive lifestyle, including our trash, is becoming a problem for others. We just don’t see it so easily.

  • Great article! My mother had a saying … “going broke to save money”. I would guess many of us are guilty of being seduced by sale prices and bulk buying. It would be great if environmental thoughtfulness becomes the new conversation going forward.

  • Really great to read this. We all need to think more about the externalized costs of our cheap stuff.

    I lived for a couple of years in a country where you could find someone to fix just about anything. I had the lining of my winter coat replaced, a rolling suitcase repaired, and I even got an umbrella fixed. I think about that every time I see piles of broken $10 umbrellas from CVS in the trash after a particularly windy storm. I really hope the ethos of “fix before replace” comes back.

  • This is another great post, Max. I find it so telling that people’s reaction about Martha’s iPad problems was so presumptuous. I agree that partly, it’s the consumerist culture, but oh, wow, I find it amazing (and not in a good way) that people felt like they have a right to tell someone what to spend their money on. It’s not like Martha was like, “Hey, guys, should I fix it or should I spring for a new one?” Yet people felt like they knew better and had a right to determine what her spending priority should be.

    Also, as a transplant from Europe, it horrifies me how much waste occurs in this country. Big box stores are horrible! I don’t think it’s generational thing at all, because I’ve seen people of all ages waste things, though, of course, the younger people do it more, since they grew up immersed in the world where everything it marketed to them till they are oversaturated.

  • As a one-time professional organizer, I saw many people who were prisoners of their “stuff” and it caused me to take a look at my own life as a consumer. I helped my children de-clutter by holding things up one at a time and asking, “do you love it?” and they were, at first, shocked to learn that it was ok to part with something that was a present from papa and me or another loved one. We’re big thrift-ers, aka recyclers, and have a practice that, for every item that comes in, another must go out, so there’s a constant positive flow of in and out, and the “out” becomes someone else’s treasure.

    I also live in a lovely little village that, each year, hosts a giant purge where unwanted items are put at the curb and residents are free to help themselves. Yes, the rest is taken away to the landfill, sadly, but I suppose some trash is inevitable.

    My home is the place I’d rather be than anywhere else on most days and nights, because a lot of mindfulness has gone into the way it looks and feels. A $100 bottle of wine may be opened on a $3 yard sale tablecloth on which is placed my collection of mix-and-match plates and that feels great.

    Thank you for this post and for hosting the discussion.

  • Great post; YES.

    One very simple thing I do when shopping for anything, is to think about what will happen to it eventually in a landfill or in recycling. It prevents me from buying much plastic. If I have to buy plastic I try to be sure it’s something which will last for a very long time.

  • Excellent article. We live on a farm in a modest brick bungalow. Our furniture has been accumulated over many years from thrift stores or bought second hand. Last week, my daughters and I went into a Walmart for the first time in over a decade. It was so very sad. Just stuff and more stuff to consume. The whole place smelled of plastic from the crappy things marked down to the lowest price. I think good design and good taste naturally blooms from creative thinking, individuality, and from the talents of a human being.

    Our clothes are vintage. Our winter coats are beautifully made of wool or down. They were inexpensive. We have repaired zippers and patched pin holes where feathers tried to escape. We don’t go to the mall. Our girls, all into fashionable clothes/art/design guffaw at paying $60 from a shirt made in China. They just refuse to do it.

    Because we live in the country, we have to bring our garbage to the dump (no roadside garbage pickup here). Every time I go, I wish I could bring people from the city and show them the mind blowing waste: sofas, beds, chairs, tables, refrigerators, and what is it with all those hundreds of barbecues?! Guess everyone is getting bigger ones?

    We are always striving to be less of an impact on this earth. It takes concerted, daily effort. Sometimes it feels a little isolating. My husband is a medical doctor. We socialize with people that drive expensive cars they upgrade every year or two, who have houses with bedrooms that would hold half our house etc. They must think we’re wing nuts.

    It makes me said that our human experience on planet earth centres around consumption instead of excavating our true purpose (whatever that may be for each of us). You’re a smart cookie, Mr. Tielman. p.s. love the direction Desigm Sponge is taking in 2014!

  • Your thoughts/essay were eloquent. Need + love. Easy to remember. Replacing want with love. Hope to keep the idea with me as I navigate my days.

  • really glad you are bringing this subject to light. i think we all need to think about the way our lives impact our environment WAY more often. out of sight is out of mind when throwing away stuff. i am extremely mindful of waste from food, packaging, clothing, materials, etc. this sometime paralyzes me however. i find myself saving stuff i have ideas about re-purposing or recycling in some way. i shop mainly at thrift stores and volunteer on a farm in the summers in exchange for food. there are lots and lots of ways people can reduce their carbon footprint and reduce their impact on the environment – the way is through being mindful.

  • Perfectly said….I’m forwarding this to a few of my spend-happy friends. I’m definitely a thrifty ol’ curmudgeon who shops until I find something I love…but even I have unnecessary overflow. Thanks for this post, Mr Max.
    You’re an insanely talented writer, fyi.

  • One of my resolutions this year was “mindful consumption” and you’ve captured my intent perfectly in this post. Thanks!

  • What a great, thoughtful post – and this is praise from the
    Martha generation – I hope you absolutely adore your winter coat,
    and it makes you happy with each wearing!

  • Profound and crucial post. The importance of the idea of our home extending to the natural world around us and the air we breathe can not be overstated, it’s literally life or death. The natural world is the greatest source of beauty and inspiration to design and without it we are nothing.
    Thank you for your wonderful blog!

  • Wow! this is such a great post. To be honest when I saw such a long test my first thought was to close the window or skip to the next post but then something stopped me. And I don’t regret even a tiny bit reading it! Absolutely bravo. This is so true, so right to say and so sad that so few people (on a world-large scale) understand how important is what you are trying to explain.

  • Wonderful post and an excellent message! Especially to
    those of us who are part of the “Waste a lot, want a lot” crowd.
    It’s a very interesting experiment to sit down and take stock of
    the things that you really do truly need and want in your home,
    versus those things that you think you want/need, and then compare
    that to the things you’re only after because everyone else is
    getting them. (A trap I find myself falling for time and again.) We
    could all do with a little more mindfulness this year.

  • Wasn’t it William Morris who said that we should strive to keep nothing in our home that we do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.

    With so many beautiful tools around, one might even be able to require that useful items are both…

  • I’ve always been a fan of buying the best quality of something (within a budget) and with an eye toward making it last, especially with clothing. When I’ve figured out the cost-per-wearing, or even cost-per-season, for winter coats, for example, it comes to some ridiculously low number. Even if I had the money to throw away on clothing and accessories, I wouldn’t do it. Less, not more and better quality.

    I have friends of all ages who are constantly asking why I bother to get things fixed and repaired. “Just buy new.” Well, first of all, when you have something you love, you want to keep it until it literally falls apart or cannot be repaired

    We’ve had to replace a few things over the years in the kitchen. Let me say first off: Newer is NOT better. Today’s trend seems to be something that looks nice new but functionality, especially in appliances, does not match things from recent decades. Stuff is now made to fall apart. (When a refrigerator broke down within the five-year warranty, most people just buy new. This is insane. Especially for those of us whose incomes do NOT keep up with the pace of inflation.

    Really thinking about what you truly “need” or love and learning patience to wait until/if you can afford it, is something a lot of folks, of all ages, don’t seem to be able to do anymore.

    A few years ago we started to think even more clearly about how we were spending and what we were getting for our money. It was forced on us because of severe cutbacks in our income. It isn’t pleasant, given the continually rising costs of things you can only cut back so much (food, healthcare, gas), but it really made us rethink where we were getting a real return on our investment of our dollars.

  • Hi Max, great that you are thinking about this stuff. Great also that you are breaking away from auto-pilot and not buying into conspicuous consumption. To someone from outside North America it is mind-blowing that there would even be a debate about whether Martha Stewart should get a new ipad!

    I think you are right about an important part of mindfulness being self-awareness (or paying attention to our own experience). I however would not agree that it’s about knowing your “flaws” – infact true mindfulness is about being non-judgemental and just seeing something for what it is, not whether it’s good or bad.

    I use a lot of mindfulness in my work (I’m a psychologist for with people with Schizophrenia) and it is important to emphasis that mindfulness is about paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally (and the non-judgementally is both the hardest and most important part of mindfulness).

    Good luck with your mindful endeavours ;) can’t wait to read more about them!

  • I can totally relate! Thanks for the reminder. I have a hard time with this self-awareness sometimes. A yoga class I took in fall helped. I recommend yoga and meditation to others seeking mindfulness. I need to get back on track though.

  • Just wanted to point out an interesting comparison between your post here and Grace’s about her less-than-perfect-but-functional Container Store shelving. How would you balance the need to make a place livable with the desire to wait around for an item you truly love? (As someone only a few years out of college and now one year into grad school, this is something I struggle with everyday!)

  • This article is one of the very reasons that my small company, Bees and Buttercups, does it’s best to sell Handmade goods & gifts that are both beautiful & practical. So many people forget about where their products come from & what happens to them when they seem no longer useful. It is great to see more of the 20 & 30 somethings becoming aware of their purchases & their footprint on this world. I hope greater support for handmade & local shopping continues to grow

  • So simple and true. I learnt about this living for a year in South East Asia. First, once I was there, I realised soon that I really needed just half of the things packed in my big suitcase. Second, I noticed that a lot of clothes and objects I closed in boxes before leaving remained in the basement when I came back because I never felt the need to unpack them. Now I think much more when I want to buy or I need something and I became aware that there are not so many things that I really need or desire. By the way, which coat did you buy eventually?

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