ethics

Liking yourself is not the antidote to hating yourself

You might think that the antidote to self-hatred is liking yourself. But is that desirable, or even possible? We all contain impulses such as jealously, hatred, and greed. What would it mean to like them? Are we supposed to approve of them? To give them free rein and act upon them?

The idea of liking “ourselves” seems badly put. When I look at myself I don’t see any one thing. I see a broad range of phenomena, some that promote my wellbeing and others that sometimes compromise it. There’s no one “self” there to like.

I have plenty to work with. I have skillful impulses, of course. But I also have destructive or harmful habits such as irritability, a desire to be “right,” depressive doubts about my own worth, and so on. These cause suffering for me and also for others in my life.

But hating these things is pointless. Hating these aspects of myself would just be introducing more unskillfulness and conflict into my being.  To hate ourselves is to be at war with ourselves. And in such a war, who can be the winner? Hatred, as the Buddha observed, can never conquer hatred.

That doesn’t mean that I approve of these impulses or want to express them. If I was to give those habits free rein, I’d just end up with even more suffering in my life.

I certainly don’t like these potentially destructive habits. To like something means we have pleasant feelings associated with it, and I don’t experience pleasant feelings with regard to my irritability, self-doubts, and so on.

I can accept them, though. And I can be kind toward them.

Practicing acceptance simply means that I accept that these things are a part of me. They are part of the broad range of emotional responses that I have inherited as a mammal and as a human being. I didn’t choose to have them. It makes no sense for me to judge myself harshly for having these habits. I don’t need to hate myself simply for being human.

An audience member at a discussion between two Buddhist teachers described how she came to see that it was possible for her to have compassion for herself:

I’ve been thinking a lot about loving myself, but I felt like I would have to like everything about myself to love myself. But then I had a realization … that I could just have some compassion toward myself. I don’t necessarily have to like every part of myself.

It’s possible for us to relate with kindness and compassion to every part of ourselves, including those destructive tendencies I’ve described. I can recognize that they are born from suffering. Our unskillful habits are simply ways of trying to deal with painful feelings that have arisen. Irritability tries to keep at bay some source of distress. Jealousy wants us to have for ourselves a benefit that someone else has access to. Doubt tries to analyze what’s not going right in our lives. Every single unskillful impulse any of us has represents an attempt to find peace and happiness. The problem with them is not that they are “bad,” but that they don’t work.

One of the most radical things the Buddha said was that if letting go of unskillful habits caused pain rather than brought us peace, he wouldn’t have taught us to do it. He didn’t seem to see them as inherently bad. He’d have encouraged us to keep on going with our greed, hatred, and delusion if they actually made us happy. But they don’t.

Our task is to find better strategies. This is what developing “skillfulness” involves—finding ways of being that actually bring about peace and harmony. To lack skill means aiming to create happiness but instead bringing about suffering and conflict.

When we react to our unskillful tendencies by hating them we’re treating them as if they were enemies. They aren’t. They’re just confused friends. They’re trying to benefit us, but most of the time failing. Once we start to empathize with what these confused friends are trying to do for us, we can find more skillful ways to accomplish the same aims. Mindfulness and self-compassion are the most powerful tools we have for doing that.

Our irritability and hatred maybe trying (and failing) to keep some source of distress out of our experience. We’re trying to push the distress out of our lives. Mindful self-compassion helps us see that it’s not the unpleasant feeling that’s our real problem, but our resistance to it. It allows us to be present with painful feelings until they pass, naturally, and can open up the way for us to have fondness and appreciation for whatever it was we were irritated by.

Jealousy may want us to grasp for ourselves some benefit that another has access to (this is of course painful), but self-compassion can help soothe the pain of grasping and also help us feel a sense of abundance; there is so much kindness we can show to ourselves! And this can allow us to feel glad for the other person.

Self-doubt may be a clumsy way of trying to discover if there’s something wrong in the way we are. Mindful self-compassion can help reassure the uncertain part of us, seeing that there’s nothing going on that we can’t work with, reminding us to trust in our practice, and helping us to see our inherent goodness.

In all cases empathizing with our unskillful tendencies helps us to be happier.

Practicing self-compassion is like learning to be a kind and wise parent to ourselves. If our children act badly in some way, they do not need either our hatred. That wouldn’t be helpful for them. Neither, however, should we blindly approve of everything they do. That wouldn’t help them either. When our children act badly they need our kindness, our empathy, and wise guidance.

And this, too, is how we need to learn to relate to ourselves if we want to flourish and be happy in the long-term.

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Three reasons to be for yourself (book extract)

Available on Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk.

Compassion for yourself is fundamental, since if you don’t care how you feel and want to do something about it, it’s hard to make an effort to become happier and more resilient.

My new book Resilient focuses on growing 12 essential inner-strengths for lasting well-being in a changing world, and Compassion is one of them.

In the excerpt below, you’ll learn the importance of growing compassion for yourself.

When we treat others with respect and caring, the best in them usually comes out.

Much the same would happen if we could treat ourselves the same way.

Yet most of us are a better friend to others than we are to ourselves. We care about their pain, see positive qualities in them, and treat them fairly and kindly. But what kind of friend are you to yourself? Many people are tough on themselves, critical, second-guessing and self-doubting, tearing down rather than building up.

Imagine treating yourself like you would a friend. You’d be encouraging, warm, and sympathetic, and you’d help yourself heal and grow. Think about what a typical day would be like if you were on your own side. What would it feel like to appreciate your good intentions and good heart, and be less self-critical?

Why It’s Good to Be Good to Yourself
It helps to understand the reasons why it’s both fair and important to be on your own side. Otherwise, beliefs like these can take over: “It’s selfish to think about what you want.” “You don’t deserve love.” “Deep down you’re bad.” “You’ll fail if you dream bigger dreams.”

First, there’s the general principle that we should treat people with decency and compassion. Well, “people” includes the person who wears your nametag. The Golden Rule is a two-way street: we should do unto ourselves as we do unto others.

Second, the more influence we have over someone, the more responsibility we have to treat them well. For example, surgeons have great power over their patients, so they have a great duty to be careful when they operate on them. Who’s the one person you can affect the most? It’s yourself, both you in this moment and your future self: the person you will be in the next minute, week, or year. If you think of yourself as someone to whom you have a duty of care and kindness, what might change in how you talk to yourself, and in how you go about your day?

Third, being good to yourself is good for others. When people increase their own well-being, they usually become more patient, cooperative, and caring in their relationships.

Think about how it would benefit others if you felt less stressed, worried, or irritated, and more peaceful, contented, and loving.

You can take practical steps to help yourself really believe that it’s good to treat yourself with respect and compassion. You could write down simple statements – such as “I am on my own side” or “I’m taking a stand for myself” or “I matter, too” – and read them aloud to yourself or put them somewhere you’ll see each day. You could imagine telling someone why you are going to take better care of your own needs. Or imagine a friend, a mentor, or even your fairy godmother telling you to be on your own side – and let them talk you into it!

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Embrace your full potential by living skillfully

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

The Buddha’s cousin, Ananda, once asked him what the benefit of living skillfully was. The Buddha answered that skillful living leads to freedom from remorse, which in turn leads to joy. Joy then allows the mind to settle into concentration, and concentration leads to the arising of insight. That’s the path we’re following in Buddhist practice. And it all starts with learning to live skillfully.

The word “skillful” (that’s kusala in Pali, for those who are interested) is a fascinating vocabulary choice on the Buddha’s part. He didn’t generally talk about “good” and “bad” actions, although that terminology was, of course, available to him. Instead, he talked about us acting skillfully or unskillfully. Since this may seem like odd language for talking about morality or ethics, as if we’re being asked to perform some kind of trick, let’s take a closer look at what he might have meant by it.

You can think about “skill” as meaning, “actions that can accomplish an aim.” A skilled writer is one who aims to persuade or create pleasure, or whatever her aim might be, and can actually do so. Merely having the intent isn’t enough, or we’d all be good writers! Writing well is a craft, and has to be learned by the intelligent application of trial and error and well as by studying the works of other writers who are themselves recognized as having skill. An unskilled writer may have the same aim as a more skilled one but isn’t able to put those aims into action.

What’s the relevance of this to spirituality? We all have the aim, deep down, of finding peace of mind, happiness, and wellbeing. But do we have the skill to create them? Here too, just as with our example of a skilled writer, accomplishing this aim is a matter of intelligently approaching life in a trial-and-error way, while also learning from the life, example, and sometimes personal guidance of those who seem to be skilled at living well.

What stops us from finding peace of mind? We do! We contain skillful tendencies (compassion, kindness, mindfulness, etc) and unskillful tendencies (such as self-centeredness, aversion to discomfort. Both sets of impulses aim to keep us secure and happy, but all too often our unskillful tendencies create suffering for ourselves. We react, and these reactions cause suffering.

Our unskillful instincts advertise themselves as helpful when most of the time they’re not. So our trial and error process consists of observing that unskillful, reactive impulses do not bring happiness and that only a creative life based on living with mindfulness and kindness can achieve that aim.

This is something that we have to work at learning because our unskillful impulses have evolved to protect us. For example, being unpleasant to someone who annoys us is an instinct that evolved hundreds of millions of years ago. If you’re a lizard, and you make a threatening display to another lizard who comes too close to you, you can chase the intruder away, protecting yourself and your food supply. But when the person we’re annoyed with is a colleague or close family member, we can’t simply remove them from our lives! Our aversion binds us in a conflicted and painful relationship. And so, in many ways, our “protective” instincts end up harming us.

Our more skillful attributes are rooted in our evolutionary biology as well. As mammals, we’ve evolved to value love and connection; a newborn baby’s first need is to be held, monkeys create social binds by grooming each other. We’ve evolved to have empathy. Even mice show distress when they see one of their fellows suffering. Scientists have observed rats trying to free each other from traps. Empathy is built into the structure of mammalian brains.

Another part of our mammalian conditioning, however, is the need to establish our position in a social “pecking order.” This can result in us competing, even with friends and family. This kind of conditioning goes against our need for connection, warmth, and intimacy.

But we also have a more distinctively human part of our brains — the most recently evolved part of our brains, the neocortex. This is the seat of reason, reflection, and self-awareness. The neocortex allows us to look at our reactive instincts and our more creative and skillful instincts. It helps us to see the disadvantages of the former compared to the latter. It also allows us to change our behavior, so that we choose to let go of unskillful impulses, and instead to think, speak, and act skillfully. In choosing to live skillfully, we’re choosing to live a more authentically human, happier, and meaningful life.

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To be a better person, stop trying to be a good person

Recently I’ve been realizing more and more that it’s unhelpful to want to see yourself as a good person.

That might seem odd, since you might think that of course we’d want to see ourselves as good people, so let me explain the problem I see.

If you think of yourself as a good person, what happens when someone points out that you’ve done something that’s kinda crappy — such as being dishonest about something or having been inconsiderate? It’s important for you to see yourself as a good person, and so you defend yourself. Maybe you even attack or undermine the other person. You want to preserve your view of yourself, because thinking of yourself as “good” is important to you.

This is something I’ve observed in myself. My partner would point out that I’d said something that was, in some minor way, untrue, and I’d deny it. I’d twist what I’d said to try to make it seem true, or say I’d meant something else. In not wanting to let go of my belief in myself as a good person, I slipped further away from being a good person.

A friend was having problems with her boss overruling her expertise on important matters and refusing to give the reasoning behind her decision, other than saying “It’s what I’ve decided.” This was, as you might imagine, undermining. And when she challenged her boss on this all she got was evasion or blame. The boss wanted to convince her that she hadn’t done anything wrong. In fact I think she wanted to convince herself that she hadn’t done anything wrong. Again, in trying to maintain her status as a good person, she behaved like a person who wasn’t good.

Lots of people think of themselves as good, even as they do awful things. They minimize the harm they cause: It wasn’t such a big deal. They deny they’ve even caused harm, even when they’ve committed extreme acts, such as theft, or even sexual abuse or violence against loved ones. The other person deserved it, wanted it. I can’t help thinking that the belief that they are a good person actual enables them to do these things: “I’m a good person, so the things I do can’t be that bad.”

The alternative is not to think you’re a bad person. That’s just as unhelpful.

The alternative is not to think of yourself as any kind of person at all! This is in fact something that the Buddha taught. He said that there was no view of ourselves we can have that isn’t a source of suffering. And by “view” he meant a fixed belief. When a fixed belief about ourselves is challenged, we feel defensive. The reason we were clinging in the first place was to provide a sense of stability and security: I know what I am. I’m a good person.

Not thinking of yourself as good or bad doesn’t leave us in a moral vacuum, unable to decide how to act. In fact it liberates us.

We can see ourselves in two ways:

First, we’re a mixture of good and bad tendencies and qualities (although Buddhism tends to talk in terms of “skillful” and “unskillful” tendencies and qualities). There is no one quality, good or bad, that defines who we are. We’re a mixture, and the composition of that mixture changes, moment by moment. We’re mysterious. We’re indefinable.

Second, we can, if we so choose, have sense of moral direction. If we have a clear idea of the kind of person we want to be, and the kinds of personal qualities we want to embody, and if we commit to that, then that becomes our focus. We see ourselves as works in progress, working to let go of tendencies that harm ourselves and others, and to strengthen and develop qualities that bring benefits instead. The important thing isn’t arriving at the goal; it’s that we have a goal and are working toward it.

Instead of trying to be a good person, aim to do good. Don’t focus your attention on what you are, but on what you do.

This may not seem like much of a shift, but it is. We’re not thinking of ourselves in fixed terms. Rather than seeing ourselves as being static we’re seeing ourselves as dynamic, ever-changing, and responsible for our own ethical destinies.

I’ve found it liberating to be challenged to look at myself more closely and to realize that I’d been slipping into wanting to see myself as good. That’s not helpful. In truth I’m not good. I’m not bad. I’m evolving. And that’s a liberating thing to remember.

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“We forget our faults easily when they are known only to ourselves.” Francois de la Rochefoucauld

Photo by Derek Thomson on Unsplash

Just as we can’t see what we look like unless we encounter a mirror, often we don’t know what we’re like in terms of our behavior and attitude unless those things are reflected by other people.

There’s a considerable amount of evidence that other people have a clearer picture of what we’re like as individuals than we do ourselves. While we’re fairly good at assessing ourselves in terms of internal factors, knowing better than others what we feel and thinks, when it comes to factors like intelligence, attractiveness, creativity, and competence, others have a far clearer perception of us than we do ourselves.

But sometimes even internal factors are hard to assess. In my role as a teacher I’ve often heard from people (usually men) who say things like “After meditating for a few weeks I don’t think I’ve changed, although people who know me say I’m much easier to be with.” To me this suggests our tendency to externalize our mental states, so that rather than see ourselves as impatient we see others as being too slow; instead of seeing ourselves as untrusting we see others as untrustworthy; instead of seeing ourselves as unkind we see others as needing a good kick up the behind, and so on. And so when we change, for example by becoming a bit more relaxed, we don’t necessarily notice that fact, and we interpret this change, perhaps in terms of other people being more cooperative, and so on.

What I’ve just described is perhaps more common when we’re first starting to get to know and to work on ourselves, but even after decades of practice I’m still learning that there are things about myself I haven’t allowed myself to acknowledge. It’s only through being mirrored by others that I come to recognize some of my faults.

And those faults are the ones I find hardest to see, because I’ve spent longer learning how not to acknowledge them, and trying to hide them from others. For example, I have habits of dishonesty that I haven’t been very aware of. I can tend to rationalize and whitewash my actions, so that I do things for one (not very noble) reason and then, when called on this, claim that my motivations were much more noble than they actually were. Or I’ll say something, have it pointed out that I was incorrect, and then claim I meant something different from what I actually said. Sometimes I’ll speculate about something, and then try to convince others that I’m more certain in my knowledge than I actually am. Sometimes I’ll feel or think one thing (usually critical) but present another thing to others.

I wouldn’t be aware of those habits if it wasn’t for one friend who has a finely-tuned bullshit detector, and in fact experiences acute distress when people around her are being inauthentic. As a result, she’s particularly demanding when it comes to dishonesty. In the past I’d probably have found her scary and made sure I avoided her. Actually, I do find her a little intimidating, but I really value how she’s pressuring me to be more honest and authentic. I’m finding that I like myself better when I live that way. So on the whole I really value our connection. It’s liberating to be called on my bullshit.

Looking back, I see a pattern in my life. I have to be with someone who’s kinder than I am in order to learn to see my own unkindness. I have to be with someone clearer than I am in order to see my own unclarity. I have to be with someone more honest than me in order to become more authentic and to see the ways in which I’m dishonest.

This is work that I could never have done on my own. We all need others as mirrors so that we can learn to see ourselves more accurately. It’s a scary process to have mirrored those aspects of ourselves that we least admire, but it’s necessary and rewarding work.

Just one other thing: often I hear perfectly lovely people express the belief that they’re actually horrible and unlovable individuals. Sometimes I have my good qualities reflected back to me and am surprised. De la Rochefoucauld was a cynic, and so less inclined to see that just as we forget our faults when they’re known only to ourselves, we also forget our virtues when they are known only to others. A true mirror reflects, impartially, both the good and the bad that is within us.

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My doubts about Deepak Chopra and the monetization of meditation

John Horgan, Scientific American: A key to Deepak Chopra’s success has been his monetization of spiritual practices and promotion of their health benefits. But has he crossed an ethical line by suggesting that meditation and other mind-practices can “heal” cancer?

My first morning at “Sages & Scientists,” I walked into a cavernous ballroom as Deepak Chopra, on a stage, brilliantly illuminated, assured the audience that “consciousness is reality.”

He looked weird, almost too real. Then I realized I was seeing not Chopra himself, the spirituality and holistic-health mogul and host of the meeting, but an …

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More thoughts on remembering to be happy

Young woman eating strawberryRecently I wrote a piece saying that I’m making a effort to remember to be happy. When I say that I need to remember to be happy, what I mean is that I need to pause, be mindful, and notice if there’s anything I’m doing that is inhibiting my well-being. Often I do this through asking the question, “Could I be happier right now?”

Often when I ask this question I find, in fact, that I’m being a bit willful and overly intense in the way I’m working. I get very focused on the thing I’m doing (writing an article, for example) and lose touch with how I’m feeling while I’m doing that task. Consequently I’m a little unhappy, or at least less happy than I could be.

When I become aware that there’s tension and unhappiness in my experience, I can relax my effort, allow myself to become more playful, allow the body to soften, and drop down to my heart, notice how I’m feeling, and be a bit kinder. Sometimes when there’s an uncomfortable feeling present I’ll just sit with it, allowing it to be there. Sometimes it shifts, and sometimes it doesn’t. Whether it does or not doesn’t matter.

The difficult thing is remembering to do this! When I’m very focused on getting stuff done, I can forget to broaden my awareness out and to become more mindful. Ideally I’d like to have the question: “Could I be happier right now?” pop into my mind at least a couple of times an hour during the course of the day. I’d prefer that this happened organically, rather than with the aid of a timer, but I don’t rule out the use of some kind of artificial aid like that.

For me, the word “happy” in the question “Could I be happier right now?” is just shorthand. I don’t literally expect to be full of joy all the time. For me the word happiness stands for a constellation of qualities, including calm, peace, an awareness of feelings, acceptance, and a sense of well-being. Actual happiness (joy, contentment, even bliss) may be a part of what arises when I allow myself to relax and be at ease, but it’s kind of like a delicious side-dish to a satisfying main course of well-being. It’s lovely to have it, but the meal is just fine without it.

There is in fact more than one type of happiness. In the Aristotelian tradition, there was hedonic happiness and eudaemonic happiness. Hedonic happiness arises from having pleasant experiences. For example you can find hedonic happiness through having a large and beautiful house, being surrounded by lovely objects, going out to bars and restaurants, partying, socializing, doing exciting sports, shopping, etc. Eudaemonic happiness, on the other hand, arises from a life lived well. It arises from living ethically, being honest, being kind, helping others, being patient,feeling that our life has purpose and meaning, etc. We don’t pursue eudaemonic happiness directly, because that would be self-defeating. Eudaemonic happiness is not a goal, but a side-effect of pursuing the goal of living a good life.

From the point of view of hedonism, spending time helping in a soup kitchen would make you unhappy, since you’re not just working, but also coming into contact with poor and probably unhealthy people. In fact, for the eudaemonist, this activity is deeply satisfying. Again, to the eudaemonist, bearing patiently with suffering is an activity that will lead, in the long term, to a sense of wellbeing. To the hedonist, suffering is simply to be avoided.

Although you might think that happiness is happiness, however it arises, hedonic and eudaemonic happiness even have different physiological effects. A 2013 study by Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill showed that hedonists and eudaemonists who self-reported high levels of happiness had very different patterns of genetic expression. The hedonists showed high levels of expressions of genes related to inflammation (which is commonly used as a marker for general health), while the eudaemonists had much lower levels. In other words, doing good seems to be beneficial for your health in ways that merely feeling good can’t.

Buddhism is a eudaemonic tradition, and so when I talk about happiness I mean eudaemonic happiness. Perhaps my question should not be “Could I be happier right now?” but “Am I doing anything right now that is inhibiting my well-being, and can I let go of doing that?”

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“The actions of men are the best interpreters of their thoughts.” John Locke

get-out-of-jail-free

One of the most radical and attractive things about Buddhist ethics is that the rightness or wrongness of an action is not to do with some arbitrary set of rules developed by a deity, but is based on the intention behind the action.

If an action is fueled by craving, hatred, or delusion, then it’s considered to be unskillful, and if it’s not based on those qualities, but instead is based on qualities such as “renunciation” (which would include contentment and generosity), kindness, compassion, and mindfulness, then it’s considered skillful.

For this reason, Buddhism is often said to have an “ethic of intention.” This, however, can be misleading. What determines the ethical status of unskillful mental states, after all, is the results they produce! For example, in an important teaching the Buddha described how, before his Awakening, he came to recognize that there were some mental states that were skillful and some that were unskillful:

As he observed his mind, he noticed:

Thinking imbued with craving [or ill will, or cruelty] has arisen in me, and that leads to my own affliction or to the affliction of others or to the affliction of both. It obstructs discernment, promotes vexation, and does not lead to Awakening.

It’s because unskillful states of mind cause suffering to ourselves, others, or both, that they are unskillful.

The idea that Buddhist ethics is an ethic of intention sometimes acts as a “get out of jail free card” for certain Buddhists. For example, they repeatedly say things that give offense to others, and say, “Well, I didn’t mean to give offense. It’s your fault if you get offended. That’s your choice. It’s not something I’m doing.”

But there’s another important teaching in which the Buddha undercuts this argument. In talking to his son, Rahula, who had been ordained as a monk, the Buddha made the important point that we need to look at our actions, words, and thoughts before they arise and see whether we think they are likely to cause suffering to ourselves, others, or both. Further, we’re to look at the effects of our actions, words, and thoughts in retrospect, and to see whether they caused suffering. If they did, then we’re to consider what we did as unskillful.

The point that’s implicitly being made is that often we aren’t clear about our intentions. We want to see ourselves as good, and to be seen as good by others. We may therefore believe, or want to believe, that we don’t mean to cause offense, but if offense repeatedly happens then it’s likely that we have an unacknowledged desire to do so.

Because we’re deluded, we often don’t understand our own motivations. Sometimes we don’t even want to understand them. The Buddha’s teaching to his son helps us escape from the apparent paradox of a deluded mind trying to become aware of its own delusions. How do we become aware of unconscious volitions? By observing their effects. The results of our actions reveal to us our hidden volitions—if we’re prepared to look.

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Sati and sociopolitics: throwing the Buddha out with the bathwater?

Doug Smith, The Secular Buddhist Association: With Anderson Cooper’s enthusiastic endorsement on 60 Minutes last night, mindfulness practice is well into the mainstream. Cooper’s segment included interviews with mindfulness gurus Jon Kabat-Zinn and Chade-Meng Tan, Google employee with the job title “Jolly Good Fellow”.

As the movement has grown, there has been pushback. Some has focused on the scientific claims, but much has focused on the nexus between traditional and secularized practice. Candidly, I find myself on both sides of this issue. While there is no reason to accept the supernatural claims of traditional …

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What kind of society are you creating?

every_time_you_spend_your_moneyRecently I wanted to buy some herbal tea in bulk. I did my research on Amazon, found the brand I wanted, and then promptly headed over to the manufacturer’s website to make my purchase. This cost me a little more, but I was happy to pay the extra expense. Why, you may wonder?

Whether we consider it or not, every penny we spend has some effect on the direction our society takes. We can choose to spend our money at businesses that are exploitative and socially harmful, or at businesses that make a more positive contribution to our world. We collectively create the world we live in.

I’ve stopped shopping at Amazon. In some ways the company is wonderful. It’s an amazing example of entrepreneurialism. It offers a huge range of goods, often at significantly lower prices than can be found elsewhere. I have to admit I’ve shopped there a lot in the past. And there’s a benefit to that. I’ve definitely saved some money (and time — let’s not overlook the convenience of shopping from home). In theory the money I’ve saved is of benefit to me.

But there’s a bigger picture too. Amazon thrives in part by employing people at rock bottom wages. In the US, workers are forced to toil in huge warehouses where temperatures can be over 38°C (100°F) in the summer. Many have collapsed with heat exhaustion. The work is brutal, involving constant movement, bending, stooping, lifting, and fast-paced walking for miles on hard concrete floors. Even young and fit employees find themselves in constant pain. Workers are electronically monitored in a way reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984, and even bathroom breaks are strictly timed. Staff have to queue up for long periods of time in order to pass through security checkpoints when leaving at the end of their shifts, and Amazon refuses to pay them for that time, on the basis that it’s not an “integral” part of their work. Is this the kind of world we want to build for ourselves?

There’s also the financial pressure that the company puts on suppliers, including the tactics they used in their recent dispute with the publisher Hachette, such as increasing the shipping times of Hachette’s titles, refusing to take pre-orders, or simply removing the “buy” button. This was all in an effort to force the publisher to drive down its prices.

And then there’s Amazon’s highly effective (although legal) tax avoidance strategies. They’re a company that benefits from the infrastructure and services that taxes fund, and yet gives little or nothing back to the tax system.

We have choices. We can choose to support other retailers, online or off. So that’s why I decided to boycott Amazon. I feel better giving my money to a small herbal tea company that, I’m pretty sure, treats its workers with more respect and, like most small businesses, pays into the taxation system. I consider that the extra costs I incur by avoiding Amazon aren’t really costs. After all, if Amazon isn’t paying the taxes that support our national infrastructure and essential services, then someone else is. That someone else is me, and you.

We may think our economic choices don’t make a difference, but as someone who runs a small online store, I have to tell you that that’s not the case. Every order for a CD, or for incense, or for a Buddha statue that we receive on Wildmind’s store is received with gratitude — and sometimes relief. And our suppliers, many of them artisans in the developing world, being paid fair wages for their work, are grateful too.

So this is the point of #ethicalchristmas. Over the next few weeks you’ll have plenty of opportunities to spend your money at small companies, some of whom make a positive contribution to the world. You have a choice. I’d suggest you choose with wisdom, and with compassion. Choose to create a better world.

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