I grew up, like anyone born and raised in the U.S., in a puritanical, Protestant culture. Many of my ancestors were Scandinavian Protestants; if you've seen the movie Babette's Feast, you'll have some idea of what I'm talking about. I also grew up a woman in a culture that expects women to deny themselves. I've practiced self-denial in the strange modern forms it takes: dieting, chastity, losing touch with my needs and wants. Somewhere along the way, I decided to throw off the culture of restriction and denial, and to embrace pleasure and abundance.
But it's not that simple. What happened is that I "polarized." I wasn't "escaping" cultural norms; I was simply working at their other extreme. The culture says "work hard;" I disdain hard work and try not to do it. The culture says "diet;" I eat whatever I want without regard to health or even, really, pleasure. (And there's nothing counter-cultural about that: the messages we get are polarized and extreme: "work hard, play hard;" "diet and indulge yourself;" "save your money, go shopping.")
I couldn't understand why eating lots of sugar, buying myself little (or big) treats, and spending lots of time "relaxing" in front of the computer weren't making me feel better. And then my therapist asked if I'd ever thought about limits as a way of taking care of myself. Restrictions as a positive thing? No way! If I don't let myself go out to eat, life will be no fun. If I don't order dessert, I'll feel deprived. I deserve that piece of jewelry, and it's so inexpensive. I don't have to exercise if I don't want to! And so on. Welcome to my inner five-year-old.
The ironic thing is that, despite my commitment to pleasure, I've been living without ways to take care of myself, and that doesn't feel good. I don't eat regular meals, and then I go out for a big, exciting restaurant meal with friends. I let myself run out of groceries, and then I feel deprived and hungry and have to order a pizza. I stay up too late and sleep in. I eat too much sugar and feel like crap. I'm in debt. I'm overweight. My dissertation isn't finished. My apartment isn't clean (although I've been working on it this week, even in the heat, and it looks much better than it did). I'm not trying to be hard on myself (although I'm excellent at that). I'm just trying realistically to assess my situation and say: what I'm doing isn't working for me, it's not producing the life I want to be living, something has to change.
In addition, we have very little money this (academic) year. I'm on unemployment and am working on finishing my dissertation, and Adonis is in graduate school. Last year, on the other hand, we were both fully employed and had plenty of money. I have everything I need. I have clothes, books, grocery money, rent money; we have a car (although Adonis takes it to school with him); I have beautiful state parks and plenty of cheap or free ways to entertain myself. I just can't spend a lot of money. That's hard for me; I tend to live beyond my means. But I'm really thinking about how to make (financially necessary) simplicity a spiritual practice for myself.
Right now I'm working on building awareness. Adonis and I sketched a budget, and I'm keeping track of everything I spend in a little notebook. Consciousness works! Yesterday I didn't buy a small, pretty ring that was only $11 because I reminded myself that this is a spiritual practice (even though I don't really know what that means yet). I'm proud of myself.