When you go into a megamart, it makes sense to bring a shopping list. There, the entire experience of shopping has been homogenized and routinized, designed so that you know exactly what to expect, comfortable and simple, so you can just do the same dance every time.
In fact, the experience has been so processed and controlled that every so often someone does a tell-all book about the psychological tricks stores play to direct you around the store, to help trigger your unconscious into buying what marketers want you to buy.
The shopping experience, it turns out, is much like being on a theme park ride, full of manufactured stimuli to keep you feeling comfortable, keep you in the store and more than anything, keep you putting more products in your cart.
Marketers know you have limited time and that actual attention is the most valuable commodity in the world, so they make it easy for you just to follow the cues and get your shopping done in a way that offers both emotional satisfaction and profits for the store.
This routine often leads us to believe that the world is as predictable as the megamart, that all we have to do is make our shopping list and choose the products we think would bring us satisfaction and happiness. It gives us a sense that we are in control of our lives and that the world has some obligation to fulfill our expectations, even expectations as out of step as tomatoes in January.
For the vast majority of human history, though, markets weren’t like this. Markets were chaotic, seasonal and very, very human. We entered the market with few expectations but rather with open senses, prepared to explore and see what was available and good today.
Markets were places not of individual races through processed products but rather places for human interaction, with vendors, other shoppers, and with the goods available. You had to come with an open mind, planning your menu not from an internet recipe but instead from what looked good and affordable today.
February would be a time for root vegetables, not for tomatoes, and if that meant you had to ask for a way to prepare the kohlrabi that was a great value today, there were always other shoppers available to interact with you, sharing their knowledge.
For me, the idea of going to a farmers market rather than a megamart is the model of how to live with an open heart, not blocked by assumption and expectation of comfortable routine but instead ready to be in the moment, understanding what is in front of us at this moment and making the best of those choices.
This is the centre of divine surprise, that attitude of gratitude that lets us be delighted by what we find rather than be stuffed with expectations and suffer when those expectations are not routinely fulfilled.
It’s easy to imagine what we might see in front of us and make decisions based on those assumptions, but the best things that ever happened in our lives were unimaginable until they happened. It is only in the moment that we can be surprised and really grow, like those vegetables at the market or the humans we share them with.
How can we know what is going to tempt us today until we actually experience it? How can we take advantage of surprising values until we see them? How can we open to the new until we are introduced to it, open our mouths and our mind to it?
To me, the miracle of the divine surprise is there in shopping in a good, old fashioned market, the place that demanded our attention and involvement in the moment rather than offering a sanitized, routine experience of a highly constructed environment. Sure, the simplification of markets has given us time to put our attention onto others things, but is, for example, the lure of cheap reality television really worth sacrificing real, live human experience?
Ralph Nader’s old Armenian mother use to stop young mothers in the supermarket and talk about the power of the old foods, like dried beans, to both stretch budgets and give satisfaction. To her, markets were places to share, not just amusement park rides where we did what was expected.
I watched a woman choose a pork loin and miss the short dated ham right next to them, marked down from $3.28/lb to .98 that would feed her family well this weekend. She knew what she had planned, so she was in her own expectation. This wasn’t the way my mother trained us. An ex said that my family has the “shopping gene,” the ability to scan a store and see the deals right away. My mother may not have given enough value to quality, but her curiosity served her everyday of her life.
To me, I know that if I don’t enter the world like it is a farmers market, with knowledge & experience but without expectations and hard plans, I will never get the best out of it. I know that I will miss the divine surprises the world holds, both the hard lessons and the joyous delights.
That may not be the behaviour marketers want from shoppers today, but it is what opens my mind and heart in this divine moment.
And that is what is important to me.