“Consumerism, Happiness, and Authenticity

Here is the second paper I wrote for Ecopsychology.

 

 

Consumerism, in creating false desires and playing on fears and insecurities, prevents people from being their authentic selves, from living meaningful lives based on spiritual principles. In making consumption the goal, the soul is lost. The in-take of disposable goods becomes the highest priority at the expense of creative out-lets. We take in, we do not let out. I will cite works, including “The All-Consuming Self” and “The Century of the Self” to explain and defend my thesis, which I will state here: our consumerist society blocks us from reaching our potential, from growing, from being and becoming the men and women we truly are. As we become what we own, we disown our true selves. As we spend our lives in supermarkets and malls, we do not walk on the earth, we neglect our connection to the more-than-human world. Forgetting nature, we forget each other, we forget ourselves.

Consumerism creates inauthentic desires that never allow for full satisfaction. In an essay called “Buddhist Perspectives on Economic Concepts” in the book Mindfulness in the Marketplace, the author writes, “Advertisers stimulate desires by projecting pleasurable images onto the products they sell” (Ven 2002, p. 77). After consumption of the product, we again have the desire to consume, a cyclical pattern wherein we are deceived and deceive ourselves. Advertisements deceive us by promising satisfaction when they will only promote greater dissatisfaction; we deceive ourselves because we do not truly believe the advertisements. We want to believe, perhaps we even convince ourselves we believe, but in our depths we do not believe.

In the documentary “The Century of the Self,” the narrator says, “By satisfying people’s inner selfish desires one made them happy and thus docile” (Curtis 2002, Part 1). It is rare, perhaps impossible, for docility to co-exist with true happiness in the way I define both words. The word ‘docile’ to me conveys a feeling of conformity, unreflecting obedience, tameness, a low opinion of self and a high opinion of others. This is the path to depression, not to joy. Dogs and cows are docile and content when fed. The same is true of some humans, but there will always be those who are not satisfied with being fed, clothed, and sheltered, who seek something that cannot be offered by material satisfaction: independent, courageous, wild men and women, wild in the sense Gary Snyder means when he defines wild people as “unintimidated, self-reliant, independent. Proud and free…fiercely resisting any oppression, confinement, or exploitation” (Snyder 1990, p. 17). Not content with docility, not content with the confines of material satisfaction, looking for something else, beyond the wall.

Now I will look at the advertising slogans of many popular companies. The slogans promise what the products can never give.

Coca-Cola: Open Happiness. As if all we need for happiness is a cold soda. We can let in happiness, by being receptive, by living simply. But we cannot open happiness, by unwrapping presents, by living in order to make and take and get rather than create and be-get. We get to be, we are not alive to get. Getting does not imply being, which cannot be opened, bought, acquired. The more we focus on getting, the less full, happy and true our lives become. The type of happiness Coca-Cola, or any other company, promises is a short-term feeling of satisfaction. This is the happiness of Huxley’s soma (1932), of Prozac or alcohol or a new car; this is not the happiness of a life well lived, a life of independence, generosity, connectedness, love, wildness, a life free from docile contentment, from the gratification that comes with comfort, ease of existence, from not facing what we fear or doing what we love.

Wal-Mart: Save Money, Live Better. Because the prices at Wal-Mart are presumably lower than the prices elsewhere, the shopper gets more stuff for less money. With more stuff, the person can live better. This slogan buys into the “more is better” ideal that is one of the most destructive forces in our society.

Bud Light: Be yourself and make it a Bud Light. This slogan is even more dangerous than Wal-Mart’s slogan. The search for authenticity is the oldest and most worthwhile search there is, and this slogan implies that it does not have to be a search at all. All that is necessary to be yourself is to crack open a cold beer. The idea that we become more ourselves from something outside ourselves is one of the most insidious ideas at the root of addiction. Linda Leonard, in her book Witness to the Fire: Creativity & The Veil of Addiction writes, “Our very being is to question what it means to be. And the questions that we ourselves live are part of the creative process of Being” (1989, p. 214). Here, there are no questions to live, there is only the answer, and the answer is drinking Bud Light.

The list could go on ad nauseam; these are only some of the slogans I have seen in the last few days.

The yearning to be authentic is the yearning most stifled by consumerism. A society based upon the false, based upon insincerity, mock cheerfulness, misleading desires, and manipulation, can never lead to authenticity. The desire for material excess, it is important to remember, is not a true desire. It is a false urge, a created yearning rather than a yearning for a creative outlet. We take in what is already made rather than letting out the unmade, what is borne out of us, out of our urge to express our authentic selves. Rather than being reborn by returning to the depths of the unknown, we attach ourselves to the surface, what is made and known. We do not merely fear the unknown; we deny its existence. We allow ourselves to be owned by comfort; we place what we own over and above who we are. We don’t live out the question of who we are. We dismiss the question altogether.

Those in search of authenticity must therefore go away from the main roads, away from the malls, away from the billboards, must go toward a place where they do not feel mauled, do not feel boarded up and shackled by the dollar bill. We must go away from the false and toward the real, away from the curdling body of the human world and toward the river of life. But the search for authenticity is still a search, still implies craving, yearning. A search for the real implies a desire to go back to when the real did not need to be searched for, a nostalgic longing for the essence of oneself that has been lost and drowned amidst the inessential. That longing for the essential is an essential aspect of many people’s lives, including my own.

Those who are content with superficialities do not change the way things are, are not forced from within to create something better. Those who feel within themselves what Jiddu Krishnamurti called “supreme discontent,” (1975, p. 287) on the other hand, have very little choice in the matter. They do not consciously create; what lies within them unconsciously and constantly works to find its way out.

Purchasing disposable materials, looking to buy some object to add to our subjective sense of self, adds only to the emptiness we are attempting to escape from, adds to the depletion not only to our pocketbooks but also to the unwritten stories and books of our lives. Our story when we grow old becomes not how we became the way we are, not how we became conscious of the beauty and wonder of existence, but how we became increasingly unconscious, more and more automatic in our addictive “fantasy of effortless consuming” (Kanner and Gomes 1995, pg. 78). Our story will tell of how we searched for something to quench our thirst, to satisfy our desires, how at the end we found only a dead-end road, only the bottom of a bottle. The car ran out of gas, the lights went out from the billboards, the neon faded to black. And what was left, when our story was done, was the real, but we were gone.

That can be our story. Or, by becoming ourselves, we can become a part of the real. By finding wholeness intrinsic in everything, already present, we part with the idea that fulfillment can be found in the extrinsic, whether in the form of a P.H.D., LSD, or a Ferrari. When we no longer believe that contentment will come with attainment, the part of our nature repressed by our unnatural lives, that authentic something else we were searching for, presses close to us, returns.

Now we go into the woods and are conscious of each step. We listen to the stillness, we allow ourselves to be moved, to the point where we are almost overwhelmed with love and joy, and, because what we love is being destroyed so that what sucks the lifeblood out of us can be built, we are almost overwhelmed with sadness.

We go back to the supermarket, back to the only place we know to get food. We walk and almost weep at the pathos of it: the old woman pushing the cart, looking for a way to reach the instant coffee high on the shelf; the two young children fighting over a donut as their mother yells at them to be quiet, these two children spending their childhoods in the massive bewilderment of a superstore, when there is this wild and mysterious world all around them, these places of “heartbreaking beauty where there are no hearts to break” (Abbey 1968, p. 243).

And I as walk in the Wal-Mart I remember the peace and serenity I had felt just minutes before in the area surrounding Thumb Butte. I feel my heart breaking. I do my best to have compassion, and I do. I have compassion for the old woman looking for instant coffee, instant energy, something to bring her above, to take her beyond, to make her feel young again. And I have compassion for the two children; I share their frustration with the confinement of their condition. I wish they could be outside, laughing and playing in the open desert, getting pricked by a cactus, looking up with wonder at a peregrine falcon, bursting with gladness in the midst of a world too wonderful for words.

We forget what it’s like to walk on the earth; our feet no longer press down on the soft earth with each step, but on the rigid floor of the supermarket, constructed on and with that softness, made hard, inflexible, unyielding. We do not become grounded, we do not hear the sounds that will pull us joyfully back to the earth; instead, we hear the mechanical voice of the self-service checkout, the mechanical voice of the checkout man or woman, telling us to Have A Good Day. But good is not enough, for we have more than enough; we have an excess of what is thought to provide for a good life and nothing of what actually does. Too much!

Having more than enough leaves us feeling less than ourselves. The good life is the simple life. The good life is the extraordinary life, a life that consists of ordinary acts of simplicity, kindness, and courage. Living a good life means neither constantly submitting to one’s meekness and weakness nor always imposing one’s strength. How to live an extraordinary life! Get back to the earth, climb up to be inspired, return to be grounded and record the inspirations felt above. Listen to the sounds of birds singing, feel the wind and its coolness, perceive the connection felt now, climbing, neither on the ground, below it all, or on the mountain top, above it all. Climbing up and going back down, in the midst of, liminal, a part of what is below and a part of what is above.

Consumerism prevents us from a full connection with the natural world. Think about the time we spend in a supermarket. Especially when it is dark outside, or during a transition from day to night or night to day, we separate ourselves from the world around us. We do not know the difficulty of finding food at night, for it is no more difficult than finding food during the day. We do not find the food at all; we merely get it, acquire it.

We are lost in the supermarket looking for what is found for us. Confused, we wander stores and malls, up and down the escalators, having forgotten how to truly wander, and where.

We become lost when we forget how to be lost, when we lose our choice in the matter. We do not wander in the true sense of the word, for to truly wander is to choose to be lost, to choose lostness over listlessness, to choose joy over despair, to choose life over death. To wander in the world is to be lost in its wonder, to find its beauty, to create meaning without fixed direction. To wander in a supermarket is to feel a loss of purpose, a loss of meaning, to feel despair for the world and the direction it is heading, to desire some quick fix to relieve that despair. And this fix, initially allowing us to forget our suffering, only leads us unwillingly in the same direction the world is going, increasing our suffering, alienating us from our authentic selves, leaving us confused and wandering against our will, lost in a world that is itself lost, adrift in a world we do not understand.

The goal is learn how to be adrift on the tempestuous seas of the world without sinking, without drowning, without unchanging aim but with perpetual purpose, neither giving in to the dangerous illusion of material prosperity nor without compassion and understanding for those who have. The goal is to learn how to return to our roots, to earn the gift of life we have been given, rather than run from it, to realize that we get to live, that we are granted this mysterious and wonderful and forever undeserved gift. And when we get to the end, and death is close at hand, what could be worthier than to look back on our lives and think we deserved some of it, some of what cannot ever be fully deserved, to feel that the way we lived was in conformity with the course of the river, that we receded with the ebb and came back in with the flow.

 

The river flows on, curving around the canyon walls, the unknown becoming known. I look over the canyon, down at the raging river below and beyond at the canyon walls opposite. Beyond those walls there is more of the desert, more of its terrifying and beckoning emptiness. Nowhere do I see the devastation of consumerism, nowhere the smoke of the factory, nowhere the madness of the eight-lane highway. Everywhere there is beauty, everywhere meaning. I love it all. Standing here, longing to explore and wander, longing for life in all its manifold aspects, I love even the interstates, the truck drivers drinking coffee and sharing stories of the road; I love even the supermarkets, the Wal-Mart greeter sharing his simple and hard-earned wisdom with the customers arriving at the store. I love the people, but I cannot bear what is happening to them, to us.

My calling in life is not to try to withstand and hold down these feelings on the interstates and in the supermarkets, not to undergo the needless suffering of a life spent seeking the impossible goal of material fulfillment. My calling is to break out from that confinement, to load up my pack and saddlebags, to walk and ride on a more desolate and yet more connected, whole and undivided highway, not so I can escape to some utopia, but so I can arrive at a place of clarity. I am on a pilgrimage, though I do not always know where the mecca is that I seek. I know it only when I feel it. I only know that I must walk on past the limits of what I know and can comprehend, beyond the skyline and beneath the thinking mind.

Where the horizon ends, my search begins.

 

 

References

Abbey, E. (1968). Desert Solitaire. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Curtis, A., & British Broadcasting Corporation. (2002). The century of the self. Rockford, Ill: BN Pub.

Huxley, A. (1932). Brave New World. New York: Perennial Library.

Leonard, L. S. (1989). Witness to the fire: Creativity and the veil of addiction. Boston: Shambhala.

Kanner, A. D. and Gomes, M. E., “The All Consuming Self,” in Roszak, T, Gomes, M.E., and Kanner, A. D. (Ed). (1995). Ecopsychology. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Krishnamurti, J. (1975). The First and Last Freedom. New York: Harper & Row.

Ven P.A, “Buddhist Perspectives on Economic Concepts” in Hunt, B. A. (Ed.). (2002). Mindfulness in the Marketplace : Compassionate Responses to Consumerism. Berkeley CA, USA: Parallax Press. Retrieved from http://www.ebrary.com)

Snyder, G. (1990). The Practice of the Wild. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint.

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“What is Home”

Here is a paper I wrote for an Ecopsychology class I am taking. The topic was home. What is home? What does home feel like for you? Do you long for home? I got a B-. The professor said the essay was poetic but unstructured, confusing, and unclear, with vague contemplations and without a point. So be it. So it probably is.

Some people start with a point, with The Point, and then go about proving it, making it. But you cannot make what you already have. When you start with a point, you finish only where you began, you end only with what you knew at the beginning. You get nowhere. You arrive unchanged, no less and no more the person you were before you left. The trip is pointless.

I start without a point, I start lost and stop at points along the way. I fall, I climb, what do I find? What is the point? I find that I cannot find The Point, but I find a purpose in every sentence, in each word. Each place I ride through has a point, a purpose in and of itself, whether I stop there for a time or whether I keep riding. The point is not to find the point; the point is to find the way home. It is the way you get there, the points you pass through along the way, that gives meaning to life. 

 

“’Homeless’ is here coming to mean ‘being at home in the whole universe.”
—Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, 1990

Alas, though I often feel homeless, I do not often feel at home in the whole universe. When I do feel at home, often when I am “on the road” to nowhere, I feel like I could be at home anywhere. But when I don’t feel at home, often when I am in a structure that could be called a “home,” the same notion obviously does not apply.

But what is ‘home’, and what is not home? Where do I feel at home? Where do I not? I said I feel at home, somewhat paradoxically for some, when I am on the road. It is only when I am going home that I feel at home, and I never go anywhere but it is a way to get there, to get home, to end at the beginning. There, wherever there is, “here” when you are there, “there” when you are here, your home is not constant, is always moving, as you are, as you like to be, as you like your home to be. You are always where you are, here, but as Thoreau writes, “Thank Heaven, here is not all the world.” (Thoreau 1854). Soon you will be somewhere else, eternally in-between here and there while in the midst of both, living in the liminal moment between your past dreams and your future hopes which is the present, the reality of which dreams and hopes cannot touch.

How does it feel to be at home? Home should be a safe place. At home, I should feel safe to be as reckless and dauntless as I choose. Secure is maybe a better word. You have to feel secure before you can launch yourself into insecurity. You need to feel at home before you can take to the road. As Synder puts it, “You first must be on the path, before you can turn and walk into the wild” (Snyder 1990). The path is home; the wild is the roadless road. To go home, I go where there are no roads.

Ken Wilber would probably say that we create boundaries between what is home and what is not home, that without those boundaries we would be able to feel at home everywhere, “in the whole universe.” But I do not feel at home when I feel myself inside a human-constructed world, a sterile, inanimate world antithetical to the concept of home, outside of the natural world that grows of its own accord. Home is where we feel alive. I feel most at home, most alive, where man and his destructions are least present, in the wild, “where man is a visitor who does not remain.” And here we have a presenting problem, as they say in psychiatry. I do not have the experience or knowledge or wisdom to live in the wild for life, so how can I call it home? It used to be home; how can I say it is still home?

Perhaps I feel like I can say this because I don’t see home as a place of constant residence. Gary Snyder might be more of that opinion than I am. “For most Americans,” he writes, “to reflect on ‘home place’ would be an unfamiliar exercise. Few today can announce themselves as someone from somewhere. Almost nobody spends a lifetime in the same valley, working alongside the people they knew as children” (Snyder 1990). Snyder sees this as a mostly negative thing. Because we do not feel ourselves as “from somewhere,” no place becomes “part of what we are” (Snyder 1990). That’s one way to look at it. But he contradicts himself when he talks about homeless coming to mean “at home in the whole universe.” When we are not from one place alone, from somewhere, all places come together, and we are from nowhere and everywhere.

Each place we pass through can become a part of what we are, who we are. Some places we pass through will affect us more than others, just as some people we pass by and cross paths with in our lives will affect us more than others. But though we may, because of intense emotion felt in a place or intense emotion felt with a person, desire to merge and “settle down” in that place or with that person, we must, in the words of Snyder, hold “sameness and difference delicately in mind” (Snyder 1990). Being from any one place, being with any one person, excludes being from any other place, being with any other person. This is not to argue for free love, an experiment that has been tried and has failed, or for non-stop travel, an experiment I may have to try for myself, but to argue against exclusion, against any separation of where I am from versus where I am not from, who I am with versus who I am against.

Those boundary lines truly do become “battle lines,” to use Wilber’s words. Ultimately, we cannot be from some “part” of the country and not from the other parts, cannot be from one country and not from the others. As Samuel Johnson originally pronounced and Bob Dylan sings, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” Our individual identities are bigger than, encompass more than, the southern state or North Country we were born in and at the same time are smaller than but a part of the Rio Grande that brings southern U.S. and northern Mexico together.

Where we are from is where we are returning to and also where we are at each moment as we get there. Where we pass through is home as we get home. The more alien we feel, the greater the incorporation, the more profound the change must be in ourselves so we can feel at home.

The change here is not a surface adjustment to a collective reality where the adjusted man feels disconnected from his true self and thus discontented with himself. The change here is a connection with a deeper reality that is both distinctly individual and unmistakably universal. The contentment of being and feeling at home, turning on the pot of water to make tea, sitting in a favorite chair to read, floating like Abbey and Newcomb in “dual solitude” down the river (Abbey 1968), walking alone across the desert, can only come when there is that connection. The psychologist Abraham Maslow writes of self-actualization, the pressure we feel within “toward unity of personality, toward spontaneous expressiveness, toward full individuality and identity, towards seeing the truth rather than being blind, toward being creative, toward being good” (Maslow 1968).

 
This is the movement, the ceaseless change; this is the journey home. It can consist of an actual journey, a physical journey, when we leave where we were born and raised, leave what was home so we can go back home, leave where we were so we can become who we are. Or it can be a psychological journey. Not everyone has to travel outwardly in order to make that homeward voyage. Needing to go home implies not feeling at home, feeling like something is lost and now must be regained. Some people may be born and grow up feeling at home, with themselves and the world. For these fortunate folks, none of whom I know, the searching journey will not be long and painful; it may not be a search or journey at all. For the rest, those who feel exiled from themselves and the world, the journey to what Maslow calls “authentic selfhood” will be long and, because it involves growth, painful and difficult (Maslow 1968).
 

Reading over what I’ve written thus far, it looks like I am contradicting myself just as I felt Snyder was doing. At home everywhere, no distinction between home and not-home, but yet not feeling at home in sterile, lifeless, human-created environments. But perhaps those environments are not as lifeless as they sometimes appear. There is life and wildness everywhere, “the wild is indestructible” (Snyder 1990). And everywhere, someone or something feels at home. The prickly pear cactus creates its home by pushing through the cracks of some trampled Tempe sidewalk, the lone juniper finds a home in harsh soil by the side of I-17, a woman finds herself at home as she dances alone, eyes closed, at closing time in a Prescott bar. I feel myself at home, not only when I myself feel at home, but also when I perceive another – man, woman, child, plant, rock, river – feeling at home, flowing with ease, expressing his truth, her nature, its’ reality.

To clarify, it is harder to feel at home in a place where wildness is harder to find, but it is still possible. All it takes is life revealing itself for a moment: the reflection of the rising sun on the Potomac River while walking over Key Bridge in D.C., the homeless vagabond carrying his pack across the Golden Gate bridge, the street guitarist playing the blues on Bourbon Street, bridging the gap between himself and his listeners, between inner experience and outside reality.

Do I long for home? I have studied the Enneagram some. It is a psychological system of nine personality types. I’ve typed myself (accurately) as type 4. Type 4 is known as the Romantic Individualist or The Tragic Romantic. No argument there. The 4 type longs for what is missing, what is absent, what is lost. “It is the stance of the separated lover, yearning for a way to reunite” (Palmer 1988). It is for the lover, in part, but the whole of it is home. Home is where I feel whole. The connection with the lover is a part of home, the connection with my essence is a part of home, and the connection with the land is a part of home.

Do I long for home? What else is there to long for? All yearnings, whomever for, whatever form they may take, are never for anything but home. Bob Dylan, undoubtedly an Enneagram 4, from his song “Girl From the North Country”:

“When you travel to the north country fair
When the wind hits heavy on the borderline
Remember me to one who lives there
For she once was a true friend of mine”

This yearning for something, someone, once here, now gone away. Once a part of your life, still a part of your life, but you not a part of her life. Though out of reach, out of touch, she is still kept in mind. And maybe that yearning for the woman who left is a yearning for more than the woman. Maybe that woman is a symbol of all that is lost or almost lost, more than a lost love, but a lost opportunity, possibility, a lost home. Maybe the yearning for the woman from up in the north country is also the yearning for the wilderness, that vast wilderness up north in the Gates of the Arctic, the wilderness where we can find direction, not towards north or south or east or west, but in a way that transcends the human practical definition of direction. Here we walk not east towards Mecca or west towards California or north to the Last Frontier or south to some Eldorado.

Here we walk not towards some Utopia, where we can build the perfect form of civilization, but in a present reality that we will not allow to become a past glory, where we can stop for a second in the stillness and say: here, I feel something that I do not feel in any technological paradise, in any urban dream. Here is no dream, no unreal paradise. Here is the real, what has been here before us and what must remain after us. Here we can find a meaning to all our endless wanderings and yearnings. Though we may have searched for a long time in the wrong places and found only disillusionment, here is the right place, which validates the yearning and redeems it. And maybe that’s why the desire to preserve it is so strong. The wilderness, what used to be our home. Once here, now almost gone.

“It has always been part of basic human experience to live in a culture of wilderness,” Gary Snyder writes, but we no longer live in the wild, so we do not fully feel the pain of its loss. . “At present,” Jack Turner writes, “we do not experience the loss of the wild like we experience a toothache” (Turner 1996). Part of going to the wilderness, part of going home, is to feel, not solely loss and pain, not solely awe and joy, but the full range of human emotion. Feel the heavy, intense sadness when what used to be our home is lost, and the light, expansive joy of returning there. Feel deeply, authentically. To feel and be human again.

Only when we feel and experience our humanness can we understand what Snyder calls the “thusness” of the nonhuman. Feeling one we understand the other. Understanding the other, we feel ourselves come out of our selves, come out of what we know and into our own, into what cannot be owned or controlled. We disown all that limits us, all that holds us back from letting in what we feel, and then letting it out so we are not held back by it. Breathe in life, vitality, the wild gentleness and the wild austerity of home; breathe out lethargy and apathy, breathe out our brokenness, sing of our exile, and become whole. Come home becoming and leave becoming still, become still in movement, keeping within what lies behind and beyond.