Sunday, November 5, 2017

Beyond Asceticism

In the Judaic and early Christian near east and medieval Europe, as in India and Tibet, asceticism, or radical self-denial in order to cultivate spiritual insight (or Divine Grace--whatever the local term might have been) was widely practiced. The Essenes, the Desert Fathers, the early Christian monastic communities in such barren, remote, and isolated outposts as Skellig Michael off the west coast of Ireland, took very seriously the injunction that "purity of heart requires denial of self" as Meister Eckhart, the Medieval German theologian and mystic, put it. In medieval Europe, anchorite nuns would even lock themselves inside basement chambers and live on charitable handouts from passersby, while spending their entire lives in contemplative prayer. Many of them did this in the devout belief that their own contemplative self-denial would somehow heal the world--that their prayers would lead, by a kind of osmosis, to a more peaceful and just society.

Any evidence for this remains to be seen. From my reading of history, the cultures that honored and encouraged such asceticism were every bit as corrupt, as power-hungry, as brutal, and as greedy as any other cultures.

Today, of course, we have gone to the opposite extreme.  In Glomart culture, both here and worldwide, the ideology of totally self-indulgent consumerism has run rampant: to be is to buy.
We are brainwashed with this consumer ideology all day and night, and most of us, myself included, fall under its spell, simply because of its almost irresistable appeal to our grasping, unconscious, animal selves: "That's cool. How much?" We are dazzled by constantly evolving strategies by merchants and advertisers everywhere, in our communities, on television, and online, to win over our next dollar, so that we seldom pause for a moment to reflect on where the money for this new toy, new snack, or new service is actually going, or what its longer term effect will be on our bodies, our minds, or our planet.  The net effect, inevitably, is the upward concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, coupled with a gnawing, inchoate discontent in the masses, all of whom want even more stuff without even pausing to ask why. Yet we remain perpetually dissatisfied; we always want more or better stuff, and the advertisers spend billions to ensure that we keep buying the latest new product or service--that we are never satisfied.

One deeply disillusioned Vietnam Vet, commenting on an article from Alternet about the online mega-retail giant and its most recent efforts to solicit handouts of taxpayer money from cash-strapped state governments in their bid to win over its new headquarters, wrote of his principled decision to adopt an ascetic lifestyle--to dumpster dive for clothing and shoes (even if mismatched) and to keep the purchase of anything to an absolute minimum, based on his realization of the deep connection between corporations and the government that had led to the horrors he had witnessed in Vietnam.  Here is my response to his comment:

I deeply respect your principled choices. However, self-sacrifice and organizing one's life around personalized resistance to corporate consumerism and militarism may be virtuous, but it is a kind of futile martyrdom--it will never catch on, never even make the slightest dent in Glomart (my shorthand for the Global Market Economy and Consumer Culture, of which the US is now the paradigm, but all other industrialized countries are complicit as well).
What can and will make a dent, then? My own response is a triad, which combines vertical (body-mind-spirit) with horizontal (self-community-planet) healing. That triad is--
(1) Mindfulness practice--to cultivate clear but non-self-flagellatory awareness of one's own mental impulses and gradually transform them from addictive habits of self-indulgence (the basis of consumer culture, nurtured by 24/7 advertising) to attentive, mindful choices to promote the health, competence, and resilience of ourselves, our community, and our planet simultaneously. I use a simple triad to remember this: Good buy, Good work, Good will.
(2) Satyagraha, or nonviolent refusal to cooperate with evil. Much of what you are doing falls into this category already, for which I commend you. But Gandhi laid out three interrelated aspects of Satyagraha:
--Speaking truth to power (through LTEs, Public Protest, voting, and calls to elected officials and their appointees);
--Acts of strategic nonviolent mass resistance, when appropriate.
--Cultivating self-reliance on behalf of ourselves and our communities.
...and doing all of the above mindfully, strategically, and relentlessly.
(3) Permaculture, an enlightened design methodology based on mindful observation and emulation of natural processes that is rooted in three core ethics:
--Earth Care
--People Care
--Fair Share, or (reinvesting the surplus in the first two).
This is my path. Thank you for sharing yours.