Sunday, March 02, 2008

Affluenza and a No-Cheating Book Meme

This one has been making the rounds in both the Quaker and the Pagan world...

Normally, I would place a meme on The Back Page--that being why I created it. But since Cosette of Pandora's Bazaar not only tagged me, but named Quaker Pagan Reflections itself in her own Book Meme post, that would probably be cheating.

And, in any case, the book that is immediately to hand is one I've got a few thoughts about worth the sharing.

So, for those of you not yet hit with this particular pyramid scheme of the blogosphere, the meme goes like this:
1. Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages).
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people. (My tags are at the bottom of the page, for enquiring minds.)

Right.

So, the book I had nearest at hand is one I've only begun dipping into--it was a gift from my daughter, who actually picked it up for free on a book exchange she found via the Web: the bestselling Eat, Pray, Love. Here's the quote:
"Our whole business therefore in this life,"wrote Saint Augustine, rather Yogically, " is to restore to health the eye of the heart whereby God may be seen."

Like all great philosophical ideas, this one is simple to understand but virtually impossible to imbibe. OK--so we are all one, and divinity abides within us all equally.

Observant readers will note that I went to some pains to let you know how I came by the book, and that this implies a certain sheepishness on my part to be caught with it. Why is that?

I think it's because this has become one of the books that "serious" spiritually-minded people love to hate. I don't think I can do better than to quote one Amazon reviewer, who describes it as
both disappointing and aggravating from beginning to end. The author is self-absorbed and irritating, and her 'insights' into the people she meets and the places she goes are shallow and annoying. The endless reflection on the horror of a marriage that didn't seem that horrible to me, and the quest for spirituality that has Gilbert chatting with God in India made finishing this book a torment. Finding out that she got the book advance before heading out on her journey made total sense; the trip fit into the book proposal rather than the other way around.

I became a Pagan about the time that Lynn Andrews was becoming big business in the 80's. Ah, Lynn Andrews. The best of all worlds: Lynn's story tells us again and again that it's possible to combine being affluent, blond, and with a taste for designer clothes with spiritual enlightenment found through contact with "authentic" Native peoples. Just think--all the payoff of eternal wisdom, but without having to wear unflattering clothing or do without First World health care, power, or privilege! How cool is that?

It's easy to believe that Elizabeth Gilbert is yet another variety of plastic spiritual seeker. It is hard to sympathize with a woman who finds herself in a crisis of empty materialism, asking herself,
wasn't I proud of all we'd accumulated--the prestigious home in the Hudson Valley, the apartment in Manhattan, the eight phone lines, the friends and the picnics and the parties, the weekends spent roaming the aisles of some box-shaped superstore of our choice, buying ever more appliances on credit? I had actively participated in every moment of the creation of this life--so why did I feel like none of it resembled me?

Viewed from a certain angle, Gilbert looks like merely another victim of affluenza, our cultural ennui and alienation. And maybe she is. When she talks about her instant infatuation with a "ninth generation Indonesian medicine man," I am struck by her need to keep score. Because, you know, a ninth generation Indonesian medicine man is obviously going to be, like, well, better than an eighth generation Indonesian medicine man. And totally no comparison with, say, a mere fourth generation Indonesian medicine man.

The idea that wisdom is something that can be obtained only by contact with an exotic Other--ideally someone poor, but poor because they are not caught up in material things rather than because they suffer from economic injustices that, yes, with the two houses and eight phone lines, Elizabeth Gilbert(and I) are in some way complicit with--that idea, combined with the score-keeping of Authentic Wisdom Indicators, like an Energy Star rating on an appliance, just screams New Age to me.

Pagans just hate being classed as a New Age religion. And I agree. I don't think Paganism is a New Age religion, because I think that the New Age is primarily about reconciling the tensions inherent in trying to live with spiritual integrity in an unjust world by ignoring injustice and by commodifying Spirit. The New Age is about buying the right things--robes, retreats, Tibetan Singing Bowls, and teachers--to make us just "wise" enough to be smug and maybe write a book. But not wise enough to see what horse's ass idiots we are, just by virtue of being human. Let alone wise enough to repent of that, and start at least trying to change our lives to actually honor the realities of a world of inequalities and injustice.

And I think Paganism--and the Religious Society of Friends--does better than that, most of the time. I think we honestly try to connect with one another as communities of humans--which is why it's so hard, and why there's so much conflict. Humans are hard. Conflict is hard. And there's no need for conflict when you're a passive consumer of a "wisdom tradition" after all--that's the whole point, in fact. But sometimes we remember that it's not about consuming, but growth, and we struggle on, loving and sometimes fighting, growing in the process. Sometimes a little Spirit even sneaks in and speeds the process along, which is wonderful--and the real point of all the seeking and the striving.

I think we've all got it, though, in this culture--that soul-sickness of affluenza. I think that is the reason I flinch from admitting that I am reading Gilbert's book; I don't want to be taken for one of those people... which is a pretty good hint that, in fact, I see something of myself in that folly.

I'm out of balance. Gilbert's out of balance. Almost certainly, dear reader, so are you. I don't think we need to travel to Indonesia to find our souls. I think we can listen fine from where we are. But, ironically, I think listening must involve listening to Gilbert's voice, as she explores the state of her spirit in her book--or at least not pre-judgeing her as a plastic seeker, simply because she began her seeking in a position of material comfort.

So did Gautama Buddha, if my memory serves me. So, maybe, in place of assuming I know her soul (and therefore, refusing to reflect on my own) based on her affluence and angst in the early chapters of her book, I'd do better to read on before making up my mind.

After all, I'm only on page 29. And page 123 did look pretty good...



Tagged for the 123 Book Meme:
Ali, at Meadowsweet and Myrrh
David, at Silver Maple
Walhydra, at Walhydra's Porch
Riverwolf, at IDiosyntocracy
Cubbie at Seams of a Peculiar Queer

10 comments:

Cosette said...

I've not read this book and I wouldn't doubt that the author's heart is in the right place, but I think that idea of the wisdom of the exotic Other is a dangerous one. It's the "noble savage" rhetoric that has been around for hundreds of years. It's romantic, sentimental, a form of racism and a product of colonialism. It helps maintain the oppression of the indigenous people and those in developing countries.

You rock, by the way.

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

No, you rock!

(Sorry--just had to get that childish thing out of the way.)

I agree on the subject of turning wisdom figures into Noble Savage stereotypes. I'm disconcerted to see a fair number of Pagan leaders and teachers falling into that trap; one particular well-known teacher of my acquaintance comes vividly to mind.

It's probably always temptingly easier to objectify someone else in the name of Spirit than to knuckle down and figure out what we ourselves need to do next...

Thanks for your comments, Cosette. I really enjoy your point of view (and I really urge any readers of mine who haven't yet checked it out to hustle on over to Pandora's Bazaar and check it out. IMNSHO, some of the best Pagan blogging around.

Blessed be.

Pitch313 said...

In some respects, we--practicing Neo-Pagans--are, in the eyes of academia and various other institutions, *exotic others.*

Different from ordinary citizens, and wellsprings of peculiar ideas and odd behavior. In our own seeking after wisdom, we no longer (if ever we did) conform to the norms.

In our own eyes, however, we see ourselves as inadequately exotic. So we turn to others outside of or beyond our own cultural legacies and traditions. Perhaps it is an indicator of our alienation from community and our distancing from the living Earth that we look to exotic sources for everyday wisdom.

But everyday wisdom is all arund us.

Broomstick Chronicles said...

Living as I do in the belly of beast of newageism, I see evidence of this every day:

"I think that the New Age is primarily about reconciling the tensions inherent in trying to live with spiritual integrity in an unjust world by ignoring injustice and by commodifying Spirit."

Thanks for stating your insight so clearly.

And I think both of you, Cat and Cosette, rock -- if I can say such a phrase. ;-)

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Pitch,
I love how you put it: "we see ourselves as inadequately exotic..." I think that's about right, too much of the time.

And Macha, just... thanks. :)

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Aha! I thought I remembered seeing a quote about this!

Kevin, at the provocatively named blog Quakerthink describes what might be called the opposite problem, when Friends turn a bit too mechanically to our history, by saying"The Early Friends believed in this or that..." in a way that ends discussion rather than informs it. (I love how he titled his post: The Curse of the Early Friends.)

Whether we're looking to Exotic Others or to Authentic Traditions (if I can use that as a contrasting temptation) it's a mistake to objectify wisdom in a way that cuts us off from seeking it--from growing our own, so to speak.

Anonymous said...

Cat,

It "is given me" to say a positive word about at least *one* Tibetan singing bowl (mine) and a couple of Exotic Others.

The mystical end of Quakerism is, I'd say properly, right to de-emphasize external trappings, vestments, liturgies, icons etc., as being superflous to our worship experience; that said I'm quite fond of my TSB (not presuming for one nanosecond that it has the same meaning for me as a Tibetan whatever that may be). When "invited to sound" it's a lovely way to end a meditation period, and I find it calming simply to look at, rather like a labyrinth is to me even when I don't walk it but merely behold (going off on a tangent, a few of us managed last year to "sell" a seven-circuit "Cretan" labyrinth as a permanent fixture of our MM property).

As for Exotic Others, I recently spent a quiet evening with an elderly Indian couple who strike me as *very* spiritually awake. I realized afterward -- and I doubt I would have caught this without some Friends worship experience -- that, more than anything that was said, what impressed me most deeply was the profound *silence*, the "fertile void", out of which our speech arose and to which it returned, not unlike a "gathered" meeting only with dialogue. (Would that committee and business Meetings manifest this more often!) Then, a week or so later, I expeienced the same phenomenon listening to an *audiobook* of Ram Dass speaking.

Maybe what I'm trying to say is that things that help open up "thin places", while unessential or peripheral to Quaker worship, can nevertheless be lovely adjuncts to corporate and individual practice. So posit: New Ageism or the freedom from it consists in how we relate to our spiritual adjuncts rather than how many of them we accrete.

Rock on.

Sir Francis sirfr@earthlink.net

Walhydra said...

Cat,

You tagged me with the No-Cheating Book Meme, and, unfortunately, I'm going to have to cheat a bit.

I've been merely lurking in the blogosphere since October, so the number of bloggers I know well enough to tag has dwindled too much--especially since dear Sara decided to lay down Pagan Godspell.

I'm just going share my book here, rather than in a post on Walhydra's Porch.

First, though, thanks for the discussion of affluenza--especially the excellent definition:

"New Age is primarily about reconciling the tensions inherent in trying to live with spiritual integrity in an unjust world by ignoring injustice and by commodifying Spirit."

That is right on target.

It recalled to me immediately a book I read in the 1970s, Chogyam Trungpa's Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.

"Walking the spiritual path properly is a very subtle process;...we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques. This fundamental distortion maybe referred to as spiritual materialism."

I've pull this book out, realizing that I need to reread it.

Meanwhile, the Meme:

Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.

Pinker challenges the notion predominant in the latter 20th century, especially among post-modern and social constructionist thinkers, that biology-- more specifically genetics-- has nothing to do with the content or workings of human cognition. They feared that any inherent sociobiological differences among people could be used to justify discrimination, Social Darwinism, etc.

Here are the three sentences, referring to geneticist Richard Lewontin and colleauges:

"'Were human beings only six inches tall there could be no human culture at all as we understand it,' they note, because a Lilliputioan could not control fire, break rockes with a pick-axe, or carry a brain big enough to support language. It is their only acknowledgment of the possibility that human biology affects human social life.

"Eight years later Lewontin reiterated this theory of what is innate in humans: 'the most important fact about human genes is that they help to make us big as we are and to have a central nervous system with as many conections as it has."

Pinker marvels that this is the most important fact about human genes. What about the patterning and organization of a brain which can create and use language?

Hmm...

Anyway, sorry for such a long, rambling comment.

Blessèd Be,
Michael Bright Crow

Riverwolf said...

A friend recently sent me some info on Elizabeth Gilbert and I was aware of "Eat, Pray, Love." But another of her books caught my eye, "Last American Man." Haven't read it yet, but part of me wonders if it's more of the romanticizing you describe, that practice of putting others on pedestals that we can worship (something I reject now). When we do this, we'll always be "less than." These others have made decisions we choose not to make or are unable to make, and so I think it leads to guilt, to thinking that we're not truly serious about our spiritual paths. Thanks for the reminder that we really need to look no further than where we are.

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Michael,
I love long rambling comments--yours especially. Thanks for the reminder of Trungpa's book--I've heard of it but not read it, and perhaps I should.

Maybe I'll look out for a used copy--that seems particularly appropriate for a book critiquing an aspect of materialism!

The Pinker book gets me thinking, too. It's interesting that Lewontin puts such stress on the size of humans and our brains. I'll admit, I used to be a "size queen" around intelligence, but as the owner of a small dog who, had she an opposable thumb, would probably steal our car keys and go on a crime spree, I've had to rethink that. I'm no longer convinced that intelligence correlates very strongly with the size of the brain pan. In fact, I'm starting to think that the perspective of those native Americans whose cosmology defined animals as just another kind of people is right on the mark--the more I watch animals I used to think of as "dumb"--like squirrels and birds--interacting and solving problems, the less secure I am with the idea that animals are very different from us after all.

Makes meat eating something that raises concerns, obviously.

And Riverwolf, thanks for your thoughts. I'll be quite interested in your opinion of the book you've picked up, and I'm already happily chewing over your idea about how putting the Other on a spiritual pedestal leads to feeling guilty (and inadequate?), something I'm already convinced is more likely to paralyze than reform us.

Thanks for the input!

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