Confessions of a recovering consumer

forestLATELY I’VE FOUND MYSELF nursing a deep well of grief as I daily witness how both people and the planet suffer from rampant materialism. Since I’ve settled into a lifestyle that includes little in the way of accumulation, I can feel in my gut how unnecessary this suffering is, but something has silenced me from talking about it. I’ve decided to risk sounding preachy, rather than let this grief stay stuck in my throat.

In the last years, I’ve been slowly removing myself from the vice-grip of consumerism — not as an idea, but as a lifeway. I gave away most of what I owned, and have lived simply in parts of the world that aren’t completely under the boot of consumer culture. As a new orientation to life emerges in me, it has become clear that using less isn’t a punishment. It isn’t a loss. In fact, I feel richer and more creative than ever. My conditioned consumerism told me that I would feel deprived, but now I see this is only an illusion of the trance that I had been under since watching my first TV commercials during Saturday morning cartoons. It’s strange I never noticed before: any sense of abundance based on personal accumulation makes me hungry. My sense of abundance comes from a far deeper place now that I’ve left the gilded cage of the American trance for the wild forests of the soul.

I have been staying for nearly six months in a small adobe cabana in the Andes mountains, just outside of a village in Southern Ecuador. The walls of my cabin are made from a clay that comes from this mountain. I eat food grown locally by small farmers, eat bread baked in my neighbor’s oven, drink clean water that comes from the river thrumming over boulders in the valley below, and other than my use of internet and laptop, enjoy a lifestyle surrounded by forest, animals and neighbors, pretty much the same as people here have lived for centuries. For the first time, I am living in a way that makes sense to my soul — a way of life that would be illegal in my home country, too simple to meet the building codes and health regulations in the United States.

Whenever I read a discussion on lifestyle changes that might help the environment, I notice how often people refer to the option of “returning to the way our ancestors lived” as some kind of curse. All I can say is, they must have never tried it. My ancestors came from forests and villages in France and Germany, and tribal lands in North America. I’ve largely lived a “modern” life in urban or semi-urban areas. Now, I have gotten a small, lived taste of their way of life, and have found a lot to recommend it. Of course, I’m not suggesting this level of simplicity for everyone — we all need to find our own balance. Before the internet, I don’t think I could have lived this way, as it would have felt too isolated from the stimulating world of ideas and cultural exchange that until recently, was largely reserved for urban people. No doubt, in the past, some of our best ideas have come from urban environments, but let’s be honest: so have our worst, and I’m beginning to understand why.

Now that I spend the bulk of my time in wild places, when I go into urban areas, I notice that human culture feels too big there; it takes up too much psychic space, out of proportion to the truth of how things really exist. Human culture is only a tiny part of a vast and complex ecosystem, consciousness and universe, and a modern urban life dominated by the human mind can easily distort our thinking. If we are always in an environment where nature is confined to potted plants and carefully pruned, decorative trees, we lose the sense of perspective that comes from living closer to the elements, closer to the awe of the wild. Given the current imbalance in the planetary ecosystem, it feels downright dangerous to have many of the influential decision-makers confining themselves largely to purely human habitats, and when the general population does the same, there is no one left to notice that something is amiss. Maybe that’s why people have such trouble resolving the contradictions between their values and their conditioning, and caring for the natural world is often reduced to buying eco-chic clothing and putting the waste from excessive consumption into the recycling.

My reflections on this topic were recently ignited by an essay of deep emotional honesty in Orion magazine called “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist,” by Paul Kingsnorth. The essay was long and thorough – not typical in our soundbite culture – and spoke eloquently of the author’s underlying despair over the current trajectory of environmental destruction, and how environmentalism has been distorted by a consumer-focussed pragmatism. He named so much of what had been underground for me that I cried with relief as I read it. By the end of the essay, he revealed that he had given up all hope that we as humans were big enough to solve this on our own and left for the wilderness: to walk, contemplate, and love what was still there. Reading that ending, I felt such promise. It seems to me he took the most radical step possible: he let go of his mind’s human agendas and opened his heart to the wisdom of the wild.

His move reminded me of an exchange I witnessed years ago between a young environmental activist and the Buddhist teacher, Cealo. The activist told him that she was feeling despair, sure we wouldn’t be able to save the earth. Cealo replied, “You don’t have to save the earth. You just have to love it. When you love something, you take care of it.”

I often reflect on Cealo’s words, so I was surprised to find myself going numb as I settled into living in this particular forest, getting to know these particular trees. It took me a while to figure out why: I was afraid to love the trees as much as I do — afraid it would split me open, turn my mouth into a wound. We lose forests and forests, on top of those already lost, and if I let myself feel that love, how deep and vast and tender is my love for trees, then I will let out a wail so piercing that the agony will puncture the river valley and every heart in it. I think I’m starting to get that these times require a warrior-level commitment to life, strong enough to risk the wail and let that love be felt, even as I look through the trees toward the deforested mountainside and remember that I am living in the lucky little survivor forest, somehow spared.

In a larger sense, this forest is already gone, and now that I have taken a step toward that warrior commitment to life, every day I spend here is full of a heartbroken appreciation that at least for today, the forest is still here, teaching me — the way it did one day when I was feeling particularly dark, not liking what I was reading in the news. I was seeing the world as broken, the confusion too deep and stuck. Then I went outside and saw perched on a leaf a butterfly with a torn wing. It looked as though the wing had been bitten and the butterfly had escaped. I had never seen a wounded butterfly before. They had always represented successful transformation, enlightenment, a caterpillar’s fairy-tale ending. At first I felt sad, as it seemed to confirm my judgment on the state of the world, but then the butterfly fluttered its wings and took flight, unfazed by the broken wing.

As the mythologist Michael Meade put it, “The world renews itself all the time in the secrecy of forests, but also in the hearts of those who commit fully to life.”

[ Did this make you think? Please share it with others. ]

Subscribe to this author’s post feed via EMAIL

19 comments to Confessions of a recovering consumer

  • Thank you Jane, for another stirring installment to this oasis of within cyberspace. Your authentic voice and genuine regard for these vital topics is a breath of fresh air—comme d’habitude avec toi. I did not feel preached at, I felt gratitude for the way you laid it down so simple, plain and powerful. I see Kingsnorth and Cealo’s teachings taking direction from the heart and from a true faith in the wisdom and power of the Earth, which can help guide us into prper living, perhaps more deftly than all the Big Thoughts and schemes that may come from our minds. This is not just a ‘giving up,’ but a way to maintain and cultivate the authenticity of our connection to the earth and Her wilds and her ways of nurturing life.

  • Thanks, Alex, for stopping by and taking this in. So glad you resonate with it. I’m right there with you–big thoughts can cause big problems without an open heart, and when we are too pragmatic in our solutions without staying connected to the awe and poetry and wonder of life–well, that’s what got us into this environmental mess in the first place!

  • Peter Krammer

    Nice writing, as usual Jane! Yes, the point is to love the natural world; it has so much joy, beauty, and wisdom-building to offer. But mourning for it is a waste of energy. Perhaps the mourning needs to be for those unlucky enough to be alive when and where things collapse. It is human systems that inevitably become unsustainable. Nature will heal itself and get along fine without us. Maybe we act this way simply because we are part of nature, being as natural as can be. Like bugs, maybe, that eat up all the trees until the food’s gone. Home burns up and it’s all over for the bugs. Of course, you wouldn’t want to be a tree in that forest either.

  • Thanks Peter – I totally get what you’re saying. In some ways we are acting natural, like beavers who overbuild dams and destroy everything down river. And yes, the earth will be fine, even if we and all other mammals can no longer live here.

    But for me, feeling grief over this isn’t a waste of energy. The waste is when I RESIST feeling the grief (which is a natural emotion to feel when something or someone I love is being hurt and I can’t stop it). When all my energy goes into resisting the feeling, my ability to love and appreciate life disappears.

    Grief comes and goes like the weather if I let myself feel it–and feeling it can actually increase my sense of connection to my heart. But resistance turns the grief into a constant, low-grade sickness that deadens me.

  • Thank you for following your grief feelings that led you to share with us. Your article is beautiful, moving and inspiring. I love how you point out leaving things isn’t a loss.

    I recently read that we are lured into becoming addicted to things by the current economic system which needs this addiction for its very survival.(Tim Jackson- Prosperity without Growth). Most of us are unaware of this connection. But new systems are beginning to thrive which make space for our souls!

    Warm regards,
    Mara

  • Pat

    Thanks Jane for this beautiful article and please continue to write your thoughts that you share so well.

    Love and appreciation,

    Pat

  • From your words,

    “I think I’m starting to get that these times require a warrior-level commitment to life, strong enough to risk the wail and let that love be felt”

    It is time for a warrior’s-level to stand and unite for the ones who do not love our Mother, (Earth) is our slow death.

    A quote from Albert Eisenstein: “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it”.

    Like in business, I’ve found this in sales. “I don’t want you to hear what I’m saying, I want you to feel it that way you believe it”. Nature takes on this practice you can feel it and she is not happy. I guess she is taking on a warrior’s approach. You are not alone Jane, for I feel that the Forest loves you.

  • Thanks, everyone for reading. And Mark, thanks for reposting my blog. Others might want to check out the video that Mark posted on his site to go with his reposting, from Hopi elder Floyd Red Crow Westerman. Very touching–and true: http://msb1959.wordpress.com/2012/01/19/confession-of-consumerism-is-there-a-cure/

  • Thanks Jane – it is so good to read you words and hear your strong clear voice speaking truths that touch the hearts and ignite the minds of so many. Keep lovin’ those trees and the world – there are uncountable numbers of beings who join you in your grief and your love and together we will renew and remake the world.

    Love,

    Ken

  • Ana Sachs

    Another very nice article Jane! I appreciate how you think, listen to your heart and then take the big leap to live in a hut in the forest of Ecuador. I feel that you, as a warrior, are our scout, reporting back to to the rest of the tribe, who are still plugged into jobs and more conventional lives. My heart resonates with your perspective and I only needed a little nudge to reevaluate my own lifestyle. I don’t think I’ll be living in the forest any time soon, but I am simplifying, looking at growing my own food, living much closer to the earth. I’m looking forward to checking out the links you posted as well.

  • Jane, This piece moved me to tears and pushes me to think, again, about what I really need and how far I can open my heart to mourn and to love. Thank you for living and writing the message we need to hear. Nina

  • Alexie

    But how do you live? How does the Internet connection get paid for? Do you farm, or weave, or toil in the traditional ways? Do you open yourself to the possibility of failed crops, or children dead of water borne diseases, or death in childbirth? Or do you make income the first world way, by selling spirituality to westerners?

  • @alexie: The point isn’t to return to the ways of our ancestors–that would be impossible anyway. I am exploring revisiting ways of life that modern, western people left behind in order to find what was good and soulful and useful for us to recover. We need inspiration for creating new ways to be on the earth so that it works for us AND for the rest of the eco-sphere, and some of that inspiration can come from the forests and villages in less developed parts of the world. My life is set up in such a way that it allows me this particular exploration, and I’m sharing what I learn. No matter where life puts us, we can experiment. Seems that’s what these times are calling for.

  • Here is a video about a Thai man who left university in Bangkok and went back to village life. This is his take on the difference–for him, village life is easier and much more fulfilling. Have a look:

    http://www.karmatube.org/videos.php?id=2747

    Not for everyone, of course, but it might be for more of us than we ever suspected.

    I’ve often thought we could set up a sort of “carbon credit” for people like him who are using so few resources, so that those who choose a more resource-heavy life are balanced out by those who prefer to live as he does. With some resources coming his way, then the struggles with medical care and infrastructure issues would be eased, and in return, his light footprint would make more sustainable the lives of those who need to wear heavier boots.

  • Thank you for your words. In sweden there has been a debate about Kingsnorth’s essay, which is a testimony to the original texts perspective – I believe. Giving up certain illusive ideas about our power to control changes may be needed in the time to come – but at the same time I hope that people are not swayed towards apathy, which is already to much prevalent in our consumer culture. Enviromentalists who ultimately may loose but still prep up manifestations for sustainability are still doing something tremendously worthwhile in my book. But the greenwash of consumer culture, I could do without.

    And we need to talk about these things. I am happy that you are one of the people who are. Thank you.

  • Al Jordan

    You truly are a child of the earth…and a beautiful soul. I am grateful that you have the courage and vision to live as you do and to open so fully to the goodness and wonder of life. I am one who lives in the heart of materialistic culture and worse, yet, in the bosom of Bible belt America. It can be very, very stifling and soul wearying, but even amidst all this with a 95 year old Mother-in-law who has lived with me for 38 years, three grown children (with their problems) and seven grandchildren, I can still find some blessedness in deep acceptance, letting go and opening to that reality larger than self. I am drawn to the freedom and boundless openness of sky and to the warming, luminosity and presence of the sun. All else is cloud…some fluffy and beautiful and inviting, and some dark, ominous and threatening, but all passing. I take great comfort in Cealo’s words, “You don’t have to save the earth, you just have to love it.” Thanks for sharing. You are a vital part of the ongoing redemption of the earth…just by loving it.

  • Suecae, thank you for stopping by. It is heartening to know that people are talking about this in Sweden. All over the earth, there are people who care, and this is good for me to remember. I agree that apathy is the last thing we need. For me, and I think for at least some others, it comes from the sense of overwhelm–when I think we should be able to control this whole thing, rather than accept that there are big forces at work. My sense is that understanding that we can’t control all the forces, while at the same time, allowing ourselves to connect deeply to our love of the earth, is more likely to produce engagement than apathy. And I am so grateful that environmentalists continue to do all they can whatever the odds look like. Truth is, we can’t know all the factors and what might be the action that turns things around.

    And Al–thank you for your words. I am touched by the sense of you bringing openness and light into the materialist Bible belt–where it is certainly needed! We all do our part, wherever we are on the planet, I think, as long as we don’t give into despair, as though we little beings could really know how all this ends. We can only know how well we walk and love and care for the earth, while we are here…

  • […] conveniences – like Jane Brunette, a very popular blogger from the UK who recently wrote a courageous article about her choice.  And then there is a young man Jon Jandai in Thailand who did a similar thing.  […]

  • […] Fall.  You can read more about the insights that came to Jane during her time in Ecuador in her confessions of a recovering consumer, published on her blog. I also recommend checking out the beautiful articles she wrote for the […]