Facing the shadow of modern materialism: What would love do?

night-traffic-490062-mAFTER MORE THAN A YEAR AWAY, much of it in timeless solitary retreat, I returned to California for a few months. I thought I was prepared for the shock of landing there. After all, I had gone back many times after retreat. But this time was different. A veil had been lifted from my psyche by that year of practice and I had no protection against the fast and hungry life that prevails in America: the tight schedules of friends with packed lives; the required long distance driving in heavy traffic that is the norm in California; the vast parking lots; the slick, expensive cafes and shops run on the constant buzz of electricity and filled with people distracted by their gadgets; the pricetags that seemed to hang off of everything.

Humans are adaptable — that is our gift and our curse — and so to those living day to day inside this modern, urban world, all that I just listed might seem like no big deal — just normal life. And yet I felt flattened by it — the pervasive waste, everything padded with an excess of material goods and everyone rushing to make the money to pay for all this excess.

Because my retreat pretty much stripped me of the padding of denial I had come to rely on to live in that world, I was radically aware of the hard truth at every turn: that the hot and cold drink machines in every restaurant and gas station depend on nuclear power plants, some of them built on fault lines. That the shiny new cars that dominate every street are wedded to oil spills, dangerous drilling and the resulting polluted rivers and oceans. That all those treasured smart phones and laptops — including the one I write on now — depend on rare metals taken from mines dug without permission on tribal lands, destroying indigenous cultures and our last primordial forests. Even the clothes on our backs and the shoes on our feet are culpable, most of them made in low-wage, overseas factories with no safety regulations, more grim than the sweatshops long ago outlawed in America. This insatiable, industrial, material world requires our constant pushing away of these harsh realities just to be able to get on with our day and the business of making enough money to partake of its benefits.

Leaving America doesn’t make it much easier to live without the padding of denial, even though when I am in Bali, I am one of the “rich” people. All it does is remind me that inequality is built into this system. Because of the arbitrary assignment of relative currency exchange rates, the Balinese “local economy” isn’t equivalent to the one I draw from, which means that their income is nothing next to mine. In California, I am at the bottom of the economic scale, but in Bali I am rich. What is cheap to me is prohibitively expensive to locals and most could never dream of visiting the US. This is the truth of the global economy. If it were all happening within the boundaries of America, it would have to be perfectly legal to blatantly pay one ethnic group a fraction of what we pay the others for the same work. Send the disparity overseas and no one seems to have a problem with it.

But that doesn’t mean Americans have it better than the Balinese in the larger sense. I honestly don’t think that’s the case. The Balinese still have a culture filled with sacred stories, shared values and meaning. They still have strong family and community ties, as well as ties to the natural world. Their kids are still cared for by extended families instead of being put in day care. And they have not been entirely taken over by consumerism and individualism, even as fancier and fancier villas, restaurants and boutiques keep springing up where the rice fields used to be.

Those fancy villas and boutiques aren’t all for the European and American tourists. Consumerism is fast taking root in Asia and the greed here is just as crass. The prosperous Chinese and Japanese tourists who shop the boutiques in Ubud and the malls in Singapore like luxury and status just as much as any Westerner — perhaps even more so. Amongst Americans, there is at least talk of valuing egalitarianism, while in Asia, the value of status and its symbols goes largely unquestioned, and environmental concerns are low on the list of priorities: At the trendy, upscale groceries in Bangkok, the “organic” vegetables are of a surreal, uniform length and color, all prettily packaged in plastic.

It feels as though I am watching the spread of a plague. Yet to sit in a place of not-knowing-all-the-answers and watch the take-over of this fragile planet by a voracious materialism is to watch the messy process of human evolution. We’re figuring this out as we go — how to contend with our DNA-level drive for security and comfort as we are confronted with the finite resources on this planet to supply all these people. Like most everyone else, it’s hard for me to see what my contribution can be toward truly addressing this dilemma. How can I come to understand and find right relationship to a system that is failing so many people and so many ecosystems? This question feels far bigger than politics or economics or ideas about justice and fairness. The complexities go beyond anything I can understand with conventional wisdom, logic, or the tired arguments of the right and the left.

And so I have been curiously drawn to look for wisdom in overlooked places, most recently in old religious writings from the 14th century: I have been hunting down and reading the books known to have inspired saints. Read with fresh eyes and an open mind, these old books are radically counter-cultural, refreshing in their blatant disregard for what is valued by the gods of materialism and by all the worldly gods of success, looking good, comfort, possessions and security that go largely unquestioned in our modern world, even by people who consider themselves spiritual.

So what do these old books recommend? Again and again, at their most essential, they speak of making a profound commitment to understanding the temporal nature of worldly things and cultivating the only thing that outlasts them all: union with and reliance on the reality that underlies and connects all things, which at its essence is pure love. They have many methods for establishing this connectedness that have largely gone out of favor because they require setting limits on our choices and desires, an idea completely at odds with current trends.

Given how deeply these old books have been resonating for me as I grapple with what role I might play in all of this, my exploration has now come down to focusing on one question, carrying it with me as a guide and touchstone as I go about my day:

What would love do?

I’ve come to suspect that this is the most important question for any of us to be asking right now of ourselves and one another — moment to moment as we make all our small, individual choices, and as a collective as we make the large ones.

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13 comments to Facing the shadow of modern materialism: What would love do?

  • Joshua Luber

    “making a profound commitment to understanding the temporal nature of worldly things and cultivating the only thing that outlasts them all: union with and reliance on the reality that underlies and connects all things, which at its essence is pure love.” ~ Jane Brunette
    I love it!
    Things don’t make you feel loved, but the pursuit and acquisition of them brings you a connectedness to the masses, which in turn becomes a false prophesy of love. It tells us and they tell us we are worthy of these material things…hence worthy of love.
    Retail therapy should come with a warning label:
    That which you are truly looking for is not found within this product.

  • Jane. I loved your article!!! It offers a profound insight into the central question of our day. Like Pope Francis, authoritatively and wisely bucking norms of the church establishment, I hope the message you are touching on gets into the hearts and minds of key leaders and decision-makers. I realize this includes me!

    There are so many examples in the plant and animal world where the most powerful species in an ecosystem overwhelms the environment and causes it to collapse. I think, like you, that the wisdom to prevent our own demise, lies in the depth of the human heart.


  • Thank you for your brilliance, Jane. You have posed issues affecting most of us or at least most of us activists. My husband has had enough – he wants to leave the country – to be in a place with ‘the real people’ who are down to earth and not addicts to consumerism abuse.

    I get it, but I feel I do not have that privilege: I am a Native person, forever connected to this place, which is now the US, but for most of its existence has just been home to ‘the people.’ As a Native person, I feel responsibility to walk lightly and respectfully on my mother; to be part of a very old religion, which cannot be observed other places – only here; and to do my best to wind the world well. I cannot abandon the ancestors, waters, mountains, and all who/that dwell here; I need to ‘think globally and act locally’ as my NYC neighborhood is under attack by the gentrifers. My mountain home is under attack too. Vast forests are being/have been clear cut, animals are being pushed out, chain stores are replacing mom/pop businesses and squatting on sacred spaces. Urban folks want to live in the country, but hate the bugs, animals, raking leaves, inconveniences, so they turn the natural world into an urban squalor. If I leave this place of my ancestors, how many will speak up for the wisdom of the old ways? I cannot leave; I am forever bound to this country. And I believe that the world’s legacy of Indigenous wisdom can resolve contemporary issues.

    The gentrifers moved to my neighborhood in search of cheaper housing and I’m sure a wee number of them didn’t feel they were doing anything wrong by joining our community. But they did. I do not want to be a person that goes to another country searching for wisdom, housing, peace, spiritually and causes the locals any distress. Greed is a disease and a contagious one. I am sure that my “richness” in another place would drive up prices and give me a sense of entitlement that I do not have in this place. I cannot do that to anyone else. So I stay and fight and mourn and bitch and stress and pray and write the truth while all the time I struggle to ‘right’ the truth. My hubby is descended from immigrants and has a different world view. He’s ashamed to be an American while I have never even felt like one.

  • Interesting, your point about how the very pursuit of things brings us a sense of connection to others who are pursuing things — and it is the connection we are after. Maybe this is why the spiritual giants who have shown the way for us — the saints and the prophets, such as Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King and Gandhi — have found their connectedness first in that larger love reality so they didn’t need to rely on what you call “connectedness to the masses,” and so could offer an alternative example to all of us. In that way, deep spiritual practice is the most radical act of empowerment we can take to become real citizens and leaders on this planet who can stand up to the floodgates of materialism.

  • Yes, Ken! I have profound trust in the human heart — and the larger heart we are all embedded in. (Now if everyone would just put down their heady gadgets long enough to remember how good it feels to rest in the heart, present to the moment…)

  • I so appreciate your loyalty to place, Yvonne, and the responsibility you feel to the waters, the mountains, the ancestors — and the integrity of your NYC neighborhood. I feel a similar sense of responsibility to my ancestral roots. Oddly, it has taken me into other countries because I want to understand something viscerally about how cultures and peoples come together, for good and for ill, and something in me has been called to expand my sense of duty to include the whole globe. Ultimately, I hope whatever I learn will end up benefiting the land and the people I come from, since the legacy from them is what sent me out here in the first place. [My own family is made up of indigenous Menominee (my mother’s side) who married immigrant villagers displaced by war and oppression (my father’s side), so I guess I have a bit of both your hubby and you in me!]

  • Anita

    Thank you, Jane, for all your loving work, including all the wisdom and effort contained in this blog post. I have been engaged for the past year or so in the practice of “bearing witness” with others to make peace in the world. Your reflection here seems to to have come out of a deep witnessing of what you call a “plague,” the greed and consumerism that is infecting the whole ecosystem. Coincidentally, I recently joined a “spiritual friends” group through my sangha in San Francisco to read and discuss a new book, “Active Hope” by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone. The subtitle– “How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy”–sums up the content of the book and its connection to your question–“What would love do?”–pretty well. Have you read it? Joanna Macy, is, as you probably know, a Buddhist. Her work beautifully connects practice “on the cushion” with practice in the world. It’s good to be in touch.

  • Chad

    I awake Jane and feel like you some days, sometimes it feels all true, the thoughts, the emotions and the feelings all towards it. When I to come out of my cave and see the wider world, i too can loose sight of its beauty and wonderfulness, as it is, as it always was, perfect and divine. Nowadays I know a little more and a little less of whats of real importance. If the kings are allowed to be kings and the slaves continue without a fight, will I still see the beauty that lay in between?
    The Platform for sure is all theirs and ours to share if we want to. The laws and the sounds of machines that we didn’t hear, when we bought that new iPhone or speaker cable is a link, in the great chain. But aren’t I to a link in this great chain? Aren’t I a free man because of it? Now We learn to care and expand on Love’s greatest signature, its greatest depth, this in between. Where we know of, where we don’t want to know of anymore and what is the great mystery of that in between. Truly caring for it all, is what it seems you’re writing about to me. Jane you are truly caring by sharing. Every time you do this, the questions go deeper, but it will never solve the grand empire that will always be – not ours and – not there’s, but simply what we all still have to live with and care for in this time. Yet we still return to the grand kingdoms, we still need to see it all, to see where we’re all at by it. After being so free and able to explore the new & old worlds, we often feel our true selves in LOve and with love again in that ‘in between’.
    I Thank you Jane.

  • Anita, thank you for the deep witnessing you are doing. I’ve come to see that just keeping our eyes open to what is happening and tolerating the pain of not knowing what to do about it is itself a great contribution — and sometimes a very difficult one to make. So it is heartening to hear that you are part of a group whose whole point is to bear witness. Thanks also for bringing up Joanna Macy’s work. I so admire her perspective, and didn’t realize she had a new book out. Perfect timing –just downloaded it for my Kindle, so I’m reading it right alongside you and your spiritual friends in San Francisco.

  • I love what you say about the value of being able to see the beauty in the midst of all the dark and light–and the truth that we are also links in this great chain. This means that what we do matters, however small and insignificant it may seem to us. What we do may be a drop in the bucket, but after all, it is a bunch of drops that fill a bucket. Thank you for this reminder.

  • Coleen LeDrew Elgin

    Thank you Jane for your authenticity and courage in naming what is sometimes hard for us to see, accept, and own – how we are living and its impact on life. You have a keen eye and heart for bringing together the essence of the wisdom traditions you explored as expressed in “making a profound commitment to understanding the temporal nature of worldly things and cultivating the only thing that outlasts them all: union with and reliance on the reality that underlies and connects all things, which at its essence is pure love.” As we all lean into this very challenging global situation may we embody this knowing and also ask what would love do? Keep sharing your insights and voice – you are a mystic for our times.

  • I think one of the hardest thing of all about seeing this impact from how we are living that you speak of is seeing how utterly embedded we all are. I think that’s why we have trouble even looking at it: too painful to see how our lives are so entwined with destructive forces and our survival at present utterly dependent on them. It isn’t as if alternative choices are easy or available, and we just aren’t choosing them. It can feel as though we have no choice but to participate, and practically speaking, there’s truth to that. There are no instant solutions and no way to drop out. We go as one mandala, all of us together.

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