Intuition and the Creation of a Better World

Defending Materialism

Dr. Peter Timmerman

Dr. Peter Timmerman, a leading Western Buddhist commentator, is Research Director of the International Federation of Institutes for Advanced Study. The Federation is a world-wide network of major research institutions which collaborate in addressing key global issues. Dr. Timmerman is also an Associate Faculty member of the Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Toronto. This insightful article on the addiction of consumerism was first published in 1995, in the journal People & The Planet (Volume 4, Number 1). The article is reproduced here with the kind permission of People & The Planet. For further information visit the journal's website.

Contrary to the propaganda, we live in probably the least materialistic culture in history. If we cared about the things of the world, we would treat them quite differently — we would be concerned with their materiality. We would be interested in their beginnings and their ends, before and after they left our grasp.

As it is, what we are really consumed by are the dreams and myths temporarily attached to the objects around us; and when these dreams and myths wear off, the object to which they were attached is pitched into the waste bin. The consumer heads off again on the trail of the beckoning image of delight.

Your heart's desire

The strategy of consumerism is to get as close to your heart's desire as possible, and then get you to buy the nearest substitute. All those things that really matter — love, affection, respect, relationship — cannot be bought, and involve hard work. The consumerist trick is to penetrate almost to the centre of that primary heart energy, and to swerve aside at the last possible second into a purchaseable substitute.

This propulsion and relaxation into shopping is a potent confusion, and the trick is pulled everywhere by marketers in high buildings in the middle of large cities. Commercials are not about food or shelter or getting from point A to point B: they are visions of dessert as sexual ecstasy, basketball sneakers as the wings of Mercury, automobile hoods as the playing of light over the sensuous curves of a woman's body. Better telephone service magically transforms the relationships of grandparents and children; a beer waved around generates balloon flights, hearty chums, and clinging starlets.

To break this deeply addictive cycle of beckoning and frustration, we may find a little assistance in some of the world's spiritual traditions. A number of these traditions have rituals of carefulness and mindfulness, which are designed to focus the attention on things as they are. This is sometimes referred to as the Way or the Dharma: the graininess of the world as it is. What mindfulness or pure attentiveness is designed to do is to break the grip of instant generalization, rigid categorization and the gluey blurriness of desire.

In mindfulness, one is sometimes asked to watch one's own breathing, or walk deliberately. One may be assigned ordinary tasks like washing dishes, cooking food, or sweeping rooms. Each of these tasks is to be followed with absolute mental faithfulness, without swerving aside into descriptions of what is going on, or listening to the increasing impatience of a mind bent on doing something — anything — else.

An opening to the world

Almost inevitably and immediately when these practices are followed, the rich particularity of the experience or the object begins to show itself. The silent presence of things as they are comes to our attention. The 13th century Japanese Zen Buddhist master Dogen said: "To move forward to penetrate all things is illusion; to allow all things to move forward to penetrate you is enlightenment."

This refusal to grab at things, to manipulate them for one's own ends, to act violently towards the world — suddenly opens them up like one of Van Gogh's Sunflowers. As they open up, they also begin to reveal their connectedness and causal relationships to other things and their surroundings. Speed and selfishness seem to pull us and other things out of context: slowing down and unselfing reintegrates.

The reference to Van Gogh's Sunflowers is no accident. It has been a task of the artist for a long time to see the world in a grain of sand, as Blake put it. John Keats referred to this as "negative capability": the capacity of the artist to be so self-effacing that personal expression becomes the vehicle for the universe to re-present itself through the artist's willing hands, eyes, mouth. At such exalted times, "the spirit moved me", "I was taken out of myself", "I was in the hands of a higher power".

Abundance and scarcity

This openness to the abundant gift of the world as it is, is complicated in our society by the fact that our current world view is based on a belief in the fundamental scarcity of Nature. Traditional cultures have always believed that the world is fundamentally abundant — "God will provide" — even though there are occasional scarcities, usually caused by human transgression of sacred rules. These rules, like the rules of the hunt among the Cree of Northern Canada, are set by the animals or the gods, and they are founded on the principle that gifts (like the gift of an animal to a hunter) must be respected, and waste is a sign of deep disrespect.

By contrast, Western society draws upon the Protestant tradition that Nature must be laboured with if she is to produce; and on the more recent theories of economists that scarcity is endemic to our condition, and human beings are necessarily always having to choose how to ration their resources. Nature is therefore in need of development, and economic man is driven to generate a man-made abundance to make up for the supposed stinginess of the physical world.

This desperate need to produce (and to consume) is driven by a kind of panic and mistrust, because it is an attempt to fill a yawning gap in existence with an endless stream of glittering objects. Waste is the dark side of this: the yawning disposal site, filled with an endless stream of objects from which the momentary magic of man-made abundance has fled. And, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, the human creation of pseudo-abundance is in fact causing the rest of the world to become scarce.

Poverty and frugality

Poverty has always been pivotal to discussions of material well-being, consumerism, and waste. Because they have little choice, poor people who have not become utterly degraded and destitute are necessarily frugal. Members of my parent's generation who lived through the Great Depression are well known to be the backbone of household recycling.

Voluntary poverty as practised by St Francis and others is designed to strip away possessions, which then in turn strips away familiar hierarchies and categories, and forces attention to be paid to the abundance of what is given freely by God and the compassion of others.

Here again, humble attentiveness to simple things can result in the discovery of untold wealth lying around everywhere; and with the breaking down of the barrier of possessions, there can also emerge a new awareness of the community of all beings as so famously expressed by St Francis in his Song of the Creation. St Francis (like Jesus before him) discovered that "voluntary poverty" is the gamble on an original abundance, on taking no thought for the morrow, on throwing oneself into the hands of God. Thus carefulness can also ironically lead to carefreeness.

On the other hand, years of grinding involuntary poverty make people long for the chance to splurge. Endlessly having to get dinner on the table or the eternal scrounging to make ends meet ironically means that objects have become too closely associated with suffering, and it requires a restaurant meal or new clothes to make one fully appreciate the wonderfulness of things. Splurging does not have to be squandering; and occasional heedless abandon does not have to mean wanton wastefulness. Even the poorest society has to have its times for dancing in the street.

Problems and mysteries

Wanton waste is throwing things over one's shoulder and moving on without looking back, just as our society is always looking longingly towards new "developments" over the horizon, far away from the barren waste of the world we have already made. Mindfulness requires not only that we look at the richness unfolding where we already are, but also remember that, given a finite planet, there is no "away" to throw things any more.

The French philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, once made a distinction between "problems" and "mysteries". "Problems" (from the Greek, "problemata", meaning "thrown in front of") are externalized difficulties, which we solve — if we can — by confronting and breaking them open like walnuts and tossing them aside when completed. "Mysteries", on the other hand, are problems that cannot be externalized, that are so intimately tied up with our being that we cannot stand far enough back from them to treat them "objectively". A mystery involves, entangles, even engulfs. The deeper one enters into a mystery, the deeper it enters into you. Other people have "problem children"; one's own brood are irritating, endless mysteries that inevitably reflect on you!

We have for a long time seen our relationship with the rest of the world, with Nature, as a problem to be solved; and as a result, Nature has been objectified, silenced, and externalized. Or perhaps, as with the animals of the hunt, Nature has withdrawn into her shell in disgust. Consumerism, which tries to solve love with sex and liberation with automobiles, is one solution to the resultant impoverishment; 24 hour media babbling is a similarly demented solution to the terrible silence of a world filling up with nothing but human noise.

Now, however, the global crisis we face is beginning to force us into acknowledging that we are inescapably part of a mystery. We cannot step back from the world, we are inextricably bound up in its fate. Until recently, waste and waste management were mere problems. But on a bounded and finite planet, the destiny of every sheet of paper on my desk is linked to my own destiny. It is within the tightening circle of concern.

It is tiresome, but true. We are stuck with a mystery, the often unwanted burden of now having to pay constant attention to the next steps of the objects around us·.

Nevertheless, it is not always a wearisome task, an endless stream of newspaper tying, bottlewashing, and sewer construction. It can, as already mentioned, be a mindful task. A Buddhist phrase puts it this way: "Sometimes, when we look down into the abyss of mystery, the unfathomable rises to greet us".


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