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Saturday, June 7, 2008

A Spiritual Awakening from the Addiction of Consumer Culture?

Maybe its time for a global intervention, suggests Charles Shaw in a powerful article in The Huffington Post which examines whether Western consumer culture has become the ultimate addiction. Surely all our desires can be fulfilled and our fears allayed if only we can somehow manage to purchase the "new look" for the fall, live in the latest and toniest loft or McMansion, and . . . please God . . . invest in the right retirement funds and investment portfolio which will see us flying our glider over our own Napa Valley winery free of all mundane cares and financial worries by age 55.

The article is much more substantive than the usual critique one sees on the madness of Western society's conviction that happiness and security can be packaged, marketed and purchased, or that mere materialism will fill the vacuum of the soul that exists, perhaps unrecognized, in the being of every woman and man that has turned outward in a vain attempt to wrest security and happiness from the world. Mr. Shaw's insightful article takes a hard look at what the values of Western society have degenerated into, as well as a brutally and honestly examining whether, in fact, as a global society we are not suffering a malaise of the spirit that is not in and of itself an addiction.

This should come as no surprise to anyone with any length of recovery from their own personal addiction who has seen others fall prey to the ravages of workaholism, economic, consumer or sexual addiction only to have that related dysfunction bring the whole house of cards down upon themselves and/or their families. Too many have crashed from these related addictions to go back to the bottle or the bag - or whatever their particular vice or "drug of choice" was - or worse, for it to come as a shock to anyone with eyes to see. Now it appears that we, as a society, have kicked the individual's penchant for addiction up to a whole new, global level.

Mr. Shaw cites social philosopher Morris Berman's prescient observation that, "Addiction in one form or another characterizes every aspect of industrial society." He notes that an addict's dependence on substances or divergent corporeal pleasures is no different from our general dependency on "prestige, career achievement, world influence, wealth, the need to build more ingenious bombs or the need to exercise control over everything." (Renowned spiritual teacher and enlightened philosopher Eckhart Tolle has noted the fallacy of such simplistic wish fulfillment, albeit that it is the wishes and unquenhable desires of the out-of-control human ego, when he plainly states "mastery of life is the opposite of control.")

"Addiction," Mr. Shaw writes, "is really a hallmark of our era, and I think it reflects that we don't have culturally promoted kinds of other deeper forms of meaning and purpose in our lives. So we make up for it by consuming more. But the evidence is overwhelming that people who are characterized by materialistic attitudes and values actually experience lower well-being, lower happiness, more depression and anxiety and anger than people who aren't materialistic."

Mr. Shaw points to the social, economic and political systems of our modern cultural milieu as having wittingly and complicitly created a consumer society that is frankly addicted to more of anything in a vain attempt to fill that vacuum of the soul that is produced when we lack sufficiently deep ties to others - the condition of anomie identified by French philosopher and father of modern sociology, Emile Durkheim, that is the driving force behind most suicides. And what is an addiction if not an oh-so-slow suicide?

"Designing and marketing secondary sources of satisfaction," according to Mr. Shaw's analysis, "falls to the complimenting social, political and economic systems that reinforce addictive behavior in order to drive the consumer machine. Consumption becomes 'naturalized' through corporate advertising and marketing, government tax breaks, and officially sanctioned religio-consumer holidays like Christmas, Hanukah and Valentine's Day."

Enough already! More and more disaffected consumers are beginning to question the basis of this widespread consumer addiction. It turns out that the Beatles were in fact right: "Money Can't Buy (Me) Love," we are finding out at the last moment, and hopefully not too late. Perhaps it is time for a wide-scale intervention, but surely that is what we are in the midst of as we face the spiraling costs to buy the energy that is ruining our environment while our political masters dither and prevaricate. But do any of us want to really put down the needle and the spoon afforded by the so-called "comforts" of our affluent society?

Mr. Shaw notes that the field of public relations and mass marketing was pioneered by the progeny and prodigies of psychology, noting in particular the pivotal role played by Sigmund Freud's nephew Edward Bernays who brought the fledgling p.r. industry to politics at the time of the First World War. But he points, with good effect, to the solution to all addictions proposed by Freud's one-time student who has, in actuality long since passed Freud in terms of influence. For it was C.J. Jung who famously observed that a vital spiritual experience, and only such a profound experience which reforges our personality and remaps our motivations and conceptions, is what ultimately can arrest and reverse addiction. He clearly saw that addiction like virtually all kinds of psychoses and mental illness represented a deep spiritual thirst in our collective being.

"Asking society to go into a global recovery program is not nearly as Dr. Phil-crazy as it sounds," Shaw writes. "It's become the new mantra of the green movement, who are now calling for a spiritual solution to the planetary crisis. It was Freud's student and eventual rival Carl Jung who first dissented against Freud's 'irrational desires' theory and put forth the idea that addictions address a spiritual loss or deficiency. Because the addictive experience is mimetic of the spiritual experience, you can have an imitation of bliss or oneness, but it doesn't last. Jung believed only a true spiritual awakening will end an addiction. Likewise, the eco-ilk believe only a global spiritual awakening will end the consumer addiction that is ravaging the planet."

Many believe that is correct, as I do. Perhaps its best that we work to forward the spiritual/philosophical discussion that is the intervention we all collectively need - before Mother Nature, or the G_d of whatever your understanding is, forces the issue for us.

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