After 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 12th-15th 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.
Doing this transforms personal suffering into big-time compassion.