Materialism - An Addictive Meme
Society is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty of the eater.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
So successful have we become at molding and manipulating the world, we have come to believe that modifying our surroundings is the way to solve all our problems -- not necessarily the only way, but the easiest and simplest way.
For reasons we have already touched on, and shall return to later, this approach does not work so well when it comes to our inner needs. But seduced by the power of our hands and conditioned by past experience we still try to satisfy them in the way we know best. When this fails to bring any real or permanent satisfaction we do not question whether our approach may be mistaken. Instead we try harder and harder to get the world to give us what we want. We buy more clothes, go to more parties, eat more food, try to make more money. Or we give up on these and try different things. We take up squash, buy a video camera, decide to move house, or look for new friends. Yet true peace of mind remains as elusive as ever.
We are rather like Nasrudhin, the wise-fool of Sufi tales, who has lost his key somewhere in his house. But he is searching for it out in the street because, he says, there is more light outside. We too look for the key to fulfillment in the world around because that is the world we know best. We know how to change this world, how to gather possessions, how to make people and things behave the way we want -- the way we think will bring us happiness. We know much less about our minds and how to find fulfillment within ourselves. There seems to be much less light in there.
A Cultural Trance
From the moment we are born our culture encourages us to believe that outer well-being is the source of inner fulfillment. As young children we learn from the example of our elders that it is important to be in control of things, that material possessions offer security, and that doing and saying the right things is the way to gain another persons love. As we grow up much of our education focuses on knowing the ways of the world in order that we might better manage our affairs and so find contentment and fulfillment. And, as we go through life, the daily deluge of television, radio, newspapers, magazines, and billboards reinforces the belief that happiness comes from what happens to us. Wherever we turn the principle is confirmed, encouraging us to become human havings and human doings rather than human beings.
Somewhere deep inside most of us know this way of operating has its limits. We recognize that whether or not we are content depends as much on how we are inside as on how things are around us. We all know people who can remain cheerful when everything seems to be going wrong; who do not get upset at having to wait in a long queue, even in the rain. And we hear of more unusual examples -- those who have maintained an inner equanimity despite the atrocities of war, or yogis who can sleep peacefully on a bed of nails. The trouble is our cultural conditioning is so strong that this inner knowing rarely comes to the surface.
Our society has caught itself in a vicious circle. If most of us go through life on the assumption that psychological contentment comes from what we have or do, then that is the message we teach each other. If we see somebody suffering, we are more likely than not to suggest ways they can change the situation so as to feel better. When we want to persuade someone to buy something or other, we tell them how much happier it will make them. And when our best-laid plans fail to give us what we seek, we encourage each other to try again.
An Exploitative Consciousness
One of the most damaging consequences of looking to the world to satisfy our inner needs is that it results in a competitive mode of consciousness. Perceiving that our surroundings are limited in what they can provide, we compete for the things we believe will bring us happiness -- fame, success, friends, promotion, power, attention, and money. Such competition is wasteful.
It leads us to produce things that no one really needs.
It encourages short cuts in the name of financial expediency.
It promotes blinkered thinking and short-sightedness.
It causes us to care less for the Earth than we do for our own well-being.
It puts us in competition with Nature herself -- insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides keep other species at bay so that we can more easily, and more profitably, accomplish our own ends.
This basic operating principle also results in an exploitative mode of consciousness. We use -- or perhaps one should say abuse -- our surroundings, other people, and even our own bodies in our quest for greater satisfaction. This is the root of our exploitation of the world: the attitudes and values that come from believing that inner well-being is dependent upon what we have or do. Money, power, and the other things that people often blame are not the root cause; they are simply symptoms of a deeper underlying error in our thinking.
Addicted to the Material World
Normally we think of addiction in terms of drugs, but the effects of our materialist mindset bear all the hallmarks of chemical dependency. Whatever the drug -- whether it be alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tranquilizers, or some illicit substance -- people take it for one simple reason. They want to feel better. They want to feel happy, high, relaxed, in control, free from fear, more in touch with life. In this respect the drug-taker is seeking nothing different from anyone else -- it is just the way in which he or she is doing it that contemporary society finds unacceptable.
It is the same with our addiction to materialism. We are trying to make ourselves feel better. But any happiness we get is usually only temporary; as soon as one high wears off we go in search of another fix. We become psychologically dependent on our favorite sources of pleasure -- food, music, driving, debating, football, , television, sex -- whatever it is we get off on. (Or whatever it is we believe we should get off on.) And the ever-present problem of habituation means we need larger and larger doses to achieve the same effect.
This is our most dangerous addiction -- our addiction to things. For it is this addiction that underlies the materialism of our age.
If we are move beyond this precarious phase of our evolution, we must discover how to free ourselves from this addiction. To see what this will entail and where it might lead, we need first to look at some of the effects of this out-dated mode of thinking on our personal lives. For it is in our personal lives that we will begin to find the keys to change.