Spirit vs stuff

Every spiritual tradition advises us not to direct our innate drive for fulfillment toward the attractions of the material world-the treasures that moths and rust destroy and thieves steal, as Jesus put it; the cravings, as Buddha taught, for satisfactions that are, by their very nature, transitory. The great teachers implore us to turn inward instead, to the source of happiness that abides at the core of Being. This essential and universal teaching has social implications, beyond its obvious importance to spiritual seekers. It is a principle reason why the problems of our nation and the planet as a whole can be seen as spiritual in nature, and not exclusively political and economic.
People who are authentically spiritual-as opposed to merely paying lip service to spiritual precepts-know in their bones that happiness does not dependent on outer circumstances, as our prevailing social signals (I’m talking to you, advertising industry!) would have us believe. Those who have been following a spiritual path for some time also know how to turn inward and connect with “the peace that passeth understanding,” and they know that a deeply contented state of being can be cultivated.
This is terribly significant, because realizing that life satisfaction is primarily an inside job-an insight confirmed by recent psychological research-can potentially mitigate the ravages of consumerism, materialism and pollution, which have brought us to the brink of disaster. It can be an effective counterforce to greed, avariciousness and excess consumption of the “If I only had [name it] then I’d be happy” variety, the inevitable outcomes of which include extreme economic disparity, environmental ruin, and resource depletion.
I don’t mean to suggest that being spiritual requires hairshirt-wearing, cave-dwelling, berry-and-root-eating austerity. With rare exceptions, those who aspire to the higher reaches of spiritual development have worldly desires just like everyone else. They want all the pleasures, comforts and freedoms that affluence affords, and if they have children they want the best of everything for them. But deeply spiritual people tend not be as attached to the attainment of material objectives. They go about fulfilling their desires with less urgency, because they know their happiness does not depend entirely on the outcome of their efforts. On the continuum of “Gotta have it or I’ll die” to “It would be nice to have but I’ll be OK without it,” spiritual people tilt toward the latter end. They are more likely to recognize the virtues of simplicity, and to understand that less can sometimes be more. And, should economic conditions makes simpler living a necessity, they are more likely to adjust with grace. In short, they don’t need an excess of stuff to be content because their contentment is tethered to the inner dimension of life.
In a world in which Gross Domestic Product is held up as a crucial measure of a nation’s health, as if it were the social equivalent of a blood pressure test or an EKG, identifying the true source of happiness could not be more relevant. That political debates center largely on how to boost economic growth faster and higher, as if all our discontent would be healed by more industrial production, suggests that materialism and consumerism have come to guide our values.
Of course, there are entire nations that need fast, strong economic growth just to provide food, shelter and other necessities for their citizens, and major segments of American society need, and deserve, a more comfortable and secure standard of living. The problem is, by some measures, humanity’s rate of consumption already exceeds Earth’s capacity to provide, and about 60 individuals-sixty!-own as much total assets as the three billion who comprise the poorest half of humanity.
Quite possibly, the only way to provide those deserving people even a modestly comfortable existence, without further depleting the planet and accelerating climate change, is for the privileged to scale back their consumption. That is clearly a spiritual challenge more than an economic or technological one; the haves need to get over the illusion that their happiness hinges on the bigger house, the fancier car, the more luxurious wardrobe, and all the other acquisitions whose luster rapidly fades into a desire for the next new thing. As people with a robust spiritual life know in their guts, it is easy to live quite contentedly with less when your fulfillment does not depend on always having more. Unfortunately, religious homilies and injunctions from well-meaning authorities are not enough to drive that lesson home. It has to be learned through direct experience of the inner source of peace and happiness. That’s why overcoming materialism is a spiritual challenge, not just a political, economic or even religious one.

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