Thursday, August 23, 2012

On Abundance (Fantasies)

a·bun·dance   [uh-buhn-duhns] noun
1.  an extremely plentiful or oversufficient quantity or supply: an abundance of grain.
2.  overflowing fullness: abundance of the heart.
3.  affluence; wealth: the enjoyment of abundance.

Last week my camera smuggled itself out of the country in the back of a friend’s car.  As a result, I find myself temporarily freed up from photo documenting food, and able to think about other things.  Most recently, I’ve been mulling over the topic of abundance.  It comes up frequently and I feel compelled to flush out some ideas about it, especially as I often feel tweaked by what I hear and read on the subject.  
This post won't be filled with the usual pretty pictures, but I'll throw in a few just to keep it interesting: 

Seven or eight years ago I had a brief stint as a member of a Unity Church.  It was there that I was first introduced to the idea that we live in a world of abundance, but that we often come to it with internal notions of lack.  It is these self limiting beliefs, the story goes, that are responsible for keeping us stuck - stuck in shitty jobs, stuck in poor financial situations, stuck in non-nourishing relationships, etc.  This mindset stops us from “self actualizing,”  impedes our progress, and stands in the way of our personal prosperity.  
Sounds good. I’m listening.  It makes sense that we have to imagine positive relationships as possible before we find them, that we have to believe in ourselves to find fulfilling work.  I watched Stewart Smalley, I know that stinkin’ thinkin’ keeps us down.  Go on....
The abundance philosophy goes on to propose that we can also all experience material abundance (read - material wealth), through hard work and the law of attraction.  Like attracts like.  Think, feel and be abundant, and you will draw abundance into you life.  Not only that, but the universe is filled with infinite abundance; there’s plenty to go around.   One person's gain does not mean someone else’s loss.  That kind of thinking assumes that we live in a universe of lack, and we don’t.  Got it?  We live in a world of abundance.  
I remember being surprised and a little excited by the idea at the time.  ‘Oh, I’ve been operating from a place of lack, I just need to operate from a place of abundance!’ I had always been one who, for example, felt guilty driving around in (someone else’s) expensive car.  Whenever I would pass by poor looking people, I would want to roll down the window and shout, "This isn’t my car!"  I had always felt uncomfortable with wealth inequality, even though (or perhaps because) I myself came from a working class family.  (“Working class,” by the way, is used to denote the class below “lower middle class” which I guess is just a nicer way of saying “low class.”  Jerks.)  Still, being working class, my needs were always abundantly met, and I was always aware of my place of relative privilege in the world.   We were in no way “low class” and while, as my dad would say, we weren’t exactly cuttin’ a fat hog in the ass (western Kansas speak for shittin’ in tall cotton) we had more than enough and we were grateful.

I wasn’t uncomfortable about wealth inequality in the sense that I saw that other people had more and I wanted it.  I was uncomfortable that others had less, that others did NOT have their basic needs met.  Now I was being told that I needn’t be uncomfortable about that.  What a load off!  Apparently all of those people could have nice homes, cars, and big screen TV’s (this was before plasma) if they just worked hard and believed in themselves.
Why not?
These ideas, of course, are the same ideas that got all kinds of attention when “The Secret,” came out.  They are the mantra of Oprah, of the American Dream, of our culture at large, even of certain influential teachers in the international yoga rock star scene (a place where I had naively hoped not to find it).  We can have it all. Everyone can get rich together.  The world is full of endless possibilities, all you have to do is figure out what you want and set your mind to it.   
After years of hearing these ideas used to justify amassing personal wealth, I’m more convinced than ever that they are fundamentally flawed.  Not only are they flawed, they are dangerous, and they are part of what is leading the planet to ruin.
Woah, that was a serious statement.  Quick,  look at this funny picture of my friends arm wrestling and don't get too freaked out:

I recently had an illuminating conversation with a friend who is on the abundance train.  What about poor, starving children in Africa?  Are they starving because they can’t think outside the box, pull up their bootstraps, and make something happen?  He seemed to think that their thought patterns did have something to do with their continued poverty and the circumstances they were born into.  My brain turned to scrambled eggs.  I couldn’t argue intelligently, and I couldn’t reconstruct the rest of that conversation for you now if I tried.  I just knew that he was wrong.  
Terribly wrong.
I also knew on a gut level that thinking that way was part of the problem.  It was too simple.  It was reductionist.  It didn’t take into account the actions that caused the poverty.  We’ve become so accustomed to seeing poverty in other parts of the world that we take it for granted; that’s just the way things are.  But what if the poverty of some is the direct result of the decisions, policies, and even (gasp) imperialist thievery of others?
Here’s my point: The dominant culture is going about this abundance thing all wrong, and it’s killing the planet.  The way we eat,  the cars we drive, the roads we drive on, the jewels and precious metals we wear, the computers we sit in front of, all the little goodies we fill our lives with, come with costs.  They come with costs that are largely obscured from the average person living in a wealthy country, costs that are not paid for with green pieces of paper.  
We actually do live in a closed system with finite resources, and while the universe may be abundant, the earth can only give us so much.   
Many better educated and more articulate people than I have written volumes on the subject.  That civilization as we know it is based on slavery and exploitation has historically been well understood.  The wealth of some DOES come at the expense of others.  Cars, air conditioners, computers, all the meat you can eat, all the soda you can drink, all of these things and more come with costs.  These costs come in the form of undrinkable water, flammable water for some, unbreathable air, pesticide laden food, dioxin contaminated breast milk, extinction of countless species, decimation of indigenous populations, and incalculable animal suffering. When’s the last time you thought about vivisection?  
Uh oh, pretty picture:

Now, just like those poor kids in Africa didn't build the system they were born into, you and I didn't build this one.  We're not entirely responsible for it.  Only when the veil is lifted and we start to see the complex web of cause and effect (not just magical thinking about my personal abundance in a vacuum that presumably doesn't effect anyone else) do we get to start to ask questions.  What is behind this system that brings me coffee, bananas, cheap clothes, cheap electronics, and super cute solar powered waving flowers to sit on my dashboard?  What's really happening here?  Do I support it?  Do I think it needs to change?  What do I want?  Should I be concerned about what others (humans and non-humans) want and need?
It’s time we take a good hard look at the very real costs and limitations of material wealth.
Is this thing I’m about to buy really going to bring me happiness?  Do I need it?  Who will be helped through its purchase?  Can I get it second hand?  Can I live without it?  Am I buying or consuming it to fill a hole?   Is there violence or suffering involved in its production?  
How sane is it that people in our culture habitually use things for 15 minutes or less and then throw them away?  Is it possible for me to reduce waste?
Now with all of that said, if you want to talk about NON-material abundance, BRING IT ON.  There are countless opportunities for life-affirming, spirit-lifting, soul-nurturing abundance in many areas of our lives.  Here are just a few:
    • showing compassion to other people, to self, to non-human animals
    • educating oneself and sharing knowledge
    • nurturing friends, family, and the families of friends
    • building meaningful relationships
    • building community / cooperating
    • examining oneself and growing in accordance with one’s values
    • making sacrifices for the greater good
    • seeking out a connection with and understanding of the natural world
    • finding enchantment and delight in simplicity, art, and beauty
    • limiting consumption of things that are toxic to the land, to the self, to the community
    • singing, dancing, running, jumping, tickling, laughing
    • resisting what one knows is wrong
    • fighting for what one knows is right...
Have anything to add to the list?

Our planet is facing serious problems, problems that those in power will ignore as long as they can continue make a profit, problems that consumer society will try to numb us to.  What are we going to do about it?

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