The new face of consumerism
The present writer does not wish to portray the following matter as a complaint, but rather as an area in which we as humans in this day and age (2020) can grow, bringing more life into life, rather than furthering certain destructive and alienating tendencies that seem to exist.
The matter in question is what we generally call experience and our relationship to it. To elaborate further, first we’ll take a look at what exactly we are calling “experience” here:
What is an experience?
An experience can be defined as a temporal occurrence of which a (human) consciousness is aware. Consciousness experiences itself, its’ body and many others objects and events throughout its temporal existence. Any particular segment of this time could be labeled as an experience. In general use however an experience would more likely be defined as, segments that represent special events in our existence, which for some reason have had some kind of emotional, psychological and sometimes also physical impact upon our lives and selves. For example: a painful accident, falling in love, going on a trip to an unusual destination, taking a psychedelic drug, going out with friends, having an encounter with a wild animal or a special human being etc. etc.
Mundane things like washing the dishes, going to the bathroom or taking a breath are rarely given this label. This means that within our evaluation of time segments and occurrences that take place in our awareness we create a kind of hierarchy of impact, and those occurrences with a certain level of impact and above are considered worthy of the title experience. In some cases some experiences are so impactful that the self can’t deal with them and they become repressed, but we will not deal with these special cases for now.
Perhaps the reader is wondering where the writer is going with this… Things should get a bit clearer now.
The addiction to experience
When looking at a photo of a beautiful beach for example certain onlookers will feel that a the desire to experience this beach is aroused within them. The same can be true for a picture of a person, or the written description of a music concert or similar things. This is, after all, how advertisement works. The consequence is that people seek out experiences, generally in the hopes of being impacted by them in a specific way, of achieving some kind of result. This result is in a sense used to justify the means to obtain the experience or the experience itself.
I.e. when experiences are obtained, whether they were wonderful or harrowing, a tendency is to externalize these experiences and tell others about it and how impactful they were. Terms like “life-changing”, “transformative” or “eye-opening” may be used and generally an explanation of what was gained is given: healing, excitement, feeling of being alive, learning etc. etc. This not only justifies the experience but pushes the impulse and desire that led to the experience onto others.
The reader is maybe wondering: so what? Is there something wrong with that?
The present writer does find this a bit troublesome. The relationship many modern humans have developed with this concept of experience is a very materialistic one: experiences are consumed and outcomes are produced. The human becomes a kind of experience-outcome automaton in this relationship and the events/occurrences that the experiences consist of are objectified to a degree that turns them into lifeless images, snapshots with impactful implications. However, the impact is never quite right, and the more objectified the experience becomes, the shorter lived and unsatisfying it all becomes.
For example the experience of swimming with Manta rays. Many people dream of having this experience. When they get the chance, all they can think of is how to grasp the experience like an object (sometimes almost literally, by taking photos) in order to obtain the satisfaction, gratification, joy and fulfillment. The moment itself, however magical as it may seem, has become a means to an end and something essential is forgotten. But what is it?
In the case of the Manta rays these experiences are often bought at the cost of the peace and safety of the animals and their habitat, as well as impacting local economy creating an artificial and destructive tourism industry. Wildlife turns into a circus attraction and the almost mystical encounters between human and non-human hardly take place anymore. There is only a desire to, almost greedily, obtain experience, which functions as a kind of barrier between the human spirit and its surroundings – a disharmony which unfortunately often leads to destruction, or at the very least a lack of understanding. Beautiful beaches, mountain ranges, yoga classes and many other things are visited like attractions, to be trampled upon, boasted about and quickly forgotten. The life-changing events of yesterday become ticks on a list that has no end and ultimately no value.
The new face of consumerism
Hunting experiences is the new face of consumerism. Consequentially, experiences are manufactured by an industry to be sold off and profited from, often causing the devastation of the objects of experience – such as wildlife, people and natural places.
But if this is troublesome, what exactly should we change? Should we renounce experience and travel and all these things? And why? And what about the Manta rays?
In reality the present writer does not believe that travel for example is bad. Travel can really be life-changing, but not as an experience in the sense mentioned here. Even pictures of travel are not necessarily bad, but our knee-jerk reaction of aroused desires and the subsequent actions to satisfy this desire are problematic. It is the living participation of the human in the moment and with the environment which truly transforms – as human and environment exchange energies, merge and separate in a constant interplay. More concretely this means meeting the moment without expectations of outcomes, without asking for anything from it – whether that be entertainment or healing or anything else. Even the difficult moments – moving within them without asking for lessons or growth or anything at all. Simply participating in them, present, aware.
The present writer has witnessed the experience-hunters often in yoga related spaces and events, where the result of achieving a kind of “high” from the class becomes more important to them than the deeper levels of practice. To these hunters a yoga class without the high is like a cocktail without the buzz. If the teacher does not deliver, disappointment and resentment follow quickly – even if often this is subtle and subconscious.
And yet especially in the practice of yoga and yoga-related practices one would expect otherwise – since it is here that humans supposedly learn to be present, equanimous and free from desires, not caring for outcomes.
There is a certain surrender that needs to be made in order for this living participation to take place. Rather than being the unparticipating self that gathers experiences in order to produce some outcome without actually engaging in anything, the self has to be willing to mix with the moment until it is no longer what it was before. It has to surrender its possession of the moment. The moment does not belong to the self, nor will it ever. The self should belong to the moment. Even if the moment is uncomfortable or considered uninteresting. It’s not yours to take or consume. The Manta rays, the beaches, the trips, the encounters… they are not yours. But if the self is willing to engage in a mutual exchange, surrendering its position as a spectator, both moment and self become something else. Something that can’t be possessed.
Living energy instead of experience
Isn’t this the opposite to what meditation teaches – shouldn’t the mind be disengaged? Perhaps the words seem contradictory, but in reality what we are talking about here is not that different from meditative states. The self that generally operates in the world desires to possess and consume without changing (even though it likes to use “life-changing” as a description of its experiences), and this is not the profound self which remains untouched by events, that meditation speaks of. This operating self or retreated self can be called the ego and it is constantly assailed by desires and fears, for which it seeks (among other objects) these experiences, in order to sooth its desires and fears. This self is small and unwilling to move and all occurrences constantly crash into it, causing impacts, sometimes pleasant, sometimes unpleasant. Certain elements of reality are systematically rejected by this self resulting in anxiety and boredom and disconnect.
When one practices meditation and/or similar things this small and unmoving self is, step by step, dissolved and movement within the human becomes natural and spontaneous, in accord with the universe, the moment or however you want to call it. This natural and spontaneous self can be thought of as untouched and disengaged, since it is not subject to the ups and downs of the rigid ego, but another way could be to say that this natural self is so malleable and unresisting to the movements of the world that nothing seems to be able to crash into it, but it is in contact with all things at all times. Nothing is rejected, nothing is resisted within its awareness.
Swimming with the Manta rays then is not me “having” the experience of swimming with the rays, but rather a sharing of living energy between human, Manta rays, ocean and sky, without claiming anything. Without taking anything away. Without holding anything back.
As soon as a small self reads this though a desire might grow to experience this sharing… this is the problem with the small self and spiritual practices. The small self is so tricky in its consumerism, it will try to consume even enlightenment, meditation and mysticism, let alone that which others describe of their insights.
This is what practice is about. We cultivate a mind free from smallness and separation by becoming aware of the consequences and symptoms of a rigid and small self and then practice to let go. We can for example ask ourselves: what is it I want from this?
Whatever the answer is, we must understand that that can never be truly possessed. Whether it is an experience, a lesson, a certain change of ones mind or body or even a material object etc. What the writer means to say is that even if a concrete desire is fulfilled the impulse to desire something will never be satisfied. The small self is insatiable and will eternally look for something more, no matter how much it is given. Often obtaining something that was desired for a long time, fulfilling a wish one had had for years, results in a subtle disappointment, because the outcomes produced by material fulfillment are always superficial, while the origin of yearning and desire holds a deep message. So long as we are small and separate, yearnings will always plague our hearts. Not because of a flaw in us, but because the small self intuits that it is not complete. But the act of becoming an infinite and alive self appears to the small self as death. And so it can’t accept this as a solution to its yearning. It looks elsewhere to complete itself.
If we look at where our yearnings come from we will find layers of contractions and rejections within the self – boundaries that define but also confine the self. When dissolved we can be open, nurtured and held, free from desires and be fully alive.
Otherwise, no experience will ever be enough.
And your actions will always lead to disharmony.
Do we need a long meditative practice in order to achieve this then? Of course the present writer would suggest to all to meditate daily and find even perhaps a teacher or guide to help on this path, but there is much we can do during every day activities too. Each time we feel bored or displeased with a situation (thus desiring something to change this) we can investigate this feeling to find its origin. If there is no threat to our health in the situation yet still boredom or nervousness arises, then there is some kind of self-contraction. It’s a demand for us to alter reality, to seek satisfaction, to make us feel good again. And the more we yield to this, the more removed we become from reality. The more distant everything feels. The harder things crash into us when they do come close enough. And the less whole we feel.
Impact is a sign of imbalance and disharmony
Impact is not something to consider positive. It’s a sign of imbalance. Just think of yourself as a planet – an impact from another celestial body leaves craters, stirs up dust and clearly is not a pleasant event. Instead of being a planet we can practice at becoming empty space. All things then can pass through us, unhindered. We are not removed from events, we are fully, openly within them and they within us. Standing on a beautiful beach or standing in an empty room, life flows through us. We can take actions according to our deepest truths, without fear or desire turning our touch and presence into a destructive mechanism. We can cease to consume, and begin to share. Cease to experience and begin to participate in the living energy.
One more thing that has been implied previously: even things like enlightenment or mysticism can become objects of consumption and thus objects to fulfill desires. We even typically speak of “mystical experiences”. During meditative practices certain occurrences might appear within the practitioners awareness, sometimes causing quite the impact. Practitioners can easily think that this is something amazing and worth pursuing. But impact is always to be considered as a failure or lack of full openness. “When the miraculous mystery is achieved, it feels like nothing,” they say.
Does that mean that we become like medicated zombies through this kind of practice? The present writer used to think so and thus found it hard to pick up meditation. But it is not the case. The level of aliveness increases when practice is pursued. It’s just that this aliveness is very different from the nervous excitement most of us humans experience and call positivity or being energetic. It is more comparable to open space, like pure potential with nothing manifest. It feels like freedom – not the freedom to do anything or be anywhere, but the freedom of already doing everything, of already being everywhere.