Materialism

I suspect that you are very familiar with our tendency to think about life as divided into two parts. You might see yourself split in some way. Perhaps you have noticed your generous compassionate side and you contrast that with a part of yourself that seems more selfish and mean.

Maybe you think about an energetic side that wants to exercise, take a course, and volunteer for all kinds of things but you also see another side of yourself that just wants to sit watching the telly eating wine gums.

Philosophies and religions have long wrestled with how to understand people - do we have a single unified self and identity or are we divided in some way? Do we have a dual nature?

A division that has often been applied is to separate the material - the hard, physical, tangible, solid stuff - from the spiritual or metaphysical stuff. Body vs mind, flesh & blood vs soul.

This kind of dualism has been used as a way to look – not just at people - but at the whole world around us. Is there something beyond what we can see or is this it? Is this all there is?

Those that reject a dualistic way of viewing our world have often tended toward one extreme or the other. Some turn entirely toward the material, physical world and reject anything higher or less visible. If they can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist. Not only does this tend to leave out supernatural beliefs, it makes very little room for such intangibles as compassion, love, and hope.

At the opposite extreme, some reject the world of matter entirely. They hide themselves in a cave or monastery and focus entirely on the ineffable world of spirit. This is the extreme that has led to hate for the body. It has led some religions to require celibacy of clergy. It has led to guilt and shame over the sacred gift of sexuality. It has led to religion that focuses more on avoiding pleasure than on making a better world.

It is probably obvious to all of us which way our own society has now leaned. We are in a material world with a capital M. Our individual worth as human beings is so tied up with material things that we measure value in pounds and pence of income and wealth.

Our own identities are so linked to the physical that we start to crave the perfect appearance. The perfectly sculpted, painted, surgically enhanced body must be clad in the most fashionable attire. Remember that during this summer’s civil unrest, looters quickly targeted the shops that carried the most prestigious trainers.

Aging becomes a shameful thing when physicality reigns supreme. Disability becomes pitiful when our identity is reduced to how we look.

Neither extreme – the material or the spiritual – offers a sound answer to finding meaning in life or living in any kind of healthy, contented, satisfying, connected, loving way. The answer can only come from finding an agreement – an understanding or balance between these different aspects of our nature.

Some would have us think of that kind of compromise between extremes as a balance between two natures. Others would say that the two must be integrated and recognized as one multifaceted self. This is the stuff of religious and philosophical debate that has gone on for centuries – and one that we will avoid diving into for now. Which ever way of thinking about reconciling the material and spiritual feels most right for you, the challenge in actually bringing these two extremes together can be enormous.

Timothy Miller - the author of a wonderful book called How to Want What You Have - suggests that the emphasis on the material world – our craving for more and more stuff - is deeply embedded in our genetics.

He explains that if any ancestors had arisen in our evolutionary history who would be happy with a modest amount of food or possessions or power or love, they would have lost out in competition to the individuals who instinctively wanted more, more, more! The genes that produce that satisfied feeling would have disappeared from the gene pool.

And so, he says:

"We are all the descendants of many thousands of generations of people who were instinctively driven to keep striving for more wealth, more status, and more love throughout their lifetimes, regardless of how much they had already achieved…”

“The great problem modern humans must come to terms with is that all people instinctively desired limitless wealth, love, and status.”

Miller adds that these tendencies are especially insidious because we remain unaware of them. We don’t see our instincts as pushing us to want more and more and more, we just feel we are doing what comes naturally. We just want to get a little bit more wealth, a little bit more status… our wiring convinces us that the satisfaction we crave is in reach with just a bit more stuff.

If we carried these instincts and lived in a world that did not reinforce them, it might not be so bad. As it is, our lives are inundated with messages that play directly to these tendencies. “You are what you own” say the advertising messages exquisitely created to tap into our desire for more.

So, here we are wired to want more in a world that dangles ever more shiny new stuff in front of us with the promise of happiness. We crave more and more and find ourselves unable to let go of that craving even as it traps us and makes us unable to seek the things that bring true happiness.

It is said that an effective way to trap and catch a monkey is to put some tasty nuts into a jar with an opening just big enough for a monkey’s hand.

The monkey reaches in, grabs a big handful of nuts and now his hand is too big to remove. His route to freedom is obvious – but he can’t take it because he just can’t bring himself to let go of the fist-full of treasure. The trapper can come and collect him at his leisure.

Let’s hear a poem by Mary Oliver entitled “How would you live then?”

What if a hundred rose-breasted [finches] blew in circles around your head?

What if the mockingbird came into the house with you and became your advisor?

What if the bees filled your walls with honey and all you needed to do was ask them and they would fill the bowl?

What if the brook slid downhill just past your bedroom window so you could listen to its slow prayers as you fell asleep?

What if the stars began to shout their names, or to run this way and that way above the clouds?

What if you painted a picture of a tree, and the leaves began to rustle, and a bird cheerful sang

from its painted branches? 7What if you suddenly saw that the silver of water was brighter than the silver of money?

What if you finally saw that the sunflowers, turning toward the sun all day and every day -- who knows how, but they do it – were more precious, more meaningful than gold?

What if the world was as full of wonders and miracles as the vision of Mary Oliver’s poem? Could we not then break free of the chains that we have forged in our quest for wealth and power? Could we not recognize then that we are seeking for wealth and wonder in all the wrong places?

The secret happiness of life is that the world is truly that wondrous and beautiful. It truly brims with miracles at every moment.

Oh yes, I know about the ugliness. I know about the cruelty of this beautiful world. That is part of the secret. We who would be satisfied must break past the rough and course shell of life to rejoice in the splendour beneath.

Timothy Miller invites us to try to walk through our lives imagining that we have been lucky enough to have been placed on the universe’s singular pleasure planet.

Imagine, he says, that you have earned the amazing privilege of living here where there are green leaves blowing in the breeze. You have been granted the gift of being in a world where such a thing as love exists to warm you. You have alighted on a planet where every person has a sacred goodness within them for you to seek and find.

When we bring that kind of appreciation and gratitude to our lives, we begin to understand the beauty around us and the wealth of blessings we have received. We begin to recognize the cravings for more as a side to ourselves that must be gently kept aware of the true nature of treasure.

When we bring our material and spiritual selves together, we become people able to live fully. We become able to fully inhabit our bodies and the pleasures they can give. We become able to reach out to one another in love. We become able to create one world for all – a world where peace abounds.