Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Kept in the Dark and Fed Sh*t

Guest Blogger: Ron Crouch

The movie Eat, Pray, Love will be coming out soon and will likely get a lot of people interested in, for lack of a better phrase, the “spiritual lifestyle.” For those who don’t know, it’s the story of a woman who goes to India in search of enlightenment but instead of enlightenment, she finds - love. Yeah, pretty silly. But, then again, most of what people think of when they think of spirituality is pretty damn silly.

I’ve run into a lot of seekers like the one portrayed by Julia Roberts in the movie. They are searching for something that will help them transcend their worries: a mystical experience that will finally transform them into the kind of person they have always wanted to be. They believe that being a “spiritual” person will finally make them a happy person. They really need therapy.

There are a lot of people seeking self-improvement or self-transformation on the spiritual path. Deep down they believe that if they can just improve themselves, become more spiritual in some way, then their suffering will vanish. And since this is America, the route to self-improvement is done mostly through the power of the purchase. These are men and women who literally wear their spirituality on their sleeves, on their shirts, on their pants, around their necks, and tattooed on their skin. They take expensive trips to exotic Ashrams. They buy Buddha statue souvenirs, incense, bells, cushions, prayer flags and literally hundreds, thousands, of products that cater to a lifestyle centered around their spiritual journey. There is, and this is not a joke, an entire industry dedicated to nothing but manufacturing products for a lifestyle based on “letting go.” I call the target market for this industry the “spiritual lifestylers.”

What the spiritual lifestylers don’t know, and what no one ever tells them, is that the self-improvement they want has nothing to do with the very thing that spirituality is all about - enlightenment. Why? Because enlightenment is the exact opposite of what most people in the spiritual lifestyle scene are seeking. Hell, it’s the exact opposite of what almost everyone on Earth is seeking! Enlightenment is the end of the whole project of seeking, because it is the end of taking your “self” seriously – literally. And no one takes themselves more seriously than spiritual lifestylers.

What many people in spiritual scenes are really seeking is not enlightenment, but a new and better version of themselves. A happier, wiser, more balanced version of themselves. And this makes sense. Almost every thing we do in life is in the service of a "self." All our projects, our work, our dreams, everything – our lives are chained to who we think we are, or should be. So it is no wonder that the spiritual lifestylers have approached the spiritual path with the same self-improvement ethic.

But the spiritual path is the opposite of self-improvement. It is the only thing I know of that can finally break the chain and liberate us from the little tyrant we call "me." And it does this by showing us that that little tyrant was never real in the first place. There is just no self important enough to improve or transform, so there was never any need to be happier, wiser or more balanced. Sound weird? Bizarre? Strange? It absolutely should. The truth of our lives is utterly baffling until we finally get the insights we need to enter the stream of enlightenment. Until then, our job is to work against the little tyrant by exposing it as false as many times as we can. Unfortunately, this is the opposite of what is happening in the spiritual lifestyle.

All of this spiritual self-improvement stuff is harmless and even ironically funny to a point. But what has led me, and many others, to be so concerned with movies like Eat, Pray, Love is that they support a whole subculture that distracts, confuses and misleads people who are sincerely searching for liberation and enlightenment.

For a person honestly seeking liberation there are very slim pickings out there. The bookstores are filled with feel-good-about-yourself books that cater to the spiritual lifestyle but have no actual instructions how to get enlightened. Meditation centers make their teachings less direct and more about lifestyle, retreats become more like spas, and teachers never even present the idea that enlightenment is something real and do-able, because it flies in the face of what many people actually want. The little tyrant never gets challenged -- instead, the spiritual path just becomes another ego trip. Really, everyone loses.

Bill Hamilton, a great American pioneer in opening up the practical spiritual path to westerners, the guy who taught my teacher (Kenneth Folk), called this whole mess the “mushroom culture.” Because just like mushrooms, lifestyle seekers are “kept in the dark and fed shit.” And I would add, that as long as they are on a self-improvement project, then they will want it that way. Real spiritual discovery would scare them off.

So, because of the mushroom culture, the rest of us have to work our way out of the shit-filled darkness to figure out what is really going on. I suspect many of us never make it out.

Some of you reading this may be trapped in the mushroom culture and may be looking for a way out. The good news is that you can relax and stop spending your hard-earned money. There are teachers out there who teach the real thing. Just look and you’ll find them. In the meantime you can truly “let go” of those things that are part of the spiritual lifestyle but which will absolutely not get you enlightened. For those of you looking for a way out of the mushroom patch, you can start with this declaration of independence:

You are hereby relieved from buying dharma-themed clothes (even yoga clothes), bells, jewelry (even handmade Tibetan jewelry), books (even spiritual books – lots of them are BS anyway), new cushions, incense, prayer flags and Buddha statues. You no longer have to put so much effort into having a warm and loving “aura,” or knowing the Suttas, the Gita, the Bible, the Kabbala or the teachings of any high mucky-mucks by heart. You do not have to burn sage, chant, smile, or follow rules intended for monastics from an entirely different time and culture. You do not have to have a guru, or get close to someone who is a guru. You do not have to travel to far-off places to seek the perfect place to get enlightened. You do not have to sit in meditation longer than anyone else or attend expensive retreats. You have nothing to prove. You are fine. You already have everything you need to become enlightened, because all you need to do is see that “you” don’t really exist.

So what does get you enlightened? Following the instructions for meditation (or other methods) as they are described. Not daydreaming. Not spacing out. Not "letting go" or "being with your stuff." That just feeds the little tyrant. But actually following the directions. They are incredibly simple. So why not give it a try?


Ron Crouch has been meditating seriously for about eight years and spent much of that time trying to find a way out of the “mushroom culture.” He is now engaged in what he calls “pragmatic dharma” and what some have called the “hardcore dharma movement.” He maintains a practice journal at his teacher’s website, and welcomes comments and readers’ thoughts. He is currently a doctoral candidate in Clinical/Community Psychology in Chicago.


NellaLou said...

It's great to read others writing about this nonsense. Gilbert does a disservice not only to spirituality but to the people she exploits with her little poverty porn adventures.

I've taken strong issue with EPL here Poverty Porn, Dilettante Charity and a Holiday in Cambodia

The New York Post recently had an article called Eat pray zilch which covers "the underbelly of Eat Pray Love"

And the New York Times had an op-ed piece from a person in Kenya who was on the receiving end of this kind of activity Slumdog Tourism

Hopefully by sharing these links people will get another viewpoint.

I'm very happy to see some people wake up to this farce.

Jon Rubinstein said...

This is really great. Thank you.

aimee said...

Eh, seems judgemental. Even the monasteries have cushions and bells and clothes that "pretend" to facilitate contemplation or express intention. Let it be. Focus on right speech. If EPL encourages a few million to meditate or consider their infinite nature or travel vicariously, distracting from their sleepy state, then let it.

Duff said...

I applaud the challenge to superficial spirituality as consumer lifestyle demographic, which I think we need much, much more of.

But what about after enlightenment? Knowing the insubstantiality of what we thought to be the self, it's back to work, family, and life...which does in fact involve some self-improvement projects from time to time, although ideally with less of the existential-anxiety-fueled neuroticism, having seen things clearly.

RonC. said...

Duff - you are so right!

When I step back and reflect on it. This article is an artifact of where I am at on the path, and I'm very open about where that is in my sitting journal. Getting there... but not quite.

Right now at this stage of the path I'm trying to reject the projects that support the self, to get beyond it. But eventually it will be back to business as usual once the fiction of self is seen through completely.

For now though, the whole self-improvement thing makes me queasy.

Linda York Leaming said...

I agree that the quest for enlightenment is often a convenient excuse for westerners like me to give free reign to our neuroses, of which we have many-- the opposite of "exposing the little tyrant." The stuff-- meditation cushions, books, trips to ashrams--is just an outward manifestation of that. Dennis is right, Eat, Pray, Love is a pretty story, and maybe a good start for Gilbert. If she's really honest, she'll figure out that what she wrote about wasn't anything close to spiritual awakening. I think her real book is yet to be written. It could happen.

Dennis Hunter said...

Aimee, been pondering your comment on Ron's article....

I totally get where you're coming from (and you're not the only person who had the "sounds judgmental" reaction). And yet....

I don't think "Right Speech" means never being critical or calling others on their B.S. when you see it. In fact, it seems to me that doing that is part of Right Speech.

Or maybe Jesus should have just left the money-changers in the temple alone, and let them go about their business. It was judgmental and intolerant of him to get angry and overturn their tables.

I'm just sayin'... ;-)

RonC. said...

This all brings up an interesting question - and i'd love to hear people's views:

What does "right speech" really mean?
Or better yet, what does it mean to you, in your cultural context and in this time?

Dennis Hunter said...

Ron, I got quite a bit of flack for writing this piece:

It was perhaps the first time I really ventured into the realm of politics on this blog, and although I was nervous about going there, I did it because I felt there was something that needed to be said. Some B.S. that needed to be called out for what it is, but also a lesson for me in how I can work with that on my spiritual path in a skillful way.

I got some "sounds judgmental" type comments on that piece, and was accused by one reader of being as prejudiced as the people I critiqued in the article. But I was left with the feeling that the reader's perception of the essay as being "judgmental" came more from the fact that she simply didn't agree with what I was saying.

It was an interesting exploration for me of how to practice "right speech" while still speaking what feels like truth to me -- even if that truth is a little bit harsh and critical of what I feel needs to be criticized.

I wonder: is there a prevailing idea in our Buddhist subculture that practicing right speech means just making nice, and not saying anything that might upset someone else's apple cart? And is that what it really means? I don't think so.

RonC. said...

Dennis, I have also wondered about the whole "making nice" = right speech.

When should we say something that might be "harsh" or "critical"? As Buddhists, is that really never? I have to think that when people are doing things that are harmful to themselves or others, or they are doing something to confuse the dharma, then being critical is right speech.

There is a lot in the suttas about right speech being soothing and polite. But there are also tons of examples of the Buddha himself calling people "stupid" (literally) when they were doing something that just confused others.

Right speech is probably very kind and nice most of the time. But there is also a time for wise speech. A time to let people know how far from the path they have drifted. When people are deluded, being direct and sometimes even harsh is what they (and you) need.

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