Across the globe materialism has darkened the eyes of many. In all the so-called developed and developing countries it seems that each generation is more materialistic than that of their parents; and it’s having a detrimental effect on their physical and mental health. Our children and grandchildren are being engulfed by a tide of commercialism and consumerism which if left unchecked threatens to overwhelm the world in a catastrophe of our own making.
In the West there has been for some time now an obvious imbalance: our pursuit of material riches, sensual gratification, and physical comfort at all costs, has been to the detriment of our collective search for meaning and the realisation of more spiritual ideals. Many suspect that this is the case, and yet we appear unable or unwilling to apply the brake. Deep down we know that a fundamental shift is needed, and yet as individuals we feel powerless to bring about that change; and so we attempt to justify our patterns of behaviour with all sorts of complicated arguments, even though we don’t really believe we are in the right. Collectively, we are like the addict who despite his nagging conscience descends deeper and deeper, ever more desperate to turn his life around and yet less and less able to bring about the required adjustments to his lifestyle.
It may be that sooner or later however, as the consequences become clearer, there will be those who will wish to take back some of the authority they have invested in their leaders. In particular they may begin to challenge the advocates of the modern ideologies that have shaped our way of life. Many others will do so only when their own lives are disrupted in ways which force them to re-evaluate the way they live. For it’s only at such times of crisis that most of us are prepared to stand up and begin to think for ourselves.
Others, alas, will not however bad things get. For sadly, they will choose to cling determinedly to that which they are told, or prefer to believe – that physical matter is the only reality and that everything, including thought, feeling, mind, and will, can be explained in terms of matter and physical phenomena. They will continue to behave as if physical comfort, material well-being and worldly possessions constitute the greatest good and highest value in life. And they will continue to excuse and even celebrate the unfettered and coarse expressions of the worst aspects of human nature, allowing it the licence to follow its every selfish desire – whether or not it needs to trample over the sick, the dying, the aged and the vulnerably young in order to do so.
It is unsurprising that faced with the errors and in some cases the horrors of materialism there are those who are prone to violent reaction against it. However, to allow the pendulum to swing too far toward the other extreme would be equally catastrophic. To replace a cruel and extreme materialism with an even crueler fundamentalist religious faith would do no more than replace one disease with another. While wealth and goodness are very far from being the same thing, only a deluded extremist rejects a balanced and healthy concern for material life. The enjoyment of good and beautiful things is not a sin. And the denial of the body’s right to exercise natural, god given functions is a puritanical attempt to kill the spirit in life. The intolerance of the zealot leads his followers into a desert of fanaticism, which is just as bereft of harmony, health and happiness as are the modern, ultra-materialistic societies they wish to escape. These are not the answers to our imbalanced materialism. Our problems arise not from giving due regard to our material needs and pleasures; they arise when our desire for riches, material comforts and pleasures become more important to us than our spiritual values.
Perhaps most sadly of all, most of our religious institutions have been corrupted and have declined to such an extent that they are no longer able to exert enough authority to bring about the required change of hearts and minds. It’s also hard to put much faith in the ‘technology-will-solve-everything’ mentality, nor in the over-materialistic policies of the same old political movements that helped build the road to where we find ourselves. Indeed, the politics and economics of change have become labyrinthine and miasmic in themselves. Fear, superstition, extremism, vested interest, apathy and a whole host of negative conditions continue to confound and delay those who would seek out a new and better way. A way which might take them a step closer to a more balanced, sane, less brutal and less brutalising existence.
And yet, to those who have the courage to look within, brave enough to seek the truth of their own consciences and accept that we have lost our way, and not too proud to learn from the best of the ancient traditions, the way forward is relatively clear and simple. That’s not to say that it’s easy. On the contrary, the only true and lasting solution to our predicament involves perhaps the most difficult undertaking asked of us: to improve ourselves.
If and when we do look within we can see that the roots of our social dilemmas are no more than the many tangled consequences our own nature, our own thoughts, words and deeds. Introspection confirms the observation that while a desire may be killed by possession of the thing desired, from its ashes springs another desire. There is in this sense no end to desire. It’s part of being human. And when this reality of life is writ large we can easily see why we have the materialistic societies we have. It’s our uncontrolled desire for material things which chains us to a world of material things. And in such a world ruled by desire for material objects we can never be happy, for such desires can never truly be satisfied, however much we try to convince ourselves otherwise. Advertisers, politicians and many other groups know this and use their knowledge to manipulate our behaviour to their own advantage. And unless we wisely restrain our desire for things which have their roots in the darkness of the lower realms, they will eventually lead us there.
Convincing explanations for our situation can be found among beliefs and traditions more ancient than our history of ideas is able to discover. There has never been a time when some thinkers have not recognised a higher and a lower side to human nature. Men and women are much the same now as they ever were. Although it’s a very much older idea, at the beginning of our era it was observed that man’s refusal or inability to check the lower desires of his nature brings to him unforeseen painful consequences.
For certainly your desire for peace, and prosperity, and plenty is not prompted by any purpose of using these blessings honestly, that is to say, with moderation, sobriety, temperance, and piety; for your purpose rather is to run riot in an endless variety of sottish pleasures, and thus to generate from your prosperity a moral pestilence which will prove a thousandfold more disastrous than the fiercest enemies. (Augustine)
Generally and briefly, man’s lower nature is characterised as being at home in the world, it desires the objects of the senses, and is often instinctively drawn towards material riches and possessions, using whatever resources it can to exercise power over others. Its love is a physical, sexual love, and its relationship with others is often based on self-interest or selfishness. The higher, on the other hand, is attuned to the realms of heavenly light; it desires freedom from the prison of the material senses; it urges the seeker onwards towards truth, beauty and spiritual power; its love is a divine selfless love; and its relationships with others are based on harmony, trust and cooperation.
‘Two souls, alas! are lodg’d within my breast,
Which struggle there for undivided reign:
One to the world, with obstinate desire,
And closely-cleaving organs, still adheres;
Above the mist, the other doth aspire,
With sacred vehemence,to purer spheres’ (Goethe)
It’s clear which of the two aspects of human nature has been driving most of our collective and individual behaviour for so long now; and how the pace at which it proceeds has accelerated over the past decades, taking us into what seems to be a downward spiral.
God provides infinite possibilities. Man chooses which of them he prefers and suffers or enjoys the consequences. Each of us has the free will to choose in which ‘direction’ he or she wishes to travel. To choose a more sincere and noble life by moderating the excessive materialism that threatens life itself for so many millions, is fast becoming one of the choices which will define the spirit of the current cycle. Each of us can decide to take on the challenge of inner change or not. It is our responsibility. No-one can do it on our behalf. It is difficult. However, if enough individuals have a real change of mind then new thoughts will lead to new words and new actions. In time, new institutions will rise up to give expression to a new will. But it all starts with individuals exercising their free choice by trying to change themselves.
The cynic will denounce such idealism as hopelessly naïve. Inevitably the mainstream will ignore it as irrelevant to their daily struggle to satisfy this or that new desire. However, just as inevitably, a few will recognise that we do indeed need to adjust the balance of our lives; and that we can’t just sit ineptly by the wayside complaining that “someone should do something about it”. They will see that no-one can do it for us and that like it or not there are no quick and easy fixes. It is these precious few who will form the vanguard tasked with initiating a new and better way. And there are signs that this process has already begun.
All progress for individuals and for communities requires an appropriate relationship between the two inner selves. Only when this has been realised can our better and higher part offer us its guidance, reassurance and protection. If we are unduly led by the lower aspects of our nature we are unable to bring a calm purpose to life. Freedom from the turmoil of a purely material life brings with it a measure of inner peace. When we are no longer in thrall to selfish and insatiable lower desires, we change our priorities. Gradually and fitfully at first we reverse the direction of the flow of our lives. The man who knows such a reversal turns his back on the selfishness that once ruled his life. Instead, whenever he can, and in whatever earthly circumstances he finds himself, he strives to be of unobtrusive service, however modest such assistance might appear to be. And when he fails to live up to his ideals, he brushes himself down and as often as necessary re-establishes the positive, healthy principles we all intuitively know we should try to exemplify.
And when we are in need of refreshment, taking time out of the busyness of the workaday world, relaxing the body and stilling the mind for a while, holding in our thoughts anything we consider truly beautiful or uplifting, will bring its reward. For in this way we realign ourselves with the positive elements of life.
This shift in the balance between the higher and lower aspects of our nature will not however reduce the importance of the material duties and responsibilities we owe to ourselves, our families and our communities. The new way won’t be forged by impractical dreamers or hippy style dropouts; and neither will it be created by intolerant extremists. But as more individuals take on the challenge and sincerely try to bring about a positive personal change, they will begin to seek opportunities to work together. Gradually each community will choose to reward the motivations and behaviours we all know will build a better, more tolerant and just world for our children and grandchildren. Conversely, they will withdraw their support for the false authorities that appeal to the worst aspects of our nature, recognising the selfishness of vested interest as one of the paths that has led us to where we are. And ultimately, we will have enabled our communities to do so by changing ourselves within.
Good thoughts, motivations and actions will increase our capacity to make manifest the higher aspects of our own nature. We will be better able to bring to bear our own unique mix of gifts and abilities. We will be tolerant of difference, but cooperate in harmony with those who are likeminded. We will reject the negative influences of both apathy and fanaticism to join an upward flow of healthy, balanced enthusiasm. More or less consciously we will encounter and be a conduit for the healing influences of Love, Beauty, Tolerance, and Goodwill.
While over time such changes will help to heal our communities, the impact will be felt most of all at the individual level. For each man or woman who chooses to improve themselves by sincerely and persistently trying to moderate the excesses of their lower nature, readies themselves for the next episode of the great adventure. They prepare themselves for the next phase in their inner development, no longer utterly imprisoned by the illusion of a purely material life. Their sincerity and balanced, unselfish motivations will place such individuals in the next and most wonderful classroom of life. They will be on the Ancient Way.