Selling the spirit
// Kevin Murray

"When you confer spiritual authority to another person, you must realize that you are allowing them to pick your pocket and sell you your own watch." —Alan Watts

Live in the moment. Embrace the now. We’ve all heard these pithy little pearls of wisdom; they’re broadcast across the media landscape like late-night infomercials selling you Slap-Chops for the soul: “If you call in the next five minutes, you too can have an aura of enlightened awareness like Oprah and Eckhart Tolle. We’ll even throw in a free quartz crystal!” It’s great advice if you can pull it off, and there are several thousand years of yoga, prayer, and meditation history as a testament to why living in the present is important, even crucial, for your happiness and well-being – but you have probably already heard that one by now.

Chances are that you’re experiencing a vague type of consumer suspicion about these product promises. Maybe you are feeling jaded by the spirituality and self-help industry, or you have noticed how the “now” has become a kind of rallying call for baby-boomer moms who have suddenly taken an interest in aromatherapy and tribal drumming. Perhaps you’re feeling dogmatized to distraction by the endless barrage of globalization gurus promising peace through the present moment: “Forget the future, ignore the past, be here, now …”

But wait, there’s more! The fact is that the “moment” has been monopolized, but not just by your mom. Selling the “present” is one of the greatest marketing tricks ever perpetuated. The product costs nothing, yet TIME reports that the self-help industry is worth over $10 billion dollars; yoga clocks in with $6 billion. The trick is in supplying the consumer with the mechanics of the problem, but not the solution.

It works like this: the mind is a chaotic place. It is filled with out-dated survival protocols, like fight or flight responses. It ebbs and flows with hormones, song lyrics, and to-do lists; it sparkles with hopes and warbles with fears. It does a jitterbug of jealousy and then, a moment later, becomes preoccupied with the soft skin on the inside of our cheeks. The mind is mad, and our corporate masters exploit that fact for profit. After all, a distracted, stressed-out citizen makes a much more pliable consumer than one who is centered and self-sufficient. Add the endless barrage of stimulants, ranging from caffeine and sugar to the supercharged sitcom, mix that with a healthy dose of paranoia from the evening news, shake, and there you have it: one exhausted and overloaded citizen – a perfectly pliable consumer who has been conditioned to satisfy every compulsive whim.

Humans are also habitual. We tend to build a set of responses to events in our lives, mostly based on childhood and formative experiences, and for efficiency’s sake, we continue to run those same programs. So, when we get stressed out over exams, we may emulate our childhood coping patterns that we learned from our parents.

Breaking these patterns is substantially more difficult than we might imagine, and despite the old cliches about leopard spots and dog tricks, it turns out that it’s true: we are capable, but mostly unwilling, to do the hard work of changing our behaviour. Why should we, when our senses admit so much gratification? There’s masturbation, ice cream, Starbucks, the internet … it’s easier to justify acting badly than it is to change. This is precisely why the self-help industry is so effective: just like a cheap microwave that breaks down after a year, the current blockbuster of mind-blowing cosmic insight is designed to fail so we buy again, and again. The secret is that we are being set up to fail.

In The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle asks his reader to "direct your attention inward … If you get the inside right, the outside will fall into place. Primary reality is within, secondary reality without." He makes this all sound so easy, like it’s simply a matter of re-orienting the compass of our consciousness a little.

When we read his teachings, a part of us responds positively; after all, if we take the time to look, we all recognize that our minds are machines which form hopes, fears, conceptions, and expectations in endlessly ordinary ways. Promises of some kind of transcendental release usually strike us as attractive offers, and if we try for a while, we often notice interesting results, like relief from anxiety, a sense of well-being, and even inner peace.

However, it does not last. This is because our habits are so strong that they will be reasserted when our vigilance fails, and in almost every case, those flowery, spiritual little maxims will simply be slotted in with every other sensorial gluttonfest that we indulge in on a daily basis.

Still, modern science, technology, and a century of American positivism has left us hopeful and personally empowered, confident that we have the correct tools to carve out a better tomorrow “right now.” Today, as we verge on 2012, Western society is poised to abandon organized religion, to dispel duality, and to embrace a kind of personal “spirituality” that bears all the marks of individual agency and freedom from tyrannical authorities. While this may be attractive when we consider the horrors of Islamic terrorism, Catholic child molesters, and the Pope who eats from golden plates yet preaches about the poor, we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Our abandonment of these ancient traditions leaves us hopelessly dependent on the market forces that drive the self-help industry, and blind to one thing that your average New-Age novelist bent on the power of positive thinking cannot claim: devotion.

While Tolle urges us to have a look inside and change your life, he is advocating for an intellectual interjection based on our belief in the power of reason and rational thought. On the other hand, the world religions have inspired confidence, faith, and commitment to such an extent that 11 Tibetan monks set themselves on fire last year in protest against the Chinese occupation of their country. While this and other fanatical acts of faith may be extreme, and I am in no way advocating for this behaviour, they point towards the power of devotion-inaction. While we can imagine people buying all of Tolle’s books and practicing his methods diligently, few can imagine this kind of commitment arising from the weekly bestseller bins. Can we really achieve the self-help promises of total mind over matter without the devotion of dogma?

Compare professional athletes to meditation masters. Buddhist monks who had spent more than 10,000 hours doing compassion meditations were measured by EEG and compared to novices and were found to have increased gamma wave activity during and after the session. This suggests that these monks had changed their brain functioning substantially, but this followed a lifetime of devotional activity to a religious ideal. Professional athletes practice intense visualization techniques as well, under the idea that the mind does not differentiate these tricks from reality; it rewires itself accordingly. However, the length of time it takes to make these shifts is substantial, and the goals are radically different: a monk may carve patterns of compassionate activity for all beings by their practice, while a pro skier may win gold at the Olympics. In the former case, a monk may keep his job and his monastery may be sustained. In the latter case, the skier may find glory, but the true win may go to the ski-brand behind her training.

Based on these findings, we must be increasingly skeptical of the self-help movement with its claims of health, wealth, and enlightenment. We must remember that, hidden in our cultural unconscious, we are sinful beings who have been conditioned to please a great bearded man on a cloud. We are culturally wired for submission – I offer the ubiquity of the phrase “Oh, my God” as an exclamation for evidence.

As we come to the stage of history where we begin to finally reject and reinterpret the old religious dogmas, we must also question what shall be left when the old world falls. If Amazon. com has anything to say about it, we will have a Yertle the Turtle tower of self-help scheisters telling us to believe them, explaining what’s wrong but offering no real way to fix it. Instead, like in The Secret, they offer advice on how to use our incredible human potential to, say, manifest a new TV, or maybe find a nice mate, all in the service of the new go: industry. Yet behind this, the urgings from the mystic traditions still echo, saying: Practice the present. When you become distracted, start again. You are already perfect.

While we may have much to learn about time, wholeness, and happiness from the New Age writers and thinkers, we must never forget the power of devotion and discipline that has driven spiritual technology up to this point. The new enlightenment movement seeks methods that are adapted to our society’s time and place, something suited to our cybernetic, globalized state, but it is our adherence to ancient spiritual ideals that will keep us evolving.

// Kevin Murray, columnist
// Illustration by Jason Jeon

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