Nirvana for Sale: The Spiritual Journey in a Material World
That calm spiritual bliss -- we Americans want it more than ever. In fact, we're up to our chakras searching for enlightenment. But what does the spiritual journey look like in a consumer-driven society, where even spirituality has become a commodity to be marketed? At your typical yoga studio, students are inhaling and exhaling through their Warrior One and Warrior Two poses in $100 Lululemon yoga pants, and that sum only accounts for the bottom half of their flexible bodies. While teachers guide their yoga students in Eastern spiritual philosophy and the idea of letting go of desires, cravings and attachments, the typical studio itself is selling yoga accessories that cost a small fortune.
And have you ever gone on a spiritual retreat? On the meditation cushion we are instructed to breathe in love and compassion, and to breathe out good karma to all sentient beings. We are told: All we need is this breath, this moment. Everything you need is already within you. Everything you desire, you already are. Okay, I like that, but if all that is true (and it sure sounds good) why do so many ashrams and meditation centers have glittering gift shops that are to die for -- or, I should say, reincarnate for? Indian silk scarves weaved with 14-karat gold thread, mantra bracelets and T-shirts, and OM everything including earrings, necklaces, pillow and mugs? So how do you travel the road to Nirvana without getting sidetracked by all of the spiritual tchotchkes for sale?
Years ago, when I first set up a small meditation area in my house, I found myself shopping through my spiritual journey, thinking that more than a spiritual master, I needed a spiritual interior designer to help me create the perfect spot to Become One with the universe. But I digress, which is often what happens when walking a spiritual path in a material world. It's easy to spend so much time talking about meditation, buying accessories in the service of meditation, and decorating the space with sacred intention that you might never have time to actually sit in meditation. I remember looking through a catalogue selling page upon page of enticements along the Zen path and thinking, "Boy, for a spiritual tradition that's all about nothing, there sure is a lot to buy."
Let's face it. We are a culture that focuses on the external as opposed to the internal and on the material rather than the spiritual. We are bombarded with messages that encourage us to wear our spiritual inclinations. We are told to buy what we want to be and to appear rather than become. It's easy to get caught in the trappings of a spiritual path and mistake those trappings for the path itself. It's also easy to get caught in what passes for an existential dilemma like when a seeker heads to an ashram for the first time and wonders, "When I meet my Inner Self, should I meet her in shabby chic or something more fashion forward?"
I once went on a seven-day silent meditation retreat, where there was also no reading or writing allowed, and didn't say a word for a whole week (of course, I haven't stopped talking about it since). I found that staying silent was easier than I thought, but what was initially more challenging was that this spiritual center was one of the few that had no gift shop or coffee shop. It held no distractions to get lost in as hour after hour we were engaged in either sitting or walking meditation -- and breathing into silence and stillness. With no soy lattes to order and no merchandise to buy, we were left to meet our own selves.
Living in a material world will inevitably hold challenges for walking a spiritual path. But these obstacles themselves can serve as challenges to bring us deeper into our inner wisdom and wise discernment as we navigate through the fluff to reach to the core and find our balance.
Ellen Frankel is the author of the novel Syd Arthur, about a middle-aged, suburban Jewish woman and her search for enlightenment 2,500 years after her namesake Siddhartha, the historical Buddha.
Posted by emfrankel at 8:41 AM
Give us this day our daily bread (Matthew 6:11)... as long as it's gluten free. While Adam and Eve were told to stay away from just one tree blossoming with apples, people across the country -- from celebrities to the neighbors next door -- are staying away from a variety of foods that they consider "forbidden." Increasingly, Americans are embarking upon health food diets with a religious-like zeal. For instance, while just 1 percent of the population suffers from celiac disease, which triggers an immune system reaction that causes inflammation in the small intestine when a person eats food containing gluten, about 30 percent of Americans now want to eat gluten-free, often because they think it will help them lose weight. And let's face it, for countless people growing up in a culture where thinness is idealized and equated with goodness, salvation and eternal happiness, the yearning for thinness itself has taken on the zeal of the once fervent desire to connect to the sacred and to live a life of meaning.
As a clinical social worker specializing in the field of eating disorders, for years I watched people struggling with anorexia nervosa and bulimia and the existential questions their eating disorder often represented through starving their bodies, or in binging and purging behaviors. Their days were spent obsessed with what they would or would not eat, and how they would get rid of what passed through their lips. It offered a structure in their lives -- eventually taking over their lives -- to reach their goal, which was to be in total control as exemplified through their bodies attaining the coveted societal goal: to be thin.
Like the ascetic, or the religious person engaged in fasting, there are spiritual dynamics at play. I can't help but wonder if the increasing number of Americans jumping on the health food bandwagon isn't in some way related to a search for something more meaningful in their lives, and a way to organize their world around an ultimate purpose. After all, the Pew Forum on Religious and Public life reveals that the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow and now encompasses one-fifth of the population. What if the growing obsession with what is allowed in the body is at the expense of asking what will nourish the soul? Can the religion of thinness really offer true happiness and inner peace?
I am all for healthy eating. But I have to wonder about all the people I know and all the people I read about who are embarking on a way of eating that often amounts to little more than a way to pursue weight loss at a time when dieting is out, but juicing is in. In 1997 Dr. Steven Bratman coined the term Orthorexia, a diagnosis characterized by an extreme or excessive preoccupation with avoiding foods perceived to be unhealthy. In his book, Health Food Junkies, Bratman notes that it is more socially acceptable to say, "I want to be healthy," than saying, "I want to fit into these skinny jeans."
I know people who will tell you every health reason for every morsel they put in their mouths or refuse to put in their mouths. They can talk about it for hours. Yet almost invariably, within the conversation their ultimate desire for weight loss is revealed. I'm not arguing about weight loss per se, but about how often this cultural dietary obsession is merely another version of bowing down to the false god of idealizing thinness as saintliness. Instead of bowing down to the golden calf, they are bowing down to the green kale.
While Moses led the Israelites to the Promised Land -- the land flowing with milk and honey, it's a fair bet that were he to be in charge of leading the people today, he'd have to deal with arguments about the merits of a Promised Land that would flow with milk, rather than soy.
If my friends want to eat this way, and feel it's helpful for them, so be it. But I find the inordinate amount of energy with which they engage in their particular diet regimen often takes on the added goal of proselytizing those in their midst who don't join them in their detox diets or who, God-forbid, actually order a sandwich at lunch while they drink their green juice. We know the importance of religious tolerance, so why can't we extend that to food tolerance? Go ahead and eat what you want, but let me eat what I want without giving me the message, both explicitly and implicitly, that you are holier than I because of what you choose to eat.
Growing up, I like most of my friends heard the same message from our mothers: Eat you fruits and vegetables and go outside to play. It may not have Hollywood written all over it, but it sure is good advice for living a healthy and joyful life that leaves room for other pursuits that nourish not only the body, but truly nourish the mind and soul as well.
In Ecclesiastes 8:15 we read: "Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry..."
Posted by emfrankel at 6:14 PM
Here's a blog I wrote for the Huffington Post
today. It looks at the number of people who are religiously unaffiliated, and questions whether one reason may be due to the lack of choices offered within our synagogues and churches.
One size does not fit all...how do you connect to the sacred?
Posted by emfrankel at 6:54 PM
Want to know why so many Jews gravitate toward Buddhism? Check out my new blog in today's Huffington Post!
Posted by emfrankel at 8:58 AM