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Kingston, NY, Friday, March 27, 2009

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Scratching the Surface
By Judith Gayle | Political Waves

HURRY UP and wait. That's where we are, these days; living life in a mad dash but too often bumping our nose against unaccustomed barriers of doubt. Hurrying to make an extra buck but waiting to decide what to do with it, if anything other than stash it under the bed; running to fill the tank in the car while gas is cheap but waiting to see what a new car might eventually cost. We're rushing to circle the wagons, button everything up and protect what we've got.

We're tapping our toe for Obama's stimulus package to leech out into our various states and make a difference, waiting to see if the economy is stabilizing or if there are more surprises lurking behind the doors on Wall Street, gathered to spring on us. We might be on the lookout for a new relationship or job -- but we're holding back on decisions because we're not sure what comes next. We're experiencing life in fits and starts lately, impatient for everything to get back to normal.

Well, here's the good and bad news: we're living in the new normal. Between the busy-bee impulse to hurry up and get somewhere, and the necessity to hang back -- this new, cautionary concern to see how things evolve, get our ducks in a row and discover our direction -- is our life. And even if we're exhausted worrying about what's going to happen next, on the off chance things get too slow, we rush to fill ourselves up with more more more; we're kind of like bulimics, binging and purging and unable to stop the cycle.

For several decades now, life has had a frenetic overindulgent quality that is clearly evident in our entertainment venues, complete with subliminal messages we've missed; we like extreme sports, for instance, and adore confrontive and embarrassing reality shows -- but we can't move ourselves to confront the last administration for its culpabilities. We're hooked on CSI-type television offerings that show us the darker side of death through the clean, specialized filter of forensics -- but we don't want to discuss the details of war in Iraq or rape in Darfur.

The more fantastic the special effects, the quicker we'll seek out a blockbuster; the ones that give us a thrill a minute earn our ticket purchase -- yet snipers on the freeway or shooters in our schools scare us senseless. We like our vacations orchestrated, like the luxury of a cruise, and we appreciate our food most when there's so much of it the buffet table groans under its weight -- but we turn our heads at pictures of skeletal kids with swollen bellies in third world countries. We like our entertainment big and our denial bigger. We've lived out a few fat decades of 'more is better;' and now we're being forced to flip the channel to 'less is best.'

This is a difficult transition for many of us; face it, we're junkies. We sedate ourselves with material goods and consumerism. We appreciate our lives most when they run like clockwork, packed with pleasurable events that we insist represent the 'good life,' yet their very predictability bores us, and makes us run toward the next thing. We do everything within our power to feel alive, while finding that most of our efforts don't quite do the trick. In generations gone by -- perhaps during the Yuppie "greed is good" years, or the flush early era of the dot.com or housing bubbles -- we convinced ourselves that pleasure is the ultimate purpose in life; advances in technology, easy credit and a high standard of living brought us a vast array of opportunity to indulge ourselves. And having viewed life through a filter of pleasure-seeking for so long, we now find ourselves intensely motivated by its opposite -- fear of pain and loss.

This seems to me one more example of how out of balance things have become; it doesn't take a prophet to understand that when the upper class earns 70% more than the lower, while the average American worker is bringing home less than s/he did in the 1970s, something's got to give. We might have gotten the hint just after 9/11 when George Bush told us the most patriotic thing we could do was go shopping and spend money; that was, in my opinion, a shallow suggestion by an emotional dwarf of a president -- but it fell on the ears of those who had been trained for generations to the shallowness of consumption and consumerism.

This hurry-up-and-wait moment we find ourselves in is the perfect opportunity to discover what is valuable in our lives, again. We've lost many of our survival skills by going with the flow of the shopping meme; pulling our foot out of the credit mire will be a gargantuan task. We find ourselves unprepared for emergency, even though most of us stood back in horror when Katrina proved there was no longer a social safety net; we didn't think it would happen to us. Worse, we've been so busy that our neighborhood associations and local school boards have assigned the values our children learn; if they're growing up to be little snots while we work two jobs to sustain a fading standard of living, now's the time to do a little reality therapy ... on ourselves.

Many of us lost track of meaning and purpose while we fought to carve out our little piece of the American Dream. Each of us is deserving of a good life, but that does not begin and end at Costco or Macy's or even IKEA. The days of loaded shopping carts was fun, Lord knows -- but it didn't make us better people to shop 'til we dropped, it only made us want more. Stuff is addictive; and, as Deepak Chopra explains, it's a diversion from the grander scheme:
The word Maya, which is usually translated from Sanskrit as "illusion," has many wide-spreading meanings (our modern words matter, mother and measurement are related to this root). I prefer to define Maya as "distraction," and without holding moral judgments against money, I must accuse riches of being a terrible distraction. They hold us in the grip of a false self-image, that of being creatures whose purpose on earth is to be prosperous and secure.

Our real purpose on earth is very different, as every spiritual tradition recognizes. We are here to evolve and grow. We are here to discover who we are. We are here to transform our surroundings in keeping with who we really are.

Great spiritual teachers have said that we are ultimately here to transcend matter, to worship our Maker, to appreciate the infinite creation and learn humility before it. All those things may emerge once we know who we really are. That is life's central mystery, and money doesn't come close to answering it.

Nakedness before God is a symbol for a deeper value, which is closeness to God, a life without separation from one's source. True renunciation is really a shift in allegiance: you shift your attention from the surface of life to the underlying reality.
That last sentence points up our failing -- what is our true allegiance? Are we aware that our outer life and our inner life are out of balance, like so much we see around us? We should be; our world is a direct result of that inability to synthesize the two. And if we haven't given it much thought, then we haven't been paying attention. The cosmos has sent us clue after clue; example after example. We had a president in office for eight years who was repeatedly described as a narcissist. He reflected a philosophy of class consciousness that masqueraded as an 'old boy' but served his true elitist roots; his comment that his base was the "haves and have mores" were not the words of a Texan, but that of a member of a blueblooded third-generation political family. If we made his values ours -- as did fully half of this nation -- then this wake-up call is long overdue.

The recent financial situation has exposed some of the working philosophy of those who hold power in the banking culture; many of the moneyed movers and shakers seem to adore Ayn Rand. In the last century, Ms. Rand wrote books that romanticized the elitism of those with extraordinary creativity and ability, suggesting that their intellectual dominance rose above the moral codes that the rest of the nation are directed to live by. Her book Atlas Shrugged gave society an upbraiding when her hero, John Galt, lead a strike against the social order, denying it the thought process of the brightest minds. A proponent of the free market, Rand proposed a theory called Objectivism, which idealized the morality of rational self-interest. In essence, selfishness. I consider Atlas Shrugged a think-piece; others, including financial guru Alan Greenspan, responsible for decades of economic policy, seemed to think it more a personal revelation.

Not all of us are Randians -- in fact, that upper 1% that gets all the goodies seem to embrace her work more enthusiastically than the rest of us. It takes a very specific worldview to get cozy with the cold assessments of Rand; I think it works better for young souls and, of course, impressionable teens than for those who've been around a while. I had to laugh when I read this line, from the blog, Kung Fu Monkey: "There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year-old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs."

Most of this nation is more fluent in the sensibilities of existentialism; we think we can better ourselves despite the influences that impede us, that we are self-created by our decisions. The search for self-identity falls within this philosophy. Note that this is not the intellectual self-interest proposed by Rand, but identification of the actual, as opposed to the ego, self. There are many flavors of existentialism, and the philosophy itself is slippery to define but it is marked by the ability of the individual to make choices, and the necessity of pain as a motivator; which ultimately strips us of roles, revealing our true nature. We are, in this philosophy, responsible for our actions; perhaps no other variable distances it so much from Objectivism. If superior humanity is to be found, it is within humility and not hubris.

I mention these philosophies in regard to how we see ourselves in this nation; ultimately, many of us are in an existential meltdown now, and the information we need to transform ourselves will not be found in the superficial. All of this is complex, and confusing -- but it leads me back to purpose. If we're still scratching the surface of materialism, we haven't gotten to the juicy part of ourselves yet, and we desperately need to. If we understood our own inner signals, we would be less interested in filling up our senses and satiating our material desires; if we knew ourselves better, we would find that there are hungers inside us that need feeding much more than we need stuff. Love, for instance. Love is the air our souls breathe.

So brilliant a mind as Einstein's pondered the notion of purpose and came up with that same conclusion, when he said, "Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that man is here for the sake of other men." From the cool observation of a scientific mind comes a message of heart; that isn't mere intellect -- that's wisdom.

Daily life. Too often working to sustain, not to delight or plumb our talent; too often dulled by the constant hurry up and wait that assaults us and plays on our fears, tickling our growing realization that we've placed value wrongly. In that space between the desire to move forward and the lack of trust in the future, we have plenty of landscape to wander. I'd suggest that we worry less about what's going on in the world and attend to what's going on within us; and if we still care what the neighbors think, we're on the wrong page. Besides, they're worrying about what we think of them -- how's that for a joke?

The new normal feels both bad and good; what comforted us is vanishing, what has come to grow us into thoughtful, sentient creatures is upon us. Stuff is just stuff, but love is the primal glue of the universe. If our heart is whole, there is nothing to be taken from us -- no sorrow that can obliterate us. If we're to make this leap to wholeness, we have to let go and trust the future, trust our ability to bring the vibrancy of life through our heart chakra and shine it like a light around us. In our existential quest for our true self, the primary thing we need to understand is that love leads the way past any circumstance to hold us in its tender embrace.

We weren't put here to find love, we came to BE love. That is not optional; until we open ourselves to that great truth, life will only be a superficial exercise, a scratching of the surface of our purpose. If we understood that there is no other significance for which to quest, we wouldn't be hurrying anything or waiting for anything, either. If our every thought, word and deed originated from our heart chakra, we would not be afraid. We would simply be letting love shine through us like a transparency, blessing us and everyone around us with the heart-rich joy of life.

That isn't a new philosophy; it's the oldest philosophy, superseding all the others. 500 years before Christ, Greek playwright Sophocles gave us this: "One word frees us of all the weight and pain in life. That word is Love." Think about that! We've had the answer to life's purpose for thousands of years. Isn't it time we stopped fooling around, and got on with the reason we came? Haven't we hurried up and waited long enough?

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