Archives For James French

(By James French)

The discussions around the idea of “sustainability” can easily degenerate into noise. This is because, while quite a number of different perspectives agree that the current manner in which our civilization operates cannot be sustained, the reasons for this and the ways in which we can correct the problem are by no means settled issues. The problem is obvious, the solution, if there is one, is not.

Personally, I have found much food for thought in the ideas of John Michael Greer. His explorations of Peak Oil and its ramifications are very thorough. Particularly, I find his call to see our current situation as a “predicament” or a situation we must deal with rather than a problem to be solved, to be useful in thinking about the current crisis.

As Greer says, our current industrial civilization was basically designed to “convert resources into waste in the most efficient way possible.” Obviously this is a drastic shift from the “progressive” narratives that we’ve grown up with. The problem with those narratives is that they are built on the assumption that natural resources will always be with us in abundance. This is simply not the case, and the transition to other forms of energy production would appear to be twenty-five years late and only part of the picture.

There are also sociological implications to this. The sort of civilization that requires vast reserves of finite resources to operate is one that will find itself involved in constant warfare to secure them. This has already happened with oil, and is likely to expand into wars over water in the coming decades. With this will come civil wars and other sorts of social disintegration beyond the scope of this current discussion.

It is safe to say that most people push these rather ugly realities into the background of their daily thoughts. I don’t think it’s fair to make a charge of apathy or callous disregard in most cases. When these are expressed, I suspect discomfort more than actual lack of compassion. It is difficult to just get by. The big picture is often too big to deal with for people who are simply struggling with the every day dramas and traumas of modern life.

Among these are the Modern Pagans, some of whom contemplate, on occasion, the performance of a prosperity spell. A fair percentage of the time, someone will bring up the question of whether such an action is appropriately spiritual. Usually the argument will be settled by saying that Pagans do not reject the material world, and so doing work for prosperity is not somehow offensive to our beliefs.

Given the situation, economic, ecological, and social, I think this is quite the wrong place to start thinking from. It assumes the ubiquitous “all things being equal” clause, and all things are demonstrably not equal. What does “prosperity” mean when we, as a civilization, are engaged in what can only be seen as a sustained effort to destroy ourselves and our habitat? That is the question I think needs to be asked.

While there are no easy answers to this, and any attempt to formulate a plan on my part would be partial and based on my own ideological pre-dispositions, I think it is possible to suggest a direction, a tendency that, like a celebration of the material world, is fully compatible with Paganism, and indeed gives it a bit more depth. We already have a piece of it in the concept of interconnection. But interconnection alone tends to focus, in practice, on very intimate, individual relationships. This is because broader, more inclusive concepts of interconnection are generally too abstract to be personally meaningful. You don’t feel the connection between yourself and the migrant worker who picked the strawberries on your pancakes this morning, or the large and increasingly militarized police force and your quiet Sunday morning. Your intellect may be aware of these things, but the guts don’t buy it.

Slovak theorist Slavoj Zizek is fond of saying that, in order to solve the ecological problems of the day, we need to become less connected with nature. Our embeddedness in the Web of Life, says Zizek, actually distorts our perspective. We may know intellectually that the carbon dioxide coming from our cars and our power plants is slowly making the planet less and less habitable for our kind of life-form. But, again, the gut level of experience doesn’t really lead us to believe it deep down. He suggests taking our relationship with nature to an almost gnostic level of abstraction in order to restore ecological balance.

While I find this more than a little extreme, and suspect the “Madman of Theory” is being more than slightly facetious in order to make a point, I do think he might be on to something. It’s the forest/tree problem. In order to get to some sort of resting point in terms of a view of prosperity that honors both intimate interconnection and abstract whole, a look at a key doctrine from another Tradition may be in order.

In the Mahayana Tradition of Buddhism one encounters two important concepts. The first is lovingkindness. (I’m not sure why they always scrunch the two words together like that. It probably has to do with trying to distinguish it from Western assumptions about those two words as separate concepts.) This is a form of basic, relational interconnection. It concerns the way in which one relates to those they regularly encounter. The specific meditation practice for this is called Metta Bhavana. In it, one cultivates lovingkindness for progressively broader groups of people, and also increasingly difficult individuals. Eventually one gets to “all sentient beings,” but this is still a rather personal kind of connection. It stops at wishing people well.

The more abstract form of connection, and the one that I think would do us the most good in terms of thinking about prosperity, is Boddhichitta. This has a number of fairly poor translations, one being “Wisdom Attitude.” What it refers to is the desire to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. There are also progressive stages to this, each one involving more commitment and discipline.

Now, Modern Pagans can be a little averse to some conceptions of “Enlightenment.” Especially if their only experience with Buddhism is Theravada, where the specific goal is to abandon materiality altogether. Obviously this does not fit with anything Pagans believe. However, in the Mahayana traditions, particularly Vajrayana and the highest esoteric schools such as Dzogchen, the material world is seen as arising equally from Emptiness, and in fact being identical with it. These schools of non-duality express what amounts to a quite well developed concept of immanence.

The difference is that the goal is much “bigger.” Translating into Pagan terms, we can see ourselves as part of a sentient Cosmos, or Goddess. Nut, the Goddess of the Night Sky, would be a good image here in terms of vastness. We are all “stars,” as it were, in the body of this all encompassing, and all pervasive, Deity.

But our first experience is of separation. We are individual units with our own concerns for survival. Then we begin to notice and care for larger and larger groups of people. Eventually, we may be able to see beyond our own sufferings to that of others, and realize that it is the holding on to the smaller, pettier concerns that creates this suffering. We want to help others “wake up” to this wonderful, all encompassing Joy that is the Cosmos we all came from and share space in.

In this sense, the “wealth” is really already there. There may be artificial constraints to getting it, but the actual raw material we need to work in the world is all around us. We have an innate intelligence that can guide us to the best way of using our talents to acquire what we need in order to do this Great Work. “What we need to do the work” may not look like conventional ideas of wealth. But, in the end, we are part of the Cosmos, and there is no question of poverty in such a vast context. It is only a question of how we use that wealth.

We can squander our innate inheritance, as so many in past and current generations have done and continue to do. In that case, the world becomes more poisoned, more oppressive, less livable for our kind of bodies. Or, we can learn to use what we have been given to help ourselves and others. One cannot truly help one without helping the other, since ultimately we are all interacting facets of a larger diamond. We all shimmer or shatter together. This is Boddhichitta.

The poison and the pain of our lives are first born in our minds. Through no fault of our own we get caught up in trivial games that only serve to distract and irritate us, diverting us from the core fact of our separate existence: it hurts. But this division only makes reunion more joyous, and we have all we need to accomplish it. We have only to recognize it, which can be, we must admit, incredibly difficult.

But the consequences of not doing so are too grave. We can no longer fritter away our lives on small drama and the acquisition of toys to distract us. It is time to realize that, even if we are idle, in a broader sense we are always working, always weaving. And the results of our work show how much attention we’ve given it.