Dr. Stephen Fulder
I am writing these reflections from Anaheim in California, at the largest trade show of the American health product industry, Expo West. It is a mammoth jamboree of around 10,000 stands, all pushing, explaining or giving tastes of their products. It is huge. It is impossible to get around. I was there to give a talk about herbal remedies from the Greek-Arabic medical tradition. However I spent a good deal of time wandering around grazing like a cow; tasting organic delicacies from all the world, sipping juices from exotic fruit, snacking on ‘forbidden’ foods that are actually all made up of soya beans, and, when quite exhausted, getting doses of herbal pick-me-ups. The inventiveness is extraordinary. There are lots of dedicated people who really believe in what they are doing. And lots of others who are only interested in the bottom line. There are good products, and useless ones. But it does raise some questions: Is our own health and our well-being, and that of the planet, dependant on what we buy? Or on what we do not buy? There is no problem in choosing more wisely what we decide to eat, what we decide to buy, and what we bring into our home. It is indeed helpful to our health and the environment to choose less processed, organic and healthy food, to eat less animal products and to have a medicine chest containing safe natural medicines rather than toxic drugs. But there needs to be a more careful examination of what we do with our lives, what matters, what is important.
Our instinct to fill our lives with more and more, feels like an escape from our basic existential dissatisfaction. It leads to shopping as an automatic response, encouraged by the whole of the social discourse, such that most of us cannot conceive another way of doing things. We are convinced that if we had this new car/flat/holiday/computer/etc. we would be happy. And it can make us happy, but only briefly, because happiness is to be found in being, not in having. We are Human Beings not Human Havings. And too often, when the having loses its magic, we are left with depression.
It is helpful (though not essential) on the road to real happiness, to be more simple. Not to be overwhelmed, drowned, in things that we accumulate. These can be physical possessions that pile up and we find ourselves constantly busy with them, or they can be mental possessions – ideas, attachments, views, and a great deal of mental clutter. We need to let go a bit, not to hold on to things in order to feel fully alive. As one Zen master said: ‘Why should I let go? Because it all piles up!” It is basically letting go of expectations that the world is our provider, letting go of the need to control everything, and to keep having more. A traditional Christian sect created a song that expresses this:
“’Tis the gift to be simple, ‘Tis the gift to be free”
“Tis the gift to come down to where we ought to be”
“And when we find ourselves in the place just right’
“’Twill be in the valley of love and delight”
As western culture is so deeply bought into a culture of buying, we may need to go against the steam. There is a phrase going round - ‘only dead fish go with the flow’. Are we going to turn round and swim against the tide? How?
One of the most well thought out alternative ways to live was that of Mahatma Ghandi. He taught a community life which was fundamentally ecological, joyful and dignified. Symbolized by the hand-operated spinning wheel which he took everywhere, he taught that joy comes when you restore your connection with the most basic things in your life, by doing them or making them yourself. That does not necessarily mean that you need to spin your own cotton thread as in village India. But at least you can consistently cook your own food from simple raw materials of grains and vegetables. You can bake your own bread. You can grow your own food given the smallest plot of land, or window boxes, and you can learn how to treat yourself with medicinal plants and grow them in your own garden or in pots in your house. We find that as we do these things we establish a real contact with those crucial and forgotten life essentials. We bring more joy and ease into our life, and we notice that stress just vanishes in the renewed intimacy with our lives. I used to bake bread in the early mornings for many years, and it was one of the most joyful experiences of the day – the movement of the body, the aromas of the wheat, the concert of birds outside against the background quietness of the morning.
But there is also a deeper letting go that is a major help in our spiritual journey. Here too, in our spiritual growth, we often find ourselves in the restless mind-set of shopping, having and gaining – another weekend, another course, another teacher, another book, another practice………none providing the deeper peace and joy of simply being and being simple. We need to let go of the need to experience certain things, of expectations that the path or teacher should provide us with certain results, of the need to control outcomes, of the habits of judgment and criticism. As we let go on this deeper level, we may experience a great relief – that all this stuff was not needed in the first place. That it was all neediness of a demanding ‘adolescent’ self. As we let go those voices in us demanding control and outcomes, we may find that a much deeper joy creeps up on us when we are not looking. A real contentment that previously escaped us. As Ramana Maharshi once said: A passenger on a train does not need to keep carrying his baggage. He can put it down and allow the train to take him and his baggage. Let life take us and our baggage. The journey will lead us naturally through the ‘valley of love and delight’.