China: Spirituality Or Materialism?

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The courage of Mahmoud Vahidnia -- the Iranian math whiz who apparently had the courage to stand up to Iran's supreme leader recently -- really has me wishing for an American version of the young man, someone to point out some of the unhealthy and dangerous presuppositions long rife in our consumer capitalist society. Government plant or genuine hero, his action underscores the need for the same sort of frank talk by someone of like ilk in China.

I'm just back from a tour of northern China, researching my new book on Daoism, a philosophy that embraces balance and finds lessons (and beauty) in nature. While the recent recession has many Americans rethinking the wisdom of chasing money and things all our life even at the cost of our health and happiness, the Chinese have no such reservations. Theirs is an all out frenzy of industry, a rampant desire to assume economic primacy in the world. Stepping out onto the street in Shanghai or Xi'an at rush hour is an exercise in unbridled competition for one's own square piece of sidewalk. Passing through a doorway in China, or trying to board an elevator, is often a test of one's pushing skills. Stripped of their august cultural heritage by the brutality of the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese seem to be in a headlong rush to what they think they want and need--the material excess of the West--and are zooming forward without either social restraint or the lessons of history in place.

I'm certain that China's sea of poverty-stricken people need a standard of living upgrade, just as I'm also sure that at some point they will come to the same realization we are reaching, which is that the American Dream, replete with a new car every few years, an ever bigger house, an ever shinier refrigerator, is not the road to happiness, and it's certainly not the road to health. The Chinese people are remarkable for their capacity for suffering, for tenacity, for focus, and for industry. I feel sure they will, despite serious social challenges, eventually make good on their ambition. The problem is that world resources cannot sustain that ambition, and even if they could, the environmental cost of projects like the Three Gorges Dam--not to mention foul air and undrinkable water--have already started to affect the rest of the world.

Actually, there is a movement afoot to focus China's considerable talent and energy on the pursuit of renewable resources. America can't afford to ignore this initiative, but at the same time simply entering into an economic or technological race with China ignores the underlying problems of a society so focused on consumption that it takes as a given the need to develop more energy resources rather than questioning the emotional and spiritual hunger that keeps so many people in the world who already have far more than enough desperately questing for more.

If China had a Mahmoud Vahidnia, (maybe dissident bloggers like Shi Tao and Wang Xiaoning play the role) or if America had her own version, it would be great if he or she would point out that a balance between technology and conservation is essential and possible, that a balance between freedom and security is possible, and most of all that those of us who love nature and quiet, peaceful time are not reactionary, lazy, Luddites. Working smarter, in concert with the natural needs and strengths of our minds and bodies can be very productive, and at the same time keep us from misery, a constantly competitive mindset, and poor health.

David Rock's new book The Human Brain in the Workplace, in fact talks about this very thing. Yet even for those with little spiritual or religious bent, greater productivity is not, I hope, the ultimate purpose of life. I know I speak for others of like mind when I say that I don't wish to lie on the tarmac with the life leaking out of me after just having been hit by a bus, hear the distant approach of the ambulance, know it is too late, and think: wow, I got a lot done. Better to think with satisfaction of having deeply experienced life in all its ups and downs, and to have been aware, as continuously as possible, of the unlikely marvel of simply being alive. Better to have cultivated compassion than consumption, and to have found harmony in living simply, awake and aware.

America has one set of challenges and China has another, but when our Mahmoud Vahidnia shows up, it would be great to hear some suggestions about how we can slow down and live life more fully without foisting our values forcibly on anyone else and without ruining the planet in the process. Oh, and a little more transparency in government, even on our shores, wouldn't hurt either.