Have you just come back from shopping last minute sales? Have you been surfing for deals on items for holiday gifts? Are you looking at a house that needs clearing out from all the stuff you bought or received? Are you waking up at night wondering how you're going to pay for it all?
At no other time of year do the material waves running through our confused and wayward popular culture cause quite so much flooding and structural damage as they do doing the holidays. On one level, our spending spree (or the keen wishing we could afford to go on one) speak to mistaking consumerism for materialism, a point I've addressed in other posts. Simply put, materialism is the appreciation of the material world, particularly things made by people, as an expression of utility, beauty or spirituality. A consumer, on the other hand, is a person acting to address an emotional need, a black hole of angst or loneliness or frustration or pain. Materialism does not require ownership; consumerism does. A materialist appreciates; a consumer, by definition, consumes. A materialist walks by a store window and admires a beautifully designed briefcase or pair of shoes; a consumer absolutely must have those items because life without them seems somehow empty or unsatisfying.
Our culture is a reflection of our individual impulses magnified and combined. There have been great materialist cultures in history. Ours is not one of them. As any environmental conservationist will tell you, and any even slightly "green" teenager confirm, we are rapidly consuming the Earth, quite literally extracting resources from it and transforming them into consumables that we then use up and put back into the ground in landfills and dumps. Here in the First World, we are eating our way through the planet.
Of course that which we can break we can also (hopefully) fix. The ache that turns us to consumption stems from a wrong turn we took millennia ago, early in our evolution. It took place as we slowly forgot our place in nature and became more and more concerned with ourselves, each other, and our self-centered daily doings. thereby losing the perspective that lends our relationships meaning and imbues our existence with sanctity. Our religions were inspired by shamans and mystics able to see far more than the rest of us can, "cork poppers," as I like to call them, who by dint of practice, natural gifts or both, understood the universe as it really is, a magnificent ocean of energy manifesting and shifting and endlessly interconnected.
There are many books to help you tap into the deeper world of the spirit, as well as many religious rituals, but Peter Kingsley, in his new book, "A Story Waiting to Pierce You," explores this "wrong turn" in a particularly poetic, succinct, and marvelous way. Tracing the connection between shamans of the Mongolian steppe and philosophers of the Western World (Greece, in particular), he makes clear just how much our loss of awareness of our place in the natural world has cost us, and offers an inspiring exhortation to get it back. As in his previous works, most notably Reality, Kingsley relies on scholarship to give us a flavor of what enlightened awareness feels like, and in the process reveals himself to be precisely the kind of philosopher/medium he so obviously admires.
Waltzing along the delicate border between intellection and intuition, Kingsley has created a volume that is more than a long string of words and more than a great story rife with fascinating ideas. "A Story Waiting to Pierce You" is an experience in just the way a piece of music is more than notes on a page. This is a powerful subject with a powerful, potentially life-changing melody.
If you find the holidays depressing, expanding your awareness will help. If you find it joyful, expanding your awareness will increase that joy. I can think of no better way to spend the holidays than reading Kingsley's work and then savoring the way your view of holiness, compassion, caring and community have deepened through increased awareness. Retreat into it often, then come out, forget the frenzy of shopping and eating and drinking and commune instead with whatever nature you can find during these cold, dark days. Watch winter land creatures at industry and owls in the moonlight. Enjoy the patterns of downtown traffic. Listen to children laughing and icicles melting and the faint strains of carols. Use all these cues to chase the threads that hold our world together and marvel at how it all coheres.
If latitude and weather permit, spend time outside in a forest or park. Travel back in time to the aboriginal days when our link with the world around us was not merely the subject of a poem or song, but a strong, immanent, obvious feature of existence, something tangible and real that gave meaning to every detail of being alive. Cultivate the idea of a deeper and more expansive awareness of who and what you are. Make that your holiday focus, and your New Year's resolution, and you'll have done something powerfully worthwhile with this special time of year.