Where does dedication to a sacred path fit in within a mainstream culture, which is obsessed with the new, the instantaneous, this month’s celebrity, this week’s fad? One of the problems of the mainstreaming of paganism is that pagan values are often incongruous with the values of a culture oriented always to profit, to consumption, to accumulating more commodities (and those with built-in obsolescence). Regarding this, I find it interesting to look at the concept of samsara from the dharmic religions. Samsara is illusion, distractedness, literally aimless wandering. So does this concept have value for us?
Sogyal Rimpoche, a Buddhist teacher who was born and raised in Tibet and later moved to the West, in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, made some prescient observations about contemporary Western society. Of samsara, he writes, “Modern society seems to me to be a celebration of all the things that lead away from the truth, make truth hard to live for and discourage people from even believing it exists…This modern samsara feeds off anxiety and depression that it fosters and trains us all in, and carefully nurtures with a consumer machine that needs to keep us greedy to keep going. Samsara is highly organized, versatile, and sophisticated; it assaults us from every angle with its propaganda, and creates an almost impregnable environment of addiction around us.”
For all of the positive things high technology has made possible (like writing blogs!) I feel this net of an almost infinite web of distraction and disconnection has gotten so much worse in the ensuing two decades since the Rimpoche wrote that, due to American’s technophilia. Outside people are walking around with their faces in their smart phones, if I get on the bus the same thing. Not even a pretense of community anymore. Kids know all about the twittered doings of the star of the moment, but almost nothing about their country, let alone the world. A new war? Sorry, got some texts coming in, gotta update Facebook.
Dver at Forest Door (//forestdoor.wordpress.com/2011/08/05/mundane-vs-physical/), one of my favorite pagan blogs, has written a number of insightful posts about this shallowness and the contradictions of values surprisingly common among pagans who give: lip service to the Earth and nature, but have no consciousness of dietary choices, and drive long distances in SUVs, greedily consuming scarce fuels without a thought of consequences, and so on. There’s also the instant gratification that is so prevalent; the inability to stay on one path long, or at least the bailing when hard work appears. There’s always a trendy new flavor, a fashionable new color. But the truth is that doing serious spirit work requires diligence, tenacity and discipline; one must drink deep from the well.
Buddhism tends toward a more pessimistic view than do most pagan traditions, but I think there is much value in considering how this aimless wandering around with blinders on, this being lost in a society of nearly endless distractions, and addiction to instant gratifications is an enemy of any spiritual path. If we venture far down these paths, we can’t but help to find our values often at odds with the mainstream. The faces staring from the magazines at the supermarket checkout counter start to look foreign (apparently they are very important people and I am supposed to know about their marriages and cheatings, and so on), icons of a strange culture; but outside beyond the parking lot the moon lights up the fur of the skunk running along the shrubbery, and then my attention is riveted on a raccoon hanging out by the bus stop. And beyond, the sea glows, a silver highway to mystery.