We welcome back Lawrence Hunt to the Displaced Nation, who wrote a popular post for us in November about why the UK’s educated youth seems so preoccupied with voluntourism. Today he broadens this theme to include the quest for spiritual enlightenment.
At a comedy night I went to last year, the comedian’s most popular jokes were aimed at a student who’d made the mistake of sitting in the front row in sandals:
“He spent so long trying to find himself that he lost his shoes!”
As the number of people taking time off to travel has rocketed over the years, so, too, have the numbers of those in my age category (late teens, early twenties) who come back claiming to have achieved their ultimate epiphanies of self-actualization, forcing the fact of their higher spiritual consciousness onto the rest of us in the form of yak-skin footwear.
Meanwhile, companies like STA Travel make millions every year capitalizing on the appeal of the youthful spiritual quest — have a look at the description of one of their most popular holidays, the India Spiritual Trek:
Come face-to-face with a spirituality far removed from the shallow complexity (my emphasis) of the Western world, as you interact with some particularly special people in some truly unique places.
A recurrent theme in pop culture
One of Wes Anderson’s most financially successful films so far, The Darjeeling Limited, is about three rich brothers who board a train from Darjeeling to rediscover their lost kinship with each other.
So begins a strict itinerary of traditional rituals and indulgence in the simplicity of the local lifestyle, as Owen Wilson’s character throws out the odd patronizing comment: “These people are beautiful!”
My mother’s response on finishing watching Darjeeling with me was to promptly drop her jaw and say, in a low voice: “We have to go to India and see those mountain temples, Lawrence.” (My mother has talked for a while now of taking her own gap year, much to my concern — the men in Darjeeling have a mother who joins an Indian monastery and refuses to come home.) Fortunately, she is also able to laugh at Mitchell and Webb’s “gap year backpacking idiots” sketch.
And let’s not forget teen dance queen Alanis Morissette‘s hit single ‘Thank You,” which she released after taking time out from non-stop touring to travel in Cuba and India. At one point, she sings: “Thank you, India.” Did she actually imagine a billion voices chiming out as one from the subcontinent: “Any time, Alanis — we’re here to help”?
A recurrent theme in history
The idea of self-improvement through travel has existed for hundreds of years in such romantic idealizations as the Wild West, Darkest Africa and the Orient. It arises out of a conviction that as our civilization develops, we lose touch with our true selves, what life is all about. And if civilization is to blame, then it is elsewhere, in uncivilized cultures, esoteric religions or even ancient history where we find “reality.”
Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that in the large European states, man had become alienated from the authentic self and preoccupied with meaningless duties, such as the duplicitous regard for manners that hid an underlying ruthlessness in bourgeois society. Primitive man — the so-called the “noble savage” — had been happier and more self-sufficient.
These trends coalesced in the hippie movement of the 1950s and 60s, which directed criticism towards almost every aspect of modern society: its dull consumerism, the system of capitalism itself, our susceptibility to totalitarian “brainwashing” and the war technology which had lain waste to the entire world during World War II and subsequent wars. What was demanded was not reform, but in fact a wholesale replacement of Western culture and ways of thinking.
Probably the most crippling flaw of the sixties counterculture was the total inability of its adherents to agree on a dominant theory of what should actually be replacing Western culture and politics. In fact, one of the defining values of this movement was that one should be free to choose one’s own alternative lifestyle. Everyone was encouraged to practice their own form of escapism.
Some rebels escaped through the fantasy literature of J.R.R. Tolkien, yearning for an enchanted world that existed in a time before the “rule of men” had begun. Others experimented with drugs, hoping to reach new planes of existence mentally. Some even tried to live the life that Rousseau had idealized, living primitively off the land in communes.
And still more looked for escape through non-Western cultures, where magical practices still proliferated, repressive Western structures were not in control, and religion was more spiritual, in touch with the flow of the universe. The Book of the Dead and the I Ching became new Bibles, and a huge amount of longing was directed vaguely in the direction of the undeveloped, non-Western world.
Eastern religions and their mystique
This last form of escapism received a fillip in the early 1980s with the publication of Duane Elgin’s book on voluntary simplicity — which spawned a movement that continues to this day.
On the recent BBC programme How to Live a Simple Life, Peter Owen-Jones pointed to Elgin’s chart comparing the “Voluntary Simplicity World View” with the “Industrial World View.” The latter sees material acquisition as a primary life objective and determinant of social position, while the former seeks a balance between material and spiritual needs, concentrating on conservation and frugality as mediated through self-sufficient communities and a process of “inner growth.”
Interestingly, in Elgin’s survey of “inner growth” processes, only 20 percent of those questioned cited traditional Western religions, while 55 percent claimed to use techniques like Zen or Transcendental Meditation.
What is it these religions offer that Western faiths don’t? According to Elgin, traditional churches are hierarchical institutions of mass society, something he resolutely opposes. By contrast, Eastern religions like Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism are religions of liberation, in that they aim to alter our consciousness through self-reflection.
Let’s get real
These opposing views of East and West are widely taken for granted in our culture, but how far do they reflect the reality?
In my own, admittedly rather limited travel experience — I was a gap-year student in China for six months — the perception of the East as a place where spirituality is generally prized above materialism is pure fairytale, the world of Beat literature and Kung Fu movies.
I remember my first day off the train in Beijing. It was April 2008, and Wángfǔjǐng, the shopping district in the city centre, was buzzing with the anticipation of hosting the largest Olympic Games in world history. The atmosphere of national pride was tangible, present in every colorful corner of the street. Buildings were plastered with billboards from companies proudly claiming to be sponsors of the games. Most of them featured the smiling face of Chinese national treasure Jackie Chan — Jackie Chan water, Jackie Chan ice cream, Jackie Chan baby wipes. I found myself wandering through a dazzling labyrinth of colorful street vendors and market stalls, heckled constantly by cries of “You want to buy souvenir? You want to buy hat? Come see!”
Some vendors refused to take my bewildered, negatory smiles for an answer and grabbed me by the hand, trying to hold me in place. “Buy everything” I read on a sign above my head in yellow lettering in English and Chinese. Presumably a poor translation of “We sell everything,” but I didn’t take long to be convinced. That said, I’m not sure they were selling any yak-skin footwear!
A banquet to write home about
Something which I noticed when staying with some Chinese friends was the pride they show in wasting food, something that’s anathema to my Western upbringing. My host, when taking me out to a restaurant, ordered an extravagant number of dishes — including shark fin soup, which they paid a huge amount for but no one touched for the entire meal. Out of politeness, I had a small bowlful — it was unbearably bitter, and the family laughed cheerfully as I struggled with it.
The dish had been ordered merely because it was expensive and they had wanted to impress me. It struck me that by contrast, my parents would never have allowed us to order anything they didn’t fully intend to finish. If anything, the attitude at home towards consumption is marked by its lack of brazen excess.
At the risk of becoming the thing I’ve set out to ridicule, let me offer some closing words:
True happiness flows from the possession of wisdom and virtue and not from the possession of external goods.
Who said that? Why, Aristotle, a philosopher whose ideas gave birth to the so-called shallow complexity of the Western world.
Readers, what do you think of Lawrence Hunt’s thesis? Are Eastern cultures more spiritual than ours, or are we too easily swept up in the allure of the exotic?
STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, a travel yarn on spiritual escapes by a guest blogger.
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All I can say, is ‘Yak!’
Okay, it doesn’t work everywhere. In England that’s the noise we make when disgusted (like by someone’s choice of soul-affirming footwear…)
Anyhoo, just stopped by to award you guys the ‘Versatile Blogger(s) Award’!
I’m not sure how prestigious it is, since I just got one – and my audience can still be counted on the fingers of one hand. Regardless, it’s up for the claiming! Just visit the blog and download the super-exciting badge… if you dare…!
Wait a minute, Tony, wait just a minute! What do you mean you can’t relate to yak-skin footwear? I thought you said in your post the other week that after you’d lived in Ecuador for a while, your clothes got shredded and you were no longer out to impress anyone with your fashion sense. Surely you could have been a candidate for the comedian’s ridicule? I’m talking about you, the young man who sought adventure and ended up embracing a simpler life. (Perhaps if you’d landed in Japan instead of Oz, you’d be studying Zen?!)
‘Fess up — what’s on your feet right now???
p.s. Thanks for the award. “Versatile” is TDN’s middle name! 🙂
I’ll take you on even if no one else will. While there can be little doubt that Asia has its commercial side, I must say that living in Japan for as long as I did affected my views on religion.
Now, I’m not a Japanophile and didn’t go to Japan to study Zen. But by the time I left, I’d absorbed the basic tenets of Zen Buddhism by osmosis — by being the only foreigner for several years in a Japanese office. In fact, my Japanese colleagues used to compliment me on how Zen I’d become — which was in essence a pat on the back for them as they were my main teachers.
So do I think Zen is superior to Western religions? Three observations/thoughts:
1) TBH, I found it a relief to let go of monotheism for a while, and would encourage other Western people to give it a try and see how they feel. (Even though I didn’t get as far as chanting and whatnot, I can readily see how replacing church services with chanting sessions might induce a “back to basics” feeling.)
2) Following from 1), I also wish that we Westerners could be more flexible about religion in the same way the Japanese are. In Japan, most “life” events, such as the celebration of the birth of a child, are handled by the native religion, Shinto, which entails belief in kami (spirits), some of whom are human-like and others, animistic forces that live in mountains, rivers, lightning, wind, waves, trees, rocks… Now I’m not naive. I know that Shinto includes Emperor worship, which was something that fed into the craziness of WWII. But I must say I loved the atmosphere of Shinto shrines. Animism can be fun. “Death” or “after-life” events — ie, funerals — are handled by Buddhism — which likewise struck me as appropriate.
3) Perhaps following from 2), since coming back to the West, I’ve been telling people here that as you get older, you become more Buddhist, whether you realize it or not. Monotheism — and the passion it inspires — is for young people. (What older person wants to join a crusade?) As you age, you turn inward a bit more and look for solace there, putting much less emphasis on the outward self — a very good thing imho.
I agree with you ML, I think Eastern spirituality definitely has its place. Something I probably should have made more of is the difference between Japanese and Chinese spirituality. For one thing, the Chinese Government suppresses most forms of religion because it considers them a threat; but also, the Confucian ideas that mainstream Chinese spirituality derives from is very different from Zen. I’m really interested to read what you have to say about it.
Actually, this morning on the train into work, I finally finished reading Robert Pirsig’s ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’, that bestseller from 1974 (my dad recommended it to me). Some of the philosophical reasoning in it about this abstract concept he calls ‘Quality’ went right over my head, but I did take something from his central argument: that we tend, whether instinctually or culturally, to view the ‘soul’ or ‘consciousness’, or whatever you want to call it, as completely disjointed from the material world – and that this is an illusion. ‘Zen’ for him seems to be about developing a frame of mind and a set of attitudes where you can ‘live in the moment’, and appreciate every detail of existence. I definitely think if we started making money less of a priority and learned to appreciate the intricacies of whatever we do on a daily basis almost as a form of art, we’d all be happier. Easier said than done though!
And on the contrary to what you said about Buddhism appealing more to the aged, I disagree – in fact, I think that when you’re young you’re if anything more inclined to be skeptical about a Christian God – perhaps it becomes increasingly comforting to embrace the idea of Heaven when death becomes a real pressing concern?
Anyway – the point I’m making in my article isn’t that Eastern religions have nothing to offer us. More just that they aren’t necessarily any more all-encompassing in those countries than Christianity is here. And more to the point, I think any form of spirituality needs years of focus and reflection to change you – spiritual ‘tourism’ is an interesting way to learn more about other cultures, but we should wary of assuming we’ve become a messenger of some exciting new gospel. We have this tendency in the West is take the aspects of Eastern spirituality that are most convenient to us and agglomerate them into a sort of ‘super-religion’. In fact, more and more I think that’s what Pirsig was doing in ‘Zen and Motorcycle’.
And who is to say whose spirituality is authentic and whose isn’t? I don’t really know. I suppose the only target in my crosshairs are those people who simply use ‘Eastern’ as a label to satisfy their need for a unique identity. Just like champagne socialists and any other people who use esoteric ideologies to make themselves sound clever without knowing the first thing about what it is to be passionate about the cause. Damn posers.
I’m glad your dad encouraged to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The Displaced Nation actually spent September looking at road trips through Persig’s rather unusual lens. We didn’t think of wheeling him out again for this month’s theme on spiritual travel — but probably should have.
A couple of responses:
1) to your point about Christianity growing in appeal with age: wait until you’re as old as your mum, dad and me and tell me what you think then!
2) to your point about “posers”: I wonder if that’s what we all are, really, those of us who’ve traveled to other lands and immersed ourselves in other cultures. Unless we become country experts (which would entail mastering the language to the point of gaining scholarly credentials), then to some extent we’re all just flirting with these ideas rather than adopting them wholesale. I found a great passage in a story by the writer Andrew Boyd about the expat life in Japan, which I think speaks to this situation:
Japan was Boyd’s first stop in his four-month journey to see the world. I was in that part of the world a lot longer but still manage to misread things, even to this day. Yet I do think my exposure to Eastern ways of looking at religion has affected my spiritual beliefs, far more profoundly than I might have predicted…
I happened across a David Brooks column in the Feb 3 NYT that speaks to the point you make in this paragraph:
The way Brooks sees it, tying individualism (“do your own thing”) to protest movements more or less ensures that such movements will be “vague and ineffectual.” He sees the same thing taking place now, btw, with Occupy Everywhere:
The jarring mix of individualism with counter-traditions and schools of thoughts — that may be what you are reacting to in seeing your yak-skinned peers brandishing their own idiosyncratic (and somewhat self-serving) accounts of Eastern spiritualism on others.
That may also be the essence of I learned from my years in Japan. By the time I left, I knew what it meant to be in a group oriented, versus individualistic, society. It’s a wholly different, and in many ways more caring, orientation towards life.
Yes that does pretty much sum up the Occupy ‘Movement’ – what has it honestly achieved? Any kind of new discourse even? Not really. It seems to have simply descended into an extended argument over tents.
That’s interesting what you say about Japan’s group oriented society – I wonder if you could expand on that? I don’t know much about it. I did go to China though and all I’d say is that it was interesting how Communism seems to have created a sort of reckless individualism in people there. As a wide generalisation, I found them to be highly aspirational and often quite self-oriented. I wonder if that comes from being part of a society where you used to be routinely encouraged to sell out your neighbour to the police? Anyway I imagine Japan’s very very different.
The way it’s always been explained to me — and I give the theory a certain mount of credence — is that Asian society is based on a rice-farming mentality. Rice farming is labor intensive, so when it’s time to harvest the rice, everyone has to pitch in together — there’s no place for individual gripes or complaints. Likewise in a Japanese office, when it gets busy everyone works hard as a team, without letting petty rivalries or individual issues get in the way. When the team succeeds in finishing its work, the team takes credit — not one individual. Little by little, you learn to subsume your need for individual glory to the pride everyone shows in team accomplishments. It could not be more different from Western offices, where egos never fail to rear their ugly heads, even when management is talking up the importance of teamwork (indeed, managers are often the worst examples!).
Did you see my post on the writings of business guru Peter Senge? He clearly “gets” the difference between Eastern and Western approaches, but he must be a glutton for punishment if he hopes to persuade clueless Western leaders to open their hearts to taking a long-term, ethical approach, instead of the path to the greatest shareholder profit. For the sake of his sanity, it’s a good thing he meditates!
On China and Japan, I would guess that the similarities are greater than the differences. Japan after all took many of its cultural, social, educational and religious ideas from the Chinese, and adapted them for its own way of life.
Broadly speaking, Japanese tend to put more emphasis on the work group and Chinese, on the family and extended family/social network (quanxi).
But in both cases, the emphasis isn’t on the individual fulfilling their potential. You may see Asian youth flirting with that idea — but unless they leave Asia (creative types tend to), the pull of cooperative living and groupthink eventually reasserts itself — for better or for worse.
Some would say “for worse” as the Asian way of life also has its downside. There is no perfect system! Still, as Senge asserts, at least Asia isn’t as spiritually bankrupt as we are… And ultimately, I applaud his quest to find some blend of the two — just wish it didn’t seem so “pie in the sky.” Now if only those Occupy Wall Streeters could follow Brooks’ fogeyish advice and come up with some fleshed-out ideas!