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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