Practice of the Week
The Vending Machine God
The Vending Machine God
Category: Ecospiritual. These practices are oriented toward developing our spirituality through our connection with our planet home and our responsibility to care for it.
from Rebecca James Hecking, The Sustainable Soul, abridged and adapted
In “How Much Is Enough?" (HERE), we looked at concepts of status. Underlying the surface concepts of material status are more profound psychological beliefs that declare material things to be a source of deep contentment and life satisfaction. Whether or not we bought into the overt health and wealth gospel, it is not easy to let go of the paradigm of seeking contentment from material possessions. Especially since the turn of the twentieth century, advertisers have aggressively worked to convince us that we can find happiness and life satisfaction if only we purchase whatever they are selling. Since the early 1960s, they have used psychology in increasingly subtle ways, playing on our deepest longings for acceptance, love, inner peace, and contentment. It is impossible for us not to have absorbed at least some of this message. For working class people especially, the idea that wealth is a sign of God's blessing is particularly cruel. Fortunately, when we recognize the health and wealth gospel for what it is and bring it into our conscious minds, we can begin to let it go.
There are two aspects of faith in the Vending Machine God. The first aspect is believing in a health and wealth deity – i.e., an insert-prayers-get-stuff sort of God. This vision of God, along with consumerism as a whole, has been challenged by various groups who take seriously the social justice message of the ancient Hebrew prophets. One such group, Alternatives for Simple Living, issues publications confronting the excesses of holiday consumption and connecting voluntary simplicity with environmental causes.
The second aspect is more pervasive, and less obvious. It is the belief that deep satisfaction will come from the next purchase. The vending machine itself is the God. Endless pursuit of the next possession, experience, or situation to the exclusion of cultivating contentment in simple pleasures and grounding ourselves in the natural world is the adult version of being the kid at the vending machine. We chase illusions, oblivious to the utterly beautiful Earth on which we live. But the Earth is calling to us. It says: Let go, unlearn, come home.
1. Bookshelf Rethink. Sort through the various spiritual and self-help books you've accumulated over the years with an eye for what really resonates and what doesn't. Are there any health and wealth sorts of books in your collection? What do you recall about your life circumstances when you purchased or received them? Looking at them now, do they still have any value for you? After considering each book, ask yourself if there are any in the collection that you could let go of. Can they be given to charity? Maybe there's one that's so awful you want to send it straight to the trash. That's okay. It's entirely your choice.
2. Simplicity, Simplicity. Clear your altar of all decoration, and give it a good dusting. Look around your home at objects that might be suitable for placing on your altar. Choose one. Place it on the altar and simply sit and ponder it for a while. Consider the meaning that your object holds for you. What does it symbolize? Can you find several meanings to it? Leave it there for a week or so, and sit with it several times, pondering some more. See if other meanings come to light over time. After the week has passed, switch your object for another one and try the process again. Do not rush into switching objects, and do not purchase anything new for the exercise. Work only with what you have, and find or create meaning as you go.
3. Chart Your Journey. Take a sheet of plain white paper, and draw a horizontal line near the bottom of the page. Now, draw a vertical line up from the center of the horizontal one. On one end of the horizontal line, write the words spiritual confusion/frustration. On the other side, write spiritual contentment/peace. Now, starting at the bottom, where the horizontal line meets the vertical one, write your birth year. At the top of the vertical line, write the present year. Then draw a graph representing your own spiritual journey, marking a meaning line from the bottom to the top. The vertical line in the center represents a neutral state and the right and left edges represent opposite extremes. You'll probably end up with a wavy or zigzag sort of line that roughly shows the broad sweep of your spiritual life. Look at that broad sweep and consider your beliefs, practices, and life events. When were the times of greatest growth? They may have been the times of confusion and frustration. Reflect on the concepts of consumerism and materialism as you examine your graph. Consider whether there were times in your life when accumulating material things was very important to you. How do these times in your life relate to the spiritual aspects of your life?
Your Common Journey. Have each member of your group do the Chart Your Journey practice, above. Then gather together to share. You don't need to get into personal details unless you want to. Discuss any patterns you find
Questions for Group Conversation:
- How does the insert-prayer-get-stuff God fit with the overall zeitgeist of the twentieth century?
- Have you ever heard the message of any health and wealth preachers or advocates first hand? What was your reaction?
- Have you heard any spiritual teaching that struck you as psychologically manipulative? Did it utilize any health and wealth elements?
- Can simplicity also be a kind of abundance? How?
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