Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Practical Dreaming #7 -- Cultural Renewal

We are, in too many ways, a culture of mere consumers.

As the saying goes: "The business of America is business." Over the last 40 years, and in an accelerated fashion in the last 5-10, the focus of the business of America has become providing services to individuals. Once upon a time, America created things -- from cars to medical equipment to ideas. Nowadays, American car manufacturers are in big trouble (and most of our heavy industry is simply gone already), we are missing the boat on the next great evolution of medicine (stem cells/biotech/et al.), and the greatest Idea in decades -- the internet/web -- has largely been appropriated to pimp Things to people in a more efficient and invasive way.

Once upon a time, if you asked 100 Americans what "America" meant, you'd probably get 100 answers which, within a certain variance, would be roughly equivalent to "freedom, justice and opportunity." If you asked today, you'd have a lot less of that and many more answers approximating the idea of "you can get anything you want if you work hard enough." (Note that the latter answer differs from the idea of "opportunity" in that it's concerned solely with the Getting of Stuff [with apologies to George Carlin]).

To futher illustrate, I believe that 20 years ago if you'd asked 100 non-Americans what they admired about America, you would have heard things like "the freedom to live (worship, etc.) the way you want" (if you asked a Shia living in Iraq), "the Americans promote freedom and justice" (if you asked someone living under Soviet-sponosed rulers in Poland or Czechoslovakia) or "Americans help where there is need" (if you asked someone who'd experienced Peace Corps volunteers or disaster relief and so forth). If you asked 100 non-Americans today what they admired about America, you'd get a lot of people saying flat-out that they do *not* admire America, and those that had something positive to say would probably cite our lavish standard of living. Our Stuff.

Our American culture has been atomized down to the level of the individual. We are urged to pick and choose this product and that, clothing and foods, cars and telecommunications providers, all of whom (we are endlessly reassured) do nothing but lie awake at night considering our unique desires and needs. Certainly, we all need Stuff. Without my car I couldn't get to work (60 miles from home). Without my cell phone, I couldn't do business -- and those 3 hours a day commuting would also be a wasteland of lost time. I certainly can't circulate in public without pants. My (longish) hair would become a matted mess without shampoo. And without our several-hundred-CD collection of music (and iTunes), my wife and I would have a danged hard time hosting our monthly Booty-Shaking parties. And those sorts of parties oughta have wine, and tasty nibblies. Not to mention aspirin for sore day-after muscles.

The big mistake -- the fatal ego-error that is at the heart of the illusion (what Buddhists call Maya ) -- is to become self-identified with our Stuff. It's a common malady...and we are energetically encouraged to do so by almost everybody who has something to sell, which in our service-economy culture, is almost everybody. The omnipresent hype and marketing to our every whim -- the pimps have a ho' to suit every sensibility -- is an endless pull outward; we are urged to look beyond ourselves for affirmation and satisfaction. And the further we are drawn away from ourselves, the less affirmation and true satisfaction we find.

(Parenthetically -- our culture endlessly cultivates and reinforces the idea that one of the most important pieces of Stuff is a Winning Companion. Whether that means boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, or HotHot Saturday Night Hookup, an entire range of billion-dollar industries litter the landscape, each in some way insinuating that if you're not using their product [shampoo/clothing/car/cell/makeup/pushup bra/diet product/age-defying unguent/internet personal service/etc.] then your Quest for a Winning Companion is doomed. Can we agree that there's a strong social stigma attached to singlehood -- not to mention the genuine emotional ache of loneliness? And again, please note that the Search for a WC takes us on a journey looking outside of ourselves for satisfaction and affirmation...)

In the endless pursuit and (temporary) enjoyment of our Stuff (on the way back around to the beginning of the endless Lust/Acquisition/Enjoyment/Boredom/New Lust cycle), we are distracted from paying real attention to What's Going On -- which is one of the main reasons why What's Going On is, in too many ways, so utterly, stupefyingly sad-making.

While we are each and all most definitely individuals, we are not meant to live isolated lives. In the atomized universe of consumer culture, Stuff is marketed as the means of connection. But Stuff is transient, ephemeral and shallow -- and people who are identified with their Stuff, ditto. In a world full of those sort of people, we all die a slow death of soul starvation.

WIthout further preamble -- a dream I had not long ago:

"So Glad to Be Back in the Terrible Terrible World" (September 8, 2006)

I am attending some sort of convention, held in a hotel conference room. The room is full of professional-type people, well-groomed and spiffily dressed. The room is full of little kiosks and display areas which are moodily lit for maximum emotional and sensual impact. Each of the areas is arrayed to best show off the charms of a particular "new" or "improved" or -- best of all! -- "revolutionary" new product.

In one kiosk Taco Bell is touting its latest creation, the Winged Taco. It's exactly the same as any of the billions of tacos humanity's been throwing back for ages, but on each side of the shell a couple of triangular corn chips stick out to the side like, well, wings. Various public relations and marketing types are gathered around oohing and ahhing appreciatively, throwing out suitably fawning praise. "This changes the whole industry!" -- "It makes the taco look like it's going fast!" -- "Look out Mickey D's!" -- "Does it come with chipotle sauce?"

Another display cubicle is home to the new Scratch'n'Sniff iPod cover. It comes in an evidently kaleidoscopic array of colors and flavors. Has your iPod lost its sex appeal? Well slap it into a Sweet Cherry S'n'S cover! Protects your Tech and smells good too! And for the kiddies' iPod, we have Gummi Covers! Move over Gummi Bear, there's a new snack in town! Keep your kids entertained *and* satisfy their sweet tooth!

Subway is across the room, premiering their new Submarine Sandwich to general acclaim. You see, it's not just another sandwich on a long roll ("bor-ring!") -- it's served up on a roll shaped like an actual submarine!!. "This changes everything!" -- "And look! Cute little pickles sticking out of the torpedo tubes on the front of the submarine!" -- "Look out Mickey D's!" -- "Can I get it with chipotle sauce?"

Coca-Cola, not to be outdone, is hyping the debut of its Coke Revolutions. It's got zero calories, comes in no-caffeine and triple-caffeine versions, contains 14 vitamins and antioxidants, a mysterious Chinese Herbal Youth Elixir, a libido-boosting root extract from the Amazon, micro-particles that clean your teeth while you drink it, and gingko biloba to make you smarter. "Whoa! Red Bull is DEAD!" -- "Call it 'Dead Bull'!" -- "Look out Pepsi!" -- "Hey look, the 36th ingredient on the list is Artificial Ersatz Chipotle Essence!"

The Gap is there, with jeans made from a new material so stretchy that you can actually fit a second person into them with you (and the ads blaring from the plasma screen on the back of the kiosk -- featuring attractive young hipsters dancing two-by-two at the sexiest, most playful and, goldangit, super-funnest house party ever -- play that up to lascivious effect).

Sprint is there, pushing the Personal Phone. You enter your vital stats -- and the stats of who you're looking for in the Winning Companion department -- into your phone, and every time you come within 10 feet of someone who matches you, both of your phones start to ring. "How did anybody ever find a sweetheart *before* this?!" -- "Look out Verizon!" -- "And!" [note: phones like this have been sold in Japan for years]

The room is abuzz with a manic energy: the excited desperation of addicts needing a fix. The dark optimism of the time between having scored a bag of smack and sticking the spike in a vein. This time, yeah...this time I'll get as high as I used to.

I can penetrate the energetic haze, though, and see through to the shadow place where each of the people in the room knows in their hearts that none of this is really going to make anybody happy. It isn't even going to get anybody high.

The knowing of which, however, doesn't keep them all from braying on about how fantastic it all is, how astonishing, how extraordinary.

It is a room full of hollow people waving around bundles of dirty rags sprinkled with glitter. Hens clucking over nests filled not with eggs, but stones.

I turn on my heel. I am set on leaving this building. I walk out of the exhibition room and down a hallway to a door marked "EXIT". I press on the lever that opens the lock and the door swings outward, revealing an alleyway leading out to a city street. It is near dusk, or dawn. The alley and the portion of the street I can see are empty of people and traffic.

The air outside -- in contrast to the exhibition hall's air conditioning -- is hot and humid. In the distance I hear the low white-noise purrumble of City. I can smell bus exhaust, and trash. Outside the door, the world is distinctly unclean and unsanitized. But I don't hesitate.

I step into the alley and head for the street. The hot, damp air wraps itself around me and I start sweating. I reach the street and turn left and start walking up a hill. On either side, I pass shops and restaurants -- all empty. I encounter no one.

But in the distance, beyond the edges of the usual sensory horizon, I can feel life going on. I feel the wars in which America is currently embroiled. I feel the environment tilting out of balance. I feel people -- carrying on with their lives, some clueless, some only too aware of the wars, some fighting like hell to heal the planet and some running like hell for the hills. I feel the whole glorious despairing ever-rising imbroglio that is life in this world. And behind it all, I can feel the knowing that people have that a better world is possible -- and the deep undeniable yearning for it. And I feel my own hope.

Glad to be free of the prison of illusion that the exhibition hall was. Glad to be alive. Glad to be back in the terrible, terrible world.


For many years, up until recently, this country had been pushing forward the definition of what it means to live free and follow your own path. The 60s and the many social movements and evolutions that swirled through it largely meant well, I think, but got hung up on narcissism. Freedom got defined down to simplistic self-centered terms. When the spiral should've led upwards and outwards to embrace everything, it flatlined instead and turned inward. Community fragmented. Many old social institutions waned in significance. The American Dream stopped being about the pursuit of happiness and became a nightmare treadmill -- the pursuit of things.

Before the advent of mass media, the stories that entranced the imagination of one's community were not movies or TV shows, but tales told by storytellers. A group gathered and hushed, and the teller spun a tale with the spoken word. Because they were local, the stories often included people you knew, or ancestors of members of your community. The too-common tendency of mass media to produce brain-starving claptrap would never have flown then; a storyteller who wove dumb or boring stories -- or told fine tales poorly -- would shortly be out of a job. In Celtic culture, the seannachie ("shenna-key") was a respected member of society, and it was an honor to have one in your home (or local pub). They would transport their audience for hours at a time with the power of the spoken word -- and the imagination of the audience. And the spells they wove bound cultures together. Mytho-poetic tales connected the past to the present day -- and steered a society into the future. Without its roots, a tree cannot reach its branches up to the sky. Without a connection to a past, without a sense that our current station is part of a journey we share as a culture, then as a culture we are each on our own separate road to no particular common destination. And if that is so -- what exactly is our "culture" about?

Certainly, within our society there are any number of fine associations and organizations -- affinity groups like churches, political organizations, community service groups and so forth. They enrich the lives of their members in important ways. But the modern tendency to seek out like-minded peers and associate for the most part only with them leaves our culture fragmented.

But everybody dreams. Anyone can tell me a dream in five minutes. For a short while, they become a storyteller, spinning a tale of their soul. They speak, I listen. They animate their dreams with the wind of their breath and I learn something about their inner self -- the self that may not be evident when I pass them in the street, or see them at work, or sit next to them on a 747 traveling from La Guardia to LAX.

I've listened to the dreams of clients, co-workers, bartenders, the man next to me at the sushi bar, people on commuter railroad, and women I've just met on a first date. Together we go beyond "nice day, huh?" and form an actual connection. It humanizes both of us to each other, opens hearts and minds, clarifies courses of action, and engages the soul-energy that too often sits around dormant as we navigate the hurry-sick currents of daily life. They put down their iPod, or potboiler novel, and actually *talk* to somebody. Actually connect. I am routinely staggered by how lonely people are, how hungry for contact. They're often surprised that somebody is really listening to them.

I therefore propose a Dreaming Culture. We will counteract the deadening effects of omnipresent media and consumer gluttony by putting aside our Stuff and asking people: "Had any good dreams lately?" Because when we asked someone that question, we are also saying (with thanks to Frank MacEowen): "How is it with your soul?"

When we ask these questions, and patiently sit, looking that person in the eye, we still the clamor of Stuff Culture and push it aside, making room for a Culture of Soul. Where soul is paramount and honored as such, fear falls away. Ennui and consumerism withers. Cynicism and its discontent begin to melt. We connect in ways our spirit cries out for, and we grow in understanding and respect for one another.

Let us begin...

[For the purposes of sharing dreams with one another, Robert Moss' Lightning Dreamwork is an excellent, quick and respectful way to go about it.]