The Social Experience of Coveting
Thinking about politics and wars and the big systemic problems always leads me back to thinking about human behavior, and social behavior. Maybe it is the psychotherapist in me — always analyzing the world around me from a psychological and behavioral stance. So, thinking about leadership and the things we bow down to lead me to think about the human psychology of want, envy, fear, and power and the spiritual and psychological question that comes when we pause to get a distance view of Western culture. Which I think, also, ends up being a spiritual issue of Western culture.
What do we want? What do we bow down to? What do we covet?
Even biblically the answers to these questions come up on passage after passage of scripture and in the parables of religious history, as well as social history, bowing down to things of power and decadence with little genuine authority always gets us into trouble.
The Temple of Want
A friend told me the other day that she had a professor in graduate school who called the nature of American coveting, “kneeling before the Temple of Want.” I love it — well I don’t love it, but you know what I mean. What a perfect way of paralleling how we live in this world aching for kingdoms, and in the process bowing down before many false “Kings.” The temples of our psyches are full of wants and haves which brings momentary ecstasy but no real satisfaction.
I once heard that when we get the “thing” we want (the bright and shiny new bauble) our moment of bliss lasts approximately 5 seconds. Our temple is made of paper-thin walls and the foundation is crumbling down; our “Temple of Want” tricks us by supplying us with an unquenchable thirst, an unending hunger for something never found within its walls. “The Temple of Want” is our cultural addiction — like heroin, the high is immediate but the life-span short, and the more we feed it, the more we want, and the harder it is to get sober.
Great cars, a new gadget, another vacation, some new clothes or shoes or hair cut, and even a better and bigger job, a bigger house. These are the things in our “temple of want” and these are the things we bow down to and spend our life working to attain (not always, but for a good portion of people a good portion of the time). But each time we bow down to this false idol our addiction grows, but our genuine joy diminishes. We find it impossible to enjoy a quiet day in a park, at the beach, playing in the yard with our dog, without the addiction scratching at our brain, keeping out of the bliss of what is and into the jonesing for the next big thing.
The Sacredness of Bowing
In many Asian cultures you bow down to everyone and when I spent a summer in Thailand and Laos I became familiar, at a personal level with this practice. There is something beautiful and equally humility-inducing about bowing to everyone. Bowing, in itself, is a sign of respect and deference but also an act that implies its intent — I am no greater than you.
There is a sacredness in that kind of literal reminder and a summer spent amid a culture of universal bowing — not because someone had a nicer car, or job, or could get me “stuff” I wanted, but because they were sacred and we were sharing in this ritual of communal bowing. Everywhere I went, in restaurants, street bazaars, boarding planes, and in a tuk tuk (open air cab that looks like a golf cart) ride with a monk, everyone bowed to me. And I bowed to them.
And a small shift was made in the tectonic plates of my soul, which had often found itself through life bowing, unconsciously, down at “the temple of want.” My heart began to detox, even if just for a while.
In yoga practice, at the end of class, there is a Sanskrit word that teacher says to student and student says to teacher which most people have heard. It is “Namaste.” In translation Namaste means “the light in me honors the light in you.” As you say “Namaste” you press your palms together at your “heart center” (in front of your chest) and bow to your teacher, and your teacher bows to you, and everyone in the class bows to everyone else in the class.
I read this translation of “namaste” as being synonymous with, “the God in me honors the God in you.” God is the light that shines from inside us and when we can step away from the temple of want enough to see the God in us and the God in everyone else, and with humility bow to that light of the Divine we will naturally begin to see a kingdom not made of money, power, or shiny baubles, but of light and love and God-in-everyone — including me, including you.
May the blessing of bowing find you in your life this week, even if it is metaphoric bowing, although I suggest the literal kind too — it is powerfully both diminishing (of the personal ego) and expanding (of the eternal God-in-us).
T.B. Pasquale is an ecumenical and interfaith conversationalist, contemplative prayer advocate, trauma therapist, woman working in young adult ministry, and when she has time writer of personal essays and articles on the nature of humanity and the spiritual pilgrimages of life. You can find her at www.crookedmystic.com and her ministry-in-progress (and novice web designing) for 20′s & 30′s spiritual seekers at www.seekersdelray.org.