--or-- The Serendipity of Things Coming Together and Making a Whole Lotta Sense
Well sweet-ums, I have a secret to tell you… Even though I don’t post things on my blog every day, it doesn’t mean that I’m not writing, not contemplating the world, not sitting somewhere thinking so hard about things that my forehead might start bleeding.
Sometimes I get things down on paper (or digitized in a file, as it were), and the words… they’re just not perfect. Or the timing isn’t just right. Or I know I could do better. Or I think maybe there’ll be a better moment for what I’m writing about to be birthed into the world.
…Or even, sometimes there’s a snippet of something that just gnaws at me, and the delicacy of it, or the non-consumerist-conformity of it makes it awkward to be the pessimist-bearer of its castigation, its deprecation, its disparagement. But when you have a truth to speak, it ought to be spoke. One has to be brave.
And sometimes serendipity happens. Sometimes, someone else in the world has the same thoughts that you do, and is braver than you because she or he is willing to let their words smash at the wall of social conformity like a battering ram. …And you have two options at that point: you can either help blindly fortify the wall to secure the status quo and coddle people’s sense of slothful comfort; or, you can grab hold of the battering ram and help tear down preconceived notions and apathy.
Serendipity happened recently in that there has been a confluence of opinions that I’ve read covering several topics I had been contemplating about previously…
I had originally read a piece by Sherman Alexi criticizing the institution of TED Talks (one can only call it an “institution” at this point considering its successful largesse and corporate-style oversight). And originally I was a bit flummoxed by the criticism, being that I am a regular listener of the TED Radio Hour on NPR, and in that it is one of my favorite programs—inspirational, thought-provoking, and full of ideas backed by scientific curiosity.
So I wrote a blog in refutation of some of Alexi’s complaints—which were that TED Talks has been corrupted by consumerist, corporate interests, and crowd-ignorant populism.
Then in recent weeks I happened to hear an episode of TED Radio Hour, and one of the speakers was Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love. …I was immediately skeptical. Gilbert’s famous book was on the New York Times bestseller list for something like 155 weeks (over three years). It is the apex of her success; it is how she is known, as the writer of Eat, Pray, Love. And this, in part, is exactly what the Ted Radio Hour program was discussing: how in the world do you top yourself when you’ve already hit your pinnacle? “Where does creativity come from?”
You can listen to the interview of Elizabeth Gilbert from TED Talk Radio here:
Obviously, this is a subject I am intensely curious about—any writer would be. And like a puppydog, I sat there and lapped-up all of the analogies and similes and parables that Gilbert espoused on the radio show. She was so endearing, that I started to become a skeptic of myself and my own distain for Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestseller.
You see, I have never read Eat, Pray, Love. I generally avoid New York Times bestsellers with few exceptions. What’s more, the more populist a book becomes, the more I start to become skeptical of its populism. (I know that sounds curmudgeonly cynical, but…) Knowing what the publishing industry is like from the inside, I can tell you that—also with few exceptions—books do not make the New York Times bestseller list without a lot of money behind those endeavors. Or Oprah. Which is basically the same thing. In Elizabeth Gilbert’s case, it was both.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s early story is inspiring for young amateur writers. She grew up in a rural area, away from easy access to many friends, and her family did not own a television. Thus she and her sister read voraciously as young children to entertain themselves. Gilbert seemed to have success with project after project, receiving award after award for her magazine articles and writing projects. So it was not without a glowing vitae and previous success that Viking Publishers gave her a $200,000.00 advance for a travel-writing project (about which she did not provide any preliminary samples or preview material outside of a proposal idea).
You know what? If someone gave me $200,000.00 up front I’d buy a plane ticket and write the shit out of some adventure, too.
I admit that I made presumptions about Elizabeth Gilbert many years ago. I presumed that she came from family money, or was a trust fund baby, some spoiled rotten-plutocrat whose fame doesn’t derive so much from creativity as it does from creativity coddled by privilege. How else, after all, could a person travel all over the world without a care to the wind about how much expense such an adventure might cost? I mean, really, does no one really think about stuff like that when they’re reading “fiction” like Gilbert’s book, or does the entirety of her readership simply fantasize that exotic world travel and luxury hotel accommodations are just something to which everyone equally has a “right?” I suppose Gilbert’s book was as much escapism as anything else. (And, again, realize that I am being critical from the point of NOT having read the book. I feel guilty about that, but Gilbert’s fame and the book have a life of their own outside the literature which is entirely critique-able.)
I admit my initial prejudices were wrong. Elizabeth Gilbert did it the old fashioned way—by learning to love literature as a young person and expressing her talent through [apparently] good writing and by climbing up the publishing ladder rungs.
…It wasn’t until she was older that she succumbed to plutocratic privilege through the nepotistic publishing industry and social self-help industry machine. So why can’t I seem to give Elizabeth Gilbert a break?
Here’s why: https://bitchmedia.org/article/eat-pray-spend
You should read the whole article because, frankly, Joshunda Sanders of Bitch magazine speaks it so much more eloquently that I likely ever could. But here are some key points that she makes about the whole women’s self-empowerment industry, which is not so much empowering as it is a machine for building a massive army of brainwashed consumerists:
“ [T]hough Oprahspeak pays regular lip service to empowerment, much of Winfrey's advice actually moves women away from political, economic, and emotional agency by promoting materialism and dependency masked as empowerment, with evangelical zeal.”
“Eat, Pray, Love is not the first book of its kind, but it is a perfect example of the genre of priv-lit: literature or media whose expressed goal is one of spiritual, existential, or philosophical enlightenment contingent upon women's hard work, commitment, and patience, but whose actual barriers to entry are primarily financial. Should its consumers fail, the genre holds them accountable for not being ready to get serious, not "wanting it" enough, or not putting themselves first, while offering no real solutions for the astronomically high tariffs—both financial and social—that exclude all but the most fortunate among us from participating.”
“It's no secret that, according to America's marketing machine, we're living in a "postfeminist" world where what many people mean by "empowerment" is the power to spend their own money. Twenty- and thirty-something women seem more eager than ever to embrace their "right" to participate in crash diets and their "choice" to get breast implants, obsess about their age, and apply the Sex and the City personality metric to their friends (Are you a Miranda or a Samantha? Did you get your Brazilian and your Botox?). Such marketing, and the women who buy into it, assumes the work of feminism is largely done.”
“Another feature on young, female self-help gurus (their exact qualifications for guruhood remain murky) charging hundreds of dollars an hour to advise other women on spirituality and eating well was granted prime real estate on the front page of the New York Times' Style section.”
“Actor Gwyneth Paltrow's web venture, GOOP, uses catchy, imperative section headings ("Get," "Do," "Be") and the nonsensical tagline "Nourish the inner aspect" to neatly establish a rhetorical link between action, spending, and the whole of existence.”
“Perhaps priv-lit is a manifestation of how we love to fantasize about things we don't—or can't—have. In the case of priv-lit, the fantasy has turned on its makers. Rather than offering a model to aspire to through consistent attainment of progressive, realistic goals, priv-lit terrorizes its consumers with worst-case scenarios and the implication that self-improvement is demonstrated by ‘works’ of spending.”
“[T]hose who pray at the altar of priv-lit operate under the false assumptions that 1.) investing concretely ensures attainment of elite socioeconomic status [a Capitalist ideal], and 2.) having invested demonstrates the deserving nature of those who do. [“The deserving nature” can also be stated as “privilege” to…spend.] In times of financial stress—when those who want exist in even greater proportion to those who have—this feedback loop may be intensified, because the desired is that much more unattainable and the consequences of failure, namely the implication that those who do not get their lives together according to the prescribed boundaries of priv-lit will end up being so utterly screwed up that they risk losing their jobs, houses, or independence, among other things—seem that much worse.”
“The genre is unique in that it reflects an inversion of its own explicitly expressed value system: Priv-lit tells women they must do expensive things that are good for the body, mind, or soul. But the hidden subtext, and perhaps the most alluring part of the genre for its avid consumers, is the antifeminist idea that women should become healthy so that people will like them, they will find partners, they'll have money, and they'll lose weight and be hot. God forbid a dumpy, lonely, single person should actually try to achieve happiness, health, and balance for its own sake. It's the wolf of the mean-spirited makeover show or the vicious high-school clique in the sheep's clothing of wellness.”
[Note: Bolded emphasis in quotations from Joshunda Sander’s article are mine.]
Why is this important to me? It strikes chords for me on several different facets…
One being that I am anti-consumerist. The other being that the self-supporting career “market” into which I have thrown myself (tarot reading) is very much in cooperative league with the self-help and “life-coaching” industry that this article talks about. Am I a cog in the very machine that I am disparaging here?…
Here is a concrete example of the conundrum—again, a serendipitously written blog that I wrote earlier this summer (but did not post) about the Wanderlust Festival—an elite yoga retreat week geared towards millennials and hipster yoga fanatics—at the nearby town of Killington. The festival website makes a point of making the event sound like an open event for “we-are-the-world”-peace-and-diversity-loving masses. However, the only diverse population conceivably able to attend the event are individuals with diverse hedge fund portfolios. I hadn’t posted this blog previously because the criticism I was slinging seemed a little bit too harsh, but it illustrates precisely what Joshunda Sanders is pointing out in her article. So harsh or not, here’s my take on the Wanderlust Festival introduced with a quote from Indian yogi Susanna Barkataki:
“Now, when so much of what the Western world sees as true yoga is beautifully achieved physical postures, (accomplished, photographed and displayed by popular yoga magazines, journals and sites) executed by mostly young, white, stylish-yoga-apparel clad women and men, yoga is going through a second colonization. This colonization is the misrepresentation of yoga’s intention, its many limbs, and its aims.
Yoga is not now, nor has it ever been, a practice aimed at physical mastery for its own sake. Nor is it a practice aimed at “stress-reduction” so we can function as better producers and consumers in a capitalist society.”
-- Susanna Barkataki
From an article entitled: “How to decolonize your yoga practice”
Unfortunately, some of the comments in response to this linked article are grossly ignorant…Says one female commenter: “I don’t think yoga should be related to culture…”
Such blog comments show the ego-centricity of Americans in the worst way. Americans feel as though everything just “belongs” to us, global history and culture be damned. No respect or appreciation… it blows my mind. If I could reach through the computer screen and bitch-slap this dingbat, I wouldn’t hesitate. I know that kind of attitude isn’t promoting a compassionate, peaceful response, but does this woman realize what kind of violence she creates by de-culturating yogic practice from it’s original culture? Or the violence she commits by commercializing her practice without any sort of “culture?” …One can just imagine she has no cares about economically demoralizing third world citizens with her sweatshop yoga outfits. ….or environmentally devastating the planet with the energy it took to import her feel-good merchandise. Heaven forbid she should be confronted by empirically conscripted native “culture.” Ew. Ick. Makes you just wanna strangle some people with their own $120 designer yoga pants, doesn’t it?
…Um, let’s be clear: EVERYTHING IS RELATED TO CULTURE IN ONE WAY OR ANOTHER. For instance, the woman making this ignorant comment is creating a new yoga “culture” of plutocratic, consumerist-meritocratic-based privilege. Her preferred cultural form of yoga is only available for people who can afford it at a certain level, so she doesn’t have to be uncomfortable around those “less deserving” (read: poor, multiple skin-toned trash).
Earlier this past summer I was searching around for some local Vermont festivals where I could apply for an entertainment license to practice my trade (tarot). Vermont is full of them in the summertime. It’s an outdoor wonderland here, and we’re a state with a wellness and health reputation, after all...
So I came across information for the Wanderlust Festival—a roving mobile festival with multiple dates around the country where yoga enthusiasts can come together to experience a weekend of healthy yoga, spiritual awakening and enlightenment, and participants can meet like-minded individuals interested in expressing their yoga-centric lifestyle.
…but unfortunately the organization hosting and promoting the festival turns out to be a very small group of investors charging exorbitant prices for the “experience” of sitting in overstuffed, fire-hazard-people-packed rooms and participating in overcrowded, overhyped, glorified aerobics classes.
I did not attend or participate; I would never have been able to afford it. (Nor did I ask whether I could set up a booth or table for tarot sessions.) What’s more, do you know what charging outrageously high prices for shit-festivals like that is meant to do? I assure you, the vast majority of the money doesn’t go for the rental space. Those high prices are simply packing the pockets of “savvy” investors who are taking advantage of people who can afford to go. Great. Have a party. People with a lot of money need to literally throw their money away on something. But you know what else charging those ridiculous prices does? It keeps the party very white.
That’s right, I said it. They might as well have called this yoga festival “Honkeyfest.” If you wanna look on the company’s website, the only thing you’ll see are highly doctored photos of waves and waves of white people, enjoying their healthy lifestyle freedom exempt from diversity, being able to share their white birthright by conscripting another culture’s paradigm, and commercializing and capitalizing it. What’s maddening and disturbing is that there are a faction of Americans who think that’s the smartest entrepreneurial thing since Wonderbread. “Yeah! Someone capitalized on my fear of people of color, and made me realize I can just PAY for my white community of friends. It took three months’-worth of a normal person’s salary to attend, but, boy!...I sure did enjoy the venue ‘energy’ of comfort and safety while I did those breathing exercises in my leotard!”
I’m not going to get into issues of affirmative action, or pilot programs to “investiture in diversity” or even suggest that the festival board start a scholarship program for low-income and inner-city folk who might want to participate. That’s just another white-washing of segregationist-think. Dump capitalist chumps like the Wanderlust Festival and GET REAL. Get diverse by getting your yoga fix at the f*cking recreation center, or better yet, if you’re a yoga enthusiast, then start a group in an area of town that needs it; start a group at the rehab center; start a group at the boys and girls club; start living diversity and show that yoga truly can be for everyone (not just lawyers’ wives who have found their calling because they found the perfect pair of $120 designer yoga pants).
So, the real question is, “What the hell am I gonna do about it?” It’s the sixty-four-million-dollar question, eh?
I won’t deny that I am one of those people inspired and brainwashed by the whole self-help-life-coach-women’s-empowerment-entrepreneurial trade and industry. That’s the whole point of the industry—über successful “role models” like Oprah Winfrey and Elizabeth Gilbert, as well as other female entrepreneurial tarot [or independent] business advocates make it look really, REALLY enticing.
But the problem with those role models is that they turn women’s innate nurturing abilities into a culture of megalocentric self-deserving privilege, exacerbated by a culture of commodity. No… no…no. This all takes the focus off of the sociology and psychology that can help others, and focuses attention on how it can make us—as the entrepreneur doling out some imaginary, hyped-up “service”—as the beneficiary. This is no different than any other situation in our patristic-centric world where females conform to the ideals of men (in this case the advocacy of consumerism and capitalism) in order to gain a temporal semblance of equality, when equality of taking advantage of other people is not truly a core human value.
Again, from Sander’s well-stated article:
“Another [negative assumption perpetuated about women] is the infantilizing notion that we need guides—often strangers who don't know the specifics of our financial, spiritual, or emotional histories—to tell us the best way forward. The most problematic assumption, and the one that ties it most closely to current, mainstream forms of misogyny, is that women are inherently and deeply flawed, in need of consistent improvement throughout their lives, and those who don't invest in addressing those flaws are ultimately doomed to making themselves, if not others, miserable.”
“As one purveyor of high-end life-coaching services (who, for obvious reasons, wishes to remain anonymous) comments, "In our line of business, we have a saying: 'Don't fix the client.'" Once mentors teach clients to attain freedom and enlightenment, they can say goodbye to the high premiums they earn by telling clients they need more help.”
“‘Self-improvement culture in general has the contradictory effect of undermining self-assurance by suggesting that all of us are in need of constant, effortful (and often expensive) improvement. There is the danger of over-investing in this literature not only financially, but also psychologically.’”
I’m not excluding myself from guilt; I’m guilty of drinking the consumerism-equates-with-success juice. Creating my own business has been a way to get myself back on my feet IN A CONSUMERIST CAPITALIST SOCIETY THAT DEMANDED THAT I TRY TO SURVIVE IN ITS FORUM after I left the monastery—where I had lived a life of communalism and poverty.
And just so I’m clear: I hate it out here.
But I think that my business has focused less on “how my business can be successful,” and more on how core values can help and assist others. My “business” does a lot more charity and benefit work than is probably healthy for someone trying to get back on his economic feet in a do-or-die capitalist society. But using the lessons that Christianity and my pauper’s bible (the tarot) have to offer, that seems like the right direction… for me. What makes it difficult? The presumptions that people have about tarot reading and tarot readers—people are still astonished and skeptical when I tell them that I don’t “read the future” with the tarot. And frankly, I’m never gonna apologize for that or change how I use the tarot because of other people’s preconceived notions.
You can bet that I will hold myself to greater and greater standards of virtue when moving forward or doing business—that’s the way it ought to be as we learn and grow. If a business (or person) has the intention of offering his or her best to the greater good of society and the world, one ought to remember that the focus ought always be on the benefit of the client. Our job is not “to fix the client,” but rather to help the client learn tools to help fix their own issues. And our job certainly is never to retain or hide tools from the client in an effort to keep them coming back—that is scamming, and it’s a form of deceit.
This is a controversial topic, because a lot of entrepreneurial business people—independent business owners—have been conditioned to believe that entrepreneurship entails self-esteem, a certain amount of acting skills so that the public is “convinced” of your business’s efficacy, and the fact that they have the right to charge such-and-such amount in order to “compete” in a market-driven society and make a “successful” living wage. I can’t disagree with all of that… except to say that it is part of the Capitalist mind-speak within which we are all ingrained. IT’S HARD TO THINK OUTSIDE THE CONDITIONED MIND-SPEAK BECAUSE IT’S ALL WE KNOW; IT’S HOW OUR WORLD HAS BEEN CONTRUCTED FOR US.
Believe it or not, this is very much like living the life of a minority. WHAAAA??? Yup. If you are gay or lesbian, the hardest thing in the world is breaking out of the mind-speak of heterocentrism that exists in society. EVERYTHING in our contrived social world is based on heterosexism and heterocentrism (the belief that the world functions because of heterosexuality and therefore does not present any other perspective), and to exist outside that paradigm is the first challenge to overcome as a minority—acceptance that you’re never going to fit inside that paradigm, and thus will have to live on the margin of that social picture for the rest of your days. Heterocentrism says that you can’t have a normal nuclear family; you will never recognize yourself in grocery or marketable product packaging, you will never be accepted or presented the same way as your neighbors when you try to participate in social functions or settings. It demands a life of explaining your difference to people who aren’t interested in shifting their status-quo perspectives of “normal.”
If our contrived world is also based on consumerist-Capitalist-centric assumptions, then anyone who recognizes or determines consumerist-Capitalist living to be anathema, most certainly is setting themselves up to live on the margins of what the rest of society deems “normal.” The only difference is that such an economic-social determination regarding Capitalism is a conscious choice, rather than an innate condition (like minority status or affiliation). Regardless, it still puts that individual on the margins of society.
Getting into observational territory now… the reason you might notice more and more disturbance in the status quo and irritability and distinction between economic classes recently is because as the weight of income inequality becomes more and more unbalanced (vastly more revenue collected and hoarded by a small percentage of the rich, and a larger and larger demographic of those struggling financially) is because people’s ingrained notions and mind-speak of consumerist-Capitalism is breaking down and shifting—it doesn’t seem to fit the paradigm that they have known for so long and in which they have felt some sense of being economically placated. A new paradigm is emerging that creates a greater sense of stability, and people will rebel against that change.
They should. We should.