5. Labour and Materials
We – the civilised – have been inculcated to believe that belongings are more important than belonging.
— Derrick Jensen, Endgame Volume I(80)
Anyone proclaiming that they want to give up the material world in order to live ‘the spiritual life’ is, I believe, deluded (in the nicest possible way) on two fronts. First, the material world is the litmus test of our spirituality, it’s our opportunity to prove that our spiritual beliefs are not just abstract thoughts and words without substance. Spirituality isn’t something to merely philosophise about. It’s not about sitting cross-legged in the lotus position chanting OM. Reciting passages verbatim from the Qu’ran, the Bible or the Bhagavad Gītā doesn’t necessarily signify a spiritual life either, no more than going to church on a Sunday morning or worshipping the Sun does. These practices in themselves have the potential to help you to lead a more connected, loving, empathic, compassionate and respectful life – which I believe is the role of whichever of these stories you choose – but they are probably less spiritual in themselves than the act of having a good old shit in a composting toilet.
I personally try to practice applied spirituality (despite failing miserably on a daily basis), where your spirituality is revealed through what you do everyday, and how you meet your physical needs. I believe that the depth of your spirituality is revealed by the ways in which you attain and eat your food, create fire, how gently you walk in Nature, how you interact with people that you have no personal need to get along with, your responses to tough decisions, how you treat strangers and those you claim to love, and the levels of courage you display when weakness is the easier option.
It is revealed by your respect for water, air and earth, the elements which make up your flesh and bones, and in the ways by which you share your gifts with the world.
A reporter once asked Mahatma Gandhi what his message to the world was. He replied ‘my life is my message’, meaning that he believed how he lived his life every day was of much more importance and relevance than telling the world how he thinks they should live or what they should believe. Words are much too easy. To paraphrase Kahlil Gibran,(81) action is love made visible.
The second part of the delusion is that it is simply impossible to give up the material world unless you accept death, which – unsurprisingly – none of the people I know want to. There are some basic needs that you have to meet if you want to survive, and they vary from one geographical region to the next. Getting close to these basic material needs has all sorts of positive benefits for you, the planet and all that you share it with, and how you decide to meet them is a deeply spiritual questioning process. Going below this minimum (which the vast majority of us are, unfortunately, in no danger of doing yet!) in the long-term can be detrimental to you and, by extension, the organism of which you are a part. The key, once again, is finding the optimal level of material requirements, the level that enriches both the egocentric and holistic self.
I believe that exploring the spiritual aspects of ourselves is crucial to our wellbeing and will be central to how gracefully we face the converging ecological and social crises that are upon us, so I don’t mean to offend anyone’s spiritual practices in the slightest. But I feel we would do well to stop seeing the material and the spiritual as separate realms, and instead to see the spirit that is invisibly running through every mosquito, every act, every rock, through each and every plant and animal, through ourselves. Seeing the mundane imbued with the glorious enables us to treat the Earth, and the community of life it supports, as if the quality of our lives depended on it – and oh how it does. Meeting our needs in the most sustainable, community-enhancing and connection-creating way we can is one of the most potent spiritual practices we have available to us; that has, at least, been my experience in life.
If you do decide you want to live moneylessly or much more simply, there are certain physical needs you are going to have to meet, regardless of whether you decide to do it in the city or the woods. Whether you meet those needs by using palaeolithic methods or by logging on to the expanding array of gift economy websites, or a mix of both, is up to you, and will depend largely on your unique situation, what you have access to, the reasons why you want to live with little or no money and your proficiency at surviving in both the urban and wild landscapes. To meet your needs you need labour (whether it be your own or someone else’s) and materials to some degree.