When I was 16 I had an embarrassing experience that at once humiliated me and taught me an invaluable lesson. I was in my first ever sociology class at college and the lecturer had asked a simple question: ‘How long can a man survive without food and water?’ Without thinking, I instinctively and proudly blurted out the answer: ’40 days and nights!’ I declared.
Before the words had even finished leaving my mouth, I had an awful feeling that something strange and terrible had just happened. Years of religious indoctrination that I thought I had battled my whole life to successfully repel had indeed penetrated my thoughts and being at a fundamental level after all.
Stories about Jesus on an epic desert mind-bender had somehow got muddled up with what I thought I knew about survival. Humiliated by my completely factless answer, I realised with a crunching and disheartening feeling of dread that I couldn’t trust my own mind.
To his credit my lecturer’s ploy had worked, his point had been made, and in a subtle way my life and how I consider myself would never be the same. I felt a lot of shame that day in class as I so nakedly revealed to my cohort the extent of my religious conditioning. These days I’m grateful for the lesson I received though, for it highlighted how easily we humans have a capacity for absorbing and communicating bullshit.
‘Question everything’, my lecturer later said—and these words have never left me, as pertinent now as they were then.
For those of us interested in discovering what life is really about, there is much to question. Government propaganda, mainstream and alternative news providers, inescapable, omnipresent and manipulative advertising, PR campaigns, supermarket shelves, laws and rules, religious and new age thinking, science, popular cultural values, social norms, education, childhood upbringings and more, all convey messages that influence our thoughts and behaviour, and all implicitly or explicitly provide instructions for how to live.
The cultural and institutional structures that shape our world tell a narrative we could take as the truth if we chose not to question everything.
As a result of this conditioning, our minds are a quagmire of deeply held assumptions about the way things are, that may or may not correspond with ‘reality’, whatever that is. There’s a lot out there to question, and even more to distract us from doing so. But if we want to live lives that are a product, at least to a degree, of freethinking and autonomous decisions, we have to take this journey.
If we’re trying to work out how life might look if we could discard the myriad ways we’ve been conditioned, if we want to live lives that are real and meaningful we must be prepared to consider the possibility that everything we know is wrong. In fact, I would suggest, this is a pretty good place to start.
Now you won’t find me in Selfridges very often but occasionally the misfortune befalls me. It’s a funny old place. Full of people with cash to burn—or at least a credit card or some space in the overdraft—it’s a consumer’s dreamland, a temple to fashion, style, class, status and the superficial sense of self our world exalts; a church to the predominating values that more than ever define our times.
You can easily tell the Selfridges congregation apart from the rest of society’s rabble: As the hare krishna crew are conspicuous in their orange robes, the Selfridges devotees are instantly recognisable by the auspicious shiny yellow bags they proudly sport as they walk the streets of central London. ‘Ah!’, you might exclaim, ‘They have been to worship in the temple of Selfridges. They have been to pray at the feet of the god of money’.
Well as I found myself in this very temple the other week, I noticed some rather strange things as I walked the sacred aisles.
First came the seduction, my eyes feasting on the gorgeous array of shiny and loud digital goods, stylish tailored garments crafted by poor people in crappy countries with expensive cloth, and attractive over-groomed staff who spoke to me as if I was actually important. Like a kid in a candy shop who’d just stolen some money from mum’s purse, I desired all I saw.
Then came the sense of inadequacy as my false sense of self took over and I realised that if only I bought some of this shit I would somehow be a better person—more attractive to girls, envied by my friends, and admired by all who spot my shiny yellow bag. ‘Ah!’, they might exclaim, ‘This man has made it, for he has been to worship in the temple of Selfridges’.
Then came the reprieve as some sense finally kicked in and I somehow revived myself from this wild and crazy stupor. That false sense of self will always be lurking somewhere, I realised—my sense of inadequacy will not be vanquished by a new cardigan. It will take more than a fancy new pair of boxer shorts to displace the feeling that I hate myself and I’m just not good enough.
And this is the crux of our modern problem. While it’s great to dress well and look good, in a world saturated with adverts and pop culture that glorifies the superficial and unattainable, it’s all too easy to get swept away in waves of inadequacy. For those of us with a shaky sense of self, temptations lie in wait that serve only to further estrange us from the essence of who we really are.
What Selfridges appeals to is that part of us that wants to be whole, liked, and comfortable in our own skin. While clothes, gadgets and stuff can provide the temporary perception of such comforts for a while, in the end they only serve to distance us from the part of us that is always complete.
Dress well, look good, but beware the traps that lie all around. Your real friends don’t care what you look like.
One of the greatest motivations behind our behaviour, yet also one of the least spoken of, is our fear of the future. Despite being something so rarely discussed, this fear informs so much of what we think and do, and the fundamental ways in which we choose to live our lives. If we want to be free we cannot neglect to consider how this fear affects us, and how it can be alleviated.
There are many fears connected to a fear of the future: a fear of physical and mental degeneration, a fear of not having the financial resources to live a comfortable life after we stop working, and a fear of being lonely to name a few.
What’s interesting and slightly strange about this fear is that collectively we choose everyday to live by and exacerbate it. Woven in to the fabric of our society the myth that we can and should be financially independent fuels our insecurities about the future. We live and work from the premise that we are and always will be alone.
While striving for security we place both literal and metaphorical walls around ourselves. They do not serve to protect but to separate, further cementing the sense that we’re on our own. No man is an island, yet through our collective choices we are adrift in seas of separation.
Community can cure our fear of the future. Being in community reminds us that we really are and should be in this together. Living in community lessens or even sometimes negates the need for money, making accesssible what once was free but has since been monetised; things like childcare, care in older age or entertainment.
Sharing and exchange lessen the financial burden on us, as people with a range of skills and gifts can mutually provide all the things a community needs, from food to furniture. Expensive items that we all use from time to time only need to be purchased once. Need something? Borrow mine. In the future the favour shall be returned.
Community is an extension of family. In a world where we know we can depend on community now and in the future the less we are locked in to leading lives that do not fulfill. The more we live for the future the less we live for now, and there is after all, only now.
Assuming that happiness, freedom and a spirit of adventure lies ahead in the twilight of our lives is the great gamble, not living freely right now. People ask if it is crazy to give up what you are accustomed to in order to follow your dreams. I suggest it is crazy not to. As Joseph Campbell insisted, we all must ‘follow our bliss’, and a world in which we can depend on the community of our brothers and sisters provides the surroundings that allow us to do this.
This is not a fantasy, as much as the structure of mainstream culture by comparison may lead it to appear. People are already reaping such benefits, right now, all over the world, through their embrace of community and what we can do for each other, and consequently ourselves. What it takes to enact this is a simple choice, and conviction.
Do not fall for the pension paradox. Do not believe the illusion of scarcity that has been conjured before our eyes. A world in which we live for each other, not for ourselves, yet paradoxically can lead the lives we always wanted to, is possible.
It seems like the more I make positive changes to my life the more I get called a hippie. Granted this is usually by friends and it might be in jest but nonetheless it points to an interesting phenomenon. The term hippie, as used today, seems to be a derogatory word, and even when it is used jokingly I think it reflects something important – that is, mainstream society’s indifference or perhaps even contempt for values that are not about doing whatever is normally done, whether or not it is good for you the individual, or the planet.
Most recently I’ve started making nut and seed milk. Yes okay, I can hear the cries of ‘hippie!’ starting already. Why? I think it’s probably not that great for a cow’s welfare to be forcibly milked all the time, at least I know I wouldn’t like it; nut milk is healthier for me too; it’s not much more hassle than going to the shop; it’s no more expensive than normal milk; it gets me closer to my food and it tastes amazing. What’s not to like?
Yet this is precisely the type of activity that is ripe for the mockery of the hippie tag, as is my thrice weekly yoga practice, healthy eating, daily meditation, interest in entheogens and probably a load of other stuff. It’s as if doing anything positive is socially unacceptable. How weird is that?! These are all really good activities, good for cows, good for my mind and good for my body, yet on hearing about them people choose to poke fun. I’m really interested in what’s going on here.
It’s not that I want to ban humour, and I’ve used the H word myself so I’m really not complaining, it’s more I’d like to point out that if we look behind this seemingly innocent jesting, we see that it conceals the way we have been conditioned to discount the value of things which are not ‘normal’, with normal meaning activities and habits that we have been conditioned to unconsciously believe are the right thing to do.
I’m thinking of the overconsumption of alcohol, the implicit support of large scale animal torture and murder, the mindless consumption of crappy TV, and addiction to food that will kill you to name a few. Most people mindlessly engage in these destructive behaviours without a thought and thus implicitly endorse all that they stand for. We all do it (even hippies), to a greater or lesser degree.
Of course there are exceptions but I find that often when someone uses ‘hippie’, even in humour, it indicates a tendency not to question the way things are, and an adherence to the conventional version of what’s right. Strangely they neglect the value of activities concerned with living as positively as possible. What is it about our culture that means we find the activities that are best for us strange and unappealing?
If people insist on using it then in response I’d like to redefine and reclaim the word hippie. No longer must we associate the term with outdated connotations of unwashed, long haired drop-outs. I’m proud to be called a hippie because to me what it stands for now is to be freethinking, to have the perception to avoid cultural brainwashing, the depth to always ask questions and the ability to step outside of the consensus trance.
It means never giving up and settling for things the way they are now, and always believing there is a better way to live. It means compassion for animals, concern for the environment and a faith in the potential inherent in humans and life. I don’t care if anyone thinks I sound like a hippie, to me it’s just the right way to live.
One of life’s greatest pleasures has to be playing your favourite songs or band really loud and losing yourself in the transcendental ecstasy of that most moving and divine creative expression – music.
A word of advice though. Never, I repeat never, ever – no matter how tempting it may seem to share that most cherished treasure – play your favourite music to the one you love. It may seem to make sense at the time – starstruck lovers do love to gaze zombie-like in to each others eyes and share ‘stuff’ after all, but if you plan on continuing to enjoy your favourite band long after your relationship, don’t.
Take me for example. I have long loved Sparklehorse. There’s no one quite like them – not so many people know them, and the music touches the core of my soul, offering hope and redemption, letting me know I’m not alone, and lifting my spirits in equal measure.
Or at least it used to. That was until in a wet mushy episode of that most dangerous pathology – love – I decided it would be a good idea to share them with my then girlfriend. She loved them and before I knew it Sparklehorse had become the soundtrack to our relationship. This in itself was not a problem, in fact the new romantic backdrop to the music seemed to imbue it with even more meaning and profundity. Then she became my ex-girlfriend.
I haven’t actually listened to Sparklehorse since then, and I have no plans to any time soon either. The very thought is not even appealing. What’s worse than having a relationship end is the loss of my favourite band. Lost that is, to the associations that now so deeply penetrate every note, word and riff.
Take heed, fellow traveller, listen to my advice. Do not fall foul of that thought which tells you things will last forever. If you plan on maintaining a healthy relationship with the music that you love, never, ever play it to the one you love.