Tim Wyatt – England
Like most people in the world I’m relatively poor. I’m one of the official 14 million people living in ‘poverty’ in the UK. But compared to a Yemeni orphan or Indian untouchable I live a millionaire lifestyle. I have as much warmth, food and shelter as I need. And although I’m officially and statistically poor, I’ve got lots of ‘stuff’. In fact, I’m drowning in it.
I ‘own’ a tiny old house, an ageing car, several dozen boxes containing the 20 million plus words from my half century of scribbling, 4,000 books, 2,000 CDs and vinyl LPs, hundreds of pictures, artefacts and objects d’art, dozens of bonsai trees – and a shed.
This supposed ownership is, of course, totally illusory. I don’t really own any of it. I just happen to be custodian of these things for the time being. The truth is that none of us ever really owns anything – not even our ‘own’ bodies. We simply temporarily inhabit these fragile configurations of flesh, bone, blood and gristle for at most a few decades.
We don’t even own our thoughts and emotions. They are too transitory for that. They simply pass through us like cars on a highway. And they aren’t as self-generated and individualised as some of us may imagine.
Nevertheless, we cling to this hoary old notion that we should chiefly define ourselves and be defined by others by what we own in terms of cash, goods, assets and possessions. We still prefer to regard our true worth in terms of what we have and not who we are.
Ownership suggests a kind of permanence which can never exist in a perpetually churning cosmos. It’s a ludicrous absurdity. Those of an occult persuasion are fully aware of this but they’re firmly in the minority here. Wealth acquisition without limits is still the ultimate wet dream and primary motivation for many. It is held up as an almost religious ideal or sacred duty to have many things you don’t need.
Ownership is a lie. Despite the grandiose fantasies of a few putative dictators and out-of-control billionaires, no one owns the Earth or has sole dominion over its kingdoms of nature or individual inhabitants. All of us are merely tenants. But some of us act like overlords.
Ownership has always been synonymous with wealth. And we’re all told that being rich is something to aspire to because it’s desirable, morally reputable and creates stability. The harsh reality is that it’s none of these things.\
Wealth and money probably cause as many if not more divisions in the modern world as the reactionary forces of religion.
We need to dramatically and enduringly re-configure our notions of what wealth really is. We need to re-define what prosperity actually consists of. And we need to loosen the automatic ties between wealth and well-being. If money ensures happiness, why do billionaires kill themselves?
These days a price is put on everything, but many things are beyond assignable monetary value: an ecstatic connection with another person, a breath-taking landscape or an object of true beauty. How much does that stunning sunset or exquisite kiss cost? Where do our peak life experiences figure on the balance sheet? Do they appear in the profit or loss column?
Sooner or later – probably later – ownership will have to give way to greater degrees of accessibility. The possession urge needs to be relinquished as a dominant thought-form. But this can only happen when our exploitative economic systems are more benignly and spiritually re-engineered to be fit for everyone and not just a slim minority.
Back in my youth in those brief flower power days of the late 1960s there was a lot of talk about access being superior to outright ownership, but this idea vanished as quickly as the kaftans, communes and Timothy Leary’s psychedelic route maps.
However, accessibility is an idea which is gradually re-emerging, although has yet to achieve any assertive momentum. And yet alongside co-operation it is slowly beginning to challenge the notion of constant competition, perpetual consumption and year-on-year economic ‘growth’.
Every year the global charity Oxfam publishes a report starkly highlighting the gaping divisions in wealth among the inhabitants of this planet. The latest one shows that 26 individuals own as much as the poorest half of the world – more than 3.5 billion people. This family-sized group wouldn’t even fill half a London bus and yet it owns 50 per cent of the world’s assets. Some of these individuals are worth more than some entire countries. While it’s inevitable that some people will always be richer than others, wealth-gulfs like these constitute crimes against humanity.
One of the chief problems we have is that almost ubiquitously around the world for the past few centuries material wealth has been propagated as the sole measure of well-being and prosperity. This is predicated on the noxious notion that only possession and consumption can fulfil our deepest core needs. And yet even multi-millionaires on their deathbeds are unlikely to worry about not having bought that extra Picasso painting – because their attention is now focused elsewhere.
As well as an economic system based on our true status as spiritual beings, we also need a politics based on things other than acquisition and consumption. How about a system geared to the uplift of the human spirit instead?
It is hard to overstate just how deeply fixated and obsessed we are with the material world – usually to the exclusion of all other realms of existence. For many people this is the only world there is. There is no realm of the soul or subtle realities.
However, it would seem that more and more people are inwardly beginning to suspect that excess wealth is not only a meaningless aspirational goal, but a spiritually toxic mode of being which anaesthetises and hampers human potential.
Sometimes the need to possess for possession’s sake is illustrated in TV programmes about ‘hoarders’ who cram their homes from floor to ceiling with everything from old newspapers and gym equipment to plastic bags or clothes that were last fashionable in the 1970s. This makes grim viewing.
And yet all collectors of coins, stamps, books, teapots or indeed anything else display an unhealthy obsession with ‘stuff’. I very much include myself in this. I’ve allowed myself to become a pathetic victim of stuff. I sometimes think we should dramatically curb making things. But this is virtually impossible because not only are we addicted to stuff we don’t need, we are also deeply ensnared in the treadmill of a work-for-work’s-sake economic system.
Rather than owning our possessions, we become owned by them. These material objects wield a heavy influence on our lives, dictating our behaviour and shaping our motivation.
However, other TV programmes slavishly worship the luxury, jewel-encrusted, and often utterly shallow lives of super-rich Bugatti-driving celebrities with the sole intent of making us feel deeply jealous. Other programmes expose the grasping and brittle personalities of wannabee entrepreneurs who aspire to private jets, ocean-going yachts and homes in Mayfair, Malibu and Monte Carlo.
During the 20th Century even spiritually bereft but ultra-idealistic communists railed that private property was nothing more than theft. Although heavily discredited in almost every other aspect of their totally materialistic ideology, they did have a point.
Which brings us on to money. Money used to have a real value as a means of exchange – pegged to the price of a commodity like gold. But no more. Money has become meaningless. It no longer has boundaries. It has become an almost undefinable abstraction.
When you go to the bank for a loan, you might imagine that the bank actually reaches into its safe and lends you money from its existing funds. But this is now the Neolithic way. The bank actually ‘creates’ the money it lends you from nowhere, almost conjuring it into existence. It’s lending you money it’s created spontaneously itself. This is known as fiat money. And it’s essentially fraudulent.
But as far as I’m aware only one country has ever had the backbone to stand up to the financial institutions who do this. The Icelandic government prosecuted banks for lending customers money which didn’t actually exist. Not so much a case of money-laundering as outright counterfeiting.
We have to understand money for what it is. Like electricity it’s an energy which can be stored up or put to good use. It has the power to help, cure or kill. And yet when accumulated as static wealth it symbolises the ultimate materialistic attachment. Rather than being an energising principle it becomes a means of coercion, enforcement and control. And constipation.
Back in the 15th Century the square mile which makes up The City of London used to be an energetic centre of alchemical enterprises with cellars crammed with bearded men hunched over their alembics and retorts forlornly trying to turn lumps of lead into gold. Six hundred years later it retains exactly the same function – in a very different way. The furnaces and bubbling crucibles have been replaced by sophisticated speed-of-light algorithms and greedy, corporately-dressed go-getters transmuting money into ever more exotic (and often highly corrosive) financial products most people don’t either need or understand.
We’re assured by the United Nations that in recent decades abject poverty in the world has been significantly reduced. Despite a three-fold population increase in six decades, fewer people now starve to death. This is all very comforting except for those who still do.
I’m not naïve enough to believe that scrupulously re-distributing all the world’s wealth tomorrow would be a magic cure-all. In a few days or weeks some would have doubled or trebled their stake while others would be left with nothing. The whole situation may rapidly revert to the status quo within days, weeks or months. But this is defeatist talk. It’s essential we create a more level financial theatre of operations – especially because they, whoever they are, will oppose this with every conspiracy up their sleeve.
Although the world needs to formulate a radical re-distribution of wealth in some way, this in itself isn’t enough. It still assumes that wealth in the form of ownership is the key to everything. We need an accompanying change to our mind-sets, too – a complete transformation of how we regard money, ownership, wealth and prosperity.
We need to establish new, more noble standards of human aspiration and conduct – guided by timeless spiritual principles rather than the sexed-up lure of material goods and short-term profit. Unless and until we start to do this, we face not only planetary depletion and global conflict but also spiritual bankruptcy and inward collapse.
What I’m saying is that the dash for wealth makes everyone poorer.
I’m also saying that all of us own too much. The other day I came across a picture of Mahatma Gandhi’s possessions consisting of not much more than a pair of sandals, spectacles, a spinning wheel, a dhoti, a pocket watch and an eating bowl. If the father of a whole nation can get away with such frugality, we should also be able to reduce our dependence on stuff. And it might help us to recognise that it’s also time we started remodelling our own attitudes to the false phantoms of ‘ownership’.
So deeply do we embrace the ownership principle, that we extend it to non-material things – especially human relationships. This can often be seen in family dynamics but even more so in sexual and romantic couplings where people ‘in love’ believe they have the right to assume proprietorial ownership of another person. In the world of work bosses often behave as if they own their employees.
Ownership means attachment. And attachment is always detrimental to human psycho-spiritual development.
Maybe The Beatles with John Lennon doing the lead vocals got it right nearly six decades ago in one of their earlier songs Money: ‘The best things in life are free…’
Listen to The Beatles: