Trying to live with less isn’t just difficult, it’s perceived by some people as an affront to the American dream.
Not having a job for the past three and half months, I have had a lot of time to think about money and my relationship with it. If I were to characterize the dominant theme of my adulthood, it would be fears of “lack” and actions based on stinginess. Both of these views have loosened over the past couple of years, but they still tend to dominate.
Given the society I live in, the above scenario is exactly what is desired. It’s the most “beneficial” outcome for a human being in the United States (and many other countries) — a belief in “lack” and scarcity, and deeply seated fears of having nothing, going bankrupt, and being abandoned to starve or die of some untreated illness are hallmarks of a good consumer. Trying to fill the empty pit in your gut is the way the economy runs; it’s the way fat cats get their millions and it’s the way the government has enough money to conduct extravagant wars in far-off nations to procure more power and resources to keep the whole thing going.
Not only does having material wants and being able to satisfy them make me “a good citizen” in the eyes of others, but it also is one of the very “skills” that supposedly defines me as a person at all. There’s very little I’m fully certain of these days. But I’m quite certain that this way of living and determining the value of human lives, and other lives for that matter, is entirely deranged.
Heidemarie Schwermer has spent the last 13 years living without money. It’s been a deliberate series of choices she made, slowly ridding herself of nearly everything she owns, finding that at each step of the way, she felt healthier, happier and more alive. Others have does this before her, notably a woman who renamed herself Peace Pilgrim, and walked over 25,000 miles, crisscrossing the North American continent spreading a message of peace. Schwermer’s story, like Peace Pilgrim’s, is probably extreme looking to the average eye. However, I’m a firm believer that the world needs people willing to step completely out of the norm and give birth to something entirely different, in order for a new way of thinking and being to spread.
Stephanie Marsh, in her Times Online article, “Living without money” writes:
“Ideally, Schwermer would like to lead by example and give other people courage to change their attitudes towards money and how they live in and contribute to society. The pressure to buy and to own, she feels, has intensified in recent years. Consumerism is essentially about “an attempt to fill an empty space inside. And that emptiness, and the fear of loss, is manipulated by the media or big companies.” There is a fear, she says, that in not buying or owning an individual will fall out of society. The irony, she claims, is that material goods can never plug a spiritual hole and shopping and hoarding are more likely to isolate people than bring contentment. Does she intend to start a revolution? “No, I think of myself as planting the seed,” she says. “Perhaps people come away from my lectures or seeing me being interviewed and decide to spend a little less. Others might start meditating. The point is that my living without money is to allow for the possibility of another kind of society. I want people to ask themselves, ‘What do I need? How do I really want to live?’ Every person needs to ask themselves who they really are and where they belong. That means getting to grips with oneself.”
It’s been quite interesting to me how often thoughts have come up in recent months that tie my “worth” to monetary earnings and the ability to purchase things and experiences. I have been slowly venturing back into dating again, and those thoughts are often with me. She’s going to turn the other way when she learns you’re not working right now. It’s bad enough you don’t drive, don’t own a house, etc. I used to feel terrible about all this. I had the intellectual understanding that having money and stuff isn’t correlated with joy and awakening, but couldn’t break through my fears around “identity,” and specifically being a person who doesn’t go along with the norm. There were lots of internal battles, and movements back and forth between not giving a crap about money and possessions, and thinking I needed to “keep up” in a modest way so I’d pass for being “ok.”
Now, I find that the inner turmoil has lessened greatly, and I’m groping along for a new way to think and be around money and things. It’s exciting, but scary at times. I can imagine many people reach this place, and then find the lack of a clear direction just brings up too much fear, so they leap back into the old model: taking some job they tolerate or faintly enjoy, buying more stuff, and trying to prove to their lovers, family, friends, and the world that they, too, are “worthy.”
In my opinion, people like Heidemarie are trying to remind us that there is more power, joy, and depth in healthy communities than in privatized, individual lives. Some would say she’s an idealist caught in a Utopian dream. Some would say she’s a Communist. Some would say she’s a lunatic. I’ve been called all of these myself, and I haven’t even taken the drastic steps she has.
In addition, the kind of bartering that Heidemarie’s life thrives on is actually part of an emerging trend around the world. In some places, skills and material sharing have always been a constant, out of necessity and/or out of a belief that it’s the best way to treat others and keep a community alive. In other places, like the U.S. and Germany, skills and material sharing are being rediscovered as people struggle financially, and also have discovered that having material wealth hasn’t brought the kind of happiness and depth of experience they thought it would.
It’s no accident, in my view, that part of the process Heidemarie has gone through has included meditation practice. How do you make these kinds of radical shifts without paying close attention the life you have now, the thoughts and feelings you have now? Early on, Schwermer wanted to help the homeless. Like a lot of people, she really didn’t know anyone who was homeless, or even much about being homeless, and as a result, her efforts flopped. Although she has changed so much through the years, she still hasn’t had much “success” with her initial goal.
“I haven’t managed to reach the homeless,” she says. “I did hold lectures for the homeless but only six or seven showed up. They didn’t want to hear it. One of the men there accused me of having ‘connections’, that I’d only been able to do what I have been able to do because I knew people. I do have contacts, that’s what this new world is all about, forging links and contacts. Otherwise it wouldn’t work.”
Lectures probably aren’t the way to go. Who wants to listen to someone who had a middle class life in the past lecture about how to live without money? However, I think she’s totally right that making connections and forging links is a huge part of shifting one’s way of thinking and living with money and material possessions.
One of the deepest sicknesses of the modern, “market driven” world is a heart-crushing isolation and disintegration of community. Some people stay homeless for decades because they can’t get anyone to pay attention to them, and/or feel unworthy of that attention. Others live lives that appear to be functioning “fine” — they have jobs, homes, stuff — but are equally bereft of the ability to connect with others, and feel worthy of being connected to.
Within all of this there is a personal responsibility to pay attention to one’s life, and to be willing to cross into an unknown future, often with fears in hand. However, that’s only a small part of the story. The brave few will continue to break through, and offer different ways to live and be. However, until more of us take them up on the offer to fully, deeply, and thoroughly examine our lives — individually and collectively — then they will remain the brave few.
This article was previously published on Dangerous Harvests as “Buddhist Without Money” on January 18, 2010