Rootsie's European Roots  

Personal Development and Privilege  
By Rootsie
September 28, 2003

In the Egyptian Book of Coming Forth by Day, commonly referred to as The Book of the Dead, each soul makes a 'Negative Confession" in which he reflects upon the conduct of his life. In these most ancient of human texts, we read the LITERAL 'writing on the wall':
"I speak the names of gods and so saying, my words give power and life. Their power gives truth light as a feather, a soul light as air.

Hail long-legged beast striding through the cornfield, creature from the house of light, I've seen nothing in the world but beauty. May we live forever.

Hail devourer of shadows, terror lurking in the entrails of mountains, I extinguished no man's light. I took neither his life nor dreams. May we live forever.

Hail that which brings the trees to flower, the wheat to grow, the lotus to blossom, which bursts from the black bowels of earth singing, I've not wasted the gift of your labors. May we live forever.

Hail seer of the beginning and the end coming forth unbidden, I've not altered the flow of nature. I released myself to destiny. A seed must take root. Winds must blow. May we live forever.

Hail peace that comes of its own volition. I've not chased after things I thought would make me happy. May we live forever,

Hail two plumes of the ostrich, two horns of the ram, I've not wasted my time talking while my hands slept in my lap. May we live forever.

Hail hands of fire, baker of bread and men and truth, I've not fed myself before the hungry child. I've not carried off the praise intended for the gods. May we live forever."

In our most ancient ancestors' conceptions, the integrity and conduct of a person's life is everything. If the ultimate spiritual goal is, as The Book of Coming Forth by Day puts it, to become the god-man or god-woman, the only way is through a life lived in alignment with natural law, a scrupulous morality and care for all people and creatures of the earth.

So I pose some simple questions. Is it possible to attain spiritual enlightenment if you are the beneficiary in an unjust global system that buys your privileges at the cost of physical suffering and death for billions of people and the ravaging of eco-systems and creatures over the entire planet? When the very leisure you enjoy to contemplate higher truths is bought at the price of others' ceaseless toil?

This is the condition of the West, which we are told is undergoing a 'spiritual renaissance.' Everywhere I go it seems I can pick up one of the free 'new age' magazines that tells me of the opportunities in my area to meditate, fast, talk to angels, manifest material abundance, gaze into crystal balls, channel great Masters, access my past lives, learn any one of a myriad of physical exercises and manipulations…all with the goal of 'actualizing' myself and attaining spiritual wisdom. I wonder what it is that is not 'actual' about so many of our lives, that we suffer so. For it is indeed our suffering that gives rise to these many promised 'cures.'

How many people do we know who are on medication for depression? Who are addicted to some substance or other that kills pain? Who live lives of endless diversions and distractions? What is this pain?

So many of us in the West would rather not think about the world at all. "It's just too messed up. The best I can do is work on myself and love the ones around me." Well actually I don't disagree with the idea of self-examination and self-knowledge and 'brightening the corner where you are'. But what is the ultimate and aim and object of personal development? Is it to simply feel better so that you can do more and get more and be theoretically happier?

Well, ones may protest, saying that after all we did not create this system, but were through no fault of our own born on top. We care about issues of justice. We do what we can. We don't like the way things are. But we have no power to change them.

With all this talk of personal empowerment and spiritual actualization, it is simply logically inconsistent to say we have no power. We are the most materially advantaged, most educated, most powerful general populace the world has ever seen. We have the freedom to go where we want and do as we please and speak and write and think as we will. And if we truly believe that spiritual development does not improve our ability to act and be in the world, why would we pursue it?

The sad truth is that we like the system the way it is. Not only can most of us not imagine parting with our privilege, we are dissatisfied with what we have materially and we always want MORE. This is one of the Buddhist hell-realms manifested--the West is a ravening 'hungry ghost', consuming and consuming but never satisfied, always wanting more. No wonder then that we are so unhappy.

The 'malaise' of the West, the 'age of anxiety', rose concurrent with the rise of industrialization, which got its capital for its vast capitalistic expansion from imperial adventures. And to justify the invasion and extermination of entire peoples in order to extract resources from their earth or slave labor from their backs, the West invented racial hierarchies. It is morally correct to relieve dark-skinned people of their treasures and their lives since they are inferior species living in unspeakable moral degradation and barbarity. They will vanish anyway, since in Darwinian terms they are the least 'fit.' We are merely hastening nature's work. And all of this is couched in terms of Christian charity and scientific efficacy, the twin idols of the West.

Why is it so difficult to see that the ghosts that haunt the dreams of people in the West are the ghosts of these violated millions? One reason is that it is most uncomfortable to contemplate this history. Once we engage our history it is inevitable that we must change our lives. And so, it is easier simply not to contemplate or engage.

When we look at the words from that most ancient and beautiful text, how should we feel?

I extinguished no man's light.
I took neither his life nor dreams
I've not wasted the gift of your labors.
I've not altered the flow of nature.
I've not chased after things I thought would make me happy.
I've not wasted my time talking while my hands slept in my lap.
I've not fed myself before the hungry child. I've not carried off the praise intended for the gods.

What if the system that represents our interests in the world, and from which we benefit directly, has done all of these things, and more? If we feel a profound 'disconnect' between our personal values and the values on display in our governments, and we value the fact that at least on paper we have representative forms of government, what does this call us to?

I am afraid that for too many, the impulse is to take no responsibility whatsoever, to plead powerlessness as a defense, and then to retreat into an almost morbid state of self-fascination. Instead of using their privilege in the world to stand for what they know is justice, and the truth, they make a world for themselves that is very small indeed. If they only meditate enough, or chant enough, or get enough 'therapy', they think, maybe they will not be so unhappy. If they can only manifest a spiritual state that attracts money to them, then they will have 'enough.'

It is all too true that that the world is in the midst of a massive corporate takeover, and that money determines power to a large degree. But this does not mean that the efforts of an undeniably privileged elite can have no effect. If we are white, middle-class, educated, and living in relatively open societies, it is foolish for us to claim that we are not an elite. It is morally reprehensible that ones such as us should throw up our hands and behave as if we can cast away the cup of our privilege. If we feel spiritual kinship with the poor ones of the earth, this should dictate a change in our conduct.

There are many forms which this can take. But the key is dedicating our excess time, excess money, and excess privilege to bring issues of basic justice (such as reparations, for example) to the table. This situation of global crisis calls for far more than an 'each one teach one' philosophy.

There is much work to be done: resurrecting a forgotten/suppressed history, helping others come to consciousness about the price they pay for their privilege, challenging the corporate colonization of the planet, working on alternative technologies and social and governmental structures--- so many many things to be done.

It does not seem logical that it is in a privileged person's best interest to work to eliminate his or her privilege. But in terms of spiritual growth and the only true happiness which humans can achieve, which results from alignment with natural/divine laws, such work indeed serves our highest interests. And really, there can be no other work.

"Not a perfect soul, I am perfecting. Not human being, I am human becoming. A phoenix asleep in the ashes of night, I rise anew each day. I burn with fever, with all I crave to know. I enter the temple, my mind afire. I've come to burn down the house.

May we live forever."


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