Spirituality and Self Sufficiency

Ancient Bridge in Kolpino, Russia. Photo shared on Earth Porn Facebook group

Ancient Bridge in Kolpino, Russia. Photo shared on Earth Porn Facebook group

Those who have read older passages in my blog have probably seen me mention Charles Eisenstein and his book, Sacred Economics. That book was inspiring to me because of its clear, logical explanation on the connection between our economy and the sacred, spiritual aspects of our lives. Its concise explanation on how, exactly, the two parts of our culture are tied together.

Although I agreed with about 95% of the book, I didn’t agree with everything. I felt he placed too much emphasis on an inherent altruistic nature in people, which my experience has not shown me to be true. I ran across a passage in ‘Snow Falling on Cedars’ which really seemed to embody this dichotomy for me:

We bend our egos, all of the time, and that is where we differ. That is the fundamental difference, Hatsue. We bend our heads, we bow and are silent, because we understand that by ourselves, alone, we are nothing at all, dust in a strong wind, while the hakujin believes his aloneness is everything, his separateness is the foundation of his existence. He seeks and grasps, seeks and grasps for his separateness, while we seek union with the Greater Life – you must see that these are distinct paths we are traveling.

This passage really struck a chord for me because I do embrace my ‘aloneness’ or individualism. I hold self-sufficiency as one of the highest aspects to be achieved, and yet, this concept appears to fly in the face of teachings about interdependence, solidarity, and modern concepts of spirituality. I think there are many others who feel unsettled by this conflict as well. I composed this article to explain how I have personally rectified this apparent dichotomy within my own belief system.

Relational Spirituality

Wikipedia defines spirituality as follows:

The term spirituality lacks a definitive definition, although social scientists have defined spirituality as the search for “the sacred,” where “the sacred” is broadly defined as that which is set apart from the ordinary and worthy of veneration.

Haystack Rock in Oregon. Photo shared on Earth Port Facebook group.

Haystack Rock in Oregon. Photo shared on Earth Port Facebook group.

Although I have long considered myself an atheist, the beauty of the islands awakens in me a quiet joy, akin to a spiritual experience. My own role in this ecosystem makes me feel a part of something much bigger. Any efforts taken at conservation and stewardship of this place feel like work in the service of something greater. Likewise, the local community of sailors and fellow sail-bloggers I’ve met over the internet has the feel of a congregation – a collective of kindred souls who see the same thing I do when looking out over the water, who feel the same way I do about its beauty and importance in our lives.

There is a new term that I ran across that describes this kind of spirituality well – relational spirituality. There is a great summary article here that describes the evolution of relational spirituality. For heavier reading on the subject, I would point people to Sacred Economics or True Wealth. For those who are uncomfortable with the term spirituality, it could simply be called peer-production, or common interest, or Social Capital. I prefer the term relational spirituality because, for me, it is common interest and peer production, combined with something sacred.

My One Gripe with Sacred Economics – Dependence

Solidarity and interdependence are popular hallmarks of these ‘spiritual’ teachings, but I fear that those subscribers are in danger of losing sight of the importance of self-sufficiency. As I alluded too, the one gripe I have with Sacred Economics is its emphasis on the altruistic nature of people and its conclusion that we ‘need to need’ one another more.

I’m also a fan of Ayn Rand’s writing, which goes into great length to depict the horrors of altruism run-amok in both real-life and in her fiction, as well as altruism’s general inefficiency when these concepts are embraced by a government. Even Thoreau, one of the earliest advocates of voluntary simplicity, cautioned against do-gooders:

There is no odor so bad as that which arises from goodness tainted. It is human, it is divine, carrion. If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life… I would rather suffer evil the natural way.

I like to think of that quote as Thoreau’s version of the modern proverb, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” It is these types of altruism, empowered by the monopoly of dependence, that I seek to avoid and caution others against.

Eisenstein advocates a need for dependence in his book. While many of his arguments, as well as arguments in books like Plenitude, state the need to acknowledge our interdependence on one another, a part of me cringes at the concept of complete dependence on other people. In my own life, as well as countless depictions in history and literature, I have seen how a relationship of dependence can lead to exploitation at both the personal and societal scales.

There was one passage early on in his book that I disagreed with in particular. In chapter four, ‘The Trouble with Property’, he argues how the concept of private property (as a symptom of separation from our ecosystem) have led to problems in society. He states:

Charles Avila describes the logic this way: “If I am my own, and my labor power belongs to me, then what I make is mine.” Here then is an ideological prerequisite for any concept of property, that “I am my own”, which is by no means a universal precept in human societies. In other societies, the clan, the tribe, the village, or even the community of all life may have taken priority over the individual conception of the self, in which case your labor power does not belong to you, but to something greater.

By ‘something greater’, Charles alludes to the desire many feel to be part of some greater purpose, to work for a greater good.

While I admit he has a point in regards to people wanting to work for a greater good and I do not dispute the historical accuracy of his comment, the individualist in me recoils from using a collectivist argument to abolish the concept of personal property.

Because this argument is used to logically build up a definition for other concepts later in the book, I think it’s important to analyze it at a deeper level. Later chapters use this argument to emphasize the ‘need to need’ one another and takes this concept past mere interdependence to a level of collective identity and ‘interbeingness’.

sacred economics

Sacred Economics can be read online for free, but I recommend the print or kindle edition.

The problem I see with this argument is that we are, obviously and inherently, separate. To quote Ayn Rand, “We can divide a meal among many men. We cannot digest it in a collective stomach. No man can use his lungs to breathe for another man. No man can use his brain to think for another.

While I agree with his greater observation that we all have a desire for meaning in our life (e.g. to be part of something greater than ourselves) and that we are interdependent on members of our immediate society, I think he trivializes our separateness. We evolved to take care of ourselves, to live on our own if need be – to hunt our own food, to heal our own wounds, to build our own shelters. Humans are very capable of living in isolation. Because they choose not to is important, but don’t ignore the fact that they are able. Self-sufficiency is an evolutionary imperative that can not be ignored.

In that chapter, Charles argues that our cultural concept of a ‘separate self’ leads us to isolation from nature and thus an urge to dominate nature and turn it into ‘property’. Property then has its own set of problems that he expands upon later in the chapter.

I would argue that he is over-emphasizing our sense of isolation. I agree with him that in society today, we have taken our self-inflicted isolation from nature far too far. However, I can’t help but point out the obvious fact that we are separate. If you die, I do not die. If a forest burns down, I do not burn. Yes, I would feel a great sense of loss, but the point is that separate, discrete lives are a reality – how we evolved. Yes, we are interdependent. Yes, relationships are a huge aspect of our lives. Yes, we should acknowledge our dependence on nature and the ecosystem and feel a sense of loss when they are damaged. But do not forget that we are discrete beings. For that reason, self-sufficiency is a virtue.

love_not_a_bondFurthermore, I would point out that cultivating self-sufficiency within ourselves leads to a greater appreciation for nature. Total self-sufficiency is really an impossible ideal, for when I speak of it, I mean self-sufficiency from other people. It’s implicit that a self-sufficient person is still reliant on nature, there is no other option. But it leaves one free to deal with people… or not. It does not remove the imperative of interdependence, it simply removes the exploitive nature of dependence.

In chapter eight, Eisenstein goes into greater detail on his concept of interbeingness. He touches briefly on the works of Ayn Rand and how it conflicts with his concepts. He concludes that “full membership in the community of being” leads one to “express our gifts; it is among our deepest desires, and we cannot be fully alive otherwise.

I agree with him about our innate desire to express our gifts for the betterment of the world around us, but I would argue that this desire stems from a benevolence born from self sufficiency. Only after we have tended to our own basic needs can we (or should we) turn our energy to the enrichment of others. To me, this is what is meant by a ‘mentality of abundance’ – to produce more than you need and to bestow that excess as a generous act, a gift. For me, the very definition of benevolence has self-sufficiency at its core.

charles eisenstein

Charles has a new book coming out in November that goes into much greater detail on interbeingness. I look forward to reading more about his logic.

Here is what frightens me about the ‘need to need’ one another: To say “I depend on you”, is to say “I need you”, which is to say, “If I can’t get what I need from you, I’m screwed.” That is dependence, and it’s a desperate place to be. To need people in general, a choice of one of several people, is interdependence. To need one single person is a monopoly. That is dependence, and leads to an unpleasant, exploitive relationship for both parties.

Despite my disagreements with his logic, I want to point out that I do not disagree with Charles economic conclusions. This section of chapter four that I pointed out concludes that we need a monetary system that “rewards flow and not accumulation, creating and not owning, giving and not having.” In this, I whole-heartedly agree with him.

Because I feel Charles made this slight error in the foundation of Sacred Economics, I think the truth in the ultimate message of the book is skewed. It does not leave enough room for the importance of concepts such as self-sufficiency and voluntary simplicity. They are implicit in much of his arguments, such as the concepts of True Materialism described in both Sacred Economics and True Wealth, but I feel they should be more explicit. They take backstage to an argument for dependence on one another. Eisenstein has a new book coming out next month that addresses his concept of interbeingness more directly. I look forward to reading it and getting a greater understanding of his arguments.

Spirituality and Practical Living

I know that I am not the only one who feels this apparent conflict in the lack of a clear relational definition between dependence, interdependence, and self-sufficiency. For the last several years I have studied the voluntary simplicity movement and its off-shoots such as the small house movement and minimalism. I’ve studied other analyses about the systemic problems in our economic system and how to fix them, such as Juliet Shore’s book, True Wealth. A common core in all these are the concepts of interdependence and self-sufficiency. I think the importance of a clear definition of the spectrum of interdependence – where it begins at dependence and ends at self-sufficiency – is of tantamount importance to people interested in these subjects.

The concepts embodied in the voluntary simplicity, minimalism, Plenitude, and small house movements show the practical aspects of this new spirituality – embracing interdependence and self-sufficiency at the same time; allowing one to live a spiritual as well as eminently practical lifestyle while simultaneously living in harmony with our ecosystem and having a vibrant economy.

That is why I prefer a new term, such as relational spirituality, as it places the emphasis on relationships. It acknowledges, for me, interdependence and solidarity, without any connotation to altruism or the negative aspects of dependence. Self-sufficiency is still a virtue, on equal footing with interdependence.

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7 Responses to “Spirituality and Self Sufficiency”
  1. Brett says:

    I think you are tragically lost in “The American Dream” which has now become a nightmare for the rest of us.

    Try reading Dan Kemmis’ book “Community and the Politics of Place.”

  2. cloudwatcher says:

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for this insightful piece. I don’t think you are tragically lost even though I don’t have the same feelings about dependence as you do. I am interested in this piece because I have heard similar gripes about the notion of dependence before and I am wondering why for some people it is so comfortable and attractive and for others so off-putting and scary. I can only guess that it is a combination of many complex factors, personal and cultural, that determine whether a particular concept sits easy with us and I would like to run something by you to see whether it helps us understand this difference more.

    Suppose you were born in a culture where your family and community looked after your needs – food, shelter, protection and your social needs. You had a strong sense of identity belonging to these people and this place and there was space for you to become who you were. This meant that your sense of individuality was shaped by what was special and unique about your separateness, as well as by who you were in relation to others. You grow up to become a secure, confident and compassionate person.
    To a certain extent your ‘success’ as a person in this community was dependent upon how well you were cared for as you grew into adulthood. This caring was something you could not possibly do for yourself. A child needs to be fed and sheltered and loved and educated. They are dependent. This is natural and when it goes well it is actually enjoyable. I am mother to an 8 year old boy and I can see how he enjoys depending on me, as well as discovering his own independence. The two are not mutually exclusive.

    So what I am getting at is that it doesn’t have to be a conflict between dependence and self-sufficiency or independence. Or self-sufficiency being the ideal as you put it somewhere. We are constantly moving between the two with greater and lesser success and ultimately we can never be ‘an island’. Even if we were to become independent of people, we remain locked into the web of life, which is just as unpredictable even though it doesn’t express opinions and does not seem to harm us with intention.

    And I guess that is another aspect of what might be uncomfortable for people around this notion of dependence. If you have ever had to depend on someone who was unsafe or harmful in any way then self-sufficiency may seem the preferred option. This is probably not an uncommon experience. Given how much the myth of hyper-individualism has permeated our lives it is no wonder we behave as if it’s each to their own and in behaving this way we fail to give the nurturing to those who depend on us and create an unsafe world which those who weren’t nurtured perpetuate.

    As a mother whose childhood was very unsafe I see it as my task to break that cycle and offer my son the opportunity to grow into a person who is both independent and dependent, but not co-dependent. And even though I don’t agree with everything Charles says around the gift economy I am grateful that many of us are having these discussions. It’s only by grappling with these ideas that we will find our way to that more beautiful world.

    • Chris says:

      Thank you for your well thought-out comment!

      Your example of the dependence of a child, being raised in a caring and nurturing environment echos my own childhood. I salute your desire to create this environment for your son. I think we agree more than disagree.

      I agree with your point that we are constantly moving between self-sufficiency and dependence in our relationship with family. I agree that conflict between the two does not need to exist in a family relationship. I also agree that the proper role of a child is that of dependency. I think that history has shown that conflicts between the two arise, and are more sever, in higher level, societal relationships, such as in government and law.

      Yet sometimes even in those intimate, family relationships, co-dependency and other negative aspects of dependence are possible. I think that in your desire to teach your child to avoid co-dependence you are fostering the attitude of self-sufficiency-of-spirit that is the focal point of this article. The point of self-sufficiency is not so much to be an ‘island’ as it is to deal with people on equal footing, with free will, and preferably an attitude of benevolence.To avoid dependency, as I frame it here, is to avoid the negative aspects of dependency, like co-dependence, by maintaining a sovereignty of spirit. In practical application this self-sufficiency-of-spirit goes hand-in-hand with self-sufficiency-of-body; the self-providing (as an adult) of your own basic needs of food, water, and shelter.

      You’re right that notions of dependence are comforting to some and off-putting to others. The trouble is that ‘dependence’ is just a word, like ‘altruism’. These words mean different things to different people, based on their personal experiences. For most people, those words are used in a positive light. However, like Thoreau and Rand, I have learned that there is sometimes a dark side when these words are put into practice. Sometimes good intentions do not have good results.

  3. Brad T says:

    Great article! I myself am dependent on beer. And therefore dependent on people who make the beer… because I don’t yet make beer on my own. I hope that one day I can depend on someone’s book or information so that I can learn how to make beer, and further depend on someone else to sell me the necessary equipment to do so. 🙂 But seriously, self sufficiency is important, specifically when it comes to the mental and spiritual. As far as mass to mass living in the physical world I feel that there is a continuous dependence in all of nature including humans. We thrive when working and living as communities, whether its a whole town working together or just 20 hippies living on a farm. Remember that it’s not only the child who needs but also the elderly. In past Native American cultures and other indigenous cultures around the planet there was no strong hunter who kept all the meat for himself. He shared the hunt with the entire village and everyone else contributed what they could for the good of the village. Those who could not provide anything (children and elderly) were still treated with the same respect and care. Because life as a species is a cyclical event of dependance. Some day we will will all need to depend on others, once again, to help us survive physically. We should never “need” someone mentally or spiritually, that is simply unhealthy. However it is never wrong to need others physically to survive as a species, to thrive as a community… and of course to make beer 🙂

  4. Julie says:

    This is a very interesting subject, I think as human beings we all feel the need to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, however I do feel that in some ways society forces us to be more dependent on others because of how it is structured. I think that our society is founded on the condition of needing things to be provided for us and needing other things that we can buy for ourselves. For example most people today cannot go out and find land on which to build a house with materials that we can find for ourselves, even if they have the experience to be able to do those things. We rely on other people to provide homes to us at a cost, we must maintain those homes with money and we must work to provide money for ourselves. This makes us very dependent on the society to which we are born in, never mind the pressure of societal roles that we are often pushed into. I personally feel that we as people should help others in need, t hat we should work as a community to support each other. I think there is a comfort in knowing that if something were to happen that there are people who would help you out in your time of need and help to get you back on your feet. I also believe that it is an individuals responsibility to be able to take care of and support themselves. Everyone should be able to contribute to the society by at least being able to take care of themselves if not providing something useful for the community as a whole. I think it really can be a tricky subject because people should be able to take care of themselves but at the same time I believe people have a responsibility to help care for others in society and to help bring them to the point of being self-sufficient themselves.

    I think I have a unique point of view on this from you because I was not raised in a family that protected, loved and took care of me. Often I find myself wanting to rely on others for emotional support and a part of me hates that I feel the need for someone else to make me happy. Yet I believe this need comes directly from not receiving everything that I needed as a child. I have some sense of self-sufficiency because I had to take care of myself most of the time but I also feel a strong need to be taught things and to have someone look over me and confirm that I’m doing things right because of my childhood experiences. So I think that for people like me who were not allowed the safety and security to become their own person it can be hard to not depend on others. It’s like we are looking for others to help fill this space inside where something is missing. As a person who likes being able to take care of myself and who thinks analytically it is easy for me to spot both the need and at the same time understand why I have that need. I don’t want to rely on others for emotional support and I work towards not needing others so much but at the same time I feel the need to be loved, to feel that I am not alone and that if anything happens to me that someone will help take care of me. I want it, and yet at the same time I am aware that other people have no obligation to take care of me and that no matter how close you are to a person we are all truly alone with ourselves. No matter how much I want someone to make me feel less lonely only I can provide myself with what I need.

    I hope you can understand this and that I’m not being too vague with my response here but I find the ideas that you are discussing fascinating. I almost hate the idea of people not needing one another but at the same time how much do we really need each other and how close is too close? Is needing each other a good thing, a bad thing or neither, those are all very interesting and thought provoking questions.

    • Chris says:

      Julie, thank you for your contribution. You point out many conflicting concepts. I think we can all agree that our lives embody all those conflicting beliefs; that mediation in our lives between the conflicts is necessary. Where each of us draws that line and sets the priority is a unique, personal decision.

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