A few weeks ago I found myself standing in a ceremonial circle alongside twenty-five of my graduate students outside of a large suburban shopping mall. We had come there to partake in a “Mall Quest,” a journey of discovery into a citadel of our culture. This was part of a six-day training in ecopsychology practices. We had spent the previous day in a beautiful natural setting in the foothills of the Rockies on a contemplative nature walk, a practice aimed at remembering one’s connections with the natural world and experiencing elements of nature as a mirror: signs and symbols of your own life’s journey that are reflected from the more-than-human world about you.
But I had decided to try something new this day—to contrast the grounded wisdom achieved through walking mindfully in nonhuman-made nature with the lessons revealed through walking mindfully in that temple of human-made nature: the shopping mall. I always do what I ask of my students—so, not ever having tried it, there I stood hand-in-hand, invoking a meditative state in front of the doors to this familiar world. One of the students spoofed a mystical chant for the occasion:
Sacred Mother Mall,
Provider of All,
Give us what we need,
Satisfy our greed.
Then one by one we passed in silence and alone into the well-lit climate-controlled space. We were to walk in a similar manner as we had during the contemplative nature walk: slowly and attentively, allowing ourselves to be drawn by whatever attracted us, observing both our own physical and emotional reactions and whatever signs or symbols touched our consciousness. We were not allowed to buy or eat or speak unless we were spoken to.
I knew that every product in this vast sea of products had left a trail of disruption somewhere in the world: forests clearcut, exhaust smoke in the air, bulldozers flattening some creature’s habitat, noise breaking a tranquil morning, oil sheen in the puddles. What were we doing? Is it really worth it?
As I entered the mall I felt an astounding difference from any other time I had been there. By maintaining mindfulness, the environment became psychedelic in its intensity. A thousand simultaneous messages flooded in: colors, images, words, sounds, smells, movement, everything beckoning for attention: “Buy me! Buy me!” Each storefront was bursting with abundance, the entire mall a cornucopia. I breathed calmly and witnessed this extraordinary onslaught. It was like entering a mythic underworld, an astral realm where beings wandered perpetually shopping for things to fill an unassuageable void within them. I cautioned myself not to judge, just to witness. It was difficult. I knew that every product in this vast sea of products had left a trail of disruption somewhere in the world: forests clearcut, exhaust smoke in the air, bulldozers flattening some creature’s habitat, noise breaking a tranquil morning, oil sheen in the puddles. What were we doing? Is it really worth it? A hundred years ago in this spot, I would have been looking out on a tall-grass prairie running up to the foot of the mountains, there to join with the conifer forests. Antelope and buffalo would be wandering here.
I drifted into a “nature store”—there were posters of idyllic waterfalls and a mountain lion crouching on a rock. I was becoming numb. After a few minutes I found myself staring at a phosphorescent wall sticker for $6.99 entitled: “The Earth—It Glows in the Dark!” Sadness, a kind of aching poignancy, came over me. I began to notice how many products throughout the mall had pictures of wild nature on them—T-shirts with every animal imaginable, frogs as door stops, mugs with mountain scenes, stores filled with stuffed animals, sheets that were fields of daisies—merchandisers had focused on our unconscious and conscious longing for free nature and were packaging it in every conceivable form.
In another shop my eyes were drawn to an advertising blurb for cellular phones: “LIVE BEYOND LIMITS! GET MORE ROOM IN YOUR LIFE FOR THE THINGS THAT MATTER MOST!” It happens to be one of my own teaching lines: “the things that matter most”—I often question students about what these things are for them. It is my attempt to distinguish between a high standard of living and high quality of life, but in this blurb the two are conflated: quantity IS quality. Is this the credo of the religion of consumerism—to live beyond limits? What in the name of the planet are we doing?
I was by that time in my Mall Quest nearly overwhelmed by the vacuity and presumption of my people. Yes, these are my people, I realized. They are not an abstract “they” somewhere else who I could blame. My own life and destiny is caught up in theirs, in their choices and impulses, and to varying extents, I partake in those choices and impulses. My heart was about to break. I asked for some guidance, some sign to show a way out of this Earth-destructive and self-destructive addiction we are caught in.
I wandered into a toy store—gaudy plastic dinosaurs and strange robot warriors greeted me—I kept wandering.
Finally, toward the back, I stood in front of long shelves of boxes and jigsaw puzzles. My eyes scanned across them, and then stopped at the following quote written in small letters on a gaily colored puzzle of the Earth:
In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.
Yes, that is the way. But if our elders are addicted to the trinkets of commercial culture— who will teach the young? As Annie Dillard writes, “There is no one but us.”
Time was up and I made my way back to the mall entrance to rejoin the students. Most of them were deeply shaken by the experience. “What do we love?” I asked them. “What do we love?”
Elias Amidon, a cofounder of the Institute of Deep Ecology, leads wilderness vision quests in the United States and Southeast Asia. He is the coeditor, with Elizabeth Roberts, of Earth Prayers and Prayers for a Thousand Years.
From Dharma Rain: Sources of Buddhist Environmentalism. Edited by Stephanie Kaza and Kenneth Kraft. Copyright 2000 by Elias Amidon. Reprinted by permission of the author.