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Dec 05
Opinion Pieces
Critical Thought, and Shopping

photo by Charles Blackhall

a brief essay by guest contributor Amanda Hester

It is not ‘Big Business’ with its CEOs, Walmart, outsourcing, or misguided policies that shall ultimately destroy the world, these are all just symptoms of our fear and the ignorance that comes from it. Indeed, all of our ‘demons’ are born from these two, and continue to be maintained by them. Bertrand Russell wrote, “It is fear that holds men back — fear lest their cherished beliefs should prove delusions, fear lest the institutions by which they live should prove harmful, fear lest they themselves should prove less worthy of respect than they have supposed themselves to be” (Principles of Social Reconstruction). Before we can tackle the monoliths that have been created, we must confront our personal fear and ignorance and how these feed in to an unsustainable and unhealthy global status quo.

Once we steel ourselves to it, we can find the confidence to face uncomfortable truths. For, beyond fear there is an inherent bravery in all of us, housed in the armor of integrity and fed by compassion and virtue. It is indestructible, this Arthurian Knight that lives within us, who longs to ‘do the right thing’. No matter how depressing the world, or how mired we become, this chivalrous heart never goes away, not completely, and utilizing this knight, we need only whet the sword of our intellect to confront our fears. It is critical thinking that shall change the world.

Buying local, riding a bicycle, or composting is all wonderful, however, the greater point is to have these and other activities arise from an open and questioning mind. Having reached the level at which our individual actions now take place within a global context, token activity or ‘just doing our part’ is empty and even meaningless if it is not joined with the development of critical thinking.

Critical thought is not necessarily aimed at changing our decisions; that is not the point (although it may be the outcome). One might still buy the usual latte from Starbucks, or shop at the Gap, or drive the three blocks to Walmart to pick up a new gadget that is on sale there during lunch break. Critical thinking is about awakening the bravery of that inner knight to consider and explore the direct and indirect results of these actions, and then (very importantly) to own those choices and the complicity that we have in this world because of them. Critical thought is about altering blind habits and patterns of behavior. Uncompromised critical thinking involves a great deal of courage; it is about facing the monsters that we create, and allowing ourselves to experience the shame, guilt, and embarrassment that we would otherwise hide from.

During the holiday season we are often accosted by impulse, the need to buy things out of obligation or desire. Just taking a curious moment, to give pause before acting, looking at what we are doing and engaging the critical thought that considers an alternative, is doing a great deal. Whether or not we end up changing the decision or purchase we were about to make, considering to whom we give our business, and to what we give value, is a matter of changing our habits of mind and subsequently our lifestyle. It is this change that is ultimately needed to alter the destructive course that our world seems bent upon.

At the individual level, as well as the international level, we do not live in isolation, and yet, particularly in the West, we have developed narcissistic societies. This narcissism destroys balance. The narcissist does not consider his ‘other’ or even his environment, he acts within a context only of himself, his needs and desires, and he is ultimately destroyed by this self-absorption. Self-absorption ignores the reality of others, and it is this ignorance that destroys the balance that holds and maintains both self and other. One could say that centuries of narcissism have destroyed the balances of the world: environmental, social, and economic. As a species we appear to have outlived our legacy of short-term planning and narrow view, even as we cling tenaciously to both. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “The means by which we live have outdistanced the ends for which we live”. Yet, most stubbornly, “the masses are always ready to defend their most precious possession – their ignorance” (Hendrik Van Loon).

The space that is created by critical thought allows us to open up to the reality of the present, as well as the needs of the future, without being overwhelmed. It is not about fear-mongering and coercion, but rather, it is about daring, integrity, and discernment. Critical thinking is not just about questioning the choices we make, it is about having culpability for them as well. As the language of ‘green’, ‘organic’, ‘sustainable’, and even ‘fair trade’ becomes increasingly co-opted and commoditised, as global interconnection and relationships become increasingly complex, and right and wrong look increasingly grey, as we solidify the global ‘balances’ we have created based upon asymmetry and exploitation, it is difficult to know what the best choices are. Our integrity comes from questioning, and exploring, discovering for ourselves. It comes from waking our inner warrior to fight against the comfortable cocoon of our own complacency and ignorance.

While I am all for speaking truth to power, the greatest activism of our age may come from, and at the very least needs to begin with, speaking truth to ourselves. As George Orwell wrote, “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act”.

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9 responses to “ Critical Thought, and Shopping ”
  1. marguerite sands
    Dec 11, 2012

    NY Times had a recent article, less academic in tone but offering similar wisdom in the end (arriving at penultimate paragraph, copied here for your reading pleasure:

    An alternative might be to cultivate what Buddhists call “nonattachment” — and if the earliest Buddhists tended to practice this in beautiful natural settings, perhaps that’s only because they lacked shopping malls. Stand on a busy downtown street at dusk on a pre-Christmas Saturday with this in mind, and decline to be swayed by the exhortations to spend, and it suddenly becomes a purely exhilarating spectacle, as breathtaking, in its own way, as any waterfall or mountain panorama.

    full article:

  2. Marshall Bishop
    Dec 10, 2012

    Hi Amanda,

    Great article! And nice comment by Sherab Gyatso.

    All the best,

  3. Sherab Gyatso
    Dec 10, 2012

    Critical thinking makes it clear that individual actions are insufficient. We are interdependent. That means the system destroying our environment consists both of us and the economic / ecological / social environment we inhabit. It’s a whole and we cannot “just stop polluting” any more than we can cut off an arm. Doing so means either going hungry or becoming so marginalized that our ability to change the world is constrained.

    Nevertheless, it’s also not as if we all have equal votes in the matter. 2/3 of all business is business to business. In 2007, 1% of US households controlled 35% of the wealth, the top 10% controlled 70% of US wealth. So 90% of us have maybe 10% of the say (1/3 * 30%). This is hardly theoretical: the Doha Climate Conference was a bust despite majorities world wide wanting action. Similarly, even if all consumers in the US suddenly became “aware” and reduced their consumption, the slack would be taken by the new giant developing world middle classes.

    Something people often forget is that technology has momentum: if we build a coal fired plant today, it has a lifespan of 30 years: we’ve decided we’ll use coal for the next 30 years. Similarly, if I purchase a new vehicle, it will be on the roads at least 20 years. Switching over takes a long time, so even though global environmental degradation has reached a critical stage, the latencies involved mean we need a much greater sense of urgency than simply avoiding an impulse buy.

    I know of republicans who fear that the “green movement” is “red inside” like a melon. They recognize that capitalism is incompatible in practice with ecology: capitalism is about the individual freedom of investors, ecology recognizes interdependence. They rightly fear that taking the environment seriously will mean that we will have to change our economic system significantly. They have perhaps thought more critically than most environmentalists I know. I doubt communism will be the solution as they fear — it did not work well last century and was more polluting than capitalism — but we will need to find a new middle way.

  4. Scott Forbes
    Dec 10, 2012

    Rise up old flaaaame, like thy light glooowing, show to us beauuty, wisdom and joy…And you did (wisdom
    anyway as the beauty and joy are obvious to those of us who know you). Thanks, Amanda!

  5. Torgny Vigerstad
    Dec 8, 2012

    Thank you so much for sharing this very thoughtful essay.

  6. Thanks! I’m more than happy to have this published anywhere. I originally wrote it a few years ago for a friend’s blog. Please feel free to share it as you like.

  7. Gabe Dayley
    Dec 6, 2012

    Amanda, this is a wonderful, thought-provoking piece. Would you consider submitting it to any blogger sites (e.g. Huffington Post) or even as an op-ed column to a major newspaper? I think it would be great if these ideas could reach a wider audience than just members of Shambhala, especially, as you note, at the start of the Holiday season.

    Thank you!

  8. Radha Vyas
    Dec 5, 2012

    I love the article, so well articulated about consumerism and lack of consciousness on the part of consumers and it’s social implications. Well said …,

  9. Kristine McCutcheon
    Dec 5, 2012

    Hi Amanda – Can I reprint this in our local paper?

    The follow up article I might print would be from Khenpo Rinpoche on critical logic :)

    Nicely written.

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