A few weeks ago, I found myself standing in a ceremonial circle alongside 25 of my graduate students outside a large suburban shopping mall. We had come 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 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 signs and symbols of one's own life journey.
But I had decided to try something new this day – to contrast the 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. So there we 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 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.
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 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 are 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.
An 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, posters of idyllic waterfalls and a mountain lion crouching on a rock, frogs as door stops, mugs with mountain scenes, 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 ad 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 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”– someone else whom I could blame. My own life and destiny is caught up in their choices and impulses, and I partake in those choices and impulses as well.
My heart was about to break. I asked for some sign of a way out of this Earth-destructive and self-destructive addiction. I wandered into a toy store – strange robot warriors and plastic dinosaurs greeted me. Finally, toward the back, my eyes 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 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?”