Modern culture is entranced with growth. It’s an addiction that’s completely out of control even though we know the consequences are washing over us like the building tsunami that they are. The growth imperative saturates not only economics and our material aspirations, but also spirituality.
The sanctity of growth is so pervasive that panic ensues when growth slows down, and especially when growth goes negative. I can’t help noticing my personal inclinations implicated here as well, how devoted I am in my later years to what I name as growth, to whom I can yet be, the deepening of perspective, spiritual comfort, a continuous expansion into an evolving comprehension of life and doing the personal work of becoming worthy of the attribution of human. It’s a combination of learning, knowing, faith and loosely held certainties. Most of all, it’s become an ongoing inquiry into the mysteries of time, duration, the currency of living, aging, and death.
What’s also required in the personal growth space is uncertainty, not only a realization of what little is known, but an accommodation to what little I personally know and how I cling to what I claim to know. It’s a realization that the comfort of certainty, though always appealing, is a false security and that a willingness to continuously parse threads of belief and knowing are the primary components of a sustained orientation to openness. As if I must always leave room in the attic for something new, while also continuously choosing among the certainties I have for what can be re-examined or discarded. And besides, if I was to use the Mahayana as a guiding philosophy, much of what I name as “personal” growth is actually an excavation of our true nature, a mining project to unearth our innermost pristine, indestructible nature.
In the culture at large, a critical corollary of continuous growth is certainty. The culture is steeped in certainty, perpetually reinforcing its mythologies as certainties, hardening now into hyper-polarized camps. Whenever that certainty is threatened, either by scientific data, human experience, faith or religious belief, the response is invariably to arrogantly re-assert the inviolability of the primary mission of culture, the prevailing Story, even though that very certainty is destroying us.
All around us, there is also the multi-billion-dollar enterprise in the past 50 years, what we know as the Personal Growth Industry. And here, as in the culture at large, are the same elements of the acquisitive orientation. More is better. Stephen Jenkinson and Paul Kingsnorth have each written about the deeply entrenched and unquenchable desire for more. The capitalist impulse is widely present in the monetization of the inner frontiers as in any other sector. And even though the premises of the industry are less certain, there is inherent danger in becoming entrenched in certainties about something as uncertain, as uncharted, as the human psyche. This pitfall is just as dangerous in the world of human improvement as in any other.
Economic growth has always been a form of taking, but has only recently become accumulation for its own sake. The identical character applied to inner journeys is what Chogyam Trungpa coined as spiritual materialism. Exploring at the edges of our inner wilderness is where we are truly tested. We can fall into the same trap of arrogance, applying ever more appealing rationalizations of the mysteries of life for the sake of ego gratification, and if one is sufficiently enterprising, monetize the entire experience as if it’s the most natural exercise one could imagine. This is a form of enclosure, a utilitarian, albeit satisfying, capture of our inner commons in parallel to what we see in the physical commons. This materialist model does penetrate the personal growth industry and some of the results are about as appealing as a strip mall. Or we can approach that wilderness with humility, care and patience, relying on time-tested spiritual sciences. There is immense benefit in shedding light into dark corners, exploring motivations, unconscious beliefs and hidden certainties that cause untold suffering and are driving us to the abyss.
I’m wondering if how we approach growth is related to how we approach death. The pursuit of growth, the acquisition of more, being determined to grow the ‘success’ of one’s life, to extend one’s relevance, being driven by a sense of inadequacy, or realizing most of one’s life is now in the past, chasing certainties in ever more precarious ways, is to never grow old, to remain a prisoner of the cultural definition of success and failure. Can the religion of personal and spiritual growth become just another means of paving our own paradise? Yes it can. What are we, as an aging population, not seeing as we pick through the vast buffet of offerings, pursuing the life-extending benefits of personal growth practices while mortality whispers in our ears? Is it that we must relinquish any attachment to growth or that there is nothing aggrandizing about chasing youth at the expense of living in the present?
The theory of steady state economic activity represents death to any capitalist, and to all but a tiny coterie of economists. The catechism “grow or die” demands there be no limits, that the idea of limits violates one of the core myths of humanity—that it is our destiny to continue our ascent to universal abundance, leisure and harmony, i.e. the platonic ideal, the Metaverse, disconnected from either history or nature. Implicit to that ideology is that endings do not occur. Limits are anathema. Have you noticed how many science-fiction depictions of an idyllic future include some form of victory over death? Conquering the wilderness is our destiny. Obstacles are temporary setbacks to be transformed into opportunities to transcend limits, to re-make ourselves and thus continue to fuel the myth.
Limits are for Luddites, who were, after all, the original adherents to the ideology of steady-state economics. And of course, they were vilified then and continue to be the symbol of ignorant backwardness in the face of anything new, especially the ideology, brought to us by our technology overlords, that everything new is good, including new methods of social control, new weapons or even genetic experimentation. Growth is always better. Limits are for suckers.
Death, being an undeniable and inevitable limit, becomes a failure requiring maximum effort to push it off-stage. The slowing of growth causes gnashing of teeth among mainstream economists, which are all tied to the market, which lives and dies at the altar of growth and the outsourcing of death. And even knowing we are all on the way to death cannot fully cleanse the failure from it. We’re always trying to overcome the impending final failure. We’re trying to grow out of it. Failing to live forever is somewhat assuaged by demonstrating how successful we are at fulfilling our desires for more, by amassing wealth for its own sake. He who dies with the most toys, wins. Accepting failure is to accept the end of growth.
Enlightenment is the spiritual ideal toward which we ‘grow’. The actual attainment of enlightenment, however unlikely, is depicted as a shedding more than an accumulation. Even so, the ideal symbolizes the end of growth, the end of time, and even the end of death. In this time, to accept failure and the end of growth would be widely regarded as a diminishment. Yet it could also be seen as its own deepening into one’s sacred time, into the truth of one’s life, becoming a model of the acceptance of death and failure as operating principles of life. To fully accept the reality of limits and the life-giving property of uncertainty is to let go of the ethics of More, to transform the profane taking for its own sake into an ethic of giving for its own sake. To deepen into our age, to accept limits, regardless of chronological age, regardless of whether the culture deems that age to be ‘young’ or ‘old,’ is to enter the all-too-rare space of what Stephen Jenkinson would call becoming an elder, becoming an ancestor, he says, worth claiming.
Because it does not retreat from the passage of time and can look with an unflinching gaze at both failure and success, standing on holy ground between the two, elderhood conveys an honest perspective about growth, failure, human agency, limits, and death.