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Escaping the Cult of Abundance

Last week I received an email asking me to appear on a radio show called ‘The Yoga of Money.’ After listing their street cred with high-end instructors who’ve guested on the program, the producers described the show as being

a road map to achieving financial independence and living in abundance through yoga’s timeless teachings. 

Yoga’s ‘timeless’ teachings are steeped in metaphysical questions about the nature of death, how to steel yourself to prepare for battle, and help you slow the fluctuations of your mind. I’m not quite sure when ‘living in abundance’ was written into the literature, but I’m pretty confident it’s a relatively new maxim.

The Cult of Abundance runs rampant, however. While Rhonda Byrne might have perfected the packaging for an overtrusting audience, the idea that we should live abundantly is not new. Christian leaders like Joel Osteen patented that shtick long ago; the yoga and ‘spirituality’ crowds, reared in the same America, twist the sales pitch to their own degree.

Thus you have yoga as a source of financial prosperity. Of course, the salesmen (and women) behind these marketing initiatives tell you that it’s not only monetary abundance that’s important—gratitude, joy, contentment and a whole host of others emotions are mixed in. Yet this begs the question: Why does living a happy life imply that we need to live an abundant one? 

Of course it needn’t, but such a revelation would not make a good sales pitch. America is uniquely positioned—was uniquely positioned, though that’s changing—to offer prosperity to every citizen, as unrealistic as even that is: our national poverty level increased from 14.3% to 16% between 2009 and 2012, with 20% of children living in economically depressed households.

This trend shows no sign of abating. Journalist Chrystia Freeland points out that for the last 30 years, the American middle class has been treading water—between 2009 and 2011, the ‘1%’ got 121% of the gains in income, as the 99% went down .04%. While we have trouble feeding our own, it has been shown that our planet doesn’t have enough resources to support other countries living like Americans in the first place.

Thus, we turn to fantasy, even if such does not reflect the reality of our lives. Author Barbara Ehrenreich blames the financial crisis in part on this optimistic, indulgent attitude. In Bright-Sided, she notes that the idea we’ll always be prosperous helped financial companies take impossible gambles. Ever since that debacle, the richest have only grown richer, while politicians continue to promise a better tomorrow.

The danger of enrolling in the Cult of Abundance is taking personally market forces well beyond our control and trusting the monologues behind podiums. As she writes,

The flip side of positivity is thus a harsh insistence on personal responsibility: if your business fails or your job is eliminated, it must be because you didn’t try hard enough, didn’t believe firmly enough in the inevitability of your success.

An industry of life coaches promising you abundance to be found in a state of belief, not necessarily of actions, was born from this cheery optimism. Sympathetic magic has long been a feature of religious systems; translating it to the modern yoga crowd was a no-brainer for those who figured out they could profit by telling other people they will profit.

The general emphasis of abundance is that you will be taken care of (and more!) through the suspension of your disbelief. With Osteen’s crowd, it arrives in the form of cars and houses—the real estate crisis was fueled by such erroneous thinking—while this ideology remains more abstract and murky in New Age circles, often taking the form of ‘abundant energy’ and the like.

The problems with the Cult of Abundance can be distilled thus: 

—It preaches abundance as a universal principle, yet has no explanation when the data refuse to add up. This results in an anti-intellectual argument that one needs to ‘just have faith’ and not worry about specifics, even though specifics—in this case, quality of abundance—comprise the target goal.

—It presupposes that humans ‘deserve’ something from some external agency as a birthright. This act of hubris is antithetical to the notion of equality, for, as shown, our planet cannot sustain even the average American lifestyle, our baseline for survival. Advocates sidestep this fact by claiming that every person has their own needs (and thus own abundance), which further feeds the notion that some are ‘chosen’ to receive more than others. 

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Critical commentary on the Cult of Abundance is expectedly met as a sign of resistance, of just ‘not getting it’ and being negative. This is an entirely false assumption. It is when we crave less of the world that we find out we don’t need as much as we think. Happiness isn’t a piling on. It’s subtraction.

It’s little wonder that the Western world treats ‘emptiness’ as a negative condition filled with boredom and anxiety, while in Buddhist and Taoist philosophies, emptying oneself is an accomplishment to be revered. This difference, and the life that’s lived due to it, is much more than semantics.

Image: Jeff Wasserman/


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