Recently I found myself engaged in a discussion about the birth, rise, and peak of Madonna's reign in American culture. Oddly enough, this conversation came from my comment about attending a yoga class. Once my friend Melanie heard the word "yoga," she responded, "That sounds so Madonna," as the singer has forsaken lifting weights and the club scene for daily yoga sessions. I told Melanie I thought Madonna practiced Cabala, or Jewish mysticism. Melanie commented that whatever it was called, Madonna was still at the height of her success. I attempted to steer our conversation back to Cabala, but Melanie turned up the stereo, drowning any chance of communication. Over Madonna's latest single Melanie yelled, "She just gets deeper and deeper!"
Soon afterward, I stood beside a woman paging through People magazine at a downtown newsstand, and couldn't help but notice the article she perused, approximately titled, "Uma's Dad on the Benefits of Buddhism." An emaciated column of print flirted with a large photograph of a beaming
elderly fellow (with Uma Thurman's nose!). As the woman flipped a page I watched the article continue in its asceticism next to a glossy photo of such hot celebs as Michael Stipe of R.E.M., Harrison Ford, and the lovely Uma herself, all supporting Tibet in a glamorous photo shoot and urging President Clinton to talk some sense into that darned Communist government in China. Before learning just how much knowledge People magazine shared with its readers on sewing the seeds of the Dharma, I recalled all the other famous names who stood up for Tibet (if not for Buddhism): Brad Pitt, Martin Scorsese, the Beastie Boys, Radiohead, and Bjork, to name a few. Forget the benefits of meditation, I was calculating how many buckaroos it would cost to buy a plane ticket to Washington, DC, so I could attend the next Tibetan Freedom Concert, where, undoubtedly, all the cool kids go. It wasn't in my budget; I shuffled away from the newsstand feeling vaguely robbed by the smiling stars who had the cash to hobnob with the Dalai Lama.
I was getting the hunch that strange things were occurring on the landscape of American spirituality, and not long after I underwent a conversion of my own. One particular day, feeling acutely twentysomething and strapped for cash, I wandered down the street, bitter over the fact that I had been decorating my newfound apartment with postcards. My gaze settled, and I was
staring up at the bowed head of the original Madonna through a tinted window. Christ's mother wore flowing, sky blue robes, and her long-lashed eyes spoke of suffering. Her hands reached out to me with promises of compassion and salvation. Except this wasn't a stained-glass church window, or even an antique store selling dusty mantelpiece Virgins. Mary beckoned from the trendy, brand-spanking-new furniture section of Urban Outfitters, her likeness emblazoned on a wooden wall hanging. But at a reasonable price for young twentysomethings setting up shop, even I could afford such a miracle! Before I could run to the cash register, the Virgin slowly descended from the window into the hands of a lucky black-clad hipster with a goatee and horn-rimmed glasses. He walked out past me, his new inflatable chair in one hand and now the Mother of Christ in the other.
I knew my experiences must mean at least one of two things (if not both): 1) Spirituality is for sale (at reasonable prices for folks like myself); 2) I need to buy something. Here in the US of A, which was founded on spiritual idealism and has emerged as a behemoth of consumerism, spirituality, like an overgenerous parent, provided support for capitalism. Capitalism, like an unruly child, has now gone and incapacitated spirituality. Somewhere along the way the masses acquired the belief that attending church or praying could be replaced with taking a ride in the family boat or hunting for bargains. As you, I, and Madonna know, 1990s America is a material girl in a material world. In a nation of plentiful products, where Eastern and Western ideas are as changeable as the click of a mouse, everything's been marketed and sold. We bought Model T's, dishwashers, sunglasses, blenders, color TVs, jet skis, Ataris, VCRs, the Internet, along with countless waves of both good and bad fashion. So when the bell bottoms and the big hair is out, what's in? What's left to buy or sell? I guess the only things that are still free: God, love, life, some claim to the realm of the spiritual.
Moreover, who's a better consumer of spiritual fulfillment than a generation of disillusioned twentysomethings who still think of "frugal" as an SAT word? (Note: If you answered 14-year-old girls, you were close. But they have Mom, Dad, and Titanic's example of eternal love to last them a couple more years.) If I'm on the lowest level of the corporate pyramid, eating tuna and Top Ramen to save cash, I'm probably in need of some serious soul soothing—after all that Top Ramen, I'm already in hell. But hey, if there's a discount on nirvana or you've got good deals on getting closer to God, I'm buying. There's just something odd about this revival of the spirit coming from Oprah Winfrey, Touched by an Angel, and assorted movies about angels starring the likes of John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, and Cuba Gooding Jr. Then again, there's Starbucks out there promoting the cult of the Goddess by jumping into bed with the Lilith Fair. Perhaps what worries me most about this new consumer movement is that somewhere along the way the roles of heart, mind, and soul will be forgotten and replaced by the head, stomach, genitals, and checkbook.