I recently visited a spiritual community in Brazil called Source Temple. Drawing primarily on the teachings of Adi Da and A Course in Miracles, it comprises about thirty people from about ten countries, mostly Brazil and South America, ranging in age from 20-something to 60-something. I will neither endorse nor criticize the spiritual teachings and lineage; they serve their purpose to inspire the community and anchor it in non-ordinary thinking, perceiving, and relating.
The first thing to make a deep impression on me at Source Temple was the architecture – if “architecture” is the right word to describe the improvisational artistry of its twenty houses and other buildings. Everything was built on a low budget using mostly scavenged, upcycled, and donated materials. No two doors or windows on the entire property are identical; all are hand-made. A lot of the windows aren’t even rectangular: someone built the window around whatever piece of broken glass was available.
Yet there is nothing sloppy or haphazard about the buildings. They are devotional. They embody the impulse: “I will make use of whatever is available to create the most beautiful, functional environment that I can.” They also embody a kind of precision that belies their irregularity. It is the precision of knowing what is meant to go where, what is in service to the building-to-be, the people who will use it, and the land that surrounds it. This consciousness guides the construction. None of the buildings started with architectural drawings or blueprints. They were not designed; they grew, with the builders as agents of their growth, implementing each next step as the final vision gradually resolved into clarity.
I saw in those buildings something reaching for the ideal of the classical Taoist temple. The temple is not an imposition on the landscape, it is an enhancement. It belongs there. It is a service to creation. What would human society look like, what would technology look like, if we devoted ourselves to service to creation?
Every building is more beautiful than it has to be – “has to be” for any obviously utilitarian function, that is. Staying for a few days in and among those buildings, though, I realized that they met a deep need and provided a deep nourishment. What is that need? It is to be surrounded by objects that have soul.
To have soul is to be real. To be real is to be fully unique and fully related. In a virgin forest, no two trees are identical, and everything is in constant, interdependent relationship to everything else. Thus we feel a kind of homecoming when we are able to be fully present in such a forest. The eyes rest easy.
In the modern built environment, most objects have been stripped of uniqueness and relationality. Every window in my house is identical, or of at most two standard types. The modern environment abounds in precise right angles, the elements of standardization and sameness. The products of the commodity economy are also remote from their origins and relations. If I cut a tree to build a door, I can see the effect of my action, and I may be careful to choose the right tree for cutting. The enormous distance between manufactured objects and their original context helps make us oblivious to the ecological harm they may represent. What is less obvious is the aesthetic harm, the psychological harm that comes from living among alien, standardized things. The eyes cannot rest easy; they are ever searching for the soul of what they see. It is a strain for a living soul to live among soulless things.
In his four-volume opus, The Nature of Order, architect Christopher Alexander explores the question, “Why do some buildings (and other made objects) have a quality of life or soul, while others do not?” He illustrates the question with striking photographs contrasting modern buildings with older ones – think Grand Central Station compared to Penn Station. It is obvious what he means. The list of characteristics he develops bears a striking feature: in its totality, it is not amenable to formalization. No formula or algorithm can replicate soul. This conclusion is not mere metaphysics; it offers a guiding compass for our economic and technological future.
The buildings and objects of Source Temple convey a kind of wealth. I don’t think people would be greedy for bigger houses and more money if they were immersed in an environment like this. The unmet needs that drive greed would be met. The tragedy of greed, of course, is that it no amount of money or anything else can ever sate it. No matter how much they consume, the greedy person remains hungry. That isn’t due to a moral flaw. It is because they are starving – starving for what money cannot buy.
It is nourishing to live inside the object of someone’s devotion, especially if it is someone you know well. The residents of Source Temple participate in the construction of their own houses, and switch houses from time to time when they feel stagnant, adding their imprint to their new domicile. Because the houses grow with the community and its members, they exemplify Christopher Alexander’s insight:
A house is not just a shell for habitation, it is also an unfolding of our experience. A house is not an act, but a series of acts; it is not an object but an experience; it is not a commodity to be bought and sold but an activity essential to life. Instead of being the unfolding of our existence and the expression of our freedom, our houses have become the imprisonment of our existence, the denial of our lives.
One way in which the buildings of Source Temple telegraph wealth is that, in terms of hours of labor per square meter of floor space, they are extremely inefficient. It takes many long hours to assemble a window or a door from scratch, compared to a few minutes to buy one at Home Despot. Yes, someone’s labor contributed to the factory-made window too, but the whole industrial system and its economics are geared toward minimizing the labor, a goal achieved through technology and standardized processes. The result is a cheapness, a poverty, because all of these products embody the precept of not enough time. That is what efficiency encodes. We have to hurry. We have to do it quicker. Efficiency embodies a mentality of scarcity. We can’t afford the time to really make it beautiful.
At Source Temple it is evident that someone wasn’t in a hurry. Someone could afford the time. Someone thought it important to make things more beautiful than they had to be to keep out the rain, and they had the time. During my stay, this environment softened my own habits of hurry and invited me into an abundance of time.
This abundance is our birthright. It is not a function of privilege, as if only those who have made it to the top of the economic hierarchy can afford to take the time to live devotionally. It was universal in hunter-gatherer and traditional peasant cultures, and is still visible where those cultures remain intact. People in the less developed parts of the world always seem to have more time. True, in the modern economy leisure is available only to those in its top strata, But I am not speaking here of leisure – a rest from working – so much as a different approach to working. Absent socially-supported opportunities for devotional labor, society’s members compete for its artificially scarce substitute we call leisure.
Today, automation and artificial intelligence are making it easier than ever to manufacture vast quantities of alienated, standardized commodities with a minimum of human labor. One job category after another is becoming obsolete, threatening a future of chronic mass unemployment. Machines can do our work much more cheaply and efficiently than we can, leaving humans with less and less to do except to consume.
Historically, the solution to this problem in the industrial era has been to increase consumption so as to maintain nearly full employment. The ecological cost of this tendency is obvious; less noted is its spiritual cost. Increasing consumption of that which is produced efficiently, i.e., that which embodies scarcity, meets only a narrow subset of human needs while increasing the hunger for the unique and relational. It cannot meet the need to live devotionally and to see that reflected back at you in the physical environment.
It would be impossible to mass-produce the buildings at Source Temple. Even if machines could imitate their hand craftmanship, the buildings are unique to the land and community they serve. An exact replica relocated to a different environment would no longer be the same building. Objects cannot be separated from relationships. If we really digested this fundamental implication of quantum mechanics, we would have a very different society.
The market economy as we know it depends on the separability of objects from relationships. That is the nature of money itself: it is pure, abstract value. My dollar is the same as your dollar. It works well to mediate exchange of other dissociated, alienated objects, but when it interfaces with the relational, the unique, and the sacred, it tends to reduce them to itself. If you are a home-builder, for instance, you have to defy the logic of the marketplace to spend that extra time to make it more beautiful than it needs to be, beyond the contract. Why would you do that, in defiance of money? Well, for love. Aesthetic perfection too is a relationship, a service, a devotion to something or someone you love beyond the thing itself. Because the object is itself only in relationship.
The devotion manifest in the buildings at Source Temple mirrors the devotion I saw in members toward each other. It was a balm for me to see people overflowing with easy laughter and easy tears, serving each other in ways that might not even be noticed, gazing with love upon each other’s faces, sitting in circle. In covid isolation I’d on some level forgotten such basic expressions of humanity still exist. Here too is a kind of wealth. The self is relationship. How tragic that in order to preserve that self, we cut it off from its relationships. Something persists in that isolation, but it is a shrunken being compared to what can thrive in full relationship to community. The poverty of isolation mirrors the poverty of the modern built environment.
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We live in the time of the ballyhooed Great Reset, a time following when great destruction has cleared the way to build something different – or to lock in the gains of big corporations, central governments, and the super-wealthy. What vision of human development might we hold that expresses devotion to that which we love? Source Temple offers a glimpse of it, as do certain other intentional communities and, in particular, many indigenous and traditional societies. One thing they have in common is that they stand outside modern economic paradigms of wealth, progress, and development. In fact, they ask us to reverse much of conventional economic thinking.
Let me draw out some economic principles for a Great Reset that will help make love visible in our physical and social environment. They are reversals of globalization, growth, and productivity.
Until very recently, globalization has been widely accepted as an unstoppable – and desirable – trend. It is indeed a natural consequence of mass production and the alienation of materials from their originating matrix of relationships. It doesn’t matter where something comes from; all that matters is the price. The myriad interactions that produce a consumer object – the ecological interactions that produce the raw materials, the human interactions of production – funnel into the single, one-dimensional relationship of buyer and seller. We feel alien ourselves surrounded by such things. A subtle feeling of not being truly at home eats away out our insides.
In contrast, something produced locally by human and non-human beings that you know and with whom you relate in multiple ways contributes to a feeling of belonging, a feeling of home. To look at a door and remember that the wood came from an old pallet and the branch of a tree that was once right over there – do you remember the lightning storm that felled it? – and that Julio and Miguel built that door, just when Julio was breaking up with Claudia, and I helped with the sanding, and… the door is entangled in my world, my constellation of self. And I can see the social and ecological impact of its production, something largely invisible in the global market economy where normally only the price and the objective specifications are visible.
To live surrounded by things of meaning and beauty is hardly possible without connection to local community and to place. Because, again, beauty comes from relationship. Whether we speak of Source Temple or a traditional peasant village, relationships were material. People make food for each other, watch each other’s children, make each other’s musical instruments, create music and drama together, grow food for each other, build houses together. Where people source all these functions from a global market economy, local relationships atrophy. There is little to do for one another or create together. Yes, globalization and the division of labor allow much higher efficiency of production – a lot more things with a lot less work – but is mainstream society with its high consumption actually happier than the people in remote indigenous villages? Those who have never been to one may think, certainly we are; they are mired in miserable poverty without AC, TV, Wifi, 5G, KFC, or XYZ. But that is a projection based on what modern life is like without those things.
This is not to advocate the complete dismantling of global economy, mass production, or the division of labor. Certain things that we may want to keep, such as the computer on which I’m writing this, require it. But huge realms of human material life may be reclaimed for the local, such as most food, shelter, entertainment, and clothing. On the policy level, this requires reversing free trade treaties, ending subsidies for transport infrastructure, strengthening environmental and labor protections globally, and erecting tariffs to protect national and local economies. It also means ending modern-day colonialism, implemented through Third World debt, which forces nations of the global South to orient their productivity toward exports.
Localization does sacrifice efficiencies of scale. To take an extreme example, it takes a lot more time and effort to spin, weave, and sew our own clothing than it does to make it in a factory. But the end result is something meaningful and precious, not something alien and cheap. Immersed in such things, even if they are fewer in number, one feels rich. Amassing quantities of cheap stuff, one experiences cheapness, not wealth – even if that cheap stuff is very expensive. Real wealth is to belong. It is to have a wealth of relations.
Already it is clear how localization is incompatible with economic growth. Economists define growth as an increase in the volume of goods and services exchanged for money. Building windows from upcycled, scavenged, or donated materials, using community labor rather than paid labor, contributes nothing to economic growth as economists define it. Conversely, any place where people still build their own houses, care for their own children, grow their own food, sing their own songs, make their own medicine, and help each other following misfortune is a ripe “undeveloped market” where these functions can be replaced, respectively, by the construction industry, day care industry, agribusiness, the entertainment industry, the medical industry, and the insurance industry. Development means to transition out of a local, gift-based culture to a global market economy.
Degrowth goes beyond replacing some portion of global exchange with local exchange; it also entails reclaiming part of life from exchange altogether. Contrary to popular belief and to economists’ mythology, pre-market (and post-market) societies do not operate by barter or any other alternate means of “exchange.” They are gift cultures. I help build you door, but you don’t necessarily give me a hand-sewn shirt in return. You feel affection and gratitude toward me, and you (and everyone who sees what I’ve done) recognize me as a contributing member of the community. Out of this affection and respect, or perhaps seeing my need, you or someone else gives me the shirt. Knowing each other over years, hearing stories of each other, we know what each person likes and needs. We feel generous towards those who are generous, and stingy toward those who are stingy, thereby pulling everyone toward the culture of gift.
The current economic system is a growth system, requiring economic growth to function. Without growth, the mechanisms of money creation stall, debt levels rise, inequality intensifies, and the system lurches from one crisis to the next, hollowing out the lower and middle classes each time. I analyze this process in detail in Sacred Economics; here I will just observe that the ideal of local, gift-based economies asks for a reversal of the systemic growth imperative. A Great Reset in that spirit must include a significant jubilee – a cancellation of debt – and from there, a money system no longer based on interest-bearing debt for money creation.
3. Slowing Down
For centuries, at least since the Industrial Revolution and arguably long before, the main goal of technology has been to increase productivity, whether of production or in everyday life. It takes less time to weed a field with a mechanical cultivator than it does with a hoe, and less time still to douse it with Roundup. It takes less time to drive ten miles than to walk, to add a column of figures by spreadsheet rather than by hand, to use a computer database rather than a file cabinet. We can get a lot more done a lot faster than ever before. Yet somehow, despite centuries of labor-saving inventions, we seem just as busy as ever (and more busy than hunter-gatherers who spent around 20 hours per adult on subsistence).
The people at Source Temple never seemed to be in a hurry. They always had time for each other, showing that the Dogon I quoted in one of my books (“Urgency is not something we have here”) are not exceptional. You too may have noticed that the less developed a place is, the more time people seem to have for play, art, and ceremony. The experience of the abundance of time is perhaps the most primal form of wealth, because time is life itself. What else do we have, but our time here? Scurrying from one thing to the next, servant of the schedule, the modern human never feels quite sovereign. One has not the time to do things precisely as they should be done.
Lewis Mumford named the clock – not the steam engine – as the crucial invention that launched the Industrial Revolution. Factories run by the clock; computers even more so, a precise coordination on the scale of nanoseconds. However, what humanity needs today is not more and more, faster and faster. The needs that can be met that way have already been met. (Yes, there are many people on earth still in grave material want, but that is not due to aggregate scarcity, it is due to maldistribution.) It is time to change the economic logic, habits, and systems that compel us to grow ever more efficient, productive, and, therefore, consumptive. We have overall a hyperabundance of the things that can be made efficiently, side by side with a crying scarcity of the things that can only be made slowly, lovingly, and devotionally. These meet the very needs that, when not fulfilled, drive overconsumption. The person wealthy in time, beauty, and relationship has little hunger for mass-produced substitutes for those things.
On the level of economic policy, one way to slow down is through a universal basic income. I am aware of its dangers: replacing economic self-determination with dependency on the state (whose dole-out may be conditional on the citizen’s compliant behavior), locking into place the destruction of small business and independent livelihoods. However, in a world where the labor of fewer and fewer people is required to meet society’s quantifiable needs, logically, more and more people will have to devote themselves to meeting qualitative needs. Factories can produce large quantities of cheap food, but they cannot produce food made with love by someone who knows me intimately using ingredients from living beings with whom I’m in relationship. No standardized construction process using standardized factory materials can grow a house around me, that is an extension of myself and my relationships. Because these things are inalienable from a specific creator and receiver, market forces cannot produce them.
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People call a community like Source Temple “spiritual.” Why? The word has connotations of the unworldly. It isn’t that the residents claim to be in communication with supernatural entities or unseen forces. Yet, their way of life is unworldly – in the sense that it contravenes important conventions about life and work. The reader might find it odd that I have combined a travelogue about a spiritual community with a set of economic proposals, but it is this division between the spiritual and the worldly (money is the very essence of worldliness) that is the cause of much harm on and to this earth. I am fond of saying that excess materialism is not the problem, that we actually need to be more materialistic not less; that is, to hold matter sacred in all its forms, especially its living forms. Banishing sacredness to a non-material realm, no wonder modern society desecrates the material.
Spirituality, in other words, is not about that which is beyond materiality; it is about what the modern worldview does not recognize or cannot see. It therefore has everything to do with economics. Customarily modern people think of spirituality as something outside of relations of money, matter, and the flesh, but it should be about reclaiming their sacred dimension. What other Great Reset is worth attempting? Can we reset economy, and human relations beyond money, according to the knowledge held for so long in the world’s spiritual lineages, countercultures, and indigenous societies?
Sentiments like those behind Sacred Economics seem naively idealistic without exemplars like Source Temple, which can remind us that our secret longing is no fantasy; that it is possible here on earth and not even very far away. Not very far away collectively, and not very far away for oneself. The more we see love made visible around us, the more our own love dares to express itself too. There are places in the world where people live devotionally, holding that intention consciously in community. Another way I like to describe it is that they live in the gift. To live in the gift is to live in the knowledge that the world is a gift (unearned, unforced), that we each are a gift to the world, and that we are here to add our gifts to the ongoing gift of Creation.
A friend today told me of a psychedelic journey, “There was nothing that wasn’t love.” That is obvious in a devotional environment. It is hard for me to remember it sometimes, living in my box, surrounded mostly by alienated objects, relating to other people through screens, dependent on money and independent of the people, animals, and plants around me. I am grateful to Source Temple and to the many other places, people, and moments of grace that reawaken and sustain the spirit of the Gift. I hope that the glimpse I’ve offered here arouses your knowing of it too. May each of us recognize and take the next step into living with devotion. And may we accept nothing less in our collective agreements.