Affluenza, green burial, and tiny house life

Affluenza and tiny house livingIs there an affluenza vaccine, and is green burial part of it? Is living in a tiny house the cure for consumerism? Would it were so, would it were so. I wish. Then we’d have an easy answer to the question I posed in a recent post, For what sort of life is a green burial like a golden clasp on a closed book?

Affluenza, if you recall, is a blend of the words affluence and influenza. There have been books and documentaries about it. Other words for affluenza are consumerism and overconsumption. The anti-movement might be termed anti-consumerism or sustainability, which is summed up in the simple question, “What is enough?

Here at Melleray Farmstead, the cottage industrial home of Piedmont Pine Coffins, we live in a tiny house. Three of them, to be precise. We’ve gotten attention recently for our tiny houses, and you can see more about that here and here. What level, then, would you guess, is the affluenza infection on the farmstead? What level of consumerism pertains here? When I talk to friends, colleagues and strangers about tiny house living, they often say something like, Wow, I bet you don’t have much stuff. I myself would like to get rid of…

The trouble, to paraphrase the pith of a Buddhist maxim, is that wherever you go, there you betake yourself and all your baggage. Consumer frenzy is in our hearts. It’s in our worldview and in our upbringing. So if you have affluenza the day you move in to a tiny house, you still have it years later. You remain infected.

Now there will, of course, be the initial downsizing and purging, and that is for the best. But what prevents your new tiny house from overflowing soon with purchases? What prevents your sheds and barns from filling up with wasteful junk?

Or, let’s say that with effort you manage to conquer the shoppers’ impulse. You banish the retail therapy. Your belongings are sparse and your stuff, diminished. Yet and still, affluenza lurks in the habits of our heart. Here we are talking about a host of things that, as we consume them, consume our attention and freedom:

  • News and entertainment on the smart phone
  • Caffeine, sugar, and other food addictions
  • Workaholic tendencies
  • Alcohol and tobacco
  • Other obsessions

The whole lot of these interfere with our ability to pay attention to the present moment, or, as the Christian tradition would call it, to pray without ceasing. And it is so hard for an individual to succeed. Here’s where the monastery comes in. The monastery, as an institution, is set up to mitigate most obsessions and to encourage our spiritual attention. One brother I met at Mepkin Abbey in SC once told me, That’s why I came to the monastery. For the scaffolding. I tried to live a holy life on my own, but I was a slob. My apartment and my prayer life were a mess. 

In a community setting, like a monastery — or a church, or a family — we can reach for higher standards and lean on each other for help. The freedom to consume is slowly replaced with a freedom of the heart. This is the metanoia, the transformation, that is the kernel of the mystic’s path in so many traditions. And even should you struggle on this path for years, you will always be en route, never arrived.

So how does all this apply to green burial? What sort of life does a green burial go with? As a recent article about green burial put it, Why stop at living sustainably if you can die sustainably, too? I like that. Green burial is the metanoia of the funeral industry. But let’s not reserve green burial only for the monks, green warriors and recovering affluenzics. The good news is that green burial is for all of us who feel the call towards sustainability, no matter where we are on the path. We are all en route, never arrived.