The advertisement tells me that if I buy this dress I will be irresistible to powerful men. It is not the words that proclaim it. No, the narrative of the writing is more subtle. It is the picture. The woman wearing the dress looks confident and sexy and dangerous. Imagine a Roman general and then use photoshop to add curves, soften the face and add a gentle smile and you’ll have the woman I mean. She has conquered everyone, you can tell by her expression. The neckline is plunging, of course. If I could just pull together the money to buy this dress, I would be set for life as surely as any king. The handsome man in the background is there, ready to do her bidding. His features are a bit blurred, but the ad gives you the idea. Unbidden an image comes to my mind. I am wearing the dress and he is offering me coffee on a tray with a croissant next to it. Alas, if only I had a few more dollars I could just get this dress and my life of struggle would be over. Aside, of course, from the pleasant struggle of manipulating men.
I turn the page in the magazine. Now I see an elegantly conceived coffee pot. This machine will grind your coffee, whip up a froth of milk for your cappuccino and operate on a timer so that your beverage will always be ready for you in the morning as programmed. Costing not much more than the dress, this machine promises to make my mornings as lovely as mornings in Tuscany looking over rolling hills. Indeed, to reassure me, the advertisement has the rolling hills of Tuscany in the background. In the foreground is a cup of coffee so beautifully pictured that I fancy I can smell it. If I buy this product, I will never again need to arise in a hurry to the drab gray of a rainy morning. Instead, each morning will be glorious. Surely I can scrape together the funds to make such a life possible by buying this machine. It is worth more than the dress that attracts the man because with it I won’t even require a man.
I close the magazine and return to the room I am in. The sophistication of the ads amazes me. They are selling false gods. By suggesting that I can attain self-sufficiency by purchasing their products, these advertisers are appealing to a deep hunger which lies within all of us. To be self-sufficient is to need nothing. The fantasy of being self-sufficient is the fantasy of being beyond the perils of time and space. By suggesting that the purchase of a product can offer freedom from finitude, these advertisers promote false trails to the infinite.
The problem is, of course, that no human, as human, can escape the bonds of space and time. This is why gambling was once considered immoral. The casino seems to offer a chance at the freedom from finitude. Instead of work, freedom could be attained by luck. Work becomes useless. From there, life becomes meaningless. When meaning is separated from work, the individual is merely some unlucky bastard who has to work for a living.
In spiritual life, we use the negative in our lives as a spur to self-development. Since our time is short, any moment spent pursuing false representations of freedom is “spending” your life foolishly.
What are the false gods that you yourself cultivate? Do you allow yourself to indulge in fantasies of quick freedom? Are you a secret gambler hoping to attain freedom by shortcut? I have been one. Your every action demonstrates an affirmation of an image of freedom-it reveals your spending choice. The currency is time. The store or the casino is the dizzying array of available representations. Is it a love affair that in your heart you know will come to nothing? Is it a business venture that has at its core the dream of an “income stream” placing you beyond labor? Your actions reveal how you place your bets.
The practice of the one who is self-consciously on a spiritual journey is to turn away from false gods and to spend his time with intention. Self-inquiry is a true path to freedom.