By now, everyone will have heard of and passed judgement on the recent "Black Friday", which inaugurated the spending season that runs up to Christmas. We all know that retailers offered massive discounts on merchandise in order to kick start their Christmas sales which brought throngs of eager buyers to stores, supermarkets and shopping malls throughout the UK. We also know that some people behaved very badly at these sales, as there were widespread reports of crowds of shoppers shoving, punching and kicking each other in order to advance their position as competitors in a veritable frenzy of consumerism. One shopper in Cardiff. Ross Lewis, told the BBC: "People were biting each other, pinching, punching, kicking--it was just absolutely horrendous, it was so, so bad." Yet, in spite of such unseemly, violent behaviour, retailers counted the day a great success as records were broken for both in-store and on-line sales. In fact, Black Friday exceeded all previous records for on-line sales, even though the websites of several major retailers had crashed because of the high volume of on-line traffic. So, notwithstanding the misery that the day caused, Black Friday must still be regarded as a resounding commercial success.
For those who lament the loss of the spiritual importance of Advent, the term Black Friday may appear strangely appropriate. For it seems like nothing so much as the feast day of Mammon who has long personified wealth and greed in Christianity. I myself was puzzled by how suddenly and deeply the term Black Friday has been taken into public consciousness without any apparent deliberation by anyone. Wikipedia, that indispensable, if not entirely reliable source of information, tells us that the term was first used in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the early 1960's to indicate the heavy road and foot traffic that routinely occurred on the day after Thanksgiving which has always kicked off the Christmas sales season for American retailers. Later, the term was used to indicate the most profitable time of the year, when sales would take companies out of "the red" of financial loss and into "the black" of profitability. But finding the meaning of any word is not a matter of tracing its origins. Meaning consists of the way a word is currently used, which may have changed completely from its original usage. As a term, Black Friday may have begun innocently as a morally neutral term of description. But with its more recent associations of violent mobs of frenzied shoppers driven by mindless craving, Black Friday now carries a more disturbing meaning.
There is, of course, a documentable history behind the changing use of the term Black Friday, which surely corresponds to the rise of consumerism in contemporary culture. Indeed, "black" as a sign for profit and hence, a positive value, shows how pervasive commercial values have become for society in general. And witnessing ugly mobs of rapacious shoppers on television and other news media surely accounts for some of the term's more unsavoury connotations. Yet, I suspect there is something deeper that resonates in the term that speaks of a more thoroughgoing corruption. The manifestly spiritual values of good will and generosity that were once celebrated as the essence of the Christmas season have been almost completely supplanted by the unrestrained indulgence of our most avaricious passions. This is hardly a new insight so there would be little point in repeating some trite sermon about how crass commercialism has robbed Christmas of its spiritual importance. We all know that. Yet, most of us feel powerless to resist this joyless season of excess that consumerism has imposed on us. And that, I suspect, is what gives Black Friday its power as a sign of truth.
More than a century ago, the French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, observed that through what he termed a collective consciousness [Fr. conscience collective] a society shares a number of beliefs, attitudes and ideas that are not necessarily explicitly stated. Things are done and known by customs which everybody follows without consideration or reflection. Although people may like to think that their social habits were bequeathed by divine dispensation and have a timeless heritage, in fact they all originated in particular events and out of particular circumstances. Nor are they timeless or static. Customs and beliefs are constantly shifting, sometimes dramatically and cataclysmically, but more often, subtly and imperceptibly, like the face of someone who looks the same for years but then suddenly seems old. We might see this as an example of the law of impermanence in its relentless action. But it doesn't tell us much about how things change. How, for example, did Black Friday eclipse Advent Sunday as the day when the Christmas season is seen to begin? And how did Christmas cease being celebrated as Christ's mass to become the feast of Mammon?
This, I think, can be partly explained by Jung's notion of the collective unconscious, which far from being historically determined, draws on a particular idea of the eternal. According to Jung, behind every psychic phenomenon there is an archetypal energy that gives rise to an archetypal form, which in turn informs psychic activity. Archetypes may disappear for a time, but they never entirely perish. They recur upon circumstances which can arise mysteriously and unpredictably, long after the gods that once represented them have been forgotten. Mammon may no longer live as he once did, but his spirit appears more robust than ever. And although there may be no exact precedent for Black Friday as the inaugural shopping day for consumerism's busiest season, the experience of societies going dangerously adrift on a tide of material greed and moral decadence has been recurrent throughout history. What is eerie now is how the term seems to catch the sense of our collective spiritual decline without anyone intending it to be understood that way. And with the planet being dangerously overheated due to human activities that are directly linked to rising material consumption, the term seems to carry an additional connotation of our self destructive tendencies reaching terminal climax: Black Friday, indeed.
How does Black Friday affect the practice of psychotherapy? Probably very little in most individual cases. But I think Black Friday is symbolic in the Jungian sense in that much of its meaning lies beyond conscious apprehension, yet still affects people's general sense of being. This is to suggest a very vague, perhaps even unverifiable influence in the conflicted lives of clients. After all, if a client's marriage or relationship is in peril, what would a mere shopping day have to do with it? Nothing directly, perhaps. But I suspect that the devil's dance of consumerism plays like background music in the private lives that many people lead. For Buddhist psychotherapy there might be something else at work in the phenomenon of Black Friday. Buddhism asserts that craving or trishna is the source of suffering and that avidya or ignorance prevents us from seeing it as such. Witnessing the eruption of greed, anger and delusion that caused Black Friday, a Buddhist therapist may have some insight as to why people were so eager to participate in it.