Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Interogating Happiness

In 1980, the average American CEO's income was 40 times higher than that of the average worker. Today, it is well over 300 times higher.

A new study suggests this rising income inequality in the United States doesn’t just affect Americans’ pocketbooks; it affects their happiness. Over the past four decades, according to the study, the American people have been the least happy in years when there was the widest gap between rich and poor.

The above quote is taken from a recent article in Yes! Magazine, a longtime favorite of mine. Clearly, it's pointing to the level of economic injustice here in the States, the negative impact of which is definitely growing almost by the minute. The Buddha routinely spoke of the three poisons: greed, hatred, and ignorance. And there's little doubt in my mind that the kinds of material disparities we are now seeing are evidence of those poisons in action. All of them.

Hatred, you might be saying? Well, I say yes. Hatred too. Hatred of community. Of what sharing with your neighbors actually means (that we're interdependent and need each on some basic levels). Hatred of poor people, coupled with a fear of becoming "one of them." The list goes on and on.

It's not hard for me to locate the three poisons in either the workings of our economic system, or the beliefs that help drive it. In fact, it's rather too easy. So, let's consider something else in relation to the quote above.

The very linking of one's happiness to material wealth, or lack there of, is at least in part, an acting out of the three poisons as well. Having had our minds colonized by the narratives of consumerism, global capitalism, and the "American Dream," most of us struggle to detach our well being from money, material possessions, and social status derived from job, money, and possessions. The hundreds and even thousands of hours of absorbing advertisements, corporate-driven media news, and corroborating messages from family, friends, and co-workers has left many of our brains swamped in poisons, to the point where some folks can't distinguish themselves anymore.

You may have noticed a rise in popularity over the past decade or so of "zombie" narratives. Movies, novels, faux documentaries, songs - all with zombies at the center. There are many ways to read this phenomenon, but I believe one way to read it is to see how the zombies are, in many ways, forms of "us." An end point, if you will, of the colonization process spoken about in the last paragraph.

And if you think about it, Buddha's teachings - and all great spiritual teachings - have really been about decolonization. Breaking the stranglehold of whatever narratives hold sway for someone personally, as well as those narratives that hold sway over people collectively. Buddha's break with the caste system is an easy example of the latter.

On the flip side, there is also some truth to this linking of happiness (or contentment) with material position. Going without food, clothing shelter, decent health care, safe work conditions, any significant time off from work, and numerous other things are clearly becoming more commonplace amongst Americans. And frankly, it's tough to locate happiness, joy, contentment, or equanimity within those conditions. I fully believe that it's possible to both turn any situation into an opportunity to practice, to find peace and liberation - and, at the same time, to recognize that some conditions are flat out unjust, and worthy of being targets for transformation on a collective scale. In other words, I can choose to place the palette of miserable emotions I might have around economic injustice at the center of my spiritual practice, and at the same time work towards an end of that injustice in whatever ways I (alone and with others) can. And in doing so, might be able to locate happiness, joy, and even liberation in the now, while also honoring the struggles that continue to plague the community, nation, and the world even.

*Image Corporate Wealth Games
by nocwg2010


Unknown said...

Hey Nathan,

My name is Ben Riggs. I was reading your EJ blog, and noticed you mentioned being contacted about writing for elephant. That was me, and I waited for your response and never got it. Definitely did not ignore it!

Judging by your recent articles you have no desire to publish on EJ, but if you do or just want to touch base with me, my email is: shreveportsangha@gmail.com

Sorry for the confusion,

Barry said...

Nathan, this post reminded me (in an oblique way) of the lead article in the current Buddhadharma Magazine by Bhikkhu Bodhi. If you haven't seen it, check it out:

Barry said...

By the way, I'm one of those who finds your current color scheme fairly difficult to ready, especially on my phone (which is where I do most of my blog reading). Personally, I prefer a pretty neutral, pale background with black text. Makes it easier for my old eyes...

Nathan said...

Hi Barry,

Thanks for the article link. And as for the blog background, I'll keep playing around with it when I have some time. I have gotten more feedback, for and against, on this change than I expected to.


Matt Simonsen said...

Hi, Nathan!

Thanks for the post. I appreciate the putting-together of the two seemingly (to me, anyway) "conflicting" ideas of: awareness of the inherent suffering-creation of equating happiness with material wealth, on the one hand; and, on the other, also addressing material disparities in this society and beyond, and the ways in which, when those disparities become extreme, it is almost impossible for most people not to create suffering, in some form, around the deprivations and humiliations that follow.

There is one point about this entry of yours that I found myself having questions around. (Not "disagreement," but just not fully understanding exactly what you're trying to communicate.) This was with the quote:

"I can choose to place the palette of miserable emotions I might have around economic injustice at the center of my spiritual practice..."

As the quote continued, it became clear that you weren't suggesting an "or," an alternative "choice," to this practice-strategy, but INCLUDING this practice-strategy of "place[ing] the...miserable emotions I might have around economic injustice at the center of my spiritual practice"—including that strategy as part of a viable way to practice spirituality.

I'm just wondering: What does that look like—either hypothetically or, if you're already practicing this strategy, in practice—to you? In other words, does placing these "miserable emotions" around economic injustice at the "center" of your practice mean, for example, that you keep these uncomfortable, perhaps very agitating/angering (at times, anyway) feelings in mindful awareness, whenever they arise? If so, do you then "do" something with those emotions, or just watch them, or both? (Or is the "doing" part taken care of in the other part of the above quote that I haven't cited yet, "...and at the same time work towards an end of that injustice in whatever ways I...can"?) Perhaps there's more that you see in this practice than either of these "alternatives" I've posed.

Just curious! It's a very intriguing statement to me that you made, here.

Be well,


Nathan said...

Hi Matt,

Thanks for the comment and questions. One thing that comes to mind for me right away is the work Buddhist teacher and activist Joanna Macy has done around nuclear power and environmentalism. She speaks about facing, again and again, our despair about the way things are going on the planet, as well as the fears many of us have about the world "ending as we know it" because of destructive human decisions. She considers the sitting with, staying with those thoughts and emotions as part of "the work" of anyone engaged in the world. That just doing things like protesting, lobbying, educating others, etc. isn't enough. But neither is just sitting with the despair or fear by yourself.

"do you then "do" something with those emotions, or just watch them, or both?" It depends. Sometimes, I just sit with it all, letting it flow through during zazen. Or walking meditation. Sometimes, I'll do tonglen or lovingkindess practices in response. Sometimes, I write - like with this post, or talk with others about it. A lot depends upon where I am at, and whether I seemed called to do "something" or not do.

I have to say though that there's another piece that can happen here. Specifically, the blending of mindfulness and other meditative practices within an action setting. For example, I recall one visit to the state capitol with my old ESL students where, at a certain point during a meeting we were having with a State Rep, I started to feel something shift in the room. And so, I returned to my breath, while listening to what was going on. And became aware of the fact that in any given situation like this, there is both the possibility for change in the future, but also that the experience of acting together itself contained it's own set of benefits. Seeing that, I was able to let go of any specific desired outcome, and speak to what the situation called for.

I also think this ability to blend is really helpful because sometimes things get really charged and recognizing how you're reacting, or getting hooked by that charge, is part of being more present and I'd say more effective as well.

Those are a few thoughts I have anyway.