Tuesday, April 23, 2013

We are Not Resources: Reflections on Right Livelihood Under Capitalism's Boot

My teacher Shohaku Okumura says this:

When you sit zazen, you place yourself on the ground of reality.

He also said a fundamental problem is seeing other beings as resources. They are not resources, they are beings – trees, humans, insects, minerals. If we saw them as beings, we would treat them differently.

This is from a post by Shodo Spring. Shodo and I live in the same state and occasionally practice in the same local sangha together. We walk very similar paths though, seeing the dharma as much through social action and public witnessing as through zazen and sutras. Sometimes the two side manifesting together completely in time/space - and other times, awareness of their togetherness regardless of the moment's time/space experience.

Anyway, I want to write a little bit about work and money, and how the structures and functions of capitalism almost force us to view everything else as "resources."

I have been without a financial cushion for most of the past year now. When I say that, I mean I barely make rent and feed myself every month. The money I had in the bank, as well as the in the stock market game called an IRA, are gone. Eaten away. Given to landlords and utility companies that use fossil fuels and nuclear power to heat my apartment and power my stove and laptop. My attempts at generating income on my own through various means haven't yet brought in enough to move past poverty, and really, as it is, a return to the wage an hour world in some form or another is probably coming soon.

This stepping out that I did a little over two and a half years ago now was done partly out of desperation (needing to reduce my stress levels before it was too late), and partly out of a desire to truly question what it means to do Right Livelihood in the world we live in. I've run through all sorts of emotional states and narratives during the process. Delusional "get rich quick" dreams. Carefree "I don't need money anyway" stories. Shame-ridden hopelessness over being so broke I couldn't buy my own groceries. The hazy confusion of "what's next?" Disillusion of looking for jobs and feeling trapped in the process. Dreams of "How can we do this differently?" Fears of being called "a lazy bum," "slacker," or whatever and then wondering why it is that I let such nonsense get to me, especially since the majority of people who say such things give and do so very little in their communities. The list goes on and on.

I want to live in a world where people are supported for the gifts they already give to the world, regardless of whether those gifts are "money making" or not. I would love a world where just being and doing what you can is enough to be considered worthy. Sure, on a spiritual level these are already true. I don't need to want anything. I get that. I hear it all the time in the teachings, in dharma talks, and the like. I get that. What I'm saying is that it would be great to see it manifested more on a societal level. And frankly, it would be wonderful if - instead of so many folks feeling compelled to say "That's not possible. Be realistic. Be practical." - that more of us would naturally gravitate towards the beautiful visions of the possible and make it so. Make it real. Say to hell with the conventional practical and make a new practical.

Hindrances aren't confined to individual lives and minds and psychologies. Some are systemic poisonings. Thefts of dreams and the hearts that have them. Just as some of us plunder the earth for others to make money and still others to power their lives until some other way is forged, so too often goes the ways of forging themselves - the imaginings and the experiments, individually and collectively.

The visions and possibilities that have come to me over the past few years have been battled back - mostly internally - by all the bullshit I've swallowed in my 37 years on this Earth, in these United States.

Thus I have heard from the family, and friends, and the media, and the school teachers, and the co-workers, and whomever else, living and dead, about what it means to be a man,

to be a white man

to be a white, middle class man

to be a white, middle class successful man

to be a white, middle class successful man worthy of respect

to be the standard by which every last thing of value is measured, still, consciously or not, in this society

This is a heavy fucking straight jacket to wear.
For anyone.
And it brings us all down.
Deranges us.
Tames and tampers us.
In different ways and to different degrees.
But suffering is the end result no matter how you slice it.

I love giving away my life. I serve frequently. I give my time, my words, whatever I can because I'm aware that, in the end, it really isn't "mine" anyway. It's an almost natural state, despite all the impediments. And yet the more I see, the more I realize how this society we've given in to works completely against all of this How it makes people like me poor, more than poor. In need of begging, and not of the holy kind.

I understand a thing or two about motivation now. Having lived as I have. How what frequently is labeled lazy is more about despondency. A recognition that you've been dehumanized by your own society and aren't sure what you can do about it. Zazen, sutra studies, chanting, bowing, and practicing with my dharma brothers and sisters give me an edge many others don't have. And yet, none of that has prevented that dehumanization feeling from taking hold. That sense that I'm either to be someone else's resource or to figure out a way to make them mine. Sure, it's not only those two options, but frankly, much of what constitutes "paid work" these days is exactly those two options.

I live in a country where corporate executives can "downsize" a thousand people's jobs at a moments notice, spin the profit back up to them and their shareholders, and then turn around the next day and lobby against something so basic as a decent minimum wage by suggesting that it will force them to "have to lay people off." It's much worse in other places, but frankly I have no interest in using that knowledge to prop up what we have as "this is as good as it gets."

Sure, I could make all of this easier on myself. I could go along today or tomorrow, get some job, and stop my bitching. I'm sure a few readers would love that. But actually, it's not that easy. Even with all my experience and education and white privilege and gender privilege, I haven't found finding a job - and I say job deliberately there because Right Livelihood is so corrupted under the conditions we've collectively created in the modern world - I haven't found finding a job all that easy. Under qualified. Overqualified. Lack of the right connections. Sham job postings offered out of protocol for positions already given to someone else. Struggles with the dehumanization of it all. Lack of motivation. Some actual laziness. Efforts and focus on building a few small businesses. Short lived dreams that some of my writing was about to become a bridge to a decent income. Other dreams dreamt and piddled with for a few days, weeks. Time spent protesting and working with others to experiment with some other way of being together. Service to my sangha. Days, weeks of my life given to the sangha.

Under terms of colonialism and the capitalism it spawned, all of these complications to the narrative are erased. Ignored. Downplayed. Medicated. Plunged under water in hopes of drowning completely. Institutions do it to us. The people around us do it to us. But for the most part, we do it to ourselves. It's a sign of how well the whole thing works. That there really isn't too much of a need for external pressure.

In fact, I tend to think that the increasing militarization and attempts to control are - in part - a positive because they're signals that more of us aren't willing to go along, even if some of our not going along is violent and suffering producing.

Right Livelihood is so corrupted under the conditions we've collectively created in the modern world. And as an able bodied man in the prime of his life, I feel a lot of pressure around all this. Genderized pressure. It's still really not ok for the most part for able bodied, or able body looking men, or trans-men, to be without a decent income. To not be in a financial position to take care of themselves, and others in many cases. No one who is financially poor gets much sympathy, but broke young and middle aged men are probably at the bottom of the sympathy ladder. Treated like rats, hurled frequently with insults, and left to rot as miserable scum in the psychological sewer. And a few in actual sewers. Is it any wonder that men in financial crisis often break down, get lost in addiction, increased violence, isolation, and mental despair?

This is the flip side of male privilege. The deep imbalances in our societies poison us all in different ways. I can't say that enough.

Going back to Shodo's comment. All of this goes deeper, comes from a deeper place. Our disconnect from the planet. All the ways in which the majority of modern humanity across the globe has deluded itself into believing it's separate from the rest of the living beings, and the very Earth upon which it/they/we stand. There isn't any true Right Livelihood without breaking through those lies. Both individually and collectively. Which doesn't mean that everyone should quit their day jobs like I did necessarily, but it sure as hell means we need to look at, and start doing a whole hell of a lot things differently. If we want to fulfill our vows that is.

When I write like this, talk like this, a fair number of people - mostly white, privileged people I must add - get a bit twisted up in their trousers. Oh, the names I've been called over the years, even long before I was brave/crazy enough to do something like I've been doing over the past few years. And oh, how some feel the need to talk me gently or not so gently down from some imagined ledge. "I love your spirit, buddy, but you've gone a bit too far." Or "If only the world worked that way, but it doesn't, and don't get so distraught or wound up about it all." The funny thing is that sometimes I actually did need to calm down a bit, but it had nothing to do with the actual content and everything to do with my attachment to the content and others' approval of it. These days, I expect resistance. Because it's in the very water we drink and food we eat to resist our true paths. Our most awakened paths. Individually and collectively. The Buddha's teachings point to that resistance as almost built into us. And I happen to think that what we've done in the modern, colonial world is build societies that amplify that resistance to the point where it nearly deafens us.

We all need to invest in some major earplugs. And those who have had them awhile, would do well to share their secrets with everyone else. Given the climate crisis we live in, we don't even know if we'll be around as a species for much longer. It could be that bad, but there's no need to give up based on something that may be possible. Whatever I personally do in terms of jobs and money and the like, I don't intend to give up. Because no matter how you slice it, Right Livelihood is intimately connected to the well being of every last human on the planet, and every last being on the planet. How could it be otherwise?


Anonymous said...

Namaste! Beautiful and well written article. Your article gave me new perspectives and insights, and I wanted to thank you for sharing with us your journey and the wisdom gained from it.

Was Once said...

You bring up some great points.
I offer you the wisdom of Bentinho...fast forward it to the gray haired man interchange with him, I found it applied to me just as well. The world you see is what you experience.

Nathan said...

Thank you both. Bows.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully and thoughtfully written. Maybe you can turn your blog thoughts into essays? I find myself in a similar place as you. I am a bit older and I am a Caucasian female -- I got off the *crazy train* because I got cancer. I am cancer free now but have complications that require me to use a walker. Being sick allowed me the time to think about my life and what the heck I was doing with it. I walked around most of my adult life on auto-pilot. There were periods of self-reflection--but not enough. At least I don't think so. There are people who tell me that I can find something to do -- a real paying job that is not physical but I find myself asking the same questions as you. Am I willing to sell my soul for a small paycheck? I volunteer at the hospital that treated me -- I visit cancer patients. I probably could get a job there, but then I would find myself as their *resource* -- hospitals are capable of using their employees too -- they are part of our capitalist society. I find being a volunteer, I can speak more freely -- maybe because I don't fear getting fired. I am on a fixed income, but I am happy that I am free to do my Right Livelihood. So many jobs become political environments, rife with personal agendas. Please write more on this subject. And think about putting together a book... Namaste, Inge

Nathan said...

"So many jobs become political environments, rife with personal agendas." Very true. I've seen a lot of this over the years, and even when the mission of the organization is excellent, it gets overtaken by power trips and appeasing funders (which usually waters down the mission).

I'm glad you're cancer free now and hope you remain so.

I've thought about a book for awhile now. I have been pushing myself to write longer pieces again recently (mostly not published yet). Maybe that's a cue to get to work on a book-length project.