Tuesday, January 28, 2014

How Our Very Happiness is Colonized

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 an 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 growing 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 other. 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.

Our whole economic system is built upon the three poisons. Until enough of us realize this, and make a shift (individually and together) towards something more beneficial, the misery will keep piling up.

In fact, the very linking of our happiness to material wealth, or lack there of, is a symptom of the system. How our minds have been colonized. How the narratives of consumerism, global capitalism, and the "American Dream" own us to the core. 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.

Which makes lack of having your basic needs met - something more and more of us are facing these days - all the more difficult. Because our thinking is so warped, so self abusive and impairing.

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. Frankly, it's challenging to locate happiness, joy, contentment, or equanimity within those conditions. And yet, definitely possible. Plenty of hermit monks and others have lived joyful and content with next to nothing.

As such, 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, bot total acceptance of what is and also doggedly working towards something better for us all.

Happiness as we commonly know it is colonized. It's not an individual pursuit, nor is it about accumulation of possessions, procuring a partner and having children, or transcending all the mundane difficulties of life. What is it? Let's work together to find out.


Anonymous said...


You post is so spot on. Let's take Thanksgiving. Its supposed to be about being thankful...so what do some people do? After their meal they go to some big box store and beat the hell out of someone else to buy some piece of junk, that's supposedly on sale and pay for it with their credit card that charges them oodles of interest fees over the next few years.

Human behavior never ceases to amaze me. We never seem to be happy with what we have. We focus on what we don't have.

I am happier not owning the lasts over-priced electronic gadgets.

We are being bombarded with endless ads to buy more, but its up to each one of us to not buy in to the propaganda.

The majority of us are asleep to this but the ones who study human behavior, know what buttons to push to get us to buy stuff and go to war... hate other groups, etc.

I think, in order to wake up and see what's happening, we need to meditate...like sitting Zazen. Listening to our thoughts is a big help, instead of living on auto-pilot and making decisions in a knee jerk fashion.

Nathan said...

Yeah, Thanksgiving definitely represents this issue on many levels.

Meditation and similar practices are needed. Collective social change action is needed.

It's a pretty big mess, this current society.