Wednesday, December 14, 2011

American Awakening: Occupy Wall Street, Deconstructing American Mythology, and Creating a Compassionate Society (part 3)

I THINK the economic system and its accompanying culture is perpetuated by the American Mythology and its three main tenets:  the American Dream, Upward Mobility, and American exceptionalism.

The American Dream has come to be a symbol of what we value and strive for.  Americans have been told since their birth and their parents' births that this Dream was for all to attain, if only they worked hard enough for it. The dream of eventually having all you could desire:  a great home, great job, beautiful family, nice possessions, and of course, happiness.  The American Dream is a unique image, a specific group of ideas in each individual's mind, relative to each of the dreamer, while also always remaining a generic symbol for the American way of life. Along with the symbol is the belief that in order to attain your Dream, one must simply put in your time and work hard, make smart choices such as saving money, being innovative, and then reap your benefits down the road (quick aside:  interesting how the rewards of belief structures such as the American Dream & Christianity are always delayed…always something to be received at a later point. No doubt this is at least partly due to the fact that the creators of the “American Dream” also happened to believe in the Christian Creator and the tenets of that faith).  The pursuit of your own American Dream has come to be a primary source of meaning for the day to day lives of Americans, something to continue working diligently towards…and believing in.  But just like the promise of a beautiful afterlife, the American Dream tends be be unfulfilled goals for most people. It begs the question:  Is the concept of the American Dream a misguiding goal? The creation of an ends driven society focused on things to work for while neglecting the importance of learning how to live?  I certainly think so.

Upward social mobility: This is another staple of the great American narrative. It is the concept that individuals can work their way up the economic and social ladder through hard work and/or education and/or plundering.  This has served as not only a rationalization for the successes of a tiny privileged few and your even tinier rags to riches stories, but also for the justification for the perpetual impoverishment of the entrenched lower classes, especially minorities. Despite evidence to the contrary, Americans are still more likely to believe in upward mobility than citizens of any other developed country.

If a person goes from abject poverty to fame and fortune, the narrative that ends up being told over and over is one of hard work, sacrifice, education, and the individuals’ virtues.  We attribute the success almost solely to the individual. The truth is that for the miniscule number of rags to riches stories, they did have to overcome incredible obstacles, work hard, take advantage of opportunities, and just plain out be lucky from time to time.  But this is not the norm. It cannot be the norm. But, this narrative is taken and retold over and over again as evidence that it is possible to move up the ladder of society and that you are solely responsible for making it happen.  But by decoupling the individual from the incredible circumstances that makes for each of these stories possible, a distortion of perception is created. People believe that it too can happen to them. And so they continue to believe the myth…But when we think about the rags to riches from an analytical point of view using statistical odds, we realize that that story is akin to the person who has just won the Powerball lottery. Millions of people think it can happen to them, but it takes extraordinary luck and circumstances for it to happen. 

The other side of the coin, using upward social mobility as a justification for the poor, is just as disingenuous. When discussing a specific person or group of people who have been entrenched in poverty, the narrative being told over and over again usually comes to tell about that person(s) lack of virtue, that they have not worked hard enough, not sacrificed enough.  Lost in this blame game are again…the incredible circumstances that surround the individual(s).  Instead of giving consideration to the effects of growing up surrounded by poverty, the responsibility is placed almost solely on the individuals (and their lack of virtue). 

The truth of the matter is that our economic positioning is most affected by circumstances outside of our control:  what socioeconomic rung of the ladder our parents maintained.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t jive with our belief in upward mobility. We want to and do believe our country is a meritocracy. We want to and do believe it is solely within our hands to attain our dreams, including reaching the top of the ladder. We want to and do believe hard work is justly rewarded.  But, it’s not. At least not to the extent that we want to and do believe.  Bottom line: If you’re born into the lowest quartile of the SES food chain, you have about 1% chance of an intragenerational jump to the top quartile.  If you’re born into the middle class, your percentage of likelihood to do the same increases to 1.8%. If you’re in the middle class, you actually have about an equal chance to move up to the next rung as you do to fall down to the rung below. And as for intergenerational mobility (families moving up the SES ladder through the generations)…well the rate in the United States was second lowest of all developed countries (only the UK has a lower rate). And so despite evidence to the contrary, we continue to have faith in the belief of upward mobility, and continue to perpetuate the myth.
Side Note:  For those with extra time and interest on the topic, here is the basis for my conjectures (no, I didn’t just make these statistics up!):
1. The Economic Mobility ProjectThe Economic Mobility Project is a unique non­partisan collaborative effort of The Pew Charitable Trusts and respected thinkers from four leading policy institutes — The American Enterprise Institute, The Brookings Institution, The Heritage Foundation and The Urban Institute.2. Understanding Mobility in AmericaA report by the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank focusing on economic issues.

How could two ideas which have shown to be hollow and ultimately unfruitful for the majority of their believers continue to be so widely believed in? The American Dream and the belief of upward mobility are protected by obedience to the tenet of American Exceptionalism. This is the theory belief that the United States is qualitatively different from better than other countries.

The United States was founded under such pretty wild circumstances by some pretty wild dudes (and by wild I mean wildly wealthy white dudes). They thought they had something pretty special going on.  And by all accounts, they did. They worked to create one of the most free and open societies...for white male landowners.  But they did a great job in making everyone believe they were free! And relative to other countries in the world, people were pretty free. Oh, except for African-Americans. But then again, they were only considered a fraction of a person back then. Moving right along…it seems our country has had this self-image versus reality problem all along.  We want to and do believe in the IDEA of America and all it represents.  We ascribe to the tenets of the belief in America. We want to and do believe in the mostly unfailing awesomeness of America.  Yet these beliefs don’t quite match reality.  Like many religious systems though, our country has used the promise of deferred gratification, obedience to authority, and ostracization of nonbelievers to keep the worshippers coming to service, so to speak.

A heavy dose of humility would do our country a whole lot of good right about now.  A great first step would be to acknowledge and release our feeling of superiority in order to open up room for critique and dialogue about our country and its deep flaws.  A sound second step would be to stop looking outward to other countries for points of comparison and start looking inward.  Instead of comparing our reality to that of another country, let's compare our reality with our ideology. That should be the real test of our country's supposed greatness. We have all of these ideals that we were founded upon, but is this greatness real and more importantly, is it real for all Americans?

When we defer to dogmatic beliefs that distort our perception of our collectively constructed reality, we minimize our ability to clearly see need for change, suffocate those voices trying to draw attention to that reality, and ensure the perpetuation of a status quo that fails to realize the embodiment of our greatest ideals.

American Awakening: Occupy Wall Street, Deconstructing American Mythology, and Creating a Compassionate Society (part 2)

I THINK the OWS movement is a manifestation of problems that go deeper than employment (or lack thereof), income (or lack thereof), and debt (or the lack of lack thereof).
David Loy reveals a crucial truth to the nature and potential of the Occupy movement when he admonished we should "appreciate the general, unfocused dissatisfaction that so many people feel, because it reflects a general, unfocused realization that the roots of the crisis are very deep and require a more radical (literally, "going to the root") transformation".  The OWS movement is representative of the difficult realization about ourselves, more devastating than the economic injustices it rallies against, which is that our country’s values, our own values, are the source of our problems. 

Social conventions, such as an economic system, are based upon the choices people make. Choices are all about value. So I think at its core, the structure of our economic system is about value, our values.  It is a macro-manifestation of the everyday choices individuals make over and over again.  But how aware are we of this?  What are these values? And I’m not talking about values in the sense of what morally condescending people parade around with, holding their supposed virtuous morality over the heads of others they feel superior to, but values at a basic economic level. Our values can be identified by analyzing our behaviors, specifically our habitual behaviors. These behaviors are so ingrained that we often do not give pause and realize we make specific choices based on values, those of which we may be so used to making that the values that underlay them have become subconscious.

So what do Americans value? Based on our actions, I would offer up the following as the defining American Values:
-Material & Monetary Wealth:  This is not a shocking statement, though I think it’s underappreciated. This is so pervasive it is hard to condense all of the examples into one paragraph. The entire foundation of our consumer culture is based upon wealth, the gaining of, expending of, and displaying of. A great recent example:  on one day of shopping (an easy example of the value of material wealth), Americans spent over $11 billion dollars. Black Friday of 2011 saw Americans spend $11.4B. The importance of wealth is ingrained in our lexicon. Think of the ways we speak:  “How much money did you save? How much do you make? How much is it worth? At least you saved money. Well that didn’t cost too much.”  This is all in reference to either monetary or material wealth. It takes precedence over all other concerns.  I really don’t feel compelling to this point, that this is ubiquitous, but it is so intertwined into the fabric of everyday existence that I am having trouble detangling it to provide more illuminating examples. That’s how widespread it is:  We have trouble imagining what life would be like without concern for it.

-Productivity:  We value production and the perception of production, otherwise commonly referred to as productivity, or in more casual terms, “being productive”.   Our daily lives revolve around accomplishing tasks, whether this is getting things done at our jobs, or completing errands away from work/around the house. Each day we wake to a list of things we must get done, mentally checking them off as we complete them, fretting over what will be left undone, and continuously piling more tasks onto the list.  Our lives consist of a neverending to do list. Why is this?  It’s certainly not due to some inherent human nature. No, it’s because we have come to value it. We value productivity over any other possible choice.

-Consumption:  We value the opportunity to consume things and experiences.  This is shown by the choices we make with our limited amount of leisure time.  Consumption takes place when we go shopping, or in front of the television.  Certainly the former is understood, but the latter should not be mistaken for anything but a passive consumption of a service.  When we are not producing something, we are consuming something else.  

-Instant Gratification:  We love speed insofaras it saves us time by giving to us what we want, when we want it. This is in all facets of our society. We live life at a stupifyingly accelerated rate and as such will do anything and everything to save us time and get us what we want right now.  Just take a look at a few contemporary commercials to show how companies take advantage of our worship of speed.  Think of your frustration when something doesn’t arrive on time. I think of how I feel when I get stuck in traffic or slowed down by something outside of my control; I am anxious, frustrated, even angry sometimes.  I recall my last conversation with a stranger. For that matter, I can recall my last conversation with a loved one. No doubt they were mitigated by perceived time constraints, the attempt to get everything and anything done as quickly as possible. And why? Well, so that we can move onto our next task of production or consumption.

-Fame/Social Prestige:  Here is a list of reality television shows:  ( Sports stars, movie stars, music stars, television shows about stars, newspapers about stars, websites about stars, American Idol, The X Factor, Celebrity Chef shows, on and on…America loves (values) its celebrities and most would love nothing more than to be the next person to “make it big”.  Seriously, this is something we value deeply, whether we admit it or not.

Look at the list above.  This is what our country finds most important about human existence?  Certainly this does not encompass all Americans, and has not fully exhausted the things we value in our country. But these, in my eyes, are what are most ubiquitous, what drives much of our lives. No doubt the majority of Americans if asked to name what they valued most in life, they would not respond with these things. They would likely respond with family, religious/spiritual beliefs, being happy.  But what do the every actions of Americans say about what they value?  I would say they would tell quite a different story about what is truly valued and it would be much more aligned with the ones I mentioned above.  We have many problems in this country, but maybe none more pressing than a values problem.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

American Awakening: Occupy Wall Street, Deconstructing American Mythology, and Creating a Compassionate Society (part 1)

I began writing a sober, plotted out essay that attempted to deconstruct the American capitalist economic system and consumerist culture. It started with a seed of three key ideas that I identified in David Loy’s essay and wanted to run with a bit myself:
1.   Corporate Capitalism is socially defective because it is based upon our values, which are socially defective.
2.   The need to enrich discussion about potential solutions to our economic problems by eliminating the stranglehold that the myths of social Darwinism and upward mobility maintain.
3.   The need for personal revolution to take place before any substantive systemic reform happens.
But as I began to outline my arguments, the scope widened.  As I started to write, I realized I had a lot to say. I had a lot worthwhile to say (I hope). So this piece grew. And it grew. And it grew. I began to realize that few are/were going to take the time to read a 10+ page diatribe (rant). So in an effort to make it easier to digest, I am publishing a portion of the piece each day.  I will include the essay in its entirety in my Philosophy/Culture section once it is complete. With that said here are some things I think about David Loy's "Waking Up from the Nightmare: Buddhist Reflections on Occupy Wall Street" and beyond. I'm hoping for others to read this (and respond) critically and with open minds.

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I THINK the Occupy Wall Street movement represents a growing awareness of fundamental problems of our economic system and our culture.
We hear the grievances of the Occupy movement: heavily skewed wealth distribution, unemployment, student debt, and corporate greed. We hear the clamoring of potential solutions: higher taxes on the wealthy, loan forgiveness, higher wages. Some of what we hear from the Occupy encampments is the critique over the perceived unfairness of capitalism, and the need for an equal sharing of the American wealth pie, so to speak.  "If we all just had a little more of the pie, then things would be better. If we had a little bit better jobs, or better wages, or better opportunities, or...if the rich would just stop being so damn greedy and keeping it all for themselves. If we could just prosecute the rich for conspiring against all the rest of us; if we could just get them out of power. If we could..."

The first step toward any kind of change is awareness. One must consciously know of the circumstances and the role each individual plays in constructing the shared reality in order to be keen on any need for change.  The voices crying out of the OWS movement illustrate a general awareness that our current economic structure and consumerist culture do not meet the needs of a significant portion of our country. Over 46 million Americans fell below the poverty line last year according to the U.S. Census Bureau.  That is greater than 15% of Americans living in poverty.  Of course, we know all too well how this disproportionately affects minorities.  The percentage of African-Americans living in poverty sits at 27%, with Hispanics not far behind at 26%.  It should be an understatement when I say this is outrageous and unacceptable.  But even as I write these statistics I know they will be glossed over by many, barely garnering an emotional response.  However, the OWS movement is an emotional response to the some of the deeply disturbing problems, such as the reality of these statistics, in our society.

I don't necessarily disagree emotionally with the populist sentiments of OWS. I feel this way, too, at times. I am pissed about the inequality in our society. I do think it is outrageous that some people are lighting cigars with $100 bills (this happens all the time, right?) while a sizable minority of Americans cannot even find a job, let alone the even greater number of Americans (granted, some are double dippers here) who are below the poverty line. I do think the Occupy movements are justified in the collective bitching about our situation. Dissent is essential in a democratic society.  I applaud the OWS movement for mobilizing people to gather in the streets to voice their dissent all across the country, which is the manifestation of awareness about deep rooted problems in our society.  Even if OWS does nothing else, it has created a conscious collective awareness about the tragic flaws in the structures and fabrics of our society that all members are forced to at least consider.The quilt of complaints offered up by the OWS movement has at least one common thread stitching it all together:  The status quo is unacceptable and radical change is necessary to remedy the situation.  

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Waking Up from the Nightmare: Buddhist Reflections on Occupy Wall Street

David Robert Loy is a professor, writer, and Zen teacher in the Sanbo Kyodan tradition of Japanese Zen Buddhism. He is a prolific author, whose essays and books have been translated into many languages. David lectures nationally and internationally on various topics, focusing primarily on the encounter between Buddhism and modernity: what each can learn from the other. He is especially concerned about social and ecological issues.

I had the opportunity to study Dr. Loy's work in undergrad, focusing on his text "Lack and Transcendance: The Problem of Life and Death in Psychotherapy, Existentialism, and Buddhism" in my class on Existential Psychotherapy. Dr. Loy visited FGCU in 2008 to give a talk on "Healing Ecology: A Buddhist Perspective", as well as serve as guest lecturer in my class.  Dr. Loy returned to FGCU for a second visit, which occurred last week, when he gave a presentation on Buddhism and modernity titled "Buddhism's Confrontation With Modernity". I was fortunate enough to be able to catch this, as well as go out to dinner with him and several FGCU faculty and students following.  David's work has made a significant impact on my life, being a key influence in my incorporation of Buddhist philosophy into my life. Needless to say, getting to spend some time chatting with him one on one was a pretty cool experience.  

In addition to the works mentioned above, David recently published an essay about the Occupy Wall Street movement which has received wide publication in online magazines, journals, and newspapers.  The essay contains thought provoking insights you won't find in the big media outlets, though it is this kind of discourse, these kinds of ideas that I believe are necessary to find a real, transformative solution to our current problems, which as David points out, go deeper than simple economics.  I am republishing the essay here with David's permission. I will publish my own thoughts on this topic. I am encouraging any and all who read this to post their thoughts in the comments section.


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"Waking Up from the Nightmare:  Buddhist Reflections on Occupy Wall Street"
by David R. Loy
In a Buddhist blog about Occupy Wall Street, Michael Stone quotes the philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who spoke to the New York Occupiers at Zuccotti Park on October 9:
They tell you we are dreamers. The true dreamers are those who think things can go on indefinitely the way they are. We are not dreamers. We are awakening from a dream which is turning into a nightmare. We are not destroying anything. We are only witnessing how the system is destroying itself. We all know the classic scenes from cartoons. The cat reaches a precipice. But it goes on walking. Ignoring the fact that there is nothing beneath. Only when it looks down and notices it, it falls down. This is what we are doing here. We are telling the guys there on Wall Street – Hey, look down!
As Slavoj and Michael emphasize, we are beginning to awaken from that dream. That’s an interesting way to put it, because the Buddha also woke up from a dream: the Buddha means “the awakened one.” What dream did he wake up from? Is it related to the nightmare we are awakening from now?
From the beginning, Occupiers have been criticized for the vagueness of their demands: although clearly against the present system, it wasn’t clear what they were for. Since then more focus has developed: many protesters are calling for higher taxes on the wealthy, a “Robin Hood” (Tobin) tax on trades, and banking reform to separate commercial and investment banking. These are worthy aims, yet it would be a mistake to think that such measures will by themselves resolve the basic problem. We should appreciate the general, unfocused dissatisfaction that so many people feel, because it reflects a general, unfocused realization that the roots of the crisis are very deep and require a more radical (literally, “going to the root”) transformation.
Wall Street is the most concentrated and visible part of a much larger nightmare: the collective delusion that our present economic system – globalizing, consumerist, corporate capitalism – is not only the best possible system but the only viable one. As Margaret Thatcher famously put it, “There is no alternative.” The events of the last few years have undermined that confidence. The events of the past few weeks are a response to the widespread realization that our economic system is rigged to benefit the wealthy (the “1%”) at the expense of the middle class (shrinking fast) and the poor (increasing fast). And, of course, at the expense of many ecosystems, which will have enormous consequences for the lives of our grandchildren and their children. What we are waking up to is the fact that this unfair system is breaking down, and that it should break down, in order for better alternatives to develop.
It is not only the economy that needs to be transformed, because there is no longer any real separation between our economic and political systems. With the “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision last year – removing limits on corporate spending to influence elections – corporate power seems to have taken control of all the top levels of federal and state government, including the presidency. (Obama has received more campaign contributions from Wall Street than any other president since 1991, which helps explain his disappointing choice of economic advisors.) Today the elite move back and forth easily – from CEO to cabinet position, and vice-versa – because both sides share the same entrenched worldview: the solution to all problems is unfettered economic growth. Of course, they are also the ones who benefit most from this blinkered vision, which means the challenge for the rest of us is that the people who control this economic/political system have the least motivation to make the fundamental changes necessary.
Although the Democrats have not become as loony as the Republicans, on this basic level there’s really not much difference between them. Dan Hamburg, a Democratic congressman from California, concluded from his years in the U.S. Congress that “the real government of our country is economic, dominated by large corporations that charter the state to do their bidding. Fostering a secure environment in which corporations and their investors can flourish is the paramount objective of both [political] parties.” We still have the best Congress money can buy, as Will Rogers noticed way back in the 1920s.
From a Buddhist perspective, the point is that this integrated system is incompatible with Buddhist teachings, because it encourages greed and delusion – the root causes of our dukkha “suffering.” At the heart of the present crisis is the economic, political, and social role of the largest (usually transnational) corporations, which have taken on a life of their own and pursue their own agenda. Despite all the advertising and public relations propaganda we are exposed to, their best interests are quite different from what is best for the rest of us. We sometimes hear about “enlightened corporations” but that metaphor is deceptive – and the difference between such “enlightenment” and Buddhist enlightenment is instructive.
The burgeoning power of corporations became institutionalized in 1886, when the Supreme Court ruled that a private corporation is a “natural person” under the U.S. Constitution and thus entitled to all the protections of the Bill of Rights, including free speech. Ironically, this highlights the problem: as many Occupy Wall Street posters declare, corporations are not people, because they are social constructs. Obviously, incorporation (from the Latin corpus, corporis “body”) does not mean gaining a physical body. Corporations are legal fictions created by government charter, which means they are inherently indifferent to the responsibilities that people experience. A corporation cannot laugh or cry. It cannot enjoy the world or suffer with it. It is unable to feel sorry for what it has done (it may occasionally apologize, but that is public relations).
Most important, a corporation cannot love. Love is realizing our interconnectedness with others and living our concern for their well-being. Love is not an emotion but an engagement with others that includes responsibility for them, a responsibility that transcends our individual self-interest. Corporations cannot experience such love or act according to it. Any CEOs who try to subordinate their company’s profitability to their love for the world will lose their position, for they are not fulfilling their primary – that is, financial — responsibility to its owners, the shareholders.
Buddhist enlightenment includes realizing that my sense of being a self separate from the world is a delusion that causes suffering on both sides. To realize that I am the world – that “I” am one of the many ways the world manifests – is the cognitive side of the love that an awakened person feels for the world and its creatures. The realization (wisdom) and the love (compassion) are two sides of the same coin, which is why Buddhist teachers so often emphasize that genuine awakening is accompanied by spontaneous concern for all other sentient beings.
Corporations are “fuelled” by, and reinforce, a very different human trait. Our corporate-dominated economy requires greed in at least two ways: a desire for never-enough profit is the engine of the economic process, and in order to keep the economy growing consumers must be conditioned into always wanting more.
The problem with greed becomes much worse when institutionalized in the form of a legal construct that takes on privileges of its own quite independently of the personal values and motivations of the people employed by it. Consider the stock market, for example. On the one side, investors want increasing returns in the form of dividends and higher stock prices. On the other side, this anonymous expectation translates into an impersonal but constant pressure for profitability and growth, preferably in the short run. Everything else, including the environment, employment, and the quality of life, becomes an “externality,” subordinated to this anonymous demand, a goal-that-can-never-be-satisfied. We all participate in this process, as workers, employers, consumers, and investors, yet normally with little or no personal sense of moral responsibility for what happens, because such awareness is lost in the impersonality of the system.
One might argue, in reply, that some corporations (usually family-owned or small) take good care of their employees, are concerned about effects on the environment, and so forth. The same argument could be made for slavery: there were a few good slave owners who took care of their slaves, etc. This does not refute the fact that the institution of slavery is intolerable. It is just as intolerable today that our collective well-being, including the way the earth’s limited “resources” are shared, is determined by what is profitable for large corporations.
In short, we are waking up to the fact that although transnational corporations may be profitable economically, they are structured in a way that makes them defective socially. We cannot solve the problems they keep creating by addressing the conduct of this or that particular example (Morgan Stanley, Bank of America), because it is the institution itself that is the problem. Given their enormous power over the political process, it won’t be easy to challenge their role, but they have an umbilical cord: corporate charters can be rewritten to require social and ecological responsibility. Groups such as the Network of Spiritual Progressives have been calling for an Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment (ESRA) to the U.S. Constitution which would mandate that.  If our destiny is to remain in corporate hands, corporations must become accountable most of all not to anonymous investors but to the communities they function in. Perhaps Occupy Wall Street is the beginning of a movement which will accomplish that.
If so, it won’t be enough. There’s something else at stake, even more basic: the worldview that encourages and rationalizes the kind of economic nightmare that we are beginning to awaken from. In Buddhist terms, the problem isn’t only greed, it’s also ignorance. The theory most often used to justify capitalism is Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”: pursuing our own self-interest actually works to benefit society as a whole. I suspect, however, that CEOs are more often motivated by something less benign. It’s no coincidence that corporate influence grew at the same time as the popularity of social Darwinism, the ideology that misapplied Darwin’s theory of evolution to social and economic life: it’s a jungle out there, and only the strongest survive. If you don’t take advantage of others, they will take advantage of you. Darwinian evolution eliminated the need for a Creator and therefore the need to follow his commandments: now it’s every man for himself…
Social Darwinism created a feedback loop: the more people believed in it and acted according to it, the more society became a social Darwinist jungle. It’s a classic example of how we collectively co-create the world we live in.  And this may be where Buddhism has the most to contribute, because Buddhism offers an alternative view of the world, based on a more sophisticated understanding of human nature that explains why we are unhappy and how to become happier. Recent psychological and economic studies confirm the destructive role of greed and the importance of healthy social relationships, which is consistent with Buddhist emphasis on generosity and interdependence.
In other words, the problem isn’t only our defective economic and political system, it’s also a faulty world view that encourages selfishness and competition rather than community and harmony. The modern West is split between a theism that’s become hard to believe in, and a dog-eat-dog ideology that makes life worse for all of us. Fortunately, now there are other options.
Buddhism also has something important to learn from Occupy Wall Street: that it’s not enough to focus on waking from our own individual dream. Today we are called upon to awaken together from what has become a collective nightmare. Is it time to bring our spiritual practice out into the streets?
"If we continue abusing the earth this way, there is no doubt that our civilization will be destroyed. This turnaround takes enlightenment, awakening. The Buddha attained individual awakening. Now we need a collective enlightenment to stop this course of destruction. Civilization is going to end if we continue to drown in the competition for power, fame, sex, and profit."          (Thich Nhat Hahn)
21st October 2011

Monday, December 5, 2011

Picture of the Week: December 1-7

Picture of the Week:  Arches National Park (Utah) before the morning storm
click on image for larger view

I camped just outside of Arches the night before at a Department of the Interior campsite, awoke before dawn, and made my way into the park and to Delicate Arch to watch the sunrise. Unfortunately/fortunately, a morning thunderstorm cut my visit to Delicate short, and en route back through the park, I caught this photo featuring the streaked sky which frames the rock structure jutting out of the ground.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Bozeman Backpackers' Hostel (Part 2)

After settling up my debt for a two nights stay, I gathered my backpack and blanket from my car parked on the street out in front of the hostel.  The hostel was located on West Olive Street, a small side street two blocks off of Main Street and downtown Bozeman.  West Olive was lined on both sides with charming,  19th century wooden homes presiding over manicured lawns, oak trees, and flower beds.  The area exuded a genuine quaintness without crossing the line of pretentiousness. Indeed, it could have been a Hollywood movie set for Leave It To Beaver, except it did not feel forced; I got the feeling this was not a façade.

I stood on the steps of the hostel and admired my surroundings.  Young mothers pushed strollers, coeds jogged by, and hipsters in skinny jeans with arms covered in tatooes rode by on immaculate Schwinn 10-speeds.  A neighborhood. I wondered if I had stumbled upon some modern day Norman Rockwell painting. My wonder was joined by appreciation. I appreciated the moment. The scenery. The everything of it all. How I got there; why I was there; the unknown of what I would do while there; where I would head next. The continuous novelty of each moment, unfolding into the next moment, brought about by travel to unknown lands. A perpetual feeling of arrival. Though the physical destination I arrived to was Bozeman, there was a deeper, psychological feeling of “getting there” in my mind. It was the “getting there” to a special place mentally. It was a continuation of the feeling of accomplishing a long desired goal:  pure and ubiquitous freedom.  The freedom I got from the road; from the travel.  Bozeman was here now. It’s streets opened up to me new paths for which I did not know what I would find if I traveled down them…they all opened up possibility. Holy possibilities.  With that and no expectations to guide me to a specific road, and no destination in mind, any road would do, and I knew I would welcome the experiences that awaited me.

But first…

I carried my belongings inside my new home away from home, up the narrow stairway, serenaded by the sound of the old boards as they creaked with every step. I was reminded of a dream, a time spent at someone’s grandmother’s house.  Was I dreaming?

Once I arrived at the landing, I peeked into each room; private rooms straight ahead and to the right, each with one small twin bed graced with a handmade afghan, the windows framed by faded white curtains covered in daisies. I hung a left into a slightly larger room, filled with 6 wooden bunk beds. I noticed the belongings of fellow travelers on two of the beds and was thankful the room was not packed with others. I took the bunk that Scott had previously recommended to me (“Yeah, I’d take the one closest t’door. I’ve slept on most’em and I think that’uns the best. And if you come in here piss drunk tonight or t’morrow, ya won’t hafta worry ‘bout wakin’ anyone up.”). Sound advice. Quite possible circumstances, indeed.

I grabbed fresh clothes from my bag and toiletries with one urgent goal in mind:  shower.  My last shower had taken place on Tuesday morning in Cedar Falls, Iowa. It was early Friday evening.  Now, I enjoy showers; they are not irksome obligations, but refreshing, cleansing (both literally and figuratively speaking) times of solitude. So going four days without showering was obviously unprecedented. However, it was also liberating. It was another comfort I had surrendered, learned to go without, and found that I could survive.  But, when given the opportunity, I sprung for it as soon as I possibly could. I ignored the “Please Respect Fellow Hostelers & Keep Showers Under 10 Min.  Thnx, Mngmt.” sign on the door. I reveled in the steaming hot water. As I stood beneath the blasting water, I alternated between leaning my right shoulder against the cool, blue tile and hunching over, pressing the crown of my head against the tile in front of me. I listened seriously to the sounds of the water groaning its way up the pipes, hissing out of the nozzle, spraying on my head and body, trickling down to the tiled bottom, and gurgling as it circled down the drain.  An event I took part in daily with little notice now garnered my complete attention.  I became aware of how immersed I was in a typically banal experience, which consequently produced a smile, ear to ear, and a laugh. I leaned back, continued to laugh, and clapped my hands, which sent drops of water kamikazeing into all surrounding objects.

How deeply gratifying this standard convenience was in that moment revealed one of those old life lessons I had heard often as a kid and throughout my life:  you don’t fully appreciate something ‘til it’s gone. While old adages such as this may seem hokey and trite when given to you out of context, it is undeniably understood when experienced firsthand.  I thought about this. But, what makes this saying so often true? Why must we go without to appreciate something? Must we? Is it some yin and yang to the universe?

As I lathered soap and washed off the dirt that had accrued through four days of travel, hiking, and camping, I continued to ponder this. I ended up back at a conjecture I have arrived at before:  We are all afflicted by a disturbing disorder:  Western culture’s obsession with the ends and using time to accomplish tasks. Get things done and move onto the next task.   The present-mindedness problem again.  I realized how this event that I experience every day of my life had been done so with so little awareness, that I had essentially been sleepwalking through it. This extended to any habitual activity! My travels and the accompanying awareness it helped produce, had awakened me to my own life, or rather, my living; my existence, my Being. The unfurling actions of existing.  My vagabonding had helped me awaken out of my slumbered state and opened my eyes to the reality I was living in, not creating in fantasy in my mind. I scrubbed the soap into my red clay tinted skin, watched the water flow down my legs into a muddied puddle below me.  I thought of its origins:  South Dakota. I smiled.  The aroma of the soap filled the air, a noticeable change, excited my olfactory senses.  I grabbed the bottle and squirted more soap and rewashed, to ensure the dirt was removed, as well as to linger in this simple act that was so enjoyable.  As I scrubbed again, I reminded myself to continue to cultivate this awareness beyond this experience in order to live presently, and to cease my dormant ambulating in day to day activities.

With that, I reached forward, grabbed hold of the metallic knobs, and turned off the water, and listened contentedly as the last drips fell, bloop bloop bloop…bloop, with a momentary significance, and  I smiled.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Every Other ____

My life used to be cluttered with roles and obligations. Yet I was

Nowadays I am full of life with the role I chose, me, and empty
of obligations.

I used to be preoccupied with an occupation. It occupied
my time.

I don't have an occupation any longer. So I just occupy my time
for myself.

My life used to be cluttered with possessions and things I
didn't want.

So I gave them up. I feel more free without
those things.

I used to feel unhappy and lost in the cluttered life I passively

These days I feel happy and free in
the life I want.

The Day I Dropped Out

January 17, 2011 was the day I decided to quit my job.  More importantly, it was the day I decided that I would stop living my life indebted to obligations and fear and begin living it how I truly wanted.  Countless decisions led up to this day and this decision, but to pinpoint the exact day I made the decision, that was it. Martin Luther King day, in fact. I visited my college town with my girlfriend (at the time) over the long weekend. Any extra days off during that time usually meant a trip out of town to escape my job and unhappiness with life in Jacksonville. That weekend was no different and was spent in the usual escapist fashion: eating, drinking, and being (generally) merry with old friends. On Monday, we were supposed to leave by the early afternoon in order to make the five hour drive back into Jax at a reasonable hour, given we had work the following morning. As usual, I was in no rush to return and found ways to put off the departure. One such activity was to pop into the now-defunct Boarders bookstore and nonchalantly browse around, not so much looking to buy anything except a little more time away from "reality".

As I rummaged through the sale bin, I began leafing through the voluminous "The Book of Basketball" by Bill Simmons. The selection reflected my apathy towards my life circumstances; picking up a book about nothing of deep significance, just another thing to escape into and away from my impending obligations. To be fair, Simmons is my favorite sportswriter, and the book, from what I have read, and heard, is the definitive book on everything basketball. Nonetheless, after reading an excerpt detailing the ten most important basketball players of all-time, I put the book down and sauntered to the opposite side. My eyes drifted across the typical mass-consumed books with the bolded names of King, Voigt, Grisham.  My attention was seized by a book with the title VAGABONDING. I'd only heard the word referenced as a child, a faint memory at that. I overheard it as adults talked about a bum who had taken up residence in a woods just down the street.  The word still carried a negative connotation to that day. But my interest was piqued, so I reached for the book. As I did so, my girlfriend thrust a copy into my face, asking excitedly: "Have you seen this yet?!"  I snatched the book off the shelves, uncertain why I should be so excited. I took a look at the subtitle: "Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel".  I immediately dove in.

"...For some reason, we see long-term travel to faraway lands as a recurring dream or an exotic temptation, but not something that applies to the here and now. Instead — out of our insane duty to fear, fashion, and monthly payments on things we don't really need — we quarantine our travels to short, frenzied bursts. In this way, as we throw our wealth at an abstract notion called "lifestyle," travel becomes just another accessory — a smooth-edged, encapsulated experience that we purchase the same way we buy clothing and furniture. 
This deliberate way of walking through the world has always been intrinsic to the time-honored, quietly available travel tradition known as "vagabonding."

Vagabonding involves taking an extended time-out from your normal life — six weeks, four months, two years — to travel the world on your own terms.

But beyond travel, vagabonding is an outlook on life. Vagabonding is about using the prosperity and possibility of the information age to increase your personal options instead of your personal possessions. Vagabonding is about looking for adventure in normal life, and normal life within adventure. Vagabonding is an attitude — a friendly interest in people, places, and things that makes a person an explorer in the truest, most vivid sense of the word.

Vagabonding is not a lifestyle, nor is it a trend. It's just an uncommon way of looking at life — a value adjustment from which action naturally follows. And, as much as anything, vagabonding is about time — our only real commodity — and how we choose to use it.
This is a book about living that choice. "
My heart rate increased, my breath fell into quick bursts. My ennui and its accompanying lethargy relinquished its grip on me. A rush of thoughts mingled in a frenzy of inner dialogue.

"Yes! Yes! He's got it. This is how I feel. This is me! You have been evolving your entire life, building up for this moment. This serendipitous find is almost too perfect; this seems to be too close to that ridiculous thing people call 'fate'. Fuck it. Who cares what it is or how this happened?  It is here. It is now.  The time is now."

My logically-governed mind would typically take over to rationally evaluate the situation and give me a cool, even-keeled take on things, normally.  But, this time it could not temper the momentum.

"Yeah, it's true. All of your decisions and previous actions have led you to this exact moment. Whether or not there is anything mystically involved is probably not true, but is beside the point. You're here. Everything, just as before, hinges on your decisions now and the future consequences of them.  Your only question is what will you do with now?  How will you act now? What will you make of this moment?"

At that moment, the only action I knew was movement. I briskly glided toward the checkout counter, calling behind me.

"Let's go. Let's head back to Jax now. Do you mind driving?"

I had some reading to do. I devoured the book.  I highlighted, underlined, circled, wrote in the margins. I read passages aloud. In the midst of this awakening, for that's really the most accurate way to describe it, I made the decision and said it aloud.  "I'm quitting after the year is over and I am traveling. I'm doing this. This is me."

I spent the remainder of the drive in hushed excitement, plotting and planning my real escape from the real world, not just some temporary weekend dream. I began complete and radical change in my lifestyle. I began formulating a way to live life in accordance with my ideals and beliefs. I had had enough of compromising in order to live someone else's life. I chose to drop out of the Rat Race. I stopped my pursuit of the American Dream.  I chose instead to embark on constructing a life made up of my dreams: to live to read, write, think, and travel. I have not relented or looked back since.

Monday, November 7, 2011

"Once and Future Carpenter"

Forever I will move like the world that turns beneath me
And when I lose my direction I'll look up to the sky
And when the black cloak drags upon the ground
I'll be ready to surrender, and remember
Well we're all in this together
If I live the life I'm given, I wont be scared to die

Untitled 51

These days (cue the Black Keys) I feel at peace. Initially I was going to use "content" to describe the overall state of my mood, but I do not think I am content. I am after things, endeavors. However, I am at peace with the reality of Now and being engaged in the quest for specific endeavors to come. I appreciate the conditions I am currently experiencing. The inevitable swoons come and go; the ennui of being stationary, feeling dissatisfied from time to time; frustration from not flitting from place to place like a bumblebee going from flower to flower to take in the sweet stuff. But my orientation to the affective downswings is open. I embrace these experiences. I reflect to maintain awareness of my moods and what influences them; I critically analyze in introspection to understand these conditions of myself; I accept the conditions of the self; I accept the conditions of my Being for what they are: fleeting, nonstatic conditions influenced by context that will come and go, so long as I open up to the experiencing of them without pushing them away or grasping to hold onto something else, something more desirable. It is a nonchalant letting go. Realizing and accepting the conditions of my reality allows me to be malleable myself, forming with the river of reality's flow, not being a stubborn stone which refuses to accept the constant change and grounding myself in vain. To attempt to remain in a place, a state of mind, is a futile act, just as the stone will slowly be broken down by the river's consistently moving current, so too will I be broken down in any attempt to maintain a controlling hold onto my life. Instead I must act in accordance with the River, which simply flows with no pretension of staying put, no desire for the comfort of stability.

Only our culturally shaped perception can lead us to believe in changeless forms and a static nature of reality. With the cultural lens on, we see a false reality, a non-reality. A static vision of reality and of ourselves, that there is something fixed and permanent about each of "us", as well as our surroundings, is put on the pedestal of truth, not for its inherent correctness, but because we place it there. We conspire cooperatively to disguise the the true nature of existence. Collective insanity looks no different than collective sanity.

Existence is fragile. It is perpetual change. It is movement. It is movement towards our own demise, our death. Moods are temporary. Conditions are fleeting. Conditions we enjoy (happy ones) as well as that we do not (sadness, frustration, etc.). We foolishly seek to lay hold of only the experiences we desire; we attempt to fill our life solely with that elusive concept of happiness. Our desires control us and the way we engage with our realities. We attempt to have experience grounded in something more reassuring than constant change. We try to get our lives together, piece by piece, into a state that fits our desires. As if life can be piece-mealed together! But this is like grasping for the river and thinking you can catch it, though as soon as you extend your open palms, fingers outstretched to snatch the river, the water has already moved and continues to move on downstream.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Untitled 45

What is this life?

Modestly (Mouse) Speaking

Alright, already we'll all float on.
Alright, already we'll all float on.
Alright, don't worry even if things end up a bit too heavy.
We'll all float on...alright. Already we'll all float on.
Alright, already we'll all float on, ok.
Don't worry we'll all float on.
Even if things get heavy, we'll all float on.

Untitled 38

Sunday brunch with coffee, black, and mimosas on the lanai discussing the avocado, papaya, orange, and grapefruit trees (swaying in the breeze with no regard to the human quibbling). Does the male papaya tree somehow intuitively know we are discussing his fate? To chop down, leave, or attempt a dangerous transplant (unlikely to succeed according to some in the midst). Let it be, says I, though that only seems to be me. Talk of plant competition, debating the merits of one tree over the other, some political candidates we have here.

I don't know if it's indifference or the Buddhist influence in my perspective, or maybe a mystical, inexplicable influence of the Beatles from years listening to the song on a friend's Dad's jukebox on lazy afternoons following freshmen and sophomore years of high school drinking cokes and eating Little Debbie snacks while talking of nothing and about no one (something and some one all the same), but I echo my refrain, Let It Be, Let It Be.

This is the expression of life unfolding unwittingly from moment to moment with no pretense and no consciousness of some higher purpose or any purpose, for that matter. The beauty of the basic unimportant moments of the day. The conversations that will be washed away as time oozes on. We grow older. We live on. We don't hold onto these moments. Though these moments are the moments of life.

"What are you studying?" someone inquires.

"I'm not. I'm writing." I respond.

"About what? About spending time with your grandmother, grandfather, and brother?"


"Well, that oughta be interesting."

"It's not. But that's why it is."

What was I writing about? Oh, yes. Trees and nothing. All the same.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Life After Death

I thought of death. My death. I thought
of the event. Dying. My dying.
I continued to live. I continue to live.
I live. I am alive.

The thought of death, my death
made me feel more alive
than the moments before I thought
of dying. My dying.

The moments after the thought of death,
burned with holiness.
I revere my life after the thought 
of death. My death.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Bozeman Backpackers' Hostel: Part 1

Bozeman, Montana. A place most people (at least those I associate with) have not heard of, let alone visited.


"Bozeman, Montana. Because I've heard it's a really cool place. "

This was usually the extent of the conversations. I often did not confess the person I heard it from. Probably because I didn't actually hear that. Nor was it even said. That I know of. 

Bozeman, Montana.

I read "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" over the summer following my senior year of college, including during my time spent in teacher boot camp ("Institute" for those TFA people out there). The book was life changing. By that I mean it elicited countless epiphanies about myself, the way I perceived reality and the ways I lived my life. The context of my life at the time I read the book, the person I was, and the content of the book meshed. It just makes sense, in retrospect. You can never know these things in the moment though. The greatest paradigm-shift influencing events aren't usually billing themselves as such. They happen, we react and interact, changing in the process. Or as others, espousing Disney philosophy, may say:  "everything happens for a reason".

Phenomenological arguments aside, the book left a smaller impression on me that wouldn't realize the entirety of its fruitfulness until this epic trip. In the book, the narrator and his son visit friends in Bozeman. The narrator is based on the writer, Robert Pirsig, who taught at Montana State and developed many of his philosophical ideas there. The friends that he visits are based on artists from Bozeman, Bob and Gennie DeWeese. The book made such an impact on me that I decided while I was reading it that if/when I visited Montana, I must go to Bozeman. Upon laying out my ideas for the trip and the subsequent plans, I threw out Bozeman as a planned destination because of this reason. Through my research for the trip, I found out there was a hostel in Bozeman.  Done deal.  This entry is one of four parts that detail my Bozeman, Montana experience.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

I arrived at the Bozeman Backpackers' Hostel on Friday September 2 after spending three nights camping out in remote South Dakota. The trip was in its infancy at that point; I was only 5 days and 1,600 miles removed from my childhood home in Ohio. Upon walking up to the two story wooden house, I found a middle aged man sitting on a 1970s era couch. He was strumming a guitar, though with no apparent desire to  make music. A condensation-soaked Budweiser sat obediently on the table next to him. "So this is what hostels are like after all", I thought to myself. It seemed to fit the image I had in my mind of what a hostel experience should be like.  Not that I had specifically pictured a guy my father's age plucking the strings of the most cliche instrument, drinking the most ubiquitous beer; but the scene displayed the symbolism I had anticipated in my mind.  Random. "Hippie". Not "normal". Just plain strange.

This was the first hostel experience in my life.  I looked around at my new surroundings, unsure of what to do next. With zero previous experience to guide me, I had no knowledge if there was hostel protocol, let alone what that may be if it existed. I slowly walked up three wooden steps, holding tight to the straps of my backpack.

"Can I help ya with somethin?" the guitar guy gruffly asked me. 

"Umm yeah, I am staying at the hostel." I nodded my head toward the house.

"Alright. Me too."

"Oh, cool...soooo do I go inside and talk with someone about paying?" I inquired.

I struggled to grease the social axle and find an automated conversation format that would enable me to secure my room and avoid self-conscious awkwardness. I was forced to remain there feeling stripped bare without the comfort provided by the smoothness of etiquette.

"Nope. Ya talk to me."

Creases in my skin diffused across my face in confusion.

I suppose my body language and facial expression were enough to goad him on as he reluctantly continued. 

"Yeah, I stay here and help out during the day, so I'll take care of ya. Come on, I guess I'll show ya around." He eased himself off the couch and guided his six foot four frame my way and on into the house. The door slammed shut, but without creating the sense of intentional anger. He looked back, barely askance, for a brief moment, as if remembering as well as telling me without words that "Oh yeah, watch the door, it slams shut if you don't keep hold of it".

The feelings of uncertainty that tend to produce awkward interactions were at full display in me. Freshmen year of high school all over again. Having no clue what to expect. Just a desire for everything to be as great and fulfilling as you are told and without the gawky stumbling over yourself. But here I was, grown up, feeling as if I had a rash breakout of acne and unable to form sentences or perform actions without the upperclassmen looking down with that masked disdain and disapproval, which actually felt worse to receive or perceive, than outright disgust and dismissal. At least you know where you stand with the latter.

I peered around the inside of the dining room and adjacent living room as my host searched the registration book. Leftist stickers on the door, windows, and walls. "Free Tibet" I am silently told. A bookshelf with various travel guides to exotic and known worlds and Bukowski. A record player on the floor with a pile of records next to it in a milk crate. Above was a radio softly pumping out the Doors with a hint of static.  I am in for an experience, indeed, I concluded to myself.

"I'm sorry, but we don't have ya on here. When did you make the reservations again?"

I am jolted away from my much welcomed private thoughts. "Huh?"

"Yeah, when did you make 'em?"

"Last week."

"Who did ya talk with?"

"I didn't talk with anyone. You're the first person I have talked with here."


Silence. Standing and looking at one another, then around.

"Well..." He drew in air, pursing his lips while his eyebrows lifted upwards, forming upside down U's that, combined with the crow's feet below, framed pale blue eyes. "I don't know. Your name's not in here", he concluded, and rather nonchalantly I thought accusingly in my mind.

"Umm...well what can I do? I mean, I need a place to stay. I don't know anyone in Bozeman. I've traveled here from all the way across the country and I'm on a budget, I can't afford a hotel. I came here because of this hostel!"

"Oh, well you could just pay cash here, now. We have plenty of space." The visions of being stranded in Bozeman, Montana, not knowing a soul and having zero plans for the next three days slammed into a brick wall of relief. I stood dumbfounded from the force of the blow. That sort of feeling that comes after someone makes a terrible joke that you completely buy into. Those kind that suck the cool out of you. And you feel foolish inwardly while trying like hell to maintain an outward appearance of cool, which only makes you more self-conscious and shoves you off the edge of the stage of trying to keep your act together. That's where I was. (These are the moments that are best for us.)

After money was squared away (2 nights for a truly cool sum of $48), I received a formal introduction. The Bud-heavy swigging, guitar plucking giant of a man was called "Scott".

"Yeah, I stay out back in the tipi in exchange for tendin' to the place. Come on. I'll show ya around."

 I am in for an experience, indeed, I concluded to myself.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Untitled 22

I truly enjoy existing. Not that these words or any to come can convey the feel of that statement. They cannot. Nevertheless, I feel I ought to and want to attempt to express. I think and feel that is my responsibility in my existence. (See, Grandpa, I am taking care of my responsibilities.)

"You can't just travel. You can't just read and write."
"What? Why not? That's all I want to do!"
"Because you have responsibilities!"

Touche. Got it now. Thankfully my new lifestyle allows me to seamlessly handle the very serious responsibilities and do what I love.

The rattle of the glass table is what I noticed after writing the blurb above. I hadn't consciously given it attention while writing. Now I noticed it.

The sound of real. Dit. ditditditditditditditditdddddit. dit. dit. dit. Rattle on HUMAN BEING that is me? Eat some cheeeeese. It's smooth and tastes goooood.

To be alive. Or living. Meh. Words. The real failures.

Whe I Feeling fully alive and living. Right in the moment. These moments strike me. They hit me. It feels that way, anyway. They shake me from complacency. From It's like coming back from another planet. Fuck! Where was I and how did I get there? Dudn't matter. I'm here Now. Scrawling pen and ink. Beautiful moment. s.

Who is this for anyways?
                         No one. They ain't here!              Here.
       Or here.            

And you're not there.

Wherever "there" is. If you are, then you get this!

I chew the cheese and listen, intently, to the sounds my jaw pushing my teeth together into the cheese mushing the cheese into saliva-infused digestible chunks makes. The sound that makes. That sound this creaturely, perfectly natural process makes. The sound it makes. LIFE. living. Here. Now. Chewing Cheese.

                                                      Where are You?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Corporations, People, Ideology, & Ethical Action

A group of friends and I have an email discussion group where we exchange articles we have read and then comment on the topics. The threads are typically lively and intriguing because A) This group of people are intelligent and well spoken. B) This group of people is full of borderline narcissists who believe quite strongly in their own perspectives. (This is meant in the most loving way and I am included.) C)The group has diversity. No, not just in race (though we do). But in thought...many different ideologies held in the group. Although, come to think of it, we only have one strong female opinion. That needs to change. Any females interested in joining such bantering let me know! D) The articles cover provocative matter with much room for contention.

Recently, I posted this article and asked people to respond. Thus far, it has been a lively thread. Of course, I was selfishly motivated to post this article because of its relevance to current political climates and my own strong views. I am pulling an excerpt from the discussion on a topic I had been wanting to write about for some time and it continues in the same vein as some of my previous postings.

To provide context: I threw out the following question after seeing some implicit support of utilitarianism in regards to corporations. One friend specifically listed out some benefits of corporations as shown below. What follows is my critique (rant) about the third point below, as well as explaining some of my views on:

-Ethical action (a lack thereof and need for) by individuals and corporations
-Ideological highjacking of discourse

Check out the article linked above before moving on below. Once you are finished please add to the discussion with criticism or your own perspective in the comment box. I am eager to read different opinions.

-------------------- -------------------- -------------------- -------------------- --------------------

Do corporations provide more "good" than "bad" in the world? I say "world" here instead of people/society/etc. because I want the question to be framed holistically and expanding beyond the obvious realm of goods and services. What I mean by this is that let's try to take into account all of the effects of corporations, including those on humans, animals, environment, culture, etc. From previous responses it appeared that some of you (maybe most, all?) believe corporations do good for a great number of people and as such outweigh the negatives.

David said:

Let's look at what a corporation does for society:
1. Employs people at all levels
2. Pay taxes (providing government jobs)
3. Creates goods that we all need

-------------------- -------------------- -------------------- -------------------- --------------------

3. Creates goods that we all need
I think this is the one for which I have the sharpest critique. Goods that we "need"? This is an utter fallacy produced because of existential blindness that is created through a consumerism culture. That is how far gone from our essence and existence we are as human beings today. We now think we need "goods" to survive and be happy. What goods do we need that these corporations produce exactly? Tim and I had a great discussion when I visited him about the systematic consumption of goods and services in our culture as an attempt to create meaning. We talked of how pervasive this mentality is and how we are all a part of the problem in some small or large way. Instead of creatively constructing meaning for ourselves through our own endeavors and passions, we purchase distractions, whether it be a physical product or service or the new one: media. The scariest part of this, in my opinion, is the widely held perception that these things are not only good for our existence, but a necessary component through and through.

So where do we go from here? It's quite easy to bitch about things (see: Occupy Wall Street, Tea Party) while remaining aloof and dismissive to hypocritical actions, as shown by the photograph posted by David [This photo]. But what can we actually do to change problems we see. Well, that is first predicated on the proposition A: There is a problem with our current nature of existing (in our culture, institutions, and individuals lives). You must believe proposition A to be true, otherwise, on with the status quo. Then on with the things Simon articulated with his reference to the Human Action Model. I do not have a specific theoretical reference, so I will refer to his since it aligns what I am explaining. Once individuals identify a problem, they are going to have a cognition that essentially says "This is a problem. Something needs to change." Now, here is where the psychological study of Cognitive Dissonance comes in handy to explain how humans will act next, once they hold belief in proposition A. We either change our actions, or we change our beliefs so as to align beliefs with action and reduce the psychological stress created from the dissonance.

Let's apply it to corporations and I will use myself as an example because I know it pretty well. I have become "enlightened" about the principle of responsible consumption, that is to act in a way when I consume that is in line with my ethical beliefs. Before becoming aware and educated though, I was not being a responsible consumer. I consumed through whatever means were most convenient and cheapest for me. This is fairly common, I feel safe to assume, for the vast majority of people. But I had a choice when I found a problem with myself: I could change my actions to align them with my new belief in responsible consumption or I could rationalize my actions by changing my beliefs entirely and drastically or creating a protective bubble around my core beliefs (plainly called "excuses"). So I could say, oh screw it, responsible consumption is for liberal hippies, I am allowed to consume whatever the hell I want and it's all here to make me happy and comfortable! That would be a drastic about face, however, it is an option to reduce my dissonance. Or I could create new cognitions that serve as buffers between my core beliefs (I should be a responsible consumer) and actions (I am not always a responsible consumer). This the most often chosen option to reduce cognitive dissonance as it is the path of least resistance for us. We can reduce dissonance without too much change to our core beliefs or habitual actions. It should be obvious, but I will note anyways that the altering of the latter is extremely difficult since they are so entrenched in our habits as well as self-image. Exactly why we rarely change those and instead create buffers (excuses).

A great example here: I despise Wal-Mart and out and out refuse to shop there. Now. However, during my teaching years, I would shop at Wal-Mart when I needed a large amount of school supplies. I still held the same belief. I despised Wal-Mart. I vehemently disagreed with their practices, as well as impact on local economies. But I shopped there because it saved me money on goods I was frustratedly purchasing. How did I reconcile my beliefs with my actions? I created a mental buffer: "I am only going to buy this shit from Wal-Mart when is absolutely necessary...when I have to buy all of these school supplies that I shouldn't even be buying the first place. So since I shouldn't be buying it, I don't want to spend a ton of my own personal money. So fuck it, I will just shop at Wal-Mart these few times. Because I shouldn't be buying this stuff anyways!" Ahh...excuse. Buffer. Saved me some personal anguish over compromising my beliefs. Cognitive dissonance reduction complete. This mental exercise is played out on daily basis, numerous times, and in many contexts by every single person. We are a complex creature full of inner conflict and turmoil. But we are a creature that seeks equilibrium and harmony, so these conflicts and this turmoil often goes on consciously unnoticed, partly because we are so enveloped in our distractions, as well as because our brain is an effing machine and can do these things on auto-pilot. However, I strongly believe the lack of awareness is the creation and solution to our problems here. (Reminds me of Homer Simpson, albeit in regards to a different topic).

Now, let me briefly explain my ethical beliefs regarding consumption so they are clear and to provide context to my examples. I believe being a responsible consumer means that I should consume in such a manner that reduces my carbon footprint (to employ the en vogue term) while supporting (consuming from) businesses who are run by and employ people with similar beliefs. I have found that large corporations are problematic because they are so massive and faceless it is difficult to determine whether or not their practices and beliefs are in line with my own. That is, until I did research and found reliable and credible resources.

Tim mentioned this in his email and here is the resource we are referring to: The Better World Handbook which is accompanied by The Better World Shopper Guide. These resources were created by social science researchers through thousands of hours of research into the practices of over 1,000 companies. Essentially, they were social science professors who were sick of telling their students about the pervasive problems with the world and how little change was being effected and decided to create something that could help individuals create small changes in their every day lives with the hope that if this kind of personal revolution were enacted, substantial and large changes could happen at the macro level. Check these resources out. I was impressed and decided to purchase the Better World Shopper Guide and actively use it to guide my consumption decisions, specifically what kind of products and services I consume and from whom I consume. Also, I have been spreading this message. That, to me, is how we effect change. That, in my opinion, is the cure for the lack of ethical action by individuals and corporations, which is bullet number two.

On to important/intriguing point number three: The ideological highjacking of discourse.

Throughout our thread I did not perceive this overtly and only sense small doses implicitly. I think this one has to do with the bigger picture beyond just our discussions to the general discourse when it pertains to topics such as this. Partisanship is nothing new; it is the manifestation of personal bias, a naturally evolving trait in all humans which is a neutral concept in this context. However, I think our current age displays biases geared in the negative to the degree of prejudice. We are living in times where ideological prejudice is beyond any respectable or even acceptable level. Ideologism (think the racism version of ideology) is running rampant and we are all guilty of it at some level. Some people are on are extreme ideologicists while others are subconcious ideologicists and some just in between (think a spectrum). This is problematic. It has taken discourse hostage and has uncompromising demands. You either agree with me and all I believe and should put into place my policies/ways of being or you're wrong and have no merit to be listened to.
Now all discussions have become one way arguments where each person waits their turn to speak (shout?), formulating their argument while the other speaks (and failing to listen or consider their other perspective). Discussions have simply become dialectical duels. They need to be constructive and consensus building. Here is something I think Occupy Wall Street (and the Arab Spring did) is right about. The horizontal structuring of the assembly and focus on group dynamics is truly revolutionary. All groups and individuals would be well served to read up on it and try employing in their daily lives. The focus is having all voices heard, and I mean actively listened to and considered with a concerted effort towards mutual understanding, and ultimately building consensus so that action can happen. Check it out here.

With that said, we have to get our ideologism in check. The cure to holding any bias in check is personal awareness, coupled with a deep sense of humility (no...not a TFA faux humility). But, I mean personal awareness in that one must first, acknowledge they are riddled with biases, and that it is natural. The key is to become aware of them and try to account for them in the formulating of beliefs, espousing of opinions, and enacting of actions. Secondly, we all must accept we have biases and not try to eliminate them, for this is impossible and against human nature. Rather, we must work to cultivate our biases to as to eliminate those which are harmful to others and ourselves. Education, experience, and good ol' introspection are great combatants to employ here on this front. Lastly, and just as importantly, we all must cultivate, in a very honest and earnest manner, the principle of humility. To have humility is to acknowledge and accept one's own limitations. Human beings are a paradoxical creature. We possess the greatest amount of power, sometimes seemingly limitless, in regards to our intellectual and physical capabilities. However, we remain, fundamentally, creatures with clear physical and intellectual limitations. The latter fact scares the shit out of us and I believe is what drives us towards ideologism, obliterating the principle of humility in the process. We all know we will die. We all know life is precarious. We all suffer. These are facts. No one has all of the answers to the questions of existence. No one can know them. No matter how certain someone may believe in their answers to the "GREAT" questions of life (How did we get here? Where are we going? What is the right way to live?), they do not have THE answer. They may have their own answer, but it is not and cannot be the definitive fact, as in a fact such as the aforementioned facts. So we must remind ourselves of these limitations. We must remind ourselves that others are going through the same conflicted, complex, and miraculous existence and are just as confused about the ontological and existential questions of life. We must remind ourselves that we share this in common and consequentially ought to show empathy towards fellow human beings. Now, I always fear that I when I propose this to others it will be dismissed cynically as naive. I am not under any illusion that this world will be some kind of peaceful utopia full of hunky dory people of all strides of life; however, I do think that each of us can significantly improve our own lives and all those within our sphere of influence if we give credence to these conditions of humanity. I certainly believe this would improve all discourse, trivial and essential, and especially on contentious topics, such as the one we engage in right now.