July 12, 2012
The individualism of the 60s and 70s gave rise to the freeing of the self, in good and bad ways. This lead us to the state we currently find ourselves, where the upper class seeks personal fulfillment to greater and greater degrees, thus cutting themselves off from the lower classes who support them. As the article explains, it’s the apartheid of the American Dream.
Gravity (i.e.: attraction-at-a-distance, remember the space fire?) shows us why this is a bad idea, and the I Ching reminds us: “What is below is decreased to the benefit of what is above. This is out-and-out decrease. If the foundations of a building are decreased in strength and the upper walls are strengthened, the whole structure loses its stability.”
Currently, the US (as well as everywhere else) is going through an “economic downturn”. “The United States has allegedly been in economic “recovery” for over two years, and yet 15 million people cannot find work, or cannot find as much work as they say they would like. At the same time, up to two thirds of workers report in surveys that they would like to work fewer hours than they do now, even if doing so would require a loss of income.” To me, this points to something deeper than just economic woes. It’s easiest to frame in economic terms since that’s the direction from which the pain is hitting us at this moment. We always notice new pain over old pain.
But if the argument “society has failed the working class” and the argument “people are just lazy” can both (to a certain extent at least) be made, my guess is that the actual cause is deeper than either of these. Perceived paradox points to deeper truth. We’re not in a depression, we’re depressed. We want meaning in our lives and it’s just not here to be (easily) found. Society (i.e.: us) has neglected the cultivation of meaning to the point where the meaninglessness of everything we do overwhelms our ability to do anything. Part of us knows this is true, and that part is digging its heels in, hard. Our economic troubles are simply the latest symptom of a decades-old disease of the soul.
This need not be a bad thing though, so long as we use the opportunity to pay attention to the forces and drives within us. This (and all suffering) is a call to arms for the seekers, the openers, the gatekeepers, the scouts into the territory of novelty and meaning. Because meaning isn’t actually gone, we’ve just forgotten where to look for it. And until we re-learn how to find it within this life, within this society, all the struggle in the world won’t save us. Even if we manage an economic recovery, without a corresponding spiritual recovery, the symptoms will just pop up somewhere else. Basic psychology says a lot about this kind of repression, and the diagnosis isn’t good when everyone’s in need of treatment. We’re burning so many straw men we’re raising the global temperature…
Still, there are some hopefully glimmers around the edges of this shadow we’re confronting. Things get worse before they get better, and at the height of their “worseness” lies the capitulation to their demands that opens the door to redemption. Whether you’re a Buddhist or not, Hokai Sobol points to an interesting cultural pattern emerging from massive high-pressure-meets-low-pressure storm front that is the East-meets-West dynamic playing itself out in our lives today: “Genuine innovation is a burst of creativity, and according to Graham Wallas’ model creativity proceeds in five stages, namely preparation, incubation, intimation, illumination, and verification. While others have suggested Western Buddhism has reached adolescence, seen as a cultural trembling with a variety of undercurrents this particular meeting of East and West exhibits definite features of the intimation stage. It is the stage in creative process at which person or community becomes sensitive to the creative brewing, and begins to acknowledge that solution is about to appear. Frustration turns into anticipation, and curiosity naturally wells forth.”
Which is all well and good, but how are we to go about carrying this through? Well, we are in a pretty blessed place right now, though we are not exactly as aware of it as we could be. We are working towards a world where a lot of the sources of meaninglessness can be taken care of by machines. “Machinery must work for us in coal mines, and do all sanitary services, and be the stoker of steamers, and clean the streets, and run messages on wet days, and do anything that is tedious or distressing”. Technology is nothing but a tool, and morality is applied to tools, not inherent within them. “Human beings must ride technology with their critical intelligence, rather than be ridden by it. For our future, it is important we keep this balance.”
Our problem is basically that we have more and more freedom to do whatever we want, but we’ve forgotten what exactly it is that we want. Or perhaps it’s more a combination of being unaware of where to dig for meaning and of being scared of what we’ll find if we start. All good hidden treasure is guarded by monsters, and we know this. What we forget is that these are the very same monsters chasing after us every day, tormenting our inner souls, begging for our attention. They are us, and they want to give us their treasures. We just have to learn how to ask for it. It’s not so much a quest as a question. And the more people try to do that within this very life, the more hope we have. No effort is wasted, so long as we make it unconditionally.
Morality is key here too though, as morality is the test for whether our grails are True Grails or not. Not laws, not dogma, for laws are a sign of a society lacking an inherent morality and will never serve as a pathway to regaining morality. But morality as compassion, as a true seeing of the reality of the other, a true suffering with. Not pity, which is suffering for; it is weak and it is harmful. The more that we can be as moved by another’s feeling as we are by our own feelings, the more our own feelings become morally trustworthy.
The best news is that this, at its heart, is not a question of pushing and suffering. It’s about learning to be open, feeling the subtle flutterings with us, and letting them flow through and outwards. It’s not something we have to know or do, it’s simply something we have to learn to attend to and allow. “I wanted badly to have that sense of flow and power—which I didn’t have at that time. But I would watch people and would find that there were some people that had a deeper intuition about things. I found that what was almost invariably true with these people, was that they had less agenda than others. They had a fluid ability within the structure of their lives to change, to go in different directions, and that seemed to be a constant.”
And it will feed us as assuredly as it will feed those around us. “We open at those moments to that force and have it flow through us to help heal or help teach or help change. I have to honestly say—and not out of any kind of humility—that it really never feels like I have anything to do with it. It feels as good for me and as healing for me as it feels for participants because of this thing that’s flowing. And sometimes it does feel like maybe I’m being used, but maybe they’re also being used to give it back to me. “