You Must Change Your Life: Capitalism and the Evolving Dharma


 

The following is excerpted from Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment, published by Evolver Editions/North Atlantic Books.  

I’m sitting at the Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco, awaiting a program of millionaires and celebrities, half-envying and half-loathing the fact that many of the people here are filthy rich. Over the next three days, there are presentations on corporate efficiency with A-list tech names, product rollouts that range from the sublime to the ridiculous, and lots and lots of networking.  I’m here to blog this conference for a well-known Buddhist magazine, and I’m reminded that a lot of this stuff pisses Buddhists off. 

Well, it’s only going to get worse.  We’re clearly at an inflection point in the Western dharma right now: the last twenty years of secular, mainstreamed mindfulness will likely be nothing compared to the next twenty—not with healthcare, technology, and even the military coming around to the hard data on mindfulness’s effectiveness.  Is this a good thing or a bad thing?  On the one hand, meditation might just save the world, and mainstreaming it—vulgarizing it, even—is how that will happen. On the other hand, what will be the price of this wider embrace? Just how crass, cheesy, or watered-down will things have to get?

I asked this of Jon Kabat-Zinn on the last night of the conference. I mentioned David Loy’s open letter entitled “Can Mindfulness Change a Corporation?” written to a board member of Goldman Sachs, and arguing that a Buddhist couldn’t serve in good conscience on the boards of corporations that have been involved in unethical business practices. It was a pointed and well-stated challenge.

So I was curious what Kabat-Zinn, who has consulted with numerous corporations and had just given a talk about mindfulness in business, had to say. Although he hadn’t read the letter, his answer was surprisingly similar to Loy’s. “This whole issue of ethics is really important,” he said:

"It’s not like Goldman Sachs can just do a little mindfulness and then be driven by greed, hatred, and delusion all the more. That’s not mindfulness. This is about restructuring things so that your business is aligned with the deepest domains of integrity and morality. You can make money in the service of creation of wealth, but not lying, cheating, and stealing, or cutting every corner."

Then he made a further point:

"I did some mindfulness work with a major Boston law firm back in the day, and people ate it up—and then a whole bunch of them left. We have to be prepared for that…. These people were being given annual bonuses called ‘no-life bonuses’ because you had to work so many hours that you never saw your family.”

So wait a minute.  Meditation is being brought into the corporate world because it improves well-being and productivity–but then it causes people to leave.  Who’s gaming who here?  I was reminded of something Krishnamurti said, “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Sometimes the unavoidable fact may be that our lives need to be adjusted to the dharma—if what we’re after is deep change. And often, seekers (including this one) actually integrate too fast, moving too quickly from low-level spiritual states back into the conventional world, without adequately deepening the stages and insights they bring about. Sometimes, we use the rhetoric of “integration” to have our spiritual cake and eat it, too.

Yet not all daily lives are created equal. Many of us want both the capitalist householder life with children and the rest, and, you know, peace and enlightenment. But what if such an “evolved” dharma is really a devolved one? Zen master Jahn Daido Loori once complained that Western Dharma “reflects our cultural spirit of greediness and consumerism. With all the possibilities, why give up anything? We want it all. Why not do it all?”  [1]

Rilke's encounter with the numinous in his poem "Archaic Torso of Apollo" concludes with "You must change your life." Not "You must make small changes around the edges" or "You must find twenty minutes a day to meditate." Likewise with spiritual practice. I am often asked, at the end of a meditation retreat or other spiritual program, how the practice can be brought home, integrated into regular life. It's a natural question, and a good one, and I do my best to answer. But the real answer may be "You can't integrate it into regular life; you must change your life."

Some people don’t want to hear that, of course. It feels much better to be told "Yes, just do this practice half an hour each day, watch what you eat, and you'll obtain all the benefits." But what if a deep process of introspection and contemplation is incompatible with working sixty hours a week, raising a family, and being surrounded by American media? What then? Letting go is great, but letting go into what? Western life is often so cluttered with demands, to-do lists, and appointments that if I "let go" into that, I become a crazed and nervous wreck. The Hindu sage Ramakrishna once said that the mind is like fabric; it takes the color of the dye it's soaked in. Soak the mind in a quiet, relaxing environment and it will become quiet and relaxed. Soak it in floods of Facebook and, well.…

Now, let me pause this torrent of pessimism for a moment. Surely, in the tradition of the “Middle Way” there are productive methods of managing the complex dance of integration and commitment—to create what Jack Kornfield has called “the mandala of the whole.” [2] I want to talk about three of them.

First, of course contemplative practice is not all-or-nothing; it’s possible to make incremental progress, and we don’t all have to be saints. There are numerous practices—I have written and taught about many of them—that are easily accomplished in the midst of a busy life, and which owe much to non-sitting meditative practices such as Zen oryoki (eating meditation), Theravadan walking meditation, and the Tibetan encouragement to experience “small moments, many times.” And I have seen, firsthand, that these practices work – maybe not all the way to full enlightenment, but toward more wisdom and compassion.

Lama Surya Das, a leading Western teacher, once told me:

"Integration is the name of the game, not seclusion. We have to do it where we are, in our lives, except for those few who can renounce the world and go off for a good period of time and really devote themselves to it.… It would be heretical if any of us believed that people couldn’t get enlightened today. The Buddha’s message is that anyone can become enlightened and awakened…. We just may not get enlightened as soon as we want to."

This seems like a healthy balance. Practice may look different in different contexts. On retreat, one might get deeply concentrated and very quiet, and have one set of goals. But the goal of daily practice isn't the same as the goal of intensive practice. You're not trying to have the most exotic samadhi or mystical experience each day; you're trying to increase your spiritual viscosity, that property of slipperiness that enables you to move quickly and smoothly from mortgage payments to spiritual truths, from linear achievement to present-moment love. You don't need to discover new territory—only to return with ever-decreasing friction to what you know is truest, most authentic, most real.

Second, “integration” goes two ways. On the one hand, one goes into intensive environments to train the mind to do certain things, to go certain places, to rest in certain ways. Then, in the rest of one’s life, the mind practices doing that—alighting in a place of calm, amidst the rush-hour traffic. Finding an inner capacity of love, amidst cacophony and discord. And yet, the complementary motion is also essential: bringing the wisdom of the world, of our karma, into practice as well. When I sit, I bring all of my sound and fury, my time and place, to the cushion.  I’m a humanist, after all, and I love the eroticism of the everyday, emotional sensitivity, the juiciness of sensuality of all kinds. I'm also mindful that spirituality that doesn't include some form of serious social/political engagement is, at least for me, empty. So I get involved in things that will necessarily invite some anger (politics) and lust (food and sex) – and I bring that to practice. 

This karma—by which I mean the social constructions of my particular Western subculture, which seem as much a part of “me” as anything—may well be holding me back from further advancement. Then again, this is also the “Tantric turn,” the turn from enlightenment outside the world to enlightenment within it. It is what I called in one of my books the “resanctification of the world,” in which holiness is seen—as in Allen Ginsberg’s “Footnote to Howl”—everywhere and in everything. And each time I re-ask whether it wouldn't be better to give up the fleshpots for the cloister, I hear a clear, humanistic “No” in response. What was it that Nisargadatta, the Vedanta sage, said? “Wisdom tells me I’m nothing. Love tells me I’m everything. In between, my life flows.”

Third, let me return for a moment to the Wisdom 2.0 conference, home of the meditators from Mashable and yogis from Yahoo. On the last day of the event, we heard from Meg Pilasco, a former Marine. Tragically, she was sexually assaulted while serving, and subsequently suffered from PTSD as well as other trauma-related conditions. Making matters worse, her superiors chose not to pursue her case, and, like other veterans, Pilasco was afraid to go to the VA for fear of being labeled as damaged goods. She was eventually put on cocktails of meds, which she says didn’t work, and she eventually hit bottom, ultimately attempting suicide and landing in the hospital.

Following her release, Pilasco found her way into a program called “Honoring the Path of the Warrior,” which included mindfulness and meditation, as well as a five-day retreat at the Tassajara Zen Center. “I thought meditation was for crazy hippies—no offense,” she said to the laughs of the crowd. “But this program saved my life.” Her depression lifted, her twice-nightly nightmares decreased in frequency and intensity, and by the time the program was over, she said, “I was ready to live my life again.”

This is why we bother with this meditation thing in the first place. Dukkha is not the self-inflicted stress of a technology executive; it’s the real stuff, the kind of suffering that merits the Pali word’s original meaning: brokenness, stuckness. I’m delighted, really, that mindfulness can also relieve the stresses of privileged, fortunate people. But Pilasco’s story, simple as it was—indeed, it is entirely un-unique—moved me to tears.

You can call the mindfulness biz watered-down and over-adapted if you want.  But it saved Pilasco’s life.  And it’s been this way since the beginning. On the first page of the first chapter of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s first book, he writes about teaching mindfulness to AIDS patients in the 1980s, to people recovering from crippling injuries, and ordinary people suffering from debilitating migraines. [3] For some people, sure, mindfulness simply greases the wheels, and makes an already fortunate life that much more pleasant. Even then, corporate mindfulness is a gateway drug that will bring some minority of practitioners into a more meaningful engagement with the reality of life. But I think it’s better than that. I think that for a significant percentage—maybe significant enough to make a real difference—it will lead to the conclusion that, indeed, you must change your life.

 

Notes 

1 Quoted in Seager, Buddhism in America, 245.

2 Kornfield, After the Ecstasy, 161–71.

3 Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living, 17.