“Read not the Times, read the Eternities.”—Henry David Thoreau
The heavenly messengers march across the pages of history and proclaim as well from the skies above that all things are subject to aging and death. Not only individuals but entire species of life disappear; civilizations and ideologies rise and fall; mountain ranges make temporary appearances; even suns grow old and die. The truth of impermanence becomes especially obvious in transitional times like these, in a period of apocalypse, a Greek word meaning “the lifting of the veil.”
What we see behind the veil are always lessons of Dharma, the way things are, which in recent times have been exposed by the upheaval in global economies. Not only do we get a good look at the changing whims of lady fortune, we once again see clearly that the world runs on greed, competition and a deep delusion about what will truly offer satisfaction. Unfortunately, the lessons come with a lot of pain.
As a possible balm, try not to take it all too personally. A short reflection or a little cognitive therapy will help convince you of your financial innocence. After all, the current economic crisis is not your fault. The entire world has been caught up in the frenzy of making money and the possibility of becoming richer, maybe even rich. Few of us had bad intentions as we put our money into the markets or speculated on real estate or some other wealth-making scheme. And nobody knew the timing of the collapse, the moment when everyone would look around and realize that we were investing in a house of cards, playing an extended game of Monopoly. Whoops, there goes Park Place!
What has been revealed behind the veil is that our lives are less individual than we thought; we behave as a collective organism. And like fish in the ocean, we usually swim through history without noticing how its water shapes our movements. Like Charlie Chaplin’s everyman figure, the little tramp, we are victims of our era, caught up in the madness of the gold rush or in the machinery of “modern times”—and at this particular moment somewhat dumbfounded by the economists’ talk of derivatives and deflation.
Here’s another perspective that might bring us some ease as we move through these apocalyptic times. On the Buddha’s path, one of the most tenacious defilements of the mind is the tendency to compare oneself with others. So if you can’t let go of comparisons, at least find some that will lead you to appreciate your current condition. For instance, if you are feeling poor and unfortunate, stop thinking about how well off you were or how wealthy you could be. Instead, compare yourself to all the people who have ever lived. Wow! You are suddenly very rich! Just imagine all those who suffered through an era of no painkillers, no antibiotics, no Velcro. Try to remember that just a few generations ago most of your relatives were peasants. And so today, if you’ve got some food on the table, a roof over your head, and a separate bedroom from your farm animals, there is good reason to rejoice.
As the veil is lifted, other scenarios reveal themselves. I suspect that the current economic crisis is exactly the one we need right now in order to see clearly that our way of life is unsustainable. The human economy and the planet’s ecology have been on a collision course for a long time now, and we probably should be thankful that the economies have finally started to lose traction. (By the way, did you ever notice that the words economy and ecology both start with the syllable eeeeekkk!?)
Yes, there is sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair across the land as people lose their money and jobs, their security and dreams. But perhaps there is also some measure of joy in the world today over the economic downturn. If you are very quiet, you might even hear sounds of jubilation. Listen: the great apes are beating their chests and grunting in delight; the few remaining whooping cranes are whooping it up; the lions and tigers and bears are having a big picnic in the woods while the fox is going out on the town-o to celebrate. If you listen even more closely, you might hear the entire plant kingdom breathing a sigh of relief. Most of the other species of life are very happy over the fact that the human-built, worldwide, techno-industrial, growth-and-expansion economy has begun slowing down. To those other species it’s a matter of life and death.
In the modern litany of disasters, the one that shocks me the most is that we are now living through the fourth or fifth largest “extinction spasm” in biological history. Species are going extinct at approximately 1,000 times the standard rate. With an impact equal to that of the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs, this cataclysm has us humans to blame.
It has been clear for several decades now that we are causing severe damage to the biosphere, and we’ve known we’d eventually have to change our lifestyle. But it is hard to give up those cherished pleasures and comforts—all the luxuries that have somehow become necessities.
Some of you may remember a movement in the 1970s called “voluntary simplicity.” Well, unfortunately, not enough people volunteered. Now we may be in for a period of compulsory simplicity. Nature is foreclosing on its loan.
The measure of our species’ success is how much we have been able to bend the biosphere to our needs and desires—moving mountains, changing the course of rivers, harnessing the energy of the sun, even from past epochs. It is somewhat ironic that for most of human history we have been busy protecting ourselves from nature, but now we are called upon to protect nature from us. (We can’t forget that we are nature, so who is leading in this dance anyway?)
In spite of our remarkable intelligence, human activity has clearly become a pestilence on the Earth, with way too many of us trying to live, and way too many of us trying to live extravagantly. Maybe now is the time for that biblical “seven years of lying fallow.” The ancients say it is good for the soil.
So let’s try to regard the current economic slowdown as a blessing, a time for the societies of the world to retool our machines and reevaluate our reasons to live. As we consume less of everything, we could simply consider it a sacrifice. (This is a great age for bodhisattvas. Lots of job opportunities.) You might regard whatever economic losses you have suffered as a donation to the cause of life itself. Think of your reduced wealth as a charitable contribution to the preservation of the California red-legged frog, the San Bruno elfin butterfly, the Presidio manzanita, the polar bears, the coral reefs, the air and water. We have been borrowing way too much from the Earth’s resources. It’s time now for a bailout of Mother Nature.
In that regard, I have some practical suggestions for the United States government. Rather than just trying to heat up the economy again, I would like to see the promotion of a new ethos of sane and simple living. The government is talking about new public works projects similar to those of the Roosevelt-era New Deal, but I propose a kind of new-age New Deal. How about a Department of Meditation and Therapy, which would set up deprogramming centers around the country to teach hyperactive American workers how to become less-productive members of a less-productive society. The government could pay people by the hour just to work on themselves! The whole nation could begin practicing with the mantra, “Enough, enough! We’ve got enough stuff!”
Maybe we could ask people in Egypt, India or Mexico to start up a reverse Peace Corps and come as volunteers to teach us how to live more simply: how to make tasty meals with less meat; how to wash our clothes on rocks; and most importantly, when and how to take a siesta.
Another new-age agency might be a Department of Wisdom, staffed by philosophers, anthropologists, historians, mystics and even a few jesters—people who see the world differently from economists, generals and senators. We could use some right-brain thinking in our predominantly left-brain government, providing a real balance of powers.
Last to be revealed, behind the veil we see the meditation cushion awaiting us. Here we find the Dharma, the balm for all our transient troubles. Here we find the possibility of a different kind of satisfaction. Here we find the breath, bringing us back to the marvelous mystery of our life, connecting us to all that lives. Here we discover the fullness of the moment, and at least occasionally, the satisfaction of a settled mind. In spite of what the world brings us, here we can relax.