There are people in the world so hungry that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.—Mahatma Gandhi
Those who read this article are unlikely to experience the extreme hunger that Gandhi refers to—but there are other types. In fact, the Buddhist path is about satisfying the deepest of our hungers.
Can dukkha—the most important term in Buddhism—be translated as hunger? “Suffering” does not work unless we understand it in the broadest possible sense: that even those who are wealthy and healthy experience a basic dissatisfaction, a dis-ease, that continually festers. We find life dissatisfactory, one damn problem after another, because it is the nature of an unawakened sense-of-self to be bothered about something.
Why? To understand the basic problem, we need to connect dukkha with what may be the second most important Buddhist term: anatta, “not-self.” Anatta is the denial that you or I “self-exist.” Our most troublesome delusion is a sense of self inside that believes and feels itself to be separate from the rest of the world outside.
In more contemporary language, the self is a psychosocial construct: psychological because it’s a product of mental conditioning, and social because a sense of self develops in relation with other constructed selves.
Why is that sense of being separate so uncomfortable? Because such a fabricated self is composed of a cluster of interacting processes—mostly habitual ways of perceiving, feeling, thinking and acting—that are not grounded in anything more substantial. If those impermanent processes are stripped away—as happens in meditation, when we “let go” of them—it’s like peeling an onion. When the innermost layer is removed, what’s left? Nothing: there’s no thing to cling or cling to. This means that our constructed sense of self is not only ungrounded but ungroundable—and haunted by a basic sense of unreality and insecurity.
This may seem like a very abstract problem, yet each of us experiences this sense of unreality as the feeling that “there is something missing or lacking in my life,” that “something is wrong with me,” that “I’m not quite right.” Is this one of the great secrets of life? Each of us has this sense of lack, but we are not usually aware that everyone else feels it too. A lot of social interaction is about reassuring each other and ourselves that we’re all really okay even though inside we feel somehow that we’re not.
The real problem is not that each of us feels this basic lack, but that we don’t know where it comes from. Properly understood, it motivates us to undertake the spiritual path, which is what’s necessary to actually resolve it. More often, though, the problem becomes projected: we believe that what we lack is something outside ourselves, so we become hungry for external things to be acquired or controlled.
This helps to explain some of our contemporary obsessions, such as money, consumerism and fame. Money is so important to us not only because we can buy anything with it, but because it has become a socially agreed-upon reality symbol. Although we often think of preoccupation with money as indicating how materialistic our society has become, in itself money (whether paper bills or digits in bank accounts) is materially worthless. A dollar bill is a social symbol that has value only because a collective agreement makes it our medium of exchange—which makes money pure value, in effect. Almost inevitably then, our sense of lack affects its symbolic value: since money represents the possibility of obtaining almost anything we want, and since obtaining whatever we want is what we usually think will make us happy, money comes to symbolize happiness—that is, the end of our sense of lack.
Because money doesn’t really end dukkha—it can’t fill up the bottomless hole at one’s core—this way of thinking often becomes a trap. You’re a multimillionaire but still feel like something is wrong with your life? Obviously you don’t have enough money yet.
Another example is fame. If I am recognized by lots of people, then I must be real, right? Yet the attention of other people, who are haunted by their own sense of lack, can’t fill up one’s own sense of lack. If you think that fame is what will make you real, you can never be famous enough. The same is true of power. As their biographies reveal, Hitler and Stalin never had enough control to feel really secure—and they never could, because an egoic obsession with power (like money or fame) is symptomatic of a deeper hunger.
The meditation practices of Buddhism (and other contemplative traditions) address the root of the problem by deconstructing a supposedly “self-existing” self. Since a sense of lack is the shadow-side of that “self,” one’s lack is also deconstructed. My sense that something is wrong with me is transformed from a gaping hole at my core into an equanimity that has never lacked anything.
But what about when our sense of lack is experienced collectively?
We not only have personal senses of self; we also have group selves. I’m not only David Loy: I’m male, Caucasian, a U.S. citizen, and so forth. And collective selves also distinguish those who are inside from those who are outside: men from women, White from Black, Americans from Chinese, and so forth. Those inside are not only different from those outside; we like to think that we are better than them, which gives us a good excuse to promote our own well-being at their expense.
Obviously, a lot of the world’s problems occur because of competition between group selves. But is there also such a thing as a collective sense of lack?
Perhaps our sense of lack helps us to understand why we like war so much. The official excuse for every war is always the same: self-defense. It’s okay to kill other people and destroy their society because that’s what they want to do to us. Yet why doesn’t exposing the lies of the last war inoculate us against the deceptions that will be used to promote the next one?
From a lack perspective, wars are attractive because they cut through the petty problems of daily life and unite us good guys here against the bad guys over there. There is fear in that, of course, yet there’s also something exhilarating about it. The meaning of life becomes simpler and clearer. As Chris Hedges explains in his account of life as a war correspondent, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, “The communal march against an enemy generates a warm, unfamiliar bond with our neighbors, our community, our nation, wiping out unsettling undercurrents of alienation and dislocation. War, in times of malaise and desperation, is a potent distraction.” The problems with my life, and yours, are not individual anymore but projected onto an enemy that is trying to kill us. That merges our senses of lack and makes the solution simple: we must get them first.
Does this double understanding of a sense of lack—both individual and collective—also give us insight into how our economic system works?
On the personal level, there is an almost perfect fit between our always-festering sense of lack and the temptations of consumerism, with advertising incessantly persuading us that the next thing we buy will make us happy—which it can never do, at least not for long. According to the pioneering marketing executive Leo Burnett, good advertising does more than circulate information: “It penetrates the public mind with desire and belief.” That penetration was lucrative for his corporate clients, but there are other consequences, as Ivan Illich pointed out: “In a consumer society there are inevitably two kinds of slaves, the prisoners of addiction and the prisoners of envy.” Whether or not one is able to afford the desired product, one’s sense of lack is activated.
If you are desperately hungry in the way that Gandhi referred to, but don’t have the money to buy food, then you’re out of luck.
In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it. —Oscar Wilde
In other words, consumerism exploits our spiritual hunger instead of helping us understand and address the root problem. Profits are generated by perpetuating discontent in a way that aggravates it.
This sense of “never enough!” also functions institutionally: corporations are never large enough or profitable enough, their share value is never high enough, our GNP is never big enough. In fact, we cannot imagine what “big enough” might be. But why is more always better if it can never be enough?
Consider the stock market. On one side are many millions of investors, most anonymous and mostly unconcerned about the activities of the corporations they invest in, except for their profitability and its effects on share prices. Such an attitude is not disreputable, of course. On the contrary, our most successful investors are idolized. For example, Warren Buffet is “the sage of Omaha.”
On the other side of the stock market, however, the aggregated desires and expectations of those investors become transformed into an impersonal and unremitting pressure for growth and increased profitability that every CEO must respond to, preferably in the short run.
Contemplate, as an unlikely example, the CEO of a large transnational corporation who one morning wakes up to the imminent dangers of climate change and wants to do everything he (it is usually a he) can to address this challenge. If what he tries to do threatens corporate profits, however, he’s likely to lose his job. And if that is true for the CEO, how much more true it is for everyone else further down the corporate hierarchy. Corporations are legally chartered so that their first responsibility is not to their employees or customers, nor to the ecosystems of the earth, but to those who own them, who with very few exceptions are concerned primarily about return on investment—a preoccupation, again, that is not only socially acceptable but lauded.
Who is responsible for this collective fixation on growth? The important point is that the system has attained not only a life of its own but its own motivations, quite apart from the intentions of the individuals who work for it and who will be replaced if they do not serve those institutional motivations. All of us participate in this process in one way or another, as workers, consumers, investors, pensioners and so forth, usually with little if any sense of personal responsibility for the collective result. Any awareness of what is actually happening tends to be diffused in the impersonal anonymity of this economic process. Everyone is just doing their job, playing their role.
In short, our economic system not only exploits our deep hunger, it institutionalizes it.
Does the basic Buddhist insight about the dukkha inherent to a (sense of) separate self also apply to our biggest collective self: the duality between us as a species, Homo sapiens sapiens, and the rest of the biosphere?
Although the Buddha knew nothing about climate change, he knew a lot about the delusion of self and the difficulties that gets us into. In fact, there seem to be precise and profound parallels between our usual individual predicament with lack and our collective situation today. The basic problem in both cases is an uncomfortable sense of separation, our misunderstanding of that discomfort, and hence our inappropriate reactions, which tend to aggravate the difficulty.
For this particular correspondence between individual and group lack to hold, our collective sense of estrangement from the natural world must also be a source of collective dukkha. For premodern civilizations, the meaning of people’s lives was built into the cosmos and revealed by their religion, which they took for granted. Today, however, we lack their kind of group security, the basic psychological comfort that comes from knowing one’s place and role in the world.
Thanks to ever more powerful technologies, it seems like we can accomplish almost anything we want to do, yet we don’t know what we should want to do. What does it mean to be human? What kind of society should we have? In this fashion too, our collective as well as individual lack of grounding in anything greater than ourselves has become a source of dukkha—in this case, an existential anxiety rooted in our sense of alienation from the natural world.
What has been our collective response to this predicament? Remember how one usually reacts to one’s individual predicament: misunderstanding its source, one looks outside oneself and becomes preoccupied with acquiring external things such as money, fame and power. There is a collective parallel in our taken-for-granted obsession with never-ending economic growth and technological development. When will our GNP be large enough? When will we have all the technology we need? Perhaps the word “progress” is misleading, because of course one can never have enough progress if it really is progress. Yet—to say it again—why is more always better if it can never be enough?
Lacking the grounding that comes from knowing our place and role in the cosmos, we have been trying to secure ourselves by controlling the conditions of our existence, until everything becomes subject to our will, a “resource” that we can use. Ironically, if predictably, this has not been providing the sense of security that we seek. Our deep hunger for meaning and value is never satisfied.
That project of trying to secure ourselves makes ecological crisis inevitable, sooner or later. And if our reliance on technology as the solution is itself a symptom of this larger problem, then the ecological crisis requires something more than a technical response (although developments such as more efficient solar panels are certainly necessary). Increasing dependence on ever more sophisticated technologies can aggravate our sense of separation from the natural world, whereas any successful solution (if the parallel still holds) must include recognizing that we are an integral part of the natural world. Our interdependence implies responsibility for the health of the whole biosphere, because its well-being ultimately cannot be distinguished from our own well-being.
A New Path?
These collective versions of our sense of lack suggest that our economic and ecological crises are also spiritual crises. And if the individual deep hunger that Buddhist practices traditionally address has become institutionalized today, we are challenged to respond in innovative ways that recognize the nonduality between personal transformation and social transformation—in short, with a new and broader understanding of the Buddhist path.