The 99%, the catch phrase of the Occupy Movement, is shorthand for confronting and condemning the behavior of the greedy 1% who destroyed the economy for the rest of us. That the 1% colluded with politicians to tank the economy is fact. But there is more to this picture than this simple good guys bad guys scenario. Our culture as a whole, driven by greed and consumption, is no longer a viable one.
Rick Heller’s short and insightful new e-book, Occupy the Moment: A Mindful Path to a New Economy, focuses on the real problems in America: As a culture, we worship the pursuit of money, and we regard greed as a positive value. As an antidote, he recommends the ancient Buddhist practice of mindfulness to help us let go of these dubious values and embrace a more humane and sustainable society.
Heller, who describes himself as an Occupy activist and secular humanist, is also a journalist who specializes in reporting on the latest research in neuroscience. In his new book Occupy the Moment, he advocates Buddhist mindfulness meditation to ease the grip of unconscious mental patterns that have fueled the greed of the 1% and helped the rest of us to consciously or unconsciously enable them. The goal of mindfulness practice is to carefully observe every aspect of our experience in order to break free from the habitual patterns of thought and behavior that cause suffering. Heller reports that neuroscientists are finding that a simple mindfulness practice can achieve that.
Over 2500 years ago, the Buddha identified what he called the “Three Poisons”—greed, hatred and delusion as the primary sources of human suffering. Greed is desire for what we don’t have, hatred is resistance to reality, and delusion is confusion over what is good for us. For example, many Americans who are angry with Wall Street, including members of the Tea Party, continue to believe that greed creates wealth for everyone, that global warming research is a hoax, and that a new 60“ plasma TV is going to bring them true happiness.
Advertisers, of course, are in the business of delusion. They manipulate our minds using sophisticated psychological techniques, such as “neuromarketing,” which fuel our human tendencies toward greed, hatred and delusion—the very aspects of human nature that the Buddha identified as causing suffering. It is our collective celebration of greed, hatred and delusion, which brought us to our current economic and environmental crisis. According to Heller, simple mindfulness practices that help us question and intervene in the mental patterns that fuel greed and desire might allow us to step back from the brink. Heller describes our situation:
The problem the Occupy movement confronts is the greed of the wealthiest 1%. But greed is an aspect of the human condition. Few of us can be sure if we found ourselves elevated into the 1% that we would act differently. In fact, back in 2007, according to the highly-regarded CIRP Freshman Survey, three-quarters of those entering college said that being “very well off financially” was a very important personal goal. At least part of the anger of the Occupy movement is driven by young people who were enticed with visions of wealth, went deeply into debt in order to achieve it, and have now graduated into a job market that has shattered their illusions.
In other words, greed, materialism and over-consumption are, to a greater and lesser degree, alive and well among all of us. For the Occupy Movement to be successful and prevent further damage to the 99%, it has to confront Wall Street and the politicians who serve them, but it has to go beyond simply vilifying those who drove us off the cliff. In the end, if we are to have an economy that is healthy and sustainable, we as a culture have to change our thinking and our values. The Buddhist practice of mindfulness—paying attention to the present moment with curiosity and a friendly accepting attitude—can help us tame our aggression, greed and addiction to material things.
What drives greed, from the perspectives of both Buddhism and science, is the fleeting nature of the satisfaction that material possessions provide. You get something, but you become bored with it, and you look for the new, new thing. This leads to a cycle of addictive spending that psychologists call the “consumption treadmill.”
Consumerism can become an addiction. As with other addictions, when we become habituated to something, we need more and more of that substance in order to feel satisfied. To call consumerism an addiction is not just a metaphor—addictions are disorders of the brain system that governs our desires and habits. The financial indebtedness of the United States, both public and private, despite our being one of the richest countries on Earth is evidence that we truly are an addicted nation.
Mindfulness counteracts greed because it helps us feel satisfied with what we already have—once basic needs like food and shelter are met. Mindfulness can make the negative feel neutral and the neutral a blessing. It increases the sense of freshness and novelty in daily life. It makes the ordinary awesome.
Heller is not advocating apathy or indifference, but an economy less about growth that tends to enrich the 1% and more about maximizing happiness for everyone. He points out that we have both an economic and an environmental problem. Things are different than they were 2500 years ago when the Buddha lived. He shared his own experience of enlightenment, a way for individuals to relieve their suffering through meditation and changing how they think. But today the stakes are higher. Global warming threatens to devastate large portions of the planet if we don’t collectively change the way we think and behave. If we don’t do something soon to evolve beyond the primitive deluded ways of thinking the Buddha identified thousands of years ago, we may be running out of time.
A more mindful marketplace could get out of this bind of climate and economics, by helping us lead happier, healthier lives on a more modest budget. When you learn to experience this moment as full of richness and joy, you realize how wealthy you are already. You don’t feel the need to earn more, buy an expensive car or move to a bigger house in order to be happy. Happiness is within your reach right now.
Mindfulness promotes personal happiness as well as an appreciation of our dependence on others. In the end, we sink or swim together. Heller adds that if mindfulness practice “trickled up” to the 1%, they may not feel the need to hoard money and resources as they have been. His well-researched and inspiring book is available as a Kindle download on Amazon for $.99. He is donating the first $5,000 in profits to the Occupy Movement.