Sunday, May 03, 2009

Shambhala SunSpace exclusive: Bailouts and the Denial of Death

Shambhala Sunspace looks the government bailouts and what it says about our ability to accept and deal with the inevitable reality of death - more to the point, it's an article about impermanence, using the current financial crisis as the teaching. This is a guess post from Dr. Andrew Holecek.

SunSpace exclusive: Bailouts and the denial of death

April 29, 2009 money

With job losses and plummeting stocks, we’re all getting a run for our money. Here, Andrew Holecek shares how the economic crisis can help us face up to the reality of impermanence.

In the music world there is a cruel proverb: those who aren’t good enough to perform become teachers, and those who aren’t good enough to teach become critics. It is easy to be a critic. There are plenty of shortages in this economic crises, but there is no shortage here. Armchair economists, social philosophers, and critics are everywhere. In the arena of economics and politics, I am one such dilettante, and here is my observation and critique.

With all due sensitivity to the millions of people adversely affected by this global meltdown, it is time to wake up and realign ourselves with reality. Doing so may help us with the painful but necessary acquiescence to reality’s non-negotiable terms. The following critique is therefore a constructive one, for it aims to provide a view that can help us negotiate these challenging times and get us back in synch.

What is occurring in this economic crises is a whopping reality check, a worldwide wake-up call. It may not be the kind of check we had in mind to bail us out of this crises, but it can bail us out of the deeper crises of our somnolence. It has been our sleepiness, our unwillingness or inability to get in tune with reality, that gave birth to this crises, and that continues to sustain it.

The central issue is our addiction to growth, which itself is a by-product of our slavery to our comfort plans. In this pathological world view, one that is out of touch with reality and serves only to put us to sleep, things are good when things are growing. We feel good when we can say “my knowledge is growing, my kids are growing, my bank account is growing, my garden is growing, my portfolio is growing, the economy is growing.” Growth is equated with fullness, and fullness with happiness. But this craving for fullness usually leads to the many forms of fatness.

We are a culture infatuated with fullness, with being high, and always feeling up. We feel successful when things are looking up. This clamoring to get to some imagined summit has put our head in the clouds, and we have lost our vision. We have lost touch with the reality of earth. We have become a civilization of the uptight and upset when things don’t go our upward-oriented way. When our emotions or economy inevitably crashes to earth, when reality comes calling, we are at a loss for what to do.

In other words, success tends to blind. There is no tyranny as great as the tyranny of success, and no blindness more acute. This is because, like any high, when we get it we want to get more. We want to stay on top, or climb even higher. We almost literally lose touch. We lose the ability to feel – to contact ourselves, others, and this earth. So for those so high, when things inevitably fall apart they always feel they must fix it up, when perhaps they should fix it down.

This is one reason why the descent back to reality is so painful, because it returns us with a vengeance to that which we were trying to flee. And that is pain. The level of pain as we crash to earth is in direct proportion to the level of its avoidance. As the guru of gravity has repeatedly tried to show us, the higher we are the greater the fall.

There is nothing inherently problematic with growth, of course, for it is the very basis of life. But growth without vision and clear purpose is the definition of cancer, a disease of nearly epidemic proportion. Growth just for the sake of growth paradoxically kills. That’s what tumors do. It is unrecognized suicide. The economic world has been infected with just such a cancer, and it is appropriately killing its host. Unlike the localized malignancy of the great depression, this cancer has metastasized around the world because our economic model of unchecked growth has spread around the world.

How much growth is enough? What does it take for the billionaires to feel full? Where, exactly, does this unrestrained growth lead to? What is the summit in this model with no climax? The problem is twofold: because of our addiction to comfort and growth, we are not willing to let things die, and we are unwilling or unable to remove the primary causes that propel this growth.

As to the matter of death, our infatuation with growth is accompanied with a nearly violent aversion to the harsh reality of death. We love the former as much as we loathe the latter. As anthropologist Ernest Becker eloquently put it over thirty years ago, we live in the denial of death. And so we live in denial of reality, and suffer in direct proportion to our ignorance of its immutable laws.

The Buddha beat Becker to the punch by several thousand years. His uncompromising teachings on impermanence are completely applicable to this economic cancer, and its inevitable devastation. Understanding these teachings, because they reflect reality, can help us work with the hardships of death. In this case, the death of our economic model, or the loss of our job, our home, or our investments. Death comes in infinite forms—to all that is formed. The sooner we accept it, the sooner we get in step with things and make our lives easier.

The point is that the economic monster we have force-fed to infinity has hit the ground in a massive cardiac arrest, and our attempts to resuscitate the beast with bailouts and buy-outs may only prolong its inevitable death, and lead to unnecessarily sustained suffering. Let this model of unrestrained and purposeless growth kill itself.

One of the manifestations of our fear of death is the fear of failure. The fear of going down. Like death, we don’t allow it. Like death, it is a seen as a defeat. We don’t teach our children enough that it is okay to lose, that death is a natural part of life, and that small and large deaths occur constantly. We don’t teach our children enough that winning isn’t everything, and that being on top, being successful, can lead to dangerous addictions. These children then grow up to be CEO’s of banks and automobile companies, presidents and senators, and their denial of death follows them like a dark shadow.

Because I don’t live in Detroit, it is easy for me to say that we need to let the auto industry, with its hubris and blindness, die a natural death. Pumping endless billions into companies that are run by arrogance and greed is like performing CPR on a cold and lifeless heart. You might keep it alive artificially, but just like the vast majority of health insurance is spent in the final weeks of life, it is actually healthier, and more in accord with reality, to acknowledge the reality of death and let things go. We can’t sustain a society in the intensive care unit.

The bankers, investors, and CEO’s of the mega-corporations that lie at the heart (a potent double-entendre) of this financial crises are nothing more than bloated Humpty Dumpties, high on themselves, that have finally hit the ground of reality and appropriately splattered into a million pieces. We should let them stay shattered on the ground. We should not glue them back together again. The greed and arrogance of those who have made it to the top, those so completely out of touch, is a principal cause of this economic disaster, and until that greed and arrogance is recognized and surgically excised, the infection will insidiously spread.

This seemingly harsh view is not based on aggression, that these selfish people deserve to go down. It is based on compassion, a compassion rooted not in the denial of death, but in its total acceptance. Is it compassionate to give a drink to an alcoholic suffering from withdrawal? Or is it more compassionate to let the drunk hit rock bottom and contact reality, learn his lessons, and then begin anew? Trungpa Rinpoche taught extensively about idiot compassion, parents talk about tough love.

Letting aged and diseased entities die a natural death may not fit our comfort plans, but real compassion and genuine love does what needs to be done. Sooner or later, reality spanks those who are not in accord with it.

It is time. It is time to allow failure, to let death run its natural course. Everything that comes together must fall part. Every life ends with non-negotiable death. Death is not a Buddhist invention, it is a hard cold fact. Accepting this immutable law allows us to surrender gracefully when death rears its inevitable head. And understanding it means realizing that with every death comes a new birth.

The pain and dread that accompanies every death is balanced with the anticipation and promise that accompanies new life. We may not know what that new life looks like, but we realize there is always life after death. We may not know what will happen after we lose our job, our home, our investments, or when this economic crises finally hits the ground. But understanding the play of life and death, success and failure, being high and feeling lowand aligning ourselves with the natural rhythms of realitycan make the entire journey more graceful.

Dr. Andrew Holecek has completed the traditional three-year meditation retreat, and is the founder of the Forum of Living and Dying, which offers seminars around the country on death and dying. His book on spiritual hardship, The Power and The Pain, is forthcoming from Snow Lion.

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