Wheel of the Fortunate: “Prosperity” in the Context of Unsustainability

(This a longer, somewhat more political version of my guest post on Wild Hunt.)

Like most things in samsara, it all goes back to wheels…

On 17 January, 1961, a dirty Red hippy peacenik named Dwight D. Eisenhower got on his soapbox and made a treasonous little speech. He said that, “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.“ Congress and every U.S. President since then has sensibly ignored this advice, giving us the harmonious and sustainable society we enjoy today.

But before we get into that, lets get back to that wheel. There is a reason the Wheel became the synecdoche for good fortune. With it, civilization became possible. One could travel long distances, carry goods with relative ease, and conquer their neighbors with far less hassle. There was, of course, a downside: the wheel is a rather simple device to back engineer. This meant that other, less God fearing types (some of whom might even be socialists!) could also travel far greater distances than before, thus threatening the grain supply and the local gene pool. Hence, the arms race could be said to coincide with the development of long distance travel.

This brings us back to that Pinko and his unpatriotic tirade.

Taking my tongue out of my cheek at this point (people tend to misunderstand you when your speech patterns are thus encumbered) I don’t know if people who quote that little snippet really understand how deeply the very phenomenon Eisenhower was concerned about has taken root in American society, and really the socioeconomic realities of the entire planet. The entity which calls itself “the United States Government” has, for all intents and purposes, ceased to govern. Instead, it now brokers huge contracts that form a huge part of what is left of the U.S. and world economies. If the military were to be drastically reduced tomorrow, the current economic meltdown would turn into a fiscal disaster to rival Three Mile Island. This is why Obama will not be able to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, or leave Iraq. The contracts, not only for weaponry but also for housing facilities, support services such as food and laundry, and other auxiliary services, constitute a controlling interest in the nation’s GDP. Not so much in terms of percentage as distribution. Those contracts are often the backbone of a local or state economy. Pull out that single joker, and a hundred other industries go with it. Enough disappear, and the GDP follows suit.

That GDP is important, because it also happens to be the basis of our monetary system. Modern money is created through debt. Either the government creates it by borrowing from the Federal Reserve, or banks create it when they make a loan. This debt is borrowed against the GDP. Its payment depends on the amount of production and labor that the government can levy taxes on. Currently, there is more debt circulating than could be paid off in a hundred years assuming the current GDP. So, the military industrial complex is here to stay, largely because its weakening would eviscerate anything resembling the current standard of living in most of the industrialized world. See this site for a large amount of information on the MIC.

Then there are those other wheels: the automobiles and other modern conveyances that transport us from one place to another. And the turbines in the power plants that supply energy to major cities. All of these rely on a fuel source. Currently, this fuel taken from the finite geological resources of our planet. Oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear power, all depend on something which will eventually run out. Discovery of new oil peaked in the middle of the last century. Oil production followed a few years later. Coal, apart from the general ecological damage it produces when burned, is also becoming increasingly difficult to mine. Coal companies have taken to simply destroying mountains -whole ranges in the Appalachians, Smoky Mountains, and Ozarks- in order to get at smaller and smaller coal seams.

And those wheels keep moving, the trains and trucks taking that coal to the city, where the affluent enjoy a standard of living that would be the marvel of an ancient king. Even the relatively poor would rival a feudal lord in access to food, entertainment, and creature comforts. Which really isn’t saying much, other than that life in feudal societies was “nasty, brutish, and short.”

Those poor give us a glimpse of another set of wheels. These wheels belong to the buses that bring ever-increasing numbers of urban poor to an ever growing number of prisons. As much as the military industrial complex has a controlling interest, the prison industrial complex has in some ways surpassed it. This is because lobbyists for the prison industry (now largely private) have used the usual bribes and threats to pass legislation that (1)includes stiffer penalties for crimes and (2) encourages recidivism by placing the focus on punishment rather than reform. The United States incarcerates a much higher percentage of its population than any other industrialized democracy. It does this so that the CEOs of private corporations can show a profit each quarter.

It is safe to say that most people are unaware of these rather ugly factors in the background of their daily lives. I don’t think it’s fair to make a charge of apathy or callous disregard in most cases. When these are expressed, I suspect discomfort more than actual lack of compassion. It is difficult to just get by. The big picture is often too big to deal with for people who are simply struggling with the every day dramas and traumas of modern life.

Among these are the Modern Pagans, some of whom contemplate, on occasion, the performance of a prosperity spell. A fair percentage of the time, someone will bring up the question of whether such an action is appropriately spiritual. Usually the argument will be settled by saying that Pagans do not reject the material world, and so doing work for prosperity is not somehow offensive to our beliefs.

Given the situation, economic, ecological, and social, I think this is quite the wrong place to start thinking from. It assumes the ubiquitous “all things being equal” clause, and all things are demonstrably not equal. What does “prosperity” mean when we, as a civilization, are engaged in what can only be seen as a sustained effort to destroy ourselves and our habitat? That is the question I think needs to be asked.

While there are no easy answers to this, and any attempt to formulate a plan on my part would be partial and based on my own ideological pre-dispositions, I think it is possible to suggest a direction, a tendency that, like a celebration of the material world, is fully compatible with Paganism, and indeed gives it a bit more depth. We already have a piece of it in the concept of interconnection. But interconnection alone tends to focus, in practice, on very intimate, individual relationships. This is because broader, more inclusive concepts of interconnection are generally too abstract to be personally meaningful. You don’t feel the connection between yourself and the migrant worker who picked the strawberries on your pancakes this morning, or the large and increasingly militarized police force and your quiet Sunday morning. Your intellect may be aware of these things, but the guts don’t buy it.

Slovak theorist Slavoj Zizek is fond of saying that, in order to solve the ecological problems of the day, we need to become less connected with nature. Our embeddedness in the Web of Life, says Zizek, actually distorts our perspective. We may know intellectually that the carbon dioxide coming from our cars and our power plants is slowly making the planet less and less habitable for our kind of life-form. But, again, the gut level of experience doesn’t really lead us to believe it deep down. He suggests taking our relationship with nature to an almost gnostic level of abstraction in order to restore ecological balance.

While I find this more than a little extreme, and suspect the “Madman of Theory” is being more than slightly facetious in order to make a point, I do think he might be on to something. It’s the forest/tree problem. In order to get to some sort of resting point in terms of a view of prosperity that honors both intimate interconnection and abstract whole, a look at a key doctrine from another Tradition may be in order.

In the Mahayana Tradition of Buddhism one encounters two important concepts. The first is lovingkindness. (I’m not sure why they always scrunch the two words together like that. It probably has to do with trying to distinguish it from Western assumptions about those two words as separate concepts.) This is a form of basic, relational interconnection. It concerns the way in which one relates to those they regularly encounter. The specific meditation practice for this is called Metta Bhavana. In it, one cultivates lovingkindness for progressively broader groups of people, and also increasingly difficult individuals. Eventually one gets to “all sentient beings,” but this is still a rather personal kind of connection. It stops at wishing people well.

The more abstract form of connection, and the one that I think would do us the most good in terms of thinking about prosperity, is Boddhichitta. This has a number of fairly poor translations, one being “Wisdom Attitude.” What it refers to is the desire to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. There are also progressive stages to this, each one involving more commitment and discipline.

Now, Modern Pagans can be a little averse to some conceptions of “Enlightenment.” Especially if their only experience with Buddhism is Theravada, where the specific goal is to abandon materiality altogether. Obviously this does not fit with anything Pagans believe. However, in the Mahayana traditions, particularly Vajrayana and the highest esoteric schools such as Dzogchen, the material world is seen as arising equally from Emptiness, and in fact being identical with it. These schools of non-duality express what amounts to a quite well developed concept of immanence.

The difference is that the goal is much “bigger.” Translating into Pagan terms, we can see ourselves as part of a sentient Cosmos, or Goddess. Nut, the Goddess of the Night Sky, would be a good image here in terms of vastness. We are all “stars,” as it were, in the body of this all encompassing, and all pervasive, Deity.

But our first experience is of separation. We are individual units with our own concerns for survival. Then we begin to notice and care for larger and larger groups of people. Eventually, we may be able to see beyond our own sufferings to that of others, and realize that it is the holding on to the smaller, pettier concerns that creates this suffering. We want to help others “wake up” to this wonderful, all encompassing Joy that is the Cosmos we all came from and share space in.

In this sense, the “wealth” is really already there. There may be artificial constraints to getting it, but the actual raw material we need to work in the world is all around us. We have an innate intelligence that can guide us to the best way of using our talents to acquire what we need in order to do this Great Work. “What we need to do the work” may not look like conventional ideas of wealth. But, in the end, we are part of the Cosmos, and there is no question of poverty in such a vast context. It is only a question of how we use that wealth.

We can squander our innate inheritance, as so many in past and current generations have done and continue to do. In that case, the world becomes more poisoned, more oppressive, less livable for our kind of bodies. Or, we can learn to use what we have been given to help ourselves and others. One cannot truly help one without helping the other, since ultimately we are all interacting facets of a larger diamond. We all shimmer or shatter together. This is Boddhichitta.

As we wind this journey down, we can think of another wheel. This one is a wheel that traditionally dwelt inside a home, not traveling but remaining in one place. On it, weavers spun wool and fibers into thread. If their attention was not on the work, they would wreck the perfectly good raw material. Though this may be purely subjective, a coat made from wool spun in anger, or haste, probably didn’t last quite as long as a labor of love.

The poison and the pain of our lives are first born in our minds. Through no fault of our own we get caught up in trivial games that only serve to distract and irritate us, diverting us from the core fact of our separate existence: it hurts. But this division only makes reunion more joyous, and we have all we need to accomplish it. We have only to recognize it, which can be, we must admit, incredibly difficult.

But the consequences of not doing so are too grave. We can no longer fritter away our lives on small drama and the acquisition of toys to distract us. It is time to realize that, even if we are idle, in a broader sense we are always working, always weaving. And the results of our work show how much attention we’ve given it.

Like most things in samsara, it all comes back to wheels…

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