Sometimes our own personal practice can seem to be such a small thing. Yet, it’s frightening when we begin to consider the ways in which our individual mindlessness coalesces into great collective waves of harm that flow out into the world. The unawakened mind operates on the assumption that if something is good, then more must be better. It also over-focuses on objects of desire, neglecting other potentially important information. Finally, it overreacts to emotions, taking actions that aren’t always helpful in the long-term. This combination creates a state of delusion that leads to immeasurable suffering.
In our obsession with the bottom line and drive to earn ever more, we have engineered wondrous innovations and made processes incredibly efficient. Many of these accomplishments have made life infinitely easier. When I took a short foray into the corporate world, I remember often hearing the phrase, “If you’re not growing, you’re dying.” But, indiscriminate innovation doesn’t necessarily lead to benefit, uncontrolled growth isn’t the foundation of a good life, and extreme efficiency often comes with a price.
Our need for ever increasing streams of revenue has created a number of industrial complexes – military, medical, prison, and even food – through the symbiotic relationships that develop when public need marries private interest. Unchecked, these partnerships can grow to mammoth proportions, influencing public policy and disproportionately valuing its own concerns, leading to absurd and harmful situations.
For example, the US has hoarded so much meat and diary in an effort to protect the interests of producers and investors that most cold storage facilities are at capacity – and yet we keep on increasing production. This despite the fact that mass-producing meat and dairy has a significant negative impact on the environment, that there are people in the world starving for lack of food, and that countless creatures are created unnecessarily, raised inhumanely, and then slaughtered in order to satisfy the bottom line of profit and loss.
We have created and participated in a system in which industry interests override public wellbeing. The $70 billion cosmetics industry recently lobbied to shelve a California bill (The Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act) that would have banned potentially toxic ingredients from makeup, hair products and other personal-care goods. The industry’s argument was that the research wasn’t strong enough to justify the loss in jobs and earnings such a ban would create. As a result of this powerful lobby, congress hasn’t updated regulations for the cosmetics industry since 1938.
We have the highest prison population and rate of incarceration in the world with a jaw dropping recidivism rate (approximately 70%) costing about 80 billion dollars per year. This system disproportionately penalizes people of color, the poor, and the mentally ill and there is evidence that the privatization of prisons has helped to sustain the problem of mass incarceration. Affiliated lobbying groups have supported measures giving access to lucrative contracts and opposed measures that would reduce sentencing and shorten prison terms. Immigration reform may be the next great investment opportunity.
Medical and healthcare organizations are some of the highest spending lobbying groups in the US and have been estimated to outnumber other types of lobbyists by 6 to 1. Instead of considering universal healthcare, some states like Kansas, Tennessee and Iowa are authorizing unregulated low cost alternatives to health insurance that roll back hard won protections for consumers, such as mental health parity and coverage of pre-existing conditions (including pregnancy, STDs, diabetes, high blood pressure, joint pain, various diseases and disorders, and use of medications). Some of these alternatives are also free from oversight by the insurance commissioner. Politicians and insurance lobbyists say offering these alternatives will encourage business growth because so many companies cannot afford to provide health care insurance for their employees and potential entrepreneurs can’t afford private coverage. Though we spend the most in the world on healthcare, we rank last in access, equity, and outcomes among other industrialized nations. In addition, we have been experiencing a long downward trend in life expectancy. It appears that the relentless pursuit of money hasn’t brought us the life, liberty, or happiness we hoped for.
For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul? – Jesus Christ
Yet, it’s not the systems or the structures that are the true cause of our struggles. It’s the proclivities of our own minds. All of these problems are the result of actions taken out of ignorance, fear, greed, apathy or some combination of these harmful mental states. When operating on autopilot, we neglect to connect our actions with our highest values. Being unaware of our inner experience, we react on impulse, making uninformed decisions. Human beings, like other animals, may have powerful instincts, but we also fortunately have a large cortex that gives us the power to choose, if we will only allow space for it.
So, what can we do? It isn’t helpful to fall into despair. Hopefully these extreme examples illustrate how important each individual’s practice really is. The Dalai Lama once said, “If every 8 year old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.” While achieving world peace is bound to be more complicated than that, the wisdom behind this message is that our personal practice is an incredibly important part of the process. Each of us must do our inner work in order to liberate us all from the tyranny of our own unexamined minds.
Unless there is peace in the mind of the individual, how can there be peace in the society? – S.N. Goenka
Ehrenreich, J. (2016). Third Wave Capitalism: How Money, Power, and the Pursuit of Self-Interest have Imperiled the American Dream. Cornell University Press.
Lazarus, D (2019). Cosmetics industry crushes bill that would have made makeup and hair products safer. LATimes.com
Schneider, EC et. al (2017). Mirror, Mirror 2017: International Comparison Reflects Flaws and Opportunities for Better U.S. Health Care
Smith, S. (2019). Kansas Legislature passes Farm Bureau alternative to health insurance. CJonline.com
Solly, M. (2018). US Life Expectancy Drops for Third Year in a Row. Smithsonian Magazine, Dec. 3.