A friend of mine introduced me to the writings of Daniel Schmachtenberger, who thinks and writes about a lot of things, including beauty, relationships, and love, and who really grabbed me in his writings about the systems in which we live.
We live within a rivalrous (his word) win/lose system; there are always winners and there are always losers. This is true about all modern economic systems, not just capitalism. We take this for granted, as if win/lose is part of our human DNA, but there’s good reason (and research) to show that long ago this wasn’t true.
Before agriculture and the accumulation of surplus crops, and therefore private property, there was no incentive to accumulate because there were no means for preserving it. If, through hard work or luck, you managed to hunt more meat than others, you might eat better than others did for a short while, but that said nothing about the next month or even the next week because there was no way to keep the food fresh. Your children couldn’t inherit that surplus meat, either.
Technology brought us the machinery for keeping things we don’t use for years (including money), and one generation leaves it to the next, so that inherited wealth is now the biggest indicator of winners and losers, of those who will have the best resources to survive and flourish and those who won’t. That drives extraction, or profit, always maximizing the surplus no matter where we get it from, be it the earth or other people’s labor. The earth has a finite savings account, as Schmachtenberger puts it, but no balance sheet.
He uses trees as an example. Commodifying trees into lumber, the only value we give them is the value of the lumber. What you ignore is their enormous impact on birds and animals, climate, stabilizing topsoil, avoiding runoffs and floods—the entire symbiosis that typifies how nature functions, with effects not just across long distances but also across many years, affecting human wellbeing as well. Our system has no way of accounting for that, the only value a tree has is the value of its lumber.
I don’t wish to describe in detail Schmachtenberger’s thoughts about our world, I recommend looking him up (non-English speakers beware: He uses highly academic, conceptual prose). But reading him over several days caused me to question my own spiritual training.
For many years I try to do what is in front of me, let go of attachment to my own definitions and self-scaffolding, bear witness to what’s up front, and act in accordance. It was how we developed Greyston in southwest Yonkers and other projects, including Stone Soup Café right here. I have no doubt that on an individual basis great changes occurred, I heard this from the people living and working there.
But Schmachtenberger—much like the Communists in their day—says that these solutions often just bolster the existing system. Yes, you house, feed, and employ people who were homeless or ill, but that makes the system tolerable, it doesn’t change it at its core. Our win/lose paradigm results in a widening wealth gap and catastrophe for many.
He’s not just talking economics here, he’s talking about almost all areas of life. Be it medical, legal, corporate, and even the creative worlds, each is dominated by winners, each is focused on more profit and more extraction, creating scarcity where there is abundance.
Technology has increased the differences exponentially. The value of making something, the value of someone’s labor, doesn’t depend on the thing itself but how an abstraction called “the market” values it, which becomes more abstract and distant, often with very little connection to the actual product or service. How else can you explain why childcare workers, teachers, and firemen/women make so little while fund managers make millions?
The injustice perpetuated through this struck me hard. I thought of the general passivity of so many spiritual leaders when it comes to challenging the system itself. When the Zen Peacemaker Order looked at revising its Rule, I urged us to add a precept on working to change things on a systemic basis, but it didn’t pass.
I walked on a road in the woods this morning with both Aussie and Henry, looking with concern at the pines so heavily laden with wet snow that they were bent and contorted, low on the ground. I knew that we were expecting more snow and ice this evening and found myself brushing off snow from the branches of a large, drooping pine shrub that seemed as though it couldn’t bend down any further. I had gloves on and was able to brush off the watery snow from the tips of the branches, but couldn’t remove the lumps of snow on the thicker limbs and knobs.
I didn’t do this with any intention, it seemed to come almost automatically from what I was seeing and hearing: bent shrub, freeze, heavy snow, ice, cracks and falls in the trees. Only some minutes later the thought occurred to me: This is the action arising out of bearing witness. You are manifesting the Three Tenets without will or thought.
I stood back up, looked down the road, and saw all the other trees and shrubs also bent this way. Oh my God, I thought to myself, I can’t do all this. I can’t even remove the solid coating of snow and ice around the sinews of this shrub, never mind all the others. Snow was beginning and Henry looked at me curious-like: Why aren’t we walking? What’s taking you so long?
Schmachtenberger says that our current system is too fragile, too simplistic to last much longer. Sitting now in the dark of evening, I recall that on the road right above the house a heavily laden branch is hovering a foot above three electrical lines. We may lose power tonight.
Nature and life are highly complex, everything intertwined and dependent on everything else. For years I have thought to myself that we need a radical spiritual awakening to effect real change. Is this happening? How?
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