Monday, January 31, 2011

Meditation, mental health, homesteading, and sustainability

Most of my students and colleagues would be surprised to hear that I'm interested in meditation almost as much as I am in farming.

I've long had a reputation for being a grumpy kind of curmudgeon around these parts, someone who can be relied upon to explain the potential bad consequences of any action in great detail to anyone who will listen. I doubt there are many of my colleagues who consider me particularly meditative. I think a lot of people think my primary interest is in raising pigs, with similar meditative abilities as my porcine friends, and in some ways they wouldn't be far wrong.

Pigs are very underestimated critters, in my book. But that's another story.

But I am quite interested in meditation, although not so much for the trendy mind-bending technique itself, but for what the science of meditation and similar mental states tells us about human nature and consumption.

Which, once you think about it, is pretty important to sustainability economics.

So, for the record, I am particularly interested in those aspects of human nature revealed by meditation, prayer, and related spiritual practices that are related to production and consumption, and the marginal utility of consumer goods.

What I'm not interested in is the head-in-the-sand-ness that comes when practitioners successfully escape from the "real" world of consumption, conflict, competition and climate change, and then somehow decide that this escapism is generalizable, that somehow meditation alone can solve all our problems.

Tell that to an out-of-work assembly line worker in Peoria.

I learned to meditate during a very brief stay at the Findhorn commune in Scotland during the period of large scale unemployment the UK experienced in the mid 1980s. The stay was quite brief, only a year, because the work my friends and I were doing there, community economic development and adventure therapy work with long-term unemployed youth in the surrounding area, proved impossible for the expert meditators at the commune to support. One very non-meditative argument after another revealed that the purpose of the commune was to serve as a place for people to bury their heads in the sand, not engage with the very real and very gritty social problems of Margaret Thatcher's Morayshire, with its fifty percent youth unemployment, drugs, crime and general hopelessness.

But learning the technique of meditation there at Findhorn led eventually to an interest in the relationship of one's mental state to questions of knowledge and truth, which in the end led to the Quakers. I formally became a Quaker in 1999, when, after three-four years of "seeking" hosted by one or the other meeting, I petitioned for membership of Athens Monthly Meeting, in Georgia. This particular meeting, of which I technically remain a member, has a long and peculiar association with economics and ecology, because of the number of members who are also members of the University of Georgia Institute of Ecology, the foremost ecology research center and think-tank in the USA. I was studying there, and learning to teach there at the time, and with my background it was natural for me to attend meeting.

I'm not an active Friend at this point in my life, but I remain very interested in the way the human mind works in respect to knowledge and truth. The Quaker/Buddhist practice of "just sitting" and reflecting seems to me to be an essential, if terribly under-explained, part of the human way of gaining knowledge and closely related to the relative satisfaction of material sustenance.

And of course, there are massive economic consequences. For those of us who manage somehow to learn to use meditation and reflection and the equanimity that results to partially escape the cycle of consumption in western economies, there are huge gains to personal well-being.

And I do believe that there are aspects of this that are generalizable.

In other words, if we all learned to meditate, we'd need to consume less to be happy, and that would on the whole be good for us and for the planet.

I say partially escape, because no-one ever succeeds in completely escaping the need to consume. We all need some food, shelter, clothing, energy, and even entertainment.

But I do feel that some propagandists for meditation and related techniques also advocate disassociation from society, particularly from politics and from competition. And the Keynesian result of a large-scale increase in meditative approaches that resulted in a large scale decrease in consumption, and thus aggregate demand, would be catastrophic for employment.

So what is needed, along with a decent explanation of why meditation is good for you, and why it can reduce the propensity to consume, is a system of economic thought and policy that provides access to employment, and the resulting ability to consume, or some alternative, to counter the fact that overall needs for consumption goods would fall as a result of increased equanimity, and thus aggregate demand would also fall, leading to widespread poverty and unemployment.

This is all closely related to productivity and the poor prospects for employment in general. Mechanization and computerization add massively to our ability to produce more goods with less employment per unit good. This mean that while there are on the aggregate more goods in circulation, and prices drop, there may also be less employment available per unit good, or at least less meaningful and productive employment.

As long as employment is the main ticket that gives ordinary folk the right to consume, we have a major chicken-egg problem here. There is no built-in ability for society to more equitably distribute employment if demand for employment exceeds supply. There's also the knotty question of underemployment, and/or questions relating to the low dignity of "trickle-down" employment, where we become dependent on jobs pampering the rich.

The result is increasing concentration on more and more meaningless employment, along with the least sustainable forms of consumption, which, while it may help maintain an uncertain and easily exploited kind of mass employment in Peoria and Peking, isn't very good for us spiritually and emotionally, and is disastrous for the planet.

Some possibilities for reducing this difficulty include a recognition of the value of part-time employment and/or home production, the idea of job-sharing, and the trendy notion of down-sizing and becoming more meditative about once's consumption. Being content with less has been a major feature story this last Great Recession, in case you hadn't read the articles. This latest is an example.

But a major bottleneck manifests itself with notions of reducing expectations for employment, in the corresponding lower ability of ordinary people to gain access to a home without decent employment. It's already more or less impossible for large numbers of Americans to get a secure home with the relatively low access ordinary people currently have to fully remunerative and meaningful employment. Reduce expectations for employment yet further, and fewer still of us will be in decent housing as a result.

If we were really smart, we'd study the ideas of Sir Patrick Geddes in this respect. Geddes, an economic thinker of great spiritual consequence, was also a great realist of human nature. He believed that the real "economic problem" to be solved was not the Keynesian one of sustaining aggregate demand and increasing consumption, but the Jeffersonian one of providing easier and sustained access to the primary real capital goods of homes, farms and gardens.

Your could call this theoretical Jeffersonianism, or something like that. Of course, Geddes put this into widespread practice with his planning schemes in Britain, France, Palestine and India.

Once you have a home with a farm or garden attached, the marginal propensity to consume external consumption goods can be much reduced, while a good deal of remunerative employment can be found right there in the farm or garden, or on the physical fabric of the home itself, without such a great need for engagement with the external economy.

In Skidelsky's second volume of Keyne's biography, an interesting question is asked: Why were the recessions and depressions of the 19th century so much less harsh in their impacts on ordinary people than the recessions of the twentieth century, especially in the United States?

The answer, to my mind, is that the transformation to an industrial economy was far less complete and so many ordinary people still had a homestead to fall back upon. And wasn't the original American dream one of a decent farmstead or homestead?

We should all wish for this additional level of economic security in these troubled times.

Pigs are, of course optional, but I find them entertaining, and even quite meditative animals.

I don't have any great conclusions for this thread of thought right now. I can see that a truly ecological economics would have to address the spiritual aspects of life, but I feel strongly that with the current system, there is insufficient ability to gain access to Jeffersonian/Geddesian capital if we all down-size.

I plan to meditate on it some more. But there will be more of this kind of writing on this blog in the weeks to come, because I'm working on some of these ideas for a paper in June.

1 comment:

Guzmán. said...

Jiddu Krishnamurti telling a joke...

“There are three monks, who had been sitting in deep meditation for many years amidst the Himalayan snow peaks, never speaking a word, in utter silence. One morning, one of the three suddenly speaks up and says, ‘What a lovely morning this is.’ And he falls silent again. Five years of silence pass, when all at once the second monk speaks up and says, ‘But we could do with some rain.’ There is silence among them for another five years, when suddenly the third monk says, ‘Why can’t you two stop chattering?”