The Double-Bind Lens in the COVID-19 Transition

I find myself thinking through the extraordinary COVID-19 global turning (as Joanna Macy calls it) in terms of Gregory Bateson’s concept of the double-bind. The double-bind theory  has close and obvious parallels to the koan tradition in Zen. Bateson’s concept, which he first developed to explain schizophrenia, can help us to identify the newly emerging collective koans within chaos processes. To solve the koan is to get to the heart of this intimate matter of life and death. The Life-death tension, the  precondition for all of our lives,  is the ultimate sentient being double-bind. We’re looking at rocks and hard places here.

While I find much of Bateson’s work is so far ahead of it’s time as to be complex beyond practical use, his idea of the double-bind is extraordinarily revealing as far as helping one to think through and reveal chaotic processes such as how global systems are responding (or not) to the COVID-19 outbreak. Humanity’s koans in a sense.

Right now I’m just gonna use this all-but-non-existent blog to list some currently emerging and obvious double binds. Each double bind is looking for a more accurate description and name, likely. I’m brainstorming out loud, to the non-readers of my blog, no less.

The urgence/patience double bind.

In my job as a college administrator trying to move face-to-face courses online, it is clear this week more than ever that my job is extremely urgent and yet, the skill I most need to skillfully navigate through this dynamic, dialectic and fluid crisis of socioeconomic turning is patience.

Also work-related is the double-bind that everyone is being encouraged to work from home if possible, which means that now there are so few people in my building that it is actually safer for me to work at my office than at home. I’m planning to come to the office for now.

The collective/distance double bind.

Best seen at the huge crowds in grocery store parking lots as people crowd together for the food that is going to allow them to social distance. Even the word “social distance” contains a double-bind. (after a certain distance, there is no social)

Related is the constant and apparently un-thought out warnings not to panic buy. But just because shelves are empty doesn’t mean it’s panic buying. People on lockdown or shelter at home orders have to buy enough stuff to stay at home for, in some cases  14 days. Since restaurants are mostly closing, you have to stock up at the grocery store more than usual. Overly simplified  pleadings that haven’t thought through the complexities are so pre-covid.

The capitalism/socialism double bind

Wow, is this one ever getting worked over transparently in front us even as corporate-controlled media either ignores or is blind to it. The capitalist narrative is that we are all lone-wolf, “private” individuals. However, in the COVID-19 turning, we must act collectively. So now, we are unsurprisingly witnessing the utter farce of hyper-surveillance capitalism trying to act collectively. Somebody write that play; it would be hilarious if it weren’t so tragic. This is probably a blog entry of it’s own.    (Touches a bit on the privacy/surveillance double-bind of the oppressed capitalist subject.) More to come..

The homo sapiens karma of breathing double bind

For over 200 years the industrial revolution has been destroying the earth’s forests which are the lungs of the planet. Now nature seems to be targeting our ability to breathe. Ok, this is more like simple poetic justice, but like I said, I’m just brainstorming.

The killing society to save it double bind

By collectively retreating into new worlds of alienated normal in order to save ourselves, we risk the destruction of anything worth saving. Who knows what new nightmares slouch toward us co-emergent with the new utopias struggling to be born in the weeks and months to come?

The protect your health or get a paycheck double bind

Now being imposed on workers who are increasingly being sacrificed by being forced back to work. They are often, but not always, essential workers referred to as “heroes” while being treated as disposable.

Two Take -aways

First, look for the double binds, the  overt and implied contradictions in the transforming societal, cultural, economic and political situations in which you are interdependent. The invented, conditional, conventional, corporate media-fueled “reality” surrounding us unconsciously conspires to suppress those built in impossible contradictions.

Secondly, resolve those koan/double binds by making them explicit and embodying them instead of avoiding them. This is similar to  Macy’s guidance to honor, not pathologize, your pain. A hint as to your personal negotiation of the double bind; like the resolution of the koan and Rilke’s suggestion to live the questions, it involves something akin to the dialectic of the Buddhist middle way. This means compassionately opening your heart to the Buddhish double-bind of living into death. It’s counter-intuitive, I know.

Thinking through more and will update…

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Grassroots Zen Resistance to Economism

Grassroots Zen, in addition to embracing the traditional spectrum of Zen Buddhist practices, emphasizes 1) horizontal, decentralized, participatory and consensus-based power structures, 2) Not Knowing, Bearing Witness and Taking Action, -the Three Tenets of The Zen Peacemaker Order, and 3) the Chaos Theory of culture which views the acquisition of wisdom not as authoritarian-based, but as emergent. It shares with traditional Zen practice a strong ecological ethic based on the inseparability of humanity from the interconnected web of life.

In the following essay I will introduce Grassroots Zen in the context of what process thinker John B. Cobb Jr. has called “our shared religion; economism.” I will try to present Grassroots Zen as a clear and meaning-building life path for responding to the oppressive structure of the economistic practices that have developed in the post-industrial late-capitalism context within which we now live.

I will define economism and detail some of its negative impacts on the biosphere. I will give examples of the extent to which our culture has become economistic. I will also attempt to show the potential of Zen Buddhism more generally as a model which can counter this world historic force, at least among the few communities that attempt to practice it. I will note that Zen and other forms of Buddhism have always existed as a resistance to materialism. The “infinite growth on a finite planet” greed-based model that currently drives the economism paradigm, which in turn drives climate change, now clearly threatens to destroy the ecosystem, its people and, indeed, most of our fellow Earthlings. It is certainly noteworthy that our current geologic era is now being called the Anthropocene due to humanity’s overwhelming and irresistible effects on all of Earth’s systems.

I will present Grassroots Zen as an emerging Buddhist model uniquely suited both for countering the oppressive and hierarchical economistic ideology that distorts all our contemporary thinking, and as a sustainable vision and practice for the types of permaculture that have the potential to persist throughout and possibly survive the long emergency of collapsing late capitalism.

“Economism,” John Cobb writes, “has become the spirit and ideology of our times.”1 Public intellectuals, like Morris Berman, Chris Hedges, John Michael Greer, Henry Giroux, James Howard Kunstler, Dmitri Orlov, Noam Chomsky, Carolyn Baker and many others believe that it is likely too late to avoid the worst aspects of the collapse of global capitalism and the climate change that is driven by the developing dictatorship of economics. However, I believe that it is important to avoid hopelessness and instead to practice the Buddhist ideal of clear seeing (vipassana). In the deepest spirit of Buddhism, we must strive, like the 18th century Tibetan Buddhist prayer from Jigma Lingpa, to “nakedly see reality itself in direct actuality.” Only then can there be any hope of remotely responding with wisdom to the current, converging crises of the Anthropocene. We must do our humble best to see the world as it truly is beyond the distortion of our own habit-driven conceptual filters.

In a previous essay The Three Mind Distortions, I described the first mind distortion as greed (tanha), a habitual mental pattern which, in Buddhism is considered an impurity to be overcome by practitioners. The other two distortions are aggression (dvesha) and ignorance (moha). In that essay I wrote that greed, considered as a psychological archetype, is also known as possessiveness, craving, grasping, insufficiency, extreme ambition or addiction. To that list I should add compulsive shopping and usury; both are forms that tanha can take. I quoted Buddhist scholar David Loy who wrote that greed has become “institutionalized as our economic system…” In the modern American paradigm greed is certainly normalized and glamorized.

Increasingly, every part of our socio-economic system, such as education, healthcare, politics and now even basic access to the internet is under pressure, not only to submit to the whims of the profit motive, but to become profit generators for gambler/investors. Increasingly, all institutions are either coerced into becoming income generators for already wealthy elites, or they are threatened with extinction. These forces are now at play at some of our most sacrosanct institutions, such as the US Department of Education, the National Park System and the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Like fish swimming in water, we are so immersed in normalized greed that we can hardly see it anymore.

Loy defines greed simply as “never having enough,”2 which is clearly how that quintessential tool of the global elites and former chairperson of the US Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, saw the world. Southern Methodist University economist Ravi Batra in his critique of Greenspan writes “Greenspan’s economics may be abbreviated to Greenomics, which essentially turns out to be Greedomics, signifying a view that nothing should be done to interfere with business greed and the pursuit of profits.”3

Greed, or tanha, is the motivating force behind economic inequality that, in our dazed modern sleepwalk, and through our un-critical conditioning, we increasingly accept with a yawning complacency. Greed is the fundamental force that underlies the institutionalization of the three mind distortions in our plutocratic socio-economic system and allows them to function. Greed motivates the other two distortions of aggression and ignorance and ties all three together. The Wall Street financialization of our economy4 (the institutionalized mind distortion of greed) is the foundation on which stand both a) the bloated trillion-dollar US military budget, militarized police and the public/private prison state (the institutionalized mind distortion of aggression) and b) the concentration of US media control (the institutionalized mind distortion of ignorance), including news sources, marketing, advertising and entertainment, by ever fewer corporations and individuals. It was down to six people at last count. Greed can be seen as the central column that supports institutionalized violence and propaganda in our world.


In his book The Earthist Challenge to Economism, the process thinker John B. Cobb defines Economism as a world historic force that evolved out of Christianism and Nationalism in earlier centuries. It is an overarching worldview or metaphysic. Economism as an ideology refers to the domination of global societies by economic goals. It represents the psychic life of Dante’s pitiful lower hell-realm souls elevated to the status of world historic force. It is the Buddhist hungry ghost become worldly and global god.

Cobb says that “From a humanistic point of view, the dominance of economic considerations is a reversal of Enlightenment values. From a naturalistic point of view, it neglects the worth of nature and leads to its destruction. From a communitarian point of view, it denies the profoundly social nature of human beings. From a democratic point of view, it involves the loss of popular sovereignty, and from a Christian point of view, it is the idolatrous worship of mammon.”5 We can add that from a Buddhist point of view it is the substitution of samsara for nirvana –the substituting of a vicious cycle of suffering in place of liberation.

From any coherent point of view economism represents the exact opposite of a moral and humanistic vision of what humanity’s place in the universe should be. It lowers our moral conscience to the equivalence of a virus. Except, its worse. We have self-awareness to some degree, a virus probably has not.

There is no better proof of the economistic nature of modern culture than the fact that none of these serious objections is ever taken seriously. They are considered merely ideological, whereas the pursuit of economic goals above all else is thought to be practical. Economism portrays itself as the obvious and natural state of humanity beyond ideology. It sees itself as inevitable and necessary. As an ideology it practices what Sartre would call bad faith. It tries not to be what it is.

Cobb calls Economism “the dominant religion of our times.” But, it is an unconscious shadow religion. No one openly declares allegiance to or worship of the market gods. It is a religion defined by “pragmatic” values, motives, actions, and defaults. It is a religion that isn’t directly perceived or thought about, yet it functions either overtly or subterraneously in every modern arena from the destruction of nature and agribusiness food production (and its necessary animal cruelty) to pop art, industry and science, politics, global energy consortiums, unaffordable housing, insurance-controlled medicine, commercialized, privatized, authoritarian education policy, ad nauseum.

The political philosopher Sheldon Wolin has described the dominance of economic forces on the US government as inverted totalitarianism. This is contrasted to classical forms of totalitarianism wherein economics was subordinated to politics. In monarchies, for example, kings could directly control the economy by fiat. In the US the inverse prevails; politics is subordinated to economics which has then begun to function as a totalitarianism. In the US money controls politics.

Historic Context of Economism

To put it in brief context, Christianism, according to Cobb, ended as the dominant world historic force with the treaty of Westphalia in 1648 which ended the 30-years War between the Protestants and Catholics in Europe. The 30-years War was fundamentally a transnational war fought between huge armies representing two different, competing versions of Christian ideology. The historic-metaphysic result was the fall in the faith of Christianism as an adequate worldview.

Nationalism evolved in place of Christianism once it gradually became clear to the collective consciousness that emerged from the 30-Years War what a disaster Christianism was for structuring society.

To clarify, Christianity is based on the religion surrounding Jesus of Nazareth whereas Christianism is based on the triumph of the Christian ideology over all other belief systems. Think Crusades. A similar distinction can be made for nationalism. Whereas patriotism is the willingness to make sacrifices for the love of country, nationalism is “my country right or wrong.”6 Obviously, not all Christians are Christianists and not all patriots are nationalists.

Cobb says that the same distinction needs to be made today between economists and economistic thinkers. He defines Economism as the belief that society should be organized for the sake of economic growth. Economism began to dominate as a world historic force after the nationalistic disaster that was World War II. To put it briefly, World War II illustrated the failures of nationalism as a force for the continued evolution of civilization. After World War II global civilization began to organize around the globalization of the economy as a unifying force.

The final stages of economism has perhaps now been reached with the financialization of our economy. In a financialized economy money is made, not by producing anything of value, but by gambling on money itself. In our current financialized economy large fortunes are regularly made by gambling on and even trading debt. This is true of the “credit default swamps” –I mean “swaps,” that nearly destroyed our economy in 2008.

In the economism paradigm, other ways of seeking the well-being of humans are subordinated to the economic. It’s the ultimate version of living to work versus working to live. In Economism the entire life of society is seen as having value only to the extent that it works toward economic expansion. People exist for the sake of the economy, rather than the economy exiting for the well-being of people. In this model there can be no discussion of the intrinsic value of nature. Nothing has any intrinsic value, only market value.

Again, not all economists are economistic thinkers. EF Schumacher’s book Small is Beautiful includes a chapter on Buddhist economics which values planet and people over profits and politics. “The keynote of Buddhist economics,” Schumacher says, “is simplicity and non-violence.” Simplicity is the practice of recognizing enoughness. Recognizing enough is also related to the practice of seeing and appreciating abundance as developed, for example, in Laurence Boldt’s highly original book The Tao of Abundance.

It would be one of the most important developments in human history to see emerging economies based on recognizing what is enough rather than on the current ecocidal models of infinite growth. Indeed, just such an economy has emerged over the last 20 years in the Buddhist country of Bhutan with its replacement of GNP –a measurement of Gross National Product with GNH –a measurement of Gross National Happiness.

One of many personal examples of the brute force of Economism occurred in 2014 when I helped organize environmental groups in Denton, Texas to ban hydraulic fracturing within our city limits. Thirty or so of us collected enough door to door signatures to get a voter initiative on the ballot. Voters in the city then overwhelmingly elected to ban toxic fracking practices near their schools, churches and grocery stores.

In response, the oil-soaked Texas legislature immediately passed HB 40, a law banning cities from banning fracking. While ignoring the Texas constitution’s explicit right of home-rule for Texas municipalities, the Texas (so-called “Big government is bad”) Legislature decided that it wasn’t “economically reasonable” to keep explosive fracking wells7 away from schools, churches, bakeries, restaurants or people. Our representative in the Texas house, Myra Crownover, who leased fracking wells herself, voted for HB 40 against the interests of her constituents as her last political act. It quickly became apparent after her vote that she would never hold office in Denton County again. But she was rumored to have been well compensated for the sacrifice.

In Texas, Big Government is bad unless it is protecting the interests of Big Business. Then, it’s common sense. Neither individuals nor nature figure into the simple math of it. That’s Economism. It’s how the West was won, as they say. Or lost, depending on your perspective. We all have endless examples of the relentless force of this process in our work and in our lives; even in our death practices.

Tanha and Indirect Self-Acceptance

Indirect self-acceptance functions on a individual level and acts like a machine in the mind with a hacked software loop that generates tanha (craving arising from feelings of insufficiency) and is ultimately the basic fuel for sustaining economism. Tanha is a more comprehensive concept in Buddhism than the word greed implies in English. It is more like Jung’s concept of archetypes of the collective unconscious; it is an archetypical emotional drive.

Here I’m using tanha to represent the archetype of desire which covers the entire libido of a life force which seeks to continually re-emerge into every new moment. At a healthier level, tanha is merely life’s desire to keep experiencing itself. In one sense it is the always-incomplete process of the life force functioning within the law of life’s necessity to consume life in order temporarily resist death. In this sense, tanha per se has no negative connotations, although everything, including tanha, can and does become unbalanced within the dialectical evolution of societies.

In American society we can easily see how an unbalanced tanha interacts with narcissistic self-identity issues. Here in the US especially, a neurotic form of tanha functions as a fuel for seeking self-acceptance through indirect means.

Social psychologists Snell and Gail Putney describe indirect self-acceptance as the most pervasive and normal of American neuroses.8 More than anything else, being “normal” in America means being neurotic by seeking indirect self-acceptance. Putney and Putney say that Americans lack self-approval because they have failed to develop a self-image that is both accurate and acceptable to themselves. The patterns of alienation, extroversion and misdirection in American culture lead Americans to become other-directed rather than inner-directed. In short, in hierarchical, hyper-competitive, celebrity-worshipping America, we thirst for the approval of others and it is by seeking that approval that we attempt to accept ourselves. This unquenchable thirst for approval is a clear form of neurotic tanha. It is the craving for a solid sense of self by trying to verifying ourselves through the imagined eyes of others.

Due to pervasive feelings of inadequacy, according to Putney and Putney, Americans generally avoid introspection and instead seek the impossible goal of self-acceptance through the recognition and admiration from others. In many ways American culture has become merely a process of manipulating the impressions of others. Consider the social force of selfie-absorption that facebook and other virtual social media have become. Indirect self-acceptance manifests through glamorizing the drives for achievement and success, obsessive competitiveness, high-end fashion, the quest for recognition, the glorification of fame and celebrity and the pursuit of popularity. A few of its immediate negative consequences are workaholism, debt, alienation and the culture of bullying. It also explains the dynamic of anxious conformity so prevalent, although mostly subconscious, in US culture.

In this almost impossible American dynamic, we must somehow both conform to elaborate societal expectations and simultaneously display the nonconformity, or uniqueness, of our successful personalities. It becomes a social schizophrenia that systematically builds feelings of incompleteness or insufficiency. We are expected to be both utterly normal and yet somehow quirky and unique. This typically ends up being an attempt at a narrow pseudo-uniqueness defined by quasi-unique accomplishments or by stylistic consumption patterns such as my car, my tattoo, my current facebook meme, or my recent fashion statement which, ironically, is identical to the many others who have adopted this identical yet somehow “unique” fashion.

As Christopher Lasch concludes in his 1979 classic The Culture of Narcissism, even the small minority of Americans who ostensible pursue spiritual transformation and self-awareness mostly only practice versions of a therapeutic narcissism that in the end often makes them ever more compliant consumers and cogs in a nature-consumption machine that seems incapable of real change.

The force driving this narcissism and the thirst for the approval of others is, of course, tanha. Tanha in this case operates as the deeply unconscious and ultimately futile craving for becoming whole and authentic to ourselves by seeing the reflection of that imagined authenticity in our impressions on others. Indirect self-acceptance becomes a virtual assembly line for tanha because seeking the approval of others never actually leads to the real self-acceptance that we unconsciously crave. We inevitably end up simply creating more craving. Real self-acceptance can only be had by letting go of the very need for that approval. So, this unconscious craving for approval continues to fuel ever more elaborate forms of seeking. Temporary approval from others never helps us to feel complete, it simply continues to fuel the desire for the imagined peace of self-completion while it simultaneously keeps that very peace out of reach. In Buddhism repetitive, vicious cycles of this sort are known as samsara.

Minimalism and Freud’s Basic Fault

I’ve always been a minimalist. When, at the age of 50, I moved from Utah back to Texas, I put everything I owned in the back of a Honda Odyssey minivan and I could still see out the windows. By that time I had been practicing Buddhism (practicing the release of neurotic tanha) for 30 years. The practice was slowly working on me on many levels.

Tanha is a concept central to understanding both Buddhism and Economism. The overcoming of tanha is a primary concern in Buddhism. Tanha is a Pali word that, as I said, means thirst, craving, or insufficiency. It also has the connotation of tightly grasping, refusing to let go, or acquisitiveness. Scrooge is the old man poster child for the materialistic type of tanha. It is the operative mind state underlying greed. Also, as I wrote earlier, Tanha operates both non-neurotically as the simple desire for life to continue consuming air, water, and food, and neurotically through a fundamental dissatisfaction with ourselves. On the healthy level of individual survival tanha is related to Freud’s idea of libido, the desire necessary for life both to want to continue living and to avoid death. It is basic to the life force which seeks to express
itself; what Henri Bergson called the elan vital.

On the neurotic level (the level Buddhism seeks to address) tanha represents a misunderstanding of who we truly are. We seldom see that we often misunderstand ourselves to be alienated or solipsistic beings. We never recognize our completeness. On this level our acquisitiveness or grasping orbits an unconscious rejection of our fundamental selves that we can never seem to heal. This falls under what Freud describes as the basic fault; the deep and seemingly unapproachable felt-sense that we are deeply flawed and therefore unacceptable to ourselves. We feel eternally incomplete, insufficient and dissatisfied. So, we search for things to fill this existential void. This is the very void that the modern marketing and advertising machine so effectively exploits.

Tanha can be partly measured by someone’s compulsive accumulation of goods. Tanha operates on both individual and societal levels, by which I mean that a socio-economics that primarily exists in order to encourage the accumulation of goods cannot hoist the blame for the tanha mind distortion solely onto individuals. There is a dialectical relationship between individual consumption choices that effect culture and in turn, the evolving (or more accurately de-evolving) hierarchical and plutocratic culture that directly and indirectly dictates consumption choices.

Out here in the Wild West we have buried treasure legends. It goes something like “Don’t lug stolen loot around, protect it, don’t let it get stolen in turn, hide it by burying it, hopefully find it again, sometimes fail.” Or more recently, we can see the viral growth of all the aesthetically-questionable self-storage businesses that blight our landscapes. Note also, the auction/gambling reality TV show phenomenon of people bidding on the unknown contents of confiscated storage units. The accumulation of goods has had centuries to become compulsive and unconscious.

I’m not completely sure where my own minimalism came from; I think partly from natural tendency and partly from intellectual influence. While I was certainly influenced by reading Herman Hesse’s novel Siddartha in 1983 and Thoreau’s Walden and E.F. Shumacher’s Small is Beautiful in 1986, I also intuitively felt that there was an obvious, simple and Zen-like elegance to keeping few possessions. It was always first and foremost an aesthetic for me. Not to mention the freedom and convenience of not having to lug stuff around while also protecting it from being stolen. Over the years, that natural instinct has evolved into a valued choice that I intentionally make over and over again.

Like everyone else, I, of course, experience neurotic tanha. When buying non-fiction books from Amazon and new golf discs, I struggle to control the buying impulse. It’s especially challenging because all I need to do is pull the coveted object up online and click. But, I try to pay attention to that “moment of want,” and if I can breathe deeply through it for long enough, I can usually let it go and be OK again without the desired item. But, not always.

Indirect Self-Acceptance in Consumer Culture

I lived on the outer islands in Chuuk, Micronesia when I was in the US Peace Corps in the mid ‘80’s. It was a mind-expanding paradigm shift in many ways, especially the indigenous idea of commodity sharing and property ownership practiced on the islands. While challenging at first, the reciprocity and sharing practiced on the island soon began to make sense. The true nature of humans as social animals becomes starkly apparent on a 3-mile long by half-mile wide island in the remote western Pacific Ocean. Especially during the occasional typhoon there could be no doubt; we were all in it together.

No matter who on the atoll had borrowed any of my things at any given moment, they were never very far away and couldn’t go very far on such a small island. I often re-acquired my boom box and my favorite Bob Marley cassette by walking around the island until I could hear someone loudly playing Exodus in an open window. Walking out of a house to put on my zorries (referred to as “flip-flops” in the US) I often ended up with a different pair every few days because islanders usually just put on whatever pair they came across. Also, since the island had no electricity, someone was always walking away with my coveted, waterproof, underwater flashlight on dark nights. That flashlight was hard to let go of!

The medicine in my Peace Corps-issued emergency medical kit eventually became communal island property. Extensive sharing, borrowing and gift-exchange make great sense on a secluded, remote, subsistence-fishing coral atoll without electrical power or plumbing. Maybe I had some antibiotics, but someone else had the fresh mahi-mahi. We shared everything, and life was slow and simple. It was necessary for my cross-cultural sanity to let go of concepts of exclusive ownership and consumption identity. I eventually found that the simplicity and mutuality of sharing things was very peaceful (but, I still miss my Peter Tosh concert t-shirt.) I like to think that giving out my antibiotics as generously as I did, while sometimes challenging to my conditioned sense of scarcity thinking, probably helped the islanders to remember to come and tell me about the old Japanese communication station with 3-foot thick concrete walls that we retreated into during the first typhoon. Not to mention the endless flow of fresh seafood into our village dining area, but that’s another story.

In Micronesia, as in other indigenous cultures, culture is based on the idea of alleviating needs in others, not in multiplying needs. In American culture, by comparison, the two dominant themes are the multiplication of wants and the competition for social approval through of accumulating goods as status symbols. Both themes are fueled by the unconsciousness of neurotic tanha.

In consumption-centered America, many writers have commented on the advertising industry’s goal of creating dissatisfaction in consumers to get them to buy more stuff; stuff increasingly bought as identity or lifestyle validation. Many culture critics have also commented on the socio-cultural pathologies involved in increasing consumer wants and needs. For example, Karl Marx with his characteristic clarity on the forces of capitalism writes;

Every person speculates on creating a new need in another, so as to drive him to fresh sacrifice,
to place him in a new dependence and to seduce him into a new mode of enjoyment and therefore
economic ruin. Each tries to establish over the other an alien power, so as thereby to find satisfaction of his own selfish need. 9

In addition to succinctly pointing out the inevitable intertwinement between greed and alienation that operates in the capitalist treadmill, Marx emphasizes the centrality of need generation within the consumer culture that sustains capitalism. It is a culture in which it as important to generate new desires as it is to generate new goods and services. One cannot sell goods without desires for those goods. It is a culture that operates according to the dictates of competition, scarcity and acquisitiveness. It is a culture that centralizes wealth and power and leaves the rest of us wanting what the wealthy have. It is a culture that desperately needs a practice that brings the unconscious force of neurotic tanha into conscious.

The Grassroots Zen Resistance to Economism

Arising out of the nature-based Taoist religion in China, Zen Buddhism has always been a biophilic, process-oriented religion that functions to help the practitioner transcend the habitual socio-psychological categories that imprison people. From the time Buddhism emerged 2,500 years ago it began setting up practice communities that rejected materialistic ways of living in the world. Throughout its history it has always been a nature-aesthetic, tree-revering simplicity practice, surviving as an alternative to the consumption and accumulation lifestyle. “While the materialist is mainly interested in goods,” writes Shumacher, “the Buddhist is mainly interested in liberation.” Schumacher develops this point;

For the modern economist this is very difficult to understand. He is used to measuring
the “standard of living” by the amount of annual consumption, assuming all the time
that a man who consumes more is “better off” than a man who consumes less. A Buddhist economist would consider this approach excessively irrational: since consumption is
merely a means to human well-being, the aim should be to obtain the maximum of
well-being with the minimum of consumption.10

From the beginning of Buddhism, Shakyamuni Buddha suggested the parameter of right livelihood as one of the major pillars of the eightfold path to enlightenment. It is critical that today, according to Matthew Fox, right livelihood must answer the following question; “Is the work we are doing good for the Earth and its inhabitants now and seven generations into the future?”

While modern forms of Buddhism have tended toward individualistic therapeutic practices that merely accommodate the status quo, many forms of engaged Buddhism strive for social and environmental justice all over the world today. Grassroots Zen and other emergent forms of New Buddhism11 are forms of John Cobb’s Earthism that are boldly confronting the capitalist, consumption model that spins greed into a virtue for the sake of benefitting a privileged few.

This consumption model is elaborate, entrenched and includes many interacting global institutions that facilitate what Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn calls the “busy monster (that) eats dark holes in the spirit world where wild things have to go to disappear forever.” These institutions include the WTO, the G8, the IMF, the World Bank, the fossil fuel and agribusiness industries and many other extra-national global corporations, military states, mercenary armies and other such institutions loyal to nothing more than their own self-interests.

The only way left to confront this twisted megamachine is to refuse to participate both in our external and internal lives. We must resist and refuse on both levels simultaneously. Progressive groups mostly attempt to confront only the external oppression, (for example in various social and environmental justice groups) or, less frequently, only the internal oppression (as in Buddhist, contemplative and religious communities.) There are few attempts to resist the economistic treadmill on both internal and external levels. Grassroots Zen is an emerging model that seeks to simultaneously build resistance on both levels.

External resistance requires that we engage in what cultural historian Morris Berman calls dual process. In dual process we both 1) prepare for and respond to failed and collapsing aspects of the globalized economistic order as well as 2) participate in the development of alternative models of sustainable, local communities that parallel the Long Emergency.12

Our Internal resistance must, as Paolo Freire wrote, extroject (Freire’s term) the slave consciousness which the oppressive, hierarchal economistic order has introjected into the deepest recesses of our beings.13 The critical education outlined by Freire and others is the educational (horizontal, social space) tool required for extrojecting the domination of this slave consciousness from our individual and collective mindstream. This critical education involves a collective clear seeing of the oppressive economistic forces unleashed in the world and their corrosive effect on the human sense of self and possibility. The psychological (vertical, individual depth) tool of internal resistance requires a process of personal existential transformation in one’s sense of identity; something Buddhism has done well for over two millennia. This transformation involves moving from an egocentric self to an ecocentric self. This ecocentric self means to clearly identify with the Nature from which we emerge. It’s like what the Zen monk said to the hot dog vendor; “Make me one with everything!”

These two processes of internal revolution (horizontal and vertical), which are flexible enough to be carried out within any number of humanistic contexts, not only within Freire and Zen, are essential for both human and non-human life to survive the busy monster that now threatens all life in the Anthropocene.14 They are extremely effective ways to rage against that machine.

Buddhism’s internal revolution involves basic meditation practices which are powerful psycho-spiritual tools (or simply psychological tools, if you prefer) for effecting personal transformation by training the mind to let go of the craving that underlies neurotic tanha. This letting go is the potential brake at the wobbly center of the wheel that stops the whole human, uncontrolled overpopulation catastrophe known as samsara from turning.

Western Zen is already evolving non-hierarchal forms of practice that I believe can develop the essential organic worldview that will be the foundation for the ecocentric cultures that survive the Long Emergency. I believe that modern forms of Zen are doomed to further irrelevance if they refuse to evolve from the unconscious, patriarchal, accommodational slave mentality that manifests in all hierarchal/dominator cultures. The long histories of both Zen and Vajrayana Buddhism as institutions have seldom been free of hierarchal, patriarchal and aristocratic forces. Yet, somehow, their powerful mystic cores have certainly survived.

Grassroots Zen attempts to combine the necessary external and internal forms of resistance. It also combines physical and mental levels. However, ultimately these are false dualities. In the typical, dialectical Zen fashion, in the very act of outlining the evolution of resistance in Grassroots Zen, we come to see that paradoxes are transcended. For example, the deeper success of an “internal, individual” practice such as Friere’s extrojecting of slave mentality requires a critical mass of people in a community to practice it in order for the community to become a true resistance in the face of the megamachine. The practice must start at the personal level, but it must become a group goal and then a group reality. It becomes true freedom of thought within a society through the development of critical thinking as a virtue (the cause) and the overthrow of oppressive mentality from our own individual as well as collective consciousness (the effect).

Slave consciousness, while not identical to egocentric consciousness, is very closely intertwined with it. It’s also intertwined, though not identical with the cultural preference for left-brain over right-brain thinking, or science over art and humanities. It is intertwined with the surrender of culture to technology.15

The spectrum of external resistance also has physical and mental levels. Therefor it involves the creation of parallel physical institutions such as in Morris Berman’s dual process mentioned above and it also involves an evolution of enlightened individual and social worldviews. It also, like internal resistance practices, involves the intertwining of both individual and social practices.

So, in short, there are two types of resistances and two types of intertwinements. The first intertwinement involves the spiraling of mental and physical levels, and the second intertwinement involves the spiraling of individual and social practices. Grassroots Zen is a psycho-social model that recognizes and attempts to accommodate these complex spiral dynamics.

It also involves the creation, in our emerging communities, of true participatory democracy that is horizontal, consensus-based, and decentralized.

Internal resistance requires, first and foremost, the seeing and understanding of tanha within our own stream of consciousness. What is especially important here within American culture is seeing through the neurotic, although socially-sanctioned attempts at indirect self-acceptance. In its early stages within zazen meditation, this seeing (or bearing witnessing) practice is clearly one we can call “internal.” But, in its effect on our lives, it quickly develops into an “external” practice, especially as it involves how we critically relate to what the world teaches us to crave. As we regain the ability to decipher for ourselves what we choose to value our impact on the natural world transforms. We may stop eating animals, we may start taking public transportation, we may buy a smaller car, we may stop investing in identity politics, we may attend a protest rally, we may downsize, or we may start practicing voluntary simplicity by simply appreciating what we already have.

In place of the current cultural instinct to live isolated, prejudiced, status-based lives of consumption and quiet desperation we can begin to live out cultivated practices such as stopping, feeling, seeing and neighborliness. They can become new instincts for some of us. Prejudiced instincts represent an electrical short-circuit of the human brain that has been mutated by slave consciousness.

By entering the challenging process of seeing and confronting the oppressor consciousness as it lives within our own mindstreams, we begin to experience what C. Wright Mills called “the sociological imagination.” That is, we can begin to experience the intersection of our biography and our history. When we identify with a space more inclusive than our own ego-status, we more accurate and creatively imagine the World, thus defeating the dis-imagination machine of modern media.

We can move from egocentric to ecocentric consciousness. In Grassroots Zen we attempt to combine both the internal and external forms implied by that life-embracing, intrinsically-creative, inherently-compassionate, lighthearted and non-grasping worldview. It is a world well-known and described by both enlightened mystics and secular traditions around the world. Like the Sufi poet Rumi or the German mystic Meister Eckhart, or the twentieth-century socialist Zen priest Uchiyama Gudo, if we can muster enough courage to step out of the tiny coffins of our conditioned consumer consciousness, we can open fresh eyes onto a greater world undistorted by longing.


1. John B. Cobb. The Earthist Challenge to Economism. MacMillan Press. London. 1999. p.1.
2. David Loy. The Three Poisons, Institutionalized. Huffington post. Jan. 23, 2014.
3. Ravi Batra. Greenspan’s Fraud; How Two Decades of his Policies Have Undermined the Global Economy. Palgrave MacMillan. 2005. p.48.
4. for a fantastic take on this issue see the 2015 film The Big Short starring Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt et al.
5. Cobb. P.33.
6. Ibid. p.5
7. While living in Denton from June 2012 to July of 2015 two frack wells exploded and burned out of control both in and near our city. 2015 Denton Frack Well Explosion
8. Snell Putney and Gail J. Putney. The Adjusted American: Normal Neuroses in the Individual and Society. Harper and Row. New York. 1966.
9. Karl Marx. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.
10. E.F. Shumacher. Small is Beautiful; Economics as if People Mattered. Blond & Briggs. London. 1973.
11. see Grassroots Zen by Manfred B. Steger and Perle Besserman, The New Social Face of Buddhism by Ken Jones, The New Buddhism, by David Brazier.
12. James Howard Kunstler. The Long Emergency; Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century. Grove Press. New York. 2005.
13. see Paolo Freire works. Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Education for Critical Consciousness, etc.
14. Paul Street. How to Stop Capitalism’s Deadly War with Nature. Truthdig.com. Sept. 14, 2016.
15. Neil Postman. Technopoly; the Surrender of Culture to Technology. Vintage. New York. 1993.

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