Monday, January 26, 2009

Silver Lining on the Dark Cloud of the Recession

"Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass... It's about learning to dance in the rain!" - source unknown (please share if you know)

A huge economic downturn has recently rocked the world. Although, all is not doom and gloom (though headlines like 2009 Will Be Bleak, Very Bleak by Forbes' Roubini may drain your hope). As always, my inclination is toward the positive. I see the crisis state of the world's economy as an early sign of positive shift, a huge opportunity for growth. In Another Lens for the Flying Dutchman I note ways in which a different perspective on an upturned life can be an incredible learning experience and a force for growth. Of course, there are huge downsides, especially in covering health care, people losing homes, etc. But these are explored all over the place. Instead, let's take a compassionate and hopeful look at the recession, exploring some of its positive aspects as we realize what really matters, learn to help and support each other, and open our minds to the possibility of a change to a more beautiful, more honest, and simpler way of life.

I have the benefits of both spiritual perspective and enormous privilege. I recognize this and would like for my thoughts to come across as inpiration rather than naivete, neglect, disrespect, or blindness to the suffering in the world. My heart goes out to all of the people who are suffering, and I hope that these benefits and others do manifest for you. I endeavor to help in the best way that I can.

The Economy Is Artifical, Anyway
First, we can take heart in knowing that a strong economy is not a necessary precondition for life. The economy is an artificial structure created by man that has been conflated beyond use or purpose and actually fuels human suffering in its current manifestation. "The physical needs for food, water, shelter, clothing, and basic comforts could be easily met for all humans on the planet, were it not for the imbalance of resources created by the insane and rapacious need for more, the greed of the ego." (Eckhart Tolle in A New Earth).

Anthropological studies show that it is indeed possible to meet the basic needs of a whole people through simple means. Marshall Sahlins describes hunter gatherers as The Original Affluent Society and cites many sources to support this. Here's an example of a pretty modern hunter-gatherer lifestyle that is easily sustainable by a healthy planet:
A woman gathers on one day enough food to feed her family for three days, and spends the rest of her time resting in camp, doing embroidery, visiting other camps, or entertaining visitors from other camps. For each day at home, kitchen routines, such as cooking, nut cracking, collecting firewood, and fetching water, occupy one to three hours of her time. This rhythm of steady work and steady leisure maintained throughout the year. The hunters tend to work more frequently than the women, but their schedule uneven. It 'not unusual' for a man to hunt avidly for a week and then do no hunting at all for two or three weeks. Since hunting is an unpredictable business and subject to magical control, hunters sometimes experience a run of bad luck and stop hunting for a month or longer. During these periods, visiting, entertaining, and especially dancing are the primary activities of men. (Woodburn, James. 1968. "An introduction to Hadza Ecology", in Lee and I. DeVore (eds.), Man the Hunter. Chicago: Aldine)

While it is not reasonable nor even sensical to eschew helpful technology and return everyone to such a primitive lifestyle, it is possible to provide for the needs of the planet's population, especially if we are able to democratize property in some way, sharing after our individual needs are met. The recession may just be the right impetus that we need.

Some Businesses Flourish in this Time
While times are generally hard, some businesses are actually doing better than ever. In a recent installment (12/4/2008) of KUOW's "The Conversation," host Ross Reynolds asked Who Does Well In Hard Times?. From the program, several types of positive-outlook businesses are doing well, including those that focus on: education and new skills, cost-saving measures, self improvement, business improvements, antiques (as people choose functional items with established value), physical therapy, celebrating life's joys, more cooking at home, and repairs/maintenance of existing items rather than new purchases. These can be simplified into three categories for positive change: sustainability, growth, and stress relief. While not all of the answers are so hopeful, there's enough evidence that people are taking responsibility for their happiness and well-being as a reaction to the recession.

The naturalist Edward Abbey makes a keen observation: "Society is like a stew. If you don't keep it stirred up you get a lot of scum on the top." The economic crisis is certainly stirring society up. The scum are not the people on the top who have lost their ways, but instead the loveless ethic that is a pattern often adopted in the high positions. We've seen some pretty unbalanced activities from CEOs, especially ones benefitting from the bail-out. As these people are caught, they lose public favor and are removed from their perches (hopefully they will grow from this shift). Now is the time for the compassionate ethic to summit. Businesses and business practices that construct and promote growth have the opportunity to flourish. And society is ready to reward them.

This Recession Motivates People to Connect to What Really Matters
Kim Ivy, founder and instructor of Embrace the Moon: Taijiquan and Qigong, also phoned in an answer (at 7 min 25 seconds) to Ross Reynolds. I'm very happy to hear it for a couple reasons: one being that I wish my sifu Kim the best and the other being that I love seeing others turn to complemplation in this time. I took the opportunity to interview Kim (more on the interview coming in a later post) who relayed a very uplifting message:
What I recognize is a very pragmantic and palpable shift in people's intention for themselves during this recession period. There's a lot of fear, but what I see is people really recognizing that [taiji and qi is a way to cultivate themselves. Some people, rather than focusing on the fear and the negative, are seeing ways to cultivate the positive within themselves. They cannot only connect with themselves, but they can connect with a community that has very positive and life-affirming practices.
What I'm really seeing is that this is indicative of a large shift of consciousness. The idea of a larger shift of consciousness has been floating around; it is out there. But now I see it manifesting in people's beings. It is manifesting in their practices. They are looking at life as a path of insight. ... When people come in, they're happy. The path of insight is really the path of joy.
A move toward inner purpose, community, and spiritural growth seems evident, and at the same time people are eschewing greed and materialism, both because there is no room for it, and because it does not matter anymore. Tolle predicted that a cross-roads was near where people would be faced with the stark choice to evolve or die. It seems that many people are choosing to evolve, to transcend suffering.

Decreased Consumption of the Unnecessary
In addition, people will realize that while they no longer have all that they want, many will find they have more than they need. Their senses of egos will diminish as they have plenty to go around after their own needs are met. Materialism may melt away during this time as those who no longer have find out that they don't really need all that much.

In "The Conversation," callers noted that while new purchases were down, repairs were up. Indicating that this shift is already occurring at the practical level. People are valuing what they have and consuming less in general. They are learning the value in what works for them.

Even though the price of gas has decreased dramatically, I find myself and other driving and traveling less, consuming less oil. I spoke with a new retail store owner who carries more recycled goods as she identifies that "fashion is a hugely wasteful industry." Further, people are eating out less or being more controlled when they do eat out. A recently made friend of mine in the ethical food industry monitors restaurant trends a lot. He noted to me that restaurants are carrying more local ingredients, less high-priced exotic ingredients (with large overheads in transportation and other costs), and in general people are eating more sensibly. People are also cooking a lot more, gardening more, and when they do go out, making good use of their leftovers.

Even if these actions are not a sign of personal growth, it is a start and a benefit to our Earth.

Loving-Kindness as Salve
Those it is possible to see these upsides, we cannot fail to see all the suffering during this time, manifesting in the inability to provide basic needs, foreclosures on homes, loss of purpose when a job is taken away, and inability to cover health-care needs. Through this, I have faith in the generous spirits of fellow men and women. At the basic biological level humans are social animals who cannot help but show compassion for its fellow social animals in need. As the masses of suffering increase and remain, those already compassionate will lead the way and awaken more fully, those ready for transformation will deepen in compassion, and those not yet ready will have seeds planted within them. There is a need for a trickle down wealth for survival.

Humanitarian sparks may be kindled and stoked. We will see circles of loving-kindness beginning at the core and grow from family, friends, neighbors, and eventually strangers will share with each other. We will realize the interconnectedness of all beings and things (such as
what may begin with A Pistachio) and our love will grow and teach us to provide for others. We are an enormous village with the capacity to care for one another.

With both newly deepened compassion and time on their hands, those without jobs may find themselves drawn to humanitarian non-profit work. This work may in turn help them find the purposes they seek. In fact, to talk about health care, this recession will at least be one more kick in the pants for the US to get the health care act together as it becomes more vital.

On a whole, I see reason to believe that witnessed suffering will be a huge opportunity for people to practice loving-kindness and learn its inherent joy. And those who themselves are suffering will benefit from each other, giving what they can to their neighbors and receiving what they need in return.

I see this economic downturn as a time of awakening, perhaps bringing us closer to the New Earth that is mentioned in the Bible and by Eckhart Tolle. As these man-made structures collapse, people eschew material excess, return to simpler times, and turn to spiritual fulfillment, a huge portion of the world can fill with flowering people. People help people who need it. There's so much need right now and so much imbalance, that developed compassion and loving-kindness can flourish and naturally inspire others to find a balance in privileges and means. Let's face this storm as our best, most beautiful, bravest selves and dance.

Request for Comments - Be generous, please!
  • How have you seen growth within yourself and others in this recession?
  • Do you disagree with these ideas? Is the suffering much more acute than I realize?
  • Do you have any thoughts and stories to share?


  1. Really great post, Ed. Among other excellent point is that we need to keep seeing & communicating the true possiblities of our time. I feel strongly that optimism is among our greatest resources. We must certainly not turn away from reality but everything changes. Just look to nature. Nature teaches us eb & flow, up and down. For me optimism is a key generative force that can must certainly fuel us to create a better, more sustainable future.

  2. I came across your blog looking for one word on the net and started reading your blog.
    I am hooked I continued to read and will come back to read your posts.
    Our time here is so short and before I part from your blog here is my fav quote...walking frees my mind and the spirit within me dances through life

  3. embracethemoon - I know that I spoke about this with you in person, though I continue to mentally recite these words "optimism is among our greatest resources" when I see people I know struggling.

    aronevans - thank you for sharing with me that my blog is so interesting for you. I haven't posted much lately, as you can tell. Your sharing may be the encouragement that I need to reinvest in my blog as a form of communicating my thoughts with the world. I have a few fun ideas coming. Please join me in this as a discussion. And thank you so much for the quote that you share. Do you have the source?