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Going at Our Own Pace on the Path of Meditation Print

Going at Our Own Pace on the Path of Meditation


Our mind is like hard ground that has not seen water for a long time, says Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche.  As meditation practitioners, we begin to till that ground so that we can grow the mind of enlightenment.

The Buddhist teachings are as vast as you can possibly imagine—and beyond that. At some point you might think you understand, but the reality is that the teachings are infinite. Even if you’re a bodhisattva on the fifth level, the person on the eighth level knows more. The dharma is like a huge mountain that we climb very slowly, taking little steps. But each step is profound; each step is amazing.

Practicing the dharma is traditionally said to be like walking through a heavy mist. It slowly, slowly enters into our bones; it slowly enters into who we are. People think of enlightenment as sudden transformation, like a light bulb that’s off one second and on the next: Prince Siddhartha is under the tree, you turn on the light, and he wakes up as the Buddha. But his enlightenment was not a sudden thing; he went through a process. He actually purified and transformed himself.

Many people have the idea that meditation means not thinking: the less we think, the better our meditation is. But meditation is really about changing our perception of the world. That is a scary idea, because we would like to follow the path to buddhahood but end up more or less the same person. We think, “I’m going to be enlightened and I’m going to be me. I’m gonna get all the goodies.” None of us thinks, “Maybe I’m going to be totally different. Maybe my process of engaging the world will be so different I won’t even recognize myself.”

Meditation helps us to do one particular thing: to change. Meditation changes how we relate to the world—that’s why we do contemplative practice. In a sense, we are re-educating ourselves—not in some esoteric spiritual sense, but just as human beings. Meditation is a practice through which we really become human. We become decent and workable. We have caught ourselves, our habitual selves, and we begin to change the way we look at things.

In meditation, we begin to learn about ourselves as basic human beings, and when we learn about ourselves, we learn how to change. Our mind is like hard ground that has not seen water for a long time. That ground is not capable of giving nourishment to anything. Whatever is planted in it dies. Nothing grows. As meditation practitioners, we begin to till our mind so that we can grow something, the mind of enlightenment. We’re trying to change.           

The mind of enlightenment manifests as bodhicitta, which means that one is constantly and naturally thinking of the benefit of others. We could ask whether our own mind is like that. When we get up in the morning, is our immediate feeling one of warmth toward others and how we can benefit them? It could happen. But generally we think about ourselves. So how do we get from here to there?           

Mindfulness, or shamatha meditation produces a mind that is able to settle. When we are doing spiritual practice, we have to have a mind that is able to stay in the moment, stay in the situation, long enough to absorb and understand. If we say, for example, “May the suffering of all sentient beings cease and may they enjoy happiness,” the mind that contemplates this has to be able to remain in the space of compassion long enough to be truly changed. If it can’t stay there, then bodhicitta will never develop; it will never take root.           

There are said to be five aspects of the mind that are always present, no matter what we are doing. One of these aspects is mindfulness. Mindfulness is the aspect of conventional mind—the mind we have right now—that holds on to something. It is the ability of the mind to rest on a cup long enough to allow our hand to pick it up. It is the ability to hold an image in our mind or to stay on a spot long enough to understand what is going on.           

In mindfulness practice, we are learning to extend this very basic quality of our mind. The project of training the mind in this way is much like the way we relate to children: when we’re teaching them what to do, we have to remind them again and again. We are training the mind in a similar way—bringing it back, bringing it back, bringing it back.
At this point, we aren’t even talking about Buddhism, really. The original texts that talk about mindfulness come from a meditative tradition that existed in India prior to the time of the Buddha. These teachings were incorporated into Buddhism because it was understood that if you wanted to train spiritually, you first needed to do this practice to stabilize the mind.           

What is it that hinders mindfulness and the development of stable mind? In the course of meditation we begin to see that the mind is perpetually in motion. If we watch our mind, we realize it is always in turmoil—not necessarily in a dramatic way, but always moving, like waves on the ocean. We see this movement as thoughts.
When we do mindfulness practice, we learn to recognize this movement of mind and to separate out the many levels of thought. We do this by using the breath or other object of meditation to get some perspective on what is going on. When mindfulness is stabilized with the breath, we are in the immediate moment and awareness is right there, just seeing. As soon as we go off and start thinking about something, awareness will bring us back.           

According to a famous Zen saying, bringing Buddhism to a new culture is like taking a flower and holding it next to a rock. Hopefully the flower will take root, but it takes a long time. Our minds are like the rock, and the dharma is a beautiful flower. How long is it going to take for this flower to take root in us?
Change is not going to happen instantly; it is a natural evolution that takes time. The more you learn about the so-called high level teachings, the more you understand the importance of patience. Patience means dealing very literally with every kind of situation in our lives. As each thought and situation arises, we can slow down and begin to train ourselves, little by little. Ironically, the quickest way to understand the great nature of mind is to have this mundane patience. We are not content with our neurosis, but we are content that we will go at our own pace.

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is holder of the Buddhist and Shambhala lineages of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. He received training from many of the great Buddhist teachers of this century, including Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Penor Rinpoche and his father Trungpa Rinpoche. In 1995, he was recognized as the incarnation of the nineteenth-century Buddhist master Mipham Rinpoche.

Going at Our Own Pace, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Shambhala Sun, November 1999.

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How Do We Measure Progress? Print

How Do We Measure Progress?

Is it true that the more we produce, the better off we are? Ronald Colman argues for a more human and sustainable measure of progress than simple economic growth, one that truly reflects what we value in life.

There is a remarkable consensus, one that crosses all political boundaries, on the principles of what constitutes a decent society. We all value a clean environment. We all want to live in a peaceful and safe society. We need good physical health, strong communities, and free time to relax and develop our potential. We want economic security and less poverty. A society based on these principles would provide a good framework for spiritual practice and encourage us to become wiser, freer and more caring.

Of course, no political party officially favors greater insecurity, a degraded environment, or more stress, crime, poverty and inequality. Why then do we see policies that promote those very outcomes? Why are we unable to create the kind of society we genuinely want to inhabit in the new millennium? Why are we unable to order our public policies to accord with our shared values and human needs?

One important reason is that we have been getting the wrong message from our current measures of progress, in particular from that most watched of economic indicators, the Gross Domestic Product. All of us—politicians, economists, journalists and the public—have become hooked on its equation of economic growth with wellbeing and prosperity. Indeed, there is probably no more pervasive and dangerous myth in our society than the GDP’s materialist assumption that “more is better.”

Look at the language we use. When our economy is growing rapidly, it is called “robust,” “dynamic” and “healthy.” When people spend more money, “consumer confidence” is “strong.” By contrast, “weak” or “anemic” growth signals “recession,” and even “depression.” Increased car sales signal a “buoyant recovery.” The more we produce, trade and spend, the more the GDP grows and, by implication, the better off we are.

This was not the intention of those who created the GDP. Simon Kuznets, its principal architect, warned forty years ago: “The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income.” Our growth statistics were never meant to be used as a measure of progress, as they are today.

All Growth is Not Equal

In fact, activities that degrade our quality of life, such as crime, pollution and addictive gambling, all make the economy grow. One of the fastest growing sectors of the American economy is imprisonment, growing at an annual rate of 6.2% a year throughout the 1990s. The O.J. Simpson trial alone added $200 million to the U.S. economy, and the Oklahoma City explosion and Littleton massacre fueled the booming U.S. security industry, which now adds $40 billion a year to the economy, with most sales currently going to schools. Is this our model of a “robust” and “healthy” economy? Gambling, a $50 billion a year business, is another rapid growth industry. Divorce adds  $20 billion a year to the U.S. economy and car crashes add another $57 billion. Prozac sales have quadrupled since 1990 to more han $3 billion. Overeating contributes to economic growth many times over, starting with the value of the excess food consumed and the advertising needed to sell it. Then the diet and weight loss industries add $32 billion a year more to the U.S. economy, and obesity-related health problems another $50 billion.  

Similarly, toxic pollution, sickness, stress and war all make the economy grow. The Exxon Valdez contributed far more to the U.S. economy by spilling its oil than if it had delivered the oil safely to port, because all the cleanup costs, lawsuits and media coverage added to the growth statistics. The Yugoslav war stimulated the economies of the NATO countries to the tune of $60 million a day, and our economies will benefit even more by rebuilding what we destroyed. 

Measuring progress by the sum total of economic activity is like a policeman adding up all the street activity he observes. The woman walking her dog, the thief stealing the car, the children playing on the corner, the thug hitting someone with a lead pipe—all are recorded equally. Similarly, our growth statistics make no distinction between economic activity that contributes to our wellbeing and that which causes harm. Growth is simply a quantitative increase in the physical scale of the economy, and tells us nothing about our actual wellbeing and progress. 

Ironically, while we are so busy counting everything on which we spend money, we assign no value to vital unpaid activities that really do contribute to our wellbeing. Voluntary community service, the backbone of civil society, is not counted or valued in our measures of progress because no money is exchanged. And even though household work and raising children are more essential to quality of life than much of the work done in offices, factories and stores, they have no value in the GDP. We value the booming child care industry but we do not count unpaid child care, and so we do not notice that parents are spending less time with their children than ever before. Is this a sign of progress? 

Has Growth Made Us “Better Off”?

Are we “better off” as a result of decades of continuous economic growth? Certainly many of us have bigger houses and more cars. Are we happier? A recent U.S. poll found that 72% of Americans had more possessions than their parents, but only 47% said they were happier than their parents. 

We are also less peaceful and secure, three times more likely to be victims of crime than our parents a generation ago. We are more time-stressed, and our jobs are more insecure. Our debt levels are higher and real incomes are declining for most. Child poverty is increasing and the gap between rich and poor is widening. Economists predict that, for the first time since the Industrial Revolution, the next generation will be worse off than the present one.  

More dangerously, blind growth has undermined our natural resources, produced massive pollution, destroyed plant and animal species at an unprecedented rate, and changed the climate in a way that now threatens the planet. The more rapidly we deplete our natural resources and the more fossil fuels we burn, the faster the economy grows and, therefore, the “better off” we think we are. Because we assign no value to our natural capital, we actually count its depreciation as a gain, like a factory owner selling off his machinery and counting it as profit. 

What We Measure is What We Value

What we measure and count quite literally tells us what we value as a society. If a teacher tells her students that a term paper is very important, but it’s worth nothing in the final grade, the real message is that the paper has no value, and the students will devote their attention to the final exam, which “counts” for something. 

Similarly, what we don’t measure in our central accounting mechanism will be effectively sidelined in the policy arena. We may pay pious public homage to environmental quality and to social and spiritual values, but if we count their degradation as progress in our growth measures, we will continue to send misleading signals to policy makers and public alike, to blunt effective remedial action, and to distort policy priorities. Until we explicitly value our free time, voluntary community service, parental time with children, and natural resource wealth, they will never receive adequate attention on the public policy agenda.

The obsession with growth and its confusion with genuine development has led us down a dangerous and self-destructive path. It is doubtful that we will leave our children a better legacy until we cut through the myth that “more” inherently means “better,” until we stop gauging our wellbeing and prosperity by how fast the economy is growing, and until we stop misusing the GDP as our main measure of progress.

Just before he was assassinated thirty years ago, Robert Kennedy put it this way: “The Gross National Product includes air pollution and advertising for cigarettes, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors, and jails for the people who break them. The GNP includes the destruction of the redwoods and the death of Lake Superior. It grows with the production of napalm and missiles and nuclear warheads.  

“And if GNP includes all this, there is much that it does not comprehend. It does not allow for the health of our families, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It is indifferent to the decency of our factories and the safety of our streets alike. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, or the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

A Better Way to Measure Progress

What is urgently needed are measures of wellbeing, prosperity and progress that explicitly value the nonmaterial assets which are the true basis of our wealth, including the strength of our communities, our free time, the quality of our environment, the health of our natural resources, and our concern for others. The means to do so exist.

In fact, tremendous progress has been made in the last twenty years in natural resource accounting, social indicators, time-use surveys, environmental quality measures, and other means of assessing wellbeing and quality of life. We are capable of measuring our progress in a way that accords with our shared values and lets us know whether we are moving towards the society we want to create.

After three California researchers developed a Genuine Progress Indicator in 1995, incorporating twenty-six social, economic and environmental variables, four hundred leading economists, including Nobel laureates, jointly stated: “Since the GDP measures only the quantity of market activity without accounting for the social and ecological costs involved, it is both inadequate and misleading as a measure of true prosperity. Policy makers, economists, the media, and international agencies should cease using the GDP as a measure of progress and publicly acknowledge its shortcomings. New indicators of progress are urgently needed to guide our society. The GPI is an important step in this direction.”

Here in Canada, GPI Atlantic, a nonprofit research group, is now developing a Genuine Progress Index for the province of Nova Scotia that Statistics Canada has designated as a pilot project for the country. It is designed as a practical policy tool that is easy to maintain and replicate, that can accurately measure sustainable development, and that can provide much needed information to policy makers about issues that are currently hidden by our economic statistics.

The GPI assigns explicit value to our natural resources, including our soils, forests, fisheries and non-renewable energy sources. It assesses the sustainability of our harvesting practices, consumption habits and transportation systems. It measures and values our unpaid voluntary and household work, and it counts crime, pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, road accidents and other liabilities as economic costs, not gains as at present.

The index goes up if our society is becoming more equal, if we have more free time, and if our quality of life is improving. It counts our health, our educational attainment and our economic security. It attempts, in short, to measure that which makes life worthwhile. It is common-sense economics that corresponds with the realities of our daily lives as we actually experience them.

Measuring Costs and Benefits

Unlike the GDP, the GPI distinguishes economic activities that produce benefit from those that cause harm. For example, more crime makes the economy grow, while having a more peaceful society actually shows up as a disadvantage in the GDP. By contrast, the GPI regards a peaceful and secure society as a profound social asset. Unlike the GDP, lower crime rates make the GPI go up, and crime costs are subtracted rather than added in assessments of prosperity. 

The GPI takes a similar approach to road accidents, toxic pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, which are also seen as costs rather than benefits. Like crime and resource depletion, they are areas of the economy where more growth is clearly not desirable. 

By incorporating costs directly into the economic accounting structure, the GPI can help policy makers to identify investments that produce lower social and environmental costs to society. Gambling, clear-cutting and other growth industries might receive less government support if social costs were counted, and sustainable practices might receive more encouragement. 

For example, GPI Atlantic recently found that a 10% shift from truck to rail freight would save Nova Scotian taxpayers $11 million a year when the costs of greenhouse gas emissions, road accidents and road maintenance costs are included. Telecommuting just two days per week would save $2,200  annually per employee when travel time, fuel, parking, accident, air pollution and other environmental and social costs are included.

All this spending is currently counted as “progress” by the GDP, while telecommuting and car-pooling slow GDP growth. By contrast, the full cost-benefit accounting method of the GPI would lend more support to taxation policies and subsidy incentives that support mass transit alternatives and other more sustainable practices.

Valuing Natural Resources

No matter how many cars we have in the driveway or how many possessions we accumulate, the environment will not tolerate the growth illusion. Valuing natural resources provides an accounting framework that recognizes inherent limits to our economic activity and values balance and equilibrium.

In the Genuine Progress Index, natural resources are valued as finite capital stocks, subject to depreciation like produced capital. Genuine progress is measured by our ability to live off the income or “services” generated by our resources, without depleting the capital stock that is the basis of wealth both for our children and ourselves.

The GPI acknowledges the full range of ecological and social services provided by these resources. The GPI forestry account, for example, includes not only timber production, but also the value of forests in protecting watersheds, habitat and biodiversity; guarding against soil erosion; regulating climate and sequestering carbon; and providing for recreation and spiritual enjoyment. Healthy soils and the maintenance of multi-species, multi-aged forests provide multiple economic benefits by enhancing timber productivity, increasing the economic value of forest products, protecting against fire, disease and insects, and supporting the burgeoning eco-tourism industry.

Time is not Money

We all have just 24 hours in our day and a limited life span. How we pass that time is a measure of our wellbeing, quality of life and contribution to society. 

The GPI includes time-use surveys to measure and value time over a full 24-hour period and to assess the balance between its alternative uses. Measuring time as time, rather than as money, also cuts through the myth of limitless growth. 

According to current accounting methods, the more hours we work for pay, the more the GDP grows and the more we “progress.” In a recent interview, a Fortune 500 chief executive officer stated that he works from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day and has no time for anything else except sleep. By conventional standards, his $4 million annual salary makes him rich. According to the GPI, when family time, voluntary service and free time are all measured and valued, the CEO may be leading an impoverished lifestyle.

Aristotle recognized 2,400 years ago that leisure was a prerequisite for contemplation, informed discussion, participation in political life, and genuine freedom. It is also essential for relaxation and health, for spiritual practice, and for a decent quality of life. But the loss of precious free time is unvalued in our standard measures of progress. 

The policy implications of valuing time are profound. For example, GPI Atlantic found that Nova Scotians have the highest rate of voluntary activity in Canada, giving 134 million hours a year, the equivalent of 81,000 jobs, or $1.9 billion worth of services. This reservoir of generosity is completely invisible in our conventional accounts; unmeasured and unvalued, the voluntary sector has not received the support it needs to do its work well.

An increase in paid work hours has produced a 7% decline in volunteer service hours in the last ten years, a shift unnoticed by policy-makers but registered for the first time in the GPI. Counting only monetary transactions, the GDP had simply registered longer paid work hours as progress.

Measuring unpaid household work shines the spotlight on the time stress of working parents struggling to balance job and household responsibilities, and on the need for family-friendly work arrangements and flexible work hours.

The modern workplace has not yet adjusted to the reality that women have doubled their rate of participation in the paid work force. Working mothers put in an average of eleven hours a day of paid and unpaid work on weekdays, and fifteen hours more of unpaid work on weekends. Measuring housework raises important pay equity issues: work traditionally performed by women in the household and regarded as “free” has been devalued in the market economy, resulting in significant gender pay inequities for child care workers and others.

Equity and Job Creation

Millions of Americans have been left behind by the growth spurt in the U.S. economy. The Census Bureau reports that income inequality has risen by 18% for all U.S. households since 1968, and by over 23% for families. The richest 1% of American households now owns 40% of the national wealth, while the net worth of middle class families has fallen steadily through the 1990s due to rising indebtedness. Bill Gates alone owns more wealth than the bottom 45% of U.S. households combined. Is this progress?

There is no guarantee that the tide of economic growth lifts all boats, and the evidence indicates that the opposite is frequently the case. For this reason the GPI explicitly values increased equity and job security as benchmarks of genuine progress. Indeed, Statistics Canada recently recognized that concern for equity is inherent in any measure of sustainable development, because once limits to growth are accepted, the issue becomes fair distribution rather than increased production. If everyone in the world consumed resources at our level, we would require four additional planets to support ourselves.

In North America we are conditioned to believe that job creation is contingent on growth. Instead, we might learn from some European countries that have created more jobs by reducing and redistributing the existing workload. The Netherlands, for example, has a 3.4% unemployment rate and also the lowest annual work hours of any industrialized country. In that country, part-time work is legally protected, with equal hourly wages and pro-rated benefits. France has introduced a 35-hour work week; Danes get five weeks of annual vacation; Sweden provides generous parental and educational leaves that create job openings. One creative experiment gave parents the option of taking the summer months off to be with their children, with guaranteed re-entry to the work force in September, thus providing summer jobs for university students and cost savings to employers.  

Reducing and redistributing work hours can also improve the quality of life by creating more free time. Time use surveys show that Danes average eleven hours more free time per week than Canadians and Americans.

By counting underemployment and overwork as economic costs, and giving explicit value to equity and free time, the GPI can point to a range of intelligent job creation strategies that are not dependent on more growth.

Shifting the View

None of this means that there should be no growth of any kind. Some types of economic growth clearly enhance wellbeing, increase equity and protect the environment. There is vital work to be done in our society: raising children, caring for those in need, restoring our forests, providing adequate food and shelter for all, enhancing our knowledge and understanding, and strengthening our communities. But we will never shift our attention to the work that is needed if we fail to value our natural resources, our voluntary service and our child-rearing, and if we place no value on equity, free time and the health of our communities. 

We have little time left to abandon the dogma of economic growth and its bankrupt measures of wellbeing before the environment makes the decision for us at tremendous cost. We can still choose to enter the new millennium sanely, valuing the true strengths that we have in abundance. We can begin to fashion more self-reliant and self-sufficient forms of community economic development that provide a real alternative to the globalization that puts our destiny in the hands of forces beyond our control. Knowing that more possessions are not the key to happiness and wellbeing, we can still take back our future, and perhaps live a little more simply.

The cusp of the millennium is a rare moment in history when a practical long-term vision can actually overpower our habitual short-term preoccupations. The time has never been better to contemplate the legacy we are leaving our children and the society we want to inhabit in the new millennium. It is a moment that invites us to lay the foundations of a genuinely decent society for the sake of our children and all the world’s inhabitants.

Ronald Colman received his Ph.D. from Columbia University and has taught political science for twenty years. He participated in the three-year retreat at Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and since 1997 has been director of GPI Atlantic.

How Do We Measure Progress?, Ronald Colman, Shambhala Sun, November 1999.


My Year of Meats Print


My Year of Meats


Mirroring the journey of her novel’s heroine, Ruth Ozeki explored meat and media and discovered that writing is always political and denial always a choice.

What’s in a Name?

Last year my first novel was published. It’s called My Year of Meats. It’s a good title, I think. A funny title. A little proud, a little awkward, a little perverse. The My, right up front like that, claims it and makes it personal. And although the Year is tinged with nostalgia, the comic bluntness of Meats saves it from sentimentality. Finally, the “s‚” hanging on to the tail makes the whole thing sound foreign. All this is intentional. It describes exactly what the book is about.           

Some people liked the title. Some were dismayed. My editor, bless her, caught between a rock (me) and a hard place (the fickle tastes of the American book consumer), sort of rolled her eyes at my textual analysis of the title’s workings, then asked me to change it.

            “Meat,” she explained, patiently, “is a tough sell.”
            “Why?” I asked, always eager for new lessons.
            “It does not sound delicious.”           

Of course she is absolutely right. We are all squeamish about meat. All of us. Even the most voraciously carnivorous. So I tried to be less rock-like, to be like water, to change the title. We all tried. But even in the interest of sales, the name refused to budge.

Some names are like that. Others not. My name is Ruth. It seems a solid, biblical name, derived from the Hebrew word meaning “companion‚” but it is tinged as well with shadows of Old English—an archaic sense of compassion, of sorrow or grief. In modern usage, this “ruth” has all but vanished. “Ruthless” is all that remains.

My mother is Japanese and my father, American. This makes me half. Neither here nor there. Racial duality, this friction, has defined me, starting with my name. Ruth is a fine name in English, but since Japanese people cannot pronounce either “r‚” or “th‚” it quickly loses its phonetic integrity. My Japanese relatives pronounce my name Rusu,  which in Japanese means not at home. The sentence Rusu wa rusu desu translates as Ruth is ruth, but also Ruth is absent. Not at home.


I mention all this by way of self-introduction, a time-honored tradition in Japan, whereby the simple act of launching one’s name into the world breaks down a barrier between self and other, making the private self public. I also mention it because the self is the obvious place to start just about anything, be it a writing practice, a political practice, a spiritual practice, or a first novel.

When we talk about names—slippery and unreliable, or seemingly rock-solid, best-selling brands or corporate logos—we are really talking about representation. So, if my first object in this meditation is meat, the notion of representation leads me to a second: media. I want to review my relationship with meat and media, and the chain of events leading up to and including the writing of My Year of Meats. I want to talk about the dreamworld of media, and about my heavily guarded pocket of denial, which enabled me to live and work there. I want to talk about writing and how that process, by its rigor and its nature, forced me to pick these pockets open, leading to what seemed like a flash of enlightenment, only it was not so much spiritual as it was political—a sudden moment of brisance, when the mind catches sight of the vast interconnectedness of what we label political, and social, and economic, and personal spheres. And finally, I want to ask, what happens when illusion and denial become insufficient? When we have had enough?



My Year of Meats is a story about meat and media. It follows a parallel year in the lives of two women, Akiko and Jane, who live on opposite sides of the planet and are connected by a TV cooking show. The show, called “My American Wife!” features wholesome American housewives cooking wholesome American meat dishes. It is sponsored by Beef-Ex, a meat industry lobby group, whose mandate is to increase sales of American meat in Japan. Jane, an impoverished but aspiring filmmaker, is hired to help produce the shows. Akiko, a bulimic Japanese housewife, watches them, diligently cooks the meat dishes, serves these to her husband, then runs to the bathroom to throw up.

Here is Jane’s somewhat zealous salespitch for the program:

My American Wife!

            Meat is the message. Each weekly half-hour episode of My American Wife! must culminate in the celebration of a featured meat, climaxing in its glorious consumption. It’s the meat (not the Mrs.) who’s the star of our show! Of course, the “Wife of the Week” is important, too. She must be attractive, appetizing and all-American. She is the Meat Made Manifest: ample, robust yet never tough nor hard to digest. Through her, Japanese housewives will feel the hearty sense of warmth, of comfort, of hearth and home—the traditional family values symbolized by red meat in rural America.

Meat is the metaphor, the gag, if you will, that drives the story along. It is funny in a reductionist sort of way, and I chose it because it is so All-American, because it exemplifies our culture’s influence on Japan, and because, as it happened, I’d had some experience with the stuff. But more than that, its enormous range of resonance appealed to me. Start, for example, with the body—that fleshy, sexual, divine, irrepressible container that houses our humanity—and you can see how, once commodified, it transmogrifies so easily from temple into meat, whereby women become cows, and wives become chattel. Interestingly, that word shares its origin with “cattle” and “capital,” thereby exposing the very root of our capitalist etymology. The stock market is named for the livestock traded there. Wall Street was an abattoir. Selling meat was what it was all about. But more on that, later.

I never wanted to know a lot about meat. Never thought much about it. Of course, when I was in high school I went through a period of vegetarianism—a mandatory rite of passage for any adolescent in the late sixties, trying to secure an identity by pissing off one’s rib-grilling, unenlightened parents. But having passed safely through that reactionary little phase, I entered into a long, undisturbed period of meat eating.

I was a very happy little carnivore. Of course, by this time, it was the decadent eighties. I was living in Japan, in Kyoto, studying classical literature of the Heian period. The culture had been vegetarian then, but in the intervening one thousand years, it had sure converted with a vengeance. After teaching English classes, my students, who were mostly sararimen, Japanese businessmen, would take me out to eat. Milk-fed Kobe beef, massaged in beer. Spicy Szechuan beef tendon. Korean heart and tripe. Pigs feet and turtle soup. Horsemeat sashimi. Even a Big Mac or two. I ate it all, ruthlessly.

Following this exotic, or extreme, meats phase, I returned to the States, to New York, where I got a job that was certainly all about meat, but also about media and representation. I worked as an art director for low-budget horror films, and spent a lot of time set-dressing body parts for films with names like Mutant Hunt, Breeders, and Necropolis. In these films, meat abounds: dismembered body parts, fully membered body parts, succulent flesh of all kinds. Here I learned how to wrangle meat, how to mix blood, to model muscle, to build strong bones—all to recreate carnage. Most of these mortifications were enacted upon the flesh of women, I remember. (Women. Sex. Meat. Horror. The metaphor builds.) I didn’t balk when it came time to step into the alien breeding pit with my little plastic bucket, to ladle alien slime onto the naked breasts of beautiful New York abductees who’d been brought there for breeding purposes. The director gave the girls numbers. He had a great directing style: “Number 1, more tits! Number 2, more tongue!”

It was dirty, unreal work. I wanted something cleaner, more reality-based, so I traded blood and prosthetics for the more subtle horrors of commercial television.




Since I could speak the language, I got a job at a Japanese TV production company based in New York, coordinating and producing news spots, travelogues and other “cultural” programming. As the decade whimpered to a close in the U.S., Japan’s economy was still thriving, and stories of Japan- bashing were the top of the news in Tokyo. Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American living in Detroit, had been mistaken for a Japanese and beaten to death by an angry auto worker who blamed Japanese cars (and by extension all Japanese people, all Asians, in fact) for his unemployment. The Mitsubishi Real Estate Company had just bought Rockefeller Center for $1.4 billion. Somehow these two events were linked in the minds of the Japanese media as proof of their country’s awesome economic muscle, and they were fascinated and smugly horrified by what they saw as America’s reaction. A colleague in my office got a phone call from a Japanese news producer who was doing a spot on Japan-bashing. He asked us to take a crew out on Fifth Avenue and film man-on-the-street interviews of angry New Yorkers ranting about the appropriation of their Big Apple landmark.

            “I can’t do that,” my colleague told the producer. “New Yorkers are much too polite.”
            “Well there must be something New Yorkers get visibly upset about. How about baseball? Ask about the Yankees.”
            “The Yankees didn’t even make it to the playoffs this year,” my colleague said. “No one cares.”
            “Well, use your imagination, then,” the producer barked. “I don’t care what you ask. We just need images of angry New Yorkers. We’ll dub in the bashing comments later.”

This was reality, or what can pass for reality in television. News, twisted into entertainment. Fictions, gussied up as fact. An endless succession of (air)waves in an ocean of samsara, and I was swimming in it. Two years later, I was asked to help produce the program that would serve as the model for My Year of Meats.

Webster’s New World Dictionary defines the word “media” as “any means, agency, or instrumentality; specif., a means of communication that reaches the general public and carries advertising.

With that in mind, here is some background information I did not have at the time, but subsequently discovered:

In 1989, the European Union banned the import of American meat, citing the potential health hazards associated with the growth hormones widely used in meat production in the United States.           

In 1990, after intensive lobbying by the meat industry, the U.S. government pressured the Japanese into signing the New Beef Agreement, easing trade barriers, increasing import quotas, and increasing the American share of Japan’s red meat market.

In 1991, “Mrs. America,” a new program sponsored by an American meat industry lobby group, was launched on the Fuji Television Network, and I was hired to help produce it. According to the meat lobby group’s literature, the “Mrs. America” show would promote American meat by taking “Japanese housewives out of their living rooms and into the heartland of America.”

The literature also described our programs as “documentaries,” which would depict happy, rural American families enjoying delicious meals, and would “continually propose menus and dining styles to increase the demand for meat.”

At the same time, we produced commercials for American meat that ran during the “documentaries.” The ad agency that designed the television campaign promised the lobby group that the programs would have a “powerful synergy” with the commercials, “to stimulate consumers’ purchase motivation.” In addition, the lobby group would “develop closer ties with TV stations, the most powerful media.” And, since the safety and wholesomeness of American meat was known to be of great concern in Japan, the campaign would foster the “proper understanding of the high quality of U.S. meat in the minds of consumers and trade.”





After the programs aired, the production company commended us for our efforts: The show was a success and export sales of meat to Japan had increased. But I, ruefully, found myself right back at my old meat- wrangling tricks, applying glycerin to a T-bone to make it glisten, tucking sanitary napkins under a tenderloin to keep the blood from spoiling the nice clean platter. It was not where I wanted to be. About halfway through the novel, Jane sums up my feelings at the time:

            I wanted to make programs with documentary integrity, and at first I believed in a truth that existed—singular, empirical, absolute. But slowly, as my skills improved and I learned about editing and camera angles and the effect that music can have on meaning, I realized that truth was like race, and could only be measured in ever diminishing approximations. Still, as a documentarian, you must strive for the truth and believe in it, wholeheartedly.

Halved as I am, I was born doubled. By the time I wrote the pitch for My American Wife! my talent for speaking out of both sides of my mouth was already honed. On one hand I really did believe that you could use wives to sell meat in the service of a greater Truth. On the other hand, I was broke after my divorce and desperate for a job.

The fact is, my co-workers and I had been happy to work on the show because, despite all the meat sales hype, we thought we might be able to subvert the corporate agenda and make some interesting programs about women in America for women in Japan. I suspect I was trying to make karmic amends for the pre-feminist hijinks in the alien slime pit.

But I was growing increasingly uncomfortable making programs sponsored by an industry about which I knew little, but suspected a lot. Even on the face of it, the meat industry does not have the best reputation. And I’d had this feeling before, this feeling of working under ethically compromised conditions. After the tobacco companies were prohibited from advertising on American television and they’d turned their sights to Asia, I’d spent two years producing a show sponsored by Philip Morris.

This was at a time when I was desperately trying to give up a smoking habit (the one I’d developed in high school, just after I gave up vegetarianism). We were required to include, in every show, a shot of someone enjoying a Philip Morris product, so I’d walk around the streets of New York with my crew, pockets filled with cigarettes and lighters, plying passers-by with Marlboros so we could film our “smoking cut.” I was acutely aware of, shall we say, a certain hypocrisy in my situation. Still, I did nothing to change it. And maybe the compromise was not so extreme, or my ethical sensibilities were underdeveloped, or maybe I was simply having fun with my buddies and paying the rent. In any case, other than failing in my attempt to quit smoking—one way of resolving the hypocrisy problem—I did nothing, continuing to work on the program until it died a natural death. Nor did I act directly on my qualms about the meat show. At least not until five years later, when I wrote My Year of Meats.


Peeling Back


Truth lies in layers, each one thin and barely opaque, like skin, resisting the tug to be told. As a documentarian I think about this a lot. In the edit, timing is everything. There is a time to peel back.

Jane makes this comment when she is in the editing room, confronting her own deeply buried misgivings about the work she is doing. I mentioned earlier that I had chosen to write about the meat show for its metaphorical resonance, cultural significance, and comedic ring, and that is all true—the novel started out as a series of anecdotes, funny stories about cross-cultural miscommunication between Japan and America as it is mediated by television.

However, since I’d chosen meat as the butt of my satire, it was clear I had a narrative responsibility to understand my topic and also to figure out how meat, itself, might impact the physical bodies of my characters. But I didn’t want to. As simple as that. I dreaded the knowledge, just as I had when I was producing the show itself, resisting it and putting it off, until the niggling feeling became a constant irritation and finally deepened into an abscess that couldn’t be ignored. My reluctance to confront the issues meant that I was already several hundred pages into the novel before realizing it was time to peel back, to start taking meat very seriously. This was the heart of my denial, and it paralleled Jane’s:

            I know what denial looks like, and what it feels like, too. It’s a mercurial flicker of recognition in the eye, quickly blanketed with a vagueness that infuses the body like sluggish blood. It is opaque. Murky. Like wading through a swampy dream that drags at your limbs, and no matter how hard you try, you can’t move forward. I know this feeling because I make television and try to walk through it on a daily basis. It feeds on convention, cowers behind etiquette, and the only way to deal with it is with a blunt, frontal attack.

I started to research the industry. What I found out sickened me. The mechanized cruelty of our factory farm operations, practiced on such a massive scale here in this country, defies comprehension. It made all the gore and horror I’d dabbled in over the years look like crude, vile pornography. This is not Old Macdonald’s farm. This is the foul reality behind the illusion of wholesome meat-fed Americans that I’d been conjuring for the Japanese and hanging onto for consolation myself. This is the dirty secret, so brutal and wrong, that the industry keeps strictly concealed, knowing that this volume and extremity of carnage is guaranteed to ruin appetites.

Yet at the back of my mind, I’d always known. About the treatment suffered by these animals. The devastation that meat-based food economies wreak on the environment. The toxic conditions in the feedlots. And the pharmaceutical abuse that is practiced to fatten the animals rapidly and to keep them alive long enough to bring them to slaughter.           

It brought tears to my eyes. I think it opened my heart.

I fed this information to Jane, who began to act upon it. The slow process of her political awakening replicates mine, and this is how the plot of the novel developed. With each bit of research, each small fact, the plot took another twist or turn, building in speed and intensity toward its end.

The climax occurred when I came across the information that the synthetic hormone D.E.S. had a history of misuse, not only as a pregnancy drug for women, but as a growth stimulant for cattle. I realized in a flash that Jane’s mother had taken the drug, and that Jane, unable to become pregnant because of a deformed uterus and at a high risk for cancer, was a D.E.S. daughter. Suddenly my little metaphor was no longer just a literary conceit. It was frighteningly real: women weren’t just like cows; women and cattle were being given the identical drug, with equal disregard for safety.

It was a moment of horrifying resonance. I saw Jane’s life (my life, all lives) as being a part of a vast web of interconnected spheres, where the workings of the larger social, public, political and corporate machinery impact on something as private and intimate as the tortuous descent of an egg through one hopeful woman’s fallopian tube.

The practice of writing is often compared to meditation, and I think that is valid. Facing the blank page, alone, unknowing, suspended in the gap between void and becoming, you fight off dread, daily, until one day you realize that dread is precisely where you need to be. So you take a deep breath and step into the heart of it, the dreadful heart, and you start to write from there. And the path of dread leads directly to your pockets of denial, throbbing beneath the surface of the skin. I thought if I ignored them they would go away, but they didn’t. It was only through the practice of writing that I was able to probe and identify them, lance them and let them heal.

This meditative process requires both solitude and time, two things that are not readily available in the world of corporate media, or for that matter, in modern American life. But the years I spent working in that industry were not without merit. I learned a lot about what truly is a plastic dream world. It is a media that exists (and I am talking here about commercial media, not our desiccated system of Public Broadcasting) for the sole purpose of carrying advertising designed to exacerbate an insufficiency of self. A media that keeps viewers insecure and in a state of perpetual want. A media, fueled by—yes—capitalism, that reinforces mechanisms of denial and disempowerment in both makers and viewers.

Here is how Jane puts it:

            Information about toxicity in food is widely available but people don’t want to hear it. Once in a while a story is spectacular enough to break through and attract media attention, but the swell quickly subsides into the general glut of bad news over which we, as citizens, have so little control.

Coming at us like this—in waves, massed and unbreachable—knowledge becomes symbolic of our disempowerment... so we deny it, riding its crest until it subsides from consciousness. I have heard myself protesting, “I didn’t know!” but this is not true.... Not a lot, perhaps, but I knew a little. I knew enough. But I needed a job. So when My American Wife! was offered to me, I chose to ignore what I knew.


In this root sense, ignorance is an act of will, a choice that one makes over and over again, especially when information overwhelms, and knowledge has become synonymous with impotence.

The antidote to ignorance and impotence also requires an act of will, a choice one must make over and over again, and that is simply to look, and hopefully to see. What I’ve realized is that writing, while at once highly personal, is also a political act, and a book is a tool that can be used to look at the world, in all its vast, overlapping complexity. The characters, who are avatars—me and yet not me, far better, or worse—take up my challenges and lead me, often kicking and screaming, into areas I am blind to. Still, a book is merely a representation and the trick with representation, with making illusions, is to realize that on one hand, truth is relative and approximate, and yet, on the other, one must believe in it, absolutely and wholeheartedly. So the first requirement is an act of will, the second, an act of faith. And for me, halved as I am, there is a further challenge implicit in my name: to resolve the dualities the name imposes by applying a type of ruthless compassion, or compassionate ruthlessness, to all these explorations.

As for meat, well, I’m still working on that. I don’t eat factory raised or factory slaughtered animals, and I abstain when I can. What I’m trying for is a high ratio of mindfulness to consumption, the same diet I’d recommend to television viewers. This is my hope.

Ruth L. Ozeki is a novelist and award-winning independent filmmaker. My Year of Meats (Viking, 1998) has been translated into ten languages and published in twelve countries. She splits her time between British Columbia and New York.

My Year of Meats, Ruth Ozeki, Shambhala Sun, November 1999.


It Starts With Uncertainty Print

It Starts With Uncertainty

MARGARET WHEATLEY and PEMA CHÖDRÖN discuss how organizations can acknowledge their confusion and trust in the goodness of the underlying order.

Margaret Wheatley: I see the essence of my work as becoming comfortable with uncertainty, which is actually a chapter title in my book, Leadership and the New Science. I came to that work initially through science, through an understanding of chaos as having a deeper order revealed in it, and as a person who had worked in organizations a lot.
I remember the great revelatory moment I had when I was writing my first book that order and control are two different phenomena. In the Western leadership tradition, we believe that order is only available through the control that we exert. But I realized that order is available through different processes that have nothing to do with our own authorship—that this world is in fact exquisitely ordered, but not necessarily for our own purposes. The Western tradition is to play God with the world, assuming that nothing happens unless we make it happen.
We feel we have no support from natural processes, no support from life, and that we can only make the world the way we want it by the force of our own effort. That’s a great deception in Western thought, and it’s been a hindrance in leadership practices. I like to quote Chuang-tzu, from the third century BCE, who had a very different approach to leadership. He said it’s more a matter of believing the good than of seeing it as the result of our effort.
So as leaders, do we believe we are participating in a world that knows how to organize itself? Do we realize we are working with people who have great reservoirs of goodness, commitment and creativity? Or do we, in the traditional Western model, feel that if there’s good in the organization, it’s only because of our own qualities of leadership? I have realized over time that the real role of a leader is not to control but to midwife—to evoke those qualities of commitment, compassion, generosity and creativity that are in all of us to start with.

Pema Chödrön: Meg, I was electrified by your article “Consumed By Either Fire or Fire,” because while it talks about personal journey, the implications for leadership are profound. Here is the question that came up for me. You talk about the need for leaders to trust the goodness of people and not feel they have to control things. It seems to me, though, that this means the employees themselves have to have a lot of trust in their own goodness, and they have to have the inner strength that allows them not to freak out in the face of insecurity and uncertainty.
I would guess that the traditional leadership policies you’re trying to change come from the fact that people are so afraid of paradox, so afraid of uncertainty. It takes a lot of bravery even to consider that uncertainty is not a threat, that in fact it’s creative and powerful.
I spend a lot of time in my own teaching proclaiming that truth, and it makes me realize again and again how it comes back to the individual journey of mindfulness. It requires being able to look bravely at yourself without running away from what you see, because resting with the ugliness, the chaos and the confusion in yourself is the path to happiness and creativity and flexibility.
To me, the point where people get stuck is exactly here. They have so little trust in their ability to rest with negativity and uncertainty that whenever they detect a hint of paradox or not knowing, they become afraid and do all kinds of conformist, fundamentalist things to become secure again.

Margaret Wheatley: In your book When Things Fall Apart, you quote Trungpa Rinpoche as saying that this is a dark time when people lose faith in themselves and so lack courage. To me, that’s a very clear statement of what’s going on now, because we are at a point where we feel very badly about who we are as a species. There is all this self-loathing and the messages we give each other are filled with what’s wrong with us. Whether it’s at the individual or organizational level, we’re focused on pathology and use a lot of very negative terms to describe our experience.
Then if that self-loathing is combined with a culture that emphasizes control, it holds you accountable for making things work all the time—without failing, without feeling confused or overwhelmed by uncertainty. We hold each another accountable for achievements that are in fact impossible, because we can’t pretend that chaos doesn’t erupt in our lives and that we have it all figured out. We just can’t pretend that. But our organizations insist on that illusion and make us feel badly for not being able to live up to it. These world views converge on us and we’re left loathing ourselves and feeling overwhelmed.
Yet I also know people have a clear recognition that most of us are good and want to serve others. We know compassion is available in our selves and that we will experience compassion from others. So many people are realizing that the only way to go through this increasingly crazy time is to focus on ourselves—not in a narcissistic way, but understanding that the source of peace and the place to find rest is within.

Pema Chödrön: The thing that intrigues me is how society and organizations can encourage the things that meditation fosters at the individual level. It was very much Trungpa Rinpoche’s vision that we work at both the individual and community levels. He talked a lot about enlightened society—about creating communities that foster this trust in the goodness of human beings. We think too small; we are confined by our beliefs, and one of the main beliefs that confines us is in our own inadequacy, our own imperfection.
Before you can truly know what compassion is, you have to develop equanimity towards that which is threatening, disagreeable or fearful. Equanimity and compassion don’t come from transcending these things; they come from moving closer to what scares you, threatens you, causes you to become aggressive and selfish, and so forth.
This requires a lot of courage, but I find that’s a message people can accept. Interestingly, the idea of developing courage doesn’t seem to trigger people’s inadequacies. I think they know they have some courage. The problem is they think they’re supposed to be courageous in facing the outside world, whereas what is so profoundly transformative is the courage to look at yourself. It’s the courage to not give up on yourself, even though you do see your aggression, jealousy, meanness, and so on. And it turns out that in facing these things, we develop not self-denigration but compassion for our shared humanity.
One of the things you ask in your article is, how did the shadow disappear in our pursuit of looking for the light? How is it that the shadow just disappeared, when things are actually so unpredictable and surprising? We have to realize that these very things are the seeds of loving-kindness towards oneself and real compassion for others.

Margaret Wheatley: One of the things I’ve learned from science is that what’s true at one level is true at other levels. So if processes are true at the level of the individual, we are going to find they also work at the level of community, organization or nation. For example, I see these same processes at work at the national level in South Africa. Their effort to face the truth of apartheid through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been a powerful teacher to me.
The process started with the whites saying, well, we won’t listen because they’re going to distort the truth for their own advantage and we’ll have no control over it. Instead, what happened was that as the victims of torture came forward, as mother after mother spoke about the loss of her child or husband, it became a shared national experience of listening to people’s human stories. And over time it allowed the whites to see the humanity of black South Africans, to see that they experienced the same sense of loss, the same grief as they did. To see them as human was a profound shift in the national sensibility, because any form of terrible treatment such as apartheid depends on denying the humanity of the victims.
What I learned from this is that first of all we need to listen to one another’s stories. We really need to acknowledge the other’s experience as they present it to us, and out of that comes the possibility of a different relationship. When we are aware of the other’s humanity, so much becomes possible in terms of working with each other.

Pema Chödrön: This is what I have been discovering again and again. We assume that by moving closer to suffering we would spiral down, but it’s amazing what a source of inspiration it is to face it together. It surprises us that the darkness is a source of inspiration.

Margaret Wheatley: The experience of facing ourselves at the individual level also helps us be together differently at a societal level. What I’m finding is that independent of any explicit spiritual basis, when people in organizations are able to tell the truth of their experience to each other, it addresses the questions of who really we are in an organization and what we are really learning. What do I feel about how this team is working, truthfully? What have I learned today about doing this project? There has been so much avoidance of being together in our humanity in our organizations that we don’t ask these kinds of questions. But I find it’s truly transformative when we start telling the truth to one another, including our mistakes, including our confusion. We summon something deep in all of us any time we speak together about the truth of our experience of being human.
Like you, Pema, I think people want to be courageous. We really want to be more noble, and we want to speak for the things we see and the things we believe. This doesn’t have to be grounded in any spiritual practice, but it always takes people there. Whether it’s in a government office, a meditation center or a large corporation, whenever we can truly encounter one another in all of our humanity, we get past the illusion that everything works according to plan and we never feel uncertain. This is the great imprisonment we’re trying to find our way out of, and one way to do it is to speak truthfully to one another about our experience. Then we experience a great recognition of being in the presence of other human beings. Whether it’s through suffering or joy, what we’re really seeking is that moment of recognizing another human being. That’s always joyful in some way.

Pema Chödrön: This is what I would consider a spiritual journey, although it doesn’t have to have any of the religious labels. When people are courageous enough to express their experience—their inspiration as well as their disappointment and failure—that’s the basis of awakening, of spiritual awakening. Of course, our experience is colored by our own take on reality.

Margaret Wheatley: Yes, until you get to the enlightened state.

Pema Chödrön: But even when we’re talking about the enlightened state, the path still seems to be one of waking to each moment as honestly as we can, and being willing to communicate with other people without feeling shame about exposing our defects. Because when we are willing to expose our defects, we expose some kind of heart to other people. Curiously enough, people respond more to our honesty about our imperfections than they do to our perfections. When we’re honest about our difficulties with a project, or with another individual, or whatever, everyone in the room sort of resonates with the bravery of someone who’s courageous enough to express their pain. It’s so fascinating that that’s what inspires people.

Margaret Wheatley: The experience of really listening to another human being is the source of our willingness to love them. Someone just gave me a t-shirt that says, “You can’t hate someone whose story you know.” That works at every level. The difficult issues in our society will not be resolved until we can listen to people’s experience of things like racism and sexism—just listening without trying to defend ourselves.
In organizations, we’re blinded to the power of honest communication because we fear it will take us down the road of guilt and accusations, that it will fracture our relationships rather than heal them. We really don’t want any more meetings because all we’ve done for years is accuse and yell at each other, trying to push our own agenda through this very dense resistance. We can’t see the power of these very simple processes that would bring us to this great place of opening to one another. Yet when we finally realize the truth of who we are, and really hear people’s stories, it truly changes our capacity to be together.
The first thing that arises when we open up to each other is a great sigh of relief. We realize that we’re not the only one who feels bewildered. When we hear that nobody knows the answer any more, that none of the old ways work, that we don’t know what the new way is, then confusion has a higher value than certainty. Uncertainty is more appropriate to a world that is so perplexing to us. When people hear that, they relax.

Pema Chödrön: Because that’s their experience.

Margaret Wheatley: That’s their experience, so they feel confirmed. And what comes next is the possibility of courage. Instead of blaming ourselves because we’re the only one who doesn’t get it, we realize we’re all dwelling in the confusion of modern-day life. I certainly see this in myself—I am able to trust myself more because I’ve had the recognition that what’s called for is simply to notice how confusing and chaotic life is.
That allows the really big questions to surface. People everywhere are asking profoundly spiritual questions—about being together more with other human beings, about their lives having meaning beyond the criteria we’ve been given of success, money and material goods.
I feel these questions arising from the planet in many different places as we come to the end of a world view that has led us into a particularly vacuous place. It is a world view that has kept us apart, and I’m beginning to think that how we can come together as human beings is the real question we face. In the program I took with you, Pema, you said that the root of suffering is the illusion of our separateness. That we’ve forgotten that we’re all interrelated.
I do feel that’s the root of suffering in this culture. This culture has torn us apart from one another and only supported us in our individual quests for things that are not in themselves satisfying. We’re coming to the end of that now. We’re realizing how empty we are, and I think we have courage to understand how far we’ve drifted from who we are as human beings, and to realize we can learn again how to be together.
In fact, a lot of people do know how to be together, but it’s a skill that hasn’t been considered important or given any status in our society. It’s actually been dismissed as insignificant and soft and fuzzy. So courage is what we need, and the source of that courage is recognizing that the questions, doubts and desires that move in me move in everyone else as well.

Pema Chödrön: When I think about the kind of teaching you’re giving, Meg, and the Buddhist and Shambhala teachings I’ve been privileged to receive, I realize that if we look back—I’m sixty-three, so let’s say sixty-three years ago—there were only a few people who would have been able to hear these teachings. Most people would have thought them strange and been in no way attracted to them.
Now we’re seeing a vast audience of people from all backgrounds who are hungry for these kinds of teachings. The curious inspiration for this is recognition of how unpredictable our future is, which is actually encouraging courage. Something like the Y2K bug has people everywhere talking about how the future is totally unpredictable, and many of them are hearing the teaching of moving towards what scares us, of not being afraid of unpredictability. In fact, unpredictability is the norm, and as you say, it becomes a higher value than security. It’s fascinating to me that the times are such that people’s belief systems are actually changing. People are thinking bigger.
Of course there’s also the opposite reaction, an increase in fundamentalism among those who seek refuge in certainty, but I’m more struck by the hunger for the positive message—the creative capacity of resting with unpredictability. Unpredictability and interdependence are two truths that people are more and more able to hear. Hearts are more open to the fact that life is an unending surprise.
The whole globe is shook up, so what are you going to do when things are falling apart? You’re either going to become more fundamentalist and try to hold things together, or you’re going to forsake the old ambitions and goals and live life as an experiment, making it up as you go along.
My question is how organizations can lead us not toward some predictable goal, but toward a greater and greater capacity to handle unpredictability, and with it, a greater capacity to love and care about other people.

Margaret Wheatley: Many of us within large organizations are awakening to the awareness that life is uncertain and that we do make it up as we go along. But these aren’t the usual management principles (laughs). There are very powerful forces that have no interest in this kind of awakening. I believe that’s part of the gift of being alive right now. We have a wonderful opportunity to transform our relationships and our awareness of life. It’s about creating a whole new world view, and I would say, even moving beyond that to emptiness. But we have to realize that we’re not going to gain sanction from our present institutions. That’s why courage is even more required. We’re actually being quite revolutionary here.
The world is going to continue to tell people who feel this awakening that they’re crazy, so we might as well realize that what we are seeking is quite revolutionary in these times. It is part of a great swelling up on the planet of a desire for transformation. I don’t know if I want to say it’s big work, but it feels fundamental, in the good sense of returning to the foundations that truly support us. 

Margaret Wheatley is the author of Leadership and the New Science and co-author of A Simpler Way. She is president of the Berkana Institute, a non-profit foundation supporting the discovery of new organizational forms, and a principal in Kellner-Rogers & Wheatley Inc., an international consulting firm.

Pema Chödrön is director of Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and one of North America's most beloved Buddhist teachers. She is the author of When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.

It Starts With Uncertainty, Margaret Wheatley & Pema Chödrön, Shambhala Sun, November 1999.

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Zen Sells: How Advertising has Co-opted Spirituality Print
Shambhala Sun | November 1999


Zen Sells

From computers to beauty products, Madison Avenue has discovered that spirituality sells. What is the sound of one hand reaching for your wallet? Todd Stein on the irony of enlisting spiritual themes in the service of materialism.

            Enlightenment, it turns out, can be found in a jar. Just ask Lancome, whose Hydra Zen “skin de-stressing moisturizer” sells for $42.50 in most boutiques. Or, if beauty products aren’t your bag, test drive a Ford Ranger pickup and “seek wisdom on a mountain top.” Along the way you can “thank heaven for 7-Eleven” and stop in for a bottle of Evian spring water, famous for its “eternal life force.” Or “seek the truth” in a glass of Heineken.
            Oh, and once you get to the mountain top, don’t be surprised if you run into a group of scarlet-clad Tibetan monks running Lotus Notes on their IBM laptops, two companies that were recently “joined in spiritual harmony.” If you can’t find any monks on the mountain top, look for them on the basketball court. They’ll be the ones with the shaved heads and the Nikes.
            With so many real and fictional spiritual teachers pitching consumer goods these days—Apple nabbed Gandhi and the Dalai Lama for its “Think Different” campaign—you might want to cancel that trip to the mountain top and seek a guru in the local shopping mall instead. At least, that’s the message coming out of Madison Avenue these days.
            Advertisers are hawking everything from burgers to cars by appealing, ironically, to our most immaterial yearnings. “Serenity Now” is no longer just a funny Seinfeld line; it’s the unspoken philosophy behind a distinctly nineties’ breed of commercial—the spiritual ad. Fielding an army of angels, enlightened sages and barely disguised religious figures, advertisers are hoping to cash in on the quest for inner peace by teaching us, as Chapman University sociologist Bernard McGrane puts it, that “life becomes radiant through consumption.”
            “If consumerism is the religion of our day, then advertising is the liturgy and the high priest,” says McGrane, a media critic and author of two books on advertising. “It has the same all-pervading quality as the church in the Middle Ages. It’s everywhere. It permeates everything from the bottom of your shoe to the back of your shirt to the car you’re driving.”
            As it preaches the salvation that comes through buying and having, advertising also is subtly changing how we think about spirituality and ourselves. Just as it did with sex in the fifties and sixties, advertising is well on its way to taking our highest spiritual yearnings and transforming them into the profitably banal.
            Appropriating spiritual images and language to sell stuff is nothing new, of course. In the old days of advertising, Xerox used monkish scribes to sell photocopy machines, and Hebrew National hot dogs claimed standards for meat exceeding the USDA’s because they had to “answer to a higher authority.” But today’s versions of these ads are far more common and they reflect a growing interest in things spiritual that spans the consumer spectrum from bestsellers (The Celestine Prophecy) and TV shows (“Touched by an Angel”) to teen jewelry inscribed with the initials “WWJD” (What would Jesus do?).
            In this case, Jesus would probably throw his TV out the window. Few of the rest of us do. By the time the average American reaches 20 they will have seen about one million TV commercials. For those of us who grew up in the TV age, those numbers add up to an undeniable truth: we have been programmed since childhood to seek fulfillment through buying.  
    No less a figure than S.I. Newhouse, Jr., chairman of Conde Nast magazines, decries the rising influence of Madison Avenue. “Advertisers have taken over the world,” the publisher of Vogue and Vanity Fair complained to the New York Times in August. Few doubt the industry’s lengthening reach—ads are perhaps the primary socialization force on earth. The industry is all the more influential because they are designed not to appear influential. The less we pay critical, conscious attention to advertising, the more powerful its effects upon us. And it can transform anything into a part of the consumer universe, even the anti-materialist creeds of spirituality.
   A case in point. Flip through any recent women’s magazine and you’ll come across an ad for a new hair shampoo called Abba. A model with angelic features stands facing the viewer, her blonde hair tossed by a breeze. Straightforward enough, right? But a reading of the accompanying text hints at more. We’re told that Abba can “harness the healing power of nature,” and help you “rediscover how real beauty comes from within.”
   Hmm. Leaving aside the question of why you would buy a shampoo to get what can only be had from within (what ads and Zen koans have in common is that they always defy logic), let’s consider the “healing power” of Abba. On closer inspection it turns out the model is standing in a desert. Her hands are opened palm out in supplication at her sides. She is dressed in a shapeless, nearly monkish black dress. The sun lends her a halo.
            If none of this rings a bell, consider that Abba is the word for “father” in Aramaic, the language of Jesus. It is also the root of the honorific “abbot,” a term first applied to the desert hermits of early Christianity. The “healing power” Abba is selling will do more than cure a few split ends. It’s not enlightenment, true, but what do you want for less than $10—God?
            “Most marketing books tell you to go for some real estate in people’s heads,” says Doug Gilmour, president of Gilmour Associates, a Larkspur, California advertising firm that specializes in New Age-style campaigns for health food companies. “I want to go after some real estate in their souls.”
            Whether they aim for our souls or our karma (Finlandia Vodka and Volkswagen both hype reincarnation in their current campaigns), advertisers say they are simply mirroring the public’s current fascination with spirituality.
            “We are not devious people setting out to manipulate you into buying something,” says Myra Stark, senior vice president and director of knowledge management at Saatchi & Saatchi in New York, one of the nation’s largest advertising firms. “We’re people who try to understand what a brand or product means to a consumer, and the consumer either connects with that image or doesn’t connect.”
             A consumer study initiated last year by Stark points to a less innocent conclusion. The study was designed to help Saatchi & Saatchi better understand consumer beliefs and attitudes about spirituality and their perceptions of brand names. After defining spirituality as “concern with things of the spirit, the values and the meaning of life, rather than everyday and material things,” Stark explains, the study found that when companies forge an intensely emotional bond with consumers through use of spiritual symbols, it spurs sales. Especially sales, she might have added, of those “everyday and material things.”
            “The bottom line is, they’re all praying for good business,” complains Marc Balet, partner in Balet & Albert, a New York ad agency whose clients include Georgio Armani and Anne Klein. “It’s like seventies’ bellbottoms. They glom on to whatever’s hot now and in another three months they’ll have moved on to the Jetsons.”
            It may be disingenuous of advertisers to claim they are only a mirror of society, when people pay $150 for the right brand name on their jeans and young women starve themselves to look like Kate Moss. But in hitching a ride on spirituality, the pitchpeople are definitely behind the curve, racing to keep up with the interests of their biggest meal ticket, the Baby Boomers.
            As the largest group of children ever in America, the Boomers were targeted by Madison Avenue from the beginning. Not surprisingly, they grew up acutely aware of themselves as consumers. Today the youngest member of the former Pepsi Generation is 35, the oldest 53, and for maybe the first time in their lives they are staring death in the face. Or at least glancing in that general direction.
            The result, predictably, is a sudden resurgence of interest in the spirit. While more and more of us are turning our backs on mainstream religion, our fascination with spirituality has gone through the roof. In the four years between 1993 and 1997, the number of Americans who said spirituality was important to their lives jumped from 58 percent to 75 percent—an astonishing statistical turnabout for such a short time span.
   “The spiritual earthquake,” as Psychology Today founding editor T George Harris calls it, has sent shock waves through the religious spectrum, kicking up forms of spirituality undreamed of a generation ago. The current crop of spiritual schools reads like a self-improvement editor’s Dream Team: creation spirituality, Eucharistic spirituality, native American spirituality, Twelve-Step spirituality, feminist spirituality, earth-based (Gaia) spirituality, eco-feminist spirituality, Goddess spirituality and men’s spirituality, as well as the traditional Judeo-Christian brand and, of course, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, and all things Eastern.  
            Advertisers, who after all are members of the culture, can’t help but notice the new fad. And what they notice, they use.
            “Basically, advertising is just a writer and an art director in a room, trying to come up with hundreds of ideas to pitch to the client and hoping that one sticks,” says John Lombardi, a former art director for McCann Erickson who dropped out of the business to work for the San Francisco Zen Center. “They have to produce, so they use whatever they see going on in the world around them, and they don’t make a moral distinction between using swing dancing or professional wrestling, or Zen.”
            But then, morality was never a big hit with advertisers. Author Thomas Frank established in his The Conquest of Cool that advertising’s great achievement in the years since the 1960s has been to incorporate the idea of dissent from the doctrine of consumption into the doctrine itself. So we find Canon naming its new camera “The Rebel,” and Burger King telling us, “Sometimes you’ve gotta break the rules.” As novelist Jonathan Dee put it in a recent Harper’s essay: “The perfect capitalist-realist hero (is) a ‘rebel’ whose dissent is confined to the products he chooses to buy.”
            And what works for the rebel works for the saint.
            The Dalai Lama peers beneficently down from the billboard beside the freeway. His gentle visage radiates not only his own wisdom but the wisdom of the Buddhas throughout the ages. He is at once a Nobel Peace Prize winner; the leader of the international movement to free Tibet; the human embodiment of Avalokiteshvara, bodhisattva of Compassion, and a symbol of everything that is not greed, unbridled desire, and thoughtless materialism.
            And he’s a spokesman for a computer company.
            If you’re like most of us, you saw that billboard and your first thought was something like: “Oh, I love the Dalai Lama! Apple is so cool to use the Dalai Lama in its ads.” The subtext: Next time, maybe I’ll buy a Macintosh.
            “What advertising has done is to co-opt our deepest yearnings and use them to sell us Rice-a-Roni, a house in the country, and the next fastest computer chip,” says Bob Whalley, an Episcopalian minister who teaches a class in spirituality and the media at the University of San Francisco. “They take our yearning toward humanity and transcendence and transform it into a yearning to buy.
            “Whether this is comedy or tragedy depends on whether there are any absolutes or hopes in how we look at what it means to be human. If it’s okay for us to be just consumers, then that’s fine. But if we think part of being human is to foster deeper communion and community, and advertising precludes that, then it’s terribly sad.”
            Advertisers, of course, would prefer we see their work as a cosmic comedy; humor is their weapon of choice. In a new print ad promoting the Ford Ranger SuperCab (“the planet’s coolest 4-door compact pickup”), the humor borders on ridicule of meditation. A young man (“Spence”) is seated with crossed legs, closed eyes, and an ironic smile in front of a pile of expensive toys—scuba gear, skis, a bicycle, an electric guitar. In the background, atop a hill, is the new truck, its interior lit by the same golden glow that outlines Spence.
            The text reads: “Spence put a new twist on an old philosophy. To be one with everything, he says, you’ve gotta have one of everything. That’s why he also has the new Ford Ranger. So he can seek wisdom on a mountain top. Take off in hot pursuit of enlightenment. And connect with Mother Earth.... He says [the truck] gives him easy access to inner peace. Which makes him one happy soul.”
            It’s easy to see why humor is one of the dominant tools of the trade. By laughing at Spence’s unrealized spiritual aspirations, the ad lets us impose an ironic distance between ourselves and our own decidedly un-enlightened behavior. The underlying message is: Forget meditation; the only thing that really counts is having the right toys.
            The Ford ad illustrates how advertisers use the medium to trivialize spirituality. When the ultra-materialist Spence mimics a meditator, or when Victoria’s Secret parades a bevy of lingerie-clad supermodels and asks, “What kind of angel are you?” they aren’t celebrating the special qualities of meditation and angels. They’re using these spiritual images to promote ideas that lie precisely opposite the images’ original meanings. Thus desirelessness is correlated with materialism, and purity with sex.
            Of course, sex was the target of the advertisers’ switch play long before they ever thought of trying it on spirituality. We have become so accustomed to bikini-clad babes popping up in commercials for automobiles and health clubs that we no longer even question the connection between product and promise. This objectification of women (and lately men) to sell products has transformed the “mysterium tremendum” of human sexuality into “tits and ass,” says Whalley.
            Now he fears that we face the same danger with spiritual ads. “When the mystery of our spiritual side is turned into car ads,” Whalley says, “we lose our sense of the awesome. The world is actually both very small and very big; incredibly intimate and also awesome beyond belief. But when everything, even spirituality, is reduced to buyable terms, we end up with bite-sized chunks of possibilities that keep us from either fasting or feasting.”
            Do advertisers see the irony in using an essentially anti-materialist message to sell us stuff? Well, yes and no.
            “Sure they see the irony,” says Lombardi, “and they don’t care. It’s not a very nice business. It’s filled with a lot of soulless people. It’s kind of hard to embrace spirituality and be in advertising. Your client is Exxon and they just crashed the Valdez in Alaskan waters. Your job is to make that look good. Or your client is Ortho and your job is to sell herbicide to people in their back yards and you know it’s not good for them, not good for the planet.”
            “The whole manipulation aspect of the business never sat right with me. Advertisers can get you to believe anything. They could spend their time trying to improve the world. It’s so powerful: they could really change some of the terrible things going on—drugs, guns, gangs. Instead, they’re trying to get you to believe spirituality can be had through buying things.”
            Still, blaming advertising for all the ills of capitalism is a bit like shooting the messenger. One can almost—almost—feel sorry for the pitchpeople, always taking it on the nose for doing their jobs. And even if we can’t muster compassion, let’s admit that not everything about advertising is bad. Ads can be funny (Pepsi’s little girl imitating Marlon Brando). They can be touching (Kodak’s memorable moments). Occasionally, they can even help the spiritual quest.
   Humans, after all, need a helping hand on the long hard road to self-actualization or enlightenment. As long as we know the food or the clothing we buy is simply a prop to help us along the path, we can use it in the spirit of Garrison Keilor’s powder milk biscuits, which “give you the strength to do what needs to be done.” This “journey talk” fosters a kind of manna-consciousness that helps us cross the spiritual desert without fear of starving.
   Nor are all advertisers hungry ghosts intent on seducing us off the path. Doug Gilmour, for instance, is serious when he says he’s appealing to people’s souls. His “You are energy; energy is you” ad for Clifbar, the popular protein bar, grew out of his belief in “the mature male warrior ideal, and participating in the community in a humble way,” he says.
            Yet even if it is not a vast conspiracy designed to trivialize or deny our spiritual motivations, the new spiritual advertising is certainly the product of a lot of unintentional small conspiracies. The cumulative effect of individual decisions by ad copywriters and artists vastly exceeds their expectations or design. Like news reporters whose reliance on government sources during wartime makes them little more than propaganda tools, advertisers have unthinkingly absorbed the nonmaterialist themes of spirituality and twisted them into a kind of Big Brother doublespeak.
            Maybe the clearest portrait of the consequences of this new anti-theology appeared in the film Network, when the television executive played by Ned Beatty holds forth on his peculiarly Orwellian vision of the future. Raising his hands skyward and beaming with satisfaction, Beatty envisions a vast web of global corporations whose products instantly gratify consumers’ every desire, assuring that “all anxieties are allayed.”
            Meditation? Wouldn’t you rather have a Pepsi?

       Todd Stein is a freelance writer and former Sacramento Bee reporter who lives at the San Francisco Zen Center. His screenplay, “Chloe’s Way”, about a belly dancer who shakes up a stodgy Zen center, is currently in pre-production.

Zen Sells: How Advertising has Co-opted Spirituality, Todd Stein, Shambhala Sun, November 1999.


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