Acharya das: Namaste. Thank you very much for joining us today. So this is the fourth and final part of this particular series, and the talk today is “A Spiritual Approach to Economic and Environmental Problems.”
So it seems like in the world today we’re constantly hearing about looming economic and environmental crises, and people tend to become a little bit overwhelmed, because of course, we naturally feel that we are very small and this is such a big problem, and while it involves us, that practically there is nothing much that I can do about it.
Too often it seems that environmental and economic issues are in direct opposition to each other. So for instance, if somebody wants to complain about pollution, and they want to talk about solutions, it would have to mean curbing certain types of economic activity. On one side we have people that are focussed on the healthier life, on the other side we’ve got people that are driven by economic interests and don’t want to slow down economic activity for anything. So, of course, the question becomes, how can we walk the path between these two things, ensuring that everyone has, number one, access to adequate resources, while at the same time protecting and conserving the natural environment, which, of course, sustains us? It often becomes overlooked, this fact and reality, that we are part of an eco-system and we are physically sustained by that eco-system.
So in discussing these issues, particularly from a personal point of view, it’s like there are two subjects which are involved here. One is the subject of our quest for happiness. Our quest for happiness is very much tied to both of these issues. And the other one is what we see as being the actual goal of our life.
These are not actually deeply philosophical questions. They’re really, really practical and it’s about what people are doing, what decisions people are making, how they’re making decisions, what it is that we’re pursuing, every day, and every hour of every day it is being shaped by these things. So we should not think of them as some sort of like heady philosophical ideas. No. These—this is practical things related to our life.
As we’ve mentioned in a number of earlier talks, the quest for happiness is often being pursued—we chase after things that we assume, we’re even convinced, will make us happy, even when there is no evidence that supports that conclusion. Like there is this idea that the more stuff I can get, the more experiences I can have, the more goodies I can stuff in the different orifices of my body, the more I can stimulate my senses and acquire, and experience things, somehow the happier I will become. And as we have discussed this is not a reality. Your actual happiness is not really tied to how much you stimulate or try to satisfy your senses. In fact there is a [no? I think this was slip of the tongue Jsd] correlation between trying to engage in all this activity and how much happiness you actually experience. I’ve had a very, maybe, different kind of life in many ways. I’ve had so many different experiences. I spent early years living as a monk in India, walking around from holy place to holy place, visiting different ashrams and sleeping under trees. And I mean, it was a life of great austerity. I’ve also had the opportunity to work for some big corporations and some very wealthy individuals and been exposed to a very elite part of society. And so I’ve been able to, not just from a philosophical point of view but from a practical point of view, been able to observe many different people in different situations and different cultures.
And something that I do know to be a reality, both from [the/this] spiritual understanding, but also an observable phenomena—one of these observations is that I’ve seen that with people that are of a much lower economic status, people that are actually very poor—people in the western idea have no idea of what poverty really is. Poverty is maybe having a beat up car and a house and just one television and you know, all kinds of food. Whereas you’ve got people that literally live in big cardboard boxes with perhaps a rusty piece of galvanised iron sheeting over the top of it. You know I’ve, I’ve actually encountered people who told me as kids they’d get these little bread buns, in Spanish they call it pandesal in Asia, and they would actually roast cockroaches and put them in and eat because they just had no food. And that is just beyond the experience of many people particularly in developed economies.
But one thing I have noticed is that when people live a very simple life and they do not have so much exposure to opportunities to so-called enjoy so many things—they do have dreams and aspirations. They think, “If only I could do this; if only I had a bicycle to get around instead of having to walk; if only I had even a very simple job and had a little bit of income, enough to buy at least one good meal a day for my family I would be quite content.” And we often see that with people from this particular economic group, very poor people, they enjoy a little bit of freedom. When you don’t have anything you don’t have anything to lose. And what I mean by that is, you know, you don’t have any stuff to get ripped off. Your life is basic and simple.
And I’ve observed that with people that have excessive amounts of wealth: They have the opportunity to fulfil or attempt to fulfil every single desire they have. They can afford anything. They can do anything. I mean I—These people can spend $30,000, $50,000 on a weekend. They stay in hotel suites that cost between five and a half and maybe $10,000 a night. When they travel, they travel in extreme luxury. They live in extreme luxury. And yet you can see within this class of people also tremendous personal problems: anxieties; frustrations; I’ve noticed that within this group of people a lot of use of intoxicants. And one of the reasons for this is that they get beyond the dream, “If only I had this I’d be happy. If I could just do this I’d be so—life would be so great.” But it’s like, they can grab handfuls of stuff but it’s like sand. You try to hold it and it just leaks through your fingers and you have nothing. And so they do have these experiences that no matter what I do and how frequently I do it, it is not touching me in my heart of hearts. It is not actually touching me. I am not fulfilled by these experiences.
So the quest for happiness, when it is resolved to this artificial and incorrect idea that if I just got more money my life is just going to be better and I’m going to be happier and everything is going to be just fantastic and great—this is totally incorrect. And the more you have the opportunity to run down that road and try to do that, the more frustration that you experience. So we see, I mean amongst movie stars and amongst, you know, music idols and everything we see people commit suicide and suffer nervous breakdown, suffer depression and things, and that is proof of the fact that even though I exist in this situation where I may look beautiful or handsome, that I have so much facility, that so many people admire me, I can still feel utterly frustrated.
I have a personal associate who lived that type of life, had that type of facility and opportunity and yet shot himself with a gun because he felt so desperately empty at the end of the day. So it is important not to look at things just in a very superficial manner but to try and look at things a little bit more deeply: our quest for happiness and what we see as the actual goal of our life. If we just adopt false ideas and try to live by them without questioning and without examining the result then you will end up creating problems for yourself and problems for others and problems for this world in which we live. Something that really needs to be recognised is that the world’s population has been tremendously manipulated to buy into ideas and to act in certain ways and to have bought into the idea that it is beneficial for me and it is beneficial for society. So we have spoken already a few times briefly on a subject that actually is of interest to me personally and I think it’s not looked at anywhere near carefully enough, and that is the consumer economic system. We’ve been sold a bill of goods. We’ve been sold ideas, and if we look at these things very thoughtfully and carefully we’ll see that we’ve fundamentally been ripped off.
The other thing that we’ve been manipulated to consider is the idea of oneself, the idea of the self.
So I’d just like to raise—about this guy that has probably been more influential than any other single person in the entire world, in history, to have shaped the modern economic system. This guy’s name was Edward Bernays and he is probably the most influential person in the history of America who has transformed a whole society, not just America, but an influence that spread rapidly to the rest of the world. So this—he is a nephew of Sigmund Freud. And he claimed that he had—and I will read something here, he claimed that he had developed a technique to “stimulate people’s inner desires and then by sating [or satisfying] them with consumer products he was creating a new way to manage the irrational force of the masses” and he called this the engineering of consent. The engineering of consent means that I am going to manipulate the general public and have them consent to going on a ride with me. I’m going to get these people to adopt ideas and to act in certain ways and this was at the heart, in the beginning of this whole experiment with consumer economics.
There’s a really brilliant BBC documentary and it’s called the “Century of the Self.” It’s like four parts, an hour each episode, and it really examines over the 20th century, early 1900’s up to 2000, how the idea of who I am, the idea of the self, radically altered during this century and it did not happen by chance. It was the result of a concerted effort to bring about this huge change. So within this documentary, I’ll just read a couple of paragraphs and it tells you—they have very succinctly described this guy and what he was up to.
“Edward Bernays is almost completely unknown today but his influence on the 20th century was nearly as great as his uncle’s, [his uncle being Sigmund Freud] because Bernays was the first person to take Freud's ideas about human beings and use them to manipulate the masses. He showed American corporations for the first time how they could make people want things they didn't need by linking mass produced goods to their unconscious desires. [and] Out of this would come a new political idea of how to control the masses. By satisfying people's inner selfish desires one made them happy and thus docile. [Docile meaning very placid, and quiet and easy to lead around and manipulate.] It was the start of the all-consuming self which has come to dominate our world today.”
So this is a statement from that documentary. It’s quite intriguing and quite fascinating and they look at the development of this consumer economic system. And it came out of the success of industries during the First World War where they rapidly expanded production for the war effort and most of what they were producing was being destroyed, which required then a new round of manufacturing and this kind of like went on endlessly and so the idea was, “Well, how can we keep this going?” “How can we keep this going?” And the way we can keep it going is to convince people that by consuming these products they will actually become happy. And on a political level they were saying, selling the idea that when people are stimulated to desire more and then you satisfy those desires everybody becomes very happy and everything is very nice and [the] population is fundamentally easy to control.
This is not some grand conspiracy kind of idea. No. This is people trying to make a buck. You had two categories of people here: the psychologists who were exploring how to get into people’s head, what makes people think, what makes them tick, and how to utilise that, for good, supposedly; and then you had all of the big economic forces were thinking, “How the hell can we just get people on the spending binge and using stuff so that we can become fabulously wealthy and we can transfer wealth to our stock holders?” And Eddie Bernays was the guy that first really hit on the idea of selling stocks to the common man and it was by his activity, it led to this huge boom in the stock market which led to the Great Depression. So this is all very interesting, how it’s all woven together, but how it also has very profound consequences on people’s happiness and people’s fulfilment and questions related to the economy, (What is the economy for? And what is it meant to be about?) and people’s happiness and satisfaction.
So out of this whole thing came this current system that we have today, the consumer economic system which is sort of like, you create desire in people, (who don’t realise somebody else is doing it to them. They think it’s coming from “myself,”) who then go out and buy those things. They use those things and then before they’re even used up they basically throw them away. Buy, use, throw away. That is the economic model. I mean anybody with half a brain would realise that this is not going to end well. It is not going to end well if we are endlessly just grabbing natural resources and producing, and then over here we’ve got all these people that we’re driving crazy through advertising and creating all these wants that never existed before, so they keep buying our stuff and then they figure out part way through it that this is not enough, so they’ve got to move onto the next thing and so they discard this. This is not a healthy system. This is not a healthy way for people to exist and to live.
So you see that there’s this big driver with the economy, this need for economic growth. When there is no growth everybody’s freaking out. The economists, the government, they’re freaking out, ‘cos they know what’s going to happen. And so they’re always looking for ways to stimulate growth, to build what they call, “consumer confidence.” That means where you think this is never going to end. It’s all going to be fantastic. And why do I need to save too much money? Let me just spend, spend, spend and we’ll become happy this way.
But something that just completely amazes me, it’s like astonishing: you talk to economists who are promoting economic growth as the principal need and you ask them, “Grow into what?” Where is that point that you’re trying to achieve, where you are growing, growing, growing and you get to this point and you say, “This is where we need to be. Now we can level off and everything is cool, it’s all happening, everybody’s happy and this is the goal”? No. It is just year upon year of growth. Growth for what? Growth for growth’s sake?
I mean if I encountered some farmer and I saw him every day out in his field and he’s fertilising and he’s watering and there’s plants growing and I ask him, “Well what exactly are you growing here?” You know, “What is the end result of this?” “Oh no, no, there’s no end result. It just gets bigger and bigger and bigger and I just keep putting keep putting fertiliser and I keep putting water and it’s just growing bigger, and I come out and I’m just astonished, like it’s huge and look at it, it’s still growing. So I’m just going to keep putting more fertiliser and water so it’ll keep growing.” You’d think this guy was loopy, that he’s mentally defective, and yet we’ve got all these guys with PhD’s doing the same thing to the economy, and they’re meant to be highly intelligent for doing this.
What is it you are growing into? Where are you going? Because in this model of unrestrained and continuous growth you will end up in a situation, instead of the economy serving the purposes of people it is people who end up serving the economy, and that’s not a good place to be in.
The other problem is that when you are living in this kind of a cycle it actually puts unbearable strain both on natural resources and of course on the environment. So this becomes, you know, you create—nobody is asking the question, “What is enough? At what point do we say enough? This is—we’ve got enough!” Nobody’s established this. Nobody has determined where it’s all going. So the unfortunate reality is that while you may be able to promote tremendous growth for a certain period of time like we’ve since after the 2nd World War particularly in the 50’s. We saw this huge economic boom, with of course some up and downs along the way, but this boom all the way through the remaining part of the 1900’s and just reaching into the early part of the 21st century. And then of course we hit a wall. And the wall we hit was largely produced by not having any natural controls on this system. And it just—growing and then people driven by greed beginning to do things and manipulate the economy and manipulate people to make more wealth for themself.
The result of this economic catastrophe has been this just stagnation where countries are going into enormous debt trying to stimulate the economy. For what? Because they want get on the—they want things to get back on this track of just growing and growing and growing. But when we look at this we’re not asking the question, “What effect is it having on the population? How are people’s lives? Is man becoming happier now than he was 50 years ago?” Of course the answer is, “No.” Is a person in a more developed country happier and more peaceful than someone in a more developed economy? The answer of course is also, “No.”
So when we don’t have any clear purpose, when everything is being driven simply by greed and the desire for growth then we should reflect upon some very wise words, a statement by Mohandas Gandhi, known as Mahatma Gandhi, where he stated that “the world has enough for everyone’s need but not enough for everyone’s greed.” And if we look at what’s going on in the world in the last 30, 40, 50 years, where we are now and where we were previously—I mean we’re not seeing any city become a better place to live in. We’re not seeing a healthier environment. We’re not seeing people being more peaceful and content. Probably the opposite is true in all of those cases.
And the primary reason for this degradation of the economy and all of these issues related with the economy and of course the degradation of environment is because we are not living balanced lives. Now if I was into the gym, and I promise you I’m not, probably should be but—if I was into the gym and I was particularly fascinated with growing massive leg muscles and so I kind of favoured my right leg and my left leg I wasn’t very concerned with and so I’ve got all this, I’m doing these squats on one leg, and I’m doing all these pushing huge weights and I grow this massive thunder thigh and this just huge sculpted calf and my other leg I haven’t done anything with. In fact I’ve refused to use it because I really want to develop this other one, really—“It’s going to be fantastic. It’s going to be huge” and the other one just withers away. As I try to walk around I look bizarre and I’m kind of like hobbling around, you know. It’s kind of like a ridiculous situation. Well, that’s pretty much the situation that we are in.
The reality is that we are spiritual beings. This body is not me. This is something I’m wearing and something I’m using. I am a spiritual being within. I have needs. I actually have needs that must be and should be fulfilled and if they are not then I will always feel emptiness. If I think that simply chasing after material experiences, sexual experiences, acquiring material things and clinging to that and putting it on and in this body, if I think that that is actually going to touch me I should know already by my experience in life, no it doesn’t fulfil me, it doesn’t give me everything that I’m actually looking for.
So we are not against—you know, spiritual seekers are practical and realistic people. It is not that we are asking everyone to turn their back on this world. No. You have some need to engage in economic activity so that you can live a comfortable life, where there is not so much need or difficulty but there is also this great need to take care of our spiritual being, the being who we really are, rather than just leaving myself neglected. It’s fine to go to the gym. Work out both legs. In other words, yes, take care of your economic necessities, provide the things, live a responsible life, but you must engage also in seeking spiritual fulfilment and doing what it is that you need to actually live a fulfilling life, where there is a balance in spiritual and in material development.
You know in the source scriptures, if I’ll use that word, for the yoga system, was the Vedas. The Vedas considered that there were four chief aims of human life. The Sanskrit word was dharma, artha, kama and moksa. Dharma was righteousness or religiosity or a dutiful and balanced life. Artha was economic development, that this was something that human beings should be engaged in but they need to be guided by right thinking. And of course the reason that people seek economic benefit is to try and fulfil certain desires that they have. This is kama. So to eat nicely, good quality food, to sleep in a nice situation, this is not something that we need to be running away from and it was considered part of a balanced life to do that. But then ultimately there was moksha. Moksha was the—literally means liberation, where a person lived a life, a balanced life, where they were guiding themselves and others within their sphere of influence towards the ultimate goal of becoming free from material entanglement.
In more recent time, particularly about 500 years ago the actual father of the kirtan movement, his name was Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu actually describes, (and his opinion is not an opinion, it is actually supported also within the Vedas) that these four things actually do not fulfil all of the needs one has, that the highest need one has is to experience love, to love and be loved, and that this needs to be experienced on a spiritual plane. It needs to be an activity of the actual soul itself and in this way one attains full and complete satisfaction.
But at least in this system there was an idea of things need to balanced rather than just simply an idea that we can live like, practically speaking almost like animals, without any regard for tomorrow. Whatever desire we have, just do it. I think I heard that somewhere before. Just do it. Or as the Beatles said, “Why don’t we do it in the road?” Of course they forget to bark after that. Usually it’s the dogs that are doing it in the road, but—this idea of just abandonment of guiding principles in life, any responsible principles and just to engage in wanton pursuit of so called happiness through sensual activity degrades the human being and actually separates them from happiness.
So it actually is a formula for suffering if I think that if I simply give in to the desires of my sense and my mind and everything that they desire, that somehow I will become happy and satisfied. This is not truth. The opposite is true.
And then of course this problem of laying claim to the earth as if it is mine to exploit. Wisdom dictates that we should rather see the earth as someone else’s property. It was here before I showed up in this life and it’ll be here after I leave and I should see it as, of course, the property of the creator of this earth and I should live as a steward, respectfully taking care of it. If I am to live without exercising control over my desires, and thinking that simply fulfilling this I will be happy, I’m sorry, this is not a reality. So there is a need for us to be guided in our life by actual wisdom, by spiritual insight. Economic pursuit and how we look at the environment and the world need to be guided by fundamental spiritual truths.
In one of the Upanishads, known as the Isha Upanishad, the very first mantra describes the reality of this world and myself in relation to it, and this should be an actual guiding principle in all of our lives and it is through this that we will be guaranteed actual happiness. And that mantra states:
“Everything animate or inanimate that is within the universe is controlled and owned by the Lord. One should therefore accept only those things necessary for himself, which are set aside as his quota, and one should not accept other things, knowing well to Whom they belong.”
So this is the principle that all great saints and yogis have used in guiding how they relate to this world and to others.
And then on a personal level I ask you to please, actually really consider this truth. I mean we’ve tried everything else. We have become lost in using different types of intoxicants and stimulants to try and make it so that we can experience happiness and fulfilment. You should not judge something by the effect that it has on you at the time but what is the end result? What is it like to come down? What is it like to wake up with a hang over? This is the end result. And what effect does it actually have on my life? If we learn to live a life of restraint and are guided by compassionate and kind principles, if we respect others and respect this world, then our life will begin to take on another character and that character is that we will begin to experience initially what it is to start to become peaceful.
So this Bhagavad-gita verse which we’ve read before in the 2nd chapter 70th verse it says:
“A person who is not disturbed by the incessant flow of desires—that enter like rivers into the ocean, which is ever being filled but is always still [that person] can alone achieve peace, and not the man who strives to satisfy such desires.”
So in conclusion we may not be able to radically impact all of society. We may not be in position of political influence or academic influence where we can begin to really change the course of society. Anybody that has that capacity of course should do it and try to guide people from a spiritual perspective, but in our own life, just our own life, if we begin to adopt these principles our own economic circumstances will begin to change when we’re not just chasing things and spending money in the vain hope that it will make us happy.
If we being to try to question, “What is my life really about? What is its actual purpose? What am I really living for?” If we begin this process of cultivation of actual spiritual wisdom, if we engage in the process of kirtan meditation which we are advocating often on these talks, if we engage in this type of activity, it begins to purify the heart and the mind. One begins to develop a new way of seeing things, but what is very wonderful is we begin to experience a different type of taste. We begin to experience a type of fulfilment and happiness that cannot even be compared to any material experience and in this state a person as an individual can begin living a life of what is called in Sanskrit an atmarama, one who is actually self satisfied, rather than being greedy, wanting to acquire more at any cost, regardless of what effect it has on peoples, or this world or other nations or societies. Instead of living that type of life, as an individual I should seek to experience what it is to be fulfilled, to actually experience what it is to become happy and somewhat carefree, to find actual peace, to find actual contentment.
And all of this is a state prior to even actual, the condition of spiritual enlightenment and spiritual love that a person can achieve in this very lifetime by adopting these very sound principles to live by. So with that I would like to thank you all very very much for being with us today and we’ll conclude by just chanting for a couple of minutes here. I will use this mahamantra. It will appear on the screen. You will see it below you. I will lead the kirtan and I invite you to join with the people that are here with us by responding and also meditating upon this spiritual sound. This type of meditation involves both hearing and repeating or speaking.
Thank you very much for joining us and we will be doing a whole new series of talks on the Bhagavad-gita or lessons from the Bhagavad-gita so hopefully you will join us next week when we begin that series. Thank you.