Nobel Peace Prize nominee and Zen Buddhist master, Thich Nhat Hanh has a very different theory about why our ecosystems are dying and our financial systems are crumbling. The Vietnamese monk credited with bringing mindfulness to the West believes that our desperation to succeed at all costs fuels our voracious economic system. An innumerable number of worldly ‘sicknesses’ come from this singular philosophical vice.
On one of Hanh’s Facebook posts he said, “Each one of us has to ask ourselves, What do I really want? Do I really want to be Number One? Or do I want to be happy? If you want success, you may sacrifice your happiness for it. You can become a victim of success, but you can never become a victim of happiness.”
Thay – as his followers call him, is no stranger to the ideology of the movers and shakers in our world economy. He was invited to speak in Silicon Valley by Steve Jobs once, and has met with the World Bank president Jim Yong Kim. He has also met with senior Google engineers to discuss how they could develop technologies which could be more compassionate and bring about positive change, instead of increasing people’s stress and isolation, taking them away from nature, and one another.
He recently explained his concern with how people pin their happiness on success in an interview with the Guardian.
“If you know how to practice mindfulness you can generate peace and joy right here, right now. And you’ll appreciate that and it will change you. In the beginning, you believe that if you cannot become number one, you cannot be happy, but if you practice mindfulness you will readily release that kind of idea. We need not fear that mindfulness might become only a means and not an end because in mindfulness the means and the end are the same thing. There is no way to happiness; happiness is the way.”
Thay warns, however, that practicing mindfulness just to be more productive at work, or only to enjoy more material success will leave the practitioner with a pale shadow of awareness compared to what true mindfulness can provide. He suggests,
“If you consider mindfulness as a means of having a lot of money, then you have not touched its true purpose. It may look like the practice of mindfulness but inside there’s no peace, no joy, no happiness produced. It’s just an imitation. If you don’t feel the energy of brotherhood, of sisterhood, radiating from your work, that is not mindfulness.”
As company executives in banking, oil production, agriculture, manufacturing, tech, and other fields strive to be successful, are they missing out on the true peace that might come from preserving an ecosystem, or helping to protect biodiversity? Are these titans of industry reflective of our social and political slant toward ever-increasing spending, a lack of accountability fiscally and environmentally, and the disassociation workers feel from their families and friends while constantly trying to work harder and earn more?
Thay says that all businesses should be conducted in such a way that all the employees can experience happiness. He says that helping to change society for the better can fill us with a sense of accomplishment that doesn’t come from focusing purely on profits.
When top CEOs make 300% more than their workers, and include stock incentives, luxury cars, and healthy expense accounts, how can balance truly be upheld?
When the world’s top 3,000 firms are responsible for over $2.2 trillion in environmental damage, how can we find joy from nature?
When even Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz, who now heads up the software firm Asana calls out the tech industry for a lack of work-life balance, how can anyone find time to practice mindfulness or meditation?
Furthermore, even loss of life is acceptable in the name of profits. The ‘business’ of war has allowed the 100 largest contractors to sell more than $410 billion in arms and military services. Just 10 of those companies sold over $208 billion – while providing the means to kill millions.
Is it any wonder employees are broke, stressed out, and burned out from a lack of balance, no connection with other people, and an incessant work flow that promises very little reward, either financial or otherwise, from their toil?
Then there is the debt-based financial system of the Federal Reserve, propping up this entire show.
But the truth is that we don’t actually need the Federal Reserve. In fact, the greatest period of economic growth in United States history happened during the decades before the Federal Reserve was created.
We also don’t need CEOs who make 300 times what their employees do, or ridiculous government policies which allow the notion of corporations as people, while ignoring the basic needs of real people.
Our courts have extended constitutional protections to the most unconscious among us, preserving a way of life that does not allow true happiness. Our constant aim for success has warped our original goal – to be happy. Isn’t that why people want more money, more power, and more ‘things.’ But as Thay says, this is a false way to attain happiness.
What this quiet Zen monk is trying to tell us is that our entire society is upside down. Our economic system protects mindlessness, not mindfulness.
He says that the primary affliction of our modern civilization is that we don’t know how to handle the suffering inside us and so we attempt to cover it up with all kinds of consumption.
Retailers peddle a host of devices to help us cover up the suffering inside. But unless and until we’re able to face our suffering, we can’t be present and available to life, and happiness will continue to elude us.
How do we change our economic policies so that all employees can be happy? It might help to look at our true goals. It might help to acknowledge the pain we’ve caused thousands of people by perpetuating war for the sake of profits. Success doesn’t automatically equal happiness, not if the definition of success only includes the bottom line.
We can measure success by our fulfillment in life, by the people we’ve been able to touch with our good deeds, or a mindful interaction, by having friends, experiencing love, being able to walk in a forest, or learn how to play a musical instrument.
Perhaps the true goal should be peacefulness instead of happiness, even. As Hanh has said,
“If we are peaceful, if we are happy, we can smile and blossom like a flower, and everyone in our family, our entire society will benefit from our peace.” This could be our new definition of success.