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Dec 30 2011

Occupy the Moment! An Interview with Author Rick Heller

Author Rick Heller is the editor of the online magazine, The New Humanism, a publication of the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University. Rick’s new ebook is a compelling look at the Occupy Movement entitled Occupy the Moment: A Mindful Path to a New Economy. His writing has appeared in The Humanist, Tikkun, Free Inquiry, UUWorld, and Buddhadharma magazines, and in the Boston Globe and Lowell Sun. Rick is a facilitator of the Humanist Mindfulness Group in Cambridge, Massachusetts and has guided mindfulness and loving-kindness meditations at Occupy Boston. He holds a Master in Public Policy degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School, a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University, and a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering degree from MIT.

What was your motivation for writing this book?

RH: The beginnings of this book go back to a dharma talk by Andrew Olendzki that I attended at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center. Olendzki spoke about how climate change was being driven by the contemporary economic system’s drive for more and more growth, and how that could be explained in terms of Buddhist teachings about greed. I had been researching desire from the perspective of neuroscience for a piece I wanted to write, and that all came together in an article that was published in The Humanist this past June. Then, when Occupy exploded—and at its core it’s a protest against greed—I thought it would be useful for people to know what greed really is and how one can overcome it.

You propose an environmentally-oriented “strategy” for redressing social and economic inequality. What are the key elements of this strategy?

RH: Climate change is real, and is driven by human activity. That means that even if the contemporary capitalist model of economic growth could lift most of the world out of poverty, the environmental costs will be daunting. But I also dissent from the view that all we need to do is to redistribute income so that the American middle class can consume more. Instead, I think that middle-income Americans ought to be able to say to themselves, “I have more than most people in previous generations ever did. I need to know how to enjoy what I have.”

Once people have the basics physical needs met—and I do think that government should ensure that—the rest of what we seek is psychological. The whole idea of “getting ahead” has to do with pursuing status. That’s psychological. The Mercedes and the McMansion are goods that are chiefly sought for psychological reasons.

But why not satisfy psychological needs directly mental practices such as mindfulness? That way, we could dispense with all the mining and manufacturing needed to produce goods that meet psychological needs, but have a heavy impact on the environment. I actually think that religiosity among the poor—and I grew up in a low-income home—is a strategy of using psychology to substitute for status-oriented goods. It’s just that mindfulness has a more scientific basis.

To be clear, I would like to see tax rates on the wealthy go back up to where they were say, in the 1960s. I highly doubt that would put a damper on technological innovation or productivity growth, which are driven by factors other than taxes. It’s just that I’d like to see the tax revenue that comes in invested for the benefit of future generations rather than consumed now.

Your book frames the Buddhist principle of “mindfulness” as an important life ethos. What role does mindfulness play in social change?

RH: In using the word mindfulness, I mean to include under its umbrella a number of related strategies, such as the cultivation of compassion, loving-kindness, and sympathetic joy. One of the important things I have learned from my exposure to Buddhism is that these traits can be cultivated.

Progressives often talk about the need for society to act more compassionately. But if people don’t feel compassion, then taxing them and spending the money on social services creates resistance and revolt. We need to teach people to feel more compassionate, and also to experience this as joyful rather than a sacrifice.

Unfortunately, we have been moving in the wrong direction. When last polled, about ¾ of college freshman said that being very well-off financially was a key goal for them. The individualistic goal of personal advancement is clearly a political problem for those who seek social change, since even though the 99 percent outnumber the 1 percent, it appears that a large portion of the 99 percent aspire to join the 1 percent!

Not that I ever wanted to be rich, but the practice of mindfulness has taught me to enjoy simpler pleasures than I imagined. So I hope we can turn young people away from the aspiration toward riches toward an appreciation of the richness of living in a healthy environment and having positive interactions with other people.

You describe yourself as a “secular Buddhist” and secular humanist. How do those belief systems dovetail with each other when it comes to social justice?

RH: The teaching of karma and rebirth in traditional Buddhism can be a barrier to working for social justice. These teachings suggest that there is a supernatural system that takes care of justice, making social action superfluous. I haven’t actually come across that view among Western convert Buddhists whom I’ve met. More common is the individual pursuit of liberation from suffering that doesn’t connect with the larger social picture of what contributes to suffering. There is a Bodhisattva tradition in Buddhism that encourages alleviating the suffering of others along with one’s own. There are “engaged Buddhists” who are active around issues of peace and homelessness. Buddhist communities in the United States are still mostly focused on getting established, but I think that turning outwards, especially at this moment when many young people are looking for alternatives to the pursuit of riches, would be a positive development.

Since writing the book, I’ve also gotten to know some people from India who are familiar through mindfulness through their own traditions. So I’d like to get mindfulness out of the Buddhist box and into the secular category both as a nod to humanism and in the interest of greater inclusion of all traditions that practice mindfulness. So I’m advocating “engaged mindfulness.”

In your introduction you state that you are “queasy about civil disobedience” vis-à-vis Occupy. What alternative model of protest would you propose for the future of Occupy?

RH: What I did not anticipate before Occupy, and have learned from it, is that occupying these public spaces for an extended period of time is a lot more powerful that just having a protest march and going home. Although the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of people to assemble, it doesn’t explicitly guarantee that the people will have a place they can assemble. The wealthy can rent out hotels and conference centers when they want to coordinate political action. But for the poor and unemployed, simply having a space to meet and continuity that helps in making plans is a real obstacle. It’s clear that the Occupy movement would not have gotten off the ground without the encampments.

So I hope Occupy does come back in the spring to have a strong and enduring presence in public spaces, and especially at universities. The Occupy protests started out in downtown financial centers and were only beginning to spread to campuses as the fall semester wound down. I hope schools will become more active in the spring. In particular, I think economics departments and business schools are some of the major culprits in creating the ideology that has lead to greater inequality and to the financial crash, so there should be no shortage of activity to be done on campus. Everything should remain non-violent, of course, both for reasons of principle and pragmatism.

But while it’s important to protest what we’re against, it’s also critical for Occupy and its sympathizers to envision what we’re for. As they say, you can’t beat something with nothing. These ideas don’t necessarily have to be in the form of proposals that can be passed into law. If you look back at the protests of the 1960s, I think their most enduring legacy is in changes to the culture rather than politics. So how can we change our culture to place less emphasis on money and more on compassion and loving-kindness? How can we get people to break their addictions to more and more consumption so that we leave something for future generations?

Rick Heller’s book is available at Amazon.

 

1 comment

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  1. 1
    Crommunist

    Fantastic interview. The bit about ‘mindfulness’ and the need for us to prioritize being happy with what we have over the endless quest to consume more resonates with me a great deal. We know that above ~75k annual income, people don’t report higher levels of happiness – can that be the kind of statement we can rally around when teaching our young people what’s important in life?

    Looking forward to copping the book and reading in greater depth.

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