The world we see all around us has been put together by economic forces: just about everything we see in the socially-created world is because of economic forces. If it isn’t there to make money then what’s the point of it? We could of course agree with the above statement happily enough and yet at the same time not consider it a matter of any great importance. We may not see any problem with this at all; we are after all so very used to this way of life that we can’t see the world existing in any other way. Economics has been ‘God’ for a very long time now. Money has made the world go round for a very long time now…
And yet what is meant by this thing we call ‘economics’? When we look into it we can see straightaway that it is nothing more than ‘a system that is based on the manipulation of resources for personal gain’. No one can argue with this – that’s what capitalism is all about, after all! At the very root of economic theory is the tried-and-trusted idea that the motivation to personally benefit ourselves is the strongest and most reliable motivational force there is, which – goes the argument – makes it the ideal psychological drive to tie everything to. Whether this is really true or not is highly dubious however – if our motivation isn’t particularly wholesome, then neither will the outcome be! This goes beyond ethics and morality – it is starting to be accepted in the mainstream scientific world that what fulfils us the most – i.e. what is ‘healthiest’ for us – is not to live on the basis of narrow self-interest but on the basis of compassion and empathy, which doesn’t serve the interest of our way of life. Again, this isn’t anything to do with morality or ethics, it just seems to be the way that we are built. Now it isn’t of course exactly ‘breaking news’ as far as the great religions of the world are concerned, but it’s only very recently that a study of the anatomy of the brain shows that when the area of the brain known colloquially as in the centre – otherwise referred to as the medial prefrontal cortex.
According to Rebecca Gladding in This is your brain on meditation, it is also called ‘the self-referencing centre’ because it is the part of the brain are used to process information related to us. When the ‘me-centre’ is linked to strongly with other centres, such as the reactivity-producing amygdala, then this is bad news, according to Rebecca Gladding; it’s bad news because we’re always going to be taking things personally and ‘over-reacting’ accordingly. In general, it is clear that when relate to the world (and other people) in a ‘me-centred way’ (i.e. a way that is ‘all about us’) then we won’t have a very good time. We aren’t going to get on particularly well with other people either, obviously enough! This is a modality of functioning (or a ‘modality of being in the world’) that shouldn’t be overly encouraged or promoted, therefore! It certainly shouldn’t be made ‘top dog’…
Very obviously, if we are always operating on the basis of self-interest then we aren’t going to feel very fulfilled in themselves; if it were true that self-interest were a ‘healthy motivation’ then the richest people in the world would also be the happiest people and this just isn’t so! We don’t actually need to be experts on neuro-anatomy to see this – it’s as obvious as a nose on your face! How could we not see it? This is the most basic lesson in life there is; we learn it in pre-school and kindergarten – it’s the lesson called ‘learning to share our toys with the other kids’. If we never do learn to share our toys (or, even worse, if we learn to do the opposite and steal all the other kids’ toys so that we have all the toys ourselves) then this is not a very good prediction for us having a happy life! No one is going to be stupid enough to argue with this – how can I be incorrigibly self-centred and yet also be a happy person? There isn’t a person in the world who would go along with this, if they were to actually sit down and think about it!
This – as we keep saying – is just common sense – if we think that the world revolves around us then we are in for a rude awakening. If we think that life is all about ‘us securing our narrow advantage’ then we going to have a thoroughly miserable existence. And yet the message we receive every single day from this commercially-orientated world of ours is that the world ought to revolve around us and our wins; the message is that life absolutely is all about securing our own personal advantage. No one can deny this that this is the case – that’s how the consumerist paradigm works, after all – it works by having consumers being highly motivated to play the game that they’re supposed to be playing, and consume! Money is what makes the world go round, after all, as the song says.
Again, this is most emphatically not a contentious issue – we all know very well that consumerism works by getting people to operate on the basis of personal gain, and putting this uninspiring motivation on a pedestal. Such words as ‘successful’ and ‘winner’ say it all – we can only think well of ourselves when we are visibly better than those around us at obtaining personal gain. This is the measure of us as human beings, this is what determines our worth or lack of it. It sounds like we’re going over old ground here but the simple point that we’re making is this – the inbuilt structure of the world (or system) that we live in guides very strongly in the direction of operating on the basis of personal advantage in everything we do, whilst our actual mental health and well-being lie in exactly the opposite direction.
The way that the current set-up works is for each and every one of us to be acting and thinking as entirely ‘self-interested beings’. This is beyond any doubt, this is a ‘given’. We can very easily understand why it is that we are being constantly ‘tilted’ in this direction; why it is that we are being ‘formatted by society to be narcissists’. That’s what is required by ‘the current set-up’. There’s nothing else our particular society can do; that’s the world we have elected – however unwittingly – to go down. That’s the nature of the game that we are playing. Pragmatically speaking, all we can do is ‘go along with it’ – the argument is ‘irresistible’, so to speak. And yet at the same time, when we do ‘go along with it’ this is to the very great detriment of our mental health!
Our response to this dilemma (and ‘dilemma’ is putting it mildly) is to ignore it, is to pretend that it doesn’t exist. We never really talk about it, either on the grass-roots level or – unsurprisingly – on the level of public policy. We do hear regular items about how immersion in social media is destroying our ‘resilience’ and turning us all into ‘snowflakes’, etc. etc. , or how sad it is that no one talks to strangers on the bus anymore because we are all too busy looking at our mobile phones. These are all well-known and deeply comfortable topics – they’re comfortable because they are of a manageable size, they are ‘discrete’ and therefore non-threatening issues, but it’s not mobile phones or social media that’s the real problem here but our whole way of life. The set-up that we are caught up in creates mental suffering for us and prevents us from ever expressing (or knowing) our true potential. The system we are part of is, by its very nature, hostile to our mental health, inimical to our true well-being. We just don’t like to see this.
No one can say that this is something that we sometimes discuss, either in private or in public. It isn’t. We daily hear leaders of state pontificating about this and that, discussing this weighty matter or that weighty matter, and it all sounds very serious, but at no time does anyone ever point out the fact that the commercially-orientated way of life which we have opted for (the way of life which in which our primary role is that of a consumer) is fundamentally inimical to our true well-being, that it stunts and distort us and prevents us from ‘being what we could be’. No one ever points out that it is impossible to be in this system and yet at the same time grow as the individuals we truly are. And if we refuse to acknowledge this biggest issue of all, the real elephant in the living room, then how can we possibly make out that we are being ‘serious’ or ‘responsible’ about anything? We might as well dress up as clowns and go to work in the circus – that at least would be an honest profession,, that course of action would at least would have some integrity.
This is an extraordinary challenge – we live in a world that is fundamentally hostile to ‘who we really are’ and yet always almost always refuse to see it. This certainly isn’t a situation that we can afford to get too complacent about. The world we live in is a world that conditions us to look outside of ourselves for everything that is good, everything that is worthwhile. This has two linked consequences –  is that we automatically identify with a contained or isolated sense of self, a tightly-wrapped sense of identity, and  is that we are very strongly motivated to act so as to obtain and secure all these ‘good things’, and this misguided motivation is what powers the commercially-orientated way of life and keeps it going. This system we are part of has one agenda and only one agenda and that is to maintain itself or perpetuate itself, and the only way it can do this is to keep us locked firmly into the position of the need-driven and tightly-defined self that always has to be looking out for its own interests.
We all know this well enough on one level, it’s just that we can’t afford to focus on it. It’s not pragmatically useful (on the short-term) to focus on it. All the pressure is on us to succeed within the terms of the gain that we have been inducted into from an early age. We have invested so very much in this game that it no longer seems like a game – it’s not a game to us, it’s everything. It’s all we know). We have waded through blood so much that going back is as painful as going forward, as Shakespeare says in Macbeth. We are locked into the contradictory position of ‘looking for our freedom on the outside’ and the more we do this the more unfree we become in real terms. This is a classic example of a ‘Chinese finger trap,’ as Alan Watts points out somewhere – the more we try to free ourselves the more trapped we become! Society happily provides us with limitless ways and means of trying to free ourselves, all of which embroil us all the more in the mess, but no way of actually recognizing our the true nature of our predicament. Freedom is there, but it’s not to be found on the outside…