Friday, June 22, 2007

Against Noble Poverty

Noble PovertyFor centuries intellectual sewing circles have praised the simple life as something laudable. Spinoza lived as a modest bachelor and lens grinder until his death. Gandhi embraced poverty as a father would a son. Even Christ commands the faithful to estrange their possessions before facing the Almighty. But what about those of us without genius or superhuman motivation or unnatural luck (something all three of these men had in spades)? What's the virtue of filling the streets with righteous beggars?

There is no inherent advantage to destitution, it makes the dissemination of your message that much harder. Others will have more money and allies giving them the competitive edge. It does no good to fall behind in resources, especially when some of the well-connected desire destruction, not creation. With this in mind the answer is definitely not pure Capitalism. Nothing of worth has ever come from selfish greed for very long. In order to enact real, lasting change it is best to acquire as many resources as possible in order to compete. The dilemma here is if you're collecting wealth then you're taking away from others. This is only true if you sit on it, freeze it in a bank account, hoard it outside the system.

Most of us would feel relieved to be faced with such a moral crossroads - either stockpile my fortune or act philanthropically. But if you enjoy life as a member of the American middle class then you're already far richer than the vast majority of the world's population. We, as average Americans, have a responsibility to not squander our bounty.

The road to true change starts with education. That means read, read, read and read. Sink your money into books and magazines. Know your history, science, religion, economics, anthropology, psychology...the list goes on and on. T.V. is unreliable, and radio is just as bad, but truths can be (and are) published. Devour anything written by Will Durant, Susan Sontag, George Orwell, Voltaire and the ancient Greeks. Choose what makes sense to you and keep your shoulder to the wheel. You want to know what worked for others, what failed in the past and what creative new solutions you can contribute. After you've read enough to form an educated opinion discuss it, argue your views against those who disagree and sharpen your wit against the opposition.

Along the way don't alienate too many people because nobody can change the world on their own, it takes cooperation and a collective effort among like-minded individuals. I bet there's plenty of skills that you'll never master. For me, mathematics is one such field. The gaps in your own education can be bridged by the expertise of others. That's why it's important to gain allies. Pragmatically speaking poverty could only deter this effort. When your survival is in question it's hard to attain meaningful bonds.

At this point you're still no different from your enemies. Of course they want to educate themselves as well and they certainly want to form alliances. But the X-factor here isn't superiority through want but superiority through intentionality. Govern your mind and that's where the changes begin. 500 years before Christ walked the Roman countryside the historical Buddha rejected his position of power and wealth to find enlightenment as a vagabond. But he realized this had no merit and instead found enlightenment through meditation beneath the Bodhi tree.

One of the world's top neurologists, Matthieu Ricard, discovered that meditation reduces activity in the areas of the brain responsible for anger and fear, and is a natural antidote to depression. Longtime practitioners effortlessly passed a series of mental "stress tests" with surprising accuracy, defying William James' assertion that the human mind cannot visualize an object for more than a few seconds before replacing it with a new image. What's most comforting is that those who engaged in small amounts of meditative techniques every day for three weeks saw improvement in happiness, concentration and overall compassion. All of the perfect tools to start combating tyranny.

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