Spending and Being Spent
Sermon for 1st Unitarian Society of Denver, by Rev. Mike Morran, delievered January 2, 2011
We are going to have some fun this month because our Whole Souul Living Theme is Economy. And I know, I know. Economy? What does that have to do with church? Or with a spiritual life? Or with anything that I come to my religious community to experience or hear about?
Oh, but economy is rich and deep, and a subject absolutely worthy or our attention. And although we will reference the world of goods and services, labor markets and capital, we will be exploring economy in a more holistic sense. Consider the origins of the word economy from the ancient Greek. The first part, Eco, comes from the Greek Oikos, and it refers to the support of a household, and specifically to the total systems that would support and sustain an extended family. Every family had some close tie to the land, which everyone understood was the primary source of food and wealth, but Oikos was about the totality of how the people were supported and sustained…, by the land, by each other, and by the gods. We still find this same root in words like Ecology, and Ecosystems.
The second part of economy comes from the Greek Nomos, which refers to the act, the law, or the affecting principle behind something. We see this ending in words like Astronomy (the laws that govern stars and their behavior), Autonomy (the laws that govern individuals and their behavior), and so on. So eco-nomy is about the laws that govern our systems of support, and for our purposes, it applies to everything. Not just our financial and material support, but our relational, emotional, and spiritual support.
Turns out this works just fine because everything has some economy to it! Everything comes with a trade-off. Just a week ago I was doing some counseling with a younger couple, and this extremely talented young man was talking about his great aspirations for a career in music, and being torn by his equally strong aspirations to be a great husband and father. And even at his young age was beginning to sense that there were going to be hard choices to make, and how do you balance these things? How does one prioritize?
It reminded me of a quote from E.B. White, "I wake each morning torn between two impulses: the impulse to savor the world, and the impulse to save it. It makes it hard to plan the day."
Here’s a definition of economy that I think fits the bill perfectly. Economy is the correct and effective use of available resources. Which leads us pretty much to the heart of the issue. In your order of service there is a box on the inside page about Whole Souul Living, and it notes that at any given time you have exactly two quantities to spend, right, your time, and your energy. And it notes that these are going to be spent no matter what you do. So, what are you spending and being spent for? What gets the best of your time and your energy? What are your hopes, goals, and purposes in life? And what will you, or what do you exchange for them? Cause you can’t do everything!
Maybe the most obvious tie between spiritual practice and economy is in the idea of karma, and is a little more subtle than it first appears. Most people tend to think of good karma or bad karma, and in some Hindu writings that would be exactly the case. But Buddhists tend to avoid passing judgments like good and bad. The Buddhist karmic principle basically says that what you put out to the world doesn’t just disappear, but goes out from you in affecting circles like ripples on a pond.
Everything is connected to everything. So everything we do and think, the choices we make, the degree of compassion or the lack of compassion that we exhibit in our lives raises or lowers the level of those qualities for everyone. And we live in a world affected by the actions and thoughts of everyone else. That’s the karma. Give out love and compassion, you might (or might not) get love and compassion back in an immediate sense, but know you have put love and compassion into the world. Put contempt, distrust, dishonesty, scorn, or unnecessary violence into the world, and you might or might not get it back in any immediate sense, but the universe will feel it, and the energy from those thoughts and actions are now part of everything. In this way, so the theory goes, you either sweeten or poison the world that everyone, including you, has to now live in.
So, Karma is the broad idea that nothing happens in a vacuum, but every action or thought is linked to an infinite series of interconnected causes and effects. This comes from another Buddhist principle that all things co-arise. That is…, everything is dependent on everything else: our thoughts come from past experience and sensory input; our emotions come from our biology, past events and relationships; our bodies dependent on nourishment from the life and death of other living things. And this applies even to the point of saying that since neither the doer nor the deed can exist independent of the other, there is no meaningful distinction between the two. Joanna Macy wrote, "The basic issue here is the connection between what we do and what we are... not only does it matter, it molds us."
Apply the idea of reincarnation and the karmic principle holds true. You will still experience the world that you help to create, but it will be in this and in all your future lifetimes too. Or in biblical terms, you reap what you sow, but the route might be somewhat indirect So let’s see if I can link this idea to the global economy.
In economics, they have this really interesting idea called “the invisible hand,” first penned by Adam Smith. It’s a way of thinking about how the world works, and it’s almost a mystical idea because even though lots of economists use and argue about the phrase, no one claims to really understand it. The general idea is that as long as everyone acts in accordance
with their own self-interest: that is, as long as buyers and consumers pressure markets to increase supply and lower the prices of goods and services, and as long as producers pressure markets to control supplies and raise prices, then there comes into being a kind of invisible, guiding hand that will tend to increase the productivity and the standards of living for everyone.
Probably the best example of the invisible hand came from another economist named Leonard Read. In 1958, he wrote an essay called, “I, Pencil,” and it is widely considered a classic. It is short, quite pointed, you can find it on the internet, and I highly recommend that you look it up. Read asserts that the common yellow pencil is nothing short of a miracle, worthy of the highest wonder and awe. You see, he says, despite the fact that the world creates something like a billion of these a year, and literally millions of people are involved in the process, no one on earth knows how to make one. No one.
The wood is logged in Northern California, and sent to a lumber mill in Oregon. The lead is made from graphite mined in Sri Lanka, mixed with clay from Mississippi, treated with ammonium hydroxide, then wetted with animal fats reacted with sulfuric acid, and heated in candililla wax from Mexico. The yellow pigment in the paint is made from Cadmium, and the six coats of lacquer that every pencil receives comes from refined castor oil, which at some point was grown by castor bean farmers. The eraser is made by reacting rapeseed oil from Indonesia with rubber from South America and pumice from Italy. The ferrule is made of brass, which is smelted and machined copper and zinc from some other part of the world, and so on, and so on, and so on. So that that the graphite miner in Sri Lanka and the company president in New Orleans, and the bean farmer in Brazil, and the mill worker in Oregon, and the chemist in London, and the salesman in Moscow, none of whom know each other, and each having highly specialized trades that the others know nothing of, and yet all of them work together in an astonishingly complex and astonishingly harmonious web of cooperation and connection to create and distribute something that none of them even wants, and only a tiny handful of them even know what the final result will be. No one on earth knows all there is to know about how a pencil is made, yet pencils are everywhere, and we take them completely for granted!
Economists like to point out that this is only the simplest of examples, and they invite us to consider all of the myriad goods and services that define the modern world: from agriculture to pharmaceuticals, from cell phones to dress shoes, from the gasoline that burns in your car to the carbon copies in your checkbook, from the clothes on your body to the turbines that drive jet planes across the sky... Economists say that it is nothing less than the invisible hand that makes all this possible. And you are connected to people and places and skills and technologies that you have no idea of, and they don’t know about you, and no one can explain how it all manages to work together. It just does.
This way of thinking about the economy, by the way, at its best, is the essential theory and belief behind those who advocate politically for an unfettered and unregulated capitalism.
But here’s my question, and why I’ve taken all of this precious time to talk about karma and economic theory. If the invisible hand of capitalism is driven by all the myriad players acting in economic self-interest, then what would happen if some critical mass of people began to understand that economic self-interest is only one kind of self-interest, and maybe we should consider that a different kind of economy might be possible? And maybe karma is one way of thinking about that, but there are other ways, too. What if, in addition to economic and material self-interest, we began to act in ways that propagated our spiritual and relational self-interest, maybe where the currency is kindness, wholeness, honesty, connection, and love?
I’m not suggesting that we dismantle capitalism, as if that were possible. Though I’m not sure how we start teaching the invisible hand about global warming, human caused extinctions, limited resources, overpopulation, and long-term sustainability in a larger ecosystem that is essentially closed.
I am suggesting that the central function of a religious community is to take seriously a different kind of economy; the economy of soul, if you will. The economy of wholeness, connection, and spiritual well-being, for ourselves, and for our larger community… Right? Because we are all connected, woven into an invisible, spiritual unity that holds us, and binds
us, and heals us, completely independent of whether any goods, services, or money changes hands.
And what kind of world economy might be created, what kind of karma might be generated if we made our daily decisions with the awareness that our thoughts and actions affect not just the surface but the soul of the people we love? Affect the whole emotional field of our church community, and maybe even the soul of the graphite miner in Sri Lanka? (In some small but very real way.)
I raise these issues because we get to make some choices about how we spend our time and our energy. We can choose to become more relationally, spiritually conscious. We have some say in just what our lives will be spent for, and everything has a trade-off. Working 70 hours a week is going to make it pretty hard to be a devoted mom or dad. Being a devoted mom or dad is going to make it pretty hard to work 70 hours a week. Being consumed by shopping, or cruising the internet, or longing for a bigger house, or a newer car, or that next vacation, or cheap sex, or whatever…, is going to make it harder to be fully present to the people you love, or to work for justice, or be connected to your community, or to God, or to whatever your deeper, truer soul is longing for…, whatever you were put on this earth to do or to be.
For a really concrete example, how many of you spent more than you should have on presents and gifts for the holidays? I think that’s great! I did too! And the newspapers say this is somehow good for the whole economy. And something about the holidays makes a whole bunch of us spend much more freely to buy things than we ordinarily would. But I wonder…, what about spending ourselves? In other words, if we spend freely to buy things, at whatever level our material economics allows us to, how freely do we spend ourselves? How freely do you spend your soul, your being, your presence, and your love, on the people you care about?
And that raises still more questions. If working for a living and earning a paycheck is what we do to refill our wallets and bank accounts with money to spend, then what do we do to refill our spirits, our soul energy, our capacity for love, so that those are resources we have at our disposal to spend? And how much of our precious life energy do we devote to refilling our spiritual bank account?
And isn’t that the beauty of this alternate economy? Unlike petroleum, isn’t love a renewable resource? Isn’t it true that the more we love, the more we can love, the more love there is in the world, and isn’t that a precious and miraculous thing? And what kind of invisible hand might come miraculously into being through that kind of economic investment? Gets me all tingly and inspired just thinking about it!
I close with a parable, said to come from the Desert Fathers of the second and third centuries.
Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and, according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: but I don’t know what else to do. Still, with all of my practices, still I struggle to know God. Please tell me, what else can I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten burning flames. He said: Why not be changed into fire?