In the grip of a recession we want economic growth, but we also fear its consequences. Is there an alternative and what light can Buddhism and mindfulness practice shed?

Thought for the Day 13 October, 2011 

As unemployment rises and living standards fall, pre-2008 abundance seems like a vanished epoch. Most of us yearn to see the GDP figures ticking upwards again, bringing back the lost jobs and services.  But not long ago, when the economy was steaming ahead, many of us were asking if continuing economic growth was really desirable or sustainable. We saw people working longer and longer hours at the cost of their family lives and mental health; and we worried that affluence was producing an increasingly materialistic consumer society with epidemic levels of stress and depression.

The contradiction between the apparent need for growth and our awareness of its harmful consequences suggests that something more fundamental needs to change than just getting the economy moving. I think we also need to address the underlying attitudes that have got us here, and one way is to explore how broad cultural forces impact on our individual experience.

For some years I’ve been involved in the growing crossover between the Buddhist practices of mindfulness and meditation and mainstream healthcare, working with people to address the root causes of stress and anxiety. One cause of stress is the demand for long hours of intensive productivity, but we’re learning that the pressure we put on ourselves is just as important. A competitive environment encourages us to compare ourselves with others and we often worsen things by judging ourselves harshly. We validate ourselves through what others think of us and what we do, and therefore we drive ourselves to keep on doing things. Research shows that even when fallow time comes we often can’t let go of this doing mode. We seek out activity and our minds keeps whirring. The alternative, learned, for example, through mindfulness practice, is a non-utilitarian mindset in which we find contentment in simple things like nature, friendship or our own company, and allow ourselves simply to experience whatever’s happening even if it’s difficult.

I think the frantic, driven attitudes I’m describing connect to broader social and economic problems. For example, overvaluing achievement means that successful people hoard working hours and wages while others are poor and idle. We know that redistributing the workload and resources would leave everyone happier, but such a change is only possible if we can address as a society the ingrained attitudes that we notice in our individual experience. I think that’s always important, even in a recession. If we can’t be richer, perhaps we can be wiser and smarter, reflecting that abundance and scarcity aren’t just a matter of economics.