July 7, 2022

Kensho Moment, a Quantum Transformation

In 1929, when Herbert Hoover was the secretary of commerce, he authored a reported called the Committee on Recent Economic Changes of the President’s Conference on Unemployment.

It was the tail end of the Roaring Twenties, and the administration feared it had an economic predicament on its hands. The worry wasn’t that the American people were suffering from want. The worry was that they were suffering from satisfaction. Folks appeared to have pretty much all they needed. They seemed — God forbid — happy. This was a disastrous state of affairs. Because consumer capitalism is a whack-a-mole game that runs on craving; as soon as a desire is met, another pops up to replace it. Because (as the Buddhists have long pointed out) desires are insatiable, the game never ends. The moment you have all you want, there’s no need to keep buying stuff. Hoover feared that if people became happy, the economy would collapse.

That Hoover paper, new to me, was one of the many surprises sewn into the lining of Ruth Ozeki’s new novel The Book of Form and Emptiness. It’s a fact that does the work of fiction — and philosophy. No Buddhist priest worth her salt (and Ozeki is just that) could fail to point out the irony that the entire contemporary Western project teeters on.

“This is what capitalism does best, right?” she told the journalist Ezra Klein on his podcast not long ago. “It first creates this enormous appetite for things, and then it tells us that whatever we have is not enough. I mean, I think that is a form of madness. It seems to me there’s no question about that.”

Ozeki has been out of Japan for awhile. But the country is clearly still in her. What Japan seems to do to you — for you — if you let it, is it infuses you with a kind of Shinto sensibility of care for the world. That’s pretty much the opposite of consumer capitalism. When you make things cheaper to throw out than to repair, that element of care goes out the window.

“The older I get, the more I appreciate how, when I own an object, I have to take care of it, I have to be responsible to it,” Ozeki said. “And so that in itself makes me want less and less.”

At some level we’re all trying, pretty much continuously, to come up with a grand unifying theory to explain the world and maybe fix its shortcomings. At a fraught historical moment like this, Japan emerges as a beacon, and we could do worse than to look to its culture for clues.

“Here’s what explains Japanese longevity,” I once heard someone propose. “It’s not the diet or the exercise or the social bonds. The elders are just trying to hang around to remind younger generations of the ancient traditions before they’re totally buried under go-go capitalism.” Consumer capitalism is the snakebite, and the elders are holding the antidote.

If the ur-problem of our age is disrespect — for one another’s opinions, for the Earth itself — then the tonic is surely respect. And think how many Japanese traditions have that baked in.

Like:

Omoiyari. Anticipating the needs of others. This is empathy with the dimension of care dialed up. Thoughtfulness revealed in acts that express it. In the West, the loftiest moral gesture is to apologize for your negligence; but if you practice omoiyari, there’s nothing to apologize for.

Or:

Mono no aware. The pathos of things in this moment. Everything is ephemeral. A spirit of mono no aware hangs over the Japanese tea ceremony. It all shall pass. Look around at who you are with. This precise configuration of people place and thing will never come again. It is a sacred moment. Pay attention.

Or:

Mottainai. Don’t waste what still has use in it: food, money, time, talent. Eat it, save it, recycle it, honor it. Turn the light out in your kitchen, and the light on in your grandfather.

Zen Buddhism seems to offer a crucial piece of the puzzle of getting out of this mess alive.

When I was working on my 2007 book U-Turn, I fell into a data hole. The book is about the strange phenomenon of the “secular epiphany,” as I called it. It’s a kind of wake-up call. You figuratively (and sometimes literally) sit up in bed in the middle of the night and go, Oh shit. The job I’m doing — the life I’m living — is indefensible. And you pledge a full-on course correction, committing to spend the rest of your life trying to undo the damage. The people it’s happened to describe it as a kind of religious experience — even though they themselves often aren’t religious.

What was going on here? Who could explain it in scientific terms — or at least make a solid conjecture?

No one seemed to have a clue.

Except for one guy: a neurologist at the University of New Mexico. James Austin, a Harvard-trained scientist and Zen Buddhist, knew exactly what I was describing.

Buddhists in the Rinzai Zen tradition call it “kensho” — a flash of insight. But insight doesn’t quite capture it: it’s more a sudden deep apprehension of what is, and what needs to be done. (Further down the same road lies the concept of “satori” — a more advanced degree of awakening.)

Austin’s research had linked kensho to a brain event — just some bioelectrical weather in the right temporal/parietal junction regions. It can’t be predicted and it’s not clear what causes it. But when it happens, it is felt as the mother of all “aha” moments, a profound, big-picture empathic shift. I called these moments “wake-up calls.” Austin calls them moments of “quantum change.”

They used to say of the boxer Rocky Marciano, “When he hits you, you stay hit.” When quantum change happens to people, they stay changed.

That was the story of Virgil Butler, a factory-floor worker in an Arkansas slaughterhouse who one day had just suddenly seen one live chicken too many coming at him down the conveyer belt — and walked out of there to devote the rest of his life to animal-rights activism. It was the story of John Perkins, who worked as an international loan shark, arranging financing at extortionate rates to developing countries (when they defaulted, US-based resource companies would swoop in and seize their assets). Perkins one day had a crisis of conscience, said a few Hail Marys, walked away from that life and moved his family to the Canary Islands, never to return. It was also the story of Ray Anderson, head of a multinational carpet manufacturer (and big environmental polluter). The night before he was to give a boilerplate to shareholders, Anderson had a road-to-Damascus moment. Instead of greenwashing up there on stage, he came clean. “What we do is unconscionable,” he said. “Someday people like me will end up in jail.” He pledged to totally revamp the company toward full recycling and “zero waste.” (He pretty much succeeded.)

All these tales had one thing in common: after these folks bugged out and burned the boats, all of them were finally happy. Happy in exactly the way Herbert Hoover was so deeply worried about.

There didn’t seem to be anything unusual about the U-Turners I wrote about. Nothing that would explain their sudden impulsive, explosive gesture. No underlying medical conditions, no special trauma in their background. Which suggests that under the right conditions it could happen to any of us.

And that leads to the most important question of all:

Could a whole culture, even the whole developed world, experience a kensho moment, a quantum transformation?

One that wakes us up to the destructiveness of indulging every consumer craving, and alights in us something like that Shinto sensibility of care for the world?

We’d better hope the answer is Yes.

Bruce Grierson

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