Posted inDharma, Other Teachings

The Dharma of Alienation: Part 1 of 2

May 9, 2015

New media technologies sometimes encourage a kind of “hyper-individualism” because we spend less and less time meeting and interacting with other people – often not even with members of our own families.

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We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.  – Thich Nhat Hanh

The English word “alienation” is from a Latin word that means “to be other.” To be alienated is to feel separate from. There are three issues involved in this: Who (or what) does one feel separate from? Why does one feel separate? And what to do about it?

Since alienation seems to be increasing as a social problem, it is important to realize that alienation can sometimes be appropriate. If we had the misfortune to live in Nazi Germany, for example, feeling alienated from the government, and from the many people who supported that government, might be a good thing.

Although we are fortunate not to live in Hitler’s Germany, it is still important to consider what it is about modern society that causes some people, especially young people, to feel alienated. Alienation has been a recognized problem in the West for some time, but now it is increasing in non-Western societies, including East Asia. The great importance of family values in Confucian cultures seemed to provide some resistance to alienation, but recently Asian families too are finding it difficult to resist social forces that make some people feel isolated and want to withdraw from personal interaction.

What are those social forces? Two in particular stand out, in my opinion. The first is “moneytheism,” which is a pun on monotheism, the belief in one supreme god. Today, increasingly, the supreme god is money. The globalization of consumerism means that the most important value has become making and spending (lots of) money. Since this god tends to replace all other gods, you could even say that consumerism is the new religion – in fact, the most successful religion of all time, since it is winning new converts more quickly than any other religion ever has.

The conversion techniques of this religion are extraordinarily effective and persuasive. As a teacher I know that whatever I can do with my students in class has little effect compared to the missionary influences that surround all of us outside class: attractive advertising messages on television and radio, and in magazines and trains and buses, grab our attention and urge us to “buy this if you want to be happy.” This promises another kind of salvation – consumption is the good life! According to Buddhism, however, this seduction is deceptive, because this solution to unhappiness (dukkha) does not really work. Strange, isn’t it: it’s always the next thing we buy that will make us happy.

Of course, moneytheism and consumerism do not necessarily imply alienation, but they do tend to work against the kind of family and community life that traditionally emphasized group values such as cooperation and sharing. Instead, they encourage competition (“I have more than you do”) and having rather than being.

Recently psychologists such as Dan Gilbert, a Harvard professor who wrote Stumbling on Happiness (2006), and economists such as Richard Layard, chief advisor to the U.K. government and author of Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (2005), have been studying what actually makes people happy. They have discovered that money is important when you are poor, but once a very basic level of comfort is achieved the most important factor is relationships with other people.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, a University of California psychology professor and author of The How of Happiness (2008), has also been researching what happy people do differently from others who are not happy. She has found that happy people don’t waste their time dwelling on unpleasant things. They are also not bothered by the success of others, because they aren’t preoccupied with comparing themselves to others. From a Buddhist point of view, all these findings make a lot of sense.

Moneytheism and consumerism would not be so successful without another social influence: new media technologies, which make it possible for each of us to live in a private fantasy bubble. Today each family member often may have his or her own personal TV, DVD player, computer, cell phone, and so forth. Increasingly, each of us dwells in our own cocoon, which we construct by choosing which films and TV shows to watch, what music to play, what Web sites to surf. Sometimes this encourages a kind of “hyper-individualism” because we spend less and less time actually meeting and interacting with other people – often not even with members of our own families.

Our experience of the world is increasingly mediated by these new technologies, which means that we are exposed to many more stories about the world which tend to repeat the same plots. These stories do more than entertain us: they affect us unconsciously, as well. By providing models of who we could be and how we should live, they are showing us what is important in life. When we watch the same type of stories over and over, it’s difficult not to identify with their characters and their values. Unfortunately, those models are usually quite different from the examples provided by someone like the Buddha or Jesus.

Moreover, the models that the new media provide are impossible for us to live up to. For example, the young women on TV are very sexy (although often unhealthily thin), the men much more handsome than I am, the musicians play and sing much better than I can, the talk-show hosts are more clever and wittier. All of them are more famous and wealthy than I can hope to be. In effect, the world we see on our screens becomes the real world, those people are real, and in comparison with them I am nothing. No wonder, then, that many young people today – who have grown up with these new technologies, and are therefore more susceptible to them – end up with a low self-image and become depressed. No wonder, too, that some of them want to withdraw from the uncomfortable pressures of really real life, such as preparing for university entrance exams, or coping with a high-stress job.

This brings us to another part of the problem: the triviality and frustration of the present educational system, which naturally alienates young people, in my opinion. Having been a professor in a Japanese university, I can understand why so many students become disillusioned with the whole process. The main lesson the entrance exam system teaches them is that (memorizing, exam-oriented) education is not only difficult and stressful but boring and meaningless in itself – in short, something not worth pursuing any more than you have to. By the time they make it to university many students are exhausted and need to relax before graduating and going on to perform their (also very stressful) productive role in society. Just at the time they are (or should be) mature enough to start thinking about the most interesting things – such as contemplating the really important questions for understanding themselves and their society – university students are not interested. This is both a personal and a social tragedy.

Click to read Part 2 of the Dharma of Alienation.

 

David R. Loy is Besl Professor of Ethics/Religion and Society at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. His specialty is comparative philosophy and religion, particularly comparing Buddhism with modern Western thought. His recent books include The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory and Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution.

The Dharma of Alienation was originally published in the January-March 2010 issue of Dharma World.

Image Credit: Buy the whole wagon by Phillip Sidek, CC0 1.0, from Flickr.com
Featured Image Credit: Sense of Alienation, by Gene Lin, CC By 2.0, from Flickr.com

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