Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Class Consciousness: The Spiritual Cost of Unemployment

By Joshua Eaton
Originally Published at State of Formation
April 1st, 2011
The past year has probably been the hardest of my life. After graduating with a Master's of Divinity in Buddhist studies from Harvard University in May 2010, I've submitted over one hundred job applications and talked to countless personal and professional contacts, resulting in a grand total of three job interviews.

When I graduated I had no illusions about finding a high-paying job in my field, but even the very idea of a full-time job with health care now seems ambitious.

Needless to say, money has been a problem. I've burnt through my savings, maxed out my credit cards, and accepted a lot of support from my working-class family. I've rented a friend's tiny spare room because I could not afford to sign a lease, done Tibetan translation at a Buddhist monastery in exchange for room and board, and stayed with my girlfriend long enough to start getting mail at her apartment. (To Jennifer's roommates: When I get my own place again, you can sleep on my couch anytime!) Come April, I'll finally have to bite the bullet and move back in with my family in Georgia until I can get a permanent, full-time job.

What's surprised me most about unemployment, however, hasn't been the havoc that it's wreaked on my bank account, or my credit score, or even my relationships, but on my emotional life. I tend toward anxiety and insecurity, but the past year has seen me deeply depressed and jealous—emotions that I rarely feel. The most disturbing thing is how bitter I've become. I've always been a cynic, but unemployment has left me positively caustic.

I tend to think of Buddhist practice as a way of cultivating a mind so stable that such storms leave it unscathed, and I often judge myself harshly when I fail to live up to that standard—when the storm breaks through my mental roof, leaking in toxic emotions, and I'm too exhausted, or cynical, or just plain lazy to apply the Buddha's teachings.

Suffering and delusion are always my suffering and delusion. They are always personal, always private, and always necessitate a private remedy. What I often forget, though, is just how much social, political, and economic structures really do affect our ability to practice the dharma.

The life story of the famous Tibetan saint Milarepa is an excellent example. When his rich, prestigious father died, Milarepa's aunt and uncle took all of the inheritance for themselves, leaving him and his family destitute. They wore rags, ate food unfit for livestock, were covered in lice, and had to toil at hard, manual labor just to survive. When Milarepa's mother couldn't stand it anymore, she asked her son to murder his aunt and uncle with black magic, threatening to kill herself in front of him if he failed. "As for me," she told him, " . . . the only thing I can do is to weep for very sorrow and grief."

The Buddha's teachings are wonderful, and they can be applied under any circumstances. Still, there are some social, economic, and political circumstances that limit our ability to put them into practice. Could Milarepa's mother have cultivated loving-kindness and compassion toward her sister- and brother-in-law? Of course. Was that as possible after their greed reduced her and her children to abject poverty as it was before? Not hardly. Her destitution—and the social, political, and economic structures that allowed it—limited her ability to practice the dharma.

Asvaghosa's Buddhacarita, verses 13:4 and 13:69, describes the Buddha's enlightenment as an attempt to conquer the realms of samsara, to usurp their sovereign power. This comparison between the structures of society and the structures of samsara is hardly accidental. The Buddha's own descriptions of samsara include the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination, and the abhidharma literature. Here, samsara is not individual, but structural; it is not my personal problem, but an impersonal system in which we're nearly all caught up.

I've been relatively lucky this past year; I've had wonderful friends and family, a Harvard degree, and a credit card to help me through. There are thousands of Americans for whom the Great Recession has been much, much harder. What answer can American Buddhism—with its emphasis on personal spiritual discipline—give to their suffering?

There is immeasurable value in developing our personal practice so that we can deal with anger when it comes up, but we also need to recognize how much our economic circumstances, or our political environment, or our social status can affect our ability to do so. In the Bodhicaryavatara, verse 6:1, Shantideva says,

"All the good works gathered in a thousand ages,
. . . A single flash of anger shatters them."

We need to understand that when we support political, economic, or social structures that engender hatred, anxiety, despair, and jealousy in others, we're making it infinitely more difficult for them to develop wisdom and compassion. Good works are so rare in this world; we cannot afford to shatter them.

Joshua Eaton recently graduated with a master of divinity in Buddhist studies from Harvard University, and is currently editing an anthology of Buddhist teachings on social justice. His full bio can be found at his website,

1 comment:

  1. Josh, I really appreciated this article. Very touching and very sincere. There are definitely spiritual and emotional consequences of living the unemployed state. It makes me appreciate Maslow's pyramid that much more. Perhaps there are situations in which self-actualization can occur when the basic needs are not being met, and maybe there are contexts in which it is just not possible.