(Guest post by Rick Heller)
I have been participating in the Occupy movement, and although I have held a sign outside Bank of America protesting policies that allow banks to be “too big to fail,” my main activity has been to lead meditations at Occupy Boston’s encampment across the street from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.
These meditations are based on those conducted at the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy. The Humanist Mindfulness Group at Harvard has an orientation that can be described as “Secular Buddhist,” bearing a relationship to the Buddhist religion analogous to the relationship that Humanistic Judaism has with Orthodox Judaism.
When leading a meditation at Occupy Boston, I make clear that I don’t think meditators send out “vibes” that magically effect our financial institutions. Rather, these meditations have two purposes. The first is reducing stress, because living and sleeping in close quarters with others can be trying (I’m not a camper, only a day visitor). But more interesting is the possibility that meditative practices can directly contribute to the primary goal of the Occupy movement, which is to oppose the greed that led to speculative bubble and subsequent economic crash in 2008.
Newsweek has a cover story out on the science of why people overspend (I wrote on the same subject in the Humanist’s July/August issue). We have two motivational networks in the brain, one that focuses on immediate gratification and one on long-term payoffs. Neuroeconomist Paul Zak of Claremont Graduate University has found that when people receive injections of oxytocin, a hormone associated with loving feelings, they are better able to make financial decisions that require the deferral of immediate gratification. To put it simply, when you feel good now, you don’t need “retail therapy.”
With this in mind, I led a loving-kindness meditation in which you successively summon loving feelings toward yourself, a friend, a neutral person and finally, a person you find irritating. In a separate meditation, we were mindful of sounds. As Occupy Boston is next to a busy road and diagonal from a fire station, it provides a rich environment to practice receptive, loving attention to sounds usually thought of as “noise.”
Meditation and allied practices like psychotherapy can help us overcome our own greed, but they won’t magically overcome the greed of the “1%.” My hope is that young people in the Occupy movement can serve as role models to others in their generation who pursue materialistic aims. The current crisis has knocked a lot of young people off the career path they expected to be pursuing. They are examining alternative ways to live “the good life.” If the Humanist community were to engage with Occupy right now, I think we’d find a lot of young people open to our message.
Rick Heller is the author of the new eBook, Occupy the Moment.