Seven Pillars House of Wisdom > Director's Blog > Beginning a Dialogue: The Economic Crisis

Beginning a Dialogue: The Economic Crisis

Recently a group of Seven Pillars’ Guiding Voices met via conference call to dialogue about the current economic climate, with Deepa Patel, a member of Seven Pillars’ board, as facilitator.

The conversation was a lively, two-hour exchange. Rather than post the entire transcript, we share below excerpts compiled to present the core thinking of each of the participants.

We would like to invite you to join the conversation. What is your “core thinking” as it relates to the economic crisis? Is there a larger viewpoint to be taken during trying economic times, one that comes from a perspective of oneness, holism and sacredness?

Now, on to the dialogue…

Omid Safi

What's missing from so much of the discussions recently is the moral and spiritual dimension of the interconnected environmental, political and financial crises we face. Many of the mainstream traditions seem to feel that they have very little to say about that newest God, the markets, except, "if you need help, here's a place to turn." But there are areas related to unity, related to the planetary consciousness and outlook, and the realm of the spirit.

One of the ways that we can do some service in these moments of crisis is to remind people that the old model is not sustainable, that it is neither spiritually nor economically feasible for such a small percentage of humanity to consume such large amounts of our shared resources, and in fact, now we're seeing, because of the ways that American culture is replicated around the world, the rising up of a global consumerist society, which is in many ways mimicking the tendencies of our culture here. We can remind people of some of the ethical values like sharing—sharing not just because it is nice, but because it is both spiritually and economically a matter of survival.

While many people are comfortable talking about the unity of being at a mystical level, at an ontological level, at a cosmological level, and perhaps even an environmental level, that breaks down when the conversation gets to national boundaries. The notion of American exceptionalism seems to be deeply rooted in the American psyche, which is part of what sees people as being entitled to consumption which has no end, and which as Pir Zia says, may even mask the quest for deeper beauties and for higher modes of love and ecstasy.

I hope that there's a way of wedding together compassion and kindness and love, with a sense of boldness—that the depth of the crisis is so real, that the very future of our planet and humanity is at stake, that it may require, in fact, that compassionate message with, not a sense of alarm and not a sense of fear, but a sense of concern that grows out of love.

Omid Safi is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill where he specializes on Islamic mysticism (Sufism), contemporary Islamic thought, and medieval Islamic history.

Asatar Bair

Some current trends are very unsustainable, and the economic crisis is bringing our attention to that. I think that will ultimately be for the good of humanity, but in the confusion about what is happening and the uncertainty about what's coming, that often gets lost.

I want to focus on some violations of spiritual principles that are at the foundation of our economic system. The first is the rise of what I call the "unproductive economy," which is a vast increase in the kinds of economic activities which do not produce real value, such as finance, insurance, advertising, retail, real estate. Over the last fifty years the amount of this kind of activity has increased by about 40%. This just can't last. Number two is an incredible increase in the amount of debt that's been taken on in American society at all levels. That's clearly unsustainable. The third is the foundation of the global economy upon money with no value. I think this is really a spiritual problem, because money is like the representation of trust. You don't use money thinking that its value will deteriorate steadily over time, yet just in the last 100 years the U.S. dollar has lost 96% of its value. That's really an incredible new situation.

One of the dangerous illusions that we've allowed ourselves is that we can just keep on spending, that we can cut taxes and still continue to have the world's biggest and most expensive military power ever. That's simply not true, and we're going come face to face with the reality of that as we move forward. I don't think we've really touched it yet though; the economic stimulus plans I see all involve hundreds of billions of dollars to reinflate the housing bubble, or the stock bubble, coming from nowhere that's really specified. Because the U.S. dollar is the world's reserve currency, we've been able to create money on a massive scale and be protected from the truly inflationary results of it, because the rest of the world tends to absorb the money that we create. The inflation tends to fall on the more vulnerable members of society, so this money creation has contributed to the rising disparity of rich and poor.

There is no possibility of getting something for nothing. If we want wealth, we have to work for it—that's a fundamental point that we're kind of ignoring, with our ability to just create money out of thin air. It will be better for us when that illusion fades. The consolation is that we're getting closer to something that's real.

For example, the way our agricultural system is organized is completely unsustainable and relies upon a tremendous consumption of fossil fuels. I hope we will see in the coming decade a decentralization of agriculture, a much more pronounced move towards small, organic farms. The typical nutrition-related health problem of most of human history was not getting enough calories, and now we have the diametrically opposite version of that, which is too many of the wrong kind of calories and all of the degenerative diseases that result from that. This is definitely a product of our wealth, of insulating ourselves from the rhythms of nature.

I really appreciate everyone's focus on going within and on connection to spirit and the underlying truth that we know, a community of being, and that's really our way forward. I think we are faced with a real challenge, which is how do we begin to act as a unified whole? Has humanity ever done that before? I don't think so. And yet we have a need for that now.

Asatar Bair, Ph.D., has a doctorate in economics from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and teaches at City College of San Francisco.

Dena Merriam

There's a lot of fear out there, one fear is being replaced by another—fear of terrorism and now fear of economic collapse—so we have to find a way to provide some kind of vision and understanding of what's taking place. There is a much-needed transition, and a lot of what was wrong about how our system was working needs to be corrected, but there's no clarity about what that process involves. So I want to articulate how to transform this fear that's gripping the country into a positive vision of where we're going and how to move forward.

I think the best thing is coming back to what's essential for us, coming back to what's essential for the well-being of our society, which is to be more inclusive and to become a sharing society. What concerns me is the way that all this is presented to the public. Is it, "the good times are over" and now have to adjust to less? I think it's that "the bad times are over," that we were going in a direction of self-destruction, and now we can shift to a better place where we balance the material with the spiritual, and where we can be a more compassionate society.

If we can build common ground between science and those speaking from the spiritual perspective, we could create a powerful language for the future. For the religions to join in this, they will have to go back to the source, the essence, rather than the dogma and the institutions.

I think it's important to have these conversations and to think how to bring these conversations into a more public space. The importance of shifting our economy and our worldview, and reconnecting with the Earth, needs to be stated publicly, so that the consciousness begins to shift and people begin to understand that we can guide where we're going toward a positive evolution.

Dena Merriam is the founder and convener of the Global Peace Initiative of Women and Partner and Vice Chair of the Ruder Finn Group, a global communications company. Dena is a member of Seven Pillars’ Board and lives in New York City.

Deepa Patel

One of the things I see happening in small pockets around me is how creativity is slowly starting to emerge in different pockets. A really wonderful example of that is a friend of mine who told me he was going off to buy a ladder on the weekend, and he realized that actually he didn't need to go and buy a ladder, that there were probably twenty people in the street where he lives who already had ladders, and what he needed to do was get past his fear of not knowing his neighbors, or thinking about disturbing them, and just going and knocking on the door and asking if he could borrow a ladder. On this small street, four or five neighbors started talking, and they decided to see if they might do a kind of "tool share," so they're going to share their lawnmowers and all of their little toolkits, rather than constantly adding to them. So I can see how the seeds of the sharing culture, of consummating creativity are starting to emerge. We're in the economic crisis because of constant growth. Cultivation has a slightly different energy about it, a value that we can put into the world with a slightly different way of thinking about the word "growth."

Deepa Patel is a producer of media including an award-winning magazine for young people and various music, photography and digital efforts. She is a member of Seven Pillars’ Board and lives in London.

Rabbi David Ingber

What strikes me is the profoundly spiritual nature of the economic crisis, and we're hearing people invoking terms that you usually hear in spiritual discussion: discipline and self-discipline, greed and the nature of greed, and fundamentally what's a stake, what is enough?

We need a spiritual perspective that allows us to hold a complex and nuanced reality. It's not one economy versus another and having to choose, or seeing the entire situation as falling apart. Instead, we can have a much broader perspective and be able to take in the nuances and to be grounded in what is eternal. Maybe we've been finding security in that which is ultimately not the deepest source of security and life is presenting us with a great, "hey, take a look" at what passes and at what is truly permanent amidst all the impermanence.

What I'm most powerfully moved by that as we remind each other of spirit, of the ground that can never be taken away, that is always there, regardless of what impermanence moves through, we also are holding a space for true ecstasy and beauty. Our work can be to provide the portals for what is deeply enriching and deeply satisfying. As Augustine said, "Our hearts are restless for thee, O Lord, and you will not have repose until we repose in thee." We will have deep rest only within that which is life yearning for itself.

In times of trauma, when the social fibers have worn thin, people go looking for social connectivity to create a greater sense of communion and a greater sense of what is truly and deeply important. In my own work now, I want to embody and live the values of communal sharing and interdependence and interconnectivity. I want to call people to have the courage to be vulnerable and to reach out and to learn a new way.

Rabbi David Ingber is the founder and Spiritual Director of Kehilat Romemu, New York City’s Transformative Synagogue.

Sister Miriam MacGillis

I appreciate everyone's insight into the spiritual and ethical human traditions that we draw on for sharing and caring for each other. I would offer that since so much of the problems we face originate in the West, that we also look at the cosmology that has shaped our economic activity. It has resulted in an economy that is primarily extractive of everything else in the natural world, and gives all rights to humans, especially as we entered the industrial manufacturing age. The sense of our relationship to the natural world as one of the presence of the sacred seems to be lacking. So there's a deep cosmological crisis that's not being addressed by our traditional moral stance; we may get better at helping each other as humans, but we're not addressing the fundamental crisis of an extractive economy that is leaving the planet pillaged. Even if we were to do this in a just, equitable, and sharing way, we're still not addressing the depth of the problem.

Within Western traditions we have been looking at Earth as a purely material plane, and the spiritual guidance and insights that we have, have come from a sense of keen separation. We see ourselves as having spiritual natures and therefore we try to level the field with whatever our understanding of divinity is, but we don't include the Earth. And I think at this moment in history, when we have a very new and incredibly significant revelation of the unity of the whole, we have an opportunity to redefine economics from a very different vantage point that would bring forth its own corrections and its own insights in terms of our economic behavior.

Another part is that the poorer non-industrialized world and the religious traditions that have survived over the long, long haul have much more to bring to the human community at this moment because there was a simplicity of life that allowed for spiritual meaning to be in the trees and in the river and in the food and the community and each other—family ties that enabled people to survive close to the earth.

There's no other hope for the Earth. We cannot go on eroding the soil, which is the real wealth of the planet—this is what's in deficit. I think we can have faith and trust that the source of positive evolution is something deeper than any of us. It's life, longing to go on. And how else can it except through our coming into recognition of our deep identity with the cosmic mystery behind life right here.

Sister Miriam MacGillis is a member of the Dominican Sisters of Caldwell and co-founder of Genesis Farm, a learning center of Earth Studies, located in New Jersey.

Pir Zia Inayat-Khan

The prophets are, to me, so extraordinary because they are at once fully awake to the divine reality, and at the same time, deeply engaged with the everyday problems and opportunities of the societies in which they live. So they differ from mystics who are renunciates unconcerned with the development of the larger culture. The prophets are profoundly concerned with the evolution of humanity. In fact, prophets have tended to emerge in history at moments of tremendous upheaval. The prophet is defined by his or her ability to tap into the potential that exists despite or even because of a serious crisis, and to evoke a vision that reveals the collective path forward. It seems to me that this is just the function that is so crucially necessary in our own time of accelerated historical change: the visionary approach. All the great mystical traditions seem to concur that there are elements of prophecy that continue beyond the Axial Age, and that it is possible to participate in some measure in the prophetic function in our own time.

Plato spoke about four aspects of prophecy that I think continue to be relevant today. The four aspects may be re-phrased as the Oracular, the Propitiatory, the Artistic, and the Gnostic. The Oracular aspect has to do with forecasting the future consequences of present actions. The Iroquois made collective decisions only after considering the impact on seven generations. To practice this rule today would require us to keep the year 2183 as a constant reference point. The Propitiatory aspect of prophecy refers to recognizing suffering and seeking the means to alleviate it—opening channels of divine providence to soothe affliction. This calls for a strategic combination of meditative prayer and compassionate action. The Artistic aspect of prophecy means cultivating beauty through every available medium. At a time when there's a sense of deprivation as budgets are cut, we might just find that many of the costly diversions we have filled our lives with are in fact a compensation for what is really wanted, which is an encounter with beauty. Finally, the Gnostic aspect of prophecy can be understood as maintaining awareness of the unity of being. I'm reminded of traditions according to which it is said that the world will survive as long as there is even one person who is sincerely and fully turned toward the One—toward Reality. I find in this a very powerful message. The responsibility of those who see beneath the surface is to uphold a profound attunement to the whole of being. That itself is a form of service in times of turbulence.

I always find it very mind-altering to shift from thinking of myself and others as inhabitants of the planet to recognizing that we are outgrowths of the planet, we are the planet experiencing itself and discovering itself. This very conversation that we're having right now is the planet's reflecting upon its own changing, evolving life, in the midst of a crisis of identity in which new possibilities of self-expression and community are emerging. Imagine how different the world would be if we would dream, plan, and implement our own collective future consciously and cooperatively!

If significant changes are going to take place in terms of the collective direction, they will have to come from a strong motivation. It's tempting to try to create motivation by drawing attention to the negative consequences of our current course. It does seem necessary, at least to a certain degree, to highlight the risks that we are running. But we also need to address the positive dimension of motivation. What is the real substance that enables us to feel satisfied? For me two words come to mind, ecstasy and beauty. We seek for ecstasy and beauty in all kinds of artificial forms and end up further estranged from them. But they exist in our direct contact with the Earth and with each other, and they exist in direct contact with our own inner self. These experiences require no mass-produced apparatus; they are intrinsic. At the end of the day, these are the resources we can rely on, resources that are limitless.

Pir Zia Inayat-Khan is the spiritual leader of the Sufi Order International and founder of Seven Pillars House of Wisdom.

David Spangler

We talk about the society being materialistic, but in fact it's not—it's a soundly imaginal society where the polarity between the material and spiritual worlds ultimately fragments the sense of achieving wholeness, and makes it more difficult to honor the material world which we're inhabiting. The statement that we're spiritual beings having a human experience is absolutely ridiculous. I think the mode of thought that underlies that statement is part of the problem that creates a whole number of crises. Because we are whole beings having a whole experience, and part of that is what we call spiritual and part of that is what we call material, and at some point we need to understand how these interrelate with each other, and are part of a much deeper being.

The idea of a crisis is itself a kind of imagination, one that can lead us to fear and panic. For we see everything through the lens that everything is breaking down, when in fact there are some things that are vibrant with creativity and life and spirit. I think part of our task is to help identify those solid bits, what is actually working, so that people can then begin to hold onto them, both within themselves and in relationship with one another, to give us some point of solidity, a real materialism, with which not to be swept away by the tides of imagination.

We're not suddenly going to have a healed planet unless we start to heal ourselves in relationship to the planet. That speaks more to our spiritual relationship to each other and to the world than does the collapse of the stock market. Learning how to think and perceive as a planet, to go to that deep source—that is where spirituality is taking us. This is where the portal out of these crises lies, but to exercise this capacity, you must think into wholeness, into the whole realm of connectiveness and interactivity. You recognize that you actually are part of a universe that is designed, it seems to me, for creative activity. That quality of emergence seems to be a very key element in looking forward and seeking a way to work, recognizing that when we do in fact gather together and work together, blend together and give ourselves to each other, something very powerful is created that is magical.

Nature is designed to produce wealth. It is so fertile and productive and exploratory and expansive—it's just vibrant in that way, and we carry that in ourselves. Part of the reason we're having the problems that we're having, both with climate and ecology and also with finance, is an outgrowth of our success as a species, of our following certain natural impulses to create. The problem is, we haven't learned how to do that in a holistic way, in a way that's connected to the rest of the Earth. What we're wanting to do is understand how to honor and inhabit and own up to this creative wealth-producing vibrant energy that is part of what it means to be not just human but alive, and how to do it in a context of wholeness and connectedness.

I feel it's important to recognize where things are broken and to try to fix them or eliminate them, not with an adversarial spirit that affixes blame, but in a way that honors the deep, underlying energetic principles and desires that are at work. I'm calling for an attitude of holding these things in blessing, even while we try to alter them and change them. I guess for me, that's what love is about.

David Spangler is an internationally known spiritual teacher and writer who focuses of themes of holistic culture, the nature of personal sacredness, our responsibility to the earth and to each another, and our calling to be of service at this crucial time of world history.

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Comments (2)
  • The list of challenges and the opportunities offered by them - as outlined in the posted excerpts - is long. The situation we’re in, the state our world is in, has been developing for a very long time. Many of us - perhaps most of us - have felt that something is badly wrong. The economic crisis makes this conclusion unavoidable. Recognizing that our problems are large and deep is an immensely positive development. No longer can people comfortably hide or distract themselves from the issues. The world we have created for ourselves is broken and it touches everyone.

    Collectively, we have matured. We know that no hero will save us. Still we have hope for the new American President. Still, we search for solutions. Our challenges can seem overwhelming. Some issues are so interconnected and complex that a person can feel powerless, and some of our problems - like the Middle East conflict so present in consciousness at this moment - appear to defy solutions at all.

    In the midst of overwhelming complexity, facing problems too large for any one person to fully understand, much less solve - we feel lost and out of control. We want to do something. We want to find clarity and understanding. Esoteric answers will not satisfy. We’d like to believe that some technological breakthrough will save us - a hero in a machine. We’d like at least to find someone to blame. But in our heart of hearts we recognize that the problem is within. It is painful and difficult to recognize that so many have been so wrong about so much for so long. Yet that is a necessary realization to move toward better ways of living.

    Because if the root cause of our broken world is what is broken inside each and everyone of us - and if there are ways to fix what is broken inside - then we can have real hope, hope based on a true understanding of causes and a true understanding of solutions, not shaky belief in a mythical hero, human or otherwise, not useless blame on some imaginary villain, but, rather, a full, sober, and courageous encounter with the genuine facts of our situation. We are experiencing this now on a large scale: disintegration to clear the way for an equivalent resurrection - the emergence of new forms in ordinary human life for all of us.

    Although the root causes of the broken human world are within, the genuine facts are also that we live in the effects - these larger structural realities like the financial markets, food production, housing, education, health care, and so on. We are acutely aware that these things aren’t working very well. What we do not yet see is quite how to fix those things.

    In other words, show me, show us, the image of a better world. If I can see what it looks like, what it feels like, then I - we - can figure out how to get there from here. Right now all we’re aware of is that ‘here’ is not very desirable. ‘Here’, in fact, pretty much sucks. This is the experience of our friends and neighbors, our brothers and sisters, next door and all over the world.

    Only a few authentically seek liberation, enlightenment, if you will. Instead, most of us want life to be better, and most of us do know that by inner growth, our experience of life improves. Still, we want our collective reality to improve, too.

    Creating a picture of a better world that people can believe in, that they - we - can work toward together, that we instantly yearn for, at an emotional and energetic, rather than intellectual, level - this I see as the most necessary work, the greatest gift we could offer at this time.

    — Steven Bell on January 10, 2009

  • It is wonderful when mystics engage in conversations regarding the material world as the deep insight that practice offers us invites views that might be otherwise unmentioned. As is the case for myself as I find this collapse to be very inspiring. On that note I’ll share my thoughts on “the greater depression,” which from where I am standing looks a whole lot like the next renaissance.

    As we slide deeper into what is being called the ‘greater depression’ I suggest we consider that this collapse is the renaissance in disguise. Temptations to savor what was: scarcity, materialism, separation, will only detain our escape from a lifeless world. Our task is transcendence as each of the areas of decay (economy, war, materialism, environmental destruction) contains beautiful qualities waiting to emerge in better form. As the default world falls away we are offered paradise, abundance and the rediscovery of our humanity, if we are able to escape the pitfalls that captured us when we made the world thatʼs now slipping away.

    It is tempting to ask ourselves “what can I do to fix this mess?” And the question has merit. Each of us, as a differentiated part of the unified whole, has something to offer, something no other can. But the statement also reflects a mode of thinking that outlived its usefulness, one that begs for new understanding. It suggests that humanity is at the top of the totem pole. Our collective ego is responsible for the creation of Dunya (the world made by man and placed on top of the world as it is). To live in ʻmultiplicity in unityʼ one must detach from the notion than any species controls the totality or that man is the all knowing in the domain of life. It is a time for listening not just to one another but also to all the forms of life as they reveal their contributions and gifts and invite us into new healthier and more vibrant relationships. Without this fundamental shift in thinking we might be likely to set in a slightly better world than the one that is dying now.

    The need for transcendence:

    War is an act of fear that stems from our feeling separate from the whole. We cannot love what we do not know. However the true nature of the universe is unified and interconnected – loving. Our debt-based economy evidences our feeling of lack and scarcity, yet the universe is actually abundant. Materialism and consumerism demonstrate our stagnancy yet the universe is emergent and creative. Environmental destruction is a symptom of our isolation from the rest of life on earth. The totality is unified and interdependent.


    MATERIALISM To CREATIVITY: We know that the natural condition of the universe is creative, ever changing and emergent. As part of the universe we could say that manʼs role is also creative. But consumerism needed buyers and makers make terrible consumers. This shift away from creative movement removed man from a role essential to his/her vitality. Labor and leisure were divided. We might say that the revolutionary of our time (one in which everything is commodified) is the maker. The creation of new experiential modes of play that reengage humanity in the activities of daily life offer a fundamental opportunity for the non-differentiation between labor and leisure to come back into view. In a unified existence the two are the same. In a commodified world they are separate.


    SCARCITY TO ABUNDANCE: Another example can be seen in copyrights, patents systems for hording good ideas that can help humanity if set free. This practice has done more than just horde information and slow healthy growth. For the one who makes a patent or copyright an inner process takes place in which through the act of patenting he/she attests “This is my last good idea,” just before they digress into caretaker of their idea. Creativity, revelation and inspiration transform quickly into redundancy and man is again removed from his/her role as “living,” one that has vitality and life. Similarly the maker attests “there is not enough therefore I must horde,” masking whats true (abundance) from their own view.


    The collapse of our economy offers freedom from these lower forms of expression. A living domestic economy has always existed and is waiting again to emerge. Barter, trade, giving, sharing, and the collectivizing of ideas offer a way of life that is creative, responsible and intimate. With every generous act we affirm, “There is abundance.” With every action of care towards another we affirm, “we are unified.” Reentering our role as active, creative, agents allow the true qualities of our universe to be seen. When we inherited the earth our only task was to live. Everything was provided. Weʼre invited now to reenter the world as it is, this time with the knowledge that any harm created is harm to self. The saying “it is a fool who cuts the branch on which he is sitting,” is stingingly true today.

    While the resuscitation of the sacredness of life is much in need, many today ask, “do we need to point to God (as a concept) during these times?” Far better it would be to allow in an active and purposeful world that naturally leads each towards their unfoldment and discovery of the whole. Looking at the definition of religion (to re-connect) or nirvana (no difference) we see reminders that sages knew that our connection matters, but what we name it matters not at all. As the Buddhist teacher Lama Rinchen said, “When every sound becomes a mantra there is no need for religion.” Many religious and spiritual practices offer ways to lift the veil and expose the true nature of reality. They help soften the boundaries of separation and integrate humanity with the larger sphere of existence. And awakening through these forms need not expire. But as a Sufi mystic said, “the tools are only forms

    but what they point to is something living.” Livingness is what is coming back into view. For religion to serve the new paradigm it must point to the living. Doctrine need be replace by direct relationship. And our time of collapse offers this opportunity for direct relationship through purpose, movement, creativity and a return to the natural world. From where we are standing we can see that the divinizing of nature serves an essential role, remembrance. We are forgetful creatures.

    In the creation of the new many familiar habits will tempt us to create a new world just like the old one. Can we make the new - system, structure, law – and design it to become obsolete? Since perpetual change is the nature of reality all systems existing within a contextual frame serve only to band-aid the current condition of lack of perfection. Might we consider celebrating the moments in which our ideas expire? After all they indicate our growth, point towards an emergent property, and show our nearness towards a perfection that needs no rule, law, or systems of any kind. As we step forward surely weʼll be tested, asked if we really believe in the concepts we are bringing into form (abundance, change, lack of fear). Have we certainty? Would you have it any other way but to be asked to embody what you wish to materialize? Imbed in an exercise of this kind of proving are the lessons needed to succeed at the goal. This very practice is a living example of the work ahead.

    There is a saying amongst the Sufis, “Life lives only death dies.” What weʼre experiencing now, the collapse of civilization is necessary. It makes space. Death is dying. Mystics through the ages have reminded us that this space is needed in order to receive the new. Most essentially, these dying systems never had life. But we do. Life lives!

    — Jehanara Wendy Tremayne on January 16, 2009

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