Approaching Spiritual Death

by Michael N. Nagler

In 1925, Gandhi unveiled what he called the “Seven Social Sins” in his newspaper, Young India:

Politics without principles

Wealth without work

Pleasure without conscience

Knowledge without character

Commerce without morality

Science without humanity

Worship without sacrifice.

Today I think we need to add an eighth: “Entertainment without common sense.”  The idea that we can “entertain” ourselves by appealing to the worst we’re capable of is one of the most destructive notions in our rudderless world.  Reams of scientific research have shown that exposure to violent images that paint a demoralizing picture of human nature make us sick and unhappy, and eventually a menace to those around us.

Somehow, we are not able to assimilate and make use of this research — or for that matter the evidence of our own feelings and experiences.  The reason, I believe, is that we lack a good model of who we are and the importance of what goes on in our mind.  The opening line of a text central to Theravada Buddhism is very clear on this point: “All that we are is the result of what we have thought.”  The images we entertain — and the drives those images evoke in our consciousness  – shape how we think and what we will do, more surely than hormones or our DNA.

Add to this that viewers are being immersed in a world of fantasy that progressively weakens their hold on reality, and how can we be surprised when a man imagines he’s in a Batman movie and opens fire in a theater?  Yet The New Yorker for August 27 casually ran an article called “Creep Shows” about a genre that turns sex into a cold, dark fantasy.  The article ends with the appreciative observation that, “Z. and his actors and crew have discovered something cold and lewd in the human heart and have found an effortlessly expressive way of dramatizing it.”  Great.  In time, they can make creeps of everyone who watches!

There is no question that things “cold and lewd” dwell in the psyche.  But so do things warm and creative.  Which part do we want to bring to life?  Studies have shown that seeing images of people like Gandhi or Mother Teresa predispose viewers to compassionate action as surely as watching the ‘cold and lewd’ stuff makes us more unhappy and aggressive.  Given that this kind of choice is so important to our happiness and our role in the world, why are we making the wrong ones?

A contemporary and very popular Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, once said that our biggest problem in the West is our indifference to the crucial difference between good and evil. As a generalization I don’t think this is entirely true, but when we ignore what science and our spiritual traditions are telling us, when supposedly sophisticated writers fail to think about the sickness or health of our own minds, are we not getting close to that kind of ignorance.

In his complacency-shaking speech about the Vietnam War in 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. made the ominous pronouncement that, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”  In our entertainment life we seem to be not just approaching spiritual death but embracing it.  And I don’t think we can afford to overlook  the connection between the images we entertain in our minds – which is now heavily conditioned by our viewing habits — and how we vote.

But the bright side is, all ignorance can be cured.  What we’re dealing with here is definitely a kind of ignorance.  Not an ignorance of the facts — as mentioned, the facts are on the table but everyone’s ignoring them.  It’s a kind of tragic numbness to the beauty, sensitivity, and meaning of life.  It shows up in other ways as well; think of the infamous Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court that gave corporations the rights of human beings.  Opponents of this decision — and fortunately they are getting numerous — are rightly upset with its political effects, namely that it gives undue influence to corporations; but underlying the decision is a deeper distortion of truth that negates the inherent meaning of a human person.  “Only individuals have souls,” Marshall Frady once wrote, not collectives, especially ones organized for profit or for power over others.  Democracy — rule by the people — has no meaning if people have no meaning

Citizens United can be addressed politically, e.g. by Move to Amend which is seeking an amendment to the Constitution specifying – which should not have been necessary! – that ‘only a person is a person – and every person is a person’.  We can address creepy “entertainment” forms even more easily, just by using our individual judgment (and of course, whatever opportunities we have to encourage others to become aware of the problem and change course). Those would be key steps toward tackling the mounting problems facing us; economic, planetary, and social.  Dr. King would say that we would now be approaching not spiritual death, but life.