Life & Debt

24 10 2008

By Derek Beres

[originally posted on lime.com]

As you begin to explore the intricacies of one discipline, it becomes obvious that what is truly important is the art of discipline itself, not necessarily what you are disciplining yourself in. This is true of the world’s faiths, which as the Taoists claim are like many streams all leading to the same ocean. Whether you call yourself Catholic or Hindu is not as important as living up to the virtues that these faiths profess; when one does, we find that the basic substance of each religion is molded from the same clay.

While reading an op-ed article by author Margaret Atwood in the New York Times, I found another thread linking together the Christian and yogic worlds. First off, I was very happy to read “A Matter of Life and Debt,” an excerpt from her recent book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. That this mainstream media entity would give attention to the moral and religious side of the economic collapse, and not only from a political-social mindset, was very inspiring — even if it was shelved as “Opinion.” The piece itself is excellent; this brief excerpt highlights an important point:

The version of the Lord’s Prayer I memorized as a child included the line, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” In Aramaic, the language that Jesus himself spoke, the word for “debt” and the word for “sin” are the same. And although many people assume that “debts” in these contexts refer to spiritual debts or trespasses, debts are also considered sins. If you don’t pay back what’s owed, you cause harm to others.

The word “sin” had another connotation: ignorance. Indeed, the condition that caused man to “fall” from the garden is directly correlated to avidya, which in yogic philosophy keeps man shackled to the grand illusion known as samsara. So here we have three concepts hovering around one general idea, the trifecta of sin, debt, and ignorance.

In popular modernist biblical languaging, the idea is that we owe God something for our inherent unworthiness. This corresponds to the notion that we as humans are somehow incomplete, in a natural state of “sin” that only Christ can absolve. In yoga as in Christianity, this is nonsense. The debts we may owe have been created out of our own doing, our own karma. If we have taken and not given back, there must be a balance to this somewhere. We get caught up thinking the “payback” can only be monetary — if we owe money, we lose money; if favors, lose favor, etc.

This is almost making too much of a rather simple equation. If the way you’ve acquired something has caused grief or suffering to others, there will be a balance to be paid. As a culture reared on the deregulation economics of Milton Friedman for the past half-century — can former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan be really, actually serious when he said of his free market ideology, “I have been going for 40 years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well?” — it is easy to see how we’d think tit for tat is the natural boomerang of finance.

What Atwood points to, and what is most important regarding this or any crisis, is the humanity of the situation. She makes a great point when writing:

A simple example: You’re in your car, and you let someone else go ahead of you, and the driver doesn’t nod, wave or honk. How do you feel?

Let’s face it, $700 billion is too large a number and too widespread an issue for any single mind to wrap its thoughts around. What I’ve been craving is reading and understanding the karmic effects of this crisis, looking for guidance not on how to budget my bank account but on dealing with the people around me on a daily basis. Of course there are no simple answers, as it is a very complex question. But as always, it does come down to what’s very basic in all of us — an opportunity to come clean of our debts to one another by living up to the greatest of what is human in our hearts. When we can bring our religion down from the clouds and away from a few who claim to know what “it” is really about, we become more humane to one another. The bricks needed to build a new foundation of our culture reside solely in this.

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