Meditations on Walmart
A week or so ago, like countless other people, I saw the new documentary on Walmart. As a movie, it leaves much to be desired, though it is definitely in the top tenth percentile of anti-corporate propaganda. To give him credit, the director did a good job of presenting the facts and after a while, the disap pointments mouthed by one ex-employee after the other begin to feel real. But my concern is not so much with the politics of Walmart but rather the metaphysics behind it.
I think that the existential situation when dealing with Walmart and other egregious corporate violaters (or to use an even vaguer term “the system”) was well captured centuries ago in the ancient Indian claims about the terrors of Samsara. What do I mean by that? The original conundrum enfolding us in Samsara is the following: the world as we see and experience is filled with suffering, i.e., everything we do causes suffering in some form or the other. Not a link in the chain is free of corruption. Greed leads to Desire leads to Coveting leads to Grasping and so on (paraphrase of Buddhist scheme, ask your local Lama for the details) and nothing seems to be capable of alleviating this problem. Even if you try some local solutions — lead a more ethical life, for example, whatever that might mean — the inertial of the global suffering laden world is bound to drag you down. So how is one to get out of this hellhole when it seems as if there is an entire system that infiltrates the air your breathe and the water your drink? Meditation, ideally, is supposed to be a way out of this seemingly intractable maze. Whether it is successful or not is another story.
The modern capitalist system seems quite like the old suffering world in many ways. Customers go to Walmart because their prices are cheap. As a result Walmart lowers its wages, slashes benefits and buys from China. Chinese factories in order to keep costs low, become sweatshops and so on — there is a whole chain. If you ask Walmart management why they behave the way they do, they will tell you that in a business with margins as low as 1% you have to be cut-throat or someone even more vicious will take over, a little bit like the oppressive Arab regimes that the US supports for fear that if they are toppled, Muslim fundamentalists will take over. And the Chinese will tell you that without keeping labor costs low, they will loose business to Bangladesh or somewhere else, which they will. It seems, at the surface and even a few levels deeper that there is no way out. All hands on deck — we are off to a race to the bottom! True meditative insight is about seeing solutions to problems that seem overwhelming, ones that seem utterly insoluble because everything we think and do involves elements of the very thing we are trying to avoid. I dont think it is about sitting in the lotus posture and controlling your mind or whatever. While mind control is one form of intervention (and since it is not harmful, it is surely not a bad thing to do) it cannot possibly see into the nature of the world around us as we find it now, not three thousand years ago. If meditation is not about seeing the true nature of our condition, here and now, then it is a party trick, useful for a few laughs, but not something that serious people should take seriously.