There is a Whole Foods across the street from the Interdependence Project in New York's East Village, the Buddhist-inspired nonprofit organization which I direct. Some nights, after teaching or participating in a class on meditation and Buddhist psychology, or after yoga practice, I head to the Whole Foods on my way home, to buy convenient, healthy food for one of those 10 pm dinners New Yorkers know all too well. Since our organization works directly with issues of responsible consumption and environmental activism, it's always nice to be able to find local and organic produce, even if it traumatizes my slender wallet to shop regularly at "Whole Paycheck." Five-dollar pre-washed spinach from the North Fork of Long Island! It's late, I'm exhausted; what could be better?
Of course on the surface, a Buddhist shopping at Whole Foods makes a lot of sense (almost to a degree of neo-hippy caricature). I practice, study, and teach a tradition of mental health and wellbeing, a path for people to systematically learn to take care of our own minds and extend that care-taking to others around us. A healthy diet and an interest in eating both local and organic foods are -- for me -- the physical extensions of that mental mindfulness practice.
However, the Buddhist teachings on the truth of interdependence don't allow us to stop at the level of individual health and wellbeing. The more we pay attention to reality, the more we see the total impossibility of taking care of our own bodies and minds without taking care of others. The more we see interdependence -- that our lives do not happen in a vacuum, separate from the lives of others -- the more we realize that our own health is inextricably bound up with the health of others. If you are healthier, then I am healthier, and vice versa. This is true physically, this is true psychologically, and this is true communally.
A few years ago I wrote a book about updating the Buddhist philosophy of interdependence for the 21st century, called One City: A Declaration of Interdependence. In researching where the term interdependence has surfaced outside of Buddhist thought, I came across Whole Foods' mission statement on their website, which, serendipitously, is also called a "Declaration of Interdependence." Read it -- it's uplifting and full of good intentions on taking care of oneself and taking care of each other. An excellent corporate mission statement for sure. At that time, I was heartened by the thought that -- during the dark and separatist cynicism of the Bush era -- interdependence was still making deep inroads into corporate America.
Then this week I read Whole Foods' CEO John Mackey's Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, which struck me as a highly fearful and regressive take on the healthcare debate, which is undoubtedly one of the most interdependently pressing issues of our time. Mr. Mackey's Wall Street Journal piece might alternatively be titled "A Declaration of I, Me, and Mine."
The worldview on display in that piece of writing is one of selfish individualism, mistrust for the very notion representative government itself, and continued support for a system of profit on anabolic steroids. The piece is also amazingly dismissive of the most interdependently-minded president we've had in a long time, taking the term "Obamacare" straight from Rush Limbaugh's playbook. The cognitive dissonance between the worldview that seems to inform Mr. Mackey's views on healthcare, and the "Declaration of Interdependence" on his company's website are too much for me to continue to support, at least for now.
As a Buddhist practitioner, I work hard to identify and slowly transform my own internal hypocrisies. Most of them take the following form: I declare good intentions to benefit myself and others. Yet, I fall prey to deepseated destructive habits and fearful self-obsessions instead. As a practice, whenever I recognize a destructive habit or a cognitive dissonance, I set an intention to work mindfully and diligently to open myself to a larger, more compassionate, and less fixated worldview. This work is slow and difficult, and I look like a hypocrite myself a large percentage of the time. But unless I choose to recognize my own hypocrisies, the work of positive transformation never begins at all. An extension of this practice is to not support the obvious hypocrisies of a friend (and my wallet, at least, has definitely befriended Mr. Mackey for years), especially when the friend is in a position of enormous power and influence.
So until Mr. Mackey learns that truly declaring interdependence means we take care of each other no matter what -- a declaration best furthered in the healthcare debate by supporting a single-payer plan, or, at the very least, a strong public option -- I am not going to support his cognitive dissonance on interdependence with any more of my hard-earned local-organic-neo-hippie-spinach money.
We are all interdependent. And therefore we must take care of each other and support policies that promote real interdependence. Especially those of us who go so far as to proclaim interdependence as a corporate mission statement.
In the meantime, anybody want to recommend a good CSA in Brooklyn?
Ethan Nichtern is the founder of New York City's The Interdependence Project.