oprah’s new course: fostering the mind of poverty

I’ve decided that I’ve been going about my business all wrong.  An article about Oprah’s recent show Oprah’s Next Chapter: India has opened my eyes to my poor business ethic.  You see, I have tried to build my fortunes on the vision that cultivating deep respect for all beings and doing no harm was the purpose of my life.  Apparently, that may be the cause of my failure to get into Fortune 500.  Thankfully, Oprah has shown me that there is another door to accumulating riches beyond my puny dreams of fame and fortune.

For those of you who have not caught the article in First Post Bollywood, it describes Oprah’s visit to a Bombay slum as part of her “let’s get out there and see the real world.”  The subtitle should be: And use my over-valued opinions and drama-drenched interview techniques to make people feel like poop.  Here’s the gist of the article:

So Oprah trooped into one of our vintage slums to meet a family – parents and three children – who live in a 10 square foot room. Now I’m not surprised that Oprah was surprised to see an entire family living in such tiny quarters. Although I’m sure she could find cramped ghettos in the States. What surprised me was the amazing lack of sensitivity to the children’s feelings or the feelings of the parents who’d opened up their home to her. All the children go to school, and were extremely well-mannered and seemed happy and quite carefree like children their age are meant to be. They didn’t seem to realise that their home was smaller than the homes of others. Or that their father didn’t earn as much as he could.

But not for long. Once Oprah got through with them, they must have committed seppuku.

The mixed-cultural-metaphor aside, I could not have found a greater inspiration for this week’s posts.  Apparently, if I understand Oprah’s strategy (and I’m missing the re-broadcast of the show because I’m writing this), the way into the hearts of those you wish to learn from is to tramp into their homes and stomp on their dignity.  Then package it for the millions in her naive and perhaps willfully blind audience so they can feel good about feeling bad about those “poor folk.” But let’s try to give Oprah credit.  Perhaps she intended to show that people can be satisfie, whatever their life circumstances or our assumptions about absolute and relative poverty.  Perhaps she didn’t intend to trot out that worn theme of “Look at all these materially poor Indians (Burmese, Asians, Afghanis, etc).  They’re so materially poor but they’re so spiritually happy.”  Perhaps she truly thought the children would say, “Oh yes, Mem’saab, I am truly happy.  I know my 10 foot square home shared with my two siblings and parents is as large as the universe because my practice of mindfulness is boundless.”   If that’s the case, the script writer messed up or the casting agency forgot to hand out a good translation.

Whatever the case, this art of chasing after lack in another to elevate oneself is something that calls for disciplined attention.  One of the vows we take as Zen students is to not foster a mind of poverty in ourselves or others.  It’s tricky and I tried to write a parallel post about on the clinic blog.  It is likely one of the most challenging vows because it brings to the fore all of our manipulative tendencies.  If I can lead you into the dark woods of poor self-worth or perception of lack, I can feel better than you, gain a lead in a competitive environment, or benefit from the opportunity provided by your loss of self-efficacy or self-respect.  I simply have to tell you that you don’t fit, belong, or measure up.  Worse, I only have to say I’m just trying to help by pointing out what you already suspect: that you may not be good enough.

Oprah’s business plan would be easy in my profession.  There is no end of suffering that brings people to my office asking for relief.  Some of them sort out their difficulties in one or two sessions.  That’s great for my ego (if I thought I had anything to do with their insights) but definitely not good for cash flow.  Now I see all that is needed is a well-placed word here or a piercing nonverbal signal of low worth there.  The mind of poverty could flare and require an additional few years to resolve.  And then I could fly to India and see all those poor but happy people enjoying spiritual bliss.