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The Dharma of Alienation

by David R. Loy

New media technologies sometimes encourage a kind of "hyper-individualism" because we spend less and less time meeting and interacting with other people - often not even with members of our own families.

We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.
- Thich Nhat Hanh

The English word "alienation" is from a Latin word that means "to be other." To be alienated is to feel separate from. There are three issues involved in this: Who (or what) does one feel separate from? Why does one feel separate? And what to do about it?

Since alienation seems to be increasing as a social problem, it is important to realize that alienation can sometimes be appropriate. If we had the misfortune to live in Nazi Germany, for example, feeling alienated from the government, and from the many people who supported that government, might be a good thing.

Although we are fortunate not to live in Hitler's Germany, it is still important to consider what it is about modern society that causes some people, especially young people, to feel alienated. Alienation has been a recognized problem in the West for some time, but now it is increasing in non-Western societies, including East Asia. The great importance of family values in Confucian cultures seemed to provide some resistance to alienation, but recently Asian families too are finding it difficult to resist social forces that make some people feel isolated and want to withdraw from personal interaction.

What are those social forces? Two in particular stand out, in my opinion. The first is "moneytheism," which is a pun on monotheism, the belief in one supreme god. Today, increasingly, the supreme god is money. The globalization of consumerism means that the most important value has become making and spending (lots of) money. Since this god tends to replace all other gods, you could even say that consumerism is the new religion - in fact, the most successful religion of all time, since it is winning new converts more quickly than any other religion ever has.

The conversion techniques of this religion are extraordinarily effective and persuasive. As a teacher I know that whatever I can do with my students in class has little effect compared to the missionary influences that surround all of us outside class: attractive advertising messages on television and radio, and in magazines and trains and buses, grab our attention and urge us to "buy this if you want to be happy." This promises another kind of salvation - consumption is the good life! According to Buddhism, however, this seduction is deceptive, because this solution to unhappiness (dukkha) does not really work. Strange, isn't it: it's always the next thing we buy that will make us happy.

Of course, moneytheism and consumerism do not necessarily imply alienation, but they do tend to work against the kind of family and community life that traditionally emphasized group values such as cooperation and sharing. Instead, they encourage competition ("I have more than you do") and having rather than being.

Recently psychologists such as Dan Gilbert, a Harvard professor who wrote Stumbling on Happiness (2006), and economists such as Richard Layard, chief advisor to the U.K. government and author of Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (2005), have been studying what actually makes people happy. They have discovered that money is important when you are poor, but once a very basic level of comfort is achieved the most important factor is relationships with other people.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, a University of California psychology professor and author of The How of Happiness (2008), has also been researching what happy people do differently from others who are not happy. She has found that happy people don't waste their time dwelling on unpleasant things. They are also not bothered by the success of others, because they aren't preoccupied with comparing themselves to others. From a Buddhist point of view, all these findings make a lot of sense.

Moneytheism and consumerism would not be so successful without another social influence: new media technologies, which make it possible for each of us to live in a private fantasy bubble. Today each family member often may have his or her own personal TV, DVD player, computer, cell phone, and so forth. Increasingly, each of us dwells in our own cocoon, which we construct by choosing which films and TV shows to watch, what music to play, what Web sites to surf. Sometimes this encourages a kind of "hyper-individualism" because we spend less and less time actually meeting and interacting with other people - often not even with members of our own families.

Our experience of the world is increasingly mediated by these new technologies, which means that we are exposed to many more stories about the world which tend to repeat the same plots. These stories do more than entertain us: they affect us unconsciously, as well. By providing models of who we could be and how we should live, they are showing us what is important in life. When we watch the same type of stories over and over, it's difficult not to identify with their characters and their values. Unfortunately, those models are usually quite different from the examples provided by someone like the Buddha or Jesus.

Moreover, the models that the new media provide are impossible for us to live up to. For example, the young women on TV are very sexy (although often unhealthily thin), the men much more handsome than I am, the musicians play and sing much better than I can, the talk-show hosts are more clever and wittier. All of them are more famous and wealthy than I can hope to be. In effect, the world we see on our screens becomes the real world, those people are real, and in comparison with them I am nothing. No wonder, then, that many young people today - who have grown up with these new technologies, and are therefore more susceptible to them - end up with a low self-image and become depressed. No wonder, too, that some of them want to withdraw from the uncomfortable pressures of really real life, such as preparing for university entrance exams, or coping with a high-stress job.

This brings us to another part of the problem: the triviality and frustration of the present educational system, which naturally alienates young people, in my opinion. Having been a professor in a Japanese university, I can understand why so many students become disillusioned with the whole process. The main lesson the entrance exam system teaches them is that (memorizing, exam-oriented) education is not only difficult and stressful but boring and meaningless in itself - in short, something not worth pursuing any more than you have to. By the time they make it to university many students are exhausted and need to relax before graduating and going on to perform their (also very stressful) productive role in society. Just at the time they are (or should be) mature enough to start thinking about the most interesting things - such as contemplating the really important questions for understanding themselves and their society - university students are not interested. This is both a personal and a social tragedy.

Overcoming Alienation

All the above is an effort to understand some of the factors that cause people today, especially young people, to feel isolated and alienated. By emphasizing these issues, I do not mean to justify alienation. Alienation remains a problem, both for those who feel isolated and for the society - especially the family and friends - that they feel alienated from. My point is that perhaps we need to evaluate the social forces that encourage alienation, and consider whether some structural changes need to be made. In any case, though, personal alienation remains a problem. What do Buddhist teachings imply about this problem, and how we might address it?

From one perspective, Buddhism is all about overcoming alienation - the sense of separation between myself "inside" and the rest of the world "outside." This is the meaning of the essential connection that Buddhism sees between my dukkha ("suffering" in the broadest sense) and my sense of self. The Buddha himself emphasized that the Buddhist path is about understanding and resolving dukkha, and the most important point about dukkha is that even those who are wealthy and healthy experience a basic dissatisfaction, a dis-ease, which continually festers. That we find life dissatisfactory, one damn problem after another, is not accidental, because it is the nature of an unawakened sense of self to be bothered about something. This sense of being a self that is separate from its world is illusory - in fact, it is our most problematic delusion.

According to this Buddhist understanding of dukkha, the growing problem of social alienation today is only a more extreme version of the perpetual human problem that each of us needs to resolve.

Curiously, the environmental crisis - for example, global warming - can also be understood as a much larger version of the same problem: a result of our collective sense of separation between ourselves (human civilization) and the biosphere, which we dominate and over-exploit despite the fact that Earth is our mother as well as our home. Is it a coincidence that both types of alienation - personal and collective - have become so critical at the same time?

In response to the delusion of separation and alienation, Buddhist teachings emphasize interconnectedness. Thich Nhat Hanh, the well-known Vietnamese Buddhist monk, poet, scholar, and peace activist, uses the term "interbeing" to describe our interdependence. Not only is everything impermanent and constantly transforming, but nothing has any self-existence of its own apart from everything else. Like it or not, we are all parts of each other.

A Buddhist metaphor often used to make this point is Indra's net:


Far away in the heaven of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net that stretches out infinitely in all directions. In each node of the net there is a jewel, and since the net itself is infinite in all dimensions, the jewels are also infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering like stars, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now select one of these jewels and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface all the other jewels in the net are reflected, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring. (Adapted from Francis Cook, Hua-Yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra [1977])

The point is that our universe is just like this net, for everything in it is one of those jewels, reflecting and reflected in all the other jewels.

This includes us, socially as well as physically: not only is each of us constantly dependent on air, water, food, and so on, but we learn from others - especially parents, siblings, and friends - what it means to be a person and how to live. That everything is impermanent means that our sense of self is always being reinforced or reconstructed, as we live and learn. This highlights, again, the problem with living in a self-enclosed media bubble, which can seriously affect one's personality, according to the kinds of stories and models one is exposed to.

According to the Buddha, the most important part of our (sense of) self is our motivations. This is also the key to understanding the Buddha's teachings about karma: it is our intentional actions that have karmic consequences. This means that the best way to transform ourselves is to change our motivations. When what I do is motivated by greed, ill will, or the delusion of separateness (the three poisons), I create problems for myself and others. If my motivations change, so that I am motivated instead by generosity, loving-kindness, and the realization of our interdependence, then my actions will have the opposite effect: they create good feelings and build a stronger connection with other people.

This points to the Buddhist way of overcoming feelings of isolation and alienation. Motivations involve positive feedback systems that tend to incorporate other people. The more I manipulate people to get what I want from them, the more separate I will feel from them, and the more alienated others will feel from me, when they recognize that they have been manipulated. This mutual distrust encourages both sides to manipulate more. On the other hand, the more I am motivated by generosity and loving-kindness, the more I can relax and open up to other people, and the more connected I feel with them; consequently, others too become more inclined to trust and open up to me.

The important point is that, because we are so deeply interconnected with each other, our own intentions usually have a very direct effect on other people. One of the great secrets of life is that people normally respond to us in the way that we approach them. Realizing this gives us power over our immediate circumstances. If we feel isolated and alienated, there is a simple way to begin to break down that wall between us and others: be kind to them. The same is true if we want to reach someone else who feels isolated and alienated, although in some cases it may also be important to do something about the "media bubble" that encloses the person.

The great Islamic philosopher Ibn al-'Arabi (1164-1240) wrote something similar. He asked: When God wants to be compassionate to us, how does he do it? He makes us compassionate. We don't need to believe in God to appreciate this profound truth. When we're feeling alone and sorry for ourselves, what is the best thing we can do? Something that helps others.

Does this have implications for how we understand the bodhisattva path? Traditionally, a bodhisattva is someone who postpones his or her own complete enlightenment in order to help other people become enlightened, but that is a dualistic way of thinking. If enlightenment involves realizing that I am not really separate from other people, how can I be fully enlightened unless they are enlightened too? Then helping others is like taking care of my own leg - something I naturally want to do. By taking care of others I am also taking care of myself.


When I look inside and see that I am nothing, that's wisdom.
When I look outside and see that I am everything, that's love.
Between these two my life turns.

- Nisargadatta Maharaj (1897-1981)
Indian spiritual leader and philosopher



David R. Loy is Besl Professor of Ethics/Religion and Society at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. His specialty is comparative philosophy and religion, particularly comparing Buddhism with modern Western thought. His recent books include The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory and Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution.


This article was originally published in the January-March 2010 issue of Dharma World.

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