- Created on 21 November 2004
- 28 October 2010
By David Cromwell
"It's time you realized that you have something in you more powerful and miraculous than the things that affect you and make you dance like a puppet."
(Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and philosopher)
What are you afraid of? What makes you anxious? Losing your health, your hair, your teeth, your looks? If you have children, perhaps you fear for them: for their health, the risk that they'll get wrapped up in drugs or crime, or that they'll miss out on a good education. If you're a parent, as I am, your biggest fear may well be that you'll lose your children. If you're not a parent, perhaps you desperately wish that you were. Or perhaps you'd prefer to remain childless, but fear becoming a parent accidentally.
Are you in love, looking for love or falling out of love? Do you fear being alone in your old age, perhaps even dying alone? And what about feelings of inadequacy? About not having a slim, well-toned body, or not being clever enough, or not having the 'right' clothes, gadgets, education, luxurious home or several holiday destinations through the year. Fear, anxiety, loneliness, insecurity, suffering. Why should any of this matter to political activists anyway?
Well, who wants to live in a world where we aren't concerned about each other? We are all united in wishing to be happy, to be free from suffering. Arguing the case for social justice and ecological sustainability with accurate facts, figures, quotes, references, examples and proposals is all very well. It is necessary, but it is not sufficient. We bandy around words ike 'community', 'solidarity', 'peace' and 'freedom'. And yet, we so often become uncomfortable or even dismissive if asked, 'what motivates you?', 'how do you remain committed?', or even 'how's life with you?'.
These questions are so often deemed irrelevant to political activism and organising; an impediment, or simply a distraction, to the primary task of confronting state-corporate power or building a movement from the ground up. Why is it considered strong to be driven by anger at injustices in the world, but considered weak to take time out to examine ourselves and what it takes to make us cry, laugh, sad, happy, enthused or fulfilled?
Something my father said recently struck me hard: "Nobody asked to be brought into this world".
This was in the context of how difficult life can be and how, simple and saccharine as it may sound, we ought to look out for each other. It is not a particularly original observation, of course, but at that moment it really resonated with me. Life can be hard; even for us in the 'privileged' and ' rich' countries of the west. The fact is, most of us at some time encounter stress, heartache, illness, frustration, ennui, depression, perhaps even despair. We should recognise those all too human frailties and afflictions in each other without scorn or discomfort, and without regarding it as a distraction from the political project of building a just and peaceful society. Rather than regarding such issues as a distraction, they should be recognised as utterly central to what we would like to achieve: true peace, freedom, happiness.
Fear of freedom
From the day that the baby realises that she is a separate entity from her mother, there is a striving to reproduce that primary tie; to connect with other individuals, and with human society as a whole. As the German psychologist Erich Fromm explained so well, the fear of being alone - of being an atomised individual in society - underlies the fear of genuine freedom: not so much freedom from things, such as poverty, repetitive work or damaging relationships; but the freedom to do things, to take responsibility for one's actions and thoughts, to cut the umbilical cord of dependency on 'higher' forms of authority, and to grow as a fully-integrated person.
The consequences of this fear can be harmful indeed: "in our effort to escape from aloneness and powerlessness", wrote Fromm, "we are ready to get rid of our individual self either by submission to new forms of authority or by a compulsive conforming to accepted patterns." (Fromm, 'Fear of Freedom', Routledge, London, 2002, p. 116). From there it is a slippery slope to simply knuckling under, getting on with life, doing whatever our 'benign' leaders want, or simply letting them get on with whatever it is they do; whether it be handing over yet more public revenue and power to corporations, introducing ever more draconian legislation to protect domestic 'security', or pulverising yet another already impoverished and devastated nation.
I was motivated to put these thoughts down, partly because of an exchange with someone I had on email three years ago, following the launch of the US/UK attacks on Afghanistan in late 2001. My correspondent is a decent person, a loving father, and someone with strong environmentalist leanings. And yet he told me: "The world isn't fair, never has been, never will be, and it's survival of the fittest whether we like it or not, so if we want to survive and maintain our pampered life-styles, we stay the fittest - and that doesn't necessarily mean the nicest if you're not part of our tribe." I was quite taken aback by this outburst.
I suspect, and it would admittedly be hard to verify this, that such a cynical 'pragmatic' view is held by a far greater number of westerners than we would like to think. It is a selfish notion that seems to accord with Darwinian evolution, with its dictate of 'survival of the fittest'. Applied, inappropriately, to human societies, it seems to imply that 'might is right'. On this view, competition is what drives human behaviour or, at the very least, it is a major component in human makeup. Compassion, altruism and kindness are evolutionary adaptations, so we are told, that improved our fitness to survive and flourish. As psychologist Steven Pinker puts it, in his typically sweeping style:
"Family feelings are designed to help our genes replicate themselves." (Pinker, 'How The Mind Works', p. 30).
In other words, we might put ourselves out for a close relative, to the extent of risking our lives to save him or her, but we would be less likely to do so for someone not related to ourselves, goes the argument.
Pinker adds that the "tragedy of reciprocal altruism is that sacrifices on behalf of nonrelatives cannot survive without a web of disagreeable emotions like anxiety, mistrust, guilt, shame, and anger." (Pinker, 'The Blank Slate', Penguin, London, p. 256).
For example, we might well feel anxious about, and even angry towards, individuals who take unfair advantage of our kindly acts in order to accrue benefits for themselves. This may be as simple as feeling resentful at having had one's colleague round to our home not just once, but twice, and still not having received a dinner invitation in return! Or, to use Pinker's examples: gaining from, but not contributing to, the public good, such as hunting animals for food, building a lighthouse that keeps everyone's ships off the rocks, or banding together to invade neighbours or to repel their invasions.
A successful, thriving society requires cooperation and a measure of trust and honour between its members. Those who cheat are an unfair burden on society, and 'law-abiding' members of the group must punish them. Otherwise cheaters could end up destroying the cohesion, even the very survival, of the whole group. Consequently, claims Pinker, anger "evolved from systems for aggression and was recruited to implement the cheater-punishment strategy demanded by reciprocal altruism." (Pinker, 'The Blank Slate', Penguin, London, p. 272).
"Go ahead, make my day!"
But is this depiction of anger as beneficial, providing evolutionary advantages, the whole truth?
Psychologist Martin Seligman, pioneer of the burgeoning field of 'positive psychology' cautions: "We deem it honest, just, and even healthy to express our anger. So we shout, we protest, and we litigate. 'Go ahead, make my day,' warns Dirty Harry. Part of the reason we allow ourselves this luxury is that we believe the psychodynamic theory of anger. If we don't express our rage, it will come out elsewhere - even more destructively, as in cardiac disease. But this theory turns out to be false; in fact, the reverse is true. Dwelling on trespass and the expression of anger produces more cardiac disease and more anger." (Seligman, 'Authentic Happiness', p. 69)
Anne Harrington, a science historian at Harvard University, points out the systematic failings of science in the investigation of deep human values such as altruism and compassion. These values tend to be simply eliminated from the scientific analysis, says Harrington:
"Historically, the more deeply our sciences have probed reality, the less relevant concepts like compassion become. Behind altruism is strategizing for genetic fitness."
In, other words, as psychologist Daniel Goleman notes, the scientific reduction of altruism to notions of "genetic fitness" is "how evolutionary theory explains away such selflessness." (Daniel Goleman, 'Destructive Emotions And How We Can Overcome Them. A Dialogue with the Dalai Lama', Bloomsbury, London, 2003, p. 280)
Evolutionary theory is, of course, one of the most successful scientific theories of all times, but one must be careful in using it to 'explain' human qualities, particularly if such explanations are one-sided. As Seligman maintains:
"I believe that evolution has favored both good and bad traits, and any number of adaptive roles in the world have selected for morality, cooperation, altruism, and goodness, just as any number have also selected for murder, theft, self-seeking, and terrorism" (Seligman, p. xiii).
Seligman explicitly rejects pessimistic depictions of selfish human nature, or of anger being innate. This approach, he argues, is scientifically unsound: "Current dogma may say that negative motivation is fundamental to human nature and positive motivation merely derives from it, but I have not seen a shred of evidence that compels us to believe thisS [the] dual-aspect view that positive and negative traits are equally authentic and fundamental is the basic motivational premise of Positive Psychology." (Seligman, p. 211)
Letting go of old bad habits by focussing on others
Returning now to the individual, it is all too easy for personal attitudes to be shaped by our own narrow bundle of inwardly-directed anxieties. The German philosopher Ernst Cassirer expressed it well: "We live much more in our doubts and fears, our anxieties and hopes about the future, than in our recollections or in our present experiences."
Fear and anxiety so often dominate our reaction to people and the world around us. Isn't this terribly sad? By looking primarily inwards, at our own problems, which thus tend to multiply and magnify, we can too easily become attached to feelings of negativity, even misery. This almost becomes a badge of honour, a bundle of suffering that we must carry around on our backs wherever we go; excess baggage that we are, in fact, loathe to set down.
As psychotherapist Howard Cutler notes: "When it comes down to it, many of us resist giving up our misery - a vexing and baffling feature of human behavior I often observed in the past when treating psychotherapy patients. As miserable as some people might be, for many there is a kind of perverse pleasure in the self-righteous indignation one feels when one is treated unfairly. We hold on to our pain, wear it like a badge, it becomes part of us and we are reluctant to give it up. After all, at least our characteristic ways of looking at the world are familiar. Letting go of our customary responses, as destructive as they may be, may seem frightening, and often that fear abides on a deeply ingrained subconscious level."
That fear of letting go of our habitual tendencies can be conquered, or at least assuaged, by focusing on the needs of others, rather than our own. Seligman says simply: "When we are happy, we are less self-focused, we like others more, and we want to share our good fortune even with strangers. When we are down, though, we become distrustful, turn inward, and focus defensively on our own needs. Looking out for number one is more characteristic of sadness than of well-being." (Seligman, p. 43)
On the other hand, Seligman points out the evolutionary role of positive emotions: "They broaden our abiding intellectual, physical, and social resources, building up reserves we can draw upon when a threat or opportunity presents itself. When we are in a positive mood, people like us better, and friendship, love, and coalitions are more likely to cement. In contrast to the constrictions of negative emotion, our mental set is expansive, tolerant, and creative. We are open to new ideas and new experience." (Seligman, p. 35)
The conscious effort to undertake small acts of kindness for others is a good place to start. Though such acts may initially feel somewhat forced, it is worth the effort to weaken the fears, doubts and anxieties that afflict us all. It is a simple and fun pragmatic scientific experiment, at minimal cost, that anyone can try. When to begin? Now! As Marcus Aurelius wisely observed: "there is a limit to the time assigned you, and if you don't use it to free yourself it will be gone and will never return." ('Meditations', new translation by Gregory Hays, Phoenix, London, 2003, p. 20).
- Created on 05 March 2005
- 28 October 2010
By David Edwards
A fair proportion of the South coast of England, where I live, was recently in uproar at the news that former Portsmouth football manager, Harry Redknapp, had joined arch-rival South coast team, Southampton. Worse still, Redknapp took Portsmouth's assistant manager with him. Meanwhile, there was speculation that former Southampton manager, Gordon Strachan, was about to become Portsmouth's new manager!
Both Redknapp and Strachan are highly respected managers and would undoubtedly have been eagerly embraced by their new clubs' supporters, just as they would have been hated by their old supporters. In the event, Strachan didn't join Portsmouth.
An odd thought arises - what would happen if all of the Portsmouth players and staff left to join Southampton, and all the Southampton players and staff left to join Portsmouth? Would the fans continue to support the players and staff they had previously supported under a new label, or would they continue supporting the old label? We can guess the answer.
Consider, also, the response to tennis player Alexander Popp who is half-English and half-German. Popp speaks perfect English but has decided to play under the German flag. The Canadian-born Greg Rusedski, by contrast, has chosen to play as a British player. When Rusedski wins or loses, British tennis fans are elated or distraught because they label him 'British'. The same crowd is supremely unmoved when Popp plays because they label him 'German'. If Popp had decided to play as a Brit, he would be labelled 'British', his picture would be all over the newspapers, and the public would feel intense emotions in response to his performances.
Similarly, in the summer of 2004, much of the English public was devastated by the exit of the England football team from the European championships: "What will we do tomorrow?" grieved one sports commentator without irony. All around the country people were genuinely depressed by defeat - the anguish was real. The reason people were unhappy, of course, was that the England team had lost.
But what do we mean by 'the England football team'? On the face of it the question is absurd - obviously we mean the squad of players, and maybe the manager and his coaching staff.
But when we check more carefully something curious happens. Consider the players: is David Beckham the England football team? Obviously not - he is merely a part of the team, not the team itself. If Beckham were the England team then that would mean all the other players were also England teams - there would be eleven England teams on the pitch every time they played.
Is Wayne Rooney the England team? Again, obviously not. All of the players are merely 'parts of the team', not the team itself. People were not unhappy because any individual player had failed to win Euro 2004 - if completely different players had been involved, they would have felt the same - but because something beyond the individuals involved, 'the England team', had failed to win.
The England team is understood to be the collection of players. But we have already agreed that each of the players, individually, is not the team. So when we consider the collection, we are considering a collection of parts that are all +not+ the England team. It seems remarkable to suggest that by bringing together individuals - none of whom are the England team - they might suddenly transform into an actually existing 'England team'. Again, if we remove, one by one, the individuals who are not the England team - Beckham, Rooney, Lampard - there is nothing left, no England team.
In fact, of course, 'the England team' is merely a mental label that we apply to a collection of individual players, but this collection does not actually exist as an object or entity; it is just a product of the mind.
The public, then, is upset or delighted because a non-existent entity, a mental label, 'England' - a label that they themselves have applied to a group of individuals - has 'lost' or 'won'. In reality, of course, a non-existent entity can neither win nor lose - a label is just a label, a mental construct.
It is not just the England team that goes missing on closer inspection. When we search for a forest we only ever find trees. The trees are considered part of a forest, but actually they are part of nothing inherently existent - the forest is just a label in our minds. Similarly, leaves, twigs, branches and trunks are deemed to be parts of things called 'trees' - but a leaf is not a tree, nor is a twig, nor is a branch, nor is a trunk, nor is bark, nor is a root. What on earth, then, is 'a tree'? In fact a 'tree' is just a label applied to a collection of parts - it is nowhere actually to be found, just like 'a forest' and just like an 'England team'.
Remarkably, this understanding applies to all phenomena made up of parts. If we look for an 'army', we will only ever find individual soldiers, generals, tanks and guns - the term 'army' is just a label. If we look for a 'book', we will only ever find individual pages, none of which is a book. If we search for a car, we will find wheels, doors, windows, nuts, bolts and bumpers - none of which is the car - but which we label 'car' and then mistake for an actually existing object. Reggie Ray at Naropa University, Colorado, asks:
"Where is the essential nature of the car located, exactly? If we begin removing parts of the car, at which point does it stop being a car? The answer is that there is no point at which it stops being a car other than when I stop thinking of it in that way. Moreover, in taking the car apart, ten people would probably have ten different points at which they felt that the essential nature of car had ceased to be. This indicates clearly that essential nature is not something residing in the object, but rather something that resides just in our own thinking. The car, in and of itself, possesses no essential nature." (Ray, Indestructible Truth, Shambhala, 2000, p.408)
In other words the idea of inherently existing objects is an illusion. Chogye Trichen Rinpoche explains the basic qualities of an illusion:
"By definition, an illusion is something that does not exist. It only seems to be, due to a variety of composite factors, causes and conditions, the interdependence of which produces illusory scenarios that present themselves to our experience. When the conditions meet, the illusory situation manifests." (Trichen Rinpoche, Parting From The Four Attachments, Snow Lion, 2003, p.166)
A good example of an illusion is a reflection of the moon in a mirror. The moon appears to be in the mirror but in fact the moon, the mirror, our eyes and minds are combining to create an illusion - we know there is no actual moon in the mirror. We know this because when we remove one of the conditions creating the illusion - say the light from the moon in the sky - the mirror moon disappears.
In other words, the mirror moon appears, not because there is an +actual+ moon at that place in the mirror, but because conditions combine to give the impression that there is, which is an illusion.
Likewise, the Portsmouth football team appears to be inherently real. But when we remove the composite factors that give rise to the illusion - the players in the team - the illusion of a real team disappears and we are left with a mere label. There is no inherently existing entity called Portsmouth Football Club. And, again, this is true of all objects made up of parts (with these parts also made up of smaller parts) - that is, everything.
But this is bizarre, isn't it? Does nothing exist? Clearly +something+ is there - we can see 'things': trees, cars, moons and football players. But our firm belief in concrete, inherently existent phenomena sitting 'out there' in space - the very foundation of materialism - is in fact unfounded. The world is not at all as it seems.
- Created on 25 July 2005
- 22 October 2010
By David Edwards
Samples From An Ocean Of Suffering
In 1992 a group of neuroscientists travelled to India to research the effects of meditation. In the mountains above Dharamsala, the scientists spent time with a young monk who had been meditating intensively for six years. Richard Davidson, a psychobiologist from the University of Wisconsin, had done pioneering work correlating minute shifts in facial expression with emotions. He explained to the monk that he would be shown a video of Tibetan demonstrators being beaten by Chinese security forces. His face would simultaneously be videoed to record any reactions. Writer Alan Wallace described the result:
"As the monk watched the video, we didn't detect any change of expression in his face at all, no grimace, no shudder, no expression of sadness." (Wallace, Buddhism With An Attitude, Snow Lion Publications, 2001, p.176)
The monk was asked to describe his experience while watching the video. He replied:
"I didn't see anything that I didn't already know goes on all the time, not only in Tibet but throughout the world. I am aware of this constantly."
It was not that the monk failed to experience compassion while watching these brutal scenes, Wallace explains: "He was aware that he was simply being shown a video - patterns of light - representing events that took place long ago. But this suffering was simply one episode in the overall suffering of samsara [existence], of which he was constantly aware. Hence, while looking out over the ocean of suffering, he didn't feel anything extraordinary when he was shown a picture of a glass of water". (Email to author, July 15, 2005)
This account came to mind when I saw the response to the July 7 terrorist atrocities in London. In the video experiment, the monk's mind was so steeped in compassion that his expression did not change at all even when he saw images of his own people being brutalised. So what does it tell us that so many British people were so deeply shaken by the suffering of their fellow citizens?
After all, have we not been reading and watching endless accounts and footage of near-identical horrors in Iraq and Palestine on mainstream and internet-based media over the last few years? The suffering of the Iraqi people, for example, is almost beyond belief. When the West again blitzed Baghdad in March 2003, this followed years of war and sanctions that had shattered the country's infrastructure. The population again being bombed had already had to endure the deaths of literally hundreds of thousands of children from malnutrition, water-borne diseases and other horrors caused by US-UK sanctions. This truly was suffering heaped on suffering.
Howard Zinn made the point after the September 11 attacks:
"One of the things that occurred to me, after I had gotten over my initial reaction of shock and horror at what had been done, was that other scenes of horror have taken place in other parts of the world and they just never meant very much to us." (Zinn, Terror And War, Open Media Book, 2002, p.90)
One Second Per Death
I don't believe this comparative indifference is hard-wired into human nature. The truth is that we are trained to value the lives of our countrymen more highly by a socio-political system that has much to gain from a restricted, patriotic version of compassion, and much to lose from an excess of popular concern for suffering inflicted on 'foreigners' by our governments and corporations.
It was a very real disaster for American elites when ordinary Americans became outraged by the catastrophe inflicted by US power on the people of Vietnam. This concern seriously obstructed US realpolitik, stirring previously slumbering democratic forces and threatening elite control of society (see Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove, Voices of a People's History). Famously, the champion boxer Muhammad Ali refused to fight in Vietnam, saying:
"No, I am not going ten thousand miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end." (Ali, 1966. Quoted, Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove, Voices of a People's History, Seven Stories, 2004, p.431)
At time of writing, the death toll from the London bombings stands at 56 dead. In the early evening of March 28, 2003, the media reported the killing of 55 Iraqi civilians (the final toll was 62) by an American missile in the al-Shula district of Baghdad. Hours later, David Sells of the BBC's Newsnight programme devoted 45 seconds to the atrocity 16 minutes into the programme - less than one second per death.
These 45 seconds presented the slaughter as an Anglo-American public relations problem, and a predictable one at that: "It is a war, after all", Sells observed blandly over footage of Iraqi women wailing in grief, adding: "But the coalition aim is to unseat Saddam Hussein by winning hearts and minds."
Imagine if Sells had commented on the London bombings that people +had+ died, "It is a terrorist campaign, after all", but the bombers' aim was "to win hearts and minds".
I asked George Entwistle, then Newsnight editor, how he justified just 45 seconds of coverage. He replied: "As a current affairs programme we lead on a news story where we think we can add analytical value; i.e., can we take it on? We didn't feel we could add anything." (Interview with the author, March 31, 2003)
Something of "analytical value" would certainly have been found if the victims had been British or American. We can make all the excuses we like, but the fact is that tragedies of this kind just don't mean as much to us.
Last week, the Independent noted that an October 2004 report in The Lancet had estimated Iraqi civilian deaths at nearly 100,000, but that the methodology "was subsequently criticised". (Terry Kirby and Elizabeth Davies, 'Iraq conflict claims 34 civilians lives each day as "anarchy" beckons,' The Independent, July 20, 2005)
But the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, which conducted the survey, is one of the world's most prestigious research organisations. And The Lancet is one of the world's leading science journals. I asked Terry Kirby, co-author of the Independent article, which criticisms he had in mind. Kirby replied: "So far as I am aware, the Lancet's report was criticised by the Foreign Office." (Email to the author, July 22, 2005)
You couldn't make it up!
On the same day, an Independent leader added that the Lancet findings had been reached "by extrapolating from a small sample... While never completely discredited, those figures were widely doubted." (Leader, 'The true measure of the US and British failure,' The Independent, July 20, 2005)
Lead author Gilbert Burnham from the Johns Hopkins School told me the sample size was entirely standard:
"Our data have been back and forth between many reviewers at the Lancet and here in the school (chair of Biostatistics Dept), so we have the scientific strength to say what we have said with great certainty. I doubt any Lancet paper has gotten as much close inspection in recent years as this one has!" (Dr. Gilbert Burnham, email to the author, October 30, 2004)
By contrast, an independent website, Iraq Body Count, last week published a report estimating that nearly 25,000 Iraqi civilians have died since the invasion and occupation began. The report was not conducted by a leading research body, it was not peer reviewed, and yet it was broadly accepted and granted headline status by the BBC, ITV News, the Guardian and many other media. Even senior government figures were happy to mention the website's results.
This is a perfect example of how the establishment tends to see only what it wants to see. That would be fine, except that the public is therefore unable to understand or address the real problems our governments have created. That means more suffering for everyone.
Repeated endlessly, and contrasted with mass coverage of Western victims of terror, such entrenched bias inevitably trains us to value Western lives above non-Western lives. Like the air we breathe, this parochial compassion comes to seem normal and natural to the extent that we barely even notice when our armies are killing Third World people in vast numbers. Noam Chomsky is a rare voice willing to discuss this reality:
"If they do something to us, the world is coming to an end. But if we do it to them, it's so normal, why should we even talk about it?" (Chomsky, Power and Terror, Seven Stories Press, 2003, p.20)
We Cry! We Live!
I've sometimes had discussions with people on the subject of altruism, love and compassion where someone has indicated, say, their wife and children, and declared: "I'd sacrifice my life to protect them."
Alan Wallace invites us to consider whether this kind of commitment is necessarily rooted in compassion and altruism, or whether it might involve an extension of selfishness. Are we in fact defending what we see as part of "me" and "mine", extensions of ourselves?
The media praise public outpourings of compassion and grief for the victims of London, New York and Madrid as signs of a nation's humanity. And surely they are. But how much of this concern is also rooted in a sense that we - our people, our security, our way of life - are under attack? How much is our reaction actually an expression of self-concern?
It is vital that we aspire to broaden and equalise our compassion for suffering. Not because it's "nice", not because we should "teach the world to sing". It is vital because otherwise there is a real danger that, in caring deeply for real and important 'us', and ignoring irrelevant 'them', we become utterly blind to the misery we are causing, and entirely ruthless in crushing those who cause us harm.
Even as the media were asking how on earth human beings could kill innocent commuters in London, Christopher Hitchens wrote in the Daily Mirror: "We shall track down those responsible. States that shelter them will know no peace." (Hitchens, '07/07: War on Britain,' The Mirror, July 8, 2005)
In the New York Times last week, leading columnist Thomas Friedman wrote:
"We need to shine a spotlight on hate speech wherever it appears. The State Department produces an annual human rights report. Henceforth, it should also produce a quarterly War of Ideas Report, which would focus on those religious leaders and writers who are inciting violence against others. I would compile it in a nondiscriminatory way." (Friedman, 'Giving the hatemongers no place to hide,' New York Times, July 22, 2005)
And yet this is the same Thomas Friedman who had himself written at the height of the NATO bombing of Serbia in April 1999:
"Like it or not, we are at war with the Serbian nation (the Serbs certainly think so), and the stakes have to be very clear: Every week you ravage Kosovo is another decade we will set your country back by pulverising you. You want 1950? We can do 1950. You want 1389? We can do 1389 too." (Friedman, 'Stop the music,' New York Times, April 23, 1999)
Many people believe there is a deep divide between ethics and politics. But a patriotic version of compassion is often the most potent weapon of realpolitik. It is used to persuade us to ignore our own crimes and to turn against "evildoers", official enemies often selected on the basis of carefully hidden agendas.
Compassion can also, however, be the most potent tool of liberation, breaking the links of greed, hatred and ignorance from which our political chains are formed. Power needs compassion to be partial, patriotic, rooted in self-concern. Humanity needs compassion to be universal, unconditional and equal.
The basis for this equalised concern is straight forward enough: everyone is identical in yearning from the depths of their hearts for an end to suffering and for lasting happiness. Recognising that this is so - that others truly are just like us in this respect - provides a basis for universal compassion. Or are we seriously to believe that suffering is somehow deeper and more important 'here' than 'there'? Suffering is simply suffering.
Every time our media present Third World people as anonymous crowds, as inconsequential extras in grand Western dramas, we might remind ourselves of the deeply humane words spoken by the cousin of a Palestinian man shot dead by the Israeli army in Nablus refugee camp. The man spoke of his shock at the events of September 11, but continued:
"I know what they feel. But I want them to know what I feel. I think many of them don't want to know about us, don't want to know what we feel. They think we are from another country, or from another star. We also, like them, we cry! We live! We feel sad! We feel happy! And we have minds, also! I want them to use their minds and to understand what happened here." (Through Muslim Eyes, Channel 4, September 6, 2002)
- Created on 19 March 2005
- 28 October 2010
By David Edwards
The response to Part 1 of this Cogitation was interesting. Positive comments were mixed with outrage that I should waste time on “twaddle“. A few people interpreted the piece as an attack on football or football fandom. Debates often rapidly turned into comments in support of, or against, particular teams!
Recall that the argument - a brief look at the 2,000-year-old Buddhist metaphysics of ‘shunyata’ or ‘emptiness’ - involved the claim that objects made up of different parts and dependent on external conditions, cannot be described as inherently existent. We have a strong feeling that a car, for example, exists in its own right as a concrete, unitary object ‘out there’. But when we look for the car, we find only parts, none of which is the car. When we assemble the parts we have a collection of, say, 10,000 parts - the ‘car’ is none of these but is merely a label applied by our minds to this collection.
The same, of course, applies to the parts that make up the object (the engine, wheels, doors) and so on down to the atomic level, and beyond. What is an atom? It is not an electron, or a neutron, or a proton? An atom, in fact, is no more findable than the Southampton football team - recently walloped by Manchester United in the FA Cup!
At first sight, this looks like mere semantics. We tend to see no meaningful difference between the idea of a car as an inherently existent object and a mere label. The reason is that we are so used to viewing objects as inherently existent that it is extremely difficult to pin down exactly the presumption we are making, or its significance. One way to get closer to the truth is to look at some of the more extreme psychological results of our presumption and then examine how they are rooted in an unsustainable view of the world.
What Exactly Do You Hate About Tony Blair?
We might not appreciate the significance of the idea that a car is an inherently existent object, but we have a much better idea of what it means to perceive a hated person as inherently existent. We need only imagine someone who has abused or insulted us in some way, or ruthlessly taken someone or something we view as ‘mine‘. We may feel a burning hatred for this person and even want to harm or kill them. A curious question arises - what exactly is it that we are angry with?
Consider the person’s body - are we angry with their hair, eyebrows, arms, feet, legs, lungs? Obviously not. The person’s body is innocent of all charges! Of course the appearance of a particular face - Tony Blair’s, for example - may well provoke feelings of anger. But we are not actually angry with Tony Blair’s features - we do not believe his eyes or nose, say, are to blame for his actions.
So are we angry with the person’s mind? If so, which aspect of the mind? Clearly the mind consists of multiple factors - sight consciousness, sound consciousness, feelings, the ability to discriminate between objects. We are not angry with any of these basic sense faculties. Then there is the constant flow of thoughts that run through the mind, and also a consciousness, or awareness, able to observe them.
Anyone who has attempted the ’shamatha’ meditation technique that involves focusing attention on the breath will be very familiar with the workings of this train of thoughts. As we try to fix our mind on the subtle sensation of air entering and leaving our nostrils we find that our attention is constantly whisked away by a swirling vortex of thoughts. One moment we are sensing the movement of the breath, the next we are thinking, ‘Success! Now I‘m focused on the breath!’, or ‘I don‘t +care+ about Prince Charles and Camilla!’ It is also clear that some other part of our mind is aware of these distracting thoughts, can notice them, and can choose to return attention to the sensations of the breath.
One of the initial results of this kind of meditation is a shocking awareness of just how little control we have over our mind. Try though we might to stay focused on the breath we find ourselves suddenly caught up in thoughts. But this very act of noticing that we have failed to stay focused is, itself, incredibly beneficial; in fact it +is+ the meditation, not a failure to meditate. Meditation teacher Rob Nairn explains one of the major discoveries that can arise out of this:
“We begin to realise that we don’t have to pick up a thought at the moment of arising. This is the first hint of freedom in the mind: we do not have to pick up on thought. Until this realisation all our processes are compulsive. We believe we have to pick up on thoughts because they appear. Even with this realisation, however, because of habit, we continue to engage. But after a while, in our meditation, we see that habit and return to the meditation support [the breath], and slowly the mind lets thought go again. A new one arises, we are compelled to pick it up, we see it, we go back to the meditation support.” (Nairn, Diamond Mind, Shambhala, 2001, p.78)
This increases our freedom because when anger arises, for example, instead of reflexively leaping onto an escalator of increasingly angry thoughts - perhaps without even awareness of what we are doing - we have trained ourselves to observe what’s happening. We may instead notice, “Ah, an angry thought!” To be aware of what’s happening means we are not quite so caught up in it; we are not so helplessly whisked away by anger. This creates the beginning, as Nairn writes, of “freedom from thought“.
But where does this avalanche of tumbling thoughts come from? They pop into existence like bubbles in a glass of lemonade - suddenly they’re just there. We can see that they are +our+ thoughts. We can see how they are linked to previous thoughts and experiences in our life. And yet they are curiously beyond our control and in a very real sense, not ‘us’. Or at least we are aware that there is no background self that is deciding to generate these thoughts. This is why the Buddha made the otherwise curious comment: “There are thoughts but no thinker.”
Searching For ‘Mini-Me’
One of the curious features of meditation, then, is the initial sense that we are being victimised by our thoughts. Here we are, trying hard to focus on the sensations of our breath, and these damned thoughts keep popping into our heads and spoiling everything!
So to return to our original point, when we are angry with someone who has, say, shouted abuse at us, is it these thoughts that we are angry with? Is it these same thoughts that seem so stubbornly beyond our own control in meditation?
When a person chooses to flirt with our girlfriend in front of us, say, are we angry with his thought, ‘She’s nice and I don’t give a damn about him!’ Are we angry with that idea? Or are we angry with some presumed person, some skulking self, that we imagine has +chosen+ to think that thought?
If we are angry with the thought, then we are angry with a transient phenomenon that comes and goes. If we identify the person with the thought, then this person is a thousand different people every day - a ‘good person’ when a good thought arises, a ‘bad person’ when a bad thought arises - which seems absurd. If a particular thought has come and gone, so too has the target of our anger.
So is there a permanently nasty self somehow behind the nasty thoughts that we can blame? This is the crux of the matter. According to the brilliant eighth century sage, Shantideva, there +is+ no self behind the thought, no one who can be deemed responsible for the thought.
Instead the thought is the result of a vast collection of conditions and influences - previous thoughts, experiences, family influences, social influences, cultural influences, genetic influences, accidents, chance - that are clearly +not+ the responsibility of an unchanging, autonomous, inherently existent self.
It is not, for example, that a malicious ‘mini-Me’ inside the person’s head decided, ‘Now I will think a vicious thought!’ Similarly, moments before we become angry in response, there was no ’mini-Me’ inside our heads who decided to become angry - anger just arises, blasts into being, erupts! Shantideva explains:
“Never thinking, ’Now I will be angry,’
People are impulsively caught up in anger.
Irritation, likewise, comes -
Though never plans to be experienced!
“Every injury whatever,
The whole variety of evil deeds
Is brought about by circumstances.
None is independent, none autonomous.
“Conditions, once assembled, have no thought
That now they will give rise to some result.
And that which is engendered does not think
That it has been produced by such conditions.” (Shantideva, The Way Of The Bodhisattva, Shambhala, 1997, p.81)
The conclusion, therefore, is clear:
“Thus, when enemies or friends
Are seen to act improperly,
Be calm and call to mind
That everything arises from conditions.” (Ibid, p.82)
It is clearly unrealistic to blame some mythical, independent and autonomous ‘Little Controller’ behind our thoughts for the infinite range of influences and conditions that give rise to unkind or destructive thoughts and acts. If it were wholly independent of conditions to this extent - such that it could be held responsible for what happens, as our anger claims - it could not function in the world for the simple reason that it could not interact with the world. After all, to interact is to imply mutual influence, which is to mitigate responsibility.
Indeed, Buddhists reject the idea of an independent, autonomous self behind mental events just as they reject the idea of an independent, autonomous God behind the universe. Egotism, in fact, might be considered a kind of religion - placing an illusory, independent, autonomous Self at the centre of the universe - a microcosmic version of theism. Whenever I see prideful atheists denouncing theists, I can’t help but reflect on Nietzsche’s comment:
“Yes, it divines you too, you conquerors of the old God! You grow weary in battle and now your weariness serves the +new+ idol!”
None of this means that people should not be held to account for their actions - it means that there are no grounds for the kind of blame that gives rise to feelings of hate. There simply is no permanent, autonomous self to pin the blame on.
A few years ago it was reported that an American policeman had shot and killed a colleague in cold blood for no reason. The media described the act as one of “pure Evil”. It was later discovered that the killer, who had no previous history of violence, had been taking sleeping pills subsequently found to produce extreme psychotic side-effects. In this case it is easy to “be calm and call to mind that everything arises from conditions”. But in our day to day lives the vast array of more subtle conditions, and our firm belief in the inherent existence of independently existing objects and people, make it very easy for us to feel anger and hatred.
More to the point, anger is a form of dynamic ignorance. It is bad enough to be ignorant, but anger forms an energetic filter in our minds powerfully removing all mitigating circumstances, ideas and factors from awareness that interfere with our desire to blame. Just as when we are infatuated we can perceive no bad qualities in a desired object, so we can perceive no good qualities in a hated object.
Anger and craving, then, have a massive impact entrenching our view of the world. Our belief in the idea of inherently existent, autonomous objects and people is constantly being cemented and bolstered by anger and desire. Buddhists claim that if these are gradually attenuated and replaced by compassion, so the truth and real significance of ‘emptiness’ can become clearer to us. Remarkably, then, it is claimed that compassionate thoughts and actions actually lead away from illusion to a more rational perception of the world. This is why it is argued that the bird of Enlightenment - of valid perception of reality - rises on the two wings of wisdom and compassion.
As is doubtless clear, my understanding of these very difficult issues is superficial in the extreme. For a far more informed discussion I recommend B. Alan Wallace’s excellent books The Seven Point Mind Training (Snow Lion, 2004) and Boundless Heart (Snow Lion, 1999). For a discussion of ‘shamatha’ meditation, take a look at Rob Nairn’s Diamond Mind - A Psychology of Meditation (Shambhala, 2001).
- Created on 11 September 2005
- 22 October 2010
By David Edwards
The Drive To Action
It's not rocket science, but we do associate emotions with colours. We talk of 'seeing red' when we're angry. We go 'green' with envy. We feel 'blue'. Our hearts can be 'black' with hatred. What about compassion? We assume it is an emotion and feel pretty sure we know where it belongs on the spectrum. Is compassion, then, a version of sadness? Is it blue?
Many of us believe so. Many indeed associate compassion with sadness that can become a kind of depression or 'compassion fatigue'. Many on the political left see compassion as pacifying and debilitating. They argue that 'feeling sorry' for other people is not a lot of use - what we need is action. They believe anger is far more motivating and efficient than sorrowful, navel-gazing pity.
But when we think of compassion as fundamentally 'blue', are we looking at compassion itself, or at a mixture of emotions involving compassion? Is something non-emotional perhaps precisely +obscured+ by emotion?
Consider this from Seymour Hersh's shocking account of the American massacre of up to 500 Vietnamese women, children and old men in the hamlet of My Lai on March 16, 1968. Hersh provided eyewitness testimony from the scene of the atrocity:
"Carter recalled that some GIs were shouting and yelling during the massacre: 'The boys enjoyed it. When someone laughs and jokes about what they're doing, they have to be enjoying it.' A GI said, 'Hey, I got me another one.' Another said, 'Chalk up one for me.'... 'A woman came out of a hut with a baby in her arms and she was crying,' Carter told the CID. 'She was crying because her little boy had been in front of their hut and... someone had killed the child by shooting it.' When the mother came into view, one of Medina's men 'shot her with an M16 and she fell. When she fell, she dropped the baby.' The GI next 'opened up on the baby with his M16'. The infant was also killed.
"Carter also saw an officer grab a woman by the hair and shoot her with a .45 calibre pistol. 'He held her by the hair for a minute and then let go and she fell to the ground. Some enlisted men standing there said, 'Well, she'll be in the big rice paddy in the sky.'" (Seymour M. Hersh, the Massacre At My Lai, in John Pilger, ed, Tell Me No Lies, Jonathan Cape, 2004, pp.95-96)
Do we not feel compassion for these defenceless women and children? But do some of us not also feel anger at the actions of the troops? Is compassion, then, red instead of blue? Or, again, are we looking at a combination of emotional factors, a mixture of colours, or of colours and non-colours? Is compassion something other than both blue sadness and red anger?
Geshe Yeshe Thubtop, who has been cultivating compassion through intensive meditation for twenty-three years, provides a surprising answer:
"When you first witness a child who is suffering, your immediate experience is one of sadness. But then this emotion is displaced by the yearning, 'How can I help? Does the child need food? Shelter? What can be done to alleviate the child's suffering?' This is when true compassion arises, and when it is present, the previous sadness vanishes." (Quoted, Alan Wallace, Genuine Happiness, Wiley, 2005, p.132)
Compassion is something other than the sadness we feel when we witness suffering, and it is certainly not the anger that often also arises in our minds. Compassion, in fact, is simply the urge to relieve suffering. Is it, then, an emotion at all? Writer Alan Wallace dissects the significance of Geshe Thubtop's comment:
"This gives compassion a broader meaning. It isn't just a warm, cuddly feeling. It doesn't mean mere sympathy. In our society, we commonly equate compassion with feeling sorry for others. We feel sorry for AIDS victims and those suffering from genocide, ethnic cleansing, terrorism, poverty, and all the other adversities. But feeling sorry for someone is not compassion. Feeling sorry is just feeling sad, with no drive to action. We don't go on from there to a heartfelt yearning: 'May you be free of suffering and the sources of suffering.' Sorrow alone, then, is a poor facsimile of compassion." (Ibid, p.133)
This is something of a revolutionary insight, I believe. Compassion is a bright, clear (colourless?), even fierce, yearning that suffering be relieved. In Buddhism, this yearning, called "simple compassion", is distinguished from "great compassion", which is described as "the jewel of the mind".
Between The Guns And The Victims - Great Compassion
Great compassion takes the wish that others be free from suffering one step further. Lobsang Gyatso explains by reference to the story of a child:
"One day the child is playing and falls into a pit of filth. The mother and the friends of the boy see him in the pit; they weep loudly and cry out to him sorrowfully, but they do not go into the pit to rescue him. Then the father of the boy comes to the place and sees that his only son has fallen into a pit. Alarmed and driven only by the thought of rescuing his son, he descends into the filth without any hesitation and pulls him out." (Gyatso, Bodhicitta, Snow Lion, 1997, p.77)
Rather than merely wishing that suffering be relieved (simple compassion), the father acts out of a sense that it is his personal responsibility to relieve suffering. This is great compassion.
We get an idea of why great compassion is so highly valued when we read a second account from the My Lai massacre. At the time of the atrocity, Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson was piloting an observation helicopter above the hamlet. As the reality of what was unfolding below became clear, Thompson became increasingly determined to intervene. Hersh described what happened next:
"By now Thompson was almost frantic. He landed his helicopter near the ditch [filled with massacred and wounded civilians], and asked a soldier if he could help the people out: 'He said the only way he could help them was to help them out of their misery.'... He then saw Calley and the first platoon, the same group that had shot the wounded civilians... 'I asked them if he could get women and kids out of there before they tore it [the bunker] up, and he said the only way he could get them out was to use hand grenades. 'You just hold your men right there,' the angry Thompson told the equally angry Calley, and I will get the women and kids out'.
"Before climbing out of his aircraft, Thompson ordered Colburn and his crew chief to stay alert. 'He told us that if any of the Americans opened up on the Vietnamese, we should open up on the Americans,' Colburn said. Thompson walked back to the ship and called in two helicopter gunships to rescue the civilians. While waiting for them to land, Colburn said, 'he stood between our troops and the bunker. He was shielding the people with his body. He just wanted to get those people out of there.'" (Pilger, op. cit, p.101)
The helicopters landed, with Thompson still standing between the GIs and the Vietnamese, and quickly rescued nine people - two old men, two women and five children.
Others undoubtedly felt compassion for the terror-stricken women and children but took no action. Thompson decided it was his personal responsibility to save them, to the extent that he was willing to place his body between them and the guns - his compassion was sufficient to overwhelm concern for his own welfare.
One might say, then, that great compassion is a powerful intention rather than an emotion; one that is often accompanied by sadness or anger, but which is itself distinct from both.
In their article 'Training the mind: first steps in a cross-cultural collaboration in neuroscientific research,' Zara Houshmand and co-authors reported the findings of their research on compassion in Buddhist monks:
"Sadness is not a necessary or essential component of compassion; compassion could be experienced with equanimity instead of sadness. In fact the highest realisation of compassion, known technically as 'uncontrived spontaneous great compassion,' is a direct and spontaneous reaction to suffering that does not involve sadness as an intermediate stage." (Richard Davidson and Anne Harrington, eds., Visions Of Compassion, Oxford University Press, 2002, p.15)
The idea that compassion is some kind of emotional indulgence is terribly mistaken. Of course it may sometimes be mixed with indulgent pity for the world, a desire to lock oneself away from painful reality. It can also be accompanied by a desire to make someone pay for their crimes. But these are not examples of authentic compassion.
Compassion, or more properly great compassion, is the urge to take personal responsibility for the relief of suffering. As such, it can focus the mind and its actions in a supremely positive and humane direction. Indeed, it is an exact counter-force to the more common and also extremely powerful urge to bring help, benefit and contentment solely to ourselves.
Great compassion has the power to eliminate the self-centred, egotistical motives that distort so much of our thinking. It has, for example, the power to induce academics and journalists to brush aside concerns for status, wealth and privilege in order to do what seems most likely to be of help to others. Upton Sinclair declared:
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."
Great compassion clears the way to understanding of this kind. I believe that to read the work of, say, Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, Howard Zinn and John Pilger, is to witness precisely the results of great compassion in action. If we are looking for the key quality that separates their work from that of their mainstream academic and journalistic peers - if we want to understand why just +they+ are able and willing to perceive and expose the crimes of power where others are not - the answer lies in great compassion.
It could not be clearer that Chomsky, for example, abhors the very idea that one should subordinate the suffering of others to self-interest; that honesty should be compromised in deference to the priorities of career and wealth.
The reason is that Chomsky is motivated by a profound sense that it is +his+ responsibility to relieve suffering. He regards it as his job - regardless of the consequences, regardless of what others are doing, regardless of what others are saying - to do everything he possibly can to help.
Modern activists may seem separated in so many ways from ancient
compassionate contemplatives like Shantideva. And yet, with them, Shantideva says:
"Thus the boundless evils of myself and others -
I alone must bring them all to nothing,
Even though a single of these ills
May take unnumbered ages to exhaust!" (Shantideva, The Way of the
Bodhisattva, Shambhala, 1997, p.102)