- 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 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)
- Created on 11 February 2006
- 22 October 2010
By David Edwards
Pain Is Pain
In his remarkable eighth century treatise, The Way of the Bodhisattva, originally delivered as a lecture (some of it, we are told, after he had vanished from the hall!) Shantideva permits himself only one form of anger in response to the awesome suffering of our world - anger at his own selfishness, at his own self-serving bias.
How dare he, he asks, put his own selfish needs ahead of the needs of others? What right has he to consider his happiness more important than the happiness of any other individual? Moreover, by what calculation does he presume that his personal suffering is of greater consequence than the suffering of all other people and animals - beings numbered, literally, in their billions?
Because, clearly, no one person’s welfare is more important than any other’s, it is quite wrong for us to lead our lives on the basis that our own needs should take priority. And so Shantideva declares with an all-embracing humanity almost unimaginable in this self-obsessed world:
“Mine and other’s pain - how are they different?
Simply, then, since pain is pain, I will dispel it.
What grounds have you for all your strong distinctions?
”Thus the suffering of everyone
Should be dispelled, and here there’s no debate.
To free myself from pain means freeing all;
Contrariwise, I suffer with the pain of beings.” (Shantideva, The Way Of The Bodhisattva, Shambhala, 1997, p.124)
The practical implications are clear:
“Just as I defend myself from all unpleasant happenings, however small,
Likewise I shall act for others’ sake
To guard and shield them with compassion.” (p.125)
And the cause of suffering is equally clear:
“All the harm with which this world is rife,
All fear and suffering that there is,
Clinging to the ‘I’ has caused it!
What am I to do with this great demon?” (p.129)
These are the words of someone who is not only +not+ determined to cling to the prejudiced priorities of self - of the “I” - as most of us are, he is determined to reject such prejudice as a “great demon”. This is someone who is willing to side with others in compassion and love, not just against the injustice of others, but against the injustice of his own tendency to favour himself! If there is a choice between self-interest and the interests of others - he will take their side, not his own.
As a child, I always surreptitiously took the largest piece of cake on offer (I was foiled by my older sister's suggestion that I divide the cake and then allow her to choose!). Shantideva vows to take the smaller piece. If he finds a £20 note on the ground, Shantideva leaves it for someone else to find. If he is offered power, prestige and profit at the expense of others, Shantideva sides with the victims against his own advantage.
If this sounds neurotic, destructively self-mortifying, psychologist Erich Fromm argued exactly the opposite is the case:
“Whatever complaints the neurotic patient may have, whatever symptoms he may present, are rooted in his inability to love; if we mean by love a capacity for the experience of concern, responsibility, respect, and understanding of another person and the intense desire for that person’s growth.” (Fromm, Psychoanalysis and Religion, Yale University Press, 1978, p.87)
Or as Shantideva says (and Fromm agreed):
“Living beings! Wayfarers upon life’s paths,
Who wish to taste the riches of contentment,
Here before you is the supreme bliss -
Here, O ceaseless wanderers, is your fulfilment!” (p.53)
Here it is! says Shantideva, here is the great irony of human happiness - it is this simple and this difficult: true self-interest lies in concern for others, not in self-concern. Who would have thought it?!
The “Externalities” Of Greed
This insurrection against self-obsession is, as Shantideva says, a “flash of lightning” to illuminate the darkness of the ordinary way of things. It indicates the stunning human capacity to reverse the apparent order of nature “red in tooth and claw”. It is a glimpse of what it might mean to wake up from the “nightmare of history”.
It is not that Shantideva has been overwhelmed by sentimental naivety. He recognises that he, too, is a victim of his “great demon” of selfishness. What is it that powers the suffering in our hearts - the incendiary anger, hostility, resentment, vengefulness, jealousy, hatred; the fathomless avarice, dissatisfaction, boredom, despair; the bloated arrogance and pride - if not the fierce focus on what we want, what we need, what we must have? And what has the power to gently disperse this suffering, if not compassion, kindness, generosity, love, patience, tolerance and justice - that is, concern for others?
Self-obsession is not only unreasonable; it brings disaster to ourselves, to our society, to our entire planet. What motive force drives the storms of climate change, if not the “great demon” of unrestrained, all-consuming selfishness? Who can not find the source of infinite misery in the insatiable, psychopathic greed of corporate profit-seeking? In his book, The Corporation, Canadian law professor Joel Bakan explains the bottom-line for corporate executives:
"The law forbids any other motivation for their actions, whether to assist workers, improve the environment, or help consumers save money. They can do these things with their own money, as private citizens. As corporate officials, however, stewards of other people's money, they have no legal authority to pursue such goals as ends in themselves - only as means to serve the corporation’s own interests, which generally means to maximise the wealth of its shareholders.
“Corporate social responsibility is thus illegal - at least when it is genuine." (Bakan, The Corporation, Constable, 2004, p.37)
This astonishing ban on compassion has been established in legal judgements over hundreds of years. In a key 19th century court case, Lord Bowen declared: “charity has no business to sit at boards of directors +qua+ charity. There is, however, a kind of charitable dealing which is for the interest of those who practise it, and to that extent and in that garb (I admit not a very philanthropic garb) charity may sit at the board, but for no other purpose”. (Ibid, pp.38-39)
The inevitable consequence, Bakan writes, is what are known as “externalities“: “the routine and regular harms caused to others - workers, consumers, communities, the environment - by corporations‘ psychopathic tendencies”. (Ibid, p.60)
The same tendencies sacrificed the people of East Timor to Western business relations with Indonesia. They sacrificed millions of Vietnamese lives to the three magic words - tin, rubber and oil. They motivated the lies that took young British and American men to die, and to kill and injure civilians in their hundreds of thousands, in oil-rich Iraq.
Isn’t it obvious that centuries of self-interest have generated a runaway greed effect, so that avarice entrenched in the form of state-corporate power is now almost (but in fact not) beyond human control - manipulating us to smile and shrug away its madness even as it destroys us?
We all know from personal experience how greed gives little thought to costs and consequences. In his book, Emotions Revealed, psychologist Paul Ekman defines a “refractory period” in our minds as a state in which “our thinking cannot incorporate information that does not fit, maintain, or justify the emotion we are feeling”. (Quoted, Alan Wallace, Genuine Happiness, John Wiley & Sons, 2005, p.86)
Refractory periods occur when we desire and hate intensely - then our loved one is without fault, our enemy is without the tiniest redeeming feature. They occur when professionals cling to the rewards and status of their jobs. Upton Sinclair explained:
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." (http://classiclit.about.com)
But what, then, do we expect of unlimited greed entrenched in self-perpetuating political and economic systems over centuries?
Did Shantideva exaggerate when he talked of “this great demon”?
An Unmistakeable Odour
Shantideva argues that we should change places with others:
“I indeed am happy, others sad;
I am high and mighty, others low;
I am helped while others are abandoned;
Why am I not jealous of myself?” (p.133)
Why are we not cast down by the prospect of a single individual - ourselves - savouring abundant joys while so many are in complete despair, perhaps precisely because of our success?
Consider the example of the professional media. Mainstream journalists consistently side with their “great demon”. Why else do they focus endlessly, emotively, on the tragedy of 100 British military deaths in Iraq, while mentioning 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths as a cold, footnoted statistic (if that)? What is it that renders the thought of mentioning Iraqi +military+ deaths all but unthinkable, unworthy of even a single sentence? Why is the version of events presented by the powerful - people with the power and influence to help or hinder journalistic careers - always the benchmark for ‘neutral’ reporting? Is it not Shantideva’s “great demon” - self-interest - that has us conform to these carrots and sticks?
Journalists participate as cogs in a military-media killing machine that consumes hundreds of thousands of lives. The bland soundbites echoing what our leaders ‘hope’, what our leaders ‘sincerely’ believe, what our leaders are ‘genuinely’ trying to achieve, are quite as vital for the killing as the bullets and bombs. Most of the tankers, troopers and air force pilots don’t actually have blood on their hands, either.
The novelist Norman Mailer once remarked:
"There is an odour to any Press Headquarters that is unmistakeable... the unavoidable smell of flesh burning quietly and slowly in the service of a machine." (Norman Mailer, The Time of Our Time, Little Brown, 1998, p.457)
The “flesh”, in fact, is our conscience - it burns slowly, malodorously, when journalists accept machine-pay at others’ expense.
There are ironies here. With our consciences charred, in thrall to self-interest, we all but guarantee a suffering future for the children we adore as part of ‘me’ and ’mine’. All around us loving parents do nothing whatever to safeguard the future of their children and the planet on which they will depend. And yet these are the same children they would give their very lives to protect from immediate harm. Of course we have to buy big, consume hard, fly cheap and work regardless of the consequences - anything else is literally inconceivable, isn’t it? The “great demon” of self-obsession has blinded us to our unthinking, conformist folly. Thoreau wrote:
"Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.” (Thoreau, Walden, Penguin, 1986, p.56)
One would think the political and economic conventions of modern man were more immutable, less amenable to challenge, even than the laws of a God. Self-interest has persuaded us that change is impossible, that alternatives are impossible. Why? Because maximised short-term self-interest +does+ indeed lie in cooperation with the powerhouses of state-corporate greed. If self-interest is everything, then there really is no other way - there is only one path to take.
But that is an illusion. The required revolution lies in challenging the greatest prejudice of all - the prejudice of self. What are the costs of selfishness? What are the deepest causes of suffering in ourselves and in the world? What are the benefits of shifting focus from our own needs to the needs of others? What happens when we make experimental changes in this direction? Is everything as clear-cut as it seems - or are we victims of the ultimate propagandist?
Across a gap of more than one thousand years, Shantideva calls on us to throw off obsessive self-concern and instead wage war on the causes of suffering. And he makes a promise:
“You’ll see the benefits that come from it.”
- Created on 08 December 2005
- 22 October 2010
By David Cromwell
One of our readers wrote to us recently quoting historian Mark Curtis’s accurate observations that:
“Britain is a major, systematic contributor to much of the world's suffering and horrors and this contribution arises from the basic economic and political priorities that governments pursue at home and abroad. These fundamental policy stances are the result of planning broadly determined by the domestic structures of society which define ‘national interests’.” (Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power, Zed Books, 1995, p. 4)
But, sadly, our reader suggested that such horrors were unsurprising, even inevitable. His reasoning ran as follows: “in our highly ‘civilized cultures’ our predatory nature manifests itself in theft, murder, manipulation, abuse, and other sociopathic behavior.” There is a strong innate tendency, ran his argument, for governments to prey on each other as well as individuals; a tendency that stems directly from the predatory instinct in humans. In short: “We are hopelessly enslaved to our DNA's predatory urges.”
This is the classic depiction of our species as “killer ape”. Richard Davidson and Anne Harrington note that this has been “the dominant note of the biobehavioral sciences in the West”. It is a “tragic-machismo” approach that focuses on “our potential for violence, explor[ing] the genetic and biochemical bases of our capacity for selfishness, depression, and anxiety.” (‘Visions of Compassion. Western Scientists and Tibetan Buddhists Examine Human Nature’, edited by Richard J. Davidson and Anne Harrington, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002, page v)
But, as careful investigators have pointed out, we have to be cautious not to make categorical statements on human nature; particularly such a flawed and sweeping thesis of humans as predatory “killer apes”. The German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (1900-1980) wrote:
“Human nature is not fixed, and culture thus is not to be explained as the result of fixed human instincts; nor is culture a fixed factor to which human nature adapts itself passively and completely.” (Fromm, ‘Man for Himself’, Routledge, 2003, p. 15)
It is dubious practice to identify attributes of society, such as rapacious capitalist behaviour, with supposed fixed characteristics of the human species, such as innate aggression. Fromm cautioned:
“Human nature can never be observed as such, but only in its specific manifestations in specific situations.” (Ibid., p. 17)
Human nature is dynamic, displaying considerable variations according to circumstances and context, rather than being fixed, predetermined or static. Our reader’s depiction of homo sapiens as “predatory” is therefore one-dimensional; or worse, plain wrong.
The Multidimensional Human Being
Predatory urges +are+ part of humanity’s makeup; but so too are cooperation, empathy and love. Psychologist Steven Pinker, who emphasises the importance of our DNA in ‘explaining’ human nature, notes that there is “an evolutionary basis for altruism.” He observes, too, that “sociobiology shows that a sense of justice has a deep foundation in people's minds.”†(Pinker, ‘The Blank Slate’, Penguin, 2002, p. 111)
Pinker goes on:
“evolution endowed us with a moral sense, and we have expanded its circle of application over the course of history through reason (grasping the logical interchangeability of our interests and others'), knowledge (learning of the advantages of cooperation over the long term), and having sympathy (having experiences that allow us to feel other people's pain)." (Ibid., p. 188)
In a similar vein, evolutionary expert Elliott Sober points out that:
“biologists now universally acknowledge that altruism can evolve and actually has done so. The picture of nature as thoroughly red in tooth and claw is one-sided. It is no more adequate than the rosy picture that everything is sweetness and light. Kindness +and+ cruelty both have their place in nature, and evolutionary biology helps explain why.” (Sober, in Davidson and Harrington, op. cit., p. 54)
Sober points out the evolutionary success of cooperation:
“Groups of altruists do better than groups of selfish individuals, so altruism can evolve, even though selfish individuals do better than altruists in the same group.”
(Ibid., p. 53)
This may have been the evolutionary seed for the development of compassion, even if altruistic behaviour was at first directed towards one’s offspring only. But how was compassion later extended to much wider circles in human society, even encompassing complete strangers? Sober puts the question thus: “it is not puzzling why +some+ compassion should evolve and replace the trait of having no compassion at all; what is puzzling is how +extended+ compassion could evolve and replace +limited+ compassion.” (Ibid, p. 62)
He offers the possible explanation that the capacity to feel extended compassion is +correlated+ with the capacity to feel compassion toward one’s offspring. There was an adaptive advantage in parents being moved by the cries of their children. A side effect of this “evolutionary event” is that the cries of +any+ baby can move us.
To emphasise what Sober is saying: the development of extended compassion, which may confer no adaptive benefit of its own, is, nonetheless, consistent with the theory of evolution. If this still seems puzzling, consider an enlightening argument that Charles Darwin had with Alfred Russel Wallace, the scientist who independently proposed the mechanism of natural selection.
As Sober explains, Wallace’s view was that “natural selection cannot explain mental abilities that provide no help in surviving and reproducing.” For example, keen eyesight is useful in hunting, but why should natural selection favour the ability to devise new scientific theories, write symphonies or paint masterpieces? Wallace argued that natural selection could explain practical skills, not “higher” abilities. But Darwin countered that the separation of “practical” and “higher” abilities is an illusion; the same mental abilities that helped our ancestors survive and reproduce now allow us to pursue intellectual activities that may have no practical benefit. (Sober, ibid., p. 64)
Extended compassion likely developed as such a “higher” ability. There is, however, a growing body of evidence that developing and practicing compassion also has practical benefits, both for others and for oneself. See, for example, David Edwards, ‘Happiness is Dissent – The Truth About “Looking After Number 1” ’
Escaping Our Hardwiring
The influential American black activist Malcolm X once observed that we can become locked into static patterns of thought and behaviour that cut off options for individual growth, renewal and empowerment:
“Children have a lesson adults should learn, to not be ashamed of failing, but to get up and try again. Most of us adults are so afraid, so cautious, so ‘safe’, and therefore so shrinking and rigid and afraid that it is why so many humans fail. Most middle-aged adults have resigned themselves to failure.” (‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’, with Alex Haley, Penguin Books, London, 1965/2001, p. 37)
A major finding in neuroscience in recent years is the extent to which our brains display advanced levels of ‘neural plasticity’. We are not forever ‘hardwired’ for rigid modes of behaviour; we are not static ‘slaves’ to our DNA. There is a remarkable degree to which we can change ingrained patterns of thought, intention and practice.
Psychologist Daniel Goleman addresses this in an inspiring book, ‘Destructive Emotions’ (Bloomsbury, London, 2003). In the first chapter, Goleman presents remarkable results from experiments into the mental traits of a Buddhist monk who focused on generating a state of compassion during meditation. The monk’s brain patterns were monitored during this meditation. The research, conducted by Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, revealed high levels of activity in the monk’s left prefrontal cortex – the region of the brain associated with positive states of mind such as zeal, enthusiasm, joy, vigour and mental buoyancy. It appears that such enhanced levels of positive emotions can be attained by conscious effort and discipline over years of meditation practice. (See David Edwards, ‘Animal Rights: The Case for Kindness’, August 4, 2004)
Thus, the notion that we are “hopelessly enslaved to our predatory urges” is unfounded.
As well as insights into human nature from evolutionary science, psychology and neurobiology, we can look at human history. There are, of course, plenty of examples of horror, cruelty and violence. But consider, too, the fundamental desires of people everywhere, throughout history and across all cultures, for peace and freedom. As Howard Zinn, author of ‘The People's History of the United States’, puts it:
“People are not naturally violent or cruel or greedy, although they can be made so. Human beings everywhere want the same things: they are moved by the sight of abandoned children, homeless families, the casualties of war; they long for peace, for friendship and affection across lines of race and nationality.” (Zinn, 'You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train', Beacon Press, 2002, p. 208)
The reader who wrote to us about humanity’s “predatory urges” was right in one respect, however: that people can, and do, combine to create oppressive institutions and structures in society. The transnational corporation is one prominent example, as are the powerful governments who act as agents for corporate interests.
But there are people around the world who are resisting these organs of brutal, illegitimate power. Zinn, once again, offers wisdom and hope:
“Only the corrective of historical perspective can lighten our gloom. Note how often in this [20th] century we have been surprised. By the sudden emergence of a people's movement, the sudden overthrow of a tyranny, the sudden coming to life of a flame we thought extinguished. We are surprised because we have not taken notice of the quiet simmerings of indignation, of the first faint sounds of protest, of the scattered signs of resistance that, in the midst of our despair, portend the excitement of change.” (Ibid., p. 10)
In short, there is an integral link between “lighten[ing] our gloom” and the potential for societal improvement. Just as we, as individuals, are not hardwired for selfishness and aggression, so are injustice and oppression not necessarily fixed features of human society.
- Created on 27 May 2006
- 22 October 2010
By: Matthew Bain
Media Lens is a UK media watch service which has just published a new book ‘Guardians of Power: The Myth of the Liberal Media’. In this interview Media Lens discuss with computer network consultant and Buddhist practitioner Matthew Bain how they have been strongly influenced by the Buddhist ideal of compassion and the role model of the Bodhisattva – the hero who practices six great virtues known as ‘perfections’.
Bain: Please can you explain what Media Lens is?
Media Lens: Media Lens is an online, UK-based media watch project, set up in 2001, providing detailed and documented criticism of bias and omissions in the British media. The Media Lens team consists of two editors (David Edwards and David Cromwell) and a webmaster (Oliver Maw). Through our free email Media Alerts, we provide detailed analysis of news reporting in the UK media, concentrating on the ‘quality’ liberal print and broadcast media. Our aim is to expose bias, inconsistencies, inaccuracies, omissions and untruths. We challenge journalists and editors by email and invite their response. We then collate and analyse the material and distribute a Media Alert to members of the public who have signed up for the service. We urge our readers to adopt a polite, rational and respectful tone when emailing journalists – we strongly oppose all abuse and personal attack.
We often then follow up our alerts with updates containing analysis of and commentary on mainstream responses to our alerts, our readers’ emails, and so on. Media Alerts are archived at the Media Lens website (www.Media Lens.org). We also send out Cogitations to a separate list of subscribers – these explore related themes from more personal, psychological and philosophical perspectives.
Bain: How much success has Media Lens had?
Media Lens: This isn’t really for us to say. We try not to worry too much about results. The veteran Australian journalist and film-maker John Pilger wrote this in the foreword to our new book, Guardians of Power (Pluto Press, 2006):
“The creators and editors of Media Lens, David Edwards and David Cromwell, have had such influence in a short time that, by holding to account those who, it is said, write history’s draft, they may well have changed the course of modern historiography. They have certainly torn up the ‘ethical blank cheque’, which Richard Drayton referred to, and have exposed as morally corrupt ‘the right to bomb, to maim, to imprison without trial …’. Without Media Lens during the attack on and occupation of Iraq, the full gravity of that debacle might have been consigned to oblivion, and to bad history."
On the other hand, the BBC's Andrew Marr said (when he was still political editor):
"I'm afraid I think it is just pernicious and anti-journalistic. I note that you advertise an organisation called Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting so I guess at least you have a sense of humour. But I don't think I will bother with 'Media Lens' next time, if you don't mind."
So take your pick!
Bain: You have said that you intend compassion to be the basis and motivating force behind the Media Lens project. How does this work in practice?
Media Lens: We try to do whatever we believe is most likely to relieve suffering. There are several aspects to this. We try to focus on the most urgent issues of the day. If our government is trying to persuade the public to support a war against Iraq, we try to publicise arguments against mass violence as a solution to human problems. We point out the costs of violence and the benefits of responses rooted in restraint and compassion. Before the March 2003 invasion, we referred readers to credible estimates of the likely disastrous consequences for the civilian population of Iraq.
We indicated the deep flaws in US-UK government arguments to show that war in fact was not at all necessary, that genuine peaceful alternatives existed. Basically, we tried to encourage peaceful opposition to our government's determination to wage war for profit. The same with climate change – it now threatens unprecedented catastrophe, the destruction of billions of human and animal lives. So we encourage readers to challenge newspapers on their promotion of cheap flights and mass consumerism generally.
But in discussing specific issues we are hoping to raise awareness of deeper systemic problems inherent to political and economic systems rooted in the pursuit of unlimited profits. For example, how honest can a newspaper really be about the root causes of climate change when it depends for 75% of its revenue on big business advertising – on precisely the companies selling the cheap flights, the new cars and so on – in its own pages?
We believe that we all need to acquire the tools of intellectual self-defence so that we can resist propaganda provoking hatred of foreign and domestic ‘enemies’, and adverts stimulating greed, so that we can trust our own capacity for independent, critical thought. Our society encourages passivity and childlike dependence on authority. We encourage people to challenge authority, to have faith and confidence in themselves. We encourage people to challenge us, too – nothing should be taken on blind trust.
A third theme is that we encourage people to seek confidence and rationality in compassion, rather than in anger, say, or conformity. We emphasise peaceful challenges to authority. We reject not only violence, but also anger. Given that compassion, tolerance and patience are great virtues, then leaders promoting violence and greed are ideal objects for meditation. We can use them to strengthen our compassion and wisdom.
Bain: Why are leaders promoting violence and greed ideal objects for meditation?
Media Lens: In our view, Tony Blair, for example, has consciously deceived parliament and public in pursuit of a war of aggression – the supreme war crime according to the Nuremberg tribunals. Blair’s actions have resulted in the deaths of several hundred thousand innocent people, as well as almost limitless pain, injury, anxiety, grief and other physical and mental torments. The motive, we also believe, is rooted in Western greed for control of natural resources in Iraq and in the Gulf. Is it possible to feel compassion for this man?
We can reflect that Blair is a product of conditions – he sees the world in a way dominated by his education, upbringing, friends, family and colleagues. Would he think and act the same way if he had been exposed to different conditions? Is he to blame for the conditions that influenced him? Is he the sole destructive actor or condition, or is he merely one tiny link in a vast chain of cause and effect that precedes and transcends him? We can argue, for example, that what has been done to Iraq is actually the culmination of billions of selfish thoughts in limitless individuals over decades, even centuries. After all, where does corporate greed for oil come from? Where does militarism come from? Does it come from Blair? Hardly.
We can reflect on Blair’s lack of inherent existence – who or what actually is Tony Blair? Is he his mind? Which part of his mind – which thought? Is he any particular thought? Is there a creator of thoughts that we can call ‘Blair’, or do thoughts merely arise from conditions beyond the control of some creator in the background (and would the ‘creator’s’ decisions and thoughts simply arise from conditions?), like bubbles forming and rising in a glass of lemonade? We can imagine the suffering Blair will undergo as a result of his uncompassionate actions and as a result of ageing, sickness and death. We can reflect that if we can muster some compassion for him then this strengthens our compassion for other people who appear less guilty of terrible crimes, less harmful. We visit a gym to lift weights to become stronger, do we not? If we can compassionately ‘lift’ Blair in our minds, then our compassion will surely be untroubled by most other tests in life.
Bain: Your compassionate approach is inspired by Mahayana Buddhism, which offers the role model of the Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva is anyone who, motivated by great compassion, continuously wishes to achieve the enlightened state of a Buddha in order to benefit all living beings without exception. The way of life of the Bodhisattva is the six perfections, the great virtues of generosity, moral discipline, patience, effort, mental stabilisation and wisdom. You have said that you aspire for your Media Alerts to embody these six perfections. Is such an aspiration achievable?
Media Lens: The aspiration is certainly achievable although even to aspire to attain an enlightened state is an awesome achievement. Can we actually embody the six perfections in our work? Definitely not, at present. We are complete beginners who are far, far away from being able to embody these exalted mind states. However, we do aspire to value compassion, generosity and patience; and we do try to be motivated by concern for others rather than concern for our own welfare.
We feel it is appalling for any journalist to compromise what he or she writes out of concern for career, status or the health of a bank account when real people like us are being killed in their tens of thousands, for example, in Iraq. Particularly when one reflects that if the media had done their job in 2002-2003, war would not have been possible. We believe that by aspiring to be more compassionate it is possible to make some small improvement and perhaps help others. But we are constantly aware that we may even be doing more harm than good – making people more angry, more critical of others and less compassionate – we keep this possibility very much in mind.
Bain: One of the aspects of the perfection of generosity is giving fearlessness, in other words protecting other living beings from fear or danger. Your Media Alerts point out that mainstream news organisations cover some of the world’s most serious problems while obscuring their causes, and that as a result media consumers find themselves filled with feelings of anxiety and fear, not to mention powerlessness and apathy. Are you deliberately trying to release people from this state – to give fearlessness?
Media Lens: As you know, the roots of fearlessness also lie in a realistic appraisal of the situation we are in. If we think it’s safe to abuse, exploit and kill other beings, it is no bad thing to be made aware of the terrifying consequences of such actions. This dis-illusionment can lead from ignorance through fear to fearlessness. Similarly, we are quite happy to discuss the terrifying realities of climate change, war, and the compromise that makes these possible.
But a major aim of what we’re doing is to address people’s confusion. The media is deeply bewildering – the reality is summed up by the title of media analyst Danny Schecter’s book The More You Watch The Less You Know. Providing rational frameworks for understanding specific issues – Haiti, Kosovo, East Timor, climate change – and broader issues – how the media works, the motives driving foreign policy – surely gives people greater confidence that they can make sense of the world, and that they can therefore rely on their own judgement. We also try to explain the advantages of concern for others over self-cherishing. We don’t want people to feel dependent on us, we want them to feel that the issues are really not that complicated, and that anyone can form sensible judgements with a modicum of hard work.
We also try to promote fearlessness by encouraging compassionate rather than angry responses to problems. We believe that anger is deeply demotivating, in fact crippling, whereas great compassion provides an inexhaustible, and in fact increasing, source of energy and inspiration.
Bain: One of the aspects of a Bodhisattva’s moral discipline is not to criticise others, but to focus on his or her own faults instead. The Buddhist master Atisha said: “Do not look for faults in others, but look for faults in yourself, and purge them like bad blood. Do not contemplate your own good qualities, but contemplate the good qualities of others, and respect everyone as a servant would.” (Quoted, Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Tharpa Publications, 2000, p.261). Some of your Media Alerts are very critical of the work of individual journalists. Aren’t you breaking the Bodhisattva’s moral code by criticising others in this way?
Media Lens: This is a question that concerns us greatly. We try to make clear that our focus is on faults in the arguments of journalists rather than in the journalists themselves. Typically, we will present a mainstream journalist’s arguments, contrast these with an alternative range of arguments based on verifiable facts and multiple credible sources, and invite readers to decide which arguments are more or less credible. Often we point out that an erroneous argument is actually part of a pattern that stretches right across the media, so that we are pointing to institutionalised bias rather than individual ‘bad apples’.
We often point out that the vast majority of journalists are not deliberately deceitful – it’s not that they’re bad people, liars and so on – there is no wicked conspiracy. We encourage readers to understand the systemic factors behind individual performance: journalists are selected because they have been educated to hold the right views by corporate media that are designed to maximise profits. The whole cultural, political and social system puts immense pressure on privileged journalists to hold ‘the right’ views about the world – it is not their fault that they have little or no access to alternative arguments. On another level, one can even argue that it is not really their fault that they believe it is ‘realistic’ to prioritise their own self-interest above the interests of others – that’s what the whole culture tells them to do.
There are a couple of other considerations. Journalists who advanced arguments for war against Iraq in 2002-2003 were vital parts of a media-military machine that resulted in the deaths of well over 100,000 (perhaps as many as 300,000) Iraqi civilians and the devastation of an entire country. By themselves promoting mass violence as a solution to human problems, by persuading others to take those arguments seriously, they were causing immense harm to themselves and others. In his book, An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics, Peter Harvey writes:
“Asanga says that a Bodhisattva will lie so as to protect others from death or mutilation, though he will not lie to save his own life. He will slander an unwholesome adviser of a person, and use harsh, severe words to move someone from unwholesome to wholesome action.” (Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p.139)
In the Commentary on Dharmaraksita's The Poison-Destroying Peacock Mind Training, Geshe Lhundub Sopa writes:
“If you should encounter some erroneous teaching that leads other beings into great suffering, such as rebirth in hell, you should not be indifferent. Rather, you should take action to combat such a harmful teaching. If you do this, you will be acting with a form of jealousy. This is not like ordinary jealousy, which is just the desire to ruin someone’s happiness, rather it is the desire to root out the wrong teaching so that the correct teaching will endure. While it appears to be jealousy, it is actually different; it is motivated by the concern that the source of happiness will be destroyed if the correct teaching disappears.” (Geshe Lhundub Sopa, Peacock In The Poison Grove, Wisdom Books, 2001, pp.254-5)
In The Six Perfections, Geshe Sonam Rinchen writes:
"The tenth [way of assisting others] consists of giving support by castigating those who are engaged in detrimental activities. This may entail taking stern measures to stop them, since one should not condone or indulge others’ fondness for harmful actions." (Geshe Sonam Rinchen, The Six Perfections, Snow Lion, 1998, p.40)
So although it is unpleasant to criticise journalists, and is risky both for their psychological welfare and our own – it’s easy to become habitually negative, cynical and even angry in this work – we believe it is important to do so.
Bain: One of the aspects of the perfection of patience is not retaliating. Some of the journalists you have singled out for criticism have responded harshly – basically they have retaliated. Isn’t this a natural response? Have you retaliated in return?
Media Lens: If it was a natural response it would occur invariably in all people and cultures around the world. This is not the case. In her book, Ancient Futures, the linguist Helena Norberg-Hodge reported a remarkable absence of retaliation in the Buddhist culture of Ladakh, even amongst children. We believe that Buddhist practitioners meditating on the benefits of patience, the faults of anger, and the lack of inherent existence of the targets of anger, can completely remove the impulse to retaliation.
We worry very much that by generating anger in journalists we are inadvertently causing harm. This may well be exacerbated by our encouraging members of the public to write to journalists. At the end of every email we append these words:
“The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.”
People do not always heed these words and sometimes send angry abuse to journalists. This is a source of real concern to us; it’s something we strongly discourage. Is it outweighed by the fact that receiving large number of mostly polite and rational emails can persuade journalists and newspapers to reconsider their stand on war, on the impact of rampant consumerism on climate change, as we believe has sometimes happened to some extent? We hope so.
We do occasionally get angry, but generally we try to respond to abuse without anger, with restrained and polite emails. This emphasis on self-restraint is unusual in left-leaning political debate. We’ve noticed that this seems to have had quite an impact on both journalists and readers. Even journalists who have to deal with large numbers of emails – which is not something anyone enjoys – have responded positively to our work. In recent months senior journalists like Peter Barron (editor of Newsnight), Peter Wilby (former editor of the New Statesman) and film-maker John Pilger have all commented on our restraint and politeness. This is not normally something senior players in the rough and tumble world of journalism would focus on – this is encouraging. For example, the Newsnight editor, Peter Barron, wrote on the BBC’s website last November:
“One of Media Lens’ less ingratiating habits is to suggest to their readers that they contact me to complain about things we’ve done. They’re a website whose rather grand aim is to “correct the distorted vision of the corporate media”. They prolifically let us know what they think of our coverage, mainly on Iraq, George Bush and the Middle East, from a Chomskyist perspective. In fact I rather like them. David Cromwell and David Edwards, who run the site, are unfailingly polite, their points are well-argued and sometimes they’re plain right.” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/newsnight/4426334.stm)
Bain: One of the aspects of the perfection of effort is overcoming discouragement. Do you ever get discouraged and, if so, how do you overcome it?
Media Lens: Discouragement is often a sign that a compassionate motivation has given way to some kind of self-centred concern – perhaps anger, or frustration at the lack of some kind of reward (recognition or praise, for example).
We also sometimes feel discouraged when we read the latest news indicating that climate change has already reached the point of no return – that we are guaranteed environmental catastrophe on a massive scale regardless of any actions we now take. We try to put that out of our minds and just keep going. We tell ourselves that human beings are amazingly resourceful – maybe we can do something unexpected. Maybe the lessons we’re receiving in terms of the consequences of selfishness can shatter our conceits about inherent existence, the exaggerated value of selfishness, the under-rated value of compassion, and so on.
The wider point, though, to reiterate, is that discouragement is often a sign that compassion has given way to self-cherishing, particularly to anger. Then we need to reflect that our job is to work for the benefit of others – anger is an indulgence neither they, nor we, can afford.
Bain: Traditionally the perfection of mental stabilisation means meditation. In your work you quote stories of Buddhist meditators who spend years meditating on compassion. Would they be better off campaigning like you, or would you be better off meditating like them?
Media Lens: We can’t think of a more remarkable or important achievement than being willing and able to meditate single-mindedly on compassion for years. In our opinion, people able to do this are a real cause for hope. If political activism has any meaning, it is because it is rooted in compassion. But that compassion must be rooted in an authentic, profound and living tradition – something that requires the realisations of individuals able to travel to the far reaches of understanding and to return with the personally experienced truth of the power and importance of compassion.
This is really vital work. No one able to devote themselves to this kind of thing should abandon it for the kind of work we’re doing. We see our work almost as an attempt to make use of the compassionate raw materials mined by these people.
On the other hand, we feel we need to do as much as we can to develop compassion and wisdom in ourselves. There are two ways of doing this: first, our political activism should be rooted in compassion, it should be an expression of compassion, not something separate. Second, activism should be supported by a serious commitment to developing compassion and wisdom in ourselves through meditation, reading, discussion, study and so on.
Should Buddhists spend more time in understanding the insitutionalisation of greed, hatred and ignorance in modern society? Stephen Batchelor writes:
“The contemporary social engagement of dharma practice is rooted in awareness of how self-centred confusion and craving can no longer be adequately understood only as psychological drives that manifest themselves in subjective states of anguish. We find these drives embodied in the very economic, military, and political structures that influence the lives of the majority of people on earth.” (Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs – A Contemporary Guide To Awakening, Bloomsbury, 1997, p.112)
We agree. While we understand that Dharma traditionally focuses on removing the obscuring afflictions in individuals, the problem today is that institutionalised psychological ‘pollution’ is making it extremely hard for individuals to even +consider+ the need to work on such issues – quite the reverse. As Noam Chomsky has observed, the corporate goal “is to ensure that the human beings who [it is] interacting with, you and me, also become inhuman. You have to drive out of people’s heads natural sentiments like care about others, or sympathy, or solidarity... The ideal is to have individuals who are totally disassociated from one another, who don’t care about anyone else... whose conception of themselves, their sense of value, is ‘Just how many created wants can I satisfy?’” (Quoted, Joel Bakan, The Corporation, Constable, 2004, pp.134-135)
How can that not be an issue for anyone who cares about human suffering? If it’s for strategic reasons – Buddhists know they will be labelled as ‘political agitators’ and ‘troublemakers’ and targeted by the propaganda system – that’s one thing. If the issue isn’t even acknowledged or discussed, that’s something else again. We can’t imagine how that can be justified.
Bain: The perfection of wisdom means understanding the ultimate nature of reality. It is the supreme attainment of a Bodhisattva and can only be achieved by abandoning attachment to wealth, reputation, praise and pleasure. Although you are a writer and journalist, your Media Lens project means that you have little chance of ever making a living from or having a position of respect within the mainstream media. Is the sacrifice worth it?
Media Lens: Remarkably, exactly the opposite is the case. You've probably heard this famous story:
“I used to hold up people by day and rob villages at night; but even so, food and clothes were scarce. Now that I practise Dharma, I am short of neither food nor clothing, and my enemies leave me in peace.” (Quoted, Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, Pabongka Rinpoche, Wisdom Books, 1997, p.336)
When we started Media Lens, we both had fledgling careers in the media – we had both published books, had both published articles in a few mainstream newspapers and smaller magazines. It’s possible we could have developed careers as freelance writers or as media journalists. The question behind Media Lens was this:
‘What happens if we no longer give any thought to being published, being paid, being respectable, being liked by commissioning editors? What happens if we just tell the truth as we see it about suffering and the causes of suffering?’
It seemed to us few media analysts had ever really tried it – people are generally hoping to make money from this kind of thing – and before the internet they couldn’t reach anyone anyway. So we thought this would be a great experiment and it fitted perfectly with what is, for us, the absolutely central proposal of Mahayana Buddhism. Here are two versions that have inspired us greatly:
“Come to an understanding that no matter how it may seem, the root of all suffering is in actuality the desire to accomplish our own benefit and our own aims, and the root of all happiness is the relinquishment of that concern and the desire to accomplish the benefit of others.” (Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche)
“As much as you can, cherish all the beings – human and animal – around you with a good heart, and try to benefit them by giving them whatever help they need. Give them every single thing you can to make them happy: even a few sweet words or some interesting conversation that benefits their minds, that stops their problems and makes them happy. Use every opportunity, every action of your body, speech, and mind, to increase your virtue.” (Lama Zopa Rinpoche)
We also had an increasing sense of outrage at the fact that journalists, ourselves included, would be willing to subordinate the welfare of others to career concern. How can we be willing to cooperate so meekly with this compromised, corporate system of media power when the consequences are so horrendous for living beings? It seemed so cruel, so narrow-minded – even if the attempt was a laughable failure, it felt like a good idea to at least try to rebel against the selfishness in ourselves and as entrenched in the media system itself.
The satisfaction of writing out of this motivation is incomparably greater than that of writing in hope of respectability, status and financial reward. Everything we send out is free, it’s intended as an act of generosity and support. The responses we’ve had have been amazing – messages of love (there’s no other word to use) from all corners of the world. It’s been really astonishing. We’ve had criticism too, of course, but people are clearly very eager to read media analysis uncompromised by corporate control, career concerns, and the like. And of course the irony is that because they appreciate what we’re doing we have received financial support that has helped us keep going.
On respect, the curious thing is we do seem to have won some respect in the mainstream. A very credible media insider told us that there is an undercurrent of impassioned dissent in the BBC – journalists who are deeply unhappy at the way they are being used as a mouthpiece for government propaganda – for whom Media Lens acts as “a rallying point”. Journalists who care about honesty in the media, who recognise the massive constraints on freedom of speech, strongly support what we’re doing – they have often sent us private messages of support. They are frightened to speak out, much less to be associated with us, but they do respect what we’re doing. One journalist working for the Observer (a paper we have heavily criticised), told us:
“Thanks very much. It goes without saying, many thanks for providing the inspiration/facts and for all your and DC’s [David Cromwell] good work. You are a constant needle, comfort and inspiration. Great stuff.”
Bain: The ultimate reality understood by the perfection of wisdom is that everything is empty of inherent existence. In this discussion you have talked of the importance of “shatter[ing] our conceits about inherent existence”. Yet the passage from Stephen Batchelor which you quote above implies that negative states of mind ‘inhere’ in our political and economic institutions, making them inherently bad. Traditionally, kindness is the main quality that Buddhists are encouraged to see in economic and political institutions – or at least in the people who work in them – because they provide us with vital services or because they give us problems which enable us to develop such virtues as non-attachment, patience and compassion. Do you think that our present economic and political system is inherently bad?
Media Lens: The Canadian lawyer, Joel Bakan, describes how corporations are abstract concepts that are legally obliged to subordinate the welfare of people and planet to profit. Because charity and compassion are illegal under corporate law, except insofar as these increase profits, Bakan argues that corporations are essentially psychopathic in nature. Bakan quotes a key 19th century pronouncement by an English law lord, Lord Bowen: “...charity has no business to sit at boards of directors +qua+ charity. There is, however, a kind of charitable dealing which is for the interest of those who practise it, and to that extent and in that garb (I admit not a very philanthropic garb) charity may sit at the board, but for no other purpose”. (Lord Bowen, quoted, Bakan, The Corporation, Constable, 2004, pp.38-39)
According to The Body Shop founder, Anita Roddick, the corporation “stops people from having a sense of empathy with the human condition”; it “separate[s] us from who we are... The language of business is not the language of the soul or the language of humanity. It’s a language of indifference; it’s a language of separation, of secrecy, of hierarchy”. (Ibid, pp.55-56)
So what should our response be? Insofar as this system benefits us, we can recognise its kindness, as you say. Insofar as it harms us, we can practice patience. This isn’t so hard. It is far easier to understand that a corporation is an abstract, non-inherently existent entity than it is to understand the same of an individual person. It’s clear that a corporation is just a label applied to a large number of buildings, constantly changing personnel, bank accounts, business principles and so on. We know General Motors isn’t a person with a personality that we can hate. People might hate the chairman or CEO – although their hands are tied by shareholders, corporate law, and so on – but we can’t hate a label.
But insofar as the corporation is harming others we should work with all our might to prevent that harm. We need to raise awareness amongst the public of the extraordinary costs of the unlimited pursuit of corporate greed for people and planet. We need to work to rein in the worst destructiveness and then work to reform the political and economic systems that make this possible. This means democratic movements rooted in compassion and respect for life, movements that promote freedom, equality and justice. All of this should be rooted in compassion for suffering, not anger.
Our guide in reforming the system can be our awareness that selfish greed is inherently harmful. We need only reflect that corporate law enshrines not just greed, but infinite, unrestrained greed as a legal principle that must not be compromised. This is the cause of many of the problems facing us today. The root of that, in turn, is that selfish individuals have created these laws to protect their interests. As ever, positive change begins with a recognition of the negative consequences of self-cherishing and the benefits of caring for others.