- Created on 04 March 2004
- 28 October 2010
By David Edwards
Personal - Political
Many of the dissident philosophers and rebels of the past like Rousseau, Rocker, Tolstoy, Thoreau, Emerson and Fromm wrote often about the personal experiences, motivations and concerns that informed their political dissent. Tolstoy, for example, eventually came spectacularly clean about his life as a writer:
"Horribly strange, but I now understand it all. Our genuine, sincere concern was how to gain as much money and fame as possible. And the only thing we knew how to do in order to achieve this was to write books and journals." (Tolstoy, A Confession, Penguin, 1987, p.24)
This was a deeply personal comment, but it shone a brilliant light on the intellectual culture of Tolstoy's time, and ours.
But today, personal, psychological, philosophical and spiritual issues are hardly mentioned at all, with dissidents insisting that their own experiences are surely of little interest to the public. The operative theory seems to be that the world is in the mess it's in because people do not have access to the facts revealing the criminality and irrationality of power.
My own view is that the world is also in the mess it's in because people often aren't interested in, and even actively avoid, these facts. The point being that the indifference of so many people is often deeply rooted in personal and philosophical issues.
In reality, for example, few issues are more important than understanding just how and why some people come to feel motivated to work for progressive change. Perhaps I am uniquely flawed, but a question that has always loomed large in my mind is: 'Why should we care about other people in the first place? What actually is wrong with being selfish?'
From the perspective of everyday life these questions may seem monstrous, but from the perspective of our predicament in the human condition they are surely not. We are fragile, short-lived beings destined to lose every last thing and person we love - we are born into an extremely fraught and demanding situation. Given that this is the case, why should anyone consider devoting their already inadequate time, energy and resources to helping others? And yet the 11th century poet Ksemendra wrote:
"Disturbed times produce some who, though buffeted by wild waves, move through the deep waters to embrace all who suffer. Even when undergoing fierce suffering themselves, they still extend kindness to others." (Leaves of the Heaven Tree, Dharma, 1997, p.421)
But why? Where can we find the motivation to extend kindness to others in this way? The response that it is our 'moral duty', that we will thereby be able 'to look ourselves in the mirror', is unconvincing. The suffering of life and our profound tendency to selfishness are such that we need to address these questions seriously, and we need to respond with convincing answers. If we can't find answers, then nobody should feel obligated to care for the welfare of others. Or at least nobody should believe that appeals to 'moral duty' will have any great impact on what most people actually do with their lives.
The ingrained selfishness of a fragile, finite being cannot be resisted by illusions, however 'moral' they might appear to be.
I mentioned a few of my own personal experiences in my first book, Free To Be Human (titled Burning All Illusions in the US), and apologised for subjecting readers to them. After all, self-focus of this kind may often be a manifestation of egotism intended to imply that the author has some kind of unique experience. My own motive, here, for referring to my very ordinary experiences is to indicate that many of my political ideas and interests actually have their roots in ideas and experiences that might be thought to have nothing to do with politics.
It seems to me that we should not attempt to isolate political dissent from the rest of our lives, from the subtle and not-so subtle feelings in our hearts and heads. Rather, we need to become sensitive to our internal reactions and protestations in response to the world around us.
A World Of 'Phonies'? - Appearance and Being
In one of his books of collected essays, Gore Vidal explains what he finds so agreeable about the writing of W. Somerset Maugham: "+nothing+, he [Maugham] tells us with a smile, is what it seems." (Vidal, United States - Essays 1952-1992, Random House, 1993, p.232, original emphasis)
This is also what appealed to me when I read Maugham's novels and particularly his short stories. It seems to me that my interest in political ideas began in a very personal concern with the sense that "nothing is what it seems".
As a teenager, my curiosity was sparked by Jean-Jacques Rousseau's blistering denunciation of the chasm separating "appearance and being" among his contemporaries:
"We no longer dare seem what we really are, but lie under a perpetual restraint. In the meantime the herd of men, which we call society, all act under the same circumstances exactly alike, unless very particular and powerful motives prevent them. Thus we never know with whom we have to deal... What a train of vices must attend this uncertainty! Sincere friendship, real esteem, and perfect confidence are banished from among men. Jealousy, suspicion, fear, coldness, reserve, hate, and fraud lie constantly concealed under that uniform and deceitful veil of politeness..." (Rousseau - Discourses Sur Les Arts Et Sciences, John Hope Masson, ed., The Indispensable Rousseau, Quartet Books, 1979, pp.38-39)
I felt that Rousseau was describing the same world I saw around me - my peers also seemed to become less honest, sincere and authentic as they 'grew up' and conformed to society's norms. Aged 18, a year before I discovered Rousseau, I wrote a short story in which my hero makes a last stand for honesty and sincerity in the face of 'phoniness':
"He found he was unable to stand or understand the unnatural behaviour of those around him. Did the punk with the white hair really think that was who he was? Was that his real, honest, unaffected self? Or was it an act? Was the girl talking and laughing hysterically, really showing her true self? Was the voice in her head the same; or was it a show, a façade?"
In the story, my hero quickly chooses to abandon all thoughts of authenticity and becomes, himself, a phoney in order to win the heart of a phoney girl! Twenty years later I read this by the 2nd century philosopher Aryadeva:
"A soothsayer told a king that whoever used the water when it rained would go mad. The king had his well covered. When it rained the people of that place went mad after using the water and since only the king remained sane, they thought he was mad. When the king found out, he feared they might mock or harm him because they considered him mad, so he used the water too." (Yogic Deeds of Bodhisattvas, Aryadeva, Gyel-tsap, Snow Lion, 1994, p.112)
In a later science fiction story, I wrote about an inter-galactic salesman who, travelling from planet to planet, hears mention of a long-lost college friend and decides to seek him out. He learns that his friend has been selected as the sole human trade representative by a reclusive alien race. As a result, the friend has become an almost mythical figure, rich beyond imagining. My salesman finally tracks him down, entering an awesome, palatial office to meet him. As they approach to shake hands, my salesman realises that the money and privilege have come at a price - his friend's mouth, eyes, nose and ears have all been surgically removed in deference to the sensitivities of his alien clients.
My sense that there was a conflict between our tendency to trade authenticity for money and status as we grow older, and my own concern that I should not become a 'phoney', but should also not become some kind of social outcast, seemed very real to me as I grew up through college and beyond.
The problem was this: how can you be yourself and not be rejected by a corporate culture that appears to find imperfect, flawed human reality 'uncool'? If 'cool' is hair gelled at the right, crazy angles; if it's the correct jeans and trainers with the correct logo; if it's being unflustered and in control of our emotions, how can we admit or show our insecurities and imperfections to each other? How can we be real? Or at least, why would we work so hard to create such a 'coolly' confident exterior only to admit the lie?
On another level, how can you be an honest journalist - sincere, compassionate, truthful - when you are selling your work to corporations literally in the business of promoting consumerism and materialism and, in fact, cynicism with regard to everything opposing them?
Giant Frauds And Trojan Dreams
The issue of "appearance and being", of authenticity versus phoniness, connected with another early interest of mine: the possibility of discovering basic principles of human nature and human happiness. My interest was sparked, in particular, by the work of the English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. In his remarkable (and, in my view, deeply flawed) work, Leviathan, Hobbes attempted nothing less than to establish organising principles for society derived from first principles of human nature. Hobbes claimed, for example, that because all individuals are by nature vulnerable to physical attack from other individuals, or other groups of individuals, everyone is in perpetual fear of such an attack, and so everyone has an interest in joining to form a society providing universal protection.
It seemed to me that the deeper message of Hobbes's work was that it is all very well studying politics, physics, history, and so on - just is it is all very well pursuing any number of careers - but what is the point of studying or doing +anything+ before we understand the basic principles of human nature, or at least the basic principles of human happiness? In other words, why set off in any particular direction, if we have no idea where we're going?
In my mind, a link between Hobbes' search for basic principles of human nature and Rousseau's concern with authenticity centred around wondering how much of our society's version of human happiness was actually fraudulent or wrong.
It seemed to me that mainstream versions of success - unrestrained materialism, high status work, rampant hedonism - in fact did not deliver happiness to the people around me. And yet the media and wider culture acted as though they quite obviously did - the issue did not seem to be considered a matter for discussion. Were we somehow victims of a giant fraud? Did the 'being' of society in fact +not+ match the (apparently) agreed 'appearance'? Perhaps, after all, success and happiness weren't what they were supposed to be. Erich Fromm summed up my growing suspicions exactly:
"To see himself without illusions would not be so difficult for the individual, were he not constantly exposed to being brainwashed and deprived of the faculty of critical thinking. He is made to think and feel things that he would not feel or think, were it not for uninterrupted suggestions and elaborate methods of conditioning. Unless he can see the real meaning behind the double-talk, the reality behind the illusions, he is unable to be aware of himself as he is, and is aware only of himself as he is supposed to be." (Fromm, The Art Of Being, Continuum, 1992, p.77)
Perhaps standard versions of happiness are pursued, not because they give us happiness, but because they give us what vested interests want us to need. In 1833, a British Parliamentarian observed of the Haitian people:
"To make them labour, and give them a taste for luxuries and comforts, they must be gradually taught to desire those objects which could be attained by human labour. There was a regular progress from the possession of necessaries to the desire of luxuries; and what were once luxuries, gradually came... to be necessaries. This was the sort of progress the negroes had to go through..." (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, Year 501 - The Conquest Continues, Verso, 1993, p.227)
Compare and contrast this with comments made more recently by retailing analyst Victor Lebow:
"Our enormously productive economy... demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption... We need things, consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing rate." (Quoted, Sharon Beder, Global Spin, Green Books, 1997, p.161)
Awareness of the extent and intensity of this propagandising raises an awesome possibility: that our failure to achieve happiness is rooted, not merely in some grim reality, but in illusions imposed on us by a grim system of political, economic and cultural control. Is it possible that we are unhappy, not because of what we are, but because of what we are +supposed+ to be, because of what society needs us to be?
If this is true, then breaking the chains of illusion might be one and the same task as breaking the chains of suffering.
- Created on 11 March 2004
- 28 October 2010
By David Edwards
The Catastrophe Of Corporate Work
My early sense that people had a tendency to trade their authenticity for a socially approved, false version of happiness was reinforced mightily when I entered the world of business.
Here the uniformity of dress and manner, the subordination of sincerity and authenticity to the requirements of profit, were totally open. In the mid-80s, while working in telesales for a US computer company - my first real corporate job - I wrote a story called 'Hiya!':
"'Hiya!' she beams, all cherry-lipsticked lips and teeth. From her ears, great power-earrings dangle over giant power-necklace. She speaks: 'It's time to start feeling good about next year's sales targets!'
"We see it every day and hear it everywhere, and it makes us feel the way elephants look when they are made to perform tricks in the circus: 'It's time to start feeling good about next year's sales targets!' It's time to start feeling good about the drab, monotonous, trivial, repetitive, meaningless, alienated, inhuman prison of our work that none of us, including her, believes in."
My experience of business was of stress and futility, but above all of boredom: the hamster-wheel commute to work, the suit-uniform I had to wear - with a colourful tie as a fig leaf of 'individualism' - the mindless, repetitive tasks empty of interest; it was all unimaginably boring.
What bothered me most was the extent to which we were deprived of even the most basic freedoms at work. After all, the companies I worked for were relentlessly pursuing maximum revenue at minimum cost in minimum time. It seemed to me that, under pressure of these corporate priorities, we had to forever shape our words and actions - our smiles, handshakes, body language, what we wore, what we said, how we said it - to ensure that we looked professional, energetic, committed. While working as a marketing manager, I wrote a piece called 'Dear Chairman':
"We travelled back from the sales meeting together, the company chairman and I. We had been together all day but we hadn't really talked at all. I had just been acting, trying to look youthful, enthusiastic and competent; amiable but not sycophantic; assertive but not threatening. We talked about how the meeting had gone, and it had gone well, and we discussed our strategy and who would be tasked to fulfil which elements.
"I was pleased it had gone well and we talked more about other business stuff but, as always with me, it was not enough. I am never able to find it enough and the longer I find myself pretending I do, the more I feel a need to go beyond it. Eventually, I find myself urging the conversation in a different direction, either through humour or by way of an interested, passionate question. I try to stimulate a response in the other person, to shift them beyond the grey concerns of everyday business life and talk to them as people, as human beings. And I am not always, if ever, sure what I actually mean by this. I asked him as he drove:
'How long are you going to do this for, Dave?'
'What do you mean?'
'Well, you seem to put a lot into it, you know: hours, effort. What are you hoping it'll lead to?'
"I was on dangerous ground. Beneath the acceptable, career-development sense of the question, I was in fact really asking why the hell he was doing it, what was the bloody point of it, what was his answer to it all, what made it worthwhile for him? Because, as for myself, I did not know.
"He said he hoped, you know, to grow the company, sell it off and get a professorship in a business school. But he answered in the same routine way that he talked about day-to-day things. It seemed an off-pat answer; it didn't seem to concern him deeply, as if he had stopped really thinking about it, or had never started. And, above all, significantly, he did not ask me what I hoped to get out of it. He didn't seem to see me as a human being, as an individual. I felt he didn't know why he was doing what he was doing and that he didn't care either. I felt he didn't care about thinking about +anything+ deeply. It was as if that part of him was sealed off. As if, even if you really tried, you could not communicate with the heart of him, engage his interest in the subject of life beyond the immediate life in front of our noses."
Later, I wrote this in a piece called 'What It Is About Our Work That Drives Us Mad':
"But this is why it drives you mad - every smile, every look, every move of the body, was a tool, a spanner, a screwdriver, a ratchet, fixing-up the sale. This is why it drives you mad, because we are living beings who are alone and desperately need to communicate - really, honestly, truly, authentically, properly - we desperately need our words, smiles and movements to be ends in themselves. And it is like this with everyone we meet, all day, every day. This is why it drives us mad."
Our deepest needs - for truth, sincerity, love - are in fundamental collision with the logic of business. We cannot be genuinely sincere, honest, loving +and+ have maximised profits as our ultimate priority! There's no room for compromise here - profits +must+ come first - as Noam Chomsky points out:
"The chairman of the board may sincerely believe that his every waking moment is dedicated to serving human needs. Were he to act on these delusions instead of pursuing profit and market share, he would no longer be chairman of the board." (Chomsky, Necessary Illusions - Thought Control in Democratic Societies, Pluto Press, 1991, p.19)
It is for precisely this reason that deeper human values have no place at work. It is not just that we need to be indifferent to our humanity - renamed 'sentimentality' - if we are to be successful; we need to be aggressively focused in exactly the opposite cynical, ruthless direction.
For me, this pressure to be what business needed me to be, even down to the fine details of behaviour and thought, was a kind of imprisonment, with the bars experienced as emptiness, futility and boredom.
In October 1997, the Observer reported:
"Researchers at the University of Salford estimate that workers fake or suppress emotions in no fewer than a quarter of their conversations with colleagues and customers. According to psychologist Sandi Mann people who are forced into chronic insincerity can suffer from poor self-esteem, depression and cynicism as well as physical conditions such as headaches, sexual dysfunction and drug dependency. 'Burnout' is another consequence. Its hallmarks are emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation (where the sufferer starts to see others as objects rather than people) and a loss of satisfaction in personal achievements." (The Observer, January 19, 1997)
Worse still, because corporate culture dominates the production of most of what we see, hear and read, what +really+ matters in human terms has been largely filtered from mainstream culture because it conflicts with the inherently absurd and superficial values of profitable consumerism. Instead, we are swamped with maddening trivia - sex, soaps, celebrities, sport - better accommodated to the trivial corporate version of reality.
Erich Fromm put it well:
"Modern man exhibits an amazing lack of realism for all that matters. For the meaning of life and death, for happiness and suffering, for feeling and serious thought. He has covered up the whole reality of human existence and replaced it with his artificial, prettified picture of pseudo-reality, not too different from the savages [sic] who lost their land and freedom for glittering glass beads." (Erich Fromm, The Sane Society, Rinehart and Winston, 1955)
We often imagine that on first encountering European civilisation, the people who exchanged their freedom for "glittering glass beads" must have been, above all, amazed and impressed by our sophistication, our technology. Not so. Kirkpatrick Sale writes of the Tainos' first encounters with Cristobal Colon and his men in 1492:
"What perplexed the Tainos of Espanola most about the strange white people from the large ships was not their violence, not even their greed, nor in fact their peculiar attitudes toward property, but rather their coldness, their hardness, their lack of love." (Sale, The Conquest of Paradise, Papermac, 1992, p.151)
My sense that society somehow manages to subordinate life and truth to some allegedly 'higher' goal - an idea that initially concerned me as a personal problem - was revealed as an overwhelmingly political problem during the 1980s when I began learning about the gathering environmental storm. It was astonishing to me that clear, rational warnings of approaching environmental collapse were not being reflected in the media and wider culture.
Again, just as everyone took it for granted that happiness was rooted in conformist production and consumption - even though almost no-one seemed to achieve happiness that way - so business was presented as a progressive force for good, even though the natural world could clearly not, as a matter of logic, withstand its endless foot-to-the-floor economic growth.
To read of climate change, ozone depletion, deforestation, and so on, and then to witness the advertisers' smiling, high-tech promises of 'progress', set up a kind of tectonic collision in my mind. What I had previously assumed was 'normal' now struck me as fundamentally divorced from reality, to the extent that 'normal' might actually be considered insane.
To my mind, the lie of materialist happiness and the lie of corporate rationality were of a piece: they were both giant manufactured illusions - Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky brilliantly explained why and how in their sublime book Manufacturing Consent. I felt deeply what Fromm called the "pathology of normalcy".
On the one hand, after long years of exam-taking at school and college, I was attempting to work my way up a business ladder to achieve conventional 'success'. But now it seemed to me that my entire career was rooted in ideas of happiness and progress that were catastrophically mistaken.
For several years I worked in the West End of London setting up a small business within a large transnational corporation. Although my job was quite entrepreneurial in nature, at lunchtimes I would go to the now defunct Books For A Change on Charing Cross Road and buy books by people like Fromm, Fritjof Capra, E.F. Schumacher and Leopold Khor describing the fundamental clash between corporate capitalism and global environmental limits. I would then return to business meetings and pretend I was passionately committed to growing the business I was setting up. Fortunately, I had always seen business as a sort of comical farce, so it was not particularly stressful for me to continue my pretence of taking it seriously while all these ideas were running around my head.
This schizophrenic life continued for several years until I stumbled across the work of comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell.
Campbell argued that when individuals subordinate what they truly are to what society says they are +supposed+ to be - in the name of king, country, power, profit, and so on - their world becomes a "wasteland". What was so important about Campbell's argument was that he was referring to both the inner and outer worlds. First, there is the inner wasteland:
"The profession of views that are not one's own and the living of life according to such views - no matter what the resultant sense of social participation, fulfilment, or even euphoria may be - eventuates inevitably in self-loss and falsification... 'Out there' we are not ourselves, but at best what we are expected to be, and at worst what we have got to be." (Campbell, Creative Mythology, Penguin, 1968, p.86)
But mythology also teaches that when enough hearts are reduced to this barren desert of "dry stones" - when enough of us subordinate the life and truth inside us to some purportedly higher goal - the world around us is also reduced to a wasteland. Karl Marx pointed out that capital, ultimately, is a dead thing. And so a society that serves dead capital, rather than life, generates a kind of deadness in both the hearts of its citizens and in the world around it.
To serve greed is to serve the forces that destroy life. To serve the unrestrained, limitless greed of corporate capitalism is to serve limitless death and destruction. The servants of profit commuting to work in their black suits with their dead hearts are creating the conditions for death in the world around us. It is only because we are willing to suffocate the life in ourselves that the great engines of greed can transform the environment around us into a wasteland.
It is only because a million of us have dead hearts that a million Iraqi civilians can be killed by our sanctions in the name of oil. It is why death squads can be returned by US marines to the streets of Haiti without anyone batting an eye. It is why one-quarter of all living animals and plants will be committed to extinction by 2050. It is why corporate journalism pours the death of lies and deception into the world.
Campbell insisted that the antidote to the personal and political wasteland lies in rejecting what we are +supposed+ to do and be, and instead discovering what it is we really love to do and be, because this is where we are truly alive. In conversation with Bill Moyers, Campbell said:
"You may have a success in life, but then just think of it - what kind of life was it? What good was it - you've never done the thing you wanted to do in all your life. I always tell my students, go where your body and soul want to go. When you have the feeling, then stay with it, and don't let anyone throw you off." (The Power of Myth, Doubleday, 1988, p.118)
"My general formula for my students is 'Follow your bliss.' Find where it is, and don't be afraid to follow it... In doing that you save the world. The influence of a vital person vitalises, there's no doubt about it. The world without spirit is a wasteland. People have the notion of saving the world by shifting things around, changing the rules, and who's on top, and so forth. No, no! Any world is a valid world if it's alive. The thing to do is to bring life to it, and the only way to do that is to find in your own case where the life is and become alive yourself." (Ibid, p.149)
Making the connection between the wasteland I had always experienced as a corporate cog and the literal wasteland I knew was spreading in the world outside, had an enormous impact. When I realised that the solution to both was to refuse to accept the separation between 'appearance' and 'being', to reject highly-paid conformity and instead "follow my bliss", everything fell into place. It then became easy to do what had previously seemed completely impossible - to abandon everything I had invested in my education and career, and walk away.
The Hidden Heart Of Happiness
I think it is easy to be misled by Campbell's exhortation that we "follow our bliss". Westerners trained to hedonism may well imagine that this involves simply kicking back! Campbell was quite clear that by "bliss", he did not mean merely pleasurable self-indulgence. In fact he was talking about the sense of well-being that arises precisely when we turn away from selfish pursuits.
In our Media Alerts we have shown how facts and opinions threatening powerful interests tend to be filtered from social discourse. As we would expect, this filtering effect tends to increase to the extent that a fact or idea is damaging to a larger number of powerful interests. As a result, an idea that completely flies in the face of the whole basis of profit-maximising and social control will likely be almost completely suppressed. I believe that this explains the absence of perhaps the most fundamental and important debate of all concerning human morality and happiness.
In our society we are presented with essentially two alternatives when it comes to living our lives: we are told we can pursue personal happiness by attempting to satisfy our needs and wants. On the other hand - and this is called the 'moral' alternative - we can, to a greater or lesser extent, sacrifice some of our self-interest in attempting to help other people. The choice, we are told, lies essentially between selfish happiness and moral self-sacrifice. Unsurprisingly, not many people choose the latter.
What is so astonishing to me is that this set of choices excludes a vitally important third possibility. Despite its importance, and despite the fact that it lies at the very heart of some of the most sophisticated systems of thought in all human culture, it is almost completely unknown to our society. This is the argument:
"When your attitude is transformed so that you do everything for others, to pacify their suffering and obtain their happiness, there is real satisfaction and peace in your heart." (Lama Zopa Rinpoche, The Door to Satisfaction, Wisdom Books, 1994, p.111)
"There is no doubt that kindness is the key to happiness. In wishing others well and trying to help them we become happy ourselves." (Geshe Sonam Rinchen, The Bodhisattva Vow, Snow Lion, 2000, p.18)
The ancient philosopher Gampopa put it this way:
"If everything you do with your body, speech, and mind is done for the benefit of others, there is no need to do anything more for your own benefit because the one is included in the other." (Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, The Instructions of Gampopa, Snow Lion, 1996, p.143)
This argument turns our common sense thinking on its head. Although we are convinced that vigorous self-concern is the obvious root of happiness, in fact, it is argued here, it is precisely this self-concern that is the root of +unhappiness+.
In reality, and ironically, working for the benefit of others - carrying this kindly and compassionate motivation into whatever work we are doing, and into the decisions we make about which work we are willing to do - generates the psychological conditions conducive to the arising of personal happiness. Our bliss, it turns out, is found in compassion.
Can we imagine an idea +less+ suited to our corporate-capitalist culture rooted in the promotion and exploitation of greed?
But why should focusing on our own happiness serve to make us unhappy?
Seeking happiness through self-concern involves focusing on our own needs and wants which, in essence, are problems. Self-concern therefore effectively places a magnifying glass over these problems. The moment we focus on our need for happiness - 'I need love', 'I'm lonely', 'It's January again and I'm +still+ stuck in this job', 'I've got to move away from here', 'This is all my life will ever be!' - our suffering increases. The moment we switch that focus and think or act out of a motivation to help others, our suffering decreases. Selfishness is like a lens that focuses on, and magnifies, our problems - it magnifies our unhappiness.
If our concern is for the well-being of others, our own problems seem far less significant and painful. Problems are not concrete blocks existing 'out there' in the world; they are ideational constructs. If in my mind I set my problem alongside the worse problems of others, my problem becomes smaller in my mind. Kindness and compassion literally have the effect of diminishing our problems in our mind, and so of increasing our happiness and sense of well-being.
It seems to me that many of our problems, both personal and political, are firmly rooted in an almost religious faith in the power of greedy self-concern to deliver happiness - the harder we try, the more we succeed, the happier we believe we will become. Because this is exactly wrong, and because our corporate system depends on our believing that the fault lies in us and not in the strategy we are pursuing, we respond by pushing ever harder. And so we work longer, consume more, accumulate more, seek out ever more extreme 'highs', with consequences that are devastating to us all.
As a teenager I wondered about basic principles of human happiness. I now believe there is a clear answer to the problem of human happiness and freedom - it lies in exchanging concern for our own happiness with concern for the happiness of others.
This is no simple matter, our selfishness is deeply, stubbornly, spectacularly entrenched. If the attempt begins, it begins in critical thought, in questioning, in tentative experiments. But even in making these flawed, stumbling, all-too-human attempts, I believe we begin to serve life and to rein in the forces of greed, hatred and ignorance that are killing our world.
The problems facing us as individuals and as a society are so complex, so bewildering. But perhaps, finally, the solution to all of them is astonishingly simple:
"On this depends my liberation: to assist others - nothing else." (Path Of Heroes)
- Created on 30 April 2004
- 28 October 2010
By David Cromwell
There is an intense feeling that we all experience during our best moments that life has meaning; that it is priceless, and filled with immense potential. The seventeenth century French philosopher Blaise Pascal expressed this as 'authentic existence', in contrast to 'inauthentic existence' in which people tend to waste their lives in amusements or trivialities. Likewise, the twentieth century German philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote of: 'Being that degrades itself in the mediocrity of everyday life' and of our 'forgetfulness of Existence'. In other words, we can become so swamped by the minutiae of just surviving, day by day, that we forget to enjoy the feeling of being alive in the world. Why is this?
The 'Outsider problem'
In a series of seven books published in the 1950s and 1960s, Colin Wilson tackled this existentialist question which he termed the 'Outsider problem'. Wilson's 'Outsider' is someone who thinks deeply about society's prevailing values, and who does not - or refuses to - conform to the requirements of being a 'civilised' or 'respectable' person. Put simply, Wilson addresses Socrates' question, "How should I live?" and observes that: "The man who is interested to know how he should live instead of merely taking life as it comes, is automatically an Outsider." (Wilson, 'The Outsider', Phoenix, London, updated 2001 edition, p. 66). Examples of Outsiders that Wilson considers are T. E. Lawrence ('Lawrence of Arabia'), Nietzsche, Van Gogh, Geoff Fox (founder of the Quakers) and the Buddha.
As part of an extensive and fascinating overview of - mostly western - literature, art and philosophy, Wilson examines the Outsider's attempts to explore the meaning of human life. In this overview, Wilson outlines - but then ultimately rejects - the nihilism and meaninglessness that underlies the output of various existentialist writers and philosophers in the twentieth century, notably Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre ("Man is a useless passion", wrote Sartre).
Wilson summarises the impact of Sartre's existentialism thus: "[it] removed the universal backcloth against which mediaeval man acted out his dreams, with a sense that everything he did would be brought up on judgement day. In its place, says Sartre, there is only the infinitude of space, which means that man's actions are of no importance to anyone but himself." (Wilson, 'Introduction to the New Existentialism', Hutchinson, London, 1966, p. 152)
Wilson cannot accept that Sartre's pessimistic view might represent reality, and he synthesises an alternative view of the human condition from history, art and literature to counter such pessimism. This is Wilson's attempt to develop an optimistic 'new' existentialism, building on the work of several philosophers, notably Edmund Husserl and Alfred North Whitehead. Wilson draws connections between their philosophical work, in which the analysis of human experience is paramount, and the deep insights into the human condition explored in art and literature by William Blake, Rainer Maria Rilke, Vincent van Gogh, George Bernard Shaw, Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy and many others.
As Wilson argues towards the conclusion of his second book, Religion and the Rebel (1957), "the only way one can talk about the problems of 'meaning' in life is by showing them in terms of living people." Therein, he argues, lies the great power of the best poets, dramatists and novelists. "True existentialism", Wilson says, "is the dramatic investigation of human nature through the medium of art." (Wilson, 'Religion and the Rebel', Ashgrove Press, Bath, 1984 edition, p. 300)
One of Wilson's favourite existentialists is, in fact, the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky. When Raskolnikov, the central character in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, considers the possibility of being executed for the murders he has committed, he reflects that "he would prefer to stand on a narrow ledge for all eternity, surrounded by darkness and tempest, rather than die at once. The fear of death has raised his consciousness of freedom to a point where he becomes aware of the absolute value of his existence. The 'indifference threshold' has been completely destroyed." (Wilson, 'Introduction to the New Existentialism', p. 129)
Wilson's concept of the 'indifference threshold' is the realisation that: "There is a margin of the human mind that can be stimulated by pain or inconvenience, but which is indifferent to pleasure." (Wilson, 'The Outsider', 2001 edition, p. 295) He expands further: "the recognition that man's moments of freedom tend to come under crisis or challenge, and that when things are going well, he tends to allow his grip on life to slacken." (Wilson, 'The Outsider', 2001 edition, p. 295) He provides the example of Sartre who once wrote that he felt at his most free and alive while working in the French underground resistance, while at constant risk of betrayal and death.
Spring bloom and a burst appendix
An example from my own experience of breaking through the 'indifference threshold' was when I fell ill halfway through a scientific cruise on the British research ship, Discovery, in April 1997. We were in the northeast Atlantic, undertaking physical, chemical and biological surveys of the 'spring bloom'. This is the seasonal upsurge in the production of microscopic marine plant life known as phytoplankton. The process is an important natural cycle in the Earth's climate system. The spring bloom is, in fact, the oceanic equivalent of what we observe at the same time of year on land: a riotous coming-alive of plant and animal life.
For me, however, the spring bloom was marked by the acute failure of my appendix. We were several hundred miles offshore, west of the Spanish town of Vigo. There were no surgical facilities on board Discovery, and the nearest ship with suitable facilities - HMS Argus, a hospital ship in the British navy's royal fleet auxiliary - was too distant. I would have to be evacuated from Discovery and taken to hospital in Vigo.
It took two days before we got close enough to the land for a Spanish coastal rescue helicopter to rendezvous with Discovery. It was just after five o'clock on a beautiful morning - the sun had just come up - when we caught sight of a distant bright light in the blue sky indicating the helicopter's approach. Ensconced in my bulky orange survival suit, I was strapped into a covered stretcher and hauled on board the helicopter. As I was being pulled up, I managed to wriggle one hand free to wave goodbye to the scientists, officers and crew on the Discovery below. Although I was dangling precariously over the ocean, and was in considerable discomfort from the appendicitis, I had this intense feeling of being alive. In the end, I was operated on successfully that afternoon, and a week later I was back home, recuperating well and with a renewed enthusiasm for life.
Indifference arising from clutching desire
For Wilson, the indifference threshold "was an absolutely fundamental recognition. It meant that 'life-devaluation' - the opposite of freedom - is due to our curious laziness, to a childish 'spoiledness' that gets resentful and bored in the face of minor problems. And freedom - the moment of vision, of poetry - is due to a certain unconscious discipline of the will." (Wilson, 'The Outsider', 2001 edition, p. 295)
But how does one actually break through the "indifference threshold". Or, to put it another way, how does one move from 'inauthentic existence' to 'authentic existence'? Wilson answers:
"There are two ways. First of all, one must live constantly in the face of death, recognising it as the ultimate necessity. (Gurdjieff had also declared that man could escape from his fallenness if he had an organ that made him constantly aware of the date of his death.)" Wilson continues:
"There is another way... Poetry and myth can bring man [sic] closer to the realm of pure Being." (Wilson, 'Beyond The Outsider: The Philosophy of the Future', Arthur Baker Limited, London, 1965, pp. 97-98)
This is an intriguing, but nonetheless a frustrating and inadequate response. Much though I admire his work, a major failing of Wilson's approach, in my opinion, is that he skirts around the idea that the problems of human existence are rooted in the overpowering sense we all share of the essential self, which we refer to as "I" or "me". To adopt a Buddhist perspective, we are forever grasping at an independent self that does not exist in reality. (This subtle though important concept need not detain us here; but see, for example, the section titled 'The Emptiness of I' in Geshe Kelsang Gyatso's 'Eight Steps to Happiness', Tharpa, Thulverston, 2000, pp. 191-195)
In the Buddhist view, it is attachment to this illusory self that gives rise to endless dissatisfaction and suffering as we try to quench our bottomless human desires. Wilson touches on this truth when he quotes a character called Job Huss in the H. G. Wells short story, 'The Undying Fire':
"Man. is born as the beasts are born, a greedy egotism, a clutching egotism, a clutching desire, a thing of lusts and fears." (Wilson, 'Beyond the Outsider', quoted, p.33)
That phrase, "a clutching desire", encapsulates the Buddhist concept of suffering that arises from attachment to a self-centred mind.
Wilson is also on the right trail when he recalls the character Mitya in Dostoyevsky's classic novel, The Brothers Karamazov, who "is made to realize that the earth is full of suffering human beings, and that no one can be whole and complete without a sense of kinship with the suffering of all other living beings." (Wilson, 'The Outsider', 2001 edition, p. 201)
This powerful realisation, too, has parallels in Buddhist teachings. The eighth-century Indian sage Shantideva puts it simply in Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life:
"All the joy the world contains
Has come through wishing happiness for others.
all the misery the world contains
Has come through wanting pleasure for oneself."
Adopting this selfless approach is a true and worthy demonstration of Nietzsche's "will to power". That such a great philosopher did not recognise this application of his valuable concept was truly a lost opportunity in the development of western thought. (We return to Nietzsche below.)
Recall Wilson's remark above that "one must live constantly in the face of death, recognising it as the ultimate necessity". In summarising Heidegger's philosophy, Wilson concludes that: "We are all trapped in a world of dreams inside our own skulls, and nothing short of the threat of immediate death will wake us up to intense appreciation of our lives." (Wilson, 'Introduction to the New Existentialism', p. 25) Or, as Dr. Samuel Johnson expressed it succinctly: 'when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.' In Christianity, too, there is the notion that one's Maker may take you from the present life at any time: a compelling reason for believers to live out the present moment as though it could be one's last.
I have an example from my own life that sometimes gives me cause for thought. When I was six years of age, one of my best friends was killed in a road accident. I wasn't there when it happened. In fact, we had just moved home to another town. But I knew where the car had hit Barry; it was en route to a favourite spot where a group of us used to play. I've often gone over in my mind's eye what might have happened that day. A momentary distraction, Barry rushing excitedly across the road, not seeing the car, and the driver not being able to stop in time. I was told that Barry had died instantly. The tragic loss of that young life still disturbs me today, some thirty-five years later. If I happen to be feeling irritated or ungrateful or thwarted in some way, sometimes I recall Barry and the preciousness of human life; and how we can never really know in advance the time and manner of our own death.
In Buddhism, contemplating one's own death is strongly encouraged in order to generate the necessary motivation for training the mind on the path to enlightenment. There is simply no time to waste. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso explains that the main obstacle to making our human life meaningful is that we are "so attached to worldly activities [that] we do not have a strong wish to practice Dharma" [essentially, the Buddha's teachings]. Gyatso is clear what the first step must be: "to overcome this obstacle we need to meditate on death." (Gyatso, 'The Meditation Handbook', Tharpa Publications, London, 1995 edition, p. 37)
Indeed, Shantideva was rather blunt in admonishing himself in Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life: "This is no time to sleep, you fool!"
We can also hear this sense of urgency - of the pressing need to wake up immediately from daily life's mediocrities and corrupt societal values - in Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In the discourse titled 'The Vision and The Enigma', the prophet Zarathustra -the mouthpiece for Nietzsche's uncompleted philosophy of 'the revaluation of all values' - encounters a curious sight:
"A young shepherd did I see, writhing, choking, quivering, with distorted countenance, and with a heavy black serpent hanging out of his mouth.
Had I ever seen so much loathing and pale horror on one countenance? Had he perhaps gone to sleep? Then had the serpent crawled into his throat - there had it bitten itself fast.
My hand pulled at the serpent, and pulled: - in vain! I failed to pull the serpent out of his throat. Then there cried out of me: 'Bite, bite!
Its head off! Bite!' - so cried it out of me; my horror, my hatred, my loathing, my pity, all my good and bad cried with one voice out of me.-" (Nietzsche, 'Thus Spake Zarathustra', Dover Publications, Mineola, 1999, p. 109)
Commentator Anthony M. Ludovici explains the meaning of the parable: "the young shepherd is obviously the man of to-day; the snake that chokes him represents the stultifying and paralysing social values that threaten to shatter humanity, and the advice "Bite! Bite!" is but Nietzsche's exasperated cry to mankind to alter their values before it is too late." (Nietzsche, ibid., p. 249)
The unanswered question of what would Nietzsche's Superman actually do?
Nietzsche was concerned that man should transform himself into an Übermensch (the 'Overman' or 'Superman'), in an evolutionary step up from human life. He demanded greatness (the 'Superman') and insisted that everyone needs 'to find one's own way.' However, I agree with the writer Michael Tanner when he inserts a cautionary note:
"But one hardly needs to go from that to the extreme of demanding that everyone has the highest possible profile. By definition, greatness is a rare quality. That does not mean that most people should be despised or regarded as eliminable for not possessing or aspiring to it." (Tanner, 'Nietzsche: A Very Short Introduction', OUP, 2000, p. 95)
Indeed not! As I mentioned earlier, Nietzsche never explained exactly what it was the Übermensch was supposed to do with his superhuman abilities. Perhaps this was a deliberate omission to avoid being overly prescriptive. More plausibly, in my view, it was simply because Nietzsche's vision ultimately failed him. (Although we must bear in mind that his productive life was tragically cut short: his last eleven years were spent insane). Certainly, there is no indication on Nietzsche's part that the Superman should use his advanced powers to reduce suffering and to boost happiness amongst all people; indeed, amongst all living beings. On the contrary, Nietzsche abhorred the concept of compassion (or 'pity'), believing it to be a prime characteristic of a discredited and weak 'slave' - as opposed to worthy or 'noble' - morality.
In The Anti-Christ, written just before his final collapse, Nietzsche explains why he held this disparaging view of compassion: "One loses force when one pities. The loss of force which life has already sustained through suffering is increased and multiplied even further by pity." (Nietzsche, 'Twilight of the Idols' and 'The Anti-Christ', Penguin Classics, London, 2003, p. 130)
He reinforces the message:
"The weak and ill-constituted shall perish: first principle of our philanthropy. And one shall help them to do so. What is more harmful than vice? - Active sympathy for the ill-constituted and weak." (Nietzsche, ibid., p. 128)
This is a shocking statement. It is difficult to reconcile it with the interpretation sometimes proffered that Nietzsche was simply attacking the misguided morals of those who would wish to intervene in the lives of others.
Although we should certainly not accept everything that Nietzsche argued, Tanner's view of one of Nietzsche's major themes is worth noting, namely that:
"What he [Nietzsche] portrays, in book after book, is the gradual but accelerating decline of Western man into a state where no values any longer impress him." (Tanner, ibid., pp. 36-37)
Nietzsche defines the values that, for him, constitute 'good' and 'bad':
"What is good? - All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man.
"What is bad? - All that proceeds from weakness.
"What is happiness? - The feeling that power increases - that a resistance is overcome."
(Nietzsche, ibid., p. 127)
The will to power should indeed entail overcoming a resistance: namely, surmounting Wilson's "indifference threshold" in order that we come to feel truly alive, creative and connected with others. But again, we have to ask: is this sufficient? Is surmounting the 'indifference threshold' only about making us feel better? What would Nietzsche's Superman actually do with his amazing talents and noble morality? The question has never been adequately answered, to my knowledge.
Total compassion, not total indifference
Matthieu Ricard, a French Buddhist monk describes the search for meaning in almost Nietzschean terms, as "a constant attempt to break out of and blow apart all the tight, encrusting layers of illusion". (Jean-François Revel and Matthieu Ricard, 'The Monk and the Philospher. A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life', Schocken Books, Random House, New York, 2000, p. 314)
Ricard explains that the path to wisdom and compassion involves transforming the mind. But rather than leading to a state of detachment or even nihilism, as detractors of Buddhism might claim, "the more you persevere in this process of inner transformation, the more you find that wisdom, serenity, and joy break through to you and impregnate your whole being - and that, unlike the pleasures of the world, they're completely independent of any outer circumstances. They can be experienced anywhere, at any time, and increase the more you use them." (Revel and Ricard, ibid., p. 318)
In his 1970 book, Poetry and Mysticism, Wilson speaks highly of Buddhism, highlighting its scientific approach to studying consciousness and how it rejects unverified belief or dogma. However, he ultimately rejects Buddhism because it supposedly has too "negative" an aim. (I believe, also, that Wilson cannot accept that Buddhism refutes the concept of an independently existing self. Instead, Wilson is attracted to Husserl's notion of a "transcendental ego" or a "real self". We do not explore these concepts further here.)
It is worthwhile quoting the relevant section from Poetry and Mysticism at length as it indicates some basic misunderstandings about Buddhism, perhaps still commonplace in the west, that we can then address below:
"[A]none who has ever fallen under the spell of Buddhism - or other eastern religion, for that matter - will have discovered the drawback. You can determinedly withdraw your mind from the objects of sense, assure yourself that you are free of all desire - and nothing whatever happens. You just sit there. You cannot 'contemplate' merely by wanting to contemplate. In fact, you soon realise that contemplation is closely bound up with desire. When you first perform that mental act of rejecting your desires and obsessions, the feeling of freedom is magnificent, and the mind is launched like a rocket, powered, by the desire you are rejecting. This is why religious conversions are such emotionally violent experiences. When there is nothing more to reject, the mind becomes static. And there is a world of difference between serenity and mere lack of motion." (Wilson, 'Poetry and Mysticism', Hutchinson & Co., London, 1972, p. 30)
In the above paragraph, Wilson would have us believe that he has actually managed to extinguish all his desires - highly unlikely unless he were on the verge of enlightenment! - and that he then found himself 'just sitting there', doing nothing. His mind became 'static'. Wilson says elsewhere that achieving such a state allows one to be indifferent to problems that may be afflicting us (or others). However, as the Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard explains, to achieve enlightenment is not a supreme state of indifference, but exactly its opposite:
"[T]he goal of Buddhism is a complete and ultimate understanding of the phenomenal world, both inner and outer. Subtracting oneself from reality solves nothing at all. Nirvana is the very opposite of indifference toward the world. It's infinite compassion and love toward all beings in their totality." (Revel and Ricard, ibid., p. 177)
Wilson concludes his rejection of Buddhism as the 'solution' to the 'Outsider problem':
"I would not go so far as to reject the whole Buddhist concept of contemplative objectivity; it can be achieved in flashes. But I am inclined to believe that when the aspirant sits cross-legged and concentrates the gaze at the end of his nose, his immediate aim should not be a state of contemplation. It is too negative. The mind requires a more positive aim." (Wilson, ibid., p. 30)
In fact, the positive aim that Wilson has managed to overlook is the elimination of suffering and the promotion of happiness amongst all living beings, everywhere. What could be more positive than that? Perhaps we should not be too hard on Wilson, however. During his major phase of working out an approach to the 'new existentialism', in the 1950s and 1960s, accurate and accessible books about Buddhism - particularly about Mahayana Buddhism, with its central emphasis on compassion and love - were few and far between in the West. For much of the twentieth century, westerners who wrote about Buddhism tended to present it as an austere philosophy of detachment and an empty, dead universe. The supposed aim of the practising Buddhist was to achieve a supreme state of detachment or worldly indifference; to be totally unswayed by life's vicissitudes. This is a deep misunderstanding.
By way of contrast, Ricard points out that "inner equanimity is neither apathy nor indifference. It's accompanied by inner jubilation, and by an openness of mind expressed as unfailing altruism". (Revel and Ricard, p. 32) That "inner jubilation" echoes Nietzsche's joyful affirmation of life, as expressed in his writings. However, a key attribute that should go hand in hand with this inner jubilation is unfailing altruism; unlike Nietzsche's call for a 'noble morality' that despises pity as a weakness! There is a world of difference between joy as the selfish will to power, and joy as the compassionate will to serve and empower others.
- Created on 21 April 2004
- 28 October 2010
By David Edwards
Truly, Madly, Deeply - Above All Madly
British people are not good at happiness. According to research published in 2002, around one-third of British people suffer from serious depression at any one time. A 25-year-old in 2002 was between three and ten times more likely to suffer a major depression than a 25-year-old in 1950. It seems that young people with the highest living standards since records began are deeply miserable during 'the best years of their lives'.
We can learn a lot about the root causes of this epidemic by comparing Western and non-Western approaches to mental suffering. Doing so, I believe, reveals a remarkable secret at the heart of Western unhappiness.
A clue is provided in psychologist Mark Tallis' book, Love Sickness - Love As A Mental Illness. Tallis notes that mental illness is often accepted, even celebrated, as a feature of romantic love:
"Thus, in the well-worn contemporary phrase - truly, madly, deeply - madness is supposed to be as significant an indicator of love's authenticity as honesty and depth. We do not want love to be rational. We want it to be audacious, overwhelming, improvident, and unpredictable." (Tallis, Century, 2004, p.3)
Tallis points out that mental states commonly associated with 'falling in love' are remarkably similar to states associated with mental illness:
"In the first euphoric weeks (or even months) of love the symptoms of mania are clearly evident. These include expansive mood, inflated self-esteem, decreased need for sleep, a pressure to talk, racing thoughts, distractibility, increased activity (particularly sexual), and a general disregard for the consequences of pleasure-seeking... Only four of the above (including expansive mood) experienced for one week will be sufficient to meet... diagnostic criteria for a manic episode." (p.57)
Love is "unique among those mental states that we generally assume to be positive", Tallis suggests, in that, "Although we celebrate love, we also recognise that it can resemble an illness." (p.59)
Remarkably, we actually +celebrate+ the "madness" of love - we like to love "truly, madly, deeply". The mad, suffering aspect is deemed to be precisely a sign of the authenticity and depth of our love.
In other words, and this is what interests me, we view our suffering in love as natural, virtuous, even glorious.
Hypocrisy Nausea - And Other Virtuous Ailments
It seems to me that Tallis is badly mistaken, however, in arguing that love is unique in being perceived as a positive mental state that also resembles an illness. Anger, also, is assumed by many people to be positive, empowering, protecting, and it also is understood to resemble an illness. Peace and human rights campaigners, for example, are fond of describing how their anger is such that they are "sickened and nauseated" by government hypocrisy. A favoured way of communicating intense outrage is to declare that a government statement leaves us feeling "physically sick" and "despairing".
Levels of anger dragging us to the point of sickness and despair are clearly deemed virtuous - indicative of our passionate commitment.
It seems to me that, no matter how traumatic and unbearable the experience, there is also a part of us that considers the suffering of grief to be in a sense right and good. We feel that our grief and suffering bear witness to the depth of our love - to have a balanced, happy mind is deemed a kind of betrayal, almost a sign of indifference.
The possibility I am suggesting, then, is that one of the reasons we in the West suffer so much mental unhappiness is that we often believe suffering is virtuous, a sign of our passion, integrity and compassion.
The idea that our belief in the virtue of suffering might lie at the root of much of our unhappiness was raised in my mind by my encounter with Mahayana Buddhism. According to this highly sophisticated system of thought, happiness, not suffering, is synonymous with virtue. Instead, wherever there is unhappiness, Buddhism argues, we will actually find an excess of self-concern, of selfishness.
This idea struck me as inherently plausible because it seemed to me that one of the most powerful engines driving the unhappy, self-pitying mind was precisely the sense that it was fundamentally right, perhaps even righteous - that it was rooted, for example, in a refusal to accept the lies of cynical politicians in the case of anger; that it was rooted in the intensity of passion for a lost loved one, in the case of romantic attachment.
This sense of the rightness, the basic virtuousness, of some forms of unhappiness, sets up a kind of psychological 'force field' protecting the unhappy mind - we don't fully +want+ to be free of suffering because we believe it has real merit.
The interesting thing about the Buddhist analysis is that it punctures this righteously miserable bubble, countering the self-pitying mind with a very blunt statement: Suffering is +always+, ultimately, rooted in an excess of self-concern.
Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, for example, comments:
"Self-cherishing makes us feel depressed whenever our wishes are not fulfilled, we fail in our ambitions, or our life does not turn out the way we planned. If we examine all the times we have been miserable we shall discover that they are characterised by an excessive concern for our own welfare." (Gyatso, Eight Steps To Happiness, Tharpa, 2000, p.86)
This is like a salutary bucket of cold water in the face of our self-pity: we are not unhappy simply because the world is unjust, not just because terrible things have happened to us, but because we suffer from an excessive concern for our own welfare.
The Art Of Upsetting Yourself
If we are able to perceive the basic truth of this point, it can help us break the closed circle of the self-pitying mind allowing us to emerge from suffering.
When someone insults us, for example, we feel we are right and justified in feeling upset because, after all, the other person has been abusive. We say things like: 'She upset me.' But writing some 1,000 years ago, the philosopher Aryadeva makes an interesting point:
"Though hearing harsh words is unpleasant, they are +not+ intrinsically harmful, otherwise the speaker would also be harmed. Thus, when the damage done by anger comes from one's own preconception that one has been insulted, it is just fantasy to suppose it comes from elsewhere. When one's own ideas have done the harm, it is unreasonable to be angry with others." (Aryadeva, Yogic Deeds of Bodhisattvas, Gyel-tsap, Snow Lion, 1994, p.159, my emphasis)
Words are clearly not intrinsically harmful - they need a sensitive target to receive them. Some insults make us laugh or shrug, others make us rage - it is the type and extent of our self-concern that determines our vulnerability. There is nothing terribly virtuous about angry hurt caused, in part, by our own self-concern.
American Buddhist writer Alan Wallace tells us to abandon the idea that anger is rooted in righteousness - take a closer look and we're sure to find some self-concern:
"When adversity strikes, trace it to its root, the one culprit. When somebody irritates you, when you become angry or disappointed, find the culprit. The mind does not get disturbed because of other people's behaviour. Frustration and unhappiness occur because self-centredness makes us unable to bear other people's behaviour. Self-centredness has us in its power and can make us very unhappy." (B. Alan Wallace, Buddhism With An Attitude, Snow Lion, 2001, p.196)
Wallace adds: "It is my self-centredness, not yours, that gives me grief." (p.197)
In the case of romantic love, also, we will find that our suffering is ultimately not simply rooted in a noble concern for the object of our affections. What Buddhists call "affectionate love" - the desire for the happiness and welfare of others - is a peaceful, happy mind. An ancient text describes this kind of "tender regard" using the example of parents' feelings for their young child:
"When the parents observe the youth in his most desirable years, either at the time of play while he runs and races or at the time he rests, their minds become tender, like a hundred fluffy balls of cotton soaked in the finest clarified butter. The parents' minds are satisfied and joyous." (Harvey B. Aronson, Love and Sympathy in Theravada Buddhism, Motilal Barnasidass, 1996, p.70)
In his book, Destructive Emotions, psychologist Daniel Goleman reviews research on changes in the brains of Buddhist monks meditating intensively on compassion. Monitoring by fMRI magnetic imaging machines revealed a "brain shift during compassion [that] seemed to reflect an +extremely+ pleasant mood. The very act of concern for others' well-being, it seems, creates a greater sense of well-being within oneself." (Goleman, Disturbing Emotions, Bloomsbury, 2003, p.12)
These mind states are very different from the painful feelings we so often associate with romantic love. The pain and suffering therein, according to Buddhism, are rooted, not in this kind of affectionate love and compassion, but in attachment to our +own+ happiness - we see the beloved as a vital source of happiness and feel anxiety, depression and despair at the prospect, or reality, of losing that happiness.
On reflection, we can see that there is nothing particularly virtuous about romantic suffering ultimately rooted in passionate self-concern - especially as this form of self-concern often leads people to disregard, harm, or even destroy, the object of their 'love'.
Likewise, I think the positive motivation in activism and dissent lies in compassion for the suffering of others - this is what gives people the energy to work tirelessly against overwhelming odds to remove that suffering. But, as with romantic love, this concern for our fellow beings often gets mixed up with essentially self-centred emotions and delusions - the desire to vent our personal anger, to punish and wound individuals we deem personally responsible for vast global problems - which actually work against our positive motivation. As a result, we mistakenly come to associate positive thought and action with painful, destructive and actually self-destructive states of mind. Working for a more compassionate society does +not+ have to be an angry, miserable, despairing task, as Goleman's observations make clear.
Buddhists claim that even the suffering of self-hatred is actually rooted in an excess of self-concern. We might think, after all, that self-hatred is rooted in painful honesty and integrity in response to flaws in our character - surely it represents the exact antithesis of self-concern. Geshe Sonam Rinchen explains:
"Feelings of self-hatred, dissatisfaction, anger and lack of respect directed towards ourselves, despite appearances, actually stem from our attachment to the self and to our happiness.
We hunt for happiness, hoping to find it through someone or something else. We are ignorant of the best and wisest way to cherish ourselves, and our clinging to a distorted idea of the self and to the happiness we desire for that self fills us with expectations regarding what we want to be and have. When we fail to meet these expectations, we feel dissatisfaction and a profound sense of failure." (Geshe Sonam Rinchen, The Six Perfections, Snow Lion, 1998, p.34)
And how much of the grief we feel at the suffering or death of a loved one is rooted in affectionate love and compassion, and how much in the perceived loss to our sense of security, our hopes for happiness? Again, from the Buddhist perspective, if we can question the idea that our suffering is virtuous, to be embraced - seeing that it is in fact rooted in self-concern - we may well feel more able to challenge and break free from it.
Wronged, Exiled, Bereaved - And Happy
None of this is at all intended as criticism of people who are suffering mental anguish. In his autobiography, The Life Of Shabkar, the eponymous, highly accomplished Tibetan meditator unashamedly records how he wept profusely at news of the death of his mother and teacher, at the passing away of friends. The current Dalai Lama puts it well:
"At sixteen, I lost my freedom when Tibet was occupied. At twenty-four, I lost my country itself when I came into exile. For forty years now, I have lived as a refugee in a foreign country, albeit the one that is my spiritual home. Throughout this time, I have been trying to serve my fellow refugees and, to the extent possible, the Tibetans who remain in Tibet. Meanwhile our homeland has known immeasurable destruction and suffering. And of course I have lost not only my mother and other close family members but also dear friends. Yet for all this, although I certainly feel sad when I think about these losses, still so far as my basic serenity is concerned, on most days I am calm and contented. Even when difficulties arise, as they must, I am usually not much bothered by them. I have no hesitation in saying that I am happy." (Dalai Lama, Ancient Wisdom, Modern World - Ethics For a New Millennium, Little Brown, 1999, p.57)
The point is not to blame any of us for experiencing deep and natural feelings of sadness; it is to suggest the possibility of alleviating the depth and extent of that sadness to some extent. Sceptics might well refuse to take the Dalai Lama at his word - he could, after all, be simply making it up! But I think investigation of, and particularly experimentation with, the Buddhist approach to problems reveals quite remarkable results. Ultimately, it is claimed, we can maintain an essentially balanced and peaceful mind even when undergoing the fiercest imaginable privations and suffering - a theme to which we will return in a later Cogitation.
Buddhists suggest that a powerful antidote to suffering rooted in self-concern lies in switching focus to the problems and happiness of others. The contemporary teacher Lama Zopa Rinpoche writes:
"Real happiness in life comes when we dedicate our life to other living beings. Benefiting others brings us real peace of mind and satisfaction. It is the best way to enjoy life. We experience so much depression in our life basically because we have not changed our attitude to one of living for others. Switching our goal from finding happiness for ourselves to bringing happiness to others immediately reduces the problems in our life." (Lama Zopa Rinpoche, The Door to Satisfaction, Wisdom Books, 1994, p.111)
To sum up, then, it seems plausible that one of the reasons we Westerners are so prone to mental suffering is that we actually embrace that suffering as in a sense virtuous and even righteous. But suffering is empowered by this belief making it harder to escape its grasp, causing us indeed to resist feelings of happiness, peace and well-being.
When we strip suffering of its moral veneer, we can see it as something to challenge, to question; not something to simply accept and even value. Realising that the problem often lies in excessive self-concern points us in a profoundly positive direction - towards concern for the suffering and happiness of others.
Transforming Problems, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Wisdom Books, 1993
The Art Of Happiness, The Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler, Hodder & Stoughton, 1998
Buddhism With An Attitude, B. Alan Wallace, Snow Lion, 2001
- Created on 09 July 2004
- 28 October 2010
"Q. You're married?
Q. How old?
A. The boy is two and a half, and the little girl is a year and a half.
Q. Obviously, the question comes to my mind... the father of two little kids like that... how can he shoot babies?
A. I didn't have the little girl. I just had the little boy at the time.
Q. Uh-huh... How do you shoot babies?
A. I don't know. It's just one of those things."
(Mike Wallace of CBS News interviewing a participant of the US massacre of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai. Quoted Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority, Pinter & Martin, 1974, p.202)
Anyone Seen The Bad Guy?
As anyone who has worked in a modern corporation will know, the people working in those corporations are good, caring people. It's just that, in their work, they are required to obey a system of economic logic that subordinates human and animal suffering to short-term profit. They are decent, civilised people - their actions result in mass suffering and death.
It is wrong to think that evil comes with a black hat, horns, scarred face, handle-bar moustache, or even mad, staring eyes. Endless testimony has documented the banal nature of evil. Men, women and children are generally burned alive, not by grinning monsters, but by fresh-faced kids pushing throttles, raising flaps and pressing bomb releases.
Clinical psychologist, Lindsey Williams, notes that "apart from traits of authoritarianism and obedience, and ideological sympathy for the government, there is little evidence that torturers are markedly different from their peers - at least, until the point where they are recruited and trained as torturers." (Amnesty, May/June 1995, p.10)
Nobody, it turns out, ever +feels+ particularly evil, or particularly responsible for the suffering of the world. Consider, for example, that when Bill Clinton celebrated his election as president by firing cruise missiles into Baghdad on June 26, 1993, he generated a popularity spike in America. Kurt Nimmo provides some detail:
"Public-opinion polls showed his approval rating climbed by eleven percentage points on June 27th, the day after the attack, and more than two-thirds of those polled approved of the bombing. Americans like it when their presidents kill people in faraway lands, especially after they whop the tar out of them in lopsided wars. It is easy to stomach mass murder when it is presented as a video game on CNN and Fox News." (Kurt Nimmo7/6/2004 'Clinton's Life: In The Grip Of Mass Murder' http://kurtnimmo.com/blog/index.php?p=226)
The attack killed and injured dozens of Iraqis. But who killed them? Was it Clinton? Yes. But it was also the mass media who habitually promote evil threats abroad, and who constantly laud the importance and power of violent responses to them. It was the right-wing journalists who froth at the mouth, but also the 'liberal' journalists who offer articulate 'nuanced', 'cautious' support for leaders, and who urge 'restraint' without actually condemning the violence, or exposing the cynicism at its heart. It's the liberal leader writers currently promoting John Kerry and John Edwards as 'good guys' promising to lead the world out of the darkness generated by Bush and the other 'bad guys'.
If Kerry and Edwards displace Bush and Cheney, they will surely soon be off bombing some defenceless Third World 'rogue' - and the public will have been prepared by the current propaganda to perceive this as the 'good guys' making 'tough choices' for the betterment of humanity. As the bodies burst they, again, will hit a popularity spike.
Though journalists do not themselves know it, there is nothing random about the perennial coming of the 'good guys' - Clinton, Kerry, Blair, Brown. It is essential that our faith in the goodness of our leaders be constantly revitalised and refreshed. Erich Fromm explained why:
"To be sure obedience can be learned by sheer force. But this method has many disadvantages. It constitutes a constant threat that one day the many might have the means to overthrow the few by force; furthermore there are many kinds of activity which cannot be done properly if nothing but fear is behind the obedience. Hence the obedience which is only rooted in the fear of force must be transformed into one rooted in man's heart. Man must want and even need to obey, instead of only fearing to disobey. If this is to be achieved, power must assume the qualities of the All Good, of the All Wise; it must become All Knowing. If this happens, power can proclaim that disobedience is sin and obedience virtue." (Fromm, On Disobedience and other essays, Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1984, p.7)
This is why it has taken so very long for the public to see through Blair's sweet smile to the compulsive manipulator and ruthless dissembler beneath.
The Mass Production Of Evil
In truth, the 'evil' individual is most often simply someone who unthinkingly accepts the 'superior wisdom' of others, who defers to their 'deeper understanding', and who conforms. The doors of hell are heavy, they take a lot of moving. They are not opened by the occasional damaged psychopath with an Uzi, by the rebellious teenager, by the disobedient schoolchild or petty thief. The doors of hell are almost always opened by people in uniform.
J. Robert Porter reports instructions given by a US general to the 25th Infantry Division operating in central Korea in July 1950. Referring to an area of more than one hundred square miles, the instructions read:
"All civilians seen in this area are to be treated as enemy and action taken accordingly."
A radio message from the US Army's First Cavalry Division around the same time was recorded as:
"No refugees to cross the front lines. Fire everyone trying to cross lines. Use discretion in case of women and children." (Porter in Borjesson, ed., Into The Buzzsaw, Prometheus Books, 2002, p.204)
It was in this same area at this exact same time that eyewitnesses reported 400 South Korean civilians - women, children, babies and old men - were deliberately gunned down by US warplanes and soldiers at No Gun Ri bridge. But the same media that forever focuses so enthusiastically on domestic murders and dramatic abductions was not interested in covering the atrocity. Porter writes:
"There was one problem. The people who ran the AP [Associated Press]. The people I worked for. I knew they would not share my enthusiasm for the story. It turned out to be even worse." (Ibid, p.206)
Porter and other journalists who tried to break the story in the late 1990s suffered demotion and career death. Porter writes:
"Bias has no place in good journalism... I do admit though: I am politically opposed to having soldiers kill babies in secret. Do you know anyone who is in favour of that?" (Ibid, p.205)
Porter was responding as a human being; his bosses were responding as corporate executives. Porter was subordinating everything to humanity and compassion; his bosses were subordinating everything to profit. Nobody's head was separated from their body as a result of what Porter's bosses did, but decisions of this kind create the conditions that make suffering possible, in fact inevitable.
Uniform, we know, means "conforming to the standard or rule". The doors of hell are opened by those who conform to the standard or the rule. The most lethal act always has been and always will be that of obeying without thinking, of placing our responsibility for what we do in the care of people who are themselves removed from the actuality of blood and gore, so that, ultimately, no one has both responsibility +and+ blood on their hands. Historian Howard Zinn writes:
"More and more in our time, the mass production of massive evil requires an enormously complicated division of labour. No one is positively responsible for the horror that ensues. But everyone is negatively responsible, because anyone can throw a wrench into the machinery." (Zinn, The Zinn Reader, Seven Stories, 1997, p.280)
But because in our society the powers that be have every interest in dressing us up in ideational and physical uniforms to do their bidding, the ultimate sin is declared to be, not conformity - renamed 'discipline', 'duty', 'tradition', 'honour', 'efficiency', 'pragmatism' - but retail violence and crime, the disobedient breaking of the (mythical) social contract that 'binds' society together.
This is nonsense but it is useful nonsense: the manifestation of criminality and violence in individuals is a bee sting to the cruise missile of conformity. Visit the blood-stained temples of Tibet, the killing fields of Cambodia, the empty villages of East Timor, the shattered streets of Chechnya, the busy graveyards of Iraq - go to Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, the craters on planet Vietnam, the bull-dozed pits of Auschwitz, and you will always, without fail, find the blood-soaked uniform in close attendance.
And yet, in our society, the great threat, the great crime that has us quaking in fear when we take a day off work or school, that has us railing against the scruffily dressed, the belligerent, the petty criminal, is disobedience.
The social reviling of individual 'troublemakers' and the happy acceptance of quiet obedience - of students in their exam rooms, teenagers with their regulation jeans, trainers and gelled hair, wild worship of the national football time, polite applause for royal nonsense - are all part of a mindset that facilitates mass killing around the world. It is this emphasis that allows us to ignore what is happening (because we know 'the experts' are in charge and know what they're doing), to make the shooting of babies "just one of those things" we were told to do.
Moral Responsibility - Awareness And Action
How many times last summer did we hear educated, friendly, articulate RAF pilots saying that the Iraq war and the killing it involved were "not really my scene" but "I'm here to do the job I've been trained to do"?
Psychologist Stanley Milgram noted that people willing to commit heinous acts on the command of authority quite often protest even as they obey, declaring their dissatisfaction with what they are being asked to do. Milgram noted:
"Some derived satisfaction from their thoughts and felt that - within themselves, at least - they had been on the side of the angels. What they failed to realise is that subjective feelings are largely irrelevant to the moral issue at hand so long as they are not transformed into action. Political control is effected through action. The attitudes of the guards at a concentration camp are of no consequence when in fact they are allowing the slaughter of innocent men to take place before them." (Milgram, op., cit, p.28)
The reality is that it is not nearly enough that we are good, decent people; that we are polite; that we take care of our kids; that we are kind, thoughtful and reasonable. These are important and good. But if, in addition, we simply do what we are told, if we don't think for ourselves - if we don't have the capacity to say 'no', to cause trouble, to be disobedient - then we may well end up the architects of somebody's hell.
I think it is useful to assume, as Zinn points out, that nobody is positively responsible for the horror in our world, but that everyone is negatively responsible because we can all act to stop it. It is no good looking outside ourselves and simply blaming others, just as it is no good transferring responsibility for our actions arguing that 'they' run the organisation, that 'politicians make the decisions' and 'I'm just doing my job.'
+We+ are responsible for our actions. That means it is our responsibility to understand, as best we can, the meaning of our actions in the world around us. We need to become serious students of politics, economics, political history, media propaganda, and so on, so that we can judge the ethical consequences of what we are doing. If these consequences are clearly destructive - regardless of what others would have us believe - then it is our responsibility to resist that destructiveness by refusing to cooperate, by demanding change, by changing our job, actions, values. To be ignorant, to not give a damn about how the world works - to assume that our task is merely to do what we're told and otherwise lose ourselves in entertainment - is deeply immoral.
This process of working to become an informed, self-directed, compassionate and morally responsible person leads us towards an astonishing realisation. Focusing solely on our own needs, on how best to get what we want, it turns out, leads us +away+ from personal happiness, contentment and peace of mind. Focusing instead on what is best for others, on how to help them, leads us +towards+ happiness.