Media Lens - COGITATIONS News analysis and media criticism Sun, 16 Dec 2018 11:06:28 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb Follow Your Bliss - A Follow-Up


'Advice I Wish I'd Had'

Last February, I responded on Twitter to a tweet from The Times urging young journalists to apply for the Anthony Howard Award. Lucky winners could spend a year writing about politics for The Times and Observer viewspapers, and also for New Statesman magazine. My comment:

'Forget it. Don't write for the "mainstream". Don't write for money. Don't write for prestige. Just "follow your bliss" by writing what you absolutely love to write to inspire and enlighten other people. Write what seems interesting, important and true, and give it away for free.'

These few words generated an imperfect storm of anger and abuse, mostly from corporate journalists and other media workers. In a piece titled, 'Write for love not money? Journalists appalled,' former Guardian journalist Jonathan Cook commented: 'the outpouring of indignation from these journalists at a little bit of advice from Media Lens must be unprecedented'.

It was certainly the most hostile response we had ever received. I wrote about 'blissgate' in a media alert on March 7. By contrast to the tweet, the feedback was wonderfully positive. One reader sent a relevant link with this note:

'The creative philosophy you eloquently espoused in your recent article was the very foundation of The Amateur Cinema League founded in New York in 1926.'

Another reader, describing himself as a 'Quaker/Yogi/Buddhist/Environmentalist', wrote:

'Dear David(s),

'You could not be more correct in what you say. EVERYBODY should follow
their bliss and never, ever be deflected from that path by the false
lure of money, prestige and fame. Then we would not be heading toward
the collective apocalypse that is fast approaching us. For survival you
might need to do work that does not accord with your bliss but never do
so much of it that you have no time or energy left over for your bliss.'

Former journalist Steve Tooze vented some long-held frustration:

'20 years as a corporate journalist left me feeling like a s**t who slaved for s**ts writing s**t. These guys faced a barrage of outrage from my former colleagues for giving out advice I wish I'd had in 1985'

Another reader sent this from poet John Keats:

'With respect to my livelihood, I will not write for it, — for I will not run with that most vulgar of all crowds, the literary. — John Keats, March 8, 1818.'

Someone sent a poem by Emily Dickinson, which begins:

'Publication – is the Auction
Of the Mind of Man –
Poverty – be justifying
For so foul a thing'

The sender parodied the abuse we had received:

'However I must caution that Emily Dickinson is not to be trusted as she is clearly as insane as you two. The mad hatter self published (because no one would publish her!!because she had tits) and gave it away for free.

'But alas she is no saint merely an upperclass champagne socialist self indulged twat whose daddy pays for everything. Oh well can't have it all I suppose.'

Someone else emailed a wonderful quote from Krishnamurti:

'Very much in line with your advice, Krishnamurti wrote:

'"Have you ever thought about it? We want to be famous as a writer, as a poet, as a painter, as a politician, as a singer, or what you will. Why? Because we really don't love what we are doing. If you loved to sing, or to paint, or to write poems, if you really loved it you would not be concerned with whether you are famous or not. To want to be famous is tawdry, trivial, stupid, it has no meaning; but, because we don't love what we are doing, we want to enrich ourselves with fame. Our present education is rotten because it teaches us to love success and not what we are doing. The result has become more important than the action.

'You know, it is good to hide your brilliance under a bushel, to be anonymous, to love what you are doing and not to show off. It is good to be kind without a name. That does not make you famous, it does not cause your photograph to appear in the newspapers. Politicians do not come to your door. You are just a creative human being living anonymously, and in that there is richness and great beauty." - Krishnamurti, J. Krishnamurti, The Book of Life'

My purpose in writing the alert was to make clear that the advice to 'follow your bliss' was not mere New Age twaddle, and it wasn't cynicism (some tweeters seemed to think we were a media company hoping to exploit young journalists). And it wasn't simply Media Lens being arseholier than thou in preaching our 'Virtue' to lesser mortals gutter-grubbing for a dirty dollar.

To do this, I had to link the advice to the well-known comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell rather than my own experience. I couldn't mention that I had actually lived the advice given – the reason I tweeted it in the first place – without looking impossibly pompous and self-righteous to people I had enraged. To avoid causing complete confusion, I also had to resist mentioning my own reservations about Campbell's 'follow your bliss' formula.


Dying Inside – Dying Outside

When I worked in sales, sales management and management consultancy – that is, when I was guided by a money motivation to do work I found utterly boring - I became keenly aware of two key problems with all corporate work:

1) Everything that happens inside a corporation is goal-oriented. Everything is justifiable, or not, on the basis of its contribution to the corporate bottom line: maximised revenues in minimum time at minimum cost. This means that everything that happens is guided by the head not the heart, by what needs to be rather than what is, by insincerity rather than soul. We are to smile, shake hands, talk, dress and behave guided by thoughts rather than feeling: namely, thoughts of how best to maximise profits.

Head-based behaviour rooted in corporate goals, rather than in how we feel and who we fundamentally are, is inhuman. I am free to be myself at work, but only insofar as it is profit-friendly. I am necessarily a fraud. I can joke and chit-chat, but I cannot do or express anything in public that questions or threatens the smooth-running of the corporate enterprise. Conflicting thoughts, distracting questions – about profit, planet, life, death, ethics, the nature of awareness, being, happiness - are obviously as absurd as they would be for a football player on the pitch trying to win the World Cup final. We are there to do a job, to make money - everything else is a distraction at best, obstructive at worst.

So all relationships at work must be superficial, fake – we must be trivial, hidden behind masks of positivity and goal-seeking aggression. The head rules, the flow of feeling from the heart is cauterised, blocked. The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau understood the modern world that was emerging around him in the 1750s:

'We no longer dare seem what we really are, but lie under a perpetual restraint... 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...' (J.J. Rousseau, 'Discourses Sur Les Arts Et Sciences,' 1750)

We witness the fully-formed result on our tin can commuter trains and buses, packed with uniform-suits, thumbs twitching manically across touch-screens. To be sure, some have been 'liberated' from the need to wear a choking neck tie, some from the need to be strangled by fixed office hours. But pitiful indeed are the hippy affectations of the Googles and Apples. Google employee 107's job title read 'Jolly Good Fellow'; his task: 'working on solving unhappiness'. Behind the giggles, the iron rule of profit is as unbending as ever.

When we submit ourselves to corporate fundamentalism – to the imperative that profit matters most – we are living from the cold, hard, superficial, loveless, bloodless, dream-like, goal-oriented, thinking mind. When our life is forcibly disconnected from authentic feelings and behaviour – from our love, joy, passion, compassion, generosity and sincere self-expression – they dry up. Our interest, happiness and sense of actually being alive all start to wither.

We can conduct a litmus test for the condition of being head-trapped, disconnected from feeling. We can present words like 'love', 'compassion' and 'kindness' to our minds: head-trapped humans will cringe, blanche and writhe at the mere mention of such words, just as they did in large numbers in response to my tweeted talk of 'bliss'. As Somerset Maugham wrote:

'Sentimentality is only sentiment that rubs you up the wrong way.' (Maugham, 'A Writer's Notebook', Penguin, 1993, p.291)

The sight of the word 'love' sends a signal from the head to the heart; but the link is broken, nothing gets through. Memories are stirred from childhood when love for our parents, for the girl or boy of our dreams, for a beloved pet, for our friends was real, vibrant – when it was simply everything to us. For the head-trapped corporate human this is a painful memory – it reminds of how much feeling, how much idealism, has been lost. Hence the anger, the rage. My critics weren't raging at my tweet because they disagreed with the idealism, but because it tortured them with what they perceive to be a painfully impossible dream.

2) In my work life, I also quickly became aware that a global society dominated by the corporate profit motive must inevitably be incompatible with human survival on a finite planet.

I experienced every day the fanatical, short-term nature of corporate concern. If profit-orientation shapes our every gesture, smile and interaction at work, then it of course shapes every aspect of our relationship with the world around us. If I have to crush my own personality to fit the bottom line, what chance Third World societies living on 'our' oil? What chance an animal that could be an obstacle, or exploited, in some way? What chance future generations dependent on a stable climate? None of them can be allowed to matter – there is literally no space for that concern on the bottom line. Caring is as illogical as gazing out of the window when you could be making another tele-sales call.

This is so deeply ingrained that even the astonishing heatwaves last summer right across the globe triggered almost no political or media alarm. While the morgues of Montreal overflowed, 22,000 people in Japan were hospitalised as a result of the heat, 4.5 million farm animals in South Korea died from heatstroke (offering a very clear glimpse of how food supplies may one day collapse), thousands of fish close to death were moved from Swiss lakes that were too warm, and so on. Since writing this, dozens of people have been burned to death, with hundreds still missing, in California's unprecedented forest fires. The Media Matters website found that just 3.7 per cent of US TV segments aired by ABC, CBS and NBC mentioned the link between climate change and the wildfires, thus simply ignoring the view of leading climate scientists.

Despite everything we are seeing, corporate humanity remains glued to the bottom line, our eyes blind, our hearts cauterised. From the corporate perspective, actively caring about the consequences for the victims is immoral (indeed illegal), if it costs the company.

It seemed completely obvious to me in the 1980s that, if not obstructed, this worldview would quickly and inevitably send us over the cliff of environmental limits. This is much clearer now, of course, and I have to admit that I did not know that climate change might actually kill me – I assumed these changes happened over hundreds of years.

To summarise very briefly (see my book 'Free to be Human', Green Books, 1995, for more discussion), Campbell's advice made sense of both points above in a way that allowed me to make a big change in my life. I interpreted him as saying, in effect:

When you build your life around a profit motive, you are rooting your life in dead capital, in head-trapped obsession with efficiency and profit. In an individual, the result is experienced as a sense of deadness, alienation, boredom. Globally, the result manifests as a shadow of death spreading across the world: dying rainforests, blazing wildfires, dead seabirds stuffed with plastic, extinct species, chickens and pigs crammed and tortured, Baghdad blitzed and burning, and the destruction of a climate capable of supporting human life (In recent months, we have seen the same US air force, whose bombing started innumerable fires in Iraq and Libya, bombing Californian fires with water to extinguish them. The root cause of both actions – a rampant oil industry with its pathological, bottom-line logic prioritising profit over people and planet).

Campbell helped me realise that I was not facing any kind of personal-global conflict: abandoning my corporate career did not mean doing the 'right' thing ethically at my own expense personally. I would not be swapping my suit for a hair shirt. By stepping off the career ladder, I was doing the right thing for myself and everyone else. As Campbell wrote:

'Find where it [your bliss] 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... 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.' (Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, 'The Power of Myth', Doubleday, 1988, p.149)

That was the answer: I had to empty the tedious, deadening money motivation from my heart and mind, and replace it with something alive, something rooted in feeling, not goal-orientation. In my case, that was writing and reading about what makes me happy and unhappy, about what makes others happy and unhappy, about finding solutions to the human condition. This was my great interest, my great passion and delight. I would make my love of these things the centre of my life.


Find, Not Follow

And this brings me to my problem with the advice to 'follow your bliss'. Campbell's exhortation encouraged people to focus on becoming skilled at doing – we have to 'follow' our talent in writing, painting, music, dance. He warned, for example, that we must be prepared to labour for ten years before receiving any recognition at all. But in fact, following your bliss is about being rather than doing. And as Krishnamurti said, it has nothing at all to do with recognition, 'achievement', which should not be any kind of concern, and which may in fact make it harder to remain sincere.

People have claimed to be following their bliss by giving up their corporate jobs and devoting themselves to hedonism, or political activism, or war reporting, or running marathons. People may even be 'trying to save the world'. But that, too, is goal-orientation. That, too, is living from the painfully ambitious, egotistical, frustrated head rather than the juicy, delighted heart. Not, of course, that it is wrong to write out of compassion. In fact, focusing on doing what we love for the love of doing it facilitates the flow of compassion.

The problem is that these exertions may well give the ego short-lived pleasure – attention, fame, applause - that feels like a kind of 'bliss'. We can know that this is mere ego pleasure, because it burns rather than cools us; leaves us feeling dissatisfied, frustrated, wanting more. The problem is that Campbell's formulation lends itself to this ambitious extroversion. It suggests that we can follow our bliss 'out there', whereas the enlightened mystics have all offered the same advice: turn within.

The key, actually, is to find, not follow, your bliss. This is called the 'pathless path' because it is 'travelled' the instant we realise the futility of all paths. The suggestion is that being - simple awareness of the present moment - is inherently blissful. So why are we haunted by misery and dissatisfaction? Because we are never awake to the present moment. Why? Because we are never 'here', never 'now', but always lost in our heads, in dreams of bliss in some future moment, or in memories of the past. Thought is hot air, dreams of bliss are not bliss. The enlightened masters invite us to consider that we are constantly haunted by a sense of dissatisfaction and failure because we are trying to achieve something we already have and are. If we already are where we need to be, every step we take in search of happiness will take us further away from the very goal we are seeking.

All goal-orientation is an attempt to look for bliss in a future where bliss does not exist because the future does not exist except as a thought in the mind. Meditation involves dropping all such attempts. Instead, we look at where we are for the first time and are astonished by what we find. Notice, then, that meditation is not just another 'bourgeois' hobby that we append to our busy lives, like wine-tasting and yoga. Meditation is one of only two choices: it is the alternative to failing to find happiness in a million ways outside ourselves. It is absolutely fundamental. It is the other answer to the suffering of the human condition.

And it involves a surprisingly straight forward reorientation. We can simply focus on our breath, the tingling in our fingers, the emotions in our chest, and find bliss. But it means taking a break from the long obsession with finding solutions and hope in the future. It means we are directing attention away from the agonising fantasy world of our minds to the present reality of our bodies and the physical world around us. These are experienced as delightful.

'Following your bliss' means finding that inner delight and allowing it to overflow in your life. It might overflow as a friendly smile to a stranger on the street, but we are not 'following our bliss' by smiling. We are not, god help us, trying to increase the warmth and quantity of our smiling to 'make the world a better place'. It is precisely this head-trapped goal-orientation that has made the world a worse place.

The effort is not to reject goals through will-power but to perceive the futility of goals by developing an acuity of awareness, so that we can feel how goal-orientation delivers us to our cold, loveless, desolate heads; so that we can feel how resting in the moment observing our physical sensations and emotions - our sadness, anxiety, jealousy, lust and anger – unveils the delight of being.

We then might, or might not, want to express and share that delight in a poem, a play, a song, a dance, a political or philosophical article, a moment of chit-chat, making someone a cup of tea. But none of this is essential. We don't 'follow our bliss' through writing, as I once thought. We find our bliss and may express it in some way through writing. It is the being that matters, not the doing. Eventually, we may drop any specific doing altogether.

After all, the enlightened mystic Lazy An was famous for doing nothing at all. Buddhist monks beg, but Lazy An could did not be bothered with all that. He just sat silently blissful, enjoying the sunbeams, the breeze, the birdsong. It is said that his joy and peacefulness were so luminous, so enchanting, that he was beloved by everyone - people brought him food, blankets and protected him. When it rained, Lazy An just got wet, so he was carried to a place of shelter. An never troubled to ask where he was being taken. He was filled with bliss, and his presence filled everyone around him with the same delight. But can we say he was 'following his bliss'? Hardly.

Most of the people who have truly 'followed their bliss' have not danced at the Bolshoi, or dazzled Bill Moyers with their mythological expertise. They have found it in their hearts as they watch the rise and fall of their dog's chest as she sleeps on her bed. They have found it in the sound of someone turning the pages of a book, or in the light that reflects from a child's eyes. Lao Tzu found it while watching a dead leaf falling from a tree – the leaf was doing, Lao Tzu was being. In fact, the leaf was also not doing...


David Edwards is co-editor of

]]> (Editor) Cogitations Fri, 30 Nov 2018 10:13:15 +0000
To Do Or To Be? - The Sixth Filter


Part 1 – Turning Outside

Some 250,000 miles later, having spent 20 minutes waiting for the other guy to get down the ladder, Buzz Aldrin became the second person to walk on the moon, July 21, 1969.

Back on Earth, 600 million people looked up in wonder: how must it feel to be the first humans to set foot on another world? Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were viewed as the ultimate pioneers at the cutting edge of human experience; if anyone was really alive, 'doing it', they were. So how did it feel to be up there living life to the max? Aldrin recalled of his return to Earth:

'I said to Neil, "We missed the whole thing." We didn't share the moment of exhilaration here on Earth. We were sort of out of town doing something else.'

This recalls Lama Zopa Rinpoche's comment:

'There is always something missing. If you examine your mind in everyday life, you can see that something is missing all the time... You are never really happy.' (Lama Zopa Rinpoche, 'Transforming Problems', Wisdom Books, 1993, pp.30-31)

Aldrin described the moon as a scene of 'magnificent desolation' but, tellingly, observed that the words also 'seemed to describe my own inner turmoil'. (p.89) The cause?

'What's left? I wondered. What's a person do when his or her greatest dreams and challenges have been achieved? I reached over to the small table next to the chaise and reached for my drink, Scotch poured generously over ice cubes.' (p.86)

Thus, not only did Aldrin feel he had missed out on the peak experience of his life while he was having it, the experience left him without anything to hope or aim for. Worse followed:

'Guilt and despair began to envelop me... How could I have gone almost overnight from being on top of the world to feeling useless, worthless and washed up?... There was no goal, no sense of calling, no project worth pouring myself into... Life seemed to have lost its lustre. On some days I couldn't even find a reason to get out of bed. So I didn't. Something was wrong; something within me was beginning to crack. I only hoped I could figure it out before I broke down completely.' (pp.114-115)

This reminds of the famous encounter between emperor Alexander the Great and the mystic Diogenes. Travelling with his vast army to India to complete his global conquest, Alexander was advised that he would be passing a great sage who lived naked in a barrel by a river without so much as a bowl for his food. It was a spectacle that really ought not to be missed.

We can imagine the great emperor strolling with his amused, sceptical entourage down to the river. But in fact Alexander was taken aback by the grace, beauty and dignity of this curious individual who, on hearing the announcement 'Alexander the Great is coming!' laughed: 'Anyone who declares that he is great, cannot be.'

In this extraordinary meeting, Diogenes asked:

'Are you satisfied with conquering so many lands?'

Alexander replied: 'No, unless I conquer the whole world I will not be satisfied.'

Diogenes laughed again:

'Remember my words. Even if you conquer the whole world, your mind will ask for more, and there is no other world to conquer. Remember... you have conquered the world that is, and there is no other world to conquer - and mind is asking for more. You will be in such a frustration that you cannot conceive of it right now.'

Alexander shrugged off the comment and continued on his way. But, in fact, he had been shaken to the core by the meeting – he remembered Diogenes. At the time of his death, Alexander instructed that his hands be left hanging out of the funeral casket to show that he had left the world empty-handed, frustrated, exactly as Diogenes had predicted. Like Aldrin, 'conqueror' of the moon, Alexander had found only emptiness in ultimate 'success' - there was 'always something missing'.

Aldrin wrote:

'I always enjoyed challenging people to think beyond the stars, to reach for their own "moon" or "outer space", whatever that might imply for them. Yet for me personally, by the autumn of 1970, there was a growing frustration and anxiousness at the center of my being that I could not resolve.' (p.116)

He added ominously:

'A volcano was seething within me, below the surface of my life, the pressure building more each passing week. The only relief I found was in another shot of Scotch – and then another.' (p.118)

Ultimately, Aldrin's family broke up, he married again, divorced again, and continued to hit the bottle. In 1972, he was hospitalised for four weeks for treatment and therapy for depression. Tragicomically, just eight years after the tickertape parades, the great moonwalker could be found working at a Cadillac dealership in Beverly Hills, where he failed to sell a single car. His comment:

'You get a job as a car salesman and you're a horrible car salesman. What does that do to a person's ego?'

Aldrin quoted Carl Jung:

'Space flights are merely an escape, a fleeing away from oneself, because it is easier to go to Mars or the moon than it is to penetrate one's own being.' (pp.172-173)


'Hi, Want To Have Sex With Me?'

Showbiz celebrities naturally tend to be self-censoring. After all, their main function for advertisers is to associate brands with status and 'success'. If not exactly happy or fulfilled, 'stars' must market themselves as living the 'high life'. Corporations have no interest in signalling to consumers: 'You, too, can be successful, adored, and consumed by nihilistic despair.'

It is to his considerable credit, then, that 1970s pop idol, David Cassidy, wrote with such candour and courage in his autobiography, 'Could It Be Forever'.

As a child, I watched Cassidy rise to fame on Top of the Pops, and in numerous teen magazines, adored by crowds of young girls, my big sister among them. He surely must have found happiness at this time. After all, as he wrote:

'I never had to hit on women. I didn't have to. Women would come up to me all the time and say things like, "Hi, want to have sex with me?"... Sex was just sex. It was there. It presented itself to me numerous times during the course of the day, and I could take advantage of it or not. Pick anyone. Who would you like to meet? Who would you like to sleep with? I was 21 years old, I was always ready, and they were all so willing. Yeah, I can live with this... The most beautiful women in the world were calling me, saying, "I've got to see you. Please let me see you." And they would come up to my room.' (David Cassidy, 'Could It Be Forever – My Story,' Headline Publishing, e-book, 2007, pp.1899-1926)

One of Cassidy's friends commented:

'It used to astonish me the power of fame and celebrity, and what women would subject themselves to. They might be in a committed relationship, they might be married, and they would throw themselves at him. For a one-nighter they were going to just throw their morals right out of the window. The number of women used to astonish me.' (pp.1988-2001)

A number indicated by the fact that Cassidy received between 20,000 to 30,000 fan letters a week. He commented:

'Once the show went on the air, it became hard for me even to get into the studio in the morning. In the fall of 1970, there'd routinely be 40 or 50 fans crowding the entrance. Some of the more aggressive girls would bare their breasts, some would follow me while I drove home after working all day. There were girls who'd spend days and nights outside the studio, some even sleeping there.' (p.1237)

But alas:

'I was particularly bothered by my inability to form lasting friendships with women.' (p.2028)


'With all the publicity exposure, it became impossible for me to go in a store or even walk down a street without being stopped by people. At first I enjoyed the sheer novelty of having fans. Quickly I began to sense problems ahead.' (p.1249)

Six months into broadcasting 'The Partridge Family', the TV sitcom that made him famous, Cassidy contacted the publisher and owner of several teen magazines focused on him and the show:

'I went into the office and said, "I can't live like this any more. I want you to take me out of your magazines. Take me off your covers." And he looked at me and laughed, in a kind sort of way.' (p.1262)

There were other problems:

'My friends were brutal about me being in the teen magazines. They laughed at me and tortured me beyond belief. To them, I was a joke.' (p.1278)

The envy extended even to his immediate family:

'My parents wanted success for themselves so desperately that they couldn't be happy for me... my fame became torture for my mother as well as my father.' (p.2704)

What seemed heavenly quickly became hellish:

'There were times, during my tours, when I was afraid for my life, because I saw fans turn into a mob, and a mob can't easily be controlled... they didn't want to kill me – but their emotions were at fever pitch. And they all wanted a piece of me.' (p.1443)

Before the end of the first season of the TV show, things started to go seriously wrong: 'my body began breaking down from overwork... I had serious problems with my gall bladder. At just 21 years old, I was one of the youngest patients the doctors said they'd ever seen with that problem'. (p.1802)

As for life as a pop star:

'No matter how pleasurable it might be for that one hour of the day when you were performing on stage, the other 23 hours of the day were impossible to cope with. They were hell.' (p.1880)

Poignantly, Cassidy recounted the time he met Elvis Presley:

'There was a sadness about Elvis that I recognised in myself. He too surrounded himself with friends. I knew all about the hysteria and madness he had gone through. So we had a unique sort of connection...

'Meeting Elvis that time was like seeing myself ten or fifteen years from then, sad and lonely. I couldn't get it out of my head.' (p.2213)

Once again, something was missing:

'Even though there were millions of people who loved me and worshipped me and wanted me, I needed something more.' (p.2354)

Like Aldrin wishing he could have watched the moon landings from Earth, the 'more' that Cassidy wanted was actually less:

'I began to envy my old high-school classmates who'd gone on to college. I even envied people with "normal" jobs. Either of these paths seemed preferable to the one I'd taken. I started longing to have any other career but my own. It may sound absurd now, but it's true. There I was, rich and famous, a star, wishing at times I could be some thoroughly ordinary, anonymous guy instead. I'd dream about what it would be like to work at a real man's job.' (p.2367)

The pop industry quickly spawned a new star, Donny Osmond, and Cassidy was cast out. Between 1970 and 1974, he had made about $8 million. By 1980, his net worth was less than $100,000. When he fled his failed marriage, he had less than $1000:

'My only possessions were the things I could carry out of the house. I didn't have a car. I didn't have a job. And I didn't have anywhere to live.' (p.4058)

The suffering did not end there:

'When I retired, I suffered a breakdown. Or several successive breakdowns, it felt like, because each time I thought I'd fallen as low as I could go, the bottom would drop out from under me again.

'For the first six months I locked myself in a room. I sat alone talking to myself, trying to figure out what had happened.' (p.3419)

Insomnia, alcohol abuse and other problems became chronic. Tragically, in 2017, Cassidy announced that he was suffering from dementia. Later that year, he was hospitalised for liver and kidney failure, from which he eventually died aged 67.


Intermission – Cultural Filtering

Our critique of corporate media at Media Lens begins in politics but it does not end in politics. It begins there because it is easy to understand that a profit-oriented media system dependent on advertising will not tell the truth about those advertisers. More generally, it is obvious that a corporate media system will not tell the truth about a world dominated by giant corporations. It will not tell the truth about corporate domination of party politics, about the corporate interests driving foreign policy's endless resource wars ('humanitarian interventions'), about an economic system designed to subordinate people and planet to profit.

These are crucial examples of cultural filtering that help us understand why corporate-owned politics finds billions to spend on white elephant military 'solutions' to non-existent threats, while doing essentially nothing to respond to the imminent, existential threat of climate change. The simple logic: arms industry responses benefit big business whereas climate change action threatens big business. It explains why our culture has long been swamped in climate scepticism, climate cynicism, climate mockery. The power of the campaign has been such that the world appears to be on course to end with neither a bang nor even a whimper.

But there is much more that, in my opinion, is even more interesting. Cultural filtering explains why our society believes so passionately, with such fervour, in the merits of material consumption. It explains why we are so utterly convinced that happiness is best sought in high status production as employees of exalted, brand-name corporations run like mediaeval fiefdoms granting financial, health and ego protection to their private citizens.

But there is more even than this. Cultural filtering explains why, just as criticism of a newspaper's adverts is of course nowhere to be seen in that newspaper, a discussion of whether happiness can be attained by turning attention inside rather than outside is not a concern, not even an issue for 'mainstream' society.

This really is remarkable because, for millennia, right across the globe, spiritual teachers like Buddha, Bodhidharma, Jesus, Lao Tse, Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, Patanjali, Nanak, Kabir, Ikkyu, Hakuin, Heraclitus, Saraha, Mansoor, Mahavir, Maharshi, Meera, Krishna, Lazy An, Gurdjieff, Osho and Tolle have come to the same conclusion - that beneath the physical body with its various pleasures and pains can be found what Buddhists call a 'bliss body' (Saṃbhogakāya).


Part 2 – Turning Inside

You will probably have noticed the harmonics that reverberate behind the harsh clanging of church and cathedral bells. It is a continuous, harmonious humming that swells and falls. It reminds strongly of the blissful feelings that arise like a subtle melody in meditation, with the difference that the latter are uncaused.

Kabir said of this phenomenon:

'I hear bells ringing that no one has shaken.'

This is the sound of 'one hand clapping', of 'music' not caused by the stroking or striking of a string, or any other action. Kabir said:

'Some bells are ringing, and nobody is ringing them. Some music, some melody, is there, but I can't see anybody creating it.'

This seems absurd: a claim that intense delight can be experienced without our doing anything at all, as described by Basho:

'Sitting quietly, doing nothing,
'Spring comes, and the grass grows, by itself.'

Spring comes, happiness arises, the wintry nightmare of the human condition melts away, by sitting quietly, doing nothing. This really does seem preposterous, and yet this 'music' of meditation is real (its clear footprints detected even by scientists at the University of Wisconsin), radiating not just bliss, but also peace and loving kindness. It arises, for example, when we sit quietly watching feelings of sadness, or fear, or jealousy, or anger. It is found when we learn to direct attention away from obsessive thinking to sensations and feelings; when we retain some attention in feeling even when thinking, talking and writing. As Osho explained, perseverance is required because the mind has awesome momentum:

'You will have to dig like one digs a well. Layers and layers of mud... and for days together you don't see any sign of water. Many times you become tired, exhausted, desperate...

'Many times you are so frustrated you stop digging, you say: "It seems futile, useless. It seems there is no water here!" Many times in your spiritual journey this will come, but if you go on digging, one day the first signs of water will show. The mud is no more dry, it is wet - that wetness is called love. When in your inner being you go on digging and the mud becomes wet, that wetness is love. Love starts flowing. It is muddy in the beginning, it is full of many other things. But one goes on digging... the mud becomes less and less, and more water will be flowing. One goes on digging... then the mud disappears and fresh water will be flowing. One goes on digging... and one has come to the source, the springs. Now you can take as much water as you want and your well will never be empty. You can go on sharing, and the more you share the more you will be getting.' (Osho, 'I Say Unto You, Volume Two', 1977, pdf)      

The fact that this 'music', this love, is uncaused is significant: there is nothing we have to do to make it ring out. Rather, there is much that we have to stop doing that we might 'hear' it. When we stop, we find it is always there, has always been there. It is the benevolent 'sound' of being.

This uncaused 'music' is enchanting, astonishing, but also subtle. We have to be paying attention to hear it. We have to turn inwards to 'listen', and of course we have to be present to catch the 'sounds' arising in the here and now. We fail to hear it because we are never here and now, we are always looking outwards and forwards. Our heads are thrust into the future, in dreams of how we are going to become an astronaut, a world conqueror, a pop star.

When we're racing along a motorway to some meeting, when we're rushing to catch a plane, do we notice even the music of birdsong beyond the hard shoulder? Our attention is consumed completely by the traffic roar on the road and in our goal-seeking heads. Above all in our heads. If the bliss of being is comparable to the background harmonic behind the ringing of tiny bells, the thinking mind is a roaring jet engine at take-off thrust. If the bliss of being is a radiant golden sun, the thinking mind is an impenetrable cloud of inky-black smog.

It takes immense energy to keep creating this cloud obscuring our inner ecstasy, but we perceive no alternative. We somehow convince ourselves that, while we have never succeeded before, our thinking mind will deliver us to some future peace and happiness through external 'success'. Osho said:

'Mind is taking almost eighty per cent of your energy, giving you back nothing, returning nothing – it just goes on absorbing eighty per cent of your energy. It is like a desert. The river goes on flowing and the desert goes on absorbing it, and nothing comes back. And the desert does not even become green, does not even grow grass, does not even grow trees, does not even become a small pool of water – nothing! It remains dry and dead, and it goes on soaking up the life energy.

'Mind is a great exploiter. That is where, in the desert of the mind, in the waste land of the mind, you are lost.'

Aldrin was lost in space, but he was really lost in mind. Cassidy was lost in the celebrity firmament, but he was really lost in mind.

Delight awaits anyone able to detect the subtle 'music' arising beyond the mind. Most often, we manage it only when we become so thoroughly disillusioned with the great campaign to seek happiness 'out there', when our efforts have ended in such misery, disappointment and failure, that our minds (literally out of ideas) at last fall silent enough for us to become aware of this phenomenon. Sitting defeated in the wreckage of our lives, doing nothing (because there seems to be no point in doing anything, because everything fails), we feel a delicate sensation of bliss bubbling up like a tiny spring in our hearts. We are sitting quietly, doing nothing, with no reason to feel anything more than the usual anxiety, sadness, guilt, futility and despair; and yet we find we are experiencing a delight beyond anything we felt when we were stumbling around the moon to no purpose, when we were receiving one more backstage blow-job.

This is why Patanjali began his great teaching: 'Now the discipline of yoga.' Now, finally, after everything else has been tried and has failed outside, now is the time – we can at last experiment with turning inside. In his 'Song of meditation', Hakuin lauded the benefits of studying Zen scriptures, but added:

'How much more he who turns within
'And confirms directly his own nature.'

When we turn in, focus attention on our emotions (rather than trying to escape them), watch the movement of our thoughts, 'the heaven of boundless samadhi', the 'lotus paradise', the uncaused 'melody', begins to reveal itself. After decades spent as a human doing – busy, mischievous, wretched – we become a human being. Because it is only when we are simply being, when we stop doing, that we can detect the subtle fragrance, music, vapours of internal bliss. Not that we somehow abandon all doing. Rather, we become acutely sensitive to the deep suffering of goal-oriented behaviour seeking external sources of happiness.

Is it possible that the initial, tiny babbling brook of bliss can become a torrent, even oceanic? Are the mystic masters of human culture correct? Is it true that the more we turn away from this source of inner bliss in our hearts, the more we fall into despair? Is it true that the louder the roar of the head's ambition in pursuing the moon, stardom, fame, name – and even, 'a better world' - the further we move away from this source of inner happiness; so that, floating high, egos inflated with hot air, our lives becomes a hell? 


Conclusion – Structural Extroversion

In their 'propaganda model of media control', Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky identified five key factors filtering corporate media output: elite ownership bent on profit-maximisation, dependence on advertising, state-corporate subsidised news sources, political and legal flak, and the hyping of foreign 'threats'.

These structural, carrot-and-stick pressures combine to ensure that 'mainstream' media 'serve the ends of a dominant elite'. In my view, we can add a sixth filter: extroversion.

Corporate media owners, managers and journalists are required to promote the virtue of 'obtaining gratification from what is outside the self'. Individually, they have all, of course, devoted themselves to climbing academic and corporate career ladders in pursuit of conventional, extrinsic 'success'. Do they despise the idea that a deep solution to the human condition might be found within? If they gave it any thought, they probably would.

But the deeper point is that, regardless of their personal inclinations, corporate media executives are employed by a fanatically extroverted corporate system; a profit-maximising machine that quite obviously must have consumers focused outside themselves, must have them seeking extrinsic pleasures in buying, consuming, travelling, doing.

As Chomsky said so well, this system excludes anything and everything that threatens short-term profits:

'The basic principle, rarely violated, is that what conflicts with the requirements of power and privilege does not exist.' (Chomsky, 'Deterring Democracy', Vintage, 1992, p.79)

This is true even of the reality of the current environmental crisis threatening human survival. What chance, then, the great mystics delivering an identical message from every part of the globe?

They cannot exist for our corporate culture, except as dusty relics, perhaps as quaint tradition, but mostly as incomprehensible, pre-scientific 'navel-gazers' unworthy of attention.


David Edwards is co-editor of Media Lens. See here for details of our new book, 'Propaganda Blitz – How the Corporate Media Distort Reality', and our recent appeal for support.


]]> (Editor) Cogitations Thu, 27 Sep 2018 07:04:41 +0000
The Universe Remains Unhurt


And then there was light.

But there must already have been space.

God would be hard-pressed to reach the light switch without space.

The light switch would be hard-pressed to exist.

In reality, only two possible impossibilities are conceivable among the many known unknowns:

- the universe flashed into existence from nothing, without a cause – impossible
- the universe has always existed, eternally, without a beginning – impossible.

The fact that both seem to be 'nonsense' suggests that our 'common sense' view must itself be nonsense.


The Problem Of Arriving

Apparent conflict between reason and reality is all around us. Consider Zeno's 'Dichotomy', which concerns the difficulty of walking to the end of a path:

'...before Homer could reach the end of the path, he must reach half of the distance to it'.

Seems reasonable enough: he first has to travel half the total distance. And then:

'Before reaching the last half, he must complete the next quarter of the distance.'

So he has to travel half the remaining distance again. And:

'Reaching the next quarter, he must then cover the next eighth of the distance, then the next sixteenth, and so on. There are thus an infinite number of steps that must first be accomplished before he could reach the end of the path.'

By this logic, it seems impossible for anyone to actually arrive. Indeed, it seems impossible for any two objects to actually meet – drop a stone and it can never reach the ground. How are we to make sense of this?

The Indian mystic, Osho, appeared to resolve the paradox when he noted that the earth and the sky, for example, can indeed never meet 'because they are not two, they can't meet because they are one. The earth is just a materialization of the space of the sky; it is a wave in the ocean of the sky. How can they meet? For meeting, at least two are needed. And they are not two'.

The earth and the sky, indeed any two supposedly separate objects are not, in fact, two, so they cannot meet; they can only appear to meet. Does that mean, as generations of hippies have declared, that everything is 'one'?

Absolutely not. To state 'one' instantly implies the existence of 'two' – the 'one' is posited as distinct, separate, identifiably apart from... something, some context: 'two'. 'One' can exist only in relation to 'two'. Not just the word 'one', but language itself fails us. Osho paraphrased Hindu master Shankara:

'At the most, I can say not two, but I cannot say positively one. I can say what the reality is not: it is not two. I cannot say what it is, because meaning, words, all become useless.'

Everything, then, is part of this mysterious 'not two', which can be described only in terms of what it is not.

To describe it as 'one' is to falsely strip away the mystery of a universe that is 'not two', as if it were a straightforward object of the kind we see around us. We think the cosmos, that which is 'not two', is just a very large object or thing - like an apple - hanging in... well what? We cannot say that an apple-like universe is hanging in something, because that something is also the universe.

The mystery is deepened further when we reflect that this phenomenon that is 'not two' exists in something called 'the present', which we imagine as a thin sliver of time sandwiched between the past and the future. But past and future do not exist, they appear only as ideas in the mind. There is change, but it is always this moment, here, now. It has never been 'then' in the past and it will never be 'then' in the future. It is always now. The present moment does not trundle from past to future; it simply is.

To return to our original problem: how can we explain that things nevertheless do appear to meet in this existence that is 'not two'? If two things cannot meet because they are not in fact two, what happens when an asteroid strikes the earth? Do they not meet? We might ask in response:

When we dream that an asteroid strikes the earth, do we witness the meeting of two separate objects?


When we see the moon in a bucket of water, do we witness two separate objects meeting in the water?

Of course, in both cases, there are no separate objects meeting: they are manifestations of the same dream and reflected image.

And this leads us to the assertion made endlessly by mystics through the ages: that this 'everything' that is 'not two', that is endlessly changing but always 'now', is a dreamlike phenomenon: 'a mirage', as Buddha said.

Like a dream, that which is 'not two' is not the concrete reality we normally imagine it to be when we contemplate the universe. And like a dream, it is also not completely unreal. A dream does exist, we cannot say it has no existence. It is, in a sense, real - it does appear to the mind of the dreamer.

Another question comes to mind? Is it possible for a dream to err? Do events happen in a dreamlike phenomenon that 'should not happen', that are 'wrong'?

It seems inconceivable. No twists and turns of dream logic, no matter how 'crazy' – suddenly flying rather than walking upstairs – are 'wrong'. Everything is 'right' in a dream. We cannot declare anything 'wrong' or 'mistaken', or 'inappropriate', or 'not as it should be'. Everything that happens in a dream is perfectly in accordance with the nature of dreaming.

This recalls the moment in the film 'American Beauty' where young Ricky Fitts is watching his video of a plastic bag dancing, swaying and swirling in the wind. Fitts finds some deeper significance, something sublime, in the movement of the bag. As with dreams, we can ask: Is there anything 'wrong' in the way the bag moves in the wind? Does it, could it ever, make a mistake?

It can't, of course: every move is perfect, exactly as it should be. It is not possible for the bag to move in a 'wrong' way.


Is It Human To Err?

And this leads to a curious thought: if the plastic bag dancing in the breeze is necessarily 'right', what about other aspects of this dreamlike, cosmic, 'not two' phenomenon? Is it possible for some aspects to be inevitably 'perfect' and for others to be flawed? If dancing bags cannot err, what about spiralling galaxies? What about planetary systems?

What about human nature and human actions in all their apparently spectacular 'wrongness': are they separate from this cosmic dance? Are we not included in that which is 'not two'? Are we outside the flawless dream that contains the perfectly dancing bag? The idea that we are outside seems absurd. In fact, it sounds like a version of supernatural belief: if everything else, perhaps even animals, are incapable of 'wrong', then 'fallen' man must be somehow outside this natural order, this universe.

Is there any evidence to support the contention that human beings are also part of some universal perfection? Ordinarily, of course, almost the reverse seems to be the case: our minds find fault with just about everything.

The German mystic Eckhart Tolle has noted that the mind will happily comment on a sunset: 'How beautiful!' But that's about it. The mind has little more to say, it has no interest in 'harping on' about the loveliness of a sunset. But when it comes to criticising, finding fault, the mind can continue for hours, days, even years, repeating the same complaint to itself and limitless other people, on and on.

It is the nature of the human mind to chew endlessly and noisily on 'faults'. The mind is a kind of fault-finding device; it is not a credible source for evaluating the merits of the cosmos.

The evidence for a hidden perfection even in human life comes when we step out of this complaining, dreaming mind; when we escape from our mental chatter to the reality that is here and now.

For thousands of years, human beings have discovered, often quite by accident, that when they direct attention away from thinking about the world to actually experiencing the world, something remarkable happens.

They find, for example, that when they focus even on their feelings, or on the humble act of breathing, a curious, subtle delight arises - as if from nowhere, for no reason. Their minds can be erupting with the mother of all irritations, but when they focus away from thought, bliss arises. And this happens whenever we direct attention away from thinking to being. And in fact, all of us are unwittingly drifting in and out of these meditative experiences all the time: when we notice the wind murmuring in the leaves, watch motes of dust rise and fall on escalators of sunlight, hear our dog breathing as she sleeps, feel deeply the sadness in our hearts, or observe someone else's suffering.

When we take a break from our babbling mind to pay careful attention to the movement of a toothbrush whirring around our teeth, or a sponge moving around our body in the shower, we come away unaccountably calmer, happier, more positive. Whenever we remove attention from our fault-finding mind – when we simply become aware of that which is here, now, in the present – delicate, blissful vapours arise in our heart. And with them, a completely unexpected feeling of benevolence and kindliness towards others.

Crucially, at this point, aspects of life ordinarily deemed 'good' continue, of course, to be viewed as good. But aspects of life ordinarily deemed 'bad' may also be perceived as unproblematic, even delightful. Meditators are astonished to find that a normally irritating noise - a passing lorry, or a barking dog - can sound like a heavenly choir.

Not unreasonably, the sceptical mind – the great critic - erupts with a thousand 'real world' scenarios making a 'complete nonsense' of this 'twaddle', this 'bollocks' (or worse). But does it succeed?

We are told that, before his torture and crucifixion, the enlightened Sufi mystic al-Hillaj Mansoor spent nine years in jail, experiencing his confinement as untold bliss. He went to his death laughing. Indeed, even as Mansoor was being dismembered on the gallows, he experienced ecstasy. As his limbs were being cut off, one by one, an astonished onlooker asked:

'Mansoor, why are you laughing? You are being murdered.'

Mansoor replied:

'You cannot murder me. I am the whole.'

Many assumed, of course, that Mansoor was deranged; perhaps the reader agrees. His joyful death seems as impossible as his claim to be 'the whole', as the idea that the universe arose from nothing, as the idea that it has always existed.

But anyone experiencing how painful emotions can transform under observation freed from thought has perhaps felt a tiny particle of Mansoor's bliss, his recognition of a perfection – infinitely vast and deep - beneath superficial judgements of right and wrong.

The bag dances perfectly in the wind: nothing discordant, nothing wrong.

And enlightened awareness, liberated from the fault-finding mind, swoons in perfect harmony with life: everything delightful, loving all.

As Emerson wrote:

'All loss, all pain is particular: the universe remains to the heart unhurt.'


David Edwards is co-editor of

]]> (Editor) Cogitations Wed, 28 Mar 2018 07:13:57 +0000
A Lefty Progressive Goes To The Seaside


Walking past a packed beach on a sweltering summer's day, the lefty progressive is like a fish out of water.

And by the way, he's not staying: he's taking a constitutional after a morning spent reading about genocidal sanctions on Iraq and before an afternoon spent writing about genocidal killings in East Timor.

Among the knotted handkerchiefs, Hawaiian shirts and burrowing thongs, he appears surreally overdressed in his black Doc Martin shoes, black jeans (full-length in the heat) and regulation no-logo T-shirt.

His dark, subdued clothing carries subtle meaning: 'It's not about me.' After all, he describes himself to himself as 'a mere intellectual worker'. There's nothing particularly exalted about intellectual work; it's just one aspect of the project to build a better world. Other people are excellent at organising, campaigning, protesting - he just happens to write.

He's not in the business of drawing attention to himself because he is not the point. The point is that millions of people and animals are suffering, need help, and he is trying to help them. It's about them. On the other hand, the first time he had an article published, he read it about a hundred times.

One of his primary complaints about corporate society is precisely that it exaggerates the importance of the individual at the expense of the collective. We are all trained for self-promotion - 'me, me, me' - regardless of the cost to others. As Noam Chomsky has said of his personal experiences:

'I am not writing about myself, and these matters don't seem particularly pertinent to the topics I am addressing.' (Quoted Milan Rai, 'Chomsky's Politics', Verso, 1995, pp.6-7)

It's not about 'me', and it's not about high-profile 'intellectuals' (whatever special quality that term is supposed to imply).

Our progressive's self-effacing attire, of course, has its counterpart in the corporate world. The black shoes and grey or black business suit signal that the individual personality, with all its multi-faceted fire and fun, has been subordinated to the no-nonsense needs of the bottom line. The de facto corporate uniform reassures customers and colleagues: the job comes first.

For the lefty progressive walking past (not on) the beach, 'It's not about me', and it's not about the moment; it's about investing time and energy in the cause of a more just and compassionate future. Downtime is allowed, of course, but fun is a four-letter word. With Baghdad burning, Libya in ruins, the climate collapsing, it's hardly appropriate to be focused on fun. Relaxation to recharge, to redouble effort, sure - but fun?

Again, curiously, this has its counterpart in the ostensibly antithetical corporate worldview. The idea that an employee might prioritise his or her personal needs over the demands of maximised profit in minimum time would of course be viscerally annoying, if it were thinkable. Someone caught chatting with friends, snoozing, gazing out of a window rather than working will be warned once, twice... maybe.

For both the lefty progressive and the corporate employee the present moment is a means to an end, a resource to be mined, exploited, invested in the future. What matters is tomorrow: it will be better, more equitable and more profitable, respectively.

And so the progressive views the beach scene with a mixture of bewilderment and frustration: Do these people have no idea what's going on? Do they care? They seem content to wallow in the heat to no purpose, paddling pointlessly with rolled-up trouser legs; wasting hours, days, weeks that could be productively spent bettering the world. If even one per cent of these folk could be mobilised, activated to work for progressive change - then the world might indeed change. He drops a sidewise glance down his nose at a middle-aged child, a kidult, slurping on an ice cream cone. Elsewhere, grown men and women are literally building castles in the sand, digging holes for no reason, filling them in - achieving nothing, zilch, nada.

As he moves among, but far-distant from, the revellers, our progressive resembles silver-clad Klaatu in the 1951 film, 'The Day The Earth Stood Still', striding down the slope of his spaceship towards the primitive beings surrounding him with tanks and guns. They neither know nor care that he comes on a mission of peace. On some level, he feels the presence of his own intellectual version of Klaatu's giant robot, Gort, at his shoulder: Marx, Proudhon, Gramsci, or indeed Chomsky.

For all his probable atheism, he perceives a purposeful existence. He believes the meaning of a dignified life is found in making the world a better place. And he may well believe that the universe is slowly evolving towards greater intelligence, compassion and justice.

The exotic idea, apparently supported by the kidults around him, that the point of life is simply to enjoy the moment, seems pitiful, even alarming to him. If they were right, what would it mean for the entire basis and meaning of his existence? But anyway, how could anyone hope to argue that there is no meaning, no reason, in working for a better world? Would such a life not be unbearably boring? What would be the point of it? Would we not become lost in mindless hedonism? If you want a vision of the future: imagine an ice cream cone thrusting into a human face – forever.

This seems to offer an irresponsible, even horribly cruel version of life, where no one strives, no one cares, and everyone indulges as the world sinks into madness. He is the sworn enemy of this view.

On the other hand, as he strolls along, he finds himself casting a guilty look behind him at an attractive young woman sizzling in the sand. He knows that despite everything he's been thinking – despite everything Gort has told him, over decades – the world would look very different lying by her side, gazing at the sunlight reflecting from her hair and face.


Warm Toes Moments

Moment 1

It's a chilly winter's evening in a small town in the south of Sweden and I'm teaching English to a collection of elderly students for the Folk University. My students aren't studying for an exam, there's no danger of them stretching my far from pluperfect grammatical knowledge.

Unusually for one of my classes, there is really no concern at all with ends beyond vague hopes of oiling possible excursions to much-loved 'Lon-don'. These are people in their 50s, 60s and 70s: they're there to chat and make friends. Thursday after Thursday they turn up, my lesson plan falls away, the text books remain on the same page, and we have a fine old time.

Tonight, I sit back and watch them chatting and laughing, occasionally interjecting, correcting. I notice, suddenly, that my toes are warm: the class is so relaxing, so friendly. I feel a kind of benevolent bliss. But why? What is it?

It seems to me as I'm sitting there that the blissfulness lies precisely in the meaninglessness of the class: it doesn't matter, it is of no importance whatever beyond the enjoyment of the lesson itself. From one perspective, we are all simply wasting our time – I'm being paid to let them have fun. There's no stress, no pressure, nothing really to be achieved. There is almost no focus on results at all, just on the fun of the class in the moment.

At the time, I have no idea how this might fit into my fast-evolving and subtly ambitious philosophy of life. Two years earlier, I abandoned a business career, but not to sit around in meaningless English lessons. My motivation is to challenge a fanatical business system which I know, having experienced its blinkered logic first-hand, is sending the world racing over an environmental cliff. I have been reading intensely and am writing endless articles and stories.

So this curious warm toes moment is nice, interesting, perhaps a pointer to some hidden aspect of human happiness. But I don't take much note of it, or take it seriously, because environmentalists like me are fighting tooth and nail to 'save the planet', and I have a strong sense that we are running out of time. What does that have to do with warm toes and nattering Swedes?

For goodness sake, even Buddhists talk of arduous struggle, of the need to amass as many meritorious thoughts and actions as possible to create a compassionate impetus that will free us from self-cherishing karma on the path to enlightenment. There's no time to lose, they say – this precious human rebirth is rarely achieved, of tiny duration, and of such fragility that it can end at any moment, perhaps before the next breath.

How ironic: capitalists, greens, progressives and even (some) Buddhists agree that the present is just a resource, a means to an end: it is the end that matters. If that leaves you with cold toes - really, really cold toes - that's just how it is.


Moment 2

I'm in Sweden again, 25 years later; this time, mid-afternoon in a small village outside Stockholm. It's February and the snow is piled high outside. But it's warm inside and I'm sitting on a sofa watching my cousin's five-year-old playing with a vast array of Lego on the wooden lounge floor. The little boy's mother lost a two-year long battle with breast and then brain cancer one month ago, and everybody is grief-stricken. I've come for the funeral.

As I watch him now, playing contentedly - cocooned, shielded by the innocence of youth - it's as much as I can do to control my emotions. He believes his mum is visiting the International Space Station. He knows she's not here, but that's all he really understands of what he's been told.

Outside, the winter sun is disappearing with typical Swedish haste and there's a pink-blue glow in the sky, in the air and on the snow. I watch the little boy playing with his Lego and, from within the sadness, I feel delight at every wonderfully meaningless, unimportant plastic click, every stirring of plastic pieces on the floor, every sigh from his shirt as he moves, and from his mouth as he gently breathes, concentrating, whispering to himself. Despite the situation, the fathomless sadness, I'm feeling what can only be described as bliss: a mixture of peace, love, compassion and happiness.


Moment 3

My partner is sitting on a cushion in front of the cupboard in her lounge. It's one of those cupboards where you chuck everything you can't fit anywhere else but that you can't bear to throw away. No-one has dared to look inside, to sort it out, in years and decades. She is sorting through the pieces of bric-a-brac with great, unhurried care: a small foam dinosaur that refused to expand in water as it was supposed to, a small plastic roulette wheel, a pack of ancient playing cards.

She examines each object with love and respect, no matter how tatty and trivial. Everything is worthy of attention and put in the correct pile for keeping, throwing or giving away. But again, none of it matters – it's not about achieving anything; it's for the fun of seeing what's there. We are both just enjoying the moment, our dog is snoring on the floor - the world seems to stop turning for a while. My toes, needless to say, are once again warm. I feel the relaxation through the stress of the day, the happiness glowing.


Moment 4

I'm sitting on a sofa doing nothing. I'm feeling the rise and fall of my chest, and any emotions I find there: sadness, anxiety, happiness, excitement, anger, boredom, emptiness... whatever it might be. I'm not doing a very consistent job of watching because my attention keeps straying to thoughts of various kinds. I try to notice when I'm thinking and then return to feeling the breath and emotions. After a non-eventful 45 minutes of this, I feel a change - any emotional pain has been replaced by a kind of tickle in my chest. This grows into a pleasurable feeling: someone described it, perfectly, as like 'Having a twinkling smile inside'. Or it feels how you'd imagine a puff of pink laughing gas might feel. The feeling deepens and becomes a patch of delight in my chest. There is nothing mysterious or difficult about this – exactly as I've paid close attention to the outer world, I'm simply now paying attention to my inner world. This is what people call 'meditation'.

Together with the delight is a feeling of benevolence: kindly thoughts arise for the unlikeliest of candidates. If someone pops into my mind who I normally find deeply annoying, I feel warmth towards them, generosity. Buddhists call this 'metta', or 'lovingkindness'.

Unwittingly, this is what was also happening in the first three moments described above. In all cases, benevolent delight arose from sitting quietly, watching what was happening, with no thought of achieving anything. I was just experiencing the moment as it was, enjoying the very fact that it was not important: students chatting, a child playing, sorting through a cupboard. These were not crucial events. And yet, as we are drawn into their meaninglessness, purposelessness, nonsense and nothingness, our egos - with their deep, dark clouds of 'vitally important' memories, plans, complaints and goals - move aside, allowing a kind of inner sun to shine through.

On the face of it, this seems absurd: peace, delight, love, kindness and forgiveness are famously elusive, are they not? We ordinarily imagine we have to fight tooth and nail through political action, corporate profitability, or meditational head-banging to even get a glimpse. How can we experience these things by doing nothing? And yet this is the point Zen master Basho made:

'Sitting quietly, doing nothing,
Spring comes,
and the grass grows, by itself.'

Well-being arises without cause, from nothing. All the mystics, without exception, have made the same point: it is already there! Whenever we stop striving, stop living in the past and future, become non-serious, purposeless, present - we find it.

This offers a curious challenge to our lefty progressive striding determinedly away from the beach, does it not? Because in all his striving for future goals, he has become tense, frazzled, angry, frustrated, even despairing and depressed. He feels profoundly alienated from the world around him, though his whole purpose is to make the world a better place. He himself is not in a better place. He himself is not the change he would like to see.

How ironic: the relaxed individual who is able, simply, to be – to observe and enjoy the play of life for the pure enjoyment of doing so – becomes a fragment, now, of exactly the kind of compassionate, loving, blissful world the hard-working progressive is trying to create in the future.

Could it be, then, that the lefty striving so vigorously to 'make the world a better place' for others unwittingly feeds the disaster inflicted by capitalists striving so vigorously 'to make the world a better place' for themselves?

Could it be that our devastation of the planet, at its deepest roots, is symptomatic of our near-universal neglect of the only moment that actually is – this moment? Could it be that, when we disregard the world as it is, the world as it is starts to die?


David Edwards is co-editor of


]]> (Editor) Cogitations Wed, 04 Oct 2017 07:33:52 +0000
So What Is Objective Journalism?


'Just The Facts, Ma'am'

So what is objective, impartial journalism?

The standard view was offered in 2001 by the BBC's then political editor, Andrew Marr:

'When I joined the BBC, my Organs of Opinion were formally removed.' (Marr, The Independent, January 13, 2001)

And by Nick Robinson describing his role as ITN political editor during the Iraq war:

'It was my job to report what those in power were doing or thinking... That is all someone in my sort of job can do.' (Robinson, '"Remember the last time you shouted like that?" I asked the spin doctor', The Times, July 16, 2004)

'Just the facts, Ma'am', as Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi wryly describes this take on journalism.

It is why, if you ask a BBC or ITN journalist to choose between describing the Iraq war as 'a mistake' or 'a crime', they will refuse to answer on the grounds that they are required to be 'objective' and 'impartial'.

But actually there are at least five good reasons for rejecting this argument as fundamentally bogus and toxic.

First, it turns out that most journalists are only nervous of expressing personal opinions when criticising the powerful. Andrew Marr can't call the Iraq war a 'crime', but he can say that the fall of Baghdad in April 2003 meant that Tony Blair 'stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minister as a result' (Marr, BBC 1, News At Ten, April 9, 2003). Nick Robinson can report that 'hundreds of [British] servicemen are risking their lives to bring peace and security to the streets of Iraq'. (ITN, September 8, 2003)

The 'Wham, bam, thank you, Ma'am' version of 'impartiality', perhaps.

Journalists are allowed to lose their 'objectivity' this way, but not that way - not the way that offends the powerful. Australian media analyst Sharon Beder offers a further example of the same double standards:

'Balance means ensuring that statements by those challenging the establishment are balanced with statements by those whom they are criticising, though not necessarily the other way round.' (Sharon Beder, 'Global Spin', Green Books, 1997, p.203)

The second problem with the no-opinion argument is that it is not possible to hide opinions by merely 'sticking to the facts'. The facts we highlight and ignore, the tone and language we use to stress or downplay those facts, inevitably reflect personal opinion.

The third problem is indicated by the title of historian Howard Zinn's autobiography: 'You Can't Be Neutral On A Moving Train'. Even if we believe it is possible to suppress our personal opinion in reporting facts, we will still be taking sides. Zinn explained:

'As I told my students at the start of my courses, "You can't be neutral on a moving train." The world is already moving in certain directions - many of them are horrifying. Children are going hungry, people are dying in wars. To be neutral in such a situation is to collaborate with what is going on.' ('The Zinn Reader', Seven Stories Press, Howard Zinn, 1997, p.17)

Matt Taibbi gives a striking example:

'Try as hard as you want, a point of view will come forward in your story. Open any newspaper from the Thirties or Forties, check the sports page; the guy who wrote up the box score, did he have a political point of view? He probably didn't think so. But viewed with 70 or 80 years of hindsight, covering a baseball game where blacks weren't allowed to play without mentioning the fact, that's apology and advocacy. Any journalist with half a brain knows that the biases of our time are always buried in our coverage...'

A fourth, closely-related problem is that not taking sides - for example against torture, or against big countries exploiting small countries, or against selling arms to tyrants, or against stopping rather than exacerbating climate change - is monstrous. A doctor treating a patient is biased in seeking to identify and solve a health problem. No one would argue that the doctor should stand neutrally between sickness and health. Is it not self-evident that we should all be biased against suffering?

Finally, why does the journalistic responsibility to suppress personal opinion trump the responsibility to resist crimes of state for which we are accountable as democratic citizens? If the British government was massacring British citizens, would journalists refuse to speak out? Why does the professional media contract outweigh the social contract? Journalists might respond that 'opinion-free' journalism is vital for a healthy democracy. But without dissent challenging open criminality, democracy quickly decays into tyranny. This is the case, for example, if we remain 'impartial' as our governments bomb, invade and kill 100,000s of people in foreign countries. A journalist who refuses even to describe the Iraq war as a crime is riding a cultural train that normalises the unthinkable. In the real world, journalistic 'impartiality' on Iraq helped facilitate Britain and the United States' subsequent crimes in Libya, Syria and Yemen.

This is the ugly absurdity of the innocent-looking idea that journalists' 'organs of opinion' can and should be removed.

So if we reject this flawed and immoral version of objectivity behind which so many corporate journalists hide, what then is objective journalism? Are we arguing for open bias, for a prejudice free-for-all disconnected from any attempt at fairness? Not at all.


Equalising Self And Other

Objective, impartial journalism is rooted in the understanding that 'my' happiness and suffering do not matter more than 'your' happiness and suffering; and that it is irrational, cruel and unfair to pretend otherwise. Objective journalism rejects reporting and analysis that prioritises 'my' interests – 'my' bank account, financial security, company, nation, class - over 'your' interests.

Objective journalism does not take 'our' side at 'their' expense. It does not count 'our' dead and ignore 'their' dead. It does not refuse to stand in judgement on 'our' leaders while fiercely condemning 'their' leaders. It does not hold 'them' to higher moral standards than 'us'. It does not accept that 'our' nation is 'exceptional', that 'we' have a 'manifest destiny' to dominate 'them', that 'we' are in some way 'chosen'.

A central claim of Buddhist and other mystical traditions is that we really can 'equalise self and other' in this way. Many intellectuals, including leftists, dismiss all such analysis as irrelevant piffle. But at a time when the Vikings were ravaging Europe, the ninth century Buddhist sage Shantideva asked:

'Since I and other beings both,
In wanting happiness, are equal and alike,
What difference is there to distinguish us,
That I should strive to have my bliss alone?' (Shantideva, 'The Way of the Bodhisattva', Shambhala, 1997, p.123)

If this is an astonishingly reasonable thought, it is surpassed by an even more remarkable declaration:

'The intention, ocean of great good
That seeks to place all beings in the state of bliss,
And every action for the benefit of all:
Such is my delight and all my joy.' (p.49)

After four billion years of evolution ostensibly 'red in tooth and claw', Shantideva was here asserting that caring for others is a source of delight and bliss that far exceeds mere pleasure from personal gain.

The claim, of course, is greeted with scepticism by a society that promotes unrestrained greed for maximised profit. But if we set aside our groupthink and take another look, it is actually a matter of common experience. The Indian spiritual teacher, Osho, commented:

'Have you never had a feeling of contentment after having smiled at a stranger in the street? Didn't a breeze of peace follow it? There is no limit to the wave of tranquil joy you will feel when you lift a fallen man, when you support a fallen person, when you present a sick man with flowers – but not when you do it [out of duty] because he is your father or because she is your mother. No, the person may not be anyone in particular to you, but simply to give a gift is itself a great reward, a great pleasure.'

The existence of this reward has been confirmed by some very interesting and credible science (see here).

Objective journalism is thus rooted in two claims:

1) that human beings are able to view the happiness and suffering of others as being of equal importance to their own.

2) that, perhaps counter-intuitively for a society like ours, individuals and societies dramatically enhance their well-being when they 'equalise self and other' in this way.

In other words, this is not a sentimental pipe dream – human beings can be fair and just, and they do experience benefits from being so.

The value of objective journalism, and indeed objective living, in this sense is clear enough. We know from research (see here) and our own experience that people who think only of themselves are as miserable as they are biased.

In his collection of spontaneous talks, 'Ta Hui – The Great Zen Master', Osho gave a powerful example of objectivity, in the sense intended here, from his own childhood:

'It happened that in my village, between my house and a temple, there was a piece of land. For some technical reason, my father was able to win the case if he took it to court - only on technical reasons. The land was not ours, the land belonged to the temple. But the technical reason was this: the map of the temple did not show that the land was in their territory. It was some fault of the municipal committee's clerical staff; they had put the land onto my father's property.

'Naturally in court there was no question; the temple had no right to say that it was their land. Everybody knew it was their land, my father knew it was their land. But the land was precious, it was just on the main street, and every technical and legal support was on my father's side. He brought the case to the court.

'I told him, "Listen" - I must have been not more than eleven years old – "I will go to the court to support the temple. I don't have anything to do with the temple, I have never even gone inside the temple, whatever it is, but you know perfectly well that the land is not yours."

'He said, "What kind of son are you? You will witness against your own father?"

'I said, "It is not a question of father and son; in the court it is a question of what is true. And not only will your son be there; your father I have also convinced."

'He said, "What!"

'I had a very deep friendship with my grandfather, so we had consulted. I had told him, "You have to support me because I am only eleven years old. The court may not accept my witnessing because I am not an adult, so you have to support me. You know perfectly well that the land is not ours."

'He said, "I am with you."

'So I told my father, "Just listen, from both sides, from your father and from your son... you simply withdraw the case; otherwise you will be in such a trouble, you will lose the case. It is only technically that you are able to claim. But we are not going to support a technical mistake on the part of the municipal clerk."

'He said, "You don't understand a simple thing, that a family means... you have to support your family."

'I said, "No, I will support the family only if the family is right. I will support whoever is right."

'He talked to my grandfather who said, "I have already promised your son that I will be going with him."

'My father said, "That means I will have to withdraw the case and lose that valuable piece of land!"

'He said, "What can be done about it? Your son is going to create trouble for you, and seeing the situation, that he will not in any way be persuaded, I have agreed with him - just to make his position stronger so that you can withdraw; it is better to withdraw than to get defeated."

'My father said, "But this is a strange family! I am working for you all. I am working for you, I am working for my son - I am not working for myself. If we can have a beautiful shop on that land you will have a better, more comfortable old age; he will have a better education in a better university. And you are against me."

'My grandfather said, "I am not against anybody, but he has taken my promise, and I cannot go against my word - at least as far as he is concerned - because he is dangerous, he may put me in some trouble. So I cannot deceive him; I will say whatever he is saying. And he is saying the truth - and you know it."

'So my father had to withdraw the case – reluctantly... but he had to withdraw the case. I asked my grandfather to bring some sweets so we can distribute them in the neighborhood. My father has come to his senses, it has to be celebrated. He said, "That seems to be the right thing to do."

'When my father saw that I was distributing sweets, he asked, "What are you doing? - for what? What has happened?"

'I said, "You have come back to your senses. Truth is victorious." And I gave him a sweet also.

'He laughed. He said, "I can understand your standpoint, and my own father is with you, so I thought it is better that I should also be with you. It is better to withdraw without any problem. But I have learned a lesson." He said to me, "I cannot depend on my family. If there is any trouble they are not going to support me just because they belong to me as father, as son, as brother. They are going to support whatever is true."

'And since that time no other situation ever arose, because he never did anything in which we had to disagree. He remained truthful and sincere.

'Many times in his life he told me, "It was so good of you; otherwise I was going to take that land, and I would have committed a crime knowingly. You prevented me, and not only from that crime, you prevented me from then onwards. Whenever there was a similar situation, I always decided in favor of truth, whatever the loss. But now I can see: truth is the only treasure. You can lose your whole life, but don't lose your truth."' (Osho, 'Ta Hui – The Great Zen Master', 1987, free e-book)

Objective journalism insists that 'I will support the family only if the family is right. I will support whoever is right.' If the facts show that the Iraq war was an unprovoked war of aggression, then objective journalism will describe it as such.

Unfortunately, of course, most corporate journalism says:

'I will support my family, my party, my newspaper, my corporation, my advertisers, my arms industry, my military, my country, my class, whether or not they are right. I will support whatever benefits me. I will highlight facts and voices in a tone that benefits the powerful interests that reward me. I will ignore facts and voices that might harm my career.'

Osho's father perceived his son's challenge as an attack: 'you are against me'. But in fact Osho was not against his father, nor was he for the temple – he was for the truth.

In 2012, Media Lens compared media reaction to the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians by a US soldier, with a massacre of 108 people in Houla, Syria, for which Western media found Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad personally responsible. We asked what evidence would be required before journalists found Obama personally responsible for such a massacre. Obviously, the involvement of US forces would need to be confirmed beyond doubt. These forces would need to have been acting under orders. Presumably, Obama would need to have signed these orders, or been aware of them and agreed to them on some level. But Syrian forces were instantly declared responsible, with Assad held personally responsible, even before the killers had been identified.

We were inviting readers to consider if ostensibly free, independent journalists treat foreign governments, especially Official Enemies of state, the same way they treat their own government and its leading allies. We were not against Obama any more than we were for Assad – we were for the truth.

Ironically, our attempts to challenge biased reporting in this way are regularly denounced as examples of ugly bias - we are described as 'pro-Assad', 'pro-Gaddafi', 'pro-Putin' 'genocide deniers', 'apologists for tyranny', and so on, often by people waging a kind of propaganda war against anyone challenging power.

More recently, we commented on the muted coverage of an Islamic State massacre of 38 people in an Afghan hospital:

'If Islamic State's attack had been on a French hospital, shooting doctors and patients, it would have been one of 2017's defining traumas.'

Again, this comment was no more 'pro-Afghan' than it was 'anti-French' – it pointed to a deep and dangerous bias in the way corporate media respond to suffering in the world.

Why do we care so much about this bias? Because, as Osho's anecdote suggests, all is not as it seems. It turns out that there are hidden costs to mendacity, just as there are hidden benefits to truth.

After decades spent honing its talent for suppressing profit-hostile fact and opinion, the corporate media system has become incapable of reporting truth even in the face of imminent disaster. The cost, in this age of catastrophic climate change, is becoming very clear.


David Edwards is co-editor of


]]> (Editor) Cogitations Tue, 21 Mar 2017 12:22:03 +0000
The Cold, Hard Facts Of Life – A Reappraisal


The alarm clock rings. I set it myself but it feels like it's linked to some centralised system ordering the nation's workforce awake. I swing my feet out into an unwelcoming, cold room; put on my clothes, including grey socks, grey suit, black shoes, and the white shirt I ironed the night before. As usual, I leave the top button undone and attempt to hide my disobedience beneath a colourful, strangling tie. I have a sense that I'm able to breathe in the space between the open top button and the loose knot of the tie, that some small freedom resides there.

I crawl out onto an icy, pitch-black street to join a steadily growing stream of commuters flowing like rainwater down the gutters and into the London Tube. I'm aware of an internal resistance, like a hand pressing on my chest, against which I have to push. I travel one and a quarter hours, with a single change at Tottenham Court Road, journeying from the South to the West of London.

At White City, I walk past the BBC TV Centre and spend the day at a desk answering hundreds of calls placing orders for computer accessories that I input into a PC for rapid delivery. There are fifteen of us in the open-plan office. When a call goes unanswered for 10 seconds, a blue light flashes on the ceiling; after 15 seconds, a red light flashes. Thereafter, staff from the marketing and accounts departments are expected to rush in and hit the phones. Every call I take is logged: time, duration, revenue earned, returns subtracted.

I hate the job. In fact, I instantly disliked the job so intensely that I felt relief in knowing that I would only last a few days. In the event, I will work there for almost two years.

I'm doing the job because I've been persuaded that I can't do what I want in life (I certainly don't want to be there!). I believe that I have to do what I hate within a friendly but subtly intimidating, firmly controlling hierarchy. I've been told that my CV has to be fed on a strict diet of continuous, full-time work. I have to suffer it, swallow it, take it. I have to start at the bottom and work my way up. I have to pay the bills. These are the cold, hard facts of life. The only other option is to be stuck in mindless, low-paying work for the rest of my life.

But it turns out that when you set off down the path signposted, 'The Life I Hate,' you end up experiencing variations on the theme. 'The Life I Hate' doesn't typically turn into 'The Life I Love'. It turns into 'The Life I Hate' plus extra responsibility, workload and stress within the same authoritarian structure. And yes, more money and status.

There's another problem - the further you journey down the path of 'The Life I Hate', the further the path journeys into you. You become the path. If you force yourself to do what you hate, you have to become insensitive to your feelings. You have to become as cold, hard and tough as the life you're leading. So you become adept at tuning out on early morning commutes across London to sit in grim business meetings, and hopeless at knowing what it is you would really love to do; hopeless at detecting and following that feeling, at enjoying your life.

Because tuning out is so vital, corporate executives tolerate enough truth to satisfy their consciences, but not enough to challenge their way of life. If you read the Guardian and watch the BBC, you can continue working for the Government, Big Pharma, Big Oil. If you read Noam Chomsky, say - if you really read him and take the issues seriously - you can't. Well you can, but you will be tugging your heart in opposite directions. At one point, while working as a marketing manager, I decided to stop reading radical politics and philosophy – I literally threw my books away. The internal conflict was too painful, making me feel much worse about the work. But I continued leafing through the Guardian and watching the BBC, no problem.


Finding The Horses

Somerset Maugham described the lives of 'most people':

'They are like tram-cars travelling for ever on the self-same rails. They go backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, inevitably, till they can go no longer and then are sold as scrap-iron.' (W. Somerset Maugham, The Lotus Eater, Collected Short Stories, Volume Four, Pan, 1976, p.180)

Joseph Campbell played a big part in sending me off the rails:

'My answer is, "Follow your bliss." There's something inside you that knows when you're in the centre, that knows when you're on the beam or off the beam. And if you get off the beam to earn money, you've lost your life. And if you stay in the centre and don't get any money, you still have your bliss.' (Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, 'The Power of Myth', Doubleday, 1988, p.229)

If 'bliss' sounds a bit soppy, Campbell clarified:

'The way to find about your happiness is to keep your mind on those moments when you feel most happy, when you really are happy - not excited, not just thrilled, but deeply happy. This requires a little bit of self-analysis. What is it that makes you happy?' (p.155)

But what about money, the mortgage, eating? What about the cold, hard facts of life? Campbell's advice: forget it, just do the thing you love – don't give it a second thought. Things tend to work out when you do what you love, because you're a lot better at it than you are at money-motivated tasks.

Alas, many people, particularly those of us who hauled ourselves up the school, college and career ladder, are not attuned to our bliss. It's a melancholy sight when people stuck in work they hate, reply with a hopeless shrug: 'But I don't know what my bliss is.'

Consider British spiritual teacher Russel Williams - now an extraordinary, vibrant 95-year-old - who qualified as an electrician during the Second World War, and who had the option to start up an electrical business:

'That was the plan... And I realised that if I followed this path – starting up this business – it wouldn't make me happy.' (Russel Williams, 'Not I, Not Other Than I,' O-Books, e-edition, Steve Taylor ed., 2015, pp.136-7)

Contemplating several possibilities, all of them felt like, 'The Life I Hate':

'The only thing left was to walk away – literally – and hope that something would show me where I was supposed to be going. So I left, with just a few shillings in my pocket. It was the summer of 1945. I started walking, and carried on, walking and walking. I lost track of time. It could have been weeks or months.' (pp.137-8)

Crossing a moor one day, Williams met a showman with a broken-down bus. They struck up a conversation and the man asked him:

'Do you know anything about horses?' (p.138)

Williams ended up grooming, feeding and watering horses for a circus. But this became much more than just a job:

'I grew to love the animals. I felt a strong connection with them. It was impossible not to, living with them 24 hours a day.' (pp.140-1)

He was determined to understand the horses fully, wholly, through careful observation:

'So I set my mind to watching and observing every detail, every moment of the day, for days on end.

'After about three months, as I became more concentrated on the horses, I noticed that I wasn't thinking anymore. My mind had gone quiet. I realised that knowing and thinking are two different things, and that you could know without thinking... I had a strong feeling that I was finally going in the right direction, that this was my path...' (p.141)

Williams later realised that the task he had set himself was actually a form of mindfulness meditation:

'In effect, I was meditating about 20 hours a day, 7 days a week for three years, completely absorbed in caring for the horses. It was a life of continual service, with no thought for myself.' (pp.141-2)

At the end of this time, Williams describes a profound shift in awareness, in fact an enlightenment experience, that has never left him. He has been president of the Buddhist Society of Manchester since 1974, but does not consider himself a Buddhist.

My own experience of walking away from 'The Life I Hate' was easier on the shoe-leather. I walked the short distance from the office to my flat one summer lunchtime and never went back. I had decided to follow Campbell's advice, with no idea of what work I could do that might replace corporate work, and no idea how I would feed myself when my few savings ran out. But I had decided I would no longer do what I hated for money and would instead do what I loved, for nothing.

In my case, that meant writing political essays, philosophical essays, stories, observations, jokes – hundreds of pages of them. By the next spring, I was supporting myself by teaching English to foreign students three hours a day. Compared to my full-time office life, it was like floating on a cloud. Best of all, I only had to work half-time, and could spend the rest of the day just reading and writing.

The important thing, I think, is not so much to follow but to locate your bliss. In truth, once you've found it, there is nowhere to go - it's inside you. Simply slowing down, working part-time, helps us get away from the more maddening, exhausting aspects of work that swamp any attempt at introspection. This allows us to become more mindful, which actually means more mindempty, less bogged down in thought.

As Williams found in observing his horses, when we pay close attention to something other than thought, thoughts subside. When that happens, we make an astonishing discovery: inside us, lies a source of great peace, kindness and joy that is ordinarily obscured by clouds of thinking. This is what Buddhists call our 'Buddha nature'. It is that simple. And that difficult, because the whole world is ceaselessly insisting, with great certainty, that our bliss is out there: in him, her, this far-flung country, that exotic job, this salary, that mewling infant... We have always looked out there; it has never occurred to us to look inside.

We are distracted from, unaware of, the happiness that is forever blazing away inside. Certainly it is a mighty force, but then the world is a planet-sized distraction preventing us from noticing.


The Great Escape

I thought I had to tramp the Tube, hack my way through endless business meetings, to somehow end up in a better place. And yet I found a better place by simply walking away. So what about the cold, hard facts: earnings, pension, financial security?

If following your bliss is your highest value, financial security cannot be a key concern. You can't do what you love because you love it and because you've identified a little 'niche market'. Yes, one might conceivably live a more difficult life in some ways and even die earlier as a result. But then, in my corporate career, I was not fully alive, either. The time I spent in those offices was a threadbare, hair-shirted, hovel of an existence. I sacrificed hundreds of weeks, years of my life, to financial security, the CV. In the 25 years since I hung up my business uniform, I have avoided numberless miserable, stressful and, above all, achingly boring moments.

By contrast to these real savings, the thousands of pounds my early 'retirement' cost me are insignificant causes of dubious benefit. I've never really noticed the absence of that money; I've never needed it. But I needed the freedom to do what I want. And what a treasure that is: to be free to do what you want on any given day. To do what you really love to do when you want to do it. And to not do it, if you don't want to.

The world does not end when we follow our bliss, quite the reverse. The destruction of the environment is driven by wage slaves who can never have enough because they're trying to find the life they love by travelling deeper into the life they hate. When more self-betrayal makes us feel even emptier, we keep stuffing that emptiness, turning the world into a version of the wasteland we feel inside. When we sacrifice our bliss, our present moment, for some supposedly Higher Cause, our heart dies, the rainforests die, the climate dies, people die. The conformist grey of our suit, the unaliveness we feel as we trudge to work, spreads, suffocates and kills.

The great escape begins with slowing down, leaping barbed-wire thoughts, tunnelling attention into the body, and finding a centre of comfort, of bliss, there. As Williams says with wonderful simplicity:

'The main thing is to be aware of being comfortable within. If you can do that, you can observe things which come in and produce a little discomfort, and examine why they produce the discomfort. You can quietly observe them and then return to the comfort.' (p.218)


David Edwards is co-editor of

]]> (Editor) Cogitations Tue, 24 Jan 2017 12:00:27 +0000
Empires Of Self

'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?' (Shantideva, 8th century, 'The Way of the Bodhisattva,' Shambhala, 1997, p.129)


First we believe in 'I', then we believe in 'mine'.

But 'mine' does not mean that we merely perceive external phenomena as 'belonging' to us. It means that our identity, our sense of self, flows into these external forms. They are unconsciously perceived as extensions of 'me'.

If a child is smacked, the pain is of course experienced as an attack on 'me'. But if the child's favourite toy is taken away, that also is perceived as an attack, as an agonising removal of part of 'me'.

Our sense of self flows into 'my' parents, 'my' family, 'my' friends. The anxiety and rage that erupt when someone tries to 'take' away 'my' boyfriend or girlfriend – as though a limb were to be amputated - indicates that the attempt is again experienced as a profound attack on 'me'.

Our sense of self flows into 'my' town, 'my' country, 'my' ethnic group, which we may protect from criticism as though defending our personal reputations. Millions are persuaded to fight and die to protect something called 'The Fatherland' or 'the one true God'. These warriors for The Cause are not driven to murderous rage by a dry intellectual position; they are defending extensions of themselves.

Human beings can identify with almost anything. For a football fan to say: 'We played really well to beat Chelsea 2-1', is about as crazy as a fan saying: 'I played really well to beat Chelsea 2-1.' The hatred and bitter rivalry between supporters are described as 'tribal'. In fact, it's what happens when selves collide – sprawling empires of self that have psychologically merged with groups of completely separate football players who, in reality, are not 'me'.

Our sense of identity flows into our abilities, work and beliefs. I am not just someone who practices medicine; fundamentally, 'I'm a doctor, Jim!' Or 'I'm a scientist,' a physicist, a journalist. Are these mere labels used for convenience? Not at all. If somebody questions our skill in an activity occupied by self, we will throw our toys exactly as we did when someone confiscated our spud gun as a child. Try criticising the child-rearing strategies of someone who strongly identifies with the role of 'father' or 'mother'. Or try criticising the way an editor runs 'his' or 'her' newspaper. Thus Roger Alton, then Observer editor, who responded to one polite, rational emailer:

'Have you just been told to write in by those c*nts at medialens? Don't you have a mind of your own?'
(Email forwarded, June 1, 2006)

As this indicates, when a perceived threat to the extended self enters the mind, rationality and restraint don't hang around for long. The spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle explains:

'I feel and act as if I were defending my very self. Unconsciously, I feel and act as if I were fighting for survival and so my emotions will reflect this unconscious belief. They become turbulent. I am upset, angry, defensive, or aggressive. I need to win at all cost lest I become annihilated. That's the illusion.' (Eckhart Tolle, 'A New Earth,' Penguin, 2005, p.121)

When ego has occupied a person, a job, a belief, we may defend these as if fighting for our lives. We see this every day on social media, where people identified with different arguments rage on and on, over days and weeks, sometimes months and years, in what can often feel like a no-holds-barred fight to the death.

Even open-minded progressives can respond to professional criticism like rednecks to the burning of 'the flag'. A few years ago, the Independent journalist Robert Fisk commented (immodestly) on the dissatisfaction of US readers with the US press:

'It is a tribute to their intelligence that instead of searching for blog-o-bots or whatever, they are looking to the European "mainstream" newspapers like The Independent, the Guardian, The Financial Times...

'I'm not some cranky left wing or right wing nut. We are a newspaper, that's the point. That gives us an authority - most people are used to growing up with newspapers. The internet is a new thing, and it's also unreliable.' (Justin Podur, 'Fisk: War is the total failure of the human spirit,' December 5, 2005, my emphasis)

'We are a newspaper, that's the point.' It certainly is. Fisk is deeply identified with his profession and indeed his employer. The identification comes at a cost. Fisk again:

'I have to be honest: I don't use the Internet. I've never seen a blog in my life. I don't even use email. I don't waste my time with this. I am not interested. I couldn't care less. I think the Internet has become a hate machine for a lot of people and I want nothing to do with it.' (Fisk, quoted, Antonia Zerbisias, 'Author Doesn't Give a Flying Fisk About Fisking,' Toronto Star/Commondreams, November 29, 2005)

Numerous commentators who broadly share Fisk's political views – Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, John Pilger et al - have hailed the obvious democratising potential of the internet. Web-based social media have massively empowered the rise of progressive Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, the Podemos party in Spain and candidate for presidential nomination Bernie Sanders in the US. Fisk has himself appeared on excellent, internet-based media like Democracy Now! and The Real News Network. Fisk's view of the internet was clearly divorced from reality.

Identification drives the remarkable phenomenon described by psychologist Erich Fromm: 'man's capacity of not observing what he does not want to observe; hence, that he may be sincere in denying a knowledge which he would have, if he wanted only to have it'. (Fromm, 'Beyond The Chains Of Illusion,' Abacus, 1989, p.94)

Just as journalists identify with their newspapers, so readers identify with the work of particular journalists – which explains why hackles rise whenever much-loved commentators like Fisk are subject to criticism, as we at Media Lens know only too well.

And just as the millions of obedient citizens persuaded, or forced, to lay down their lives for 'The Motherland' are never really dying for 'freedom' and 'democracy' in a world where 62 individuals possess as much wealth as half the world's population, so these empires of self are not really fighting for our happiness. When our identity flows into external phenomena, we are building on dynamite. W.B. Yeats wrote:

'Man is in love and loves what vanishes. What more is there to say?'

Everything is in flux, nothing stays the same. Our empires of self are doomed to be insecure and fearful, and therefore aggressive. We inevitably find ourselves fretting to establish, defend and stabilise our extended selves in the face of constant challenges and perceived threats. The Tibetan Buddhist 'Path Of Heroes' indicates how bad it can get:

'In turmoil, despising others... polluted with anger, resentment and envy – here, there, and everywhere, whatever we say is tinged with fury. We do not get along even with our companions; thinking of their faults, we have only complaints. We see all as our adversaries and take no one as an ally.' (Zhechen Gyaltsab Padma Gyurmed Namgyal, 'Path of Heroes, Birth of Enlightenment,' Dharma Publishing, 1995, p.193)


Dissolving The Empire - Disidentification

Though quietly sitting on a sofa, your heart is aflame. Something has angered you deeply - perhaps an insult from a 'so-called' friend or a 'deeply annoying' family member - and thoughts are cascading through your mind. You are analysing the insult from every angle, rehearsing different responses that you could have said and might yet say – you formulate one powerful retaliation after another.

Your whole effort is to respond, to hit back, to right the wrong. You believe, without any shadow of a doubt, that 'I am angry.' That is, you are fully identified with the anger – it is you. At no point does it occur to you that the pain of anger is a separate phenomenon from 'me'. It never occurs to you to stop focusing on the perceived cause of the pain – the insulting comment – and instead observe the pain. If you are the anger, if it is you, then how can you observe yourself? And why would you? But in fact you can observe the pain because it is separate, and that matters.

It is a remarkable fact that we can switch the focus of our awareness from our thoughts to the emotional pain in our chests. When we focus on thought, we channel the pain directly into thinking, a potent fuel supply that generates limitless further thoughts, which in turn generate more emotion in a positive feedback effect. A prime example of this is what we call a 'panic attack'.

Even a single fearful thought can spark an adrenalised ping in our guts with which we then identify: 'I'm going to have a panic attack', 'I'm freaking out.' This identification recycles the fuel of fearful emotion into our thinking, which then generates more fearful emotion in a rising spiral of fear. An alternative to being swept along by this thought-emotion spiral, is to stop focusing attention on the thoughts and instead focus on the fearful emotions.

When thoughts provoke an anxious reaction in our guts, we can focus our awareness on these adrenalised feelings, on their intensity, depth, fluctuation. We can focus on our heart beating rapidly, on the rise and fall of our lungs pulling in air. This attention on feeling breaks the thought-emotion feedback effect and the spiral of anxiety rising out of it. It is not that we are attempting to suppress the fear; on the contrary, we are trying to feel the fear as clearly as possible. The more attention we pay to the fearful sensations and the less attention we pay to the fearful thoughts fueling them, the more fear will subside. What this really means is that we are no longer identifying with the fear – we have created a gap: 'I' am here, the fear is there. This gap makes all the difference.

If I believe I am identical with fear, then I'm pretty much stuck with it. There's not much I can do beyond removing myself from the situation that seems to be causing the fear. But in reality, I am not the fear. Rather, I am the awareness that is able to perceive fear as a separate phenomenon contained within awareness. This dramatically blocks the ability of the 'panic' to control our minds and indeed to continue at all – when we disidentify and cut off the flow of thoughts, fear subsides and vanishes.

This is true for all painful emotions: we can identify with them and so hotwire their energy into thinking. Or we can view them as phenomena arising within, and witnessed by, awareness. Simply focusing attention on them, being aware of them - feeling them, without responding to them – disempowers them and may cause them to dissipate altogether. The additional surprise is that, in their place, we may find peace, joy, and a completely unexpected lovingkindness giving rise to curiously generous thoughts even towards people we ordinarily dislike.

This is not mere 'navel-gazing' as head-trapped intellectuals would have us believe. The ability to disidentify from external phenomena is a revolutionary step in the direction of individual and social sanity, and liberty.

As we have seen, identification can cause even highly intelligent, honest commentators to be almost comically biased, irrational and hostile. It is one of the most powerful factors defending professional journalism from honest criticism and reform. Journalists are so proud of their roles, of the organisations by which they are employed, that they light up with incandescent rage in response to even the mildest challenge. Enlightened beings aside, few of us are exempt. As a co-founder of Media Lens (in fact I'd like to stress here that the original idea was 'mine'!), I have long been aware of my own tragicomically heightened sensitivity to criticism of our project.

The point is not that any of us is completely free of these long-lived mental patterns, but that we are able to choose: to engage the attention 'clutch' channeling the pain of identification to our minds, generating further madness. Or to lift the 'clutch', disengage the mind from the emotional engine, and observe the emotion in our bodies.

This calms the mind and dissolves the emotion. It allows us to refrain from filling the world with yet more irrational, biased blather. It makes it more possible to hear and even welcome reasonable criticism. If we disengage our egos, criticism can actually, of course, be wonderfully helpful.

How much of the destructiveness of modern journalism, of the fossil fuel industry waging its crazy, suicidal campaign denying climate change, of the arms industries subordinating human welfare to profit, is rooted in this psychological mechanism? Deeply identified with their high-status jobs, their gold standard companies, their mighty industries, their elite class, corporate executives respond like angry infants to rational, well-intentioned critics warning of nothing less than impending catastrophe.

And this is the problem for everyone working for a saner world – the empires of self have an inbuilt defence mechanism against even, or perhaps especially, the most reasonable arguments. As many activists have found, tackling the titans of government and industry head-on risks amplifying the head-in-the-sand defensiveness of the inflamed egos we are challenging. It can actually make the target of criticism more blinkered, prompting them to retreat even further into impassioned unreason.

We spend our time well when we experiment with observing our thoughts and emotions, with disidentifying from them. Even the tiniest of gaps allows sanity to begin to dispel the 'nightmare of history'.

As Yeats observed, time will eventually steal away everything we love, including of course every last little part of our empire of self. The mind has no answer to the resultant suffering, other than to fret and rave, and chase its own tail. Directing awareness from thoughts to awareness of thoughts and feelings, allows us to find some peace no matter how chaotic and devastating the external conditions.



Apologies for the recent interruption in Cogitations. I've been writing a science fiction novel on related themes, now more or less completed.


Further Reading and Watching

Nobody has explained the power of awareness better than Eckhart Tolle. His monthly talks and Q&As are a much-needed dose of sanity. I also recently came across this discussion on awareness in Tricycle magazine: 'The aim of attention.'

]]> (Editor) Cogitations Tue, 16 Feb 2016 15:23:55 +0000
The Failure Of The Left


In Arthur Koestler's novel Darkness At Noon, N.S. Rubashov, founding father of 'the revolution', stands convicted of treason against tyrannical leader 'No. 1'. But Rubashov knows that his real guilt lies elsewhere:

'Why had not the Public Prosecutor asked him: "Defendant Rubashov, what about the infinite?" He would not have been able to answer - and there lay the real source of his guilt... Could there be a greater?'

What about uncertainty, what about the Unknown? How could Rubashov be sure that the tyranny his party had imposed on the people would truly deliver them to some socialist utopia?

'What had he said to them? "I bow my knees before the country, before the masses, before the whole people..." And what then? What happened to these masses, to this people? For forty years it had been driven through the desert, with threats and promises, with imaginary terrors and imaginary rewards. But where was the Promised Land?

'Did there really exist any such goal for this wandering mankind? That was a question to which he would have liked an answer before it was too late. Moses had not been allowed to enter the land of promise either. But he had been allowed to see it, from the top of the mountain, spread at his feet. Thus, it was easy to die, with the visible certainty of one's goal before one's eyes. He, Nicolas Salmanovitch Rubashov, had not been taken to the top of a mountain; and wherever his eye looked, he saw nothing but desert and the darkness of night.'

Leftists and environmentalists have also not been allowed to enter the land of promise, or to see it from the mountain top.

Instead, we see the looming tsunami of climate catastrophe blotting out the sun, obscuring hopes of a decent future. We witness the astonishing spectacle of global society failing to respond to a threat so severe that scientists warn that even a few more decades of business-as-usual could result in human extinction. We absorb the crushing defeat since 1988 - the year the United Nations set up its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - of our inability to overcome corporate resistance to mounting, now mountainous, evidence of approaching disaster.

After decades of intense effort, which many of us felt sure would culminate in a steadily saner society prioritising people over profit, we also can see 'nothing but desert and the darkness of night'.


The Elusive Turning Point

The 1980s explosion of public interest in green issues had writers like Edward Goldsmith and Fritjof Capra heralding 'The Great U-Turn','The Turning Point' that would transform society into a rational, sustainable, 'solar' economy.

How naïve and deterministic these predictions seem now with the green movement long overwhelmed by a corporate backlash that has supersize people driving supersize cars through an eruption of global consumption, with 'green concern' reduced to a niche marketing strategy targeting privileged elites.

Three decades later, the whole world flies the whole world for any reason it can conceive: a weekend shopping trip to New York, a day trip to Rome, a school trip to LA, a 'holiday of a lifetime' this year and every year. The world's famous sights are now rammed in tourist gridlock.

In other words, the noisy, optimistic greens of the 1980s and 1990s should be suffering a mass nervous breakdown about now. So, also, should the left, which woke late to the crisis of climate change. In an interview, the Canadian Dimensions website asked Noam Chomsky:

'In a lot of your writing ecological concerns seem to have come to the fore only fairly recently or at least didn't figure as prominently in your earlier writings on foreign policy.'

Chomsky replied:

'Well, the severity of the problem wasn't really recognized until the 1970s and then increasingly in the 1980s.'

True enough, but in books like Deterring Democracy (1992), Year 501 (1993), and World Orders, Old And New (1994), Chomsky devoted just one or two paragraphs to climate change at a time when green commentators were trying to amplify the urgent alarm raised in the US Congress by NASA climate scientist James Hansen in 1988. Chomsky's book Powers and Prospects (1996) contains no mention of the issue at all. By contrast, Chomsky concentrated heavily on issues like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) - hardly insignificant, but trivial by comparison.

Unlike Chomsky, who in 2013 published Nuclear War And Environmental Catastrophe with Laray Polk (Seven Stories Press), many high-profile writers on the left continue to have little or nothing to say about climate change. Why?

Leftists are typically rooted in the 17th century Western Enlightenment conviction that humanity should use reason, notably the scientific method, to radically transform both society and the natural world to the benefit of mankind. Leftists have been reluctant to perceive a fundamental problem with high-tech industrial 'progress' per se, focusing instead on the need to share the fruits more equably.

Greens argue that the 'conquest of nature' (both human and environmental) delivers pyrrhic victories because human reason is simply not equal to the task. The complexity and unknown (and perhaps unknowable) nature of the human and natural systems involved means that in 'improving' one aspect of life, we very often create entirely unforeseen and perhaps unmanageable chaos elsewhere.

The left just did not want to hear the bad news that there might be a deep problem with the scientific-industrial project, with the whole idea that the world can be endlessly 'improved'. While corporate elites put themselves first and leftists prioritised humanity, greens argued that we should respect the needs of the ecosystem as a whole.

Despite the failure to address climate change, there are few signs of soul-searching in left-green circles. For example, anyone wondering what happened to Jonathan Porritt – an inspirational spokesman for green revolution in the 1980s – need look no further than his recent comment on Twitter:

'Big bash yesterday celebrating 3 years of @Unilever's USLP [Unilever Sustainable Living Plan]. CEO Paul Polman in great form: much achieved but so much to do.'

Has much been achieved in the 25 years since James Hansen and other scientists raised the alarm? In 2009, Hansen estimated the percentage of required action implemented to address the climate crisis at precisely '0%'. (Email, Hansen to Media Lens, June 18, 2009) Since then, carbon emissions, consumption and temperatures have continued to soar.

And this is hardly the only failure we've faced in recent times. Consider the 'convergence' of 'mainstream' politics – Blair's 1997 corporate coup d'état that removed any semblance of 'mainstream' left opposition in the UK, so that we are free only to choose from a selection of representatives of corporate rather than popular power.

Or consider the entrenchment of Orwellian 'Perpetual War' – the state-corporate determination to bomb someone, somewhere, every couple of years for reasons that have everything to do with realpolitik and nothing to do with reason or righteousness, or 'the responsibility to protect'. Despite self-evident crimes resulting in mass death on a scale that almost defies imagination, the left has failed to resist the warmongering tide in Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Sierra Leone, Yemen, Pakistan, Syria and Iraq (again).

As recently as August 2013, even after the deceptions of Iraq and Libya, both corporate and non-corporate dissidents were lending credence to US propaganda blaming Syrian president Assad for chemical weapons attacks in Damascus. Leading weapons expert, Professor Ted Postol of MIT commented on these claims:

'To me, the fact that people are not focused on how the [Obama] administration lied is very disturbing and shows how far the community of journalists and the community of so-called security experts has strayed from their responsibility... I am concerned about the collapse of traditional journalism and the future of the country.'

Given the above, the left-green movement might be expected to share Rubashov's crisis of conscience and confidence – many have deceived themselves that they know, with absolute certainty, how to make the world a better place. But do they? Are they right?

The confidence, in fact arrogance, of many 'progressives' has been so overweening that they have simply dismissed thousands of years of insight into these problems from non-Western sources whose understanding of human psychology and, by implication, social change far exceeds almost anything found in the West (an issue to which I'll return in a later Cogitation).


Is Anyone At The Wheel?

The failure to respond to climate catastrophe has to raise urgent questions for anyone trying to address human and animal suffering. Even to compare this failure with political and media enthusiasm for 'action' in response to the absurd, credibly dismissed, and in fact completely non-existent threat from Iraq's WMD in 2002-2003 is astonishing.

We assume our society is able to act rationally, but is it in fact only able to respond to threats (real or imagined) that serve vested interests? Has our political system evolved to respond in ways that increase short-term profit, but not to threats that could be averted by harming profit? Perhaps no actual agency exists with sufficient power to counter this deadly bias. Perhaps no-one rational, in fact, is at the wheel.

One also cannot help wondering about the hidden ideological obstacles to the idea that human beings could face extinction in the next 50 or 100 years.

What we call 'progress' is strongly imbued with a sense of 'manifest destiny'. The rapid empowerment of science and technology naturally gives the impression that they are leading somewhere better, not worse. As environmental writer Paul Kingsnorth comments:

'A society that takes progress as its religion does not look kindly on despair. If you are expected to believe everything will keep getting better, it can be difficult to admit to believing otherwise.'

Especially when billions of advertising dollars – all in the business of promising a better life - have a vested interested in denial. It surely seems inconceivable to many in awe of the high-tech revolution that an iPad could emerge shortly before we are erased from the face of the earth. It is a story that makes no sense. Even committed atheists may have a subtle faith in the idea that the human journey cannot be merely absurd – that we could not develop, flourish and suddenly vanish. Surely science and technology will save the day – surely the great adventure of 'progress' will not collapse from glittering 'peak' to catastrophe. Science has long given us a sense that we have 'conquered' and 'escaped' nature. It is humbling, humiliating, to even imagine that we might yet be annihilated by nature.

Science fiction writers and film-makers have saturated society with the idea that our manifestly unsustainable way of life is part of an almost pre-ordained journey to an ever more high-tech lifestyle. A glamorous future among the stars, however fraught with alien menace, seems to have been mapped out for us. Although humankind has remained stubbornly stuck at the Moon for 40 years, there seems little doubt about what the future will bring. But will it? Is it possible that this idea of human development is fundamentally misguided? Should we be more focused on moving in rather than out? (Our society is by now so divorced from spiritual awareness that the question may appear meaningless.) What if the reality of our situation on this planet makes a complete nonsense of the science fictional vision of 'progress'?

Similarly, is it really possible for the many believers in a theistic God to accept the possibility of near-term human extinction? Can they conceive that we were created by a divine being only to be wiped out by a giant fart of industrial gas? What kind of deity would play such games? Theists precisely reject the idea of a random, meaningless universe. But what could be more nihilistic than industrial 'progress' culminating in self-extinction? What does it mean for the promise of 'the second coming', for the teaching of the prophets down the ages, and so on?


Drawing Water From The Corporate Well

Writing in the Guardian, George Monbiot asks a good, related question:

'We appear to possess an almost limitless ability to sit back and watch as political life is seized by plutocrats; as the biosphere is trashed... How did we acquire this superhuman passivity?'

Instead of organising to change the world, Monbiot perceives a superficial society lost in a 'national conversation – in public and in private – that revolves around the three Rs: renovation, recipes and resorts?'

This certainly describes the typical fare served up by the newspaper that pays Monbiot to embed his left-green concerns alongside its soul-bleaching, advertiser-friendly pap. Monbiot's Rousseauvian conclusion:

'Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chainstores.'

And indeed, flip a page in any number of chainstores and you will find Monbiot's earnest, kindly face smiling out at you.

In truth, corporate dissidents like Monbiot have played a crucial role in persuading intelligent, caring, potentially progressive readers to continue drawing water from the corporate well. Journalist Owen Jones, also of the Guardian, tells Media Lens (to paraphrase): 'You are irrelevant, reaching no-one. I am reaching a mass audience.'

But reaching a mass audience with what?

The filtered content of corporate news and commentary, saturated with corporate advertising of every stripe, makes a mockery of these rare glimpses of dissent.

Imagine the impact of reading an article on climate change by a Monbiot or a Jones and then turning the page to an American Airlines advert for reduced-fare flights to New York. Or imagine turning to the front cover of a colour supplement that reads:

'Time is running out... Ski resorts are melting... Paradise islands are vanishing... So what are you waiting for? 30 places you need to visit while you still can - A 64-page Travel Special.'

This concussive car crash of reality and illusion - of calls for action to address a grave crisis alongside calls to quit worrying and embrace the consumerism that has precisely created the crisis – delivers a transcendent message that the crisis isn't that serious, things aren't that bad.

The collision delivers the crippling lesson that the truth of looming catastrophe is only one of several versions of reality on offer – we can choose. We can even pick 'n' mix. We can enjoy a moral workout while commuting to our corporate office, feel enraged about the climate, Iraq, dolphins. Then we can turn to the business section, or think about buying a new car, or choose the next trip abroad. Later, we can watch a David Attenborough documentary about the wonders of the natural world without giving much of a damn about the fact that these wonders are being obliterated.

Corporate dissidents are a rational, compassionate, reassuring presence persuading us that compartmentalised moral concern is part of a healthy, balanced corporate media diet and lifestyle. As discussed, like Owen Jones, Monbiot's earnest portrait in the Guardian peers out from a crowd of corporate adverts, entertainments, perspectives. We look at his concerned face in this context and see a guy like us, living as we live and work. Are we better-informed, more impassioned, more radical than he is? Surely not. So if he lives this way – if he is willing to be employed by the very corporate system against which he is ostensibly rebelling, the system that is killing us - why shouldn't we?

There is no question that corporate media teach 'mainstream' propaganda values. The Guardian, for example, taught us to see Blair as a great moral force; it taught us to see the 'Iraq threat' as something more than a cynical fraud. More recently, it has been teaching us to swallow the West's claimed 'responsibility to protect' in Libya and Syria, and even (without so much as blinking an eye) in Iraq, a country in desperate need of protection from the West.

But crucially, the Guardian and other media also teach us dissent, even as they teach us to crave the luxury products and lifestyles they sell. And so their most devastating lesson of all is that this cognitive dissonance can be embraced, accepted, left unresolved, year after year. We are trained to live with absurdity, to embrace it as 'normal'. We have been numbed to the insanity of the way we live and think. And in the face of approaching apocalypse, we are numb, and dumb, and unmoved.

In the early 1990s, Phil Lesly, author of a handbook on public relations and communications, revealed a key secret of corporate control:

'People generally do not favour action on a non-alarming situation when arguments seem to be balanced on both sides and there is a clear doubt... There is no need for a clear-cut "victory"... Nurturing public doubts by demonstrating that this is not a clear-cut situation in support of the opponents usually is all that is necessary.' (Lesly, 'Coping with Opposition Groups,' Public Relations Review 18, 1992, p.331)

Corporate media reports and commentary 'nurturing public doubts' overwhelm occasional dissenting pieces. Adverts also loudly sell a corporate version of invincible 'Normality' (with no balancing perspectives allowed or even imagined). All insist we are facing 'a non-alarming situation'.

Corporate dissidents deliver their strongest, most impassioned arguments. Corporate media gratefully receive these arguments, position them among their low-cost flight and sofa deals, and in effect say to readers:

'See, even this has a place here, fits here, is compatible here.'

So while corporate dissidents have indeed reached a mass audience through the 'quality' press, they have drawn that mass audience into a corporate killing zone.

Isn't it obvious that everything hosted by corporate media is diminished and degraded? As the American philosopher Thoreau observed:

'I have learned that trade curses everything it handles; and though you trade in messages from heaven, the whole curse of trade attaches to the business.' (Thoreau, Walden)

Left-green groups have achieved so little, in part because they have embraced corporate dissent and corporate dissent truly is cursed by the trade handling its messages from heaven. Consequently, these movements have been cursed, crushed, neutralised, neutered, made nonsensical by cooperating with a media system that is the sworn enemy of everything they are trying to achieve - deep change to the status quo.

The unwritten quid pro quo of media inclusion is such that these groups have refused even to comment on the structural bias of a corporate media system reporting on a world dominated by corporations. Why? Because, as they tell us, 'We have to work with the media'. Attentive readers will catch occasional swipes at 'the media', at the tabloids, at everyone's favourite punch bag, the BBC. But the de facto ban on discussing the oxymoron that is a corporate 'free press' strongly supports the illusion that no such contradiction exists. If even the boldest, most honest dissidents are not alerting readers to the problem, then those readers are being hung out on a hundred propaganda lines to dry.

The fatalistic impression given is that no-one and nothing can really escape the grip of corporate 'normality', of corporate control. Cooperation helps sell this 'normality' as Higher Truth – we all prioritise comfort, luxury, earning more, consuming more, travelling more.

It doesn't take much imagination to understand that every system of unaccountable power benefits from employing a handful of individuals admired for their honesty about everything except that which threatens their unaccountable employer.

We might well dismiss all of the above as speculative and inconclusive, but for the fact that the argument is given immense, urgent weight by the catastrophic failure of the left on climate change.

And yet, to reiterate, even now corporate dissidents are not engaging in this kind of soul-searching – they cannot because corporate journalists may not discuss the problem of a corporate 'free press' in the corporate press.




]]> (Editor) Cogitations Tue, 08 Jul 2014 10:20:18 +0000
When The Next Moment Matters More: 'The Special One' - Part 3

By David Edwards



I caught up with an old friend, after many years, on a muggy afternoon in Camden. Outwardly, he seemed the same wonderfully ebullient character he had always been - I got the usual bear hug and bristly smacker on the cheek. But as we talked, it became clear something had changed.

He told me about a fierce anxiety and depression that had gripped him four years earlier. The crisis had begun when he came agonisingly close to a major breakthrough in his music career but just missed out. This would have been hard enough to take, but it was an almost exact repeat of an earlier near-miss that, as I knew only too well, had haunted him over the previous decade. He had told me then how, in that business, you only got one chance. He assumed he'd never get another.

After the second disappointment, he began obsessing, day and night, about mistakes he felt he'd made, life-changing opportunities he felt he'd thrown away. Unable to stop the endless repetition of thoughts, he was unable to sleep, to relax, to feel comfortable in his own skin. Tormented by a kind of looped mental tape, he became utterly exhausted. Out of energy and confidence, one of the most gregarious people I've ever known had been unable to leave his apartment for several weeks.

As we walked around Camden, my friend described how his thoughts were once again spiralling out of control, how despair was looming a second time. Listening to him talk, I was reminded of how I had cycled down steep hills with friends as a kid. We used to lift our feet and watch the pedals fly round in a blur. You didn't dare try to put your feet back on them. It felt like my friend's thoughts were racing in exactly the same way. His conversation was rapid, rambling, breathless. Over the years, we had often talked about our problems and supported each other. But what could I possibly say or do to help him now? Anything I might say, any advice, would be lost in a torrent of uncontrolled thinking.

A month later, an email arrived from my friend's address but from someone I didn't know asking me to phone urgently. I called and was told my friend had taken his own life a few weeks after we had met.


Charles Darwin Regrets

Rational thought can of course be deeply humanising. But compulsive thinking can devastate our psychological and physical health.

When we believe we are a 'success', a 'failure', 'special' or 'worthless', we merge our self-worth, our very identity, with a mental label derived from comparing ourselves to others. Our happiness comes to depend on this label, an idea, that is continuously being reinforced and roughed up by our encounters with the outside world. Inevitably, a huge amount of mental energy is expended on assessing these encounters, planning future 'successes', interpreting past 'failures', and so on.

In other words, even at the best of times, identification of self with a mental label – the belief that this label truly represents reality - plunges us into an endless roller-coaster of compulsive thinking and emotional turmoil.

Relentlessly focused on ideas about the world and our standing within it, we overlook what actually is, here and now, in the present moment. As a result, compulsive thinking can have a dehumanising effect, cutting us off from the people and world around us, and from our own emotions.

The renowned English naturalist Charles Darwin wrote in his autobiography:

'My mind has changed during the last twenty or thirty years... Now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry... I have also almost lost any taste for pictures or music... My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts...

'If I had to live my life again I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week... The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.' (The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882, public domain e-book, pp.138-139)

Music might have helped, but the mind is quite capable of talking over it. Darwin would have been better advised to spend an hour a day quietly observing his emotions, physical feelings and thoughts. We cannot suppress compulsive thinking, but we can learn to be aware of it and direct our attention elsewhere.

Darwin might also have benefited from reflecting on the ambition to be 'special' and the associated flood of mental activity. He commented:

'I think that I am superior to the common run of men in noticing things which easily escape attention, and in observing them carefully.'

He also recognised that his 'pure love of natural science' was 'much aided by the ambition to be esteemed by my fellow naturalists'. (pp.145-146)

These are real issues, the cause of real suffering, but you will not see them discussed by political progressives 'grinding general laws out of large collections of facts'. Most write about politics, economics and the media as though they were brains in a jar. Mere 'personal' issues are viewed as an 'indulgence', 'navel-gazing'.

Activists can conceive of no political significance in the bliss that surges in their chests when they watch a toddler lost in play. Or when they notice a breeze entering a room tentatively, like someone else's cat, they detect no political relevance in the cooling effect on their souls.

Wallace Stevens wrote:

'Among twenty snowy mountains
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.'
(The Little Zen Companion, Workman, 1994, p.137)

The point being that the observer's mind had also stopped moving. Suddenly, for just this moment, attention focused solely on the present. As the stifling fog of mental chatter fell away, peace and bliss shone through.

No-one has communicated a more radical, indeed revolutionary, observation than this.


The Door In The Wall

In his story, The Door In The Wall, H.G. Wells told of a child who finds a green door to a magical garden of earthly delights:

'There was something in the very air of it that exhilarated, that gave one a sense of lightness and good happening and well being; there was something in the sight of it that made all its colour clean and perfect and subtly luminous. In the instant of coming into it one was exquisitely glad - as only in rare moments and when one is young and joyful one can be glad in this world. And everything was beautiful there...'

Later in life, the same individual stumbles across the door several more times. But pressures of school, college and career prompt him to repeatedly resist the opportunity to enter, even though he knows that ultimate bliss lies within:

'It leapt upon me for the third time - as I was driving to Paddington on my way to Oxford and a scholarship. I had just one momentary glimpse. I was leaning over the apron of my hansom smoking a cigarette, and no doubt thinking myself no end of a man of the world, and suddenly there was the door, the wall, the dear sense of unforgettable and still attainable things.

'We clattered by - I too taken by surprise to stop my cab until we were well past and round a corner. Then I had a queer moment, a double and divergent movement of my will: I tapped the little door in the roof of the cab, and brought my arm down to pull out my watch. "Yes, sir!" said the cabman, smartly. "Er - well - it's nothing," I cried. "My mistake! We haven't much time! Go on!" and he went on...'

Something, somehow is always more important than happiness for an ambitious 'man of the world'!

Similarly, every so often, we stumble upon, and fail to notice, that an unexpected doorway of subtle joy opens every time something interrupts our babbling ego, bringing us back to this present moment, this experience of nothing-very-much, here and now.

This is the madness of ego, of ambition, of a mind trapped in compulsive thinking. When 'success', being 'somebody', 'making a difference' are paramount, the mere present moment – this room, this sky, this place – seems pitifully unimportant.

If man is notoriously unhappy, it is for this reason: we do not know, and cannot for the life of us believe, that we make an exact trade in happiness for 'specialness'. Ultimate bliss is something that can only ever be experienced by 'nobodies'. Happiness can only be experienced in this moment and 'somebodies' are always psychologically elsewhere, elsewhen.

Of course, as discussed, our most cunning rationale for seeking attention, applause, 'success', is often contained in the righteous cry: 'I want to make the world a better place.' This being the same world in which our ambitious, dreaming minds have not the least interest in living.

In truth, a 'machine for grinding general laws' that has lost its taste for poetry, music and happiness offers little hope of a kinder, more humane world.


Uninhabited Present, Uninhabitable Planet

Our problem is that the mind is obsessively focused on the next moment, viewed as much more important than this moment. We ride the present like a tawdry taxi to some exalted future 'now'. Even if we somehow managed to arrive in this utopia, our attention would continue to be fixed far, far ahead. Likewise, when we reflect on our 'golden youth', we conveniently forget that, as children, we were dreaming of a golden future released from the limitations of childhood.

Why do we have this compulsion to be somewhere else? Why isn't the present moment good enough for us? Because desire depends on distance.

We tend to think that desire simply arises in response to objects that we happen to find attractive. In reality, desire arises in dependence on an object plus separation.

When we obtain the object of desire, remove the distance, desire disappears. Separation is the sugar in the chewing gum of desire. Take away the sugar and the gum has the appeal of soggy cardboard.

What we have, everything that exists in the present moment, is uninteresting. What we haven't got is wonderful. The tanned legs strolling past on the other side of the street radiate wonder and desire. The legs of the person holding our hand - although of the exact same colour and shape - are mere common-or-garden limbs for walking with.

Desire is thus revealed as a kind of auto-hypnotic fantasy; self-created and yet mysteriously beyond our control. Billions of people are driven mad with guilt and confusion by this phenomenon, but it is simply the operation of the human mind, the logic of distance-dependent desire. Whatever we have is tasteless, chewed-out. Everything everyone else has got is bursting with fresh fruit flavours. Until we get it!

Quite outrageously, then, the present - the moment in which we actually live - is dismissed as uninteresting, worthless, by the desire-driven mind. In rare moments when we detach from our Twitter twaddle, pods and pads to mentally inhabit 'now', we seem to have arrived in a present moment positively radioactive with boredom. Our mind and limbs immediately start twitching with a hundred things we 'must do', that 'would be fun', all urging us to get up and away from this morgue-like present. Real life is cold turkey to the thought-addicted mind.

And how amazing, we treat the planet exactly as we treat the present moment: as an intrinsically worthless resource to be ridden, used, exploited on the way to 'better' and 'more'. Our world is being made a hell by the pursuit of seven billion personal utopias, rendered uninhabitable by people who never inhabit the present.

We are always somewhere else, never 'here', and so we don't even notice that 'here' is dying.

Leftists and greens rage at corporate executives and billionaires, who do of course exacerbate and exploit this phenomenon. But even as they rage, they inhabit the dream of a better world for themselves and others. How can they permit themselves to relax and enjoy a present moment so rotten with injustice and suffering? How can they love what is when what should be is so much more ethical? Their progressive gaze is directed up ahead, fixedly. They, also, have abandoned the present moment. They, also, are absent.

The world as it is has few friends indeed.


Spiritual Gossip

As we gain awareness of its destructive impact on our lives, we naturally feel inclined to wage war on the ego's future-obsessed craving for 'special' and 'more'.

This, indeed, is the theme of almost all organised religion: that we should fight desire, control anger, reject hate, abandon pride, craving, 'sin'! 'Say no to racism!' Just say no and make it so!

If greed makes us unhappy, doesn't it make sense that we should fight it? Can't we just rely on willpower and decide to choose the smallest piece of cake? Can it be all that hard? Can't we choose to create habits opposed to our reflexive greed?

The problem is that we are here attempting to fight the ego with an ego-possessed mind. So, naturally, the very effort will be commandeered by the ego.

Thus, we humbly allow someone else to choose the biggest piece of cake, which is admirable enough. But in so doing our egos may be grasping a far creamier cake, the one that feeds our sense that we are kinder, more compassionate, 'special'.

The spiritually-inclined may, once again, be investing their thoughts and energy in another kind of 'progress' towards a 'better' future. Buddhists who contemplate 'steps on the path to Enlightenment' may indeed view the present moment as a mere 'step' on that 'path'. 'Now' may again be reduced to a vehicle transporting them to a time when they will be compassionate, Enlightened, present. Other religions emphasise charitable acts as an investment towards reaching Heaven.

Unfortunately, the ego that is the root cause of suffering is often inflated, not diminished, by the willed determination to be kind. This inflation is sure to lead to destructive consequences.

Fighting 'negative' emotion also triggers an internal civil war in which our egotistical reality locks horns with our altruistic ideals. We become torn between what we 'should do', on the one hand, and what we want to do and always have done, on the other. And while our selfishness is rooted in deep-seated habits of thought and emotion, our ideals are rooted in ideas we have heard or read about how greed and anger are 'bad'; how replacing them with generosity will bring us bliss, nirvana. As Osho wryly observed, this is 'spiritual gossip', stuff we 'believe' but don't actually know to be true.

The problem is that we often don't understand what it is we are trying to change or why. For example, we might decide that anger is 'bad'. But why? Do we really believe it is always bad? Have we ever experienced anger deeply? If this sounds like an absurd question, consider the ordinary course of events.

When someone triggers anger, we respond with a firestorm of thinking centred around that person: what he said and did, why he did it, how we are going to respond, how we are going to neutralise the insult, and so on. We are in pain, and certainly we may have a background awareness that we are in pain, but we believe the cause, the source of the problem, lies outside us. So we direct all of our attention to that external source.

Naturally, we are happy to focus away from the scalding pain of anger - chain thinking assists by creating a layer of mental insulation between awareness and emotion. Shouting, insulting, fighting are also attempts to escape the pain of anger by ejecting it through words and actions.

We also turn away from an emotion that has been condemned as 'sinful' by religion and as 'toxic' by medical science. For many spiritual practitioners getting angry is like failing that day's spiritual driving test. If our ego is tied up with the idea that we are unusually good and kindly people, we will be very unwilling to examine our 'failure' closely.

The remarkable result is that, over years and decades, people committed to renouncing anger periodically erupt with volcanic rage that instantly incinerates their 'firmly-held beliefs'. It is really no contest because their understanding is based on 'spiritual gossip', not on deep awareness and understanding of anger, on the experienced fact that it is pure poison. Osho put it well:

'You say anger is bad and you don't want to do it, but then somebody insults and you become angry and you say, "What to do? In spite of me I became angry. I know very well that anger is bad, poisonous, destructive. I know it, but what to do? – I became angry."

'If you come to me, I will say, "You don't know that anger is poisonous. You have heard about it. Deep down you know that anger is necessary; deep down you know that without anger you will lose your standing, everybody will be bullying you. Without anger, you will not have any spine; your pride will be shattered. Without anger, how can you exist in this world of continuous struggle for survival?" This is what you know, but you say, "I know anger is poisonous."

'Buddha knows anger is poisonous. You have heard Buddha, you have listened to Buddha, you have learned something from him – but that is his knowledge.' (Osho, The Buddha Said... Watkins Publishing, 2007, p.123)


Putting Attention On The Pain

So what sets Buddha apart? How do we gain his understanding of anger, love, compassion, sadness, fear?

By turning inwards and experiencing our emotions, paying attention to them, watching them, feeling them. This is meditation. The word suggests we're doing something, but actually we're choosing neither to repress nor express what we feel. We're trying to observe and understand whatever arises.

The irony, of course, is that the world is awash with gadgets, gizmos, pills and thrills to help us escape from our emotions.

But what happens if we don't try to escape? What happens if we don't reject our sadness as 'horrible' and 'bad', as 'self-pitying indulgence', as something to be blasted with fun, music and Mogadon? What if we just sit and feel our sadness as deeply as possible? Does the world end?

Where do we notice sadness in our bodies? How does it feel? Does it have a texture, colour, shape? What happens if we sit quietly watching this heavy darkness, this interesting phenomenon? In The Power Of Now, Eckhart Tolle writes:

'There are many pseudo escapes - work, drink, drugs, anger, projection, suppression, and so on - but they don't free you from the pain. Suffering does not diminish in intensity when you make it unconscious...

'So don't turn away from the pain. Face it. Feel it fully. Feel it - don't think about it! Express it if necessary, but don't create a script in your mind around it. Give all your attention to the feeling, not to the person, event, or situation that seems to have caused it...

'So give your complete attention to what you feel, and refrain from mentally labelling it. As you go into the feeling, be intensely alert. At first, it may seem like a dark and terrifying place, and when the urge to turn away from it comes, observe it but don't act on it. Keep putting your attention on the pain, keep feeling the grief, the fear, the dread, the loneliness, whatever it is.' (Tolle, The Power Of Now, Hodder & Stoughton, 2001, p.185)

Osho described the results:

'And you will be surprised: the deeper you go into it, the more it starts dispersing. If a person can go into his sorrow deeply he will find all sorrow has evaporated. And in that evaporation of sorrow is joy, is bliss.

'Bliss has not to be found outside, against sorrow. Bliss has to be found deep, hidden behind the sorrow itself. You have to dig into your sorrowful states and you will find a wellspring of joy.'

This is true of every emotional pain. We can try to escape dread feelings of 'failure' by launching ourselves up career ladders, banishing our minds from the present. Or we can sit and observe the raw energy of feeling 'unknown', 'ignored', of craving 'specialness'. We can turn these into objects of attention rather than unconquerable, dismal 'facts of life'.

Focusing awareness on any aspect of the present moment – a child playing, the light in a blackbird's eye, emotional upheaval – cuts off the babbling mind, allowing bliss and peace to arise. This does not involve trying to achieve bliss; it involves trying to observe whatever exists in the present moment.

This is also not a fight with emotion. It is not that willpower is conquering anger, sadness, jealousy and so on, so the ego is not inflated by 'virtue' gas. It is not a matter of being a goody-goody. We learn early that putting our hand in boiling water hurts. That awareness does not make us feel at all 'special'.

And what about love, compassion, generosity, kindness? Should we not be striving with all our might to enhance these qualities in ourselves in this benighted world?

Instead of relying on willpower, we can pay attention to how we feel when we are friendly, kind and generous as opposed to hostile, cruel and selfish. Our endlessly chattering minds make it difficult for us to perceive that kindness in fact generates enormous happiness in our lives. We fail to notice because we are not paying attention, and because this subtle experience runs counter to our corporate culture's loud faith in getting rather than giving.

Simple awareness that kindness is blissful and unkindness painful naturally strengthens our tendency to be kind. But only if we are paying attention to how we feel in the present moment, only if we are not lost in mental chatter. Osho said:

'When you are feeling happy, loving, floating – these are the right moments when the door is very close. Just a knock will be enough... Just a few minutes of meditation will be more than a few days of meditation when you are miserable... Just sit for five minutes; don't waste that moment. If a certain harmony is there – use that, ride on it, and that wave will take you far away, farther than you can go on your own. So learn how to use these blissful moments.'

The door is very close – the door in the wall of a mind-trapped life. On the other side, beyond intellectual ideals and ethical codes, our own felt experience of happiness, peace and compassion awaits.

Click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2.

Suggested Reading And Watching

Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now (Hodder & Stoughton, 2001) is tremendous.

Subscribe to Tolle TV, a monthly magazine in which Tolle discusses these and related issues.

You can also watch an excellent series of ten long interviews with Tolle.

Osho's books The Ultimate Alchemy, Volumes 1 and 2, and many others, are available free online.

]]> (Editor) Cogitations Wed, 22 May 2013 10:51:54 +0000
'The Special One' - Part 2: Looking Under The Lamppost

By David Edwards


There is an emptiness at the core of our being. The ego's great task is to fill that emptiness with evidence that we are 'someone' rather than 'nobody', that we are 'special'. But no matter how hard we try, our achievements continue to fall and vanish into the void.

Praise and applause made us 'special' yesterday. But if, today, no-one emails us with, 'Dear beautiful Media Lens people, I just want to tell you again how much you move us who read you, and how deep and enduring is our love and admiration for you' (Email to Media Lens, April 12, 2003), the feeling quickly decays.

We know we are not the same person who received yesterday's applause. So the feeling of 'specialness' is like a plate spinning atop a pole – we have to keep shaking the pole or the plate will fall and break (or so we imagine). And we know that failure and disappointment invariably seem to lie in wait for even 'The Greatest'.

In 1984, John McEnroe lost his temper and threw away a chance to win the French Open tennis tournament. But McEnroe is considered one of the 'greats' - he was world number one, having terminated the career of the legendary Bjorn Borg - so it couldn't possibly matter to him. He writes in his autobiography:

'Sometimes it still keeps me up nights. It's even tough for me now to do the commentary at the French – I'll often have one or two days when I literally feel sick to my stomach just at being there and thinking about that match.' (McEnroe, Serious, Hachette Digital, 2008, p.152)

But why the angst?

'I had two Wimbledons and three Opens. A French title, followed by my third Wimbledon, would have given me that final, complete thing that I don't have now – a legitimate claim as possibly the greatest player of all time.'

However high, the ego aims higher - something is always missing, lacking, incomplete. The achievements of even the greatest tennis player will seem to be overshadowed by those of the greatest golf player, which will not compare with the greatest artistic or literary talent. And forget mere sport and art, what about people who take control of whole countries and change the course of history?

Lenin, we learn, was deeply ashamed of his short legs and tiny feet, which had the unfortunate habit of dangling off chairs. Stalin, the 'steel' Tsar of Soviet 'Communism' – the man who crushed Hitler - wore boots with 'built-up heels because he was extremely conscious of his short stature', historian Anthony Beevor notes. Stalin also 'avoided brighter lights wherever possible because they showed up the pockmarks on his face'. (Beevor, Berlin, Penguin Books, 2007, p.150)

History tells of the guard who helped Alexander The Great adjust a picture on a wall that was a little too high for the diminutive world-conqueror, saying: 'Sir, whenever you want to do such a thing just tell me. I am a bigger man than you.'

Alexander snapped back: 'Bigger? No! Taller – but bigger? No!'

Offended even by the sight of loftier soldiers, the tyrant's ego felt lower, inferior – in that way at least.

And what is a mere politician or warrior compared to a towering giant of science like Newton, Einstein... or Cox?

Clearly, all of this is measured against others. We are more successful, smarter, better looking, wealthier and funnier, or not, as compared to everyone else. And so we are engaged in an endless competition to increase, and to prevent others from decreasing, our sense that 'I am the special one.'

In Libertas, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote:

'The natural state of men, before they entered into society, was a mere war, and that not simply, but a war of all men against all men.'

This turned out to be anthropological nonsense. Ironically though, it does describe the 'unnatural' state of men after they 'entered into society'. For we are all engaged in a Perpetual War of all egos against all egos. As ever, the rogue Indian mystic Osho saw the significance:

'The other cannot be the friend, the other is the enemy. In his very being the other, he is your enemy.

'Some are more inimical, some less, but the other remains the enemy. Who is a friend? The least of the enemies, really, nothing else. The friend is one who is least inimical towards you and the enemy is one who is least friendly towards you, but they stand in a queue. The friend stands nearer, the enemy further away, but they all are enemies. The other cannot be a friend. It is impossible, because with the other there is bound to be competition, jealousy, struggle... Buddha has friends, you have enemies.' (Osho, The Book Of Nothing - Hsin Hsin Ming, Osho World, 1983, p.143)

So who are these frienemies, the people we call 'friends'?

'You like a person because he helps your ego. You like a girl because she says you are the perfect man. I once overheard two young lovers. They were sitting near the sea and big waves were rolling. And the boy said, "Roll on, beautiful waves! Roll on, bigger and bigger and bigger!" And they became bigger and bigger and bigger.
'And the girl said, "Wonderful! The sea obeys you!"
'You will like this person. And if somebody helps your ego, you are ready to help his or her ego in the bargain.' (p.110)

Friends stay friends when they are careful to reinforce our sense of 'specialness'. Prima donnas who contravene this unwritten rule, heavily prioritising their own egos, do not remain friends for long: 'Likes the sound of his own voice, doesn't he?' 'Bit full of herself, isn't she?'

When friendship's ego-bolstering is perceived to have been betrayed, volcanoes erupt. The ultimate relationship nightmare is understood to involve our partner sleeping with our best friend behind our back. An ego hit received from an enemy is bearable – like jumping from cold air into a cold bath. From a close friend, a primary source of ego reassurance, it is like jumping from a sauna into an ice pool. Friends who engage the 'specialness' thrust-reverser mid-flight do so with catastrophic results.

Naturally enough, then, 'success' has a devastating impact on these carefully maintained treaties of mutual ego cooperation. As the novelist Gore Vidal famously commented: 'Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.' McEnroe describes life at home after his first big success at Wimbledon:

'But from the moment I got back, the people I had grown up with wouldn't let me feel the same, or so I thought. Suddenly I was Somebody, while they were still nobodies... My friends weren't quite sure how to handle it and neither was I.' (p.64)

Strictly speaking, the friend who becomes a 'star' ceases to be a friend, becoming instead someone who holds a mirror to our relative lack of 'specialness'. Technical term: 'enemy'. No matter how much a 'successful' friend might try to limit the collateral damage, heads will continue to shake in dismay. Just looking at him or her is a knife to the heart of 'specialness', in direct contravention of friendship's first commandment: Thou shalt reinforce my ego.

And so the lottery winner cannot win. If he showers his friends with generosity, he is reviled for 'flashing his money about'. Alternatively, she is spurned as a miser unwilling to share her good fortune: 'Didn't buy a round all night!' Desperate to claw back some scraps of 'specialness', the ego will imply or openly state: 'I may not have won the lottery. But if I did, I'd remember who my friends were.' The heads nodding in agreement indicate the emergency resuscitation and reinflation of ego.

Unable to tolerate the adjustment from feeling more or less 'equal' to feeling 'inferior', the ego will search for any excuse to justify rejection - an undignified sulk being far preferable to the revolting spectacle of the friend's 'success'.

A Spanish joke tells of a man who goes into a bar. The barman greets him with the comment:

'Pancho and Pablo were just in here slagging you off.'

The victim frowns: 'Strange, I don't recall doing either of them a favour.'

It is true that people fall in love with kindness and generosity. But the ego will become wild-eyed if it is made to feel inferior. Thus, a thousand TV and movie characters snarl: 'I don't want your pity!' After all, if you are helping me, you have some resource, capacity or talent I do not have. Stop patronising me with your unconditional kindness!

Buddhists sometimes fail to recognise that, beneath their beaming smiles, egos may writhe in agony, like vampires exposed to sunlight. And they sometimes fail to realise that their own egos delight in exactly this reaction! Some people throw polite words and smiles in our face like acid.


Egoic Bingeing - The Ballad of Bon Scott

As Osho noted, romantic 'love' and ego-enhancement are intimate bedfellows. A Don Juan who sleeps with numerous partners makes a powerful statement (literally, to his friends) about his 'specialness', especially when the 'conquests' 'belong' to others. If the average woman sleeps with just seven men in her lifetime, the fact that Don is found sufficiently attractive to be one of them suggests he is 'not like other guys'. The bedpost 'score' is a notch of hard data indicating that he really is 'superior' to others.

Promiscuity, then, is about far more than a crude desire for sexual release. A great deal of the motivation actually involves pleasuring the engorged ego. In the first flush of infatuation both parties lavish praise on one another: 'I never thought I'd meet someone like you.' 'You're so easy to talk to.' Or as Woody Allen lampooned: 'You have the most... eyes I've ever seen on any person.'

Don Juan, not unreasonably, enjoys this ego bath as much as he dislikes what generally follows. If, after a few short weeks or months, we remain 'the most extraordinary person' our partner has ever met, it is likely because we are incapable even of cleaning the bath properly! Again, the ego thrust-reversal - worshiped as a god one day, berated as a failed skivvy the next – is a bitter draught indeed.

In his autobiography, comedian Frankie Boyle writes:

'I sometimes wonder if anybody really has principles or if they're all just chasing different kinds of sex.' (Boyle, My Shit Life So Far, HarperCollins, 2010, p.72)

The point is well made. But behind the sexual chase lies the hunt for ego-enhancement. If the pornography industry is anything to go by, sexual gratification is often a form of egoic bingeing. Consider, after all, the evident enthusiasm for what might be called one-way pleasure acts – often more like acts of punishment - which are clearly perceived as demeaning and so raise the ego correspondingly 'high'. When AC/DC's Bon Scott crooned, 'I let you do things to me I'd let no other woman do,' the mind boggled. The significance for Scott's ego, however, was not in doubt.

The appeal is not primarily rooted in a desire to dominate or harm. Rather, the concern is fundamentally self-centred: to feel 'special', to protect the ego from feelings of insignificance and inferiority.

From this perspective, outrage over racism and sexism can be seen to contain hidden ironies. The racist ego, of course, raises itself 'up' by doing others 'down' on the basis of skin colour and assorted items of anthropological gossip. But the problem is that almost all of us view ourselves as more valuable and important than everyone else. Indeed, this near-universal selfism is precisely the root of the racism and sexism we abhor in others, but which in fact are symptoms of the ego we devotedly serve in ourselves. Ironically, anti-racists typically perceive themselves to be of a far higher moral and intellectual order than 'fascist scum' who hate 'Pakis'. For anti-racists, indeed, racists are often moral 'Pakis'.

The idea that anyone is racially superior to anyone else is deluded. But so is the near-universal aspiration to 'superiority' and 'specialness' trained into children from the youngest age. Ambition and 'achievement' are fed intravenously at infant, primary, secondary school, and college, through stars, grades, streaming and endless comparison with others. In an earlier Cogitation, I recalled my own feelings of desolation when, at about 12-years-old, I fared much worse than my close friends in our end of term exams. I felt I was an imposter, a fraud who didn't belong among them.

As discussed in Part One, a prime way of feeling 'special' is to view ourselves as kinder, more compassionate, more aware than others. Even as we grimly shake our heads at 'them', our ego is dancing a jig, delighted to feel more highly evolved than American 'rednecks' and corporate 'drones'.

And so one of the reasons why what we call 'dissent' has achieved so much less than expected is that it is often not, in fact, dissent at all. At least, it is not in opposition to the lead author of history's nightmare – the ego with its craving to be 'special'. As we will see later, it is possible to question the rationality and meaning of all such labels, and to drop these delusions altogether.


The Ego's Wall Of 'Noise'

So what is the relationship between the desire to be 'special' and psychological ill-being?

Consider, first, that this ambition generates a fantastic quantity of mental activity. The trained dread of 'inferiority' drills a bore-hole deep into our souls tapping a kind of geothermal source of pain that powers endless, toxic chain-thinking.

After all, our evaluation of ourselves is a mere thought, one based on our assessment of the evidence supplied by interactions with the people around us. Wiggling the pole to keep the 'specialness' plate aloft requires constant mind activity plotting, planning, assessing, and above all 'achieving'. This relentless 'thought chatter' has an enormous and rarely discussed impact on our happiness.

Indicatively, I learned early that I could either do my homework or listen to music, but I could not do both. When I was aware of the music, I got no work done. When I got down to work, thirty minutes of music could pass without my noticing a single song.

This was a simple example of how concentrated thought shuts out the world around us: we become oblivious to external sights, sounds, people, nature. Even more problematic, thinking cuts us off from our own feelings bulldozed far from awareness by blades of compacted thought (the great appeal of workaholism).

Or consider the way dream fragments linger in our memory when we first wake up in the morning. If we immediately focus on the fragments, take hold of a few threads, we can reach back and remember the whole dream. But if we engage our thinking mind before remembering – if we recall a conversation or start planning the day ahead – the dream instantly evaporates. No matter how hard we try, we can often remember nothing at all. Again, this indicates the power of thinking to shut down awareness.

The implications are clear: to habitually engage in compulsive thinking is to reside, perhaps for decades, in a mind-created version of the world that we mistake for the real thing, from which we are in fact isolated by a wall of mental 'noise'.

If this sounds like a good definition of what it means to be asleep, then we can understand why an 'enlightened' individual is called 'Buddha', which simply means 'The Awakened one'. A Buddha is not some kind of God, as many people imagine, but someone fully awake in the present moment rather than lost in thought.

The comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell commented:

'People say that what we're all seeking is a meaning for life. I think that what we're seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.'

But why would we not be able to experience being alive right now? Because our obsession with being 'special', with 'achieving', drives relentless mind activity that drowns out the world outside and our emotions inside.

Long after I realised that I could not simultaneously listen to music and write, I discovered that when I focus on the present moment – a painful or happy emotion in my chest, my breathing, a bird singing, a child playing, the sound of someone turning the pages of a book – thought subsides and a subtle feeling of joy, or bliss, arises. I also noticed that when my mind starts chattering again, the bliss dissipates exactly as if clouds had drifted across the sun.

Happiness does not somehow reside in birdsong, or in the light shining from a child's eye. The great mystic understanding has always been that happiness resides inside, clear and bright, but is almost always obscured by a thick smog of thought generated in the doomed attempt to find happiness outside, notably in being 'special'.

And so almost everyone is racing at full speed away from a happiness that they already possess but which they ignore because they have more important things to do! It is said that after Bodhidharma became enlightened, he laughed continuously for seven days. Asked to explain the laughter, he replied:

'I am laughing because the whole thing was ridiculous... The whole effort was sheer absurdity, ridiculous! I am laughing at myself and I am laughing at the whole world, because people are trying to do something which need not be done at all. People are trying hard, and the harder they try the more difficult it becomes. Their very effort is the barrier!' (Osho, The Goose Is Out, Osho World, 1982, p.130)

But surely the ego-serving mind at least delivers a version of happiness in moments when a desire is satisfied. Author Richard Carlson explains the misunderstanding:

'Sometimes you might feel a moment or two of happiness right after getting something you want. Contrary to popular opinion, however, this is not because your desire was fulfilled, but because you took your attention off what you didn't have. The moment you switch gears and return your focus of attention to something else you want, or don't have, you will lose your sense of well-being and feel discontent. Your mind will again begin searching for something outside itself to gain satisfaction – perpetuating the cycle of unhappiness.' (Carlson, You Can Be Happy No Matter What, Mobius, 1999, p.157)

So even when we 'achieve', it is not that 'success' makes us happy. Rather, the mind's misery-making is momentarily paused, allowing happiness to shine through.

Thus, dissatisfaction is our inevitable lot gnawing away at our soul and planet. Focused on what we haven't got, hungry for a real experience of life, we struggle through blizzards of thought to wage a war of mass consumption on the megastores. But we find no happiness even in the immensity of our greed, because we are searching for the answer in the wrong place. The point is made in a story featuring the great spiritual clown, Mullah Nasruddin:

'One night some of Nasruddin's friends came upon him crawling around on his hands and knees searching for something beneath a lamppost. When they asked him what he was looking for, he told them that he had lost the key to his house. They all got down to help him look, but without any success. Finally, one of them asked Nasruddin where exactly he had lost the key. Nasruddin replied, "In the house."
'"Then why," his friends asked, "are you looking under the lamppost?"
'Nasruddin replied, "Because there's more light here."' (Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, Seeking The Heart of Wisdom – The Path of Insight Meditation, Shambhala, 1987, p.95)

Our city centres are ablaze with this same light, gleaming from shops and bars, from shiny gadgets - all promising happiness outside. Desperate for respite as we crawl and fail in our search, we numb the pain with intoxication – drink, drugs, egoic bingeing - only to find our problems the same or worse in the morning. Or we try to pierce the numbness, the 'miserable ease', with ever more extreme thrills, sensationalism, violence (the vast bloodbath that is modern 'entertainment').

And it is not just a matter of buying more. As discussed, the idea of becoming 'more' - more 'important', 'famous', 'compassionate' - is much more interesting than wherever we happen to be here and now. Alas, no matter how far we travel, we will always arrive at boredom, because we are always fundamentally in the same place: our thought-trapped heads.

I am not of course denying that rational thought is a wonderful tool. But compulsive thinking can be a terrible problem, even a kind of curse. What else has us tossing and turning at night, reaching for the bottle, the doctor, the tranquiliser?


Part 3 will follow shortly. Part 1 is archived here.

]]> (Editor) Cogitations Tue, 26 Feb 2013 13:52:32 +0000