- In Cogitations
- Post 10 May 2012
- Last Updated on 01 June 2012
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By: David Edwards
The truth peeks out at us from the most unexpected places. It can be seen, for example, in the empty spaces where one might otherwise hope to find a clock in shops. The average retailer doesn’t approve of customers clock-watching - they might realise they have something more important to do and cut short their shopping trips.
Noam Chomsky crafted a small skeleton key to understanding the world:
‘The basic principle, rarely violated, is that what conflicts with the requirements of power and privilege does not exist.’ (Chomsky, Deterring Democracy, Hill and Wang, New York, 1992, p.79)
Chomsky argues, for example, that George Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984 were embraced as great novels, and standard school texts, not because they were particularly profound, but because they attacked the Soviet Union:
‘Fame, Fortune and Respect await those who reveal the crimes of official enemies; those who undertake the vastly more important task of raising a mirror to their own societies can expect quite different treatment. George Orwell is famous for Animal Farm and 1984, which focus on the official enemy. Had he addressed the more interesting and significant question of thought control in relatively free and democratic societies, it would not have been appreciated, and instead of wide acclaim, he would have faced silent dismissal or obloquy.’ (Noam Chomsky, Deterring Democracy, Hill And Wang, 1992, p.372)
Hans von Sponeck raised a mirror to our society in his book A Different Kind Of War - The UN Sanctions Regime In Iraq (Bergahn Books, 2006). In meticulous detail, he described how American and British policymakers had knowingly caused mass death through sanctions in Iraq from 1990-2003:
‘At no time during the years of comprehensive economic sanctions were there adequate resources to meet minimum needs for human physical and mental survival either before, or during, the Oil-for-Food Programme.’ (p.144)
The effects were catastrophic:
‘The [US-UK] hard-line approach prevailed, with the result that practically an entire nation was subjected to poverty, death and destruction of its physical and mental foundations.’ (p.161)
This being the key reason why ‘the number of excess deaths of children under five during 1991-8 was between 400,000 and 500,000’. (p.165)
I have interviewed von Sponeck several times. He could hardly be more rational and restrained, hardly better qualified to comment - he ran the UN’s oil-for-food programme in Baghdad from 1998-2000 before resigning in protest at the effects of sanctions. His book, published three years after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, could hardly have been more topical. But it has never been reviewed by any UK newspaper. It has been mentioned once, in a single paragraph, in a single mainstream article in the Independent.
Thus we find empty spaces in the Guardian, the Independent, the Times and the Telegraph where detailed, positive reviews and interviews analysing von Sponeck’s ‘clock’ should have been. We need to know the time - shops are there to help, are they not? And we need to know how and why our government caused the deaths of half a million children in Iraq. But there are no clocks to be found – just empty space!
Similarly, the psychotherapist Erich Fromm argued that Freudian therapy had been favoured by a system of ‘social filters’ because it ‘makes Capitalism appear as the system which corresponds perfectly to human nature, and places it beyond the reach of criticism’. (Fromm, The Sane Society, Rinehart and Winston, 1955, p.77)
The aim of therapy, Fromm noted, ‘is often that of helping the person to be better adjusted to existing circumstances, to “reality” as it is frequently called; mental health is often considered to be nothing but this adjustment…’ (Fromm, Beyond The Chains Of Illusion, Abacus, 1989, pp.131-132)
Interestingly, Fromm's theory of social filters predicted that the theory would itself be filtered out and ignored. In his biography, The Legacy of Erich Fromm, Daniel Burston wrote:
‘American psychiatrists of the Freudian persuasion simply ignored Fromm, as the paucity of references and lack of a single substantive analysis in the orthodox American psychoanalytic literature demonstrates... Indeed, the grotesque distortions by Fromm's critics and would-be expositors attest to the validity of Fromm's theory of social filters.’ (Burston, The Legacy Of Erich Fromm, Harvard University Press, 1991, p.185)
The Grandfather Of All Missing Clocks
We live in a society, then, that responds to the problem of headaches with endless glossy adverts for innumerable kinds of painkillers. It does not advertise the dramatic power of simple tap water to relieve and prevent headaches caused by dehydration, notably after some kind of exertion.
But the greatest missing ‘clock’ of all concerns the most fundamental issue of all: how best to respond to the suffering of the human condition. It involves the kind of solution the filter system cannot abide – one that is completely free, instantly and universally available, unmonopolisable, requiring no equipment or specialist training. Although it is the living heart of the great mystical teachings, it is almost never discussed by the gatekeepers of organised religion – it is just too simple, too available, requiring no priesthood, no temple, no rituals, no scriptures, no hotline to an invented Cosmic Father Figure. As a result, it has been understood but almost completely unknown for literally thousands of years.
The rogue mystic, Osho – one of the most insightful and outspoken, and therefore maligned, of spiritual teachers – gave a clear example indicating the general theme:
‘You are sad. Go into your sadness rather than escaping into some activity, into some occupation, rather than going to see a friend or to the movie or turning on the radio or the TV. Rather than escaping from it, turning your back towards it, drop all activity. Close your eyes, go into it, see what it is, why it is – and see without condemning it, because if you condemn you will not be able to see the totality of it…
‘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.’ (Osho, The Book Of Wisdom)
The statement that ‘Bliss has not to be found outside, against sorrow’ runs counter to exactly everything our consumerist society tells us. In a world of action-oriented problem-solving it seems absurd to suggest that the simple tap water of awareness, of watching, could be the solution to fundamental aspects of human misery (without denying, of course, the importance of rational inquiry).
So why does sadness transform into bliss under observation? First, notice that suffering always arises when we try to mentally escape from sadness, or indeed any aspect of the present moment. Sitting in a traffic jam, part of our mind often refuses to accept where we are; it literally attempts to wrench us away from the actual present into its own improved, imagined version. This feels like something is tearing apart the muscle fibres of our heart, a rending sensation that is a deep cause of suffering. There is otherwise nothing intrinsically painful about sitting in a car for 20 minutes.
The problem with taking some kind of action to escape from the present moment is that the tearing sensation persists as an undercurrent of suffering in everything we do. But if we stop trying to escape, if we turn to face the moment – for example, by watching and feeling the dissatisfaction in our chests - the sensation of being torn disappears and we are left with a simple human emotion like sadness, anxiety or boredom. The emotion is then free to emerge, rise and fall like a wave.
Riding this wave with awareness directs our minds away from endless mental chatter, which cuts us off from feeling, and deep into what Buddhists call our Buddha Nature, which, while often obscured by the chatter, is always present and intrinsically blissful. In fact, whenever awareness is drawn away from compulsive thinking – by watching sadness, watching the breath, watching a sunset, watching a child playing, listening to birdsong - bliss arises. The bliss is not caused by the sunset; it is ever-present in the heart and emerges from behind the usual drizzle of thoughts.
If clear seeing, feeling and allowing of emotional pain is the solution, then, as Osho commented, moralistic judgement can only be harmful:
‘The only problem with sadness, desperateness, anger, hopelessness, anxiety, anguish, misery, is that you want to get rid of them. That’s the only barrier.
‘You will have to live with them. You cannot just escape. They are the very situation in which life has to integrate and grow. They are the challenges of life. Accept them. They are blessings in disguise. If you want to escape from them, if you somehow want to get rid of them, then the problem arises – because if you want to get rid of something, you never look at it directly. And then the thing starts hiding from you because you are condemnatory; then the thing goes on moving deeper into the unconscious, hides in the darkest corner of your being where you cannot find it. It moves into the basement of your being and hides there. And of course the deeper it goes, the more trouble it creates – because then it starts functioning from unknown corners of your being and you are completely helpless.' (Osho, The Art of Dying)
Overeating – It’s Not About Food
It turns out that all forms of destructive, compulsive behaviour can be transcended by observing our internal state. Osho argued that the solution even to overeating was to pay close attention to the act and experience of eating. I initially found the suggestion pretty baffling - why would close attention free us from greed? Isn’t the problem that we focus too intensely on our food, give it too much importance?
In her excellent book Women, Food and God, Geneen Roth explains how awareness, not dieting, not self-control, is the best response to the modern epidemic of overeating. Roth knows what she’s talking about, for almost two decades she had tried everything else to overcome her eating disorder:
‘Since adolescence, I’d gained and lost over a thousand pounds. I’d been addicted to amphetamines for four years and to laxatives for two years. I’d thrown up, spit up, fasted and tried every diet possible, from the All-Grape-Nuts diet to the One-Hot-Fudge-Sundae-a-Day diet to Atkins, Stillman and Weight Watchers. I’d been anorexic – spending almost two years weighing eighty pounds – and I’d been quite overweight. Mostly overweight.’ (Geneen Roth, Women, Food And God – An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything, Simon & Schuster, 2010, p.20)
All of this failed, leaving Roth on the very edge of suicide, because it didn’t address the root of the problem:
‘Compulsive eating is an attempt to avoid the absence (of love, comfort, knowing what to do) when we find ourselves in the desert of a particular moment, feeling, situation. In the process of resisting the emptiness, in the act of turning away from our feelings, of trying and trying again to lose the same twenty, fifty, eighty pounds, we ignore what could utterly transform us.’ (pp.37-38)
Nothing worked because Roth’s obsession was in fact rooted, not in a desire to get pleasure, but in a desire to get away from emotional pain deemed intolerable and perhaps non-survivable. She was trying to escape from what she imagined was unbearable pain by immersing herself in pleasure. But any momentary success came at a high price:
‘When we are bowled over by grief and our response is to eat a pizza, we halt our ability to move through the grief as well as our confidence that it won’t destroy us. If you don’t allow a feeling to begin, you also don’t let it end.’ (pp.116-117)
Additionally, ‘the only thing that eating does is add yet another source of sadness: after the food is gone, the original source of sadness is still there, except that now they have topped it with the sadness or frustration or hopelessness about their conflicted relationship with food. Contrary to their fantasies, eating has not taken away their sadness – it’s doubled it.’ (p.170)
This of course is true of all compulsion: addiction to drugs, alcoholism, rage, gambling, pornography and so on. Similarly, when we attempt to escape fear, we halt our ability to move through the fear to the understanding that it will not destroy us and will instead fall away as our adrenaline is exhausted. If we don’t allow fear to begin, it never ends and becomes what we call a phobia. Roth comments:
‘But staying with the emptiness – entering it, welcoming it, using it to get to know ourselves better, being able to distinguish the stories we tell ourselves about it from the actual feeling – that’s radical.’ (p.59)
The key to overeating is not to indulge or repress the craving for food; it is to witness, watch, feel the emotional pain from which we wrongly imagine we have to escape. Amazingly, then, ‘It’s never been about the weight. It’s not even about food.’ (p.53) And so:
‘Our work is not to change what you do, but to witness what you do with enough awareness, enough curiosity, enough tenderness that the old lies and old delusions upon which the compulsion is based become apparent and fall away.’ (p.80)
The lies and delusions centre around the idea that our painful emotions just cannot be faced, that they are too painful to endure. In reality, Roth says, exactly as Osho argued, ‘it turns out that being with feelings is not the same as drowning in them. With awareness (the ability to know what you are feeling) and presence (the ability to inhabit a feeling while sensing that which is bigger than the feeling), it is possible to be with what you believe will destroy you without being destroyed. It is possible to be with big heaves of feelings like grief or terror. Little waves of feelings like crankiness or sadness.’ (p.88)
When we sit and watch sadness, for example, it rises and falls, becomes soft and manageable, and eventually blissful (a big surprise); so the motivation to escape into overeating disappears. This is what cured Roth: ‘Within a year after I stopped dieting, I’d reached my natural weight, where I’ve remained for three decades.’ (p.21)
The biggest, grandest missing ‘clock’ of all is this extraordinary but almost completely unknown power of awareness, attention, the witnessing of thoughts and emotions.
Is Media Lens Driving People To The Fridge?
A disturbing idea arises from Roth’s observation, based on her own bruising personal experience, that blame, guilt and shame are utterly counter-productive in generating change. Diets, she writes, are based on crazy logic:
‘If you hate yourself enough, you will love yourself. If you torture yourself enough, you will become a peaceful, relaxed human being.’ (p.77)
So why does this self-torture backfire? Because it piles yet more suffering on exactly the emotional pain from which we are trying to escape through compulsive behaviour. Because we believe we are attempting to counter sheer greed for pleasure, we fail to see that we are adding to the emotional pain that is the real engine driving the compulsion.
The catastrophic result is that fully 75 per cent of Americans are overweight in a world where the global dieting industry is worth $55 billion a year. Can we apply these lessons further afield?
We live in a world where left and environmental activists have been piling on the emotional pain for decades – much as overeaters endlessly assail themselves with guilt, shame and health concerns. What has been the result?
As war crimes have escalated and evidence for catastrophic climate change has become truly overwhelming, public interest has stalled, decayed, fallen away. Many factors are responsible, including the ‘convergence’ of ‘mainstream’ politics under pressure from increasingly powerful transnational corporations, including media giants. But perhaps other factors are also at play.
Could it be that political activists, including us at Media Lens, are having essentially the same impact in transforming public behaviour as the informed, savvy personal activist Roth initially had in modifying her own behaviour?
Politics may only be half the problem of politics. Perhaps, as it were, it never was about the food! Perhaps a key underlying problem – fuelling Permanent War, class war, climate war – is a widespread compulsive ‘greed’ rooted in the same attempt to escape emotional pain.
If that is the case, then this issue is at least as important as that of identifying the disastrous results in the external world. We need to learn to watch, digest and transform the emotional pain that is generating our endless craving for money, power, fame and food; and causing us to refuse to face the dire problems afflicting us. Overeaters know very well that they are damaging their self-esteem, their health, their life expectancy. Knowing doesn’t stop them; it makes them eat even more! Ironically, the pain of these negative consequences empowers the very cause of the problems they are trying to overcome.
But alas, left movements in particular are dominated by a ‘hard-headed’, decidedly male, even macho, view of the world. To talk of feelings – even issues like love and compassion - is to induce much eye-rolling. In this spirit, a poster on the ZNet website commented under one of my earlier Cogitations:
‘WTF? [What The F*ck]… Let’s keep navel gazing at a respectful distance.’
A friend of mine, a Buddhist monk, commented to me that meditating on the navel is in fact an ancient and revered Buddhist practice!
According to the left, the only ‘real’ issues are politics, economics, facts, reason, action – concern with the human heart is a soppy distraction.
In all likelihood, if Geneen Roth had taken that point of view seriously, she would now be dead. As she says, contrary to just about everybody’s agenda, ‘the medicine for the pain is in the pain’. (p.98)