- Created on 08 July 2014
- 08 July 2014
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.'
'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.
- Created on 22 May 2013
- 22 May 2013
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.
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.
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.
- Created on 04 December 2012
- 03 December 2012
By: David Edwards
It is said that God plays a joke on every new-born, whispering:
‘You are the special one!’
The joke quickly wears thin when we start running up against the seven billion other people on the planet who all know that they are ‘the special one’. Deep ego wounds are received every time we fall short; when she chooses him over us. When our best friend gets the grades but we don't. When we get to the final interview, but no further.
If the ultimate physical battle is to continue breathing, the ego's ‘life-and-death’ struggle is to be ‘special’ rather than 'a loser'. This is why we fight to defend even the most trivial argument as if our lives depended on it. The pain of the ego - as though in its death throes - has children (and adults!) hurling themselves to the floor and writhing in agony.
‘Specialness’ cannot be established as permanent fact, it can only be indicated, temporarily. Small victories and defeats are therefore invested with great symbolic significance. Coming first in an exam is a sign that we are ‘bright’ (born with a better bulb), even ‘gifted’ (blessed by the Fates, or a benevolent God, to have a good memory). On the other hand, losing a game of ping-pong is a doom-laden sign that we are ‘useless’ at sports, a lesser physical specimen, even a withered branch of the evolutionary tree.
We spend our lives trying to defend ourselves against this feeling, to avoid it; to show that, while we may be inferior in this way, we are certainly superior in that way: ‘Who else around here can say that they have…?’
In the struggle to feel superior rather than inferior, we will sacrifice anything, even life itself, for attention, praise, applause. We will climb mountains, career ladders, pop charts. We will write blogs, books, songs, screenplays just so our ego can cock a leg and 'make a mark'. We think we want money, but the money makes us ‘special’. We think we want sex, but the ‘conquests’ make us ‘somebody’. We think we want beauty, but we want the beauty ‘they’ want. The towering Rolls Royce trumpets our ‘achievement’. The celebrity is a ‘star’ glittering in the firmament far above mere worldly mortals.
All of this involves playing a double game with others. After all, they can only ‘look up’ to us from ‘below’. We require their complicity in our self-promotion at their expense. No surprise, then, that even the deepest admiration comes with a hidden price tag – the ‘lower’ will have their revenge. The writer Robert Pirsig commented of his fans:
‘They love you for being what they all want to be, but they hate you for being what they are not.’ (Quoted, Tim Adams, ‘Zen and the art of Robert Pirsig,’ The Observer, November 19, 2006)
The Indian mystic Osho added some detail:
‘When somebody respects you, he feels insulted deep down – deep down he has become inferior to you. So how can he forgive? He cannot. Someday the accounts will have to be put right. When he bowed down and touched your feet, that very moment a deep wound happened within him: he was lower than you. Now he will have to prove that he is not. Someday he will prove that he is higher than you.’ (Osho, When The Shoe Fits, Rebel Publishing, 1997, p.63)
Sometimes the accounts are settled immediately. As I was writing this, a reader - himself an author - wrote to us at Media Lens:
‘I am a devotee of what you guys do, and enjoy almost every Alert - though I would prefer if some were shorter!’
In deference to this phenomenon, celebrities are required to affect deep humility: ‘stars’ can get away with being ‘famous’ as long as they don’t rub it in. It's fine for a tennis champ to lift the Wimbledon trophy - just let him try lifting a guitar and playing rock star! The reflexive response: ‘God, that’s awful!’ But we add with incredulity: ‘Just how much adoration does one man need?’ This is our ego talking.
By contrast, warm applause greets veteran ‘stars’ willing to disown their earlier triumphs. The music produced by the surviving members of rock band Led Zeppelin was coolly received by critics until singer Robert Plant declared himself utterly done with the Zeppelin albatross and his own ‘Rock God’ status. He told one interviewer:
‘I can’t blame anybody for hating Led Zeppelin. If you absolutely hated “Stairway To Heaven,” nobody can blame you for that because it was, um... so pompous.’
Plant’s subsequent album of duets with bluegrass-country singer Alison Krauss was garlanded with praise and awards. It was a matter of taste, but critics seemed as impressed by Plant’s self-inflicted rock deicide as they were by his music.
Osho made the interesting leap from this kind of reaction to explaining why it is that we tend to dismember, poison, crucify, and even ignore, the Buddhas who appear among us (Osho may himself have been fatally poisoned by the US government). It is hard but doable to accept the superior ping-pong opponent. Try digesting the claim that someone has transcended all ignorance and suffering, and will be worshipped for thousands of years.
As a counter-argument, we might respond that people clearly have no problem worshipping Enlightened masters who may or may not have lived 2,000 or 5,000 years ago. But that’s the point: the distance is so great that they do not seem like real people with whom our egos need to compete. We are bowing down to an archetype, an ideal. A gleaming golden statue is not insulting to our ‘specialness’.
On the other hand, many devotees of Buddha or Jesus would find it impossible to believe that the flesh and blood human being standing before them was of the same spiritual stature. This Buddha seems far too much like us – he lives, breathes, sweats, farts as we do (Eckhart Tolle seems to have a particular problem with burping!). How can he possibly be Enlightened? He’s so… human. Imagine how we’d react if we encountered some vagabond with a few stragglers - ‘disciples’! - sitting at the side of some London street claiming to be ‘The Enlightened One’, ‘The son of God’. How could we accept such a claim when doing so makes a nonsense of the message whispered in our ear at birth?
The claim to Enlightenment is deeply insulting, not least to the common-or-garden priest with his deep psychological and economic investment in his ‘special’ place among his ‘flock’. No wonder that Buddhas tend to be given a very hard time. Even WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange - who is to professional journalism what Jesus was to orthodox religion, the embarrassingly real thing – has been targeted with bitter hatred by journalists.
Writing To Bieber
Twitter and Facebook have been cunningly designed to exploit our need to feel ‘special’. To be ‘retweeted’, ‘favourited’ and ‘followed’ on Twitter subtly suckles our ego, generating quiet, short-lived satisfaction. Other users who have 100,000 or 1,000,000, or - God help us! - 20,000,000 ‘followers’, seriously challenge the idea that we are ‘the one’. Negative rationalisations quickly gather, like white blood cells, to attack ideational pathogens threatening the ego: ‘Bloated windbag! He’s got a million followers but only because he’s on the telly.’
To have one or two followers is to feel like someone drinking alone in a pub. We approach the retweet 'stars' humbly, heads bowed, hoping to garner more followers and enhance our self-esteem: ‘Hi @justinbieber…’ oblivious to the fact that, all the while, our bellies are sliding along the floor. They look down at us past long, well-followed noses.
The fact that our Facebook comments can be ‘liked’ (or not!) by our ‘friends’ degrades every post into an act of begging. Users secretly yearn for their funny, smart, touchingly profound messages to generate comment, to be ‘liked’. And the ego is such a magpie, such an attention slut: we post a funny video clip someone posted somewhere else and feel that we deserve the credit - not just for posting it, but for the video itself! All we have done is cut and paste a link, but part of us takes credit for the creativity and humour of the video.
We are again playing the double game, this time with close friends: we want them to affirm our ‘specialness’ among them. And again, the required response is deep humility: ‘I’m just throwing this stuff out there. Ignore me!’ Nothing could be further from the truth of how we value our writing and its reception - our slavering egos demand ‘appreciation’.
Are we really ‘the special one’? The smart comment that everyone ‘liked’ proves it! This is the latest version of the pub fixture who knows he seems ‘ordinary’ but who reveals to us, with a conspiratorial wink, that he has seen this, been that, met the other. The desired response: ‘You’re a dark horse, aren’t you?!’
Thanks to dozens or hundreds of Facebook ‘friends’, everybody’s inner showman now has an audience – we can all sip tiny drops of ‘celebrity’ nectar. In this cosmos of 200 billion galaxies, each containing 200 billion stars, the abysmal walls of insignificance can be sprinkled with the fairy dust of ‘special’. It’s not much but it feels good. This is how we obscure the unconquerable reality that our names are written, not even in sand, but in water.
And our egos are cruel in their hunger: approval from the familiar fan is taken for granted, dismissed. We seek new, ever more exalted appreciation. Now, if only that famous comedian with 1 million followers, or the film star with 10 million, retweeted us - that would be something! (Curiously, as I was working on this cogitation today, the comedian Frankie Boyle mentioned Media Lens in a tweet. Boyle has 1,147,874 followers, but only because he’s on the telly.)
As discussed, this is no harmless hobby; it is a death struggle for the ego. We will risk our lives to feel the ‘specialness’ we desire. And it is not that we have any illusions about fulfilment. There is no thought of a permanent solution, of arrival – all we have ever known is craving, temporary satisfaction, and more craving. This is why Buddhists call us eternally ‘migrating beings’, ‘wanderers’.
The ultimate problem is that the ego, the idea that we are ‘special’, is a fiction. Because it is a non-existential, thought-based, imagined phenomenon it cannot be satisfied. How can we permanently fulfil that which does not exist? Like any addiction, the more we feed it, the needier, more uncomfortable and poisonous it becomes. We need more of the drug to bring the high we initially felt from a single retweet.
'My Mother Was Right!' – Spiritual Egotism
Like the best mysticism, the best comedy skewers the grandiose delusions of ego. This is a central theme of the series The Office. David Brent, manager of an anonymous paper merchant buried in a Slough industrial estate, tells a docusoap film crew about the time he worked with the band Texas:
‘We're both good in our own fields. I'm sure Texas couldn't run and manage a successful paper merchants. I couldn't do what-, well, I could do what they do, and I think they knew that, even back then. Probably what spurred them on.’
The great appeal of comedy is that it revels, with full awareness, in the unconscious obsession with being ‘special’. We are laughing at Brent’s pompous self-delusion, but Ricky Gervais, the writer and actor behind Brent, is also laughing at us – he knows we can see ourselves in Brent. In truth, we are laughing with Gervais at ourselves. He punctures our painfully swollen egos and helps us breathe more easily.
The target of much Monty Python humour is the absurd presumption of class superiority. The TV interviewer who elicits blustering outrage in his guest by first calling him ‘Sir Edward’, then ‘Edward’, then ‘Eddie baby’, highlights the craving to be treated as a dignitary.
Some critics have misinterpreted Seinfeld as a cruel celebration of the ‘Me-generation’, with Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer ditching all moral principles in pursuit of self-interest. But in fact the show delights in exposing the mayhem created by the fanatically self-interested ego (Seinfeld co-creator, Larry David, has continued in similar vein with his series Curb Your Enthusiasm). After an uncharacteristically selfless act of generosity, Jerry thinks to himself:
‘I am such a great guy. Who else would've gone through the trouble of helping this poor immigrant? I am special. My mother was right.’
It is a hilarious moment but it highlights a serious point: nothing feeds our sense of ‘specialness’ like evidence that we are unusually kind and compassionate. It is a problem Buddhist teachers all too often fail to flag with their newly-recruited Western followers. If it is an obvious sign of ego sickness to desire to conquer the world, what to say of those who seek to save the world? Both aspirations are rooted in the ego’s fantastic over-estimation of the significance of the self.
After I published my first book, I encountered quite a few celebrity writers, journalists and activists. I discovered that some of the planet’s most difficult and arrogant people have devoted their lives to ‘making the world a better place’. They claim to be driven by compassion, but their harshness and hatred of criticism (as though their very souls have been scalded) suggest otherwise. Yes, they want to change the world, but their ego’s concern is to be a recognised 'mover and shaker', to be seen and remembered as ‘important’.
This helps explain the hostility Media Lens quite often encounters from journalists, particularly those who view themselves as courageous truth-tellers. No matter how polite and rational our emails, they erupt at evidence that they have been less honest than their egos would like to believe. They throw themselves to the virtual floor, rage at us, wallow in self-pity, before finally responding more reasonably. Some of them are clearly haunted by our criticism, sometimes for years (we have occasionally been amazed when high-profile journalists have written to us to complain about something we had written about them four or five years earlier in a long-forgotten media alert that reached a few thousand people).
Their problem is that they want to be corporate media celebrities, which means they have to obey the unwritten rules of what can and cannot be said inside a corporation. But they also want to be seen, and to see themselves, as courageously honest whistleblowers. The ego really is engaged in a life-and-death struggle, and we are perceived almost as assassins, as Stalinists persecuting all who stray from our ‘party line’.
By contrast, the egos I met in my brief business career – openly pursuing money, promotion, a nicer house - were sometimes less weeded gardens, some of them sweetly innocent by the standards of some ‘greens’ and ‘leftists’.
After all, the materialist ego is comparatively straight forward; it is not pretending to be virtuous. Its 'sins' are openly displayed, even celebrated. The ethical or spiritual ego, on the other hand, has a big investment in hiding from its own and other people's awareness. If we are ‘extraordinary’ because we are so 'good’, then we cannot admit to egotistical motives that contradict the ‘selflessness’ that makes us ‘special’. Criticism hitting this psychological fault line will provoke apoplectic outrage: ‘I’ve devoted my life to helping others and all you can do is carp!’ Ricky Gervais spoofed this wonderfully here.
How dare anyone criticise the saintly figure that ‘everyone knows’ is devoted to helping others? A serious problem, as we discovered, is that criticising the 'hero' opens us to the accusation that we are obstructing his or her efforts to do good, that we are actually harming the people they are trying to help! Are we mad? The case of the alleged paedophile BBC presenter Jimmy Savile appears to be an astonishing example of how a vocal commitment to ‘compassion’ can act as a kind of force field protecting the worst sociopaths from detection and criticism. As the Buddhist writer Alan Watts said so well:
‘The goody-goodies are the thieves of virtue.’
Tony Blair, the thief of Baghdad, is another example.
The infection of the spiritual ego is hidden deep inside individuals and societies where it festers and becomes ever more poisonous. It is easy to understand how a population dominated by a religion devoted to ‘compassion’ could become utterly disempowered by an elite protected from all dissent. In some societies the idea of karma compounds the problem: people are trained to believe that a single bad thought about the ‘Enlightened beings’ ruling them will annihilate all their 'positive karma', guaranteeing eons of suffering in hell. How could any mere mortal work for political change without thinking a single negative thought about people presiding over extreme oppression?
So how can we discern the spiritual egotist from the genuinely compassionate? Comedy fans already know the answer. The ego is above all characterised by seriousness and self-control – it demands respect and admiration. It is constantly fearful that a tiny slip will expose the self-seeking reality. The egotist feels uncomfortable and vulnerable in the presence of self-ridicule and humour. How cringe-making it is to see the celebrity ego – so comfortable when angrily hammering the table about serious issues – bewildered and lost as people start joking and laughing.
Egotists set out to produce ‘historic’, 'world-changing' results. The compassionate do not take themselves that seriously; mostly they are having fun, even as they bring astonishing benefits to the people around them. Chinese Buddhas are not pictured as serious people; they sit with fat bellies, roaring with laughter. It is a nice irony that the best definition of an Enlightened person is someone who simply knows that he or she is completely ordinary. Osho said:
‘Someone asked Suzuki about his teacher: “What was exceptional in your teacher, Suzuki?” Suzuki was a Zen master, so he said, “The only thing I will never forget is this, that I have never seen a man who thought himself so ordinary. He was just ordinary, and that is the most extraordinary thing, because every ordinary mind thinks he is exceptional, extraordinary.”’
It makes sense that we cannot try to be ordinary; we can only learn the futility of our ceaseless efforts to be extraordinary. Every effort we make to be ‘special’ – though it might be specially kind, compassionate, politically progressive – is commandeered by the ego that is the deepest cause of suffering. We can only learn to see the pointlessness of trying to be something other than that which we are – ordinary. When we understand that there is in fact nothing to achieve and nowhere to go – because all paths lead to ego - ‘the spring comes and the grass grows by itself’.
A question remains, of course: if escape in 'success' is futile, what are we to do with the wounds of ego: with the dread of insignificance, the dissatisfaction and endless craving for more attention? Is there a way of responding to emotional pain that does not bring yet more chaos to ourselves and the world?
- Created on 26 February 2013
- 26 February 2013
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?
- Created on 10 May 2012
- 09 May 2012
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)