- Created on 21 March 2017
- 21 March 2017
'Just The Facts, Ma'am'
So what is objective, impartial journalism?
The standard view was offered in 2001 by the BBC's then political editor, Andrew Marr:
'When I joined the BBC, my Organs of Opinion were formally removed.' (Marr, The Independent, January 13, 2001)
And by Nick Robinson describing his role as ITN political editor during the Iraq war:
'It was my job to report what those in power were doing or thinking... That is all someone in my sort of job can do.' (Robinson, '"Remember the last time you shouted like that?" I asked the spin doctor', The Times, July 16, 2004)
'Just the facts, Ma'am', as Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi wryly describes this take on journalism.
It is why, if you ask a BBC or ITN journalist to choose between describing the Iraq war as 'a mistake' or 'a crime', they will refuse to answer on the grounds that they are required to be 'objective' and 'impartial'.
But actually there are at least five good reasons for rejecting this argument as fundamentally bogus and toxic.
First, it turns out that most journalists are only nervous of expressing personal opinions when criticising the powerful. Andrew Marr can't call the Iraq war a 'crime', but he can say that the fall of Baghdad in April 2003 meant that Tony Blair 'stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minister as a result' (Marr, BBC 1, News At Ten, April 9, 2003). Nick Robinson can report that 'hundreds of [British] servicemen are risking their lives to bring peace and security to the streets of Iraq'. (ITN, September 8, 2003)
The 'Wham, bam, thank you, Ma'am' version of 'impartiality', perhaps.
Journalists are allowed to lose their 'objectivity' this way, but not that way - not the way that offends the powerful. Australian media analyst Sharon Beder offers a further example of the same double standards:
'Balance means ensuring that statements by those challenging the establishment are balanced with statements by those whom they are criticising, though not necessarily the other way round.' (Sharon Beder, 'Global Spin', Green Books, 1997, p.203)
The second problem with the no-opinion argument is that it is not possible to hide opinions by merely 'sticking to the facts'. The facts we highlight and ignore, the tone and language we use to stress or downplay those facts, inevitably reflect personal opinion.
The third problem is indicated by the title of historian Howard Zinn's autobiography: 'You Can't Be Neutral On A Moving Train'. Even if we believe it is possible to suppress our personal opinion in reporting facts, we will still be taking sides. Zinn explained:
'As I told my students at the start of my courses, "You can't be neutral on a moving train." The world is already moving in certain directions - many of them are horrifying. Children are going hungry, people are dying in wars. To be neutral in such a situation is to collaborate with what is going on.' ('The Zinn Reader', Seven Stories Press, Howard Zinn, 1997, p.17)
Matt Taibbi gives a striking example:
'Try as hard as you want, a point of view will come forward in your story. Open any newspaper from the Thirties or Forties, check the sports page; the guy who wrote up the box score, did he have a political point of view? He probably didn't think so. But viewed with 70 or 80 years of hindsight, covering a baseball game where blacks weren't allowed to play without mentioning the fact, that's apology and advocacy. Any journalist with half a brain knows that the biases of our time are always buried in our coverage...'
A fourth, closely-related problem is that not taking sides - for example against torture, or against big countries exploiting small countries, or against selling arms to tyrants, or against stopping rather than exacerbating climate change - is monstrous. A doctor treating a patient is biased in seeking to identify and solve a health problem. No one would argue that the doctor should stand neutrally between sickness and health. Is it not self-evident that we should all be biased against suffering?
Finally, why does the journalistic responsibility to suppress personal opinion trump the responsibility to resist crimes of state for which we are accountable as democratic citizens? If the British government was massacring British citizens, would journalists refuse to speak out? Why does the professional media contract outweigh the social contract? Journalists might respond that 'opinion-free' journalism is vital for a healthy democracy. But without dissent challenging open criminality, democracy quickly decays into tyranny. This is the case, for example, if we remain 'impartial' as our governments bomb, invade and kill 100,000s of people in foreign countries. A journalist who refuses even to describe the Iraq war as a crime is riding a cultural train that normalises the unthinkable. In the real world, journalistic 'impartiality' on Iraq helped facilitate Britain and the United States' subsequent crimes in Libya, Syria and Yemen.
This is the ugly absurdity of the innocent-looking idea that journalists' 'organs of opinion' can and should be removed.
So if we reject this flawed and immoral version of objectivity behind which so many corporate journalists hide, what then is objective journalism? Are we arguing for open bias, for a prejudice free-for-all disconnected from any attempt at fairness? Not at all.
Equalising Self And Other
Objective, impartial journalism is rooted in the understanding that 'my' happiness and suffering do not matter more than 'your' happiness and suffering; and that it is irrational, cruel and unfair to pretend otherwise. Objective journalism rejects reporting and analysis that prioritises 'my' interests – 'my' bank account, financial security, company, nation, class - over 'your' interests.
Objective journalism does not take 'our' side at 'their' expense. It does not count 'our' dead and ignore 'their' dead. It does not refuse to stand in judgement on 'our' leaders while fiercely condemning 'their' leaders. It does not hold 'them' to higher moral standards than 'us'. It does not accept that 'our' nation is 'exceptional', that 'we' have a 'manifest destiny' to dominate 'them', that 'we' are in some way 'chosen'.
A central claim of Buddhist and other mystical traditions is that we really can 'equalise self and other' in this way. Many intellectuals, including leftists, dismiss all such analysis as irrelevant piffle. But at a time when the Vikings were ravaging Europe, the ninth century Buddhist sage Shantideva asked:
'Since I and other beings both,
In wanting happiness, are equal and alike,
What difference is there to distinguish us,
That I should strive to have my bliss alone?' (Shantideva, 'The Way of the Bodhisattva', Shambhala, 1997, p.123)
If this is an astonishingly reasonable thought, it is surpassed by an even more remarkable declaration:
'The intention, ocean of great good
That seeks to place all beings in the state of bliss,
And every action for the benefit of all:
Such is my delight and all my joy.' (p.49)
After four billion years of evolution ostensibly 'red in tooth and claw', Shantideva was here asserting that caring for others is a source of delight and bliss that far exceeds mere pleasure from personal gain.
The claim, of course, is greeted with scepticism by a society that promotes unrestrained greed for maximised profit. But if we set aside our groupthink and take another look, it is actually a matter of common experience. The Indian spiritual teacher, Osho, commented:
'Have you never had a feeling of contentment after having smiled at a stranger in the street? Didn't a breeze of peace follow it? There is no limit to the wave of tranquil joy you will feel when you lift a fallen man, when you support a fallen person, when you present a sick man with flowers – but not when you do it [out of duty] because he is your father or because she is your mother. No, the person may not be anyone in particular to you, but simply to give a gift is itself a great reward, a great pleasure.'
The existence of this reward has been confirmed by some very interesting and credible science (see here).
Objective journalism is thus rooted in two claims:
1) that human beings are able to view the happiness and suffering of others as being of equal importance to their own.
2) that, perhaps counter-intuitively for a society like ours, individuals and societies dramatically enhance their well-being when they 'equalise self and other' in this way.
In other words, this is not a sentimental pipe dream – human beings can be fair and just, and they do experience benefits from being so.
The value of objective journalism, and indeed objective living, in this sense is clear enough. We know from research (see here) and our own experience that people who think only of themselves are as miserable as they are biased.
In his collection of spontaneous talks, 'Ta Hui – The Great Zen Master', Osho gave a powerful example of objectivity, in the sense intended here, from his own childhood:
'It happened that in my village, between my house and a temple, there was a piece of land. For some technical reason, my father was able to win the case if he took it to court - only on technical reasons. The land was not ours, the land belonged to the temple. But the technical reason was this: the map of the temple did not show that the land was in their territory. It was some fault of the municipal committee's clerical staff; they had put the land onto my father's property.
'Naturally in court there was no question; the temple had no right to say that it was their land. Everybody knew it was their land, my father knew it was their land. But the land was precious, it was just on the main street, and every technical and legal support was on my father's side. He brought the case to the court.
'I told him, "Listen" - I must have been not more than eleven years old – "I will go to the court to support the temple. I don't have anything to do with the temple, I have never even gone inside the temple, whatever it is, but you know perfectly well that the land is not yours."
'He said, "What kind of son are you? You will witness against your own father?"
'I said, "It is not a question of father and son; in the court it is a question of what is true. And not only will your son be there; your father I have also convinced."
'He said, "What!"
'I had a very deep friendship with my grandfather, so we had consulted. I had told him, "You have to support me because I am only eleven years old. The court may not accept my witnessing because I am not an adult, so you have to support me. You know perfectly well that the land is not ours."
'He said, "I am with you."
'So I told my father, "Just listen, from both sides, from your father and from your son... you simply withdraw the case; otherwise you will be in such a trouble, you will lose the case. It is only technically that you are able to claim. But we are not going to support a technical mistake on the part of the municipal clerk."
'He said, "You don't understand a simple thing, that a family means... you have to support your family."
'I said, "No, I will support the family only if the family is right. I will support whoever is right."
'He talked to my grandfather who said, "I have already promised your son that I will be going with him."
'My father said, "That means I will have to withdraw the case and lose that valuable piece of land!"
'He said, "What can be done about it? Your son is going to create trouble for you, and seeing the situation, that he will not in any way be persuaded, I have agreed with him - just to make his position stronger so that you can withdraw; it is better to withdraw than to get defeated."
'My father said, "But this is a strange family! I am working for you all. I am working for you, I am working for my son - I am not working for myself. If we can have a beautiful shop on that land you will have a better, more comfortable old age; he will have a better education in a better university. And you are against me."
'My grandfather said, "I am not against anybody, but he has taken my promise, and I cannot go against my word - at least as far as he is concerned - because he is dangerous, he may put me in some trouble. So I cannot deceive him; I will say whatever he is saying. And he is saying the truth - and you know it."
'So my father had to withdraw the case – reluctantly... but he had to withdraw the case. I asked my grandfather to bring some sweets so we can distribute them in the neighborhood. My father has come to his senses, it has to be celebrated. He said, "That seems to be the right thing to do."
'When my father saw that I was distributing sweets, he asked, "What are you doing? - for what? What has happened?"
'I said, "You have come back to your senses. Truth is victorious." And I gave him a sweet also.
'He laughed. He said, "I can understand your standpoint, and my own father is with you, so I thought it is better that I should also be with you. It is better to withdraw without any problem. But I have learned a lesson." He said to me, "I cannot depend on my family. If there is any trouble they are not going to support me just because they belong to me as father, as son, as brother. They are going to support whatever is true."
'And since that time no other situation ever arose, because he never did anything in which we had to disagree. He remained truthful and sincere.
'Many times in his life he told me, "It was so good of you; otherwise I was going to take that land, and I would have committed a crime knowingly. You prevented me, and not only from that crime, you prevented me from then onwards. Whenever there was a similar situation, I always decided in favor of truth, whatever the loss. But now I can see: truth is the only treasure. You can lose your whole life, but don't lose your truth."' (Osho, 'Ta Hui – The Great Zen Master', 1987, free e-book)
Objective journalism insists that 'I will support the family only if the family is right. I will support whoever is right.' If the facts show that the Iraq war was an unprovoked war of aggression, then objective journalism will describe it as such.
Unfortunately, of course, most corporate journalism says:
'I will support my family, my party, my newspaper, my corporation, my advertisers, my arms industry, my military, my country, my class, whether or not they are right. I will support whatever benefits me. I will highlight facts and voices in a tone that benefits the powerful interests that reward me. I will ignore facts and voices that might harm my career.'
Osho's father perceived his son's challenge as an attack: 'you are against me'. But in fact Osho was not against his father, nor was he for the temple – he was for the truth.
In 2012, Media Lens compared media reaction to the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians by a US soldier, with a massacre of 108 people in Houla, Syria, for which Western media found Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad personally responsible. We asked what evidence would be required before journalists found Obama personally responsible for such a massacre. Obviously, the involvement of US forces would need to be confirmed beyond doubt. These forces would need to have been acting under orders. Presumably, Obama would need to have signed these orders, or been aware of them and agreed to them on some level. But Syrian forces were instantly declared responsible, with Assad held personally responsible, even before the killers had been identified.
We were inviting readers to consider if ostensibly free, independent journalists treat foreign governments, especially Official Enemies of state, the same way they treat their own government and its leading allies. We were not against Obama any more than we were for Assad – we were for the truth.
Ironically, our attempts to challenge biased reporting in this way are regularly denounced as examples of ugly bias - we are described as 'pro-Assad', 'pro-Gaddafi', 'pro-Putin' 'genocide deniers', 'apologists for tyranny', and so on, often by people waging a kind of propaganda war against anyone challenging power.
'If Islamic State's attack had been on a French hospital, shooting doctors and patients, it would have been one of 2017's defining traumas.'
Again, this comment was no more 'pro-Afghan' than it was 'anti-French' – it pointed to a deep and dangerous bias in the way corporate media respond to suffering in the world.
Why do we care so much about this bias? Because, as Osho's anecdote suggests, all is not as it seems. It turns out that there are hidden costs to mendacity, just as there are hidden benefits to truth.
After decades spent honing its talent for suppressing profit-hostile fact and opinion, the corporate media system has become incapable of reporting truth even in the face of imminent disaster. The cost, in this age of catastrophic climate change, is becoming very clear.
David Edwards is co-editor of www.medialens.org
- Created on 24 January 2017
- 24 January 2017
The alarm clock rings. I set it myself but it feels like it's linked to some centralised system ordering the nation's workforce awake. I swing my feet out into an unwelcoming, cold room; put on my clothes, including grey socks, grey suit, black shoes, and the white shirt I ironed the night before. As usual, I leave the top button undone and attempt to hide my disobedience beneath a colourful, strangling tie. I have a sense that I'm able to breathe in the space between the open top button and the loose knot of the tie, that some small freedom resides there.
I crawl out onto an icy, pitch-black street to join a steadily growing stream of commuters flowing like rainwater down the gutters and into the London Tube. I'm aware of an internal resistance, like a hand pressing on my chest, against which I have to push. I travel one and a quarter hours, with a single change at Tottenham Court Road, journeying from the South to the West of London.
At White City, I walk past the BBC TV Centre and spend the day at a desk answering hundreds of calls placing orders for computer accessories that I input into a PC for rapid delivery. There are fifteen of us in the open-plan office. When a call goes unanswered for 10 seconds, a blue light flashes on the ceiling; after 15 seconds, a red light flashes. Thereafter, staff from the marketing and accounts departments are expected to rush in and hit the phones. Every call I take is logged: time, duration, revenue earned, returns subtracted.
I hate the job. In fact, I instantly disliked the job so intensely that I felt relief in knowing that I would only last a few days. In the event, I will work there for almost two years.
I'm doing the job because I've been persuaded that I can't do what I want in life (I certainly don't want to be there!). I believe that I have to do what I hate within a friendly but subtly intimidating, firmly controlling hierarchy. I've been told that my CV has to be fed on a strict diet of continuous, full-time work. I have to suffer it, swallow it, take it. I have to start at the bottom and work my way up. I have to pay the bills. These are the cold, hard facts of life. The only other option is to be stuck in mindless, low-paying work for the rest of my life.
But it turns out that when you set off down the path signposted, 'The Life I Hate,' you end up experiencing variations on the theme. 'The Life I Hate' doesn't typically turn into 'The Life I Love'. It turns into 'The Life I Hate' plus extra responsibility, workload and stress within the same authoritarian structure. And yes, more money and status.
There's another problem - the further you journey down the path of 'The Life I Hate', the further the path journeys into you. You become the path. If you force yourself to do what you hate, you have to become insensitive to your feelings. You have to become as cold, hard and tough as the life you're leading. So you become adept at tuning out on early morning commutes across London to sit in grim business meetings, and hopeless at knowing what it is you would really love to do; hopeless at detecting and following that feeling, at enjoying your life.
Because tuning out is so vital, corporate executives tolerate enough truth to satisfy their consciences, but not enough to challenge their way of life. If you read the Guardian and watch the BBC, you can continue working for the Government, Big Pharma, Big Oil. If you read Noam Chomsky, say - if you really read him and take the issues seriously - you can't. Well you can, but you will be tugging your heart in opposite directions. At one point, while working as a marketing manager, I decided to stop reading radical politics and philosophy – I literally threw my books away. The internal conflict was too painful, making me feel much worse about the work. But I continued leafing through the Guardian and watching the BBC, no problem.
Finding The Horses
Somerset Maugham described the lives of 'most people':
'They are like tram-cars travelling for ever on the self-same rails. They go backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, inevitably, till they can go no longer and then are sold as scrap-iron.' (W. Somerset Maugham, The Lotus Eater, Collected Short Stories, Volume Four, Pan, 1976, p.180)
Joseph Campbell played a big part in sending me off the rails:
'My answer is, "Follow your bliss." There's something inside you that knows when you're in the centre, that knows when you're on the beam or off the beam. And if you get off the beam to earn money, you've lost your life. And if you stay in the centre and don't get any money, you still have your bliss.' (Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, 'The Power of Myth', Doubleday, 1988, p.229)
If 'bliss' sounds a bit soppy, Campbell clarified:
'The way to find about your happiness is to keep your mind on those moments when you feel most happy, when you really are happy - not excited, not just thrilled, but deeply happy. This requires a little bit of self-analysis. What is it that makes you happy?' (p.155)
But what about money, the mortgage, eating? What about the cold, hard facts of life? Campbell's advice: forget it, just do the thing you love – don't give it a second thought. Things tend to work out when you do what you love, because you're a lot better at it than you are at money-motivated tasks.
Alas, many people, particularly those of us who hauled ourselves up the school, college and career ladder, are not attuned to our bliss. It's a melancholy sight when people stuck in work they hate, reply with a hopeless shrug: 'But I don't know what my bliss is.'
Consider British spiritual teacher Russel Williams - now an extraordinary, vibrant 95-year-old - who qualified as an electrician during the Second World War, and who had the option to start up an electrical business:
'That was the plan... And I realised that if I followed this path – starting up this business – it wouldn't make me happy.' (Russel Williams, 'Not I, Not Other Than I,' O-Books, e-edition, Steve Taylor ed., 2015, pp.136-7)
Contemplating several possibilities, all of them felt like, 'The Life I Hate':
'The only thing left was to walk away – literally – and hope that something would show me where I was supposed to be going. So I left, with just a few shillings in my pocket. It was the summer of 1945. I started walking, and carried on, walking and walking. I lost track of time. It could have been weeks or months.' (pp.137-8)
Crossing a moor one day, Williams met a showman with a broken-down bus. They struck up a conversation and the man asked him:
'Do you know anything about horses?' (p.138)
Williams ended up grooming, feeding and watering horses for a circus. But this became much more than just a job:
'I grew to love the animals. I felt a strong connection with them. It was impossible not to, living with them 24 hours a day.' (pp.140-1)
He was determined to understand the horses fully, wholly, through careful observation:
'So I set my mind to watching and observing every detail, every moment of the day, for days on end.
'After about three months, as I became more concentrated on the horses, I noticed that I wasn't thinking anymore. My mind had gone quiet. I realised that knowing and thinking are two different things, and that you could know without thinking... I had a strong feeling that I was finally going in the right direction, that this was my path...' (p.141)
Williams later realised that the task he had set himself was actually a form of mindfulness meditation:
'In effect, I was meditating about 20 hours a day, 7 days a week for three years, completely absorbed in caring for the horses. It was a life of continual service, with no thought for myself.' (pp.141-2)
At the end of this time, Williams describes a profound shift in awareness, in fact an enlightenment experience, that has never left him. He has been president of the Buddhist Society of Manchester since 1974, but does not consider himself a Buddhist.
My own experience of walking away from 'The Life I Hate' was easier on the shoe-leather. I walked the short distance from the office to my flat one summer lunchtime and never went back. I had decided to follow Campbell's advice, with no idea of what work I could do that might replace corporate work, and no idea how I would feed myself when my few savings ran out. But I had decided I would no longer do what I hated for money and would instead do what I loved, for nothing.
In my case, that meant writing political essays, philosophical essays, stories, observations, jokes – hundreds of pages of them. By the next spring, I was supporting myself by teaching English to foreign students three hours a day. Compared to my full-time office life, it was like floating on a cloud. Best of all, I only had to work half-time, and could spend the rest of the day just reading and writing.
The important thing, I think, is not so much to follow but to locate your bliss. In truth, once you've found it, there is nowhere to go - it's inside you. Simply slowing down, working part-time, helps us get away from the more maddening, exhausting aspects of work that swamp any attempt at introspection. This allows us to become more mindful, which actually means more mindempty, less bogged down in thought.
As Williams found in observing his horses, when we pay close attention to something other than thought, thoughts subside. When that happens, we make an astonishing discovery: inside us, lies a source of great peace, kindness and joy that is ordinarily obscured by clouds of thinking. This is what Buddhists call our 'Buddha nature'. It is that simple. And that difficult, because the whole world is ceaselessly insisting, with great certainty, that our bliss is out there: in him, her, this far-flung country, that exotic job, this salary, that mewling infant... We have always looked out there; it has never occurred to us to look inside.
We are distracted from, unaware of, the happiness that is forever blazing away inside. Certainly it is a mighty force, but then the world is a planet-sized distraction preventing us from noticing.
The Great Escape
I thought I had to tramp the Tube, hack my way through endless business meetings, to somehow end up in a better place. And yet I found a better place by simply walking away. So what about the cold, hard facts: earnings, pension, financial security?
If following your bliss is your highest value, financial security cannot be a key concern. You can't do what you love because you love it and because you've identified a little 'niche market'. Yes, one might conceivably live a more difficult life in some ways and even die earlier as a result. But then, in my corporate career, I was not fully alive, either. The time I spent in those offices was a threadbare, hair-shirted, hovel of an existence. I sacrificed hundreds of weeks, years of my life, to financial security, the CV. In the 25 years since I hung up my business uniform, I have avoided numberless miserable, stressful and, above all, achingly boring moments.
By contrast to these real savings, the thousands of pounds my early 'retirement' cost me are insignificant causes of dubious benefit. I've never really noticed the absence of that money; I've never needed it. But I needed the freedom to do what I want. And what a treasure that is: to be free to do what you want on any given day. To do what you really love to do when you want to do it. And to not do it, if you don't want to.
The world does not end when we follow our bliss, quite the reverse. The destruction of the environment is driven by wage slaves who can never have enough because they're trying to find the life they love by travelling deeper into the life they hate. When more self-betrayal makes us feel even emptier, we keep stuffing that emptiness, turning the world into a version of the wasteland we feel inside. When we sacrifice our bliss, our present moment, for some supposedly Higher Cause, our heart dies, the rainforests die, the climate dies, people die. The conformist grey of our suit, the unaliveness we feel as we trudge to work, spreads, suffocates and kills.
The great escape begins with slowing down, leaping barbed-wire thoughts, tunnelling attention into the body, and finding a centre of comfort, of bliss, there. As Williams says with wonderful simplicity:
'The main thing is to be aware of being comfortable within. If you can do that, you can observe things which come in and produce a little discomfort, and examine why they produce the discomfort. You can quietly observe them and then return to the comfort.' (p.218)
David Edwards is co-editor of www.medialens.org
- 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 16 February 2016
- 16 February 2016
'All the harm with which this world is rife,
All fear and suffering that there is,
Clinging to the "I" has caused it!
What am I to do with this great demon?' (Shantideva, 8th century, 'The Way of the Bodhisattva,' Shambhala, 1997, p.129)
First we believe in 'I', then we believe in 'mine'.
But 'mine' does not mean that we merely perceive external phenomena as 'belonging' to us. It means that our identity, our sense of self, flows into these external forms. They are unconsciously perceived as extensions of 'me'.
If a child is smacked, the pain is of course experienced as an attack on 'me'. But if the child's favourite toy is taken away, that also is perceived as an attack, as an agonising removal of part of 'me'.
Our sense of self flows into 'my' parents, 'my' family, 'my' friends. The anxiety and rage that erupt when someone tries to 'take' away 'my' boyfriend or girlfriend – as though a limb were to be amputated - indicates that the attempt is again experienced as a profound attack on 'me'.
Our sense of self flows into 'my' town, 'my' country, 'my' ethnic group, which we may protect from criticism as though defending our personal reputations. Millions are persuaded to fight and die to protect something called 'The Fatherland' or 'the one true God'. These warriors for The Cause are not driven to murderous rage by a dry intellectual position; they are defending extensions of themselves.
Human beings can identify with almost anything. For a football fan to say: 'We played really well to beat Chelsea 2-1', is about as crazy as a fan saying: 'I played really well to beat Chelsea 2-1.' The hatred and bitter rivalry between supporters are described as 'tribal'. In fact, it's what happens when selves collide – sprawling empires of self that have psychologically merged with groups of completely separate football players who, in reality, are not 'me'.
Our sense of identity flows into our abilities, work and beliefs. I am not just someone who practices medicine; fundamentally, 'I'm a doctor, Jim!' Or 'I'm a scientist,' a physicist, a journalist. Are these mere labels used for convenience? Not at all. If somebody questions our skill in an activity occupied by self, we will throw our toys exactly as we did when someone confiscated our spud gun as a child. Try criticising the child-rearing strategies of someone who strongly identifies with the role of 'father' or 'mother'. Or try criticising the way an editor runs 'his' or 'her' newspaper. Thus Roger Alton, then Observer editor, who responded to one polite, rational emailer:
'Have you just been told to write in by those c*nts at medialens? Don't you have a mind of your own?'
(Email forwarded, June 1, 2006)
As this indicates, when a perceived threat to the extended self enters the mind, rationality and restraint don't hang around for long. The spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle explains:
'I feel and act as if I were defending my very self. Unconsciously, I feel and act as if I were fighting for survival and so my emotions will reflect this unconscious belief. They become turbulent. I am upset, angry, defensive, or aggressive. I need to win at all cost lest I become annihilated. That's the illusion.' (Eckhart Tolle, 'A New Earth,' Penguin, 2005, p.121)
When ego has occupied a person, a job, a belief, we may defend these as if fighting for our lives. We see this every day on social media, where people identified with different arguments rage on and on, over days and weeks, sometimes months and years, in what can often feel like a no-holds-barred fight to the death.
Even open-minded progressives can respond to professional criticism like rednecks to the burning of 'the flag'. A few years ago, the Independent journalist Robert Fisk commented (immodestly) on the dissatisfaction of US readers with the US press:
'It is a tribute to their intelligence that instead of searching for blog-o-bots or whatever, they are looking to the European "mainstream" newspapers like The Independent, the Guardian, The Financial Times...
'I'm not some cranky left wing or right wing nut. We are a newspaper, that's the point. That gives us an authority - most people are used to growing up with newspapers. The internet is a new thing, and it's also unreliable.' (Justin Podur, 'Fisk: War is the total failure of the human spirit,' December 5, 2005, my emphasis)
'We are a newspaper, that's the point.' It certainly is. Fisk is deeply identified with his profession and indeed his employer. The identification comes at a cost. Fisk again:
'I have to be honest: I don't use the Internet. I've never seen a blog in my life. I don't even use email. I don't waste my time with this. I am not interested. I couldn't care less. I think the Internet has become a hate machine for a lot of people and I want nothing to do with it.' (Fisk, quoted, Antonia Zerbisias, 'Author Doesn't Give a Flying Fisk About Fisking,' Toronto Star/Commondreams, November 29, 2005)
Numerous commentators who broadly share Fisk's political views – Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, John Pilger et al - have hailed the obvious democratising potential of the internet. Web-based social media have massively empowered the rise of progressive Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, the Podemos party in Spain and candidate for presidential nomination Bernie Sanders in the US. Fisk has himself appeared on excellent, internet-based media like Democracy Now! and The Real News Network. Fisk's view of the internet was clearly divorced from reality.
Identification drives the remarkable phenomenon described by psychologist Erich Fromm: 'man's capacity of not observing what he does not want to observe; hence, that he may be sincere in denying a knowledge which he would have, if he wanted only to have it'. (Fromm, 'Beyond The Chains Of Illusion,' Abacus, 1989, p.94)
Just as journalists identify with their newspapers, so readers identify with the work of particular journalists – which explains why hackles rise whenever much-loved commentators like Fisk are subject to criticism, as we at Media Lens know only too well.
And just as the millions of obedient citizens persuaded, or forced, to lay down their lives for 'The Motherland' are never really dying for 'freedom' and 'democracy' in a world where 62 individuals possess as much wealth as half the world's population, so these empires of self are not really fighting for our happiness. When our identity flows into external phenomena, we are building on dynamite. W.B. Yeats wrote:
'Man is in love and loves what vanishes. What more is there to say?'
Everything is in flux, nothing stays the same. Our empires of self are doomed to be insecure and fearful, and therefore aggressive. We inevitably find ourselves fretting to establish, defend and stabilise our extended selves in the face of constant challenges and perceived threats. The Tibetan Buddhist 'Path Of Heroes' indicates how bad it can get:
'In turmoil, despising others... polluted with anger, resentment and envy – here, there, and everywhere, whatever we say is tinged with fury. We do not get along even with our companions; thinking of their faults, we have only complaints. We see all as our adversaries and take no one as an ally.' (Zhechen Gyaltsab Padma Gyurmed Namgyal, 'Path of Heroes, Birth of Enlightenment,' Dharma Publishing, 1995, p.193)
Dissolving The Empire - Disidentification
Though quietly sitting on a sofa, your heart is aflame. Something has angered you deeply - perhaps an insult from a 'so-called' friend or a 'deeply annoying' family member - and thoughts are cascading through your mind. You are analysing the insult from every angle, rehearsing different responses that you could have said and might yet say – you formulate one powerful retaliation after another.
Your whole effort is to respond, to hit back, to right the wrong. You believe, without any shadow of a doubt, that 'I am angry.' That is, you are fully identified with the anger – it is you. At no point does it occur to you that the pain of anger is a separate phenomenon from 'me'. It never occurs to you to stop focusing on the perceived cause of the pain – the insulting comment – and instead observe the pain. If you are the anger, if it is you, then how can you observe yourself? And why would you? But in fact you can observe the pain because it is separate, and that matters.
It is a remarkable fact that we can switch the focus of our awareness from our thoughts to the emotional pain in our chests. When we focus on thought, we channel the pain directly into thinking, a potent fuel supply that generates limitless further thoughts, which in turn generate more emotion in a positive feedback effect. A prime example of this is what we call a 'panic attack'.
Even a single fearful thought can spark an adrenalised ping in our guts with which we then identify: 'I'm going to have a panic attack', 'I'm freaking out.' This identification recycles the fuel of fearful emotion into our thinking, which then generates more fearful emotion in a rising spiral of fear. An alternative to being swept along by this thought-emotion spiral, is to stop focusing attention on the thoughts and instead focus on the fearful emotions.
When thoughts provoke an anxious reaction in our guts, we can focus our awareness on these adrenalised feelings, on their intensity, depth, fluctuation. We can focus on our heart beating rapidly, on the rise and fall of our lungs pulling in air. This attention on feeling breaks the thought-emotion feedback effect and the spiral of anxiety rising out of it. It is not that we are attempting to suppress the fear; on the contrary, we are trying to feel the fear as clearly as possible. The more attention we pay to the fearful sensations and the less attention we pay to the fearful thoughts fueling them, the more fear will subside. What this really means is that we are no longer identifying with the fear – we have created a gap: 'I' am here, the fear is there. This gap makes all the difference.
If I believe I am identical with fear, then I'm pretty much stuck with it. There's not much I can do beyond removing myself from the situation that seems to be causing the fear. But in reality, I am not the fear. Rather, I am the awareness that is able to perceive fear as a separate phenomenon contained within awareness. This dramatically blocks the ability of the 'panic' to control our minds and indeed to continue at all – when we disidentify and cut off the flow of thoughts, fear subsides and vanishes.
This is true for all painful emotions: we can identify with them and so hotwire their energy into thinking. Or we can view them as phenomena arising within, and witnessed by, awareness. Simply focusing attention on them, being aware of them - feeling them, without responding to them – disempowers them and may cause them to dissipate altogether. The additional surprise is that, in their place, we may find peace, joy, and a completely unexpected lovingkindness giving rise to curiously generous thoughts even towards people we ordinarily dislike.
This is not mere 'navel-gazing' as head-trapped intellectuals would have us believe. The ability to disidentify from external phenomena is a revolutionary step in the direction of individual and social sanity, and liberty.
As we have seen, identification can cause even highly intelligent, honest commentators to be almost comically biased, irrational and hostile. It is one of the most powerful factors defending professional journalism from honest criticism and reform. Journalists are so proud of their roles, of the organisations by which they are employed, that they light up with incandescent rage in response to even the mildest challenge. Enlightened beings aside, few of us are exempt. As a co-founder of Media Lens (in fact I'd like to stress here that the original idea was 'mine'!), I have long been aware of my own tragicomically heightened sensitivity to criticism of our project.
The point is not that any of us is completely free of these long-lived mental patterns, but that we are able to choose: to engage the attention 'clutch' channeling the pain of identification to our minds, generating further madness. Or to lift the 'clutch', disengage the mind from the emotional engine, and observe the emotion in our bodies.
This calms the mind and dissolves the emotion. It allows us to refrain from filling the world with yet more irrational, biased blather. It makes it more possible to hear and even welcome reasonable criticism. If we disengage our egos, criticism can actually, of course, be wonderfully helpful.
How much of the destructiveness of modern journalism, of the fossil fuel industry waging its crazy, suicidal campaign denying climate change, of the arms industries subordinating human welfare to profit, is rooted in this psychological mechanism? Deeply identified with their high-status jobs, their gold standard companies, their mighty industries, their elite class, corporate executives respond like angry infants to rational, well-intentioned critics warning of nothing less than impending catastrophe.
And this is the problem for everyone working for a saner world – the empires of self have an inbuilt defence mechanism against even, or perhaps especially, the most reasonable arguments. As many activists have found, tackling the titans of government and industry head-on risks amplifying the head-in-the-sand defensiveness of the inflamed egos we are challenging. It can actually make the target of criticism more blinkered, prompting them to retreat even further into impassioned unreason.
We spend our time well when we experiment with observing our thoughts and emotions, with disidentifying from them. Even the tiniest of gaps allows sanity to begin to dispel the 'nightmare of history'.
As Yeats observed, time will eventually steal away everything we love, including of course every last little part of our empire of self. The mind has no answer to the resultant suffering, other than to fret and rave, and chase its own tail. Directing awareness from thoughts to awareness of thoughts and feelings, allows us to find some peace no matter how chaotic and devastating the external conditions.
Apologies for the recent interruption in Cogitations. I've been writing a science fiction novel on related themes, now more or less completed.
Further Reading and Watching
Nobody has explained the power of awareness better than Eckhart Tolle. His monthly talks and Q&As are a much-needed dose of sanity. I also recently came across this discussion on awareness in Tricycle magazine: 'The aim of attention.'
- 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.