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The Universe Remains Unhurt


And then there was light.

But there must already have been space.

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

The light switch would be hard-pressed to exist.

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

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

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


The Problem Of Arriving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Is It Human To Err?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mansoor replied:

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

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

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

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

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

As Emerson wrote:

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


David Edwards is co-editor of www.medialens.org

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Category: Cogitations

A Lefty Progressive Goes To The Seaside


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Warm Toes Moments

Moment 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Moment 2

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

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

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


Moment 3

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

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


Moment 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


David Edwards is co-editor of www.medialens.org


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Category: Cogitations

The Cold, Hard Facts Of Life – A Reappraisal


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Finding The Horses

Somerset Maugham described the lives of 'most people':

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Great Escape

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

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

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

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

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

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


David Edwards is co-editor of www.medialens.org

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So What Is Objective Journalism?


'Just The Facts, Ma'am'

So what is objective, impartial journalism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matt Taibbi gives a striking example:

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

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

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

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

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


Equalising Self And Other

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Objective journalism is thus rooted in two claims:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'He said, "What!"

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

'He said, "I am with you."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unfortunately, of course, most corporate journalism says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


David Edwards is co-editor of www.medialens.org


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Category: Cogitations

Empires Of Self

'All the harm with which this world is rife,
All fear and suffering that there is,
Clinging to the "I" has caused it!
What am I to do with this great demon?' (Shantideva, 8th century, 'The Way of the Bodhisattva,' Shambhala, 1997, p.129)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dissolving The Empire - Disidentification

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


Further Reading and Watching

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

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