‘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.’