THE GREAT RECKONING: NAVIGATING THROUGH THE VEIL OF DENIAL
This is the first of three broad-based reflections on where I feel we are in relation to the Climate Emergency and to the conditions in which we live our lives within the current social-economic model, whose paradigm of infinite growth and competition has been largely responsible for bringing human societies across the whole world to this point of global crisis. For most of my life I have been a photographer, a traveller and a writer. I spent many years in the 1980s and 90s travelling and working in India and Sri Lanka. In 1981 at the invitation of a Buddhist monk I undertook a long retreat on a small Buddhist hermitage island on a lagoon in the south of the island. It had no electricity or modern conveniences, was inhabited by only three resident monks, and occasional visiting monks who would stay a few days on their way to somewhere else. The island became my Walden, and like Thoreau I was able to write from a place that deepened my connection with nature and present time, and it was also the beginning of a deepening exploration of the Buddhist, and to some extent Taoist, teachings, which has continued to this day. Three years after my retreat the Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka escalated into a civil war that tore the island apart for the next quarter of a century. In those years I returned frequently to the island as a photographer and witnessed the terrible consequences of one of the most vicious conflicts of our time on an island whose majority were Buddhists, a faith that in almost everyone’s minds is especially associated with peace and non-violence. How was this possible? What had gone wrong? Was it religion that was at fault? Was it colonialism? Was it modernity and capitalism? Or was it something much deeper, of which all these things, both there and in many other places in the world, were symptoms? The years I have devoted to reflecting on this question and engaging with these teachings has led to a deeper questioning of the entire story of modernity, and even of the roots of Western civilization itself.
Modernity arose in Europe out of the breakdown of the theological world view in the late middle ages, but the process that led to what is recognizably ‘modern’ as we understand it took about 300 years. In the late 12th century into the 13th century the central preoccupation was not about a new world of progress that would replace the theocratic system, but a dark fear of the end of days. I mention this in the context of our current escalating fears concerning the climate narrative, ecological breakdown and the prospect even of human extinction. Only a few years ago this was not something that preoccupied us as much as it does now, or if it did it was something only theoretically possible in some distant future, and so there would be time to take the necessary measures to curb greenhouse gases, preserve key rainforests, and generally clean up our act with regard to pollution, topsoil depletion and chemical pollution. The mainstream narrative was still that we (governments and agencies) are in control, we’ll sign climate accords, and somehow make a smooth transition through a temporary glitch in the progress narrative. For now it’s business as usual.
In my own life, ever since reading Limits to Growth in the early 1970s, the Club of Rome’s report on the unsustainable nature of industrial growth society, I have been very aware of the potential for ecological and societal collapse. But back then even I did not think I would live to witness what we are currently experiencing, though as the decades passed and little action was being taken by governments or industries I became more apprehensive. In 2012 after working as a photographer on a project related to the ecosystem of the Tana River Delta I, along with others, hosted an interactive discussion at the National Museum of Kenya on deep ecology and the human-ecological predicament, citing alarming statistics from the just published Living Planet Report of 2012.
Now, with each passing year, far more alarming scientific reports, that are constantly updated, suggest that things are unfolding faster than any climate scientist had predicted, and fears are growing concerning food shortages, mass migrations, melting ice caps, extreme weather events, and probable societal collapse. The sudden irruption of the Covid 19 virus and its rapid spread across the world is another reminder of our vulnerability to the complexity of natural forces and our limited ability to control them for our convenience.
Even though today I have begun to consider that it might be too late to prevent a catastrophe unfolding, I still believe that we need more than ever to join in the conversation any way we can, and to give each other courage and mutual support, as well as giving serious consideration to a new narrative that would heal the earth and enable human communities to evolve a new, but at the same time a very ancient, relationship with the earth and to create co-operative working relationships on a symbiotic model to replace the model of dissociation, estrangement and methodologies of dominance and control.
Before going in to how we might respond I would like to retrace some of the story that led us to this place. Modernity as we know can be traced to the 14th century and the Renaissance, but the thinking that laid the foundations for it had its roots in the theological disputes of the preceding two centuries, and many of the contradictions that the thinkers of modernity were trying to resolve can be traced to those disputes, repackaged in a new secular form. Modernity is about a new vision of time as progress, and presented a more hopeful human project out of the dark visions of the end of times. It began the process of secularization and evolved into a rational project to bring humanity to a new level of enlightened knowledge, that would establish a world of peace and social harmony, the philosopher Kant’s ‘perpetual peace’, achieved through turning the competitive instinct away from purely territorial military adventures, and the warrior ethic, to commerce and the gradual commodification of the earth and its natural resources. The violence of inter-human military strife did not disappear, but more and more was turned against the earth itself. The ideology was still one of being perpetually at war with an 'other', whether 'the enemy' or nature itself that must be controlled, dominated and manipulated to conform to our needs and desires. Out of this grew the imperial adventures, that still used superior military might to secure commercial advantages by force, and exploit other parts of the world for resources that could be turned into profitable commodities. This was often little more than blatant theft, and the British East India Company that controlled most of India from the 18th century was run by a handful of men from a boardroom in London. It was the first multinational corporation. One renowned economist Utsa Patnaik has revealed how between 1765 and 1938 Britain drained a total of 45 trillion US dollars from India, which in current terms is 17 times the annual GDP of the UK.
Under this modernist system based on domination of the earth, this vision of infinite growth based on indefinite exploitation would guarantee a new world of endless progress that would address all human needs and satisfy all human desires. With the discovery of fossil fuels, and the shift from an agrarian society to the industrialization of a work force, and the rapid development of technology the ideology of progress envisioned a techno-utopia of unprecedented sophistication, comfort, and convenience based on a sound scientific understanding of the material universe. The entire project is in thrall to the delusion of time as infinite duration into an unending future of expansion. There is only one problem: we live on a finite earth.
Today the spectacular failure of this project is obvious, and the question is how we are to adjust our lives to the growing crises of social breakdown, ecological degeneration, and climate chaos. Today I facilitate workshops based on Mindfulness and Inter-personal mindfulness, and also run silent retreats and nature connection retreats based on a form of eco-therapy. This entails giving consideration to how we might respond, individually and collectively, perhaps by questioning some deeply ingrained beliefs about our understanding of human nature in relation to the biosphere, so we might be capable of a transition to a diverse, sustainable, and truly caring global culture. It is a bit lengthy, but I hope you will bear with me, as I delve into the roots of this problem with some historical digressions, and my own personal path to this understanding.
To begin with the climate issue is not just about the weather, or how we might control carbon emissions, or conduct carbon trade-offs within the current paradigm. It is about how the climate emergency is a symptom of our current world-view, and therefore impacts us at every level of our lives. You could say the climate story is about an error in our perception of how we relate to each other and the natural world. This error concerns our notion of the self as a separate self-existing entity, separate from others and separate from the natural world. Or maybe error is too strong a word – it is perhaps more the case that our identity as separate beings gives us a limited picture, it narrows the spectrum of what might be possible since intelligence is conceived as mainly an advanced capacity of humans. This is not to say that many individuals have not exceeded those limitations by astounding acts of creativity or through life-altering insights – we can think of great artists, innovators or spiritual teachers. And yet they have been the exception, and their contributions can also be seen not as originating solely from within their own personal intelligence as separate selves, but rather that these creations, innovations and wisdom teachings were the fruit of their ability to key into and perhaps resonate to a greater intelligence, a greater Mind, the Mind of the whole. I can see that a lot of people might have a problem with that notion, which I suspect simply reflects the limitation of a particular view of what consciousness is, something which today is known as the Hard Problem.
Historically you can pick and choose significant threshold moments, for example the scientific revolution of the 17th century that began a more intense, even aggressive process of the exploitation of nature, along with the imperial projects of European powers who colonized cultures and societies and introduced this model of an infinitely expanding economy. Or you might point out that the perception of the self as a problem goes back at least to the time of the Buddha, who focused much of his teaching around the issue of the self, as did other Indian teachings such as Advaita Vedanta. Or you might say that the problem started with moving from a hunter-gatherer society to agriculture around 10,000 years ago. And presumably you could go back even further, with more speculation and probably less hard evidence. In this talk I will focus mainly on my own life experience and my time on this earth from the post-war period, when a generation in the Western nations first challenged this world picture, and began to look for alternatives. So this reflection will give a bit of historical perspective on this issue, and also explain how my engagement with the Buddhist Dhamma, along with other existentialist writers of the modern period, gave me a tool with which to examine this problem from a broader perspective. My aim is to explore whether any of this can offer a new way of seeing ourselves that could bring to birth a new more co-operative and low-impact way of living on this earth that would provide basic security for every single member of human society. A tall order you might say. But you have to begin somewhere, and the best place is where you are, in your own life experience.
There have been in recent years radical shifts in our scientific understanding, from the old mechanistic model to a new model of a symbiotic planet. But how does something as abstract as that impact upon the way we see ourselves, or the way we live our lives day by day? We have to begin with a recognition of how we are already conditioned to a particular world picture supported by the old model, and how many of our attempts to resolve our current crises only exacerbate the problems, and fail to bring any real change, due to our being trapped in the dualistic and divisive paradigm which is based on singling out a single cause and then trying to eliminate it in the belief that this will address the issue. This is simply a gross misdiagnosis of the deep-rooted nature of the problem that can only really be understood within a symbiotic model. This new model, which I may explore more fully later, reflects a deeper understanding of self as not only interdependent with other selves and species as a condition of existence, but above all in symbiosis at a far deeper level of our being, in the sense that our being interpenetrates with other beings, which means that a rainforest, or a whole species, all the multifarious elements of the biosphere, are intrinsically part of our being, and essential to our well-being. Nothing can live in isolation from this web of life, certainly not humans. To align ourselves to this new model of symbiosis essentially means that we have to actually experience a concomitant shift in how we see ourselves in relation to each other and to the natural world to avoid the worst case scenario of planetary ecocide, and the eventual probable disappearance of human culture that would result from persisting to live in accordance with a model that no longer serves our highest aspirations, our human capacity for generosity and love. It is the experiential aspect that reveals to us the nature of our being as symbiosis, as a mere cognitive apprehension cannot bring the deep transformation required where we live our lives from a totally different perspective.
I grew up in the post-war period of the fifties and sixties, an iconic time that witnessed the rapid expansion of global air travel, the power of media to influence public opinion, the exponential growth of consumer culture, the first moon landing, and the astonishing development of communications technologies which have evolved into today’s global internet, advances that have changed our lives in a very short period beyond what our grandparents could even have imagined. It was also the age of the Cold War, with terrifying moments like the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 when people sat glued to their radios or televisions wondering whether the world might end tomorrow. In the sixties there was the escalating horror of the Vietnam war, to which we responded with protest movements, which became a protest against all wars, internal and external, as millions joined the civil rights movement. It was also the time of hippy communes and flower power, of experiments with mind-altering drugs and the discovery of oceanic consciousness, as well as the beginnings of the environmental movement. In short it was the first large scale emancipation of consciousness to challenge the status quo of industrial growth society and the dehumanizing values of a system based on harsh instruments of control destructively committed to the exploitation of man and nature and obsessed with an ideology of perpetual war. It was what the philosopher Herbert Marcuse called the Great Refusal, a collective awakening that challenged conservative critics, who declared this revolt to be a culture of narcissism and a wholesale rejection of morality and history. It was a chaotic time, full of ambiguities, but perhaps one of its most positive contributions was the empowering of innocence by directly confronting the sense of unworthiness that was so deeply ingrained behind a façade of social respectability and a politics of conscience. But the movement failed to really shift society towards a more sustainable and humane model, and in the face of the objectification and commodification of the world that undermined the possibility of more lasting and fundamental social and economic reforms. Nevertheless it signaled the first stirrings of a revolt against the indoctrination of what many see as the real Matrix of the world system of control, and revealed the cracks in the edifice of the old story of separation that had promised a techno-utopia based on mastery and control of nature, freedom from illness and pain, a world of machine-like perfection, of human fulfillment of all conceivable desires, space colonies, and inter-stellar travel. All this, amazingly, was deemed unquestionable in the 1950s. It was only a matter of time before we created heaven on earth. Now for many across the world it seems more like hell on earth, as the American Dream has become everyone’s nightmare. This story is now dying spectacularly amidst urban chaos, social breakdown, and anger and despair at the human and ecological costs of a disastrous experiment in social engineering and the irresponsible and hubristic manipulation of nature.
It had dawned on me even back then that what we called progress was less about moving towards a more harmonious, desirable or even benevolent human society, even if we had convinced ourselves it was, but that many of the industrial innovations that impacted our lives, along with the gigantic scale on which they were conceived, the alienating urban concentrations, obliterating natural landscapes that had for centuries formed the living context for our forebears, and the massive war machine stocked with weapons of mass destruction were more and more unconscious symptoms of what we were escaping from, and increasingly they were not enhancing our lives but narrowing our window on life, creating a toxic environment of mistrust and fear, and increasing levels of anxiety. For these ambiguous gifts of modernity, in spite of some of their more positive benefits, also had a very dark side, as though they mirrored our pathologies, and sometimes seemed to multiply them, like a virus. It seemed to me the kind of hyper-rational techno-utopia we had dreamed of creating was the shadow projection of the increasingly unacknowledged part of ourselves, namely our primordial organic bio-physical nature. It also occurred to me that there was a great deal of unacknowledged guilt at the excesses of this project, and that the massive defense industry, the sheer scale of investment in the threat of potential global annihilation (rationalized as ‘deterrence’), and the dogged tenacity with which the West has persisted in adhering to this narrative of dominance and control, and threatened anybody who questions it, is itself fueled by massive psychological denial, and the unacknowledged guilt vested in maintaining this condition of denial. Our deeper bio-physical nature is what gives us context and participation to fulfill our true vocation of evolving beyond the conditions determined by greed, anger and delusion, all of which were magnified by this state of dissociation, towards the more subtle heightened states of compassion, generosity and wisdom. Most of the great spiritual teachings tell us that this is indeed our true vocation.
Many celebrated narratives have explored this theme in different ways, from Pandora’s box, to Prometheus, Goethe’s Faust, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, warning us of the hubris and danger of attempting to master and control nature’s forces to our own ends, usually driven by greed or the desire for power, and almost never with beneficial outcomes, at least in the long term. It’s as though we have always known about our propensity to self-destruction. And now we seem to have arrived at an unprecedented crisis point. Whether we have the capacity and wisdom to navigate a way through the veil of illusions that have sustained us through this accelerated period of technological change and upheaval is the challenge of our times: it is truly the hour of reckoning.
Some argue that we had little choice in this: that the rational stage of evolving a technological global society was inevitable, and like all stages, the archaic, the mythical and so on, it will reach the limits of its efficacy after which seeing every problem as requiring only a rational techno-solution becomes counter-productive, and a new form will emerge that strives for balance between an evolving ‘globalism’ as a new form of cultural consciousness and the need to speak to people where they are, respecting their local communities and their need to belong, while the natural world is regarded not as an item to be fought over between exploiters and preservationists but as part and parcel of any definition of community that needs as much nurture as its human members. There is a timeless principle at work here, of the One and the Many, which is found in neo-platonism and other mystical wisdom traditions, and it is worth recalling that the original Green manifesto of the 1970s was based on a modern version of this, in thinking globally while acting locally, before Green Globalism became part of the capitalist elitist growth machine, and Green Washing became part of the neo-liberal economy controlled by the banks and the corporate state, and the cultural import was buried beneath expansionist economic priorities grimly fixated upon the now broken narrative of separation from and mastery of nature within a vicious ideology of competition and endless warfare.
Are we then irrevocably bound by this hopeless and destructive scenario, or is there something else unfolding, a dawning of an awareness that will enable us to make a transition to a new model of cooperation based on generosity and reverence for the natural world from which we evolved? My own sense is that there is some kind of shift taking place, sporadic thought it appears to be, as there is a growing realization, even among those economists, social theorists and politicians still firmly wedded to the progress narrative, that we have reached certain limits, which are social, ecological and above all psychological with regard to the predatory competitive growth model, which is a model of scarcity, and that financial and probably societal collapse is imminent. Amidst this high stakes scenario those who have navigated out of denial are sowing the seeds of a radically different model, one based on generosity, abundance, and communities that evolve through the mutuality of sharing in an open-ended gift economy that respects the sanctity of life and regards the earth as a living animate component of who we are, not a separate resource facility.
Others argue that the odds are against this, and that no civilization, once it has developed a technological stage, has ever avoided destroying itself with its own hubristic inventiveness and dysfunctional power structures. And it is true that every civilization before ours has collapsed. How often, as tourists, have we wandered their extensive ruins in different parts of the world unaware that we might suffer the same fate?
It seems to me that we will not be able to avert this tragedy unless we are able to undergo a historically unprecedented transformation of values, not as a new set of rules or conceptual moral positions, but a deep change in the very core of our being, a felt sense that we are not separate self-existing entities but that we experience our common humanity in the mode of inter-being. This means being willing to question our most fundamentally held beliefs about our place in the cosmos, even the notion of what civilization means in the first place. Gandhi once famously commented, on being asked what he thought of Western civilization, that it sounded like a good idea. In other words whatever the word conjured up that was not what he saw all around him under British rule. But his comment points to something else: it is just that: an idea, a story we tell about ourselves, which for many centuries has been a myth of ascension, and there is no inevitability about the particular form it takes. We could tell a different story, based on the evidence of our own capacity to see things as they are, and on the recognition that all forms are impermanent. The transition will not be easy, which is why mutual support among those who have seen through the old story, and can no longer abide in it without damaging their health and sanity, is so important. Even in our own personal lives we find major changes, in relationships, work, or where we live, to be very challenging. But as long as we remain entranced by a story that mistakes the present myth of identity, as separate selves committed to the mastery and control of nature, for reality itself, we are doomed to suffer the consequences of clinging to a story that has passed its sell-by date. Maybe the term civilization itself needs to be jettisoned, or replaced, as we have become so identified with what we think it means, as an ascent from ‘primitive’ communities, that arguments for and against ‘civilization’ become largely meaningless semantic disputes. These tend to imply that the notion ‘civilization’ necessarily has a singular trajectory, or that it necessarily requires this kind of technological development: we did what we did just because we could, like children given new toys to play with hardly aware of what we were doing. The Buddha in one of his discourses commented: They are as children, playing with their toys in a house on fire. This is what the Promethean narratives have warned us against, and where wisdom in general advises caution. This also assumes some kind of linear trajectory of ascension which almost always favours top-down oppressive hierarchical social structures.
The author Iain McGilchrist, in his impressive study of the divided brain and its cultural ‘projections’, The Master and His Emissary, argues convincingly that the ‘right-brain hemispheric world view’ has primacy and gives us context and participation, while the ‘left-brain world view’ is a necessary ‘emissary’ giving us the power of logical analytical thought and rationality, but that it is dangerous if it does not respect its role as the emissary and report back to the master with its findings to appropriately situate them in the essential wider context that grants us our primal human connectivity as participation with others and with the natural world. The problem, he says, is that over the last two thousand years there has been an incremental reversal of roles, whereby the Emissary has hubristically granted to itself the role of Master and marginalized the true Master as a second-rate Emissary that mostly stands in the way of its self-aggrandizing schemes. Hence the ensuing chaos and turmoil we find ourselves caught up in.
What we call modernity has evolved this vast machinery of an economic system, based on infinite resource extraction in a context of a finite earth, exponentially expanding human needs through commodifying desire, a human capacity that arguably is there to fulfill a higher aspiration rather than the futile attempt to satisfy this longing with accumulative acquisition, and endless novelty. The seemingly unstoppable momentum of this system has taken on a life of its own, like Frankenstein’s monster, and seems programmed to its own inevitable, and probably spectacular, collapse. Our blindness with regard to this is a consequence really of our pathological condition of denial, which manifests in what I call the conceit of self-duplicity, which also has the unconscious tendency to lead to violent outcomes. Some years ago I was struck by something the Mexican poet Octavio Paz said: that modern man pretends his thinking is wide awake, but that this has led us into the mazes of a nightmare in which the torture chambers are endlessly repeated in the mirrors of reason.
Secular modernity is based on two principles: the concept of linear time, cause and effect viewed as a uni-directional trajectory; and knowledge based on measure – what cannot be measured doesn’t exist. But time isn’t necessarily linear, and the measureless isn’t non-existent. Consequently we have divorced the realm of knowledge from the realm of value, whereas in both indigenous and classical cultures knowledge and value came from the same source. The other impetus behind modernity that accompanies the myth of progress is the West’s myth of freedom conceived as limitless liberation from prior constraints. This idea is at the foundation of the modern moral order of new freedoms, what the poet Robert Graves called an ecstasy of chaos, which has resulted in the fragmentation of modernity. While many of these aspirations to be emancipated from various societal oppressions and prejudices are legitimate, the problem of the self’s autonomy cannot simply be resolved in terms of liberation from social constraints, or past trauma, and the very notion and meaning of the term autonomous can be questioned when you delve into where real power resides in the contemporary social-economic structure.
We have arrived at the stage of what Georges Bataille calls the triumph of the sovereignty of servitude – not service to a higher aspiration, but to the delusion of separation and dominance, which is now well advanced towards planetary suicide. From the start modernity has been a deeply ambiguous project. Pankaj Mishra in his book From the Ruins of Empire points out that the history of modernization has been mainly one of carnage and bedlam rather than peaceful and mutually respectful convergence. Having spent a lot of time on three continents, and lived for over 20 years in East Africa I can see much more clearly the outcome of the imposition of modernity on cultures the West barely understood when they embarked on their imperial projects, and I agree with Mishra that the sanitization of colonial history and the triumphalist celebration of how Enlightenment rationality bestowed on the world the marvels of modernity is in denial of modernity’s dark side, seeing the traumas of world wars, and of fascism and Stalinism, as aberrations rather than the shadow projections of the West’s own wounded and divided ‘Self’.
Nearly forty years ago when I went to stay on a small Buddhist hermitage island in Sri Lanka on a long retreat, as I was then in the midst of a life crisis, I had long had this feeling there was something very wrong with the world, beyond the personal traumas of a dysfunctional family or my early impressions of Britain’s post-war austerities, and its toxic class divisions, and growing up I became aware that I was essentially a misfit – I did not easily fit into this society with its harsh methods of coercion and often frightening machinations. But I was part of a fortunate generation in the sixties that came of age in defiance against what was called the military-industrial complex. I have often asked myself: did we throw away that opportunity, as many of those who protested discarded their beards and sandals, put on suits and joined the corporate world of Wall Street, buying into the culture of personal enrichment and greed. Or was it that the time was not yet ripe for such a fundamental change, the old story had not yet reached a pivotal point of imminent collapse, and that the ability to see through it, to no longer be willing to live in denial of one’s true humanity had not reached a critical mass. Today there is a haunting pathos when I recollect those days of now almost unimaginable freedom and what felt then like a contagious joy as we really thought we were going to change the world. What was it that felt so wrong: Leonard Cohen summed it up eloquently in his song “The Future” “The blizzard of the world has overturned the order of the soul.” A poetic confirmation, if you like, of McGilchrist’s thesis.
At some very deep level I needed to assert that order as real, to find a way back to that connectivity, that underlying harmony, to that reawakening of wonder, away from the perplexity, cynicism and alienation that characterized modernity. And I was fortunate as early on, in spite of all the emotional upheavals of a disruptive upbringing, I managed to keep alive that inner sense of being part of something that I felt was essentially sacred, even though the voices of indoctrination were doing their very best to tell me this was an illusion and did not exist, that we were just robotic machines programmed by genes that belonged only to a mechanistic causal order.
It was in silence and solitude amidst nature that I retrieved that quality of an underlying harmony. When you are deeply touched by that there is a realization that in the end there is nothing else you really need: all your fabricated needs are merely substitutes. And in spite of many ups and downs – for this path is rarely a smooth one - I vowed to keep alive that timeless sacred context known to consciousness, and to know that the real vocation of the human is the path of actualization and awakening, which means nurturing that awareness that can embrace both beauty and terror, attraction and aversion, joy and suffering, in a space of equanimity beyond blame and shame towards what Terry Patten calls a New Republic of the Heart.
Nowadays I teach mindfulness, which is a practice of paying attention to the present, to the moment by moment unfolding of your life that shifts your relationship from the constant outer-directed mode of doing to an inner-directed mode of non-doing or being, a gateway if you like towards recovery of balance, whereby the underlying harmony at the core of your nature can begin to inform your daily life. But being in the present moment, focusing on the Now, also requires a further dimension through inquiry that fosters the faculty of insight. Much more is needed to really step out, not only from the cultural norms and indoctrination, but from our own tendency to self-indoctrination, to the self-duplicity of action based on denial. Also we need the ability to empathize, not only on the level of feeling, emotional empathy, but cognitively: cognitive empathy is about being able to walk in the other’s shoes, or even to walk about inside their head, to understand their cognitive perspective, their strongly held views, even the ones you find least attractive, even repugnant. This requires that we all engage with shadow work, for both individuals and cultures are prone to projecting their own shadow sides, and thus to defining themselves in terms of aversion towards the hated ‘other’, what the philosopher Hegel called a negative identity. In a world fraught with mass migrations amidst a great fusion, and confusion, of cultures that can as easily lead to conflict as to the more nuanced responses of creative cross-cultural engagement and understanding, acquiring more than one language becomes almost a priority. The work of Albert Costa on bi-lingualism shows how the neuroplasticity of the brain, which is manifest in mindfulness practice, enables bi-lingual or multi-lingual people to engage with others with more empathy. There is a challenge for all of us to examine belief systems, particularly our own, and see them for what they are: constructions of thought.
I remember reading a book by Ernest Becker back in the 70s entitled The Denial of Death. The main thesis was that we devise strategies to postpone the terror of death by constructing cultural belief systems that give us the illusion we are protected from contingency by having a view about the nature of reality that confirms we are beings of value in a meaningful universe. This most often is conceived in the form of a story we tell ourselves. When a particular construct, or self narrative, collapses and no longer seems credible, as all forms are impermanent, we suffer from an epochal existential crisis. Culture and Self-Esteem have been called the twin pillars of Terror Management – this comes from Sheldon Solomon’s Terror Management Theory, a research project that has confirmed many of Becker’s assertions. The Buddhist Dhamma more or less tells us the same thing: Buddha said: “The house is burning” – as long as you seek safety in form you will suffer, for all forms are transient: somebody you love will leave or die; you will suffer old age, sickness, financial loss, grief. It’s unavoidable, but it is your relationship to this that radically shifts your perspective. This is where you can be touched by deep change, the kind of change both inner and outer that can bring a new story to birth. This may serve us for a time, but never forever, as all forms are ultimately transient. But we probably cannot live without some kind of story. The nature of the story that will work, for a while, can only be determined by its appeal. The story of the separate self and of the control of nature perhaps appealed for it served our needs in this period of our evolution. But now we need a new story, and maybe it can be one that incorporates many sub-stories in symbiotic relationship with the earth, for diversity, cultural or biological, is an essential characteristic of the manifestation of all life.
In retrospect this island retreat was, to put it simply, the beginning of an attempt to answer the question, Who Am I? This question should really stop us in our tracks. But we go through years of education learning to ask so many questions, and to answer so many questions, usually within the paradigm of the objectification of knowledge: the answer lies outside of us somewhere, and when we have found it, in some kind of Theory of Everything, then everything will be okay. But in the educational system rarely if ever does this question – Who Am I? – become a focus for serious inquiry. There is an unexamined assumption that I am the names and labels attached to my occupation, my status, my wealth (or poverty) bracket, my cultural-linguistic identity, my race or my social-historical community. In a post-modern world for some these identites have become more fluid and even transient, less anchored in a place or a history, but at the same time subject to manipulation by social media, just as they can equally be exploited by right wing groups who prey on fears of cultural dilution by immigrants, and hence a fixed notion of identity becomes a default position, to be defended at all costs by scapegoating the 'other'. Society then constructs rules to demarcate how we negotiate these boundaries between separate identities to avoid conflict, while the narrative within which this all takes place in based on a system of competition about who benefits most and on what basis. But rarely do we inquire as to whether the answer to the question Who am I is a challenge to my conditioned view that I am only the sum total of my historical, cultural or racial identity, i.e. what a particular social imaginary tells me I am. Perhaps by letting go of, or at lest questioning what I have been told I am or should be, I come to see more clearly Who I Am at a non-verbal, non-representational level. This suggests that reality experienced directly is something different from reality experienced through a screen of conceptual categories. We are given information about how we should live that tries to ‘fix’ the world through a template of conceptual certainties, at the expense of the most fundamental capacity we possess: self-awareness, along with empathy, and the ability to question the picture of reality we have been given. John Searle, who has explored the construction of reality through the way we use language, emphasizes that this does not mean language creates reality:
"Rather, I am saying that what counts as reality…is a matter of the categories that we impose on the world; and those categories are for the most part linguistic. And furthermore: when we experience the world we experience it through linguistic categories that help to shape the experiences themselves. The world doesn’t come to us already sliced up into objects and experiences: what counts as an object is already a function of our system of representation, and how we perceive the world in our experience is influenced by that system of representation. The mistake is to suppose that the application of language to the world consists of attaching labels to objects that are, so to speak, self-identifying. On my view, the world divides the way we divide it, and our main way of dividing things up is in the language. Our concept of reality is a matter of our linguistic categories."
Searle distinguishes himself from materialists who deny inner states of consciousness, and states that mind cannot be ontologically reduced to matter, but that it can be reduced causally. In this way he espouses a 'non-dualist' position and declares consciousness a feature of the brain in opposition to the dualist who claims consciousness cannot be reduced to an epiphenomenon of a material substrate. In the Buddhist or Taoist view the field of representation screens our awareness from direct perception of reality, or 'things-in-themselves'. But the Western preoccupation with the 'mind-body problem' and 'consciousness' suffer from the same problem treating these words as though they refer to self-existing properties, or substantial forces that to exist within the scientific narrative must be measurable. Subjective experiences that arise from a reciprocal mutually causal event that bridges the assumed 'gap' between inner and outer, object and subject, are typically externalized as 'objects' by the mind's tendency to reification, so they seem to acquire an existence independent of a consciousness-act. These cognitive objects can then be grasped, denoted, and manipulated. The discriminatory mind is indeed useful for survival-related activities, and the terms 'mind' and 'matter' are useful linguistic devices for such uses, but if we come to mistake this realm of appearances or representations for the whole of reality itself we come to live as though our distancing and separation from the world were a given. In the Buddhist and Taoist view this is erroneous, as seeing behind the veil of linguistic representation you could no longer apply the category real to any 'objective' particular. We have glimpses of perception unmediated by language as representation or image, when the world vibrates with a depth of intensity, a vivid richness of colour, taste, sound and smell. The realization that language can distance us from this more vibrant experience is stated in the opening lines of the Tao Te Ching: "The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao: the names that can be named are not the true names. It was from the Nameless that Heaven and Earth sprang; the named is but the mother that rears the ten thousand creatures."
But language also possesses a creative aspect, as in poetry, and oral traditions, where there is an emphasis on the resonance of vocal sounds that reveals something that cannot be reduced to words, but haunts the spaces between words, the silences between people. To know who I am amidst all these realms of being is a task that must address our ultimate concerns about life and death.
This means asking the question: What am I going to do with this one wild and precious life I have been given? And what will really give meaning to my life is not necessarily something that I have to earn. The sun doesn’t have to ‘earn’ to shine. The tree doesn’t have to earn to grow. I don’t have to earn to grow from childhood to adulthood: I need nourishment and care and love. Earning is another matter concerning adult physical survival needs in a competitive environment based on self-interest. You may, or may not, manage that as best you can, but to find what is really important often means you will have to step out of that old story and for a time be prepared to live not knowing what to do, while you let go of the old certainties that have not served you well. This takes courage. You might have to risk everything to discover it, to unearth it from all the certainties that have buried it. And somewhere, probably when you least expect it you will come across it, or more likely it will find you: like a jewel amidst the debris of all those collapsed certainties, the ruins of your failed ambitions, failed relationships, or deluded self-aggrandizing schemes. And this jewel is your core of spiritual wealth, for lack of which you have been striving for a substitute through acquisition of material wealth, only to discover that this did not give you what you most deeply longed for. So part of changing the narrative is also to change the perception of a conflict between spirituality and material wealth: if you have one you can’t have the other. And just in case you misunderstand what I’m saying here, and that you can continue to aspire to grandiose self-serving accumulations while giving it a spiritual spin: i.e. having your cake and eating it, what I’m also getting at is redefining what we mean by material wealth. The problem is not only in terms of the so-called gap between rich and poor that has escalated through the economic growth model, but that in the midst of the massive expansion of material things there is not only abject material poverty and social deprivation of basic needs, but that across the whole spectrum from the marginalized to the billionaires there is such a deep condition of real spiritual impoverishment.
In my own case I found in the Buddhist Dhamma something profound, that went deep into how we construct our picture of reality, and which questioned many of the assumptions of modernity that has given rise to this predicament. This doesn’t mean I became a devout Buddhist – there were many questionable things about the social conditions that gave rise to teachers like Buddha, and the way that their recommendations of how to address human suffering became co-opted by oppressive power structures so that they never addressed the underlying problem in a satisfactory way, they never dismantled the cultural delusion of separation, and could only offer hope in renunciation or transcendent ‘other worlds’. Which is not to say they did not contain valuable insights, or that engaging seriously through a period of renunciation, or solitude, as I did, is not worthwhile. It can be profoundly transformative, and begin the process of stepping out of the condition of denial, of dismantling the self-duplicity. This did give value and meaning to my life, amidst all my failings and disasters, the hurts received and given. I began by trying to understand conceptually something that was very alien to the Western mind-set. But then eventually the realization was that it could only be apprehended through practice, to become as real as the oxygen I breathe – quite literally: “Breathing In I know I’m breathing In; Breathing Out I know I’m breathing Out”: This is nurturing awareness, grounding ourselves in the body, in body-time, in the present – it is Process. It might strike some people strange to say that this was revolutionary, not only for me, but also for others who became aware of how little awareness they lived with every day. It created a sanctuary, a refuge, through which the promise of the True, the Good, the Beautiful might be actualized as a kind of alchemical transformation of the base conditions of greed, anger and delusion into compassion, generosity and wisdom.
Perhaps the most significant thing about this engagement with the Dhamma was that I came to see the essence of the teaching, stripped of its cultural accretions, as not a religion providing a set of ‘spiritual’ answers, in which case it would simply be a way of adapting to, or creating resilience to, an unacceptable and unsustainable set of conditions, which is how religion has traditionally worked. But I saw it rather as a process of an ever deeper questioning of the reality I am embedded in, and of the ways I have constructed to prevent myself from seeing its true nature. And this in turn led inevitably to questioning the entire social-economic-political-military-industrial-historical construct, and how we had become captivated by the glittering and dangerous gifts of modernity.
What was the most crucial stage in this? What marked the crossing-point, the vital threshold in this journey? I think it was in seeing that uncertainty was not something to be feared. That not knowing often contained or manifested more spaciousness than knowing. It opened into a liminal space, one that was often anything but ‘comfortable’. But if I could abide in it I discovered it had a quality of boundless possibility in which a creative dynamic became tangible.
For me the way was through the existential crisis that had manifested in the West as nihilism. In a Memoir I have written The Island, A Mirror for the Soul, I have retraced this journey through nihilism that I made while growing up through this period, by exploring the dominant Western narrative and its critique through some of Western culture’s own luminaries, people like Henry David Thoreau, Franz Kafka, Norman Brown, Lawrence Durrell, Virginia Woolf, Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Merton, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Rilke and the philosopher Nietzsche, the list can go on of writers who exposed the deeply problematic nature of modernity. All of these writers and many others supported me in realizing that I was not deluded in questioning this powerful narrative of a social system founded on self-interest, separation, industrialization and mastery of nature.
I also developed a keen interest in the Kyoto school of Japanese philosophers who were the first modern philosophy school from the East to really comprehend the challenge that Western existentialist philosophy presented. Japan had been dragged into this infinite growth model by the arrival of American ships under Commodore Perry in the 1850s. For 250 years before that the Tokugawa Shogunate had created a peaceful craft-based low-impact society, spiritually rich, with high standards of cleanliness, culinary skills and literacy, and strong community values which had also managed to reverse the deforestation of its initial phase and to reduce the population to almost zero growth, while raising living standards for everyone with an equal absence of any appearance of wealth or poverty. This American intervention sadly dragged Japan into this process of modernity and basically imposed on them the conditions by which they could progress within this model of economic expansion, and thus become a powerful nation in competition with others. Naturally the Japanese adopted the same aggressive methods, which eventually led to the Pacific War. They thought they were playing the game everybody else was, and winning by the rules of this empire-building model, through brutal domination of others, as they had been ruthlessly coerced into the methods of an economy of infinite growth and expansion. The whole tragic saga ended of course with the attack on Pearl Harbour, followed a few years later with the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, then the post-war American led reconstruction through the Western democratic model. The story of America and Japan is a very tragic but interesting one, as they represent two extreme polarities of the human social experience: the Japanese emphasizing the collective, the communitarian, with extreme conformity to the group-mind, and the Americans celebrating an extreme form of individualism, but one that, as Alan Watts pointed out, became, especially in the fifties, another kind of conformity in the Organization Man. Both models are an attempt to create an identity suspended over a void: much of Japanese culture was for centuries derivative, even Zen came from China. And America has always suffered from what Hegel called a negative identity: it requires an enemy against which it seeks self-definition: first it was Native Americans, then the Communists, then the Islamists. Of course the infinitely expanding economy gave it its methodology: one of brute force and coercion, modeled on a scientific paradigm where everything can be explained by a mechanistic causal order of brute force.
And the issue of the void was at the heart of the Kyoto School’s attempt to find a new value-base with which to confront this new reality, this contingent, dynamic, chaotic and fluid world of continuous change and expansion. In trying to understand what had brought this world into being, they had to counter the nihilism of Western culture. They emphasized the need to go beyond this pessimistic nihilism, and stated that overcoming this was the greatest issue facing philosophy, religion and culture in our time. One of them, Keiji Nishitani, regarded this contemporary nihilism as a necessary stage he called relative nothingness, on a path to understanding experientially the Buddhist notion of emptiness, which he called absolute nothingness. Relative nothingness is the mode explored by the French philosopher Sartre, a nothingness at the ground of my being that acts as a springboard for my self project, by which I aim to find fulfillment conceived as a plan or schema into which I insert myself on a future trajectory to maximize my self-interest. For Sartre this relative nothingness provoked this response, as a reconstruction of self according to my desire that I conjure from within myself, and he conceived transcendence as a kind of process of stepping over myself, a constant reinvention of selves launched on this future oriented trajectory in quest of some final goal of fulfillment. Nishitani understood that the essence of modern existence was identified with self-consciousness, so the way we saw ourselves was limited by the horizon of the field of consciousness. Our task then, as he understood it from his own long practice of Zen, was to pass through the field of relative nothingness to absolute nothingness, which was the groundless ground of emptiness: it has something in common with the Greek, and sometimes Christian mystical, notion of kenosis, self-emptying, and implies a state of abiding wholly in a free space of openness, while grounded on the earth: there is nothing above you, apart from the sky and the birds, and nothing below you, but sediments of deep time that are a bottomless abyss into the eternity of life-as-death, death-as-life. The journey if you like concerns the whole process of confronting that abyss that the ego, divorced from any belief system as a credible defence against contingency, is in perpetual flight from. For it perceives this nothingness in negative terms, as a threat, and consequently acts aggressively or defensively, using threat. But in the East in general the notion of emptiness has more positive connotations, as a state of being that is pregnant with possibility. Emptiness paradoxically embraces nothingness and fullness.
The path then was through this nothingness. The nearest articulation would be in Zen what is called the Great Death. Only by encouraging extreme doubt, doubt even as to whether I exist, can I relinquish all the false certainties that make up my identity. By directly facing the nihility as it were, it is possible to experience the groundless ground of self, the groundless ground even of being, from where arises an affirmation. You might say this is like an everlasting spring bubbling up from a bottomless well. We all from time to time have glimpses of this timeless open awareness that bestows a sense of infinite possibility or even of great beauty in which there is a complete absence of fear or anxiety. But then it is gone, and we are haunted by a need to find it again. Eternity, which we glimpsed in this state of the timeless, takes on the form of infinite duration, the unconscious aspect of the timeless, and our quest is converted into a goal oriented autotelic quest, in which every function is self-willed towards the unrestricted pursuit of itself, an aimless drivenness that paradoxically never reaches its goal, which is indefinitely postponed, a condition Nishitani calls cryptic nihilism.
Modernity is based on a mistaken notion of freedom based on will towards liberation from all constraints without seeing that the self that strives for this freedom can never escape the sense of lack which is the shadow side of its own sense of self, that its notion of itself as an autonomous separate self-existing entity conceals a haunting underlying felt lack of autonomy. This ultimately is the condition of suffering, of dukkha, of dissatisfaction. Nishitani points out that with the expressions of will at the foundation of our world, whose narrative is one of separation, competition and dominance, being cannot be seen under the form of eternity but only under the form of infinity, an infinite finitude that lies behind the endless drivenness of the current contemporary narrative. This is not simply a psychological or existential issue, for it goes to the root of the whole world picture of separation and dominance that involves money, growth, mastery of nature, resource extraction, debt, the nation state, borders, conflict, material wealth, spiritual impoverishment etc. The sense of lack at the core of our being can also be seen as simply the lack of inter-being, in short the lack of genuine community, of the support structure of a community that itself is supported by being integrated with the natural world and which inter-penetrates with the whole field of intelligence that informs all sentient beings.
To have clear unimpeded insight into this condition of self-duplicity is not easy as our defences are so strong, through clinging to the story of the separate self and the social structures that reinforce it through relations based on contractual conditions of control. My normal reaction to despair when my conditioned psychological defences are breached is to identify with negative self-images, inculcated by the pervasive shame that a model based on an ideology of exceptionalism, and the dichotomies of success and failure, praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and pain. I easily become convinced of my own worthlessness. Identification with these, and the false security even clinging to a negative self-image can give me, must be relinquished. When these thoughts and feelings are observed in meditation they are as impermanent as any other thoughts, even positive ones. To enter fully into despair is to accept that I cannot will myself into a solution to it, and thus by dropping all intention I fall into the very abyss, avoidance of which is the source of my despair. My stress, my despair, or depression turns out to be a gift, a wake-up call into shifting the context. I come to see that despair or depression is not a symptom of meaninglessness but the result of my attempts to escape it, and usually involves a craving for something I believe I want but which is really a symptom of something else, something unresolved.
We think we have reached some apex of human intelligence, and from that perspective is it not quite strange that amidst modernity, with all this knowledge, and all our sophisticated technologies, we nevertheless find ourselves caught in this dualistic trap, and find it hard to see this condition of self-duplicity. But if you look at this from the other perspective of inter-being and interconnectivity it is not at all strange: for our modern notion of what we think intelligence is, and our very mastery of technologies of control organized to eradicate contingency and make us safe from sickness, old age and death, are the very things that have killed our natural birthright to a sense of wonder and joy, that vibrant sense of being alive to the living energies of a living animate world of beings, for lack of which we have increasingly surrounded ourselves with substitute gratifications in an artificial world that only increases this sense of alienation and dissociation.
My inability to live fully sustains the illusion of guilt, that feeling of unworthiness, of something ‘missing’, and my unwillingness to relinquish this sustains the repression that gives rise to it. To surrender to despair is to become one with it and allow it to consume the self that is sustained by its dualistic reaction that alternates between hope and despair, without seeing that they are two sides of the same coin. As the self collapses into despair, despair itself dissolves with the self, thus refuting the need for salvation grounded on the egoic self, which ultimately is groundless.
But here it is also important to make a distinction: the groundlessness of self does not mean you don’t exist, a notion that would be incoherent to us. It just means there is no enduring substantial self-existent ‘self’. And the way to look at this is to perhaps say what is there, rather than what is not there: there is a person, and the word person comes in the West from the Greek persona, a mask: you put on a mask to play a role in the theatre. We all have roles: as occupations, fathers, mothers, teachers, artists, CEOs, students etc. But all these roles are the result of causally connected conditions, dependent on physical, mental, emotional states in a complex web of interdependent relationships – that’s actually the person I am, so the notion of no-self, or not-self, has to be understand not as the annihilation of the person I am: it merely shifts the relationship of self to other and to the world through the inquiry and observation of these states of attraction and aversion, through awareness of my patterns of reactivity, and enables one to abide in a more spacious interior environment where I can more appropriately respond, rather than react, to whatever situation arises. It distinguishes the mode of existence that accurately characterizes my life within a set of causally connected conditions and relationships, a collectively constituted member of a social-historical community, with roles, intentions, challenges, rather than the delusion of an isolated self that exists as a separate subject looking out on a world of separate objects, things, and people.
The problem today for the internet generation in a post-modern world of ‘fluid’ identities is that instead of growing naturally through the developmental phases grounded in our biophysical nature and from within a social-historical community rooted in a place with a sense of belonging, identity has been hijacked by the multinational corporations that ‘sells’ pre-packaged ‘identities’ for profit, through fashion brands, food choices, electronic devices, and celebrity images, in a discarnate virtual reality that becomes a hall of mirrors in a post-modern world, that legitimizes this process as liberation from prior constraints, that by definition denigrates any more traditional social-historical community, and especially land-based rural communities. There is a lot of cruelty in this media manipulation and exploitation of greed, which is reinforced by the educational system through the emphasis placed on comparison and competition. The identity that results from succumbing to these seductive ‘empty’ images that give a false sense of belonging through psychological exploitation are very fragile, and online relationships are easily manipulated in cruel and often abusive ways by exploiting the desperate need to be loved, the wound at the heart of a being that has been uprooted from any meaningful connectivity to either community or nature. An extreme example of this, to refer again to the Japanese story, is the post-modern otaku culture of Japan, the obsession with the animated world of manga and anime, which ironically has spread beyond Japan to Europe and the USA since it is an extreme response to the meaninglessness of consumer culture resulting from the rapid post-war modernization and the inability to come to terms with the devastation of WW II and the horror of Hiroshima/Nagasaki, where the quest for greater significance is abandoned for the consumption of culture itself driven by an insatiable need for instant gratification. According to the critic Hiroki Azuma culture becomes a database of plots and characters and its consumers are reduced to “database animals.” And yet in this ultra-nihilistic move is there in some weird sense the possibility of reaching a radical place of transcendence? Which brings us back to the Kyoto School and the point about piercing the veil of relative ‘nothingness’ with absolute nothingness, a radical post-narrative narrative.
To find the true nature of your being the first step is to divest the false self of these prefabricated images, and to spend time in a caring environment where they can be allowed to dissolve by not being daily reinforced, where you are held by a supportive community and can reconnect with real things and real people, where your natural curiosity can be reawakened, in order to find out how to “love things as no one has thought to love them” as the poet Rilke said.
The 13th c. Japanese Zen teacher Dogen said: To study the dhamma is to study the self; to study the self is to forget the self; to forget the self is to be awakened to the ten thousand things; when awakened to the ten thousand things body and mind, as well as the body and mind of others, drops away.’
What does Dogen mean by the dropping away of body and mind? I hardly think he means we become disembodied: we are already divorced from our bodies, dis-carnated by our cerebral preoccupations, and dependence on technologies of control into a state of dissociation. Rather I think he means we come upon a non-dual awareness that is no longer exclusively identified with body or mind as a separate form, a reified thing as object or subject. In other words form yields to the formless; separation yields to or perhaps is embraced by, held by unbounded awareness, yet we remain always deeply embodied. This experience is an embodied realization. The Diamond Sutra says: Let Mind come forth without fixing it anywhere. And again Dogen says: I came to realize, he says, that mind is none other than mountains, rivers, and the great wide earth, the sun, the moon and the stars. Here he is talking about a greater Mind, not the personal mind of a limited finite self as a subject that regards everything else as outside as ‘objects’.
Forgetting the ‘self’ I am confirmed and held by the things of the world. The solidity of the self as a substantial object, that I search for in vain, yields to a transparency and only by becoming transparent to the ten thousand things – whether other people, realities of nature and so on – does the self become what it truly is. I realize my essential relationship to the world and others is non-dual, is not a function of separation. We interpenetrate: there is inter-being as the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh calls it, with others and with the natural world, and when we are awakened and know this, not cognitively but heuristically, we experience awe and wonder as a deeply felt sense of presence.
And Rumi the 13th c. Sufi poet spoke of a ‘variety of intelligences’, as well as Universal Intelligence: “The Mind of the Whole”.
Personal intelligence is not capable of doing work.
It can learn, but it cannot create.
That must come from non-time, non-space.
Real work begins there.
And he also mentions two kinds of intelligence:
One that is acquired…one already completed
And preserved inside you.
Confronting one’s own nothingness bestows a spiritual urgency as I journey down the path of becoming a vulnerable human being, stripped of all pretence, and again and again reminding myself to question where I may have unconsciously once more given my allegiance to the culture of denial. And the other side of the culture of denial is magical thinking, which is proliferating everywhere now as the crises escalate. Nothing outside you will resolve this dilemma.
To see things clearly, as they are, also means constantly reminding myself of the dichotomies of my existence: the often heedless action, a moment of forgetfulness, or even a casually malicious remark, as well as the capacity to be creative, and how closely intertwined they often are, for creativity isn’t always light and joy, but is often in our times dark, or even morbid, reflecting that state of despair or dissociation. It could be the simplest everyday action that needs to be investigated. How many of us go out into the garden – if we are lucky enough to have a garden - and pick a flower to put it in the house. I just did this the other day – even Buddhist monks do it: I have seen them put flowers by the thousand every day before Buddha images – And then I asked myself: Why did I do it? Because I so appreciate its beauty, I want that fragrance, I want that colour and that ambiance to permeate my dwelling, to bring light or beauty into my life, while fully knowing that in all probability its exquisite sentiency registers the violence of the cut when I pick it. Why do I do this? Is this not another example of self-grasping? Can I not simply leave the flower where it is? Just see the beauty of it, and leave it at that.
You might think this is a bit extreme, but the flower industry is a major industry, not without its share of human abuses, where cut flowers are decorative additions to human rituals, births, weddings, anniversaries, and deaths, or accompaniments to romantic love. It points to our need to create beauty, to somehow insert the natural world and the beauty of its forms into our human-centred social arrangements, whether celebratory, romantic or tragic, as though this reminder of natural beauty however small momentarily alleviated the pervasive condition of spiritual impoverishment that results from an extreme dissociation in daily life from the natural world. If we think of much of modern urban development, apartment blocks, shopping malls, industrial complexes, high rises, road and rail networks, and the sprawling informal communities, or favelas in South America, or the slums as they were once called of Africa and Asia, that try to survive by feeding off the wealthier suburbs’ need for services, services that an integral community once provided with mutual support, then you also witness the mainly unremitting ugliness of these environments. Compare this with many examples of traditional vernacular architecture around the world: the organically shaped earth buildings of Africa, the winding streets and white or colour-washed houses of village communities nestling on the slopes of many Greek islands, the beautiful, spotlessly clean, circular cobhouses of Kutch, even the cave dwellings of Cappadocia or southern Tunisia, all of which I have visited on my travels; these are forms which are now often replicated in tourist resorts as though to remind us how we used to live, and there is a jolting feeling of the lack of the sense of intimacy and welcome in our harsh modern urban housing, along with the stresses of a time-pressured life style, that these traditional communities impart, with their simplicity, spare but adequate furnishings, and sense of shared community values. You might think this is too idealistic a portrait seen from a privileged outside space, as older communities are also sometimes known for malicious gossip, socially oppressive customs, or long-lasting blood feuds, and often economic hardship. These human problems have always existed, and usually have been resolved not by specialists, but from within their communities at the local level, through spiritual teachings, ritual ceremonies, and traditional medicine. But in most cases these communities didn't ruthlessly devastate their environments on the scale that industrial society has.
If I am fortunate enough to live in a reasonably secure urban residential area I may desire a beautiful teak dining table that seats twelve to proudly invite my friends for dinner. Multiply that by 20,30,50,100 million: how many forests are eradicated to supply this? And what of the illegal logging and corruption involved in the process? I recycle my plastic but continue to leave the tap running for five minutes when I brush my teeth. I fear for the future of my children on an endangered planet, but I still drive my SUV 500 metres to the convenience store for bottled water. And would you even get into your car if you stopped to think of the oil spills, the carbon emissions and ruthless geopolitical manoeuvres of the oil industry? Again, would you eat in that restaurant if you really understood the chain of abuse, human exploitation, topsoil depletion, or the carbon cost of transcontinental transportation of exotic ingredients that put that meal on your plate? We don’t easily make the connection. Obviously I am not saying don’t drive your car, don’t buy a table, don’t eat out…but perhaps at this juncture there is a need to pause, and to ask how necessary is this to a fulfilled life? What am I prepared, in the last resort, to relinquish? Is happiness something I must pursue, the result of a particular cause or acquisition? In polls conducted in America since the second World War the positive answer to the question 'Are you happy?' peaked in 1956, and has declined ever since, so now self-confessed happy individuals are in a minority even though they have three times as much material wealth as in the 1950s. True lasting happiness is not something that can be willed into existence, is not something we can have, but only something we can be, and which is not ultimately dependent on any external cause. And perhaps it can only be present in a supportive, loving, community that understands its deep connection to other beings and the intelligence of the whole.
On the island I learned to live with very little: a cup of water for my teeth, a bucket for my shower, one meal a day. I didn’t regard this as deprivation, for solitude and silence opened me to the richness and vibrancy of each day: I lacked nothing for my being was at home and at peace amidst natural abundance, and largely without the straitjacket of linear clock time. I had no watch or clock but I knew the time of day by the diurnal rhythms, the different birdcalls from morning to evening, the small shifts in the tidal waters of the lagoon, the phases of the moon in the night sky.
We make brilliant films, write exquisite poetry, make wonderful music and kill 200 species a day. Our success as a species and our extravagant proliferation of needs has toxified the earth, air, sea and our own bodies. We operate often unthinkingly within the predatory paradigm of competition, mistrust, exploitation and greed. We have even killed millions of our own species, as we know over the centuries. In the 20th century alone over 230 million people died in wars and conflicts, most of whom were non-combatants. And today, statistics tell us, every hour about 40 people are murdered somewhere in the world: when will we say one murder is one too many; one rape is one too many? Yet in spite of all this we are now dominant on this earth, perhaps to our own detriment and certainly to the detriment of other life forms. We fear death, but we inflict it on a massive scale. And now there looms the possibility of planetary death, or the extinction of our own species. We simply cannot continue to live on this basis and expect to survive another 100 years, or even 50.
Climate change or climate chaos in a very real sense is an existential threat, because we are in denial of our true vocation and are now faced with the consequences of that denial.
What is that vocation?
To step out of the delusion of separation and find redemption in the realm of inter-being, of self and other, self and world, not only through the cognitive realm, not as a concept, an idea, but in the felt realms of intimacy, of our innate gift of generosity and the realization that we cannot live without one another – we are a social species.
This is articulated in the African Ubuntu concept: I cannot exist without you: you are therefore I am – the mutually reciprocal integrity and dignity of becoming optimally human.
But if we come to feel we can only change through fear of our own extinction, through seeing the conditions of ecological degradation, extreme weather events, vanishing wilderness, the mass extinction of species, as a threat, this will also be unlikely to bring about any real fundamental change that will enable us to create a more beautiful, sustainable and habitable world. We have to want to change not because we feel forced to by threats due to the consequences of our past actions and delusions, but because we have truly seen into the dark heart of our spiritual impoverishment and because we know we love the forests, the wild rivers, the mountains, the myriad creatures that share in our being and contribute to our sense of well-being, that nourish us with their presence, and because without them we would be so diminished that life would hardly be worth living.
Periods of silence and solitude are very essential to becoming fully human, so that you have the opportunity to plumb your own intimate depths, to go through the abyss to this felt realization, and then find solidarity with others who have found ways, often extraordinary ways, of being aligned fully with their own inner truth in creative and compassionate acts of body, speech and mind. There are, I feel, some hopeful signs today that more and more people are seeing through the story we have been telling for at least five centuries, as it is increasingly obvious that it is no longer working. As people’s lives become harder, more financially precarious and unsatisfying, caught between the fruitless quest for novelty and self-aggrandizing ambition for success as defined by the existing order, the realization comes that this can never deliver to us what we told ourselves it would, that it can never appease the deepest longing of our hearts for a world in which beauty, love and generosity are the primary basis for community.
So where does that leave us in this time of great crisis?
For me it is a need to nurture two qualities: Reverence and Wonder. And for both of these to inform that sense of communion with other beings.
Reverence for all sentient life on earth, however small, even a mosquito. Wonder at the sheer miracle of being alive even at this historically unprecedented moment where we find ourselves on the knife-edge between extinction and infinite possibility if we have the courage to step out of our pathology of denial and open our hearts to the boundless possibilities of a more beautiful world. And by possibility I do not mean simply the expansion of what already exists in some perhaps more equitable arrangement: for it is business as usual, it is more of the same, that is killing us.
If there is even the remotest chance of coming out of denial and having the political and social will to turn the tide, to participate in what Joanna Macy calls the Great Turning, the new world would have to be a global culture radically different, and one that fully recognized our true vocation. We know somewhere in our innermost depths that this is possible at the human level – otherwise what on earth was all this art, and music, and poetry and great wisdom teachings for? What are those moments for, when we glimpse the True, the Good and the Beautiful?
The current conditions of living on our earth are unacceptable and unsustainable, and the narrative that created this has long passed its sell-by date. We cannot create new habitable conditions by using the same old narrative or mind-set with a new wrapping, by willfully imposing another reformulated re-jigged paradigm of exclusively human dominance. We have to die to or let go of our infatuation with this narrative that is driven by a delusion of going somewhere it can never reach. This wisdom can only arise out of nowhere, out of the void, out of the abyss of nothingness, out of not knowing, which amounts to a radical trust in the intelligence of the whole, a mindful intelligence. As the Tao puts it this is the action of non-action.
A great poet Nathaniel Tarn wrote at the end of his early poem in the 1970s The Beautiful Contradictions:
Perhaps we shall all meet one day on a long lawn at the age of eighty
And talk over tea or drinks why we did not love each other more.
It would be nice to think we don’t have to wait until we’re eighty, or until there is no more grass on the lawn. Let’s be honest and frank: the chances of coming through this look increasingly bleak as the climate science statistics are updated more and more frequently as the pace of change seems to be accelerating fast beyond all earlier predictions: as forests continue to be diminished; as desertification spreads remorselessly in the Sahel, further marginalizing the already marginalized, where innumerable groups roam the desert communities with guns killing people while riding on armed technicals, in a kind of Mad Max nightmare of social breakdown; as more and more urban dwellers in the developed world succumb to the opioid crisis, or numb themselves with addictions to not feel their own despair and sense of hopelessness; as suicide rates among young people rise, as they cannot see there is any future they can believe in; as we succumb to a divisive politics of hate speech, where the government of the largest democracy in the world can put up a hundred billboards in a city depicting the faces, names and addresses of people from one minority ethno-religious group that no court has found guilty declaring they are responsible for acts of rioting, thus inciting mob justice; as we face a full summer of ice melt in the Arctic; when essential eco-systems, like mangrove forests, half of which have disappeared, have been severely degraded; as we edge closer to the possibility of the failure of rain-fed agriculture; as desperate migrants risk their lives fleeing war zones or drought caused scarcities or just bad governance, seeking the most basic human safety or even minimal basic needs far from where they were born; as the debt crisis burgeons while job scarcity escalates in a world increasingly run by machines and robots; while the wealthy build their protective enclaves against collapse, hoarding their money and insulating themselves from the desperate masses whose lives are haunted by struggling amidst a system of scarcity in a world whose natural abundance has been ravaged and depleted by a narrow view of reality; as the possibility of societal collapse within ten or fifteen years seems more and more likely.
How should we respond to all this? We can start by having an open conversation coming from a realization that we cannot depend solely, or even at all, on the instruments of government, still in thrall to the narrative I have been exposing in this reflection, where the environment is considered only from the point of view of its commodified value or from carbon metrics, but instead must open ourselves to consider our lives in the context of a living animate world under threat from an unprecedented assault on its complex billion year old symbiosis of life forms, where the totality of the value it possesses for the deepest levels of our being cannot be evaluated numerically, where the things that escape numerical measurement are just left out of the equation.
It is just those things that cannot be evaluated through the numbers game that we need most of all, that are most essential to our well-being, and to a future where we live within a symbiosis with all life. Even if we reduce carbon emissions, even if we clean up the plastic in the oceans etc. unless we create a radically different model of community in alignment with the earth’s living symbiosis of forms, you will still be deprived of spiritual wealth, not matter how far you isolate yourself from the consequences that are already manifesting everywhere, no matter how much we manipulate the carbon trade-offs to maintain the current narrative.
If we leave everything to the manipulators of numbers we will not bring about anything qualitatively restorative in terms of our well-being seen from the perspective of the holistic spiritual-material wealth equation I mentioned. It is our responsibility to begin creating qualitative enrichment in our own lives, even in the smallest of ways, in defiance of this quantitative model that ignores what escapes its calculations. There are many ways we can contribute to making the world the more beautiful place we know it can be, just by bringing something invaluable into our routine everyday survival tasks, and granting space to invite and share within our communities that spaciousness that can inform our lives on another level of qualitative enrichment, which is the gift of mindful intelligence, and of the clarity of comprehension that is wisdom. In other words it is not about having or making some grand innovative gesture that feeds into the model of control, or by adopting a non-hierarchical corporate model, if the view is still one of the dominance of an exclusively human understanding of intelligence in which we impose our limited view on the natural world, and try to control it to our own self-serving ends. Of course we need to take drastic action against deforestation, to limit carbon emissions, to restore degraded land, to remove plastic from the oceans etc. But real healing cannot only come from applying force – which is the default position of a culture of domination and control: we single out the enemy, a single cause, and set about destroying it – healing cannot come from fighting the problems on terrain conceived as a perpetual battleground of good versus evil, of conservation versus consumption, of democracy versus fundamentalism, for it is this dualistic mind-set that has brought these problems on us in the first place. It has to begin somewhere else, not outside of us (the default mode of magical thinking) but deep within, as Thich Naht Hanh said by listening to the sound of the earth crying out, for this echoes our own cry of anguish at the pain of dissociation we have inflicted on ourselves for such a long time. They are mirror reflections of each other. And we cannot do this alone, but only together.
Take the first step today, if you haven’t already.
As the philosopher and educator Jiddu Krishnamurti repeatedly said (and he was my teacher for a while in the late 70s and early 80s before he died) :
The first step is the last step.
You walk the path your feet make in your walking.
Making the path is finding your own inner truth, the truth of your being, so you can turn the fires of craving, of greed, of anger, and delusion, into the fire of passion to become a sacred activist on behalf of all humanity and all sentient life.
What do I mean – all sentient beings? Is this another abstraction – or is it actually those I talk to every day at work, those I live with, the man who collects the garbage, the street hawker, the woman from whom I buy vegetables, the tree and the birds in my garden, the elephant on the shrinking savannah, the whales and dolphins in the acidified oceans congested with plastic, the insects whose small invisible tasks beneath the earth, or in the trillion flight paths of pollination, underpin a whole complex symbiotic system of life.
It is very easy to allow the daily Loving Kindness meditations we occasionally do to become routine, something comforting, to get us through another day, to alleviate the raw wound inside us, and to override the really deep change that is required.
The practice means shifting the focus from self to others without feeling threatened – because this is your natural quality – nothing has to be imported from outside! Only in this way I feel can we make the transition collectively to a habitable and sustainable mode of life by being the caretakers in symbiosis with all living things, to serve the healing of the earth and the evolution of the intelligence that manifested this incredible diversity of conscious life on earth.
This is there in the idea of the Bodhisattva – it is such a noble ideal; the compassionate warrior who works non-violently to alleviate the suffering of others. This doesn’t require belief in anything. It is simply your own awakened nature, it is becoming aware of what you already know but have ignored.
The motivation is compassion, rather than hope: Whatever happens because I have trust, integrity, determination, and I understand the sanctity of life I will do whatever is necessary, suffer whatever hardship, for the benefit of others beyond my own family or close friends – and others includes all sentient beings.
How incredible somebody thought of this 2,500 years ago!
I know how difficult it is. I know how often I have failed – I have the intention, but everyday I have to be vigilant to the non-supporting factor where action does not support intention, and intention does not support action.
I may want to be more compassionate, but I try to be compassionate in a competitive way! Compassion and Competition don’t really mix!
And the other quality I feel is needed is to be able to live with rejection, with the scorn others may show you, and to be able to act without the expectation that you will ever witness the results of your action in your own lifetime. If you act from goodness and an open heart you just do it anyway. Not for gain.
How should we live now, amidst the confusion and chaos of this world, as we face the unraveling of a whole culture?
I would say to anyone: just take your life in your hands, take time out, reflect deeply, relinquish what is not necessary to aligning yourself with the immense richness of spiritual wealth that is your true heritage, and squeeze the essence from this extraordinary gift of your life. Go on a journey if necessary, save up, quit your job if it is in conflict with your ethics, or if you can, join a community dedicated to healing the earth. Or take a break, go somewhere to nourish your soul, and open your heart to wonder at the miracle of being alive amidst these manifold realms of being, even in such critical times as ours, and in solidarity with others who have chosen a journey out of separation and control, create the conditions for the flowering of your freedom, and your ability to live in solidarity with all intelligent sentient life on this earth.
Instead of grasping the world to enhance your experience of the myriad things by incorporating the world into your self, there is a reversal of perspective: you awaken to the seamless process of experiencing, in which you are but one event in a dynamic web of interpenetrating events. Thus you are confirmed by the ten thousand things, by realizing you were never separate from the world, and never lacked anything from the beginning. Step out of the known, step out of the box you have created for yourself, and risk a thrilling voyage inwardly and outwardly as an expression of the truth of your being, and be a force for good to bring a new world into being.
And even in the face of the Great Dying, living on a damaged and endangered earth, you can still love more freely, give more generously, live more intuitively. It will take the rest of my life. It may take the rest of your life, however long that is, but that’s fine. There’s nowhere else to go, nothing else really to do, but live your truth authentically.
The poet W.S. Merwin, who died last year aged 91 at home amidst his rare palm conservancy he had created over 40 years on Maui, Hawaii, wrote:
On the last day of the world
I would want to plant a tree
not the fruit
the tree that bears the fruit
is not the one that was planted
I want the tree that stands
in the earth for the first time
with the sun already
and the water
touching its roots
in the earth full of the dead
and the clouds passing
one by one
over its leaves
What he is telling us is we need to find that place deep inside us that was gifted to us before the first tree was planted, where the tree grows that nobody has planted, for that is the only one that will bear the fruit of a new age of harmony, which is new for us in an age of dissociation, but which is also very ancient, a world that our hearts know is possible.
Whatever you do make it a thing of beauty that comes from finding your inner truth, the being you share with all other beings, and live it out with gratitude, and with compassion, even if it’s the last act you perform on this earth.
©David Beatty 2020
REMINDER UPCOMING MINDFULNESS TRAINING AT HOB HOUSE 25TH MAY
A gentle reminder for those who put their names on the list: the revised dates of the Mindfulness Course begin with Session One Saturday 25th MAY.
Only 12 days to go.
Some Thoughts from your facilitator and for those new to Mindfulness:
After an introduction to something that may be new there is often a initial wave of enthusiasm, that quickly fizzles out as the daily demands of life, work, and schooling etc. displace any thoughts of ‘Well, maybe I should give this a try’, which becomes ‘Heck do I really need to commit to four Saturday afternoons to have some peace of mind?’
No, you certainly don’t have to. But then I guess the question arises ‘What was I feeling/thinking when I put my name down?’
I agree that to decide to sign up to four Saturdays of Mindfulness Training sessions is a huge commitment. Imagine signing up to eight weeks! That is the standard MBSR. This is especially challenging here, which is why I have condensed the course into 4 weeks. It also costs less than in UK where the standard MBSR costs around £200.
But it’s not about money other than a reasonable return on the investment in teaching time and the venue.
It’s also not about engaging with anything that some may feel might be incompatible with their faith. And whilst it is true that its source is the Buddhist discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness Practice this is by no means embraced only by Buddhists, but has been embraced by hundreds of thousands from all faiths and none. The MBSR is basically a secular contemporary form of practice, and while I give an occasional nod to the Buddha by way of explaining its origins, the emphasis is solely on practice, on the breath, the sensations, feelings, and thoughts, and on nurturing awareness. I have had Christians, Muslims, Atheists, Hindus and Agnostics attending my sessions. It is available on the UK National Health Service, is taught in UK schools, in the corporate world, in the Houses of Parliament, and is embraced as an additional tool in psycho-therapeutic work and PTSD in many countries. Not to mention that there has been a highly transformative training programme in the Kenya Prison System since 2015. Isn't that amazing!
The emphasis is on Practice, and practice is engaging with your direct experience and not with beliefs. Mindfulness is deeply practical. Those who practiced have said they found there was nothing incompatible with their own faith. Indeed all faith traditions have long had contemplative and meditative practices at the heart of their teachings, and what we are engaging with here is the proven efficacy of such practice which gives all of us opportunities to broaden our perspectives, hone our meditative skills, and develop resilience, composure, and empathy with others through nurturing awareness, self-compassion and compassion.
We are living through extraordinary times, with unprecedented challenges, and Mindfulness has increasingly become a much embraced and highly effective tool for helping many thousands to cope with the stresses and demands of life that seem to increase with every passing year, not to mention all the stuff we hear on the news in a world where deep polarities seem to have become rooted in our political, social and economic systems.
I was reminded of this when only this morning into my inbox popped a message from Robert Wright* whose ground-breaking work in evolutionary psychology I drew upon for some of my last Mindfulness Course. I quote him:
One of the ironies of our connected age is that society has never seemed more divided. Bitterness and bias have infested our politics, TV networks, social media, and even our communities. This increasingly entrenched conflict between "us" and "them" isn't making us any happier, and it certainly isn't resolving the broader issues we all face.
Robert Wright was suggesting that we might all need Mindfulness to save the world from this growing divisiveness. He may not be exaggerating.
Robert himself is not just an evolutionary psychology theorist; he has practiced Mindfulness extensively, and feels that it holds a key to helping us overcome much of this polarization, reactivity and divisiveness that is afflicting our world.
If we are bringing up children in such a fraught environment we need all the help we can get to guide them through such a complex world. Where better to start than in our own daily lives? I would not be teaching this if I did not know that Mindfulness has such enormous benefits not only for personal stress management, but also as a genuine supporting tool for relationship issues, and for helping us to integrate the precision of intellectual inquiry with heart-centred wisdom.
One of the parents at Braeburn (I forget which) also asked if teenagers could attend.
They absolutely can.
I know that dates are always difficult to choose, and it is impossible to pick dates that suit everyone, and I do understand that. However while it is good to be able to attend all four, it is not mandatory, and if you can only make three out of four that is still good. It may be possible to fill in ‘gaps’, if they occur, on Skype. But obviously it is preferable to engage with the sessions collectively.
I hope you will re-focus on this opportunity and remind yourself why in that moment after the short practice we did at Braeburn you decided to put your name down.
When a group engages together in this kind of practice we learn the power of community in supporting each other with a very interactive process of sharing and nurturing insights and mutual empathy. And this must be a good thing.
Please be in touch and let me know. It is always useful to have feedback. And so if there are specific reasons why you might like to do this course but for some reason cannot commit this time, let me know the reasons: the day of the week, the time of year, the venue, the specific dates, other commitments, etc. It helps to plan future courses if I know.
I hope to hear from you soon to enroll and reserve your place on this Mindfulness Training Course.
May All Beings Live Wisely and Compassionately.
*Robert Wright, Author of The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology; Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny.