May 11, 2013
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Bearing in mind the recent posts here that relate to the notion of a “self“… And thinking about our strongly ingrained consumeristic tendencies in this multimedia age of memetic supremacy… Not to mention our general herd-like behavioural patterns that we all (no matter who we are) get lost in from time to time i.e. at base: if Mr. Smith has an Audi, then so should I… I found myself walking past someone in need the other day without considering to help them.
I was in hurry to get to the bank in order to pay in some cheques I’d received for a bill that had already been paid out from my family’s business account. During the 20 minute march from my front door to the bank, I was focused on getting the cheques paid in so that we wouldn’t go over-drawn. While totally focused on my goal, I dodged families in the park next door (smiling kindly to the children who we dashing down the paths on scooters), crossed traffic laden roads (thanking the drivers who waited for me to cross the road before nuzzling up to the car in front’s bumper a couple of meters away), avoided teenagers walking four abreast on the pavement with no intention to reconfigure to give fair way to other passers by… And I also missed the old lady who was having a hard time bending down after she’d dropped her credit card by the “hole in the wall”.
“Tick-tock” my wrist watch clanged in my mind as I pictured the seconds fluttering past, which drove on the minutes towards a final cascade of closing steel shutters and possible bank charges for going overdrawn. Then, at least five paces further down the road and faced with a person burdened with shopping bags, I wondered why… ?
That’s when I realised what I had done. I had completely missed what had been (and probably still was) happening directly to my right (and back a bit now). The old lady… She had been devilishly having a hard time, clutching her handbag and walking stick in one frail, white hand while trying to defeat the stiffness of her back and legs so as to pick up her card to try to make her weekly withdrawal. I had seen it all unfolding in such obvious detail and clarity and, yet, something in my mind had found reason to overlook the simple bit of aid that I could have given to someone that wouldn’t have taken more than a minute of my time.
“BANK CHARGES!” rang through my mind… So I looked at my watch before I even turned around. I had 10 minutes left to get to the bank. Briefly I spun around to glance at the lady… Someone who had been waiting by the bus stop next to the cash point had noticed and had come to her aid. “Phew,” I thought as I marched on determined to get to where I needed to be. Still, while checking along, I suddenly remembered a few other incidents I had missed in and around Brighton recently due to “pressing” appointments I had had to keep. None of these, I reasoned, would have taken more than a minute or two of my time to offer a friendly hand to help. But even more pressing was the fact that I was totally amazed at the clarity of detail I could recall about the incidents of people to help, especially as I was “somewhere” else in mind. !?
Yes, we all have businesses to run. But, with a bit more awareness about what’s going on around us each moment and a bit better planning (so we don’t leave the proverbial bank run till last thing in the day), we might well find time to offer help where (and when) it is needed.
Bearing this in mind, I remembered a TED talk that Daniel Goleman gave on compassion back in 2007… And I’d like to share it here with anyone passing by… Hoping they have a few minutes to spare.
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To find out where I sourced the above video from, please click here.
To find out more about Daniel Goleman, please visit here his website by clicking here.
July 26, 2012
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The other day I posted a brief essay (of sorts) that continued my investigation into this notion that many of us have about our ‘self’… For over five years now I have been fortunate (or, some may say, unfortunate) enough to stumble upon many ‘seemingly’ unusual and/or socially counter-intuitive views to many Westernised ways or styles of thinking about things… These alternatives, being anything but wrong, from my perspective, have pushed my boat out way beyond what much of Western psychology and philosophy has ‘reasonably’ presumed about the universe in which we live… As well as how we, as sentient beings, relate to it. These ideas have – to say the least – drastically challenged my own personalised philosophies and ideas about what reality might actually be, as well as how I choose to live my life… Not to mention they have changed the way I think about nearly everything I thought I knew anything about i.e. social etiquette, certain scientific knowledge, logical reasoning, etc… doing so to the point that most of the certainties that I had stubbornly held on to over the years have now shown themselves to be – on the whole – nothing more than delusions that are about just as uncertain and biased towards their (or even my) own ends as Russell’s and Whitehead’s “Principia Mathematica” might have been theirs when set aside Gödel’s “Incompleteness Theorems”.
Be it known… It has certainly never been my intention to undermine any of our Westernised ways of thinking, or any of our socially acceptable habits of being and/or notions of perceiving the world around us. Rather, my aim has always been to challenge any dogmatic certainties that we might have held cradled a bit to close to our psyches (much like Linus’ security/comfort blanket in Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts comic strips) and/or any overly cherished ‘certainties‘ that we may harbour in our ever-changing mind-streams while going about our busy daily lives on the surface of this planet… A jewel of a planet that ‘floats’ – almost miraculously – in an inky black void amidst a cornucopia of never ending universal changes (stars and galaxies being born and then die). Certainly the universe around us never rests for one second. It always resides in a continual state of unending change. Nothing… And I mean nothing, ever remains the same for very long, let alone for ever. So why should we hold on to any certainties… ? Or live clinging to securities that one day the universe will snatch away from us?
Within this state of perpetual change there lies the natural ebb and flow of chaotic patterns that intermingle, interrelate and feedback upon each other, allowing more complex systems to evolve and/or arise within the non-linear tapestry of atomic inter-reactivity, instability and the resulting conjoined possibilities. These biological frames of living matter (that we call our bodies) are a testament to this natural arising of life and, as such, I have searched both high and low to formulate a clearer sort of reasoning/understanding (at least for my ‘self‘) so as to better understand/perceive the natural order of things (regardless of what the generalised consensus might be), as well as to be able to better to relate to this experience of being a so-called ‘living’ entity.
I am humbled to say that, during this search, I have found many other philosophies and understandings that closely relate to my own, all with minor variations that procure a sort of diversity and, yet, still point towards a sort of perennial philosophy. From these various ‘schools of thought’ I have learnt many pertinent things, as well as been afforded a chance to develop and attune further my own understanding and attitude toward life. As Douglas Hofstadter pointed out in his cryptic lecture “Analogy As The Core Of Cognition“, I continually found my ‘self’ observing a type of affine universal self-similarity between these various ways of thinking… Something that kept reminding me of what some have kept calling “God’s Thumb Print“… Which has allowed me to see a part of the infinite whole and realise that it is all interrelated and interconnected to everything… And it was this interrelatedness that eventually brought me into contact with some highly perceptive and well developed philosophies concerning the natural order of things, the mind and how we perceive things, as seen in “Taoism” and “Buddhism”.
For me, Buddhism has been the most fascinating of all the philosophies that I have learnt about. It’s central doctrines all highlight the most important – and sometimes much overlooked – aspects of living i.e. everything changes – nothing stays the same (impermanence), everything is interconnected to everything else – we are interdependent to everything else (interdependence), mind is all pervasive – our states of mind have a very powerful effect on the way in which we perceive the world around us i.e. the power of mind can do some very ‘supernatural’ things, like changing the shape of the brain, affecting the subtle energy channels within the body to produce highly unusual results and, not least, Thích Quảng Đức, who was the Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk who burned himself to death without any display of pain or suffering at a busy Saigon road intersection on 11 June 1963 in protest to the persecution of Buddhists by South Vietnam’s Roman Catholic government… As well as developing awareness, especially to our states of mind as they arise and subside, which is the key to finding a balanced and holistic way of living, one that propagates the most well being for all and one’s ‘self’.
As such, I still come back to Buddhism everyday to find new (though they are, in actual fact, near on 2,600 years old) and highly relevant teachings (and/or parallels) about how to understand and relate to this experience of living for positive effect. Many of the Buddhist philosophies that I have learnt about very much mirror some of the scientific philosophies that have recently surface (or have been re-discovered) and, as such, I find a great source of wisdom and inspiration within its bountiful depths. As a sort of testament to Buddhism’s universal usefulness there seems to be a sort of general acceptance within the NHS that Buddhist techniques can actually help people, especially when dealing with much of the anxiety and depression we find in the modern world. This can be clearly seen by the fact that the NHS – here in the UK – now offers mindfulness training, which really seems to helping people cultivate and develop better awareness in their lives, surroundings and ways of being… But, despite this adoption of Buddhist practises by the UK’s health service, a lot of the most important parts to mindfulness training seem to have been skirted over and simply ignored…
Why is this? Well… For starters, many of the eminent Masters who have practised meditation and mindfulness for many “lifetimes” (reincarnation being a subject that I will broach in a coming post) just don’t seem to be included in the scientific equation… No doubt some already are being included, but many are not… Though more importantly, the NHS are not contacting those who are properly educated in mindfulness to seek their advise on how best to implement a course that teaches mindfulness. Perhaps the ‘solid’ scientific background that seems to confidently back-up modern medicine with facts and figures just doesn’t hold the Karmapa or Dali Lama in high regard as contemporaries who were formally trained in their own self-accredited universities of reason and knowledge and, thus, lack the relevant degrees to substantiate passing on their knowledge and wisdom to those in modern Westernised academia… ? Or maybe the deliberate shrouding of many Buddhist practises by the monks and Lamas themselves only adds to the stigma of religious mysticism that already surrounds Buddhism here in the West… ? Either way, the only way to dispel this somewhat ignorant (maybe even arrogant) outlook that the West has about Buddhism is to mention that, what many people fail to understand is, both the Karmapa and Dali Lama have trained harder and longer in these ancient techniques of mindfulness and awareness than any graduate or PhD would or could have done in their respective fields over the course of their lives, making them by far the foremost teachers in their unique disciplines of mindfulness and awareness training. Neither is Buddhism a religion in the traditional sense… Rather, I would say that it is a highly developed philosophy and science of mind, one that has been crafted from years of practise, whereby each exponent has experimented with many techniques until those that work (in developing mindfulness) are recorded and practised diligently by further lineages, all that directly stem back to the Gautama Buddha.
Until this is clearly grasped by many of us, for me, the NHS beginning to train people in mindfulness without proper guidance is a bit like a novice (who has no formal training in the subject) teaching student something that they are not really qualified to teach. Imagine someone – who has no formal training in science whatsoever – however they note that quantum physics actually shows us a lot about the way in which the world works around us (on a mechanical level) – and, yet, then goes on to ignore most of the relevant details behind it, only using snippets of information that seem to suite their own ends i.e. like showing the Double-Slit Experiment and then stating to a student that this clearly demonstrates the fundamentally probabilistic nature of quantum mechanical phenomena, and then awarding them a degree. Okay… But what happened to the rest of the data that those researching and studying quantum physical events in proper academia have discovered over many years of research, all of which helps the student develop a deeply penetrating idea that leads to a more coherent and complete picture of the whole of quantum mechanics, so that they can continue the complicated and arduous research at the cutting edge of discovery to help as many others as is possible? For sure, people have to start somewhere… But I strongly feel that they should start as they mean to go on i.e. learn from the people who know what they are talking about.
On a less critical note… At least the NHS is beginning to realise that the mind is a powerful tool that can help heal itself without the need for medical or pharmacological intervention most of the time. Perhaps this will be akin to modern medicine taking the first steps in a philosophy where the patient might well be better and more equipped to treat themselves rather than a doctor (in many instances), especially if given the right teachings and practises to perform… ?
As part of this lifetime journey with Buddhism, I will continue to write entries in this website about what I find and discover along the way. Certainly there is no other aim to this practise other that to arrange and present my thoughts to another who might be interested in reading about what I have to say. As such, I must stress that, while I do my best to make sure that the information provided within these pages is as correct and accurate (from my own perspective) as can be, I am nonetheless a novice. And, so, I would never use anything that I have written here as fact without checking it out for yourself and finding what you really think and feel about it first. Most who have been following the entries in this website for sometime already know my wariness of anything procuring ultimate fact or certainty. As Lord Byron was once noted to have said, “If I be a fool, it is, at least, that I be a doubting one; for I envy no one the certainty of his self-approved wisdom…” And as Einstein once said about mathematics, “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” As such, I find myself resigned to a continual modification of what I think I know, turning it continually around so as to be able to view it from every possible angle in order to see whether there are any gaps in it… And, as I trawl through the mountains of research that comes my way, I find snippets that offer a ‘possible’ insight, or fit, for some of those gaps… Still, there will always be gaps… Just like with the length of Britain’s coastline being dependent on its length, so too will there be gaps in our understanding that will always somehow leave the puzzle of consciousness, at least for myself, never quite answered entirely… Slightly clearer it may seem than what most of us originally started with… But never complete. Only direct experience will bring about completion.
So, until total, completely pure, immersive and direct experience is achieved, one that can transcend dualistic thought altogether… I continue with my conceptualised trains of thought and make the following offering that might shed a tiny bit of light on how and why the notion of a “self” could come about, one that perhaps evolved (and was naturally selected for) over time in the cellular infrastructure of our brains.
Just the other month, as I was thinking about some of the other unusual aspects about the ‘self’ (of which I will write more about in future posts), while painting the BIG green doors outside, I came across the following New Scientist article that was stuck to the bottom of my paint can, covered in gently arcing streaks of sticky green paint. It was the word “consciousness” that caught my eye… So, prising it gently from the base of the tin, the article’s front page slowly began to reveal itself. Once it was free from the can’s underside, most of the article was still obscured by vibrant rounded strips of summery Buckingham Green, most of which obscured enough of the article to make it unreadable. Thus I took it to the kitchen table and gently wiped it clean with a spirit soaked rag. As the thick streaks of paint slowly spread across the page, covering some of the clean text, the whole became more legible… The green was becoming so thinned that anything printed underneath could now be clearly seen. Once I could read most of the text, I set it aside in the bright heat of the sun and left its wet, soft pulp to dry into a manageable form as I painted another coat of green onto the old barn’s doors.
Not too long after finishing the last over coat, the page was ready to finger… And so I set about to my usual morning ritual of having a cup of tea in the cool morning breeze while taking cover under the waning shade of the granary’s hulking form, as I set about reading the somewhat shabby pea green, but now legible, article that had been rescued from certain doom… And this is what I read…
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Are These The Brain Cells That Give Us Consciousness?
The brainiest creatures share a secret – an odd kind of brain cell involved in emotions and empathy that may have accidentally made us conscious
THE origin of consciousness has to be one of the biggest mysteries of all time, occupying philosophers and scientists for generations. So it is strange to think that a little-known neuroscientist called Constantin von Economo might have unearthed an important clue nearly 90 years ago.
When he peered down the lens of his microscope in 1926, von Economo saw a handful of brain cells that were long, spindly and much larger than those around them. In fact, they looked so out of place that at first he thought they were a sign of some kind of disease. But the more brains he looked at, the more of these peculiar cells he found – and always in the same two small areas that evolved to process smells and flavours.
Von Economo briefly pondered what these “rod and corkscrew cells”, as he called them, might be doing, but without the technology to delve much deeper he soon moved on to more promising lines of enquiry.
Little more was said about these neurons until nearly 80 years later when, Esther Nimchinsky and Patrick Hof at Mount Sinai University in New York also stumbled across clusters of these strange-looking neurons. Now, after more than a decade of functional imaging and post-mortem studies, we are beginning to piece together their story. Certain lines of evidence hint that they may help build the rich inner life we call consciousness, including emotions, our sense of self, empathy and our ability to navigate social relationships.
Many other big-brained, social animals also seem to share these cells, in the same spots as the human brain. A greater understanding of the way these paths converged could therefore tell us much about the evolution of the mind.
Admittedly, to the untrained eye these giant brain cells, now known as von Economo neurons (VENs), don’t look particularly exciting. But to a neuroscientist they stand out like a sore thumb. For one thing, VENs are at least 50 per cent, and sometimes up to 200 per cent, larger than typical human neurons. And while most neurons have a pyramid-shaped body with a finely branched tree of connections called dendrites at each end of the cell, VENs have a longer, spindly cell body with a single projection at each end with very few branches (see diagram below). Perhaps they escaped attention for so long because they are so rare, making up just 1 per cent of the neurons in the two small areas of the human brain: the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the fronto-insular (FI) cortex.
Their location in those regions suggests that VENs may be a central part of our mental machinery, since the ACC and FI are heavily involved in many of the more advanced aspects of our inner lives. Both areas kick into action when we see socially relevant cues, be it a frowning face, a grimace of pain or simply the voice of someone we love. When a mother hears a baby crying, both regions respond strongly. They also light up when we experience emotions such as love, lust, anger and grief. For John Allman, a neuroanatomist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, this adds up to a kind of “social monitoring network” that keeps track of social cues and allows us to alter our behaviour accordingly (Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol 1225, p 59).
The two brain areas also seem to play a key role in the “salience” network, which keeps a subconscious tally of what is going on around us and directs our attention to the most pressing events, as well as monitoring sensations from the body to detect any changes (Brain Structure and Function, DOI: 10.1007/s00429-012-0382-9).
What’s more, both regions are active when a person recognises their reflection in the mirror, suggesting that these parts of the brain underlie our sense of self – a key component of consciousness. “It is the sense of self at every possible level – so the sense of identity, this is me, and the sense of identity of others and how you understand others. That goes to the concept of empathy and theory of mind,” says Hof.
To Bud Craig, a neuroanatomist at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, it all amounts to a continually updated sense of “how I feel now”: the ACC and FI take inputs from the body and tie them together with social cues, thoughts and emotions to quickly and efficiently alter our behaviour (Nature Reviews Neuroscience, vol 10, p 59).
This constantly shifting picture of how we feel may contribute to the way we perceive the passage of time. When something emotionally important is happening, Craig proposes, there is more to process, and because of this time seems to speed up. Conversely, when less is going on we update our view of the world less frequently, so time seems to pass more slowly.
VENs are probably important in all this, though we can only infer their role through circumstantial evidence. That’s because locating these cells, and then measuring their activity in a living brain hasn’t yet been possible. But their unusual appearance is a signal that they probably aren’t just sitting there doing nothing. “They stand out anatomically,” says Allman, “And a general proposition is that anything that’s so distinctive looking must have a distinct function.”
In the brain, big usually means fast, so Allman suggests that VENs could be acting as a fast relay system – a kind of social superhighway – which allows the gist of the situation to move quickly through the brain, enabling us to react intuitively on the hop, a crucial survival skill in a social species like ours. “That’s what all of civilisation is based on: our ability to communicate socially, efficiently,” adds Craig.
A particularly distressing form of dementia that can strike people as early as their 30s supports this idea. People who develop fronto-temporal dementia lose large numbers of VENs in the ACC and FI early in the disease, when the main symptom is a complete loss of social awareness, empathy and self-control. “They don’t have normal empathic responses to situations that would normally make you disgusted or sad,” says Hof. “You can show them horrible pictures of an accident and they just don’t blink. They will say ‘oh, yes, it’s an accident’.”
Post-mortem examinations of the brains of people with autism also bolster the idea that VENs lie at the heart of our emotions and empathy. According to one recent study, people with autism may fall into two groups: some have too few VENs, perhaps meaning that they don’t have the necessary wiring to process social cues, while others have far too many (Acta Neuropathologica, vol 118, p 673). The latter group would seem to fit with one recent theory of autism, which proposes that the symptoms may arise from an over-wiring of the brain. Perhaps having too many VENs makes emotional systems fire too intensely, causing people with autism to feel overwhelmed, as many say they do.
Another recent study found that people with schizophrenia who committed suicide had significantly more VENs in their ACC than schizophrenics who died of other causes. The researchers suggest that the over-abundance of VENs might create an overactive emotional system that leaves them prone to negative self-assessment and feelings of guilt and hopelessness (PLoS One, vol 6, p e20936).
VENs in other animals provide some clues, too. When these neurons were first identified, there was the glimmer of hope that we might have found one of the key evolutionary changes, unique to humankind, that could explain our social intelligence. But the earliest studies put paid to that kind of thinking, when VENs turned up in chimpanzees and gorillas. In recent years, they have also been found in elephants and some whales and dolphins.
Like us, many of these species live in big social groups and show signs of the same kind of advanced behaviour associated with VENs in people. Elephants, for instance, display something that looks a lot like empathy: they work together to help injured, lost or trapped elephants, for example. They even seem to show signs of grief at elephant “graveyards” (Biology Letters, vol 2, p 26). What’s more, many of these species can recognise themselves in the mirror, which is usually taken as a rudimentary measure of consciousness. When researchers daub paint on an elephant’s face, for instance, it will notice the mark in the mirror and try to feel the spot with its trunk. This has led Allman and others to speculate that von Economo neurons might be a vital adaptation in large brains for keeping track of social situations – and that the sense of self may be a consequence of this ability.
Yet VENs also crop up in manatees, hippos and giraffes – not renowned for their busy social lives. The cells have also been spotted in macaques, which don’t reliably pass the mirror test, although they are social animals. Although this seems to put a major spanner in the works for those who claim that the cells are crucial for advanced cognition, it could also be that these creatures are showing the precursors of the finely tuned cells found in highly social species. “I think that there are homologues of VENs in all mammals,” says Allman. “That’s not to say they’re shaped the same way but they are located in an analogous bit of cortex and they are expressing the same genes.”
It would make sense, after all, that whales and primates might both have recycled, and refined, older machinery present in a common ancestor rather than independently evolving the same mechanism. Much more research is needed, however, to work out the anatomical differences and the functions of these cells in the different animals.
That work might even help us understand how these neurons evolved in the first place. Allman already has some ideas about where they came from. Our VENs reside in a region of the brain that evolved to integrate taste and smell, so he suggests that many of the traits now associated with the FI evolved from the simple act of deciding whether food is good to eat or likely to make your ill. When reaching that decision, he says, the quicker the “gut” reaction kicks in the better. And if you can detect this process in others, so much the better.
“One of the important functions that seems to reside in the FI has to do with empathy,” he says. “My take on this is that empathy arose in the context of shared food – it’s very important to observe if members of your social group are becoming ill as a result of eating something.” The basic feeding circuity, including the rudimentary VENs, may then have been co-opted by some species to work in other situations that involve a decision, like working out if a person is trustworthy or to be avoided. “So when we have a feeling, whether it be about a foodstuff or situation or another person, I think that engages the circuitry in the fronto-insular cortex and the VENS are one of the outputs of that circuitry,” says Allman.
Allman’s genetics work suggests he may be on to something. His team found that VENs in one part of the FI are expressing the genes for hormones that regulate appetite. There are also a lot of studies showing links between smell and taste and the feelings of strong emotions. Our physical reaction to something we find morally disgusting, for example, is more or less identical to our reaction to a bitter taste, suggesting they may share common brain wiring (Science, vol 323, p 1222). Other work has shown that judging a morally questionable act, such as theft, while smelling something disgusting leads to harsher moral judgements (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol 34, p 1096). What’s more, Allman points out that our language is loaded with analogies – we might find an experience “delicious”, say, or a person “nauseating”. This is no accident, he says.
However, it is only in highly social animals that VENs live exclusively in the scent and taste regions. In the others, like giraffes and hippos, VENs seem to be sprinkled all over the brain. Allman, however, points out that these findings may be a red herring, since without understanding the genes they express, or their function, we can’t even be sure how closely these cells relate to human VENs. They may even be a different kind of cell that just looks similar.
Based on the evidence so far, however, Hof thinks that the ancestral VENs would have been more widespread, as seen in the hippo brain, and that over the course of evolution they then migrated to the ACC and FI in some animals, but not others – though he admits to having no idea why that might be. He suspects the pressures that shaped the primate brain may have been very different to those that drove the evolution of whales and dolphins.
Craig has hit upon one possibility that would seem to fit all of these big-brained animals. He points out that the bigger the brain, the more energy it takes to run, so it is crucial that it operates as efficiently as possible. A system that continually monitors the environment and the people or animals in it would therefore be an asset, allowing you to adapt quickly to a situation to save as much energy as possible. “Evolution produced an energy calculation system that incorporated not just the sensory inputs from the body but the sensory inputs from the brain,” Craig says. And the fact that we are constantly updating this picture of “how I feel now” has an interesting and very useful by-product: we have a concept that there is an “I” to do the feeling. “Evolution produced a very efficient moment-by-moment calculation of energy utilisation and that had an epiphenomenon, a by-product that provided a subjective representation of my feelings.”
If he’s right – and there is a long way to go before we can be sure – it raises a very humbling possibility: that far from being the pinnacle of brain evolution, consciousness might have been a big, and very successful accident.
This article has been edited since it was first posted
Caroline Williams is a writer based in Surrey, UK
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To find out where I sourced the New Scientist article from, please click here.
OR to learn a bit more about the author, please visit her LinkedIn profile page by clicking here.
February 23, 2012
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One morning earlier this week I awoke with a bit of a start. I’d been having strange dreams again, ones that had left me with a slight sense of sadness – not too distant from how I felt when I was but a seven year old child watching the grown-ups shooting pheasant in late autumn and mid winter morns. “BANG!” “CRACK!” “POOMB!” their guns would sound loudly in the stark and barren light. Under a steady stream of grey clouds, one’s which were being thrust mercilessly across a broken bleak horizon by savage winter winds, there would be sudden loud gaps of quiet… Quiet that allowed windows of peace so as to hear the gentle, soft rustle of the brown crumpled leaves shivering the cold wooded camp of trees. All the time I would look up at these snaking, gnarled limbs around me, twisted as though they were raised to the heavens in complaint over the clamor and din of the relentless gun fire, wondering if they mourning the loss of their colorful feathered friends who kept their council during these unbearing winter days.
That’s what woke me that morning. Noise. In fact is was a very loud noise… Noise in the form of a heavy knock at the front door. You see… When I fell asleep the previous night, I did so in the recording studio. Being a fully sound proofed room there was usually little or no noise to be heard from anywhere at the best of times, save for the smattering of instrumental play that filled the space when it was being used for recording. Thus, other than the general rustling of clothes (or bedclothes in this instance) and/or the low, almost inaudible, rumble of the occasional car passing by outside, it was a very peaceful chamber in which to sleep. Saying that, I had left the door slightly open that night, and when the knock was procured on the glass door below, the acoustics of the house beautifully funneled the sound in through the open door so that it cut through the soft almost empty bliss of my dreams. Up I sat, instantly aware and somewhat shocked at the volume of the herald. While pulling on my jeans, I hopped over the cables and made my way down the stairs, half expecting to see a giant flicking the glass doors gently with his little finger so as to leave the doors intact.
As I got the door, to my surprise there was no giant… Rather there was a bearded fellow dress in blue trousers and a red jacket, beaming furiously back at me while I starred disappointedly at him. As I unlocked the door, he held out a brown cardboard box, proclaiming, “Got another for ya, mate. Someone’s birthday is it, eh?” as he thrust the box through the half opened door into my fumbling sleepy arms. On he beamed, smiling at the fact that he’d caught someone wiping the sleep from their eyes so late in his morning’s schedule. I huffed a bit, mentioning that it wasn’t even… As I looked down I noticed that I didn’t even have my watch on my wrist. Smiling all the more (even if it was a physical impossibility), the delivery chap happily glanced at his own watch and mentioned that it was nearly 7.45 am. “Yes… You see it’s not even 7.45 am!” I complained half mockingly. Nonetheless he decided to take it upon himself to chirp about what a glorious morning it was, with bright blue skies overhead with a warming sun over the roof. Obviously, he pointed out, this signified the coming of an early, warm spring.
Just then two red breasted robins fluttered past us, so close as to barely miss our faces by a few inches. After the moment’s dazzle, we both erupted into a hearty laugh, after which the delivery chap went on to add something about how territorial robins were, and that these two were probably were having a scrap over who should have exclusive rights to the bird table down the way in front of my neighbor’s window. As I stood listening in agreement, I couldn’t help notice how he was tapping fervently away on a well worn machine that he desperately clutched with his hands. Looking at what he was writing, his gaze darted every now and then back to the box I was holding. Realizing he was trying to read the address at which I resided, I obliged him and quoted it from memory for his ease. After a few further moments of tapping the touch screen, he looked back towards the box trying to locate something that wasn’t as obvious.
“What you lost,” I said. “Need the barcode,” he replied. “Gotta scan the package to make sure it’s registered as delivered.” Firmly gripping the box, I revolved it around in my hands, all the while looking for any white zebra striped labels to reveal themselves. Just as I was glancing at one side, the delivery man told me to hold still. Seemed he had found what he was after. Pointing one side of the little box that he held at the target that I couldn’t quite see, he pressed a button as a red flicker of a laser’s beam shone out from a black reclined orifice. Expectantly he waited… But nothing. Looking quizzically at the screen he retouched a few keys and tried again. Red laser flashed and went off… Nothing. “Bloody thing,” he announced, “it’s been playing up on me all morning!”
As if all of a sudden, his jovial light hearted touch dimmed into a concentrated expression of focused intent as he repeated the process again. Still nothing. Besmirching the machine for not scanning the barcode as it was meant to, he began to hit its side as if to rectify whatever it was that might be wrong with it. “It’s probably still not awake what with it being so early in the morning,” I offered jokingly. “Yeah… Well they should have updated this scanning system a while back now, if you ask me. This was one of the first mobile systems that ever came on the market back in the late nineties… Uses mobile communication. Bit out of date this one now, ya know. And it ain’t like they can’t afford a new one either. In fact they spend more on the general upkeep of this system every year, what with software configuration problems they have, than a new system would cost! We checked.” Sounded like a case of bureaucracy I mentioned. “You can say that again,” he added, while repeating the scanning process again. “Seems they’re more than happy for us to look unprofessional in front of our customers, all for the sake of saving some pennies. Don’t suppose they think about it not sending out a good message… Bad advertising, if you ask me.” Again nothing.
By this time I couldn’t help but notice a slight strain that had appeared on the man’s face, almost as though all of his carefully laid plans for the morning were beginning to slide irrevocably closer into the domain of rush hour traffic. So I asked him if he had many deliveries to do, to which he replied that he had a full days work ahead of him, most of which he might not be able to do now if this machine kept playing up.
At this point, the slightly disgruntled demeanor that had over taken his mind suddenly just dissipated… As it did, he said, “It’s all about being aware. About being aware of the mind and how it controls how we perceive the world around us.” He stopped, took a deep breath, released his hunched shoulders and closed his eyes. Then opening them again he entered back into the original jovial flow of light hearted musings that I’d originally opened my door to only a few minutes ago. “Did you read the Guardian online yesterday?” he chuckled, continuing to scan the barcode once again… To which I replied that I hadn’t. “One of their reporters interviewed this Buddhist monk who lives out in France most of the time… He was talking about how we all need to be more mindful of our environment in which we live, as well as how our mind perceives it… Doing so in order to rekindle a lot of love and goodwill for this lovely world in which we all live in and share with one another… He also mentioned how we should change our living habits, getting rid of the ones that don’t work too well with mother nature, so that we can create a better, happier and easier way of life for us all living on Earth… Where we can do everything we need to do, as well as live comfortably and be able to help other people out who need help, including all the animals, plants, fish, insects and everything else.”
Somewhat amazed at how he had regained his composure over the misfortune of the malfunctioning machine… And pretty taken by what he’d just said, all I could think was… “WOW! That sounds like an interview I’d like to read.” And off I went on one, rambling on about parallels to modernizing simple systems, from scanners that delivery people needed to use, through to environmental changes in the way we generate electricity and grow our food, so as to make everyone’s world a little bit more efficient and better equipped to do the jobs we need to do without causing to much agro for ourselves… He then joined in, mentioning that it would be a good idea to change most of our antiquated, out-dated human habits that didn’t take into concern the delicate nature of how our ecosystem was balanced by indulging in more harmonious interests i.e. growing our own food, etc… “Kewl!” I though. “Here’s a guy who knows where it’s at. And I’m grooving with him.”
Smiling we bantered on for a few further minutes as he tried the machine again. Analogies between faulty computer systems and the way mankind lived in general, along with how we were all slowly causing ourselves more problems than we really needed to be doing, all to save a bit more money than we really needed, so as to spend it on more things that we didn’t necessarily need or even like (like the box I was clutching that, which for the life of me, I couldn’t even think of what was inside it)… Laughing at this, we went on to discussing how smart phones didn’t necessarily make us smarter at all; rather they just threw good healthy social interaction out the window as people became more engrossed in conversations/exchanges with people 20 miles away (or more) and, thus, paid less attention to the people in their local and immediate environment… Or even paid less attention to the environment itself… As well as becoming more stressed out in general!
Despite all this, there was still no joy with his scanning machine… So he threatened to use the old pen and paper that was waiting the van for eventualities like these. As he said this, he tried the machine one last time… “Bleep!” it went, signifying a successful entry. “Yay!” I jostled in, as he joked that it was the threat of pen and paper that must have scared the machine into working. As I wished him well with the rest of his rounds for the day he looked befuddled at the thought of the box not working for the rest of his deliveries. “Gotta stay positive,” I said, to which he replied, “That’s what the monk said in that interview. Seriously, you’d really like it.”
After jotting down an almost unrecognizable, heavily pixilated signature as proof that I’d received my parcel, I pointed out that it would probably have taken him less time to register the parcel by good old-fashioned pen and paper… To which he retorted that the paper work would have to filed when he got back, making it that little bit more work. “The bosses wouldn’t be able to keep track of me either,” he replied. “Not that it even works half the time, mind you.”
I smiled and thanked him for the heads-up about the Guardian article and said that I would look it up when I got back inside over a cup of tea. He laughed through the open window as he climbed back in the van shaking his head… “Alright for some, in’it…” Then he mentioning that the monk’s name was something like “Which Not Hand.” Finding it amusing, I repeated it a few times to myself as he drove off down the drive. As soon as he went out of sight, I looked up at the big blue sky above me and hoped he’d have more success with the antiquated system he was using. Then looking back to the birds fluttering from bush to tree I remembered the way he had regained his composure during our chat. Good to see people were able to use the power of their mind to change their circumstantial outcome.
Back I turned into the house, all the while thinking about the article that the chap had mentioned. After making a cup of tea, I decided that I should probably sit down and read it before I forgot about it, otherwise it would get swept away with the days proceedings. No doubt I had one hell of a hard time finding it, mainly because of the name. But eventually I tracked it down on an online Tweet. As it so happened the monk’s name was Thich Nhat Hanh, who was the author of a book that I had begun reading only a few weeks earlier.
I like it when magic moments like these resonate through me and change the way my day flows. It all adds to this sense of evolving wonder that leads towards better practices, into better ways of living… Urges us to embrace more aware and mindful ways of being. Bearing all this in mind, I feel that I should post the article here, as it beautifully flows into the spaces in between what I’ve already been writing here…
. . .
Beyond Environment: Falling Back In Love With Mother Earth
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh explains why mindfulness and a spiritual revolution rather than economics is needed to protect nature and limit climate change…
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has been practising meditation and mindfulness for 70 years and radiates an extraordinary sense of calm and peace. This is a man who on a fundamental level walks his talk, and whom Buddhists revere as a Bodhisattva; seeking the highest level of being in order to help others.
Ever since being caught up in the horrors of the Vietnam war, the 86-year-old monk has committed his life to reconciling conflict and in 1967 Martin Luther King nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize, saying “his ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.”
So it seems only natural that in recent years he has turned his attention towards not only addressing peoples’ disharmonious relationships with each other, but also with the planet on which all our lives depend.
Thay, as he is known to his many thousands of followers, sees the lack of meaning and connection in peoples’ lives as being the cause of our addiction to consumerism and that it is vital we recognise and respond to the stress we are putting on Earth if civilisation is to survive.
What Buddhism offers, he says, is the recognition that we all suffer and the way to overcome that pain is to directly confront it, rather than seeking to hide or bypass it through our obsession with shopping, entertainment, work or the beautification of our bodies. The craving for fame, wealth, power and sex serves to create only the illusion of happiness and ends up exacerbating feelings of disconnection and emptiness.
Thay refers to a billionaire chief executive of one of America’s largest companies, who came to one of his meditation courses and talked of his suffering, worries and doubts, of thinking everyone was coming to take advantage of him and that he had no friends.
In an interview at his home and retreat centre in Plum Village, near Bordeaux, Thay outlines how a spiritual revolution is needed if we are going to confront the multitude of environmental challenges.
While many experts point to the enormous complexity and difficulty in addressing issues ranging from the destruction of ecosystems to the loss of millions of species, Thay sees a Gordian Knot that needs slicing through with a single strike of a sharp blade.
Move Beyond Concept Of The “Environment”
He believes we need to move beyond talking about the environment, as this leads people to experience themselves and Earth as two separate entities and to see the planet in terms only of what it can do for them.
Change is possible only if there is a recognition that people and planet are ultimately one and the same.
“You carry Mother Earth within you,” says Thay. “She is not outside of you. Mother Earth is not just your environment.
“In that insight of inter-being, it is possible to have real communication with the Earth, which is the highest form of prayer. In that kind of relationship you have enough love, strength and awakening in order to change your life.
“Changing is not just changing the things outside of us. First of all we need the right view that transcends all notions including of being and non-being, creator and creature, mind and spirit. That kind of insight is crucial for transformation and healing.
“Fear, separation, hate and anger come from the wrong view that you and the earth are two separate entities, the Earth is only the environment. You are in the centre and you want to do something for the Earth in order for you to survive. That is a dualistic way of seeing.
“So to breathe in and be aware of your body and look deeply into it and realise you are the Earth and your consciousness is also the consciousness of the earth. Not to cut the tree not to pollute the water, that is not enough.”
Putting An Economic Value On Nature Is Not Enough
Thay, who will this spring be in the UK to lead a five-day retreat as well as a mindfulness in education conference, says the current vogue in economic and business circles that the best way to protect the planet is by putting an economic value on nature is akin to putting a plaster on a gaping wound.
“I don’t think it will work,” he says. “We need a real awakening, enlightenment, to change our way of thinking and seeing things.”
Rather than placing a price tag of our forests and coral reefs, Thay says change will happen on a fundamental level only if we fall back in love with the planet: “The Earth cannot be described either by the notion of matter or mind, which are just ideas, two faces of the same reality. That pine tree is not just matter as it possesses a sense of knowing. A dust particle is not just matter since each of its atoms has intelligence and is a living reality.
“When we recognise the virtues, the talent, the beauty of Mother Earth, something is born in us, some kind of connection, love is born.
“We want to be connected. That is the meaning of love, to be at one. When you love someone you want to say I need you, I take refuge in you. You do anything for the benefit of the Earth and the Earth will do anything for your wellbeing.”
In the world of business, Thay gives the example of Yvon Chouinard, founder and owner of outdoor clothing company Patagonia, who combined developing a successful business with the practice of mindfulness and compassion: “It’s possible to make money in a way that is not destructive, that promotes more social justice and more understanding and lessens the suffering that exists all around us,” says Thay.
“Looking deeply, we see that it’s possible to work in the corporate world in a way that brings a lot of happiness both to other people and to us … our work has meaning.”
Thay, who has written more than 100 books, suggests that the lost connection with Earth’s natural rhythm is behind many modern sicknesses and that, in a similar way to our psychological pattern of blaming our mother and father for our unhappiness, there is an even more hidden unconscious dynamic of blaming Mother Earth.
In a new essay, Intimate Conversation with Mother Earth, he writes: “Some of us resent you for giving birth to them, causing them to endure suffering, because they are not yet able to understand and appreciate you.”
How Mindfulness Can Reconnect People To Mother Earth
He points to increasing evidence that mindfulness can help people to reconnect by slowing down and appreciating all the gifts that the earth can offer.
“Many people suffer deeply and they do not know they suffer,” he says. “They try to cover up the suffering by being busy. Many people get sick today because they get alienated from Mother Earth.
“The practice of mindfulness helps us to touch Mother Earth inside of the body and this practice can help heal people. So the healing of the people should go together with the healing of the Earth and this is the insight and it is possible for anyone to practice.
“This kind of enlightenment is very crucial to a collective awakening. In Buddhism we talk of meditation as an act of awakening, to be awake to the fact that the earth is in danger and living species are in danger.”
Thay gives the example of something as simple and ordinary as drinking a cup of tea. This can help transform a person’s life if he or she were truly to devote their attention to it.
“When I am mindful, I enjoy more my tea,” says Thay as he pours himself a cup and slowly savours the first sip. “I am fully present in the here and now, not carried away by my sorrow, my fear, my projects, the past and the future. I am here available to life.
“When I drink tea this is a wonderful moment. You do not need a lot of power or fame or money to be happy. Mindfulness can help you to be happy in the here and now. Every moment can be a happy moment. Set an example and help people to do the same. Take a few minutes in order to experiment to see the truth.”
Need To Deal With Ones Own Anger To Be An Effective Social Activist
Thay has over many years developed the notion of applied Buddhism underpinned by a set of ethical practices known as the five mindfulness trainings, which are very clear on the importance of tackling social injustice.
However, if social and environmental activists are to be effective, Thay says they must first deal with their own anger. Only if people discover compassion for themselves will they be able to confront those they hold accountable for polluting our seas and cutting down our forests.
“In Buddhism we speak of collective action,” he says. “Sometimes something wrong is going on in the world and we think it is the other people who are doing it and we are not doing it.
“But you are part of the wrongdoing by the way you live your life. If you are able to understand that, not only you suffer but the other person suffers, that is also an insight.
“When you see the other person suffer you will not want to punish or blame but help that person to suffer less. If you are burdened with anger, fear, ignorance and you suffer too much, you cannot help another person. If you suffer less you are lighter more smiling, pleasant to be with, and in a position to help the person.
“Activists have to have a spiritual practice in order to help them to suffer less, to nourish the happiness and to handle the suffering so they will be effective in helping the world. With anger and frustration you cannot do much.”
Touching The “Ultimate Dimension”
Key to Thay’s teaching is the importance of understanding that while we need to live and operate in a dualistic world, it is also vital to understand that our peace and happiness lie in the recognition of the ultimate dimension: “If we are able to touch deeply the historical dimension – through a leaf, a flower, a pebble, a beam of light, a mountain, a river, a bird, or our own body – we touch at the same time the ultimate dimension. The ultimate dimension cannot be described as personal or impersonal, material or spiritual, object or subject of cognition – we say only that it is always shining, and shining on itself.
“Touching the ultimate dimension, we feel happy and comfortable, like the birds enjoying the blue sky, or the deer enjoying the green fields. We know that we do not have to look for the ultimate outside of ourselves – it is available within us, in this very moment.”
While Thay believes there is a way of creating a more harmonious relationship between humanity and the planet, he also recognises that there is a very real risk that we will continue on our destructive path and that civilisation may collapse.
He says all we need to do is see how nature has responded to other species that have got out of control: “When the need to survive is replaced with greed and pride, there is violence, which always brings about unnecessary devastation.
“We have learned the lesson that when we perpetrate violence towards our own and other species, we are violent towards ourselves; and when we know how to protect all beings, we are protecting ourselves.”
Remaining Optimistic Despite Risk Of Impending Catastrophe
In Greek mythology, when Pandora opened the gift of a box, all the evils were released into the world. The one remaining item was “hope”.
Thay is clear that maintaining optimism is essential if we are to find a way of avoiding devastating climate change and the enormous social upheavals that will result.
However, he is not naïve and recognises that powerful forces are steadily pushing us further towards the edge of the precipice.
In his best-selling book on the environment, The World we Have, he writes: “We have constructed a system we can’t control. It imposes itself on us, and we become its slaves and victims.
“We have created a society in which the rich become richer and the poor become poorer, and in which we are so caught up in our own immediate problems that we cannot afford to be aware of what is going on with the rest of the human family or our planet Earth.
“In my mind I see a group of chickens in a cage disputing over a few seeds of grain, unaware that in a few hours they will all be killed.”
by Jo Confino
. . .
An edited video of Jo Confino’s interview with Thich Nhat Hahn can be seen here.
For information on Thay’s visit to the UK this spring, which includes a meditation in Trafalgar Square, a talk at the Royal Festival Hall, a five-day retreat and a three-day mindfulness in education conference, go to the Cooling the Flames website.
To find out where I soruced this article from, please click here.
And to find out a bit more about Thich Naht Hanh, please click here.
OR, if you would like to see Thich Naht Hanh give a talk here in the UK, please visit the London Southbank Centre’s wesbite by clicking here. Ticket’s are almost sold out!
April 30, 2011
Just the other day a friend brought to my attention this rather old online article from The Independent newspaper… And I have to say, I suddenly felt the overwhelming fresh sensation of reality kick in, as the reporter put into a better frame of reference the recent memetic scare mongering… Blowing out the flames of worry, as he did so, in order to give us all back our sense of humanity and perspective.
No doubt I’ve talked about this before in two blogs, one entitled “Expanding Those “Varied” Stances Of Perception” and the other “Manufacturing Of Consent“. Thus, I will not say much more on the subject… Other than well done Fisk!
Fighting Talk: The New Propaganda
Journalism has become a linguistic battleground – and when reporters use terms such ‘spike in violence’ or ‘surge’ or ‘settler’, they are playing along with a pernicious game, argues Robert Fisk.
Monday, 21 June 2010
Following the latest in semantics on the news? Journalism and the Israeli government are in love again. It’s Islamic terror, Turkish terror, Hamas terror, Islamic Jihad terror, Hezbollah terror, activist terror, war on terror, Palestinian terror, Muslim terror, Iranian terror, Syrian terror, anti-Semitic terror…
But I am doing the Israelis an injustice. Their lexicon, and that of the White House – most of the time – and our reporters’ lexicon, is the same. Yes, let’s be fair to the Israelis. Their lexicon goes like this: Terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror.
How many times did I just use the word “terror”? Twenty. But it might as well be 60, or 100, or 1,000, or a million. We are in love with the word, seduced by it, fixated by it, attacked by it, assaulted by it, raped by it, committed to it. It is love and sadism and death in one double syllable, the prime time-theme song, the opening of every television symphony, the headline of every page, a punctuation mark in our journalism, a semicolon, a comma, our most powerful full stop. “Terror, terror, terror, terror”. Each repetition justifies its predecessor.
Most of all, it’s about the terror of power and the power of terror. Power and terror have become interchangeable. We journalists have let this happen. Our language has become not just a debased ally, but a full verbal partner in the language of governments and armies and generals and weapons. Remember the “bunker buster” and the “Scud buster” and the “target-rich environment” in the Gulf War (Part One)? Forget about “weapons of mass destruction”. Too obviously silly. But “WMD” in the Gulf War (Part Two) had a power of its own, a secret code – genetic, perhaps, like DNA – for something that would reap terror, terror, terror, terror, terror. “45 Minutes to Terror”.
Power and the media are not just about cosy relationships between journalists and political leaders, between editors and presidents. They are not just about the parasitic-osmotic relationship between supposedly honourable reporters and the nexus of power that runs between White House and State Department and Pentagon, between Downing Street and the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence, between America and Israel.
In the Western context, power and the media is about words – and the use of words. It is about semantics. It is about the employment of phrases and their origins. And it is about the misuse of history, and about our ignorance of history. More and more today, we journalists have become prisoners of the language of power. Is this because we no longer care about linguistics or semantics? Is this because laptops “correct” our spelling, “trim” our grammar so that our sentences so often turn out to be identical to those of our rulers? Is this why newspaper editorials today often sound like political speeches?
For two decades now, the US and British – and Israeli and Palestinian – leaderships have used the words “peace process” to define the hopeless, inadequate, dishonourable agreement that allowed the US and Israel to dominate whatever slivers of land would be given to an occupied people. I first queried this expression, and its provenance, at the time of Oslo – although how easily we forget that the secret surrenders at Oslo were themselves a conspiracy without any legal basis.
Poor old Oslo, I always think. What did Oslo ever do to deserve this? It was the White House agreement that sealed this preposterous and dubious treaty – in which refugees, borders, Israeli colonies, even timetables – were to be delayed until they could no longer be negotiated.
And how easily we forget the White House lawn – though, yes, we remember the images – upon which it was Clinton who quoted from the Koran, and Arafat who chose to say: “Thank you, thank you, thank you, Mr President.” And what did we call this nonsense afterwards? Yes, it was “a moment of history”! Was it? Was it so?
Do you remember what Arafat called it? “The peace of the brave”. But I don’t remember any of us pointing out that “the peace of the brave” was used by General de Gaulle about the end of the Algerian war. The French lost the war in Algeria. We did not spot this extraordinary irony.
Same again today. We Western journalists – used yet again by our masters – have been reporting our jolly generals in Afghanistan, as saying their war can only be won with a “hearts and minds” campaign. No one asked them the obvious question: Wasn’t this the very same phrase used about Vietnamese civilians in the Vietnam War? And didn’t we – didn’t the West – lose the war in Vietnam? Yet now we Western journalists are using – about Afghanistan – the phrase “hearts and minds” in our reports as if it is a new dictionary definition, rather than a symbol of defeat for the second time in four decades.
Just look at the individual words we have recently co-opted from the US military. When we Westerners find that “our” enemies – al-Qa’ida, for example, or the Taliban – have set off more bombs and staged more attacks than usual, we call it “a spike in violence”.
Ah yes, a “spike”! A “spike” is a word first used in this context, according to my files, by a brigadier general in the Baghdad Green Zone in 2004. Yet now we use that phrase, we extemporise on it, we relay it on the air as our phrase, our journalistic invention. We are using, quite literally, an expression created for us by the Pentagon. A spike, of course, goes sharply up then sharply downwards. A “spike in violence” therefore avoids the ominous use of the words “increase in violence” – for an increase, of course, might not go down again afterwards.
Now again, when US generals refer to a sudden increase in their forces for an assault on Fallujah or central Baghdad or Kandahar – a mass movement of soldiers brought into Muslim countries by the tens of thousands – they call this a “surge”. And a surge, like a tsunami, or any other natural phenomena, can be devastating in its effects. What these “surges” really are – to use the real words of serious journalism – are reinforcements. And reinforcements are sent to conflicts when armies are losing those wars. But our television and newspaper boys and girls are still talking about “surges” without any attribution at all. The Pentagon wins again.
Meanwhile the “peace process” collapsed. Therefore our leaders – or “key players” as we like to call them – tried to make it work again. The process had to be put “back on track”. It was a train, you see. The carriages had come off the line. The Clinton administration first used this phrase, then the Israelis, then the BBC. But there was a problem when the “peace process” had repeatedly been put “back on track” – but still came off the line. So we produced a “road map” – run by a Quartet and led by our old Friend of God, Tony Blair, who – in an obscenity of history – we now refer to as a “peace envoy”. But the “road map” isn’t working. And now, I notice, the old “peace process” is back in our newspapers and on our television screens. And earlier this month, on CNN, one of those boring old fogies whom the TV boys and girls call “experts” told us again that the “peace process” was being put “back on track” because of the opening of “indirect talks” between Israelis and Palestinians. This isn’t just about clichés – this is preposterous journalism. There is no battle between the media and power; through language, we, the media, have become them.
Here’s another piece of media cowardice that makes my 63-year-old teeth grind together after 34 years of eating humus and tahina in the Middle East. We are told, in many analysis features, that what we have to deal with in the Middle East are “competing narratives”. How very cosy. There’s no justice, no injustice, just a couple of people who tell different history stories. “Competing narratives” now regularly pop up in the British press.
The phrase, from the false language of anthropology, deletes the possibility that one group of people – in the Middle East, for example – is occupied, while another is doing the occupying. Again, no justice, no injustice, no oppression or oppressing, just some friendly “competing narratives”, a football match, if you like, a level playing field because the two sides are – are they not? – “in competition”. And two sides have to be given equal time in every story.
So an “occupation” becomes a “dispute”. Thus a “wall” becomes a “fence” or “security barrier”. Thus Israeli acts of colonisation of Arab land, contrary to all international law, become “settlements” or “outposts” or “Jewish neighbourhoods”. It was Colin Powell, in his starring, powerless appearance as Secretary of State to George W Bush, who told US diplomats to refer to occupied Palestinian land as “disputed land” – and that was good enough for most of the US media. There are no “competing narratives”, of course, between the US military and the Taliban. When there are, you’ll know the West has lost.
But I’ll give you an example of how “competing narratives” come undone. In April, I gave a lecture in Toronto to mark the 95th anniversary of the 1915 Armenian genocide, the deliberate mass murder of 1.5 million Armenian Christians by the Ottoman Turkish army and militia. Before my talk, I was interviewed on Canadian Television, CTV, which also owns Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper. And from the start, I could see that the interviewer had a problem. Canada has a large Armenian community. But Toronto also has a large Turkish community. And the Turks, as the Globe and Mail always tell us, “hotly dispute” that this was a genocide.
So the interviewer called the genocide “deadly massacres”. Of course, I spotted her specific problem straight away. She couldn’t call the massacres a “genocide”, because the Turkish community would be outraged. But she sensed that “massacres” on its own – especially with the gruesome studio background photographs of dead Armenians – was not quite up to defining a million and a half murdered human beings. Hence the “deadly massacres”. How odd! If there are “deadly” massacres, are there some massacres which are not “deadly”, from which the victims walk away alive? It was a ludicrous tautology.
Yet the use of the language of power – of its beacon words and its beacon phrases – goes on among us still. How many times have I heard Western reporters talking about “foreign fighters” in Afghanistan? They are referring, of course, to the various Arab groups supposedly helping the Taliban. We heard the same story from Iraq. Saudis, Jordanians, Palestinian, Chechen fighters, of course. The generals called them “foreign fighters”. Immediately, we Western reporters did the same. Calling them “foreign fighters” meant they were an invading force. But not once – ever – have I heard a mainstream Western television station refer to the fact that there are at least 150,000 “foreign fighters” in Afghanistan, and that all of them happen to be wearing American, British and other NATO uniforms. It is “we” who are the real “foreign fighters”.
Similarly, the pernicious phrase “Af-Pak” – as racist as it is politically dishonest – is now used by reporters, although it was originally a creation of the US State Department on the day Richard Holbrooke was appointed special US representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the phrase avoids the use of the word “India” – whose influence in Afghanistan and whose presence in Afghanistan, is a vital part of the story. Furthermore, “Af-Pak” – by deleting India – effectively deleted the whole Kashmir crisis from the conflict in south-east Asia. It thus deprived Pakistan of any say in US local policy on Kashmir – after all, Holbrooke was made the “Af-Pak” envoy, specifically forbidden from discussing Kashmir. Thus the phrase “Af-Pak”, which completely avoids the tragedy of Kashmir – too many “competing narratives”, perhaps? – means that when we journalists use the same phrase, “Af-Pak”, which was surely created for us journalists, we are doing the State Department’s work.
Now let’s look at history. Our leaders love history. Most of all, they love the Second World War. In 2003, George W Bush thought he was Churchill. True, Bush had spent the Vietnam War protecting the skies of Texas from the Vietcong. But now, in 2003, he was standing up to the “appeasers” who did not want a war with Saddam who was, of course, “the Hitler of the Tigris”. The appeasers were the British who didn’t want to fight Nazi Germany in 1938. Blair, of course, also tried on Churchill’s waistcoat and jacket for size. No “appeaser” he. America was Britain’s oldest ally, he proclaimed – and both Bush and Blair reminded journalists that the US had stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Britain in her hour of need in 1940.
But none of this was true. Britain’s oldest ally was not the United States. It was Portugal, a neutral fascist state during the Second World War, which flew its national flags at half-mast when Hitler died (even the Irish didn’t do that).
Nor did America fight alongside Britain in her hour of need in 1940, when Hitler threatened invasion and the Luftwaffe blitzed London. No, in 1940 America was enjoying a very profitable period of neutrality, and did not join Britain in the war until Japan attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbour in December 1941. Similarly, back in 1956, Eden called Nasser the “Mussolini of the Nile”. A bad mistake. Nasser was loved by the Arabs, not hated as Mussolini was by the majority of Africans, especially the Arab Libyans. The Mussolini parallel was not challenged or questioned by the British press. And we all know what happened at Suez in 1956. When it comes to history, we journalists let the presidents and prime ministers take us for a ride.
Yet the most dangerous side of our new semantic war, our use of the words of power – though it is not a war, since we have largely surrendered – is that it isolates us from our viewers and readers. They are not stupid. They understand words in many cases – I fear – better than we do. History, too. They know that we are drawing our vocabulary from the language of generals and presidents, from the so-called elites, from the arrogance of the Brookings Institute experts, or those of those of the Rand Corporation. Thus we have become part of this language.
Over the past two weeks, as foreigners – humanitarians or “activist terrorists” – tried to take food and medicines by sea to the hungry Palestinians of Gaza, we journalists should have been reminding our viewers and listeners of a long-ago day when America and Britain went to the aid of a surrounded people, bringing food and fuel – our own servicemen dying as they did so – to help a starving population. That population had been surrounded by a fence erected by a brutal army which wished to starve the people into submission. The army was Russian. The city was Berlin. The wall was to come later. The people had been our enemies only three years earlier. Yet we flew the Berlin airlift to save them. Now look at Gaza today: which Western journalist – since we love historical parallels – has even mentioned 1948 Berlin in the context of Gaza?
Instead, what did we get? “Activists” who turned into “armed activists” the moment they opposed the Israeli army’s boarding parties. How dare these men upset the lexicon? Their punishment was obvious. They became “terrorists”. And the Israeli raids – in which “activists” were killed (another proof of their “terrorism”) – then became “deadly” raids. In this case, “deadly” was more excusable than it had been on CTV – nine dead men of Turkish origin being slightly fewer than a million and a half murdered Armenians in 1915. But it was interesting that the Israelis – who for their own political reasons had hitherto shamefully gone along with the Turkish denial – now suddenly wanted to inform the world of the 1915 Armenian genocide. This provoked an understandable frisson among many of our colleagues. Journalists who have regularly ducked all mention of the 20th century’s first Holocaust – unless they could also refer to the way in which the Turks “hotly dispute” the genocide label (ergo the Toronto Globe and Mail) – could suddenly refer to it. Israel’s new-found historical interest made the subject legitimate, though almost all reports managed to avoid any explanation of what actually happened in 1915.
And what did the Israeli seaborne raid become? It became a “botched” raid. Botched is a lovely word. It began as a German-origin Middle English word, “bocchen”, which meant to “repair badly”. And we more or less kept to that definition until our journalistic lexicon advisors changed its meaning. Schoolchildren “botch” an exam. We could “botch” a piece of sewing, an attempt to repair a piece of material. We could even botch an attempt to persuade our boss to give us a raise. But now we “botch” a military operation. It wasn’t a disaster. It wasn’t a catastrophe. It just killed some Turks.
So, given the bad publicity, the Israelis just “botched” the raid. Weirdly, the last time reporters and governments utilised this particular word followed Israel’s attempt to kill the Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, in the streets of Amman. In this case, Israel’s professional assassins were caught after trying to poison Meshaal, and King Hussain forced the then Israeli prime minister (a certain B Netanyahu) to provide the antidote (and to let a lot of Hamas “terrorists” out of jail). Meshaal’s life was saved.
But for Israel and its obedient Western journalists this became a “botched attempt” on Meshaal’s life. Not because he wasn’t meant to die, but because Israel failed to kill him. You can thus “botch” an operation by killing Turks – or you can “botch” an operation by not killing a Palestinian.
How do we break with the language of power? It is certainly killing us. That, I suspect, is one reason why readers have turned away from the “mainstream” press to the internet. Not because the net is free, but because readers know they have been lied to and conned; they know that what they watch and what they read in newspapers is an extension of what they hear from the Pentagon or the Israeli government, that our words have become synonymous with the language of a government-approved, careful middle ground, which obscures the truth as surely as it makes us political – and military – allies of all major Western governments.
Many of my colleagues on various Western newspapers would ultimately risk their jobs if they were constantly to challenge the false reality of news journalism, the nexus of media-government power. How many news organisations thought to run footage, at the time of the Gaza disaster, of the airlift to break the blockade of Berlin? Did the BBC?
The hell they did! We prefer “competing narratives”. Politicians didn’t want – I told the Doha meeting on 11 May – the Gaza voyage to reach its destination, “be its end successful, farcical or tragic”. We believe in the “peace process”, the “road map”. Keep the “fence” around the Palestinians. Let the “key players” sort it out. And remember what this is all about: “Terror, terror, terror, terror, terror, terror.”
by Robert Fisk
To find out where I sourced this article from, please click here.
And to find out more about the author of the article, Robert Fisk, please click here.
September 3, 2010
Yesterday morning, while writing the blog about Ecological Buddhism, I Stumbled over this pretty inspiring TED talk. Bearing in mind the somewhat heavy vibe of the four Nature articles that I used for examples of climate change i.e. their somewhat doomy and gloomy outlook, I found Nic Marks’ talk fresh and upbeat, full of inspiring ideas that, if followed, could bring about a change in the way we think about how our actions directly relate to the Earth’s ecology and, thus, affects all Life here on Earth.
Without writing any more… I’ll leave him to weave his encouraging views into your psyche so that we might all one day wear a brighter, cleaner, and greener future for all Life here on Earth… “Were our happiness doesn’t cost the Earth.”
To see where I sourced this talk from, please click here.
To learn more about Nic Marks and the marvellously inspiring job he’s presently doing here on Earth, please click here.
Or to learn more about Nic Marks’ brains child “The New Economics Foundation”, please click here.
September 2, 2010
Over the last two days I have been fortunate enough to bear witness to some pretty amazing news – well, for me at least – which came through the Twitter vine. The organisation 350.org posted a Tweet which read:
Buddhists rock climate – the @DalaiLama endorses the 350 target: http://u.nu/8uhwe
The reason behind this being somewhat special for me is that my colleague – who is a Buddhist nun, presently out of robes – asked me why I gave up my car. Her reason at the time for asking this was that this action provided the biggest obstacle to my connection with learning the Dharma and attending Buddhist social events in Haywards Heath. As I may have already mentioned in previous blogs, I live in Tunbridge Wells, which is about 26 miles away going by car. Petrol and time wise, it cost me about eight pounds in fuel to get there and back again, along with a total of one hour and fifteen minutes in travel time. However, since I gave up my car several months ago, I’m now at the mercy of train fairs and delays. Basically the journey is double the time… Mainly as I either have to go from Tunbridge Wells train station to London Bridge and then back out to Haywards Heath… Or I have to go via Redhill in Surry, which requires three changes (four trains) in total. Also, the train fair is nearly doubled i.e. each return journey costs £15.10. So my Buddhist friend Chudrun did actually have a point. However, I argued that you couldn’t put a price on the environment. If it took double the time, and cost twice as much, then I’d have to go with it out of principle.
To be fair though, at the time I really did see her point i.e. that until one is truly enlightened, all our actions are somewhat based on self centred tendencies that – while they might be considered to be for the benefit of all living and sentient beings here on Earth – are ‘actually’ rapped up in pride and self obsessive tendencies, like “aren’t I good for helping the environment out!” kinda thing. Even so, my heart and intuition was telling me that despite what other say about my actions, this is even more important. When I finally got home that evening and sat down with a cuppa in my hand after meditation practise, I realised if someone didn’t make the effort, then all sentient beings would suffer greatly at from the whiplash caused by the chaos naturally inherent in ‘our’ dynamical weather system here on Earth…
And indeed we are all presently beginning to suffer at the hands of this indiscriminate master of fortune (the bestower of Life as we presently know it) and destruction. We only have to look at the radical shifts in recent weather patterns to see that our manmade effect on climate and regional weather patterns are wrecking havoc with the natural (and chaotic) order of things. The balance of the Tao is shifting to compensate for our actions and pollution. Just the other day Nature magazine reported that a brief cold spell killed millions of aquatic animals in the Amazon river. Also, droughts in China this year seemed to spell an ever exacerbating pattern for future times. It certainly doesn’t end there… Russia too was faced with hardship when the fires recently raged outside of Moscow city in the exceptionally hot and dry summer. And scientists around the globe are staggered at the rate at which the Arctic is warming up.
So there really seems to be something going on… And bearing in mind there are now nearly seven billion of us here on the Earth, I can take a pretty good guess as to what is ‘fuelling’ this climatic change. So while I hear some of my colleagues saying that reaching enlightenment is more important than curbing my use of petrol and plastics… I am also aware that if we don’t change our habits, then we could also hinder all sentient beings from attaining happiness, simply because we couldn’t – though I fear it’s more a case of didn’t want to – understand the effect that our actions were having on the Earth around us.
“We can create a very bad, negative situation for ourselves… Or we can create a very pleasant situation for ourselves.”
Ringu Tulku Rinpoche
Thus, last night I sent the aforementioned tweet off to Chudrun… Mainly to make a point about why I was going to stick with my decision about giving up my car, regardless of the consequences to my ultimate and eventual enlightenment… And this morning I got a reply… One which drew my attention to an interview of a friend – and fellow monk – of hers, Ringu Tulku Rinpoche. Here Ringu Tulku Rinpoche talks candidly and pertinently about his ideas concerning climate change, why it came about and how we might help effect a change for the benefit of all sentient beings – perhaps even all Life and its future generations – here on Earth… By changing our perspective, ourselves and our present self centred habits, by realising some harsh truths about our own inner workings and embracing them honestly, rather than sweeping them under the carpet.
‘Greed is also ignorance…We lose the overall view.
We almost stop thinking we are part of anything at all’
JS: Rinpoche, you have studied the world ecological crisis and seen Al Gore’s film. How does it make you feel as a Buddhist and a human being? How do you react to it?
RT: From the Buddhist point of view—and not just Buddhist point of view—nature does not pollute itself. If it is polluted, it is because people are polluting it. Obviously, we have polluted the air and the global environment which is why we have created the problem. I feel if we human beings have done something wrong to make it so bad, it is up to human beings to correct it, since it affects all sentient beings. This is the karma of the situation from the Buddhist point of view. Whatever kind of action we take, we will have to experience a corresponding kind of result. The climate issue is a very clear case of this. We can create a very bad, negative situation for ourselves or we can create a very pleasant situation for ourselves. Whether it is the planet, society, the local environment or relationships between people – this is how actions and reactions affect each other. The phenomenon comes precisely from our incorrect way of doing things, which is to say, without considering the effect of our actions. If we want to enjoy the world around us, for our lifetime and for future generations, we must do something to improve it.
There are predictions that the outcome will be or could be like this or like that, but there is nothing definite. There is just the indication, ‘if you act like this, then it could be like that. However, if you act like this, it can be better’. If people want to change their behaviour, the world can become better. Even in very negative dark ages, there could be periods of time that are positive and good. That has been predicted. Therefore, from the Buddhist point of view, how the world becomes depends on the people living there and how they act. If human society degenerates and the world becomes worse and worse, what is happening is that peoples’ negative emotions become very raw. They act, aggressively, greedily, negatively, violently. That is how the world becomes worse. War, famine, diseases, environmental catastrophe and diminishing lifespan develop from that. If our actions or reactions improve – we cease killing, lying, deceiving, and stealing from each other – from the Buddhist point of view, both the human and ecological situation will increasingly improve. The way we live our lives and the way we react to each other affects not just human beings, but our natural environment, the world we live in.
JS: So you are saying there is a psychic interdependence, on a collective level?
RT: Not only psychic, but behavioural. How we react psychologically is reflected in our behaviour. So what we do to each other affects the environment. For instance, if we are overly greedy, we take everything out of the earth, without any respect. We do not care for the land or the air. We ignore our pollution. If we react with hatred and just try to harm or destroy somebody or something, we devote great resources to manufacturing weaponry, and in the process we also destroy our own environment. Harming others is harming ourselves too.
JS: Or harming the future in this case.
RT: Yes, the future.
JS: The future others, and our future selves as well.
RT: That’s right. That is the Buddhist way of seeing.
JS: So you are saying it could go either way. It could reach some pitch, or some collective recognition, or not. And if not, it could come to a crisis point. Of course, we are already at a crisis point.
RT: That’s right. It can get worse if we do not put a stop to this way of acting and reacting. If we do change sufficiently, it could also reverse itself.
JS: It seems that greed is a key ‘poison’ being projected at this time. Powerful elites in society are not necessarily going to abandon greed. Change may now have to come ‘from the grassroots’.
RT: That is right. Greed is also based on ignorance. The assumption ‘if I have more, if I consume more, then it is better for me. It will bring happiness for me. Whoever has the most things is the better, happier person’ is based on fundamental misunderstanding.
JS: A misunderstanding assiduously cultivated by mass advertising.
RT: That is right.
JS: A system dedicated to generating greed contains the seeds of its own destruction, unless something really changes. On the scientific side, the de-glaciation of Greenland seems to be faster than they previously thought. It is potentially catastrophic for the world’s coastlines.
RT: I saw a BBC report that ships could now make the Northwest Passage, a short cut from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, north and west through the Canadian Arctic. The ice has melted so much that there is a waterway right through on the top of the world. Countries have already started to fight about who owns that ocean.
JS: Buddhism talks about ‘beginningless time’. If we look at the scientific history of the earth, it is 4½ billion years old. The biosphere, the living world is 3½ billion years old. The human species is less than a quarter of a million years old. So are we just referring to something ‘beginningless’ in terms of human consciousness?
RT: ‘Beginningless’ time is not based on one world system. It is based on countless universes throughout endless space. Space is limitless, so if there is this world system, there are also others. How many are there that our instruments can observe now? There could be different kinds of beings, worlds, limitless possibilities. It is not talking about this world. This world has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In Indian Buddhist cosmology, one great kalpa is divided into 80 small kalpas. It takes 20 kalpas for one world system to form, from nothingness into existence. From the time of its existence until any kind of living being is able to survive takes another 20 kalpas. From the time living beings arrive, grow, flourish, and expand, until they become extinct takes another 20 kalpas. From the point that system starts to dissolve until it is completely destroyed and remains in dissolution is another 20 kalpas. That is a single cycle of one big kalpa. Furthermore, while one world is being created, another is living, another is dying, another is already extinct. There are countless worlds and universes like that.
JS: The Pope is issuing a ‘social encyclical’ on the issue of global warming and will make an appeal to the U.N. in person. The Patriarch of the Orthodox Christian Church has convened an interfaith conference on a boat near the North Pole—all faiths praying together. Do you think it is a good idea for Buddhist leaders to join forces in front of their students and raise this issue, at prayer festivals, conferences and teachings?
RT: I think it is very appropriate. More people are becoming aware of global warming, but only recently. Not long ago, people had little or no clarity on this subject.
JS: It has changed over the last year since the Fourth IPCC Report came out. Science progresses methodically and slowly. To reach consensus between 2500 world experts is not trivial. Finally they came up with 90% certainty that humans are causing it. After that there could not be any respectable opposition. The media woke up somewhat. However, even that has not stopped those opposing the truth.
RT: No, not at all.
JS: Even though the scientific conclusions are specific and water-tight, still the political arena does not change, because enormous profits being made through greed and waste. What about our own view and conduct in relation to the ecological crisis? Great spiritual masters like Guru Padmasambhava saw the world as dreamlike and illusionary, yet they went to enormous effort to benefit future generations. I wonder what this tells us about the view we should be cultivating.
RT: Emptiness, interdependence, impermanence, the nature of beings and things being dreamlike…these do not prevent us from doing things for other people. They do not prevent us doing positive things and reducing negativity. It may be like a dream, but it still affects people. The same question is raised in the Bodhicaryavatara. If everything is emptiness, why is there a need for compassion? There is a need because people suffer. They do not understand emptiness. Therefore it is important to work for their benefit, to reduce suffering. Its being like a dream does not change anything in that regard.
JS: I presume it would change the way in which we worked, and avoid anxiety, if we recognize the situation has twin aspects of being both dream-like and a crisis?
RT: Because things are impermanent, interdependent, emptiness, we should try to see them clearly, so that whatever the situation may be, we do not panic. We change our way of experiencing. That does not mean that we should not try to change the situation. Even if we have to live in that situation, we should do so in a peaceful and joyful manner. Within the situation, we should do whatever we can to make it better – without becoming negative, without becoming completely hopeless, or overwhelmed by tragedy. We should live in a way to make things better, both outside and inside.
JS: You must be familiar with this kind of situation. You were a refugee when Tibet was destroyed by external enemies. Do you see any relationship between these two crises?
RT: The situation for the Tibetans is very relevant. The Dalai Lama has repeatedly said we should not become pessimistic; we should stay optimistic. That does not imply we should ignore the situation, be unaware of the problems and injustices, or blame ourselves. Rather we should clearly see the situation we are in. Recognizing it, understanding it, accepting it, then we do not need to become utterly disillusioned. We need to see clearly what we can do to make it better. If we can find even a little thing to make it better, we should concentrate on that, rather than just mourning the negative things that have happened for us. If we do that, we become more positive, more enthusiastic, more optimistic. That was the message we Tibetan refugees received. Instead of becoming angry and hateful, feeling sorry for ourselves and completely losing hope – look at the situation and ask ‘what can we do now?’ That is why the Tibetan refugees tried their best to preserve their culture and improve their situation a little bit. This, of course, is not an easy thing, either inside or outside Tibet. There are so many negative forces. Nonetheless, it is working.
JS: Often at great cost.
RT: Yes, the cost is there. All the negative things happened anyway, so within that context, whatever positive could be done, was done.
JS: In the present climate crisis, there is the possibility that the human race is going to fail to recognize its karmic responsibilities. The IPCC have said that unless human society stops pumping 70 million tons of carbon gas into the atmosphere annually, within 10 years we could irretrievably damage our climate and the whole biosphere.
RT: According to Buddhism and according to our experience as Tibetan refugees, we never know if we will succeed in changing or reversing the situation, or not. We can never say how much can be done, or how much cannot be done. Nobody can say that precisely, but that should not prevent us trying.
JS: There is a great urgency that the world should arrive at a genuine treaty and put it into practice. What advice would you give as a Buddhist monk and teacher?
RT: I think the understanding of this information is very important. People have a vague idea that global warming is dangerous, but I think most have not yet experienced the urgency at a personal level. Governments talk a lot, but I do not know how serious they really are. Their actions do not match their talk. Maybe some more or less understand it, but their actions are inadequate.
There is a Sanskrit verse:
For the sake of the world you should sacrifice your country.
For the sake of the country you should sacrifice your village.
For the sake of your village you should sacrifice your family.
For the sake of your family you should sacrifice yourself.
Well, it appears the opposite attitude is prevalent nowadays:
For the sake of your country you sacrifice the world.
For the sake of your village you sacrifice your country.
For the sake of your family you sacrifice your village.
For the sake of yourself you sacrifice your family.
When that kind of situation has come about, we think “If I feel it is somehow beneficial for me, or if I get more money for a certain time, I do not care if the planet is going to the dogs or not.” That is a root problem; basically it is ignorance. We think our own welfare is assured because we get money or power or whatever. Yet we live in this world and actually if the world is gone, where will we use our ‘profit’?
JS: In the context of Global Warming, we could even say, collectively, this is pathological ignorance, possibly even a kind of ‘death wish’.
RT: It is as if we do not actually know, we are a bit confused. The kind of education we receive over-emphasizes personal achievement and personal goals. ‘I have to be the top person. I have to win the most. My success is the only thing. What happens around me is not the most important thing.’ It is an attitude, a way of looking that is too ego-centred. We lose the overall view. We almost stop thinking that we are part of anything at all. That is why some people become depressed, lonely and so forth. It also comes from this.
Interview by John & Diane Stanley, Sikkim, October 2007
Ringu Tulku Rinpoche (b.1952) was recognised by Karmapa XVI as a reincarnate lama of Rigul monastery. He holds the Kagyu title of Khenpo and Nyingma title of Lopon Chenpo. A professor of Tibetology in Sikkim for 17 years, Rinpoche authored a noted work on the non-sectarian Rime movement. His fluent English and congenial teaching style is appreciated worldwide. He founded Bodhicharya, an international organization that coordinates the preservation & transmission of Buddhist teachings with intercultural dialogue, education & social projects.
To see where I sourced this article from, please click here.
And to learn more about Ringu Tulku Rinpoche, please click here.
OR to find out more about how Buddhism is beginning to face the challenges set forth by human over population and the resulting effects of climate change, please click here.
To learn more about 350.org, please click here.
June 15, 2010
Just a moment ago a friend sent me a link to an article in Scientific American entitled “The Neuroscience of Distance and Desire.” As I’m particularly interested in delusions that spring forth from varied perceptive stances, or illusions that stem from blind spots within biomechanical processes within the mind, as well as illusions i.e. optical illusions and perceptual distortions, I’m posting this article here, as I feel it pertinently stands to remind us all about how something can sometimes seem greater than it actually is… Or closer than it really might be… Or even stranger than it really is.
Take a look at the cup of coffee in front of you. Think of how badly you want it. Think of the warmth it will bring as it slips past your pursed lips and reaches through your body’s core. The inviting astringency that lingers on your tastebuds, and that can only be abated by another sip. Once you have worked yourself into a caffeine-deprived frenzy, reach out your hand and try and grasp your liquid gold. New research conducted by Emily Balcetis and David Dunning and published in a recent issue of the journal Psychological Sciencesuggests that you might not reach far enough. The coffee cup appears closer than it really is.
This may sound absurd to those of us who believe we see the natural world as it is. How far away am I from my coffee mug? Why, as far away as it looks! The authors’ argument, however, rests on the idea that the way we see the world can be distorted by the way we feel and think about it. Their research is part of an emerging body of work supporting this idea. For example,researchers have found that hills appear steeper and distances longer when people are fatigued or carrying heavy loads. The difficulty of the task distorts our perception of distance. This will ring true for any post-holiday jogger who might at first be astonished at how long a mile appears with the weight of turkey, stuffing and cheesecake dangling from his sides. But as the pounds drip away, the mile marker doesn’t look quite so distant. Anyone who has been tasked with exceedingly tedious administrative work probably has an intimate understanding of this well. As I grade student exams, the more tedious the work, the less of an impact I seem to be making in that tall stack of papers in front of me. Haven’t I been doing this for two hours already?
Balcetis and Dunning wondered whether the desirability of an object might also influence perception, causing us to distort our proximity to objects we crave. In other words, do objects that we want or like appear closer to us than they actually are? In a series of clever experiments Balcetis and Dunning varied the desirability of target objects and asked for participants’ estimates of their physical proximity to these objects. For example, participants who had just eaten pretzels perceived a water bottle as significantly closer to them relative to participants who had just drank as much water as they wanted. In other words, those who desired the water more, perceived it as more easily attainable. A $100 bill that participants had the possibility of winning appeared closer to participants than a $100 bill that belonged to the experimenter. The results of surveys that provided participants with positive social feedback (you have an “above average” sense of humor) were perceived as closer than surveys that provided negative feedback (you have a “below average” sense of humor).
These perceptual distortions manifested in physical actions towards desirable or undesirable objects as well. Participants who were asked to toss a beanbag towards a desirable object (a $25 gift card) came up significantly shorter than participants who tossed the bag towards a neutral object (a gift card worth $0), perceiving it to be closer than it actually was.
Finally, participants were asked to stand opposite a wall upon which experimenters had placed two strips of tape exactly 90 inches away from each other. Beneath one of the pieces of tape was either a bag of chocolates or a bag of what experimenters described as a “freshly collected sample of dog feces” – two things most of us can, hopefully, agree are desirable and undesirable. Participants were asked to move towards the object until their distance equaled the distance between the pieces of tape. Participants, overestimating their proximity to the desirable object, moved significantly closer to the feces than the chocolate. Street-walkers everywhere beware: dog poop is closer than it may appear.
Though these findings may conjure up images of moving in for kisses that land short or attempted caresses that only glance the tip of your target’s nose, the authors argue that these types of distortions are an important part of social life. They help motivate us to pursue those goals that are particularly desirable, and encourage us to not pursue those goals that might be particularly difficult to attain. The logic here is simply that energy is a limited resource, and over evolutionary time the individuals who have been most successful have been those who directed their energy towards goals that would either benefit them the most or that would not come at too high a risk.
The closer an object appears, the more obtainable it seems. The more obtainable it seems, the more likely we are to go for it. Likewise, the more challenging a goal appears (a mile run when you’re out of shape) the more distant it will seem. The more distant it seems, the less likely you are to lace up your sneakers and the more likely you are to hit up those sweat pants and leftovers. This may seem counter-intuitive – after all, running is good for our health, so how could a perceptual bias that makes us less likely to do it be helpful? While it may be disconcerting to know that your eyes conspire against your waistline, the “impossible is nothing” mentality of our exercise culture, though it will certainly help you look great in a swimsuit, was probably not a terrific strategy over evolutionary time. That chasm over there? Impossible to jump across. How about that growling bear? It’s impossible to physically subdue. There would have been goals that were impossible or, at least, very difficult or unlikely for an individual to achieve, and having the perceptual system guide us in the right direction (e.g. by making the chasm look wider than it actually is, and the bear perhaps a bit larger and meaner) would have been extremely important.
In sum, the things that we want will be perceived as relatively closer and more obtainable and energize action geared towards their acquisition. This perhaps explains why that cute bartender you’ve been eyeing recently appears to lean in tantalizingly close when pouring your drink. But beware of how your eyes may deceive you. Though you may desire the barkeep’s affections, those dexterous hands may be farther away than you think. What appears to be within reach might, in fact, not be so. Indeed, these findings suggest that Morrissey’s musings on the effects of unrequited love need revision. While he may be right that the “the more you ignore me, the closer I get”, it may be equally true that the more you ignore me, the closer you get.
To find out where I sourced this article from, please click here.
November 28, 2009
Damn it’s getting hard! What with being in these times when I’m doing everything I can to cut my carbon emissions, lower the environmental impact that my actions are having on the world and its ecology, as well as seeding new patterns of behaviour in my own mind and being… I’m also becoming so aware that many people are taking my new behaviour personally.
While I actually don’t push my views into people’s faces (I just usually go about my day meditating on these new modes of greener living, and then let them naturally filter into actions that work in line with my own ecological awareness and sensibilities)… I have now noticed that when people, friends and family now come over to visit or stay, they observe these new “unorthodox” patterns that have crept into my life, and they ask me “why?” To which I usually answer honestly, mentioning that I am doing my best at directing the whole of my being into “new” daily routines that translate into a greener, more sustainable way of life for everyone. And when I say this… I notice a mild shock, a sort of horror, that seems to strike in most of their hearts… And with it, I witness their facial expressions change into a protective mask of, “Seriously, it’s really not that bad now, is it!?”
And when I say I think it is… Then comes the protective rambling about their own usual routines i.e. not composting, not growing their own vegetables, shopping at those big super market chains, walking around at home in winter dressed only in bermuda shorts with the heating on full blast, forgetting to do the recycling, using the car to drive to the corner shop that’s only a five minute walk away, etc, etc… And how that even if they did change, it might not actually make enough of a difference, because so many other people just can’t be bothered to change… And I just listen to this, while I throw the tea bags into the composter and add the milk that I bought from the local dairy farm that I now cycle to, which is only a few miles down the road… Thinking all the time, “Am I overreacting?”
BUT… In truth… I honestly don’t think I am overreacting in the slightest!!!
I know I’m not perfect… So don’t get me wrong. I’m well aware that it is not necessary to change… And I know that survival is not mandatory. But I can’t deny the way the Tao operates and flows. And I know that there will be hard times ahead for the 7 billion of us here on Earth. I am a scientist… And I have put the facts and figures together. But more than that, I know we live in a universe that relies on an affine self-similar mode of evolution that is created by chaos, which creates cycles of abundance and dearth… And from these periods, new patterns and modes of being come into play so that we may survive and live on. Change is the only certainty that we can be totally sure of… It is eternal. Darwin’s natural selection is deeply ingrained in this process, as many of us know. However we, as a global population, have not acknowledged the truth of these processes, let alone properly grasped the intricate workings of our environment and our own minds, which allow us to perceive these changes (OR NOT, as the case may be)… Processes, that when grasped, will demonstrate how our current states of being are not really sustainable in the slightest… Why can’t we see this? Probably because we haven’t properly appreciated the patterns of the past directly, and thus feel these cycles are still some type of fantasy that might not actually be true… Or even worse, that they don’t apply to us, what with our technology and current abilities… Too be honest, I don’t really know.
BUT… I have studied population biology extensively… And in doing so, I have seen the intricate workings of its mechanistic and cyclic flow… For those that don’t know… Population biology illustrates the deep structure that underlies the apparent confusion in the surface behavior of chaotic systems. It’s like looking at the phase spaces of seemingly random pattern that might occur in a system, and seeing a hidden structure emerge, as we do with Lorenz Attractors. Some animal populations exhibit a boom-and-bust pattern in their numbers over a period of years (as human populations have). In some years there is rapid growth in a population of animals, followed by a bust created when the population consumes all of its food supply and most members die from starvation. Soon the few remaining animals have an abundance of food because they have no competition. Since the food resources are so abundant, the few animals multiply rapidly, and some years later, the booming population turns bust again as the food supplies are exhausted from overfeeding. This pattern, however, can only be seen if much data has been gathered over many years… And as humans haven’t properly observed their own cycles of civilization, we haven’t, as a whole, seen that these rules actually apply to ourselves too. Yet this boom-and-bust pattern has been seen elsewhere, including in disease epidemics. Large numbers of people may come down with measles, but in falling ill, they develop antibodies that protect them from future outbreaks. Thus, after years of rising cases of measles, the cases will suddenly decline sharply because so many people are naturally protected by their antibodies. After a period of reduced cases of measles, the outbreaks will rise again and the cycle will start over, unless a program of inoculation is begun.
This self-similar pattern is part of the divine universal flow… This is part of the Tao. If we are to honestly flow with the Tao, and see the “slinky-spring” relationship between cause and effect i.e. how change does NOT always yield immediate effect, but it rather takes time to catch up with our current actions… Then we might actually come to know and see that the effects from these current modes of being are still manifesting in the intricate chain of cause and effect. It’s not hard to understand… It really isn’t! Science, Buddhism and telecommunication have in essence supplied them to us on a silver platter… One only has to have the inclination and curiosity to see that these modes and patterns have already been proved time and again in all the scientific research currently documented… And it has been documented with much accuracy. But only a few of us have grasped this pattern, and even fewer are bringing it into our lives currently. And fewer still know them deeply enough to understand them properly, and be able to talk about them authoritively…
Thus… I want to drop in this blog a great interview with the man George Monbiot. For I feel, out of all the journalists spinning the green weave, this man truly has done his homework and so speaks it just like it really is…
About George Monbiot:
George Joshua Richard Monbiot (born 27 January 1963) is a British writer, known for his environmental and political activism. He writes a weekly column for The Guardian, and is the author of a number of books, including Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain (2000) and Bring on the Apocalypse: Six Arguments for Global Justice (2008). He is the founder of The Land is Ours campaign, which campaigns peacefully for the right of access to the countryside and its resources in the UK.
To visit George’s website, please click here.
October 19, 2009
There are two beautifully descriptive phrases which appear again and again in Zen literature: Mizu no kokoro and Tsuki no kokoro.
Mizu no kokoro is often translated as “mind like water.” This is a lovely phrase which is too inexact to be very helpful, standing alone. What is meant by this is to make the mind calm when facing an emergency or an adversary. The calm mind, like still water, accurately reflects all that comes before it. It is otherwise referred to as fudoshin or “immovable mind.”
Tsuki no kokoro is usually translated as a mind like the moon. This refers to the necessity of maintaining surveillance over one’s surroundings at all times. As the bright illumination produced by the unclouded full moon as it reflects its light earthward, so the mind must be aware of all conditions surrounding it. This is often described as zanshin or kan-ken futatsu no koto, or “perceiving with both the eyes and the intuitive mind.”