The world is rubbish

On a feedback programme on Radio 4 last Friday afternoon, a youngish (31?) man arguing against changes to the Today programme, commented ‘I know that the world is rubbish’. That was his argument against change. If the world is rubbish, the radio must reflect this. We don’t want radio programmes which give us too benign a view of the world.

Endlessly focusing on a world we cannot influence, and on the violence in the world, overlooks all the remarkable unsung actions of our day-to-day lives. Don’t change the Today programme too much, but we could indeed do with less of the repetition, less misery, reinforcing the sense we may have that the world is a terrible place.

We do need to look on the world in a different way, not hiding, but taking in a bigger picture – a less jaundiced view  – of human behaviour. And thinking about it, getting away from the news, Radio 4 isn’t too bad at that!

Is this zen politics?

How does zen politics connect to the way we engage with the world, the way we operate as individuals in society, to politics and (Jonathan Rowson’s sphere – see my last blog) to policy?

As a starting-point, let’s take a Zen monk, Norman Fischer, quoted by Rowson, arguing that spiritual practice is ‘useless, absolutely useless’. You can do lots of good things for self, family and friends, but spiritual practice won’t help you address any of these concerns.

Elsewhere Rowson quotes Steven Asma in the RSA magazine: ‘If care is indeed a limited resource, then it cannot stretch indefinitely to cover the massive domain of strangers’.

Fischer’s experience is opposite to mine. And I don’t think it’s Zen. As for Asma, Rowson suggests he hasn’t heard of the metta sutta (a core practice in the Theravada tradition of Buddhism), which involves expanding that sense of loving kindness we keep for ourselves and our family and community and extending it to the wider world – and then the whole world.

Extending loving kindness… someone today said to me yesterday how difficult that was. I disagree. We simply, and constantly, need to focus less on our selfish preoccupations, and more on the needs of others. It is a remarkable and simple corrective, and tunes into a fundamental part of each of us. Violence and confrontation are seen for what they are, at best an aberration and at worse and outright evil.

Care and compassion need not be, are not, limited resources. Care can be infinite, where we attach the same value to others as we do to ourselves. So we need less a sense of something beyond, more something a natural extension of ourselves, and the excitement and the mystery comes from realizing simply how wonderful and powerful that might be.

How do we get there? One suggestion…

By reflecting on the world and taking in all sides of an issue or argument, and by practising mindfulness. In Rowson’s words: ‘Over time, mindfulness helps behaviour to become significantly less reactive, and much more in people’s conscious control.’ If you don’t believe him, or me – try it.

I hesitate these days mentioning mindfulness. It’s out there – a therapy, an accepted business practice or fad, depending on your outlook. Whereas I see it a part of the very fabric of life, essential to understanding how best to live our lives, a corrective against a partial or overly-personal view of the world, and all the negativity and false emotions that go with that view.

If you’re with me this far, you may argue that while it’s wonderful having the right attitudes, how do we translate them into practical action, how can we make (encourage our politicians make) better public policy, how can we as members of society engage with policy and both criticize and help enact it as appropriate? And how can we ensure we have a popular press that takes part in that process, allows debate and argument, and by its own engagement and actions encourages readers to be likewise engaged.

Not easy of course, and that’s not easy even on this beautiful Sunday morning. and cannot be achieved by preaching from pulpits, by politicians or by headline and leader writers. It has to come from within us, and that is both easy, with self-knowledge, and appallingly difficult, in our current climate, where we rush to judgement and prefer to follow the herd.


What’s in a word?

This blog is very much about bringing an extra personal, insightful approach to life and to politics, avoiding bias, propaganda, partiality, ideology, personal attacks. And recognizing all the time that we have to understand and connect to the other side’s point of view. Only when we can inhabit that other side, and understand its motivations, can we express a proper judgement. Of course we don’t and we can’t slow down the process of living too much while we deliberate, but we can develop an instinctive mindset.

Mindfulness and Zen, and other aspects of Buddhism, are part of the mix, but mindfulness in the sense of an ancient wisdom, not picked up as a temporary fad, soon to be discarded as all fads are.

Finding the right words, the right language is a problem. Mindfulness now has two aspects, modern, and therapeutic, and ancient (how about ‘classical’, sounds better). Spirituality is another much-used word, and much abused – mention ‘spirituality’ and people see another word for religion and if so minded they focus on all the divisiveness they associate with religion, rather than it’s capacity to bring people together. So any attempt to bring a broader perspective to human engagement is stifled.

I am talking about a broader perspective – another dimension, another way of approaching life and politics. Even for me spirituality suggests a state of mind that we bring from the outside to bear on the real world, when what I’m arguing is that an open-minded and, if you want, shared-minded approach is something that comes naturally to us. We simply have to recognize it in ourselves, and run with it.

So what word could we use instead of the ‘s’ word? ‘Wisdom’ suggests a meaning beyond the ordinary and day-to-day. Jonathan Rowson (RSA Social Brain blog) refers to people engaging with society and being ‘motivated by their ideals and their feelings and their vision of being part of something bigger than themselves’. That suggests wisdom, and a deeper meaning , but ‘feelings’ and ‘vision’ are soft words. So too ‘something bigger than themselves’.

And the trouble with wisdom is that in the West it readily attaches to the wisdom tradition, with its esoteric associations, whereas the wisdom I’m talking about focuses on understanding human nature, and our potential if we look beyond short-term cravings, misplaced energy and easy satisfaction

Insight is likewise a powerful word. Like mindfulness it has a strong Buddhist association – vipassana or ‘insight’ meditation. But it also has its casual, quotidian meaning, localised rather than universal, and that’s hard to shake.

So we may be stuck with spirituality. But we need to be careful to play down religious connections and focus on intrinsic meaning rather than external religious validation.