Swift, clean victories

There’s an intriguing book just published by military historian, Lawrence Freedman, entitled The Future of War: A History: it focuses on (to quote the Economist review, 20th October) ‘how ideas about future wars could be fought have shaped the reality, with usually baleful results’.

‘Swift, clean victories’ have long been ‘baked into concepts of future war’, WW1 being a prime example. It would all be over by Christmas. In our own time we’ve civil wars rather than wars between nations, urban and guerrilla war, and hybrid, cyber warfare. Wars feed on themselves, self-perpetuate as they ever did.

Freedman’s message to policy-makers, the review concludes, is to beware those who tout ‘the ease and speed with which victory can be achieved while underestimating the resourcefulness of adversaries’.

I’m reminded of the current Brexit discussion. First create your adversary, as we’ve done, and then under-estimate his capabilities, and all the while assume that radical change, and even outright victory (and it would be seen as ‘victory’: we are combatants), can be achieved quickly.

I’ll bring in Richard Thaler here, recently-announced winner of the Nobel Prize for economics, and developer of ‘nudge’ theory. Thaler understand choices ‘as battles between two cognitive forces: a “doer” part of the brain focused on short-term rewards, and a “planner” focused on the long-term’. For Daniel Kahneman a related divide is exemplified in the title of his bestseller, ‘Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow’.

Our instinct for short-term success overpowers our planning instinct, we always want the quickest route, and we fool ourselves into thinking we have the wherewithal, the strategy, the materiel, to get us there.

There is, it seems, an inevitability about this process. There’s a quote from Steven Pinker, writing about Kahneman (Guardian, February 2014): ‘he gave me a comment that really sat with me: he noted that the idea of human nature with inherent flaws was consistent with a tragic view of the human condition and it’s a part of being human that we have to live with that tragedy.’  Pinker also argues that ‘we have the means to overcome some of our limitations, through education, through institutions, through enlightenment’.

I’ll take him at his word on ‘enlightenment’. There’s another side to human nature, as inherent as the flaws that Pinker alludes to, that takes us beyond  the ‘doer’ and the ‘planner’, the fast and the slow. Practised down the generations, put simply it’s self-awareness, living in the moment, bringing our reason, our planning instinct, to bear on our immediate or short-term actions.

In the spirit of zenpolitics,and in the absence of any apposite zen koans to hand, I’ll quote the 13th century Turkish (though born in Afghanistan) mystic, Rumi (I love the langauge): ‘…your inspired reason goes forward without obstacles/at the careful and measured pace of a camel’.

As for over-reliance on reason: ‘Discursive reason’s a vulture, my poor friend:/Its wings beat above a decaying corpse./The Saint’s reason is like the wings of Gabriel: …’

I’m touching on a vast subject here. Two Nobel prize winners on the one hand, three-millennia-old tradition and practice on the other. They don’t need to be in conflict, and both would warn against the pursuit of ‘swift, clean victories’.

 

Brexit – the new promised land

Buddhism has neither a god, nor a promised land – for many that is, but not for all:  adherents of the Pure Land teachings within the Mahayana tradition believe that by reciting the name of Amithaba Buddha they can achieve rebirth in a western ‘pure land’.

Deriving any kind of political conclusion from spiritual belief is always high risk. But there is a ‘promised land’ mentality abroad at the present time, and curiously it’s taken hold of the right of the political spectrum – the day-dreams, the political unrealities which typified the Left for so long are now the prerogative of the Right.

There is it seems a world out there, beyond the western horizon (beyond the sunset), where we can trade freely, without restriction, without regulation, where self-interest becomes the common interest, where supervisory bodies not least governments touch so lightly that we’re hardly aware they’re there. We in the UK, we’re free traders at heart. Once we set the example for the world by going it alone. Others followed. And they will do so again. We were, we still are, exceptional.

We achieve this by a simple stroke, a referendum, from which there is no turning back.

Our history, our unwritten constitution, is full of errors, U-turns, crises, but the parliamentary system has always allowed for corrections, changes of tack, a self-correction mechanism.

But true belief and true believers allow no compromise.

There is a rigidity to belief systems, and referenda are a classic way of embedding practices and beliefs. Cooperation and compromise become, as we’ve seen over last year, much harder. We are on dangerous ground.

Likewise the USA, where exceptionalism, of the American kind, is also closely woven into the debate. A continuing danger lies in the presidential control over appointments to the Supreme Court, and the way appointments can sway the Court in the ever-more-polarised national debate. The Citizens United decision in 2010 effectively allowed super-PACs to spend unlimited amounts in support of political parties or candidates, as long as the money wasn’t paid directly to the candidate. There is now no restriction on what money can buy in American politics, and no limit to the levels of vituperation, and with much of the press in the UK in the hands of over-wealthy men with overt political agendas we are running the same risks here.

The US Congress has many famous examples of cross-party cooperation, of a movement to consensus when the times require it.  The UK likewise. But money polarises, and likewise referenda. If one side dig deep to defame the other, if one side claim that a referendum has once and for all and forever decided an issue – what scope can there be for coming together?

The ‘pure land’ mentality belongs in the spiritual sphere. It is pace Dawkins, Dennett el al, a natural aspiration of mankind. But it has no place in politics.

*

A brief coda. Paul Johnson (director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies), writing in The Times, reminds us how once a big government project (for example, the NHS IT system) is underway ‘its momentum can carry it through almost any amount of evidence it is not working’. He continues:

‘The serial inability of governments to define, manage and deliver big projects can only be sobering in the context of the attempt to deliver Brexit – the biggest project of them all.’

At what point does a promised land become a fool’s paradise?

Impermanence

We conjured a turtle on a Cornish beach last Sunday, and slates gathered on the beach were scales for its back. Five hours later, in the gloaming, I watched the incoming tide, the waves creeping, maybe one in three or one in four, a little closer, until they trickled into the ditch we’d dug around the turtle. The shell held out a little longer, maybe ten minutes, until a small wave sloshed gently over the top, and then the undermining was really underway. By the time I took my leave, reluctantly, ten minutes later, there was barely a hump to be seen, as the tide pushed further in.

Impermanence… I’ve also been walking the coast path, from Trevose Head to Morgan Porth, and back, the same terrain, yes, but different perspectives, as if two separate journeys. The coves bite deep, and the caves and sink-holes provide sounding-boards for the waves. The rocks break and twist, as the strata and lines of weakness, and all the vagaries of weather and climate over many millions of years, dictate. And yet it all seems so permanent. Even the flock of oyster-catchers, which piped on a rock platform far below: they were there both outward and inward, though inward the black-backed gulls had flown.

Looking down on Bedruthan Sands from the cliff top, the sand was fresh-swept – the tide bites the cliff, no soft or littered sand, and four girls were playing boule, and their cries just carried to me. The waves which had been a high surf were lapping low, or seemed to from my elevation, and all seemed … well, yes, permanent.  I didn’t want to walk on, and lose that sense of forever.

I found a grassy slope, and sat and looked out to see, blue under blue, aquamarine closer in, where it shallowed, and the rippling smoothness extended in a great curve around me. Another cliff, another cove – snorkellers were taking advantage of low tide and swimming out to a sandy beach.

Where the cliffs come down to Treyarnon beach there’s a steep gully which you can swim through at lowest tide. This, my imagination tells me, is what they do, what I could do, as the observer, every day, and yet – such moments, such times, are rare. The tide will rise, the mists sweep in, and the storms, and the winter …

Joy and a gentle melancholy combine, and a sense of peace, and fragility … that sense of living in the moment, and yet living forever.

 

 

The day after…

So we’re the day after. Theresa May has invoked Article 50, officially received by Donald Tusk. From a Brit to a Pole, a document that’s tantamount to a surrender of our status in the world. Ironic, remembering 1939, when we went to war for Poland.

I’ve often thought post referendum that this blog belonged to another age. Might a Zen approach to politics, bringing wisdom and compassion, as understood in Buddhist terms, to bear, no longer be of its time?

Engagement, street-corner politics, arguing, rallying, taking sides, contrasting opposites – we may seek to hold to the truth but when the other side embellishes or distorts then we have to counter – and the language of attack and counter-attack isn’t always sweet. I tried the counter-attack last year. But that’s for another blog. For now, a simple statement, from the Buddha, no less:

How wonderful, how miraculous that all beings are endowed with the wisdom of the Tathagata [someone who has achieved enlightenment]. Only sadly human beings because of their attachments are not aware of it.

The ultimate attachment is to ‘I’, which is out there all the time asserting its identity, in a state of more or less insecurity, seeking reassurance, arguing, shoring up its position.

24-hour news is part of this. Listening every few hours, even every hour. Always engaged with the minutiae, and responding yea or nay to each news item – agreeing, disagreeing. Encouraged, depressed. Even if we’ve escaped the high and lows we’re always in there with the buzz of it all.

As a contrast, take a simple image, water in a glass vessel, conforming to its size and shape. We want to change the moment, or change the world. We pour the water out, find another vessel.

But imagine the universe as a vessel, and the laws which govern it – the laws of the tao (see the Tao Te Ching), the Buddha wisdom, the Christian gospel message of love, which is universal – as the water within.

The day-to-day is about change. That is what life is, change and becoming. But chucking out the water, changing the vessel, endless agitation, that can never be the way forward. The way of wisdom moves more slowly, wisdom lies in silence and in a quieter, more measured understanding.

And that is not the mood or way of our times!

Taking politics out of zenpolitics …

Back before I took ten days out from the world I wondered about the future of my zenpolitics blog. ‘Politics and creativity, blogs and poetry are uneasy bedfellows….There has to be something obsessive about a political blog, and I may want to put obsession behind me.’

Which, indeed, I do.

Trump happened while I was away. Here in the UK, judges insisted that the government couldn’t invoke Article 50 without first putting it before parliament. Theresa May had an embarrassing trip to India. She looked out of her depth. I could but don’t want to comment on all this. I’ve spent years doing so, and especially in this Brexit year. But with so much going on it’s almost a full-time job just to keep up to speed. Let alone comment.

We are in a time of crisis. Zenpolitics has always assumed a continuing broadly liberal agenda in Western politics, and that’s now very much under threat. If, as the Economist argues, Trump’s success is replicated in Europe, ‘the EU may eventually tilt toward a common assembly for mutually beneficial transactions rather than a club of like-minded countries with a sense of shared destiny’.

I will continue to argue for that shared destiny.  But to look out for insights and inspiration, and anomalies, and avoid day-to-day combat. Insights into politics, but also I hope into landscapes, real and imaginary, and travel.

I will as always aim to understand the other’s point of view. But there are a good few bastards out there, not to put too fine a point on it.

So I will sometimes fail.

Never moving from a small patch of land…

Ten days of silence, no communication, ten days to meditate, and inbetween times to think a little.

The site must once have been a small farm, and on its eastern edge there’s a delightful patch of mixed woodland, and over the ten days I watched the leaf canopy reduce, and the leaf cover and mulch underfoot increase. The wind caught the birches rising above the canopy, and the sycamores and the beeches still held their colour. One morning the first rays of sun poured into the woodland from across the valley below the wood, and the beeches glowed, and a redbreast hopped in alongside me as I stood, motionless for ten minutes, watching, and there was a brilliant moment of colour when it turned to face the sun.

All the while the moon was waxing, from a crescent to full (the moon closer and therefore larger than at any time since 1947 I learnt afterwards) and I could just catch sight of Venus above the horizon as an evening star. Bed at 9pm. We were up at 4am, and Orion, Sirius and all the winter stars were brilliant, a crust and crunch of frost underfoot. Meditate for two hours, then breakfast at 6.30, and if the morning was bright back again to the woods.

A clearing gave big views of the sky, and vapour trails snaked across, the silver of the planes just visible as they began their descents to Heathrow and maybe Birmingham. To the west, a line of low hills, all meadow, green, a patch of woodland or two, and beyond I knew more open fields and the Black Mountains. And silence. I couldn’t even hear church bells. That puzzled me. Where were the villages? Curiously leaving on the Sunday I drove past Llanwarne, not more than a mile or two away, and the hollow shell of its parish church. (Abandoned in the 1860s because of constant flooding.) No bells ringing there.

My paths never varied over the ten days, and I picked up on all the nuances of the weather. No forecasts of course. But the wind backing south-easterly I knew probably meant rain would come the following days, even if the sky was blue and the sun brilliant at that moment. And the rain came. I felt like the farmers of old must have done, knowing what wind and wisps of cloud might presage for my small patch of land.

Meditations and musings, quiet perambulations, mealtimes where we observed noble silence – silence of body, speech and mind. So maybe I allowed myself too much licence with my musings. But watching weather and landscape I was, I think we all were, in the moment, and while the meditation could be hard, and the hours strict, my thoughts were gentle, and my burden was light….

Back to the world after ten days of silence 

I posted the message below on Facebook last Sunday. I wanted to put my feelings down while they were raw. Time inevitably anaesthetises, and I didn’t want to lose the impact of those morning hours. 

I’ve been out of all communication on a silent retreat in Herefordshire for ten days. (Why – another story and not for now!) I knew I’d be missing the American election but I had confidence. This morning a message from my daughter, Rozi, apologising for all the dreadful things that had happened in the world in my absence from it, concerned I might want to head back to my retreat and never come out again. That’s when I realised, 7.30 Sunday morning, that Trump had won.

Returning to the world after so long and so quiet away is emotional anyway. The Herefordshire countryside, the Black Mountains a high ridge out to the west, and the mist still lying in frosty fields, music on the radio… I was coping, just.

Back in Cranham – I learnt that Leonard Cohen has died. And that finally did bring out the tears.

I first sang Suzanne in a folk club in Oxford maybe fifty years ago, and I sang it again at an open mic evening just two week ago in Cranham. A few weeks before I’d sung That’s no way to say goodbye … And there was that wonderful radio programme recently about Marianne, and how they were in touch again shortly before she died.

‘It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah,’ in Cohen’s own words.

I and my generation have lost a hero. And there are new villains to fight. But there’s a new generation taking up the good fight and, thank God, my own children are out there among them.