17 July 2010

How With This Rage Shall Silence Hold a Plea?

I have been reading Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, and it has been an eye opening experience. It has been a long, long time since I was so upended and unsettled by a book. I agree completely with Howard Zinn's jacket endorsement: "This is a brilliant book, one of the most important I have read in a long time."

It is not an easy book to read. It exposes the brutality at the heart of neoconservative economic theory and practice (which passes as "free-market capitalism" but in no way deserves to be even remotely associated with the word "free"). It is not as if I am unfamiliar with that brutality. I saw it first-hand in Nicaragua in 1986, where the United States government was the terrorist, deliberately targeting civilians in the second poorest country in the western hemisphere because the Nicaraguans dared to believe that they could have a democracy that was their own, and not a servant of the U.S. corporate state. I was there. I met the victims. I saw it with my own eyes and felt it in my own heart, and was changed by what I experienced.

But the depths of the brutality and greed outlined and meticulously researched in The Shock Doctrine make me feel like I have been asleep for the past couple of decades and am just now waking up to a world I hardly recognize. Like Rip Van Winkle, I have slept through a revolution. This revolution was waged, and seems to have been won, by those forces of greed and destruction that I saw at work in Nicaragua, but naively thought had at least been slowed down by being brought to light. My only consolation (which is no consolation at all) is that I am not alone. We have all been asleep while our democracy has been sold out from under us to a few extremely wealthy individuals and corporations.

Read the book. I can't do justice to its impact here.

The personal crisis for me is that such revelations call into question the relevance of the contemplative life that I live. Shouldn't I be out there on the front lines, defending the freedom and dignity of the majority of the people against the rapacious greed of the wealthy and powerful few who are taking control of the entire planet? They are not only taking control, they are plundering everything for their own enrichment. They are taking all the natural resources. They are raiding all the public treasuries. They are occupying all the land. They are enslaving the people. "They" are probably not even bad people. Those who plan such destruction think they are defending freedom and spreading prosperity through economic growth. The ability of humans to rationalize our own self-serving behavior in benevolent terms seems to be close to infinite.

Greed is winning the day. Greed is consuming the planet. Greed and self-deception.

So what can we do about greed and self deception?

This line from Shakespeare's Sonnet 65 has been running through my mind:

How with this rage can beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?


How with this greed can contemplation hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than silence?

How can silent awareness and simple compassion hope to overcome the cacophonous violence that is the warp and weave of our society? Everything is against it. Everything.

Compassion, true empathy, which means experiencing the other as self, whether the "other" is of a different political motivation, nation, class, ethnicity, gender, species, chemical composition - yes, it is possible to see oneself in a stone - requires a gap in the noise. It takes a cessation of the engine of thought, of self-defense, of self-justification, of self-aggrandizement, of self-deception. We worship the self. Our entire social and economic system serves the self. The self that is incapable of seeing the other as anything but other. Increasingly, it is a self incapable of seeing the other as anything but enemy.

I guess I am a true Krishnamurtian (J. Krishnamurti, 1895-1986) because it seems to me that the "self" is the root of the whole problem. We have devoted our life energy, our economies, our governments, our militaries, our nations, our jobs, everything, to this thing we call "me." It's all about "me," or at best a very minor extension of "me" called "us." Both me and us absolutely require a "them" to exist. Without a "them" to hate, to feel superior to, to exploit, to oppose, "us" falls apart. "Me" ceases to exist.

The "self" is a phantom. It is a mind-made fantasy. We have designed an entire way of life in devotion to a phantom. Because it is a phantom, because it does not actually exist, it takes constant feeding. Does that make sense?

If your body is hungry, you give it food and it is satisfied for a while, until it grows hungry again. But a phantom can't be satisfied. It eats and eats and eats, and its hunger is never filled, because it is not a real hunger. It is not the hunger of a body. It is the hunger of a fantasy. It is like dream eating. The self is a dream entity. So it eats and eats and eats and is never satisfied, because it only exists in the mind. So it goes on eating. It is eating up the whole planet. This dream entity has somehow been loosed on the world. It is consuming real people and real trees and real whales and real oceans and real soil, but it itself is not real. It has taken possession of a real body, and the real body is doing its bidding, and has become utterly confused thinking that the two are the same. The body, which has real needs, thinks it is the "self" which only has unquenchable desires.

I am afraid that unless we all see this, and very very soon, then all of our other efforts at reform or change or awakening or whatever you want to call it, will not amount to anything. The very structure of the self must be seen through. It must be seen for what it is, seen directly, and seen through.

I have no recipe for this. It requires a gap. It requires a moment of silence. It requires the instantaneous cessation of the entire mechanism of self-generation, which is an ongoing process that for most of us only ceases in deep sleep. It does not require the destruction or the stripping down or the abuse of the person. It does not require a form of shock therapy. It is not something that I can do to you or do for you. It is not even something I can do to or for myself. I don't know how to explain it. It just has to happen. You have to be caught off guard. You have to be open to it. You have to be willing to see what an awful mess we are making of this beautiful life and you have to be willing to be changed utterly.

And all that is needed for that change, that total transformation, is one moment of deep stillness. For the self-creating mental mechanism to shut up for one moment, and then for the implications of what is seen in stillness to be welcomed into the mind and expressed in the life of the person. The body-mind needs to see that it is not a "self." It needs to stop believing in its self-generated world view. It needs to see the self-illusion, the ongoing self-deception, and then set that deception aside and enter into honest engagement with reality.

It is the simplest thing imaginable. A total non-violent revolution in a single moment of awareness of the whole movement of life. But it is so simple, so absolutely humble, that it is continuously drowned out by the noise of the mind. And more and more it is buried by the violence of the machinery of the modern corporate/consumerist economy, which is the ultimate expression of the phantom-self trying to satisfy its insatiable cravings.

On the other side of silence lies honesty, simplicity, participation in the whole movement of birth, life, natural death and regeneration, true connection to the whole of everything (not the fake connection we now pretend to have through our little screens), an end to ideology, an end to enmity, and the simple satisfaction of being a living body with basic needs but no insatiable cravings. A healthy, vibrant planet; a modest, satisfying life.

But how with this rage can silence hold a plea?

3 comments:

Bruce said...

I'm a 61 year-old technical writer man in New Zealand. Thank you for your beautiful description of your past life between the physical earth and inner consciousness. Such an awesome balance, a lovely contrast to live. About year 1999-2001 I was very active in the environment domain, especially regarding global warming and peak oil (global depletion of petroleum oil and gas). Hundreds of us strove to warn the world, 'not much visible progress doing that. We felt years of anxiety and fear and frustration. Basically I got out of it, 'just decided to 'live the life' (no car, etc.) as a symbolic act, but not try to change the seemingly intractable world. My life became much easier and happier. Last year during a meditation session, I had that completing moment of silence you describe. I understand your unease about inaction regarding the injustices of the world. Consider this: Most people will feed their cat rather than starving, sick child overseas. In the end it comes down to accepting our own selfishness. We look after who/what's physically near to us, and mainly ignore what's beyond. So you are at least not alone in your inaction and selfishness. That sick child would most likely do the same or worse to you if it had the chance. Breathe the air, feel the sunshine on your skin. Live a good life as best you can before you age and get sick and die, which is the lot of all of us. Help others a bit as you can. Regards, Bruce Thomson, Palmerston North, New Zealand.

John said...

Bruce,

We can at least speak the truth as we see it. As I see it, our greed and self-deception are driving us down the road to catastrophe, with global corporations leading the way. Suffering for humans and non-humans, on a scale never seen in history, is our current destination. If we don't change, our trajectory won't change. Pretending nothing is wrong, or assuming we can't do anything about it, assures that we continue in our current, disastrous direction. If we do not change, change will be forced upon us, with limited options, as we run headlong into the physical limits of the Earth. The alternative is to care enough to be changed. We just have to care enough to choose Life over our current death spiral.

Every day we slaughter thousands of our own children. Every day we are consumed by our own voracious, unquenchable appetite. We never meant for it to be this way. It just happened. With intellect came imbalance. With ideology came madness. Reason can't feel anything. Emotion can't think clearly. In deep silence lies some measure of balance, but who can find silence in the midst of so much power and pain?

It was a grand experiment, the thinking ape, the bifurcated brain. But I am afraid it has gone terribly wrong. A few have faced the wrong in themselves and in the world - the same wrong - and found the deepest truth that holds it all with compassion and unflinching honesty. But really only a few. Most of the rest of us have settled for something far less. Our own pleasure. Our own self-serving pain. Our brilliant ideas vanquishing all foes.

The few who have lost themselves and found the deepest truth have been worshiped as gods, or killed as threats to stability, or both. We don't dare follow their example. The enormity of the brutality of civilization is just too much for most of us to face. Our mother who cradled us in her arms has a second life as a murderer of children. It's too much to face without access to something deeper than "me."

But that something, that deep silence of absolute compassion and honesty and vitality, can't be conjured with words. It can't be found online. No one can give it to us. Being nowhere and everywhere, it baffles the mind. It isn't some tricky new technique. It isn't the latest trend. It is the whole of everything, and therefore it is not any thing.

The boundaries we place on our compassion are artificial. They assume the mind-made self is a real thing. Reality is much bigger than that. But I realize that most of us, myself included, are not quite up to facing reality, except perhaps in moments of grace that are all too soon set aside in favor of cultural norms and our own familiar patterns of behavior.

Deep silence is radical. It goes to the root and exposes the sham we have been living. It reveals our deceptions and gives us the opportunity to shed them. But who wants to stray so far from normalcy? Silence can't compete with the overwhelming noise of power and pain. And so it is largely ignored. But it is always right at hand. We don't have to go down this destructive road. We can be changed. For the sake of this good Earth, we must be.

Gordon said...

I heartily agree with your post - the self is a phantom, and it is also a clear and present danger. The one point with which I'd take issue is what seems to me a rather passive approach to combatting it. There is a developing intellectual understanding of how the self works, from several points of view - neurological, psychological, evolutionary, computational. An improved intellectual understanding can loosen the grip of the phantom self. It can weaken selfish values relative to other values, by undermining the idea that people are rationally required to act in their own self-interest. I recommend Thomas Metzinger (Being No One, and The Ego Tunnel), Derek Parfit (Reasons and Persons), Ray Martin (Self-Concern). These and more are discussed on my blog, The Phantom Self (www.phantomself.org).

Keep up the good work!