Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Citizen of the World

When I was at school, I had a conversation with a schoolmate about passports. Out of nowhere, I said that I wouldn’t like to have one. My schoolmate looked at me in puzzlement, and commented that if I didn’t have a passport, I would belong nowhere. I replied that I’d rather be a citizen of the world.

Unknowingly, I’d hit on an ancient idea. It was the ancient Greeks who originated the idea of kosmopolites, that all of us are in some way citizens of a single, global community. This suggests that our duty of care should extend to every inhabitant of the world.

Recently this has come under sustained attack. Teresa May commented at the Tory party conference that if “you believe that you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.”  Her message was that that your circle of care should be limited to within national borders.

But this makes little sense. A national border is an arbitrary line, drawn for reasons of historical and territorial contingency. There seems to me no good reason to think that our duty of care ends there. There seem, on the other hand, plenty of good reasons to think that our own, personal welfare depends to a large extent upon the state of the world, and other people within it. Charles Darwin put it this way:

“As [humans] advance in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that [they] ought to extend [their] social instincts and sympathies to all members of the same nation, though personally unknown to [them]. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent [their] sympathies extending to [people] of all nations and races.”

And an artificial barrier is what May, Trump, Farage and all the rest seek to erect. But it is a flimsy one.

One of the best reasons to suppose flimsiness is interconnectedness. The fact that every event in the world is deeply affected by every other event means that the reverberations of crises and disasters are often felt far beyond their origin point. Interconnectedness also means that pulling up the drawbridge, and withdrawing into individual, fortress like nation-states is futile.

This can be seen in the case of the global financial crisis of 2008, where the selfishness and greed of a small number of people adversely affected the lives of millions.  It can also be seen in environmental crises, where the pollution of one nation affects the entire globe, because we all breathe the same air.

This is why the Dalai Lama has highlighted the importance of global ethics:

“In this age of globalization, the time has come for us to acknowledge that our lives are deeply interconnected and to recognize that our behaviour has a global dimension. When we do so, we will see that our own interests are best served by what is in the best interests of the wider human community.” (Beyond Religion, p. 85).

This means that some form of cosmopolitan thinking is inescapable.

There are several of reasons why a global ethic is resisted.  I think that some dislike the idea of global responsibility because they think it means that they will stop caring about the place where they are born.

This fear, while understandable, seems unfounded. Each of us is inevitably the product of a particular family, located in a specific cultural, social and historical context, and we will naturally have kinship with our own communities. This does not, as Darwin observed, contradict the idea of more global duties.

People also resist the idea of a global ethic because of the belief that there’s not enough to go around. This creates a sort of bunker mentality where individuals, families and nations fight each other, to the death if necessary, over dwindling resources. This was first rationalized by Thomas Malthus, who observed that population growth was bound to outstrip increases in food supplies.

This fear remains a major fuel for aggressive right wing populism. In a way, such populism is that fear in concrete form. There is no strong future vision, here, just an aggressive, territorial, survival-driven lashing out.

To an extent, this is understandable. If your life is poverty-stricken, lonely and there seems no way out, it's very easy to cast around for scapegoats, and to want to protect your own against outsiders.

But even in poverty it's possible to make moral choices. That is a central point of John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, where poor families, sick of the cruelties of the depression, and the uncaring rich, exhibit huge generosity:

"Yeah, but them folks can't bury him. Got to go to the county stone orchard.

Well, hell.

And hands went into pockets and little coins came out. In front of the tent a little heap of silver grew. And the family found it there.

Our people are good people; our people are kind people."

I would like to suggest that our own personal values often become self-fulfilling prophecies. If you believe in the dog eat dog story, then your life and politics will likely reflect this.

If, on the other hand, even in the face of material, economic and other challenges, enough of us decide to reject a selfish, parochial point of view and embrace a form of global ethics, then this may well result in a gradual transformation of the world.  It’s surely worth a try.


Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Opposing Fascism

In the New Statesman this week, Yanis Varoufakis compared the President elect of the United States to the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Others in the same magazine disagreed.

This mirrored several recent debates about whether the populist, far right movements sweeping the western world can be called fascist. Some say yes, others, like Paul Mason, say no.

Whatever the truth, it seems to me that understanding the fascist movements of the past can help us better understand current political developments.

The forces that gave us Brexit and Trump represent mass movements, and mass movements seek a transformation of the world. In The True Believer, Eric Hoffer pointed out that such movements share a number of characteristics that give them a family likeness. They are driven by the ‘frustrated’ or ‘disaffected.’ Whilst superficially democratic, mass movements tend to be populated by those who are intolerant of dissenters, eager to subsume their individuality into the mass, and willing to sacrifice the present, and sometimes their family and friends, for the promise of a better tomorrow.

Fascism represents a particularly unpleasant kind of mass movement, and has a number of characteristic features. In Introducing Fascism, Hood and Jancz note fourteen:

1. A political philosophy that is a mix of mysticism or the occult, radical ideas and conservative politics.
2. A strong state with a powerful executive.
3. A hatred of communism and socalism.
4. A mass party that is formed on paramilitary lines.
5. A love of (masculine) power and a cult of violence.
6. Highly authoritarian, with submission, conformity and discipline emphasised.
7. Fundamentally irrational, promoting emotional impulse over logical thought.
8. Nostalgia for a lost or legendary past.
9. Hatred of intellectuals (although this does not preclude support by some intellectuals).
10. Idealises the dignity of labour.
11. Love of masculinity, women in a subordinate role.
12. Subsidised by industrialists and landowners.
13. Mostly supported by middle class, especially the lower middle class.
14. Need for scapegoat enemies or ‘Others.’

It is not necessary for a movement to have every single one of these features to qualify as fascist. What matters is the general pattern of features.

Although the current movements of the authoritarian right lack the organizational structure and paramilitary aspects of fascism, it seems to me that they share enough ideological affinities for us to be worried.

That these sort of features cluster is not surprising. They possibly result from the ‘strict father’ model that George Lakoff has suggested forms the basis of (ultra) conservative politics.

Hood & Jansz also outline a number of persistent conditions that allow fascism to flourish, that seem very relevant to our current situation.

These include industrially advanced economies hit by a recessionary slump, a discredited left, dissatisfaction with an inefficient or corrupt legislature, the end of consensus politics, racism provoked by ‘job stealing’ immigrants or other scapegoats, a respectable right and nostalgia for a strong state.

It seems to me that every single one of these conditions exists today in the US, the UK and continental Europe. The financial crisis of 2008, and a series of catastrophic failures of governance, have left us vulnerable to far-right populism that at the very least constellates broadly with fascism.

There are some who seem to think that one might use fascist ideas in a reasonably benign way, and avoid the less pleasant features. But this sort of ‘fascism lite’ is unworkable and dangerous. I think that you probably cannot have a strong, authoritarian, hierarchical power-worshipping political regime that doesn't subjugate women, despise weakness and attempt to violently destroy its opposition.

The spokesperson for the Leader of the Front Nationale in France, responding to Trump’s victory, said recently that ‘[the liberal] world is collapsing. Ours is being built’ (New Statesman, 18—24th November, 2016, p. 3)

This may well be so. But a world built with the bricks of isolationist, racist nationalism or even worse, neo-fascism, is not a stable one. Not only would such a world significantly increase the odds of a Third World War, but it would also render useless attempts to offset civilization-wrecking climate change.

A human future dominated by the far right would be dark, brutal, destructive and probably short–lived. Those of us who want a sustainable, mature, long-lived global civilization cannot let these sort of forces triumph.

This opposition should primarily be through through education, and also efforts to prevent the radicalisation of young people. It could also involve the promotion of more positive alternatives, one of which I will discuss next time.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

How to Emotionally survive Political Catastrophe

An Open post to those who feel lost right now:

I'm writing this on the morning of the third nasty political shock in eighteen months. Boy, the 2010s have been very unpleasant, haven't they? The forces of reactionary nastiness have been on the ascendent, indulged by the media and too many other enablers.

The English-speaking world seems to be quite happily flirting with what could be broadly termed fascism. However the voting patterns are rationalised, a rather ugly, isolating, destabilising general pattern emerges. I am very much afraid that we're sailing, rather merrily, for what the Great Transition Initiative called Fortress World. This is a world where: "powerful [nationalist] forces are able to impose order in the form of an authoritarian system of global apartheid with elites in protected enclaves and an impoverished majority outside."

I think that we should ask whether that sort of a world really sounds appealing, don't you?

The problem for those of us who do not want this sort of a world is how to survive and continue to do good and constructive work in a situation where an awful lot of social and political forces seem to be leading directly to it.

The internet is a wonderful thing, but I have been unable to find anything useful about how to survive, psychologically, multiple political disasters. And yet, if you look at history, there are many records of those who have not only survived but eventually learned how to thrive in their wake.

My personal inspiring example is the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people, who had their country invaded and their culture destroyed. This lead to a diaspora of Tibetans around the world, including the Dalai Lama.

Instead of preaching hate and violence, the Dalai Lama embarked on a program of increasing compassion and cooperation in the world. So this is an example of someone who turned very adverse political circumstances into something positive. I encourage you to find your own.

On the days to come:

First, it goes without saying that extensive self-care and compassion is essential from now on. In addition, we need to work on increasing resilience and keeping ourselves in a proactive state so that this sort of disaster is not immobilising. Building community, and peer support,  is essential here.

A good first stop are the writings of Bruce Levine, who have been crucial for me in overcoming the paralysis that extreme demoralisation can bring. Many of you will be in shock now, and that's okay. Remember that the shock will wear off, and that you don't have to be immobilised permanently.

Second, try to take a longer perspective. In the 1930s, in a sadly comparable time of political turbulence and bad change, H.G. Wells wrote 'The Shape of Things to Come,' where he looked beyond the next World War to a time when a better society could be built. Although Wells, at the end of his life, despaired that a better life was possible, people were inspired by his example. In fact, many of the more positive ideas that he promoted were worked into global organisations like the United Nations, in the wake of the war.

This tells me two things (1) that even in very dark times, you can still plan for a better world, and (2) that the political landscape can change, radically, in a reasonably short period of time -- and not always for the worse. The issue is keeping more constructive ideas and values alive through the dark times, and to continue chipping away at your chosen issue no matter what.

Finally, I tend to agree with Alfred North Whitehead that evil is unstable.  Any regime, for example, that ignores climate change is due for some very nasty shocks further down the road. Any politician, however rich and powerful, who is foolish enough to ignore reality will sooner or later find themselves colliding with it.

So the mission is to keep the idea of a better world alive, until a more opportune time comes to put it into action. And sooner or later, that time will come.

Don't give up!

Friday, 4 November 2016

A Tribute to Paul Brazier

NOTE: The following is a brief tribute to my friend and former editor Paul Brazier, who died in October 2016.  After some thought, and discussion with friends, I've decided to put it on here.

When I was living in Brighton, back in the late 1990s, I found out, from the ad in the back of the magazine, that the publishers of Interzone met in one of the local pubs.

I was feeling rather desperate at the time. I’d been writing stories, and having them rejected, for years. Interzone, one of the best SF magazines I knew, had been one of my prime targets, but…. Well, many of you who write will know the score.

Paul was there, at the Mitre, along with David Pringle, and all the others. Paul and I hit it off, and he offered to look at my stories, for possible inclusion in an edition of Interzone that he was editing.

I sent him a couple of tales, including ‘City in the Dust,’ which had already been rejected by another magazine. I was fully expecting the usual brush-off.

Instead, Paul wrote back saying that he loved the story, which ended up being published in March 2001.

Over the next couple of years, I got to know both Paul and Juliet better, and visited them regularly at their house. Over that time, Paul helped with developing my writing and editing skills, and was always very generous with his time and attention.

He also got me in as a guest to the Arthur Clarke awards, and through him, I came to meet many amazing people, including some of my SF heroes.

None of us can become successful in our chosen field without help. The myth of the self-made person is just that – a myth. Paul was one of those people who excelled at being a facilitator, and was very talented at helping people. He certainly helped me. But he was also a good friend.

He was kind, fun, and always generous. One of my happiest memories of the Brighton years was going around to Paul and Juliet’s to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer and then have dinner. This was always stimulating, fun and at times, morale boosting.

Paul and I drifted apart a little after I moved from Brighton.

However, we did meet up again a few years ago, and once more, Paul was kind and generous with his time, although I was sorry to see that his health had deteriorated somewhat. I was to have visited him again this October, but sadly, fate, and everyday hassles intervened, and it was not to be.

Nonetheless, I would count my friendship with Paul as one of the most positive in my life. He will be greatly missed.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

A Photon Torpedo is not a Toy

I once got into trouble for photon torpedoing the glass front door of a holiday home in Devon.

It was a plastic photon torpedo, and it was the early 1980s. I had been given a toy starship Enterprise for christmas, which went on many interstellar adventures. The photon torpedoes were small white plastic disks that you could shoot out of the front, and would probably be banned by health and safety today. But, ballistically speaking, they provided hours of fun.

 The toy Enterprise also included a little, plastic, yellow, shuttlecraft that you could send on planetary reconnaissances. This was a plus point: the shuttle was one of my favourite bits of Enterprise kit.

I even made a cardboard one, for the William Shatner action figure who had many adventures in the garden. You'd been surprised how our garden resembled an exotic, alien jungle in midsummer. Kirk even lost his phaser out there.

One of my favourite episodes of classic Star Trek involved the shuttle. It was called 'the Galileo Seven' and was when Enterprise crewmembers were marooned on this scary alien planet and menaced by furry giants who threw spears and roared. Mr. Spock was in charge and he made rather a hash of things, despite using logic every step of the day.

Then there were the models. I had a model version of the movie version of the Enterprise whose nacelles wouldn't attach properly. I tried glueing them to the secondary hull about five times, but they just went all droopy. The end result wasn't quite as majestic as I'd like, and I half poisoned myself with superglue fumes.

However, it was a bit more majestic than the Star Trek alarm clock, that 'beamed' me into breakfast every morning.

Star Trek was one of the most inspirational shows that I've ever watched, being an optimistic contrast to the dreary realism of Britain in the nineteen-eighties. According to Star Trek, the future was going to be better. We would solve our problems and explore the universe together and in peace (well, almost....)

Whenever I'm feeling gloomy or depressed about the future, I still listen to the soundtrack from The Motion Picture on my MP3 player. Jerry Goldsmith's music is the purest expression of the Star Trek spirit that I know. It insists on a bold, exciting, utopian tomorrow.

My liking for this soundtrack has sometimes mystified people. At university, some housemates of mine once played it when they were very drunk and said that they sort of got it after about track five.  I could sympathise. One of them owned a copy of William Shatner's album Transformed Man, which I also only understood when drunk.

All this probably makes it sound like I was some terminal trekker, but  for me, Star Trek was a piece with the works of Asimov and Clarke, and the real space program. Together, they reflected an ethos that said that the future could be better than the past, that we could solve our problems, and that we can be better than we are.

All of which seems very important when you're getting a life, Mr. Shatner....

Friday, 7 October 2016

Paths to Utopia

I didn't enjoy visiting London, this time. My destination was the Paths to Utopia exhibition at Somerset House, King’s College London, exploring ideal societies. This theme seemed divorced from immediate experience.

King's Cross resembled a 1960s overpopulation movie, with crowds of stressed commuters heaving against each other like tadpoles in a tiny pond. I wouldn't have been surprised to find Pret a Manger serving Solyent Green.

Even more distressing were the homeless people; just outside the terminal, I was approached by three people, begging for money, and there were plenty more in Charing Cross Road. A society that treats humans as garbage is hardly an ideal one, and seems in some ways closer to dystopia.

So by the time I reached Somerset House, I was wondering what utopia still had to offer.

The exhibition was part of a 2016 celebration of the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas Moore’s Utopia, a work of fiction and political philosophy. The word, which means no place, has come to signify an ideal society, but it can also mean a mode of thinking where our current reality is reimagined as something new and hopefully better.

The entrance to the exhibition was a cave with a distorting mirror. This created the feeling of stepping out of the everyday,  into a different imaginative space. Caves are symbolic of the womb, death and the subconscious, and offer passage from here to elsewhere. Lord Lytton's The Coming Race, featuring a somewhat totalitarian society of superbeings, begins with a traveller lost in the caves, so it's an old and appropriate trope.

The first exhibit, 'We account the Whale Immortal' by Jessica Sarah Rinland, was installed in a darkened room with three, continuously projected screens.  Flickering images showed the sea, and glimpses of a nautical journal, a man climbing in a whale's mouth, a hand strumming whale baleen, old depictions of whales and whaling, water lapping on steps, whale watchers, icebergs, and bones.

The films had been edited during a live performance featuring Rinland and Philip Hoare, the author of Leviathan. The theme was the historical arrival of three whales in the Thames, and the piece had a special mood, although I struggled rather to link it to the utopian theme.

The Utopian Lab, meanwhile, featured a film exploring the thoughts of people in health care. A group of nurses and carers were allowed to discuss, draft and illustrate their ideas for an ideal health care system. It was novel to see people who were used to working within a regulation-bound profession enter a space of freedom and creativity.

Medical technology can also be the source of new utopian visions. 'All the things that you are not Yet' by Karina Thompson, was a singing quilt showing two embryos, who have now become two year old toddlers. This quilt was a symbol of a moment of new life,  and the 'possibilities of in vitro fertilisation.' There is nothing more utopian than the creation of a new human being, with all their potential for good or evil.

One of my favourite pieces was the installation film by Le Gun collective entitled 'the Temple of Perpetual myth,' which you can view here, at about 34:10 minutes. The imagery in this film recalled for me comparable spectacles from the carnival celebration of the Mexican Day of the Dead. According to the collective, the film shows cosmic shamans, writing messages in the ink of creation.

I also liked the installation that dealt with the work of Roger Fry (1866—1934), an english artist and art critic. Fry promoted a movement called post-impressionism and saw deep themes linking art from traditional cultures and modern.

The intersection of traditional cultures and utopian thinking has long interested me. It finds its expression in a kind of science fiction called ‘future primitive.’ This is SF where we have rediscovered or reinvented modes of living that recall our prehistoric past. These modes of life often coexist with high technology, and are illustrated by the works of Ursula Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson.

Le Guin's novel the Dispossessed was the subject of another film installation, discussion and performance entitled 'Night School on Annares.' The film and discussion is viewable here. The Dispossessed depicts the interactions between a hierarchical, capitalist world and its anarchist moon, and in my view ranks alongside Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Both Le Guin and Robinson were name checked at the exhibition’s end, which featured a blackboard with quotes from a number of other utopian thinkers like H.G. Wells, Oscar Wilde and Maya Angelou. There was also space to write your own thoughts.
Facing that blackboard was difficult. What are my thoughts on utopia?

It seems to me that we're currently living through a very reactionary phase of British history where introverted, backwards looking and nationalistic values are on the ascendent. As a result, utopia might seem impossibly distant, but the mode of thinking has never been more urgently required.

For me, utopia is about the latent possibilities of existence. Anyone with a glancing knowledge of world history and anthopology will realise that the claim that 'there is no alternative' to consumer Capitalism is false. There are many ways of ordering existence; and some of these are probably better, maybe vastly better, than our current environment-wrecking, people-discarding, data-frazzled and xenophobic realities.

So what did I write on the board? See below....

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Same Ling 2: Chess, Yaks, Swallows and Siddhis

I am rubbish at chess, and was reminded of this by being thrashed in every single game that I played in Samye Ling. My own technique is roughly similar to Rick Mayall's in Bottom (see above).

My most formidable opponent was a Belgian lad who was also very good at playing the guitar and singing Jacques Brel songs. He also smoked rollups and volunteered to do a lot of mowing. He was just one of a number of interesting people at Samye Ling. Another one, who worked in the cafe, had just been to the wildwood in Poland, looking for wolves. I don't think he found any, but it sounded like a fantastic adventure.

My own animal quest was for Yaks, who lived in the bottom field. In theory, this should have been an easy search, but in practice, they proved elusive. See if you can see them in the photograph:

...And just in case this doesn't slake your yak-thirst, here's a rather nice relief of one:

Yaks were not the only animal visitors to Samye Ling. There were also swallows, nesting in the temple eaves. The broods were just about ready for flight.

The human beings, including myself, were all more concerned about Buddhist things than crapping on brightly coloured plasterwork.

As I mentioned in the last post, one of the founders of Samye Ling, Akong Tulku Rinpoche, was killed in 2013. An exhibition had been set up in his honour, in the temple grounds. 

'Tulku' means a custodian of a specific lineage of teachings who has been reincarnated. The last Akong was the second in his lineage, believed a reincarnation of the Abbot of Dolma Lhakang monastery near Chamdo, who died in 1937.

The first Akong allegedly exhibited paranormal abilities like clairvoyance, and during one retreat, an unusual red light was observed throughout his retreat house by the other monks.

These are examples of siddhis, paranormal powers that are believed to be the products of spiritual advancement and exactly the sort of thing that educated Westerners like me should completely dismiss if we know what's good for us.

My curiosity stirred by the exhibition, I decided to attend one of the Guru Rinpoche Drupcho rituals that was being performed in the temple that week.

Guru Rinpoche Drupcho is a ritual dedicated to world peace and Akong Rinpoche's swift rebirth. It involves a giant chocolate cake, a votive offering to the spirits, possibly Za, he who “guards the religious teachings, and his with his thousand eyes watches the happenings in the three worlds."

I attended one of these rituals, which took one and a half hours. It took place in the temple, and involved prayers, chants,  and the intoning of mantras, accompanied by the beating of a gong, the blowing of horns and drumming. There were also quiet bits where there was a sort of humming throat chant that was very hypnotic.

I felt, for a time, as if I'd been transported to another time and place, and the general effect was eerie and disorientating. However, most of the performers were Europeans, and apparently they're still fairly bad at pronouncing Tibetan properly.

Rebirth and siddhis are two things that simply do not map onto twenty-first century secularism. I have no idea whether there's any truth in either phenomena. As far as reincarnation goes, I've long been intrigued, if not completely convinced by, Ian Stevenson's cases of children who recall previous lives.  But ultimately, I just do not know.

I do think, however, that topics like this are suitable for scientific investigation. I've read quite a few pieces, recently, that suggest that phenomena x is so outrageous that it should not, under any circumstances, even be acknowledged by scientific authorities. This is because if phenomena x is acknowledged, then it will get undeserved credibility, which will taint the reputation of science.

This seems (arguably) a good strategy if we know for certain that phenomena x is false. We do not want to promote false or wrong knowledge.

It is a lousy strategy if phenomena x, however unlikely, just happens to be true. And I'd suggest that our ignorance of the universe is such that it's close to impossible, in most cases, to determine with certainty whether phenomena x is worthy of investigation without actually investigating it.

This does not mean that we should approach unusual belief systems uncritically, or reject science, but it does imply a level of respect. In the case of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama has long favoured a dialogue approach with science and I support this, too. This is because both knowledge systems have something to learn  from one another.

The problem is that paranormal phenomena have become so taboo in elite Western culture, that it's virtually impossible to approach them sensibly at all without being considered a gullible moron.

Which probably explains my chess-playing....

Friday, 16 September 2016

Dark in the Day

Just a quick notice about Dark in the Day, a new anthology of Weird Fiction featuring multiple authors including Tanith Lee, Liz Williams, Liz Counihan, Michael Marshall Smith, and...yours truly. Storm was kind enough to reprint my first Interzone story from 2001, "City in the Dusk."

My copy only arrived yesterday, but from what I've read so far, this volume's a bit of a cracker. 

From the press release:

This collection celebrates evocative tales of oddness that span the genres of magic realism, the supernatural, the fantastical and the speculative. 

Dark in the Day is an anthology of weird fiction, penned by established writers and also those new to the genre the latter being authors who are, or were, students of Creative Writing at Staffordshire University, where editor Storm Constantine occasionally delivers guest lectures.

Immanion Press, the publisher, was founded in 2003 by Storm Constantine and publishes horror, science fiction and fantasy novels by new and established authors. Their website's worth checking out, as they publish genre fiction of a very high quality.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Return to Samye Ling, Part One

I first visited Samye Ling in 2011, when a friend of mine was conducting psi research on meditators. Samye Ling is a Tibetan Buddhist centre of the Kagyu lineage. It was founded in the 1960s by three Tibetan exiles, and in the early years hosted David Bowie and the Beatles.

Originally, it was a single farmhouse, but today, it’s grown into a complex of buildings, including a magnificent temple. There’s also a garden, with a stupa (a memorial to the dead), a gateway, statues of Buddhist deities and notable figures. There are also yaks, which hide in a large field opposite the car park.

By August, I had a pressing need to go into retreat. The first half of 2016 had not been terribly pleasant: I’d been ill, physically, and had experienced several bouts of the horrible, exhausted paralysis that for me often follows a long period of anxious stress.

I’d also been finding life in the UK to be increasingly unpleasant, partly because of the ugly wave of nationalism leading up to and following the EU vote. Many of our worst qualities have been on display this year, and irresponsible politicians have fanned the flames of hatred and fear. By June, the general atmosphere seemed poisonous, and the tragic shooting of an MP only underlined for me where such destructive emotions could lead.

I’d also been feeling emotionally poisoned, bitter, angry and constantly afraid. I was becoming more emotionally reactive, and losing sight of the more positive aspects of life. Worse, I was aware that my own, pained inner state was causing discord around me.

One of Samye Ling’s founders Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche, who was murdered in 2013, once said that the Buddhist principle was to be everybody's friend and not to have any enemy. The problem was that I’d got to the point where I was seeing enemies everywhere.  So gradually, I came to accept the need for healing, and the exorcism of inner demons.

Buddhist worldviews (there are many, developed from a core of common concepts) have had a profound effect on my life. The practise of meditation has helped with personal distress far more effectively than any medication or counselling ever has. So I knew from past experience that the best chance for healing lay in a benign atmosphere, in nature, and in disciplined, meditative practise.

Arriving at the centre was a relief. Samye Ling is situated about twenty miles from Lockerbie, in the Scottish hills. I had a very nice talk with the taxi driver who drove me up there. She had swapped a high-pressure job for her current, part time profession, and was much happier for the change. This seemed a good omen.

I began to meet decent people almost the moment I arrived. Samye Ling attracts all sorts of folk who are travelling, for lots of reasons. Some are curious. Others have reached a crossroads in their life. Still others are, or have been, seriously ill (I spoke to several cancer sufferers there). Others seek refuge.

There was a meditation weekend in the temple, during the time that I was booked to stay at the centre. This was a crucial part of healing, and I felt a strong need to practise in a supportive environment.

The meditation was hosted by a monk, and the first challenge was sitting on a cushion comfortably. This did not always work: by the end of the first session, my back was aching quite a lot. Eventually, I opted for a wooden sitting thing, which felt a little more stable.

The first thing that happened was that those inner demons came out to play. This occurred over the course of the first day. At the end of the session, a little dazed, I went to the garden, and wandered through the stupa, reading the memorials of pets and people who are now lost to us.

I realised that I had been foolish, letting anger and fear rage about inside my head, unchecked. I also realised, reading the memorials of those who had died at my age or younger, how precious life really is. I felt the kindness and compassion of the people who had set up these memorials. And I remembered how much more important compassion was than anger and defensiveness.

I felt a great release of overpowering emotion, which was tough to experience, but necessary. The healing had begun.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Taming Destructive Emotions

Just lately, humanity’s dark side seems in the ascendant. The murder of a Labour MP, a killing spree in a gay nightclub in Orlando, the rise of racism in the UK, and more suicide bombing has poisoned an already damp and unsettled summer.

Each of these has political components, yes, but each is also a reflection of allowing destructive emotions to go unchecked. If humanity really wants a better future, these emotions will have to be tamed.

Destructive emotions are “those emotions that are harmful to those and others.” (From Daniel Goleman’s Destructive Emotions, p. 53). They include things like uncontrolled depression, anxiety, anger, envy, jealously, rage. I’d also include personality traits like narcissism and psychopathy. There are a number of possible ways of tackling them:

1. Better childcare. Quite a lot of research shows that people who have experienced severe trauma in their childhoods are prone not only to aggression but a whole host of problems like depression, anxiety, obesity, alcoholism and addictive behaviour. Poor nutrition also contributes to increased aggression and destructive moods and so, I suspect, does a sedentary, screen-based lifestyle. Avoiding a ‘toxic childhood’ could mean avoiding destructive emotions in later life.

2. External Interventions. Human behaviour has been modified through external interventions for a long time now. These include drugs, surgery and more recently things like implants, cortical stimulation therapy and lasers. More radical voices call for the gene editing, arguing that we might be able to modify human beings to be less prone to destructive impulses.

I have reservations with this approach. Firstly, many past interventions have proven to be undesirable, including things like forced lobotomies, electroshock therapy for ‘curing’ homosexuality and mind control experiments. And the sorry history of eugenics should make us pause before messing about with human embryos.

Secondly, it’s possible that our virtues are so tied up with our vices that you can’t remove one without removing the other. For example, wouldn’t a human that’s been ‘edited’ to be less aggressive also be more docile and easily led?

Despite this, the breakneck advance of neuroscience and biotechnology will mean the development of a suite of techniques for manipulating human emotions and perhaps, human nature.

3. Inner transformation. Various esoteric traditions since at least the time of Pythagoras have claimed that it is possible to transform the human personality for the better via spiritual disciplines like meditation and yoga, or via ‘inner technologies’ like psychedelic drugs. This is relevant because the techniques are claimed to reduce things like anger, fear and hate and increase compassion.

My personal experience with meditation persuades me that the idea of ‘inner transformation’ needs to be taken seriously, but I also think that we need far more evidence to determine its truth.

4. Creating a nurturing society. Currently, our culture is almost manically focussed on the pursuit of economic growth and the pursuit of material and technological progress at the expense of anything else. These values need to be questioned, because the lifestyles many of us lead are making us sick, and our frantic work is destroying the environment on which we depend.

Even worse is the cultural norm of dog-eat-dog, economic competitiveness. This is worrying because people tend to conform to the expectations a culture places on them. Oliver James has cited evidence that more people than previously exhibit what he calls the ‘dark triad’ of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and even psychopathy.

He suggests that these destructive attributes are thriving in our competition and performance obsessed institutions. When you add to this ballooning numbers of people suffering from depression and social anxiety, it’s clear that our current culture seems a long way from promoting wellbeing.

I’d like to end on an optimistic note. In the Better Angels of our Nature, Steven Pinker provides evidence that violence has been declining through our recent history. This suggests to me that, while we might never completely free ourselves of destructive emotions, that it is at least possible to reduce them. Alot depends upon a cultural willingness to actually tackle them.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

What Next?

Well, one question has been answered, narrowly, on Thursday night. I find myself full of questions.
  • If the Brexit 'out' vote was a protest against poor government and injustice, why hasn't there been more support for things like electoral reform, and concerted demands to address things like social inequality?
  • Now we have 'freedom,' what does that actually mean? Freedom for whom? What form does this freedom take? I certainly don't feel any freer today than I did on Wednesday.
  • If those who voted out hate elites and wished to topple an elitist government, why do so many seem happy to let another, probably worse, elite take over?
  • If the referendum was an example of democracy, why aren't we more worried about the undue influence of propaganda upon it? Isn't propaganda and demagogery anti-democratic?
  • What will happen if another few years roll by, there has been an erosion of workers rights, fracking has been going on a full pelt, social inequality is worse, our economy is still crap, top bosses are still walking away with huge bonuses when the rest of us are powerless and poverty stricken, and immigration has not been noticeably effected?
  • Are we really going to let xenophobic nationalism take over? Why do we find it easier to blame scapegoats for our problems as opposed to solving them?
  • Now that we have 'sovereignty' (whatever that means), what are we going to do with it?
  • Where do we go from here?

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Brexit: Why I am voting remain, Part Two

I was intending to write a second post that looked at the arguments that the Brexiteers have been making (there have been some reasoned ones, on the left and right, but also read counter arguments here and here).

 After reading a piece by Polly Toynbee in the Guardian I realise that the situation has gone beyond that. In fact, I think that Britain will probably vote out next week. And I think that this is folly.

Leaving the EU will not solve the problems that so many people seem furious about. In fact, there seem to me good reasons to think that it will make things worse.

My own political agenda is roughly as follows:  I want the sustained increase of true, representative, participatory democracy in culture, an economics that is post-growth, more scientifically sound and democratically accessible, the reduction of social inequality, and the creation of a culture that fosters creativity, imagination and wellbeing. I support extensive rewilding and ecological restoration for the benefit of human beings and other forms of life. Finally, I support a rapid transit from an unsustainable fossil fuel based civilization to a sustainable one based upon renewables and extensive automation.

Despite the EU's shortcomings, I agree with George Monbiot that membership is the lesser of two evils, and offers more opportunity to pursue these goals.  Caroline Lucas and John Ashton (The Guardian, Monday 13th June 2016) also seem correct when they claim that climate change can be most successfully tackled from within the EU. Our current collective attitude to global warming is roughly as follows:

I understand that many do not see climate change as a priority, but unfortunately, they are mistaken. Lucas and Ashton point out that "our security and prosperity depend on a successful response to climate change, the most urgent challenge of our time." The issue is the survival of our culture, our society and our technological civilization.

As far as national sovereignty is concerned, they point out that "our democracy is indeed broken. But it is we who have broken it, not the EU."

So the issue is how to push for significant democratic and social reform, and offer a robust program to tackle the CO2 crisis. As Naomi Klein points out in This Changes Everything, both issues are linked. A wholehearted response to climate change offers the best chance for social justice.

Political context matters a great deal here. If we were having the Brexit vote when a truly progressive government was in power, as a package that went along with electoral reform in the direction of proportional representation, strong environmental protection, a commitment to greater social equality and the rapid transition from a fossil-fuel economy to a renewable one, then I’d be far more likely to take the Brexit case seriously.

But since the vote is being offered by a government that is dedicated to eroding worker’s rights, abolishing environmental protections, increasing social inequality in favour of the one percent, persecuting the poor, and actually accelerating the CO2 crisis via destructive practices like fracking, I think that there are good reasons to suppose that these trends would worsen after Brexit. And in fact, a very reactionary Tory government seems inevitable in the case of a strong exit vote.

Unfortunately for all of us, there is no time for this. The serious problems of the 21st century say to me that we live together or die alone. Because there does not seem to me too much time left for humanity to get its act together, and build a truly sustainable and mature civilization.

Yesterday, the clouds gathered and there was torrential rain. Our village was flooded, just another example of the rash of extreme weather events that now seem commonplace. It felt like a warning.

We need to stop being ruled fear and anger, vote sensibly, and come together to create a better tomorrow.