New Year Resolution: don’t just do something – sit there!

The New Year is a time for reflection – on where we’ve been, where we’re at and where we might be going. It’s a time for new beginnings and resolve to do better. There’s nothing wrong with this and we’ve been indulging in it as much as anyone. But it’s wise to reflect too on resolutions past – and why none of them ever came to anything.

We have been through many rebirths, many previous lives – does not yesterday strike us as a previous life, and this very morning, this very New Year, as a rebirth, even before we realise that, just an eye blink ago in evolutionary time, we were but fish? Or star dust? We have been, I say, through many previous lives, many rebirths, and what it is we want changes with the seasons and the ages. But is there some common essence in all the apparent variety of things and states of affairs we lust after? Some common thread that links all our previous lives, makes sense of our earnest seeking? A good contender I would suggest is “freedom”.

As human beings, we want to be free. Or we claim we want to be. But could our very desire for freedom itself be a kind of tyranny? Do we in fact want to be free, or do we actually rather like it in our cosy little cocoon of a cell, muttering to ourselves and running once again through all the treasures we’ve stored up in our minds, like a miser over his gold? Is freedom even possible? What does it look like if so?

When I was a child, I remember wanting, longing, praying to be free to go out and play. Parental authority was a terrible thing. But looking back I can reflect now and see that without parental authority I wouldn’t have survived or grown up to be the person I am. My desire for freedom caused me much suffering, and yet it was at the same time a delusion – just a thought, not possible of realisation. Even in the moments of freedom and play, I soon found myself at the same time a terrible slave of passions and feelings – to anger and jealousy, to shyness and insecurity. I wanted freedom, then resented it when I had it for not quite living up to my great expectations.

As an older child, I realised I could medicate the shyness and insecurity away with alcohol and drugs, making playtime more fun, perhaps, than it had ever been before. But then I became a slave to them – and to the need for constant entertainment. All the things I had previously found meaning in – sporting prowess, learning and academic achievement – fell away in the pursuit of fun in my newfound freedom from parental authority. And thanks to the conditions I found myself in, due in large measure to luck – not least the luck of being born in a rich country – fun was to be found in abundance. I revelled in it – and attached to it aggressively. When, through the process of growing up, society tried to take the toys away, I was like a hungry dog growling over a bone. And yet, just like a pet dog, my living was dependent on the labour of others, my good humour to how often I was petted. Take our bones away and all the aggressiveness of our natures snarls out unbidden. And in any case, humans can not thrive as pets. They must be independent.

So, forced by economic necessity and social pressure to take a job, I then became another kind of slave – to work, yes, although work is intrinsic to life, but particularly to the feeling that this particular form of work was just not for me, that its imposition in ways not in full accord with my will was a tyranny. So began the hankering for freedom once again – this time, freedom from the toad work that squatted on my life. This led in time to my becoming active in various socialist circles – believing that socialism was the only way to true human freedom, to freedom from work. But the pursuit of social freedom just turned me into a slave to ideology and the pursuit of knowledge and intellectual accumulation – later to largely ineffectual activism and evangelising. And the wheel turns, turns, turns.

In short, the pursuit of freedom is itself a form of bondage. We put something in front of ourselves and then run after it. We’re restless if we can’t have what we want, dissatisfied and soon bored if we get it. We live in a state of anxiety and stress, and given how restless we are when not under stress, begin to wonder whether we don’t prefer it that way. Our resolutions to change never come to anything much because we don’t ever change anything fundamental – we just change what we want to run after, we take different shopping trips to acquire what it is we think we want or need. We are furious and angry about all the things in the world that aren’t to our liking, and yet will do precisely nothing to change what it is within our power to change – namely, our minds, our attitudes, our strength of character, our mental reaction to whatever it is that’s going on.

The secret to real freedom was given by my favourite philosopher, Jiddhu Krishnamurti. Do you want to know what my secret is? he once asked, in one of his talks. His acolytes perked up, sat forwards in their seats, eager to learn at last what the real secret behind his enigmatic-sounding teachings really was. “You see,” he said, “I don’t mind what happens.”

This is the kind of freedom that really is possible and you can have it right now (it’s available at no other time). Certain things are conditioned – our feelings, the arising of thoughts and emotions, sensations both pleasant and unpleasant, whatever it is that happens in the world. But remarkably, if we are awake and aware, the reaction of our minds, and hence our actions, are not – freedom, in other words, is not an external state of affairs to be achieved in the future, but is a matter of choiceless awareness of all that is, and of love, of compassionate action. Could we make that attitude of mind our non-goal for the New Year? To not react like a dog to whatever takes place, but instead to accept it totally, find a way to make friends with it, to take care of the situation, and of ourselves, of others? Is such a life of peace actually possible? Don’t take anyone’s word for it – it’s entirely a practical question, a matter of practice not theory. We shall certainly be non-striving to make it so.

Whatever it is you are hankering after this new year, dear reader, we wish you every success and happiness on your journey. But you might be happier still if you can remember that there is no way to peace. Peace is the way.

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What is “spirituality”?

What is “spirituality”? It’s the only thing that works, that’s what it is! But to convince you of the truth of such a startling claim will take a bit of work. So as Miranda’s friend would say, “bear with”.

Our “About” page declares that this is, amongst other things, a blog dedicated to spiritual matters. I imagine this would instantly put a great number of people off investigating any further, and with good reason. It whiffs of religion and nonsense. And who could blame those who strongly reject both? Religion is an ideology of inclusiveness that divides, a doctrine of love whose followers seem mostly committed to hate, a declaration of peace made to justify wars, the superstitious worship of a deity who seems to exist solely to justify current social iniquities and power structures. As for nonsense, our age is so awash with it that anyone who contributes a teaspoon of poison into an ocean already choked with plastic bags should be forgiven, but surely does not deserve the ear of grown-up people seeking a better world. And that’s true even if the nonsense is a “spiritual” sobbing over those very plastic bags. Naivety and what is generally known as “hippy bullshit” can surely be of no use to us. Or can it?

If this is what “spirituality” evokes, then perhaps we’d be better off finding a new term to express our meaning from the off. But in our experience, the search for neologisms is generally a futile one and we in any case address ourselves to grown-ups, and grown-ups should not get hung up over mere words. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Let’s have a closer look at the rose.

Pilate’s question

Spirituality is fundamentally about truth. That is why it has the whiff of religion and nonsense: religion, because the old word for the ultimate truth was God; nonsense, because our modern age is sceptical and cynical about everything, even about truth, or even the possibility of it. “What is truth?” Pilate asked Jesus, and answer came there none. Our own age, rather than keep a wise silence on the question, as Jesus did, rather giggles or gawps.

However, ours is an age of contradiction as well as nonsense, and so at the very same time as we scoff or yawn at the notion of truth we find ourselves with a highly developed body of thought and well-regarded mode of practise, called science, which pursues truth nonetheless, and with historically unprecedented and impressive efficacy. Magic has nothing on science. If spirituality starts with truth, then in the modern age, that surely means with science.

But what is science? Our contention is that it is first and foremost an attitude of mind. Mastery of science cannot solely be a matter of acquiring knowledge and intellectual understanding, not least because what is to be known and the present state of knowledge are constantly changing – and at an ever greater pace. It’s impossible for any one individual to keep up. This is one reason why religious critics of scientific truth – used to the certainty of religious dogmas– don’t even know where to begin. You ask me to believe in science, they say, exasperated, and yet what science says keep changing, keeps contradicting itself!

This is where we begin – science, and spirituality, is not a matter of belief in any doctrine or dogma or method or theory or claim about the nature of reality. It is an attitude of mind: if we are unattached to beliefs, not already certain about what we think we know, if we are aware and observant, if we are humble and sceptical and critical and open-minded, if we are calm and not angry, not irritably reaching after facts to support our ideology in the face of mysteries, if we are willing to learn something new, then we can do science. Then we may get a glimpse of truth.

Buddha-mind

That is the scientific attitude. It was also the attitude of the Buddha. We bring the Buddha in simply because he was – to our mind, at least, at the present state of its knowledge –simply the most pragmatic and straightforward and least religious and most effective of the advocates of the spiritual path. Other teachers are available in the spiritual supermarket. But let’s stick with the Buddha for the purposes of our argument here.

Who was the Buddha and what did he say? First it’s necessary to insist that he was an ordinary human being, just like you and me. He was not God, nor did he claim to be inspired by or be the messenger of God. He was just a man. But he was also an eccentric. He was eccentric because he claimed, not just to have seen truth, but to have “realised” it –that is, to have made it real, absorbed it into his bones in order to live in accord with it, to have reached “enlightenment”.

What can he have meant? Buddha’s words can be puzzling in a modern context. His own context was that of Indian society, some 2,500 years ago. So we shouldn’t be surprised that we have to work in order to understand him. Buddha’s context was, however, in other ways, much like ours – a time of confusion, of war, of trade and the pursuit of riches and power, of seeking. Buddha was eccentric, but he was hardly the only one. When he left his palace and spurned his destiny as a prince to instead seek the truth as a renunciate, he easily found company – it must have been something like the Sixties. Many religious seekers were doing the same, and Buddha sought their guidance – he emulated, diligently and to extremes, their methods, adopted their views. But after many years of failure, he realised he was in some sense alone after all – that religion didn’t work, that he had sought but not found. So he took refuge in himself, adopting the scientific attitude of mind, and began again.

What he learnt and what he found by pursuing science rather than religion has come down to us in the form of the lectures he gave to his contemporaries. He, naturally, had to make use of the ideas and concepts and words to hand to convey his message, just as we do today, as is inevitable. Karma and rebirth and other notions were not invented by the Buddha – they were just the currency of the age, the concepts the world traded in when talking about the nature of reality. Today, we trade in different concepts. But the Buddha’s rose still smells as sweet. Rather than engage in a detailed exposition of Buddhist terms, something we are ill-qualified for, let us instead try to capture the heart of the Buddha’s teaching about the nature of reality, as we understand it, in modern, scientific terms.

Some truths to begin with

First, at the level of the cosmos, there is almost certainly no God, no creator, no judge or ruler, no one to rely on or turn to for help, other than ourselves. We live in a vast and breathtaking universe, one that seems to have some kind of harmony and logic to it, and yet a cosmos that was, to the best of our knowledge, simply born when conditions and causes were right, will change when causes and conditions change, and will come to pass as all things do – it will come to its end.

Second, that we human beings are not different from or separate from that universe. Its nature is our nature. We are star-stuff – literally. So there is no God in us either, no ruling, unchanging self, no soul, no judge or ruler, nothing that will last forever. When conditions and causes were right, human beings, complex arrangements of star-stuff, evolved on this planet – mud sat up and looked about. We as individuals, when causes and conditions were right, were born – we came out of this planet. And, when causes and conditions change, we will change – and we will pass. We will become manure for the roses, we will return to the stars.

Third, that there is suffering on this planet, and that suffering too is of the same nature as the universe and ourselves. When certain conditions and causes are present, suffering arises. And when those causes and conditions change, suffering can be transformed – suffering too can pass away. By adopting the scientific attitude of mind, we can look deeply into the causes of our own suffering, and that of our fellow creatures, and can take wise action to take care of it.

One of the biggest causes of suffering – and this will come as a surprise to us if we aren’t already following the spiritual path – is our own thinking. This is good news because we are in control of our own thinking. (Are we? Investigate and see.) If our thinking is in contradiction with the nature of reality, denies what is, then suffering is a sure result. So, the inability to see or to accept the first two truths is one of the big causes of the third truth. We want the nature of the universe and of ourselves to be something other than what it is. Mud loves what it sees and wants to hang around! We are deluded, and we live in fear and anxiety that we will lose what we have. But we will lose what we have – that is a certainty. Rather, we don’t even have it – it’s an illusion. It is just the nature of things. We fret about the inevitable.

Of course, Buddhism has, at least in the West, long had a (completely false) reputation for being gloomy. But what is gloomy about happy and peaceful coexistence with things as they are? What is there to hope for in a life that denies reality and tries to escape it in various ways – through false beliefs, through sensuality, through consumption, through running away, through building a Tower of Babel? Our wrong perceptions about the nature of reality, and our futile attempt to live in accord with the reality we want rather than the reality we have, make us suffer. Of course it must. But this is, really, insanity – especially in an age of science. The world is as it is – and it’s beautiful. We should appreciate it while we are here. We are it.

The path

Finally, then, we must consider, adopting once again that scientific attitude of mind, what it means to live in accordance with truth. How does one do that? Accepting truths about the nature of reality as an intellectual proposition is worthless if we then continue to go about our lives as if things were otherwise. It’s no good accepting the truth of impermanence if we live as if there were permanence. But how do we proceed? What do we do? That will have to be the subject of a future post. is the subject of very many fantastic books – a list of some of my favourites appears below. These are very useful, perhaps indispensible, signposts. But as in all science, it’s ultimately down to you. The more sensitive you are, the more aware you are to what’s going on within and around you, the more likely you are to have success in your experiments with truth.–Stuart

Further reading:

What the Buddha Taught

Awakening of the Heart

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior

Dharmapadda

Start Where You Are

The Power of Now

Freedom From The Known

 

 

The art of suffering

A few careful and thoughtful readers have pointed out that my previous posts on happiness and consciousness were undialectical. There is no prospect of achieving pure happiness in this world since living involves us in a contradictory process that includes both happiness and suffering, peace and anger, hope and fear.

They are, of course, quite right. As Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, there in no realm on this earth where you can have happiness without suffering. Even to mention the one is to bring the other into being. But this need be no counsel of misery or despair. It’s just how things are. The art of happiness is not the achievement of a state or of a world where there is no suffering, but to learn how to take good care of suffering – our own, and that of other people. To do this well and wisely is to bring happiness into this world. Happiness, like everything else, is impermanent. So we nurture it and help it come into being and to grow, and we are aware and take good care of all the suffering within us and around us –this should be work and pleasure enough for a lifetime–Stuart

What is “socialist consciousness”?

While Dave was giving his talk to the comrades, I was preparing the following piece for a pamphlet prepared for the party’s summer school – on the theme of “new perspectives on socialism”. I don’t know whether my perspective is really new, but I don’t think I’ve heard the view expressed in quite this way anywhere else.

My unstated assumption in the piece is that socialism is a secular religion, and that for every feature you can find in religious organisation, practice and belief, you can find a more or less exact counterpart in the socialist traditions. I mean this as both criticism and praise, for every aspect of religion itself has a dual character. There is the religion of dogmatism, blind faith, empty ritual, oppression, reaction, propagandism and plain stupidity. There is also the religion that is, as Marx put it, “the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification”.

As with religion, so with socialism (in all the meanings of that term). My idea for the following piece came when I began to wonder what the socialist counterpart was of the concept in the spiritual life variously known as Buddhanature, Big Mind, Zen mind, pu, Krishna consciousness, or Christ consciousness (and I’m sure many others – all rooted in meditation). I’m not entirely sure it has one. But it should do – and there’s an already-existing but somewhat empty concept waiting to do the job…

What is socialist consciousness?

“… socialist consciousness requires workers to experience ‘a process of
complete mental reconstruction. Years of thoroughly impregnated prejudices and attitudes towards social behaviour must be overcome . . . the whole ideology of capitalism will be rejected lock, stock and barrel.’ Images of The New Socialist Man come to mind – but socialists do need to think very carefully about this question of what it means to have achieved the necessary consciousness for social liberation.”–Steve Coleman, ‘Impossibilism’

The Socialist Party of Great Britain stands alone among socialists and Marxists in its peculiar insistence on the importance of “socialist consciousness”. Socialism, in this view, is impossible unless and until a majority of the world’s workers undergo a “process of mental reconstruction”. To put it another way, that the inner transformation of individuals is more important than, and logically prior to, any meaningful transformation in the structures and institutions of the outer world. This may be a peculiar point of view, but it is surely the right one. An unaddressed question, however, is precisely what is meant by socialist consciousness and how it is to be achieved.

Steve Coleman, quoting an author in the Socialist Standard, puts his finger on it (see epigraph above). Socialist consciousness is a “process of complete mental reconstruction”, one where years (indeed millennia) of “thoroughly impregnated prejudices and attitudes towards social behaviour” are decisively overcome. Socialists must, as Coleman rightly says, “think very carefully” about what all this might mean. In his own essay, Coleman makes the observation and lets the thinking stop there. He doesn’t tell us what socialist consciousness is or how it is to be achieved beyond stating that it is a matter of “understanding” and “desire”, before going on to imply that the task is mostly one of propaganda and education and political organisation. This is perhaps necessary but surely inadequate, as we shall explore below.

Socialism really is impossible
One way of thinking about this is to imagine, for the sake of argument, that “socialist consciousness”, whatever it may be, really is not possible under capitalism, as the Leninists insist. The logical conclusion, if this were so, is that socialism would be impossible too. Grasping this point will help us understand and sympathise with every right-wing and common-sensical objection to socialism we’ve ever heard. To give just the most obvious examples, human nature, as it manifests in capitalist societies, clearly does make socialism an unlikely proposition. Greed and violence really does make stateless abundance and free access improbable ways of organising economies. Revolutions really must end in the establishment of new tyrannies. A party taking power in the name of the workers really would end up having to impose a dictatorship. The SPGB links arms with socialism’s opponents on every point. Having linked arms with our new anti-socialist friends, perhaps we might sit down to consider together what “socialist consciousness” might be, ie, what kind of inner transformation might turn socialism from a “nice idea” into a real practical possibility.

It’s not what you think it is
To the knowledge of this writer, very little has been written, either within or without the party, on what socialist consciousness might mean. A more common conception among Marxists generally is the related idea of “class consciousness”. But by this seems to be meant little more than knowledge or awareness that one is part of a social class. We must all surely know of people who have such awareness, but are nevertheless not socialists. Indeed, there’s no obvious reason why such a class-conscious person might not also be a Tory, depending on their political views and upbringing, precise position in class hierarchies, and so on. Class consciousness is clearly not necessarily much help to us.

Is it, then, a matter of “understanding” or “desire”, as Coleman puts it? The way to see that it is not is to conduct a scientific experiment of our own. Think of a person you know who lays claim to a good understanding of socialist issues – perhaps they’ve read every word of Marx and Engels and Morris and so on – and who has a burning desire for socialism. Now closely watch that person as they conduct themselves in social life. Do they, to use Coleman’s words again, demonstrate by their actions that they have overcome, lock, stock and barrel, impregnated prejudices and attitudes towards social behaviour? Have they achieved a “complete mental reconstruction”? Have they achieved “the necessary consciousness for social liberation”?

Whether the person you are observing is yourself or your worst enemy doesn’t in the end matter, and in neither case is moral judgement or censure implied. If your subject is the worst arsehole and hypocrite imaginable, he or she is only sharing in the general social madness, and is no doubt nevertheless very nice indeed to their dog. But while we refrain from judging, let us nevertheless continue to observe closely and carefully. Let us see what is there, and think about the implications.

You might see that socialist “understanding” and “desire” has, if anything, made us worse. Our superior understanding alienates us from our fellow workers, and we get frustrated and angry that they can’t see as we do. Our desire for socialism burns to anger at the social injustices we must live with every day, and we turn into monsters of negativity and aggression. Frustration, anger, pride in superior knowledge, alienation from our fellow man, negativity, aggression – are these the characteristics of the “necessary consciousness for social liberation”? Surely not.

If socialist consciousness isn’t then what we think it is or what we desire, what is it? What I would like to suggest is that socialist consciousness is what arises spontaneously and without volition from a total awareness of our situation.

That starts with us as individuals – the exercise I suggested above needs to be continued. Proceed carefully and slowly, for such scientific observation demands great skill and subtlety and patience. Watch and appreciate every aspect of your own consciousness and experience – the thinking and the emotions, and how they feed each other; your desire to be proved right; to do the right thing… and get applause for it; the aggression and irritability; the constant search for gratification and entertainment; your childishness when you don’t get your own way in even the slightest degree; your shyness and desire to assert yourself; your pride in achievement; your desire to go out and change the world, and to curl up in a darkened room and forget the whole thing.

That’s the internal aspect. We hardly need to go into the external aspects when all we have to do is switch on the news. But make this too part of your scientific experiment, your awareness of the world we live in – the world we help to create and sustain everyday by our thoughts and our actions. The wars. The violence. The greed. The stupidity. The ecological destruction. The ugliness. The pettiness. The class struggle.

The SPGB is quite right to insist, against other Marxists, than socialist consciousness does not arise spontaneously out of the class struggle, but rather out of our consciousness of and reflection on the total situation we find ourselves in. This then is our answer to the question in the title. Out of the total awareness of our total situation arises a consciousness adequate to that situation – a direct and immediate consequence of that awareness is that we grow up and become and act as responsible adults in this crazy and immature world.

Those who were hoping for an intellectually satisfying answer to the question might be very disappointed by this anti-climax. But the truth is that the whole question of consciousness is a very tricky one scientifically and philosophically. As a practical matter, however, we can just accept the unsatisfactoriness of it. We may not quite be able to grasp consciousness – let alone socialist consciousness – scientifically or intellectually, but consciousness is the one thing we have good access to and a measure of control over from the inside. So let’s start with what we have – the common inheritance of all humanity – and begin our study of ourselves, from the inside, to see whether the answer to the possibility of socialism doesn’t lie within.

Although we don’t really know what socialist consciousness is, nevertheless “by their fruits ye shall know them”. We know it when we see it. We know it by its signs – friendliness, kindliness, patience, compassion, service, work freely given without expectation of reward, moderation, open mindedness, good heartedness, forgiveness, altruism, sharing, generosity. When socialist consciousness comes into this world, then so too inevitably does socialism.–Stuart