The best way to be political is to be non-political

Regular readers will hopefully realise by now that they are witnessing two people experiencing a common journey. We met as socialists in the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB), before leaving and shifting even further to the (ultra) left in our search for revolutionary purity. After this stage, and having found the limitations of this approach, we eventually moved into the world of the pragmatic: this time, our quest was how to combine our desire to change the world with practical political activity in the here and now. But here we discovered a new set of limitations, and currently find ourselves in ‘negative capability’; looking for a God we don’t actually believe exists, but determined to find him nonetheless.

Each stage has been part of our learning and we embrace all those who have fed and watered us along the path. This learning has shaped us, and all involved (for good and bad) have been integral to our education. We have never thrown out the baby with the bathwater (although it may have looked like that on occasion.) On the contrary, we always bottled the bath’s dirty water, open minded about what of value might remain, and often attempted CPR on our damaged infant if we considered it to be drowning in its own infantile contradictions.

In essence, we are attempting to find the source of everything: a starting point. Unless we strip everything down and shed our various skins and narratives, how are we to make progress? Well, the good news is that we have found something positive, a guiding principle which allows us to clarify our thoughts and insights. Four words best describe this: compassion, empathy, understanding and love (CEUL).

Practising CEUL is not easy. We still swear, rant, rave and throw our hands about (particularly when watching what passes for ‘politics’ in the media), but we don’t leave it there. We realise that the people we are vexing are vulnerable human beings (yes, even the capricious Iain Duncan Smith.) However, it is vital to create a space between us and the so called ‘political’ world, in order for us to understand it without losing our minds in undiluted rage. There is a practical dimension to this. We no longer have the capacity to carry this rage around on a daily basis as it was destroying our lives and relationships; corroding our very souls. But the ‘rage’ remains our friend because we continue to learn from it, and it has been the best facilitator in our attempts to find peace.

We decided to start by looking inwards, clearing out our own closets. Naturally, it is impossible to be completely clean: the more you scrub, the more dirt you actually find. However, this ‘dirt’ need not be your enemy as it unites everyone together. We are all dirty and clean in equal measure, what is important is the ‘cleansing’ process itself, and the realisation that it is an impossible task: the more you scrub, the more shit you find, and the more shit you find, the ‘cleaner’ you become.

To argue that we are all essentially equal (from the lowest ‘criminal’ to the most exalted ‘saint’) is both controversial and counter intuitive. It is certainly the main insight from Christianity, but one rarely finds a Christian who actually believes it. This may derive from a category error. The idea that some people are inherently ‘bad’ and others ‘good’ is predicated on a particular view of what it means to be an ‘individual’, which necessarily loses the most salient, yet paradoxical, feature of authentic individualism: we are all interconnected. If intellectual historian Larry Siedentop is correct, the ‘invention of the individual’ was Christianity’s greatest bequeathment. Could it be that our interconnectedness got lost in this, only to make the occasional abstract appearance; relegated to the status of a rhetorical device?

Writers such as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy certainly appeared to be conscious of such a gap, and wrestled over its implications in both their novelistic and critical works. The one thing they appeared to agree upon was how we are all responsible for each other, and that compassion and understanding is key to the human condition. In Dostoevsky’s magnum opus The Brothers Karamazov, all the brothers share in the guilt for the murder of their father, although only one of them actually killed him. Arguably, the complex matrix of individual and collective responsibility achieves its highest artistic expression in this work.
People build a narrative, an identity, and present it to the world as their true selves. We believe that much of this is a post hoc rationalisation of what they want to be, certainly how they want to be perceived. We have all met the socialist who proclaims his ‘love’ for humanity through gritted teeth, whilst displaying the manners of a gutter snipe. He loves the people of the world in abstraction because rudeness and a general coldness are his actual character traits. He seems oblivious to this, and the chances are that such inauthentic behaviour is not consciously realised, and in his mind, at least, he truly does want a better world. Conversely, we have all met the self-proclaimed conservative who actually cares about the people around him and can be relied upon to help out when required. It’s true he may not be so keen on lots of refugees coming into his country because it violates his understanding of elementary resource allocation. “There’s not enough room for them”, he will opine, but unlike our open borders socialist friend, may genuinely help out when faced with an actual living refugee because it is in his nature to assist people.

There is a mediation between the person in the flesh and the ideas being espoused, which leads us to the view that every conceivable position may have something to offer the world. The trick is to attempt to understand the motivation behind the ideas and the internal psychology. Is it not possible that a racist may be motivated by love for a perception of a lost community? How long does it take to go from that position to a hatred of ‘strangers’? If the premise of love is correct then our racist brother is not a lost cause. And even if he is truly motivated by hate, he has lost himself completely and the only response that is both moral and effective is CEUL.

So the first thing to do is to check how one acts in the world on a day to day basis. Subscription to a set of tenets is not an adequate substitute. And it is precisely because people make this substitution, disaster can often hove into view. For example, many young Muslims have reacted angrily about the highly immoral actions taken by western governments in the Middle East. With no compelling domestic narrative as a counter balance, many have left behind family and friends to fight on the side of ISIS. They have made the decision that ISIS are defending a moral truth which may result in them performing hideous crimes because after taking such a drastic decision, a post-hoc rationalisation is never far away. If one believes one has been violated, one often loses one’s head, before others starts losing theirs.

We have all heard of disaffected British lads joining the army because it gives them an opportunity to act out a revenge upon people they have grown up despising. Why they despise is complex in itself, but it may come down to a perception that strangers have moved into their communities and taken vital resources which they believed belonged to them. Some of these lads may have done and seen terrible things in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, but by which objective criteria are we to adjudicate the actions of these lads to those who joined the other side?

The simple fact of the matter is that the material results of these ‘just so’ stories are not just independent decisions made by people in perfect circumstances with perfect knowledge acting with freewill. All such decisions are mediated by the social matrix which we have all contributed to in one form of another. This doesn’t do away with individual responsibility or freewill, but it does provide a basis for understanding how judgements and moral choices are selected, their contingencies, and how the difference between one murder and a thousand can be a hair’s breadth. In Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a disaffected student, Raskolnikov, kills an old money lender for a complexity of reasons which cannot be discussed here. Suffice to say that the empathetic Examining Magistrate, Profiry (understanding that Raskolnikov is young, highly intelligent, but ensnared in a high brow theory), quips that it was a good job that his theory only lead him to kill an old woman. “Who knows what might have happened if had picked a different theory?”
Indeed, this is a salutary reminder for any of us who proclaim this idea or that, may actually end up doing something terrible in the name of this idea. Particularly if God or revolution is involved.

So this is what it means to be political without being political: examining the gap between one’s professed ideology, how one really feels, whilst extending this courtesy to others, acknowledging that we are all vulnerable, frightened, angry, strong, weak, hard and soft. Shedding skins, throwing off shibboleths, and practicing CEUL.

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Abounding dignity

“With memories like these in him, and, moreover, given to a certain superstitiousness, as has been said; the courage of this Starbuck, which could, nevertheless, still flourish, must indeed have been extreme. But it was not in reasonable nature that a man so organized, and with such terrible experiences and remembrances as he had; it was not in nature that these things should fail in latently engendering an element in him, which, under suitable circumstances, would break out from its confinement, and burn all his courage up. And brave as he might be, it was that sort of bravery chiefly, visible in some intrepid men, which, while generally abiding firm in the conflict with seas, or winds, or whales, or any of the ordinary irrational horrors of the world, yet cannot withstand those more terrific, because more spiritual terrors, which sometimes menace you from the concentrating brow of an enraged and mighty man.

“But were the coming narrative to reveal in any instance, the complete abasement of poor Starbuck’s fortitude, scarce might I have the heart to write it; but it is a thing most sorrowful, nay shocking, to expose the fall of valor in the soul. Men may seem detestable as joint stock-companies and nations; knaves, fools, and murderers there may be; men may have mean and meagre faces; but, man, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes. That immaculate manliness we feel within ourselves, so far within us, that it remains intact though all the outer character seem gone; bleeds with keenest anguish at the undraped spectacle of a valor-ruined man. Nor can piety itself, at such a shameful sight, completely stifle her upbraidings against the permitting stars. But this august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! The great God absolute! The centre and circumference of all democracy! His omnipresence, our divine equality!

“If, then, to meanest mariners, and renegades and castaways, I shall hereafter ascribe high qualities, though dark; weave around them tragic graces; if even the most mournful, perchance the most abased, among them all, shall at times lift himself to the exalted mounts; if I shall touch that workman’s arm with some ethereal light; if I shall spread a rainbow over his disastrous set of sun; then against all mortal critics bear me out in it, thou just Spirit of Equality, which hast spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind! Bear me out in it, thou great democratic God! who didst not refuse to the swart convict, Bunyan, the pale, poetic pearl; Thou who didst clothe with doubly hammered leaves of finest gold, the stumped and paupered arm of old Cervantes; Thou who didst pick up Andrew Jackson from the pebbles; who didst hurl him upon a war-horse; who didst thunder him higher than a throne! Thou who, in all Thy mighty, earthly marchings, ever cullest Thy selectest champions from the kingly commoners; bear me out in it, O God!” Herman Melville, Moby Dick

The magic of Danny, the Champion of the World

What follows is an extract from Dave’s work in progress, currently entitled From Solipsism to Socialism – Memoirs of a Political Animal. It traces Dave’s personal, social and political development from the 1970s to the turn of the millennium, trying to discover what may lie behind the social and political ideas we choose to identify with. For Dave, there is a complexity of subjective factors underpinning our ideologies, and more often than not, they are in no way ‘political’…

The first thing that happened when I joined the Junior section of Redbridge primary school was the short walk from the main building across the playground to our new classroom. This was a large wooden hut painted dark blue which was set upon wooden legs. That the existence of such a makeshift classroom was possibly related to the public spending cuts being carried out by the Callaghan Labour government was of no interest to me. We had a separate section for our coats and hats and we only had to enter the main building for assembly or to use the toilet.

Perhaps this created an air of freedom for both Miss Marshall and her pupils. We seemed to enjoy being cut off from the rest of the school, and I believe that this was reflected in the lessons – certainly how I experienced them at any rate. One of the things that set Miss Marshall apart from other teachers was her smile – or the fact that she smiled. There was a warmth attached to it, a friendliness that made me want to please her in an unconscious way. Until this point, school had been something I just experienced in an existential solipsistic way. I did not love or hate it – just did it. I was there almost as a spectator, but with Miss Marshall, laughter regularly occurred in the classroom and she hardly had to raise her voice to maintain order. She told us about dinosaurs and I was particularly fascinated by who would win a fight between a Tyrannosaurus Rex and a Triceratops. At one stage, she took us out of our caravan classroom, onto the playground, where she drew a life size Tyrannosaurus, in white chalk, on the playground surface. It was an incredible sight. She also told us about Australia, and how she wanted to live there one day. I think that this was the first time I heard about the Aborigines, and that it took a full day on an aeroplane to get there. When we did sports, she commented on what a fast sprinter I was, which gave me the confidence to win just about every race I entered. As if this was not enough, she introduced me to Roald Dahl.

***

I recall her beaming face, enthusiasm coming from every pore. “Today, we are going to start reading a book in class. It is called Danny – The Champion of the World, and it is written by a man with a strange name: Roald Dahl”. I think she gave us a brand new copy between two pupils, which in itself was strange because nearly all the exercise books we ever looked at were extremely dog-eared and old. This may have been due to the fact that the book had only recently been published (in 1975), and Miss Marshall proceeded to tell us: “If you look at the inside cover, you will see the date when it was written and a little letter ‘c’ in a circle. This means that the story inside belongs to Roald Dahl, and if anyone tries to pretend that they wrote the story, Roald Dahl can go to the police”. Wow – I grasped the concept of intellectual property rights at the age of eight! “And because it is such a beautiful story, that we are going to love reading together, somebody may actually do this, so Roald Dahl has made sure that no bad person steals his story”.

This was very impressive. It had never previously occurred to me that words could belong to an individual person, because words were not like things which could be stolen, such as Dad’s Hillman. This was also the first time my attention had been turned to the concept of an author. My ladybird books were predominantly fairy tales so I did not associate the contents with a particular individual and although we had listened to Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree being read to us in the infants’ school, it was read by a teacher who had no enthusiasm for the story, and barely referenced that Enid Blyton was an actual person. Subsequently, I hated those sessions (normally on a Friday afternoon), detested the story and would sit there fidgeting, yet fearful of incurring the ire of the suitably named Mrs Cross. Miss Marshall was not like Mrs Cross at all. Whereas Miss Marshall was young and vibrant, Mrs Cross was middle-aged and possessed an angry countenance which scared me. I was so terrified that I may actually end up in her class for the final year of Infant school that I prayed to God on the eve of the September term: “Please lord, do not make me go into Mrs Cross’s class”. My prayers were answered, and I got Miss Kenvin instead; a young benign alternative. My main memory of my year with her was learning all about a cat named Gobbolino, who apparently belonged to a witch. There was an accompanying song which we used to sing, and I can still remember some of the words.

However, everything about Miss Marshall’s class from our physical environment to her expressive face was different. The cover of Danny – The Champion of the World was a reddish orange and it showed a father and son walking through a forest. The love between these two characters was unmistakable. I could tell this by body language, including facial expressions, alone. She then told us to turn the book around and look at the back cover. “When you buy a book, you should always look at the ‘spine’ to see if it looks interesting, then the cover and finally the back cover where there will be a quick description about the story. If you like it, ask mummy or daddy to buy it for you”.

The confidence of how to ‘handle’ a book was possibly instilled in me from this point, and to this day the most natural thing in the world for me to do, when I see a book, is to instinctively and lovingly repeat this procedure. Each book contains a life of its own – its personal universe. It is inconceivable for a book to be on a table, or anywhere I am, without me recognising it, and making some kind of contact with it. If I see someone with a book, I have to know what it is, and if I am familiar with it, or indeed have read it, do everything I possibly can to attract the reader’s attention in the most subtle of ways, in order to signify the secret solidarity which exists between all genuine bibliophiles.

This is the gift that Miss Marshall gave me.

Everything about this process was real and human. She told us a little about Roald Dahl: how he got his funny name, and the fact that he wrote fantastic stories for children as well as adults. This was no longer just a pile of bounded printed paper. Thanks to Miss Marshall’s alchemy, it was alive, and throbbing with the taste of the fantastic. My anticipation was palpable, and I could hardly wait to start.

Unsurprisingly, it was as good as Miss Marshall had suggested. We would each take a turn in reading, including Miss Marshall, and there were wonderful pictures which only further fuelled the imagination. Danny, and his doting father, lived in a gypsy style caravan next to a small garage and petrol station. Danny’s father was a practical man who could fix and do almost anything, particularly when it came to cars. But he was also an extremely tender and loving man. I was so touched by the way he would sit on his son’s bed talking to him about his dead mother, kiss him goodnight, and refer to him as ‘my love’. I was overwhelmed by this father/son relationship; it was both beautiful and magical. From this position of love, Danny was able to learn and absorb practical skills, but most importantly he learnt to love and be loved. I imagined Danny being tucked up in his caravan bed, safe and warm, his father’s workplace next door. Everything felt so contained, so balanced. And indeed it was within itself, but this idyllic cocoon was situated on the edge of a forest that was owned by an extremely obnoxious landowner called Mr Hazel, who was having continual problems with people poaching his pheasants. Miss Marshall explained to us that this was a fancy word for stealing. Needless to say that we were shocked and surprised to find out that Danny’s wonderful father was one of the poachers, as was Danny himself. And then one night, after awaking to find his father missing, Danny demonstrated the wherewithal to jump into one of the garage’s cars in order to drive into the forest to rescue his father who had fallen into a poacher’s trap. His father was not only able to legitimise his stealing, from the hateful Mr Hazel, but won his son’s support for the final big poach which included sowing crushed sleeping pills into raisons in order to drug as many pheasants as possible.

Today I can find many themes in this book that went over my childish head. A good example being class struggle. This must have been the first time in my life that a greedy landowner was cast in the role of villain, with the oppressed petit bourgeois as hero, who also happened to have the support of the local community (including the police sergeant). This book seemed to suggest that stealing was a relative concept, and that poaching was a form of art. There was a complexity to Danny’s father which fascinated me. Like Jesus, he was tender, loving and mild, and like Jesus he was an element of society that could be deemed as ‘criminal’ and prone to a righteousness which may be backed up with the threat of violence. Perhaps this delicate matrix of love, hate, morality and criminality entered my subconscious, but all I knew was that this was a wonderful story, facilitated by a teacher who demonstrated warmth and kindness as first principles.

The magic of the ‘book’ had been revealed.

Man is created for happiness

“In his prison shed Pierre had learnt, through his whole being rather than his intellect, through the process of living itself, that man was created for happiness, and happiness lies within, in the satisfaction of natural human needs, and any unhappiness arises from excess rather than deficiency. But now, during the last three weeks of the march [as a prisoner of war], he had learnt another new truth that brought great consolation – he had learnt that there is nothing in the world to be frightened of. He had learnt that just as there is no situation in the world in which a man can be happy and perfectly free, neither is there any situation in which he should be unhappy and not free. He had learnt that there is a limit to suffering and a limit to freedom, and those limits are never far away; that a man who has felt discomfort from a crumpled petal in his bed of roses has suffered just as much as he was suffering now, sleeping on the bare, damp earth, with one side freezing while the other side warms up; that when in former days he had squeezed into a pair of tight dancing shoes had has suffered just as much as he was suffering now, waking barefoot, his footwear having disintegrated long ago, with his feet covered with sores. He learnt that when he had married his wife by his own free will (so he had thought), he had been no freer than he was now when they locked him up in a stable for the night. Of all the things he identified as painful, though at the time he was hardly conscious of them, the worst thing was the state of his bare feet, which were blistered and scabby. (Horse-meat had a nice taste and did you good, the flavour of saltpetre from the gun powder used as a salt substitute was really rather nice, the weather was never very cold, it was always warm when they were marching during the daytime and at night they had campfires, and the lice that made a meal of him gave him a pleasant feeling of being kept warm.) His feet were the only things that hurt during those early days.

“Life is everything. Life is God. Everything is in flux and movement and this movement is God. And while there is life there is pleasure in being conscious of the Godhead. To love life is to love God. The hardest and the most blessed thing is to love this life even in suffering, innocent suffering.

“Karatayev! The memory [of his friend being shot dead] flashed into Pierre’s mind. And suddenly Pierre had a vision, like reality itself, of someone long forgotten, a gentle old teacher who had taught him geography in Switzerland. ‘Wait a minute,’ said the little old man. And he showed Pierre a globe. This globe was a living thing, a shimmering ball with no fixed dimensions. The entire surface of the ball consisted of drops closely compressed. And the drops were in constant movement and flux, sometimes dissolving from many into one, sometimes breaking down from one into many. Each drop was trying to spread out and take up as much space as possible, but all the others, wanting to do the same, squeezed it back, absorbing or merging into it.

“‘This is life,’ said the little old teacher.

“‘It’s so simple and clear,’ thought Pierre. ‘How could I have not known that before? God is in the middle, and each drop tries to expand and reflect Him on the largest possible scale. And it grows, gets absorbed and compressed, disappears from the surface, sinks down into the depths and bubbles up again. That’s what has happened to him, Karatayev: he has been absorbed and he’s disappeared.”

Tolstoy, War and Peace

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