Repentance: the mistakes we made

The aftermath 

From the moment we opened our eyes on the dawn of 24 June, our minds were thrown. It has taken from then till now to reach a place of equanimity. A reckoning is in order – what happened, and was our reaction wise or just?

What happened in the outside world we have sketched already and we see no reason nor has anything materialised to change our minds about our analysis of it. In short, an irresponsible, unserious, unscrupulous and stupid section of the ruling elite has taken power, or is in the process of taking power, based on a campaign of lies designed to whip up the fears and emotions of the poor and bewildered. The result has been just as predicted by those denigrated during the campaign as “experts” – so not Project Fear at all, but Project Reality. The brains were for Remain. But the brains lost. Project Hate is taking the reins of government and the lid that had been kept on racism and social divisions in recent decades has been lifted off, with explosive and ugly consequences. Can there possibly be a bright side to any of this?

The best that we can be
There might well be, but to get there we need to look a bit more closely at our reaction to the news – to what happened internally. As we said, our minds were thrown. We were angry, and depressed, and sought people to blame. Having picked a scapegoat, the one we believed to be most immediately and obviously responsible, we picked up hot coals of anger and thew them – burning our own hands in the process. That this is understandable and (we hope) forgiveable should be derivable from our honest and we believe factual assessment of what had happened. But never mind the justifications – was it right? Was it just? Was it wise?

At times like this, full of anger, of sorrow, of confusion about the best way forward, we turn for guidance to those who are more highly evolved than we are. Thich Nhat Hanh is a Zen master. That means he is a master of his mind and his emotions and is therefore more capable than we are of making wise decisions in the heat of the moment. When he first came to America from Vietnam during the war there, his country too was in crisis. And, it should be needless to say, a much more severe crisis than we are facing. Thich’s country was being destroyed, his friends, family, loved ones and fellow countrymen slaughtered in their hundreds of thousands. When the gentle monk stood up in a meeting to speak for peace, an audience member interrupted and asked what a kook like him was doing over here in his country, giving lectures. If things were so bad, why didn’t he go back home where he belonged and put his attention there? Thich remained completely calm and gently explained that his country was on fire. Given that the cause of the fire was over here in America, he’d come over to see if he couldn’t help put it out. Later, after the talk, Thich was found by his friends standing outside, trembling and shaking all over and breathing deeply. He explained to those who asked him what was wrong that anger had arisen in him as that man had spoke. Then why not express that anger, he was asked. Surely the fool who had asked the question deserved it – surely Thich was justified in expressing it. Maybe so, said Thich, but I am not here for myself. I am here to represent my fellow countrymen who are suffering so badly. I must show people here in America the best that we can be.

I can never relate that story without choking up. And the lesson from it is clear. We failed to be the best that we can be. Following the path of peace and wisdom is a hard one that takes many years of training to yield success. We do not beat ourselves up for our failure, but we do bow in gratitude for the lesson – it is humbling to the ego to know how far one yet has to go. It inspires us to begin anew and try again.

Eknath Easwaran, a spiritual teacher from a different tradition and inspired by Gandhi, says that anger is not a problem as long as you have trained your mind to be slow. If your mind is slow, you can see and watch gently as anger arises, take steps to calm yourself, not feed your anger with thoughts, and drive the energy of anger instead into wise and compassionate action and kind speech. If your mind is fast, there is no hope for any of that. You will have no chance of taking hold of and transforming your anger – your anger will tear off and drag you in its wake. You won’t use it, it will use you.

That is what happened to us when we learnt of the EU referendum result. Our minds raced off and anger and fear fed greedily on the thoughts. Social media made it worse – as social minds they are faster even than newspapers and TV and are therefore, unwisely used, poisons. Drunk on thought and poison and anger, we started wars with all around us. Thank God, the war of words has not yet escalated into a real war – though how easily that happens should now be obvious to all who are paying attention to the predictable and predicted rise in racist and xenophobic violence. We happily (or rathe unhappily) started wars of words with friends and family. In the country, others are starting literal wars of hatred with their neighbours. How desperately and urgently we need to slow and calm down and begin to make peace!

Drive all blames into one: the only revolution that will work
In Tibetan Buddhism, there is a system of slogans to help you with daily living known as lojong. One of the slogans forms the subhead to this section: drive all blames into one. What this means is that when things go wrong or aren’t to your liking, when disaster or dissatisfaction in whatever form strikes, whether in big ways as in wars or in small ways as in irritation with your neighbour, what you can do is to take all the blame for the situation onto yourself. This is not the normal way of proceeding, of course. Normally we start looking for someone to blame. To reverse that normal way of behaving is to begin the only revolution that will ever work. It doesn’t mean to turn yourself into a doormat for other people or to ignore or tolerate bad behaviour in others. It simply means to take full responsibility for every situation you find yourself in. If you look deeply, you will see that you personally always bear, or at the least share, responsibility for creating the situation you are in.

In the wake of the EU referendum result, we started to blame those most responsible. The Leave campaign. The people who voted for it against all the advice of the experts. The social situation that led the working class to so distrust the political class – the fact that they had been shat on from a great height and ignored or taken for granted by both sides of the political divide. And so on and so on. But we are to blame too. We failed to mount a successful enough campaign – in the first place against holding such a stupid and undemocratic referendum, in the second for the right result. We failed to get out there and connect with and educate the ignorant. We have failed to inspire confidence in the left project. We didn’t work hard enough to support those being shat on by the elites – the fact that they no longer trust them is our fault too. Our behaviour and conduct and thinking as socialists has inspired precisely how many people to follow our good example? Would zero be too cruel an answer?

This is our task now as our country slips into crisis. To drive all blames into one and act.

Maybe…”
There is another Zen story that is relevant here. It goes something like this. A man comes into a great inheritance and is given a ton of money. You are so lucky! say his friends and family. Maybe, he says. With his windfall he goes out to buy himself a new car and drives it into a tree on the way home. At his hospital bed, his friends commiserate with him. You were so unlucky, they say. Maybe, he replies. While he is in hospital, a mudslide destroys his house. How unlucky, say some of his friends. How lucky you were not in the house at the time! say others. Maybe, he replies…

The point of course is that we cannot see all ends and must work well within the situation as it is, whatever it is. The vote for Brexit struck us as a complete disaster – and, of course, in so many ways it is. But might there be a bright side? Maybe.

For a start, Brexit may not even happen. The odds that it will and the political feeling that it must are against such a conclusion, but the possibility of EU fudge, a new deal, a general election, a feeling of Bregret when Brexiteers realise they’ve been sold a pup and cannot have the best of all worlds and that the costs of Brexit will be severe, means that a Breversal, as The Economist puts it, cannot be ruled out.

But more optimistically still, we have the situation in the Labour Party. The Blairites may have miscalculated here. They took Jeremy’s lukewarm endorsement of Remain and his supposed footdragging in the campaign as the excuse they’ve been desperate for ever since Jeremy was elected leader to launch a coup – flavoured, as might be expected, with shameful, even evil attempts to break Jeremy on a human level, a brew seasoned with lies and Machiavellian plotting and backstabbing. They have done everything in their power to unseat him – except, of course, to trigger a leadership challenge that they must surely lose. (The membership remains firmly behind Jeremy.)

Could, then, this crisis lead to a final reckoning in the Labour Party? Picture the scene – Jeremy wins a renewed mandate for his leadership. The movement that supported him gradually steps up to the challenge; MPs deselected, the PLP and shadow cabinet filled with Corbynistas. Come election time, a highly energised Corbynista Labour Party is able to connect to the least bigoted of the Leavers, thanks in part to Jeremy’s well known euroscepticism, winning back Labour’s core vote. The very fact of Jeremy’s survival and likely victory so discredit the mainstream narrative about his lame leadership that the aspirational middle class begin to see that there is little to fear in the Corbynomics plan to grow the economy. Following Corbyn’s victory, the very fact of Brexit gives the new Labour Party the freedom to pursue economic goals that would have been problematic under EU rules, and a moral power to renegotiate access to the single market with freedom of movement combined with protections for the sections of society that lose out most from such deals. In other words, from the jaws of Brexit defeat, we snatch a social democratic victory beyond present imagining.

That this scenario is almost ludicrously optimistic from the point of view of the intellect and of political and social realities we would be the last to dispute. There barely seems to be time for it to be realised, let alone the will. But there is a final spiritual lesson to learn from this ongoing disaster – and it is perhaps the most important of them all. It is that pessimism of the intellect and objective realities can hold no power over a fully developed, undiscourageable, ever-renewed optimism of the will. So if our scenario is in the slightest bit appealing to you, don’t just sit there – and certainly don’t just criticise or sneer. Join the Labour Party – join Momentum, the movement that supports Jeremy. Do it today.

Regardless of the prospects for our utopian scenario, at the present time Jeremy remains the great hope for a progressive outcome for this crisis. He is also something of a model when it comes to political conduct. He may not have mastered his mind as Thich Nhat Hanh has, but he is a pretty remarkable operator nonetheless – committed to a politics of kindness, honesty, seriousness and straight-talking that even the right finds refreshing to behold. Jeremy doesn’t do personal. But he does do tireless political work for peace and socialism and compassionate action. Let Jeremy be our role model. Let’s get behind him now.

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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.