Why I am so furiously angry about Brexit – and how the vote changed me forever

The first thing to say of course is that democracy has been served, that the people have had their say, and that we respect the result. Except that would be a complete lie.

Democracy and politics

Anyone who knows the first thing about democratic organisations or has participated in them will know full well why this is the case. But I suspect that will be a vanishing minority of the people who voted so confidently for Brexit, so let’s spell it out. Democracy is a process whereby all the people who need to make or are affected by a decision come together to make it collectively. The very coming together implies an ethos of mutual respect and an agreement to play by the rules. The rules of the democratic game include the idea that everyone can have their say, that everyone will do their best to understand the arguments on all sides and put aside their own narrow interests or prejudices in order to participate in the discussion and come to an agreement. That agreement will take care to find consensus where possible, decide by majority vote where necessary. The minority agree to accept the decision of the majority; the majority to respect the rights of the minority and do their best to not outrage their fundamental beliefs or trample on their interests. Anyone who thinks this describes the process that led to the recent referendum on Britain’s exit from the European Union is a deluded fool.

Roughly what happened is this. In the last general election, David Cameron offered a sop to his lunatic fringe. Back me in this election, he said, and I’ll give you an In/Out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. Cameron did not expect to have to honour this – he expected to have to do another deal with the Lib Dems to form a government, and his stupid promise would be the first to go in the horse trading. Alas, the Tories won a majority and he was stuck with his pledge. Cameron went ahead with it in the expectation that he would win anyway because leaving the European Union would be such an obviously insane and reckless thing to do.

Alas again, Cameron did not bank on the ignorance of the population. The Leave campaign played its hand well. How to sell a lunatic idea to an ignorant and ill-informed population? Well, play on their fears and prejudices of course. So, pick a problem, any problem. The root causes of that problem will be some combination of the structure of the capitalist economy, the nature of the globalised political order, including the perceived necessity of imposing austerity to rescue the economy from the effects of the financial crisis, and the lack of clout and nous on the part of the working class to figure out what its own interests are and fight for them. Leaving the EU will solve none of these problems. And the latter is at least partly the fault of the working class itself. Defeat and economic changes and the fact that it has been left behind and shat on for decades are of course partly responsible. But the working class is morally culpable. For all its hardships, it lives in one of the wealthiest countries in the world and benefits from welfare states and educational and employment opportunities our forebears could only dream of. Except that they didn’t just dream – try got off their arses, educated themselves and fought for them. What are we doing? Moping around and blaming brown people for our woes. It’s pathetic. We have become too fat and lazy and selfish to be worthy of anything better than the austerity imposed on us. The working class was once the salt of the earth, they say. But if the salt has lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is henceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and trodden under foot of men.

In case anyone is wondering, the brute truth of the present situation is this. The British elite has suffered a coup at the hands of another section of the same elite. The ascendant elite took power on the back of a mendacious campaign led by liars, fools and fascists who whipped up emotion and fear in that section of the population too stupid and supine to know what the fuck was going on except that it hurt and someone somewhere should be made to pay for. Brown folk and the EU were somehow made to appear as an identity in their booze-addled, cholesterol-soaked minds, and off to the polls they went to vent their hate. A young mother was gunned down in the street, but what of that? A national and global political and economic crisis has been sparked. Racism and xenophobia have been given a spur. We will all pay the price for this in the years to come.

The spiritual dimension

As the foregoing comments might possibly make clear, this whole process has made me furiously angry. Followers of our blog will know that we are aspirants on the spiritual path. Now, what are the teachings of that path on anger? Have I not failed badly in recent days by venting my anger instead of keeping it under wise control and developing compassion for the downtrodden instead?

Partly the answer is yes. I have in at least some respects failed to live up to the wonderful example of the spiritual masters and my sorrow at that will only deepen as my anger subsides, I am sure. But there are other teachings about anger that are relevant here. Firstly, anger is not in and of itself a problem. Anger is a motivating emotion that gives us the strength and power to act courageously in a just cause or to defend ourselves when under attack. It is only problematic when we can’t control it wisely (and which of us can?). Secondly, anger is a teacher. When we are angry with others, it is usually because we see in them something of ourselves, or we are deflecting attention that would be better directed at our own character flaws and wrong actions onto the failings of others.

So, what I am really most furiously angry about is myself. I have struggled for many years to educate myself and participate in political activity – not always I’m sure with the noblest of motives, but certainly not with entirely base or self-interested ones either. And yet, who really would know it? In most social situations, my ego character is such that it would rather stay quiet when political issues are raised. I’ll let it go rather than raise a voice of protest for the sake of social peace. I might convince myself that this is noble – that I’m just trying to be kindly and friendly. But that is what Buddhism calls Idiot Compassion – action that has the appearance of kindliness, but is motivated by the ego’s desire to avoid being bothered or disturbed, of fear of conflict or of being wrong, of (pathetically) a desire to be liked and approved of.

This is wrong action, and if I have learnt anything from this referendum result it is that I must learn to be less likeable. It is only possible to stay out of political action or discussion if you suffer from the delusion that it doesn’t affect you. Political action IS you – it’s the water you swim in. If you object to a politics that treats you like a stupid piece of shit to be used and abused by the ruling class at will – well, then, you’d better pick yourself up and be worthy of a different kind of politics, of a different kind of society. All those problems you moan about? They’re YOU’RE fault. They’re my fault. Let’s work on our faults together.

So, I come out of this grotesque referendum campaign with a new determination. I will no longer put my need to be liked or my selfish desire for peace and quiet ahead of speaking the truth. I will renew my commitment to learning about the issues that affect us and putting what I have learnt into political practice. I will write about all that more regularly on this blog – not because I care about winning readers, but because writing about things is the way you learn about them. I will continue my spiritual practice and learn to develop sympathy and compassion for all, including those who disagree with me or who hate me – or who are deeply ignorant or aggressive. I will learn to be a more effective communicator and political activist. La lutte continue. Peace.

Addendum

But see Repentance.

Amy Winehouse and Dostoevsky

Our last post was a quote by Dostoevsky, and it bears repeating. “The man who bows down to nothing can never bear the burden of himself.” By a strange synchronicity, following straight on from the discovery of that quote came our discovery of the documentary on Amy Winehouse, a tragic real-life illustration of the truth of Dostoevsky’s insight.

The film is a brilliant and moving portrait of a sweet yet spirited and extraordinarily talented young woman – and what the fate of such creatures can be in an indifferent, cruel and corrupt society.

At a young age, Amy’s father walked out of her life, and she felt about it then as we should surely all feel at that age: “Thank Christ! Now I am free to do what I want!” And do what she wanted is precisely what she proceeded to do. She bunked off school to mess around with boyfriends in the house. Later, after a modest first success with her music, she moved in with a friend, and took advantage of that newfound freedom to smoke pot all day and have fun. As her career as a singer became more established, she turned to drink and drugs and dysfunctional love affairs as a solace for her ambivalent attitude to success and fame. An early problem with body image led to bulimia. The combination of all these things eventually killed her at the age of just 27.

Of course, what Winehouse was doing is just normal. It’s the job of the young to go a bit wild and the world would be a duller place if they weren’t given the freedom to. We would for a start have been denied Winehouse’s wonderful songs. Her problems with her body image are tragically common in women – and increasingly in men – in a society increasingly obsessed with image over substance. Taking to consumption to cover up our suffering is a common strategy of our monkey minds.

But what normally happens, even in a society that’s entirely lost touch with wisdom, is that the young grow up. Perhaps the responsibilities of jobs or children intervene. Perhaps they just get tired of seeking happiness in sensual pleasures – an ultimately futile road, as anyone who has travelled it can tell you. Perhaps the suffering gets so bad that it just cannot be born anymore and so we shrug off the burden of ourselves.

But Winehouse found herself in rather different conditions from the rest of us. Rather than responsibilities putting a rein on her living, she found herself living a life where such wild behaviour is expected, even considered heroic. No reins, but a spur. Her growing fame added to a sense of alienation – she says at one point she would trade it all just to be able to walk down the street unmolested by a media mob. The wonder is, not that Winehouse paid the ultimate price for living such a life, but that more don’t.

By Winehouse’s own admission, what she wanted more than anything was a father to tell her to stop: someone in her life who had authority based in love, and who, out of that love and a wiser understanding of what was best for her, give her the guidance and instruction she needed. If the hints in the documentary be true, I suspect that Russell Brand attempted to step in to provide something like this, though I don’t follow the gossip columns closely enough to know just what happened there.

It is a terrible story, but a brilliant film, and for me one not so much one limited to the tragic story of one brilliant singer, as an indictment of our whole society. To see this troubled woman struggle with the burden of herself, with little help but that provided by people with an interest in exploiting her, or who were as confused and burdened as she was, and to see her hounded by the pack of ravenous wolves that is the media, and be chortled over in lame gags by Frankie Boyle, Graham Norton and Jay Leno and the like, and reported on as if a newsworthy event by breakfast news shows, makes one sick to the stomach. Our society is cruel and insane and ill.

And you, gentle reader? You who read those gossip columns and buy those newspapers and chortled over those gags and watched this documentary? You are as responsible for Any Winehouse’s death as anyone. Let us ponder on how many Amys are living just down the road from us – how many of them we hurry past on our wearily familiar route into work. Let us ponder and hang our heads in shame.

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