The Present Breath

Another piece written for translation for my column in the Goteborgs-Posten.

It’s getting increasingly uncanny to see the way in which the present neoliberal plot to reduce the state purely to an enabler of private profit, clicks as neatly as a jigsaw piece into the attempts of the children of the new age of Aquarius in the late1960s to explore their own inner space. We could never have imagined it.
We baby-boomers – as we are better remembered – took the idea of our minds seriously, and, as well as getting stoned out of them, sought to learn more about them, to see what minds were capable of and how minds in other cultures had developed differently because of other social practices and assumptions. We took drugs and read the Bhagavad Gita and the Tibetan Book of the Dead; we fell hook line if not sinker for the Marharishi Marhesh Yoga and admired Alan Watts, we listened intently to sitar ragas as well as to the Doors. We investigated other cultures, as we thought, with humility, to discover what our discarded materialistic upbringing had forgotten about the human condition. What we didn’t notice was how much like our colonial forebears we were in our assumptions that we could just wander around the world, or leaf through the writings of other societies and take what we thought they were saying as our own. We weren’t humble, we were naïve and arrogant. We supposed we could just charge around the world, by foot or by book, and just understand what we read and saw. We imagined we could take on the habits of a society different from our own for thousands of years, just as we slipped into jellabahs and kaftans. Nevertheless, we were seekers. For that I still salute us. We looked for ways to expand the mind; and for all our arrogance, we guessed that there was more to mind than our western colonial heritage had led us to believe.
Now, almost every week, I open a paper, or click on an article onscreen, to be told by some government body or representative that it would benefit our society greatly if we were to meditate every day. Not long ago, I read that 95 members of parliament had completed mindfulness meditation courses. The day before an article headlined ‘Why we will come to see mindfulness as mandatory’, was written by Guardian writer, Madeleine Bunting, who is part of a university group supporting ‘an all-party parliamentary group on mindfulness.’ What interests them, she says, ‘ is the potential for public policy. What role could mindfulness play in schools, in the NHS or in the criminal justice system?’1
This is beyond the wildest dreams of the 1960s counter-culture. While we charged at other cultures like bulls in china shops, and tried to insert ourselves into religions and practices that we had no preparation for, this modern push to mindfulness has moved in a different direction and more or less stripped the oriental and transcendental out of the practice. It asks little more than that a person should sit for between fifteen minutes and an hour a day concentrating on the in-and-out of their breathing. Once the Buddhism and technical precepts have been disposed of, what emerges is the common sense of paying attention to the present moment and not worrying about and fearing the past and future. ‘Close your eyes, bring your attention into your body, to the sensation of your feet on the ground; the movements of your breath, the expansion of your rib cage. Stay with these tiny physical sensations.’ The obscure texts we struggled with have been replaced with extremely simple practical instruction. No difficult postures or sanskrit terms. None of the severe warnings that a lifetime of work would only put the aspiring meditator on the first step to the road of enlightenment. Just sit, pay attention, breath. Then go to work, or get back to the children. This is all it takes, academic studies have found, to achieve a 20% reduction in symptoms of stress and depression. It is good for us to meditate, and if it prevents people from taking time off from work and needing the services of doctors and medicines, it is good for the country. So good that even business and the military are providing courses in it. The message is that meditation is no longer to be considered quirky or foreign, it is to be thought of as keeping the mind well, just as jogging keeps the body in good condition. Never mind any other reasons why people practice meditation. Western capitalism has finally been convinced that ancient techniques can save them money, and what is more, the onus is on the individual, not the state, to ensure that they maintain a sound mind in a healthy body and get to work 20% more often than they are managing to do now.
I am not mocking, or at least, I’m not mocking the benefits of meditation. I know for a fact that there are immediate benefits. For some years I have been practicing the modern sort of mindfulness, to help me cope with chronic pain that strong drugs only partly help, after I discovered the CDs of Jon Kabat-Zinn who ran the prestigious Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts. His guided breathing meditations and explanations are compelling and I use them whenever the pain is too strong. I try to do it every day, but I don’t have the sort of personality that allows me to succeed very well at that. But by concentrating on my breathing, then focussing on the area of pain and breathing in and out of it, I’ve found it is possible to make it seem to disperse, almost as if it were a cloud breaking up into harmless droplets. By breathing into pain and thinking of it not as pain, but unemotively as sensation, I can tolerate and moderate it to some extent in my mind. It is a real help, even if, when I stop, the pain returns. I don’t need a guru, I just need silence and a certain amount of energy to get it going.
But although I do appreciate how much this pared down meditation can help pain and stress, there is something about it that troubles me, just as there was something about the more Buddhist version I tried to practice long ago. The key phrase in mindfulness is ‘the present moment’. The point is to exist in the here and now. In that immediate space where nothing was and nothing will be, there is relief from all manner of ills. The mind is relieved of its restlessness and the restlessness of the world. Yet living in the present moment, as Buddhism and now the British parliament is exhorting us to do, means that we are not to trouble ourselves with what has gone before or what is to come. It is precisely not how a writer can exist. And how convenient such a state of mind is for governments, businesses, the military, the financial sectors, to have a populace and workforce who, if distressed physically or mentally by state and corporate acts of greed, incompetence and ideology, can slip into meditating on the mild and uneventful eternal now. We have discovered with our modern scienctific measuring devices that such meditating actually changes our metabolism so that the wellbeing we feel as a result can be explained by actual chemical processes in our brain. Whenever Jon Kabat-Zinn intones ‘Bring your mind to the present breath, because that is all that exists’, I find myself fighting the rush of pleasurable endorphins in my brain to remind myself  as a member of society and as a writer, that the present is not all there is. It’s OK for an hour a day, but without the narrative of the past and present, cause and effect, we risk becoming contented sheep. You can see how attractive a population of meditators might be to those who get their wealth and power from manipulating the material world.
—-
1 http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/06/mindfulness-hospitals-schools

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The Time of the Comedians

This was published in Swedish by the Goteborgs-Posten in November.

 

It is the time of the comedians. Western politics as it is perceived by populations and portrayed by the media of every kind is in such a parlous state, that it is not a metaphor but a reality developing before our eyes. The comedians in this country are arguing amongst themselves, but in full public view, about the state of the nation and what is to be done to resolve and redeem its moribund condition. It has already happened in Italy where the comedian Beppe Grillo launched his Five Star Party several years ago, and in the general election of 2013 it received 25.5% of the vote, coming second to the Democratic Party. Nobody has sent for the clowns, they arrived already on stage when the people understood that clowns disguised as responsible politicians have been running the country all along. Italian politics has often been seen as a joke. Now the joke has taken hold and become a political reality. Why wouldn’t the clowns do as good a job as the present day parliamentarians, bankers, civil servants, shady hedge fund managers and directors of multinational corporations who can be seen to be carving up national economics, justice and welfare according to their own need and greed? Miles and miles of print articles in serious papers throughout the world and online comment have been devoted to the meaning of Beppe Grillo’s rise in Italian national politics. He is a king-maker holding the balance of power, a populist, a rabble rouser, a demagogue, far right, far left, the voice of the people demanding direct democracy in which politicians are responsible only to the electorate. It caused perhaps only a little fright to those who know that they control the world, whatever speeches are made in parliament. But he is taken as a sign. And, over here, a few funny men have sat up and taken notice.

Now England’s clown time has arrived. We have a scrawny, ragged stand-up comedian called Russell Brand. He hits the headlines from time to time with practised pranks in the media that cause outrage or amusement. He specialises in going over the top and then apologising with as little grace as possible. He is more interesting that most fame chasers and youngish (he is 38) comedians, because although he has had a minimal education, he is highly articulate, decidedly over-wordy, and has an ability to cut through the cant of politicians and TV journalists who find it difficult to deal with his directness. He isn’t afraid and doesn’t care about doing things the right way. He freely acknowledges all the things that he thinks he could be accused of: he’s open about having been a drug addict, an alcoholic and suffered bulimia. With all this, he has brought himself to the nation’s attention and has become the grubby, long-haired loud-mouth the tabloids love to hate.

He hit the news most recently by being guest editor for an edition of the New Statesman. In a hideously long (4500 words) and apparently unedited Forward to his edition, he gave an overview of the state of the nation, berating politicians and those who pull their strings, for corruption, greed and self-interest. He said that he has never voted, because to vote is to collude with the fantasy that those in power are spreading while continuing their corrupt, self-serving ways. Democracy is a con, it is a lie that anyone in power cares about what people think. None of the parties are better than any other in this regard. Finally, he called for people to stand with him and refuse to vote as a positive political act in order to show that we were no longer going to allow ourselves to be fooled into quiescence.

This resulted in another stand-up comedian, Robert Webb, writing a response to Russell Brand, not quietly in a private letter or conversation, but in an open letter that appeared on the front page of The Guardian. Webb said that Brand was wrong about non-voting and encouraging others not to vote. It was our democratic birthright to vote and to participate in politics to change it if we didn’t like the way it was going. As a direct result of Brand’s suggestions, Webb joined the Labour Party. The Labour Party didn’t say whether it was delighted by this or not.

Political commentators and academics were very sniffy about the upstart, naive Brand and his childish view of government and politics. Many of us looked on unimpressed as famous people took up column inches and gained publicity for themselves, their only qualification for pontificating seeming to be that people knew their names and paid money to attend their gigs around the country. But the ball kept rolling. Jeremy Paxman, TV political interviewer in chief, had a long discussion with Brand on BBC’s Newsnight, berating Brand for decrying democratic politics before himself getting on to the front pages of the national press to announce that actually, he hadn’t voted in the last election because he thought it was pointless.

Then Brand wrote another 3 or 4 thousand words in The Guardian to respond to all this.

‘I fervently believe that we deserve more from our democratic system than the few derisory tit-bits tossed from the carousel of the mighty, when they hop a few inches left or right. The lazily duplicitous servants of The City expect us to gratefully participate in what amounts to little more than a political hokey cokey where every four years we get to choose what colour tie the liar who leads us wears.’

Over-stuffed as his language might be, I pretty much agree with Brand. He is certainly saying things that I have felt for a long time. A lot of people feel the same way. There is a cynicism and angry apathy among all of us as we watch the games being played. I haven’t voted since Tony Blair stood for re-election, there being no one and no party I believed or whose promises I trusted. The years since, culminating in the Tory-Lib Dem coalition have confirmed to me the simple truths that Brand speaks. The idea that there should be a nation effort not to vote, or to spoil ballot papers en masse strikes me as being a pretty effective message to all the parties that the electorate is no longer prepared to be fooled or to play along and pretend it is acting out some holy freedom when we put our cross by a candidate’s name. The puppets are in revolt. More importantly, it would mean that no party and no coalition could claim, as they all have, no matter how small the percentage vote, that they have a mandate from the people for running the country or putting their policies into law. 

I feel the pull of Brand’s populist anger and call to act quite strongly. He speaks of wanting a fairer society. Of giving higher wages to nurses, teachers and those who clean up our messes, than to those who sit in boardrooms selling oil or arms or surveillance equipment. All he wants, he says, is change for the better and if we collaborate in refusing power to those who think they are entitled to it, we can effect change. 

The rhetoric is appealing as the rhetoric of the new broom demagogue sweeping the corrupt past away has always appealed. I don’t think that Brand is insincere or has, at least a conscious, desire for personal power. But I read his final words and tremble, not just at them, but at my own attraction to the popular words of a cheeky, honest stand-up comedian:

Even the outlet that printed this will tomorrow print a couple of columns saying what a naïve wanker I am, or try to find ways that I’ve fucked up. Well I am naïve and I have fucked up but I tell you something else. I believe in change. I don’t mind getting my hands dirty because my hands are dirty already. I don’t mind giving my life to this because I’m only alive because of the compassion and love of others. Men and women strong enough to defy this system and live according to higher laws. This is a journey we can all go on together, all of us. We can include everyone and fear no one. A system that serves the planet and the people. I’d vote for that.

While the comedian tells us honestly what we know about the world, there are always the others, the ones who do consciously want power and wealth, and they know very well how to manipulate populist feeling in a power vacuum. What is more, one of the worst things about Tony Blair, when he forcibly, with deceit, took us into the Iraq war that was to cause the death of hundreds of thousands of people, was that he was sincere. He claimed his sincerity as the bedrock of his right to act, as if only belief in what you were doing was required to act against a population’s wishes. And then I also worry about the population, that not only knows how corrupt the rich and powerful are, but, according to the polls, want to bring back hanging as a punishment for murder, and believe the country is being overrun by immigrants, and that the majority of those on welfare benefits for the low paid and unemployed are skivers and scroungers. And so I return to anger and apathy, and worry about a popular revolution led by comedians as well as no revolution, and the misery in the world getting ever more miserable.

Clown Time, Again. And again and again…

This is another article from my column in the Swedish paper, Göteborgs-Posten.

It is the time of the comedians. Western politics as it is perceived by populations and portrayed by the media of every kind is in such a parlous state, that it is not a metaphor but a reality developing before our eyes. The comedians in this country are arguing amongst themselves, but in full public view, about the state of the nation and what is to be done to resolve and redeem its moribund condition. It has already happened in Italy where the comedian Beppe Grillo launched his Five Star Party several years ago, and in the general election of 2013 it received 25.5% of the vote, coming second to the Democratic Party. Nobody has sent for the clowns, they arrived already on stage when the people understood that clowns disguised as responsible politicians have been running the country all along. Italian politics has often been seen as a joke. Now the joke has taken hold and become a political reality. Why wouldn’t the clowns do as good a job as the present day parliamentarians, bankers, civil servants, shady hedge fund managers and directors of multinational corporations who can be seen to be carving up national economics, justice and welfare according to their own need and greed? Miles and miles of print articles in serious papers throughout the world and online comment have been devoted to the meaning of Beppe Grillo’s rise in Italian national politics. He is a king-maker holding the balance of power, a populist, a rabble rouser, a demagogue, far right, far left, the voice of the people demanding direct democracy in which politicians are responsible only to the electorate. It caused perhaps only a little fright to those who know that they control the world, whatever speeches are made in parliament. But he is taken as a sign. And, over here, a few funny men have sat up and taken notice.

Now England’s clown time has arrived. We have a scrawny, ragged stand-up comedian called Russell Brand. He hits the headlines from time to time with practised pranks in the media that cause outrage or amusement. He specialises in going over the top and then apologising with as little grace as possible. He is more interesting that most fame chasers and youngish (he is 38) comedians, because although he has had a minimal education, he is highly articulate, decidedly over-wordy, and has an ability to cut through the cant of politicians and TV journalists who find it difficult to deal with his directness. He isn’t afraid and doesn’t care about doing things the right way. He freely acknowledges all the things that he thinks he could be accused of: he’s open about having been a drug addict, an alcoholic and suffered bulimia. With all this, he has brought himself to the nation’s attention and has become the grubby, long-haired loud-mouth the tabloids love to hate.

He hit the news most recently by being guest editor for an edition of the New Statesman. In a hideously long (4500 words) and apparently unedited Forward to his edition, he gave an overview of the state of the nation, berating politicians and those who pull their strings, for corruption, greed and self-interest. He said that he has never voted, because to vote is to collude with the fantasy that those in power are spreading while continuing their corrupt, self-serving ways. Democracy is a con, it is a lie that anyone in power cares about what people think. None of the parties are better than any other in this regard. Finally, he called for people to stand with him and refuse to vote as a positive political act in order to show that we were no longer going to allow ourselves to be fooled into quiescence.

This resulted in another stand-up comedian, Robert Webb, writing a response to Russell Brand, not quietly in a private letter or conversation, but in an open letter that appeared on the front page of The Guardian. Webb said that Brand was wrong about non-voting and encouraging others not to vote. It was our democratic birthright to vote and to participate in politics to change it if we didn’t like the way it was going. As a direct result of Brand’s suggestions, Webb joined the Labour Party. The Labour Party didn’t say whether it was delighted by this or not.

Political commentators and academics were very sniffy about the upstart, naive Brand and his childish view of government and politics. Many of us looked on unimpressed as famous people took up column inches and gained publicity for themselves, their only qualification for pontificating seeming to be that people knew their names and paid money to attend their gigs around the country. But the ball kept rolling. Jeremy Paxman, TV political interviewer in chief, had a long discussion with Brand on BBC’s Newsnight, berating Brand for decrying democratic politics before himself getting on to the front pages of the national press to announce that actually, he hadn’t voted in the last election because he thought it was pointless.

Then Brand wrote another 3 or 4 thousand words in The Guardian to respond to all this.

‘I fervently believe that we deserve more from our democratic system than the few derisory tit-bits tossed from the carousel of the mighty, when they hop a few inches left or right. The lazily duplicitous servants of The City expect us to gratefully participate in what amounts to little more than a political hokey cokey where every four years we get to choose what colour tie the liar who leads us wears.’

Over-stuffed as his language might be, the truth is that I pretty much agree with Brand. He is certainly saying things that I have felt for a long time. A lot of people feel the same way. There is a cynicism and angry apathy among all of us as we watch the games being played. I haven’t voted since Tony Blair stood for re-election, there being no one and no party I believed or whose promises I trusted. The years since, culminating in the Tory-Lib Dem coalition have confirmed to me the simple truths that Brand speaks. The idea that there should be a nation effort not to vote, or to spoil ballot papers en masse strikes me as being a pretty effective message to all the parties that the electorate is no longer prepared to be fooled or to play along and pretend it is acting out some holy freedom when we put our cross by a candidate’s name. The puppets are in revolt. More importantly, it would mean that no party and no coalition could claim, as they all have, no matter how small the percentage vote, that they have a mandate from the people for running the country or putting their policies into law.

I feel the pull of Brand’s populist anger and call to act quite strongly. He speaks of wanting a fairer society. Of giving higher wages to nurses, teachers and those who clean up our messes, than to those who sit in boardrooms selling oil or arms or surveillance equipment. All he wants, he says, is change for the better and if we collaborate in refusing power to those who think they are entitled to it, we can effect change.

The rhetoric is appealing as the rhetoric of the new broom demagogue sweeping the corrupt past away has always appealed. I don’t think that Brand is insincere or has, at least a conscious, desire for personal power. But I read his final words and tremble, not just at them, but at my own attraction to the popular words of a cheeky, honest stand-up comedian:

Even the outlet that printed this will tomorrow print a couple of columns saying what a naïve wanker I am, or try to find ways that I’ve fucked up. Well I am naïve and I have fucked up but I tell you something else. I believe in change. I don’t mind getting my hands dirty because my hands are dirty already. I don’t mind giving my life to this because I’m only alive because of the compassion and love of others. Men and women strong enough to defy this system and live according to higher laws. This is a journey we can all go on together, all of us. We can include everyone and fear no one. A system that serves the planet and the people. I’d vote for that.

While the comedian tells us honestly what we know about the world, there are always the others, the ones who do consciously want power and wealth, and they know very well how to manipulate populist feeling in a power vacuum. What is more, one of the worst things about Tony Blair, when he forcibly, with deceit, took us into the Iraq war that was to cause the death of hundreds of thousands of people, was that he was sincere. He claimed his sincerity as the bedrock of his right to act, as if only belief in what you were doing was required to act against a population’s wishes. And then I also worry about the population, that not only knows how corrupt the rich and powerful are, but, according to the polls, want to bring back hanging as a punishment for murder, and believe the country is being overrun by immigrants, and that the majority of those on welfare benefits for the low paid and unemployed are skivers and scroungers. And so I return to anger and apathy, and worry about a popular revolution led by comedians as well as no revolution, and the misery in the world getting ever more miserable.