Riots and well-wishers

‘A fish stinks/rots from the head down’.  

That’s a quotation I’ve known for years.  The usual meaning is ‘when an organisation or state fails, it’s the leadership that is the root cause’.  Food for thought.
 
During the recent unexpected riots across the country and in the aftermath, that quote resonates in the confusing mix of reasons and causes being offered and attributed.  Bad parenting, greed, a ‘sick underbelly of society’, budget cuts, deep-rooted lack of self-esteem….there is no single cause, it seems to me this happening is the latest in a catalogue of events that offer us a chance to observe ourselves, if we wish to.  
 
Not surprisingly, there is the usual response of people getting caught up in blaming others rather than us reflecting on ourselves.  It may not be about direct responsibility – for example, I don’t have a child who was rioting and I wasn’t rioting personally, but if I look at the society to which I belong and the choices I/we make collectively, then surely I do have some part in this.  I do have a shadow.  If it isn’t my individual shadow, then it is our collective shadow; and if I disown my shadow how can I exist?   If I deny the existence of my shadow, or let my shadow wander unattended, I run the risk of becoming my shadow or being lost in my own shadow.  Jung says, ‘The encounter with oneself means first of all the encounter with one’s own shadow.’  In Hans Christian Anderson’s disturbing fairy story The Shadow, a man loses his shadow when his shadow goes wandering into the realms of poetry and becomes a man.  The shadow returns years later in a position of power, subjugating his human owner, and ultimately the man loses his life to his shadow.
 
I reflect again on that wonderful quotation from Solzhenitsyn:
 
‘If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.  But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, and who is willing to destroy his own heart?’
 
2 ‘Dukha is the spiritual dis-ease’
 
We visited Amaravati, the Theravadan Buddhist monastery near Little Gaddesden, the day after the London riots started in Tottenham, before anyone realised how the riots would escalate and move across the country.  This trip to Amaravati seems to have become an annual outing for the book club to which I belong.  Last year was our first visit, it was a glorious summer day, we arrived in the middle of the ceremony and the chanting, feasted on a sumptuous meal of the most delicious Indian vegetarian cuisine, and then walked around the fields and spent some time in the temple.  This year was different – a cooller, breezier, wetter day which led us to change our plans and stay for the Dharma talk entitled ‘Dukha is the spiritual disease’.
 
The speaker, Ajahn Jayanto, turned out to be an American monk which was a pleasant surprise.  His humour infused the talk from the start, and it was good to see the largely British audience warm to him.  He had a down-to-earth, accessible, unpretentious style, and he spoke fluently. 
 
Dukha, a Sanskrit wordis normally defined as suffering or pain, literally translated as ‘bad space’.  Ajahn Amaro defined it as dis-ease, the absence of ease – and talked compellingly about not just the obvious suffering that comes from not getting what you want or getting what you don’t want, but also the suffering that can parade under the cloak of happiness and achievement.  Each of us has that insidious part of ourselves which, when we’re happy, is trying to maintain that state and is anxious about losing the moment of success (salespeople know this phenomenon as, ‘you’re only as good as your last sale’).  It’s the fear of being ‘found out’, being discovered to be not as good as your facade suggests.  I remember a woman talking to me about this feeling of being a fraud for what felt like hours as dusk descended in a room with no lights. There is also the anticipated suffering in realising that pleasure, like pain, is just a moment that will pass – the invitation is to learn the lesson of not holding on to either pleasure or pain and just being with what is, which is the way to liberation from dukha.
 
Ajahn Jayanto talked about how Theravadan Buddhism can seem very dour, seeing the shadows as well as sunlight, as opposed to that worldview which sees us all as inherently good and love and light.  Yet how can light exist without relationship to dark?
 
He reminded us of Buddhism’s four noble truths:
1   There is suffering.
2   It is caused by attachment, of which there are three varieties – in Pali, lopa – greed, wanting; dosa – aversion, not wanting; moha – delusion, fooling ourselves
3   It can cease.
4   There is a remedy, a path.
 
Dukha is not an external event, it is what we do to ourselves.  The cause of unhappiness is patterns in our thinking and behaving, patterns in our minds.  If we stop doing things that harm our self or others, then we stop obstructing the heart/mind and our views and perceptions become less hard.  To cure ourselves from suffering we need to change ourselves first.  
 
He described his reflections as ‘a teaching for those with little dust in our eyes’, a beautiful phrase, and he suggested that there is a route to true Happiness with a capital ‘H’.  This route is a third way – not trying to get happiness or trying to avoid happiness, but instead ‘putting down the project of my life and being with myself as I am’.  This reminded me of the paradoxical theory of change which I have written about recently, that a person changes when they become who they are not when they try to be what they are not.  He also talked about the need to have spiritual companionship to do this.
 
He suggested that the most radical social action we can take is to look at our own capacity to create suffering.  This seems to me to be directly relevant to the riots and to all of us who are implicated directly or indirectly.  At least partially, greed, wanting what we don’t have, is a cause underlying the riots – the immediate greed of those who plundered, the greed of some prominent others, the greed we all experience, and the all-pervasive, insatiable greed which is the ground in which materialism thrives in society all around us.  It is a greed that takes many more subtle forms – there is the psychological and emotional greed for recognition, affirmation, power, relationship.  If we could get free of greed, material and otherwise, surely we could shake off a large part of our suffering.
 
It’s always easier to think and write about this kind of thing than to do it.  I’ve been using two specific situations as a practice field for this.  Every time I notice myself gravitating to certain patterns of expectation, thinking, hoping, dreading – both the positive and the negative – I take a step back from the pattern.  I laugh at myself wryly and I observe my greed and related responses which could be disappointment, dread, envy…  I wouldn’t say it ‘works’ – but it’s giving me a different relationship with myself and my experience.  I notice how the anticipated or real suffering is of my own making, and somehow that lessens its potency.  I also notice how certain other practices help me to find more readily a more positive response, and also how other tendencies and temptations lead me to much worse outcomes.  I always remember someone saying, ‘fear is praying for what you don’t want to happen’.  How true is that?!  Minimising the fear comes through going into the space where the fear is felt most deeply and discovering something – nothing – and then feeling better, feeling nothing, knowing also I won’t feel better all the time.  I do notice that while the patterns are still there, I am slightly less ‘in the grip’ of them.  I just need to keep practising – forever.
 
3 ‘The well-wishers’
 
I have been wanting to re-read one of my favourite authors from childhood for awhile.
 
Edward Eager was an American author, inspired by the works of E Nesbitt, who wrote a number of books for children about magic in everyday life, one of which is called The Well-Wishers.  In fact, The Well-Wishers is one of only two of his books where the magic is so much part of the fabric of daily life, its identity as magic comes into question.  Is it magic or not?  ‘…magic can start working in your mind whether you know it’s there or not.’  
 
 
I decided to re-read The Well-Wishers a year ago when I created this blog.  I’ve always liked the words ‘well-wishing’.  I prefer ‘well’ to ‘good’ – I don’t know why, it just feels well, less black and white.  ‘Be well’  rather than ‘be good’.  ‘Well’ is a hoped-for state-of-being, ‘good’ is a pronouncement, an order, a value judgment – perhaps.  Also ‘well’ has hidden imperceptible depths – depths of possibility, intention, compassion, of what you will.  ‘Well’ is for me linked to the heart.  Anyway, I like the feeling of wishing others well and being wished well myself.  I like and seek the company of well-wishers.
 
So I was happy too, to come across this quote this week:
 
“He/she becomes free of all illnesses, who indulges daily in a healthy diet, healthy life style, who acts based on discrimination of what is appropriate and what is not, who is detached, who is generous, who is balanced in perception and action, who lives by his/her reality, who is forgiving, and residing in the company of well wishers.” – Āyurveda Ācārya Vāgbhaṭṭa
 
The Well-Wishers is a period piece, it’s a slight work, charming but not very substantial.  The story is about a group of children who believe that they find magic in a well and that if they wish for the magic, something good will happen to them and to others, and the magic will do its work.  They go around doing good turns for various people in their community, and creating a community of well-wishers.  ‘It is the well and the magic that keep the good turns going, we know that.  But always one of us has to be smart enough to interpret the magic and justify the ways of the well to man…’  Although it may sound like it, the children aren’t themselves goody-two-shoes, they are pretty average American children of the 1950s, with hopes and uncertainties appropriate to their age. 
 
The book is a little simplistic, perhaps gauged for its audience, but there are some nice moments.  At one point there is nearly a riot in the very middle-class, sedate community the children live in because a black family from New York has bought a house and is threatening to move in. The community is divided as to whether they will welcome this family whose skin colour is never directly mentioned but is made clear.  The Well-Wisher children and their parents are on the side of welcoming the family, and through a connection with a special place and the magic of the well, the children have the idea of organising a welcome based around bearing plants and recreating the family’s garden.  Their plan is implemented successfully and overcomes the potential uprising, which becomes the riot that didn’t happen. 
 
 
I like the book’s down-to-earth, self-reflective wisdom.  One of the children says, ‘It is when the big deals are over and the ordinary daily living starts that the real test comes.  Ordinary daily living is not what most people are at their best at.  And that goes for just about everybody in this story.’  There is no blame here, just practical thinking.
 
When I reached the ending, I remembered savouring it as a child, a positive memory recovered:
 
‘There will always be good turns to be done, no matter how grown-up we get.  And if they grow less and less magical as time grows on, we can still try to keep doing them by ordinary means.
 
All the same, as I sat by the living-room fire yesterday and thought of winter coming, and how wonderful the summer and fall had been and how quickly they had passed, and as I looked out at the bare trees and thought of how James had changed and how we hardly ever see him any more and how pretty soon the others will probably start changing, too, I couldn’t help feeling sad, as I say.  And rebellious at life, and the way it is.
 
Because I don’t want things to change, or people, either.  I want them to stay exactly the way they are.
 
That was how I felt yesterday.
 
But this morning I got up, and everything was different.  There was frost on the ground but the sun was shining and squirrels were scolding, and on the gable over the wishing well a late-departing phoebe sat and wagged its tail.
 
I looked at the world, and suddely I felt as if magic were surely going to happen any minute.  I can’t describe how that feeling feels, but if you have ever had magic adventures, as we have, you will know.’
 
When I was a child, the world of the well-wishers felt a little bit out of date but in many ways pretty close to everyday life.  My friends and I used to play games, we invented imaginary lands and journeys, and we had designated magic places in the neighbouring houses and apartment buildings, as well as scary dangerous places.   I guess we had our own versions of dukha and pain and suffering – what we imagined or feared, some places inspired it, dark shadowy places.  And we didn’t always treat each other very well.  But we would never have dreamed of trashing anyone’s place.  We felt guilty if we were caught playing innocently on someone else’s property on stairwells or in gardens.  I don’t know whether childhood now, for most children, is a very different place.
 
As an adult I still know that feeling of the magic being about to happen any minute, and now I even have my own well.  I often feel that sense of impending magic when I’m writing on my blog and I sometimes feel it in real life.  I know some of you will know what I mean.  The thing is, the magic has different textures as you age and grown-ups create bigger and better names for it.  Synchronicity is one of those names and it’s a special variety of magic.
 
Being mesmerised by the events of everyday life, virtual and real, is a kind of magic.  Maybe I would sometimes consider myself  fanciful, or just a child at heart, or even think that this is my brand of escapism.   But none of this is true.  Seeing and living the magic is an approach to life not an escape from life.  Put in other words, it is what the practice of yoga is about.  I’d rather believe in and experience the magic of the well-wishers that is here right now, than spend time deconstructing the riots. 
 
 

Woman at the well at Walsingham, photo thanks to Vivienne Tuffnell

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13 Responses to Riots and well-wishers

  1. Colonial boy says:

    It is precisely because the world is imperfect and our time here is short that it necessary for those of us who are less imperfect keep the truly imperfect on a very tight rein.

    Much to be said for transportation. It thins out the godless residents here and creates countries we can beat at cricket.

    • Stephen says:

      Hi Colonial Boy, you’re wearing a very thin disguise. You should try wearing a hoodie or ski mask that way you can beat us with your humourous thoughts and remain truly anonymous.
      The thought of introducing some form of Community Service that all youngsters (officer class too) have to undertake may be a solution to our divisive society. In the past ten years the rich have got richer and the poor poorer – this cannot continue without experiencing so form of unrest.

  2. Karin says:

    Hmm, I think I recognise the plumage of this response – let alone the typos, do let me know if you’d like anything corrected…I am a little concerned that my blog is becoming a playing field and not sure all of this activity is exactly ‘cricket’! There are a lot of issues for me with your first statement, but I am not going to write another essay. I look forward to an alter-ego’s comment.

  3. Madhu Sameer says:

    Karin,

    Your blog (excellent reflections, btw) reminded me that we live in an onion like world. Everything is itself, and everything else, including, but not limited to, its opposite. Your first line reminded me of the tenets of developmental approach – the failure of a child/adult is actuallythe failure of the parent. You just substitutes the subjects in the sentence. The psychology still holds.

    I also like your explanation of the word suffering. When I look beyond the painted faces, and hollow smiles, I see each one of us carries an untold amount of misery that is an essence of life. We just are taught to pull ouselves up by the bootstraps and keep on keeping on (as Bob Dylan would say). I will often say to my clients that life is a sea of suffering, with spikes of happiness thrown in for straws. They initially find this view of life very strange, and unacceptable, but as we slow down life and examine it frame by frame, they soon come to see that most frames of their everyday existance are anxious, fearful, panicky, painful etc. The sea of suffering – in self and other – becomes visible. An appreciation for that elusive transiency of happiness is then felt more intimately. Perspectives shift. Perhaps that experience constitutes your magic moments! I am so glad that you can experience them….it is a rare gift, trust me on that.

    Thanks for giving us this great piece.

    M.

  4. Karin says:

    Thanks, Madhu, for your comments which I always appreciate and good to ‘hear’ you again, I hope all is well.

    I think we are brainwashed from an early age to think life is all about being happy, the pursuit of happiness, and if you don’t feel happy there’s something wrong with you. Your point about slowing down the frames of life, as in a movie, and recognising all those feelings of anxiety. is maybe part of that process of recognising the shadow that is always there. And I do feel and experience in a way that allowing those feelings in, just to be, rather than suppressing or rejecting them does in itself create a shift.

    I have been reading an interesting book called Hindu Philosophy by Theos Bernard, and I was going to quote this in the post, I think you might like it:

    ‘PAIN (duhkha) is an impediment that hinders the progress of the soul. The body is said to be the abode of pain; the senses are the instruments of pain; the intellect is the agent of pain; birth, then, is association with pain; therefore, life is a passing experience of sorrow and suffering. Pleasure is but an interval, for all pleasures are attended with suffering of non-fulfillment which produces constant mental suffering. It can, therefore, be said that he who is addicted to the pursuit of pleasure is in reality given to the pursuit of pain, for there is no pleasure, in the attainment and enjoyment of which, pain in some form or other is not present.’

  5. Madhu Sameer says:

    I completely agree. 🙂

  6. Barbara says:

    Thank you so much for this reflective piece it is a relief to read a response to the riots which is about looking at our own part in the dis-ease of society. I recommend an article by Russell Brand in G2 (The Guardian) on the 11th August. It too reflected on our own part in all of this.

    I felt encouraged by your belief in Magic. I am grateful for a world where magic does happen. I shall look out for the Well Wishers.
    Barbara

  7. Stephen says:

    I’m spellbound by your depth and breadth of writing however this is really a search for an explanation of our existence, the why’s and wherefore’s behind how we live our lives as individuals and as tribes. Despite our arrogance to believe we are better than most animals we are still just that, animals. As such much of our behaviour stems from behaviours we learnt over one hundred thousand years, whether it be finding our way around our territory or being the hunter/gatherer. When the thin veneer we call civilisation is worn thin or removed then we revert back to what we really are – animals.

    • Karin says:

      Hi Steve,
      yes, we are animals, but we do have choice even under duress. It’s not just about buttons being pushed and behaviours from many thousands of years ago being reactivated, end of story. Even if/when that happens, we can reflect and learn, and through practice not be driven by these past responses. What do you think? What was all that stuff we did together and with others all about if some such change isn’t possible?
      As ever your comments have made me think.
      Thanks,
      Karin

      • Stephen says:

        The efforts we went to were about changing behaviours that occur in the veneer of society, not in our deep rooted desires and drives. I don’t think at anypoint did we alter the moral outlook of the people involved in those sessions and when I meet up with some of them again I realise how little we changed in the individuals although we may have changed the collective culture for a time.
        The vandalism and greed displayed in the riots will not change as a consequence of the punishments being meted out now, there is a need for a fundamental change in our society that requires some strategic thinking and an acceptance that the changes will take at least 25 years to be achieved (a generation). The greed is good philosophy of the Thatcher years is still with us after 20 years, need I say more?

      • Karin says:

        True about it being the veneer. I’m uncomfortable with some of the language here though – I never set out to alter the moral outlook of anyone. What I would hope is that there was an environment where reflection was possible and that just might lead to a shift of some type. You can’t change anyone but yourself, and would you want anyone else to change you? I guess what I thought we were doing was changing an environment, creating a different climate where change could happen – subtle difference perhaps but fundamental. So as you say it was definitely about changing a collective culture – more than the sum of the parts – and individuals might change along the way, there are at least two people in your group who I believe did.

        Once the leadership changes, it all goes down the drain except for the bits individuals retain. Hence the phrase, ‘a fish rots from the head down’.

        I certainly agree with you that the greed will not change in response to the punishment. What I’ve written is about how any change has to start with people looking at themselves for themselves. We have to recognise the discomfort/pain in how things are now, which is a first step towards that change but is not enough in itself to sustain the change. The incentive of sustaining the change needs to be the discovery of something fundamentally better than greed.

  8. Karin says:

    A quote that I feel resonates with this post and our time:
    ‘Perhaps at no other time have men been so knowing and yet so unaware, so burdened with purposes and yet so purposeless, so disillusioned and yet so completely the victims of illusion.
    This strange contradiction pervades our entire modern culture, our science and our philosophy, our literature and our art.’
    WM Urban: The Intelligible World – Metaphysics and Value (1929).

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