Several years ago in a large shopping mall I watched this scene unfold. About 100 yards in front of me an elderly lady had fallen down an escalator. Her shopping had spilled everywhere. One of her legs was bleeding, and with the escalator still moving there remained other possible dangers.
As I approached five or six people, none of whom knew the lady or each other until moments before, had already burst in to action, forming a collaborative team. A young man pressed the emergency button to stop the escalator; a couple lifted the elderly lady from the metal stairs, where she was balanced precariously to the main floor, and someone’s coat was placed under her head. A middle-aged man dialed 999 to call for an ambulance. A young woman came out of the nearest shop bringing with her a first aid kit. She knelt over the elderly ‘patient’, asked how she was, assessing for shock, and explained that she was a off-duty nurse. The lady was shaky but unbowed. The gash in her leg wasn’t too bad, although there was a lot of blood.
The main actors stood around sympathetically, awaiting the arrival of the paramedic crew. One man had blood on his jacket from lifting her off the escalator. Another man and woman had collected her spilled shopping and put it back in the bags. Other people offered help but weren’t need, so effectively had the team performed. And then the experts arrived. The ambulance could be heard some distance off; the paramedics, so familiar from various TV programmes, dressed in medical uniforms carrying specialist equipment, arrived efficiently and quickly. The helpers melted away and became curious onlookers.
Everyone was touched by this experience. For a few minutes these complete strangers had acted selflessly, had given no thought to themselves. Nobody had thought ‘this is no business of mine’, or if they had, they had quickly dismissed it and taken responsibility, like the good Samaritan. Then the middle-aged man looked at his watch and the spell was broken. The young man talked to his girlfriend they and walked off, leaving the off-duty nurse in charge.
The patient seemed fine and people remembered who they were – an accountant going to a busy company board meeting; a mother collecting her children from school; a young woman in love… for a few moments the world had frozen a compassionate snapshot, but then, as in the marvelous last lines of Larkin’s poem Aubade the everyday world began to move once more. The shopping mall accident became an event, to be mused over that evening in front of a score of TV sets or even earlier in two dozen offices. But for a few moments all those ordinary people had behaved extraordinarily, lost in the service of a single distressed other.
With the plethora of books about spirituality from the self – improvement industry, we can easily forget that spirituality is simply a journey of uncovering oneself and about melting barriers: that one is all things: mountains, rivers, grasses, trees, sun, moon, stars, universe, are all oneself. Realising this natural state results in what is commonly referred to in Zen Buddhism as ‘true compassion’. Other people and things are no longer seen as apart from oneself but on the contrary, as one s own body.
The Vietnamese Monk Thich Nhat Hanh expresses ‘true compassion’ in terms of the many true names we have:
I am the child in Uganda,
all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve—year-old-girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by the sea pirate,
and I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands,
and I am the man who has to pay
his ‘debt of blood ’ to my people,
dying slowly in a forced labour camp.
My joy is like spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom in all walks of life.
My pain is like a river of tears,
soul it fills all four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up and so the door of my heart,
the door of compassion, can be left open.
(Hanh, 1982, p. 63-4)
However true compassion is difficult to achieve in modern society. Our existing government uses zero tolerance as a way of dealing with complex social issues, connected to us all. At present the newspapers are full of stuff about zero tolerance to beggars, London police are extending their policy of arresting beggars — especially those considered aggressive. The Victorian debate about the deserving and undeserving poor has never really gone away. We are in great danger of using ideological aerosol sprays on difficult and extremely complex social issues. We are zapping the beggars and moving them off the streets, but to where’? We demand speedy and effective remedies, rather than trying to understand how we are all interlinked and why it is undesirable to have the sort of life we wish. We have to give up this war against ourselves; the unceasing struggle against our ordinariness and grasping for the extraordinary, thinly concealed under the skin of personal growth.
There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the way we are. Our imperfect lives can echo love and joy, pain and despair, all of which contrasts immensely with DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Vol. IV), squashing people into tiny boxes. There is enormous pressure to be similar; to fit in, to believe the same ideas, wear the same things or risk exclusion, to become invisible. Our biological magnificence is found in and amongst us, the miraculous diversity of sex, gender, race, skin colour, height and breadth, and varying ideas and aspirations.
However ever new models of perfection surround us, thus making us feel that we’re outdated, disconnected and unwanted. There are better quality models, just like next year’s car or fridge. Now there is a ‘new man’, ‘new woman’ and even ‘new child`, as seen in the glossy brochures. They walk taller with more self-assurance, are cleverer, more confident, better mentally adjusted, wittier, handle life more effectively. They can take on all our existing roles and tasks and conduct the London Symphony Orchestra whilst playing the mouth organ and simultaneously composing a Shakespearean sonnet.
Of course these super individuals have their gurus — fitness coaches, personal growth therapists, spiritual masters — to whom they pay homage. They turn their busy lives into a business venture, never having a moment for aimless wandering or watching Telly Tubbies. They write and illustrate coffee-table books, produce video tapes and CDs, guiding the rest of us, all below-par schmucks, to the fashionable Celestial City of the day in several easy steps for only a few dollars more. With a bit of application and lots of money we can become just like them — extremely successful, wealthy, serene and handsome. We can join the spiritual Baywatch plan or become Buddhist Bunnies, with cotton lotus blossoms covering our slim rears.
These new people are huge improvements on us; giant evolutionary steps further on. We are Neanderthals to their Homo sapiens. They are physically more powerful, beautiful, sexier, fitter, wiser, with an improved sense of humour and a natural grace. They never smoke, chew gum, eat cream cakes, pick their feet or noses, swear at idiots, fart except in toilets or refuse to admit when they’re wrong. They always make the right choices in relationships and would honestly level with their intimates if things went emotionally wrong — which is never. They work on themselves assiduously and self-consciously. Their only dreams are about improving themselves.
The one tiny problem is that they don’t really exist, except as destructive fantasies inside our paranoid and fevered imaginations and profiles in the colour supplements. The dangers lie not in fantasies about superiority but in rejection, as Foucault reminded us. For example the worship of so—called beauty necessarily involves rejection of the so—called ugly. The disabled actor Nabil Shaban (1996) invented the term ‘body fascism’ to describe the pernicious process of rejecting bodies that are not ‘beautiful’ or are seen as ugly within narrow boundaries. This rejection includes (or rather excludes!) those viewed as large, fat or elderly, and those with visible disabilities — those in wheelchairs and the vast numbers who don’t look anything like Naomi Campbell or Claudia Schiffer.
Processes of exclusion are used to project dissatisfaction — a profound revulsion against the way we are, a deep and largely unattainable desire to be someone better — leading to eccentric plastic surgery, fantastic profits in cosmetics, excessive time in fitness centres. Slimming becomes a lifestyle for many women in pursuit of perfection. This is a quest for perfection by hungry ghosts; the holy grail is no longer sought in temples. cathedrals or even Jerusalem, but hungered after in shopping malls, at Weight Watchers or growth groups, or via counselling and psychotherapy.
Somehow we are considered just not good enough any more. The media offer a multitude of improvements on our inferior and flawed selves. There already exist vastly improved models that typify what we might become, with considerable effort and guidance from a variety of gurus and counsellors. The journey towards perfection, whatever that might mean, becomes almost irresistible. We seem increasingly under an obligation to work on ourselves, to become better. The real question is: good enough for what or for whom’?
We are swamped by noisy invitations to ‘improve ourselves’ — to read faster, to speak more clearly — from plastic surgery to the ‘working on ourselves’ of the personal growth movement. More recently the growth in knowledge of genetics, has offered the even greater ‘promise’ of reconstructing and even adding to existing physiological structures. So we can refurbish ourselves, rid ourselves of flat feet, smelly breath, a dull personality and unruly hair. Why should living with our so obviously flawed and often damaged selves be in anyway acceptable? We can get fresh and glossy packaging so easily.
Or as the Cartoonist Feiffer wrote acidly:
I used to think I was poor. Then they told me I wasn’t poor; I was needy. Then they told me it was self-defeating to think of myself’ as needy. I was deprived. Then they told me that underprivileged was overused. I was disadvantaged. I still don’t have a dime. But I have a great vocabulary.
Our flaws and often charming eccentricities become increasingly pathologised, formally listed in the psychiatric textbooks, especially in DSM IV. The DSM system constructs diagnostic categories out of everyday living and, increasingly, behaviours that are often ordinary and even banal. Many categories like the personality disorders are vague and essentially ‘untreatable’; even more bizarrely their untreatability becomes an ingredient of their diagnosis.
We live our lives in packages and ribbons, TV and magazine adverts turn us into yet another, if unusually complex, commodity in the global supermarket. We have all become easy targets for the selling of chocolate, cigarettes, cars, holidays. We all dress completely uniquely but reasonably alike in similar T-shirts, jeans, socks and trainers, carrying cloned plastic bags, all with identical fashionable logos.
We are recreated in ten thousand different images. A multitude of glossy fashion magazines tell us to look this way, to wear this colour. There are powerful messages about the currently preferred sexy shapes and sizes. We are instructed about what makes us attractive, via a hundred thousand Seychelles photos. But the real media gift is to package and sell us ourselves, all tied up with attractive ribbons. The makeover industry has entered the body, the mind and now the soul. For a brief season or two, a souped-up version of spirituality becomes popular.
Much of this is about increasing control. Clearly this is a ripple of infantile omnipotence — if I control myself I can hold the universe in the palm of my elegant hand. Magazines and newspapers, especially their colour supplements, persuade us to ‘improve’ — physically, socially, materially and spiritually — so they can sell us even more goods and chop down still more of the Brazilian rainforest while urging us to become ‘better and more socially aware’. The trend is for articles about ecology, the greenhouse effect, global warming — whatever is sexy and fashionable. Currently there is sensible and growing pressure for more effective husbandry of the planet, campaigns against excessive waste, We have to live more prudently and wisely. These important messages are sandwiched between expensive adverts tempting us with impossibly expensive perfumes; urging us to drive bigger and faster cars guzzling ever more petrol.
But the real money is not in Brazilian rainforests, cleaner beaches, organic farming, respecting the planet, but in the so—called ‘improvement’ of ‘oneself’. This is the age of mind hucksters. These psychological fitness coaches borrow from Charles Atlas and develop muscles of the mind and soul. First they need us to feel bad about ourselves. The media are full of stuff about ‘pressure’ and ‘stress’ , and they increase our overall stress by devoting thousands of column inches to extolling impossible attainments, as if they were ordinary and everyday. The various remedial packages increasingly contain the magical word ‘SPIRITUAL’. This is no longer a genuine longing for liberation or enlightenment, but a crude expression of greed.
But why do spiritual teachers have to be perfect? The worship of any sort of idol, false or genuine, is both dangerous and destructive. The Zen masters and Tibetan lamas I’ve known were ordinary men and women shrouded in projected mystery, capable of great heights and extraordinary stupidities. Sometimes in equal measures. Inevitably and with monotonous regularity, it’s revealed that our favourite spiritual gurus chewed tobacco, drank excessively, or were fond of sex with beautiful men and women.
Somehow we’re feeling increasingly bad about ourselves, whereas others seem so much better. We’ve seen the mirror of the soul and fallen far short of vague but high standards, regularly redefined by a distant group of judges. Just as in a Kafka novel, we never get to meet these people. They keep putting up the psychological and spiritual high-jump bar, so it becomes ever harder to clear. These so-called ‘experts’ appear regularly in the newspapers, on television and radio. From where do they get their standards? Can they live by their own advice – have regular peak experiences, leap triumphantly over ethical walls, achieve total psychological consistency?
It’s become almost immoral and a waste of our ‘vast untapped potential’ to be just ordinary — even normal? ‘Average’, ‘just normal’, ‘very average’ have become modern insults. Most of us are fairly slobbish, watch TV for long hours weekly, eat lots of food that is notably unhealthy, take insufficient exercise, and even more dreadfully obscene — smoke, take drugs and drink alcohol. So bloody what? The struggle against personal inadequacies but not structural failings has become a war.
John Diamond, who begins his book entitled ‘C — because cowards get cancer too . . .’
It isn’t a book about a battle against cancer because I despise the set of warlike metaphors that so many apply to cancer. My antipathy to the language of battles and fights has nothing to do with pacifism and everything to do with a hatred for the sort of morality which says that only those who fight hard against their cancer survive it or deserve to survive — the corollary being that those who lose the fight deserved to do so. (Diamond, 1998, p. 10).
In this context of an overall battle, ordinary vulnerability is completely unacceptable. lt is repulsive and repugnant to be frightened, anxious, stupid, depressed and despairing. We must reach for the distant stars, grab a necklace of peak experiences, be ‘self-actualised’, at least treble our potential and turn into geniuses. We should dream (or is it more usually a nightmare) of becoming a ‘better person’; more of everything our mind and grasp can desire. The heart is usually a lot wiser than that.
But any genuine move towards better living lies in robust action rather than in simply reading and listening. Action can be painful and demands a fundamental integrity. It involves genuine personal awareness, accepting ourselves – our faults and all- and it also means critically reviewing how we live and whether it’s justified if it involves the use of scarce and essentially non—renewable resources. This always requires some pain and sacrifice and is founded on deep respect and reverence for this fragile planet.
We desire painlessness, a sort of enduring spiritual anaesthetic, which inevitably involves an obsession with sickness and health, seen in direct opposition to health. Despair is reconfigured as clinical depression. Foucault reminds us: Every society establishes a whole series of oppositions — between good and evil, permitted and prohibited, lawful and illicit, criminal and non—criminal, etc. All these oppositions, which are constitutive of society, today in Europe are being reduced to the simple opposition between normal and pathological. This opposition not only is simpler than others, but also has the advantage of letting us believe there is a technique to bring the pathological back to normal. (Foucault, quoted in Adams, 1999, p. 58)
This results in attempts to vanquish and exclude the rejected polarity. Zero tolerance. Yet another defense is to magic away distressed people through linguistic conjuring. The poor become ‘disadvantaged’ unhappy people are ‘dysfunctional’, battered children are transformed into ‘non—accidental injuries.
Galbraith suggests this is a strong insurance against discomfort:
Those so situated, the members of the functional and socially mobilized under class, must, in some very real way, be seen as the architects of their own fate. If not, they could be, however marginally, on the conscience of the comfortable. There could be a disturbing feeling, however fleeting, of unease, even guilt. (Galbraith, 1993 , p. 97)
We cannot live side by side with obviously distressed people unless they are to blame and we are innocent. Nothing inside them or they way they live can be allowed to disturb our lives. This jargon of poverty and distress cleverly manipulates issues of power and pain by transferring them to a psychological framework. The poor have dwindled away not in size but in presence. They have ceased to be sweating and struggling human beings, real to the senses. One disabled friend told me recently that two support workers had left him because they felt over involved. When I asked what he thought they meant, he said: ‘They’re supposed to be objective’. We both laughed.
Altruism has become especially suspect. Ideas of personal service are disparaged and derided. Those who serve others are condemned as do-gooders, out of touch with harsh realities. Self—interest becomes the only legitimate motivation, any seeming compassion is stupid or fraudulent. All of us know that’s untrue. Our daily lives are full of small moments of love, from those who cherish us at home to strangers who politely wait while we drive into busy lanes of traffic.
We are not born ignorant but perversely forget what we know. We grow up and lose much of the intuitive understanding we gained as small children. We are carefully socialised amid an ocean of triviality and wisdom. The triviality protects us, inadequately, from a primordial fear of powerful and seemingly overwhelming shadow forces. These forces seem both separate from and hostile to us. They seem to cut the light from our life, threaten to overwhelm everything we do. They seem a perpetual enemy, of which we must be constantly vigilant. Part of our mind is constantly looking over its shoulder.
We seek distractions to avoid the shadows, squandering our preciously brief existence. This can mean almost anything — toys of all sorts, computers, hi-fi equipment, sex, cars and boats, reading books on personal growth. Usually, our main escape routes involve busyness — a thousand inconsequential activities, hurrying and scurrying rather than facing the challenge of shadowland. We read, listen to loud music, play football, watch TV and chatter on interminably, rather than face this terrifying part of ourselves, invested with our fears, despairs, hostilities and anger — profoundly unacceptable fragments of ourselves. To fail to accept those fragments, is to fail to accept the whole, and to die slowly and fearfully whilst still walking around on two legs.
We can run away from many essential realities but we can’t run away from life, sickness and death. There is no escape except through suicide. We pretend that we’re happy and whistle a happy tune. We learn to substitute impermanent goods and possessions for the real things in life, but moths and rust destroy them all eventually. In running away, we are forced to value the tinsel of existence. We make demands, inaccurately identified as needs. We live complicated lives that involve rushing from here to there and contain little silence and space.
Why are we obsessive about measuring our ‘achievements”? Socially and economically we play ‘winners and losers’. Losers are on the dole or have poorly paid or worthless jobs. They live in run—down council house estates, probably in northern England, Scotland or Wales. They eat fried bread, beef-burgers, fish and chips, and are labelled ‘malingerers’ by the popular media. They are on the far edges of our society. They share most of the sorrows and very few of the joys.
The winners are valued and ‘successful’, acquiring the mountain of consumer durables that proclaim their ‘high’ social status. For a brief moment they can deceive themselves, feel at the top of the pecking order, the king or queen of the cardboard castle. They can show the world their large country estate, motor launch, Rolls Royce or platinum American Express card. But these ‘successful’ people really know that an accumulation of material possessions is no genuine achievement.
Paradoxically the more ‘successful’ the social presentation, the more lonely we become. We are on our own even in the presence of many others, no matter how intimate. The vital realities of our lives — such as being born, our dependence on others, becoming sick, dying and death — are denied and almost completely submerged under a hogwash of external activity. We are packaged and sanitised. We are hopelessly lost in the noisy global market. That is an immense cost for a few hours of escape from fear.
Now we live hand to mouth — often frightened, joyful, anxious, angry, loving, untidy, feeling ugly and unwanted — we begin to feel less real than the people in a breakfast cereal TV advert, with glowing faces and eager anticipation of the day ahead. Everyone else seems so much more alive. We watch ourselves like thousands of football spectators. Our minds are fragmented much of the time. There are more post mortems than real action. Even when we feel good, we know that further bouts of despair and self-doubt are just around the corner.
John Clare, the nineteenth—century poet, wrote of living with the ‘shipwreck of my own esteem:
‘As young children, we knew loneliness as an occasional visitor, especially at night. Now that visitor has taken up lodgings. Our essential selves are brick—walled from others. We can never show our real and essentially vulnerable selves. We can show only the tidy ends, the authentic untidiness remains closely concealed. But that means denying our human uniqueness, all the personal experiences and true feelings — ultimately to bury the deep knowledge of who we really are’.
So there is a great temptation to see spirituality as something special, involving superior powers. It is usually written of as if it contains extra ingredients that are possessed only by the chosen few — modern Calvinism. ‘One of the ways in which “spirit” has been interpreted is to separate it altogether from organised religion and a set of beliefs and link it to a “special way of being”. Spirit and spiritual states are seen as something beyond the mundane and everyday. This sort of quest for perfection is destructive, whether in chocolate cakes or in gurus. This Disney like process — the temptation to beautify and sentimentalise, concentrating exclusively on light rather than darkness — is powerful and injurious.
Our yearning for spirituality, like our yearning to be of service to others can also be an inventive commodity of the ego, all with improved products with fresh ingredients. Spiritual gifts are easily used for egotistical purposes, subverting even the noblest of intentions. And it is easy to get absurdly fluffy about spirituality. The paradoxes become filled with mystical nonsense. Sadly much of what passes for contemporary spirituality is linked with the New Age movement, characterised by intellectual promiscuity – the borrowing and stealing from hundreds of different disciplines. This results in an unhealthy sprint from reason, taking refuge in a mess of sentimentality.
As a finite self then, a human struggles to find goodness, truth, beauty and life at the exclusion of evil, poverty, ugliness and death. But such one-sided fulfillment is impossible. Given the inseparability of the poles, one cannot arrive at a pure or absolute form of one pole at the exclusion of the other. Although someone might find temporary, relative satisfaction, the negation of that satisfaction soon arises. Expressed with the metaphor of waves, insofar as people exist as waves on the agitated surface of an expanse of water we are eternally unsettled, for waves continue to arise and fall in endless succession.
So the question becomes, how to ride that wave? Or in contemporary terms, in the age of plastic surgery, the dawn of cloning and the growth of ten thousand psychological tricks, the question is can we give up perfection for ordinary human living? Can we arrive at a genuine understanding of imperfections? We don’t want to eradicate them — but to learn and grow from their promptings. This is the essential Tao, the harmony of ordinary everyday living rather than devotion to self-cherishing. In our own wisdom and competence we can choose the unique human heritage — of compassion, caring that comes from genuine empathy for the other, with the ordinary life of triumphs and disasters, illness and eventual death.
Matt Seaton, husband of Ruth Picardie, illustrates this struggle when watching his wife dying over the months:
‘You always imagine death as a sudden event, a clean break between being and non-being, possession and loss — and for same facing perhaps the dreadful trauma of losing a loved, one killed suddenly in an accident, that is how it must be. But with a progressive disease like cancer, dying is a relentlessly process of estrangement. You want so much to do and say the right thing, but you are doomed to frustration, failure and regret. The only really ‘right thing’ would be to make that person you love well again, and that is the one great god-like task you cannot perform’. (Picardie, 1998, p. 103)
The dying of a loved one shatters all social conventions. Ordinarily we feel compelled to wear a social face, a smoothly smiling face that is acceptable, likeable and popular but without authenticity. Who are we? We have forgotten how to communicate with others. We have sold our integrity for some cheap social acceptability. We translate our natural changeability into a learned consistency with little substance. This face buys shallow acceptance. To be rejected might mean social death, perhaps to be viewed as mad. To be deemed crazy, psychotic, the odd one out or as ‘making waves’ is a fundamental fear. Events such as dying and death crash through all of that skin—deep presentation.
So going back to true compassion. We are the homeless people in the night shelter next door; the social service bureaucrats as well as residential workers supporting people with disabilities; we nurse the patients — sick and dying in hospital — as well as sell military hardware to the Middle East and patent for profit the discoveries of human DNA research. We are all of us so much more than lengthy lists of problems, symptoms and diseases. We are a huge and necessary diversity of peoples and individuals, each one a galaxy of elements with it’s own imperfections. Embracing this seems to me to be at the heart of spirituality.
References and further reading
Adams. Peter (1999) The Soul Medicine – An Anthology of Illness and Healing. London. Penguin
Diamond, John (1998) C – Because Cowards Get Cancer Too. London. Vermillion
Galbraith, John Kenneth (1993) The Culture of Contentment. London. Penguin
Gould, Stephen Jay (1996) Life’s Grandeur. London. Jonathan Cape
Hanh Thich, Nhat (1982) Peing Peace London. Rider.
Ives, C (1992) Zen Awakening. London. McMillan
Lomas, P (1987) The Limits of Interpretation. London. Heinemann
Picardie, R (1998) Before I Say Goodbye. London. Penguin
Shaban, Nabil (1996) Without Walls: Supercrips and Rejects. Channel 4 TV
Trungpa, Choygam (1969) Meditation in Action. London. Stuart and Watkins.
Trungpa, Choygam (1987) Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism Boston. Shambala
Uchiyama, K (1990) The Zen Teaching of ‘Homeless’ Kodo Shimogyio-Ku. Japan. Schumucho