So, here we are again. It’s that time of the year when we wish each other happiness and we talk about spreading peace and goodwill; and yet, right now, all three of those – and the last two in particular – seem to be pretty thin on the ground.
Right now we’ve got troubles in Britain, troubles in America, troubles in Poland, troubles in Brazil, troubles in Palestine, troubles in the Ukraine… and that’s to say nothing of the big, big troubles in Syria.
Is it not ironic that the birth which we purport to celebrate on December 25th took place just down the road from Aleppo? While we deck the halls with boughs of holly and sing songs about a baby born in a stable, little children just like Him may be cowering from bombs; and still others are drowning in the Med or, having survived that passage, are knocking on Europe’s door.
But there’s no room at the inn.
What’s got us into this mess that we’re in at the moment?
If we could discover the answer to that question then perhaps we could dig ourselves out of the hole!
These philosophical meanderings are long (4,000 words). And every time I try to précis my thoughts or tidy them up, others creep in… So now I’m just going to toss the whole mess down before you, and the wolves can shred it and the peacemakers amongst you can come back with some better ideas.
Please sit yourself down somewhere comfortable… and we’ll begin.
PART ONE – What’s gone wrong?
We live in a world where, every day, 50,000 people die of hunger. And that’s to say nothing of the many millions who don’t actually die but who go to bed hungry and who are slowly fading away.
While the majority of the world’s population suffers, we – the blessed few who happen to have been born in the West – will be stuffing our faces with roast turkey and chocolate and washing it down with wine. Not for us the peasant’s diet of rice and beans – not unless we choose it, anyway; and even then, we have the good fortune to be able to pad out that basic fare with nuts and hummus and tofu, and other protein and vitamin rich foods.
No, I’m not trying to put you off your Christmas dinner. I’m not even trying to make you feel guilty about the fact that you’ve probably just spent a fortune – the equivalent of a Ghanaian shop-girl’s annual salary – on stuff that will serve its purpose for less than two years before it finds its way into the land-fill. I’m not going to lecture you about the way the creation of your new lap-top or your fleece jumper, or just about anything else that you’ve bought in a shop, has contributed to global warming and habitat loss (and, through a combination of those two, to the extinction of who knows how many animal species).
There’s no point. You already know this stuff. We all know it.
The thing that’s got me wondering is why? Why do we carry on, regardless, when we know that we’re hurtling towards a brick wall?
The short answer is that we do it because it’s all part of our search for happiness; and although it ought to be obvious by now that an abundance of property doesn’t equate to happiness, we don’t seem to know any other way to live. Amassing ‘stuff’ whilst trying to live forever seems to have become modern man’s entire purpose.
Maybe – just maybe – that’s why we’re in this mess.
What would make you happy?
If I consider our travels of the past 25 years and I think about the places we’ve visited and the people we’ve met, it seems to me that the folks who’ve been the happiest have not been the ones who were richest. In fact, it’s startling to note that the two richest men we’ve met in recent years both specifically told us that they were not happy with their lot. Both were big businessmen with their fingers in various pies, yet both, after chatting for half an hour to this bunch of cruising bums, expressed a wish to chuck it all in and adopt a lifestyle similar to ours. (Just to put you in the picture as to how much wealth these individuals had at their disposal, one – an Argentinian – seemed to give serious thought to the idea of replacing the eight tons of lead in the bilge of his 65ft yacht with an equivalent weight of gold.)
Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, we’ve met families subsisting on whatever they could catch in the sea or grow on a terraced hillside – people who don’t even have the money for a new T-shirt or a bottle of beer, never mind a computer; people whose possessions can truly be numbered on their fingers and toes – and they’ve been perfectly content. What’s more, these subsistence farmers and fishermen have tended to be very generous, sometimes to the point of making us feel embarrassed when circumstances didn’t allow us to reciprocate.
Is this a recommendation for poverty?
No. Rather than espousing poverty, what we should aim for is an equitable distribution of Nature’s resources: the sort of thing that Che and Fidel brought about – but without the barbed-wire fence…
True poverty is a killer. But our experiences just might be a recommendation for a kind of voluntary poverty, or ‘voluntary simplicity’; and, whatever else, they would certainly seem to refute the idea that the one with the most toys wins.
We Westerners have got so much, and yet we’re not very high up on the Happiness Index. And our lack of happiness, and our way of expressing or reacting to this lack, is leading us towards a state of affairs which could really make us suffer.
History’s Vicious Circle
If we stand back from the trees and take a look at the whole wood… If we set aside our own personal view and try to put this present, ugly moment in its historic context… then we see that humankind seems always to have been riding a roller-coaster.
How far back shall we go? To the Romans, perhaps, and to ancient Britain.
Before the Romans decided to move into Great Britain the island was under the control of various tribes of Celts. These were not the original occupants of the place. They had come in, over the preceding 500 years, in successive waves, and had imposed themselves on the indigenous people. The ‘warlords’ who had been the longest in the island were not inclined to accept the newcomers – they engaged in continual fighting with the immigrants – and nor were they friendly to Rome. And so, in order to protect their trade with the more peaceable Celts, the Empire invaded Britain.
Needless to say, the Pax Romana will not have been well received by all of the locals; but in the long run it served everybody very well. It is said that in the fifty years after the Romans arrived and imposed law and order, the population doubled – and this, purely because the people no longer spent their time killing each other.
The peace lasted for around 400 years, and then the Romans withdrew. The Britons tried to persuade them to stay but they went anyway, and that left the islanders defenceless and lawless. The people began to fight amongst themselves, with various elements vying for control, and while they were bickering along came the Angles and the Saxons and the Jutes… and within fifty years there’d been so much killing that the population was down to pre-Roman times.
Time passed; things settled down; Britain was gradually united and gradually became very wealthy. And then along came the Vikings and it all started again… And so on.
The last big upset in Britain came with the invasion undertaken by William the Bastard and his cronies. William resolutely wiped out the entire Anglo-Saxon aristocracy in order to implant his own.
Since then the island of Great Britain has never been conquered, and we’re vain enough to think that Britons never, never, never will be slaves – but there have been a number of near misses.
There were several French invasions in mediaeval times, all of which were eventually repelled.
And then there was that attempt by the Spanish – an attempt which was won by the weather as much as by the English fleet.
If the threat of an invasion by Napoleon hadn’t been so real then the south coast wouldn’t be lined with forts, and Nelson and Wellington wouldn’t be regarded with such high acclaim.
And let’s not forget those air-raids which Hitler brought upon the place. In fact, when I see pictures of Aleppo I find myself thinking of the stories told to me by my mother. She was twelve at the outset of World War II and lived through the Blitz. She used to have to sleep in a metal crate under the dining room table, just in case the house was hit.
So, where are we now on the roller coaster of civilisation?
Half the electorate in America has just chosen to be ruled over by a man who deliberately incites racism and sexism. Simultaneously, on the other side of the pond, half the voters in Britain have elected to pull up the drawbridge and cease having anything to do with our neighbours on the continent; and the brotherhood of Europe is further threatened by similar sentiment in France.
The peace which once seemed certain to last forever is now cracked and shaking, so that a great many of us feel that war is almost inevitable – for, after all, history shows us that war is always the outcome of a breakdown in relationships in Europe.
History shows us that a people who are not legally united become fragmented into ‘tribes’, and it shows us that war is actually the status quo between tribes.
That’s where we are.
We thought we’d finished with wars between ‘civilised’ nations; we thought that humankind had advanced spiritually, but Brexit, Trump, and Le Pen are proof that half of us haven’t. Racism and blinkered patriotism are now acceptable; and these are the recognised harbingers of war.
The Rise and Fall of Human Rights
With the Christmas muzak dribbling out around us, and while that warm fuzz of pretended goodwill endures, I just want to suggest that we stop for a moment and ask, “What has brought us to this place again? Why are so many in the Western world overflowing with anger?”
A lack of fulfilment is, as I say, a likely cause, but it isn’t the only one. Another major source of frustration and resentment is the fact that, until quite recently, ‘we had it so good’, but now we’ve lost a lot of what we had.
Before the first World War, the world was a very different place from today. In Victorian times the rich owned everything and the people grovelled in the dirt. The 20th century was the era of our emancipation. During the early 1900s, social activists in long dresses fought to win votes for women in Britain, and subsequently, in 1928, ‘suffrage’ was extended to all adults. (America has had ‘universal suffrage’ since 1920 and Finland since 1906, but New Zealanders were the first in the world to enjoy this right, adult Kiwis of all and any financial standing and either sex having had the vote since 1893.)
Those activists of my grandparents’ generation also got us a National Health Service, free university education, ‘council housing’, the right to strike, Child Benefit payments, the ‘dole’, the national pension scheme, the minimum wage, paid maternity leave… In fact, the 20th century saw the population of Britain blessed with all the things that we nowadays consider to be ours by right. And so – of course – thinking of them as Basic Human Rights, we’ve taken them totally for granted.
Born into the glorious age of a practical, functioning Socialism – which partnered, rather than resisted Capitalism – we had everything. Ye gods, we even had leisure time and a Disposable Income with which to enjoy it to the full…!
We had the highest standard of living that any people on this Earth has ever known. And then, by Jove, we actually got a bonus: By the time we were adult we’d been given free access to a dozen other countries; a dozen, and counting!
It’s only now that the walls are coming tumbling down that we’ve really begun to appreciate any of this. And it’s only now, as the crisis unfolds, that we’ve understood that the war by the masses against the few who would use them as their minions is a full time engagement.
Our grandparents won such a huge territory that we thought that it was ours forever. We didn’t realise that we needed to patrol it, in order to keep the enemy at bay, and so we’ve been complacent.
While we’ve faffed about, enjoying the last of the summer wine, a new winter has been approaching. The 1% have got themselves thoroughly organised behind the banner of Corporatism. They’ve got treaties in their pockets; they’ve got sweeties to hand out to their underling law-makers. They’ve sown seeds of jealousy amongst the masses – the old, ‘divide and conquer’ method still works very well – and while we squabble amongst ourselves they’re stealing everything that our grandparents won. The ‘council houses’ have gone; the bus services, the railways, the GPO, British Petroleum – all sold off. There goes free healthcare; there goes free university education. Look out! The parks are going…! It’s all going.
And meanwhile the bastards who’ve stolen it from us cry, “It’s those bloody immigrants! Blame it on them!”
And half the country believe them, it seems, and a great many are incited to feel hatred.
So, to re-cap: it seems to me that – firstly – we’re trying and failing to find happiness in material acquisition; and secondly – we’re angry because the carpet is being pulled from under our feet. And the people who want us to keep chasing ‘the dream’ so that they can keep sucking our blood have successfully diverted the attention of many of us away from these sources of disquiet.
Feeling Anger is like Drinking Poison
The shepherds kneeling around the familiar Christmas crib have swarthy skins. “My God, they couldn’t be…! Dammit! They’re foreigners…!”
Perhaps the descendants of those shepherds of Bethlehem are even now cowering from the bullets fired by the so-called rebels; or perhaps they’re over in the ‘Jungle’ at Calais. If there’s to be a ‘Second Coming’ perhaps the child will be born in one of those camps; perhaps He’s there, even now! And after all, wouldn’t that be just His style?
When you think about it, to celebrate Christmas while simultaneously financing the destruction of Syria and closing our doors to the victims of that act is not just ironic; it’s the most outrageous act of hypocrisy.
(And before anyone jumps down my throat – I’m not a supporter of the dictatorship, either.)
As regular readers will know, I’m not a Christian – but the standard of behaviour which Jesus advocated is very similar to the Buddhist moral code which I follow; and, indeed, that moral standard is the one which pretty much all right-minded people aim to follow. This might be because Christianity, having been the guiding light of our culture for so long, has become embedded in our psyche, but I think it has more to do with the fact that such things as not killing, not stealing, not lying, and being kind and generous – not only towards our own friends and family but towards anyone who needs help – are a fundamental aspect of humanity. Goodness is at the very core of our being, forming the structure of what we refer to as our conscience.
So – in summary: we all have a deep-seated urge to be nice to one another; and we’re just a few days away from enjoying a festival whose celebration involves being nice; and yet, at the same time, some other aspect of our being is driving half the adult citizens of Britain and America to be narrow-minded, mean, selfish… perhaps even murderous.
And the crucial point is, these feeling are not even making them happy. On the contrary; these feelings actively promote stress and unhappiness.
So, we have a situation where half the people are locked into a cycle where unhappiness leads to anger leads to unhappiness leads to anger…
PART TWO – How can we start to put things right?
People, we need to change the way the world works!
We could have a revolution – we could go out on the streets with guns – but that’s been tried before without a lot of success; violence reaps violence; so I think we need something new.
We certainly should keep on campaigning against social injustice – marches and petitions do have an effect, and it was this kind of non-violent protest which won us our ‘Rights’ in the first place.
And we certainly do need to halt Corporate Capitalism, with its everlasting and openly avowed ambition of expansion. We need to kill this beast before its insatiable hunger for more ‘environmental resources’ costs us every last forest and poisons the entire ecosystem on which we all depend.
But in order to kill it off we need to understand that we are the ones who are driving the machine.
And, at the same time – and in order to bolster the decision which ought surely to come from that recognition – we need to sit ourselves down and look at the way things are within our own selves. We need to do this so that we see, finally, that we’ve been looking for happiness in the wrong place.
As the Buddha pointed out, 500 years before the birth of Christ, absolutely nothing in this material world is going to make you happy forever. Nothing is going to last – you might as well let yourself know, when you buy your new lap-top, that it’ll be letting you down within a couple of years – but, more to the point, if you watch yourself closely you’ll see that most of this junk that we accumulate, at such great cost to ourselves and to the planet, doesn’t even give us pleasure for more than a moment.
Watch very carefully as you pay for your new ‘whatever’. See the bright, hard mind of desire; see the orgasm of getting what you want. And see – watch very closely and see – how long that happiness lasts. Sometimes it lasts for days; sometimes it can be rekindled, from time to time, over a period of years; but very often the thrill is gone in the next minute. In the next minute you’re wanting to do it all over again. You’re wanting something more.
That’s what keeps the shops in business. And that’s what keeps the world the way it is.
Giving money to the high street shops and to Amazon, or to any other corporation, isn’t the way to attain happiness. And if we want to defeat the machine which is destroying our planet we must grasp this truth so that we stop feeding the beast.
For some tips towards making the transition, you might have a look at some of the ideas suggested by the Flame Tree Project
(And if that all seems too extreme, buy a boat and come cruising. You’ll soon be living happily with far fewer frills than the author of that plan advocates.)
As to the way to really find happiness – that would take a long time to explain, and I’m not the best person to do it, but, as a starting point, I would recommend being very mindful of the thoughts and urges which drive the thing that you call your self.
If you watch your mind you’ll see that emotions such as anger and hatred cause the body to tighten up, and, as I pointed out before, they actually make us feel unhappy. By the same token, a kind and generous spirit produces a relaxed body and simultaneously fills us with a very pleasant glow. Perhaps those positive emotions even create the endorphins and other ‘feel good’ brain-chemicals that scientists are always telling us about.
It goes against everything that we Westerners have been indoctrinated to believe, but the truth is that giving – provided you are not giving away something that you need, and provided you are giving by your own choice – is actually even more pleasurable than getting. However, until we release ourselves from the idea that we ought to receive as much (or more) than we invest when we give our time, our labour, or our property, then we will never discover this fact. Until we relinquish the idea of getting a good deal – and perhaps even that of bartering and getting a fair deal – we will always consider it to be some fanciful hippy nonsense. That’s how alien true generosity is to the Western mind!
I’m sure the chap who wanted to fill his keel with gold had never allowed himself to act on a generous impulse, and that’s probably why he was unhappy.
Changing the World, One person at a Time
When all is said and done, a conglomeration of fats and proteins laced with a varying cocktail of hormones is just about all that makes up the human being. It’s all that we are. So it’s worth paying attention to what’s going on in there; and then, having understood a bit about how our mind-body unit works, we can actually create who we are.
Yes, we can actually make ourselves happy!
For some, this approach might seem insincere. To create a positive mind-state when events have led us to feel angry or depressed might appear to be phoney. But after you’ve studied your mind for a bit you realise that, in fact, all mind-states are artificial.
All mind-states derive from a collision between external factors and ‘my’ particular mental equipment, as it stands at this particular instant. All emotions and opinions are derived from ‘my’ perception of external elements and ‘my’ judgemental response (good, bad, or not relevant to me). What we take ourselves to be, at any one moment – be it happy, sad, inspired, or annoyed – is actually just a programmed response. The programming depends on the intricate weave of our own unique tapestry: upon genetic predispositions; upon the relationship we had with our parents and siblings; and upon events, strung out over so many years, which acted like the chain reaction in a Heath Robinson machine. Indeed, the programming – and our reaction to further input – can even vary from hour to hour, depending on what I happen to have just seen, heard, thought, or eaten. (Consider the way in which a bright sunny day lifts the spirits and a week of gloomy weather gets you down. And consider the way that women’s moods, in particular, are so strongly governed by whether we’ve eaten enough of the foods which allow a correct balance of hormones.)
This ‘i’ could so easily have been otherwise. Different choices, made at different times…. Those who toy with the idea of Parallel Universes might say that, in some other world, I am otherwise. Perhaps there’s a world where I got on the wrong plane and died when it crashed; and another where I got on the wrong plane and met someone and, through a whole chain of events, married someone different… And perhaps there’s another universe where my brother didn’t hate me from earliest infancy, so that I didn’t grow up permanently defensive?
The ramifications from the Parallel Universe theory are enormous, to the point of being ridiculous, but it does offer a clear example of what I’m trying to say: If we had behaved differently at certain times, or had received different in-puts, then our lives would have run on different courses; and we, as a result, would actually be different people right now.
Having understood that fact, one becomes more receptive to the idea of ‘artificially’ turning oneself into someone joyful and kind-hearted and thereby actually becoming the change that we want to see in the world.
We are what we are thinking. And what we are thinking is purely a matter of our wiring. So, if we want to be someone else, we just need to carefully study what’s there and carefully undo the tangle and re-wire ourselves.
Not so simple…! But definitely worth doing, in the quest for happiness, peace, and goodwill.
Those who are not too sceptical to embrace this philosophy might find this article a useful starting point.
We wish you all a joyful Christmas, and we hope that, together, we can ensure that 2017 will be a year of concord and unity throughout the world. And just remember, if it all gets too bad you can always cut loose and join the worldwide, totally inter-national community of cruising yotties. We’ll all get together somewhere and, while the bombs are flying, we’ll hide under a stone.
(Your thoughts and ideas are welcome. Please use the comment box, below.)