Is it possible not to have an ideology?

A wave isn’t the ocean, but isn’t separate from it. You are at a particular point of view, but only because of what else has happened to you. Photo credit: Lucy Weir


Someone said to me the other day, you seem to contradict yourself: on the one hand, you claim that you are non-hierarchical, that there is nothing inherently better about being on one state that another. On the other, you seem to be an elitist, in the sense that you think that you need a certain amount of education to appreciate art or aesthetics. You say that you do not believe it is necessary to adhere to any ideology, that you can hold a position which is neutral as to where you stand politically or socially, except in the sense that you inevitably inherit a perspective, which it is your job to become aware of, so that you can understand why you see the world the way you do, and thus step back from it in order to better understand other perspectives.

Let’s unpack this a bit

On the one hand, I believe we have the capacity to be aware of what we’re doing while we’re doing it. This gives us the potential to reflect on what we’re doing, and therefore, to, at least in some circumstances, shift our relationship with it, and allow other possible options for action to arise. On the other, I believe we’re entirely enmeshed, and therefore blame or approbation, or even pride or self congratulation, are inappropriate.

Can one be an anti-ideologue? It is possible. Ideologies always pit one set of values against another, and conclude that your set is better than the other. But if we are entirely enmeshed, we don’t choose how our world view materialises. It does so as a result of things over which we have no control: culture, country of birth, socio-economics and all the tiny shifts in fate and chance encounters (and traumas) that make us who we are.

So we are condemned to a viewpoint that we find ourselves in, not that we choose, however counter-intuitive that sounds. Which leaves us where?

We can choose something

We can choose how we look at where we are. By engaging with the idea that our real work is to notice the Now, the Here, the swirling of thought, emotion, car traffic, warmth, cool, hunger, war, peace, birds overhead, grass growing after rain, we actually shift how we engage with our own point of view. And that’s what shifts it. We become able to see what it might look like from elsewhere.

None of this means I don’t believe in anything. Far from it. I’m an environmental philosopher. My entire life has been devoted to an attempt to understand how we can respond to the ecological emergency. I believe we have to act individually and collectively to respond to the emergency, but that creating a dualistic, ‘them’ and ‘us’ tribalism around who is to blame and who is virtuous is very counter-productive. We need to learn to talk across the boundary lines of our perspectives. There are other things I believe in. For instance, I also believe that people’s sex lives are private, providing activity is between consenting adults (how many is up to the consenting adults). But I don’t see this as an ideal, and it’s not based on an ideology. It seems quite practical to me to leave people alone when they’re doing something private, just as you would if they were going to defecate. It is nothing to do with anyone else (as long as you defecate in an appropriate place, of course …)

There is much discussion over what drives humanity. Again, this becomes an appeal by various ideally committed individuals or groups to the merits of their perspective. Greed and fear, say, might drive the market, in which case competition is the bottom line. Or perhaps you believe that human nature is mostly benign, in which case you might be more inclined towards a socialist ideal.

Practice Realisation

Neither really work for me. But nor am I an anarchist. I have no vision of the future. I have no idea what will happen. What I do think I can do is to practice the process of self reflection or, in Dogen’s wonderful phrase, practice-realisation, where each individual act becomes the focus of its own unfolding. How I do things matters more than what I do.

The truth is, I think contradiction is inherent in ideology. Only by letting go of ideologies can we find a way of being that avoids contradiction. Yet this needn’t be nihilistic or a resort back to ego. It is the Zen trick of watching as dualism and non-dualism dance, like light on water, so that at one minute there appear to be opposites, and at another, the pool has stilled so that everything meets. The illusion pulls us into tension between who or what is doing and who is watching. Between some idealistic notion we have of how things ought to be (which, because it is always elsewhere, is the source of greed and fear) and the stuff we’re actually dealing with. The motivation to react now, urgently, is powered by the need to survive. But if this is fuelled by numberless incidents in the past that echo through us as we react to this, NOW, we’re chained, when ideologies chain us to the idea of some better THEN.

Instead, we can bring to awareness a sense that really we are just emergently conscious of going through the process of living. To use Rawls’ brilliant phrase slightly out of context, we can develop a ‘reflective equilibrium’ about what is going on, watching the foreground, becoming aware of the multiple channels down which our reactions most easily run their course, feeling the depth of emotions that flood and threaten to overwhelm, the dark shadows, the aching pain. And we can practice letting space develop so that we are observers, knowing that the process of observation itself emerges from the whole system of energetic exchange and cyclical meandering of matter through and within and of us. We are simply processes unfolding according to laws and circumstances that are completely beyond any kind of agency. But none of this need leave us cold. Quite the opposite.

Emergence out of the emergency

In a sense, the very act of reflecting on the chains of cause and effect that apparently dictate vast swathes of activity allow the emergent features of that activity — including consciousness and the more complex, conscious or semi-conscious driven activities like how we conduct our relationships with one another and the non-human world around us — to be considered in a way that creates the possibility of alternative sets of feedback. We can simply watch ourselves as driven by various motivations, or we can note that the act of watching opens up the possibility of a small set of alternative motivations or possible actions. This, in Zen terms, is release from suffering, or from the chain of karmic cause and effect. In non-dualistic terms, we cannot be passive spectators any more than we can be mini homunculi. Both are dualistic. So there has to be another way of seeing it. One of the greatest fallacies is to consider that materialism implies mechanistic activity. Natural processes, including biological processes, are not mechanical. There is not one fit for each feature. Instead, they are processes and systems with much more fluid possibilities for interaction that are not dictated by any predesignated, mechanical arrangement.

Watching it all unfold, holding the emergent consciousness in compassionate but impartial embrace within itself, we create layers of reflective awareness that begin to show us all kinds of different possibilities for relating. It is like polishing mirrors, only there are no mirrors. There are only energetic activities, feeding back to one another, creating great castles of thought in the air and then falling away and leaving the delicate miasma of emergent consciousness temporarily aware of itself in all its fragility. Tremendous compassion can come from this. This emergence is something that is, to a degree, a shared experience — what is true for me is also true, simply by the process that you are, for you. And far beyond. I am not ‘I’. You are not ‘You’. These are just arbitrary names for interchanging, interacting, dynamic relationships. This is the realisation that our held patterns, our grooved channels, our clinging reactions, our determination to outline the boundary of what ‘you’ are into an alien ‘other’ attach us as tightly as glue to suffering. It is the motivation, therefore, to release those patterns by creating reflective space around them.

There are plenty of other contradictions in my life for people to point at: polyamory versus marriage. Atheism versus yoga. They dissolve in the light of this pragmatic determination to detatch from expectations.

To paraphrase Derek Mahon, the poet: pay attention to how the light changes during each day. This is more fruitful than totting up the years that swallow you like a yawn. Decant your wine with skill, watching the rivulet of the drop you spill. And never mind the rest.




Ecological philosopher, writer, yoga and meditation facilitator.

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Lucy Weir

Lucy Weir

Ecological philosopher, writer, yoga and meditation facilitator.

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