The Gift of Philosophy and Yoga
(This is a heavily edited extract from my book)
The philosopher Guy Claxton argues against the idea that we would willingly change our ways. It will take more than education to wean us from a consumer lifestyle that now intertwines with our beliefs. Even if we attempt to restrain ourselves, the rewards are less obvious, less tangible, than those immediate and somewhat addictive gratifications of consumption. As Claxton puts it, “one wants, and one wants not to want. The problem is how to translate the wanting not to want into not wanting”.
Here, we get to the nub of the difficulty. Like anything that involves self control, we know it’s good for us. We know we feel better when we do it. The problem is that it sets us off on a lonely road. Society is clamouring for us to indulge ourselves, to continue with business as usual, with the push to increase profits, to ‘grow’ our businesses, to measure up to the scrutiny of the successful even as the call to wake up to the existential threat of the ecological emergency grows louder. Even if we’re brave enough to attempt to shift patterns of behaviour, if we slip back into old habits, if we feel we cannot make a full commitment to living more lightly, or with more awareness, we are tempted to give up. We will wait for society to change, and then we will change our ways.
The problem with wanting society, or some aspect of it, to change before we do as individuals is that we place the burden of responsibility outside ourselves, when in reality, it is only through self transformation that the transformation of our relationships, and thus of society, actually happens. This does not mean governments and multinationals are off the hook. It just means that first, we need to accept that we do not have to be perfect to begin this process. In fact, we, and everything else in existence, can never be perfect, because we are not ends, we are systems, unfolding and eventually dissolving into other systems, and it is our way of being, the manner in which we act, which matters. Instead of looking for perfection as the end, let’s look at how we take each step along the way.
We are part of, and not apart from, the systems, from air to soil, from family to forest, that created and sustain us. We need to learn to note how systems circulate energy and matter, including our own energy and matter. To take stock of what you have requires that you make connections, and recognise your interconnectedness, that you integrate the internal and external and experience, actually feel, how they arise together. Your real wealth, your true potential, lies in your ability to act with integrity through the paradoxically effortless process of keeping your awareness on what is happening here and now. This gives you a full capacity to accept the dynamic, cooperative, competitive context that is your direct experience of being alive.
Realising this allowed me to understand that I can never escape the anger and the rage that haunts me, nor indeed the greed and violence that haunts our species. This is because what is really happening is not what is happening on the outside. What is really happening is that my anger, fear, grief and apathy, and yours, and all of ours, is, as long as we fail to notice the process, actually feeding the flames of the external unfolding emergency. What we are emerging into is what we are emerging with. Noticing matters. The only way to deal with what is happening is to stop turning the situation into a duality of them and us, and start to accept our own involvement, our own part in the process, to accept it fully and radically. This allows us to explore and examine what we are doing, and it is by realising, by noticing, that we begin to be able to undo the inevitability of cause and effect, to see the process we’re involved in from the point of view of an observer, and thus to begin to free ourselves from the iron grip of action-reaction.
This idea is hardly new, and many ancient philosophies have recommended taking the attention inward, even as the demands to deal with battles and barriers becomes more insistent. If you begin to deal with the world as though it is the thing you are looking with, not the thing you are looking at, then something interesting begins to happen. Your relationship with the world changes. Your effectiveness changes. You become a catalyst for change. By paying attention, not as a frown inducing effort of concentration, but through releasing past and future and coming into a more and more complete and accepting awareness of all that is going on now, things begin to loosen. Options that were unavailable because we were so locked into reacting to triggers have a chance to emerge from the backstuff of potential and possibility. And when what we do includes a shift in attitude, an attunement to an attitude of what we really know is of benefit, whether you call it the common good, or compassion, what we begin to notice as possibilities are actions that benefit, or that mitigate suffering. This is not to say we will create a perfect world. The perfect is the enemy of the good. But it is to say that we can, by doing this, shift the trajectory we are on, from exponentially increased suffering to harm reduction, and even good.
What I know is that if we can understand ourselves and the world as interconnected, we can change the way we act. Not only will this change the ecological emergency into an opportunity for our species to give back, it will make our lives much richer and more meaningful. Yoga is not a practice that takes place on the mat, though we can practice there too. It is the way we act and feel during the other 23 hours of the day, the way of being in the world.
The ecological emergency is a phrase that philosopher Timothy Morton came up with and that I use instead of ‘climate change’ or ‘biodiversity loss’. I’ve adapted Tim’s use but the key thing he said was ‘the emergency is in us and we are in it’. This seems to me to sum up our situation, which not only includes what is happening outside us, but also how we react to what we experience. If what we are experiencing is disintegration, then the practices I outline here offer integration. Yoga, in this sense, is integration.
Other words to describe what is going on are fragmentation and, for attitudes and ideologies, polarisation. Things are pulling apart. My first job is to show what is causing this disintegration. I want to show the difference between reacting and responding.
My focus is on the benefits of bringing the attention to what is happening right now in order to see the swirling of internal and external activity from a still point of calm and compassionate self observation. In this, I am indebted to various lines and traditions of thought, both European, and those that developed in south and east Asia over the last five millenia. What keeps emerging is the potential we have to shift mindset in order to shift practice, to clear the ground and reach back deeper for foundations that link us into being human as belonging here.
The idea and practices of connection are vital now, when what is emerging for all of us is increasing and intensifying fragmentation, disintegration and polarisation of systems within and beyond the human sphere.
In a sense, none of us are separate from the scenery. This is not because we want to be a part of the greed, the focus on wealth and money, and all the cruelty and violence that props up societies based on consumerism and constant growth. We all have this potential to wake up to where and how we’re standing, acting, moving, and even reflecting on our experience, as the action unfolds in and around us.
We are entirely interconnected, from a quantum level to the level of quarks or stars or galaxies. When we affect one system, be it a virus or a bat, a brother in the bedroom or a boardroom CEO, or even our own sense of self criticism and despair, we affect them all. This is why I use the phrase ‘the ecological emergency’ instead of climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, and so on. The ecological emergency is in us. It is us. We need to deal with it from the inside out, rather than from the outside in. Therefore what we are experiencing, right now, is an amazing and terrifying, but also a salient, and potentially a blindingly enlightening lesson. All the work takes place on the inside, and the outside transforms itself in tandem. This is why I think we need to understand our real power, the power of how we see, of our stories, myths and metaphors. The power of what we see being what we are looking with, not what we are looking at.
Can you take up the challenge of facing into the battle that our species now faces, the battle to save the world from our own suffering and self harm? This is a call to action. That action is a huge challenge. Fighting the good fight feels like filling an ocean with an eyedropper. It is often hard, and frequently thankless. But it is also the way to live a good life, and a good life is infinitely enriching, interesting, and, at the final analysis, enlightened, whereas a life that is ego-centric, and a story that demands a zero sum game, always creates and causes pain, whatever we might do to numb and dumb us into ignorance.
What if we were intelligent? We call ourselves homo sapiens. What if we were wise? What if we could see ourselves as part of the dance of existence, one species among many, not leading the way but learning from the way that life, that existence, shows us in all its glory allow survival. The way of being part of the whole. What would that feel like, given the beauty of a sunrise, the sound of a blackbird’s song, or the spider’s web?