Meditation on Internal Transformation
The outward freedom that we shall attain will only be in exact proportion to the inward freedom to which we may have grown at a given moment.
Over the past 20 or 30 years we have seen the development of some very important ideas. The first is the creation of the theoretical framework for understanding social dynamics and historical continuity and change known as complimentary holism. The second is the participatory vision and strategy that has developed inside this framework. Combined they represent new theory on which to base the actions of a new movement for radical-progressive social transformation[i].
One of the fundamental concepts that goes to make-up the complimentary holist (CoHo) theoretical framework is centre and boundary. As the authors of the first book that presented this new conceptual framework state -
"We can conceive of society as two basic networks: a human centre composed of citizens, their consciousness, personalities, needs and skills, and a surrounding institutional boundary composed of society's institutions, "us" and "the system," together comprising the larger society which, in turn, encompasses both."[ii]
These two networks are in fact one dynamic system which is created and co-defined by these two basic components: the centre and boundary. But what does this mean in day-to-day terms?
"...this means that we regularly bring our mindsets into accord with that boundary. Most times, therefore, powerful pressures push people to seek only what society is prepared to bestow upon them ... At the same time, institutions obviously also reflect the personalities and ideas we bring to their design and construction. We continually recreate our society's institutions so that of course they accord with our values, needs and desires."[iii]
So we can see that institutions impact on our psychology and that our psychology impacts on our institutions.
This insight raises two very important questions for those of us who are interested in developing vision for a participatory society. The first is: What would the institutional features of a participatory society look like? On what values would our institutions be based? The second is: What would the psychological features of a participatory society look like? On what virtues would our psychology be based?
In my opinion we have some very good answers to the first question but little, if anything at all, to say in response to the second. And yet, if the CoHo theory is correct, we cannot expect to move forward without some answers to both questions. The participatory institutional features will not be stable unless they are co-defined and complimented by a participatory psychology, together creating a healthy and stable dynamic system.
This view seems in-keeping with the observations made by the CoHo theory and yet the vast majority of work undertaken on participatory vision has focused on institutional features (the boundary) with a surprising lack of work undertaken on the possible features of a participatory mindset (the centre)[iv]. The neglect of vision for a participatory psychology raises additional concern when we consider the very next sentence from the above Gandhi quote -
"... if this is a correct view of freedom, our chief energy must be concentrated on achieving reform from within."
If this is the case then it follows that we are not going to get very far in achieving a participatory society unless we also develop participatory vision of psychological features in parallel with our institutional features.
In the preface to his second book David Edwards writes -
"In my view it is compassion that marks the difference between mainstream and dissent, between the clichés of conformity and liberating insight, between a murderous status quo and change, between despair and hope."[v]
For Edwards it is compassion that is the motivating force that drives radical dissidents such as "Howard Zinn, Edward Herman, Noam Chomsky, John Pilger, Sharon Beder and Mark Curtis" and it is Buddhism that offers a "two thousand-years-old master class in understanding the nature and true power of compassion..."
In 2007 David Edwards and co-activist David Cromwell were presented with the Gandhi International Peace Award for their work at Media Lens. In an interview with Denis Halliday (former UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator in Iraq) that followed the presentation David Edwards was asked about what "moral levers" he "would like other people to pull?" Edwards answered -
"Especially on the Left, I think people need to look to the moral levers in themselves. It's so easy to place all our trust in facts and rational argument to win the battle of ideas, to convince everyone of the need to change. But ... the self-cherishing mind is highly adept at simply deflecting these facts and arguments from awareness. We should also be seeking to strengthen the capacity for kindness, compassion, love, patience and generosity in ourselves and others. We need a compassionate revolution, as opposed to a bomb throwing revolution. Basically the left needs to start meditating on these subjects."[vi]
In the same interview Edwards also points out that "People often think this means sitting cross-legged on a cushion and emptying the mind of thoughts. But fully one-half of Buddhist meditation is called ‘analytical meditation'."
The same point is made by Buddhist monk, philosopher and scientist Matthieu Ricard -
"The Tibetan word gom, which is usually translated as "meditation," more precisely denotes "familiarisation," while the Sanskrit word bhavana, also translated as "meditation," means "cultivation." Indeed, meditation is not about sitting quietly in the shade of a tree and relaxing in a moment of respite from the daily grind; it is about familiarising yourself with a new vision of things, a new way to manage your thoughts, of perceiving people and the world."[vii]
Edwards continues the point stating -
"This type of meditation involves simply reflecting on these issues exactly as we've been doing here. What are the disadvantages of the self-cherishing mind? Have I ever felt self-obsessed, really greedy for pleasure? What was the impact of indulging these thoughts on my sense of well-being? Where did they lead? Have I ever felt coldly indifferent to everyone else who just seemed to be a damned nuisance? How did I feel in those moments? Have I ever been really generous? Have I ever given something to someone solely out of an intention to make them happy with no thought of reward? How did I feel in those situations? How did other people react?"[viii]
Having said that Ricard, also points out that "Meditation differs from mere intellectual reflection in that it involves a constant recurrent experience of the same introspective analysis, the same effort to change, or the same contemplation." He continues the point as follows -
"It is not about experiencing some sudden flash of understanding, but about coming to a new perception of reality and of the nature of mind, about nurturing new qualities until they become integral parts of our being. Meditation is a skill that requires resolve, sincerity, and patience far more than it does intellectual panache."[ix]
If the CoHo framework for understanding society is correct and the human centre is co-defined by the institutional boundary (a claim that I think most people would accept) then it seems that advocates of participatory society (Parsoc) may have something to learn from such meditative practice - perhaps some kind of vision and strategy for the human centre? But if this is the case then it seems unavoidable to also conclude that practitioners of meditation could also learn something from Parsoc advocates - a vision of societal institutions that compliment (as oppose to undermine) a mindset for compassion.
To see how the two might work together consider the following statement on time -
"For the active person, golden time is when he [or she] can create, build, accomplish, and devote himself [or herself] to the welfare of others. For the contemplative, time allows him [/ her] to look clearly into himself [/ herself] to understand his [/ her] inner world and rediscover the essence of life."[x]
Seeing the practice of meditation in any other way raises the question, as Ricard does, "Of what use is a "great session" of mediation if it doesn't translate into improvements of the whole being, which can then place itself at the service of others?" For Ricard "Meditation is followed by action, that is, by being applied in everyday life."[xi] And as Martin Luther King Jr famously said - "True compassion is more than flinging a coin at a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring" - a statement that captures the revolutionary potential of such meditation.
For Buddhists, hate, greed and ignorance are toxins of the mind. A central point of meditating is to rid the mind of these toxins and replace them with wisdom, compassion and love. It is not difficult to see how such psychological virtues compliment the institutional values of tolerance, solidarity and self-management/government that underpin Parsoc vision and strategy.
To illustrate the point further let's focus in on the economic sphere of society. We can imagine a trajectory of change that moves away from an economics of competition and greed (Capitalism) and towards an economics of solidarity and compassion (Parecon). Such clarity of values (at the institutional boundary) and virtues (at the human centre) are necessary if we are to develop effective strategy that moves us in the right direction. In fact, without such clarity of vision at the centre and boundary it would be hard, if not impossible, to know if we were making progress at all - hence the importance of this area of work.
Some Parsoc advocates may be put off by the idea of adopting an existing ‘ism' into our vision and strategy through fear of dogmatic sectarianism taking hold. However as David Edwards points out -
"Like all good libertarians, Buddhists are sometimes not very happy even with their own ‘ism': the Western term ‘Buddhism'. Thus Satya Narayan Goenka says: "I teach Dharma, that is, what the Buddha taught. He never taught any ‘ism' or sectarian doctrine. He taught something from which people of every background can benefit: an art of living.""[xii]
The same point is made by Matthieu Ricard in the introduction to his book I have quoted from above. "[T]hough Buddhist in spirit," he writes " ... this book, is not a "Buddhist" book as opposed to a "Christian" or an "agnostic" book." Rather "It was written from the perspective of "secular spirituality,"." Ricard finishes his point as follows -
"As such it is intended not for the Buddhist shelves of libraries, but for the hearts and minds of anyone who aspires to a little more joie de vivre and to let wisdom and compassion reign in her or his life."[xiii]
Ricard also quotes Buddha as saying "Do not accept my teachings out of respect for me. Examine them and put them to the test ..."[xiv] And if meditative practice is to be consciously and explicitly incorporated into participatory vision and strategy it will no doubt be in a similar spirit.
We know that any transition towards a participatory society will need to occur both at the human centre and the institutional boundary - both in parallel with each other and in a complimentary fashion. Meditative practice offers a means for such transformation at the human centre. As already noted, such practice could not help but influence and inform all other areas of life. Most noticeably it would have a profound impact on areas regarding education and child rearing in general, crime and law enforcement and our attitude towards sex and marriage - to name just a few of the more obvious examples. But these are the subjects for further meditation that go beyond the scope of this one.
[i] For a good introduction to complimentary holism and an explanation of the development of participatory vision and strategy within this framework see Robin Hanel's The ABC's of Political Economy.
[ii] Liberating Theory - Michael Albert, Leslie Cagan, Noam Chomsky, Robin Hahnel, Mel King, Lydia Sargent, Holly Sklar.
[iv] This neglect may also account for the limited success in developing vision for the kinship and community sphere where psychological features are more easily perceived than institutional features.
[v] The Compassionate Revolution: Radical Politics and Buddhism.
[vi] Non-Violence and the Self-Cherishing Mind.
[vii] Happiness: a guide to developing life's most important skill.
[viii] Non-Violence and the Self-Cherishing Mind.
[ix] Happiness: a guide to developing life's most important skill.
[xii] The Compassionate Revolution: Radical Politics and Buddhism.
[xiii] Happiness: a guide to developing life's most important skill.