How to save the world whilst shopping.

This week sees Ireland vote in yet another European referendum. We’ve been bombarded with pro and anti propaganda day and night for weeks now, and it screams at us from every lamp post.

In reality its always like this, you just see it accutely during a campaign like this. Its certainly been like this since the start of “The Crisis” and what it is, is a battle of ideologies. There is a battle for the hearts and minds of people, by those who peddle various ideologies. More so, they want to convince you that they have The Right Plan that will Fix Everything. Whether they are left or right, or somewhere in the middle, its the same. Some group or person believe they have the answer to the world’s problems and if we go with them they will save us. And it’s always a Top Down approach – we need to give them power and they will fix things from the top. In recent years I have begun to completely lose faith in this approach.

I have oscillated my whole life from being very political to being somewhat apathetic, and I think as my life goes on the oscillations get shorter and shorter until its an almost weekly or daily cycle. Some days I get quite worked up about The Issues and rabble on about How We Fix Them. Other days I think that they can’t be fixed, at least not within the current system.

As the oscillations get closer and closer, what they really do is merge into one idea – that I want things to change, but I just don’t think they can be changed. On the surface this is a very cynical and pesimistic view. But if I think about it – it’s not really that I don’t think things can be changed – it’s that I don’t believe things can be changed in the traditional manner – that is the Top Down approach – by voting for or giving the reigns of power to, some group of some idealogical bent who will put into place policies, and procedures and legislation. That system is completely broken. The problem is that it is a Top Down approach. I have lost complete faith in this. What I do have faith in, is the Bottom Up approach.

We can no longer rely on the Powers That Be to save us, because I don’t think they really want us to be saved. If we were saved, we wouldn’t need them. They need a level of turmoil so they can come back and save us. Even if you put aside Orwellian ideas, you could also argue that it simply hasn’t _worked_. The current crisis, and the failure to come up with any workable solutions, being evidence.

I wrote about this before, when I talked about Alan Watts’ and John Holloway’s similar ideas about the failure of Top Down politics, and how the solution must come from within us. I think this is true more than ever. What I mainly spoke about then was how our thoughts and attitudes create the world we live in, and that includes our economic and political systems. But you could argue that is a cop out – I condemn standard political action and say “Ah, just change your mind!” But what do you do?

Watts would say, you can’t do much. But you can something. If the Top Down Big Government Grand Scheme hasn’t been working, then how about the Bottom Up Tiny Little Everyday Efforts Scheme. This all came to my mind this week as I passed rows and rows of screaming idealogical propaganda, and thought of a recent interview by the late Adam Yauch, in which he was asked for recommendations on what people could do to help bring about happiness in society. He said:

Everything we do affects other people. One doesn’t have to be doing something that has some huge sweeping change on a lot of people at one time. Every way that we interact with other people, even if it’s like, you’re at the store and buying something — it’s the way that you interact with the clerk at the store. EVERY action that we take has some motivation of either being selfish or altruistic. All that adds up. I’ve heard the Dalai Lama talk about how it’s important to watch your thoughts. Thoughts are what lead to actions. If you are striving to have more happiness in your life, it helps to guide your mind towards starting to recognize what are selfish motivations and what are constructive motivations. The more you look at that and recognize it, the more that’s going to influence your actions.

Yauch’s quote brought to mind one of my favourite pieces of writing ever, David Foster Wallace’s great commencement address to the graduates of Kenyon College in 2005. In it, Wallace talks about encountering people at the checkout in a store and how you relate to them, and how you have a choice in this, if you think about it.

If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

What they are talking about here is mindfulness, and the interdependence of the world, two key Buddhist ideas. What we do influences the world around us, and what we do depends on us being mindful of our thoughts, actions and motivations.

Mindfulness is a kind of buzz term at the moment, and like anything has numerous definitions. It is a concept that comes originally from Buddhism, but has since been adopted and modified into a much broader idea accessible to all. In short, it emphasises the ability to place and hold your attention on something, whilst at the same time being aware of what is going on. The practical benefits of this are an ability to experience things more directly and fully, and focus on things that are important to you, and avoid becoming distracted both by the world at large, and your own fleeting thoughts.

The Mindful Manifesto:

It involves paying attention to thoughts, feelings and body sensations in a way that can increase our awareness and compassion, help us manage difficult experiences, and make wise choices.

Mindfulness can also be called, or is sometimes coupled with awareness – awareness of your thoughts and feelings and what is going on around you. If we were mindful – really aware of what is going on around us and what we think of it – would we really act the way we do?

Imagine if people starting becoming fully aware of how their thoughts, words and actions affected the world around them. If our micro interactions between the people we meet as we go about our day changed, and we conducted ourselves fully aware of our place in the world. We can wait forever for a idealogue to come and help us, or we can begin changing our world. There are more of us then there are of them – it would be unstoppable. We just need to wake up.

Salvation won’t come from a political party, and it won’t come from a referendum on a European Treaty. But it might just come at the check-out in Tesco.

Bonus, Ian MacKaye on a similar subject: