Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Are you a psychopath?

Why do so many people in Western society today reject religion, particularly the Christianity that a lot of us grew up with? I suspect that one reason is a perceived incompatibility between the core religious value of humility, and a liberal democratic culture in which self-confidence and ambition are seen as positive and necessary traits that support both personal and societal success. At the same time, we know that the ethic of self-advancement can turn nasty. When combined with rampant materialism and the breakdown of social bonds, it can give rise to impulsively self-serving behaviour that is ultimately destructive both for the individual and society. Feeding on fear of this possibility, the figure of the psychopath has come to stalk our collective imaginary.

On the weekend, I crashed a house-warming in Leura and got into an engaging conversation with a very glamorous (especially for Leura) crime writer. To set the scene a little more, the host had cooked goat and rabbit for the event, and there was a log fire keeping us warm as the rain fell gently but continuously outside. Although I am more or less vegetarian, I also subscribe to the monastic discipline of accepting any food that is offered to me, so in a humble and at the same time self-interested gesture of appreciation of the poetically rustic hospitality on offer, I ate (among other things) a baked onion stuffed with rabbit and various herbs, which was delicious, and made me feel as if I was in a country house in the north of France.

While I was digesting, the beautiful crime novelist informed me that 1% of the population worldwide are psychopaths - no variation for culture or gender, this is a wholly democratic concept. This means that you’ve definitely met a few, in fact, you may well be living with one, or even be one. I think there are only about 50 people reading this blog so far, so we could, in theory, be a psychopath-free online community, though I have to admit, it seems unlikely.

Obviously this claim is based on a very broad definition of the psychopath – you don’t need to have done anything life-threatening with a chainsaw, axe, gun or other weapon to qualify. You just need to show a lack of moral conscience, in particular a lack of remorse, “shallow affect” (ie you don’t care much about other people), and a willingness to lie to get what you want. Unintelligent psychopaths often end up in jail (or the doghouse), while intelligent ones end up in positions of power. Basically, anyone who pursues their own interests by doing something that other people consider immoral, and doesn’t seem sincerely sorry when they get found out, can be labeled a psychopath. On this definition, as has probably occurred to you already, most of your ex-lovers, a good number of your colleagues and possibly a few of your close family members are probably psychopaths. A lot of children are undoubtedly psychopaths.

You can see by now that the concept of the psychopath can operate a bit like an emotional chainsaw. It’s a mental weapon you can turn on anyone who has betrayed your trust. It allows you to protect yourself by cutting them off, placing them beyond the possibility of understanding or communication. At the same time, it betrays a lingering fascination with this person, who is not just disappointing, but (at least in your eyes) pathologically heartless. Something ought to be done to control them, for the protection of other actual or potential victims; you can’t just walk away (or close the book, and go to sleep).

Liberal use of the concept of the psychopath beyond the world of crime fiction where it belongs seems a perfect example of what Nietzsche called ressentiment in action. It involves a mode of evaluation that focuses on the other as Evil, and defines the self, in pale contrast, as good. Nietzsche associated this way of approaching the world with institutionalized Christianity. (Has crime fiction replaced Christianity in the emotional and moral life of our culture? Or is crime fiction actually a late, decadent, secular form of Christianity?) Behind practices of so-called humility, ranging from self-effacement to self-flagellation, Nietzsche detected the vengeful spirit of resentment, a desire to attack the more powerful, or the differently constituted, and establish one’s own goodness not actively, but reactively. I am good and normal and deserving of compassion and acceptance because I am not like them. I am not a psychopath.

Lately I have been editing a few papers for the upcoming Sakyadhita conference of Buddhist women (would a psychopath do that?). In the course of this work, I read a thought-provoking paper by a Korean delegate, Eun-so Cho, who provides another angle on the problem of self-effacing or self-denying practices. Her topic is “Women’s Leadership and the Buddhist Concept of Non-self.” In her paper, she addresses the problem of women interpreting Buddhist values like humility and the doctrine of non-self in ways that undermine their self-confidence and conviction in the value of their own activities and achievements. She sees a painful clash between traditional Buddhist forms of self-effacement and contemporary Western-inspired efforts to improve women’s social participation and promote gender equality in her own country. This clash is played out not only in external resistance to women’s advancement, but even more potently within the minds of successful women themselves, who are prone to question their own motivations and worry that their behavior is selfish and their satisfaction in their own achievements amounts to pride, putting them in conflict with their own spiritual ideals.

From a Nietzschean perspective, this is an example of “bad conscience,” a form of consciousness that turns its aggressive tendencies upon itself. The woman worries that she herself may be a psychopath, or on the way to becoming one. Her identity as a “good” religious person attacks what it sees as the Evil, ambitious self that is seduced by the lure of worldly power and success. The paradox is that the aggression of the “good” self is likely to be motivated by hopes and fears that are even more heavily conditioned by social pressures than her worldly ambitions.

How do we move beyond the pathological anxiety of bad conscience, and develop a healthy, moderate, realistic attitude toward our achievements and failures, as well as toward those of others? How do we resist the temptation to indulge in ressentiment whether directed at others or at ourselves? Eun-so Cho’s answer is to point to the Buddhist doctrine of non-self as it is interpreted and lived by women in the early Buddhist texts. Far from leading to self-flagellation, the idea that there is no fixed self, either good or bad, liberated the women of the Therigatha from self-doubt and gave them the confidence and determination to pursue spiritual freedom. Where there is no fixed self, there is no target for ressentiment, or at least none that stays still for long enough to get hit. No self, no psychopath. Hmm, I think I might be onto an idea for an unconventional crime novel…

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Of Gods and Men

I saw a film called Of Gods and Men, directed by Xavier Beavois, at the French Film Festival last month. (For those in Sydney, it’s also opening at Palace Verona tomorrow.) It tells the story of a group of French monks in Algeria who were killed in 1996, after refusing to give in to demands by militant Islamicist groups and pressure from the government to leave the country. The film beautifully portrays life within and around the monastery as well as the emotional struggles of the monks in deciding whether to stay or leave. Some feel strongly that they ought to stay in Algeria, that this is their life and it would be wrong to give in to the threat of violence. Other monks aren’t so idealistic, or so brave, or so sure that they have a duty or a right to stay in Algeria that’s worth defending at the risk of death. On the other hand, they are aware that the Islamic people living in the village that has grown up around the monastery want them to remain.

When the abbot asks a group of the local people if they feel they need the protection of the army against the violence of the political radicals, one man says, “Let’s not talk about the army, it’s a catastrophe. The army won’t come. The protection is you.” A monk then compares the monks to birds on a branch, an image that evokes both a sense of them as sitting targets, and the possibility that they may fly at any moment. To this, a woman firmly replies, “We are the birds. You are the branch. Without you, we won’t know where to rest.”

Over dinner a week or two ago, I got into a lively argument with a friend of mine, Nick, about this film. He felt it was irresponsible and unhelpful to make a film like this at a time when there is already so much fear of terrorism, and lack of understanding of the conditions that underlie Islamicism. He thinks that what we need are films that make Islamicism comprehensible, that acknowledge and expose the injustices that have provoked the anger and the desperate measures of Islamicist politics. For him, this film demonized the Islamicists in Algeria, idealized the monks as the representatives of Western culture, and failed to consider the history that led up to their confrontation or to present the perspective of the Islamicists.

It is true that ‘Of Gods and Men’ does not attempt to explain the history of colonization in Algeria. As a French film, it is made for an audience that is assumed to have prior knowledge of this history. It is also a film that does not seek to understand political violence by delving into its causes or exploring the perspective of the violent. In the world of the film the threat of violence is a given, a fact that the protagonists of the film cannot control. Their problem is how to respond to it. The options of flight or compromise are considered, but not taken up. Horrified as they are by the violence, the monks also refrain from condemnation or judgment.

When an armed group storms into the monastery and its leader demands medical treatment for his men, the abbot stands his ground and says that they will receive the same treatment as the villagers – no more. He quotes a passage from the Koran about the love shown by Christians toward the people they live among, and the leader supplies the last phrase (about “waxing not proud”). When the abbot adds that it is Christmas Eve, the leader apologises and shakes his hand before leaving peacefully.

Later, the abbot is called upon by an army general to identify the corpse of this man. Before showing him the body, the general warns that it has been dragged through the town behind an army truck so his victims could rejoice over his death. The abbot asks why he did not prevent this. Astonished, the general asks if he wants to know what the favorite torture technique of this man was in dealing with his innocent victims, and declares that people like him do not merit compassion. By contrast, when the dead man’s head is uncovered and the abbot recognizes the Islamicist leader, it is clear from his gesture and expression that the abbot is filled with compassion for a fellow human being whose life has ended so pitifully – judgment of the crimes this man committed is irrelevant for him in this moment.

These scenes from the film make it hard for me to see it as a work that demonises Islamicists, or encourages anti-terrorist sentiment, even though it portrays the suffering and fear provoked by Islamicist violence. For me, it is a film that presents an inspiring and challenging model of how to respond to such violence. The monks do not participate in the violence, even in the form of condemnatory judgments or by letting it persuade them to abandon a place and a way of life they value. Instead, under great pressure, they sustain their commitment to a way of peace and love, and show a compassionate understanding of those who threaten them that is not based on complex judgments about historical responsibilities, but on a simpler, more profound sense of shared humanity. There is a strong sense that this commitment is both extremely difficult and freely made and renewed each day. Nothing obliges the monks to behave the way they do, not the violent agents of political history, not the authority of the Church or Western culture, not even the demands of morality.

I am conscious in writing the last sentence of echoing Sartre’s rhetoric in Being and Nothingness - except that he would have italicized “Nothing.” To my mind, Of Gods and Men provides a moving example of what it might be to live according to an existentialist ethic of absolute personal freedom and responsibility. But it also challenges Sartre’s version of this ethic by suggesting an intimate connection between such responsibility and a commitment to non-violence that is underpinned by the discipline of religious practice. Sartre was anti-religious and defended the use of violence for political purposes. Maybe he would have agreed with Nick…

Monday, May 23, 2011

Minor miracles

I’ve been living spontaneously lately, letting one day lead into the next in a way that you can only do when you are “unburdened with duties,” as the Metta sutta says. After writing the post last week about persimmons and friendship, I felt moved to return to the source of the persimmon, and go and do a bit of painting with Venerable Tejadhammo at his new centre in Wingello. I rang Bella and Janey, some friends of mine who live in that neck of the woods, and giving them one day’s notice, asked if I could come and stay the night. No problem. By the following evening I was sitting on the lounge in their mud-brick house, listening to their daughter Lucy tinkle the ivories of my old piano and admiring their son Edward’s Buddha collection. So far his collection consists of two small Buddha statues, one green, one black, both laughing (a bit like his parents).

Guido Reni's archangel Michael
Despite being made of mud bricks, the house where these Buddhas reside is not your average hippy-built dwelling. It was constructed by a former SS officer who ended up marrying a Jewish woman he met while working in a Socialist Union library. This man has seen the archangel Michael three times during his life. The first time he told him he would survive his internment in a camp for prisoners of war. The second time he told him to build on this plot of land. The third time, he said that my friends would come to buy the house from him. And so they did.

Finding myself somewhat unexpectedly in Wingello, it occurred to me that I was more than halfway to Canberra, so I sent a Facebook message to Lisa, an old friend who lives there now and whom I haven’t seen in over a decade. It seemed like a fairly long shot.

I then spent the night sleeping in a huge bed with some of the smoothest sheets I have ever encountered, in a little stone cottage which was warmed by a wood fire in a little pot-bellied stove. I felt like a medieval princess, or a seed encased in the smooth flesh of a persimmon. I was quite reluctant to abandon either of these fantasies in the morning, which resulted in such a late start to the day that the children had already left for school by the time I emerged.

Bhante Tejadhammo was also wondering what had become of me. But I did arrive at Vejasalla eventually, and spent an extremely enjoyable day chatting to him while getting creamy splotches of paint on my holey old tracky dacks, which are possibly holy now, too, having been employed in the painting of a meditation and shrine room (a good deal of the paint made it onto the walls). My princess persona was definitively shed when Bhante asked me if I was all right as I maneuvered my paint roller onto a particularly tricky bit of wall. He said the grunts I was emitting made me sound like a boxer.

After the job was done, I drove off in the direction of Bundanoon. Unexpectedly quickly I found myself at the turnoff to Santi Forest Monastery, and made a brake-screeching, dust-stirring decision to drop in (Darryl would have approved). I wasn’t consciously looking for a fight, although I have found that Santi is often good for a bit of intellectual boxing. But when I arrived this time, all was calm and quiet. I checked my emails on my laptop while waiting for some action. Lo and behold: a message from Lisa, saying, come to Canberra!

I hopped back in the car and hotfooted it into the Australian Capital Territory. When I got into the city, I discovered that the road where Lisa lives was blocked off at the end I was coming from. This led to a rambling, circuitous journey around the streets of Canberra, which miraculously ended in front of her door. When she opened it, we started talking, and apart from a few hours for sleeping and (in her case) tandem bike-riding with a blind companion, we basically didn’t stop gasbagging for the next couple of days. We did have more than a decade to catch up on.

On Sunday afternoon I drove home to Katoomba via Oberon, passing through some magnificent country on the way. Mentally joining the dots between different parts of our conversation, I realised that Lisa and I have both responded to turning forty (Lisa a couple of years ahead of me) by making some pretty radical changes: leaving jobs, houses, relationships. I guess we both felt a sense of urgency – death is closer now, we have started to believe in our own mortality, something that for me at least always seemed rather theoretical when I was younger. And knowing that this life won’t last forever, we both preferred to leap into the scary but expansive freedom of the new, rather than trudge along in situations that felt stale or stuck. The very first time I met Lisa, she got the impression I didn’t like her, which was weird because I thought she was wonderful – and I still do. A line from one of Leonard Cohen’s songs comes to mind (as I remember it, a bit different from the original I’ve since discovered):

“I saw a woman leaning in her kitchen door. She said to me, hey, why not ask for more?”

Monday, May 16, 2011

How to ripen a persimmon

In March, while I was staying at Santi Forest Monastery in Bundanoon, I went for a drive with one of the nuns there, Ayya Analaya. We went to Wingello, where Venerable Tejadhammo and the Association of Engaged Buddhists have recently bought a property in order to set up a retreat centre for people suffering serious illness. No one was there when we visited, so we strolled around the grounds. Ayya Analaya identified the different plants and trees, full of delight at the variety and potential she saw in the garden. Near the main house is a large persimmon tree, which was laden with fruit. Some of the persimmons had dropped to the ground, and Ayya found an undamaged one and gave it to me. She told me it was still unripe but would ripen in time.

I took the persimmon home and put it in front of my little Buddha statue where it became slightly more orange, but otherwise didn’t change much. After a while, I moved it into a fruit bowl in the kitchen, where it joined a few small apples. As the weeks went by it became much brighter orange, until I thought it might have been ripe. It was still hard, though, and my mother informed me that persimmons should be quite squishy to touch before they’re ready to eat.

Then last week I returned home after a weekend in Sydney to find the persimmon looking very wrinkly. It was so soft that I was afraid it had rotted. I almost threw it away, but as I’ve never tasted persimmon before, I though I’d at least cut it open and check. Most of the flesh was the consistency of stewed apples. I scooped it out with a spoon and ate it. It was sweet and delicious, which just a hint of tartness where the seeds were enveloped in slightly firmer, very smooth flesh.

Jack Kornfield says that “Great spiritual traditions are used as means to ripen us, to bring us face to face with our life, and to help us see in a new way by developing a stillness of mind and a strength of heart.”

At first, the example of the persimmon made me think that perhaps all that was required for ripening (vegetable or spiritual) was to stay still and wait patiently. Of course, it’s much easier for a persimmon to do this than a human being, but from another angle, it seems encouraging to think that you don’t have to do anything special – ripening will take place of its own accord.

However, I’ve since realized that there was more to the ripening of the persimmon than just the passage of time. 

On the weekend, I heard a talk by Venerable Tejadhammo at the Buddhist Expo in Marrickville. He told the story of the Meghiya Sutta (Udana IV.I), about a young monk who is assisting the Buddha when he discovers a charming mango grove. It seems to him to be the perfect place to practice meditation. Three times he asks the Buddha’s permission to go to this grove. In his usual style, the Buddha refuses twice, asking Meghiya to wait until another monk comes. On the third request, the Buddha yields to Meghiya’s obstinacy and tells him, “Do what you think it is now time to do…” Anyone who has read a few of the suttas will realise this is a gentle way of saying, “All right, since you can’t take advice, go and learn from your own mistakes.”

Meghiya goes off to the mango grove, sits down like a piece of fallen fruit to meditate, and finds his mind obsessed with unskilful thoughts: sensual thoughts (involving mangos, probably), thoughts of ill will, and thoughts of doing harm (mangos as missiles..?). It doesn’t sound like a great meditation session, but Meghiya does at least have enough awareness to recognise how unruly, or unripe, his mind is. This comes as a shock. Humbled, he returns to the Buddha, ready to listen this time.

The first piece of advice the Buddha gives to Meghiya is this:

“There is the case where a monk has admirable friends, admirable companions, admirable comrades. In one whose awareness-release is still immature, this is the first quality that brings it to maturity.”

After Venerable Tejadhammo’s talk was over, I had a chat with him, and told him about the persimmon I’d gleaned from his property in Wingello. He said he'd been told that to ripen a persimmon, you should put it in a paper bag with an apple. Apparently the apple absorbs gases released by the persimmon, which helps in the ripening process. So maybe that’s why my persimmon was so delicious – it had spent plenty of time sitting around in a fruit bowl with three admirable apples.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Cool compassion

We hear a lot about ‘compassion fatigue’ these days, as if being compassionate wears us out. But is it really compassion that’s exhausting us? Like other aspects of love –loving-kindness, sympathetic joy, equanimity – I suspect that true compassion is not tiring, but rather energizing. The actions we undertake out of compassion may require effort, but especially compassionate people seem to have more than average amounts of energy to expend. It seems as though real compassion generates energy rather than depleting it.

In Buddhism, compassion is sometimes said to be a ‘cool’ emotion. It has a soothing, calming quality, rather than a passionate, excited one. This makes sense to me. When you are responding passionately to the suffering of others, chances are you are swept up in your own related, but unacknowledged suffering. It’s not until your own emotional storm has passed (or you reach a calm point at the eye of that ongoing storm) that you really become available to respond to the suffering of someone else.

Cool or not cool?
Recently I spent a few hours with a friend I haven’t seen much of in a long time. He poured out the story of unhappiness that has been his marriage for the last few years. As he was telling me about it, I initially responded with calm analysis of the dynamic he was describing. I was trying to help him see the situation differently, in a way that might be kinder both to himself and to his wife. Although this might have seemed like a compassionate response, I think now that the ‘coolness’ of this approach wasn’t that of compassion. Rather, I was ‘performing’ compassion, doing what I thought compassion required, but quite likely irritating my friend with advice he wasn’t asking for. My desire to analyse his situation was more to do with keeping myself at a safe distance from his suffering (and my own), rather than getting close enough to help do something about it. That was pretty cold and self-protective of me, but it wasn’t very cool.

Then our conversation warmed up. My friend described an incident in which his wife had let him down, and it seemed to me that he did so in terms that were exaggerated and aggressive towards her. I responded by defending her behavior: “It’s not that bad.” He looked incredulous. Obviously from his perspective, what she had done (or not done) had been extremely hurtful, so I was flatly invalidating his feelings. At this point, I think it’s fair to say, I had dropped the role of the supposedly compassionate friend and had shifted to a more passionate, and honest, identification with my friend’s wife.

After my friend left, this small part of our conversation kept coming back into my mind. Later I tried to do some loving-kindness meditation for him, but realized that I wanted to send my love to his wife instead. When I allowed myself to concentrate on her, I burst into tears. I’m pretty sure that this was not because I was exhausted by compassion, but rather because I was recalling or reliving my own distress in a situation that was similar to the way I imagined hers to be. It made me feel much happier and lighter to let myself feel this and have a good cry. Afterwards, I felt spontaneously more connected to the people around me.

The following morning while I was making breakfast, I suddenly had an idea about why my friend might have been so upset by his wife’s behavior. It was a thought that made me feel sympathetic toward both him and his wife. My guess may or may not have been accurate, but it showed that I had shifted from reacting to my friend’s feelings and judgments to wondering about what had caused them. I had a sense of my mind expanding, no longer tense or turbulent with my own distress, but rather relaxed, energized and open. This, I think, is the kind of ‘coolness’ that is associated with true compassion. If this right, I don’t think anyone could ever get tired of it, or tired because of it.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The knobstick of fearlessness

Last week I went to a meditation group called Cloud Refuge, led by Joyce Kornblatt in Blackheath. The theme of the session was kindness, and to give each person space to talk about their understanding and experience of kindness and what stops us from being kind, Joyce produced a little wooden stick with a ball on one end – in searching for an image of it on google, the closest I've come is a Zulu knobstick. 

This was handed around the circle, each person waiting until they had possession of the stick to speak. The idea was that while a person was holding this smooth, agreeable object, no one else would speak, but instead would concentrate on listening, giving the speaker the space to express themself, for as long as they chose.

As Joyce observed at the end of the meeting, this is in itself a powerful act of kindness – the act of listening without interruption or judgment. She suggested that it is a form of kindness that people are “hungry” for, something that is not so easily come by in contemporary life, with its busy-ness and short concentration spans. She also commented that in ordinary conversation, we often perform for one another, rather than really listening, or speaking authentically, and that this can be very stressful and tiring.

While I appreciated the points Joyce was making, I had some doubts about the idea that the knobstick worked to discourage the habit of using speech to perform for others. The first time I came to Cloud Refuge, I came away thinking that it provided an interesting opportunity for practicing improvisational performance. To me, holding the stick felt like holding a little microphone, facing an audience whose silent and attentive attitude was very much like that of an engaged lecture or theatre audience, albeit a very small, non-threatening one. The challenge was not to “prepare” while others were speaking, but to really listen to them, so that when it came to my turn, my “performance” would truly be improvised, and might also resonate with what they had been saying.

The ability to speak spontaneously like this, but still to produce a talk that is structured and rich – a bit like a jazz solo - is a capacity cultivated by monks in the Thai tradition. For several years, I’ve been impressed by Bhante Sujato’s performances in this genre, and aspired to replace or at least supplement my own more “classical,” written lecture style with something more spontaneous and energizing, both for me and my audience. Given that I had seized upon Joyce’s stick as the perfect device to help me practice this, it came as a bit of a shock to hear her declare that it was intended to remove the impulse to perform!

Thinking about this later, it occurred to me that social performance can be imagined as stretching along a spectrum between two poles. At one end is performance which is anxiously designed to meet social expectations or pressures. In this kind of performance, we try to hide or change ourselves to suit what we believe will please our audience – we say what we think they want to hear, and often we review and worry about our performance later. This is typically very tiring, and tends to keep us stuck in old patterns – I imagine this is what Joyce was thinking of when she suggested that a lot of conversation is a stressful form of performance.

At the other pole is performance that is spontaneous, and draws upon the resources available in the moment to create something new, or give old knowledge fresh expression. Here we share what we are and know with others, and may be transformed in the process, but without worrying about the result. We can feel immediately when it’s working, we don’t need to go over it obsessively later. There is a generosity in this kind of creativity – it is for others, as well as for ourselves, so it is still performance, but here the divide between self and others tends to drop away; it doesn’t matter in the way it does at the other end of the spectrum. Maybe this is why this kind of performance is not tiring or stressful, but is typically energizing, and can even be exhilarating, for everyone involved. Like the best kind of intimate conversation, it is a practice of fearlessness.

The knobstick of fearlessness… I think Joyce would be pretty happy with that.