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Anxiety

Rage against the dying of the light

I was walking to the Extinction Rebellion protest last weekend, and I suddenly started crying.

I hardly ever cry, and I have certainly never cried for the ‘environment’, or nature, or baby seals.

It just suddenly felt real.

It was like I was going to a doctor’s appointment that I’d been putting off for months, knowing in the back of my mind that I was really, really ill. And now I was facing up to the possibility of death, and I was frightened and sad.

The numbness that I had carried around with me subconsciously, for years, was beginning to melt.

I headed for Southwark Bridge. My friend Charlie was in one of the ER ‘affinity groups’ and he’d told me to meet at Southwark for 9.30am, in order to blockade the bridge at 10.

The plan was to blockade five bridges in London, and then march to Parliament Square for a rally.

Extinction Rebellion had only been going for a month or so.

It’s a movement of civil disobedience, inspired by three environmentalists recently given jail sentences for protesting against fracking.

The sentences were later quashed, but their willingness to risk prison to protect nature galvanized the environmentalist movement, particularly after the latest warnings from the IPCC that human civilization has around a decade left to halt catastrophic warming of the ecosystem.

Climate change is visible now – in the heatwaves, hurricanes, wildfires, floods and droughts. We read about, although we don’t yet feel, the rapid extinctions of 60% of wildlife species in the last 50 years. We read about, although we don’t yet feel, the acidification of the ocean and death of half the coral around the world – including a fifth of it in the last three years.

The ecocide has already begun for other species, now it’s heading for us. And we’re sleepwalking towards it.

But what can I do about it? Is it worth even thinking about, if there’s nothing to be done? Just try and carry on as normal, until the end.

But the more we live in denial of the real, the more our civilization feels psychotic.

I got to Southwark Bridge at 9.20. It was a cold, bright day, the City was deserted, and the bridge was completely empty, apart from six or seven police. I smiled at them innocently and walked across the bridge.

On the other side, I saw my friend Charlie, who lives in Dorset, wearing a tweed jacket and photographing the river. He looked like a German spy.

‘Charlie!’ I said, but he carried on photographing. Maybe he didn’t want to break his cover.

I chuckled and walked down the steps off the bridge. Charlie followed me.

‘Dude!’

He led me to a nearby Starbucks, which was apparently the headquarters for the ramshackle rebellion, or at least the Southwark Bridge contingent of it.

There were about 20 people there. They all seemed to be from the West Country – Devon, Cornwall, Somerset. They were quite green and hairy.

By 10am we still hadn’t left the café.

At 11, we congregated outside, and one of the leaders – Dave – gave us a briefing.

‘OK, here’s the plan. We walk to one side of the bridge, and Phil and his group walk to the other. When Phil radios me, we immediately block both sides of the bridge.’

‘But how will the rest of us know?’

‘Good point. OK, here’s the plan. When Phil radios me, I raise my hand.’

‘Maybe raise both hands?’

‘OK, here’s the plan. When Phil radios me, I raise both hands. Then we move out the bollards.’

‘But they can move the bollards.’

‘OK. Then we just lie down. And roll out the banner. Where are the legal observers?’

‘Present, Dave.’

‘Hands up if you’re an arrestable.’

I considered briefly if I was arrestable. It was unlikely anyone would be charged, the police have better things to do. But if I was it would stymie travelling to the US. In addition, I was meant to be playing tennis that evening. I decided I was non-arrestable.

About eight people volunteered to be arrestable.

‘That’s not many Dave.’

‘Is this all of us?’ one lady asked despairingly.

‘There’s a bus coming from Cornwall. It’s late. Won’t get here til 12.’

It felt like the rebellion at the beginning of Empire Strikes Back, shortly before they get their arses kicked.

I thought it would all be over in ten minutes, we’d be cleared off the bridge, some people would be arrested for a few hours, but we’d have made our point. Pointless, in a way, but a start.

‘Dave, there’s a bloke in a van watching us.’

There was a white van opposite us, which said Auberon Steaks. The driver was watching us very intently.

‘Alright, let’s move’ said Dave. We moved about 20 metres down the street.

‘The arrestables may want to give their phones to a friend, as the police can get all your data out of it. Has everyone got the legal info?’

We were all given cards with solicitors’ numbers on them, and advice on how to engage with the police. Basically, say ‘no comment’.

‘Ready? Let’s go.’

We walked onto the bridge. There were perhaps another 50 people milling about on the bridge, obviously protestors, and a lot of police with large truncheons.

I wondered why ER hadn’t publicized the blockade better, so thousands of people were on the bridge, rather than 100. They seemed to have a secretive, direct-action mentality, when surely this had to become a public mass movement to have any success, like Gandhi’s Quit India movement.

Suddenly, I saw a large group moving up the other end of the bridge, holding a green ER banner.

I looked round, and our small group was attempting to block off our side of the bridge. There was a group of 20 or so, but they were clumped on one side of the road. The left-hand lane was exposed and could easily be re-opened by the police. All that stood in the way were two old ladies sitting on fold-out deckchairs.

‘Please move to the pavement’, a young policeman said to them. ‘You’ve made your point, now move, or I will be forced to arrest you under the Highway Obstruction Act. You will then be charged, and unable to travel to many countries. Why not just move?’

‘I’m not moving’, said the old lady. ‘The planet is dying and the government’s not doing anything. I’m not moving until they start taking climate change seriously.’

A cheer went up. Dave was getting arrested. He was holding a rose. ‘Do you mind if I give my bag to someone?’ He seemed pliant, close to tears, like he was being led quietly away to execution. They handcuffed him and he walked off, while everyone applauded him. A noble death.

Another woman was arrested. She started screaming. She wasn’t one of the ‘arrestables’ and seemed genuinely shocked as she was handcuffed behind her back. ‘Don’t worry’, I felt like telling her. ‘Nothing’s actually going to happen to you.’

A young woman called Rachel stood next to me. Her stepfather had been one of the people arrested. ‘Is he going to be OK?’ she asked. ‘He’s going to be totally fine’, I said.

The other side of the bridge was now completely blocked off, by 100 people or so. I heard one of the police say: ‘We don’t have the numbers, there’s nothing we can do.’

As I watched someone else get arrested and be led off, followed by a legal observer, I suddenly thought, ‘why don’t I get arrested?’

I imagined myself being led away to cheers, my face nobly Stoic. In the news, the headline: ‘Heroic philosopher risks all for climate change.’

Our group backed up to join the other group. We were now around 200 people, and weren’t going anywhere. We had taken the bridge!

The sun came out. A funk band appeared, with amps and a drum kit, and we danced in the sun while our banners fluttered. Word went through the crowd that ER had taken five bridges in London – Southwark, Blackfriars, Waterloo, Westminster and Lambeth. A wave of joy ran through us.

 

People danced, passed around cupcakes, fruit and biscuits. They gave leaflets to passers-by, and engaged the cops in earnest political discussion. The cops relaxed too. No one was resisting arrest, no one was giving them grief. To be honest, no car was even trying to cross the bridge – this was the City on the weekend, it was empty.

There were some talks and slightly lame folk singing about protecting the Earth. The movement needs better anthems. The crowd was very West Country, and had a slightly twee feel to it – pan-pipes, witches, placards mourning the tawny owl. The cynical outsider journalist in me started to take the piss.

A West-country witch puts a spell on the cops

But this was not the time, anymore, to observe from the sidelines and make wisecracks. Who cared if the protestors were slightly fairy-folksy? Blockading a few bridges was the least we could do.

Think of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who gave their life in the fight against fascism. Humanity is now facing a much graver threat. Getting arrested for a few hours traffic-blocking was a tiny sacrifice. I’m surprised people aren’t doing far more. We’re frozen, and we need someone to scream to break the ice.

After a few hours, one of the ER organizers told us we were going to march to Parliament Square, picking up the other protestors on the bridges in between. People were welcome to stay on the bridge, if they wanted to get arrested.

We marched down Embankment, cheering. There were only 200 of us, or so, but it felt great.

Then we joined the crowd at Lambeth Bridge and milled around there for a long time. I heard one of the organizers say ‘to be honest this is a lot bigger than we expected it to be’.

George Monbiot on Lambeth Bridge

I was getting cold so decided to walk down and see the other bridges. Rachel came with me. We both felt exhilarated and hopeful. It’s an amazing feeling, when a crowd of strangers congregate and become friends. The streets become a festival.

‘I felt so moved when my stepfather got arrested’, she said.

‘Me too’, I said. It’s a small sacrifice, but martyrdom pushes an ancient button.’ I thought about the Latin etymology of sacrifice – sacer facio, to make sacred.

We finally reached Parliament, and I said goodbye to Rachel. She went to the police station to meet her step-father.

I headed to my parents for dinner. My Dad did not approve, my aunt said it had taken her hours to cross London by bus.

‘I apologise for the disruption but it’s important.’

It was the first act of civil disobedience I’d ever taken. That was true for most of us – academics, civil servants, scientists. We weren’t hardened activists by any means. We were nervous.

The idea behind ER is that continued acts of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance will disrupt the functioning of the state and the economy until the government and people have to take notice of the issue.

ER then wants the government to stop using fossil fuels by 2025, and start a ‘citizens assembly’ to work out a proper response to the crisis.

I don’t know if I agree with this last aim. Don’t we have a ‘citizen’s assembly’ already? It’s called parliament. Unfortunately, many people, perhaps most people, do not yet feel in danger from climate change.

Nigel Farage called the campaign ‘economic terrorism‘. Well, he should know.

This week, ER has stepped up its campaign by organizing ‘swarms’ – groups that block off roads for seven minutes, then step back to let traffic pass, then do it again. It’s causing huge traffic jams throughout London, and leading to angry confrontations with drivers. You can watch it on Facebook Live.

‘What’s the point of this?’ one motorcyclist shouted this morning. ‘It’s totally pointless!’

‘We want the government to listen,’ explained the slightly posh nice lady filming the protest.

‘Is the government here now? Show me! All you’re doing is making everyone late, so they’ll drive faster and there’ll be more accidents, you twats.’

‘We’re sorry but it’s important’.

The motorbiker drove angrily up to the protestors, as if he wanted to run them down – this was because he was being made five minutes late. He was led back by the cops.

The policeman advised the young woman filming the protest: ‘Don’t get too close, they might punch at you.’

‘OK Thank you’, said the protester. ‘I feel so honoured to be with these brave people protesting’, she said to the camera.

‘Sorry for the delay!’ she says to another van driver.

‘This the third time today’, he says, arms folded wearily.

‘Well…thanks for not calling us scum!’ she says cheerily.


The same day as the bridge blockade, very similar tactics were used in France, for a completely different cause – to protest high fuel prices. The street blockades led to furious altercations with motorists, and one drove into the protesters and killed one of them.

It’s not a good sign when groups give up on the democratic process and break the law to make their point.

And it may all be pointless. Catastrophic climate change may already be unstoppable, with feedback loops leading to the melting of the arctic icecap and the release of methane gas, which causes far worse global warming than carbon dioxide.

Still, I can’t do nothing. I’m not going to sleepwalk into extinction. Even if it just means I can look my maker in the eyes after death.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

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The lazy mysticism of Alan Watts

Alan Watts, cartoon guru

The only thinker whose popularity on YouTube comes close to prophet-of-rage Jordan Peterson is Alan Watts, the British popularizer of Eastern wisdom. Watts’ talks from the 50s, 60s and early 70s have millions of views on YouTube, and are often edited to the accompaniment of orchestral or ‘chillstep’ soundtracks and jazzy collages of modern life. He’s the favourite guru of Jarvis Cocker, Spike Jonze and Jonny Depp, and – pinnacle of pinnacles – even made the intro to Cheryl Cole’s last album. He’s become a guiding voice for the internet age – indeed, in Jonze’s film Her, Watts has been resurrected as a hyper-intelligent operating system.

It’s poignant that a restless nomad who never found a home in traditional institutions should find digital immortality on the Net. Watts was the only child of a suburban English couple. He won a scholarship to the oldest boarding school in the country – Kings Canterbury – and there announced his conversion to Buddhism aged 13. At 16, Watts became secretary of the Buddhist Lodge, then the leading (or only) Buddhist organization in the UK. At 20 he published his first book on Zen. He struck adults, back then, as an angelic prodigy, like the child Jesus lecturing in the temple.

He then moved to the US in the 1930s, and surprised everyone by becoming an Episcopalian priest (his daughter suggests he may have done this to avoid the draft). Like the other ‘mystical expatriates’ (Huxley, Heard and Isherwood), he was really a perennialist, a prophet of contemporary pick n’ mix spirituality. He wrote in his autobiography: ‘If I am asked to define my personal tastes in religion I must say that they lie between Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism, with a certain leaning toward Vedanta and Catholicism, or rather the Orthodox Church of Eastern Europe.’

He foresaw, in the 1930s, that Western Christianity could do with a contemplative and mystical revival,  but split from the church when facing ejection for his unconventional views and lifestyle – he lived in a threesome, preached free love, and was finally divorced by his wife for being a ‘sexual pervert’ (boarding school had apparently given him a taste for flogging).

He moved to California, and helped to set up the American Academy of Asian Studies in San Francisco, which introduced Zen to the 50s beats and the 60s hippies. It was a new type of higher education institution –participatory, open to the mystical, seeking consciousness-transformation rather than abstract knowledge. In this, it was a forerunner of alternative colleges like Schumacher, the Garrison Institute and Esalen. Watts later wrote: ‘The Academy of Asian Studies was a transitional institution emerging from the failure of universities and churches to satisfy important spiritual needs.’ How wonderful to think of university in terms of ‘spiritual needs’.

But eventually he left there too, and became a freelance ‘philosopher-entertainer’, living in the Bay area, writing books and giving talks to rapt college audiences. He could talk for hours, without notes, weaving in arcane references with hip terms like ‘grooving on the Eternal Now’, all delivered with a slightly-plummy musicality and skilful use of the dramatic pause. I personally find his lectures a bit pompous and repetitive – as I do the YouTube sermons of Jordan Peterson – but the kids love it. Like Peterson, he speaks with such authority and drama that one can switch off the critical mind and let it all wash over you, and still feel a hell of a lot wiser by the end. It’s not analysis so much as rhapsody. That’s why his talks goes so well with ‘chillstep’ soundtracks and collages of images. Light a joint and drop the Watts!

 

 

But what does Watts actually have to say? What is the What, Watts?

Like the other ‘mystical expatriates’, Watts was a prophet of the perennial philosophy, and the idea we can – and even should – seek our spiritual fulfilment outside of traditional religious commitments and communities. He said of himself: ‘since the age of forty-two I have been a freelance, a rolling stone, and a shaman, as distinct from an apostolically-successed priest’. He preached the ‘wisdom of insecurity’ – not clinging to any particular religion. Like the other expats, he was a nomad-prophet for our uprooted age.  Like them, he preached the wisdom of the body, the spirituality of sex, the validity of psychedelics as a spiritual technique, the superiority of Asian wisdom to Christianity, and the possibility of escaping history by focusing on ‘the Eternal Now’.

But his main message, which he repeated over and over throughout his career, was that there is no separate self, that there is just IT, the Tao, the Brahman, and you are inescapably part of it, so relax and let go, rather than trying to pull yourself up by your spiritual boot-straps. Over-strenuous spiritual practice will actually just reinforce your ego. You are already perfect, already enlightened, you don’t need to do or change anything. There is no ‘you’, just IT.

He expressed this radical Zen view when he met Huxley, Heard and Isherwood in the company of their guru, Swami Prabhavananda:

‘But this is ridiculous,’ the Swami objected. ‘That amounts to saying that an ordinary ignorant and deluded person is just as good, or just as realized, as an advanced yogi.’ ‘Exactly,’ I said. ‘And what advanced yogi would deny it? Doesn’t he see the Brahman everywhere, and in all people, all beings?’ ‘You are saying,’ said the Swami, ‘that you yourself, or just any other person, can realize that you are the Brahman just as you are, without any spiritual effort or discipline at all!’ ‘Just so. After all, one’s very not realizing is, in its turn, also the Brahman. According to your own doctrine, what else is there, what else is real other than the Brahman?’

The Swami retorted that if Watts was really enlightened, he would feel no suffering, not even a pinch. Watts, resisting the urge to pinch the Swami, fell silent. But this remained his central idea, and it had a big influence on the ‘beat Zen’ of Jack Kerouac and others, and then on the antinomian flower children of the 1960s. Go with it, follow the law of your nature, be true to who you are, you’re beautiful.

What is the value of this idea?

It’s true that Buddhism, and particularly Zen Buddhism, teaches that we are perfect just as we are, we have merely forgotten our true nature. We find this joyful teaching in many mystical traditions – in Plato, in Thomas Traherne, in Rumi. One often finds it expressed through the metaphor of a prince or heir who forgets their natural inheritance and goes begging for pennies outside his palace, as in the Zen song of Hakuin:

From the beginning all beings are Buddha.
Like water and ice, without water no ice, outside us no Buddhas.
How near the truth, yet how far we seek.
Like one in water crying, “I thirst!”
Like the son of a rich man wand’ring poor on this earth we endlessly circle the six worlds…

Nirvana is openly shown to our eyes.
This earth where we stand is the pure lotus land!
And this very body, the body of Buddha.

The intuition that we have an indestructible and priceless jewel of loving wisdom within us, which is also the nature of the universe, can be incredibly inspiring and healing, particularly if we’re prone to anxious low self-esteem. It is precisely what I felt during and after my near-death experience – I woke up from a nightmare of my ego’s brokenness and rottenness, and realized how blessed we all naturally are. I felt an incredible lightness and pleasure at existence. I would repeat to myself a mantra: ‘nothing to change, nothing to improve, no-one to impress, nothing to win, nothing to lose, nowhere to go’, and so on. Just resting in the garden within.

However, it is difficult to stay in that realization, without practice. In my own case, the spiritual high lasted a few weeks, then the old neurotic habits came back with a vengeance. I realized I needed to practice, systematically, to weed out the old habits and let my heart open. That’s why I got into CBT, ancient Greek philosophy, and Buddhism.

Tenzin Palmo, a British Buddhist nun

Last night I saw the Buddhist nun Tenzin Palmo speak. A remarkable lady, who moved from Bethnal Green to spend 12 years meditating in a Himalayan cave. She said:  ‘The good news is your true nature is sane. And it’s quite easy to get a glimpse of that true nature. But that doesn’t mean you’re enlightened. You still need to practice, otherwise it’s like taking a cake out of the oven after it’s started to rise – it will just collapse, and taste disgusting.’

The risk of Watts’ philosophy is it leads to a lazy and complacent egotism: ‘I am what I am, I’m part of the Brahman, we’re all perfect, so why bother trying to change?’ He wrote: ‘every willful effort to improve the world or oneself is futile’:

self-improvement is a dangerous form of vanity. By the age of thirty-five one’s character is firmly formed, and has to be regarded as an instrument to be used rather than changed…To avoid being a serious disappointment to others you must accept and respect your own limitations…As a Zen master has said, ‘Act as you will. Go on as you feel. This is the incomparable way’…I am aware of the futility of myself trying not to be selfish, of the contradiction of myself even desiring or asking not to be selfish…

The problem is, you can be a perfect Buddha on the ultimate level, and still suffer a lot and cause a lot of suffering to others on the relative plain, where most of us are most of the time. And this is what happened to Watts. His friend, the Zen poet Gary Snyder, remarked: ‘He was one who sowed trouble wherever he went.’

He failed as a husband, marrying three times, and driving his third wife to the bottle with his philandering – he would pick up a different college girl after most talks (‘I don’t like to sleep alone’). He failed as a father to his seven children: ‘By all the standards of this society I have been a terrible father’, although some of his children still remember him fondly as a kind man, a weaver of magic, who initiated each of his children into LSD on their 18th birthday. He was vain and boastful, ‘immoderately infatuated with the sound of my own voice’ – although, like Ram Dass, he wasn’t a hypocrite, and did try to constantly warn his young audience he wasn’t a saint – not that they listened.

By the end of his life he was having to do several talks a week to make enough money to pay his alimony and child support. And he was drinking a bottle of vodka a day to be able to do that. He died, exhausted, at 58. Snyder remembers:

he had to keep working, and as you keep working, you know, you got to play these roles, and you also keep drinking ’cause there’s always these parties and so forth, so that doesn’t help you slow it down. So he just wore himself out. It was out of his control, that was my feeling. The dynamics of his life had gotten beyond his control, and he didn’t know what to do about it.

One of his lovers, the therapist June Singer, visited him in hospital when he was admitted with delirium tremens. Why didn’t he stop drinking, she asked. ‘That’s how I am,’ he said to her sadly. ‘I can’t change.’

Ultimately, it is not fair to say that Watts was lazy – he seems to have worked incredibly hard. But he worked incredibly hard at his career, at his public profile, at the endless talks he gave on campuses, on radio and on TV. And he worked very little on himself – psychotherapy bored him, while he felt too much meditation ‘is apt to turn one into a stone Buddha’.

Still, you could hardly call his life a tragedy. It sounds incredibly interesting, and often incredibly fun. And the consequence of his egoistical drive to self-promote was the flowering of Asian wisdom in western culture, albeit in a rather bastardized form. That more than balances out his personal failings, and no doubt he will be all the wiser in his next incarnation. Near the end of his life, he told his daughter Joan: ‘After I’m dead, I’m coming back as your child. Next time round I’m going to be a beautiful red-haired woman.’ Sure enough, after he died, his daughter gave birth to a red-headed girl, called Laura. We await your teachings Laura. No pressure.