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Joe’s story

This is an article by Joe, a young artist who I met at a London Buddhist Centre retreat last month, and whose story I drew on for my latest blog-post, Re-finding Your Joy. He told me his story on the retreat and I asked if I could interview him. He preferred to write his own account. Big thanks to Joe for being so open, generous and cool. I hope you also find his story moving and useful. The picture on the left is by him.

I moved to London when I was 18 to study art. To pursue a passion. It was an incredible time and as most youngsters leaving the nest I was becoming aware of the waves of change. After five years the big wave had finally come. The laser focus marathon of three different courses and an internship came to a close. Four and a half years spent in love with a beautiful kind-hearted woman were pushed into turmoil by the legal pressures of borders and visas. Then my bounce back, the plan of travelling the world on my bike also ended when I unexpectedly started ejaculating blood. They were all obstacles that could  have been overcome sensibly but I lacked the wisdom to step back from it all. I was caught up in the maelstrom. The illusion of structure I had built up around me came tumbling down as I realised I was but a panicked young man walking along a tight rope. I did what little boys do and ran home to my Mommy with my tail between my legs. It was impeccable timing. She was due to have a hip replacement so I looked after her while working a minimum wage job. The love me and my Mom shared was wonderful, but everything else unfulfilling. I felt wasted.

I was pulled back to London after a few months. My creativity was rather accidentally channeled into working for a fledgling start-up. It started off as a small group of hard working youngsters in a shed and grew to 80 people in three offices across the world. I went from being a designer to being the creative push behind an exciting new project. I had a lot to be grateful for in life but seeing things crumble so easily had given me a devil may care attitude. I didn’t know what gods to worship anymore so I filled that emptiness with whatever came my way. Work and play. When I say “play” I mean messing about. I had always had a naughty streak but I was being irresponsible and completely unaware. Getting fucked up in public spaces. Not sleeping. Thinking a lot of myself but not actually caring for myself. The thing is I could always taste the bitter aftertaste of everything I did. I knew that even if I saw no bad consequences  yet, following this path would eventually lead me to them. My knowledge of this and my willingness  to continue down this path made it all the  worse. I am just glad that I was aware, which I think most people are, otherwise I don’t think I’d ever have  been able to step out. The repercussions hadn’t shown their face yet. But they soon would.

One night, I went to a house party and took acid. I gathered friends around me thinking I was a little God. I took them all into a circle and told them that this night would change our lives forever. The grandest quest ever known was about to begin. Not long after this a woman entered into the room. She shone with the brightest light and it was if a thunderbolt of energy cracked through time  and space. At the time I knew that she was an angel and was the new most important thing in my life.

In hindsight I think this flash may have just signified a moment of great importance. One that would teach me the most important lesson of my life thus far. I’d got what I wished for. One with a heady mix of positive and negative consequences for myself and others, but a turning point nonetheless.

Uninhibited we dived into an intense relationship. It had beautiful moments but there was so much clinging too. Life became a roller coaster of ups and downs so intense that I perpetually felt sick. Sleeping and eating evaded me. I would cry over a  smudge on a bus window. There were things that happened in that time which I shall not address here and that I deeply regret. This is when I finally became aware that my actions were having dire consequences.

I do not want to dwell on the intensity of this time but I will give you a glimpse into it. After a few weeks of being in the relationship I was due to fly to the other side of the world for a holiday with two of my best friends. My girlfriend drove me to the airport, crashing the car on the way there. I left her crying on the hard shoulder as I called an Uber to get my  flight. When I got there I embarked on a convoluted blur of a few days. I drank more than I thought possible. I spent the last hour of 2016 and the first hour of 2017 throwing up with my head wedged between a toilet bowl and seat, in a yacht in a storm as fireworks went off. I hoped this would be my rebirth through fire. That this was as bad as it would get and I’d rise like a phoenix from the flames. How naive.

It was my first holiday in a year since working at the start up. I had a very intense but creatively rewarding job, a relationship with such a pull that it put all art I had experienced to shame. The most supportive and loving family. A group of loyal, exciting, communicative friends. On paper my life was ideal. Yet I wanted more and I wanted less. I craved both at the same time, more extremity, and an end to the intensity. It made no logical sense. Only the experience of it made sense.

When I could convince my friends to momentarily end the madness i did step out of it all and forgot who I was. A coach journey along coastal hills, a walk in the mountains, a glimpse of a golden statue of the Buddha. These were the moments that had weight to them. Sublime. A flavour that I could taste and feel nourishment from.

I got back, and everything was horrible. Work was insane – I was working 8am to 10pm every day. The relationship with my girlfriend wasn’t working out. I had acted quite simply, despicably and we were arguing a lot. And I was completely exhausted – I’d got food poisoning in Hong Kong, then I was passing out because of low blood sugar. I went to have an operation on my nose, because I wasn’t breathing properly, and was told to rest completely for two weeks. But the day after the operation my work rang up and said ‘when are you coming back?’

The relationship was in tatters. I wanted to quit my job. I’d physical destroyed myself, repeatedly ending up in Hospital. I got to a point where I thought ‘fuck all this’. I thought how do I stop it all. Not just conceptually, but practically. I was at home by myself and I thought the best thing would be to find some form of rope, hanging myself. Then my sister’s boyfriend walked in to the house, which pulled me out of my thought pattern and I had this moment of insight. Another voice stepped in from somewhere else. A domino effect of sensations tumbled from me in that moment to a long distant past.

The voice of a young Joe. Perhaps 4 or 5 appeared within me. He was hurt and crying, big eyes glistening as tears spilled down his cheeks, arms wrapped around his torso and snot dribbling from his nose. Despite this his voice was clear and confident like only children seem to be. “What has happened Joe? What is this? Depression? Suicide? Do you not remember? You would never comprehend such thoughts. Why would people ever do this. It makes no sense. I don’t understand. Do you not remember. You used to have so much joy.”

And then I believed him. At that moment I knew two things. Despite having these suicidal blinkers on, Little Joe had given me the faintest memory of a dream like sense of innocent joy. Free from the pain soaked indulgences I had been swimming in as of late. Firstly, I should make a valiant effort at trying to explore that more. Secondly, even if exploring that wasn’t fruitful, I still had value. I could help people with the skills I had and the knowledge of feeling this way.

My new purpose was to always be there for others if I could. I saw this as part of my work. I believed the project I was working on should help others. It went further than this though. The experience made me see everyone in a new light. Every one was surrounded by this aura of pain. The emotions I had experienced they had, were or probably would feel. This sounds morbid but it was the total opposite. My heart went out to everyone. For a while everyone felt like my newborn sibling.

There was a work friend who was younger than me and he had just gone through a divorce. I saw etched into  his face, the exact feelings I had  been through. I went over to him and said: ‘I see how you are right now, and I think I can understand, at least somewhat. If you ever need to talk to someone, or just hang out. Please just call me up and I will be there’. I could empathize with his pain. He called two weeks later on a weekend and we met up. He was upset but we sunbathed, played frisby and went to the cinema. A month later he moved into my flat and we spend time together almost every day. He is one of my best friends now and we love each other.

My quest for finding Little Joe had also begun. I made a list of all the things in my past that made me happy and I experimented with them. I stopped using all public transport and only ever cycled. I did something every night after work. Without fail. Dance lessons. Life Drawing. Handstand lessons. Singing. Avoiding romantic relationships and paying real attention to friendships. Snippets of that child like sense of wonder were flashing in. I could not control them, but they were coming. Even in my hedonistic times I achieved these same joys occasionally. But by following my two new purposes there was a sense of them growing.

There were also two specific things I had open in two tabs on my internet browser. One was meditation. The other a love and sex addict group. Both on at the same time the next night. I was honest with myself and asked why did I really want to go to that love and sex addict group? Needless to say I went to the London Buddhist Centre.

Meditation felt like such a stark contrast to what I had been experiencing. It brought a bliss that was so very different to everything before. The Metta Bhavana, a meditation on loving kindness, helped me develop the feelings of compassion for people that I was already feeling. The mindfulness of breathing helped me regulate the roller-coaster of ups and downs and allowed me to step back from the impulses and the instant reactions. I became more aware and in touch with my experience. I have been going every week since, have attended and helped out on retreats and made some really lovely friends.

I went on a ten day spring retreat in April. Over a year had passed since little Joe had talked to me. I hadn’t seen him since. I really embraced my little walks. I was able to truly appreciate nature emerging when I really slowed down. The trees were blossoming, the pond was full of newts. I used to love newts when I was a kid. I realized I’d lost that child-like curiosity, because I’d been in sprint mode this whole time.

One day I sat on the ground, back propped up by a sappy wooden lampost as it whirred away. Bugs nonchalantly wondered over my bright yellow trousers as clouds glided by overhead. Out of nowhere that innocent joy washed over me. I was fully submerged. Little Joe said “Look. I’m here. I’ve always been here. You just needed to slow down and take a look around.”

When I went back into the shrine room that evening I sat for a whole hour meditating and crying. A sense of gratitude not just for that joy, but for everything that was, came over me. Everything. Everyone.

This year and a half has seen a lot of outward changes growing from the inner. I went vegan. Stopped drink, drugs, social media, romantic relationships. There was no effort involved with any of these. When my mind had changed it was easy.

I knew for a while that my job was one of the biggest obstacle but that’s not something you can drop with the click of your fingers. They preached Collaboration, dignity, empathy, creativity, but in actuality they were becoming the antithesis of this. Decimating the passion and intent that used to be felt by a core group of us. Some of the people there pursued goals did not align with my own. Despite their great successes in certain fields, they were not what I  would call role models. There were two very distinct paths before me. I knew I wanted to truly help people, face the repercussion of my actions, and continue working on my list full-time. My job was detrimental to that journey. I decided to leave.

I’ve left London, am working on a writing and illustrating a children’s book, and I’d like to use my artistic skills to help tell Buddhist stories. I may work in a start-up again, but this time I’d like to work with people whose values I share.

I don’t know where this will lead me. But I know the past year and a half I’ve been making a kind of progress that has been far more challenging and rewarding than anything I’ve known before.

Someone once showed me a thing called a happy-graph. You fill in your day with the different moments and how it makes you feel. When I filled it out it was clear I used to be strapped into a rollercoaster that would plunge up and down between the depths and the heights. Screaming and gasping for breath. I think I probably still have the depths and the heights but it isn’t feeling so much that way any more. Maybe it’s because I can see myself on the rollercoaster for now. But it feels like I’m on a nice stable ride through the tree canopy with friends and I’m able to get a good look around.

How the alt-right emerged from men’s self-help

000d241f-800Like a lot of people, I’ve been scrambling to make sense of the Trump victory and what it says about public attitudes in the US and western culture generally. I’ve spent this week researching the alt-right movement and reading some of its literature. We don’t yet know to what extent the alt-right helped Trump to victory, and to what extent its beliefs appeal to the general population. But let me suggest some points about alt-right philosophy, and the way to engage with it at a grass-roots level.

Aspects of alt-right culture overlaps with men’s self-help, and with classical virtue ethics like Stoicism.

This may come as a surprise to those who think of the alt-right as gamer-nerds and illiterate meme-fanatics, but a lot of it appears to be driven by disaffected young college-educated men looking for a code to live by. Some of them are drawn to classical virtue ethics like Stoicism because it offers a way to feel strong in a chaotic world. Clearly, they misinterpret ancient philosophy. But their interest in it offers a way that educators can engage with them.

If I was Muslim I would be engaging with young men drawn to toxic variants of Islam, to try and steer them away from it, for their good and the good of my culture. I think that’s necessary with the alt-right too – we should engage with those young men who are genuinely looking for a path to self-improvement, to try and steer them away from the toxic aspects of alt-right culture, such as white supremacy and misogyny.

What is the alt-right?

Pepe the Frog - one of the alt-right's favourite memes, as found on anonymouse image-based websites like 4Chan.
Pepe the Frog – one of the alt-right’s favourite memes, as found on anonymous image-based websites like 4Chan.

So what is the alt-right? The best intro I found was from the Breitbart news site, formerly edited by Steve Bannon, Trump’s new senior advisor, which styles itself as an alt-right platform. It features ‘an establishment conservative’s guide to the alt-right’, by Milo Yiannopoulos and Allum Bokhari. This article divides the movement into four groups.

Firstly, the ‘natural conservatives’ – those who, in social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s formulation, naturally feel disposed to an emotional politics of order, honour and harmony, as opposed to a leftist emotional politics of justice, fairness and equality. Secondly, the ‘meme gang’ – young men on the internet who spend hours joyfully constructing memes to support Trump and shock liberals. They don’t necessarily believe in Nazism…or anything, they just like to shock and get lulz. This group has been associated with trolling campaigns like gamergate or the harassment of the female Ghostbusters cast. Thirdly, the ‘1488-ers’ – straight-up Neo-Nazis, so-called because of the 14 words uttered by the founder of the American Nazi party – ‘We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children‘ – and the two 8’s at the end represent the letters HH, Heil Hitler.

The manosphere

Finally, there are the ‘intellectuals’. Yanniopoulos and Bokhari write: ‘The so-called online “manosphere,” the nemeses of left-wing feminism, quickly became one of the alt-right’s most distinctive constituencies.’ I studied three particular writers in this ‘manosphere’, who connect the alt-right with male self-help: Mike Cernovich, author of ‘The Gorilla Mindset’ and ‘The MAGA Mindset’; Jack Donovan, author of ‘The Way of Men’; and Roosh V, pick-up artist and editor of a popular men’s website called Return of Kings.  Cernovich has been called ‘the meme mastermind of the alt-right‘, Roosh actively supported the Trump campaign as a means to the return of patriarchy, while Donovan speaks at white supremacist forums like American Renaissance.

All three offer a form of self-help for young men looking for a strong identity.

All three believe that masculine identity is in crisis in the west. They believe it’s been emasculated by feminism, threatenend by multiculturalism, enfeebled by corporate and consumer capitalism, and betrayed by older men who failed to provide strong role models. As a result, they say, western men have ended up miserable, weak, lonely, addicted and suicidal.

And who speaks for these wretched men? Every other interest group has their spokespeople and their movements. Feminism has its consciousness-raising circles, its heroines, its academic conferences. And men? The closest thing is a new and small field in academia called ‘masculine studies’ . But ‘masculine studies’ academics mainly wring their hands about traditional male identity and try to make men more like women.

Watch the documentary ‘The Mask You Live In’ (or the trailer, here), which is about the ‘male crisis’. It’s made by a woman, features more female experts than male, and focuses entirely on the problems with masculinity: men don’t show emotions, men binge drink and take dangerous risks, men play violent video games, men are drawn to casual sex, men are addicted to online porn, men humiliate women in ‘locker-room talk’, men are taught only to value sports and not other activities. And so on. Masculinity is apparently a disorder. And the solution to masculinity disorder is to become more like a woman, perhaps literally, like Grayson Perry, the transvestite artist and author of a new guide to What’s Wrong With Men.

Into this ethical vacuum step alt-right preachers of ‘neo-masculinity’, like radical Imams, if radical Imans were also pick-up artists.

The alt-right antidote to the ‘decline of men’ is to celebrate male identity and look for a code of living that leads to male strength.

Like me, some alt-righters in the manosphere are drawn to ideas from classical philosophy and modern therapy, which help people take control of their emotions. Roosh V, the pick-up artist and editor of Return of Kings, has frequently written on classical Stoicism as a ‘means to serenity’. He’s also written on ‘neo-masculinity’, a movement which looks to classical philosophy for an ethical foundation. Mike Cernovich’s Gorilla Mindset re-packages techniques for emotional self-management from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Stoicism, and mixes in some evolutionary psychology. And Jack Donovan has written on the need for a male virtue ethics, which emphasizes traditional values like courage, honour and self-discipline.

_77646868_3patrolHowever, there’s also an aspect of alt-right neo-masculinity that is less drawn to virtue ethics and more to a sort of primitive tribalism or gang-culture. In the Way of Men, Jack Donovan defines male identity in the context of the male gang – men seek identity through the approval of other men, and through finding their place in the gang hierarchy, as chimpanzees do. Men are judged, Donovan says, by the extent to which they are a ‘real man’ – i.e, would they be good in a fight, can they defend themselves and others, do they defend their or their group’s honour, or are they a cissy?

The principle mission of the male gang, Donavan writes, is to secure the perimeter, and defend Us against Them – the outsider tribe. It doesn’t entirely matter who They are – Muslims, Jews, Republicans, zombies. They are really a means to Us bonding as a gang. It can be a little unclear who exactly is in the alt-right ‘Us’ – are gays like Donovan and Milo Yanniopolous? Are Jews? Are non-whites like Roosh? The movement smooths over these inconsistencies by focusing on Them, the threat to western civilization – feminists and Muslims.

Where do women fit in to this male gang world? For Jack Donovan, who’s gay, they’re purely a means to an end – men need them to reproduce and keep the tribe / gang going. He’s inspired by chimpanzee culture, in which he notes rape and female battering is common. Women are breeders, that’s all. For Roosh, they’re playgrounds and trophies.

Fight Club - violent apocalypse as the means to male bonding
Fight Club – violent apocalypse as the means to male bonding

At the extreme, Donovan looks forward to the collapse of civilization and the flourishing of gang war, because then men can finally be men. Peace and prosperity make life boring, miserable and unheroic, he thinks. Bring on the apocalypse, as an exercise in male bonding. War is the game men play. Violence is the test, the means to ecstasy. War makes men. Peace makes half-men.

This ideology seems to me the white version of Jihadism – the sense of cultural grievance, the ‘elimination of the Gray Zone’ into Us versus Them, the desire for a global projection of heroic male strength, and the desire for a battlefield where one can play at war, not just in a video-game, but for real.

I can’t really engage young Muslim men, because I’m a kafir, an unbeliever, and I don’t really know the Koran. But I can engage with young men drawn to classical philosophy and self-help, because I was also drawn to this when I was a miserable and alienated young man. So how could one engage with this group? Here are some possible talking points:

  1. We are more than chimpanzees. There is more to male strength than just brute force. Jack Donovan says we all admire immoral strong men like Al Pacino’s Scarface, but that’s not true – some adolescent boys do, but most grow out of that. Humans have the capacity to reflect on what’s right and wrong and to agree on a code of ethics. That’s what makes a tribe strong. When a tribe throws out its ethical culture and descends to the level of animal brutality, as the Nazis did, it doesn’t last long.
  2. Women are, on average according to IQ measurements, just as intelligent as men. They also appear to score higher on empathy than men – a quality much needed in organizational culture and apparently lacking in the manosphere (see Donovan’s casual normalization of rape). Look at the cultures where women are encouraged to participate in public life, and the cultures where they’re not. Which cultures are stronger? Which are doing better? How strong and successful do you think Saudi Arabian culture is, or Afghan culture? At an ethical level, do you really want your daughter / sister not to have the same capacity to flourish as you or your son? There’s a weird paradox in the alt-right – on the one hand, they see themselves as the defenders of western civilization against Islam, on the other hand, they actually want to make western civilization more like Middle Eastern cultures (more patriarchal, less democratic and less respect for the rule of law).
  3. The classical philosophers that some alt-righters claim to revere put virtue before brute power. On gender, Plato said his ideal Republic should be run by women and men, while Stoics like Musonius Rufus argued for equal education for boys and girls, on the principle women are as rational as men. On race, the Stoics were cosmopolitans, believing in a universal moral code that transcends race, gender or nationality. They did not believe ‘might is right’ – Thucydides criticized precisely that attitude for leading to the undermining of Athenian influence during the Peleponnesian War.  The Roman Empire flourished partly because it had an amazing army, but also because it offered a universalist culture – the Pax Romana – which other ethnicities and tribes could join. Likewise, Islam and Christianity flourished because they were ethnically universalist. A culture based on ethnicity, by contrast, or on the brutal power of a despot, is a weak culture, it won’t attract cohorts, it won’t last.
  4. Strong man cultures – in which a strong leader is revered and given all power – have typically not done well in modern history, they haven’t lasted. They may initially lead to a wave of conquests (Hitler, Napoleon) but they then rapidly collapse. Strong cultures that last are based not on personalities but institutions. The alt-right has a strange reverence for Putin’s Russia – having lived there, I know what a flawed, corrupt and disfunctional state it is.
  5. Alt-righters in the manosphere are obsessed with honour and reputation, with being perceived as alpha men, not beta weaklings (see the chapter on honour and reputation in Donovan’s Way of Men). But Stoicism believes male strength comes from virtue, not honour or reputation. If you’re incredibly prickly about your honour, you’re weak and insecure – you fly off the handle at any perceived diss. You’re no better than hysterical campus liberals scanning for ‘micro-aggressions’. Honour cultures – like, say, Pakistan, or Sicily in the past – have traditionally been weak, because the men are constantly killing each other or their wives and daughters for any perceived slight to their honour. Strong men are secure enough in their self-respect to ignore a diss – unless something genuinely threatens their person or their culture, in which case they act.
  6. If you’re obsessed with winning other men’s approval and appearing Alpha in their eyes, that’s not strength, that’s weakness. You’re enslaving yourself to their approval. Your whole life becomes an attempt to impress others – you pump iron to impress other men, you pull women to impress other men, you end up miserable and alone all because you spent your life trying to impress other men. Strong men don’t obsess over how Alpha they appear to other men.
  7. If you think western culture has become a ‘culture of grievances’, as Milo Yiannopoulos put it, that doesn’t mean masculinity has to give in to victimhood as well. Marcus Aurelius wrote, ‘the best revenge is not to be like that’.
  8. Trolling is a desperate bid for attention. Again, that’s not strong at all, that’s weak.
  9. European culture went from rag-tag gangs in the Dark Ages to a powerful civilization that spread across the world partly through the invention of chivalry – strong warriors were persuaded to obey a moral code, which protected the weak. Alt-righters mock chivalry, but that makes their culture weak – who wants to join a chimpanzee culture that only values force? The foundation of Judeo-Christianity is also love for the oppressed and the weak – again, alt-righters like Steve Bannon describe themselves as heroic defenders of Judeo-Christian civilization, but they’re really more Nietzschean in their contempt for the weak.
  10. If you really want to risk your life in a heroic adventure, join the army. Test yourself by fighting ISIS, not by harassing women on Twitter. That’s not being a man. Join the army. When you’re in it, you’ll find yourself fighting side by side with people of other ethnicities – 30% of the US military is non-white – and you might decide you can trust and bond with men whose skin is a different colour.

Those are some of the talking points one could use. One should not go in with name-calling – that triggers their honour-defenses and Us v Them mentality. Go in with respect. Recognize the emotional hurt beneath the toxic ideas. Focus on ideas not personal attacks. Epictetus wrote: ‘A guide, on finding a man who has lost his way, brings him back to the right path—he does not mock and jeer at him and then take himself off. You also must show the unlearned man the truth, and you will see that he will follow. But so long as you do not show it him, you should not mock, but rather feel your own incapacity.’