July 2, 2011

Who Still Even Cares Anyway?

These days, I sometimes find myself ruminating about the world we live in. I’m not even in my sixties, so I can’t blame it on aging. Rumination doesn’t really do me any good though, and my motto lately is: less ruminating more meditating.

However a myriad tiny malfunctions seem to interfere with my dream of a smoother daily life. Many of these appear to be nothing more than another symptom of the bigger unease that we have been living for the last decade.

I had a bit of a black Thursday of my own last week. I woke up early to go to the jobcentre in Essex and sign my paperwork, it was pouring down with rain, and I walked up and down the road to find the office, unsuccessfully. Soaked to the bone, I asked a woman in a shop who told me that the jobcentre was in another town. I was in a bad mood already that day and everything just went downhill from there, one administrative problem after another. A package that was supposed to be delivered didn’t show up, a customer service person who said she would look after it and call me, but didn’t. Emails that I sent for all kinds of small matters, ignored. Calls to administrations that never pick up the phone.

I have to admit I could blame most of it on my own impatience, but I still think there is a pattern to all of this. It shows up every day; customer services that seem deliberately unhelpful, emails that just get lost in the ether, administrations that are not available when you need them. It looks like something we could call an epidemic of carelessness.

Means have been reduced in many sectors, employees take on the job of one, two or more people who have been made redundant. If they hint at a pay rise, their bosses give them the slightly intimidating ‘be happy you still have a job’ look. They are overworked and underpaid so, who can blame them for sometimes thinking that they are not really paid and valued enough to care any longer?

First, I was angry for myself, my ego was slightly bruised: ‘What? my email, my phone call, my business are not important to you?” But that doesn’t lead anywhere, who cares about me, in the bigger scheme of things? I care about me, my family does, my friends do, and a few other people as well and I’m more than happy about that.

Who cares however about the person at the customer service desk who can’t do her job properly because she’s not been given the means and time to do so? 40 hours a week in an office on the phone to disgruntled customers on a low salary. Who cares about the NHS employee who survive the cuts and can’t have a tea break because her department of 6 people was cut down to 2? I care, most people care and yet we all feel there’s not much we can do about it. We don’t decide the job cuts or how employers treat their employees.

As a people in a democracy, our recource is to turn to our leaders and ask them to try and fix this post-crunch mess. When democracy was created in Greece, the world was still a small place. People would gather in their town centre, and discuss and vote on everyday matters. There was probably a fair bit of controversy, gossiping and tensions, but nothing to write a tragedy about.

In the sprawling and insatiable giant of a world we live in now however, who can we really turn to and trust? Trust appears to be the major challenge these days. The horror stories have been coming out in the media, the food scandals, the financial scandals, the omnipotent power of corporations and a government, a democracy, that seems to have become as implausible as a Greek myth.

Greed was identified as the main culprit when it all hit the fan in 2008. In The Mindfulness Revolultion, Jon Kabat-Zinn, calls greed a disease that needs to be remedied.   When Michael Stone came to see us in Vancouver earlier this year he explained -and I’m quoting loosely- that governments and corporations are behaving like addicts, they are addicted to a narrative, to greed, and they could lead countries to bankruptcy in their reckless and constant search for supply.

I also read a tongue-in-cheek article the other day describing a lot of CEOs as ticking all the boxes in a clinical psychopath test. This reminded me in turn of The Corporation, and this institution being described as a psychopath because of the following traits: callous disregard for the feelings of other people, the incapacity to maintain human relationships, reckless disregard for the safety of others, deceitfulness, the incapacity to experience guilt, and the failure to conform to social norms and respect for the law.

Disease, addiction, or even psychopath bevahiour. Who can trust an active addict or a psychopath’s judgement? This is the paradox we are facing these days.

This is why a lot of us have stopped caring about politics and some have stopped voting. What can be done to restore our idea of democracy? Overrule the powers that be? If we choose to carry on the clinical analogy, we could consider ‘locking them up’ but there’s no provision in the mental health act for the deluded and greed-crazed powerful. We’re not all like the French -and I included myself here- bristling with excitement at the sheer mention of the word ‘revolution’. War, as we know, is good for ab-so-lute-ly no-thing. The Story of Stuff film suggest a more sober and democratic approach; changes in the constitution in the case of the US.

Fortunately, there is still room in our Western societies for social movements, and there has been a lot of this going on lately, in Michigan for example, in Greece, in the UK, and also recently in Spain. There,  Los Indignados -the Outraged- have been protesting all over the country asking for a ‘real democracy’. This could be a topic for a school essay we could all sit and write: ‘in a 1,000 words or more describe what to you is a real democracy?’ I’m convinced we would come up with bundles of creative ideas. In the 70s, during the oil crash in France, there was a very popular ad campaign that said: ‘On n’a pas de petrole, mais on a des idees’ (we don’t have oil but we have ideas). We do have ideas, that’s one of the many wonders of humanity: thinking, analysing, making and creating.

In therapy or in writing, we learn that if a narrative isn’t working for us, we have the choice to use our creativity and change it. Because we can feel sometimes powerless, unnerved and at times enclined to fatalism, we often give up our power to choose another narrative on an individual level. ‘If he/she/they don’t care, why should I?’ is a very tempting reaction to the many frustrations we may face regularly. We don’t always have time to stop and think of the most skillful way to solve all the insignificant problems of our busy lives, let alone, the bigger disasters happening in the world.

If we look again at the psychopath/addict profile, we realise that the main behaviour that affect us is the leadership’s lack of empathy and their inability to care. This attitude in many ways escalates down the social ladder and creates a chain of contempt. We often find ourselves caught up in it at some point in our everyday lives, when simple transactions become unnecessarily tedious and problematic: unanswered phone calls, emails, administration, financial institutions, customer and medical care that can be sometimes everything but caring.

As yogis and meditators, we have tools to remind ourselves to live mindfully and we have ethics that guide us through all instances of life. We can take time to sit and think about it all, alone or together as a community. We have means to react more appropriately. We learn how to want less and beware of greed; and hence disengage ourselves slowly from the vicious circle of unnecessary consumption and production which is damaging our environment.

Michael Stone explains in Yoga For A World Out Of Balance, how we are all connected and that all our actions -or passivity- make a difference:
Patanjali sees life in a holistic way. […] We are united with all things at all times. Everything is complete. […] It is because I recognise my part in the interconnectedness of reality that I begin to see that I have to take action. And since all my actions have an effect, I need to p
ay attention to the kind of effect I want to have in the the world.’

Later, in the final chapter, he writes that:
‘Non-reactivity takes skill. Once we have the tools to work with habits of mind, body, and culture, we can more skillfully attune to what is happening in the world. Yet tuning in to what is happening in the world in and around us can be burdensome and difficult at first. It’s much easier to coast through our lives in the seeming bliss of ignorance, but the decaying forest ecology and economically oppressed don’t have time to wait for us to change our minds, even when we are beset by apathy or discouragement.’

I’ve heard a Kundalini teacher talk about creating magnetic fields of positive energy around us to heal the world. I do understand her point on some level, but this sounds a bit too esoterical for my Cartesian-trained mind. I do believe however in simple things like radiating warmth, cultivating compassion, and smiling as the most achievable and efficient random act of kindness. This, we can all easily do while progressing in our practices and developping our tools and communities.

To make a good impact on the world everyday, we can practice the easy act of caring; caring about our families, friends, colleagues, jobs, clients, environment, etc. The joy, is that it offers endless room for improvement and creativity. So instead of getting entangled in our frustrations and feeding into the carelessness narrative, we could challenge our best selves with this question: ‘How can I care more today?’

Picture credits:

Democracia Real: http://www.diagonalperiodico.net/Manifestacion-DEMOCRACIA-REAL-YA.html

Yoga For a World Out Of Balance: Shambhala.com

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