The Mind Cannot Know Itself

The mind is a reference engine.

Actually, language is self-referential. It’s a web of “signifiers”; we can only explain one “thing” by using a bunch of “signifiers” to explain it; and we can only explain signifiers by using other signifiers. It’s even how we learn a language.

And we haven’t found out whether language comes at the same time a thought arises, or after the thought.

But it’s probably safe to say that the mind is a reference engine, or system. It is constantly comparing things. I like/don’t like/remember/want/have/did/did not. Knowledge is built on comparison or categorisation.

Our internal chatter is self-referential too. “But I didn’t do this, or I wanted this”. It continually energises the illusion of a self.

When you tell someone that they are “like” a particular characteristic, or “not like” something, you see their eyes go off to an angle. “Am I?!!?!” ┬áTheir mind starts calculating. “How much of that statement is true? How much of it false? What does it mean for my social status right now? If it is true, what does it tell me about myself that I didn’t already know? And if I didn’t already know it – why didn’t I know it? How infuriating that others can see me better than I can see myself!”

The illusion of the self has to be believed as absolute. But really it is a mental construct. So the mind is easily perturbed by anything that offers to revise it. Self-revision or self-recreation on the other hand is OK as far as the ego is concerned. (And it’s a further illusion.)

In our ‘everyday minds’, we cannot know ourselves. We cannot fully objectively understand our ‘self’ because our selves are simply constructs of our minds – and our minds cannot step outside of themselves to look at themselves, so we never have a complete picture of the construct of ‘self’ which we believe ourselves to be.

Only One Mind, Big Mind, the All aspect of consciousness can be at peace with Knowing. From this dimension of consciousness the perturbations abate. We are no longer flustered by the fact that we can’t objectively know what we believe to be our objective self; because we see it as a construct; because we know it is not who we are.

The consciousness of the universe that every living being shares is at peace with itself; it is peace. That inner peace within us does not question itself. That inner peace within us looks at our mental preoccupations with a smile.

My mind might be bothered about its limitations. How can I master myself if I don’t understand myself? It’s true that if I have self-mastery I can “win at the game of life” and also that I can know others better. So it’s something my ego yearns for ┬ábut can never have. The All within me knows this to be just a self-referential game.

Mastering my ‘self’ by letting my ‘self’ melt away, I have mastered myself. I am a winner with life and Life Itself smiles. And only when I have mastered myself can I truly understand others, and smile at that. No more game.



Old Bags of Emotions, and What to Do With Them

black-toast-jute-bag-mediumWhen I was a 9 year old boy, in 1984, my father had a motorbike accident. It put him in a coma for many weeks, and he was on a life support system.

When he did finally come out of hospital, he’d suffered brain damage and also had several serious problems with his motor skills and physical abilities. He had to learn some of his words back, how to write, how to walk, how to use his hands and so on.

Now the details are a little fuzzy, as you might imagine from being that long ago. But there were some days there (maybe weeks; it doesn’t matter how long) where my mother had to go to work at the local supermarket, stacking shelves, and my sister was away.

So it was my job to look after daddy.

There wasn’t a huge amount to ‘do’ as such. Give him cups of tea. Help him eat occasionally. But the key thing was giving him his medicines. He was on a tight regime of drugs. He had about 9 or 10 different ones for different things. And they had to be given to him regularly. Perhaps every couple of hours.

The key thing was that if I didn’t give them to him in the right order he could die. He was entirely dependent on them in the early days after hospital.

Now, however long that lasted for, it was a huge responsibility for a 9 year old to take on. I remember making a sheet of paper with columns and rows on it showing which hour and which drugs, and carefully putting that sheet onto a coffee table next to his make-shift bed in the lounge, and laying out the drugs into the right table boxes so that I didn’t get confused as to which ones were next, and could make sure he got all of them in the right order with none of them missed.

Which I needed to do, because I found the instructions on all the little plastic bottles confusing, and when I was near him I got stressed. His language was foul. He would swear and shout. Not over anything important, and I realise now it was because he was in a lot of pain and confusion. But that was another aspect that was distressing.

His mother, my Grandmother, had offered to care for him at her house. But for some reason my mother refused. I wonder what the reasons for that were. I know that she wanted to ‘toughen me up’, but also she lost her father when she was young and I wonder now if something was repeating itself there for her.

Whatever the reasons were, that was the situation. And I had to deal with it. I could have said no, but I didn’t. I’d been given a job. I had to get it right. And if I got it wrong I could lose my dad. You could say, ‘I would kill him’, because that’s how it felt.

It’s something that I’ve recalled from time to time, and even had therapy about before. But this year, for some reason (possibly because he has now passed away), that memory came back to the surface. And I’ve realised for the first time that surrounding it is a whole bag of emotions.

The emotions in question are a bit like a sliding scale. At the low end of the scale I can just feel trapped and confused. So I have my little coping mechanisms to get me through the day; I check I’ve packed everything in my bag twice before I go out. I plan everything ahead, sometimes rehearsing business meetings days before they happen. And I turned into such a successful project manager that I ended up being the best one on the project management team. Go figure that! Good with detail, forgetting nothing.

Even at that level the modus operandi seems to be ‘preventing a catastrophe’. Enjoyment of my work doesn’t tend to come into it.

Then further up the scale the trapped and confused feelings get a little stronger. I’m great in a crisis (and my sister is, too). But if you give me something mundane to deal with I find it hard. I even remember my piano teacher saying that I found hard music scores easy, and easy music scores hard.

At the top of the scale the trapped and scared feelings reach a sort of climax. And whatever it is that triggers that ‘top of the scale’ the result is a desire to self harm. At the very worst, I start to plan to take my own life.

Whilst that state of mind, feeling suicidal, has only happened perhaps a handful of times in my life, it is a tendency I have and that I live with. So I have been working these last few months to understand where that tendency comes from, and how to make friends with it; how to be at peace with it and forgive it and so on.

I think it first happened when I was 16 and my mother died. She was a passenger on the back of my dad’s motorbike. So he was in hospital again after that accident. Whilst I don’t think I could say that I looked after him when he was convalescing that time, I did go back for a year to live with him. So he would phone my sister (who by that time was at university) to find out how to make omlettes. And I would re-cook the half-frozen pies he had cooked, and iron shirts for him, and I was there as a companion. I offered to stay instead of going away to uni, but he sweetly said, ‘go’.

But I think the second tragedy embedded something in my psyche, because I did want to take my own life then and it relates to a situation involving another motorbike accident, my dad in hospital, and coming out with problems and a stinky temper.

Dads back then…well, it was normal for them to be distant. To let the mother deal with the children. He had been traditional out of necessity in that sense before 1984. And sometimes out of wanting to (he didn’t spend many weekends with the kids). But after 1984 even when he was around he was violent, angry, quick-tempered, foul mouthed. It was hard to love him. And after the later accident he wouldn’t help himself or listen to the advice of others; he didn’t forgive himself. Perhaps on one level he didn’t want to live either. Survivor’s guilt.

When I was 21 and came out as gay I also felt suicidal then. Perhaps the triggers there were religious, but it doesn’t matter what the triggers were; I felt trapped, I wanted an escape route because there was a task I was dealing with here (this time within myself) that felt too hard to deal with. And if I didn’t get the pills in the right order (figuratively speaking) then there’d be a ‘catastrophe’.

And then again when I was about 23 or 24. I cut ties with the church community I’d been introduced to at age of 4. And I hated myself for that. So I felt trapped again. And then again in May 2013 (I had to just check the year in my calendar because I forget important dates) when Dad died, dealing with things after that I got suicidal again.

I’ve been out of work for anxiety and depression twice now. This time round, this year, it was for something different. The ‘breakthrough’ was about many things, but what surfaced was this old bag of emotions; where they came from, what to do with them. What triggers them.

So now when I feel stressed or trapped or confused or like I need to escape, I see that this is because of those 9 year old feelings. And even just seeing that much helps.

It creates distance from them; there is the 9 year old. And here is me now. And the 9 year old deals with things that way because that’s all a 9 year old can do. But I’m not that little boy, so I have different choices now. I can choose a different response to the situation.

I can tell people ‘can you tell me how I might fit that in?’, because I don’t have to take everything on and ‘save it’.

I can observe the self-loathing, curling up inside, fearful 9 year old response and say, ‘I love you, I forgive you, I’m here for you’.

Screen Shot 2015-08-16 at 10.39.44Perhaps I can’t be entirely at peace and present with the present moment of ‘Now’ in such situations (wherever they feature on that ‘scale’) quite yet. But the grip of those emotions is loosening. My modus operandi is changing.

Shortly after the latest spell out of work I realised that the name people give to children who go through this kind of thing these days is ‘child carer’. So I was telling all my buddies ‘I was a child carer’ in the hope perhaps that they’d help me understand some of all this. They couldn’t, of course. And even if they could, it wasn’t theirs to do. And I remember saying to my husband, ‘I could run a half marathon for this child carer charity! What do you think?’, and he said, ‘I think you’re still caring for your dad there.’

So here is me now, not caring for my Dad because he’s gone. And I have already been such a great success in my life because he didn’t die that time. I kept him alive with my effort and my care. So here is me now caring for myself, loving myself, nurturing myself, and knowing it is needed.

(If you are reading this, and do want to help young carers, you could donate to CarersUK or another charity for child carers where you live.)

Peace, Beloved Community, Elders, and Digital Economic Nationalism

I’m on a snowboarding holiday in Austria with my partner, and a dear friend who I work with at a charity which works for peace (The Fellowship of Reconciliation).

We’ve been discussing what we have learnt about the nature of peace – what makes for it, how it emerges, how it is so much more than demilitarisation and has to do with the nature of the human spirit, and so on.


For me, which I’m sure I’ve blogged about before, the words of Thich Nhat Hanh ring in my mind like a meditation bell: if we put all the weapons and all the bombs on the moon, we would still make more weapons and bombs. So peace has to be about some other kind of transformation; not necessarily disarmament – at least not first (by which I mean, armament is an effect, not a cause).


On the other hand, for those who have discovered spiritual enlightenment according to their given or favoured tradition, inner peace becomes a reality of daily life. Om mane pemme hum. Discovering this for yourself, it is tempting to think that if all of humanity could make this discovery, the shift in culture, in society, in art, would be beyond measure. But the Way cannot be owned and cannot be forced to emerge in others. It goes where it goes.


Conflict of any kind is clearly a disease of the human mind; borne of our adversarial ego position, with which we are born. We are acculturated to allow the ego too much room in our minds. It possesses us, and the vital prerogative to keep alive – to persist – to thrive – for which the ego evolved to protect – becomes all consuming.


Hence conflict in the world, in communities, and the need for inner transformation in order for world peace to be attained.

But knowing inner peace for one’s self does not promulgate greater world peace on its own. The inner transformation has to also become outwardly transformative, and this is the point currently being made by evolutionary enlightenment thinkers.

In Zen Buddhism, a bodhisattva vows that ‘how ever innumerable are all beings, I vow to save them all’. This does not translate as ‘save’ in the same sense as a born again Christian might be instructed or commissioned to “save” others from an after life of hell. It simply means something like, ‘I have a duty of compassion and respect to all other living beings, and realizing one mind between us, I vow to save them from my own pain and suffering’.

If I can take my own illusion, anger, and greed out of the equation through death of the ego, then the world is more peaceful. Transformations occur simply because I am walking in the Way rather than pushing myself against the forces of the cosmos. Rather like a carpenter working with the grain of the wood. And such transformations in relationships, in work, in others around me, become immeasurable, tangible, unexpected, and beyond my own control. They are simply realized without effort.


Sure. If we all attained this, there would be little to no conflict. We would deal with our conflicts more intelligently and compassionately when they arose. We would look upon the waging of war as the infantile, egotistical, stupid, and futile illusion that it is. An illusion because it can never be a path to happiness, or a path to success, or a path to peace. It never has been and never will be.

Perhaps there will be a tipping point. Enough of humanity will awaken, and enough people will awaken out of such illusion and suffering, that even those for whom awakening has not yet occurred, the illusion of ‘final solutions’ will fall by the wayside and into human history much like cannibalism has already done. And this is what the 2012 brigade are hoping for; galactic alignment will simply occur, causing a new great transformation in human history.


But there may be ways for peace to emerge which don’t rely on such a faith in galactic alignment (which, for some, is hocus pocus), or a belief in the power of the individual aligned with Spirit. Inner transformation work, when combined with a beloved community, can create communities of peace. And many peace NGO’s (including FoR), Christian emerging churches, Buddhist sanghas like Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village, and others, are exploring and making this a reality in the world. In turn, these peace communities have a greater force of good karma than an individual standing alone. And they don’t have to be reatreatant in nature.


What my colleague and I were specifically grappling with in our discussion was the demise of imperial nationalism, and the emergence within living memory of capitalist nationalism; all nations still defend their own interests, but this is along economic and not imperial or religious lines. And because this form of nationalism is economic in nature, it is much more fluid than previous forms of nationalism – almost to the point where ‘nationalism’ is nolonger the right word, unless you think of it in terms of ‘imagined communities‘ rather than in terms of geopolitical areas. Moreover, transactions are made across the globe digitally, and allegiances often cross national and cultural borders. The project of the European Union is essentially a post-imperial form of digital economic nationalism. The EU is a monetary bloc, a cooperative where the merging of culture and humanist ideals succeeds, and does not precede, economic collaboration – at least at the level of governance between member nations.


In this context, ‘defense’ and ‘governance’ are closely tied to the economic prosperity of the privileged. This is not so much a military/industrial complex, as was witnessed in Hitler’s Third Reich (which heavily drew on the imperialism of the Christianised Holy Roman Empire – ordained by God to conquer), as a military/economic complex. This is important because economic growth now grows out from a centre of power much more organically than forced empire building. Sure, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait not so long ago, and this was the older form of empire building. But the nations who became concerned about this were not sort of jealous that they didn’t think of this first; nobody toppled him off that throne in order to take it for themselves in a 19th century fashion. An independent Kuwait was much more important a prize for the economic stability or availability of the oil resource, and reasserting such stability in that area required cooperative thinking between economic centres rather than competitive thinking; there was more to gain financially that way through trade.


Despite this level of cooperation in the interests of good trading, the possibility of colonial/ imperial/ military-industrial forms of evil reasserting themselves, or if not that then the fear of an as-yet-unseen “evil”, is enough to cause nations to build and maintain a defense system much in the way that it is sensible to have anti-virus software installed on your computer before being able to safely surf the Internet. The “war on terror” can be read in this context as a purge of a system bug – the bug being an organised group of dispersed, trained individuals acting like worms, trojans and phishers, and democracy in this context can be read as the global digital economic system working within ‘normal system parameters’.

THE MILITARY ECONOMIC COMPLEX PROTECTS GLOBAL SYSTEM NORMAL, RATHER THAN IDEAS OF A PERFECT SOCIETY (ideologies are dead – including left/right forms of politics as demonstrated by China’s capitalist-communism, or Blair’s free trade socialism), OR TRIBES (ideas of racial or creedal boundaries are all but gone in much of the world).


Global system normal sounds quite good. With economic stability comes other forms of stability – fewer abuses of power, fewer breeches of human rights and so on. But the problem is, and many people are talking about this, that organising human behaviour around purely economic grounds is beyond lame. Economics has no care for the real value of world resources, for sustainability, or even for its own perpetuation. Within this global system normal, the operating system itself is fatally flawed. It is only a matter of time, if left to its own devices, before the system will break itself down because we live on a planet with finite resources. Cynically speaking, the end of apartheid, of homophobia, of sexism, of ageism (which we are starting to see if not seeing) could all be attributed to global system normal rather than to brilliant advancement in human behaviour. These old distinctions simply don’t matter in the way they once did; all human units are potential consumers. It’s tempting to look at positive social changes from the 20th century and think that this means the democracy experienced in late capitalism is a good system of governance. But it isn’t. Not only is it fundamentally flawed, but it is also not the right way to look at it. We aren’t choosing democracy. Democracy is choosing us because we now organise ourselves within a global total digital economic system which requires certain ‘software’ to operate. This sucks.


Some peacemakers seem to prefer Anarchy. Especially the protester types who often forget that active nonviolence means not being violent. And we came back to the theme of beloved community.

My colleague’s question is – how do you have accountability, how do you fill the power void, in any community? To leave it empty would be anarchy, to fill it totally would be totalitarianism, so what else is there other than where we are now? The Quakers, for whom peacemaking has been a major theme throughout their history as a faith group, favour total democracy; all voices are heard and given equal balance. The trouble is that even this form of super democracy does not have within it the force to undo a fundamentally flawed global system normal.


There may be another option, and it’s an option which is already being experimented with by the Sanghas, churches, and groups mentioned above. It’s already prevalent in our religious heritages. It’s a system of eldership, and some of the oldest human civilisations thrived using this system.

What do we do with our elderly? We hide them away in shame. For some reason, our elderly stopped being our elders at some point. Perhaps this was because of the industrial revolution, and the disconnection this caused between human society and living natural systems. The very moment that rural communities were depopulated and urban centres grew, drew us away from these roots.

Or perhaps it is because of two world wars. Our elderly are not our elders quite simply because they fought in wars, whether they wanted to or not. Or if we are talking about our baby boomer parents as our elderly (which they have become), then it might be possible to talk of in terms of the self-centred hedonism which stereotypes a baby boomer. Rebelling against their parents whose worldview became darkened by wars, baby boomer culture was bright, colourful, indulgent, and insatiable. The world was not enough, and they can’t get no satisfaction.

I haven’t fathomed out what sort of system would be preferable for determining what makes an elder, but we all have built within us the capacity to know spiritual wisdom when we hear it, and there are many existing good examples of communities with elders where the elders themselves are accountable too.

I recently saw an advertisement calling for the Grandmothers of the world to unite as a voice for peace and wisdom, to admonish their sons about how they express their anger and fear in the world, to give their grandsons an aspirational sense of awe, and to remind their daughters and grand daughters the important gifts which women can give the world. This is a call to eldership.

I don’t expect to figure out a path to world peace after one year of working for a peace charity, one year of exposure to the peace movement, or two years of sitting in the Soto Zen tradition (even with Bodhisattva ordination). But this is a statement of where I’m up to on chewing that fat, as it were.

Inner peace has to be an essential component of sustainable peace in the world, but it is not the only component, and the dharma is nothing without the marketplace. The marketplace has to be community – the place where inner wisdom passes into fully manifested and realized action in the world. And communities require an organisational structure. In Soto Zen we are taught that our peers are more important than our blood ties, because one day a peer might be our Master. And our Masters, monks and nuns, are our Elders whom we go to when we seek wisdom.

All well and good for making world peace a reality within that closed community system; but what about peace and justice for all? And in that sense, I guess that communities which are outward-facing (in the same way that the Network of Engaged Buddhists Sangha is) are more likely to align with the nature of the peace which passes all understanding. That source of peace which has a life all of its own, which moves and flows not knowing boundaries of race, creed, colour, wealth, sexuality, gender, religion, type of being, or system of governance.

Peace is not mine to take. Compassion is ours to share from the heart of our own beloved community.

I wonder whether activism plays a part in making peace?

The normal mind is the adversarial mind. This is what Michel Meiho Bovay says in his commentary on Master Taisen Deshimaru’s Rules of the Dojo.

Global peace may not be possible with normal adversarial mind activity. Conflict potential is perhaps truly transformed by natural state peace mind only.

War is built on anger fear ignorance illusion. Consciousness raising activity shows the current manifestations of the illusions we share, and how active such illusions are. But sick minds essentially need compassion hospital. Is activism compassionate? Does it show compassion?

Anger and fear cannot defeat ignorance and illusion. ‘Those who fight fire with fire usually end up with ashes’.

Life is just a party

‘Life is just a party, and if you don’t see this then you must be blind’

The line from a yet-to-be-released song in the UK.

Well, yeah. But also… all parties are hosted.

For your life to be a party, you have to help my party along too.

The world is already perfect. Life is already perfect. All that is in the way is all the forgetting of this fact. If we all live right now without illusion, without forgetting, then the perfect world will come. It will not come overnight. It will take time for everyone to remember. Forgetting is almost as contagious as remembering. Almost. And all of nature has been held up in our forgetting too, so nature needs some time to recover.

There is not no peace making

AJ Muste once said, ‘there is no way to peace. Peace is the way.’

I have been contemplating the many meanings of this for a few months.

It seems that there are many who are still looking for a route to global peace through carving a way towards it much like a snow plough fending off an avalanche of its own making.

Instead, peace is ‘the way things are’, ‘the way to be’, ‘the best way’, ‘the natural way’, ‘how things are generally ordered’.

Thich Nhat Hanh says (somewhere) that if you want to campaign for peace you need to write love letters. My own interpretation of his words is that getting angry about violence and militarism only serves to add fuel to the fire of insanity burning in the minds of military people. It props up the illusion they have made for themselves; an illusion about the wisdom of military conflict, an illusion about separateness from the ‘enemy’, an illusion of ego and vital prerogative. Instead, love letters are a bell bringing a deluded mind back into the present moment and inviting that mind to wake up.

Love letters, or any form of nonviolent action that is alive to the present and to spirit.

I guess that’s the difference between being a peacemaker living in the way of peace and using that state of being to mediate a ‘middle path’ between that state of being and the dukkha encountered, and being a peacemaker like a snow plough fending off an avalanche up a mountain.

I can see how easy it is to slip between middle path and snow plough. Both require an intention for peace for onesself and one’s world. Perhaps, sometimes, middle path is snow plough – confusing things even further. Greater mindfulness is needed in separating the two.

There is no peace ‘making’. There is not no peace ‘making’.

A poem by Joe Haldeman, from ‘Forever Free’

This poem is at the start of the book ‘Forever Free’ – the second part of the trilogy ‘Peace and War’ by Joe Haldeman. ‘Forever Free’ was first published in 1999. The first part of the trilogy, The Forever War, was first published in 1974.

Men stop war to make gods
sometimes. Peace gods, who would make
Earth a heaven. A place for men to
think and love and play. No war
to cloud their minds and hearts. Stop,
somehow, men from being men.

Gods make war to stop men
from becoming gods.
Without the beat of drums to stop
our ears, what heaven we could make
of Earth! The anchor that is war
left behind? Somehow free to

stop war? Gods make men to
be somewhat like them. So men
express their godliness in war.
To take life: this is what gods
do. Not the womanly urge to make
life. Nor the simple sense to stop.

War-men make gods. To stop
those gods from raging, we have to
find the heart and head to make
new gods, who don’t take men
in human sacrifice. New gods,
who find disgust in war.

Gods stop, to make men war
for their amusement. We can stop
their fun. We can make new gods
in human guise. No need to
call to heaven. Just take plain men
and show to them the heaven they could make!

To stop God’s wars! Men make
their own destiny. We don’t need war
to prove to anyone that we are men.
But even that is not enough. To stop
war, we have to become more. To
stop war, we have to become gods.

To stop war, make men gods.