Category Archives: Philosophy

Dreaming reality

Everything human-made has been dreamed up by someone. Our cultures, societies, communities, urban spaces, our farming and our treatment of the landscape is all a consequence of someone’s dreaming. Sometimes we dream together and deliberately. Sometimes we dream many different things and what we get is a messy hotchpotch that isn’t quite what anyone wanted.

Our dreaming is not a neutral process. What we dream of, we may invest in, purchase, or vote for. The person or company that can offer us the things we dream of will be especially attractive to us. Giving people their dreams is tricky for anyone who is not a fairy godmother. It is simpler to persuade people to dream of certain things so that you already have the solutions in a warehouse ready to sell to them.

However, we can also dream of changing things. We can dream of planting trees and living in a low carbon economy. We can dream of social justice – as many people have for many hundreds of years. When the dream of social justice becomes more appealing than the dream of having power over others, there will be social justice. When dreams of compassion become more widespread than dreams of greed and ownership, compassion will become normal and greed will become rare. Everything we do starts with ideas, and those ideas can seed in us, barely noticed even as they are part of what shapes humanity’s relationship with the living Earth.

We make the human aspects of our world out of our dreams. We start with ideas, and we build and change in line with them. We get caught up in the dreams of others. Nothing that humans do or make is inevitable. There were always multitudinous other options we could have taken. Unfortunately we have habits of telling our history stories in ways that help us believe there was no other way. There was always another way. There were always people dreaming differently and imagining something else – good dreams and nightmares alike.

Climate change exists because of our dreams of having lots of energy to use. We dream of travelling quickly from one place to another, quickly replacing throwaway fashion to be up to date. We dream of easy food in simple containers, we dream of brands and buy their plastic bottles. We do not dream of the sea when we throw our rubbish into watercourses. We dream of holidays in the sun, and so we embrace air travel. To change our collective behaviour we have to change our individual dreams and our ideas about what to value and aspire to.

When you get down to it, dreams are powerful, but they’re also incredibly ephemeral. Of all the things we might try to change, they may be the easiest to tackle, and some of the most effective. What we imagine has the power to change our lives. It costs nothing to imagine differently. It requires little effort. It may not even require much persuasion.

There will be more thoughts around how we do this in the next week or so.

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Grief and religion

One of the things that religions have in common is that they offer answers to human suffering. It may be in the form of strategies to relieve that suffering by living in certain ways. It may be through stories of divine oversight, grand plans, or afterlife recompense. This is one of the ways in which I’ve always found organised religions problematic. Not least because so often, those consolations don’t turn out to be that helpful for people experiencing grief and trauma.

When you have to ask why your God wasn’t there for you and why terrible things were allowed to happen, you either undermine your faith or start having to believe that terrible things are somehow part of a grand plan for your own good. It’s a bigger issue for omnipotent Gods who are supposed to be benevolent.

We suffer in so far as we care. Love and grief are two sides of the same coin. Everything in our world is finite, and will end, or die and if we care about that, or about ourselves we are bound to be hurt by this. To care is to be vulnerable to loss.

In my late teens, I first encountered existentialist thinking, which responds to the grief of life and the apparent meaninglessness by owning it. We may have to make our own meaning. There may be no other meaning. It was the first approach I’d found that genuinely comforted me and it did so because it let me own what I was experiencing. This may be all we have. There may be no grand plan. Everyone dies. If you care, it hurts.

Rather than follow a path that has anything to offer by way of more conventional comfort, I’ve lived with this on my own terms. I see loss and grief as part of life. I see them as intrinsic parts of my caring and loving. I’ve not sought a path that would free me from pain, rather, I’ve tried to embrace it as part of what it means to be human. I find more comfort in the idea that there isn’t a plan, that terrible things happen for no real reason at all sometimes, and that we certainly do not get what we deserve. I think it’s kinder not to assume we get what we deserve.

When we try to protect ourselves from pain, we may close our hearts to what’s around us. We may delude ourselves. We may not do today the things we will no longer have chance to do tomorrow. When you live knowing that everything and everyone is going to die and you let that colour your world view, it becomes more necessary to live fully. It becomes more important to tell people you love them. It becomes more important to try and sort things out here and now, and get them right in the first place.

I’m never very sure what I believe when it comes to deity and afterlife. What I am sure is that it works better for me to live as though there is nothing else but this life and this body I have to experience it with. To love as much as I can and to accept what that means and to embrace grief as an aspect of love makes the most sense to me.


What is compassion?

Compassion, as a spiritual virtue, is something I’ve only ever aspired to, and not with much hope of being able to achieve it. As a spiritual concept, it comes up in many religions – Hindu, Jain and Buddhist thinking explores compassion as something to practice, while Judaism, Christianity and Islam tend to see it as the territory of God. Either way, it’s not easy work.

Compassion comes from the person feeling it. There are no transactions here, no earning the right to be treated compassionately. To be truly compassionate is not to judge. I tend to judge. It means what I do is better framed as kindness, or sympathy because it is partial and I know I cannot extend it to everyone. How you manifest your compassion may well depend on judgement, but the initial recognition of a fellow suffering human does not.

I would like to be able to see everyone as containing a sacred spark, as equally worthy, as all deserving love and compassion. I’ve thought about what kinds of qualities I would need to develop to move towards this state of being. It calls for a vast capacity to love and accept and to recognise our shared condition even in people who do the worst things. I feel very strongly that as soon as we’re talking about the limits of compassion, we aren’t actually talking about compassion any more.

As someone who isn’t compassionate, I am able and inclined to get angry about how I see this term used in some quarters. It is a popular word with people who wish to be seen as spiritual. Too easily, it becomes a demand for other people to appease them. Why are you not treating me with more compassion? It’s an easy knockback if, for example, you’ve just been called out for something. It tends to be people with privilege in the first place who feel entitled to demand compassion from others. It also tends to be people with privilege who practice compassion towards themselves – especially when someone has asked them to do something difficult, uncomfortable or otherwise unappealing to them. I can’t help you right now, I am practicing compassion towards myself.

Compassion towards self is such an attractive mask to slide over the face of total selfishness. It’s the mask that proclaims virtue while hiding the least attractive and least spiritual motives. These are people I usually fail to find compassion for.

I think compassion is something to aspire to. In the meantime, empathy is a good thing to try and develop. Sympathy can run too close to pity, but when we empathise we start to see how we could have ended up in the same place. How easy it is to fall through the gaps, or be led astray, or let the least helpful part of yourself grab the steering wheel. When we can see that we all have the scope to do both wonderful and terrible things, it is easier, I suspect, to cultivate compassion. Those times when we can’t do it will be able to teach us a lot about who and how we are, and what we fear in ourselves. It’s not people who have evolved beyond their worst impulses who may be best able to practice compassion. It may well be the people who have faced their own darkness so that they do not have to fear it in others. I’m not at all sure, but I think it’s worth pondering.


Believe in truth

This is the next instalment in my series of blogs where I pick up ideas about fighting fascism from Molly Scott Cato.

This is a tricky one in the current environment – believe in truth. With so many sources offering opinions as facts, rubbishing experts, buying ‘experts’ to promote their agenda, offering counter facts that aren’t true – it’s not easy to pick out the truth from the lies, or from the confusion.

Believing in truth is a belief position. Previously we looked at asking for evidence – which is about establishing what the truth is most likely to be. This is a different, and more philosophical process. It asks us to get over post-modernism, and step away from the idea that truth is always subjective, partial, contextual. Sometimes these ideas are useful and relevant, but they are also easily manipulated to serve a right wing agenda.

Belief itself is a state that is easily manipulated. We also all know that data can be innocently misunderstood, experts can be wrong because they haven’t seen all the data yet, and so forth. The very best information we can get falls short of the truth.

One of the things that abusers do – it’s called gaslighting – is to provide the victim with conflicting information with the intention of driving them mad. Right now in British politics, Jeremy Corbyn is being presented by the media as weak and ineffectual, but also as a powerful leader with dangerous ideas. Migrants apparently come over here to simultaneously take all our jobs while scrounging off our benefits system – we’ve seen a lot of that one. The EU is simultaneously totally evil, but should kindly find a solution to our brexit problems. Clearly both cannot be true. People with terminal illness are declared fit for work. When you’re thinking about truth, this is an area to pay particular attention to.

A person who is interested in truth will be open to new information. They won’t however, swing back and forth between conflicting ideas and at every turn expect you to believe the idea they’re putting forth. Taking a step back and trying to look at the overall pattern will give you a better sense of what you are dealing with.

In face of constant gaslighting, it may be a better bet to pick a view and stick to it, just so that you can function and keep moving. In face of gaslighting, it’s not enough to believe in your truth – you will need to remind yourself of it and revisit the evidence so that the misinformation does not undermine you. Given the scale of the gaslighting, you will also need to share that evidence with other people who will likely also be struggling to navigate and stay sane.

Even if you’re not sure what the truth is, if you believe in the idea that there is truth, and the evidence (somewhere!) to make it clear, then you have some resilience against the madness people feel when they are given conflicting information and told that it is all true.


Ask for evidence

I’m picking up the themes Molly Scott Cato has suggested on her blog for resisting fascism – this week it’s about evidence.

Asking for evidence is always a good idea, even when we’re not fending off toxic far-right ideas. When we have evidence, we have consensus reality. When we have evidence, we can discuss the evidence and how it might be interpreted, and if you really want to challenge mainstream thinking in some way, this is the far better route to take.

You can have different opinions and interpretations. You can even have different data sets drawn from different studies in different times and places. It is ok to argue over this. It’s good and healthy to ask questions at this point. What you can’t have, are different facts that are really opinions being called facts and offered with the implicit demand that no one asks what’s going on.

The right to ask for and question evidence is key to making free speech work. It’s key to making democracy work. When you are expected to accept whatever you are told, unquestioningly, it’s a pretty good indicator that you are living under a tyrant.

I am suspicious as soon as people start talking about facts without also talking about evidence. Real science doesn’t give us that many facts. It gives us theories, probabilities, best information based on the data to date. If someone is cautious with their facts, or tries to explain where they come from, I am more likely to trust them. The more strongly asserted a ‘fact’ is the more likely I am to think it’s a lie.

Truth is often complicated, nuanced, and conditional on various factors. Often there is no hard and certain truth – as with weather forecasts. There is only likelihood. What is true in one situation won’t always hold up in another – whether we’re talking about human behaviour, or the behaviour of atoms. Change one variable and the whole thing can be radically different.

However, as humans we’ve bought into the idea that truth should be simple. We are more persuaded by clear statements than by caveats and clauses. It may be to do with how we’ve evolved, or a few thousand years of monotheism having given us ‘one true way’ thinking, but that’s what most of us default to. We want our truth plain and simple, and so too often we will take a plain and simple lie in preference to a complicated truth.

In the short term, the simple lie may be comforting, but it takes us further from any kind of truth, further from what helps us.

If you mistrust experts – as seems common in the current environment – don’t ignore them. Ask for their evidence. See if they offer evidence. Trust your own ability to look at evidence and think about it. The person who will show you their evidence and share the process of their thinking is far more likely to have your interests at heart than the person who expects you to take everything on trust.


Shopping for a sense of self

Many adverts encourage us to feel that their product will help us ‘discover a new you’. Some do it explicitly, others by showing us the joyful, rewarding lives we could have if only we switched to their tampon brand, their skin cream, their shampoo. If you are feeling lost and dissatisfied, purchasing your identity can be persuasive. Buy this coffee to have a kitchen full of attractive friends. Buy this soft drink so your kid will have a social life.

This diet. This brand of clothing. This holiday destination. This credit card… Of course when we buy them, they do not magically transform us into beautiful, successful, satisfied human beings with shiny kitchens. Unsatisfied by ourselves, we remain open to the next suggestion about the trainers, deodorant, make of car that can save us from ourselves.

Alongside this, we are persuaded to buy things for the kind of person we want to be, or want other people to believe we are. We buy the yoga clothes and the pilates ball. The frozen smoothies, the exercise bike, the DIY stuff, the cookery books for fancy dinner parties we will never host. The massive table for the fantastic dinner parties we will never host… And the things we buy do not transform us into a domestic goddess, or a sleek athlete, or anything else.

We keep consuming. We keep buying things we do not need, and that do not make us happy. We keep buying the idea that we could become the people we wish to be through our purchasing. Alongside this, we buy into the idea that our brand choices are a good expression of identity. If we wear a designer label, it means something about who we are. If we pick tango over pepsi, it’s an identity statement. Adverts are loaded with messages about how your buying choices represent you, and give signals to other people about who you are. The most basic social needs we have for love and friendship will be answered by purchasing the products that draw the right people to us.

The more unhappy we are, the more vulnerable we are to these cynical manipulations. The more energy and resources we put into trying to buy a sense of self, the less we are investing in growing something on the inside that might answer all these needs. The more obsessed we are with purchased surfaces, the less able we are to look past them and see the human beings around us.

 


Nature, Nurture, Environment and Choice

How the balance between nature and nurture shapes us is something psychologists have been arguing about for about as long as there have been psychologists. How much of who we are comes from the genetic material we inherit, and how much comes from the environment we are exposed to? Faced with these two great forces, do we have much free will at all, or can we only be products of our biology and experience?

Once we become old enough to act for ourselves to any degree, we become active co-creators in making and choosing our environments. What we let ourselves dwell on, what we look at, listen to, go back to repeatedly – these are all things that shape us environmentally, and we do get a say in them. There’s a lot of practical difference between reading a book of nature poems and reading a fascist newspaper, for example. Why we choose one over the other may have a lot to do with where we came from, but at any time, any of us can choose these experiences, or refuse them.

Do you go for a walk in the wood or do you stare at your phone for an hour? Are you listening to music you love or is there some kind of wallpaper noise on in the background? Do you pause in your day to appreciate the good things and to express gratitude? Do you make time for self care or do you treat yourself like a disposable resource? How much time do you spend on things that give you joy, and how much time do you spend doing things you think are pointless, boring, or unpleasant? Do you go online to seek out inspiration, or to pick fights?

It’s in our smallest choices within a day that we construct the environment we inhabit.  It is easiest for us to do the things that align with where we’ve come from, but it isn’t inevitable. A little curiosity to explore what we don’t know can open up our choices no end. A willingness to notice what we feel good about and what we don’t and take action on it can lead to radical and powerful life changes. Often it’s the things we do with least thought, as habit, as what people like me do, that define us without our knowing it. No doubt some backgrounds and experiences make it harder to be the kind of adult who can look at how they live and make deliberate changes. Harder, but not, I think, impossible.

We are all shaped, one way and another, by where we come from. It’s easy to mistake that starting point for ‘real’ self. We are all full of far more potential and possibility than we can explore in one lifetime. We all have the scope to be more than we are, and other than we have been. Real freedom comes from owning that, taking total responsibility for who you are, and then living from a place of choice rather than habit.

 


Toilet philosophy

Everyone needs a safe place to pee. I am deeply concerned about the ways in which current ‘debates’ around toilet access are working to reduce safety in all kinds of ways. I’m making the deliberate choice not to focus on trans issues here because I think people who see this as a feminist issue won’t be persuaded by that, but may be willing to consider some other points. But to be clear, I support the right of trans people to be able to pee safely. I support the right of everyone, regardless of gender or presentation, to be able to pee safely.

First up, when we narrow who is allowed to use which toilets, the odds are we do that based on visual judgements. This can only reinforce very narrow and hetro-normative takes on gender. A trans-woman who passes well may have no trouble using the toilet, where a butch lesbian may find herself threatened and harassed. Making toilets unsafe for butch lesbians is not any kind of win for women, feminism or female identity.

Non-binary people also exist. Some non-binary people do not appear very gendered at all and if we focus toilet access on narrow gender stereotypes, non-binary people are going to have a harder time of it. Non-binary people need to pee, and should not have their right to a safe wee depend on conforming to gender roles that we really don’t want to conform to.

Not all women look femme. Some of us are tall. Some of us are muscular. Some of us do not remove our facial hair. Some of us, quite naturally, have a lot of facial hair. The right of a woman to identify as a woman and pee in a toilet should not depend on how female she looks to anyone else. The most likely extra consequence of trying to keep trans women out of toilets, is that cis-women who do not, for whatever reasons, represent in straightforwardly female ways, will not have a safe space to pee. This is not feminism. This is radical exclusion.

Intersex people also exist, and also need to pee and may or may not look like one or the other gender.

Who do we empower when we make it harder for women who look a bit masculine to use toilets? We give power to haters. We give power to people (usually men) who want to hurt and harm trans women. These are often people who would also enjoy an excuse to hurt and harm lesbians and any woman perceived as unpleasing to their male gaze. These are not people who need more power, or more excuses to bully and assault female and female-ish people.

If we focus on stranger danger in toilets, we also do ourselves a gross disservice. You are much more likely to be assaulted by someone you know than by a stranger. The bathroom where you are at most risk of being attacked is one in a private location – your home, a friend’s home, maybe your workplace. When we focus on stranger-danger, we draw attention away from the reality that most victims know their attacker. And we’re creating a situation in which casual attackers may have more scope for action. If a woman can be approached, harassed or assaulted for being in the ‘wrong’ toilet – how safe are any of us?

It is not feminist to narrow women’s scope for presentation. It is not feminist to increase the risk of violence and injustice for lesbians. It is not feminist to run the risk that women are unable to pee safely. It is not feminist to encourage ideas that will empower and encourage abusive men.


Learning from life

Usually I find my content for blog posts by sitting down of a morning and asking ‘what do I know that I did not know before? This week, finding blog posts has been hard, and this morning I asked myself why that was, rather than asking what I have learned.

This is a week of more hours working away from home than is normal for me. As a self-employed person, I mostly work from my home computer. Up until this summer, I’d had a bunch of routines and strategies that allowed me a flexible working life. At the moment I’m getting to grips with a selection of new jobs and this week I’m spending a lot of time on one of them. I know a lot of things I didn’t know before, about where things are kept, what of the paperwork needs revising, and I’m working on some longer term strategies. None of these things make for blog posts.

When I’m on top of things, my day to day life leaves me time for reflection. I get to step back during the day and think about what I’m doing and what’s impacting on me. It’s only since I’ve stopped being able to do that, that I’ve noticed how inherently contemplative my life normally is. At the moment, all of my reflection time is being used to figure out things about the various new jobs. In all the things I’ve taken on, part of the job is to figure out what the job should be and how to do it to best effect.

What I’ve learned this week is that I learn most when I have time in a day for contemplation.  What I’ve been doing for some time doesn’t look like the structure of a conventional spiritual practice, but it has worked that way. A process of reflecting on my experiences as I go has allowed me to learn all kinds of things, and to bring depth and richness to my life. Sometimes it’s when something isn’t feasible that its true nature becomes properly visible – that’s not an ideal way to learn, but it will do!

This period of chaos has given me scope to notice things about how I’ve been living. I look forward to getting back to calmer waters with more scope to think about things. I feel like I’ve got a lot to process right now, as well as a lot to do. What do I know that I did not know before? That I need more thinking time when I don’t have to think about anything specific. Also that there are considerable personal benefits to pondering things as I go, day by day, in the informal way I’d been doing it.


Escaping

So much is tough and scary at the moment. The realities of climate change and extinction weigh heavy on anyone paying attention. I think we need to escape in our minds sometimes, just in order to cope.  The question is, where do we go to escape and what impact does that have on us?

You can escape by watching shallow celebrity distractions, or soap operas full of unreasonable amounts of human unkindness, or fantasies full of violent domination and might being right. You can in fact escape into things that reinforce the approach to life that’s causing all the problems. Tales of competition rather than co-operation. Tales of gratuitous consumption and the toys of the wealthy you can emulate in a shoddy, throwaway fashion. Tales of abuse and misuse.

When we escape into things that distract us, but that also reflect back that how things are is pretty much all we can do, it doesn’t help. Distractions that normalise all the worst aspects of human behaviour discourage us from feeling that people can do better. We come back with these perhaps having benefited from the distraction, but with no new tools to help us cope.

If you pick your escapism carefully, you can come back hopeful. Tales of survival against the odds, of co-operation to overcome adversity. Tales underpinned by the power of friendship. Tales that speak of courage and determination and the best that we can be and that remind us that we are all capable of heroism.

I suspect that most of us choose the forms of escapism that reinforce what we already think about people and possibilities. Those of us who crave power over will seek out the stories that give us demonstrations of that.  Those of us who imagine that chaos and violence could create a world in which we would personally thrive, may enjoy those fantasies, however far from our prospects they may really be.

There is nothing wrong with escaping into any form of entertainment that helps you cope with life. It is always worth asking what that escape is doing for you aside from distraction, and what you are bringing back on your return.