Monthly Archives: June 2008

Investing in Religion

There are two basic approaches to stock market investment: fundamental analysis and technical analysis. A fundamental analyst studies individual companies in detail, looking at the quality of their balance sheets, the calibre of their management, the competitiveness of their products etc. Technical analysis, on the other hand, focuses on the performance of companies’ or whole sectors’ share prices in relation to the rest of the market, searching for historical trends that will indicate a good moment to buy or sell.

Fundamental analysis lends itself to true investment, meaning long-term commitment to particular companies, whereas technical analysis can feed short-term speculation. Warren Buffett is one of the best known fundamental analysts, who has built up big, long term positions in companies such as Coca-Cola, Gillette and American Express. His investment vehicle, Berkshire Hathaway, performed poorly during the dotcom era because Mr Buffett does not understand IT, and therefore did not feel he could invest in technology companies based on fundamental analysis; nor would he relax his principles and invest based on technical analysis. However when the dotcom bubble burst Warren Buffett’s star ascended once more, as other investors piled into the traditional companies with proven track records in which Berkshire Hathaway already had large holdings – then seen as safe havens.

The problem with technical analysis as an investment approach is that it can lend itself to sheep-like behaviour. Technical analysis is based on specific principles, and any differences in approach can be subtle, meaning that, at any given time, most technical investors will be moving in the same direction, with slight variation. The sums of money at stake can be huge – measured in the billions – so even small variations can yield gains or losses of millions. Hedge funds try to distinguish themselves from each other through the subtlety of their mathematical algorithms that plot the market’s movements. Where algorithms are well designed, huge profits follow. Where they are badly designed hedge funds can come close to bringing the international finance system to its knees, as in the case of the 1998 crisis caused by the failure of LTCM (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LTCM). However, no algorithms are so well designed that they can withstand all eventualities, despite the pretensions of the ‘masters of the universe’.

Automated trading based on technical analysis is one of the main reasons for volatility in the world’s financial markets. Many trades are no longer discretionary – they are automated, dictated by an investment fund’s computer software (unless of course a rogue trader can bypass controls in the spectacular fashion of Jerome Kerviel at SocGen!). So when one fund starts off-loading shares because its software tells it to, the chances are there will be a dozen other funds whose software is telling them to do the same, leading to exaggerated effects.

“What”, you may be asking, “does all this have to do with religion”? Well, without wanting to stretch the analogy too far, I think there are some useful parallels that can be drawn between investment in stocks and investment in religion. Clearly there are many differences: the currency invested in stocks is money; the currency invested in religion is faith. Unwise investment in stocks can result in you losing your house; unwise investment in religion causes suffering to the soul.

Just as most individual investors in stocks are in no position to engage in a thorough fundamental analysis of the companies they might invest in, most seekers after spiritual truth are in no position to engage in a thorough fundamental analysis of the religions they might choose. Thorough fundamental analysis of a religion and its bearer organizations would require degrees in theology, sociology, and at least one ancient language! (I should point out, of course, that most people in the world do not choose their religion – they are born into it. Choosing your religion is predominantly a modern phenomenon, although not without precedent in the ancient civilizations of India and China amongst others.)

Those of us who find ourselves living in a society which has largely dispensed with its spiritual heritage, but who feel drawn to the spiritual path ourselves, can exercise choice over which spiritual path we follow. However, we work within limits. There is little point in my choosing to be a Zoroastrian while living in Derbyshire, as there are no groups to join, and precious little opportunity to receive teachings or attend ceremonies. And there’s the rub – no matter what fundamental analysis we engage in, and what conclusions we come to, we are constrained by ‘technical’ factors such as where other people in our society are headed. To give another example, I could choose Kum Nye as the form of physical exercise most conducive to my spiritual path, but it is much more sensible for me to choose Hatha Yoga as there are half a dozen classes in my small home town.

This leads onto a very important point about religion, that it is partly (if not largely) about communal experience. One of the great joys of involvement in religion is joining together with others, breaking down barriers, and experiencing the primacy of the group over the individual. If we have a spiritual practice that does not include this communal experience (communion?) we are missing out on a great deal.

What does this mean in practice? Well, it means partly that we should put down the finer tools of fundamental analysis, and look practically at what spiritual paths are available to us where we actually live. I do not mean that if we are strongly drawn to Islam we should become a Christian just because there is no mosque in our area, but I do mean that if we have a preference for Shia Islam we might decide to attend the Sunni mosque instead because the closest Shia one is 300 miles away. Regarding Buddhism, it would seem foolish not to attend a local meditation centre because it is from the ‘wrong’ tradition, if it is the only one available in our area. Conversely, even if we start to become disillusioned with our own tradition, there can still be benefit in continuing to attend its local meditation centre, just to commune for a while.

On a bigger scale, we should not allow ourselves to be pulled out of communion with the rest of our co-religionists because we find that the tradition we have joined is a ‘splinter group’. Even if the fundamental analysis of the splinter group were to be proved right (just as Warren Buffett’s fundamental analysis was proved right at the end of the dotcom era), there are still benefits with going along with the rest of the herd to an extent. Even though dotcom shares were fundamentally flawed they still made money for a few years – years in which Warren Buffett was missing out on profits. If other Buddhists are having a great time, we don’t want to cut ourselves off from them just because we disagree on some fine points of fundamental analysis!

The point of a religion is to be a valid basis in which to invest our faith. It does not need to be perfect, and in fact no religion is (by the mere fact that we are in samsara). We are always going to find faults if we look hard enough. This does not mean we should ignore obvious faults, but it does mean that we should cut some slack for ourselves and others and realize that the benefits of joining in can outweigh the demands of strict religious purity. And if we are happy in our tradition, we shouldn’t worry too much if others don’t like it.

The Labyrinth

The labyrinth is a symbol of conditioned existence, known in Buddhism and Hinduism as samsara. The labyrinth is the prison we build for ourselves when we become alienated from our own nature. Whether we have ever truly been in harmony with our own nature is a matter for debate, but the prospect of escape from the labyrinth has appealed to humanity throughout history.

The labyrinth has its locus classicus in the myth of the Minotaur. On the island of Crete, prince Minos was competing against his brothers for the throne. Minos asserted that the gods favored him, and he prayed to Poseidon, the sea-god (symbol of the unconscious mind in modern psychological terms) to send as a sign a white bull, which Minos promised to immediately sacrifice back to the god.

“The bull had appeared, and Minos took the throne; but when he beheld the majesty of the beast that had been sent and thought what an advantage it would be to possess such a specimen, he determined to risk a merchant’s substitution – of which he supposed the god would take no great account. Offering on Poseidon’s altar the finest white bull that he owned, he added the other to his herd” (Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Fontana Press, pp13-14)

Originally Minos was in harmony with his nature and the gods favored him, but his deception causes him to become alienated from his own nature. The alienation manifests itself as external success – the Cretan empire flourishes under Minos – but at the price of a growing inner sickness. At home, Minos’ wife is infected by Poseidon with an ungovernable passion for the white bull, and she conceives a child, the Minotaur, half-man half-bull. Discovering the child, the king summons the master craftsman Daedalus, and orders him to construct a labyrinth where the abomination can be hidden and imprisoned, never to see the light of day.

“So deceptive was the invention, that Daedalus himself, when he had finished it, was scarcely able to find his way back to the entrance. Therein the Minotaur was settled: and he was fed, thereafter, on groups of living youths and maidens, carried as a tribute from the conquered nations within the Cretan domain.” (ibid, p14).

This illustrates that the unhealthy mind, in its state of alienation, is full of complexes which are essentially destructive, even though on the surface all may appear to be well.

Eventually the hero Theseus slays the Minotaur with the help of Minos’ daughter Ariadne and escapes with her to Greece. Minos, enraged at the loss of his daughter and the killing of his son the Minotaur, imprisons Daedalus and his son Icarus in the labyrinth. Daedalus and Icarus escape from the labyrinth and, to escape from Crete, Daedalus fashions wings out of feathers held together with wax. Daedalus warns Icarus not to fly too close to the sun as it will melt his wings, but Icarus is exhilarated by the thrill of flying and soars too high, whereupon the wax binding his wings melts and he falls to his death, drowned in the sea.

The story of Icarus epitomizes what Thomas Moore calls puer (boyish) spirituality:

puer is the face of the soul that is boyish, spirited in a way that is perfectly depicted in the image of a male child or a young man. But the attitude of the puer is not limited to actual boys, to males, to any age group, or even to people . . . Because the puer attitude is so unattached to things worldly, it isn’t surprising to find it prevalent in religion and in the spiritual life. For example, there is the story of Icarus . . . One way to understand this story is to see it as the puer putting on the wings of spirit and becoming birdlike as a way of getting out of labyrinthine life. His escape is excessive, exceeding the range of the human realm, and so the sun sends him plummeting to his death. The story is an image of spirituality carried out in the puer mode. Anyone can turn to religion or spiritual practice as a way out of the twists and turns of everyday living. We feel the confinement, the humdrum of the everyday, and we hope for a way to transcend it all.” (Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, pp247-8)

When I was twenty-one I became a Buddhist monk, and I was the epitome of puer spirituality. Seeking to escape from the labyrinth, and exhilarated by an idealistic spirituality, I flew too close to the sun and came crashing down to earth. Aged twenty-four I disrobed, and ended up living in my mother’s house, where my brother bought me a framed picture of The Lament for Icarus by Herbert Draper to hang on my bedroom wall!

Hand-in-hand with puer spirituality goes what the psychotherapist John Welwood calls spiritual bypassing:

“Starting in the 1970’s I began to perceive a disturbing tendency among many members of spiritual communities. Although many spiritual practitioners were doing good work on themselves, I noticed a widespread tendency to use spiritual practice to bypass or avoid dealing with certain personal or emotional ‘unfinished business’. This desire to find release from the earthly structures that seem to entrap us – the structures of karma, conditioning, body, form, matter, personality [in other words the labyrinth] – has been a central motive in the spiritual search for thousands of years. So there is often a tendency to use spiritual practice to try to rise above our emotional and personal issues – all those messy, unresolved matters that weigh us down. I call this tendency to avoid or prematurely transcend basic human needs, feelings, and developmental tasks spiritual bypassing.” (John Welwood, Toward a Psychology of Awakening, Shambala pp11-12).

The antidote to puer spirituality or spiritual bypassing is a grounded spiritual practice. A grounded spiritual practice enables us to recognize our habitual, distorted patterns of thought and behaviour (our labyrinth) as material to work with and eventually grow out of. If we prematurely attempt to transcend the labyrinth we will discover the hard way that our neurotic tendencies are still compulsively, unconsciously conditioning us. John Welwood recommends we adopt a psychological approach to complement our spiritual practice:

“the essential practice, common to both psychotherapy and meditation, is to bring our larger awareness to bear on our frozen karmic structures. Often this larger awareness is obscured – either buried beneath our problems, emotions, reactions, or else detached, dissociated, floating above them. So it is essential first to cultivate awareness and then to bring it to bear on the places where we are contracted and stuck. This allows us to taste the poisons of confused mind and transmute them.” (ibid, pp20-21).

Non-Violence and the Self-Cherishing Mind

On 2nd December 2007 David Edwards and David Cromwell of Media Lens were presented with the Gandhi International Peace Award by Denis Halliday, former UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator in Iraq and himself a recipient of the award in 2003. Here Matthew Bain, a friend of the Gandhi Foundation, asks David Edwards about the relationship between Media Lens’ work and the Gandhian principle of ahimsa.

Bain: In his struggles against oppression, Gandhi sought to break down the barriers between oppressors and oppressed, seeing them all as victims. Whereas the oppressed often suffered from physical or economic degradation, the oppressors suffered from moral degradation. Is this theory relevant to Media Lens’ work?

Edwards: The great Buddhist sage Shantideva said the “ancient enemies” of living beings, the real enemies, are greed, hatred and ignorance. These are the three causes and effects of the self-cherishing mind described above. It is greed, hatred and ignorance that lead people to believe their own suffering and happiness matter more than everyone else’s. This leads us to put ourselves first and to ignore the consequences for others. Many of the miseries of the world are rooted in this fundamental willingness to subordinate the interests of others to our own.

It’s tempting to see particular groups of people as the cause of all problems. But actually we’re all afflicted by the “ancient enemies”. So, for example, people are outraged if someone expresses racist or sexist prejudice — these are rightly seen as sources of immense suffering. But there is a far more deep-rooted prejudice — the bias whereby we see ourselves as far more important than all other people. Geshe Lhundub Sopa does a good job of explaining what we know but don’t really recognise in ourselves:

“We think everything should focus upon us – all services and good things should be for me. Then of course we try to gain enjoyment, fame, wealth, and everything else that we feel is necessary for this me. We become angry if we see that something might prevent us getting those things or if anyone else gets something better. These feelings make us think, act, and speak in negative ways. Everyone is subject to this problem: we all act from selfishness.” (Geshe Lhundub Sopa, Steps on the Path to Enlightenment, Volume 3, Wisdom Books, 2008, p.111)

We are almost always massively prejudiced in our own favour. We feel virtuous when we have one or two compassionate impulses, but it’s actually shocking how many of our thoughts are concerned with squeezing just a little more pleasure into our lives. Not into other people’s lives, into our own. We want the best for ourselves; we’re the centre of the universe. The human universe never was heliocentric, it has always been egocentric. Racial and sexual prejudices are sub-divisions of this ultimate bias.

Shantideva delivered his amazing “J’accuse!” to his own selfish mind as far back as the eighth century:

“O my mind, what countless ages
Have you spent in working for yourself?
And what great weariness it was,
While your reward was only misery!

“The truth, therefore, is this:
That you must wholly give yourself and take the other’s place.
The Buddha did not lie in what he said —
You’ll see the benefits that come from it.”
(Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva, Shambhala Publications, 1997, p.132)

He added:

“And so it is that if I want contentment,
I should never seek to please myself.
And likewise, if I wish to save myself,
I’ll always be the guardian of others.” (p.134)

Shantideva was here doing nothing less than rejecting his own favouritism towards himself! And this was not some kind of gesture or stunt — his work, The Way of the Bodhisattva, is a precise, step-by-step guide to actually achieving this result. When he advises that we “take the other’s place,” he means that we should work for the benefit of others as though it were our own, rather than working for our own benefit.

That this aspiration can emerge in a product of nature “red in tooth and claw” is astonishing. In my opinion, Shantideva’s words constitute the ultimate revolutionary statement — the complete rejection of self-interest out of concern for the welfare of others.

Shantideva was not advocating this as a matter of righteous, hair-shirted stoicism. His point is that we need to replace the inevitable misery of the self-cherishing mind, of the “ancient enemies”, with the almost unimagined happiness of the compassionate mind liberated from greed, hatred and ignorance. Of course the self-cherishing that Shantideva rejected is at the heart of all individual exploitation and of all exploitative systems of power. It is self-cherishing that causes us to build and participate in these systems.

The claim is that thoughts pretty much obey the laws of Newtonian physics — they build psychological momentum in the absence of an opponent force. The more we are angry, the stronger our anger becomes. On the other hand, the more we are compassionate, the more anger dissipates. There is a marvelous quote that sums up the logic of self-restraint in a discussion on training the mind to become more patient:

“It is not productive to one’s practice to become impatient with those who are impatient.” (Sopa, op. cit., p.284)

What we’re trying to do is to increase compassion in the world, to decrease self-cherishing. This is achievable when we perceive greed, hatred and ignorance as the enemy. When we perceive particular individuals as the enemy, we tend to achieve the opposite result.

Bain: Gandhi named his active method to combat oppression ‘satyagraha’, meaning struggle for truth. Satyagraha looks for the moral levers in the oppressor’s own psychology or mythology, and then discovers a way to pull them. Gandhi was successful in pulling the levers in the British psychology. As rulers of India we considered ourselves to be upholders of righteous constitutional rule, so when Gandhi allowed himself to be imprisoned by us he forced us to look in the mirror and see that we were not acting in accordance with our own self-image. Do you believe that there are elements of satyagraha in Media Lens’ work?

Edwards: In his book, Web Of Deceit, the historian Mark Curtis showed how the mainstream media promote one key concept above all others: “Britain’s basic benevolence.” (http://www.medialens.org/alerts/03/030603_Basic_Benevolence.html) This provides an obvious lever for challenging exploitative power – the challenge to live up to the hype.

For example, in 2002, journalists like David Aaronovitch and Johann Hari claimed their real concern was for the welfare of the Iraqi people. So we investigated how this compassion has manifested itself during the subsequent catastrophic occupation. We examined to what extent they have drawn attention to the suffering of Iraqi refugees, to the patients dying in hospitals for the lack of the most basic equipment, to the small children dying from a lack of basic sanitation, and so on. (See: http://www.medialens.org/alerts/08/080110_david_aaronovitch_a.php and http://www.medialens.org/alerts/04/041029_Siding_with_Iraq.HTM)

The claim of humanitarian intent is a very powerful propaganda weapon for systems of concentrated power, but it does allow dissidents to offer a challenge in that moral arena. And power is under pressure to provide credible answers, to be seen to live up to its own claims. The fact is that people in our society do need to be persuaded to support violent interventions on humanitarian grounds. If these claims are shown to be bogus, then powerful interests have much greater difficulty in waging war — they can’t railroad the population completely; they can’t afford for democracy to be exposed as a total sham.

Government support for the Iraq war went ahead against overwhelming public opposition in several countries in 2003, but at a very high political cost to the likes of Blair, Aznar and Bush. It’s fair to say that Blair’s career was ruined by his mendacious campaign to manipulate Britain into war – his reputation has been demolished. It’s hard now to remember just what a source of optimism he was for many people (liberal journalists in particular) before 2003.

Bain: Media Lens can only do so much. What other ‘moral levers’ are out there, that you would like other people to pull?

Edwards: Especially on the left, I think people need to look to the moral levers in themselves. It’s so easy to place all our trust in facts and rational argument to win the battle of ideas, to convince everyone of the need for progressive change. But as discussed, the self-cherishing mind is highly adept at simply deflecting these facts and arguments from awareness. We should also be seeking to strengthen the capacity for kindness, compassion, love, patience and generosity in ourselves and others. We need a compassionate revolution, as opposed to a bomb-throwing revolution. Basically the left needs to start meditating on these subjects.

People often think this means sitting cross-legged on a cushion and emptying the mind of thoughts. But fully one-half of Buddhist meditation is called ‘analytical meditation’. This type of meditation involves simply reflecting on these issues exactly as we’ve been doing here. What are the disadvantages of the self-cherishing mind? Have I ever felt self-obsessed, really greedy for pleasure? What was the impact of indulging these thoughts on my sense of well-being? Where did they lead? Have I ever felt coldly indifferent to everyone else who just seemed to be a damned nuisance? How did I feel in those moments? Have I ever been really generous? Have I given something to someone solely out of an intention to make them happy with no thought of reward? How did I feel in those situations? How did other people react?

A good place to start in this internal analysis is Matthieu Ricard’s book Happiness (Atlantic Books, 2006). Geshe Lhundub Sopa gives an idea of how the mind can be trained:

“The way to meditate on love is similar to the manner of meditating on compassion. Where compassion is wanting sentient beings to be free from misery, love is wanting them to possess happiness, enjoyment, and bliss. So here we look at sentient beings, beginning with our relatives, and see that they do not even have worldly happiness… Go back and forth, first thinking that sentient beings lack a specific thing and therefore they suffer this or that type of misery, and then wishing that they have the cause of happiness. Think this way again and again and you will come to feel like a mother whose dear child is in need of many things. A mother wants her child to have the things that will make him or her happy; she sincerely desires to help her child obtain these things.” (Sopa, op. cit., p.89)

This kind of repetitive practice gradually moves the momentum of the mind away from ruthless, unrestrained self-cherishing, towards kindness. We can sensitise our minds to the suffering of others, to compassion.

Many of us think we’re prevented from trying harder to help others because of indifference. But this couldn’t be more wrong. The problem is not indifference; it’s our passionate dedication to serving ourselves. Our problem is not laziness but that we’re working so hard to satisfy our desires, to indulge our egos, to get everything we want.

But the response to the self-cherishing habit is not to somehow just try harder, to whip ourselves into being more committed people. Our self-cherishing minds will certainly not tolerate this for very long — it’s far too much like hard work. We might manage for a while but pretty soon we’ll decide all this suffering is deeply unfair — ‘It’s not my fault the world’s full of suffering, and anyway what can one person really achieve?’ — at which point we’ll likely disappear off to have some fun.

The solution is to challenge the false claims of the self-cherishing mind and to investigate the liberatory potential of the other-cherishing, compassionate, mind.

And there are real surprises here. The principal one being that focusing primarily on our own happiness guarantees suffering for ourselves and others. Curiously, happiness lies in exactly the opposite direction.

An extended version of this article can be found at http://www.medialens.org/cogitations/080216_non_violence_and.php