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The Political Instinct

In her book “The Mystery of Numbers” Annemarie Schimmel discusses the innate human mathematical instinct at the root of all systems of numbers and geometry. There is also an innate political instinct at the root of all our political systems and forms. The mathematical instinct governs human relationships to questions of oneness and manyness, controlling how we divide the world into quantities. The political instinct governs our relationship to questions of order, purpose and cooperation.

Humans instinctively feel that we are in this world for a purpose — it takes an extraordinary confluence of cynicism and apathy to knock this feeling out of us — and we also feel that we must cooperate with others to achieve this purpose. All of our patterns of cooperation, modes of persuasion, and our efforts to collectively agree upon goals spring from these initial political instincts.

To call our political instincts innate is to say that they are part of our nature, our soul, which means that they are basically good. Our mathematical instincts too are fundamentally good and useful, are one of the sacred endowments at the root of great human achievements. Yet unfortunately both mathematical and political instincts can be twisted and corrupted by the delusions of greed, hatred, pride etc. The opening scene of 2001 — A Space Odyssey graphically depicts the unfortunate human tendency to turn conceptual knowledge into weapons and slaughter.

One of the great challenges of our time is to rediscover our innate political instinct, before it got corrupted and became just another servant of business. This primordial political energy in our souls can bind us together through love and shared endeavour, and marry us to both ideals and reality.

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Natural Harmony

February 2007

Although there is strength in wanting things to be different there is also weakness. The strength is in compassion, because nobody should remain unmoved by other people’s suffering; we should all wish that the conditions causing suffering be removed. The weakness is because there is much learning to be had from the way things are right now, so by wishing them to be different we are passing up the opportunity to learn.

If we are annoyed and unhappy should we not wish for things to be different? Not for our own sake. We should take a step back and allow ourselves to look at the annoyance and unhappiness in our mind, to experience it. We should recognise it for what it is, and we should realise that, although we are annoyed and unhappy, our mind is working. How can it be working? The mind is a system which functions according to regular principles. The fact that the current state of our mind is annoyed and unhappy does not disprove this. Rather, we should seek to investigate our own mental system to understand how these feelings are being produced. They are being produced because our mind is working. But this does not mean that the feelings of annoyance and unhappiness should be encouraged!

Take the the analogy of a political system such as a country. Sometimes the country experiences angry demonstrations on its streets. This does not mean that the political system of the country is not working. It means on the contrary that it IS working. If the leaders of a country deny its citizens fundamental rights and prevent them from leading a tolerable life they will come out onto the streets to demonstrate. This is how the political system naturally works.

It is important to distinguish between the natural political system and the formal political system. The natural political system is necessarily always working, unlike the formal. If a country’s constitution says that all people have the right to be treated equally and then it enslaves a portion of them, its formal political system is not working. However, if there is enslavement, followed by pent-up tension amongst the slaves for many years, and then finally a rebellion, then the natural political system is working.

What is the natural political system? It is part of the nature of people’s minds, collectively and individually. It governs how much suffering people can bear and how creative they are in releasing themselves from suffering. Formal political systems are expressions of the natural political system. Religions or spiritual systems are also its expressions. Siddhartha could not bear his own or others’ suffering any more so he used all his creative powers to become Buddha, to release himself and others.

When an individual feels annoyed and unhappy he is responding to suffering, however he may not be responding very creatively. This may not be his fault – he may never have learned any other way of responding. Can we say in this situation that his natural political system is working?

The natural political system functions to produce responses to suffering. Because it is a system the laws governing systems apply. In a given system at a given time a specific input will produce a specific output. What the output will be will depend upon the way the system is working at that time. If you put 10c into a bubblegum machine and the machine ejects a gum-filled plastic ball then the machine is working in one way. If it crushes the plastic ball which then blocks the ejection hole it is working in another way. Either way the system is working, insofar as it is being systematic.

Normally we would say that the machine that destroys the plastic balls is not working. This is because we are applying conventional norms to how we think things should work, and not without reason, but we can learn more from how things actually DO work than from how we think they should work! The way we think things should work comes from our conscious, conventional mind. The way things actually work comes from the depths of the universe.

Politics and mind are the same nature

Acceptance of the way things are
Although there can be strength in wanting things to be different there can also be weakness. The strength may be compassion, because nobody should remain unmoved by other people’s suffering – we should all wish that conditions causing suffering be removed. The weakness can be because, from our own point of view, there may be much learning to be had from the way things are right now, so by wishing them to be different we are passing up the opportunity to learn. If we are annoyed and unhappy should we not wish for things to be different? Maybe not for our own sake. We should take a step back and allow ourselves to look at the annoyance and unhappiness in our mind, to experience it. We should recognise it for what it is, and we should realise that, although we are annoyed and unhappy, our mind is working.

Natural Mind
The mind is a system which functions according to regular principles. The fact that the current state of our mind is annoyed and unhappy does not disprove this. Rather, we should seek to investigate our own mental system to understand how these feelings are being produced. They are being produced because our mind is working. But this does not mean that the feelings of annoyance and unhappiness should be encouraged.

Natural Politics
Take the the analogy of a political system such as a country. Sometimes the country experiences angry demonstrations in its streets. This does not mean that the political system of the country is not working. On the contrary, it means that it *is* working. If the leaders of the country deny its citizens fundamental rights and prevent them from leading a tolerable life they will come out onto the streets to demonstrate. This is how the political system naturally works. It is important to distinguish between the natural political system and the formal political system. The natural political system is necessarily always working, unlike the formal. If a country’s constitution says that all people have the right to be treated equally and then it enslaves a portion of them, its formal political system is not working. However, if there is enslavement, followed by pent-up tension amongst the slaves for many years, and then finally a rebellion, the natural political system is working.

Mind and politics are the same nature

What is the natural political system? It is part of the nature of peoples’ minds, collectively and individually. It governs how much suffering people can bear and how creative they can be in releasing themselves from suffering. Formal political systems are expressions of the natural political system. Religions or spiritual systems are also its expressions. Siddhartha could not bear his own or others’ suffering any longer so he used all his creative powers to become the Buddha, to release himself and others. When an individual feels annoyed and unhappy he is responding to suffering, however he may not be responding very creatively. This may not be his fault as he may have never learnt any other way of responding. His mind is working; can we say in this situation that ‘his natural political system’ is working?

Cybernetics / Systems Theory
The natural political system functions to produce responses to suffering. Because it is a system, the laws governing systems (cybernetics) apply. In a given system at a given time a specific input will produce a specific output. The exact output will depend upon the way the system is working at that time. If you put 10 cents into a bubblegum machine and the machine ejects a gum-filled plastic ball then the machine is working in one way. If it crushes the plastic ball which then blocks the ejection hole it is working in another way! Either way the system is working, insofar as it is obeying cybernetic law. Normally we would say that the machine that destroys the plastic balls is not working. This is because, quite reasonably, we are applying conventional norms to how we think things should work. But we can learn more from how things actually *do* work than from how we think they should work. The way we think things should work comes from our conscious, conventional mind. The way things actually work comes from somewhere else.

Natural Political Flatness
We normally have the idea that political power is a man-made construction, which tends to configure itself like a pyramid with those at the top having most power and those at the bottom least. However, it is possible to consider political power to be a natural phenomenon. According to this view everyone is naturally imbued with an equal amount of political power, because political power is part of the mind. Far from being a pyramid, this power structure is completely flat because everyone is fundamentally equal. From this point of view the man-made, pyramidal political system is a secondary phenomenon superimposing itself upon the natural flatness.

The man-made political system develops when people create it and invest it with their own natural political power. It is, in some sense, an illusion because no matter how much power appears to reside in it, it is nothing other than people’s natural political power in a contrived form. The awe we feel when we meet powerful people within the man-made system is in proportion to the credence we invest in the illusion. We should feel no more awe meeting one person than another, because all of us are naturally powerful and important.

compiled in September 2008 from articles on a previous ‘Politics of Soul’ website.