Totnes is a curious town. I do like visiting it. Sitting in the sun with a coffee outside the Seven Stars on a sunny Monday morning gives you a real sense of how busy the place can be. There are steady streams of traffic coming and going from four directions, and a terrific variety of people walking to and fro.
It’s interesting to observe the retired community as they come together in the various cafes and coffee shops around mid morning. Relaxed, cheerful, chatting and just gazing at the world going by.
There’s a community of young women in their late teens and early twenties who clearly don’t have conventional nine to five jobs, who also sit in little groups, chat, talk on their phones and send texts to friends.
Then there’s the young hippie element, also enjoying the Spring sunshine, with their signifiers of identity showing their tribal loyalty - clothes, hair, piercings, tattoos, etc. One young woman who’s about eight months pregnant has her entire enormous bulge on display to the town in general, with just a skinny top barely covering her ample breasts.
The older ex-hippies tend to move around singly or in pairs, looking eccentric and alternative, and vaguely authentic. They’re by no means in the majority in what’s essentially quite a bourgeois town, decent and prosperous, but they’re clearly more ‘at home’ here than they would be elsewhere.
Most people are just conventional Brits, largely mono-ethnic, well-to-do or passably well-off, and out shopping for families and homes.
There’s a new shop in town, just opened at the weekend, selling Bulgarian earthenware, textiles, jewellery and clothing. Fair Trade, naturally. A pretty young Bulgarian woman sits expectantly within the empty shop, amidst her thoughtful and creative displays. It seems she came to Totnes a couple of years ago for a language course, and fell in love with the place. And also with a guy she subsequently married.
These little shops open and close all the time, as people either fail to earn decent money from them, or just get bored with being a retailer, or find something more lucrative or more interesting to do.
In the evening I tag along to a meditation class down by the River Dart. £5 gets you two hours with a Buddhist nun, listening her talking about the practice of loving-kindness, and how to achieve happiness through letting go of self-obsession and self-cherishing, and attending properly to helping others to achieve happiness.
She wears a yellow robe trimmed with deep purple, and has extremely short hair. An audience of about 20 people sits on chairs listening attentively and joining in when she invites us to meditate, still sitting on the chairs, noticing our breathing and letting go of troubling thoughts.
I have to admit to feeling irritated when she continues to murmur during the meditation about happiness, about kindness towards others, and so on. I’m quite troubled by the concept of happiness, and the pursuit of happiness, either for oneself or on behalf of other people.
It’s the same kind of irritation I feel when Jehova’s Witnesses and other evangelical types come around assuming we’re unhappy and offering to help us feel better. What’s the point of wishing for someone else’s happiness? What’s the point of going around smiling at people and looking benevolent? What right has anyone to assume they could possibly bestow happiness on anyone, just by being pleasant and caring towards them?
Obviously it can’t do much harm to float around trying to keep one’s ego under control, trying to curb any tendencies towards self-obsession, and being nice to people. But logically there’s a problem here.
If it’s futile to go around pursuing one’s own ‘happiness’ (and I agree that it is), rather than self-actualisation and self-development, then surely it’s equally futile to go around hoping to wish happiness on others if they too can only achieve happiness through acts of loving-kindness towards others and through finding their own ‘Way’ towards self-development?
Therefore what we should perhaps aim to do is simply to mind our own business, get on with our lives, live as productively as we can, and hope that if we can succeed in acting always in a spirit of loving-kindness that others too may come to realise that they may need to cultivate positivity, emotional and social intelligence, and spiritual intelligence.
I’m quite troubled by the nun’s failure to draw any distinctions between emotional, social and spiritual intelligence. It seems to be a common trait amongst religious types to create this melange of ‘goodness’, in which ethics, morality, emotional intelligence and spiritual intelligence are intermingled and undifferentiated. Ultimately this can’t be helpful.
Personally I need clarity and precision when analysing human frailties and difficulties, and when suggesting ways to progress towards being more enlightened, and living life on a higher plane.
The beauty of Zen, to me, is that it points directly towards a kind of wordless and conceptless understanding of what’s important in life, and aims, through meditation and learning from lived experience, to increase our capacity for spiritual intelligence.
Enlightenment? Don’t know what it is. But I know it when I see it.
Since being back from Japan I can hardly bring myself to pay attention to what’s happening here in politics and current affairs. But just putting one’s head in the sand is no solution and not helpful either.
Like everyone else I’m enraged by what’s come to light in the past few days regarding Members of Parliament and how they’ve had their snouts in the trough of public funds.
We already knew about Jacqui Smith, of course. Seeing those policemen outside the house of her sister in Peckham toting pistols and machine guns is still infuriating. It’s so outrageous that she calls that house her ‘main residence’ so that she can claim all the living expenses, including the cost of the mortgage, that are incurred in her real home in the Midlands, where her husband and children live. As if anyone could possibly believe that just because that house in Redditch is actually in her constituency it’s merely a ‘second home’!
And now we can see plainly that Prescott, Blears, Darling, Miliband, Mandleson and most of the rest of NuLabour are also stuffing their bank accounts with bogus claims, albeit within the ‘rules’, for ‘expenses’. Not that the Tories are any better.
Prescott claimed for additional ‘Tudor’ beams to tart up the front of his Hull house. Blears has been dodging capital gains tax by regularly switching the designations of her different properties, each time she does up a flat and sells it on at a profit. She even has the gall to claim £200 a night hotel bills for periods when she’s been waiting to move into the next flat after selling her previous one.
Does she really have no idea of what a repulsive figure she is as she puts on her inanely grinning little feisty face whilst dodging reporters in the street? She plainly has no shame whatsoever. None of them do. And why should they? They’ve done nothing ‘wrong’.
Like fuck they haven’t.
1979 - The year of Thatch. 1989 - The fall of the Berlin Wall and communism in Eastern Europe. 1997/99 - The beginning of NuLabour, Tonyism and cronyism. 2009?
The year that unregulated capitalism was totally exposed as bogus, shambolic and a completely fraudulent economic philosophy.
The year that Obama set about clearing up the enormous shit heap left over from the era of Bush, unregulated capitalism and untrammelled American imperialism.
The year that British parliamentary multi-party politics was finally exposed as a totally corrupt, ineffectual and inept system of government.
The year that even the moderate wings of the NUT and NAHT said enough of these bloody SATs and league tables.
The year that NuLabour lost whatever little credibility it had left.
The year that the British people finally saw clearly what happens when politicians give businessmen, bankers, speculators, hedge fund managers, stockbrokers, financiers, the City of London, fat cats, oligarchs and plutocrats everything they have always demanded - complete freedom from regulation and taxation and complete freedom to move all their ill-gotten gains offshore into tax havens.
Well it seems to me that this year something dramatic should happen, because it’s now or never as a moment to bring about radical changes to our systems of governance and economics. If not now, then when?
I said to the nun that I couldn’t find it in me to wish for happiness for all those politicians, bankers, etc.
She responded that it wasn’t a good thing to wish for someone else’s unhappiness. I pointed out to her that I wasn’t wishing for their unhappiness - I just don’t think it’s a good use of my time and energy to wish for their happiness.
I don’t feel benevolent towards them, and I don’t like what they’ve done to fuck up regular people’s lives with their greed and their rapaciousness. I want to see justice done. I want to see them punished. They did nothing illegal? They did worse than that. They did things that were immoral and unethical. Just like the politicians. I want them to be punished as well.
I could have pointed out the interesting case study of Jonathan Aitken, who lied to the courts and tried to sue the Guardian for defamation. Thankfully he was caught out, found guilty of perjury, and banged up in prison, as all fair-minded people hoped be would be. None of us wished happiness upon him.
He then had a period of time to think about what he’d done, how he’d been living his life, and how he needed to change his outlook and his approach to life. He had time to meditate. He had an opportunity to meet ‘real’ people.
Eventually he had some sort of spiritual renaissance, and since his release he seems to have shown a lot more capacity for compassion, understanding, humility and grace. He’s done some good work for prison reform.
None of this would have happened without his demise as a politician and a high-flyer, you can be sure of that. Slinging him in pokey was a very good thing for him, in the long run. That may be an example of ‘tough love’, and it’s a fine example of the need for us to expect justice when bad people do bad things.
Or even when basically decent people do things that are selfish, greedy, corrupt, unethical, immoral, etc. Anyone who does anything to harm or exploit anyone else, either consciously or without proper regard for the consequences of their actions, in my book forfeits the right to have other people wish for their ‘happiness’ or care about their well-being. End of.
Such people need to look to their own salvation, and put in some hard work on themselves. Set themselves some targets. Aim for higher achievement of higher things.
I’d like to see people like those named above having to rank themselves in a league table against one another. I’d like to see them debating with one another and with Parliamentary inspectors from the Office of Standards in Politics whether or not they have reached the required or expected levels within the various statements of achievement. Especially those for probity, honesty, decency, effectiveness and value for money.
And I think any Zen master would probably want to give them all a damn good slap for being such snivelling, conniving, pathetic arrogant arsehole apologies for human beings.