Thursday, December 28, 2017


It is a common part of Buddhist belief that we have past lives.  I don't want to focus so much on the truth of this, in an objective, testable sense; but on the philosophical senses in which the idea of past lives may help us.

Much Buddhism is based around a concept that we are always learning lessons.  This learning, goes the story, extends across different lifetimes, so that we are always trying to learn enough to get out of one kind of life, and into another.  If we learn enough to achieve great insight, and if we manage to gain mastery over ourselves by learning to manage our own desires, then we become free of the need to re-live lives in which lack of insight, and unmanaged desire, cause so much suffering.

If you think of your life as a chance to learn a lesson, I bet you'll be able to think of some stories you are endlessly repeating.  It might be the constant re-living of one type of love affair; or the constant succumbing to addiction; or a constant tendency to become angry and take it out on others, thereby ruining your own life as well as theirs.  These are the kinds of stories that many Buddhists believe started long before you were born, and will go on long after you are dead.  In that sense, your life is simply a station along the path, a place where the old battles can be re-fought.  Until the lesson is learned, the suffering will continue.

Furthermore, some of your suffering, so the story goes, is because of things done wrong in lives before your own.  So some things that you suffer are not, in an individualistic sense, your own fault; they are the consequence of bad actions done before the 'you' you know came into existence.

From an individualistic point of view (the Western world tends to like to seal cause and consequence inside the life of a single individual), this is anathema.  Our version of 'karma' is the kind of justice that is served during one lifetime.  We have lost, perhaps, the sense that consequences linger.  You can find it in some places - for instance, in the view that white people should be aware of the legacy of slavery; and in the view that men should be aware of the legacy of the suppression of women's rights.  But even here, many counter with the view that the past is the past.

There are a few intellectual problems arising, if one is tempted to think of reincarnation as a kind of unbroken chain of past lives.  The two main ones perhaps, are represented by the two questions:

1. How do we deal with overlaps?  Are we seriously saying that exactly when one death happens, a corresponding birth happens?
2. How do we deal with population numbers?  If there were once only a few people, then how can we handle multiplication?

This type of problem tends to arise whenever a religion asserts a truth that conflicts with an intuitive understanding of nature.  Theological tracts then get written retrospectively justifying the assertion, which I don't plan to get into here.  I am more interested in the benefits of an idea of past lives.

I would like to suggest we redefine our terminology, and talk in terms of STORIES.  And I would like to make a suggestion.  The next time you find yourself suffering, particularly in a relationship, I would like you to ask yourself what story it is that you are repeating.  My intention is that, by seeing a story we are repeating, we can gain insight, and therefore free ourselves from the need to repeat.  It is a similar concept to that used by many psychodynamic counselling practitioners, who would hold that we repeat stories unless and until until we find a way to 'break the chains', as it were.

I would also like you to enlist your creativity.  Many Buddhist texts have Buddha and others coming up with a story about past lives, to provide information about a current piece of suffering.  In this way, someone might present with a problem, and a wise person might use a past story to explain what is being re-lived, using characters recognisable to the listener.

So here's an exercise:

1. Think of something that is causing you pain at the moment.  A person, a relationship, a situation.
2. Try to imagine what kind of story, set in the past, you might be re-living.
3. Flesh it out.  Name the characters.  Give them personalities, virtues and faults.

To offer an example from my own life.  I was thinking the other day, of a situation I often find myself in.  Without going into detail, I realised that a lot of suffering was caused by my impatient inability to listen to others.  So I might have ideas as follows:

1. I am causing pain to others because of my inability to listen without interrupting and shaping what the other person is saying.
2. Maybe, once upon a time, there was a bird who lived by a tree full of berries.  The problem was, the berries had thorns protecting them, and the bird could not reach the berries to eat.  Whenever other birds came by, he would chase them away, saying 'I'm the owner of this tree!  I'm the one who has a right to eat the berries!  Go away and leave it to me!'  Eventually, the bird died of starvation.  Once he was dead, the other birds learned collaboration, letting the smaller ones go in among the thorns, and pass the berries to the larger birds outside.
3. In this way, I might come to realise that I am living out this myth.  I am a 'reincarnation' of the big bird who has not learned his lesson, and thinks that he alone can find truth, or food, or whatever.  I am chasing away those who could help me, constantly interrupting them in their bids to discover things that would actually help me, if I just let them investigate and collaborate.

Now that I have fleshed out the story, I am able to imagine how I could behave differently, and literally save my life.  I can work to allow others, with different characters and abilities to my own, to show me collaboration and difference, so that, together, we can achieve what I alone cannot.  What a great lesson!  And by fleshing out the story, I have made for myself a myth it is hard to forget.  You never know, I might even learn the lesson that needs learning.  I might see these situations coming, and learn the habit of backing off and letting others speak and act.

The idea of past lives is rejected by many as silly.  But perhaps, if we take a creative approach to the idea of cause and consequence in our lives, then we can accelerate our learning, and our ability to master ourselves and our behaviour.  Maybe if we observe some suffering, we can let our imagination come to an understanding of a past life in which that story happened in relatable form.  If so, it can become a myth, or a kind of 'morality tale', which we can invest in, and use to prevent ourselves falling into the same old traps.

What stories of suffering are you repeating?  How would you name and flesh out the characters involved?  How might you respond differently, given your new knowledge of yourself?

Sunday, December 24, 2017


Compassion is an interesting virtue.  Many religions cite it as among the most important, being an ability to extend oneself beyond oneself, and therefore to escape the hell of selfishness.

But what if compassion were not so straightforward?  What if compassion itself, that great among greats, was subject to some of the same complications that beset other virtues: the same hypocrisies, the same logical conundrums, the same self-defeating questions?

One challenge facing the concept of compassion, is what we might call a question of numbers.  It is familiar to philosophers, and probably most famous in the form of some of the ideas within utilitarianism - the avowed aim that as many people as possible be rendered happy.  So, in simple form, if we temporarily define help as assisting a person to happiness, then to help a hundred people would be considered better than helping one.

But compassion is often defined as the feeling of wishing to help alleviate others' suffering.  As a feeling, it will not necessarily be numbers-savvy.  So we would not usually describe someone as less compassionate if they focus their assistance on just one person.  Nor more compassionate if they focus their assistance on a thousand.  In fact, in literature and film, it can often go the other way, and we can find ourselves preferring the compassion that is closer to home, or small enough to be seen and understood easily.

Compassion, in other words, is not easily wedged into a philosophy of numbers.  Someone who helps many other to be happy might do so by virtue of mechanical skill, rather than by the exercise of more compassion.  There is not, in mathematical terms, a proportionate relationship between compassion and total happiness.

The above problem highlights that compassion is usually defined as a kind of intention, rather than as a consequence.  Someone with great compassion would be thought of as having a great wish or intention to help all beings.  Irrespective of immediate consequence, the compassionate person is seen as always ready to exercise concern for others.

But even the restriction of compassion to an intention puts it up against some difficult questions.

Imagine two compassionate people.  One lends their compassion to a human; the other to a dog.  Is the first more compassionate?  Many would answer no, and are happy with the idea that compassion is either there or not, and it does not matter too much to what or whom it is applied.  But let's change the game.  One person lends their compassion to a human; the other to a rock.  Now most people find themselves instinctively relegating the second person to a mad person.  Who would wish to look after a rock?

The latter example shows that we often apply degrees of difference, or at least definitions, to the act of deciding what compassion, to be compassion, should treat as its object.  We are often happy with people showing compassion to animals, but much less so with people showing compassion to inanimate objects.  An interesting exception, by the way, is dolls and toys, which perhaps we consider worthy objects of a child's compassion, because they act as practice objects of compassion, and will in future, as a kind of transitional object, allow a growing person to be more compassionate.  An adult showing compassion to inanimate objects... we tend to be less forgiving here.  Nevertheless, the film industry is founded, in part, on a social belief that practice compassion can be exercised as adults; we all understand that the acting 'is not real', and yet we value compassion evoked in the audience.

To sum up this section: we seem to have limits as to what we think of as a suitable object of compassion.  Generally, we seem to consider compassion virtuous if it is applied to animate objects.  I would say living beings, except that plant life is considered somewhat geeky, in itself, as an object of compassion.  We stop on the theoretical edge of animal life, even though animal life itself is not well defined, and has blurry edges.  Compassion for algae and fungi?  I'll let you decide.

So where are we so far?  We have described compassion as an intention rather than a consequence; as not therefore a question of numbers; but as an intention that has reasonable limits to its application (i.e. should be applied to the animal kingdom).

Just here, I would like to stop and consider where compassion sits in an evolutionary understanding of human behaviour.  Fortunately, evolutionary science is moving beyond the idea of selfishness as a dominating force.  There is enough evidence of compassion-like behaviour in other animals for scientists to spend several decades mulling the place of this virtue in all sorts of animals' lives.

Probably, we will come to the conclusion that compassion and empathy are linked, and we will focus on animals that, as we would define it, seem motivated to act to alleviate the suffering of other animals, whether of their own species or not.  Empathy would be linked, because we like to think of compassion as involving fellow-feeling, conceiving of the self and the other as part of a shared system, whether that is a system of feeling or of identity.  

So, our test of compassion in animals, might be something like: 1. Does this being show evidence of an intention to relieve the suffering of another? 2. Does this being seem to do this even when their own interests may be seriously compromised? 3. Does this being show evidence of an ability to imagine themselves into a common feeling of identity with the other?

We will probably discover that some social beings with the ability to do this have developed complex ecosystems involving the objects of their compassion - that their ecological worlds have grown greater and more fertile, because of the ability of individuals to sacrifice their personal and immediate interests in favour of an appreciated other.

So, I think, compassion will find its place in the encyclopaedia of animal behaviour, and evolutionary bases will be found for its existence and continuation.

The above evolutionary discussion shows how we might choose to apply a kind of de minimis complexity to compassion.  We might decide that a rock's version of 'live and let live' is mere stupidity, rather than compassion; but that a human's idea of 'live and let live' is complex, sophisticated, and worthy of recognition as a virtue.

Whilst I can see all the above arguments as sensible and reasonable, I wish to question them in their entirety as unnecessarily human-centred, system-biased, and narrow minded.

From the discussion above, we end up with a view of compassion as an intention, borne of a sense of shared feeling or identity, to alleviate the suffering of other animal beings.

I would like to argue that it is only our narrow-mindedness that limits compassion in this way.  We could just as well extend it, for instance, to the plant kingdom, and beyond to the world of inanimate objects.  A key objection by 'animalists' would be that we would lose the required sense of shared feeling; psychologists, for instance, tend to cite 'theory of mind' (the ability to put yourself into the mind of another) as important.  But a counter-argument is that we really must learn to get outside our animal-centred view of the universe; we must lose our sense that things only have value if they are subjected to animal-style understanding.  A person can extend themselves so far, I would argue, that they can move into an appreciation of how trees are; how rock is; how planets are.  Furthermore, I would argue that it does not need a person to do this.  That rock understands rock; that tree understands tree.  That tree, even, comprehends much of rock.

For those of you who think I have gone quite barmy, let me try to clarify.  I think our current definition of compassion includes three unnecessary things: 1. Intention; 2. Shared feeling; 3. The alleviation of suffering.

For those of you who still think I have gone barmy, let me try to clarify that.

We are quite familiar with moving beyond intention in the world of love.  Many memes express the idea that a loving person should be known by their acts and not by their intentions.  Pour half of one glass of water into another half-full glass.  I would argue that you are seeing an example of compassion in action.  The new water 'appreciates' the old, and they meld together just as compassionate groups of people would.  Water does not need to show a wish in order to show compassion.

Using the example above, the merged water did not need one bit of water to empathise with the other in our limited human sense.  It just moves with the other bit of water, and it was done.  In the same way, compassion does not need some kind of sophisticated understanding to exist.

Also using the example above, neither part of water was motivated by the desire to end the suffering of the other.  The first glass did no need to post a crowdfunding campaign on social media in order to effect the merging.  It just happened.

Overall, what I am suggesting is that our philosophy of compassion needs to move beyond the human-centric idea that we need to intend, to imagine, and to alleviate one particular piece of suffering.  We have designed our current society around very narrow definitions of compassion.  Whilst they have some success in reducing some suffering, they are strangely over-targeted as fashion dictates.  Thus, we only make social progress in compassion in certain areas.  We fail to see that compassion is deeper, more mysterious, and less complex, than we make it.

I guess this article came to be because I have been troubled by the very narrow concepts of compassion exercised in many of the things I read and see.  It seems that, for every prejudice we reduce, another prejudice rises.  In fighting against sexism, we alienate sexists.  In fighting for animal welfare, we forget plants, or rocks, and we alienate animal-eaters.  I think a wider view of compassion would mean that we were more tolerant of difference, and more in harmony with our surroundings, at one and the same time.

One problem that arises from a wider definition of compassion, is the appearance of a problem of inaction.  There really seems to be very little we can do to effect this kind of compassion.  This is true.  It is more, perhaps, a matter of unlearning.  Compassion ceases to be a virtue born of sharp definition, and becomes a virtue born of losing all the prejudices that we have developed, and which get in the way of seeing how things really are.

It may be that the truly compassionate person is able to sit, with or without doing anything.  It may even be that suffering takes on another definition entirely; that what we think of as suffering is simply the inevitable consequence of existing.  Unless we are compassionate enough to see that suffering as it is, and live with it.

It may be that you are thinking 'what the hell is he talking about?'.  I wouldn't blame you.

Compassion, as we currently think of it, seems quite narrow-minded, in that it is often thought of as one animal's intent, by an act of imagination, to alleviate particular kinds of suffering in fellow animals.  Perhaps a future definition of compassion might involve a wider circle; it might involve unlearning prejudice, and going so far that there need be nothing we can do.

In the meantime, at the very least, there will be some interesting work done finding out how animals show old-style compassion to each other.  But it will probably be done in quite a human-centric way.

Saturday, December 23, 2017


In 2019 or thereabouts, the UK is exiting the European Union.  Those who do not wish to leave sometimes mock the fact that some on the opposing side celebrate identity.  An example is the government's recent announcement that we will have a blue passport on exit.  This is welcomed by some as a renewed statement of separate identity, and dismissed by others as an irrelevance.  Furthermore, those dismissing the new colour say it will confer fewer, not more, benefits, since we are losing the rights that go along with community membership.

Let's pick apart some of the arguments on both sides.  Firstly, let's look at an implicit assumption of the latter argument above: that identity is worthless unless it confers special benefits.  This argument sets up some scales, and puts the nebulous concept of identity on one side; it then places rights to travel on the other side, and finds this side to be heavier, because it holds more tangible benefit.  What it fails to do, is acknowledge that, for some, symbols of separate identity can hold very large value for some.

Look at the behaviour of many religions.  The word holy has a meaning that includes separateness.  Holy objects, whilst arguably conferring no benefit on the worshipper, are highly prized.  In fact, even when such objects are held by enemies as incriminating, and therefore worthy of censure, the respecter of such objects hangs on to them as dear.  Equally, look at the behaviour of the North Korean leader towards his weaponry.  Even when the holding of such weapons, and the firing of his rockets, renders no benefit on the world stage; even when it causes sanctions against his country; he continues the same behaviour, convinced that he is demonstrating something valuable.  Finally, look at followers of unusual fashions.  They know that their habits may exclude them from selection for certain jobs; and yet they prefer to continue their individualistic behaviour rather than gain the apparent benefit of going along with the crowd.

The roots of such behaviour might be sought in attempts by tribes and species to distinguish themselves from those they might be mistaken for: attempts to create in-group rules which mark them as separate, and therefore worthy of special protection.  Imagine a species that could not recognise its own.  It would be much harder to mate, to reproduce, and to keep track of its young.  In the same way, modern identity-touting might be seen as a similar attempt to create an identifiable home group worthy of protection.  A necessary result of this is that other beings are excluded, and not considered so worthy of protection.

Applying this back to the European Union, we see an argument between identities.  It is not that one side sees the benefits of identity, and the other doesn't.  It is that remainers focus on the benefits of the European group identity (i.e. the protection afforded by membership of THAT exclusive club); and leavers focus on the the benefits of the UK group identity (i.e. the protection afforded by membership of a smaller, but equally exclusive, club).

Now, any club tends, by force of its existence, to encourage its members to be rather irrationally convinced of the benefits of membership.  Watch the behaviour of football supporters, and you will see what I mean.  A lot of behaviour seems designed around not rational support, but precisely the opposite: irrational support, against the demands of logic.

Looking again at Europe, we must surely acknowledge that irrational support of the home team is behind a lot of the behaviour of both camps, nationalists and EU supporters alike.  After all, the EU is smaller than many alliances that could take place, and yet insists on the value of its own existence as a home team.  And looking again at our evolutionary roots, we can see families surviving by dint of an irrational preference for supporting each other over others.  Where we draw the line is likely to be a matter of chance: where we were born, and which communities we have been close to.  It is a blunt instrument, this kind of loyalty; but it dominates much of our behaviour.

I am using a particular definition of irrational above.  I am taking rather an economist's view of the subject, and describing as 'rational' those behaviours which are explainable in terms of rules of benefit to an individual or group, and as 'irrational' those behaviours which are perpetuated even though they seem to result in no easily identifiable benefit to an individual or group.

However, we might explain different approaches to identity and groups, by seeing that different people attach different values to different kinds of risk.  Take Israel as an example.  One could describe Israel's international policy as 'brittle' - prepared to risk extreme loss at extremes of behaviour, in return for limiting loss within norms of behaviour.  Therefore, it doesn't care if it gets bad international press in the course of a normal day; but it cares deeply if someone suggests its very borders should change.  It is like a walled garden: doesn't care who it hurts building the wall, then focuses on building its own garden within its bounds.  Conversely, one could describe Palestine's international policy as 'soft':  It cares deeply about gaining international support; but it has less investment in a defined map of borders.  It is like an open garden: is used to living without boundaries, so seeks to minimise risk in a constant flux of extremes.  These behaviours are historically caused by an artificially set up situation.  One side is given privilege; the other is left to fight for what it can find.  It is similar to the position of the rich and poor in the UK, which is why, often, the left sides with Palestine and the poor, and the right sides with Israel and the rich.

Using the above model, one can see how a 'rational' wish to minimise loss causes different behaviours in different communities.  Both Israel and Palestine are being rational in context; it's just that Israel finds more benefit in hard macro boundaries (because they are what it is founded on), and Palestine finds more benefit in fluid macro boundaries (because they are all that it has got).

Applying this to rich and poor, we can see the same approach to risk.  The rich, having secured land, will wish to live in gated developments.  The poor, having none, will wish to flow across boundaries; they have less investment in them, after all.  Both sides are being rational.

Let's look again at the argument between those who want the UK to leave the EU, and those who don't.  It's interesting, because here, the leavers have voted for a smaller boundary.  This is unusual, in that we have got used to expansionism.  Israel, for example, pushes beyond its boundaries in order to protect them.  Why on earth should so many UK citizens have decided to buck this trend, and go smaller?

Well, a good analogy might be the creation of ghettoes.  Sooner or later, in any community, an area develops with a distinct character of its own.  And that area, like an evolving species in times millions of years past, wants to create its own distinctness, to ensure its own survival.

Ghettos dont mind being poor.  In fact, they take it for granted that, outside the ghetto, they may be reviled and disadvantaged.  That's not what drives its members.  For them, they are seeking to create what security they can in a smaller space.  They get an enormous amount of security from looking inward, to their own peculiar traditions and symbols.

I guess, in the end, it boils down to an argument between two forces of evolution.  On the one hand, there is expansionism, the wish to gain ground by pushing borders outwards, to encompass more of the world.  On the other, there is ghettoism, the wish to protect those closest to you in difficult circumstances by making your nearby ground rich in culture and symbolism.  The latter can create highly individualistic and creative cultures, as they are often found in highly hostile conditions, and forced into poverty by difference and circumstance.

Neither force is either rational or irrational.  In the UK, remainers have tended to celebrate their own rationality, and mock their opponents' irrationality.  But this is only true from the narrow perspective of immediate benefit.  From the perspective of the ghetto approach to UK independence, symbols such as a distinct passport have a value well in excess of material gain, because they create a sense of home in adverse conditions, and enrich the distinctness which ensures the continuation of a subculture.

For either side, understanding the other involves seeing why the other approach makes sense.


Some people mock nationalists for apparently losing the functional benefits of internationalism.  And yet, looking at our evolutionary past, we can see situations where smaller entities have developed their own symbolic micro-benefits, little reminders of home, that can be felt as more valuable than international compromise.  Under stress from expanding macro-borders, micro-cultures can develop a ghetto-like way of reinforcing their own separateness and resourcefulness.  This ghetto mentality is not focused on benefit as an economist would define it.  Benefit here can only be understood if we realise that, to many, symbols of home in a hostile world are worth far more than tokens of wealth.

Friday, December 22, 2017


Yes, this article is about assertiveness.  But it will be a little different.  You see, I suspect that society uses the concept of assertiveness to cancel out certain other behaviours it doesn't like.  So I am going to suggest we subvert the concept of assertiveness for our own ends.  Just for fun, you understand.

Assertiveness has the word assert in it.  To assert something is to state it clearly; but also to insist that others take it seriously.  In that sense, it means to apply explicit respect to something or someone.  So if you have self-respect, you may choose to insist that others take your presence seriously, and respect it.  That would be assertive behaviour.  Equally, if you have a rule which you stand by, you might assert it, or be assertive about it, because you feel like insisting it is respected.

This is slightly different from the fashionable definitions of assertiveness.  These often place assertiveness between timidness at one end, and anger or violence at the other end.  So, the thinking goes, many mental disorders are borne of being either too reticent or too aggressive.  Learning to be assertive, goes the common wisdom, is learning to state one's case calmly and assuredly, without apologising for oneself, and without being overly violent to another.

The reason I have chosen the 'asking to be taken seriously' definition, rather than the 'finding a happy medium' definition, is because I think sometimes we need to be allowed to be extreme.

Sometimes, perhaps, it is OK to be assertively violent.  Many martial arts are based on such a concept.  That one can, with complete mastery over oneself, effect violence on other people in certain contexts.

Equally, perhaps, it is sometimes OK to be assertively meek.  Many religions have a huge investment in such a concept.  That one can, with complete mastery over oneself, allow others to effect violence on one's self in certain contexts.

So, I am arguing, the fashionable definition of assertiveness is simply a call for moderation.  I suggest a better way of seeing assertiveness is as a kind of confidence or seriousness in the good fit of one's behaviour to the context.  Thus, the same person might look in one moment aggressive, in the next over-meek; but, if they are in each context being wise, then both extremes might reasonably be called assertive.

I am suggesting that society has a vested interest in seeking moderation from all its citizens.  Thus, when a child is growing up, they are discouraged from being shy ('Don't be shy!), and discouraged from using force ('Don't hit your brother/sister!'); and encouraged to be moderate ('There's a good boy/girl.')  This stops the resulting adults from understanding that they can use reticence and aggression in appropriate situations.  Instead, they bottle the extremes up, in a quest to be appropriately obedient to society's wish that they do nothing unmanageable.

As evidence, I would offer that mass street protest, for example, has become almost completely ineffective.  We are all unconsciously supporting a demand that we make no difference in the world.  And then we're surprised that government gets such an easy ride.  We have been convinced that revolution, for example, is a failure of assertiveness.  Well, if we define assertiveness as moderation, then yes.  But if we define assertiveness as 'being wise to the context', then revolution might sometimes be perfectly in order!

Equally, society requires us to be economically active, in order to keep the wheel of commerce turning.  It does not suit it that some of us are so economically inactive, or meek, that its needs are not served.  So it constructs a plethora of advertising material encouraging us to get active  and contribute to this myth of wealth creation.  Again, government gets an easy ride.  We have been convinced that non-participation in an economy is a failure of assertiveness.  Again, if we define assertiveness as moderation, then yes.  But if we define assertiveness as being 'wise to the context', then non-participation might sometimes be perfectly in order!

How might we be assertive in this new way?

Well, old-style assertiveness looks like this: everyone who wants the extremes of revolution or non-participation is categorised as ill, and sent on mindfulness courses until they 'wake up', and become obedient members of a society that is leading us all towards unsustainable extinction.

New-style assertiveness might do things differently.  We might choose not to participate in activities which we think are not sustainable in the long term.  And equally, we might choose to participate in revolutions which change, by force, those aspects of society which are unsustainable in the long term.

This new-style assertiveness might help support individuals and groups in making changes which are much needed, taking into account our context on this planet.  Instead of being categorised as ill, people who display dissatisfaction with society as it is might be encouraged to use their energy to take society in new directions.  They, not the moderate, might be our saviours, after all.

To be assertive, have a big think about the world, try to make yourself wise about what you see, and then relate with the world in a way that seems to you wise to the context.  If this means non-participation in certain contexts, then don't participate.  If this means violence in certain contexts, then be violent.

A fashionable definition of assertiveness effectively boils down to moderation in doing what society requires.  A fertile new definition may be the ability to encompass both moderation and extremes of behaviour in response to the context.  The old kind of assertiveness is simply supporting current society in perpetuating unsustainable ways of life.  The new kind might change society for the better before it is too late.

So, next time a psychological practitioner advocates some kind of moderation as being healthy, and discounts extremes of reticence or aggression as being disorderly or unhealthy, perhaps respond differently.  Try saying 'actually, I disagree.  You're simply encouraging everyone to be moderate.  How will we ever change society for the better unless we're allowed to use extremes of behaviour sometimes, when it's appropriate to the context?'

I am suggesting we celebrate a full range of human behaviour, rather than cherry picking the behaviour that fulfils the perpetuation of society's current aims.

I would like to nickname this 'broadband assertiveness'.  It is, perhaps, richer than the narrowly-defined assertiveness which is simply ineffectual moderation in disguise.

Just a thought-provoker.  Obviously don't take me seriously ;) 

Saturday, December 16, 2017


Donald Trump got a huge number of votes.  Those who disagree with him have to concede at least this.  There is a train of thought within my own social media circles that his win was inexplicable in a reasonable world; that it is an example of something evil happening; that those who voted for him are, in all probability, missing something psychologically.

I would like to argue that this response is of itself likely to enhance Donald Trump's prospects.  And I would like to base my argument on simple human relations.

Let's say you disagree with a friend.  What is your best strategy for persuading them that they may be mistaken?  Maybe not the usual response of Trump-haters.  Maybe don't:

1. Roll your eyes
2. Think of something rude to say about them
3. Explain that only a fool would share their views
4. Start to diagnose them as evil, a monster, or a person wth a disorder

Why not?  Because:

1. Rolling your eyes is an indication that you have lost your patience with the other person
2. Saying rude things about someone is a form of bullying
3. Calling people foolish is an attack on their person and not their ideas
4. Dismissing someone as disordered is acknowledging that you are unable to understand them or engage with them on equal terms

I am suggesting that the typical response anti-Trump people offer demonstrates impatience, bullying, a willingness to attack individuals, and an inability to engage in a friendly way with other people's ideas.

Many may say that this is something they observe in the Trump camp; but I wonder why they feel this excuses the same behaviour in the anti-Trump camp.  After all, two wrongs don't make a right.

The above behaviours are excellent ways of polarising another person against your views.  It creates the same battle that happens in adolescence: it makes someone desperate to prove their ideological independence from you.

So by all means carry on behaving in the same way, if you want to turn Trump sympathisers into adamant Trump supporters.  By using dismissive and insulting behaviour, you are likely to avoid any sincere engagement between sides.  This is great if you want to contribute to the polarisation of society, its division into two sides that don't understand each other well.

Instead, it's interesting to try some of the tactics that you think might work on yourself.  Thinking back to the times others have, over time, persuaded you towards their approach to life, what did you notice about their style?  Did they lose patience, insult you, and treat you as a fool?  Probably not.  When I performed the same mental exercise, I came up with a few things my most respected persuaders (i.e. those who influence me for the better) do:

1. Instead of rolling their eyes, they look at me attentively.  They give me their time and attention.
2. Instead of being rude, they are complimentary and courteous.
3. Instead of criticising my person, they discuss ideas with me in the gentlest of ways.
4. Instead of dismissing me, they get to know me on equal terms.

So, whenever I want to persuade someone, perhaps I am better off being attentive, polite, gentle and fair.

This might involve making the effort to understand the other person's world from the inside.  Attend their political rallies.  Understand some of the human drivers that energise their views.  Above all, appreciate that there may be hidden virtue in among their beliefs.  We tend to treat opposing ideologies as unfailingly wrong.  It is easier for our brains to process that way.  But that sort of polarised view of true and false is unlikely to help you understand a spectrum of ideas with subtlety.

This sounds great in theory, but I would like to spell out how it could look in practice.  It may make you uncomfortable.

Here are some examples of comments which may show attentiveness, politeness, gentleness and fairness.

Left-wing person: I can really see how immigration could cause unwelcome changes in people's lives.
Right-wing person: I can really see how immigration controls could deprive people of their dignity.
Left-wing person: I can see there are some good arguments for lowering taxes to incentivise wealth creation.
Right-wing person: I can see there are some good arguments for raising taxes to redistribute wealth.
Left-wing person: I can see the attraction in making America great again.
Right-wing person: I can see how it can seem selfish and uncooperative to put America first.

In each case, the person speaking is not, in the first instance, agreeing with the other person.  They are, though, increasing the possible field of discussion.  That is how, in ordinary conversation, you get on with people: you appreciate an element of their world, thereby increasing the overlapping territory.  Graphically, it looks like this:

The extension of empathy works because it increases the common ground available on which both people can speak.  It involves an extension of each other's minds so that each person is more inclined, and better able, to see how life might look from the other's point of view.

By being attentive, polite, gentle and fair, you are most likely to increase this common ground.   By being dismissive, rude, personally offensive and one-sided, you are most likely to decrease this common ground.

A strange magic happens when empathy is extended.  Non-negotiables start to evaporate as trust builds.  But first, each side must learn to speak in a way that reduces polarisation, and increases common ground, making it attractive and habitable.

So try it, next time you find yourself boiling with rage over the statements of a political opponent.  Find it in yourself to explore their world, and appreciate it.  That way, you are less likely to polarise them, and more likely to soften both them, and yourself, making future communication and compromise so much easier.

After Donald Trump's win in the US, many on the left became quite rude about him and his supporters.  This kind of communication is quite likely to make both sides firmer, not softer, in their mutual convictions and sense of separation from a perceived opposition.  It might be better to apply a bit of psychology, and extend a hand of empathy, showing that you really do see the other side of the argument.  There will be more common ground to talk on, and instead of insulting each other, we can negotiate, and even persuade and be persuaded, with greater subtlety and understanding.

Sunday, December 10, 2017


How can I slow the world down? On some days, the demands of noise and clamour seem so intense.  Go near a shop, and the imperative screams out at you to buy, to search, to do your bit.

It seems that our society has its ways of, shall we say, encouraging us to take part... in predefined ways.  You go to school; you go to university or do some training; you get a job; you earn enough to live on; you retire; you die.

Except that many people find that this turns into a barely.  You barely go to school; you barely make it through university; you barely manage to get a job; you barely earn enough to live on.  So many people are finding that life has become a matter of only just getting through.

Listen to economists talking, and you will realise that the models they work on are still based on encouraging people to need things.  They call it supply and demand in the technical language; but really it's just a question of some people needing things, and other people being willing to fulfil that need in exchange for money.  Once you have accepted that model, you are stuck with the inevitability of the behaviour it encourages you towards: speeding up and ballooning the circle of need so that it goes as fast and as big as possible.  The fast we call volume, the big we call price.  Sell fast and sell big.  That's the belief.  Or rather the model.  That way we don't have to admit it's a belief.

This, in part, explains the noise and pace of the world we are surrounded by.  We are encouraged to live in little hotbeds of market activity, whether we buy and sell houses, or food, or leisure products, or clothes... it doesn't matter what.

This way of living is bound to cause distress.  This is because we are being asked to travel faster than our organisms would comfortably travel.  Hollywood has even developed films with heroes in them who embody this mythical ability to travel faster than we normally would.  Rocky, Rambo, superhero films, romantic films, films about people 'made good' in some way... they feed us, for a while, the illusion of someone else's idea of success, ways of being which are truly difficult in the world, but on film, when someone else is doing it, look entertaining.

If you find yourself taking in escapist films with half of your life, and then feeling behind in the other half of your life, then you are living according to this model - the model of 'try to live slightly faster than you normally would'.  Eventually it will catch up with you.  You may find yourself having periodic 'blowouts' or 'breakdowns', as your whole body gets together and decides it really doesn't want to play ball with these unrealistic demands.

One of the key causes of illness is specialisation - the division of activities into narrower and narrower funnels, with each person responsible for managing their own little funnel.  Thus, in a factory, one person becomes a 'packer', responsible for doing just that one thing - or they don't get their money.  In medicine, you become a specialist in one area, however wide your interests.  If you do decide to become a generalist (for instance, a General Practitioner in the health service), then even that generalism will become a specialism you are paid for: for example, you will become a specialist 'port of first call' for patients; or a specialist 'prescriber for mild disease'.

This specialism pulls us further and further away from who we feel we are; which is why so many people eventually pull out of careers which, on the face of it, look rewarding, at least in a financial sense.

This all makes sense if we realise we are generated from generations of animals and humans who lived by relaxation-and-impulse. Watch lions living; or zebras; or otters; or fish.  You will see that they don't fuss about becoming a 'specialist in eating weed from the side of ponds'.  A fish is not keen to become 'the most famous fish in the world for grabbing 2 millimetre items from the water surface'.

But this is the kind of diversion from our natural selves that we have created.  Transpose that last example to the Olympics, and see how silly we have become.  We have so many categories, and then we invest large amounts of money trying to create temporary champions in those absurdly-defined categories.

Our evolved selves are still wanting to wander around in a much more leisurely fashion, occasionally focused, but much of the time just getting a few things done and taking a few things in.  Watch birds sitting on branches.  Watch cows mulling.  Watch fish browsing.

Alternatively, watch a busy city street.  It is often full of people going places.  Not necessarily the places they would naturally go without social pressure and advertising.  We sit in specialist jobs and dream of release.

In the same way, many of our psychological experiments, the ones that have defined recent cognitive psychology, have results derived from taking animals and people out of their natural environment and making them perform specialist tasks.  As a species, we are becoming experts only at making each other become expert in expertises we have pared off from parts of ourselves.  That is why, when we try hard at one thing, we crave another: we are beating one part of ourselves to death, and ignoring the rest of ourselves.  We are becoming the opposite of wholistic.

Purpose becomes trying to make yourself into something you aren't.  A sportsman with purpose has to ignore all the other parts of their natural self to excel at their chosen sport.  A businessman with highly-developed purpose has to ignore all the other things they could do with their time.

It is no surprise, then, when we overdose on purpose, and our bodies become tired of being forced into specialist boxes that do not come naturally to us.

There is a reward system that makes all this possible.  Again, some of its foundations came from the experiments that founded recent cognitive psychology.  The idea that, given the right reward, people will play the game of specialism.  If you do happen to want to escape the specialism trap, then you may have to learn not to respond in the same way to the rewards system developed to reinforce it.

Animals are quite good at escaping our silly reward system.  Humans tend to like the animals who do fall for it, but there are many who don't.  Thus, while some dolphins have been duped into carrying explosives, or surveillance equipment, into enemy territory... while some really intelligent animals have been harnessed by our specialist silliness... some are a little more circumspect.

You might, for example, choose to be more like a cat.  Watch cats.  They tend to wander around being fairly uninfluenced by humans.  They rest a lot.  They find warm places to be.  When they are fed up with something, they vote with their feet.  They don't agonise quite so much about everyone else's opinion.

Humans tend to celebrate the animals who respond easily to our little reward games.  Animals who let themselves be saddled, herded, homed, farmed, with the simple promise of food.

Escaping this intensity, if you are feeling intensively farmed, might be a matter of looking at some of the other animals, the ones the humans tend to like less, because they cannot be manipulated so easily.  Insects, reptiles, smaller birds, bacteria, worms, slugs, whales... I have no idea what will take your fancy, but whatever it is, try accepting some other models of living from creatures with less of a specialist obsession.  In time, you may find yourself breaking the shackles of your current reward system, and feeling a little freer.

Many modern economies are based on a model of exponentially-increasing supply and demand. We are persuaded to produce things faster and bigger than feels natural.  It makes us ill.  Furthermore, to feed this system, we are forced into uncomfortable specialisms with fancy names.  These forces pull us away from our more natural, relaxed, impulse-influenced ways of being.  Instead of quietly being ourselves, we seek to be famous, fucked-up specialists, in pop music, politics, whatever.

To escape this fate, try learning from some animals that resist human manipulation.  They may hold some secrets that may make you calmer and happier.

Saturday, December 2, 2017


Patience is a quality we all want.  From time to time, we all encounter situations which benefit from patience, whether it be a neighbour making too much noise, or a friend 'pushing our buttons' and making us angry or upset.  Patience is the ability to encounter such interruptions to our environment, and remain calm.

I have a picture on my wall of a dog lying quietly on the ground while a kitten plays with its mouth.  To me, it illustrates patience, because much of patience is to do with tolerating things which would ordinarily be taxing, but which we allow peacefully and calmly because we have an understanding of the situation.  In the case of the dog in my picture, it seems to understand that it cannot expect the playful kitten to be patient.  It flexes its behaviour wisely to the situation.  At other times, I imagine the dog would growl, or take evasive action.  But it reads the current situation, and decides not to react violently.

I thought I'd offer a few techniques for remaining patient in adversity.  But first, what characterises the situations that tax our patience, and why do they tax it?

Here are, I suggest, the main types of situation which challenge patience:

1. Events which aggravate our senses (for instance, loud noises)
2. Events which prevent us from performing our intentions (for instance, traffic jams)
3. People who don't seem to learn as quickly as we would like (for instance, people slow to learn something we are expert in)
4. Being ignored, discounted or passed by for long periods of time (for instance, not being given a pay rise for years)
5. Events which spoil our preferred patterns of understanding, environment or behaviour (for instance, a shop running out of our usual food)

Tracing these types of situation to their causes, we find they have a few things in common.  Hint: we don't usually get impatient about things that happen half way across the world.  I suggest the common factors are:

1. All these things challenge our sense of importance
2. All these things challenge our assumption that we should not be slowed down
3. All these things challenge our assumption that we should not be interrupted
4.  All these things challenge our existing customs or habits
5. All these things challenge our sense that the world should adapt to our needs

In summary, we operate with a set of assumptions which, combined, read like this:

'I am important and have my expectations; it's the world's job to adapt to my ways, and not to challenge me.'

The key to remaining patient is to reverse the above set of assumptions.  If you reverse the above set of assumptions, you get the following:

'I am not more important than others, and have no expectations; I accept the world's ways, and accept its challenges.'

In short, the qualities to develop are humility and acceptance.

Here are a few techniques you can learn; they are simple to try, and believe me, you get better with practice.

1. If you experience sense interruptions (e.g. loud noises), then actively welcome them.  Say to yourself 'thank you, teacher noise, for putting me in my place'.
2. If you are slowed down (e.g. by traffic), then actively welcome it.  Say to yourself 'thank you, teacher traffic, for putting me in my place'.
3. If someone is slow to learn, then actively welcome the slower pace.  Say to yourself 'thank you, slow learner, for putting me in my place'.
4. If you are ignored, then actively welcome the ignorer.  Say to yourself 'thank you, ignorer, for putting me in my place'.
5. If your habits are disturbed (e.g. by a shop being out of stock), then actively welcome the shortfall.  Say to yourself 'thank you, poor supply, for putting me in my place.'

Saying 'thank you' reminds you of acceptance, and saying 'putting me in my place' reminds you of humility.

Some people think the above is wrong because it can imply acceptance of injustice (for instance, if a woman is paid less than her male colleagues).

However, you are still free to make your argument for justice if you choose.  It is just that, first, you have reminded yourself to accept the situation as it is, and to behave with humility.  You can then, if you wish, fight for a particular outcome.  Your arguments will probably be better communicated because of your patient manner; the listener may be more inclined to hear you, and you may find it easier to think clearly and plan your course of action.

If you want to learn patience, then practice saying 'thank you for putting me in my place' whenever you are inconvenienced.  You can then take your next action from a place of peace.