I have been reading about, and occasionally putting into practice, the principles of Buddhism for more than twenty years now. I first became interested when I got my first “proper” line management role at the BBC. I had had various supervisor roles while still operational in radio, but this was the first time that I truly felt the burden of expectations both from “my seniors” and also from “my staff”.
There are lots of air quotes in that sentence because even now the terminology raises issues for me. The idea of superiority implied in the hierarchy made me particularly uneasy. Half of the people I was managing were old enough to be my dad, had been editing since before I was born, and knew more about their craft than I would ever know. They had just had a lot of their friends made redundant with more cutbacks on the way. There were a number of ongoing industrial tribunals involving my group and a lot of understandable anti-management feeling. Suffice it to say I was feeling severely out of my depth.
I started to read management and personal development books in an attempt to find ways to cope. Trying to learn more about what I was meant to be doing and how I could get better at doing it. Sure I went on courses which helped at a superficial level but none of them really got at the deep existential angst I felt about my role, responsibilities, and fundamentally my place in the world.
One of the books I read was John Kabatt-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living. Dr. Zinn has been applying the principles of Buddhism in healthcare in the US for decades and is really good at stripping away the religiosity of traditional Buddhism and expressing its philosophy and application in ways that make sense in the modern, western, world. I started to apply his teaching and meditating as regularly as I could. I am not going to try to explain meditation, the reasons for doing it, or what my expectations were but I remember one particular session in a hotel room in Hong Kong where something clicked and my level of self awareness took a momentary leap forwards. That has kept me coming back to the practice since.
At around the same time as this interest in Buddhism and meditation was beginning I was also getting into blogging. Although blogging had been going about a year when I started I was still part of a very small group of early bloggers working out what it was and what we could do with it. One of the writers of The Cluetrain Manifesto, David Weinberger, called it “writing ourselves into existence” and this has always stuck with me over the fourteen years that I have been doing it.
In order to blog you have to become more aware. Aware of yourself, your surroundings, and your impact on them. You think about what you have noticed and what it means. You then write about this, refining your thoughts, putting them into words, shaping them. You then publish these words on your blog which hopefully reaches into the minds of your readers in a very direct and immediate way. It feels like a more intimate connection than say writing an article or a book. It’s like synapses firing outside your skull as well as inside it, extending your neural network to the rest of humanity.
Most recently I have started reading the wonderful books by American Buddhist Nun and writer Pema Chödrön. She explains Buddhist philosophy in wonderfully clear and understandable terms. She relates it to the strains and stresses we feel in modern life and gives really thoughtful applications of Buddhist thought to alleviating these challenges. Buddha didn’t expect to be starting a religion. He was working out the nature of human existence and ways of reducing the suffering and distress we create for ourselves. This starts with awareness. Meditation practice that teaches you to be aware of your thoughts. To identify them as thoughts that come and go, and to realise that you are separate from your thoughts. This feels very similar to the process of blogging. Identifying something as an issue, a thought, a thread, that you want to address. Turning it and twisting it in your mind and then placing it outside yourself in writing. This has always felt very therapeutic. Identifying, articulating, refining the thoughts rattling through my brain.
But it can also feel very narcissistic. What difference does it make to our fellow man. This is where the idea of Tonglen comes in. This is the Buddhist practice of examining thoughts about challenges and stresses affecting you, those close to you, or ultimately anyone else suffering in the world. You might well ask what difference this is going to make in a world full of wars, disease and suffering? But these blights on our existence have to start somewhere. Apart from natural disasters we bring most of our suffering on ourselves. We do this one by one, consistently and inexorably. We identify others as the source of our distress or the perpetrators of our suffering and defend ourselves or attack them. And they will be doing the same to us! This projection of blame outside ourselves is a large part of what perpetrates our suffering. We have to understand and take responsibility for our impact on ourselves and the world around us. We have to get better at remaining detached from our suffering and helping others to do the same.
This is where blogging and the internet come back in. Being able to publish our thoughts instantly in a way that can be taken in, digested, and reshared by others is Tonglen in practice. It is our chance to understand things more and achieve a degree of detachment from our shared problems. We can carry out this approach in public, model behaviours, show the way, and make small ripples in the consciousness of our fellow humans.
There is no other way to bring about change. There is no “them” who are to blame and going to sort things. There is only us and that is where we have to start. With us. One at a time.