Narcissim and absence

Look at how we normally talk about the various kinds of mental illness or personality disorder. We say that someone “has” schizophrenia, or that they “suffer from” depression. It seems we think of mental illness as a thing, a malignant entity to which we are subjected; perhaps there is an echo of the old theory of mental illness as demon possession in there. Sometimes we also think of mental illness as a distortion, a “disorder”; the elements of the mind are thrown out of whack.

But perhaps a better way of thinking is that mental problems arise from absence. The things that make a full, abundant life are just not all there.

I’m no psychologist, of course, but in the past decade I’ve had a fair amount of experience dealing with people of various, colorful forms of mental health problems. The one I’ve struggled with the most is narcissism; of all the mental health issues, I think it’s the most destructive. Most of the time, people with mental health problems can’t do too much damage because they undermine themselves. Unless they can manage their problems, they can’t maintain a regular life, and stuff up themselves and those around them. This is always tragic, of course, but at least it is somewhat limited.

Narcissists, perhaps alone among those with serious mental issues, are often not dysfuncional at all, and in fact their conviction and forcefulness makes them very effective in jobs that require authority. Politics, business, celebrities, and yes, religions, are full of narcissists. They are singly focussed on getting and maintaining power, and are often much more successful at it than people with a more balanced approach to things. And when someone with a clinical narcissistic disorder is, say, running a country or a corporation or a Buddhist organization, trouble is never far away.

What struck me recently, though, is how predictable narcissism is. The same thought patterns, same ideas, same obsessions. If you’ve been bullied by one narcissist, you’ve been bullied by them all.

What kinds of things am I thinking of? Well, there could be lots of examples, but here’s one that I’ve noticed. A narcissist will always want power over others, who are inevitably seen as a threat, unless they acknowledge the narcissists unquestionable superiority. One way they assert power is to make some kind of criticism of the other. It doesn’t really matter what, anything will do. Now, there’s nothing unusual about that; just ordinary petty putdowns. Normally, however, this behavior is checked, because if the criticism is incorrect, the criticizer looks bad.

But this isn’t a problem for the narcissist. They just make the criticism and move on. While the other party is responding, they just make another criticism. The lack of factually is irrelevant. A true narcissist can never be wrong, for truth is defined by their utterance. Recall the words of the Bush aide (believed to be Karl Rove) talking to a journalist:

… when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.

This is narcissism in a nutshell. They are not subject to reality; reality is subject to them. I’m sure we can all think of plenty of other examples of this kind of thing in the political sphere.

So the usual patterns of thought, which pretty much all of us use, become ossified, hardened. We define the world by our thoughts; and those thoughts are mean, small, and hard. And incredibly boring.

This is a way of being human that is so tiny. We are capable of so very much, yet we fulfill so little of our promise. Making a self is hard work; that’s why the Indian traditions speak of “I-making” (ahamkara). Ego is not something that you have, it’s something you create, continually, every moment. And you create it by building boundaries; cutting yourself off from parts of yourself, limiting your possibilities.

If there’s any truth to this, perhaps it might be useful in thinking about how to help people with troubles. Maybe it’s not the ego as such that is the problem; its the absence of all the other things that make up a fully rounded person. Instead of fixing the “problem”, we should encourage growth. Become more, become fuller. The more round, more abundant our lives become, the less we feel the need to build such high walls to protect our selves.

Aside

Heinz fruit juice: made with meat

My friends at the Hindu Council have just let me know of a letter they received from Heinz, which admits that some of their juices contain animal products:

The clear apple juice used in the Golden Circle ambient (long life) juice and drink range is made clear using a variety of clarifying agents one of which is from a beef source

It really is kind of gross, when you eat things you just don’t have a clue what’s in it. Juice is the last place you’d expect to find animal products, but there you go.

Site upgrade for SuttaCentral

We just launched the new edition of SuttaCentral:

http://suttacentral.net/

This is the first major redesign since we relaunched last year. We’re very proud of the new features. It’s been designed to be mobile-friendly from ground up, to be at once more powerful, and also more minimal.

The main changes:

  • The top menu now displays all of the entries for the relevant category at once, so you can get anywhere from anywhere.
  • Each text page (i.e. the actual suttas) has a sidebar. The various tools, navigation and so on is in the sidebar, and the page itself is completely clean.
  • Pali to Spanish lookup, to complement our Pali to English. We can add any number of languages to this, all we need is a Pali to Whatever dictionary in some kind of structured format. If you’ve gt anything like that, let us know.
  • Home page redesign, with a “Quote of the Day” and new introduction.
  • Many minor corrections, such as sorting out the numbering of several Khuddaka texts (including the Dhammapada), and a multitude of typos and the like.
  • Fully responsive design. The previous design was okay on mobiles, but the new site should adapt well for any screen. We’ve included a whole range of tweaks to optimize the experience on mobiles.

There will, of course, be some bugs, so please let us know if you find any: http://suttacentral.userecho.com/

Enjoy!

AABCAP Conference: Working Alongside Men with Mindfulness

Update: This important study on men’s well-being has just been published. The major findings: no. 1 cause of harm for men is alcohol; no. 1 cause of happiness is love. Somehow this seems familiar; where have I heard this before…

Dear Colleagues and Friends,

Please join us for AABCAP’s 8th Annual Conference where you will meet with old friends and make new friends.

This year our conference aims to explore men’s changing roles in society and how this effects both men and women.

This year we have done something slightly different, we have brought together 13 speakers, all with a Buddhist background, over a 100 years experience of specialisation working with men, to explore the unique challenges that we all, men and women, face as men navigate modern day Australian life. When half the population suffers the other half also suffers.

Talks will cover topics such as men and violence,working with Indigenous men, men and sex, men in relationships, corporate men, men and midlife and ageing and death.
As well, among the many papers we will also provide the opportunity for discussions, panels, and experiential sessions. Our speakers will bring us personal experiences of growing up male, as well their many years professional experience working in mental health with men.

In over 20 years working in Mental Health as a social worker and psychotherapist I have never been invited to a conference that specifically focuses on gender, in particular male gender, and the ways in which gender needs should be considered when working in a therapeutic alliance. Our ethical frameworks in mental health ask for us to be open and accepting of differences in ethnicity, religions, disabilities, and gender. And yet we receive little to no training in these areas.

This conference aims to explore some of the biases that each of us male and female therapists bring to our relationships; from our personal experiences as well our socio-cultural contexts, both of which can keep us from being helpful.

And in the end the idea is to enable conversations that enrich how women and men live more peacefully together.

If you have already registered or are participating perhaps you might like to send this on to your collegues and friends.

Thank you for your ongoing support.

With Metta,

Genevieve
President AABCAP

Click here to register

Should the death penalty ever be used (if yes, in which cases) and why?

There’s a really powerful comment on the use of the death penalty that’s just appeared on Quora.

The comment is by Quora user Rick Bruno, who describes himself as “Retired cop, marathoner, husband/father/grandfather, wonderer”.

Warning – Graphic Content

Many years ago, when I was still early in my career as a police officer, I attended a training class that was taught by the FBI. The class was about forensics, and about what the state of the art was at that time. Everyone in the class was a police officer with evidence technician responsibilities.

The instructor showed us slides of a multiple homicide, and I have never forgotten those pictures.

It bothers me to relate this, but you need to know the depth of my feeling if you want my opinion.

Here was what happened. A grandfather had made plans to take his daughter and her two children to the zoo. He arrived at their house to pick them up, but the daughter (mom) was still getting ready. So grandpa waited in the living room with the oldest child (a girl of about 7) while the baby (about 18 months) slept in her crib and mom finished getting ready in the washroom.

The father/son/husband of the family found this scene upon his return home from work that afternoon.

At some point a stranger with a machete forced his way into the residence and immediately killed the grandfather. The seven year old was next, she was decapitated. The mother heard the screams, and came running out of the washroom and saw a scene from Hell. He then savagely raped her, and then disemboweled her with the machete. There were blood stains in the baby’s crib, but the baby was missing. There was an electric blender in the kitchen with blood and gore in it. The baby’s body parts were found the next day, partially cannibalized. She had been dumped at a roadside a few miles from her home.

The instructor calmly walked us through the slides, showing the splintered front door jamb, pointing out blood splatter patterns, showing the wounds sustained by the victims, describing defensive wounds on the grandfather and the mother’s hands. Bloody footwear impressions, assorted makeup in the washroom that mom had been applying to herself before she was distracted, toys, baby bottles, a diaper bag ready to go.

You could have heard a pin drop in that classroom. We sat there in the dark, listening to this matter-of-fact lecture, and I wondered if anyone else was experiencing the same rage as I felt building up inside me.

After a while, the instructor asked if there were any questions. Someone asked if the murderer had been caught, as this case was a few years old at the time. The instructor told us the father/husband/son was quickly dismissed as a suspect. Local law enforcement developed a lead and a man who lived a couple blocks away from this family had been arrested a day or two after the crime. The suspect hung himself in his cell before his trial began.

As I said, it still bothers me to relive the slides I saw that day. I have been to many homicide scenes in my career, many accidental deaths involving children. This case was always a yardstick in my opinion of the death penalty.

As a young police officer, this was my first exposure to pure evil. I knew people could be bad to each other, I was not that naive. But I could not help putting my own family into that family’s situation, and seeing their faces. I honestly do not know how the father was able to go on with his life after this. Or if he did.

I hated that monster with every fiber of my being. I still do. I would have volunteered to kill him after his trial. If anyone deserved to die for their crimes, it was this beast.

And so, years went by. The job and life and wisdom and faith too, all changed me. I saw flaws in the system I was sworn to uphold. I saw judges who knew less about the law than a rolled up newspaper. Corrupt judges, inept police officers, dishonest attorneys, mistakes at every level.

One of my law professors told me, “A courtroom is the last place in the world where you will find the truth.” I believe him.

And so, no. The death penalty should not be a part of any criminal justice system. There are too many possibilities that we could screw up justice.

There is real evil in the world. Believe it. But we should not fight it with evil.

It is a sad thing that a Buddhist king, Ashoka, was the first major ruler in history to abolish the death penalty, over 2000 years ago, and yet in the majority of so-called Buddhist countries today the death penalty still exists. It is, however, applied rarely in most Buddhist countries, so surely it can’t be that hard to take the next step and get rid of it altogether.

Rob Beschizza: Climate change is life and death

A home is seen protected from encroaching floodwaters by a levee near Yazoo City, Mississippi.

Here’s a brilliant photo essay on climate change by Rob Beschizza of Boing Boing.

Temperatures rise. Scientists warn and study. Conspiracy theorists cry foul. Politicians scoff and wheedle and suppress, while their bureaucrats calmly plan ahead. In the meantime, life and death go on—just not in quite the same way we’re used to.

Link

Ajahn Brahm, gender equality, and the international Day of Vesak: a petition

A petition has been set up in response to the banning of Ajahn Brahm’s paper on gender equality at the International Day of Vesak in Hanoi. It’s important that we make our voices heard.

Bhikkhu Bodhi has lent his support via Facebook:

For Buddhism to flourish in the modern world Buddhists must recognize that in regard to their capacities to understand and practice the Dharma, and to contribute to the spread of Buddhism, there are no essential differences between the genders. All human beings, regardless of gender, have the potential to learn, practice, realize, and serve the Dharma.

SIGN THE PETITION

Seekers

When the young Siddhattha left home, he wandered south, leaving his ancestral home of Sakya, and eventually entering the kingdom of Magadha. Legend has it that great king, Bimbisara, saw him wandering, and, struck by his appearance, asked where he was from. When he learned that he was a son of the Sakyan clan, he gladly received him into his realm. Even Bimbisara’s son, Ajatasattu, though less honorable than his father, accepted the ancient duty of kings to provide protection and shelter for all those in his realm.

Siddhattha was lucky that he didn’t come to Australia by boat. As a homeless wanderer, displaced not by war or necessity, but by simple choice, he would be treated as an “illegal”. He would be scorned by Australians, who would regard him as a queue-jumper, a bludger, and probably a terrorist in disguise. He would be locked up in a mandatory detention center in some lost, forsaken place. There he would be stripped of basic human rights, overcrowded, with not enough water to drink, inedible, worm-infested food, inadequate medical services, no shoes, in an atmosphere of brutality and hopelessness where people could hardly sleep out of fear and discomfort. From time to time there would be violence and riots; and in that culture of despair, people would be so traumatized they would resort to cutting themselves, hunger strikes, stitching their lips together, or trying to kill or immolate themselves. This would be enabled by a culture of secrecy, with the government cutting off communications when things got bad. Popular representations would be full of hate and suspicion, while the voices of those who suffer go unheard.

Buddhism is known worldwide as a religion of compassion. And we like to think of ourselves as a compassionate people. But compassion is not just an ideal, it manifests in acts of kindness; and kindness is nothing if it does not respect first of all the powerless or less fortunate.

One of the most fundamental expressions of kindness is the duties one owes to a guest or a traveller. In Greek myth, this task is apportioned to no less a deity than Zeus himself. In the Buddhist monastic code (Vinaya), there are elaborate duties prescribed when a wandering monk arrives. One is to greet them, offer water for washing their feet, wipe down their dusty sandals; offer water and show them where the bathroom is, then ensure that they are allocated suitable lodgings. This is not some special holy duty, it is merely the everyday kindness of basic human decency.

When guests arrive on our shores, we should treat them with the same kindness and respect. They are human beings, who have come a long way from home, and are weary, fearful, and distressed. Our duty is to put them at ease, to reassure them that they are among friends and will come to no harm. They should be provided with decent lodgings, food, medicine, clothing, and appropriate legal and other support, just like any other human being. Our legal system is built on the presumption of innocence, so all those who arrive on our shores are, in the eyes of the law, innocent.

It is natural and inevitable that some people will wish to move from one place to another. It’s not a temporary aberration, it is inherent in the act of drawing a boundary around a nation. You don’t draw a boundary unless you expect someone will want to cross it. So: the manner in which you maintain your boundary defines your nation. If that is characterized by heartlessness and selfishness, as it is now, that becomes the place you live, a place that requires cruelty for its self-definition. But this is not our only choice. There are many, many different ways in which the situation can be managed, all of which are kinder, cheaper, and would make us all better citizens of the world. The fact that we have ended up with the most hardline option available is not a political necessity, but is an expression of a lack of compassion.

We don’t own this land, and have no special right to it. We are guests on this planet, borrowing for a time the air, the water, and the soil. The Buddha regarded it as a sign of the decline of society that we draw lines on the earth, saying that “this is mine”. Such conduct is nothing other than greed. In Australia in particular, we often forget that we are all descendants of illegal boat people, who arrived at this land, butchered the local people and desecrated their culture, and drew lines of the earth so we could apportion ownership, a thing unknown to the first peoples.

In ancient India, while the boundaries between nations were acknowledged, people moved freely between them, without visas, passports, or border controls. This is the traditional model of Buddhist culture.

In the colonial era, western nations developed a system of bureaucratic control over the movement of peoples. The basis of this is inequality: we have lots, and we want to stop others from getting it. The more inequality there is, the more tension there is around borders. Hence the shift in the past few decades, as the level of inequality has shot to historically unprecedented levels, towards an irrational obsession with border control. We know we have it good, and we really don’t want to share it.

From a Buddhist perspective, it is a duty of the rich to share their wealth. Traditionally, it is said that we should give a quarter of our wealth to those in need. Now, we in Australia are the rich; and though we have much, much more than ever before, we give maybe 1% or so.

Like all controversial subjects, those in power exert themselves to obfuscate the issue, so that what is, in fact, a simple ethical principle, becomes confused and intractable. Power is maintained by fear, and when there is nothing to fear, it must be manufactured. And sad to say, it seems that for many people, these efforts have been successful, as there seems little ability to clearly think about this issue at all. We are distracted by furphies, while the powerless suffer.

We hear, for example, that we can’t afford to resettle these people. This is nonsense. Australia has plenty of money, so where has it gone? Drive around the streets of Perth or Sydney, and look at the huge boats and houses, and the answer is not hard to see: the rich took it. If we follow the ancient Buddhist principle that those with much should share with those with little, then we would not have a problem.

The current situation is, moreover, probably the most wasteful and expensive solution possible. Due to the secrecy with which our government cloaks its activities—which is of course totally counter to not only the principles of modern democracy, but also the Buddha’s advice to “open up a covered thing”—it is not possible to know exactly how much it costs. However, according to Amnesty, we spend over half a million dollars per person per year. It is completely, utterly absurd.

This money is mostly paid to a corporation, Serco, which is currently under investigation for defrauding the UK government to the tune of tens of millions of pounds. A former employee alleges, among other things, that Serco hires unqualified people, who receive little or no training and are taught to run the camps like prisons, ignoring the suffering of the detainees.

Next we hear that the people coming are not real refugees, but “economic migrants”. These are people who moved from one place to another place because they want to make a better living for themselves. They are not evil, and they have committed no crime. They may be guilty of being foolish and greedy, but that is no excuse to treat them with anything but dignity and kindness.

Personally I would love to live in a world where anyone could simply move where they wanted, as we do within a country, since we all belong to this one planet and cannot claim ownership.

But we don’t live in that world. In the world we do live in, there are procedures that are accepted by the international community, and enshrined in Australian law, that decide whether a person is a “genuine refugee” and should be resettled or not.

So those who arrive should be looked after as honored guests until their status is determined. If it is found that they do not qualify for resettlement, they should be returned to their country, or other arrangements made. Of course there are practical difficulties, as there are with any situation, but this doesn’t affect our moral obligations.

There is a genuine problem with people smugglers. These people are international criminals, and we should work with the international community to disband these networks. If we were to close the absurd, horrific detention centers, we would free up billions of dollars which could be used to disrupt the people smugglers. Instead, the smugglers ply their trade and we punish their victims.

There is a further genuine problem with terrorists. In Sri Lanka, for example, after the crushing of the Tamil Tigers, it is to be expected that the Sinhalese authorities will want to pursue those guilty of terrorist acts. Of course, not all those it pursues are terrorists; but some are. No-one wants such people in its borders, and it is understandable that the Australian authorities should be careful and thorough. Nevertheless, this is only a tiny percentage of those arriving in Australia. The bulk of those fleeing the aftermath of the war are either displaced internally or are in India. The fact that some of those arriving are criminals does not justify treating all of them as criminals. Some of the people who read this blog are criminals; are we to punish everyone who reads it?

Another common furphy is that we fear the introduction of un-Australian values. This is, of course, nothing other than the fear of the Other that has demeaned Australian civic life since the days of the White Australia Policy. Fine: anyone who is settled in Australia should be taught about Australian laws and values, and as with people everywhere, they should respect that. I have spoken of the duty that a host owes to the guest; similarly, the guest owes a duty to the host. And if anyone is not abiding by those laws, they need to be dealt with. Australian law does not, and should not, tolerate uncivilized practices such as female genital mutilation, slavery, sharia law, discrimination based on gender or sexuality, or the caste system.

But there is no inherent connection between these things and people arriving by boat. However they come, whether as immigrants or refugees, people bring their own baggage. And while mostly this baggage is positive and helps enrich our culture, some of it is toxic. Equating such harmful practices with maritime arrival is nothing more than rhetorical sleight of hand.

People who are newly arrived will have certain issues, while those who have been here for a long time will have others. The real issue is how to prevent people from harming each other, while educating all people, whether newly arrived or here for a long time, to be more compassionate and wise.

Those who are so concerned with defending Australian values seem to be wilfully blind to the ways that values are actually created in societies. People don’t embrace values because they are forced to, but because they see positive models.

If people arrive as weary wanderers, and are immediately treated with heartlessness and suspicion, what will they think of Australian society? Can we expect those who have undergone such an experience to respect Australian culture and Australian Government? Australians have persistently voted in governments with relentlessly hardline policies on maritime arrivals. New arrivals know this; they feel like outsiders, and will learn to trust only slowly.

If, however, peoples’ initial encounter with Australia is an experience of kindness and friendliness; if they are treated with the openness and the fairness that we like to pride ourselves on, they will gain a natural respect for Australian culture and values. This is the starting point for real harmony in any culture.

The Buddha’s ethics is based firmly on his love and compassion, which is without exception or limit. Constantly we find the phrase sabbe satta, “all beings”. We are still catching up to this ethos. We have a long way to go before we see ourselves as first and foremost sentient beings, temporary tenants who share our beautiful planet together, and fully surmount the limitations of race, nation, caste, gender, and religion. In our time, in our Australian home, this is how we are being tested. And the test is this: as Australians and as those inspired by the Buddha’s path, to use this opportunity to grow in love; to show the world that the Buddha’s teachings are not merely nice ideals, but eminently practical tools for building a healthy and harmonious society.