On Thursday night, many of us in Britain went to bed hoping and expecting that Remain would win the EU referendum. We woke up to learn of the opposite result. Now we’re in the midst of financial and political crisis that is spreading in all directions. I share the disappointment that others are expressing and their concerns for the UK’s future; but I would like to sound a different note and consider what’s happening from the perspective of Buddhist teachings.
I start by observing my own responses. I notice how strongly I’m drawn to turning on the news or checking the internet to hear the latest twists and turns. I’m drawn back to my Facebook feed, which is filled with endless rumination from my Friends, including many Buddhists, on what’s happening, and desperate searches for a way to overturn the result.
And then I recall the Buddha’s teachings. The world is the realm of disappointment, says the Buddha – dukkha or unsatisfactoriness. The world, like our lives, is characterised by forces beyond our control – the worldly winds. Sometimes things go well – meaning that sometimes they turn out how we want them to turn out – and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they are pleasurable, sometimes they are painful. Sometimes other people like and agree with me, and at other times they don’t. Events and people are constantly changing and the things we care about – including nations, treaties and communities – are impermanent. Nothing we experience is unchanging.
When these forces affect us we try in a thousand ways to regain control. One way is by trying to understand what’s happening, even though understanding isn’t the same as changing things. We urgently want to make sense of our lives and the world we inhabit, but we often fail to acknowledge the powerful forces buried deep within our minds that shape our response – lets call them craving, aversion and delusion. We tell ourselves stories about how the world is and how it should be, and get angry or frustrated when we find that it’s different. We manage our distress by focusing obsessively on the thing that looks like a cure. It may work, but the compulsive quality of our engagement affects us in other ways. A relatively simple cause becomes a complex tangle of views, responses, actions and consequences. That happens collectively and it affects us individually, infecting the world and filling our minds.
I care about the political world and I believe that these issues will have real effects on my own life and that of my country. However, my Buddhist practice encourages me to notice the element of vanity in the thought that I have to keep up with all the latest news. In truth, it doesn’t matter that much whether I know about most of this or how much time I spend thinking about it. The draw is not real agency so much as the feeling that doing so affords me a degree of control. But that is largely an illusion, and it means that I get entangled just like everyone else. Noticing the vanity, the false hopes and the states of mind that flow from them is the start of disentangling myself.
My Buddhist practice also urges me to ask other questions. For instance, when there is so much uncertainty and confusion, how can I find clarity? When there is so much anger and division, how can I stay in touch with loving kindness? In the face of turbulence and change, how can I stay calm and clear? Equanimity is held up as an ideal for Buddhists, so how can I practice that now? I’m pretty sure that the answers to these questions don’t involve constant media watching or discussion.
If it sounds as if I am advocating resignation, disengagement and simply not caring, or that all I value is my own happiness, I say this. Firstly, in difficult times, I believe it’s more important than ever to stay calm. That commodity is likely to be in short supply. Secondly, staying calm doesn’t mean not caring or not acting. But before we act, I suggest that we need to work hard to locate the wisdom and compassion that enables us to act for the best.
Compared to the wars and tragedies that engulf some parts of the world, Brexit is hardly a calamity. But in the realm of British and European politics, it is certainly a crisis. So let us take a very deep breath. Let us notice the forces of swirling around us. And let us resolve not to be swayed by them.
The world doesn’t need more voices added to the uproar. It needs people who care deeply and remain calm, balanced and clear.