These thoughts offer an oft overlooked aspect of activism and being in the world.
One of their more recent is below
Have you ever ambled back from your favourite watering hole, enjoying the peace of the night, only to have your tranquillity trashed by a shrill call of nature that intensifies the closer you come to your destination? Ten minutes from home, peace prevails; two minutes from home, an engulfing sense of crisis.
As if incapacitated by some malign force, the more intently we yearn to get behind the front door, the more difficult it is to find the right key, much less get it in the lock. Moving our legs from side to side doesn’t help much; nor, alas, does jogging up and down on the spot.
What is so remarkable about this situation is that we know that if we had needed to walk a mile or two further, we would not now be experiencing any urgency at all. The problem appears to be a function of proximity. In other words, it appears to be a function of mind.
In his latest ‘novel’-cum-selfie, ‘Inside Story’, Martin Amis observed:
‘But to compare little things with large is a salutary habit; the little thing tells you a little about the large thing. In miniature, little things, like exceptions, prove the rule…’ (Amis, ‘Inside Story,’ Vintage, 2020, e-book, p.147)
The ‘little thing’ being described here tells us a lot about ‘the large thing’. And this larger thing, actually, is a phenomenon of truly vast importance, one that lies at the very heart of our modern malaise. But let’s stay small for now…
The moment after the taxi arrives, we are suddenly unable to find a passport, to close the zip around a suitcase, even to switch off a light.
In the last few minutes of extra time, against the run of play, football teams conspire to concede exactly the right number of goals to lose the match. Notoriously, the England team has an invincible habit of penalty-shooting itself in the foot at the first sign that footballing glory might be at hand. These collective collapses are also very clearly a function of proximity.
Or consider England cricket star Ben Stokes who, barring a woeful umpiring decision, got himself out just two runs short of completing a wonder innings to keep England’s hopes alive in the 2019 Ashes contest with Australia. Every cricketer senses the danger that looms in the ‘nervous nineties’, when the proximity of a landmark century of runs makes achieving the ‘ton’ hard, harder, hardest. So what went wrong? Stokes supplied a clue when he said:
‘I didn’t get nervous till we needed single figures, I didn’t know what to do then.’
But who is this bewildered ‘I’? And why is it getting involved? And how did it sabotage the effort?
The same confusion overwhelmed tennis player Jana Novotna in her 1993 Wimbledon final against Steffi Graf. Novotna took the second set and had a game point serving at 4–1 in the third set. Wikipedia reports the ensuing collapse:
‘With victory seemingly in her grasp, she [Novotna] lost her nerve, double-faulted, and allowed Graf to climb back into the match. Graf took the next five games and the title.’
Even the fearless high-wire walker Phillipe Petit, who walked for 45 death-defying minutes between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York in 1974 without a safety rope, stumbled dangerously in the last few steps as triumph and safety hove in sight.
Divided We Fall
With his usual clarity, the Indian mystic, Osho, identified the heart of the problem:
‘And the most important thing is, if you are seeking success, you are already divided. Then your heart is not in the work, your heart is already in the result. If you are divided, you will not succeed. Success happens only to undivided hearts who are not worried about the consequence, the result, who are enjoying tremendously the journey itself, and are not concerned about the goal…
‘If you are concerned about success, success is not going to come to you, because your mind will be somewhere in the future and you will not be working in the present. And success can only come if the work is totally done in the present.’
Returning home from the pub, or grappling with a suitcase as the taxi awaits, our minds are indeed ‘somewhere in the future’.
When Ben Stokes was smashing the ball with abandon against Australia, he was doing so with an undivided heart. Success was so far-distant that thoughts of the future did not affect his ability to be focused on his work in the present, on the ball spinning towards him in the moment. When victory was out of sight, there was no question of him thinking, ‘I don’t know what to do’, because his mind wasn’t involved; there was no point. He was in his feelings, not in his head. The closer he came to success, the more his mind felt the magnetic pull of a looming, glorious triumph; the more it started to intrude.
Up to that point, thanks to thousands of hours of physical practice, physical learning, Stokes’ body had known exactly what to do. Alarmed by the prospect of ultimate glory, his mind took charge of the bat and failed. Rather than his body responding to the potential of every moment, his mind tried to impose its pre-determined idea on reality – ‘Now I have to be cautious with whatever comes’, or, ‘Now I have to smash whatever comes’ – in a way that was not in accord with the truth of the moment. In fact, Stokes’ mind didn’t need to do anything; it needed to get out of the way and allow his heart to be centred, undivided in feeling; to respond instinctively to every ball in the moment. After all, that was how he’d got to the brink of success in the first place.
Eight-time major tennis champion, Andre Agassi, wrote a very telling comment in his autobiography, ‘Open’. Agassi explained how, in the 1999 final of the French Open tournament, his opponent, Andrei Medvedev, won the first two sets with ease and came within five points of winning the match and championship in straight sets. But after this opportunity slipped through Medvedev’s fingers, everything changed. Agassi wrote:
‘Now we play on my terms. I move Medvedev side to side, hit the ball big, do everything [coach] Brad [Gilbert] said to do. Medvedev is a step slower, notably distracted. He’s had too long to think about winning. He was five points away, five points, and it’s haunting him. He’s going over and over it in his mind. He’s telling himself, I was so close. I was there. The finish line! He’s living in the past, and I’m in the present. He’s thinking, I’m feeling. Don’t think, Andre. Hit harder.’ (Andre Agassi, ‘Open’, Alfred A. Knopf, 2009, p.302, my emphasis)
When our mind ‘is already in the result’, we are split between our heads and our feelings – like Medvedev, we are hardly in the present at all – so our energies are divided, weak, faltering.
But here’s the problem: if you work for a corporation, that’s how you live!
In his book, ‘The Corporation’, Canadian law professor Joel Bakan explains the corporate law guiding senior executives:
‘The law forbids any motivation for their actions, whether to assist workers, improve the environment, or help consumers save money. They can do these things with their own money, as private citizens. As corporate officials, however, stewards of other people’s money, they have no legal authority to pursue such goals as ends in themselves – only as means to serve the corporation’s own interests, which generally means to maximise the wealth of its shareholders.’ (Joel Bakan, ‘The Corporation’, Constable, 2004, p.37)
In other words, as we all know, everything we do at work has to serve the goal of ‘the corporation’s own interests’; it has to maximise profits for shareholders. This is reflected in everything: our smiles, our handshakes, how we dress, how we style our hair, how we sit, how we stand, how often we have a tea break, how often we gaze out of the window.
This is a problem because, as Osho said, success, including happiness, ‘happens only to undivided hearts who are not worried about the consequence, the result, who are enjoying tremendously the journey itself, and are not concerned about the goal’. (my emphasis)
Consider the independent coffee shop owner who isn’t focused on profits or growth, who just enjoys chatting to his or her regular customers, serving them quality coffee, tea and cakes; whose heart is therefore undivided, someone ‘enjoying tremendously the journey itself’. Compare this situation with the corporate coffee shop chain manager and worker whose ‘heart is not in the work’ at all but ‘is already in the result’; namely, the take-home pay at the end of the week or month.
I have experienced small, independent shops glowing with human warmth, and I have endured so many corporate chain stores that are arid, dead, that suck the life from your soul. ‘Have a nice day!’ adds plastic insult to polyurethane injury.
How could it be otherwise? Human warmth, love and kindness only exist in the heart, which only exists, is felt, in the present moment. The head-trapped worker obliged to be lost in the profit-oriented future feels cold, loveless, dead inside. Alas, yearning to plug into human warmth, we are increasingly required to use robot tills in already ice-cold corporate stores emptied of human life.
Corporations might like to pretend that ‘the work is totally done in the present’, but this is pure fakery. Corporations must always, in effect, say to customers:
‘We love you! We love you truly, deeply, mindfully in the present, because appearing to love you, saying this, is the best way of fulfilling our loveless legal obligation to maximise profits for our shareholders in the future – our real priority.’
In other words, corporations are inherently soulless machines mimicking human kindness and love for profit. We are chilled by these chain stores because the whole ethos driving them is an attack on the human heart, on human love; on warmth, kindness and compassion.
In fact, could it be more obvious from the state of the biosphere and climate that this head-trapped, heartless corporate system is nothing less than an attack on life, on the idea that life is the supreme value and should never be subordinated to any supposed Higher Cause?
The Haunted Ghost Writer
When, as a writer, my concern has been ‘in the result’, when I have been motivated by money – when, for example, I worked for several years as a ghost writer – my writing was consistently self-sabotaged. It became dry, mechanical, prone to illogical jumps, gaps, and even bizarre spelling mistakes.
Like future-focused Stokes and Medvedev, my mind was spluttering, forcing. I was writing from my desiccated, money-oriented, results-focused head, rather than from my juicy, playful heart. I produced clanking, jerry-built constructions, rather than organic uprisings.
One of my favourite singer-songwriters is Andy Partridge of the English band XTC. When Partridge has written from the heart, his songs have had everything – mischievous word play, sparkling political dissent, searing emotional honesty, mystical beauty, comedy and tragedy.
In his song, ‘Humble Daisy’, released on the sublime XTC album, ‘Nonsuch’, in 1992, Partridge sings a mystic prayer to the small, wondrous, unappreciated beauty of the ‘ordinary’. He declares that a ‘mere’ daisy, and bowing in love before the wonder of a ‘mere’ daisy, has the power to undo the madness of the world with all its ego-driven ambition and conflict. The song begins:
Form a chain to hold all battleships in check
Knit a ladder down to nature’s sunken wreck
Ragged rug unbound
Tangle trip the lovers
Royal barge aground
Brighter than all of the others on the window sill
I’ll sing about you if nobody else will.’
This is so loving, gentle, beautiful. The music, also, is in perfect harmony with the sense of someone swooning before the charm of a tiny flower. If you listen closely to the harmony at 1 minute 55-57 seconds, you will feel the same love and bliss that were surging through Partridge’s heart as he was writing and singing this extraordinary song. Clearly, he was singing and playing from the heart about how ‘the little thing tells you a little about the large thing’.
It may sound preposterous, impossible, but in fact it is true that daisies are the great hope for human salvation. The enlightened mystics are all in complete agreement that paradise is available only to a human heart that is open to the delight and beauty of the tiny, humble things of the present moment.
More recently, Partridge has confessed that an intrusive, overly-critical, expert ‘editor’ in his head has blocked him from writing so spontaneously. I suspect Partridge is afflicted by the same perverse gremlin that troubles so many experienced professionals. Legendary film director Orson Welles commented:
‘I see movies through such a mist of years, I am incapable of feeling the thrill of them, even the greatest ones, because I cannot erase those years of experience. I’m jaded. I know I don’t see movies as purely as I ought to see them. Before I started making movies, I’d get into them, lose myself. I can’t do that now. That’s why I don’t think my opinions about movies are as good as somebody’s who doesn’t have to look through all those filters.’ (Quoted, Peter Biskind, ‘My lunches with Orson: conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles’, Henry Holt and Company, 2013, p.193)
Partridge took to ghost-writing songs for other artists in response to specific requests. Many of his offerings were rejected. Partridge explains that one such rejected song, ‘Come On Back’, was written in response to the following spec:
‘A call from a publisher one day came with a request to write a Beatlesque song for a big name singer. Something with a bit of bite (the Bitles?).’
‘Come On Back’ is a pleasant enough ditty – it does have traces of the Partridge magic – but the music and lyrics have clearly come out of Partridge’s goal-seeking, spec-serving head, rather than his vibrant heart delighting in creating for the sheer joy of creation. The lyrics include these lines:
‘You were the best girl that I ever had in my life.
I was a fool not to marry you.
Forget the rest girl, they would never be my wife.
But over the threshold I didn’t carry you.
Now I’m begging on both knees, with these three words if you please – come on back. Come on back, before I fade to black.’
This is the spec talking. In dramatic contrast to ‘Humble Daisy’, there is nothing startling, dreamily scintillating. There’s nothing like the wonderful idea of daisies conspiring to form chains to trip lovers so that they fall over on the grass and into each other’s arms.
As Partridge has said with typical honesty, these ghost-written songs do not represent where his heart and soul are currently. My guess is that they were never where his heart and soul were – they were a product of his results-oriented head.
It’s a dangerous game to play. To write out of goal-orientation is to train ourselves to go against the grain of creativity rooted in feeling. It encourages the head to take charge, strengthens the professional ‘filter’ that blocked Welles’ sensitivity. Whatever the cost, we must always write from the heart – the result, the career and financial price we might have to pay for our sincerity, is not our concern. As Joseph Campbell said so well:
‘My answer is, “Follow your bliss.” There’s something inside you that knows when you’re in the centre, that knows when you’re on the beam or off the beam. And if you get off the beam to earn money, you’ve lost your life. And if you stay in the centre and don’t get any money, you still have your bliss.’ (Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, ‘The Power of Myth’, Doubleday, 1988, p.229)
And please don’t doubt that benevolent-sounding results also poison creativity. Osho again:
‘This is the trouble: if you start thinking that you are dancing to save the world, your dance is destroyed. Then you are not dancing totally, then you are not dancing here and now; then your dancing has become a means to save the world. Then your love is not pure love – it is just another means, but the end is to save the world…’
Love that is goal-oriented may be many things, but it is not love, because goals are of the head and love is of the heart.
We have agreed, then, that full-focused creativity and success happen ‘only to undivided hearts who are not worried about the consequence, the result, who are enjoying tremendously the activity itself’.
The technical term for this is play, which is why I bristle when I’m asked, ‘How’s your work going?’ or ‘Have you been working hard?’ Or even worse: ‘How’s your business going?’
Letting Go Of Mickey
But here’s the rub: we are all goal-oriented! The whole focus of education is to train us for ambition – to be top of the class, best in exams, better than our friends, so we can go to the best university to get the best jobs. The whole purpose of our educational and professional system is to persuade us to overlook the present in favour of the future goal. We are all carefully conditioned to live with divided hearts – we’re doing something ‘here’ but only in order to get ‘there’. ‘Here’ is just a resource to be mined.
This is why modern society is full of money-oriented folk with divided hearts producing lifeless, unutterably boring ‘products’, ‘franchises’, ‘brands’, ‘copy’. Our TVs, cinemas, newspapers and magazines are full of this mechanical, soul-sucking pap.
Worse still, because corporations focus so fanatically on results, the present moment is being fatally undermined. The stability of the climate in the present, the welfare of human beings and animals in the present, the welfare of oil-rich countries like Iraq and Libya in the present, are being continuously subordinated to the need for future results – profit, ‘growth’, ‘progress’.
We can’t get our keys in the lock, Ben Stokes misses the crucial ball, flowers don’t have pollinating insects, polar bears can’t find ice to walk on, and the world burns.
How can we escape from actions and work performed from a divided heart?
This formulation, which appears to have been successful on many levels, was offered by spiritual teacher Michael Singer in his book ‘The Surrender Experiment’:
‘My formula for success was very simple: Do whatever is put in front of you with all your heart and soul without regard for personal results. Do the work as though it were given to you by the universe itself – because it was.’ (Michael Singer, ‘The Surrender Experiment: My Journey Into Life’s Perfection’, Harmony Books, 2015, p.133)
Singer emphasises that we should aim to produce something of the very highest quality of which we are capable. In addition, this intense effort should be made without concern for personal reward.
In my own life, from the age of 29, I consciously set out to write out of motives that did not include financial reward, ‘mainstream’ respectability, marketability, or fame. I decided that everything I wrote would be guided by two questions: What have I learned that has helped, liberated and delighted me in some way? How can I best communicate what I’ve learned?
When we are focused, not on money, name and fame, but on sharing for the sheer delight of sharing, our ego is a much smaller part of the motivation. Because our focus is on enjoying the act of creation, not on results, it’s easier to be focused on the moment. As Singer writes, this has far-reaching effects:
‘The more I let go of “Mickey” and just committed myself to the task life had given me, the more the spiritual energy flow increased within me. It was as though by aligning myself with life’s outer flow, the beautiful, inward flow of energy was naturally strengthened. By now, I had become thoroughly convinced that the constant act of letting go of one’s self-centred thoughts and emotions was all that was needed for profound personal, professional, and spiritual growth.’ (Singer, ibid., p.197)
When we’re trying to win a cricket or tennis match – when our ego’s hopes and fears have been deeply invested in ‘success’ over many years – it’s almost impossible to prevent the results-oriented mind from intruding and dividing our focus. ‘You have to be in it to win it’, perhaps. But when you’re in it to win it, you will struggle to work with an undivided, blissful heart. By contrast, when personal reward beyond the fun of sharing is not your motive, you can set about creating something as a form of play.
And when your work is your play, you’ve taken a huge step in the right direction. You’ve entered the realm of bliss where the ‘work’ you do is more delightful than your holidays.
But doing is not the be all and end all of being. When we simply drop out of thought into feeling in meditation, we drop out of thoughts of the future and past, which means we drop out of ego and its goal-orientation. When ego falls away, the thought-cloud that ordinarily obscures a limitless source of love and bliss inside us disappears. Now we can clearly hear Kabir’s ‘divine melody’. Now we know, because we can feel it, that ‘the kingdom of heaven’, our Buddha Nature, lies within. To experience this is to suddenly find oneself walking the Navaho’s ‘pollen path’:
‘Oh, beauty before me, beauty behind me, beauty to the right of me, beauty to the left of me, beauty above me, beauty below me – I’m on the pollen path.’ (Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, ‘The Power Of Myth’, Doubleday, 1988, p.230)
Without writing, singing or doing anything ‘special’, some of this ‘pollen’ inevitably dusts off on everyone we meet; on everything we say, think and do. Which is why meditative inactivism is the most powerful support for all forms of activism.