Lessons from a Master Spy

If you are not part of the solution,
you are part of the problem.
—Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice

I read these words when I was 20, and they have always stayed with me. In the current cultural environment, polarization in one form or another rears its ugly head no matter where you look. I do not want to contribute to this problem, but what is the solution?

The only way that I can see to be part of the solution is to stay in touch with the practice of compassion and meet what life brings to me. By compassion I do not mean the well-meaning but questionable compassion of pity, or the self-serving compassion of those who seek to feel better about themselves by cultivating a practice of compassion, or the materialistic compassion of those who aim to “do well by doing good.” No, I mean compassion that sees clearly what is happening yet does not contract into self-protection; compassion that sees through the cultural projections that hide inconvenient truths or unpleasant ironies; and compassion that understands that it is not so much about making a perfect or even a better world but about being present in the suffering of the world, the conflicts that produce that suffering, and the tensions that produce those conflicts, and then seeing what can evolve from there. 

Many years ago I came across a paragraph in one of John Le Carré’s novels. These novels are set in the middle of the Cold War, the ideological battle between communism and capitalism that occupied much of the 20th century. George Smiley is a master spy who appears in many of Le Carré’s stories, and here he is speaking on the occasion of his retirement from the British Secret Service.

I only ever cared about the man. I never gave a fig for the ideologies, unless they were mad or evil. I never saw institutions as being worthy of their parts, or policies as much other than excuses for not feeling. I believe that almost any political system operated with humanity can work. And the most benign of systems without humanity is vile. The trick I suppose is to find the system that gives the least leeway to the rogues. The guarantee of our virtue is our compassion. And if you allow this institution, or any other, to steal your compassion away, wait, and see what you become. The man is everything. And if your calling is anything, you will always prefer him to the collective because the collective is humanity’s lowest and the collective is most often spoken for by people who are nothing without it.

I have quoted this passage more than a few times before (in particular, in the compassion section of Wake Up to Your Life). Up to this point I have let it speak for itself, but now I want to comment on it line by line because there are more than a few ideas here that are relevant both to the times we are in and to our practice.

I only ever cared about the man. 

Compassion is not about groups or identities. It is about individuals, about actual people. Smiley has more to say on this later, but this first point is important. For many purposes, it is convenient to talk about people as belonging to different groups, but we too easily forget that these groups are composed of individuals. When we regard people as members of such and such a group, we are unable to see their individual characteristics and circumstances, and they lose both their individuality and their humanity.

From the moment we are born, we belong to groups: family, school, team, profession, country, economic or social class, and so on. As we live our lives, we let go of some affiliations and take on others. We move from one group to another. Even if we stay in a group, our relationship with that group usually changes.

None—not one—of those groups define who or what we are. We limit ourselves when we say, “I am this” (whatever “this” may be). Smiley’s point here is to see people as people first, not as members of this or that group. The moment we dismiss a person because he or she belongs to a certain group, we undermine, if not violate, both our commitment to compassion and our own intention to be awake and present in life.

I never gave a fig for the ideologies…

Groups form for a reason. They share a common perspective, need, or aspiration. All too often that common ground becomes a belief system and members of the group have to conform to it. If they don’t, then suddenly, they do not belong to the group and lose its protection and support. This is one way ideologies are born. Ideologies are systems of belief, usually created for specific purposes (and not always the well-being of the group). Smiley says, in effect, that these systems of belief get in the way of understanding and seeing the difficulties, the pain, and the suffering of individuals.

Historically, Buddhism has taken the same position as Smiley: it doesn’t give a fig for the ideologies. For instance, in the Separation from the Four Attachments, Manjushri, the bodhisattva of awakened intelligence, said in a vision to the 12th-century Tibetan Buddhist master Sakya Pandita, “If you are attached to a position, you do not see clearly.” Granted, this is usually understood in a mystical context, but mystical truths often embody deep wisdom when considered judiciously in cultural or social contexts.

U Thant, the secretary-general of the United Nations from 1961 to 1971, exemplified what it means to be a world leader and a practicing Buddhist. A skilled diplomat, he was widely respected for his ability to create settings that allowed people with deeply conflicting views to talk with each other. He did this by not giving a fig for the ideologies, and by focusing on the individuals instead.

…unless they were mad or evil.

This phrase speaks for itself. There is simply no justification or rationalization for any system of belief that is based in insanity or intentionally creates pain and suffering. I find it quite bewildering, for instance, that the writings of Marquis de Sade (from whose name the word sadism is derived) have had as much influence as they have had. More generally, mad or evil ideologies include any ideology based on racial, religious, or moral superiority, any ideology based on denying what is obviously true, and any ideology that is based on taking one particular view as absolute. Systems or regimes based on any of these ideas inevitably generate suffering through discrimination and oppression. 

I never saw institutions as being worthy of their parts…

We live in a society in which institutions are necessary. Without organizations, millions of people around the world would not have access to the necessities of life. That being said, it is the nature of institutions to dehumanize people. They have to because they are dealing with large numbers of people, and to do so, they have to identify the mean and variation of the characteristics of the population that they are going to serve (by providing either goods or services). Differences and variations are averaged out. Individual circumstances cannot be taken into account. If you are too far away from the mean in the bell-curve distribution, you are out of luck.

When you are engaged in practice, you will inevitably come to a point where you see through the illusions that provide the cohesion, the social glue, for any organization or group. At that point you face a deep question of identity: Who am I? As is typical of Buddhist instruction, why stop there? Why not take the next step and ask: What am I?

The answer is a deafening and paralyzing silence that sends us straight back to the conceptual mind before we have even registered the silence. With practice, the practice of returning to that silence, we can build the ability to stand at the edge of that abyss, and then we might begin to see—see that we are, in fact, nothing. At that point, everything changes. In particular, when we see that we are nothing, we also see that all institutions are nothing, in and of themselves. That is an important understanding.

…or policies as much other than excuses for not feeling.

Not only do institutions dehumanize those they serve, they dehumanize the people who provide those services or make the goods, because they, too, have to learn to see people as objects, not individuals. All of us know this, particularly when we are dealing with insurance companies, cable networks, government services, or any other large organization. Equally, it’s a breath of fresh air when we come across an individual in those organizations who makes an effort to treat us as a human being. We feel the difference right away.

In today’s world, the development of leadership skills receives a lot of attention. This emphasis on leadership serves to perpetuate the myth that if we could just find the right leaders, institutions would function as we want them to. For me, the myth of leadership is little more than a distraction from a key question in our times: How do we live in a society comprised of organizations and still retain our humanity?

The fundamental ethic of compassion is that we see people as people first and members of collectives second, no matter how inconvenient that may be in our lives. Here, I have found the four immeasurables—equanimity, lovingkindness, compassion, and joy—essential. When you cultivate these qualities, you will find it virtually impossible to see people as objects. You also may find it impossible to work in a setting that requires you to apply or enforce certain policies, but that is one of the costs of practice. 

Here, also, is where the practice of taking and sending, or tonglen, is so important. In taking and sending, we take in not only the pain and suffering others experience, we take in their whole world view, the way they think and feel, the way they understand the world, and how they react to what they see and hear. This requires an active imagination on our part, and the willingness to open, understand, and experience behaviors and ideas that may be completely contrary to our own values. In the process, we will come to the understanding that, whatever our values, the way others experience pain and suffering is exactly the same as the way we experience pain and suffering.

When we send our own joy and well-being, we have to do the same. What would it take for them to experience joy and well-being? How can we send that to them? Again, a creative imagination is called for, and through that creative process, we come to understand that they experience joy and well-being in exactly the same way that we experience joy and well-being. We are not different.

In short, taking and sending puts me in touch with the essential humanity in each of us, in a way that I feel viscerally and cannot ignore for the sake of policies, systems, or structures.

I believe that almost any political system operated with humanity can work.

Smiley is saying that the system doesn’t matter. What matters is how it operates. In the end, it is up to the people that work in the system. Needless to say, if institutions large and small were to operate this way, they might be less efficient and less profitable, but perhaps we could live with that if the result was that they were more responsive to each and everyone’s needs. The problem is that whenever you have a less efficient or less profitable system, someone comes along with a way to improve efficiency or profitability, but usually at the price of flexibility or responsiveness.

Our responsibility, then, is to use our practice and understanding to operate whatever systems we find ourselves in for the benefit of actual people, not just ourselves. In other words, to live our practice of compassion, and do so as skillfully as possible. 

The trick I suppose is to find the system that gives the least leeway to the rogues. 

“The least leeway to the rogues.” What a great way to think about designing a system! Communism, as a system, has shown that it provides too much leeway to the rogues. It is extremely susceptible to domination by a small dictatorial group who, with remarkable consistency, visits death and misery on much of the population. Fascism is not any better because it gives rise to systems that are largely composed of rogues. Crony capitalism, trickle-down economics and austerity policies are just some of the methods rogues use to exploit systems. Smiley is being realistic and acknowledging that no system will be perfect. But the aim is clear: give as little leeway as possible to the rogues—those who would disrupt or exploit the system for their own benefit.

Western democracies have demonstrated that one of the best methods to counteract corruption is to create an independent judiciary, a judiciary that consists of people with proven legal acumen who are appointed for life and come from different segments of society. They are not chosen for their political persuasion (as in communism or fascism) or loyalty to a particular individual (as in dictatorships). Here is where diversity is important, not simply racial, ethnic, or gender diversity, but philosophical, ideological, and economic diversity as well.

The guarantee of our virtue is our compassion. And if you allow this institution, or any other, to steal your compassion away, wait, and see what you become.

Without compassion, we are not human. I find the same thought expressed in much of David Graeber’s expresses, such as Debt: The First 5000 Years. As Lewis Hyde notes in Trickster Makes This World, in older cultures the exchange of what was need to live was based in gift-giving, not in trade. They regarded any form of trade as theft, because in trade you are concerned about profit, rather than the welfare of others or the community.

Buddhism says it differently. Again, from Separating from the Four Attachments, “If you are concerned with your own welfare, you won’t experience awakening.” One of the questions I’ve asked people about their careers again and again is, “Does your job allow you to be human?” Jobs that actually enable you to be human are quite rare, but what is the point in taking a job that doesn’t even allow you to be human? The price, in my opinion, is too high.

The man is everything. And if your calling is anything, you will always prefer him to the collective…

Awareness resides in the individual, not in any institution, organization, or other form of collective. The mindful organization, the mindful society, the courageous organization, the compassionate organization—these are all fictions, phantoms of the imagination designed to seduce people into substituting an organization’s agenda for their own sense of right and wrong. Instead of trying to build the perfect world according to this or that ideology, put your attention in how you live and interact with others in each moment of the day.

One of the best places to start is with how you speak. Train yourself to take a breath before you say anything. When you do this, you will never interrupt another person. And listen to your voice when you talk as if you were listening to another person. You will hear all the exaggerations, distortions, the moments that an edge creeps into your voice, or when you are just blathering. It’s a little uncomfortable at first, but it will make a difference in how you speak.

Above all, this practice will make it impossible for you to engage in meaningless or misleading conversation. It will force you to engage fully with the person or people with whom you are speaking.

…because the collective is humanity’s lowest… 

People in large groups tend not to behave as humans but as animals. We are animals. We live and die. We need food and shelter. Our most basic drives, be they reproduction, defense, or social organization and hierarchy, predate human beings. They are found in most animal societies, and even in plants and trees. They are the product of millions of years of evolution, and we will not easily free ourselves from their grasp.

Our animal nature tends to come out when we gather in large numbers—when we cease to be human individuals. When people in large groups do maintain their humanity, they can exert tremendous power for good, and we have seen examples of that in recent times. But large crowds easily turn into mobs, the humans acting and behaving as an unthinking collective. Forget about leadership skills. The genius of many supposedly great leaders lies largely in their effective use of methods that channel collective behavior into those animal instincts. This is what Niccolò Machiavelli wrote about in the 15th and 16th centuries and why he was so threatening to both the monarchs and the church.

Because we are social animals, it is difficult for anyone to maintain their presence and awareness in large groups. Thus, in your practice, do not seek the great teachers with throngs of the faithful. Instead, search out capable if little-known teachers with whom you can meet in person and from whom you can really learn what you aspire to know.

…and the collective is most often spoken for by people who are nothing without it.

When I hear people talking about “We this” and “We that”, I always want to ask, “Who is this we?” I came up against this way of speaking in my corporate consulting, and I was often able to ask, “Who is this we you are talking about?” The question was not always appreciated, but the results were often interesting. Usually, the person using the pronoun we had assumed a level of cohesion and agreement that wasn’t there. They felt that they were speaking for the whole group when, in fact they weren’t. Once that was exposed, he or she realized that they had to do a lot more work to build real agreement. The word we is often used to avoid doing the hard work of building real consensus and agreement.

I also have noticed that when I am thinking or speaking in terms of collectives, I am often doing so in order to avoid inconvenient cases, gloss over what I would like to regard as minor differences, and, above all, persuade others of my position. (And I note my use of we in this piece with a certain irony.)

The practice of listening to your own voice as if you were listening to another person is very effective here. You can hear the “we”, and you can hear the doubt or stridency behind it.

To return to the question of being part of the solution or part of the problem, what does it mean to be part of the solution? One approach, of course, is to work to oppose the dominant ideology and the systems it produces. In practice, this leads to the emergence of another ideology and a war of attrition—the worst kind of war given the level of destruction and suffering that result. Another approach is not to engage the ideology or the system at all, at any level. This was the path that the Occupy movement started to explore. In her essay Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship, Hannah Arendt proposes that this is the only responsible path in a totalitarian system. It will probably cost you your status in society. It may well cost you your livelihood (as it would and did in both Nazi Germany and communist Russia). It may cost you your life. The question then, is, where does one find the courage for such a path?

As Arendt writes, it comes from not being “able to live in peace with themselves after having committed certain deeds; and they decided that it would be better to do nothing, not because the world would then be changed for the better, but simply because only on this condition could they go on living with themselves at all.” And that quality comes from knowing compassion—knowing in your body and your guts how inhumanity destroys the human spirit.

Compassion has been one of the pillars of my training and practice, and I’m deeply grateful to my teachers who, not always gently, made sure that I took its importance to heart. Among the many practices that develop compassion, easily the most important for me has been Mahayana Mind Training, and taking and sending (tonglen), in particular. In addition, we need a collection of supporting practices, everything from basic attention in how we live to all of the four immeasurables to insight practice and the questions that lead us to understand that we have no fixed identity.

I don’t know what the right or the best combination of practices is for you, but I can say this: Compassion is probably the most reliable way to move from being part of the problem of polarization in today’s world, however unwittingly, to being part of the solution. Take George Smiley’s (or Le Carré’s) words to heart, and find a way to uncover the compassion that is your human heritage. It is there, in your heart, waiting for you.

This article originally appeared, in slightly different form, in the Unfettered Mind newsletter.

Original author: Ken McLeod
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