Dharma Talk

October 14, 2020

Politics and Despair

Hosho Peter Coyote


This morning’s talk is a bit of a ramble

What set me off on this little journey was that I  saw a film on Netflix called The Social Dilemma,  and, impossible as it may be to conceive, it is a more important revelation than the one I just cited. You may have seen this film. It’s about senior lieutenants, all early employees of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and Snapchat, sharing singular crises of conscience about the unintended consequences of what they have constructed. All of them began believing they were building a kind of heavenly platform to connect people, to deepen relationships  and keep family and friends in touch over distances imposed by work, geography, and circumstance. And, to some degree, they accomplished that goal and to some degree it is true.

Like puppies, cats, children and even chickens many adorable things can escape our control. These executives are deeply concerned that social media has escaped all controls and boundaries and is metastasizing through the culture wreaking havoc on our society. More worrisome is that they are nearly unified in their fear that social media is producing the political and emotional climate for some sort of civil war, and they explain why.

They go onto explain that, of course, reminding us that these delightful apps are profit-making businesses. Facebook’s genius was to develop an advertising model to sustain itself. What Facebook and these other apps sell is us—our attention, and more pertinently for Buddhists, our awareness.  I’m reminded of something I read somewhere which stated that if we get something for free on the Internet, we are the product. In this case, the product is our attention, which they sell to advertisers in increments of seconds. Sometimes for pennies, sometimes for more. They are delivering our awareness to  advertisers, for which they are paid. Those billions of pennies traded for instants of awareness haves created the wealthiest business in the history of the world.

That might appear harmless enough, except that our attention is monitored by computers are running extremely sophisticated algorithms, artificial intelligence, which is self-correcting and refining what they do; getting better at what they do, which is snagging our attention.

This film informed me, for instance, that if I haven’t looked at phone frequently enough (for the advertisers), I’ll get a little message, accompanied by a “ding” and it will say, “You’ve just been tagged in a photo” or “Julie is going out with Brad now.” It might be—“Look at the photos someone just sent you”. What’s happening is that my phone is deciding when it wants me to use it and has developed methods that are almost impossible for me to refuse.

These algorithms are a trillion times more effective than they were a decade ago. They are so good – they have devised multiple ways of keeping us addicted and it is an addiction, because what they have tapped in is our in-bred, evolutionary desire to be in a group, and to be liked and appreciated by the group, and to pay close attention to what attracts, angers, or frightens us.

People will airbrush photos of themselves and send them to friends. Seeing these photos, other people who don’t feel they look as good become depressed. So depressed that In fact, since 2019, when social media emerged onto  cell phones, preteen suicide rates are up over 170%. Teen suicide is up somewhere in the range of 80%. There are serious consequences that attend plugging into this tap, needing to be liked by their peer group, wanting to be loved, wanting to be appreciated, not to be excluded. It is why Internet bullying is so serious.

The consequence that these high-level executives fear is civil war. They understand better than we do, how the computer algorithms driving their business identify interest groups, and ensure  through a variety of prods and queries, that each interest group will see information that interests it. So, if you are an anti-vaxer, when you sign in to Facebook, you will see primarily people and stories discussing anti-vaccination fears and sharing sources  which may make it appear that such concerns are based on science. The reader will also tend to believe that everyone is seeing  the same information they do; that it is common knowledge, and therefore, people who ignore it must be doing that for nefarious reasons. That’s not the case, however. If you are a conspiracy theorist, you are going to see a universe of conspiracy theories. If I and my next-door neighbor google “Vietnam War” or “Amy Barrett”, or vaccines, we would get entirely different feeds from Facebook, according to the data they have already assembled about us from watching every click we have ever made on their site; every “like” and every ad you’ve ever looked at will be scoured to come to a conclusion about who you are, what you like, and what they intend 4tto show you. What this has done is Balkanize the entire population, wall us off in tiny little kingdoms, each organized around our curiousities – not just in the United States, but worldwide.

Worldwide, democratic governments are under stress from citizens who are accepting conspiracy theories and ‘secret’ plots as true and ignoring what’s happening right in front of their noses. Fractures and divisions like those in the United States are occurring everywhere that Social Media is dominant. As each side  becomes more reinforced in the ‘rightness’ of their particular cause because they are being bolstered by Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and similar apps. Superstitions, divisive memes and the like are being nourished constanty by Russian bots and fake accounts created by malefactors who wish our country nothing good. Because they appear to be independent and objectively created source verifying your particular interest they are widely copied and shared--,which makes all of us of value to advertisers.

Political strategists (and foreign intelligence services)  can shop for the kind of people they want. There’s another very good documentary called The Big Hack, which explains how Donald Trump was elected. During the elections of 2016, a firm in England called Cambridge Analytica would buy hundreds of thousands of people “who hadn’t made up their minds.” That was the audience they wanted culled out to approach and that is the audience they received. Another tactic they pursued was to find black activists, or pro-gun groups and then send them information right under their nose that would make them want to stay home or make them angry and contentious. They would “inform” white supremacists about phony Black Lives Matter rallies where horrible things were being said about white people. Just to keep things stirred up, and control which people did and did not come to the polls to vote..

So, that’s what I learned, and it was quite shocking.

The first thing that they suggest you do, (which I did), was to turn off all the notifications on your phone and computer. So, instead of them, dinging and saying, “Look at me”, you decide when you are going to check your email, tweets, and instagrams.

All of my notifications have been silenced, except I have tones for my son and daughter, and one or two friends and my agent. That’s about it. My phone is suddenly silent. I’m no longer seeing banners all the time and arising from that newly pacified state is an incredulous understanding of just how often I used to “glance” at my phone or computer, to scan emails and chats. It’s all designed to be in this moment.

These ‘services” from my phone are like false prophets because they’re not for your own good at all. They snag your attention to deliver it to advertisers. While you’re checking your email, or messages, you’ll see something. You’ll see some ad. You’ll see something. You know, “Tom Selleck, we’ll miss him.” Gee, I didn’t know he was dead, and you click.

That’s the ramble part of this talk. That’s what I learned from watching The Social Dilemma, and I was sharing this information with a group of advanced zen practitioners. At one point, a fellow I know who is quite senior and has a developed—he’s normally a very happy-go-lucky guy, and suddenly had an outpouring of despair.

He said, “I so admire you, but I think that you are naïve. I don’t know where you find the hope. The fact is, we’re screwed. The planet is going to be like this and getting worse for a century. 9 billion people is going to be whittled down to 1 billion, somehow, some way, because that is the carrying capacity of the earth.” He continued through a long litany of things that were wrong, and things where he had just run out of hope.

I was surprised to hear that coming from a man who is unfailingly amused at life, and whose primary practice focus is on being kind. I understand it. I have felt that way sometimes. This night, in mid October, approaching a contentious Presidential election, he was uncharacteristically emotional. I was at a bit of a loss and struggled to find something to say that would be of value to him.

Normally, I practice something I’ve named “radical optimism”. I named it that because there is nothing in my belief system that requires faith, because anything we have to take on faith can be punctured.

Radical optimism is based on one unassailable fact, which is: We never know how things are going to turn out. We never know. Things may look like they could never break our way, but so often something occurs which bowls over our expectations. Given that possibility, if I keep my shoulder to the wheel and push towards the ends I believe in; if I stay consistent with my intentions, there’s a chance that things could go my way. It’s like buying a lottery ticket. The odds may be long, but there is a chance. There is no chance, however, if you don’t buy a lottery ticket. So, in the face of ‘not-knowing’ I choose to stay committed because it is a more powerful and uplifting optiopn for me

I raised that subject – the possibility that we “don’t know” with my despondent friend, and using that as a wedge, continued to remind him that all such images and narratives occur in the realm of thought---and Zen is about something else. Zen practice encourages us to drop below our thoughts and narratives, to drop below our personality. Dropping into the Big Mind that surrounds and courses through us. The energy that is always prepared to become some form or other, ceaseless becoming and transformation. That is our actual “I”—the ground level of our awareness.

The ground level of our awareness is not personal, it is not “mine”. My ”I” is Buddha’s eye. It’s the same. It is not separate, it is not ruled by time. If I don’t think so, I’ve killed and buried the Buddha in an idea of the past. Because I know that my “I” is Buddha’s “I”, I also know that my eye is Buddha’s eye, that we are seeing the same world as if eyes were peeking out from under my eyebrows. In this ground level awareBuddha and all creation is alive. All Bodhisattvas are alive. In a world where such beings are alive, anything can happen. And the odds of something good happening are amplified.

The technology for dropping into and accessing that state is zazen. To do it with the utmost seriousness and the utmost dedication is to allow the mind to quiet down. Dogen refers to “settling the self on the self” and my understanding of that is to place my awareness that is in my head, down in the hollow spot behind my navel and mudra. It’s a great, dimensionless grey area and every once in awhile I’ll snap into a unified awareness—no head and belly, all mind and it’s very satisfying and comforting. The mind continues to do what it wants, but my awareness doesn’t feel obligated to track it.

It’s like being underwater and watching all the frothiness at the surface. Down deep in the ocean, the temperature doesn’t change much. The currents don’t change much. It’s pretty constant. Down there in the formless. And in the mind, it’s the same thing. In the formless, you are always prepared for the next thought, the next impulse, the next sensation, but it is beyond the personal. The content may be related to personal history, but the awareness that it is played on is not yours. To go there is a deeply renewing and refreshing activity.

I feel that people commit suicide because they have suffered a failure of imagination. They can no longer imagine impossible circumstances changing for the better. I’m not talking about people who are in intractable terminal pain with no hope of recovery and choose to escape their suffering by ending their lives. When Suzuki Roshi was dying he said that it was alright that he was suffering. It was just suffering and there was no confusion in it. I’m thinking about people younger than myself who jump from the Golden Gate Bridge or take their own lives in some other way. They’ve been locked in a narrative loop, and they’ve been inhabiting the world not as it actually is but filtered through a prism that blocks joy, curiousity, gratitude, and empathy from illuminating it. Such souls are imprisoned in narrative  in their small mind, their personality, and consequently missing the vastness surrounding it. Such narratives have no way out, and without an exit, their condition is so painful they want it to end. I have always suspected that when someone releases their grip from the rail of the Golden Gate Bridge, as they are falling, the last thing they might see is the extraordinary beauty of the horizon and the luminous sea, the light twinkling on the hills. Suddenly, they are perceiving “things-as-it-is,” but it’s too late. That would be awful.

My suspicions were confirmed when I once saw a film called The Bridge, about suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge. The filmmakers planted a camera and powerful telescopic lens on one of the Marin County hills facing the bridge and recorded people pacing back and forth indecisively before suddenly throwing themselves over the edge. One man interviewed in the film, survived the fall, and testified that “The moment I let go of the rail I knew that I had made the worst mistake of my life,” and he has since dedicated his life to speaking with potential suicides to change their minds.

I’m not so worried that those I’m addressing today are on the verge of suicide, but I am concerned about the levels of stress, anxiety and fear people confide to me that they are currently dealing with. It’s unnatural to be sequestered. From friends and family. Exceedingly difficult for some. I have a cousin who visited me yesterday and who has postponed her wedding for a year, hopefully to be free of the pandemic. I officiated a wedding on my birthday four days ago to someone who lives in my town. There were 6 people attending, all masked and while it was as lovely and moving as all weddings are, it was not carefree. It felt as if there was an uninvited guest sidling around the room, making people uneasy.

We are forced to be watchful. We are forced to consider, do I wear a mask when I visit? How safe are the people asking to come visit me? Do they have children who are careless or careful? How safe are the people who just visited them? It is a stressful time. Where do we go to find energetic and emotional resupply? Where do we go for energy and a recommitment and a reinvigoration?

For myself,  for the last 46 years I have made daily journeys to submerge myself in Big Mind through meditation. I try to accept all the nuances, colors, harmonies and disharmonies of my life by observing them rise into consciousness in the present moment; try to acknowledge them fully without reacting, and then observe them evaporating. Beyond the worries and concerns of my personality, my spinal telephone (and yours) is plugged into the universe at the other end. The back of our heads open onto a formless, starry expanse of vital, pregnant energy from which we have never been separated for a single instant. That energy is the ground level of the universe, and when we can soften our personal narratives and harmonize our internal awareness with that ground level awareness, we are refreshed, reinvigorated, and nourished.

People who study communication have learned that “fake news” travels seven times as rapidly and as far as the truth does on the Internet. That is because social media depends on shock, fear, curiousity, anger, and/or affection to hook our attention. The nightly news is also ‘social media’ it is simply not interactive. But it has the same challenge to hook our attention. Consequently, the stories comprising “the news” and the way they are framed, are structured to hook attention—just like Facebook. The greater the field of attention they attract, the larger their viewership,  which means they can charge more for their advertisements, raising the net revenues of the corporation, and, not incidentally, the bonuses of the employees, which goes some way towards explaining the rather formal self-censorship that keeps media perspectives firmly fixed between the political center and the right, and suggesting, implicitly, that represents the entire spectrum of every issue.

Achieving the largest audience requires tailoring broadcasts,  at mid-level IQ. (Obviously, with the wealth of available choices, some will be more centrist or intelligent than others, but the politically constricted spectrum itself is rarely violated.) We can understand why If we imagine the planet for a moment. The Equator is the biggest circle that one can draw around it horizontally so it could represent the largest possible audience. As one rises (or descends) toward the poles, each circles get smaller. So advertisers are generally less interested in those high IQ audiences (represented by the smaller circles) which might be interested in serious analysis of public policies and events and their implications than they are with the people whose interests and IQ) place them at the Equator. If you are in the mass-market business, the people at the equator are those you  must please, and if you are in the business of selling people’s attention to advertisers (which all media has in common) it inevitably leads to “if it bleeds, it leads” type of stories, or love-and-loss stories about breakups and marriages, which are not actually “news” in the sense of important information we need to understand. The puppy in the well may tug our heart-strings and preoccupy us, keeping us tuned in, but may not rank in importance next to understanding why your factory closed and the people you sent to Congress to protect you, allowed your job  tp be shipped to a Third World country, with no funds available to retrain for other work. In mass market narratives everything tends to be  cast as a binary competition of two equal ideas (and only two); translated in the most competitive, horse race sort of terms where winning and losing are paramount, but context and history are minimized to prevent the viewer r from changing the channel. That’s how an over-emphasis on markets and profits beging to frame reality.

Britain perceived this problem and solved it quite differently. They understood the social importance of clear pertinent news and recognized that it would be challenged by advertising. So the BBC is funded by a tax on the sales of radios and televisions. It’s budget does not have to pass through Parliament (as our Public Broadcasting News budgests must pass through Congress where any Senator with a grudge can hold  it up until he is satisfied with its ideological perspective.)

I was watching the televised hearings to determine if the President Trump’s nominee, Amy Coney Barrett will be appointed to the Supreme Court today. (A foregone conclusion) A Senator from Rhode Island named Sheldon Whitehouse was explaining very clearly how wealthy, anonymous sources, (he refers to them as “dark money”) have put up a war chest of $250 million to get her onto the Supreme Court. It certainly made me wonder, “Who are these people?” and “Isn’t their identity something we should know about? Who a Supreme Court Justice might be indebted to?

The people who are supporting Ms. Barrett (and Donald Trump) apparently want to claim the judicial system. They want to own it. They do not trust “the masses” to judge wisely, and because there are always less wealthy than poor people, they remain a minority and consequently have devised numerous ways to rule as a minority. One of those ways is by owning the judicial system.. They are putting out very select, very expensive ads supporting Ms Barret and her confirmation. So, when colleagues challenged Senator Whitehouse, asking him, “What could we do?” he answered, ”The first thing we can do is be transparent. We want to know whose $17 million check got Justice Cavanaugh (President Trump’s prior Justice appointment) confirmed. We want to know who put the $250 million up to get Amy Coney Barrett confirmed. If we know that, then we can see the problem, and then we can talk about remedies.”

It was uplifting for me to hear his statement, because for many years, I’ve been involved in and testified on behalf of “clean money” campaigns, lobbying for full federal funding of elections so that we, the People, elect our legislators. We would pay their salaries, and hopefully prohibit lobbyists, private donors or anyone else to give them money, jobs, junkets, speaking tours any remuneration over and above their salary – so that their interest remains focused on policy and not campaign contributions for their reelection. Why should we be surprised that in a political system organized around the procurement of money, the interests of money always trump the interests of the Nation?

Many people, including legislators frustrated by the time it eats out of their work to raise money, and repeatedly observing the interests of capital triumphing over the needs of the people. I, for one, have been frustrated in understanding how to reach that goal, because it seems clear that legislators are not going to deny themselves the opportunity to fund their reelection campaigns or pad their retirement accounts. In our current system, both the Democrats and Republicans accept money from the 1/10th of 1% of the wealthiest people in our country, and they must if they want to stay in office.

It is in the interests of those who pay the most – the 60% of monies financing elections – that they control public policy to insure their wealth.  That wealth affords them extraordinary political power and creates a nearly insurmountable problem for the rest of us residing in the 98 1/2% that is not exorbirtantly wealthy; a problem exacerbated by our not knowing i who most of the major donors are or what their real interests are. The Citizen’s United decision by the Supreme Court allowed donations to  collected by Super-Pacs and to remain anonymous. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse took a good first step when he said, “The first step is transparency.” 

Once everyone can understand who a legislator’s major supporters are, they have a key to understand those legislator’s votes. Once “dark money” is abolished and once ordinary citizens have a chance to lobby concerning the real problem afflicting them and once legislators realize that their reelection depends on those citizens, we will be taking a step towards a more mutualistic political system.

 In the same way, we have “dark money” in our own minds. We have veins of wealth that we don’t know are there we have attachments to power and wealth, to getting our own way, in ways which make us much like the people we rail against. “ Understanding the deep resevoirs of our own nature should  help us remove the shock and anger we freight political criticism with. The tension is not between “good” and “bad” people. We are all humans with an equal propensity to cause great harm when we’re not paying attention, or are overly involved in self-clinging.

This can be another cause of despair. I think it is a cause of despair, and I think it is one of the contributing factors, where we see democracy under assault around the world.  I would hazard a guess that whereever this is occurring we can find a dominant  corporate culture” iassuming dominance, using its wealth and power to buy parliaments and key opinion-makers so that little by little the interests of everydy working people are overlooked or sacrificed to the Gods of wealth. Life gets tougher, critical goods become more expensive, and society more regulated to be in accord with what the corporate sector and the wealthy prefer.

Because these changes occur in realms of tax policy, escape-hatch language in regulation and remain invisible to most, the consequence is that as daily life becomes more difficult, people begin to distrust democracy. In America we now face a situation where a single man—the Speaker of the Senate can, at will, block bi-partisan legislation intended to prevent citizens from being evicted from their home after the government has closed their businesses.  9 unelected people on the Supreme Court may decide that it is unreasonable for the interests of business to offer people medical insurance if they have pre-existing health conditions—trumping ALL voters. Even though forcing healthcare companies to accept people with pre-existing conditions favored 60% of the population, their will may be ignored. Similarly 60% of the people support Roe v Wade insuring the rights of women to an abortion---another support to be adjudicated by judges who have been hand-picked for their resistance to the law,

Great wealth simply bypasses the inconvenience of a legislature. Why should DuPont or Monsanto  have to worry about the environment? Why can’t they dump whatever they want in the water, in the air, in the ground, in the soil? It makes money. It makes sense. It puts people to work, they argue. They also threaten and shorten the lives of others, which is to say that it should be an issue of great public debate and careful decision making. As it is, the anti-government force and pressure of the corporate financial sector is directly related to government’s ability to frustrate their attempts to gain more power and wealth.

This is our world, and we have to see it clearly. This is the world that has always been and we have to see it clearly. We also have to decide how we will move through it. What our guidepost and safety cables will require of us. And the most reliable way I know to address these questions, before we open our mouths, is to meditate on them. If we are going to be of use to people and not simply fan the flames of discord and anger. That’s the part of zazen and meditation that interests me. It’s not to win some special heavenly state for myself. It’s to make myself more useful to life itself. To preserve and foster the environment that supports life.(And language throws us a curve here, because there is no division, except in language, between the environment and life itself.) Because as things condense socially, like a dark star cooling becoming more and more dense before it re-explodes, people who see things clearly and can control of their anger, their envy, their rage, their jealousy, people who are calm and relaxed, are going to be critically important in times of pandemonium, in times rife with falsehoods and distrust.

That’s why I teach meditation. That’s why I try to encourage people that theire state of mind is not just a personal possession. Our state of mind is often induced by circumstances over which we have no control. But we do have control over  one thing in the Universe and that is our intention.We do have control over our posture and where we place our attention.

It’s helpful to allow Facebook, our cellphones, Twitter or Instagram to snag our attention whenever they want and for their own ends, subsuming us in a system based on offering our attention to corporations in ways that we are not aware of.

So, I would urge people to see this film, The Social Dilemma, on Netflix. But more importantly I would urge everybody to take their meditating seriously as the antidote to the kind of manipulation of advertising, snagging our attention, fostering manipulative slogans which are linked to our desires for growth and health (and buying products)— “be all you can be” –(another way of saying “make of yourself something that advertisers can use”).

To contact our own wild mind, our own authentic intuitions and impulses is our only ballast against the commercial storms raging around us seeking to organize us for the purposes of others. There is this sack of skin ‘we’ inhabit. Buddhists refer to it as “the Guest” because it comes and goes. But the Host inside is not our personal property. It is awareness itself, the screen on which our thoughts are projected. It was here before us and continues after us. We might describe it as a universal energy, read by different beings at different wave-lengths, because it is obvious that it is shared by animals, by bird, and by insects.\.  We owe it our respect and ignore it at our peril.

No one thinks too much about the screen in a movie theater, but because we understand that it is a screen, virtually without qualities, even if our thought of it is subliminal, we can watch every kind of movie on it, understanding that they are projections. Our respect for our own minds, means caring for them, understanding the difference between the processes of the mind and the Mind itself. Refusing to let it be snagged and put to uses by others. We want to be the boss of everything, which is to say placing ourselves under the control of the universe which will speak to us through our intuitions. To be the boss of things involves deciding where to place our awareness and protecting it from undue influence, seductions, blandishments, manipulations. It’s difficult because we inhabit a media bramble dedicated to snagging and refocusding our attention. We are surrounded..

I read somewhere that by the time children are 14 or 15 years old, they’ve seen a billion advertisements, and each of those advertisements represents a carefully crafted world view. A view of what men and women should look like, what their social ideals and tastes should be, what they should want and how they should look. If we don’t have a way of neutralizing those messages, and dropping below the level of our personality, our Small Mind—which is the target of all those entreaties and suggestions, we are in trouble. It helps to remember that we are directly plugged into the formlessness that assumes the forms of hummingbirds, dolphins, mountain ranges, nebulas…and … Donald Trump. Anything can emerge from formlessness.

If we forget that that,we are skidding down a slope to become victims..

So, maybe that’s enough for today. I’m really glad that everybody shows up. I’m flattered. I’m not trying to be a bummer here, but when you consider your awareness being as precious as gold, then you will have an image of how voraciously people are seeking it, and you might want to practice guarding and attending it.

Thank you very much.

I’ll say the Metta prayer. I invite you to join me.

May all beings be filled with lovingkindness.

May all beings be free from suffering.

May all beings be happy and at peace. [3 times] [bow]

I wish everyone a really good day. Thank you for coming, and hopefully, I’ll see you next week. Bye bye.