The Blame Game

I’ve recently watched Dan Snow’s latest expedition, to travel down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in three boats from the late 19th century, just as Powell did. It was a really interesting show (not just because of the equally gorgeous and intelligent Mr Snow) that not only demonstrated the awesome power of the elements, but also those of human nature.

Each boat has three people in it – an experienced helmsman, an experienced boatman and a novice. The three novices were Dan, Mike (you may know him from Springwwatch) and another chap whose name eludes me – historian, ecologist and geologist respectively. They all had to work together as a team to see it through to the end – 18 days of incredible physical and mental challenge amidst one of the world’s most beautiful and dangerous environments.

Each person had to pull their own weight, despite their experience, and each person did so without fail.  They all tried their hardest and it was inspiring to see. What was not so inspiring was another aspect of human nature that arose from one of the boats – namely, the blame game.

In one of the three boats, Mike was having a harder time than the other novices. Whether that was simply his lack of skill and learning, or insufficient support and teaching from his colleagues, is up for debate – we could not see everything that happened in this edited television show. What I did see however, was an aspect of human nature that really opened up my eyes not only to how other people treat each other, but how I’ve treated others in the past as well.

It started with the “expert whitewater kayaker” beginning to complain to the camera about Mike and his lack of ability. It would seem that instead of taking extra time to help the novice and support him, he would rather complain to the camera away from the group.  He blamed Mike for the difficulty their boat was having in the rapids. However, what we all saw was at the first set of rapids, the kayaker falling out of his seat pretty much at the first bump. Whether this started off something in his mind that needed to help him save face, changing the focus from his own inability, mistake or accident, and blaming someone else for it we can never know for certain. It certainly appeared that way to me.

Since then, he complained on several occasions to the camera in isolation.  Then his helmsman made a mistake, taking the boat down backwards in the hopes of having better steering in one section of rapids.  The boat that went through before managed it. I’m not an experienced boatman, but I could see in those churning waters that the oar would snap like a twig if caught on a rock, which it did. After that, the helmsman began to complain to the camera as well about Mike, who was simply doing his best to row and keep the boat going straight and bail when he needed to – there really was nothing else he could do. At one point we saw the helmsman shout at Mike to bail, and Mike’s pail got caught up in part of the boat’s rigging – not that it would have mattered, for bailing in the middle of those rapids was, to me, pointless – the boat was already full at and the mercy of the river. Mike began bailing as fast as he could, but another wave just crashed right in. He would have been better off rowing, but he still got yelled at.

This all made me very uncomfortable.  I hate seeing people getting picked on when they are trying their best. But I was also inspired by Dan’s boat, which seemed to have some sort of Zen Master at the helm.  This chap was brilliant – he was so calm, so peaceful, never shouting orders and seeming at one with the river – when he took his boat down the rapids, he steered it down the path of least resistance, without effort. A beautiful thing to witness. Soft spoken and mild-mannered, and an accomplished musician, his calming influence was a gentle reminder to me to keep my Zen on and have compassion, even for those who were irritating the hell out of me on the show.

That’s not to say that the Zen Master Helmsman’s boat didn’t make any mistakes.  His boat came the closest to capsizing in one of the most difficult rapids.  They didn’t make the line they were going for down between the rocks, and got swept away down a fast sluice heading straight towards the canyon’s rock walls. His oar got ripped from his hands in the roiling water, and they were at the mercy of the river.  The other helmsman would have shouted his head off at this point, but Zen Master Helmsman kept his cool – it was a beautiful thing to behold.  He had lost his oar, all manner of steering, and the boat swept into the curve of the canyon (you can see it on the video).  The boat kept to the curve, the water sweeping it close but not up against the canyon wall. Then the boat began to tip over on its right side. Dan lost his seat and fell into the right side wall, nearly out of the boat. ZMH calmly reached for the left side of the boat, push against it with his body weight, counterbalancing the tipping boat, and it righted itself. You can’t hear it on the video, but he was also calmly talking and encouraging his fellow crewman throughout, saying “Stay calm, just stay in the boat, take it easy”. They made it through, without yelling, without panic, without blame.

Everyone makes mistakes. With three people in a boat, you cannot blame one person for the boat going wrong. Everyone is in it, working together to try and go in the same direction.  There are so many variables that to blame one person it pointless. Staying calm, looking out for your crew members and acting with compassion is the way forward. By observing this, the three simply followed the river’s flow. There was nothing else they could do, so why increase suffering?

Compassion is all about reducing your suffering. The two complainers in the other boat did not seem to grasp this.  Instead of helping they made things worse. I hate to think what would have happened had it been their boat that nearly capsized. However, their boat did not escape unscathed of a terrifying experience.

On the next section of these last, and most dangerous rapids, Mike’s boat lost their helmsman as he was washed away in a giant wall of water that hit the boat.  No one’s fault – you cannot blame crew or wave or river any more than you can blame the sun for shining.   The helmsman managed to hang onto his oar under the water, and pull himself back to the boat, floating down the rest of the rapids with it, finally being pulled back into the boat at the first opportunity.  This was the changing point for that crew.

The fragility of human existence hits hard when confronted with the very sudden realisation that you or someone you know could have died in a certain experience or circumstance.  This realisation did indeed hit Mike hard, as we saw when the camera was on him when they were on the beach after these rapids – he was brought to tears by the whole experience.  It also brought the crew together – the kayaker who originally tried to blame Mike for everything saw Mike’s suffering, and came up to give him a hug.  Petty blame games mean nothing when you realise just how precious and precarious life really is. Alleviating suffering is much more conducive to peace than creating more suffering in this lifetime.

What I realised from this show is that blaming people does not solve anything. It does not even make you feel better – it increases your own suffering, because everything that person does upsets or annoys you from then on. Also, when you blame someone, you instantly block out any form of objectiveness in the situation.  You have established a truth for yourself that blinds you to seeing the bigger picture. Believing in this truth is dangerous. Believing that one person is wrong and that you are right is what has caused innumerable amounts of suffering in the world. Opening your heart and mind in compassion, in trying to see the bigger picture and in trying to make the world a better place would be far more beneficial to all.

I looked back at the times in my life when I had played the blame game, making others the culprit for everything that had gone wrong. Like those boats in the river, there were so many variables that one person could not be responsible for everything.  The only thing we can be responsible for is ourselves in this life.  If we try to help others instead of break them down, if we see our own failings before we blame others, we might change our behaviour into something that is more compassionate.

Driving to the RSPCA today to visit a cat that I am adopting, I was cut off by a car speeding in a residential area.  My reaction to it was simply to keep driving, and hope that the person in the speeding car finds peace within him or herself that could be reflected in their driving.  Getting mad at the other driver would not solve anything except to make me suffer. (On the way home, I did see that they are now installing speed cameras along that stretch of road, for which I am glad).

We all make mistakes.  We can blame others for what we perceive to have gone wrong with our lives.  Or we can simply get on with making this world a better place, communicating with compassion towards everyone, even our enemies. We may then realise that we do not have enemies in the first place.  We can even wallow in guilt, blaming ourselves for everything that has gone wrong instead of working out best to improve the situation – I know which I would rather engage with.  We stand strong, we act responsibly – like ZMH we have the ability to respond to a crisis situation with calmness and grace, even when faced by enormous odds and potential life-threatening situations. We are all simply boats on a river, either working together or alone to stay afloat, at the mercy of the elements and each other.

I am taking a leaf out of Zen Master Helmsman’s book.  He was a total dude.

(To see more videos and read more about the expedition, see the BBC Blogs here:

Defeating the Goblin King

I’m a big David Bowie fan, after having fallen in love with him as a young teenager, watching Jim Henson’s film, Labyrinth. He played the Goblin King, a creature who was used to getting things his own way – he was all powerful, and the Labyrinth was his to control. Or so he thought.

It’s a wonderful tale, of a young girl coming into adolescence, of learning that life is not always what it seems, and that life is unfair. It’s also about making friendships along the way, about being kind and also familial obligations. There are so many ways to interpret the film, and I thought to look at it from a Zen point of view. It was interesting.

Our thoughts often control us, without our even realising it. These thoughts, these intangible things, have so much power over our lives. We believe in our thoughts so much, and hold to them so much. We hold on so tightly to our thoughts, and to ourselves. Who would we be without our thoughts?

Yet in Zen we try to realise the control that our thoughts have over us, by acknowledging them, by becoming the observer. Bit by bit, as we sit in meditation and go through our daily lives, we begin to see patterns emerging. We may have a thought about ourselves – I’m artistic. We tell everyone that, reinforcing that thought. Yet that is not all that we are – we may be good with animals, gardening, maths, etc. The repetitive thoughts, the ones that we say over and over again to ourselves, become a reality for us. Yet they are still thoughts, not reality. There is no substance to them.

Of course, not all thoughts are bad. We need to think, to work out problems, to get out of bed in the morning even. It is in the attachment to the thoughts that gives them a false substance, a false reality. It also can give us great pleasure, living in this fantasy land of our thoughts – it means the hardships of real life cannot affect us there. We are safe, in the bubble of our thoughts.

Most of us spend a lot of time being controlled by our thoughts – we never even realise it. Much like Sarah, the protagonist in the film, was being controlled by the Jareth, the Goblin King without her knowledge, we aren’t even aware of the power that they hold over us. They make us run around in circles, not getting anywhere, simply thinking, thinking, thinking – where is the doing? Where is the experience? We get angry at someone, and have a thought about that. Then we attach to that thought, and it can affect us for the rest of the day, week, year, or our entire lives. We all have emotional responses to situations, and thoughts about everything – but the attachment to them is where stumble and fall on each and every step. There is no progress – we’ve fallen down the oubliette of our thoughts until we are completely trapped in a small, dark and confined space.

Instead of simply experiencing the anger and then letting it go, we’ve become a prisoner of our thoughts about the situation. And all the while, the Goblin King laughs to himself, safe in his tower, loving to watch us run around in circles as the sands of time run out.

When we sit in zazen, however, we begin to notice our thoughts, our patterns of behaviour. By being the observer, we can take a step back from our thoughts and look at them without attaching to them. We can see the physical manifestations of them in our body as well – a contraction in our jaw, the hunching of our shoulders, our heart beating faster. By becoming aware, of thoughts, and indeed, of all our surroundings, we are better able to respond to situations than before. Sarah didn’t see through the illusion for a long time in the film – even though she was reminded by other characters, time and again, that nothing is what it seems. Slowly though, the illusion wavered, and the cracks in the false reality began to show. The bubble was broken, and Sarah was somewhat freed, for a time. When she finally saw through the illusion fully, and took the great leap into the unknown, literally and figuratively, that’s when she was able to come face to face with the Goblin King himself, to bring him out of hiding and face him in a final battle.

So, after much practice in zazen, after much meditation and time spent being the observer to all the thoughts that run around in our head, without getting caught up in them, we face them down. We say “enough” – we are not going to be controlled by them any longer. We see the thoughts for what they are. The thoughts fight back, with everything that they’ve got – Jareth holds out the most potent, alluring thing that we all hold so dear – our dreams. He offers them to Sarah, but Sarah now sees through the false reality. She then recites the final lines from her book back to the Goblin King, saying the powerful, magical words that will defeat him.

“Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the Goblin City, to take back the child that you have stolen. For my will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom is as great. You have no power over me.”

Those six words – “you have no power over me” is what can release us from the labyrinth of our minds, from the traps that our thoughts can create when we attach to them. We suddenly become free, to experience, to return to our pure self, to break loose of the chains and to truly live life to the fullest.

So, the next time we fall into despair, wishing our lives were different, we can simply say those six words – you have no power over me. When our minds are rushing around as we try to meditate, we simply observe them without getting caught up in them, and repeat you have no power over me. When someone says something nasty to us, we feel the emotion, we react (hopefully with compassion) and then we let the experience go, without attaching to it, simply by saying you have no power over me.

Then and only then can the Goblin King be defeated, and we freed from the labyrinth of our minds.

Though, I must admit, I’m sure some of us would prefer to stay in there with David Bowie 😉

The Myth of the Moral Highground

Is there such a thing as a moral highground?  I have heard people say that they can accept certain people’s behaviour, on the basis that they “are a better person”.  They have chosen their beliefs in themselves, their faith, whatever, and made a judgement call as to who is a better person.  But then, who is a better person above them? And above them? Isn’t it all about perspective anyway?

Believing that we are better than someone else is a falsity and a tragedy, in my opinion.  It can lead to all sorts of destructive behaviour, from bullying to arrogance to war.  Passing a homeless drug addict in the street – do you believe that you are better than that person? Finding out about someone’s infidelity – does that make you a better person? Working for charities, donating time and money – does that make you a better person?

Do you think Mother Theresa thought she was better than the rest of us by doing what she did? I hardly think so.

We all make mistakes. We all have moments of enlightenment, and moments of dark despair. Our lives have happiness and tragedy in them.  Yet claiming that we are better than someone else is simply to say that our circumstances are better than theirs – and circumstances can change on a dime.  As a noun, the dictionary defines circumstance as “a condition, detail, part, or attribute, with respect to time, place, manner, agent, etc., that accompanies, determines, or modifies a fact or event; a modifying or influencing factor: Do not judge his behaviour without considering every circumstance”.  We cannot even consider every circumstance, for we are in no way omniscient. We could become the homeless drug addict, and then where has the better person gone?

We are all on a level playing field.  The search for a moral highground is like looking for the Holy Grail.  All that each person can do is simply to do the best that they can at any given point in time. Sometimes their best may not be all that “good”, whether the person has had moments of enlightenment or not.  Yet to judge ourselves against others only separates us further from others, which leads to an Us and Them mentality, in which horrendous things can occur such as war.

Surely we need morals to follow, else anarchy would reign?  For the most part, most people naturally want to do “good”.  Morals are constantly changing as well, as are opinions – else women would still be the property of their husbands, African Americans would still be relegated to the back of the bus and Britain would be ruled by the Christian Church. Trying to gain the moral highground on a level playing field just doesn’t work – you’d simply be jumping up and down trying to get above everyone else, and yet gravity would bring you back down each time.

Realising that no one is better than anyone else is the key to living a happier life, for you and everyone around you.  People who think that they are better may fall into destructive patterns.  They may not realise that by blowing out someone else’s candle, it doesn’t make theirs burn all the brighter.

Yet there is nothing wrong with living a life of discipline, and of trying to better oneself – to be more aware of one’s own patterns of behaviour.  If we accept that we are only doing the best we can at this point in time, there’s nothing to say that we can’t do better in the future. But we shouldn’t strive to do or be better than other people.  The work should be done on ourselves, with the realisation that the thinking behind “I am better than her” does not make you better, and can, indeed, make you worse.  It is simply putting one’s self onto a pedestal to gain the moral highground, and anyone can fall off the pedestal easily.  I know that the next time I find myself thinking that, I am going to step off my pedestal and get back to the level playing field, where I can look everyone in the eye and see that we are only doing as we can, and just to do the best that I personally can, which is no better than anyone around me.

Animals or individuals? The Human Arrogance…

BBC News published an article on dolphins recently, explaining the point of view that some scientists have come to conclude  that dolphins and whales are “people” and should be given rights as individuals. See the article here –

Reading this article provoked conflicting emotions within me – both happiness that finally some people are starting to catch on, and anger at the continuing human arrogance and ignorance that is our perpetual state of being for the majority of humankind.

The exceeding arrogance, that we as human animals, determine whether an animal is “sufficiently intelligent” just rocks me to my very core.  As an animist, I see and hear, I acknowledge, with respect, the soul song, the physical manifestation of every living thing in as much as I can with total awareness – I’m not perfect, but I usually catch myself out when I find I am lacking.  That this outmoded and outdated worldview still exists today, coming from philosophies and religions that place humankind at the top of some existential hierarchy makes me want to scream my outrage at the complete and utter stupidity of it all.

“It is based on years of research that has shown dolphins and whales have large, complex brains and a human-like level of self-awareness. This has led the experts to conclude that although non-human, dolphins and whales are “people” in a philosophical sense, which has far-reaching implications.” What I want to know is why we are always comparing other animals to our own selves, our own brains and ideas about self-awareness, especially using really really old philosophy that maybe, just maybe, needs to be rethought? How limiting is that – to compare all animals to our own humanity? Sounds primitive, totally ridiculous – reminds me of the saying “Dogs think they’re human, cats think they’re Gods”.  If we are so damned self-aware, why can we not recognise that this ability may be in other animals as well – we just don’t see it, we can’t find the “place in the brain” or the trigger cues, such as the mirror test mentioned in the article, because we are lacking in sufficient knowledge to see or find it.

My point is made clear in Dr Marino’s statement in the article –  “We went from seeing the dolphin/whale brain as being a giant amorphous blob that doesn’t carry a lot of intelligence and complexity to not only being an enormous brain but an enormous brain with an enormous amount of complexity, and a complexity that rivals our own.” We failed to recognise something, and so we discounted it – what we don’t understand, we throw away, ignore, or worse – we demean it.  And the icing on the cake? Believing that we are special, that we have enormously complex brains that make us different.  How about we just have different brains?  We can’t say for 100% that other animals don’t have complex brains – they may just use them differently.  We cannot compare apples to oranges.  And that also raises the question – what of all the livings things that don’t have brains?

It is interesting to hear Ethics Professor, Tom White, discussing at what point we needs to step in to defend what we see as equal to our own self.   He defined dolphins as “non-human persons”, stating that “a person needs to be an individual. If individuals count, then the deliberate killing of individuals of this sort is ethically the equivalent of deliberately killing a human being”.

Does a person have to be an individual to count?  What are the criteria? Is it universal? Why?

In an interesting related article, five Killer Whales are sueing Seaworld on slavery charges – full article here Interestingly, one of the whales in on the plaintiff’s side is also a murderer – he killed his trainer in a show, and has been linked to two other deaths .  Clearly, he is not a happy bunny, so to speak – that or he is demonstrating his natural song, to kill things seal-size (note he did not eat them, however, as he would have a seal – could we taste that bad, or is this demonstrative behaviour against slavery?) If we see him as a person, could we then charge him with murder?  The icing on the cake, is the trainer’s opinion on the matter to put him back in the shows still (with the trainers safely behind steel bars where they can’t be harmed – yet). “ Participating in shows is just a portion of Tilikum’s day, but we feel it is an important component of his physical, social and mental enrichment,” he said in a statement. Once again, human arrogance and ignorance rears its ugly, ugly head. That, and the whale makes a killing financially for Seaworld (pun intended, with all due respect to the family of the dead trainer and two others victims).

When are we going to wake up and smell the proverbial coffee? When are we going to admit that we are not smarter, cleverer, or the dominant species in a world that is so rich and vast with other living beings?  When are we going to admit to ourselves that we don’t know everything, that we can’t really even know anything?  This has really got me thinking – it is even okay to ride horses?  In my love of horse riding, have I been ignorant too?  I have never ridden a horse that, from what I can tell, doesn’t want to be ridden – I learned my lesson from a temperamental Arab mare who threw me off whenever she just wanted to be left alone.  But what of the others who were not so overt in their opinions? Does that cat really want to be picked up an cuddled?  Do those dogs really enjoy pulling that sled?

How much longer can we all be complicit in our arrogance and ignorance?