This talk was delivered at the annual Deep Green Resistance conference, in California, 2023. The talk can be viewed on YouTube here. If you like this talk, please consider donating to my PayPal using the address firstname.lastname@example.org — I am currently fundraising to purchase a flight home. You can also buy my Brief Complete Herstory e-book here. Thank you!
I’m going to talk on one of my favourite themes, which is the “silver-tongued devil.” Indian philosopher Krishnamurti warned us about him with a story he told during a lecture:
The devil and a friend of his were walking down the street and they saw a man ahead stoop down and pick up something from the road. And as he picked it up and looked at it he was very startled, there was a great delight in his face. And the friend of the devil asked what was it that he picked up and the devil said, “It’s truth.” And the friend said, “Isn’t that a very bad business for you then?” The devil said, “Not at all, I am going to help him to organise it.”
It’s my belief that Krishnamurti’s story perfectly illustrates how politics works. Politics does not rely nearly as much on lies and fabrications as on reorganisation and distortion of the truth, particularly the truths that human beings long to reconnect with most deeply. This is a theme of my book, Out of the Fog, published last year by Spinifex Press.
I’m going to discuss three main aspects to distortion: first, the truths that are distorted; second, how they are distorted or re-organised, by what mechanism; and third, why this is important; why we should care. In particular, why is this topic relevant to the critically minded, and activists engaging in risk, strategy, sacrifice, and coping with loss –of friends, networks, prospects, financial security; and also coping with fear and fatigue. We all know activism – these days, even having a personal opinion – can lead to all of that.
Firstly the truths that are distorted. What truth might the devil get excited about re-organising? First let’s look at the political landscape.
There, it would appear that all human values have been organised and distributed a bit like a bag of mixed candies divided between children at a birthday party. Each child gets a selection roughly equivalent in size and sweetness to the others, so that there won’t be any arguments or fights.
Conservatives have family values, alongside the notion of responsibility, which of course in a conservative worldview translates to what we call ‘bootstraps thinking’, telling those who struggle to pick themselves up by the bootstraps.
Liberalism has two values roughly equal in size, shape and sweetness in its candy bag, because that way there will be no arguments. Liberalism is also nothing if not a rejection of conservative values, so they speak for the individual in place of the family, and for freedom instead of responsibility.
Then the left, as in the socialist and communist anti-capitalist left, promotes the collective, specifically the combined interests of the underdog or oppressed classes, and solidarity.
Let’s say every piece of candy is a truth or aspect of life –family, the individual, the collective, freedom, responsibility, solidarity. The devil re-organises each truth using a specific mechanism: called identification, which can be understood best, I think, through yogic philosophy.
The Sanskrit word for identification is ahamkara, literally translated to I-maker, since identifications are how we construct a self in the world. There are two other main components of mind in the yogic system: buddhi, and manas. I want to focus on ahamkara, identification, and buddhi today.
Buddhi is often translated to wisdom or intellect, but to me the best word is discernment. Buddhi is your ability to effortlessly discern between the knife, a carrot and your fingers when you are chopping vegetables. Discernment without judgement.
Through observation, yogis discovered an interesting thing about how ahamkara, identification, and buddhi, discernment interact. Intellect follows identification like a slave follows its master. Sadhguru, perhaps the most influential yogi alive, explains:
The way you’re identified, that is the way your intellect will function … if you say: ‘I belong to this nation’, your intellect will function just to protect that identity. If you say, ‘I belong to this religion’, or race, or caste, or creed, or gender, or whatever – your intellect functions accordingly, because intellect is essentially … a survival process. If you identify with something, intellect will constantly go around … trying to protect that identity.
… intellect is a slave of the identity that you have taken. And what is right for [according to] you, what is wrong for you, everything is dependent on how you’re identified.
Our identifications, ahamkara, are established by way of samskaras, moments of intense emotional shock. In a patriarchal culture the shock happens through two main types of vulnerability: the natural vulnerability of childhood that makes us all subject to cultural conditioning from infancy; and the imposed vulnerability of assault, particularly rape.
Living in a rape culture teaches men masculine identification and dominance, and women that for me to be okay, he has to be okay first, or else he may be a threat. There is a basic pattern of male identification in our culture. We don’t build a world from scratch with it; we learn to look at the world through the lens of this identification. We reorganise the perceivable world.
Going back to those political values, to the conservative, liberal and leftist values of the family, the individual, and the collective, terms that really just reflect aspects of life.
Add ahamkara or identification to each. Take the idea of the family, a benign reality, and mix in male identification, and you end up with what political conservatives really mean when they talk about family values. They mean to advocate for the male householder.
Then take the idea of the individual, and add in the primary identifications of liberalism, which is the ideology that sustains capitalism. You get the interests of the individual, male, entrepreneur or free marketeer who doesn’t want to be limited by conservative rules and constraints.
Of course, liberalism, being so welded to capitalism cannot really promote individual freedom at all – the image most often used to convey the realities of capitalism is that of a machine that renders each of us cogs, and while subjecting us to this common condition nevertheless alienates every individual cog. That is antithetical to self actualisation, and individual freedom.
And while the left has always apparently cared for the needs and rights of the oppressed classes, it is becoming more and more apparent today, in a world where it is leftists who constantly harass feminists and women in general for our resistance to transgender ideology, that the left’s primary identification is with the male underdog.
How about those twin values of responsibility and freedom, one supposedly conservative, the other liberal. I’ll turn again to yoga. Barbara Stoler Miller’s translation of the Yoga Sutras is subtitled, The Discipline of Freedom. I like it because it conveys very simply how responsibility and freedom are actually not even distinct. They are one and the same.
Let’s say I am completely and utterly free; no one is imposing themselves on me; nobody is telling me what to do. The first most immediate implication is that I am 100% responsible for my actions. Every step I take, I’m accountable for. This is why many people fear freedom. Being basically synonymous with responsibility, freedom is daunting. You can’t claim freedom without claiming responsibility.
In my view, if you strip freedom and responsibility of the male identification they acquire in the political landscape, you get yoga, which is to say, the art and practice of taking each step of your life consciously, purposefully.
I want to look at two more related examples of distortion from the realm of religion and spirituality – the concepts of selflessness and surrender, two themes that recur in almost every piece of scripture you could find, and two of the devil’s favourites.
Within feminism, in a sort of catch-22, the liberal promotion of the individual self is looked at with suspicion, but the spiritual idea of ‘selflessness’ is also suspect. Caring for yourself as an individual is selfish and politically irresponsible; trying to be selfless is a patriarchal trap. Wherever selflessness is promoted fervently, you can bet women are expected to embody it by losing not only their autonomy but their bodies, safety and lives to men. That is what selflessness looks like, when it has been reorganised by the devil using the mechanism of male identification.
But the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh summed up the validity of selflessness in one line: “I am made only of non-me elements”. We are each composed of earth material and a miraculous spark of consciousness that must be bigger than us since we did not invent it ourselves.
Author Stephen Cope likes to illustrate self and selflessness using the story of Indra’s net. The Indian God Indra lived high on Mount Nehru, and from there cast a net over the universe. At every intersection of the wharp and whoof of his net is a jewel – that jewel represents dharma. To act according to your dharma is uphold your part of the net. Dharma is how personal fulfilment and the net, the collective interest overlap; how selflessness, and self-actualisation, meet.
Which leads to surrender. In a military or an activist setting, the word sounds like capitulation, like giving up. According to Stephen Cope, in the Bhagavad Gita, surrender means the “surrender of the small, idiosyncratic self into the whole.” Writing on Islam, Karen Armstrong says: “The word islam means ‘surrender’ and this is first and foremost a surrender of the ego.”
The ego’s primary habits are wanting, controlling, trying and fixing, under the influence of societally imposed identifications. Surrender means relinquishing these habits, which does not amount to curling up in a ball on the floor. Surrender is courageous.
It means accepting our place in Indra’s net, and allowing ourselves to take the actions that follow, that howl to be taken from that position, even though as Paulo Freire warned, those actions may threaten our social position and render us culturally unviable. The Tao te Ching says:
The Master gives himself up
to whatever the moment brings …
He doesn’t think about his actions;
they flow from the core of his being.
That core is the jewel in Indra’s net, the whole of which informs our actions. Meaning individual freedom can’t be placed above common interest without becoming hollow. There is no freedom outside of Indra’s net.
But equally, the collective interest cannot be served by those who devalue individual freedom. The heart wants freedom – primarily, freedom from the tyranny of identification. It saps energy to deny that longing.
Secondly, collectives cannot operate effectively when their individual members are over dependent on the group, using it to avoid experiencing aloneness. We are each born alone and we die alone; life involves solitude. When we avoid this solitude, and fear it, using the group for cover, we will also avoid the sort of independent critical thinking that might threaten our place in the group, and the group suffers. It becomes internally dysfunctional and toxic, full of insecurity and blaming, and what it conveys to the outside world will be politically dull, uncreative and quote-unquote ‘safe’.
In short, in the real world, the individual and group cannot be separated – just like the jewels and strands of Indra’s net. The self and the whole cannot be divided; responsibility and freedom cannot be divided. These are not values to pick and choose from, and can’t really be distributed like candy between party bags, without us dividing and sabotaging ourselves.
All this matters because when the silver-tongued devil reorganises the truth and speaks it, there are two obvious responses. One is to swallow his account, hook line and sinker, and be manipulated. The other is to recognise the devil is speaking and so reject everything he says. He wins in both cases. In the first case, you took the truth and the devil’s agenda with it. In the second case, to reject the devil’s agenda, you also rejected the truth. That may satisfy him well enough.
Sometimes we even define ourselves in opposition or as an exact mirror image of what our political opponents say. If I don’t like liberals and postmodernists, and they emphasise subjectivity; I will promote objectivity. If they say individual, I say collective. If they say freedom, I say struggle.
If liberals and postmodernists look at life and see indeterminacy and impermanence, I may double down on materialism and cold facts. In reaction to an opponent, I might make out like I am a hard materialist: even though I know, as Lierre Keith writes in Bright Green Lies: “we are none of us frozen objects.”
In a world of silver-tongued devils, we should be careful not to reject truths or values, but instead, question identifications. Who is promoting this idea? Of indeterminacy and impermanence, or of materialism and absolutes? Of freedom, or responsibility? Of kindness, love, and inclusion, or of assertiveness, and boundary setting? Of selflessness or self? Of surrender, or resistance? What are their identifications? Are those apparent in the way that truth is being reorganised and expressed?
And what happens if we experiment with extracting identification from the rhetoric we are hearing, to see if what is left simply reflects an aspect of reality that the human soul longs to reconnect with while the devil wants to help?
In Krishnamurti’s story, the man who finds truth on the road was startled, then his face lit up. That has been my experience with truth. In a world that needs us fragmented, the process of rediscovering truth and reassembling ourselves is enlivening.
And I think that despite his clever rhetoric, this is what the devil doesn’t like. He doesn’t really care what that man who found something precious on the road really thinks, or what we think. He just doesn’t want us feeling whole, alive, ready to take our place in Indra’s net, and act accordingly. I think that’s where the trouble starts for him.