Constant patterns of light
THEY JUST NEVER MEANT VERY MUCH TO US
By David Edwards
Samples From An Ocean Of SufferingIn 1992 a group of neuroscientists travelled to India to research the effects of meditation. In the mountains above Dharamsala, the scientists spent time with a young monk who had been meditating intensively for six years. Richard Davidson, a psychobiologist from the University of Wisconsin, had done pioneering work correlating minute shifts in facial expression with emotions. He explained to the monk that he would be shown a video of Tibetan demonstrators being beaten by Chinese security forces. His face would simultaneously be videoed to record any reactions. Writer Alan Wallace described the result:
"As the monk watched the video, we didn't detect any change of expression in his face at all, no grimace, no shudder, no expression of sadness." (Wallace, Buddhism With An Attitude, Snow Lion Publications, 2001, p.176)
The monk was asked to describe his experience while watching the video. He replied:
"I didn't see anything that I didn't already know goes on all the time, not only in Tibet but throughout the world. I am aware of this constantly."
It was not that the monk failed to experience compassion while watching these brutal scenes, Wallace explains: "He was aware that he was simply being shown a video - patterns of light - representing events that took place long ago. But this suffering was simply one episode in the overall suffering of samsara [existence], of which he was constantly aware. Hence, while looking out over the ocean of suffering, he didn't feel anything extraordinary when he was shown a picture of a glass of water". (Email to author, July 15, 2005)
This account came to mind when I saw the response to the July 7 terrorist atrocities in London. In the video experiment, the monk's mind was so steeped in compassion that his expression did not change at all even when he saw images of his own people being brutalised. So what does it tell us that so many British people were so deeply shaken by the suffering of their fellow citizens?After all, have we not been reading and watching endless accounts and footage of near-identical horrors in Iraq and Palestine on mainstream and internet-based media over the last few years? The suffering of the Iraqi people, for example, is almost beyond belief. When the West again blitzed Baghdad in March 2003, this followed years of war and sanctions that had shattered the country's infrastructure. The population again being bombed had already had to endure the deaths of literally hundreds of thousands of children from malnutrition, water-borne diseases and other horrors caused by US-UK sanctions. This truly was suffering heaped on suffering.
Howard Zinn made the point after the September 11 attacks:
"One of the things that occurred to me, after I had gotten over my initial reaction of shock and horror at what had been done, was that other scenes of horror have taken place in other parts of the world and they just never meant very much to us." (Zinn, Terror And War, Open Media Book, 2002, p.90)
One Second Per DeathI don't believe this comparative indifference is hard-wired into human nature. The truth is that we are trained to value the lives of our countrymen more highly by a socio-political system that has much to gain from a restricted, patriotic version of compassion, and much to lose from an excess of popular concern for suffering inflicted on 'foreigners' by our governments and corporations.
continued... Media Lens