Recently in the news I noticed a headline which suggested that cheap booze is killing people in the UK. The claim was being made by an official of the medical profession. Put this alongside the focus, last year, on the "epidemic" of obesity which claims that obesity is the number one health issue in the UK today, and the problem is cheap poor quality food. What do these two stories have in common? I think it it this: that eating and drinking are not involuntary but voluntary. But the news is telling us that we are not responsible for what we put in our mouths, that the fact that fatty foods and booze are cheap is what is causing the problem.
I consider that the main job of the media is entertainment. This is the only explanation for the choice of news stories, or at least the choice of which stories to give prominence. The front page and the lead story are always the one that will get the biggest emotional response from the audience. Since anger and fear are more easily provoked, and often more intensely felt, than other emotions, these are the ones they go for. There is even micro-targeting for what will outrage the target market so that papers will highlight different stories that will outrage their demographic.
So I never assume that anything is being reported for the information content, but only for its ability to rouse emotions. Which is why I seldom comment on the media, current events, or politics. But I see a trend here which is worth looking at. I think it does reflect an attitude in the UK, if not elsewhere, that are counter productive.
If I am fat then chances are I eat too much. I allow for some people having genetic disorders, and genuine medical problems, but the fact is that most people who are over-weight eat the wrong kind of food, and too much of it. Combined with lack of sufficient exercise, that is the obesity problem. It is true that fatty foods, and processed foods are often cheap, but this is not to say that good food is unaffordable. Most people have the choice, but they simply do not exercise it. Why? Well I think part of it is that we are being trained to think that we are not responsible for our actions. If the media constantly presents obesity as a problem of cheap fatty food, instead of greedy, undiscerning eaters then we start to think: "I'm not responsible". Similarly if I drink heavily it is not because there is cheap booze. It is because I choose to drink heavily. There may well be reasons behind that, but it is my choice. The attitude of not being responsible is fostered in the UK by ever increasing amounts of legislation and regulation which are aimed to prevent problems caused by not taking responsibility. The main area is what's called Health and Safety. Because of the large number of accidents in the workplace a series of measures have been implemented to stop people doing things which might result in accidents. And because you can't legislate against stupidity or unmindfulness, the rules try to make the world safe for stupid or unmindful people. In fact if you operate a workplace in the UK you have to assume that your employees and customers are very stupid and not at all mindful. This lowest common denominator has become the norm. The result is wasteful and infantilising. It seems to have encouraged the notion that safety is someone else's responsibility rather than that my safety is my responsibility. Now it may be argued that unscrupulous people put others at risk and that employees especially need to be protected, and I will grant that this is the case. But the next time you see someone operating a pneumatic drill or jack hammer, take a look at their ears. I suppose about 50% of the people I see are not wearing hearing protection - even though the H&S regs have made this freely and easily available to all. If there is some doubt over workplace safety there can be none over food and drink. As kids we eat what we are given, but as adults we choose.
The Buddhist program calls for us to be aware of our intentions, how they manifest in actions, and what the consequences of those actions are. This is not an easy path by any means. So often we can only see what's going on in retrospect when everything has turned to custard and we review what happened. Even then the urge is to blame other people, or other factors. As Buddhists when something goes wrong the first thing we should do is examine our own mind. What were our motivations? So often these are complex and largely unconscious. The practice of ethics (of behaving in accordance with ethical guidelines and confessing breaches of them) brings us hard up against our motivations. Sangharakshita has said there is no justification for sustaining a negative mental state. We may not be able to prevent one arising, because they arise in dependence on past conditions and causes, but we can surely recognise a negative mental state in the present and do something about it! So often we justify our irritation - and this justification is reinforced by those around us. But irritation is just aversion and nothing good can come from it. It is hatred. We need to face up to this, and pay attention to what happens when we go around letting irritation persist in our minds. I don't need to spell it out, because it's up to everyone to discover for themselves what it's like. But I can say that I don't enjoy it.
And ethics are not simply an exercise in good behaviour and finding approval. We may well find approval, but being scrupulously ethical may also meet with disapproval from an uncomprehending society. The point is to become more aware of how our minds actually work. To find the connections between our intentions and the consequences, and to see how our experience arises in dependence on causes. It is this that we urgently need to understand because the lack of clarity is causing us (and everyone else) to suffer. We particularly need to see how we response to pleasant sensations and to painful sensations. This leads is naturally into meditation techniques which help to strip away the distractions and the confusion and allow us to focus on understanding the nature of experience. But without a measure of calm and positivity we won't get far in meditation. The gross disturbances caused by breaking precepts means that our minds are unstable in meditation. We need to be ethical in order to experience what the texts sometimes call 'non-remorse' (avippaṭisāro). Discipline is for the purpose of non-remorse, and from non-remorse naturally arises happiness (pāmojja) and from this rapture (pīti), etc on up to knowledge and vision, and up to liberation. That is to say that ethics naturally leads us onto what Sangharakshita has called The Spiral Path, the progressive series of stages that lead to liberation the way that trickles of water may become rivulets, that join with others to become a stream, with many streams making a river, and eventually a mighty river that flows down to the sea. Just as a mighty river relies on its watershed of many tiny streams, so the process of liberation begins with ethical observances which, reflected on, give insights into how experience works.
We cannot afford to buy into the "it's not my problem" mentality. Everything we do is up to us, and it is we who have to live with the consequences.
image: Mail Online