The Edge of Tomorrow

I’ve a confession to make. Raiders of the Lost Ark was a huge influence on my life. It convinced me as a teenager that life is an adventure and that I should be fearless in my pursuit of um…adventure.

Another action movie that has now inspired new insight for me is the latest Tom Cruise vehicle, The Edge of Tomorrow. It a sci-fi movie that steals the Groundhog Day premise of a character having to live the same day over and over again. Cruise plays a cowardly soldier who is reborn every time he is killed on the battlefield, back to the start of the same day. He becomes an uber-soldier able to predict everything that is going to happen.

Waking up this morning it dawned on me that the emphasis in the mindfulness courses I teach about each moment being unique is not entirely true. It became clear to me that I was going to live pretty much the same day that I had yesterday. The same dramas, the same anxieties, the same relationships.  And with the film fresh in my mind it occurred to me that perhaps it is the same day, relived until I master its challenges. Just as our soul is reborn according to Buddhism and Hinduism and lives are constantly being relived until we are liberated from Samsara – the wheel of suffering.

But it is not a wheel, otherwise we would be aware quite soon that the ride was going round and round. Consciousness (manifest in most of us as a self that knows that it exists) is as Hofstadter describes a strange loop.

Working on the development project Calon Cerebellium with neuroscientist Prof Guillaume Thierry, I came to suspect that this strange loop is a möbius strip. This figure of eight loop used as a symbol for infinity is only the illusion of eternity and is what in our mind gives us the illusion of change, progress and a new day dawning.

Like a Scalectrix car, mind is canalised by our brains in a race around this figure of eight. The back of the brain intercepts sensory stimuli and the front brain verifies and makes decisions to act on its basis. However the sensory apparatus is severely limited and gives incorrect information about the nature of reality so the decisions are consistently wrong, but they are also wrong in a consistent way. So this consistency gives a sense of continuity to this flawed perception of reality.

But where the real magic occurs is the twist in the middle of the loop, the axis between these two functions of the brain. We race so quickly around the loop that we meet ourselves coming the other way but on the reverse side. So this is where we see ourselves and where, every three seconds we are reminded that we exist.

In this way we are deceived into perceiving ourselves eternal, and so the concept of soul arises, and the feeling that everything is changing every day. Of course change is continuous, but our perceptions, our patterns, our habits renew the moment we wake up..the same as before. So we do live the same day over and over again and we can predict pretty well which monsters will arise in our psyche. In this way life is a play, a practice and occasionally a battlefield.

Forum Theatre gives us a window into this process, a place apart, called the aesthetic space or stage, where we can externalise this strange loop.  When Jokered (facilitated) to be context oriented this incredibly private and familiar mechanism is made public, and in that sharing, that ‘multiple regard of the other’; the nature of how we limit consciousness with this illusion of a self travelling in time, in a process of  psychological evolution, can be exposed for what it is.  Theatre.

A Thneed is a fine something that Everyone Needs

thneed

There’s an old Sufi saying that Hell is where you receive everything you want. Well how about the prospect of a shiny new, sweet smelling hell where you receive everything you think you want, because that thought has been implanted in your unconscious by the neuroscientists who have been paid to market the product that’s suddenly caught your eye. It’s a closed loop and a done deal for the market driven world in which we live and it’s already happening –

Why Marketing minds have turned their heads to mind-reading by Hannah Kuchler in the Financial Times 12th April 2010

Hmm…I feel like I want to eat bread…woo…that thing there looks a bit like bread…or like my favourite thing…I don’t know…it’s just talking to me somehow…in fact, I must have it. What’s it called?…a thneed! Nice name…what’s it for? Doesn’t matter, I have the strangest intuition that it’s going to solve all my problems. I feel it in my bones, this thneed is so me. And, wow, it’s so much cheaper than I expected. How on earth do they make it for that price? They must be so good and honest and beneficent in heart and mind these people who make thneeds, they are practically giving them away. Such God like charity. Oh! Look at that, I’ve bought it already in some kind of swoon. Ah! Well, I trust my impulse.

Of course, subliminal marketing and manipulation of mass desires has been with us for some time. Sigmund Fraud’s nephew, Edward Bernays developed what we now call public relations in the 20’s using his uncle’s theories of subliminal desires. He commented once that he would have called it Propaganda but the Russians had a trademark on that name. Check out Adam Curtis’ excellent documentary – ‘The Century of the Self’ about Bernays. In fact, check out any Adam Curtis documentary. They expose the thinkers and their theories behind the world views of our world leaders.

Only now, with the recent advances in neuroscience brought about in part by the technology that allows us to see the brain as it is thinking, the brainwashers are really getting a handle on their art. Take, for instance, the selective awareness test, that video on youtube that catches us out and makes us laugh with surprise at how stupid we are…well, I met one of the scientist behind it and he’s funded very well to explore how to place product adverts not moon-walking bears in the edge of our attention, so that it slips through to our unconscious from where it can sow the seeds of our innermost desires.

Like I said, this is not a new front. We who are involved in Theatre of the Oppressed have been fighting the oppression of implanted desires through social conditioning but the enemy have a new armoury and if we are not to become salivating zombie consumers then we need to advance our technology of resistance. The irony is that the technology exists and is at least 2500 years old. It is Mindfulness – the core component of Buddhism, and it is a resistance through acceptance…only by accepting unconditionally and without judgement what is happening at the moment, in our bodies and in our environment can we sensitise our awareness of ourselves to catch the moment before the impulse turns to action. But it will demand continual practice because those thneeds have us surrounded.

The Best Lack All Conviction and the Worst are Full of Passionate Intensity

This line from the WB Yeats poem The Second Coming kept popping in my mind last week while I was in Graz for the World Forum Theatre conference. OK, not exactly this line, it was more the version Joni Mitchell sings in her song of the poem, which goes like this The best lack conviction, Given some time to think, And the worst are full of passion, Without mercy.

Certainly Augusto Boal’s death has left the people who knew and worked with him feeling bereft, but I dont get the sense that things are falling apart, now the centre has gone. In fact, it’s the opposite. Several conferences, which were perhaps arranged to make the most of Boals bright burning twilight; in Pula, Croatia in June; in Rio in July and this one in Austria this October, have had to do without it. But continuing anyway they have brought together some of the family of organizations and peoples practicing his amazing legacy to the world -The Theatre of the Oppressed (TO). The range of uses for TO demonstrated at these events, their worldwide use and the vast experience of its diverse delegates is encouraging. What to me is most encouraging is the desire between jokers (TO practitioners), to engage in dialogue in an atmosphere of friendship and mutual respect. That is not to deny that there are serious differences in how TO and with whom TO is practiced and in particular how we can maintain the ethical basis to the work which is essential if we are to have any hope of bringing about equality and justice.

Epitomising this difference is where people stand about working with the Theatre of the Oppressed within the business sector. This is a very complex issue because the idea of benign or even beneficial business is quite a foreign concept in some countries. In the developing world corporations get away with injustices they are less able to inflict in the developed world since slavery was abolished. Of course, slavery was’nt abolished; it was exported, to countries where workers have no rights. What a perfect solution; you don’t have to clothe, house and feed these slaves. You don’t even have to control them because their governments will do that if you control the government and what’s more they won’t even realize they’re slaves because it’s a free market.

My ancestors working in the slate quarries of North Wales suffered similar injustice to what might be experienced by a worker in India, China or Africa today; but in Europe, especially since the 80s, the idea of a benign capitalism has become sediment in our culture and marketed as the reason why we can all live like Pharaohs. Of course, this comfy arrangement is only achievable within the capitalist system because workers are exploited mercilessly elsewhere. And rather than struggle directly against the capitalist world view, the movement for justice and equality, which has always been present in the human potential, has tried to inveigle its way into the whole spectacle. In the UK we have businesses who are not for profit, or whose profit is put back into the community, and working within these businesses we have social entrepreneurs who use their skills and creativity in business to improve people’s day to day lives. The extent to which an enterprise can work for the oppressed when it is working within a system which is innately dehumanizing is a question that needs to be explored taking into account a global perspective. I wonder whether we in Europe are so embedded within our culture of consumption and convenience and in times of self-doubt compare ourselves to the poor souls struggling with the working conditions of our ancestors, that we are blind to our slavery within this system. A system within which everything is a commodity and our only function is to be consumed by consuming.

Personally, I dont recall ever having worked for an enterprise, and frankly don’t think they would have me, not because I am in some way a Marxist revolutionary who would turn up to a workshop in a beret waving a red book and talking about how the bosses would be the first up against the wall. Rather because I am profoundly unprofessional and admit readily that I don’t know what I’m doing until I’m doing it; which is a little against their grain. Everything about the business world is about ascertaining certainty, or exuding false confidence in the face of uncertainty. In the UK it is called the private sector and from a metaphysical point of view the two factors that come to mind when I think of the word private are greed and denial. Private is a word that comes from Roman times which described the walled area around a house. It means, in effect, the power to define and separate what is MINE and not YOURS and is the doctrine of those cultures which have predominated in our world: cultures where taking has more value than giving and where land is owned rather than land owning us. Of course, the cultures which valued giving more than taking have all but died out since people don’t kill in order to give. But they survive in isolated pockets where indigenous peoples remain and are celebrated in most cultures with occasional festivals and traditions that celebrate giving.

While greed and capitalism is almost acceptably synonymous the denial factor is less admitted. There is a fundamental denial at the heart of the capitalist paradigm which is not merely about the fact that resources are limited. More ingrained in the mentality is the idea that humans are resources that can be managed and at the epicentre of this denial is the construct of the company or the organization or the institution, an idea made fact and then used as a basis for the denial of the human dimension. John McKnight from Chicago University explains how institutions dont (cannot) care about people and this is precisely because the institution is just an idea to which people ascribe, a mask people wear so that they can fuck you over without feeling guilty or responsible e.g. because its company policy. And this is where the capitalism problem can be seen as just one manifestation of a problem that is at the core of the human condition and to which no one is immune. I would say the same thing about any ‘ism’ you care to select. Because any system of thought or any structure that is brought about by thought, even if that thought is to help people, cannot bring equality, justice and peace.

The reason for this is so simple that is sometimes escapes reason. Thought is implicitly divisive and reductive. It works through inclusion and exclusion, polarization and duality. That is not to say it is somehow inherently bad because by itself it denies us the possibility of peace. On the contrary, it is a wonderful facility. The problem occurs when we confuse what thought is and attach ultimate importance to our thoughts because they are our thoughts, and since we respond physically to our thoughts some of them sound so right we feel them to be true in our bones. To the point that everywhere people would rather be right than be happy All internal oppression occurs when thought thinks its a fact and this writ large in society is what legitimises the abuse of power, the domination of many by a few, the destruction of the environment, cultures and communities and just sometimes in a million ways doing the wrong thing because you got the wrong idea.

Why the Yeats quote kept coming into my head at the conference in Austria was because I felt a very real danger of TO becoming a fixed idea we defend at the expense of its effective application. In my opinion, those jokers who are most certain about things and the most passionately intense about oppression, are less effective jokers because they are also pretty certain what the problem is and therefore the solution. A common fault in jokering is assuming that there is agreement about what the problem is. Democracy is the lesser of evils because at least a majority agrees on what the problem is and it can therefore be addressed, so to go into a foruming phase without first even having a debate about what the audience perceive to be the problem presented is wholly undemocratic. Often, the forum theatre pieces I have seen recently are so loaded (setting out the problem in no uncertain terms) that it is more or less Agit Prop in which you are invited to participate as long as you toe the party line. A core understanding that every joker should recognize is that at the root of the problem lies the answer, so if you have come to the conclusion about what the problem is then you have also concluded what the answer is. The real power of Forum Theatre is its capacity to help communities travel to the root of the problem, and the role of the joker is not to let the audience come to a cosy conclusion or to impose his/her own but to be urgently passionate about the question; this is what I call context orientation and the more towards context you travel the more generic the solutions found. In my experience these ‘fundamental solutions are not some thought out strategy but actions that come from a transformation of the way we perceive ourselves and our world.

The point I’m trying to make is that TO can solve the problem presented by Yeats poem by dragging this rough beast into the aesthetic space, into the republic of the imagination. There we can explore the possibility of acting from a higher self. But we must start from a place without conviction, and from there with the passionate intensity born not from belief but from compassion travel to the root of the problem. Whether enterprise and compassion can coexist is another question.