Responding to The Age of Anger: at the LSE and on the bus

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“Give it time…re-build trust”. This was part of Pankaj Mishra‘s response to a member of the audience on Tuesday night when asked what we can do to stem the global tide of hatred and nationalism. Mishra had been talking with journalist Nesrine Malik at one of the early events of the LSE Space for Thought Literary Festival about his new book Age of Anger: A history of the present. The book has also been featured on BBC Radio 4 this week.

Sweetening the sour

It was an engaging discussion, if not uplifting. In a recent blog article “I’ve Got A Little List”: The The Next Six Months Under Trumpism, the writer Yonatan Zunger peppered the piece with pictures of cute animals in a bid to diffuse what he knew would not be cheery reading.

Malik and Mishra did not feature such images on a video montage behind their heads. They did explore in clear terms how the rise of individualism in a global society has inevitably led to bitter disappointment on a huge scale.

The Age of Enlightenment

Civilisation for all, promised since the Enlightenment, has turned out to be a civilisation solely for a minority and one that today plays out in a world where we constantly look in on each other. Forced to compete in a global market, we are situated as entrepreneurs promoting our own brand – ourselves. In this climate, ethical constraints become ever weakened while solidarity is built on exclusion.

India and the moon

To illustrate this state of affairs, Mishra described the situation in India whereby the masses, promised the moon for two or three decades but never receiving it, responded by voting in Narendra Modi as Prime Minister in 2014. Writing about this in 2015, Mishra described how Modi had charmed his way in to this position, despite his track record of apparently endorsing violence and being involved in corruption: “To aspiring but thwarted young Indians Modi presented himself as a social revolutionary, the son of a humble tea-seller challenging entrenched dynasties, as well as an economic moderniser”. In the article, Mishra outlines the reality of Modi’s time in office which has seen a brutal use of power, often exercised through Hindu supremacy directed against minorities.

2016 votes for Brexit and Trump

Needless to say, what were, for many, the surprise results of the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election were placed in this same context by Mishra and Malik: one of disillusioned, tired, impoverished and angry people having their say.

What to do

To return to the question of what we can do to positively influence the toxic atmosphere around us, Mishra also stated that there is no ‘grand solution’, citing ‘that’s what got us in to this mess in the first place’. Advising that we haven’t yet absorbed what has been unfolding, that we need to give it more time, he recommended that we ‘live in the present’.

Being present

Talking later in a snug London pub about Mishra’s response to this question, I wondered aloud whether, given some of the words he’d used, he might be a meditator or perhaps buddhist. I was gently teased; it was presented to me that I have a tendency to frame many turns of phrase from a meditator’s lexicon. I conceded this was true.

However, regardless of the roots of Mishra’s suggestion, I kept coming back to the worth of the response, while also thinking how it is such a challenge to stay with what is, to be with what is happening here and now – to not react too soon, to not react inappropriately, to not overreact. It seems particularly – desperately – challenging in the consumer culture we’ve created and that Mishra so clearly portrays as being the crucible for the hatred now being unleashed around us.

Bus of anger

Later still, going home, there was an altercation on the bus between the driver and two passengers, the kind that pierces to the depths of the soul and spreads a darkness there; the kind of altercation that comes from nowhere but reaches a long way down; the kind that, far from building trust, destroys it.

We all got off the bus and stood on the side of the road in support of the driver who was on the receiving end of a man and woman’s terrible, disturbing rage. Some of the passengers, my companion included, tried to help diffuse the situation. Then we got on another bus and continued our journey home.

It was hard to ignore the timing of this ugly incident, coming directly after the LSE discussion. As we chewed over it, my companion noted how it is often people suffering through low pay and poor work conditions who experience the brunt of others’ pent up anger and violence – no doubt those who themselves often, but certainly not always, are experiencing a similar quality of life.

Bus of hope

As I was thinking about writing this post, I wondered how I would be able to finish it on a note other than one of despair. And then I remembered something that had appeared in my inbox recently, that I’d looked over only briefly but that had made a lot of sense to me. It was from the 10% Happier team who administer the meditation app of the same name, launched by Insight meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein and ABC news anchor Dan Harris. The email began like this:

“The idea was ambitious… bordering on absurd: Get a rockstar tour bus, load up with a meditation teacher…and travel across America”.

The idea came about due to this observation:

“The perception of meditation is shifting from weird and culty to trendy and beneficial. But despite this evolution, most people aren’t actually meditating. So Dan recruited Jeff Warren, founder of the Consciousness Explorers Club in Toronto, to head cross-country (in a 10% Happier rock star bus) to figure out what’s standing in the way of a regular practice for all sorts of Americans–and help them knock down these challenges”.

Viva meditation in the age of anger

I was working with someone the other day who has recently begun using mindfulness techniques. He said he was astounded by the simplicity and effectiveness of the main principle, that of observing and staying focussed on the breath, a technique that supports us to stay with uncomfortable feelings and sensations, knowing they will pass with time, and that helps us engage more with the day-to-day yet beautiful detail of each present moment. My colleague said he wished he could let everyone know about it. We agreed the world would be a better place if it were possible to do so.

Keep the bus of meditation rolling

The good news is that it seems it is being done, in more ambitious and possibly – to quote 10% Happier – more absurd ways now than before. It may sound simple, or even simplistic but, as Mishra noted, the grand solutions or big ideologies haven’t worked.

I’m all for this kind of ambition and absurdity, where finding different and creative ways to roll out information about meditation and mindfulness is concerned. I’m for learning about and sharing ways of being – from a bus or elsewhere – that lead to more peace, less anger, and reduce the perceived need for cute animal images in journalistic writing.

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