Mirroring societal malaise

The pandemic has intensified the already existing neurosis

Mirroring societal malaise

Scramble: Misery is implicit in the Shramik Special trains being run for migrants.

AVIJIT PATHAK

Sociologist

IT seems we are broken and crippled from deep inside. As there is no end to the pandemic-induced disaster, a positive affirmation of life is becoming increasingly difficult to retain. Instead, the trauma of psychic nausea, chronic anxiety, fear and loneliness has begun to characterise our collective consciousness. Even though the State is relaxing lockdown guidelines, the fact is that we are entering an altogether different world. There is no hope that tomorrow you would survive; there is no guarantee that you would retain your job; you are not sure what would happen to your children when schools and colleges reopen; and it may not be possible for you to hug your friend, and have a cup of coffee with him. Well, in buses, trains and offices, we would doubt one another; and masks and sanitisers would become more real than the ecstasy of living. In a world of this kind, the idea of human solidarity would be museumised.

Yet, a flower blooms even in a rocky mountain. And hence, those who are aesthetically and spiritually musical would not break down so easily. Possibly, their meditative and contemplative selves would enable them to overcome this negativity and fear psychosis; possibly, with absolute calmness, they would see the continual play of life and death without being affected by this maya; and possibly, with awakened eyes, they would live intensely at this very moment here and now, would not fear the unknown, and find eternity in an amazing sunset or a leaf falling from a tree. They are the ones who could invoke Buddha and Rumi, and even now (when in an infected space, death is just a number —faceless and anonymous) may feel inspired to quote Walt Whitman: ‘to me, every inch of space is a miracle.’ They are the ones who have the wisdom to say that ‘this too will pass’.

Even though I have eaten what modern science regards as the fruit of knowledge, I have no hesitation in valuing the liberating potential of this meditative quest. After all, there are qualitatively different ways of engaging with the same ‘objective’ reality. While you and I might be crippled by the fear of death, the Buddha might smile, and see it as normal, as yet another sunset. Yes, the process of spiritual cleansing or the calmness of the meditative self does help one to pass through the curved trajectory of life with a reasonable degree of peace, detachment, harmony and love. However, as a socio-political subject, I also see the societal neurosis. And a quest for collective therapy, I argue, requires a creative blend of the meditative self and a liberating socio-political practice. For instance, there are enchanting moments when Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s discourses help me to come out of the all-pervading anxiety and despair, I am also aware of the fact that there is a sociology of the misery implicit in the Shramik Special trains. While the meditative eyes of Buddha arouse the potential of love and compassion, how can I deny that the structure of society we have created is terribly violent? In a way, the pandemic is not merely a medical emergency; it is a mirror that reflects the societal pathology. Hence, there should not be a contradiction between being meditative and being ethically political.

Neurosis, it has to be understood, is the manifestation of broken communication. And believe it, our society is broken, fragmented and crudely divisive. In a society of this kind, it is impossible to find even the slightest trace of what sociologist Emile Durkheim visualised as ‘solidarity’ or the ecstasy of the collective. Ours is not the kind of society where you would find the spirit of Gandhi’s sarvodaya, or Ambedkar’s non-hierarchical egalitarianism. Instead, here is a society driven by the greed of neoliberal capitalism, brutalised by the disease of hierarchy, stigmatisation and exclusion, and corrupted by the cunning logic of instrumental interests. Never think that ‘distancing’ is the invention of the pandemic. For quite some time, we have been living as ‘warriors’ with sole emphasis on the ‘survival of the fittest’. While casteism and feudalism divide our village societies, our urban centres love to erect huge walls of separation: gated communities and slums; anonymity and indifference; and inner emptiness manifesting itself in the superficial mannerism of what TS Eliot would have regarded as ‘the hollow men’. In a society of this kind, there is no friend, no neighbour, and no communion. Here, politics is a game of mass deception; education is crudely instrumental; money is the measure of everything; simplicity is seen to be a manifestation of stupidity; communication revolution is the celebration of trivia; public spaces are filled with the lonely crowd; and everyday life is nothing but a battlefield.

Hence, it is not easy to be meditative. This societal neurosis severely affects the individual’s consciousness. For a migrant worker, no Buddha is waiting; he sees only heartless contractors and oppressive cops. Or, for that matter, for an old man living alone in an apartment in Mumbai, there is no friend who hears the call of Jesus: Love thy neighbour. No wonder, the pandemic has further intensified the already existing societal neurosis. In a world where there are only strangers and warriors, or where nothing is more real than the culture of surveillance, the mental landscape gets severely damaged. Well, as I have said, a constant purification of one’s inner world, or the interiority of one’s self is important for retaining sanity. But then, for collective liberation, this meditative self also ought to be political, and raise a new awareness for radical social transformation: from the greed of neoliberal capitalism to the spirit of eco-sensitive and communitarian socialism; or from heartless indifference to the ecstasy of the human touch.

Is it a wakeup call? Can we redefine the art of meditation and politics in the post-Covid world?

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