Feeling Feelings: Paddy Hill and Aung San Suu Kyi Compared

Let’s return to the theme of The Feeling of Perceiving and The imagined inside—feeling corporeal emotions by comparing these reactions to being released from imprisonment:

The first is Paddy Hill, one of six men (the Birmingham Six) wrongly convicted of the Birmingham pub bombings in November 1974, widely thought to be the work of the Provisional Irish Republican Army.

More precisely, they were framed by the police who fabricated evidence against them and suppressed evidence that would exonerate them.

They were eventually released in 1991, the culmination of some dogged work by their defence lawyers, led by the extraordinary Gareth Peirce.

The second video is of Aung San Suu Kyi, Chairperson of the National League of Democracy in Myanmar or Burma. She was placed under house arrest in Rangoon for approximately 15 years by the military regime until her release on November 13, 2010.

During this time, she was adopted as a darling of the West whose champion she became in Myanmar. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 (which she was able to accept only in 2012) and was granted the honour of delivering the BBC Reith Lectures on ‘Liberty’ in 2011.

You will note the differences in their demeanour.

Paddy Hill is rightly furious about what was done to him. Had he not have been, I and many others wouldn’t have remembered the event so sharply.

Aung San Suu Kyi is serene and silent before an adoring, clamouring audience.

On face of it, these differences in their demeanour is explained by their different experiences. While they were both detained against their will, there their similarities end.

Paddy Hill was a demonized Irishman in the hell hole of an English prison, for something he didn’t do, for something the authorities knew he didn’t do. As he says:

“Prison kills you emotionally. It’s a dark, deep, evil, brutal world filled with anger, violence, jealousy, paranoia. You become brutalised – it’s like being in a war zone,” he adds. “Prisons are human dustbins. They’re full of people who would kill you at the drop of a hat. For 24 hours a day, every day, you’re at risk of being stabbed, slashed or having boiling water thrown over you. After a while, it doesn’t mean anything if you see that sort of thing happening to other prisoners. You don’t feel a thing. It becomes normal to see someone with a big blade sticking into them or be sitting watching TV and have people burst in and throw boiling water with sugar in over someone sitting near you. You don’t blink. It doesn’t mean anything to you. I became dehumanised and I still am dehumanised.” [‘All I think about is shooting police. I am traumatised‘]

No one offered him a Nobel Prize for stoicism.

Aung San Suu Kyi lived under house arrest in the home she grew up in. True, she couldn’t be with her husband when he died in England and she was parted from her sons for this time. But she had an element of choice. She could have stayed in England when her father died in Myanmar. She could have stayed silent in the face of the military regime. And she knew that she enjoyed massive, and powerful, support around the world.

These very different experiences of internment are obviously important, but the critical difference between them is this: Aung San Suu Kyi is a Theravada Buddhist and she practices Vipassana meditation. For such a person, 15 years of house arrest is not the hardship it seems.

Vipassana meditation is a technique taught by the Buddha more than 2500 years ago—before it was buried by doctrine, by Buddha-ism. It survived only in Myanmar (Burma). Simplifying, it entails using one’s attention to scan the sensations or feelings within one’s body. These feelings can be positive, neutral or negative. Regardless, one responds to them with equanimity, simply noting their presence. It is a way of freeing the body from aversions and addictions (of various kinds). The aim is equanimity rather than ‘happiness’, so that one can more effectively act on the world.

I think we can agree that Aung San Suu Kyi is equanimous. While her Western admirers attribute this to her indefatigability, it is less to do with her character and more to do with 15 years of Vipassana meditation during which she sorted out all her emotional ‘issues’.

Paddy Hill, on the other hand, stewed in that ‘dark, deep, evil, brutal world filled with anger, violence, jealousy, paranoia.’

And?

Let me point to a connection between Eastern and Western ways of knowing by suggesting that Vipassana’s ‘sensations’ or ‘feelings’ bear more than a passing resemblance to what Damasio calls ‘somatic markers‘. They are the body’s way of knowing and remembering. Feeling feelings is a lost skill.

Is Aung San Suu Kyi’s equanimity superior to Paddy Hill’s anger?

His anger might have consumed him but he used it to fuel his political work for the benefit of others. It takes an enormous amount of moral courage to do that. Paddy Hill (with John McManus) established Miscarriages of Justice Organization (MOJO), doing what they can to right wrongs. According to its website there have been 5970 miscarriages of justice in the UK between 1989 and 2010. It happens in North America too, more often than most people realize.

Anger gets a bad press, but provided it is used constructively it gets a lot done.

And Aung San Suu Kyi’s equanimity?

When her silence was eventually broken we heard the perfect diction of what could have been an upper middle class English Oxbridge academic. Her main source of information about the outside world was the BBC’s World Service. No wonder she was embraced so warmly in England. She was one of them.

Aung San Suu Kyi has done much to facilitate Western corporations’ access to Myanmar markets—all in the name of ‘democracy’ you understand. [See UK opens trade office as Western firms eye Burma riches]

‘Vipassana’ means to see things as they really are. It’s a worthy objective in examining our own lives. But seeing things as they really are is important in politics too.

Aung San Suu Kyi may yet discover that Vipassana meditation is not enough.

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