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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Terror and the People

Beijing journalists bravely soldier up to the task of spreading panic amongst the people during the SARS period

Your mind is connected to an intelligence that transcends your individual mind. I call this Integrated Intelligence. This gives you the capacity to draw upon a kind of universal mind to make wise choices. Integrated Intelligence can help us to sense which way to go when things get tough. The following little tale took place in China, and is taken from a time when a few thousand people died from a nasty little bug they called SARS, demonstrates the point. It was a time of widespread panic.

But not for some…
During the SARS crisis of 2003 I was living in Beijing, one of the cities hardest hit by the disease. I was working at an international school while also writing my doctoral thesis. By that time I had spent more than a decade working at a practical level with Integrated Intelligence, both with others and on my own, so my own intuitive capacities were then highly developed. My experience during the SARS “epidemic” also suggests how Integrated Intelligence potentially shifts power relations between the individual and the State and the mass media.

The following is an extract from Light and Shadow at the Edge of Mind, basically an autobiography, which I have never gotten round to publishing.

* * *

A little more than a year after I got to Beijing, the entire world changed because of one little word: SARS. 

News of SARS began with a trickle, then became a tidal wave almost overnight. At first there were a few cases reported by the Chinese media. But rumours began circulating around Beijing that the Government was underreporting the figures. You couldn’t blame the people of Beijing for this. Lying was the entrenched reaction of the government at all levels in China. The Chinese people were all too aware of this. The way Chinese people deal with crisis is to listen to rumours. The thinking is that in times of crisis rumours are the only way to really know what is going on – because the media is heavily controlled. 

 The enemy

As is now well known, the Beijing government was indeed covering up the true figures. When they were pressured to come out with the truth, the number of daily infections went from single figures, then into the scores. 

Beijing panicked. There was a look of fear in people’s eyes. Walking along the street near my home, locals eyed me suspiciously as I approached them, and then took a wide path around me as I passed by. It was rumoured that foreigners were responsible for bringing SARS to China. In the supermarket near my apartment, there was panic buying. People were backed up from the counters in lines of thirty or so. As I walked passed a stairway, an old woman lost her footing for a moment, and everyone gasped and fell back in terror. 

The old woman regained her balance and continued walking up the stairs.

Normally Beijing’s streets are gridlocked. From my apartment it took around thirty minutes to get into the city centre. One night at the height of SARS I got into town in five minutes flat. My cab sped down deserted streets and expressways. It was eerie. The people were huddled in their homes, too terrified to go out. 

But not I. Rather ‘irresponsibly’, I was more bemused by the whole situation. I kept an eye on the stats being released about the number of SARS infections. It was obvious that the number of infections was not accelerating at an arithmetic rate. If the rate of acceleration was arithmetic, figures would have increased something like, say, 2, 4, 16, 256… and so on. But they did not. The number being reported was not increasing greatly. I also spoke to a doctor who worked at a Beijing hospital. He had not seen a single SARS case, and did not believe it was an epidemic. 

Still the rumours circulated around like the fetid odour of a rotting corpse. They said bodies of SARS victims were being taken to the People’s Liberation Army Hospital, where they were immediately incinerated. Doctors were refusing to treat SARS victims, so they were just killing the infected individuals and burning them. And so on. 

Ultimately I calculated that there was about one hundred times more chance of my dying in a car accident in China than getting SARS. Even at the peak of SARS only a handful of people per day were dying. Meanwhile around three hundred people a day were being killed in car accidents in the country. 

However the key to my behavior was that I also trusted my intuition. I listened carefully to the voice of Spirit at this time. I examined my dreams and meditation visions, and checked my feelings before going out. And go out I did. If the ‘feeling’ was good, I ambled out of my housing compound, and hailed a cab. I recall going into the local expat bar one Friday night and finding I was just about the only person there. To Ping’s (my wife) credit, she did not panic. Maybe my relaxed attitude influenced her. Unfortunately that same attitude was not well received by some of Ping’s friends. 

One day Ping was on the phone to her Chinese colleague Maria, and I asked Ping to invite her over. Ping said a few words on the phone, then hung up. 

“So, is Maria coming around?” I asked. 

“No,”’ said Ping. “She says your behaviour is too risky. She doesn’t want to
come anywhere near you.” 

I was more bemused than anything. The Chinese appear perfectly reckless in so much of their everyday behaviour. Beijing people readily stroll out onto busy roads in peak hour traffic, seemingly thinking they are made of cast iron. Miners work underground in horrific health and safety conditions, dying by the thousands every year. But as soon as a little virus - which was never shown to be airborne or highly contagious - hit the news, they panicked like the end was nigh. 

Almost all work came to a halt. Beijing shut down. Most everybody was too scared to come out of their houses. Many expats left the country. I was not so worried about my own safety, as I trusted my intuition and guidance. However I could not be so sure about Ping.
After a couple of weeks the panic was beginning to dissipate. But people were still on edge. Many businesses were closed and the economy was going into a spin.

The people chose fear. 

I chose to have a nice holiday. I took Ping on a two week vacation. But unlike other expats, I didn’t head offshore. No, this was a great opportunity to party. We flew down to Hainan Island south of Hong Kong, China’s self- proclaimed Hawaii of the East. 

Sadly, it was closed. 

Well, pretty much. We flew in on a half-empty plane, and it was more of the same after that. We booked in at a nice hotel, and sat by ourselves at the hotel pool. And I do mean by ourselves. The place was as dead as the hotel in The Shining – empty dining hall and corridors so quiet you could hear yourself breathe. While China panicked at the impending reign of the apocalypse, we got really bored. 

For me SARS was actually a time of personal growth. I used a combination of rationality, mathematical analysis and gut-level intuition to determine my own behavior. My actions seemed reckless to some of my Chinese friends. Yet to me it was actually more ‘rational’ than their own. Rationality is culturally defined. Logic is only as sound as the data available. The ‘data’ I had at my disposal was drawn from both the world of the mundane, and the guidance of Integrated Intelligence.

The SARS period is really only different in degree, not kind, from the fear that dominates much of modern life. The media feeds people a constant diet of doom, drama and fear, because that is what sells. Governments love fear too, and are rarely short on selling the threat of "terror". People readily buy into the lie that existence is perilous. Thus, the fear of death motivates much of human behaviour at an unconscious level. That fear locks us into the little world of the ego, with its guilt-ridden pasts and fear-filled imagined futures. It takes us away from the peace of a deeper connectivity with spirit. That connection is really quite simple. All it takes is the commitment to being present.

More about that soon.



  1. I could not agree more about the media. I have limited myself to reading it only late in the day. I refuse to start with fear and hate, instead focusing on what I would like to see the day bring. As for SARS, I really didn't worry much about it, either. I have this feeling that I will know when it is time to worry about a virus. I feel much more trepidation about China's pollution. And what is going on in the Gulf, of course. There will be far-reaching effects from that little debacle.

  2. Yes, you could probably do worse than not watching the news at all! The experience of SARS, I suspect, was far different for people of major cities of infection in Asia, than for those from places far away. Beijing basically closed down during the SARS period. There was mass panic.