The Paradoxes of Presence

Ylva Trollstierna_fool

“The Fool” tarot card in Ylva Trollstierna’s “erotica” deck depicts a hermaphrodite “fool” on a precipice somewhat different from that shown in most tarot decks;
I’ve colourized the image

One year after beginning a personal Presence practice, what is most apparent to me are the paradoxes of striving to realize it:

  1. It’s usually a solitary pursuit, yet its purpose is to realize that we are all connected, all One.
  2. It’s often called “mindfulness”, yet its objective is ultimately to empty the mind of thoughts and reactive emotions and realize the mind is an illusion, a distraction.
  3. For many, it can take 10,000 hours, or a lifetime, to realize what can be “seen” in a second.
  4. Thousands of self-described “teachers” offer courses, retreats, seminars, videos and lessons in realizing it, yet the most respected of these say they are not gurus, not leaders, not teachers, merely people offering “pointers” that might allow us to realize, all by ourselves, what cannot be taught.
  5. Many of us believe we must prepare, ready ourselves to be who we already are, or that we are not yet ready to be who we already are.
  6. It seems to take a long time to realize that time does not exist, that the only thing that exists is the Now. Some are convinced it is not yet time to realize this, that they must spend more time in contemplation and inquiry “first”.
  7. An enormous amount of self-reflection seems involved in the process of realizing the “self” is an illusion, an unreal construct.
  8. Much thinking (contemplation, self-inquiry and other intellectual activity) seems to be involved in learning to let go of and not associate with our thoughts, and to get thoughts out of the way of just being.
  9. Much of the energy spent discovering who we really are seems to involve appreciating who and what we are not.
  10. For many, it seems the mind must be utterly exhausted in order to see how easy it is to just be.
  11. What holds most of us back, it seems, is fear of loss of identity, or pride in or attachment to our current identity, yet that identity is just a fiction; still, we are unable to let go of the story of our identity, our “personal history”, even though we know, at least intellectually, it is not us at all.
  12. Several of the people who speak most convincingly of awakening only reached that state when they were least at peace, in crisis; rather than “relaxing into spacious awareness” they crashed into it when they had no other choice — everything they had been holding on to was suddenly gone.

Mooji discusses these paradoxes with a metaphoric story: We are at the door/gateway to realization, to awakening, but just outside there is a large, noisy market with hundreds of people trying to sell us things, enticing us with delicious smells and wonderful promises, so we hold back, keep looking at these offerings here, on the known side, the comfortable side, the unconscious side. We decide we are not quite ready to go through, to see what is on the other side.

So we stay, promising ourselves that soon, tomorrow, next week, next year, we will be ready, we will go then.

And there are so many of us here! And some of them claim to have awakened, to be enlightened, to be teachers; so why are they still here?

For most humans it’s a gradual transition from constantly being engaged in the stream of thinking, being dragged along by the stream of thinking, one thing after another — including the thought “When am I going to awaken? What’s the point in carrying on if it hasn’t happened yet?”.

The transition from that to, at first, the occasional arising of something else — that heightened alertness or aliveness that replaces thinking (in which thinking can still take place but is no longer compulsive). It’s a space where really thinking is unnecessary. You have risen above thinking. That is the awakening.

— Eckhart Tolle

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 7 Comments

Know Yourself. Heal. Self-Liberate. Experiment. Build Community.

(for a hi-res PDF version of this poster, click here)

Let me put this another way:

There is no point getting angry, terrified or grief-stricken at the actions of politicians, corporatists, psychopaths (organized or disorganized), factory farmers, lawyers, bureaucrats, organized crime, ideologues, corrupt ‘leaders’, the military-industrial complex, the 1% or anyone else, and trying to coerce them to change their behaviour or get them out of power. They are doing what they think is best. There is no point trying to reform our broken systems. There is no point signing petitions or marching in the street. Complex systems, especially those with the momentum of our globalized industrial systems, will resist change and self-perpetuate until they become unsustainable and collapse. That’s what complex systems do.

Collapse of our economic system has already begun, and any attempts to change these systems will quickly become moot as collapse accelerates. The only reason this planet has briefly been able to support a billion humans (let alone nearly 8 billion), is by using up millions of years of stored, easily-accessible energy to desolate the planet’s land, soils, water and air in order to produce the food, clothing, shelter and other needs of such a population. The inexpensive half of all the known stored energy of the planet has now been exhausted, population (most of it struggling) is still growing, and the myth that we can somehow continue to “grow” the economy in order to repay the monstrous debts we have already incurred to perpetuate it appears more and more obviously absurd every day.

And ecological collapse — the sixth great extinction of life on Earth — is already well underway, since the loss of the world’s great mammals some 12,000 years ago and continuing with the expected loss of half of all animal species by mid-century, and the onset of runaway climate change that will render much of the Earth uninhabitable by humans, and require another Great Migration of the survivors toward the poles. Almost any climate scientist will now admit, off the record, that this extermination and climate upheaval cannot be prevented or significantly mitigated.

So now the question becomes how we can prepare for, and adapt to, collapse and the end of civilization culture, not how we can prevent or lessen this collapse.

My sense is that it is too early for us to be trying to create systems that will replace the systems of global industrial civilization culture with more sustainable ones. People won’t change their behaviour until they have to, and for most people living in affluent nations that time has not yet come.

What we can do now is what the five steps of the poster above illustrate — and the title of this post:

  1. Know Ourselves: Become sufficiently self-aware to appreciate what drives us, what we can do that’s of value in times of great change, and what our triggers and vulnerabilities are. “Find the others”, as Timothy Leary put it — the tribe of people we want to be with as the crises deepen — and figure out where we want to be as that happens.
  2. Heal: Appreciate that this culture has unwittingly damaged us all, disconnected us from all life on Earth and from our instincts, our bodies, our inner sense of what’s true and real, and each other, and made us physically and mentally ill. And then work to heal and to help others heal.
  3. Self-Liberate: Free ourselves from dependence on this culture and its systems. Do this internally by realizing that self, mind, control and separateness are illusions, and do this externally by learning both the soft skills and the hard technical skills of living with radical change, adapting, needing less and making and doing essential things yourself. And help liberate others as we do so.
  4. Experiment: Although it’s likely too early to create radically new, sustainable, resilient systems, try some things out small scale, where we are, to see what works and to learn. Study complexity. Experiment in the gift economy. Start a co-op. Try doing without money, technologies, etc. to see what we really need. Do all of these things with others.
  5. Build Community: Connect with those in our neighbourhoods. Understand what they can offer and what they need. Find common cause. Build collective capacity, resilience and local independence. Start small and be practical.

Of course we also must fight against the outrages and atrocities occurring in our communities — the manifestations of the industrial growth systems’ desperation in the face of ongoing collapse. It makes sense, I think, to focus such efforts on local issues where we really can make a measurable, real, immediate difference. And not to dream of somehow ‘scaling up’ such successes and initiatives to world-changing levels — such hopes are, I fear, doomed to lead to frustration, disappointment and wasted effort. And we should pursue this fight without attachment to outcome or expectation. It is enough to care and to try.

I’m sorry if this offends supporters of 350 and Greenpeace and Avaaz; my environmental activism started in the early 1970s, and I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t. I’d love to believe that a groundswell of fervent activism could stop the Tar Sands or factory farming or the desolation of our oceans and forests, and if you believe, I will cheer you on, but I’ll keep my expectations low.

Know Ourselves. Heal. Self-Liberate. Experiment. Build Community. It’s enough. Just begin.

Posted in Preparing for Civilization's End | 7 Comments

The Journey That is Not a Journey

So I realize now that my current “journey” is actually two:

  1. A striving to Become Present, to awaken to the reality that self, separateness, mind and time are all illusions, constructs, and that there is only one consciousness.
  2. A striving to Become Animal (in the David Abram Spell of the Sensuous sense), to reconnect with Earth and all life on it, and with the senses, the body and the instincts, and get out of the head with its preoccupation with habitual, mostly negative thoughts and reactive emotions.

These are of course related, and steps along one are surely steps along both. But I think they are worth being aware of and “seeking” independently.

In some sense neither is really a journey at all. They are both aspects of being fully aware of what is. They ‘simply’ require opening to, recognizing, appreciating, accepting, seeing. I’m convinced it’s not a matter of practice or self-discipline or 10,000 hours of effort, though practices might (or might not!) help to become ready to let go and realize them.

I’m not much for teachers or “gurus” (probably because of my experience with schooling and unschooling). I like the way Eckhart Tolle and Adyashanti and Mooji express the process of the journeys (they seem to have followed similar paths to my own, and use similar vocabulary that I can relate to).

But I am not inspired to sign up for courses or retreats with them. Perhaps that is because most of their adherents seem to me (yes I know this is my ego speaking) utterly clueless about what they are really talking about, and not even vaguely ready to make such a journey.

Instead, I would like to find a small group of (or even one) other(s) on the same journeys, people who come from the same place with a similar sensibility to mine, to make these journeys with. And while I appreciate that some aspects of these journeys (e.g. inquiry and contemplation) are pretty intellectual, I’m really not looking to share the intellectual aspects. Rather, I’m looking to:

  1. Hear their stories about their journeys and what “pointers” they’ve tried. Eckhart and others talk about “pointers” as the many different ways of “getting to” realization that they’ve found work for different people.
  2. Just be with them as a means of mutual encouragement that this journey is worthwhile and not foolish or impossible.

We’re all so different that finding such kindred souls might be a futile task. And there are also two risks of such ‘collaboration’: That it could turn into an unwitting competition to see who gets “there” first, or that it could become too comfortable and reassuring to stay where we are and hold us back from completing the journey.

In the end, my sense is that it’s really about Being Ready to walk through the non-existent door/gate to awareness/awakening.

As I tire of conversation and useless words and thoughts, I see value in “this just being together”, a kind of marshalling together to provide the reassurance that it’s time, and I’m ready, as I take a deep breath, and jump into the unknown.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 4 Comments

The Genius of Randomness

PenTarotFoolFrom time to time on various so-called social media someone suggests, when looking for inspiration, insight or guidance, grabbing a book at random and looking at some random sentence on some random page — say, the 3rd sentence on page 43 for example. When I just did this I came up with this sentence from The Fourth Turning:

“What [the early European migrants to North America] did not seek — indeed, what they were fleeing — was a pagan resignation to the seasonality of nature.”


storyLikewise when you seek guidance from the Tarot or the I Ching (card above is from the Pen Tarot, and is one of two cards — the other being the Hanged Man — that most often come up when I ask questions about my purpose or role in life. I don’t believe in divination, but sometimes playing with the random can provoke insight that rational inquiry cannot.

And similarly when you draw at random from a trusted reference resource; such as the Group Works pattern deck for facilitators, from which I just drew, after asking the question “What should I keep in mind when leading the session on patterns in group process next Tuesday?”, the card shown at left.

Very wise, and completely random.

There is a certain magic in letting your mind entertain random things drawn from outside your normal stream of thinking, particularly if they juxtapose things that would not normally be thought of together. Once we get into a lot of habitual behaviours and thought patterns, these patterns can become deep ruts that entrain our thoughts and inhibit our imaginations and creativity, and may need a ‘bump’ to knock us out of them.

So, as someone who endlessly complains about our society’s imaginative poverty, I was intrigued to stumble upon a game called Big Idea from a prolific game designer named James Ernest* at Cheapass Games. While the game (which involves a very creative and novel sequence of steps investing in new startups with seemingly incongruous Big Idea products and services) was intriguing, I was more drawn to the two card decks that produce, at random, the Big Ideas that players have to promote and invest in in the game. One deck contains adjectives that hint at a feature (some rather silly, but then again maybe not?) of a new product or service, while the second contains nouns that generally define what that product or service is. In the game, you have to select one or more of the adjective cards and one of the noun cards in your hand to represent the springboard to a novel invention (the “Big Idea”) which you then have to promote to other players (“investors”).

Rather than playing the game, I just drew random combinations of adjective cards and noun cards, and then when my intuition was piqued about the possibilities it provoked, I wrote down the combination. When I ran out of cards the second time, I returned to the possibilities that I’d jotted down and played with them. It had been a long day and I was really tired, so after writing down my thoughts I fell asleep. Twice during the night I awoke and immediately wrote down other thoughts that seemed to stem from what my mind had been playing with. In the morning I had refined the list to eight ideas, and spent an hour playing around more with them. Here are the eight ideas and the thoughts I had about them:

  1. Colour-Changing Clothes:
    • Biomimicry: using the ‘technologies’ of chameleons or butterflies (colour from light refraction), how might clothes be woven and ‘wired’ in such a way that they could change colours on demand, so one item could be used in multiple wardrobes? And if it works for clothes, could it also work for changing the colour of your house’s walls, or that of your furniture upholstery?
    • Pheromones: what if some items of clothes could change colour based on the chemicals being given off by the wearer, reflecting unspoken moods?
  2. Instant Vacations:
    • Last Minute Getaways: how might ‘last-minute clubs’ who buy up unsold tickets and resort rooms just before the travel date, tap into vacationers’ preferences (per a pre-completed questionnaire about your ‘dream’ vacation, or your TripAdvisor reviews etc.) so that you could be offered a completely organized, ready-to-fly package on the spur of the moment that matched closely exactly what you like to do on a vacation?
    • Surprise Vacations: using the same intelligence on preferences as above, might adventurous people enjoy signing up for a vacation where they wouldn’t be told where they’d be going or what they’d be doing until they actually arrived at their destination?
  3. The Herb Game:
    • How might a multi-sensory game teach you all about herbs — what they smell and taste and look like, how to use them for health, in cooking etc.?
  4. Perforated Cement:
    • Cement is heavy and its production is environmentally destructive, consuming huge amounts of water. Could new technology reduce its weight, cost and destructiveness without reducing its strength?
  5. Reflective Clothes:
    • For Beach Wear: Could reflective fabrics reduce the weight and cost of beach wear and keep the wearer cooler?
    • For Fun: Could a reflective fabric make the wearer look almost invisible, reflecting instead the world in which the wearer moves?
  6. Invisible Laundry Machines:
    • Washers and dryers take up space and generally look ugly. How might we hide them in plain sight where they aren’t noticed, and/or fold them up and away or repurpose their surfaces and interiors, or build these functions right into the cupboards where the clothing is stored, so their space is freed up for other uses? What other lessons from innovative ‘tiny homes’ can we apply to every home?
  7. “Training” Government:
    • What if you had to complete a multi-year program as a member of a simulated “government”, where your decisions and their effect were recorded, tracked and made public, before you were permitted to actually run for office in a real one?
  8. The Facebook Birthday Aggregator:
    • Every year people send notes to others on their birthdays; it’s often a pain for both senders and recipients to track and manage these. Could an automatic service track everyone’s birthday messages and use the data to prepare a single aggregated birthday ‘card’ (electronic and, if desired, hard-copy as well) with all your messages together, perhaps along with additional functionality (card designs, multimedia attachments etc.)

Of course not all these ideas would prove to be viable (technically or in the consumer marketplace). I’m just using this to illustrate the power of throwing things together at random to stimulate new ways of thinking. How might we enable inventors and other creative people to do this more often and in more different ways. Could we discover analogous ‘random idea stimulators’ that would boost imagination and creativity in other domains (music, film, poetry, design etc.)?

The ultimate application of such creativity-boosters would be, to my mind, in environmental conservation and in preparation for collapse. What improbable juxtaposition of concepts, features and ideas might spark some realization on how we could make cavernous and energy-wasting homes appear to be large and spacious, for example, without actually being so? And how might we, by shaking up all our ideas about how to live and make a living, get people to imagine and role play and get excited (rather than terrified) about living in a community with no private automobiles, no private land or buildings, no distant centralized institutions, no schools or prisons, no imported or processed food, no corporations, no need for money or ‘jobs’?

Playing with randomness. Genius.


* This guy is freaking brilliant. In this presentation he invents a poker-like game called Da Vinci in which players who fold can sell their cards to players who are still playing. Over the years I’ve co-invented dozens of intriguing poker variants, but not once did this game-changing idea occur to me.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 5 Comments

I’ve Changed My Mind


Human beings, it seems, change our worldviews — what we value and believe to be true — pretty slowly. When I started this blog 12 years ago, my worldview was pretty left-of-centre orthodox, as you can see on the left side of the above sketch.

A dozen years later my worldview has radically shifted, as shown on the right side of this sketch (see the footnote if you want a little more elaboration on these ‘new’ views). Some of the shifts came about from personal research and study, or from reading. Other changes came from some place deeper, an intuitive sense and knowledge that was not intellectual, and which I have come to trust more and more as each new intellectual discovery confirms what I intuitively already ‘knew’. Whether we’re conscious of it or not (and we’re mostly not), we are connected with all life on Earth and constantly ‘learning’ from it. I don’t see that as spiritual; it’s how life on that planet has evolved so successfully and in such a nuanced and balanced way over two billion years, largely without the dubious benefit of large ‘individual’ brains. This planet has a collective intelligence, and it’s a lot smarter than we can ever hope to be.

These radical changes in my worldview have been difficult to internalize and come to grips with. But what’s been even more challenging is how dramatically they have altered my take on just about everything I encounter, think about or do in my life. Everything looks utterly different through this raw new lens. The cognitive dissonance between what I see through this lens and what almost everyone else seems to believe (and the media present as ‘truths’) is staggering.

So I can appreciate that our political, economic, health and education systems are dysfunctional, grossly inequitable and substantially corrupt, but (through my new worldview) given the importance of preparing for a world in which these systems will soon have utterly collapsed, I can’t get excited about attempt to reform the present ones, or even stirred to outrage at their failings. The bridge is falling; what does it matter now who’s to blame and what might have been done to strengthen it?

And through my new worldview, I can’t bear listening to idealists tell us about how This Changes Everything, when I know how complex systems function and how nothing (within the capacity of the human species, anyway) changes everything (or really anything very much, at any scale or for very long or even necessarily for the better). Have we forgotten what happened after the Arab Spring, the fall of the Soviet Union, the “liberation” of Afghanistan and the Obama Campaign of Hope already?

But for those whose current worldviews mirror what mine was in 2003, I can appreciate why they believe, urge and do what they do. And I’m not arguing that my current worldview is ‘better’ than my old one, or than anyone else’s, because, as I say, we’re all on our own lonely path to trying to make sense of the world, and if we come to the conclusion that our worldviews are in sync and we make sense of the world the same way, we’re probably deluding ourselves. We can’t be other than who we are.

And in any case, our worldviews are only placeholders, parts of a flimsy and transient and indefensible model of a reality that will ever remain far beyond our understanding. They are playthings, not of much real use in the world anyway, and we take them far too seriously. If we are lucky, some of us (probably not humans) will vaguely appreciate that there is just one presence, one consciousness, and that all the lovely and sacred and sickly and destructive manifestations of that consciousness are just brief walk-ons in the play of life, of no enduring consequence.

But then, that’s just how I see it through the lens of my current worldview. Ask me again in another 12 years.


Note: Here’s a bit more on the elements of my ‘new’ worldview, in case you’re curious:

1. Our civilization will have completely collapsed by 2100. This collapse is part of the 6th Great Extinction of life on Earth, which began with the extermination of large mammals 12,000 years ago, and it will be accompanied by runaway climate change, the exhaustion of easily and inexpensively accessible natural resources, and the collapse of the unsustainable debt-driven industrial ‘growth’ economy.

2. Most human activity occurs within massive, unfathomably complex, self-perpetuating, change-resistant social and ecological systems. As such, we have very little control over our lives, internally or externally, and can’t hope to predict or significantly influence our future or our society’s trajectory. Complex systems evolve to resist attempts to reform or replace them (their equilibrium has been hard-won), and it is only when they become unsustainable and collapse that space is created for new systems to emerge.

3. We are all doing our best, suffering and trying to heal from the fierce and chronic stresses of Civilization Disease. The enormous stress that civilization culture imposes on us inevitably makes us physically and emotionally ill, but this culture’s cruel messages are that (a) ours is the only way to live and (b) we are responsible for our lot in life. Healing begins when we realize these messages are untrue and that we are all struggling to heal, and in the meantime all trying to do our best, what we sincerely believe is best for those we love and for the world, under trying conditions.

4. Our sense of self, mind, self-control, separateness and time are all tragic illusions. Our brains evolved to help the trillions of cells that comprise ‘us’, to detect features and dangers and hence ensure their collective survival; our sense of a separate, in-control ‘self’, centred in the mind, is an unintended consequence of this evolution of large brains, an accident, that our culture has learned to exploit to keep us all in line so this culture can continue. We’ve hence lost the sense of connection and of being a part of all life on Earth, and this has allowed us to unwittingly destroy the systems that all life depends on. And by our nature we do what’s urgent in the moment, not what is important in the longer term, so we have no capacity to change what we are doing.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 19 Comments

The Admission of Necessary Ignorance

My latest article, The Admission of Necessary Ignorance, is up at SHIFT magazine as part of its tenth, science-themed, edition. Check out the whole magazine! SHIFT is back in business after several months’ hiatus and they are gradually restoring the first nine issues (each of which includes an article of mine) to the new website. Here’s the beginning of my article:
Citizen Scientist
image licensed cc-by-2.0: NOAA National Ocean Service via flickr
The title of this article comes from an interview earlier this year with the distinguished biologist and philosopher Richard Lewontin. Richard has fought for years (often alongside his more famous colleague Stephen J Gould) with scientific absolutists of every stripe, from genetic determinists like Richard Dawkins to the neo-phrenologist pop neuro-“scientists” who would have us believe that we will soon understand what it means to be human (and accordingly understand and be able to modify all human behaviour) by deciphering the patterns of coloured lights in brain scans.

Richard, now in his mid-80s, begins the interview by asserting “You can’t be overly humble.” We all want to know the truth, to have something we can believe (and believe in) with certainty, but Richard is here to tell us the limitations of science and the dangers of believing we will ever know more than a tiny fraction of the whats, hows and whys of our lives and our world.

Read the rest at SHIFT Magazine.

Posted in Preparing for Civilization's End | 2 Comments

Dave’s on TV


Two years ago my dear friends Janaia and Robin at Peak Moment TV interviewed me about what complexity theory has taught me about the unsustainability of our civilization and the futility of trying to change the massive systems underlying it.

The video has now been (masterfully) edited down to 28 minutes and is online here. I hope you enjoy it.

Posted in _ Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Presence Game

tarot readingMiro walked slowly back from his outdoor workspace to the solarium where he entertained his guests, and sat down on the sofa. There were three small boxes on his carved coffee table, and from each he drew a stack of cards, which he lined up in front of him.

He was expecting a visit from his friends Wolf, Kristen and Elena, but he had time before he had to make his preparations for this month’s get-together, which was to be on the theme of A World Without Time. “All the time in the world”, he thought.

The cards in the first stack were an amalgam of 30 different Tarot decks, which Wolf & Kristen’s daughter Birgit had made for him. She had also put the meaning of each card in small letters on the back of the card to make the resultant spreads easier to interpret.

Miro asked the question: “How will my Presence practice turn out in the next short while?” — he had been struggling to realize experientially what he knew intellectually, and had found it frustrating. He chose the Past Present Future tableau for his question and shuffled the cards, then smiled and shook his head as he turned over the Tower, the 7 of Coins and the Four of Cups in order. “Amazing”, he said to himself, “It doesn’t matter what cards you turn, you always find truth and plausibility in the cards.”

Unperturbed, he shuffled the second and third decks, which he had created himself. The second deck was distinguished by a large question mark on the back of each card, and was used for Miro’s inquiry practice. Before he began the practice, he would draw three cards from this deck, consider the existential question on each card, and select one to inform his practice for that day. Today he drew:

inquiry cards

He selected the question on the third card and focused his attention on it for fifteen minutes. It was not an intellectual process as much as a noticing one: the purpose wasn’t to answer the question, but rather to see what came up in considering it, and, since many of the questions were self-challenging, to shake up and “let go” of his entrained thinking.

Now Miro did the same with the third deck, which was distinguished by an exclamation mark on the back of each card. These cards informed Miro’s contemplation practice, and each contained some insight, idea, quotation, verse or incongruity that Miro had found intriguing. Again, its purpose wasn’t to think about the wisdom of the words, but to “let come”, to see what ‘sense’ emerged as he contemplated them. ‘Sense’ in its more holistic meaning of ‘making sense’, rather than ‘making meaning’, as he had explained to Wolf when the latter expressed surprise that “such a seemingly cerebral process” would be part of Miro’s attempts “to get out of his thought processes”.

Today Miro drew:

contemplation cards

This time he selected the second card, and spent 15 minutes quietly contemplating it. Then, grabbing a cup of tea, he wandered out to his deck, sat in his lounge chair, and for the next 30 minutes, meditated, watching the clouds and the birds and the mountains and the forest and the ocean beyond, just appreciating them all, appreciating his own health and fitness and joy in living, the miracle of being alive, and just trying to be present with it all.

His adopted pets Kitti and Puppi (so named by Birgit) wandered out and sat on the cushions beside his chair, as if parodying his practice, before starting to wrestle with each other. They began playing with a floating helium-filled ball that Miro had invented that hovered constantly just above the floor of the deck, even as they batted it around with their paws.

As he finished his meditation and returned to the solarium to start preparing for his visitors, Miro’s thoughts went back to his university days. His audacious doctoral thesis, which had since been studied by hundreds of anthropologists and evolutionary biologists, was that thinking had evolved, not to help humans make better decisions in the moment, but as a means of imagining future possibilities and practicing coping with them ahead of time, so that if and when those imagined situations actually arose, we would be better prepared for them.

Miro had been fascinated with the theories of punctuated equilibrium and the unintended consequences of evolutionary adaptations, the so-called ‘exaptations’. He was aware that bird feathers originally evolved to help birds self-regulate their temperature, and their later ‘exaptation’ for flight was, while stunningly successful, entirely unintended, an accident. Likewise, Miro argued, our brains had evolved as they had in order to enable their host organisms to better handle mobility and sense detection. Thinking was an entirely inappropriate vehicle for responding to crises — it was far too slow to be of use in making ‘fight, flight or freeze’ determinations; instinct (driven by emotion) was far more effective. Research even indicated that the decisions that are made ‘by’ the brain are in fact ‘made’ after the host begins to act on the decision, not before, and so were not decisions at all, but rather rationalizations for a decision already made.

But since brains were capable of imagining future scenarios, what evolved as an exaptation, he said, was the use of this imagining to practice coping with such scenarios, safely, when there was no immediate risk. The learnings from that practice could then help inform the instincts and the body’s autonomic responses later when real threats actually arose. A very logical evolution, except that it was fatally flawed. The imagination, unfortunately, usually imagined scenarios that were unrealistic and preposterous — creating monsters in the mind and exhausting the body’s hormonal systems preparing to deal with them.

And then, even worse, what the brain had conjured up as a feeble and oversimplified representation of reality for practice purposes began to be interpreted by the increasingly egoistic brain as ‘real’ reality, at which point our species disconnected itself from its instincts and from all other life on the planet, and hermetically invented the separate ‘self’, which it then imagined had self-control, a separate existence, a separate need to defend and advance itself as an ‘individual’, and a separate, and divine, purpose. Too smart for our own good, we had become afflicted with a self-induced mental illness which, when reinforced by similar beliefs by other ‘individuals’ soon became a societal and then global disease.

So, Miro said with a sigh, while other creatures just know how to live in the real world, we humans must first cure ourselves of the disease of our egos, and then spend the rest of our lives struggling and suffering with the consequences of the collective product of that disease, civilization. Not all exaptations are healthy ones, and the ones that aren’t, as past civilizations have shown, and as cancers demonstrate, are not sustainable, and will sooner or later cause their hosts to exterminate themselves or be exterminated.

Games are like thoughts, he said to himself as he set up the activities and refreshments for his soon-to-arrive guests. They too evolved as a means of practicing for possible future situations. Young foxes play with sticks to learn coordination. Young geese, not yet ready or fit enough to be one of the breeding pair, ‘play-mate’ with sterile eggs. Young children play with dolls and toy cars. War games, most notably, are practices, rehearsals for real events, he thought with a shudder. But so are the social experiments of shy young people in Second Life and World of Warcraft, trying to learn how to deal with others in a safe alternative world before daring to do so in the real one. In some cases these rehearsals become addictive escapes, when living in the real world seems inadequate or just too overwhelming.

If games and thoughts were meant to be ‘just practice’ for coping with real world adventures and crises, Miro wondered, perhaps there is a game that could be invented and used to ‘practice’ re-awakening to the real world, the more-than-human world beyond thoughts and emotional reactions to thoughts, beyond the illusions of mind and self and separation and time. What might that game be like?

.     .     .     .     .

The “World Without Time” theme evening turned out to be a great success. The foursome did a series of thought experiments and model-drawings as they discussed what it might mean to transcend the illusion of time and live and work in Now Time. At the end of that evening, Miro had introduced the idea of The Presence Game, and they had brainstormed a bit about it.

Now, a month later, they were meeting again to play the first version of the game. Kitti and Puppi greeted each of the guests as they arrived. They chatted over a Thai-themed potluck dinner before retiring to Miro’s solarium and sitting in a circle on floor cushions. Miro had laid out an array of equipment, and explained to Wolf, Kristen and Elena how to attach the sensors to various places on their bodies, how to wear the virtual reality helmets, and how to read the biofeedback monitors.

On his whiteboard he had drawn the following:

He explained that the objective of the Game was two-fold: (1) to notice which of the four ways of being was dominant in each of them, both normally and in the special situations that the scenarios would present, and (2) to see which of the four ways of being was most closely aligned with a state of Presence, and to try to deepen that state.

The four friends donned their VR helmets and Miro ran the first simulation. In it, they were each seated in the passenger seat of a car that was driving in busy, noisy city traffic. After about 5 minutes, they removed the helmets and Miro handed them a printout of the sensor readings and asked them how they felt about the experience. Kristen said she was slightly stressed because she couldn’t “see” or connect with the driver of the car, and had actually called out a warning when it looked like the car was going to hit a pedestrian. She used the words anxious and disoriented to describe the experience. Elena said she was exhilarated by the experience, and started making up stories about it — who was driving, where they were and where they were going and why. Wolf said he felt himself holding his breath at times, and found the lack of control over what was happening frustrating. He wanted to be driving.

“That, my friends, is the control scenario, the one we will use as a surrogate for your normal state,” Miro explained. “Just as the helmet is on your heads, for most of this experience you were in your heads. The readings correspond to a way of being that is mostly emotional and intellectual, with a small amount of sensual experience.”

They then donned the helmets again and a second VR scenario video was run. This time they were alone on a dark street at night and were suddenly accosted by a masked thief who insisted they turn over their money and jewelry, and then showed that he brandished a knife. Halfway through, Puppi came over and started licking the hand of the obviously agitated Elena, seemingly trying to comfort her. When the knife came into the scene she tore off the helmet and shouted “That was awful. What are you doing to us, Miro?” The others didn’t seem to notice, as they were rapt in the experience, their bodies shifting into a defensive stance. When the 5 minutes was up, Miro showed them how the sensor readings corresponding to emotion had spiked, while the readings corresponding to thinking activity had fallen off. “You were in fight-or-flight mode, and your instincts took over and pushed your thinking activity aside,” he explained.

He reassured Elena that the remaining scenarios were “much nicer”, and they resumed. The third scenario was different for each of Miro’s friends — the person each of them saw was someone who had the optimal qualities each of them had selected in a get-together a year earlier called The Aesthetics of Beauty. Miro had had great fun creating avatars that he knew would be attractive to each of his friends, and programming them into this scenario. In the scenario, the avatars were confessing their passionate love for each of Miro’s friends. Each avatar adopted postures and exhibited facial expressions and body language consistent with someone who had fallen madly in love, and their words invited reciprocal affection. Unbeknownst to his helmeted friends, Miro had uncorked a bottle with some human pheromones reputedly emitted by the bodies of people in the early throes of falling in love, to add to the experience.

About halfway into the scenario, the avatars began to disrobe, drawing a mixture of gasps and laughter from Miro’s friends. Miro noted with amusement that although the conversation and other qualities of the avatars had not changed, the readings from some of his friends’ sensors began to shift as the undressing continued.

As that scenario ended and Miro quickly re-corked his pheromone bottle, his friends were wide-eyed and smiling as they removed their helmets. “Wow,” said Wolf, “that was really something. Can I get a copy of that to take home?” His wife laughed and said “You should have seen mine. It might be interesting for us to view each other’s… Or maybe not a good idea,” she added, after reflecting. Elena said “You took these avatars from our Aesthetics of Beauty session last year, didn’t you? I recognized my guy, except I think you put a little of yourself into him as well. Are you trying to tell me something?”

Miro just smiled and asked which of the Four Ways of Being they thought had been triggered by that scenario. They correctly answered that it was the emotional and sensual quadrants. Miro explained how the sensor readings of his three friends had differed, and gave them printouts, but did not attempt to proffer an explanation other than to say “We’re all different.” He described the various “chemicals of love” that the scenario might have evoked in each of them, from his whiteboard graphic.

The next scenario had no avatars. In it, the experiencer was walking alongside a fast-moving stream through an immense old-growth tropical forest teeming with birds, which then opened onto an ocean beach at sunset, with the surf pounding ashore. When it ended, Wolf said he just wanted to watch that one over and over; he claimed he was already “over” the imaginary lover who had seduced him in the previous video. “Though of course if she were to meet me on that beach…,” he laughed. There were great sighs of pleasure from Elena and Kristen. “Where was that video taken?,” Kristen asked. “I want to go there, and stay for a long time.”

Wolf said “I think I’m starting to see the pattern here. I’ll bet the sensors placed us in the instinctual and sensual quadrants for that scenario, and that’s the one that corresponds with Presence.” Miro nodded, and added “Correct, but the winner of the game is not the one with the sensor readings closest to those quadrants, but the one whose sensor readings change most in that direction from the ‘normal’ readings from our first scenario. And you have to achieve those readings without the benefit of the forest and beach scenario you just saw.”

Miro put away the helmets, lit some candles and incense, and poured a glass of wine for each of his guests, as he marked on each printout the sensor readings most closely associated with the state of instinctual/sensual Presence that had peaked during the final scenario. He invited them to get up and move or even go for a walk outside if they were so inclined: the sensors had wireless transmitters that would continue to show their changing states. He suggested some meditation, contemplation and biofeedback exercises that might help. And then, for the next hour, he just watched his friends, and the monitors, and offered them food and drink and cushions and hugs and whatever else they might want to achieve a deeper sense of presence, and hence, win the game.

As the hour drew to a close, Wolf and Kristen returned, hand in hand, from their walk in the moonlight. Elena had sat down in front of Miro and was leaning back into his chest, her eyes closed. Kitti had in turn curled up on her lap, and was purring quietly. Miro reached over and passed out the last hour’s sensor charts, showing that it was Kristen who had moved most deeply into a Presence state from her ‘normal’ more anxious state, and she was declared the “winner” of the game.

Elena acknowledged that she was still caught up in the “love” video and the chemical rush it had induced in her. Miro assured her that the “love interest” that had spoken to her in that video was strictly based on the ideals from the Aesthetics of Beauty profile she had created a year earlier, and included none of Miro’s own traits. “He was so beautiful,” she said, “and the way he looked at me, his eyes, his smile, the passion in his whole demeanour — just electric. I was hooked while he still had all his clothes on. I can understand how people fall in love with avatars in alternative worlds. So believable.”

She paused and then added: “I think I might rather be in love than Present, if I have to choose. Tom Robbins talks about the impossible struggle to ‘make love last’ and Eckhart Tolle warns that the euphoria of falling in love is a transient illusory feeling that is always followed by ‘disenchantment’ and the same feelings that come with drug withdrawal. Nature wants us to be totally addicted to another; it’s her way of ensuring the intense bonding that will perpetuate the species… And then as your chart shows, she shifts the chemicals to endorphins to keep us attached to the other, for stability and the benefit of the family and tribe, but takes away the euphoric chemicals, the ones that feel so good, so blissful. Yet we’re left with the memory, the craving to have that feeling again… So fuck Mr Tolle and his Presence, I choose Love instead.”

They all laughed, and sighed, and then just sat quietly, until the gong by Miro’s door sounded and told them it was 2 am, and time to go. Kitti and Puppi roused from their naps and prepared to see the guests out.

As they hugged each other goodbye, Wolf said to Miro: “The Presence Game will be hard to top. What do you have in mind for next month’s get-together?”

Miro replied with a smile: “I think the theme will be Letting Go. So give some thought to what it is that you’re holding onto, and whether that ‘attachment’ is good for you or not. See you next month!”

photo credits: (1) tarot reading and interpretations from, with images from the Tarot card decks as credited beside each card; (2) inquiry card images from deviantart members, left to right: by casimir0304 (“The Tower”), neutrix (“Neuron Spark”), and guldbrandt (“Flying”); (3) contemplation card images, left to right from NBC News (Dick Cheney), Salvador Dali’s Persistence of Memory, and (factory farm).

Posted in Creative Works | Comments Off on The Presence Game

Thoughts About Not Thinking

Four Ways Six States of Being

This is another thinking-out-loud update on my “presence” practice — my attempt to awaken to the realization that “I”, the mind, time and the separate self are all illusions, and an appreciation of why these illusions, which cause so much unnecessary suffering in our world, are so prevalent in our sad and struggling species, and so hard to transcend.

I’ve noticed that the ideas of Eckhart Tolle and Adyashanti, whose writings and presentations in this area resonate most with me, have audiences that seem less female-dominated than those of most “spiritual teachers”. I’ve also noticed that I tend to have more difficulty explaining what I’m trying to ‘achieve’ with women than with men.

I wondered whether this was due to the ways in which men and women tend to perceive the world differently. Eckhart acknowledges that women tend to be more grounded than men, less caught up in their heads, and hence tend to find it easier to realize presence. My earlier 4-state model of ‘how presence looks’ described two kinds of presence, one intellectual (when you’re into a groove with a group of people and just “on”), and one sensual and intuitive (when you’re in a state of relaxed, spacious awareness). Eckhart’s writing has convinced me that the former ‘type’ of presence isn’t really intellectual at all — it’s just a more social form of the one presence, spacious awareness. When you’re “on” with a group of people, it’s because you are open and noticing and responding in the moment, not because you’re thinking. So I’ve re-cast my model, above, with only one form of presence (state #6 in this diagram).

I’ve also realized that with Jung’s four ways of knowing and being — intellectual, emotional, sensual and instinctual — there are actually 6 permutations or “states of being” when you look at which two ways are dominant in you at any point in time. So now my model, which I’d hoped to simplify, has 6 states of being rather than the 4 of the earlier model. Acknowledging the additional states produced two “ahas” for me:

  • A greater appreciation of that state of being when your emotions and instincts are prevailing (over the intellect and senses). I’ve called this state (#5 in the diagram) the Nurturing/Protecting state. When people (notably women) warn me that they think the so-called “awakened” state #6 can desensitize you to people’s feelings and predicaments, I have argued that state #6 is one of unattachment, not detachment, but they are often unpersuaded. Now I can see that in moments of nurturing (e.g. of a child or a pet) there is this incredible deeply emotional bond that, it could be argued, is another state of grace just as profound as the unattached “present” state #6. I’m still thinking about this.
  • For a while I’ve believed that wild creatures experience fear and stress in a similar way to how humans do — they go into ‘fight, flight or freeze’ mode in “clock time” until the cause of the stress passes, but then they shake it off and return to “Now time” (state of presence, state #6). But in updating the model above I’ve realized that this temporary state of stress (where emotions and instincts rise to the fore) is actually a form of the highly present Nurturing/Protecting state (#5), and is very different from the low-presence chronic state of anxiety and stress (#1) in which I (and I suspect most humans) spend the bulk of our lives. The anxious, paralyzing fearfulness in which we humans characteristically live is entirely different from those rare moments of immediate existential threat and visceral terror which can bring out the best in us, as they often do with wild creatures.

So here is a brief walk-through of the 6 states in this revised model:

  1. “Normal” Human Anxious State (Intellectual/Emotional Being): What Eckhart calls the “unconscious” state in which we are totally preoccupied with repetitive thought patterns and related ‘negative’ emotional patterns. For many if not most of us, afflicted by our too-smart-for-our-own-good brains and our oppressive and destructive culture, this is how we “normally’ live our lives.
  2. Transient Ecstatic State (Sensual/Emotional Being): For most of us, I suspect, the only (and easiest) escape from state #1, through alcohol, drugs, sex, engaging entertainments or other addictions, or when in the grip of entranced feelings of all-consuming love, righteous anger, bittersweet or nostalgic melancholy, or the giddiness that follows great ‘personal’ achievement, extraordinary good fortune, or adrenaline-producing thrills. Alas, warns Eckhart, none of these can last, so this ecstasy can only be fleeting and transient, after which we return to state #1 and start to crave more of whatever got us to this state #2.
  3. Problem-Solving State (Intellectual/Instinctual Being): A different kind of escape, and the refuge of intellectuals and scientists, getting lost in thought about some intellectual challenge (e.g. a puzzle, a game, writing a blog post, working on a complicated or complex problem, or concocting a model of the 6 states of being :-) Often the real function of this ‘work’ or ‘play’ is to distract the mind from its useless and repetitive thought patterns and negative emotions. But it can have real value. When I watch the squirrels (and larger birds) endlessly and cleverly trying to defeat the squirrel baffle, they are clearly in this state.
  4. Provisioning State (Intellectual/Sensual Being): This is your state when you genuinely believe what you are doing is useful, worthwhile, meaningful and valuable. For a few, this can happen in their work lives, though surprising achievements can go to your head (back to state #2), and disappointments can quickly put you back in state #1. For an increasing number, gardening, teaching, healing, community-building or other activities can get them into this state. For the squirrels and birds, this is their state when they are hiding or retrieving their food caches, or (often playfully) showing their young how to do things.
  5. Nurturing/Protecting State (Emotional/Instinctual Being): This is your state when caring for others, or (for a very brief time) when reacting to an immediate and real existential threat. When you are looking after the needs of others, you get outside your ‘self’ and its preoccupation with stories about self, past and future. For the squirrels and birds, this is their state when nurturing their young, when grooming each other, and (briefly and perhaps paradoxically) when they are under attack.
  6. “Now Time”/Present State (Sensual/Instinctual Being): Eckhart talks about how our awareness of sense perceptions (“presence without”) and our inner body/energy field (“presence within”) finally takes us to that state of spacious awareness in which we realize what enables us to be aware, now, of our sense perceptions, inner body, thoughts and feelings: the light of our true presence, our essence, now, the space between our thoughts and feelings, emptiness, stillness, the one consciousness — freed from the false sense of self, the illusory self, the habitual mind activity of compulsive thought patterns and reactive emotional patterns.

I have a growing appreciation of the possibility of achieving this state of awareness, but am still stuck variously in states #1-#3. I’m also not sure which of these states some human activities (e.g. collaborative play, learning new things) tend to get us to.

LOTM Overthinking-580.jpg
cartoon by Charles Barsotti from The New Yorker

So I continue to practice, to try different types of meditation, inquiry, and contemplation, to try to invoke a truly present state. It’s my obsession, I know, and possibly the realization I seek will never come. And yes I know I’m overthinking this, but every once in a while I need to sit for a while in state #3, in which this post was mostly written, not in the expectation that this is a path to awakening, but because this is my ‘idle’ state when I tire of practice.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 7 Comments

Links of the Quarter: September 29, 2015

hansen warming glacial melt
one of many disturbing warming scenarios from the latest study by Jim Hansen’s team shows that global warming is far from uniform; total glacial melt in Greenland (or Antarctica) would set the stage for constant storms of unprecedented size and total disruption of ocean currents and jet streams, rendering adjacent land areas frozen and unliveable (thanks to Sam Rose for the link to Robert Fanney’s work) UPDATE: The Greenland Cold Blob has apparently already started (thanks to 3Es Global Risk Report for this new link)

More and more I’m beginning to think about our future in terms of the kind of Great Migration that accompanied the last ice age 20,000 years ago — but this time it will be a migration (generally) toward the poles instead of toward the equator, and it will be billions of humans on the move, not millions, as runaway climate change makes much of the planet from 45ºN to 45ºS uninhabitable, and as drought, inexhaustible wildfires, massive storms, flooding and tropical diseases encroach and push us further every few years.

This will likely start within the next 20 years and then become the usual way of living in the decades to follow, until life as we know it today is forgotten, and human numbers (mostly due to collapsing birth rates) plummet. Even if the essential infrastructure of civilization survives (which is unlikely in the face of the utter economic collapse that such massive forced migration will bring about), that infrastructure will simply be abandoned, since it will be of no use to post-collapse nomadic humans. This is the way almost all civilizations have ended — not by conquest or internal purge, but when they became unsustainable and their citizens found they no longer served a useful purpose and simply walked away from them (thanks to Eric Lilius for this link).

“Poor Richard” (Saunders) has started thinking about what this might mean for preparations today. If we’re all going to be on the move, progressively toward the poles and away from storms and flooded coasts, how does this change our concept of “sustainable community” and what we might do now to prepare for the Great Migration? He suggests:

Self-reliance is revolutionary. In the past self reliance has often been built upon resources such as land and capital. In a collapse of civilization assets including land may become too hard to hold onto. In that case the greatest asset may be a body of knowledge and a set of skills that allow people to live off the land in a more mobile or nomadic configuration. If that’s the case, it might behoove us to acquire that knowledge and those skills in advance. It might also make sense for us to prepare for a modern, nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle by “planting” resources into the environment, perhaps hiding some resources in plain sight. One way of doing this might be scattering permaculture plantings, forest gardens, etc. throughout the range of territory we might expect to inhabit.

I’m attending an Intro to Permaculture session next month, and this is the thought I want to plant in the minds of the organizers and attendees.



recent regional air quality report, the result of wildfires burning out of control longer than usual due to an international shortage of wildfire fighters

Goodbye Cascadia:An earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest. The question is when.” The New Yorker’s Kathryn Schultz, in an award-worthy article, explains why.

Toxic Bloom Threatens West Coast Marine Life: As if overfishing and pollution weren’t enough, climate change has unleashed a massive “blob” of hot water sitting long-term off the entire North American west coast, which has produced a “red tide” algae bloom that has infected much of the offshore marine life with deadly toxins.

One Economic Collapse, Coming Right Up: Zero Hedge explains why we’re headed for a crash that will make 2008 look like nothing. “A critical thinking individual might wonder how new home sales could be down 60% from 2005, while home prices are 15% higher than they were in 2005. Don’t the laws of supply and demand work anymore?… I wonder who is responsible for this?” (hint: it’s the bankers, and the Fed)

Top Predators (Other Than Humans) Self-Limit Their Numbers: Wild creatures at the top of the food chain are so connected to the web of life on Earth that they intuitively self-limit procreation to stay in balance with the ecosystems in which they reside, minimizing suffering for all. Contrary to popular belief that animals procreate as much as possible until and unless limited by predators or disease, this self-management seems endemic to almost all bird and mammal species, and it makes perfect evolutionary sense. If only the human species was still similarly so connected…

“Sustainability is Destroying the Earth”: A writer in the Deep Green Resistance movement explains why none of our “green” activities, conservation activities or protests have any real effect on the destruction of our planet. If you really want to bring about change, the writer suggests, you will have to become much more radical in what you do. I think that’s correct —Bill McKibben, 350, Greenpeace (as if it rather than the economy had anything to do with Shell’s decision to stop arctic drilling!), Naomi Klein, Avaaz and the rest of the neo-environmental movement have been completely coopted and their efforts are, in my opinion, worse than useless. But as a student of complexity I’m not convinced that Deep Green Activism will accomplish much more on any scale — the “block it, break it, take it” direct actions that DGR calls for may cause minor delays to the destruction, but will give corporatists and their PR machine ammunition to discredit opponents (all of us) as “terrorists” and won’t have much long-term impact in any case. Better I think to do below-the-radar local actions, quietly, and what Joanna Macy calls “holding actions” that are realistically intended not to bring about change, but to slow down the destruction a bit, in unspectacular ways, so that the industrial culture will have destroyed less by the time it sputters and collapses of its own weight. This is not work for idealists, optimists or the impatient. Thanks to Emily MacDonald for the first two links.

Complexity and Climate Change: Jonathan Franzen explains why complex systems are so hard to change, and why it’s so much easier to claim (and believe in) some simple, blame-shifting cause for every problem. Thanks to Raffi Aftandelian for the link. Excerpt:

The reason the American political system can’t deliver action isn’t simply that fossil-fuel corporations sponsor denialists and buy elections, as many progressives suppose. Even for people who accept the fact of global warming, the problem can be framed in many different ways—a crisis in global governance, a market failure, a technological challenge, a matter of social justice, and so on—each of which argues for a different expensive solution. A problem like this (a “wicked problem” is the technical term) will frustrate almost any country, and particularly the United States, where government is designed to be both weak and responsive to its citizens. Unlike the progressives who see a democracy perverted by moneyed interests, [philosopher Dale] Jamieson suggests that America’s inaction on climate change is the result of democracy. A good democracy, after all, acts in the interests of its citizens, and it’s precisely the citizens of the major carbon-emitting democracies who benefit from cheap gasoline and global trade, while the main costs of our polluting are borne by those who have no vote: poorer countries, future generations, other species.

The Great Forgetting: An excerpt from The Story of B by Daniel Quinn recently turned up on the Films for Action site. If you haven’t read the book, it’s a great introduction to a book well worth reading. It explains how our modern disconnected industrial “taker” culture emerged as dominant over thousands of connected, sustainable “leaver” cultures. Thanks to Seb Paquet for the link.



leunig self-help
cartoon by Michael Leunig

A New Law of the Commons: David Bollier explains how existing private property laws and “rights” lie at the root of inequality, poverty, abuse of power and the dysfunction of our economic systems, and proposes a new emergent Law of the Commons. “What is this all about, ultimately? It’s about honoring the sovereignty of people to devise their own forms of governance to meet their needs and local context. It’s about the importance of bottom-up initiatives and participation, and of transparency and accountability. It’s about meeting people’s needs without relying on the dysfunctional formalities of bureaucracy, the market/state duopoly of power, or the social inequities associated with markets.” Parallel steps include legal reforms to liberate cooperatives from the burdensome laws required to prevent the worst abuses of for-profit corporations (the work the SELC is doing), and the development of Community Land Trusts to enable stewardship of the land for the benefit of all. Thanks to “Ah Uhm” at PLAST for the link.

Returning Land Profits to the People: Martin Adams goes a step further than David Bollier, advocating the use of Community Land Trusts to gradually supplant private ownership. This might start with freezing the value of land at current values and returning all future appreciation to the community; land then becomes something to use (hopefully with care and good stewardship) rather than something to speculate on, and because the increase in value stems from the actions of the community (and not those of the investor) it’s only fair that the incremental proceeds from sale at that higher value accrue to the community. Thanks to Mark Frazier for the link.

The Worker Co-op Academy: The SELC is also now offering training in how to set up co-operatives. I would love to see this expand beyond California, and to see it radicalized to adopt the Natural Enterprise model.

Malama Aina: A stunning short Hawai’ian film (the title refers to “careful stewardship of the Earth”) questions a society that rewards and celebrates “profit” — the taking of more than one gives — and suggests a better, more ancient worldview. Thanks to Jacqueline Massey for the link.

Why I Defaulted On My Student Loans: A very controversial article (a lot of people who have struggled and suffered for years with un-repayable student or other debts complained that the author was “irresponsible”) suggests just walking away from exorbitant debts. There used to be a way for people in this situation to escape; it’s called declaring bankruptcy. But since the banksters seized power it’s now much more difficult to do, and has lifelong consequences. The Occupy movement is taking a lead here, blocking foreclosures and evictions and supporting citizens buffaloed by the criminal usury gangs called the “financial services industry” into getting into debts they (the lenders) know full well can never be repaid. If there’s ever a revolution against inequality, this will be the front line of activism.

petting chart
(graphic circulating on the Internet; original source unknown)

Shaking Off the Stress: Mimicking wild creatures’ vigorous physical “shaking off” process after a stressful incident, Trauma Releasing Exercises purport to offer the same stress-busting benefit for humans, focusing on tightening and relaxing the psoas muscles. Thanks to Beth Patterson for the links.

Learning How to Die: Stephen Jenkinson explains how our radically individualistic culture, separated from history and nature and tradition, leads us to fear and shun death, among a host of other dysfunctional behaviours. Thanks to Eric Lilius for the link.

How Children Really Learn: Institutionalized schooling leads to a distorted sense by education “experts” of how children learn, and hence to a brutal, dysfunctional and damaging education system. Do your children and the world a favour and help them escape. Thanks to PS Pirro for the link, and the one that follows.

Struggling Nations to Do-Gooders: We Don’t Need Your Help: Back in 1968 Ivan Illich wrote a scathing attack on the incredible damage and waste caused by well-intentioned but arrogant first world do-gooders coming to developing nations and imposing their culture, “assistance” and ideas on them, before going home thinking they’d helped. It’s still pertinent today.

Bowen Island’s Green Resource Guide: The Green Guide is the latest useful initiative from Bowen in Transition, which I’m honoured to be a member of.

The Idaho Stop Law: A really sensible law in Idaho allows bicyclists to treat stop signs as if they were yield signs and red lights as if they were stop signs. This results in cyclists clearing intersections quickly and safely. When SF police were ordered to enforce stops and red lights for cyclists the same as for cars, protesters showed what happens when bicyclists actually do that, with comical (except to frustrated, backed-up motorists) results. In another sensible ruling in Idaho, the courts have ruled their ag-gag law unconstitutional. However, dozens of other state ag-gag laws, passed under pressure from factory farm corporations, remain on the books. Thanks to Tree for the links.

No Such Thing As Time: If we (by which I mean I) could only realize that there is no such thing as time, or the separate ‘self’, everything would be so much easier. Maybe. Thanks to Tia Carr for the link.



Keith Tucker 20150624_TPP
cartoon on the TPP by Keith Tucker

Conservatives Lead in the Polls, Again: As Canada’s four progressive parties snipe at each other and split the vote, the ultra-right governing Conservative Party looks likely, with just 32% support, to win another plurality, and perhaps even majority, in the election October 19th. A NYT editorial explains what this means for Canada. A Macleans magazine investigation explains what’s already been lost (thanks to Eric Lilius, who also sent me this hilarious spoof of Harper’s warmongering, for the link).

Even the New Yorker Criticizes “Free” Trade Agreements: James Surowiecki acknowledges that the provisions in so-called “free” trade agreements like NAFTA and the upcoming TPP that allow corporations to sue governments (i.e. to extort money from taxpayers) when their “freedoms” to pollute, to exploit, and to overcharge are restricted by domestic laws, are outrageous and need to be excised (see cartoon above). US Senator Jeff Sessions, who opposed TPP, wrote “Washington broke arms and heads to get that 60th vote–not one to spare–to impose on the American people a plan which imperils their jobs, wages, and control over their own affairs. It is remarkable that so much energy has been expended on advancing the things Americans oppose, and preventing the things Americans want.”

Nutritional Supplements: What’s Not in the Bottle: If you’re taking vitamins and other nutritional supplements, please ensure (a) you’re actually getting what’s on the label (you’re often not), and (b) that they’re actually effective for what ails you (most aren’t).  This also applies to vitamins and minerals, most of which are useless if you eat properly.

A Dark & Sticky Business: Linda McQuaig, a Toronto NDP candidate in the October 19th federal election, dared to say the Tar Sands bitumen should be left in the ground. The reaction, even from within her party, was predictable.

Coopting the Sharing Economy, Part LXI: Having coopted the sharing of spare rooms and cars for profit-making purposes, capitalists are now trying to coopt the co-living movement. They just can’t understand why anyone would do anything without a profit motive. Thanks to Tree (and Pax) for the link.

Debunking the 9/11 Truthers: The brilliant investigative reporter Nafeez Ahmed explains why, despite the incompetence of the media to explain the total collapse of the towers on 9/11, it was no inside job. Rather, he suggests, it was likely shoddy design and/or corner-cutting in the safety of construction of the towers in the first place that led to the massive collapse of four entire buildings.

But Some Are More Equal Than Others: Ultra-rich Californians argue that as long as they can pay for it, they should not be restricted in how much water they use on their lawns and golf courses, no matter how serious the drought gets. Libertarianism run amok.



microscopic photo of a tardigrade, a recently-discovered clawed bear-like aquatic creature about 1/16 of an inch long, that has been found thriving everywhere, including places of extreme cold and pressure; in poor climates they self-dehydrate to tiny condensed size and can hibernate, seemingly indefinitely, until they bounce right back when conditions improve; calling Dr Seuss!

Evolution and Complexity: David Sloan Wilson interviews evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin, who explains how our incapacity (or unwillingness) to appreciate complexity hurts science, and why applying evolution theory to culture and sociology is flawed thinking. One of the best interviews I’ve ever read. A separate article by David Sloan Wilson explains why best practices don’t work — why inertia, preconceived ideas and aversion to innovation prevent very successful trials from getting permanent traction and allow obviously flawed and dysfunctional practices to continue in use. Another paradox of complexity.

Vegan with Attitude: Vegan Black Metal Chef shows you how to prepare some simple, wonderful, vegan meals. Hellishly funny.

The Girlfriend Closet: What’s a poly guy, living alone, to do?

Amazing New Renewable Energy Source Discovered: Some levity by Richard Heinberg. Thanks to (naturally enough) Tree for the link, and the one that follows.

Explaining Straight White Male Privilege to Straight White Males: Imagine a video game with the lowest difficulty setting ever.

Seattle Jim Page: I first heard Jim live a few months ago, and found his stirring protest songs, and lovely celebrations of simple living, truly inspiring.

(photo circulating on the Internet; original source unknown)

Live Video of Alaskan Bears in Brooks Falls: These remote 24/7 cams bother me a bit; seems like an invasion of privacy. But watching wild creatures live is fascinating. In addition to the bears, the site has other wilderness cams as well. Thanks to Susan Avery for the link.

Jim Henson Tribute: The rest of the faces behind the Muppets do a mashup of Jim Henson’s favourite songs. Really moving. Thanks to Kelly for the link.

Hyperrealist Paintings: Watch Portrait Painter Pabst make portraits using dry brush techniques that are almost alive; he also does some amazing 3D illusion paintings.



EMJBEcom cartoon
cartoon from (thanks to Seb Paquet for the link)

  • From Paul Kingsnorth, in the invitation for submissions to Dark Mountain volume 9, earlier this month: “Humanity is going to be humbled one way or the other, so we may as well begin the process ourselves. What might the alternatives to the Humans-As-Gods story look like, told in fiction, non-fiction, poetry and art,  starting from where we are?”
  • From Umberto Eco (thanks to Todd Suomela for the link): “A good book is more intelligent than its author. It can say things that the writer is not aware of.”
  • From actor/musician Hugh Laurie (thanks to Jon Husband for the link): “It’s a terrible thing, I think, in life to wait until you’re ready. I have this feeling now that actually no one is ever ready to do anything. There is almost no such thing as ready. There is only now. And you may as well do it now. Generally speaking, now is as good a time as any.”
  • From PS Pirro, a new poem, No Hard Feelings:


It’s the water that carries us, after all,
like mermaids astride the glistening shell
of the giant sea turtle, we are slippery wet,
slick as newborns.

We are filled with the oceans, we are alive.

All my friends are anemones, supple, pliable,
bendy beneath the waves,
the salt and the sea that softens the flesh
and even the hardest of feelings.

All my friends are fluid.


When John was twelve he came upon his father
golden in the early morning light, hanging
by a noose from a rafter in the barn.

When Tim was twelve he followed his mother
to the Belgium Bridge and watched as she threw
what remained of herself into the Seneca River.

When Mark was twelve he watched his father
give himself up to the tumors that stole the hard,
dry breath from his lungs.


We did not kiss or hold each other close
one last time, we did not wish each other well.


When the edges get ragged, you can turn
a new seam. Again and again, you turn,
until the garment that once covered you
is a collar buttoned at your throat, a bib to catch
what crumbs may fall.

But this is not the edge.
This is the center, this is the heart,
where the rend is new
and the soft fray has only just begun,
there is still time to lay a patch,
still time to stitch things
back together.
If only I had a needle.
If only I could find some thread.


All along the shores of Lake Ontario
I gather the pieces of beach glass,
frosted blue and green, bits of vessels once
whole and transparent, now fractured into
fragments, small and opaque as moonstone,
buffed and lustrous, the product of time
spent tumbling, of turbulence, of friction,
of abrasion, bruised like knees for years and years.
I fill my pockets to overflow with the beautiful
battered bits and carry them all back home.

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