Links of the Quarter: September 2016

lotq1-born-into-captivity-cartoonour civilization, it seems to me
is like an old man with alzheimer’s;
it has its good days and its bad days,
but on the whole the progress of the disease seems slow but relentless
and the prognosis doesn’t look good —
there’s more crashing into walls and other sudden mysterious crises each year
and the recovery, each time, seems a bit slower.

on the surface it seems to be functioning just fine,
though more and more helpers have been recruited to stop by
and do the things it use to be able to manage by itself;
it doesn’t seem able to feed itself any more.

and it used to be so clear, so coherent and reliable,
it seemed possible to believe it could live on forever,
growing ever-bigger and better and stronger
and looking after all the generations who depended on it.

the real problem now is the infrastructure,
the hidden stuff, the stuff inside that’s been neglected too long
denied, ignored, in the hope the problems will somehow just go away,
consequence of decades of unhealthy behaviour;
we’ve seen the images, the scans, and it’s nasty in there,
lots of stuff festering, rotting, falling apart, beyond repair.

and then there’s the stuff outside, the externalities,
the mess beyond the centre, where the waste was thrown
without any real intention to clean it up later
and now the whole place is a mess,
and the stuff that’s needed is harder and harder to find.

and what happened to the old energy?
there used to be such enthusiasm, such magic, such joy,
such belief in the eternity of everything;
now it seems it takes more and more effort to do the same thing,
and there’s a lot of stumbling and coughing.

and the cost of maintaining everything just goes up and up,
90% of the cost of maintaining health, they say
comes in the last 10% of one’s life,
will that be true of this once-mighty and resilient culture?
and is it worth that investment
for the quality of life it might provide
for just another short while?

it may be time to move it to a home where it’s comfortable,
where it’s not so exhausting trying to look after its needs
and once again get on with our own lives, beyond it.

it may be time to think about the wisdom of life support
and ask whether it’s a favour to it or anyone
to keep it alive, another day, another year.

but today seems a not-too-bad day, shuffling forward
one step at a time; maybe we need to get back to work
so it can be fed, medicated, bandaged up
one more day, it’s just one more day —
how would we ever live without it?
we can decide what to do about it tomorrow.

cartoon above by the Naked Pastor, David Hayward

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PREPARING FOR CIVILIZATION’S COLLAPSE
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cartoon by Michael de Adder in the Halifax Chronicle Herald — thanks to Karen Runge for the link

To Change Everything, Start Here: Crimethinc offers a smartly written manifesto for anarchism (“a philosophy that advocates self-governed, stateless societies based on voluntary non-hierarchical institutions and free associations”) starting with how you see yourself, your own beliefs and behaviours, your relationship with others, how you perceive the problems we face in the world (and how they’re all connected), and the principles and power dynamics that underlie a completely different way of thinking and seeing. It’s inspiring, liberating, and thought provoking. Thanks to Tree for the link.

td0s Reads the Signs: The articulate author of Pray for Calamity describes what he’s seeing in the map of our immediate future:

Simply stated, this is what I see: A period of economic depression is on the wind… Where it all leads is too far out to say… It is when a majority of the significant trend-lines slump downward that we can say with certainty a society is in decline… There will be a shake out of never-to-be-solvent again institutions, and a generalized acknowledgement of a paradigm of “hard times” being upon us. Natural disasters will be harder and harder to recover from as they will strike more often in regions where status quo thinking believes them too unlikely or impossible and this will combine with a financial inability to afford repair. Politically, people will seek easy and incorrect answers, so on that front we will have nothing new in thinking modality, but we will see new lows in practical application.

Dave Talks About Preparing for Collapse: Lone Raven at the Dispossess Podcast interviews yours truly. About 75 minutes long.

What Will We Use Renewable Energy For?: Jason Hickel asks the difficult question about whether our zeal for renewable energy is so that we can continue to fuel destructive and unsustainable activities. He think we will just use the energy to “raze more forests, build more meat farms, expand industrial agriculture and deplete our soils, produce more cement, and fill more landfill sites, all of which will pump deadly amounts of greenhouse gas into the air. We will do these things because our economic system demands endless compound growth, and for some reason we have not thought to question this.” Thanks to Shasta Martinuk for the link.

One Percent Away From Disaster: Low interest rates penalize savers and those on fixed incomes, and reward gamblers, big banks and heavy borrowers (including most big corporations). A recent study indicates that an interest rate rise as small as 1% would put nearly a million Canadian borrowers under water — unable to pay their debts with current sources of income. The situation is the same in most “affluent” nations. That’s why regulators and politicians keep interest rates artificially low — way less than the real rate of inflation — and we all suffer as a result.

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LIVING BETTER

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driftwood horse by Heather Jansch

The Hows and Whys of Financial Regulation: The heroic Janelle Orsi at the Sustainable Economies Law Centre explains why (and by who) the myriad of complex and costly financial and fiduciary regulations that govern corporations were established, and why a completely different set of regulations is needed for small, cooperative, not-for-profit enterprises. This 13-minute video is essential to understanding the sharing economy and the obstacles it faces. Thanks to Tree for the link, and the two that follow.

A Superb Apology: A news reporter demonstrates how to admit you’ve done something wrong, in a way that helps others learn as well, and do it with class.

Please Unsubscribe: Chris Clark, co-founder of the Reinventing Organizations wiki, reminds us to be wary of promises and demands (some of them self-initiated) to become more efficient, productive, or better in other ways, especially when they consume valuable time and reinforce “behaviors that don’t actually make a difference, perspectives that limit our capacity to make a difference, and mindsets that cause us to act from fear of difference: scarcity, comparison, and ego.”

Coping With Climate Change Distress: This PDF from Australia has a little too much cognitive behavioural content for my liking, but the idea is a good one, and there are many sound coping strategies for coming to grips emotionally with the grim reality of climate change in it. Thanks to my friends at NTHELove for the link.

The Sea Shepherd Sails On: The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has recently been in the Salish Sea near where I live, researching and protesting the scourge of “salmon farming”.

The Pill You’re Not Allowed to Take: The economics of the pharmaceutical industry demand that no medicine be commercially developed that actually cures an illness (no profit in that), and that no research or support be given to the benefits of unpatentable medicines. That’s one reason, explains Michael Pollan, why hallucinogens have been off-limits for research and prescription for anxiety, depression, addiction and a host of other chronic medical conditions since the 1960s, despite their promise not just as a treatment, but as a cure. Meanwhile, we keep using the self-defeating Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step type programs and other cognitive behavioural change methods, even though they have never worked. Maybe the therapists, like the pharma companies, are not unhappy that their patients are never cured and have to keep coming back for more?

Not Even Greens Understand Complexity: The City of Victoria BC dumps all its raw sewage into the ocean. That’s outrageous, right, and even at a cost of $1 billion it needs to stop, right? Well, maybe. Read this for an explanation why apparently obvious “green” solutions to some complex problems may not be the right answer. Outstanding writing from Mike Ruffolo.

The Forest as “Natural Economy”: Rob Hopkins draws a metaphor between the way in which the forest self-manages and self-optimizes, and the way that a more healthy economy than the one we have today, would naturally do likewise.

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POLITICS AND ECONOMICS AS USUAL

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New Yorker cartoon by David Borchart

What “the Talk” is Really Saying: Ta-Nehisi Coates: “In the black community, it’s the force they deploy, and not any higher American ideal, that gives police their power. This is obviously dangerous for those who are policed. Less appreciated is the danger illegitimacy ultimately poses to those who must do the policing. For if the law represents nothing but the greatest force, then it really is indistinguishable from any other street gang. And if the law is nothing but a gang, then it is certain that someone will resort to the kind of justice typically meted out to all other powers in the street.”

The Private Legal System for Multi-National Corporations: Big companies suing foreign governments for the right to pollute and pillage worldwide (embedded in so-called “free trade” laws) have decided they can’t afford to lose, so they have set up their own parallel legal system to ensure they don’t, and to ensure governments can’t afford to fight them.

Power Concedes Nothing Without a Demand: My friend Paul Cienfuegos explains how Monsanto and other execrable corporations get away with coercing politicians to pass laws that contravene the public interest, often quite overtly. He quotes Howard Zinn: “Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. … Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running and robbing the country.”

The Fight Against Getty: A famed photographer is billed and threatened by Getty for unauthorized use of her own images, images that she’d placed years ago in the public domain. She uses Getty’s own billing algorithm to compute the damages they owe her for their misconduct. I’d love to see these bastards, the Monsanto of digital intellectual property, driven out of business. Unfortunately, similar unscrupulous organizations lurk everywhere, especially online — the 1000% ticket scalpers, the “virus cleaners”, the exploiters of gullible seniors, and all the rest. It’s a major problem in the unregulatable ‘wild west’ of the internet. Can we label it “digital terrorism” and hence get some big money and resources to fight it? (Thanks to Tree for the link.)

The Collapse of Canada’s Political Left: Like its British cousins, Canada’s two prominent progressive parties are killing themselves. The NDP leader, like Britain’s Labour Party leader, is hanging tough despite a widespread call for his resignation and his general off-putting irascible nature and proven unelectability. At this critical point when PM Trudeau has abandoned his party’s traditional progressive values and shifted the “Liberals” to centre-right and needs to be called to account, the NDP is now stuck with its lame-duck leader for at least another year until his permanent replacement is chosen (and no quality candidates have surfaced). Meanwhile, Canada’s Greens have imploded, as much of its leadership has quit or been purged by its only elected member over the party’s overwhelming adoption of modified sanctions against Israel, which the party’s leader thinks unconscionable and “extremist” (she threatened to resign unless the motion was rescinded, leading to capitulation, the purge and many resignations). So now Canadians are left, like our American cousins, with no progressive electable alternative. No wonder no one trusts politicians — egomaniacs and prima donnas all.

Canadian Nuclear Boss Jokes About Whistleblowers: We may have a new “Liberal” federal government but the corrupt crony capitalism of the Harper era rolls on. We have the National Energy Board holding secret meetings with corporations and politicians before ruling on their pipeline proposals, and nuclear energy execs censoring investigative reporters and ridiculing whistleblowers who expose serious safety concerns. The National Observer, the Tyee, the CBC (increasingly cautiously) and the Toronto Star seem to be the only Canadian media doing any investigative journalism any more.

The Insanity of BC’s Site C Dam: An expert agrologist explains the disastrous impact the imminent and massive Site C dam in northern BC will have on food, food security, nutrition, community resilience, and First Nations and water sovereignty. Not to mention BC’s financial solvency. But the provincial government’s zeal to export “renewable” power (and eventually water) has blinded it to the sustained opposition the project has faced, and Trudeau seems on the verge of approving it federally.

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FUN AND INSPIRATION

lotq4-kim-warp-the-depth-of-your-wrongness-cartoon
New Yorker cartoon by Kim Warp

The Oxford Style Guide:short and wonderfully-written guide (PDF) to modern English usage. Quick: Which of the following 22 examples are poor style: ie, eg, etc, 50k, T S Eliot, the Canadian federal government, Mr Jones, St Andrews, the Island (referring to Bowen Island), there were 12 attendees at one session and 2 at the other, the event is at 1pm, the event runs October–December, Jesus’s disciples, CDs are obsolete, dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s, It was – I think – bright green, email, a highly respected woman, I think so…but I’m not positive, BSc, fundraising, the internet.

Skunk Family Meets Bicyclist: In case you’re the one person left in the world who hasn’t seen this charming awwww-some one-minute video.

Scroll Down to See Answer: The ever-brilliant xkcd presents a true-to-scale (22 screens long) graphic showing Earth’s surface temperature over the past 22,000 years. Hilarious and terrifying. Thanks to several people who pointed me to this.

Why We Build the Wall: Anaïs Mitchell explains, in song, why Drumpf and his supporters want to build walls. More of her wonderful lyrics here (PDF) (check out especially Quecreek Flood).

bearbnbBearbnb: Bowen Island has a black bear cub. Happens every few years, and they cause great upset among the local chickens and their owners, and then either swim away to better pickings or get shot. Our other great local controversy is the conversion of monthly rental space to airbnb, creating a shortage of affordable rental accommodation for residents. Bowen resident Andrew David put the two scandals together and came up with the priceless ad shown at right.

The Whole Point of the Dancing is the Dance: Great short film Why Your Life is Not a Journey, by David Lindberg, with words and narration by Alan Watts. Your life was never about a destination; “It was a musical thing, and you were supposed to sing, or to dance, while the music was being played”. Thanks to my friend Jessica Mitts for the link, and the one that follows.

Girls and Sex: The New Landscape: Peggy Orenstein tells some hair-raising stories about what teenage girls/women now have to put up with, and advises us how we can help them navigate it, and what we can learn from the skills they’ve had to develop.

Who Will Touch Me All the Time?: Katie Tandy’s stunning and courageous celebration of body and life full on. Probably NSFW. “Please dance with me, we’re all going to die; you might as well sway with my body next to yours.”

Winning at Any Cost: Malcolm Gladwell, who has successfully argued that almost all of the recent world records and other unprecedented athletic performances are drug-enhanced, explains via video the ethics of abusing your body for money and fame. Yet it continues.

Carpool Karaoke: Michelle Obama disarmingly sings and laughs up a storm. An amazing and refreshing video. If only politicians could behave this authentically. Though perhaps… uh, never mind.

Eleven Beautiful Untranslatable Japanese Words: To convey any of these in English would take a whole awkward phrase. Thanks to Cheryl Long for the link.

The Art of Rebecca Clark: The wild creatures in her drawings seem almost alive, ready to tell you something important.

The Abuse of Feel-Good Cop Videos: You know the police-sponsored ones where the heavily armed cop comes up and surprisingly just gives someone an ice cream. “Just as abusive relationships don’t end with flowers, abusive police systems don’t end with ice cream.” Thanks to Jeff Brakensiek for the link.

All About Nothing: A (one hour) film about non-duality. Quirky, silly and fun. And, of course, Dutch.

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THOUGHTS FOR THE QUARTER

lotq5-screen-time
recent survey by Nielsen: for teenagers and young adults the average is only 7 hours a day, rising to over 11 hours for seniors, so the increase is due largely to population aging; teenagers spend about 2 3/4 hours on each of TV and smart phones and almost no time on PCs; PC usage peaks at around age 40 at about 1 1/4 hours/day; seniors watch more than 3x as much TV as teenagers and young adults

The Eliotesque Poetry of Anna Tivel: Reverie (also check out her lyrics to Black Balloon):

the streetlights are diamonds, the sidewalk a bed, of boot heels and garbage and cigarettes
and only the hopeless and lonesome are left, to pin up the night and go home

and i don’t believe that a fortune is told by the turning of cards, by the swinging of stones
but still i’m here hoping for what i can’t hold, for some kind of sign from above

so turn out the lights, let the diamonds be damned; a reverie is sweeter in the dark
and i don’t got nothing but two empty hands and this slow burning flame of a heart

and midnight comes rolling all bottles and bags; they come to rest soft in the park
and a beautiful woman, her voice made of glass stirs in a dream in the dark

and i don’t believe that the future is told by the weight of a word, but by the way it’s spoke
and still i’m here holding your name in my throat and isn’t it sweet on my tongue

and the dawn glows, and it spreads like a spill in the shadows, someone whispers:
it will be alright

the streetlights are faded, the sidewalk a song, of footsteps, and papers, and telephones
and darling it’s raining, come take me back home, it seems that i’ve seen quite enough

and i don’t know which way i’m bound to believe: the story itself, or the space between
but still i’m here wiping my eyes on my sleeve at the beautiful world waking up

Bridge, by Jim Harrison, who died this past March (thanks to wordsfortheyear.com for the link):

Most of my life was spent
building a bridge out over the sea
though the sea was too wide.
I’m proud of the bridge
hanging in the pure sea air. Machado
came for a visit and we sat on the
end of the bridge, which was his idea.
Now that I’m old the work goes slowly.
Ever nearer death, I like it out here
high above the sea bundled
up for the arctic storms of late fall,
the resounding crash and moan of the sea,
the hundred-foot depth of the green troughs.
Sometimes the sea roars and howls like
the animal it is, a continent wide and alive.
What beauty in this the darkest music
over which you can hear the lightest music of human
behavior, the tender connection between men and galaxies.
So I sit on the edge, wagging my feet above
the abyss. Tonight the moon will be in my lap.
This is my job, to study the universe
from my bridge. I have the sky, the sea, the faint
green streak of Canadian forest on the far shore.

From Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence, a remarkable reminder of the rules of adjective order that fluent English speakers follow without quite knowing why (thanks to my old friend Dave Snowden for the link):

…adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out.

From Thomas Kuhn, on how change comes from generational rollover, and takes 15 years or longer to occur, rather than from persuasion or coercion (thanks to Vinay Gupta for the link):

Max Planck, surveying his own career in his Scientific Autobiography, sadly remarked that “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it”.

From David Foster Wallace, from Up Simba!:

If you are bored and disgusted by politics and don’t bother to vote, you are in effect voting for the entrenched Establishments of the two major parties, who please rest assured are not dumb, and who are keenly aware that it is in their interests to keep you disgusted and bored and cynical and to give you every possible reason to stay at home doing one-hitters and watching MTV on primary day. By all means stay home if you want, but don’t bullshit yourself that you’re not voting. In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.

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What Would It Take to Live Sustainably?

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a forest garden in Barbados, via buckettripper.com

I‘m a believer in experiments. Try things out, learn from the mistakes. Prototype. Converse. Explore. Discover. That’s why, although I am convinced our civilization will collapse over the course of this century, I’m a big fan of intentional communities, the gift economy, polyamory and other alternative ways of relating, permaculture, health self-management, unschooling, and other ‘uncivilized’ ways of doing things.

None of these experiments has succeeded on any kind of scale, most likely because they aren’t meant to scale — they are unique to place. What works in one place won’t work in another because the local resources are different, the culture is different, the soils and land are different. But that’s OK. Whenever humans have tried to scale things, they have made them more unwieldy, less responsive, and dysfunctional. That’s the great failure of globalization and both neoliberalism and neoconservatism — acting on the belief that there’s one right answer, one best practice, for everyone.

The point of experimenting is just to learn, to appreciate what works, which adaptations to this particular place at this particular time are effective and functional, and which are not. Civilization culture is now in full collapse; you can see it everywhere — our political, economic, financial, monetary and credit, social, health, education, transportation, legal and law enforcement, energy, food and water, information and other systems are failing spectacularly, no longer just in struggling nations and inner cities. The overbuilt, ragged, rusty and decrepit flywheel of civilization, as David Ehrenfeld describes it, is coming apart.

It’s a challenge, seeing this happening, just keeping out of the way of the parts of this flywheel as they come flying off in all directions. What do you do to stay healthy when the health system, an unmanageable bloated incompetent bureaucracy corrupted by corporate greed, is imploding? How do you raise your children when you’re already working furiously and the education system is devolving into an expensive and farcical baby-sitting service? Where do you find healthy local food when almost nothing grows any longer within a thousand miles of where you live without the massive intervention of chemicals and irrigation?

Those of us fortunate enough to live in the right place in the right demographic can still make do, for now. And most of us don’t have the time to do more than just make do — the time to experiment with better, sustainable ways of living while trying to avoid the flying shrapnel of a crumbling civilization.

So it might be worthwhile looking at what kinds of experiments might actually be most fruitful, if not for us, then for the benefit of those who will be left, in a few decades after civilization has gasped its last.

If we had to live without any of the ‘benefits’ of civilization — imported food, clothing and other goods, centralized power, water and heating, mass production, gasoline, plastics and other cheap petroleum products, specialized pharmaceuticals, the internet etc — how might we do so sustainably? And what could we do now to experiment with doing so?

This is not about recycling and buying organic at the grocery store. This is a much more radical experiment than that. What do we actually need to live comfortably and joyously? Ancient tribal cultures spent most of their lives in leisure — sleeping and playing (“playing” in the broader sense including music, art and sex) — with an hour a day spent harvesting nature’s bountiful food and water (hardly “work”), except when children were born when some substantial extra energy was spent weaning them. Wild creatures live similarly. But once humans moved away from areas of natural bounty, hunting, agricultural work, and making clothing and shelter for less hospitable climates was needed. This was perhaps our species’ biggest mistake (not staying in climates we were naturally suited to, where we didn’t have to do any work), but that Pandora’s Box can no longer be closed.

So this is what we will need in a low-tech, low-population, post civilization culture: healthy local food and medicines, clothing and shelter for warmth or cooling, a comfortable place to sleep, a social contract for our community, and some simple tools and playthings for artistic and leisure time.

What kinds of experiments could we undertake to provide these, in the context of a small community, now?

I am a big fan of the idea of edible forest gardens — a perennial forest polyculture that, while it requires a generation of nurturing, and a profound understanding of local ecology to establish, thereafter requires almost no maintenance of any kind. This is an ancient practice that has been used successfully to provide ample and varied food to whole communities for centuries in tropical climates and has recently been introduced to temperate climates. I especially love that these ‘food forests’ belong to no one (since in the long term they require no ‘work’, they need be no one’s ‘property’).

Tribal cultures have, of necessity, always found local plants that provide medicines to relieve pain, inflammation and infection. Any successful post-civilization culture will need to rediscover at least these three essential medicines. Hemp might well be a plant of choice, since it can be used as a medicine, a clothing fabric, a building material, and, of course, for recreation. Post-civ cultures might even be clever enough to create foot-powered machines that can spin and weave cloth while also powering lights at night.

We might, then, start to identify the ‘essential’ machines for a post-civilization future, whose underlying technologies we’d want to sustain (and as much as possible locally source materials for). They might include spinning and weaving machines, pumps, furnaces, LEDs, and perhaps even microwave ovens.

A big question is what we can learn from modern building that might be sustained in a low-tech future. We would want the innovations of the best of today’s tiny houses (reconfigurability and optimal use of space), and the energy efficiency of passive houses and radiant heat — but is that possible without using rare materials and complex, petroleum-based technologies? We might want to adapt the clothing designs of Arctic peoples (the ‘perfect house‘), using some modern light-weight, low-care fabrics like Gore-Tex (but again, only if we can figure out how to manufacture them without today’s reliance on mass-production, imported materials and petrochemicals). And is there a way to light our homes and pathways with LED-style highly efficient fixtures that don’t require rare materials, complex construction and a power grid?

What might the ideal, sustainable, locally-sourced, comfortable bedding material be? Natural rubber air beds? Moss? Dandelion latex?

What can we learn from the most successful Intentional Communities about the best forms of community social contract in different situations? Are the failures of representative democracy and all forms of totalitarian political structures inherent, or problems of scale? Might a mix of anarchism and consensus decision-making (not unlike how some indigenous communities operate) be the optimal form of small-community organization?

And how might we relearn to construct musical instruments and art materials from natural sources?

We don’t want post-civilization communities to struggle — few of us long for a return to a hardscrabble impoverished life or dream of a post-apocalyptic neoprimitivism (and if we continue to collapse our ecosystems, hunting and animal domestication won’t likely be viable options) — but we’re going to have to be very smart to mix the important skills of the past and the most valuable, sustainable scientific and technological advances of the civilization era to create societies that are healthy, abundant, leisurely and joyful.

Small-scale, local experiments (that can be replicated, not scaled) would seem to be the best way to develop some kind of handbook for post-civ societies, to enable them to embrace the logic of sufficiency, and to thrive without exhausting resources, and without the need for ruinous industry, hierarchy, growth or exploitation, in concert with all-life-on-Earth.

 

Posted in Preparing for Civilization's End | 5 Comments

Second Thoughts

silhouettes-pixabay
image: public domain from pixabay CC0
On several occasions recently I found myself getting angry or anxious, and then almost immediately realized how inappropriate and futile my reaction was. I read about an act of destructive greed, and read an article with a preposterous and disturbing argument about how we should behave as humans. And I witnessed acts of aggression, fury, pettiness, and unreasonableness, a couple of which were directed, more or less, at me.

My initial reaction in each case was profound annoyance (and an awareness and curiosity about the fact that anger is often a mask for fear). My second reaction was one of astonishment at my initial reaction: How could ‘I’ still be getting so upset at beliefs and behaviours that the actors involved had absolutely no control over? What possible value did such a reaction have? Who was it, in fact, having this reaction? It was almost as if I was looking at myself and saying “Who is that person getting angry and frightened and upset?; it’s certainly not me!”

And in a way it wasn’t me. As my awareness grows about the nature of the self, and ‘my’ own self, there is a growing cognitive dissonance not only between what the media, friends etc are saying, and what ‘I’ now believe to be true, but also between what ‘I’ am (still) feeling and thinking and saying, and what ‘I’ now believe to be true. Eckhart Tolle talks about his ‘awakening’ when he reached a point where, he said, he couldn’t ‘stand himself’ any longer, and, at that moment, realized that he ‘wasn’t himself’.

What does it signify when the cognitive dissonance becomes so great that there is a split between the mask or veil of the self and what lies behind that mask or veil? What does it mean to say the mask or veil of the self is actually just a construct, a compelling and persistent illusion? And, more profoundly still, what if there is nothing behind the mask?

Radical non-duality seemingly holds that since there is no ‘real’ you, no free will, and no ‘self’ control, what appears to be learning and ‘self-improvement’ (ie behaving, according to prevailing consensus, in a more useful, mature, knowledgeable, experienced, positive way than ‘you’ used to) is in fact just the inevitable trajectory of beliefs and actions of the character that ‘you’ believe your self to be. Behaviours can (apparently) change and evolve, but no separate individual or will is involved in, or in control of, that change.

Currently our massively stressed and increasingly dis-eased and destructive human civilization seems to be behaving, collectively, badly and unhealthily, but while one person’s psychologically compromised act of anger or violence can certainly provoke a similarly unhealthy response (and the mutual triggering it can produce a feedback loop in which both characters, and possibly whole communities or nations, degenerate into seemingly psychotic behaviour), none of these behaviours is controllable, preventable, or alterable. Also, none of these behaviours is predictable — there are too many variables involved.

Everything is playing out, then, seemingly, the only way it can:

  • When each of us is very young, as a result of some combination of stress, teaching/reinforcement, intellectual capacity and the brain’s cognitive wiring, we suddenly perceive the existence of a separate self and come to believe it to be real, in control, and possessed of free will — to be who ‘we’ really are.
  • Things then apparently happen to ‘us’, and ‘we’ apparently react, and react to our reactions, believing ourselves to be separate and in control when we’re actually not.
  • For some, cognitive dissonance arises, both within ‘us’ and in our relationships with other apparent individuals, because the existence, beliefs and behaviours of the separate self cease to make coherent sense. Of course, we react to that as well.
  • For some, inexplicably and with no control or choice involved, the self apparently falls away. Conditioned reactions of the self-less body continue but gradually diminish in intensity (without a self to ‘own’ and identify with them). The cognitive dissonance likewise dissipates.
  • For others, reactive feedback loops (and, for some, cognitive dissonance) continue to cause unhappiness, suffering and destruction until the person apparently dies, at which time of course the self and dissonance fall away for them too.

So I get angry, and then I get annoyed and confused at my anger (but it continues nonetheless). That anger (or other stressful reaction) hurts others, who react and perpetuate the suffering. The self-annoyance and confusion festers inside. All of this may continue the rest of my life. My clarity that it’s all foolish and unnecessary increases the cognitive dissonance and is enormously frustrating. The clarity and cognitive dissonance may moderate my behaviours, but that’s not something ‘I’ have any control over, any more than I have control over my anger, fear and other reactions. I will do what I will do.

If my (apparent) behaviour is becoming more tolerant, (in part perhaps) because I am more self-aware of its impact on others, (in part perhaps) because I’m attracted to (and have been fortunate enough to find) people who tend to encourage self-awareness, (in part perhaps) because I’m inherently intellectually curious, that more tolerant behaviour has been ‘my’ inevitable life’s trajectory. It’s not something ‘I’ steered or had any control over or deserve any credit for.

Like the future evolution of the planet, my future and my future actions and behaviours are not foreordained or predictable (there are too many unknown and unforeseeable variables), but neither are they controllable — ‘I’ have no ‘free will’ to change them, nor have ‘I’ or could ‘I’ have made any decisions that might have affected them such that ‘I’ would have decided any differently. CBT advocates are terribly misguided (and there’s lots of evidence to support that assessment) — CBT simplistically heaps shame on top of all the other self-judgements and behaviours the individual has no control over, in the absurd belief that will motivate and enable ‘self’-improvement. But there is no ‘I’ to self-improve. There is no ‘I’, period.

So far, so bad.

What then is the (uncontrollable) future trajectory of the character known as Dave, if ‘I’ am self-aware enough to recognize my reactions, fears and anxieties as they arise and know they are foolish, inappropriate, unhealthy, and possibly hurtful or dangerous, but also know ‘I’ have no control over these reactions?

Example: I am conflict-averse and often make what seem obviously suboptimal (in the long-term) decisions to try to keep the peace and so as not to immediately make anyone upset — it’s a very human proclivity to put off confronting a problem until it cannot possibly be put off any longer. When I do so I immediately blame myself for my cowardice (and get anxious about whether the later moment of reckoning will be even more explosive because of my procrastination). And then I get upset with others for putting me in this self-blaming, anxious position, and upset with myself for being upset with them. It’s pretty pathetic, but it’s a behaviour I fall into easily.

Suppose at some point, before there is no choice left but to face the issue, I decide to gird up my courage and confront the problem? Is this my ‘self’ exercising free will and choice? Not at all. At some point the pain of the two no-win situations reaches a tipping point at which my long-term dread outweighs my short-term cowardice, and this can shift over time. ‘I’ have no choice in the matter. It isn’t ‘my’ decision.

I’m clear about that, but the cognitive dissonance ‘I’ feel saying that is huge: it certainly feels like ‘my’ decision. My self rationalizes that I have made a decision, that I have ‘changed my mind’ and decided to act. But of course ‘I’ have not. The decision was made, but not by ‘me’.

An uncompromising radical non-dualist will shake their head and might even agree that this is a tragic situation for ‘me’, but will proffer no solution. There is none. There is no ‘me’, after all. The implications — for all complex predicaments, ‘personal’ and universal — are grave. There is nothing that anyone can choose to do. There is nothing that any one (or by extension any group) can do. As ‘I’ say this, the cognitive dissonance in my head is deafening.

And it gets even worse. Non-duality asserts that time is not real either — that all there is, is eternal. So there can be no hope that any of this will get better ‘over time’. Regrets and nostalgia about the past, dreams and fears about the future are all just mind-games, dis-eases of the self- and time-afflicted brain. But knowing that doesn’t make ‘me’ feel any better. It just ramps up the cognitive dissonance between my self’s absolute certainty that there is a past, a now, and the future, and the greater-than-my-self ‘intuition’ and ‘remembrance’ (those words come closest but neither expresses what this ‘knowing’ really is) that there is no past, no future, not even a now. No time.

My head hurts. It was so much easier when I just believed what I was told, and I am lazy — I don’t like to work hard. But there is, it seems, no going back. I’ve had a glimpse of the raw, astonishing, indescribable perfection of seeing what really is. My head is full of stars, my heart is full of hopeless anticipation, ‘I’ am standing at the precipice with my wings outspread.

And waiting. Having second thoughts. Nothing else I can do.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 2 Comments

Remembering

mindful wandering
photo by Maren Yumi

conversation log: 6469 New Calendar
It is inherently difficult, because of your language’s limitations, to articulate how this way of being is so different from yours. Your language, as your people have explained, evolved during your Time of Forgetting, and its terms, and its very structure, reflect that Forgetting. This — what you see as a tribe of people physically and behaviourally not unlike yourselves — no longer uses symbolic language. After the Remembering this no longer sees need for it. Body language, song, and demonstration are what this apparently uses to — how can this be explained? — to ‘be joyfully’.

The Forgetting, apparently, happens in situations of such distress to the energy of being that this ‘forgets’ that all there is is this. Individuals appear to ‘become’ separate and apart from this, ‘conscious’ of their selves as separate. That must be a terrible nightmare, a seemingly endless one, one that this cannot imagine. No surprise that each ‘separate’ individual becomes a creature of anger, fear, grief, anxiety and sadness; nor that they behave, individually and tribally, in such a fearful, insensitive and destructive way.

Please understand that this is not saying you and your tribe are wrong or stupid or inferior in any way — your behaviour is inevitable, as was ‘ours’ when ‘we’ thought ‘our’ selves separate, and you have each and all been doing your best given your terribly difficult situation. This is just saying that perhaps you might find yourselves Remembering.

Remembering is not something that this, or any one, can teach you; but it may happen nonetheless. If it happens it might be frightening, but it will also be unimaginably joyful. Remembering happened to each of ‘us’, and then, just as suddenly as ‘we’ became separate individuals, those separate selves vanished, and, since time is just an invention of the separate self, ‘we’ didn’t vanish in time — ‘we’ ‘suddenly’ never were. At least that is how it seems.

What is the point of saying this to you? There is no point. This cannot be or do other than what it apparently is and does. This is just a resonance, a “feeling with” you. Your lives seem so hard and so full of struggle and unhappiness. Somehow, this remembers that, too.

You are laughing — it does seem preposterous. How can this ‘remember’ or imagine being separate, having a separate self, if there is no ‘I’ to remember or imagine it,  you ask? And what is this character apparently walking beside you if it is not a separate being? Excellent questions.

You may be disappointed to hear that the answer is that it’s a mystery. There is walking happening, and you apparently sense that it is you and a separate ‘me’ that are walking, here and now, but this has no such sense. There is just walking happening, wondrously, and not in any time or place, because time and place are just inventions, ideas of the brain that the separate self then identifies with.

This does not mean that you are hallucinating ‘me’. What the separate self perceives is absolutely real to you. This does not deny your reality. Your reality is included in everything that really is, though it is really a dream ‘you’ have constructed and are living, a dream that keeps ‘you’ from seeing everything that really is, behind the veil of the self.

How can this ‘know’? This doesn’t know. Only the separate self can ‘know’ something, a reality separate from itself. How can this remember believing in the reality of a separate self? This doesn’t know. It’s a mystery. A resonance.

Is this message that has just been conveyed to you just a rationalization, another invention, a convoluted wishful-thinking coping mechanism by a distraught self seeking to deny its selfhood, you wonder? This is also an excellent hypothesis. But what would the point of that be? It would be difficult to credibly sustain, and to overcome the cognitive dissonance it presents. It would be mean to those struggling with the suffering that accompanies belief in the reality of the separate self, to suggest, perhaps even while knowing it to be untrue, that all that suffering is unnecessary but that escaping the illusion is impossible, hopeless.

If you look at what you see as ‘people in the tribe you call Tsilga‘, you will see an equanimity, a joyousness, that you cannot observe in most members of tribes afflicted with the sense of an enduring, separate self. This is not an act. There is no ‘person’, no ‘tribe’, no thing, no one. There is just this, wondrous, astonishing apparent inexplicable everything.

You want to know what ‘I’ think you should do, could do, might helpfully do, for yourself, for ‘me’, for better understanding or communication, for ‘all our relations’. There is no ‘I’, no ‘me’, no you, no thing to do, no thing that can be done, no free will to do. There is only what is happening. It is amazing, complete, perfect. It is love. Perhaps when these two apparent bodies again seemingly meet, it will be selflessly. It will not necessarily be peaceful or joyful. But it will, once again, be awesome.

May it so be. May you Remember.

Posted in Creative Works | Leave a comment

Spoiled By Perfection

There are a few restaurants I’ve visited in my lifetime that prepare everything so well that you are truly spoiled, for weeks thereafter, for eating anything else. The word ‘spoil’ etymologically means ‘stripped bare, robbed’. So being spoiled is a mixture of blessing and curse: after the initial ecstasy, when you find you have been robbed of the pleasure you get from eating merely mortal food, you almost regret having tasted perfection.

This is true, I think, for just about any hedonistic or aesthetic pleasure. An artist friend says studying Botticelli spoiled him for most other artists. The perfection reduced his capacity to appreciate other, ‘lesser’ works.

Advertisers and other exploiters in our consumerist culture do their damnedest to spoil us, but in an entirely negative way: rather than presenting us with aesthetically superb, brilliantly designed products, they cloak their mediocre products and services with impossibly perfect branding, usually employing impossibly beautiful photoshopped models in staggeringly beautiful photoshopped settings having unachievably breathtaking, flawless and exhilarating experiences. They shift attention from the imperfections of their shoddy merchandise to us, their consumers, by portraying only perfect consumers in perfect settings doing things perfectly (and, of course, consuming their crap while doing it).

This exploitation has a deliberate, grotesque goal: It strives to make us feel like we’re hopelessly flawed (physically and psychologically), uninteresting, half-alive failures by comparison, so we’re (they hope) compelled to buy their product or service to try to compensate. It deliberately damages us in order to exploit that damage. And it sets an impossible standard for us to strive after, yearn for, and be endlessly disappointed at failure to achieve.

It is not just the sleazy hawkers of products that do this. Employers hold out carrots of impossible perks to attract the most highly skilled and accomplished staff, and to prod them endlessly into working longer and harder (since the promised carrots — the golden promotions, the glory and fame and power and fortune and all the lovely rewards that can be secured with them — are almost always just out of reach). Those extraordinary meals I referred to above were nibbles of such carrots my employers let me taste.

I’m a hedonist by nature, so I’m even easier prey than most people for the temptation to imagine and dwell on perfection. It’s not surprising I was addicted to Second Life, where everyone is flawlessly beautiful and every place is lush and opulent. I am entranced by the perfection of CGI and the hyperrealism of HDR. I have heard musicians play instruments so perfectly or compose works so complex, intricate and brilliant that for a while thereafter I get restless and bored with all the other, inferior music I hear. After spending time in the forest or on an unspoiled beach, I find the city and all its deteriorating constructions and mindless activity unbearable. I haven’t been able to watch a movie in more than a decade because, compared to the rare, best works, the writing, acting and direction are insufferably poor. I’m reaching the same restless point in my reading.

Voltaire said that “the perfect is the enemy of the good”. Have we reached the stage at which imagining perfection in all things (with the help of corporations, Hollywood and others) — perfect looks, the perfect life, perfect relationships, the perfect job, perfect performance, perfect possessions enabling perfect experiences in perfect settings — just makes us miserable with ourselves, those we live and spend time with, and our reality? Is it any wonder so many seek escape in drugs and other addictions (especially the ones that make everything seem perfect, for a while)?

What intrigues me is: how and why did the human character evolve to seek and prefer perfection, even when it is not achievable? It seems a poor adaptive quality to the real, imperfect world.

Here’s a completely preposterous theory, completely unsupported by any evidence (but intuitively appealing), about why that might be. What if it is not the nature of healthy creatures to seek perfection — but rather to seek “the best available”? The best available places to live and migrate to, the best available partners, the best available adornments for ourselves, the best available food, the best available activities. The “best available” implies trade-offs: the best possible place might be too far away, the best possible partner might already be partnered, the best possible food might be rare and hard to find, so we might intuitively seek “the best available” alternatives to this seeming perfection. Without a culture that proclaims that that isn’t (and you aren’t) good enough, and that (with money, or wiles, or effort, or luck) perfection is achievable, the “best available” would seem the happiest and most adaptive strategy. Hoping and striving for more would seem a recipe for suffering, unhappiness and violence. Settling for less would seem a recipe for weakening the gene pool and eventual misgivings.

If this is true, where did we go, evolutionarily, off-track? I’d guess the first problem was the emergence of ideation and imagination, and hence ideology and idealism. Why would anyone become an idealist if they could instead be a realist? If the tribe were under severe stress (caused, say, by climate change, or overpopulation) the short-term reality might be pretty grim, and there might be some solace in dreaming of a better longer-term future. If the stress passed and the species was again thriving in balance with all other life, the idealism would become purposeless and likely cease; why dream of Eden when you live in it?

But what if the stress never went away, but instead became chronic? Then  the idealism might become the escape it is for so many humans today. And the unhappiness behind that chronic dreaming of something better tomorrow could be exploited, as it has been, by those who benefit from us never being happy, always wanting more, and striving for perfection.

That’s my theory anyway — we got smart enough to imagine, and then stressed enough to want things to be, endlessly, how we imagined. And all it would take would be a brief taste of perfection — the perfect relationship portrayed in a movie, the zipless fuck in a video, the perfect face or body portrayed in a photoshop makeover, the perfect weekend in a beer commercial, the perfect sunset in HDR — and suddenly nothing real is good enough any more. We’ve been spoiled by perfection, and we never even got a taste of it before that happened.

Image: An entirely CGI character, Aki Ross, from the film Final Fantasy

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 6 Comments

A Culture Driven By Fear: The Psychology of Collapse


Image of homelessness from the now-defunct Italian blog Moving & Learning

There are domesticated animals in every rescue shelter that are acknowledged as being too damaged to integrate into a new ‘forever’ family. Some have lived so much of their young lives undomesticated that their brain neurons and synapses aren’t capable of making the shift — like the so-called ‘feral children’ they can’t learn the ‘language’ of civilization, because their brain structure reflects a different way of being. Others have been so brutalized or neglected that they’re unable to trust enough to behave in a reliable, complacent manner.

It’s this latter form of damage that I see increasingly pervasive in our own species. It’s not that the trauma inflicted on so many of us was deliberate — we do our best, but our collapsing civilization is now so frantic, intimidating, undependable, constantly threatening and hostile to any healthy creature, and there is no place of respite, no harbour from its relentless onslaught, that violence (physical and psychological) and trauma have become endemic. You would think that compared to those who grew up in war zones or during great depressions, today’s citizens of affluent nations would have it easy, but we don’t — even in past times of crisis there was almost always an underlying social cohesiveness that served as a bedrock to “keep calm and carry on” until the horror ended, and there was a belief that it would end.

Not so today. I think there’s a growing, instinctive, subconscious realization that our civilization is nearing End Game, that “there is no future”, and I see a growing sense of anomie that disengages us from each other and makes us feel “hopeless”. Domesticated creatures like us, saddled with ‘selves’ and trapped between an often-troubled past and an apparently globally ghastly future, desperately need hope to function coherently. They need to believe, as past generations have, that with hard work and determination they can make the world better for their children than it was for them. Who now still harbours such delusions?

Our coping mechanisms are becoming more frenetic, more disengaged from reality: So-called “entertainment”, full of ever-more extreme violence, is designed it seems to desensitize and inure us from feeling anything at all. Tiny, attention-demanding screens engage us fully but only abstractly and only with people of our choosing, and let us detach from anything happening in the real world. Thrill-seeking, “extreme” everything, a propensity for violent and hate-fuelled sex, immersion in brutal, heartless, artificial worlds, epidemic substance addiction and sex addiction — we will seemingly seek any distraction from having to deal with each other and with the impossible realities of the real world. More than half the families I know now have at least one member (often an adult male child) who is too damaged, too dysfunctional to be able to manage in the full-time labour force, or indeed in our society as a whole.

Politicians and advocates across the political spectrum now deliberately use fear to try to coerce us into supporting them. No positive choices are presented to us, just less-awful ones. Corruption and lies that were once veiled in a veneer of justification and respectability are now flaunted openly. Lawyers have largely given up the pretence that anyone benefits from litigation other than those with money and power (they can get away with any crime), including the lawyers themselves. It is hard to blame our ‘leaders’ — many of the rich and powerful I have met (those who can pay the price to get ahead) are psychopaths (abused in their own childhoods) who can’t behave otherwise than dysfunctionally and anti-socially, and who are unambiguously rewarded for their destructive, divisive, exploitative behaviour.

So tax cheats now brag openly about how they pay no taxes on immense profits and wealth (and in so doing starve governments of revenue needed for essential social services), and the response of many is to say we should just do away with the ‘social safety net’ and leave everyone to their own devices. There is essentially no mobility of wealth or income or quality of life between generations any more — if your parents were poor, sick or incarcerated, you are almost sure to be as well, and vice versa.

What’s most staggering is that there has never been as much production, consumption, exhaustion of resources and waste produced, yet the benefits of all this “growth” accrue only to a tiny minority, most of whom are oblivious to their outrageous privilege and the monstrous damage it inflicts on human society and on the planet.

It’s no wonder, then, that we feel hopeless, angry, helpless, disenfranchised, and full of despair — and that as a result we look for escape, inurement, and scapegoats. My parents and grandparents told me what it was like living in terror of aerial bombing during the war, and their fear of starvation, malnutrition and social estrangement during depressions, but theirs were always hopeful stories — of eventual victory, recovery, rebuilding, making sure “this never happens again”. Our stories now foresee no recovery, no long-term improvement, no stability, no hope. No future.

When people are suffering and they have no hope, they tend, I think, to be driven instead by fear. And we are all suffering. We are living in the world TS Eliot foresaw when he wrote “the whole earth is our hospital”. And a global culture utterly driven by fear, by aversion rather than inspiration, is a global culture already in the throes of collapse.

So we have shifted, in a few generations, from a largely-local decentralized society driven by hope, to a largely globalized society with an enormous concentration of wealth and power, driven mainly by fear. And there is nothing we can do to change that. Even believers in free will who study complexity are coming to realize that our desolating civilization culture is not in anyone’s control, not susceptible of change, and its collapse will inevitably continue to accelerate.

Why bother to say this, other than to further entrench the feeling of hopelessness? The reason I still think and write about this is because it actually does help, I think, to know what’s going on. It does help to appreciate that we’re all doing our best, and that we’re not going to escape collapse, and to anticipate what large-scale human behaviour shaped by fear might (though utterly unpredictable) lead to in the years ahead.

I remain a joyful pessimist. Neo-survivalists, zombie apocalypse scenarios and ludicrous Hollywood movies aside, I think large-scale fear might lead to some interesting and not-entirely-negative shifts in our culture as it collapses. The first is that we will probably stop obeying authority, on a massive scale. We do what we’re told and work around the problems we face only when doing so seemingly works to our likely long-term advantage. When the majority realizes it has nothing to lose by disobeying, and starts doing its own thing, our culture is finished. The ‘prison’ of any culture depends on the inmates accepting an implicit contract that the cost of disobedience outweighs the cost of obedience.

The effect of what Daniel Quinn calls “walking away” from our culture, when this happens, is to hasten its collapse and start a scramble for alternative ways of living that might work better. The fact that our global civilization culture keeps us so domesticated — utterly dependent on it — makes walking away harder, but eventually the tipping point will be reached. As most of us walk away (when we choose to, or when economic collapse or ecological disaster gives us no choice), we will appreciate that we can’t survive alone, so I’d guess we will try to relearn, quickly and awkwardly, what it means to live in community. This is what appeared to happen to the Anasazi, who over a few generations abandoned the complex urban culture they depended upon and integrated into simpler, farming communities and cultures nearby. I’d guess that most of them didn’t start families of their own during the difficult process of relearning and integration, so their population dropped naturally. No wars, no barricaded walls, no Mad Max scenarios, just a gradual walking away when there was seemingly no other choice.

This is the key, I think — civilization’s collapse is likely to take several decades, so we won’t be facing the sudden crises created by natural disasters and brutal military actions, but something more like the nearly 30-year Long Depression of the 1870s-1890s, which saw the majority of the population in many nations migrate to the cities. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t (other than the actions of some rich Robber Barons) overly violent. Our ancestors had time to adjust to an awful and heartbreaking change. I think we will too.

What else might a culture driven by fear instead of hope (or joy) lead to? Perhaps a resistance to manipulative, idealistic ‘hopeful’ rhetoric like that of that of the current useless US president. A capacity to move ‘beyond hope’ to realism. It’s possible that fear might lead to chronic anxiety and paranoia instead, or as well, of course. But my sense is that chronic anxiety only endures so long before something has to shift. Maybe it could eventually lead to the kind of ‘letting go’ that Eckhart Tolle and others think will happen — a cracking open of the exhausted, anxious self to reveal the oneness of all, and with it a kind of equanimous fearlessness and loving acceptance of everything that is, as terrible as that may (to the disintegrating self) be. Or, perhaps the opposite — mass suicide. In some ways they’re not so different.

Another possible path of a fear-driven culture is a rejection and rebellion against those that traffic in and profit from fear, and a seeking for its opposite — joy. I’m already predicting that Candidate Drumpf will lose, not because he’s a fear-monger but because he’s an arrogant and ignorant idiot, and hence more fearful and dangerous than the straw men (and women) he constantly warns his citizens to be fearful of. And although there are not many quality alternative choices in any affluent nation at the moment, I can imagine that a candidate that comes across as authentic, transparent and candid (there are a few out there) will eventually appeal to those tired of fear, more than a blusterer who panders to fear.

So: a rebellion against obedience to authority of all types (perhaps especially the corporate and legal types), leading to a mostly-peaceful walking away from our disastrous authority-bound culture; an eventual shift beyond complacent idealistic hope to realism and perhaps even equanimity, acceptance and informed fearlessness (and even joy); and an appetite for authenticity, transparency and candour in dealing with the issues of the moment. Sounds like a better way of being than the current state to me.

None of this is in anyone’s control in any case — there is no volition here, only apparent trajectories. But though it’s probably just self-comforting (another coping mechanism), it’s intriguing to think that our disastrous and unintended current culture just might open the door to its antithesis: a culture whose members — some of them anyway — are more self-sufficient, humbler, truer to themselves, and just maybe closer to being who they really are.

Or maybe not. And in any case, after us, the dragons.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Preparing for Civilization's End | 17 Comments

The Path from Here to Here


Intellectually, the message of radical non-duality, for the most part, resonates with me. I appreciate conceptually these core parts of the message:

  • The ‘separate self’ with personal identity, responsibility, self-control, free will and choice is an illusion. I understand how the separate self likely arose since it confers short-term evolutionary advantage, and I see that its pervasiveness in highly intelligent and domesticated creatures also appears to cause horrible suffering and seems to underlie some extremely dysfunctional suffering-provoked behaviours (violence to and abuse of self and others, ‘self’-ishness manifesting as greed, hoarding, overprotectiveness, defensiveness, envy, jealousy, taking things ‘personally’, regret over ‘irresponsibility’ and lack of ‘self’-control, shame or nostalgia about the past, terror or yearnings about the future etc).
  • There is no ‘path’ to letting go of the separate self. No practice, behaviour, drug, process, or learning will increase the likelihood of the separate self’s disappearance. Such practices and studies may make the prison of separateness more comfortable, but they will not bring ‘liberation’ from the self.
  • The disappearance or ‘death’ of the separate self has no significant impact on the apparent behaviour or functionality of any human or creature (from the perspective of other ‘selves’). We don’t need a separate self to do what we do (in fact we seemingly cannot do otherwise than what we do). The end of the separate self does not mean the now-selfless character becomes nihilistic, incompetent, or indecisive. In fact that apparent character now becomes part of the full-on stream of life, ‘what is happening’, no longer veiled by the pattern-obsessed mind, and may therefore actually become more functional (equanimous), more loving, more compassionate, less ‘selfish’ and more joyful (metta, karuna, mudita, upekkha, the so-called four states after ‘enlightenment’). The person or character does not become ‘enlightened’ by these states (no person can be enlightened); rather, enlightenment is the natural way of being, a way that is only obscured when the separate self intervenes (with the best of intentions, of course). This part of the radical non-duality message is infuriating to many people: To assert that all the stress, anxiety, dread, fear and intense energy that goes into the struggle to be a competent, alert, “responsible” separate self is for nothing, seems outrageous. But intuitively and intellectually it now makes sense to me.
  • The sense of separate self that emerges (in most humans, apparently, around the time of birth or shortly thereafter when the mother is first recognized as separate) is not just intellectual — it is an embodied sense, something visceral. It’s very much an emotional and sensual sense, and opens the ‘separate’ creature to emotions that apparently only ‘separate’ selves feel (most of these, like enduring anxiety, fear, anger, sadness, shame and grief aren’t particularly positive emotions). It also opens the ‘separate’ creature up to sensations that apparently only ‘separate’ selves feel (apartness, proximity, distance, the sense of time, ‘otherness’). So the death of the separate self is likely to leave vestiges of separateness behind in the physical creature (trauma, ‘instinctive’ fears, conditioned actions, memories etc). The shift in the behaviour of the character that once imagined itself separate, then, likely occurs gradually and only after the death of the illusion of separateness, not instantaneously. Because the trauma, fears, conditioned actions, memories etc no longer have anything to sustain them or identify with, they apparently also fall away gradually as the entire embodied creature becomes ‘again just’ the one-ness of all-there-is.
  • All there is — being, life, everything — is meaningless, without any purpose. This too offends the separate self desperate for meaning in and purpose to everything. But the lack of meaning or purpose to life doesn’t trouble me at all. Ever since I read Stephen J Gould on the randomness of evolution, I’ve let go of the need for any meaning for it. It is just what it is.

I don’t however appreciate the elements of the radical non-dual message that assert that:

  • The only creature that has evolved the ‘separate self’ is the human being. This just doesn’t make sense to me. Domesticated creatures can suffer separation anxiety, and that is not just a reflex, intuitive occurrence. Many mammals and birds (at the very least) have been shown to have a ‘theory of mind’ that allows them not only to plan actions but to anticipate the response and behaviour of ‘others’. Acknowledging that the emergence of the enduring separate self (enduring in the sense that it lasts longer than brief, ‘instinctive’ fight/flight/freeze etc moments) is not limited to the human species does not, however, negate the plausibility of the overall radical non-dual message.
  • The recognition that comes with the falling away of the self is that everything arises from nothing (or nothing appears as everything), and everything is both real and unreal. I know this aspect of the message is hard to put into words but there must be some better way to articulate it. Yes, the separate self clearly sees the subject-object dual universe ‘it’ perceives as uniquely real, and sees everything else as unreal. And if the self is an illusion, what ‘it’ sees as real is clearly not real, except to itself (and hence what it sees could be said to be both real — to itself — and unreal — in the context of ‘natural reality’). But what does it mean to say everything is both real and unreal? And how can everything (or anything) ‘arise’ out of nothing if there is no time in which it can arise? I can understand that, from a phenomenological perspective, there are likely many phenomena that neither the ‘self’ nor the senses of any creature can perceive (things too small or too far away for example). But to say that it is just ‘a mystery’ how nothing appears as everything, and how everything is both real and unreal, is just unsatisfactory. I don’t claim to be able to understand or ‘see’ or perceive infinity, but I can appreciate what the concept means and that it is possible, and convey what it means to others. But ‘it’s a mystery’ does not explain the concept, and especially since this part of the message is mimicked so precisely by all radical non-dualists, they must therefore have some shared conception of what it means. So tell us, damn it.
  • The appearance of seemingly separate selves has no effect on what apparently happens. This is an obvious corollary of the assumption that there is no ‘free will’, but it seems self-contradictory. If the separate self underlies all suffering, then presumably the ‘self-possessed’ character’s actions, while uncontrollable (by the self or anyone), will be different from what they would have been were that character not possessed of a self, no? The delusion of a self, like the delusion of seeing ghosts, for example, is a characteristic of the character that affects how that character behaves, even if that character has no free will or choice about these behaviours. It is the game of life playing itself out. And in that case, it seems to me, the presence or absence of a perceived separate self will affect that character’s behaviour, even though it is uncontrolled. It was the separate selves that believed themselves to be Hitler, Stalin, Mao that led to the most horrific atrocities of the 20th century. Had they been ‘self-less’, it is almost impossible to conceive of them behaving the ways they did.

This is all intellectually fascinating, and intuitively it has great appeal to me. But my seemingly separate self has dug in and is not letting go. It refuses to die. ‘I’ don’t pretend, beyond having had a series of ‘glimpses’ during which my sense of separate self temporarily and briefly disappeared, to appreciate any of this beyond an intellectual and intuitive level. So ‘I’ am not awakened or enlightened (and ‘I’ can never be). Nevertheless, there are, it seems, some major shifts occurring.

Most significantly, acceptance of this message as ‘likely true’ has changed everything ‘I’ perceive and believe; everything I do and think and feel now seems to be seen through an entirely new lens (or rather perhaps without a lens that previously distorted everything). Just as discovering polyamory changed how I reacted to love songs and ‘romantic’ films that celebrate exclusive relationships, radical non-duality has changed how I see all relationships, all human activities, and the world.

My relationship with my self

 Now that I have started to see life-beyond-the-self as perfect, just as it is, timeless, wondrous being, I have developed an unusual relationship with my self (mostly, I would like it to get lost). I’m not impatient with its presence; it’s only doing what it was conditioned and evolved to do. I’m not longing for it to be gone, because my ‘glimpses’ showed that it isn’t real, and that ‘natural reality’ (what really is) is right here, and eternal. ‘I’ don’t have to strive to ‘really’ see it. It is already here, all that is. My self is just currently apparently momentarily standing in the way of seeing it, but that’s fine: there is no time, so there is no hurry. Selves are struggling away doing their best, but unfortunately, they are doing so for nothing, and for no one.

My relationship with others

This new perspective is also affecting my relationships with others. I am starting to appreciate others’ suffering more, as I become more equanimous with my own. I am slowly becoming less prone to anxiety, anger, fear, jealousy, guilt, shame and sadness as a reaction to others’ actions or to their situations or to the state of the world.

I am starting to be more sympathetic, to care about everyone a bit more — doing so seems less of a personal burden than it once did — even as I am less inclined to try to change them or their circumstances. When those I care about are suffering, I am a bit more attentive, but less invested in doing anything other than noticing and acknowledging. I take it all less personally. I know that sometimes they want me to do something that they think will make them feel better. I know that their suffering (though not their pain) is mostly a result of their identification with their selves, but I am not inclined to try to tell them so; this message is not for everyone, and it is essentially hopeless. And I am inclined to do, mostly, what they wish me to do. Why not? What does it cost ‘me’, whether it is effective or not?

I think I am seeing people more as they are, and less as I would wish/hope them to be. Because there is so much suffering in this crowded world of ‘selves’, I see most people as a bit sadder, more tragic, than I used to, but this doesn’t make me care about them less.

My relationship with love

Love is shifting a bit for me. Love is, after all, essentially selfish; it’s all about what we feel, want, and imagine in another.We love who we want the other person to be. At its best, love is a kind of temporary freedom, but that freedom is another illusion, another escape, another hiding from the apparent (to the self) awfulness of what is really real. I’ve never been very good at loving others, and I’ve been worse at being loved (it always seemed like an obligation to me).

I can no longer imagine falling in love again — that crazy rush that obliterates the self along with what is actually real. I know it makes everything else in the world seem, for a while, unimportant, irrelevant, and that’s exactly the problem. It’s a drug (actually a whole set of drugs), and after the high there is always the coming down. That’s no longer worth it to me, and I think I’m seeing my self and other selves a little more clearly now so that I can’t see myself falling again. That doesn’t mean I couldn’t love someone new, but it would be very different from ‘falling’ in love with another ‘self’.

In love I am taking others’ actions less personally. After all, they can’t help them-‘selves’ and neither can I. And they are not their selves, any more than I am. They do what they do because they can’t do otherwise. It’s crazy to take that personally. ‘We’ can’t choose who we love (or hate), or what we do, and once you appreciate the unreal nature of the self, getting upset about a relationship is like getting angry at a character in a play because you don’t like the lines they’re reading.

I think those I currently love understand all this. I am not ‘in love’ with anyone, but those I love I love differently now, more ‘really’ and enduringly and for who they really are rather than for what they do for me. Why do I so profoundly love them rather than any of the other many beautiful/lovable people in my circles and in the world? My sense is that this character that ‘I’ inhabit sees my presence with them to be uniquely useful, that this character gets pleasure doing so, and that those I love see value in my doing so. Maybe that’s what self-transcending love is about. It’s perhaps also what self-transcending friendship is about.

What I do with my time

I am retired now, so you’d think I’d have more time to do what I want or choose to do. But it doesn’t seem to be that way. I visit those I love, I relish my time alone and with friends, I do volunteer work (the local transition initiative, the local arts scene, Group Works, co-housing). I write, compose and explore new music, paint, cook (my newest hobby), and play — somehow there doesn’t seem any real choice in what ‘I’ do each day. I awaken and things get done. The only change that’s come about recently is that I’m more aware of exactly how little ‘choice’ goes into what I do. I’m blessed, though, in that I really enjoy what I am doing, and I don’t wish I was doing, or could be doing, something else.

My worldview

I had already given up belief or hope that civilization could or should be saved, and lost interest in politics, economics and other complex systems we simply cannot change or control. It’s been a long time since I believed in ‘progress’. The radical non-duality message has merely enabled me to be at peace with what I was already (not) doing.

I find Gaia theory — that our planet has evolved and acts as a single self-managing organism in its collective, collaborative best interest, compelling. Radical non-duality would say that what seems like evolution is just a purposeless unfolding, a game or experiment, the universe at play. I find this disheartening — Gaia is so lovely, such an astonishing and affirming model, it is hard to acknowledge that it is just play. The self apparently emerged as an evolutionary advance. Depending on your point of view, that advance was either catastrophic in consequence, or changed nothing. Non-duality tears apart the conceit that self-awareness, consciousness and intelligent tool-making and decision-making differentiate humans positively from other species; if anything, these illusory ‘advances’ actually demonstrate that humans are the most foolish species, living in a dream when most other creatures are fully alive.

I have always found science (the creation of models that are interesting and occasionally useful) arrogant in its assertions of knowledge and potential achievement. Radical non-duality provides some solace for that sentiment, while making it largely moot.

As a long-time misanthrope, my view of basic human nature used to be very negative — we were inherently violent, destructive, selfish and thoughtless. A few years ago my view shifted to a more generous one: that we are all doing our best, even the worst of us. Radical non-duality takes that one step further — ‘we’ are not doing anything, and our selves are not in control of what they apparently do or decide or think or feel. Now I am starting to feel as sorry for our woeful species as for all the creatures whose world and lives we have apparently desolated.

My personal pleasures and recreations

Recently I’ve come to believe that work is unnatural, and so is the compulsion to do it. I have always been a hedonist at heart, though some would call me just lazy and self-indulgent. For much of my life, pleasure-seeking has been an escape, my way of taking my mind off a reality that has always otherwise been wanting. Games and sex and sensuous creature comforts (candlelight, lamplight, warm baths, skilfully-composed music) are my favourite distractions, more intense and endurably engaging than eating or walking in nature, and vastly preferable to reading or watching films (which I find less and less enjoyable, perhaps because most of what is being written and composed these days is execrable).

I can’t see the falling away of the separate self as affecting these preferences much (non-dualists say that was the case for them). I can envision my pleasures becoming more adventurous when my fearful self dissipates, and I expect my interest in escapist entertainments will, if not wane, be at least more balanced by a growing interest in more engaged-with-the-world, less self-ish pursuits.

Creative work, on the other hand, has never been easy for me to do. Composing music, writing, cooking, painting and other recreations are hard work, and while I feel compelled to do them, they are not really pleasurable. Why then do I do them? Essentially, I can’t not. They are, I sense, not so much elements of who ‘I’ am but what all-there-is, is, expressing itself through me. That hasn’t changed, and isn’t likely to as my self gets out of the way, other than perhaps to make these difficult, essential pursuits more joyful, more pleasurable.

Intuition

‘Trust your instincts’ has been a mantra of How to Save the World since it began. The challenge has been explaining to people how you instinctive ‘know’ something, when the self insists on a rational, analytical, intellectual explanation, and views intuition with suspicion. The first instinct, I suspect, was for self-survival, and was the precursor to the emergence of the apparently separate self. My study of complexity suggests that our capacity to know things intellectually is extremely limited, which is perhaps why the self tends to (apparently) decide things based more on emotion than reason. Radical non-duality goes further and asserts that nothing can be known and that nothing is decided, and that there is no one to know or decide (or, for that matter, intuit).

So now I’m wondering if intuition is all-there-is expressing itself through us, quietly whispering the truth in our ear to guide us when the selfish intellect and our equally selfish reactive emotions get it all wrong.

So, in short, my recent study of radical non-duality, and my intellectual and intuitive appreciation of its likely veracity, have seemingly made me more compassionate, less reactive, more observant, less judgemental, more equanimous, less emotional yet somehow more joyful, more sympathetic, less identified with suffering (my own and others’), more flexible, more perceptive, more loving but less inclined to fall in love, more appreciative, less inclined to take things personally, more accepting, less ‘selfish’, more carefree, less misanthropic, even more hedonistic, less fearful, and more intuitive.

How can this be, if I have, in fact, no free will, no choice about anything? If there is no ‘I’, how can I be ‘more’ or ‘less’ of these things? Well, for now, there is an apparent ‘I’, and though it may mean and portend nothing and may be just wishful thinking, it is apparently (to me) what’s been happening. That will have to do.

The path from here to here

I have not been looking for a path to ‘liberation’ from the self for very long — just a couple of years. Radical non-duality claims there is no path, and this makes sense intuitively, though it taxes the patience of the self-weary self. The ‘path from here to here’ is a non-journey, not so much an awakening as a death. But there is no letting go — that would be a path. There is no waiting, no enlightenment, no liberation — there is no such thing as time, not even a ‘Now’, and no where to get to. There is no one. There is only all-there-is, eternal, wondrous, just being. Just this. So close, but nowhere near.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 7 Comments

The Evolution of the Self

Recently I’ve been writing a lot about non-duality — the idea that the separate, in-control, free-willed self is an illusion and that ‘all-there-is’ is one ‘aliveness’, one ‘beingness’ that is ‘nothing expressed as everything’. It’s a difficult (perhaps impossible) idea to understand, because while our (apparent) thinking, striving selves can come to appreciate it conceptually, they can’t ‘realize’ it, because they are in the way of it. It only becomes apparent (to ‘not-us’) when the self drops away.

This ‘radical non-duality’, which denies that there is any path or process or practice that the self can use to achieve ‘enlightenment’ (because it’s only the seeking self that isn’t already enlightened, liberated, aware of ‘all-there-is’), is probably the most criticized of all so-called non-dual messages. Some people describe it as logically or tautologically self-contradictory or disingenuous. Some claim it is lazy (an excuse to give up trying to ‘become better’). Some insist it is nihilistic and will lead believers to disengagement, insensitivity and depression. Tony Parsons, whose fundamental statement of this message I wrote about in April, has been attacked from all sides, but he just soldiers on, honing and repeating this message patiently for those interested in it. Two slightly different statements of it from Tony, for those who prefer to listen rather than read, are here and here. They are taken from his regular European ‘meetings’ which consist simply of an opening message like the above, followed by a few hours or a few days of Q&A to explore the message and its implications.

He says his reason for holding these meetings is that people have asked him to, and he’s pleased to do so, while warning that they can be frightening or annoying for some, and that they offer no process or other ‘hope’ for the letting go of the illusion of the separate self and hence for any ‘enlightenment’ or ‘liberation’. That will happen or it won’t, he says, regardless of one’s conceptual understanding of it. The meetings appear to offer attendees (and listeners like me) an intellectual appreciation of what underlies our fundamental unhappiness with ourselves and our world, and can, he says, sometimes provoke an ‘energetic shift’ that allows this falling-away (essentially, death) of the separate self to occur. He says that’s what seems to have happened to his former self. Others, like Jim Newman, Andreas Müller and Kenneth Madden, now offer very similar ‘radical’ non-dual messages and meetings.

Of course I’ve been talking with many of the people I know about this message, since I find it so intriguing and intellectually appealing. I get a lot of strange looks, and concerns about my mental health. I realize that my appreciation for it has taken time and required a certain vector of intellectual study, without which I’d probably find it as preposterous as most others do.

What’s missing from the explanation of the messages and the meetings, I think, is an explanation of how (not why) the apparently separate self evolved. So, with some knowledge of complexity but only enough knowledge of evolutionary biology to be dangerous, I thought I’d try one out. Here it is:

Evolution, as Stephen J Gould and Richard Lewontin have explained, is a process that seems to have a set of rules but no particular purpose or goal. There is no ‘progress’, only a continuous, substantially random experimentation, with the ‘successful’ experiments continued and the unsuccessful ones abandoned. The primary ‘rule’ of evolution is that survival of a particular creature or environment depends upon ‘fitting in’ optimally with all other living creatures and environments. If a creature fits in and enhances the quality of life of the complex whole, it will survive and procreate; otherwise it won’t. If an environment leads to a high quality of life for the creatures that co-create it, it will endure; otherwise it will be changed by the creatures to one that does. In this way, for example, the earth’s early atmosphere that was toxic to most forms of life evolved, by trial and error over billions of years, into one that sustains a remarkable diversity of life. Likewise, creatures that were unable to adapt to this evolving environment perished, while those that could thrived, as long as they coexisted in mutual cooperation with other creatures who collectively supported that environment and ecosystem.

There is no ‘reason’ for these rules; they just are. The result on this planet has been delightful, but if it hadn’t been, evolution would have continued regardless, according to these same rules. There may be other places or universes where different rules apply, and the whole thing may just be a game played by no one for no reason; to our great annoyance, that’s all beyond our understanding.

So what has appeared to happen on this planet has been a profusion of complex life and periods of greater complexity intermingled with great extinctions, depending on random variables and how the ‘game’ played out. None of it has required anything that could be called ‘consciousness’.

I’m positing that at some point, an evolutionary experiment occurred in some creatures that might be called ‘instinct’. The evolution of an instinct to fight, flee or freeze at times of great existential threat to the survival of the collectivity of a creature, enabled by the growing complexity of neurons in some of these creatures (whether the evolution of neurons was an accident or conferred some evolutionary advantage and hence was perpetuated we cannot know), turned out to be of at least short-term evolutionary advantage in itself. Hence creatures with such ‘instincts’ survived and thrived.

What is this ‘instinct’? We could argue that it is ‘subconscious’, but it would seem to require a sense that the collectivity of the creature that ‘has’ it is somehow ‘separate’ and ‘threatened’ — that it has, at least subconsciously, a sense of ‘self’.

Or does it? If the instinct evolved and is a ‘successful’ evolution, why should it require any sense of self or separateness or sub-consciousness? Watch the incredibly sophisticated fleeing, freezing and hiding behaviours of a silverfish (an ubiquitous insect that has thrived on the planet for half a billion years) and ask what is driving this creature’s behaviours. Are silverfish conscious of being separate ‘selves’ under threat, or some kind of automatons with enough intelligence or instinct to ‘know’ when and where to go and how to hide so you can’t find them or get at them? Where does this intelligence and instinct reside? How did they ‘learn’ this, especially in the context of your unique house and this specific time and set of circumstances? Whatever your answer, you have to agree that this behaviour is evolutionarily successful and quite complex.

Now consider the fight/flight/freeze behaviours of small mammals and birds. More sophisticated, of course, but does this reflect a sense of separate ‘self’ the insects lack? Biologists agree that crows have a separate sense of self and a ‘theory of mind’ — an awareness of the separateness of others and an ability to speculate on those others’ behaviours. These creatures also exhibit fight/flight/freeze behaviours, but are they substantially different from those of insects? What’s been observed is that after dealing with existential threats mammals and birds “shake off” the threat, and some scientists’ speculation is that they then return to “now time” — a connected, timeless state in which that sense of separateness and self vanishes.

And next, of course, consider our own species. We also have instincts (too often ignored), and there is growing scientific evidence that the separate ‘self’ we conceive of is just that — a concept of the mind that doesn’t ‘reside’ anywhere and the existence of which cannot be scientifically validated. Scientists have also showed that when we believe we are making a decision to do something, the neural activity associated with decision-making actually occurs after the action has begun, suggesting the ‘mind’ or ‘self’ doesn’t make decisions, it simply rationalizes them after the fact. The model of self the mind constructs needs to justify its actions and ‘itself’, so it adjusts the facts to suit the model it has constructed — the model of a separate self ‘inhabiting’ the body with self-control, free will and conscious choice.

Why would the separate ‘self’ have evolved in such a powerful way in humans (and perhaps some other creatures), to the point it convinces ‘itself’ it exists, is in control and has responsibility and free will to make decisions and take actions? And why would it evolve to the point it continues to ‘exist’ at all times except during deep sleep, rather than just during times of existential threat?

I would speculate that this evolved as an exaptation (an unintended consequence of the continuing enlargement of the brain and brain capacity), rather than as an adaptation essential to or highly useful to our evolutionary survival. Evolution is a process of constant random variation (experimentation) to ‘test’ the possibilities of different evolutionary adaptations. That’s how the ‘rules’ of evolution work. Birds evolved feathers, scientists now believe, for light-weight temperature regulation, and only later did the exaptation of flight with those feathers evolve as a very successful experiment that has continued to evolve since.

Flight was an accident. Was the evolution of the ‘enduring self’ and its belief in control, free will, choice, responsibility, and the permanent existence of ‘time’, similarly an accident, an exaptation? I think this is highly plausible. In the short run, the emergence of continuous self-awareness (self-consciousness) might well have been evolutionarily successful — it would allow keener diligence over the safety of the creature, and enable the development of tools (technologies) that benefit that creature over the longer term. Those tools would include settlement (civilization), agriculture, language, self-domestication and weaponry.

In the longer run, however, such an exaptation would likely be severely problematic. While other creatures could shake off the stress of brief ‘self-consciousness’ and return to a peaceful state, the illusion of continuous self-awareness would bring with it continuous stress, a never-ending sense of anxiety and alert for danger (and the imagination to conceive of all kinds of new, non-existent dangers). The body evolves very slowly — could it adapt to this sudden continuous stress?

The illusion of continuous separateness and self-awareness would also bring disconnection from the sense of unity, cooperation and oneness that has been such an evolutionary success since the dawn of life, and hence lead to actions that would harm other creatures, possibly to the extent it would threaten entire species, environments and ecosystems. And with the false sense of control and free will, it would bring a sense of authority, competence, manageability and superiority that would make its actions reckless and even more destructive, and lead to massive conflicts with others with the same sense of superiority.

The problem is that, as it evolved more and more elaborate tools to ‘make sense’ of its apparent sense of separateness, self-control, free will, power, superiority and responsibility, the sense of separateness has become so pervasive that we can no longer imagine it not being real. It’s like a coat we put on to play a role and now cannot take off. It has become ‘us’. It’s a prison that keeps us locked up during our entire illusory time-bookended lives, and causes us endless suffering. Despite all we do (believing our actions to be a result of our free will and choice), things don’t ever seem to get better for any extended period of time, and we struggle ceaselessly with anxiety, fear, anger and grief over things we think we can or ‘should be’ able to control, or things we think are being controlled by others (other people, gods etc). The only escape is to let the illusory separate self ‘die’ — and the self isn’t about to allow that to happen until there is no other choice.

Of course, it’s possible that Tony’s critics are right and this is all just a fanciful, plausible, unprovable, dangerous, hopeless idea. And it’s possible that it’s my laziness, my exhaustion with a lifetime of struggle, making me want to believe it.

But the other possibility is that he’s right. That the emergence of the illusory separate self was an accident of evolution, with short-term advantage but in the longer term disastrous for our suffering selves and our desolated world. That ‘natural reality’ is perfect, wondrous, and free of suffering (though not free of pain). And that, having lost our sense of that natural reality very early in our lives, ‘we’ cannot hope to find it again.

Though I remain the eternal Doubting Thomas, this makes more sense to me, intuitively, than any other explanation for why things seem to be the way they are, that I have heard. Brief glimpses of ‘natural reality’ that have occurred throughout my life (when ‘I’ briefly dropped away), and the sincerity of those offering this message, this explanation, suggest to me that this is, just possibly, what’s really happening. The implications are mind-boggling.

So here I stand, believing, as much as I believe anything, that ‘I’ am an illusion, but that I am powerless to be or do otherwise. It seems a discouraging, tragic message, but still, I’d rather know than continue to believe a lie, even if the truth is, ultimately, a message of hopelessness and grief. Somehow, it fills me with joy, with the exhilaration of knowing that the insanity that is this life and this world is not real. This is not ‘real’ liberation, but it’s liberating knowledge. It will have to do.

It’s not that different, in that sense, from the other two great realizations I have come to in the past decade: that our civilization will end, mostly unpleasantly, in this century, and that there is nothing I can do about that; and that we’re all doing our best, even the apparent despots and tyrants and murderers and inflictors of suffering and misery and trauma, and that ‘our best’ more often than not actually makes things worse.

These three realizations are the terrible knowledge of our species, here and now. And despite them all, life is amazing, wonderful, beautiful, and worth everything.

image: photoshopped image of ‘anonymous’ from pixabay.com (CC0 license — public domain dedication)

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 6 Comments

The Problem With Systems


illustrative system diagram from my post on Systems Theory

The fundamental problem with systems is the illusion that they actually exist. A system is a concept — the mind’s patterning to conclude that a bunch of things or phenomena are in some way connected or related. Mattress-makers grandiosely describe a mattress plus a foundation and frame as a “sleep system” because presumably they somehow “work together” to improve sleep. The idea is hyperbolic, but it sells, and illustrates how our minds love to see connections and patterns and “systems” everywhere.

A human-made machine (such as an automobile) is often called a “complicated system”. Its parts are designed to “work together”, and over the short run you can reasonably ascribe cause and effect to its interactions, and make diagnoses and predictions of its “collective” behaviour accordingly. These “complicated systems” are designed to be controlled by their makers. Over time, however, complicated systems always decay and fall apart. Your car will rust and its parts will abrade and decompose, victims to natural factors that are not “part of the system”. Cars, buildings, roads, nuclear reactors — without a ton of continuous intervention to keep these unnatural human creations from degrading, they will all fall apart quickly, often in spectacularly ugly ways. And while we see them as integral, as parts comprising a “whole”, they are so only in our minds, not in any “real” sense of being self-managing, autonomous or complete. They are only abstractions, appendages, extensions of us dependent on our constant intervention, no more “systems” than the twigs a raven uses to flush food out of a rock crevice.

The “natural factors” that eventually destroy complicated constructions are parts of what we call, incorrectly, “complex systems”. Molecules, cells, bodies, organizations and cultures are all, indeed, complex. But they are not “systems”. The more we learn, the more we appreciate that these “systems” are not integral (there is no scientifically rigorous way of defining or distinguishing what is “part” of them from what is not). They are so complex that there is no way of knowing all their elements or “components” even if they were integral. And while we might (in our determination to understand and control these systems) assert consistency, correlation and causality between some intervention, process or action within the “system” (e.g. taking medicine, or a placebo) and some result (relief of symptoms of “illness”), we can’t hope to do so reliably. It’s all trial and error, and repetition rarely produces the same results.

Since human-designed “complicated systems” all require a controller, we look for a controller in what we see as “complex systems” as well. We see the brain as the controller of the body, although that organ actually evolved to serve the body’s other priorities, and has never been “in control” of anything (and some intelligent species, like the jellyfish, do very well without brains at all).

We see gods or a “higher intelligence” as the controller of what we call “ecosystems”, because we can’t fathom such “systems” evolving uncontrolled and without purpose. We see “leaders” as the controllers of organizations and cultures, despite evidence that what we conceive of as a bounded, integral organization or group of people is simply that — a conception, a patterning, the collective actions of a group of people subject to an infinite number of behavioural influences, most of them unconscious and completely uncontrollable, most of them outside the so-called “system”.

Nevertheless, we would like to believe that these “complex systems” actually do exist as definable, integral, predictable, controllable entities. Science would have us believe we will eventually understand how all matter is constructed. Medicine would have us believe we will eventually be able to treat and cure all “diseases” of the body, and even construct complete “perfect” bodies. Executives and consultants would have us believe we can powerfully understand and control the behaviour of organizations (and that they should be paid handsomely for allegedly doing so). And politicians, economists and activists would have us believe we can (and urgently “need to”) understand, control and change our entire culture, to make it “better”.

But none of these “systems” — simple, complicated or complex — actually exists. They are just concepts, inventions of the mind, fictions. Organizations are not “made up” of a defined set of people, processes, assets and technologies. That is all patterning of our minds, a kind of grandiose wishful thinking that we can delineate and control what this defined set of things does. Likewise our bodies are not “made up” of organs and cells; as Richard Lewontin has explained, attempts to scientifically analyze any physical entity separate from its environment are inherently flawed because nature and nature’s laws do not recognize boundaries between them or independent actions within them. “Complex systems” are infinitely complex, unbounded, and not “whole” in any meaningful way, and hence inherently not “systems” at all, except in our minds’ imaginations.

So when we look at something as if it were a system, in order to try to understand or change it, we are looking at an invention, not something real. When we think we see the components of atoms or cells or bodies or organizations or cultures as something definable, distinct, knowable, predictable and hence controllable, we are seeing what isn’t there, so it’s not surprising we are disappointed with the results of our interventions.

What if we instead saw each of these complex things — atoms and cells and bodies and organizations and cultures — as infinitely complex, unbounded, unknowable, unpredictable and uncontrollable, not as defined parts of anything larger or as made up of identifiable parts? In other words, what if we took off the lens of the modern scientist, model-maker, representer, and analyst, and instead saw things as they really are: unfathomable, mysterious, wondrous, infinitely beyond what we can possibly know or even sense? What if we stopped seeing things iconically and separately, and instead realized with absolute humility and utter astonishment that our senses and minds can only appreciate an infinitely small (though evolutionarily useful) fraction of what everything actually is?

This is not a call for some kind of mystical evangelism. It’s rather a convoluted way of saying: Stand still and look until you really see. Or perhaps more accurately, until you stop seeing what isn’t really there.

This is not easy. When we draw an eye on a piece of paper most of us tend (unless we’ve been re-trained) to draw the icon of an eye — an almond shape with a two concentric circles inside it. But an eye is vastly more complex and unbounded than this clever but simplistic pictograph. The artist is able to “see” this. Most of the rest of us will actually draw a more realistic-looking eye (or face, or anything else) if we turn the picture of what we’re drawing upside down so we don’t interpret its elements simplistically and iconically, and just draw the shapes and spaces and shadows that actually constitute what we see.

Suppose we tried to see everything this way — without interpretation, judgement, presumption, simplification, intention or assumption of accuracy or completeness? What if we looked (physically and metaphorically) at everything with wonder, astonishment, love, appreciation, curiosity, humility and acceptance — the way a young child looks at things, before being entrained to look with fear, anxiety and other blinding filters?

I remember looking at things this way — without any attempt to make sense or use or meaning of what I was looking at. I remember that what happened then was that the illusion of a boundary or separation between “me” and what “I” was looking at vanished. There was only everything, stillness, wonder, aliveness, connection, one-ness.

Mostly now I am too fearful to be able to do this. I fear losing my self, my security, my control over my situation and responsibility for it, my mind. I “know” that none of these things I fear losing is real, but I fear their loss nonetheless. As I watch the hero on the screen gripping perilously to the rope over the precipice, I can’t help gripping ferociously the arm of the seat from which I watch this imaginary occurrence. I’m too “smart” for my own good.

The problem with systems is that we’ve forgotten that they aren’t real. So we try desperately to create them, to recreate them, to understand them, to sustain them, to improve them, to make them serve us better, and then bemoan their endless failings. Like our gods and our cultures and our leaders and our organizations and our minds and our bodies and our models of what seemingly is, these “systems” are only imaginings, ideas, patterning, wishful thinking that doesn’t actually represent anything real, so it should be no surprise they “fail”, they disappoint us. Still, we say, we have to try to make them better, we have that responsibility, we have no choice but to seek and strive and struggle and persevere.

But we’re wrong. It’s only when we let go of the struggle to improve what isn’t real that we’ll really see what is. And only then will we see what we can effectively do (and can’t do, and can’t help doing). Our actions then will not “make the system better”, since there is no system to make better. Instead, they might actually make a difference, make us better suited to this awesome, beautiful, terrible, unfathomable world.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 5 Comments

Links of the Quarter: June, 2016

charles-barsotti-truth-clown
cartoon by the late, wonderful Charles Barsotti
This blog is now in its 14th year, and over that time most of the blogs I’ve followed have either ceased to exist or dwindled to a trickle. Although my posts have gradually slowed from daily to (on average) weekly, the amount that I write that is original content (as much as any commentary or fiction can really be said to be original) hasn’t fallen off all that much. And my articles have, on average, grown considerably longer. In total I’ve written about 2,000 posts, enough to fill about 7,000 pages, even without graphics — about 35 books’ worth. I keep wondering when I’ll run out of things to say.

Over this period I’ve become considerably more radical in my worldview, largely due to three astonishing realizations that have changed how I look at everything:

  1. Imminent Collapse: Our civilization, because of its massive complexity, dependence on debt and cheap resources, and unsustainable excesses, is going to come to an uneven and bumpy end some time in this century, and nothing we do, or stop doing, can prevent this. Our human descendants, many fewer in number than live on the planet now, will, after collapse has settled out, most likely live in amazingly diverse and culturally vibrant communities that will be unrecognizably localized, tribal, self-sufficient, opportunistic, modest and low-tech. That is, after all, how humans have, mostly, always lived.
  2. Universal Good Intentions: We are all doing our best. We really believe civilization culture is the pinnacle of human achievement, and to try to keep it going we have sacrificed our physical and mental health, the planet’s resources, and our humanity. We are all damaged (though many are still in denial) and trying to heal. We have desolated our planet, our home, and our spirits, in our fervent and misguided striving to make the world ‘better’. There is no evil cabal to blame, and shifting the concentration of wealth and power will achieve nothing. We’re an unforeseeable, surprising, colossal evolutionary failure. But damn we tried!
  3. No Separate Self: The illusion of the individual as some ‘one’, something apart from all there is, something with free will and control and responsibility, emerged as an evolutionary exaptation which was, in the short run, extremely successful, an amazing and useful trick. But it is a trick, one that our species has come to believe in so totally that we are now uniquely disconnected from all life and everything-that-is, to our endless dismay and immiseration. Billions of fearful, anxious, unhappy selves are seeking, hopelessly, to free ourselves from that illusion and find our way back to being-part-of-everything.

I sense these realizations are connected, incremental appreciations of how the world really works and what it means to be human. They now colour everything I think, believe and do, and I’m much happier and at peace as a result. But this is no accomplishment; we cannot be other than who we are.

I turned 65 this week but feel very young. Much of my young life was, sadly, full of the struggling, depression, and anxiety of the seeker in Charles’ cartoon above. Now there’s mostly playfulness, like the clown. But as the realizations above really start to really sink in, there’s this growing sense of freedom, lightness, quiet excitement, invulnerability and the inevitability of remembering, and easing back into just being. Almost home, though it’s always been right here, waiting for us all.

~~~

PREPARING FOR CIVILIZATION’S END

hopeful hour
cartoon by Michael Leunig

Dark Age Ahead: Historian John Michael Greer has a new book coming out this fall, and it’s outstanding. It’s an explanation (through the lens of previous civilizational collapses) of how we got into the economic and ecological mess we now face, and the importance of starting now to (re-)learn (by trial and error) the skills your community will need as civilization’s systems increasingly break down and fall apart. John understands how complex systems work, which is refreshing. More on the book as we get closer to September publication date.

David Holmgren on Preparing for Collapse: The permaculture co-founder suggests that suburbs might fare better than cities when collapse hits full-bore, because even small plots of land around single-family dwellings might be usable for growing food. And he suggests the real hope is in the experiments that sub-cultures are doing right now in community-building and alternative ways of living and making a living. Thanks to my Bowen in Transition colleague Jessica Mitts for the link.

The Non-Dual Economist: I’ve followed Umair Haque’s writings on economics for years; he’s an original and courageous thinker. Now, following a horrible illness, he has (to my surprise and delight) discovered non-duality. Thanks to John Keliden for the link.

Property: The Second Worst Human Invention: Jared Diamond describes (monoculture “disaster”) agriculture as the worst mistake in the history of the human species. You could make a compelling argument that the invention of personal property was the second worst. Steve Roth explains that “property rights are ultimately based, purely, on coercion and (the threat of) violence.” The concept is essentially exclusionary and requires enough power and authority (outsourced these days to lawyers, police, armies and governments) to be able to coerce and inflict violence on anyone disregarding these “rights”. Matt Bruenig goes further, describing title deeds as “violence vouchers“. (Matt’s site is currently down, perhaps hacked by those who don’t like his views?). Thanks to Flemming Funch for the links.

Forgotten Knowledge: A new report from the National Academies notes that our long period of very stable climate has given us the brief luxury of forgetting what we know about how to live on the land, in the unique places we call home. But, it warns, as climate destabilizes more and more, that lost knowledge cannot be recovered in time to prevent another dark age. More or less what John Michael Greer is saying.

Unplugging the Rivers: The Colorado River provides water to one in eight Americans and supports one-seventh of the nation’s crops. But the lakes behind the dams are dwindling to the point the dams no longer make economic sense. Thanks to climate change, the Colorado River is running dry.

Wildfires Burning Earlier This Year: One of the harbingers of chronic drought and desertification is a recurrent uptick in wildfires, and we’re now into a second year in a row of more-than-usual, earlier-than-usual fires. The challenge is that the budget (and competent staffing) for wildfire fighters is already maxed out, so firefighters have to use triage — letting fires, even huge ones, that don’t immediately threaten human settlements and assets, burn out of control, to focus on the ones that do threaten humans. That means acreage lost to fires is soaring. That increases tree and groundcover losses and adds further to desertification, runoff, soil loss to wind and water, and flooding (when it does eventually rain). Just as we can no longer afford to maintain the trillions of dollars we’ve invested in fast-decaying infrastructure, we can no longer afford to keep our forests from turning to deserts as warming and extreme climate events increase.

~~~

LIVING BETTER

LOTQ via richard saunders cage free
from RealFarmacy.com; thanks to Richard Saunders for the link

How Change Actually Happens: Victoria BC sustainability consultant Ruben Anderson takes on the issue of free will, and concludes that we might have it on rare occasions. But his best insight is about how change (in human behaviour) actually happens, and why (often) a desired, expected or coerced change doesn’t happen. Here’s the ‘aha’ punch line:

Since most of our behaviour is reactive to our physical and social contexts, the most effective way to change people’s behaviour is to change the context. Regardless of the speed limit, if the road is wide and straight, people drive fast. If the road is narrow and twisty, people drive slow. The most effective way to change behaviour is NOT to educate and inform people about the dangers of speeding, then post a speed limit and expect them to make a good choice with their free will—especially when everyone around them, their social context, is responding appropriately to the physical context of the wide road by driving faster than the posted speed limit. Imagine how we might respond to issues if we stopped telling a story that behaviour is a product of choice, and instead compassionately acknowledged it is mostly a product of context. Think of the lives lost and families destroyed by lung cancer, drunk drivers, malnutrition, poverty, and lack of exercise. Think of arguments with loved ones and lost friendships. Think of the billions wasted on ineffective infrastructure. Think of the school system and the justice system.

Consensus Always Decays: An interesting article by Richard Bartlett explains that, even in organizations where consensus has worked well, turnover and changing conditions can start to erode trust and mutual understanding, so that needs to be continuously cultivated, like a garden. Thanks to Tree for the link.

~~~

POLITICS AND ECONOMICS AS USUAL

LOTQ david-sipress-can-you-please-stop-arguing-in-your-ted-talk-voice-new-yorker-cartoon
David Sipress cartoon from The New Yorker

Why Are We Being Fed By a Poison Expert: The Undercurrent explains how Monsanto gets away with what they do. Thanks to David Griffiths for the link.

Killing Environmentalists: Investigative reporters at Global Witness survey the near-record 185 environmental activists murdered last year.

Death to the Poor: In the US now, depending on where you live, the rich live 11-15 years longer than the poor, and the spread is getting worse.

Coopting the New Economy: After corrupting the idea of the Sharing Economy with profit-seeking commercial ventures, the vultures are now trying to co-opt the idea of Co-Working, turning it from a communal, cooperative activity to a new way to make real estate profits and rental income. Thanks to Tree for the link.

Canadian Incompetence Corner:

The Globe’s Worst Writer Hangs On: The Globe’s most right-wing reporter and serial plagiarist Margaret Wente is still working for the newspaper. The essence of conservative privilege during this period of declining empire seems to be that if you have money, you are entitled to do anything with impunity.

Trudeau, the next hopeless Obama clone: Canada’s new PM shows stunning wishy-washiness producing a long-awaited assisted suicide bill that is so compromised to various interests watering it down, that his own party members already assert it will be struck down as unconstitutional, just like the previous more egregious law was. Canadians will have to continue to fly to more civilized places for merciful end-of-life health services until we get a more principled government.

Ghomeshi Gets Off: Read Kathryn Borel’s courageous and damning indictment of the ex-CBC host, the CBC establishment and the Canadian legal system that exonerated him.

And Duffy Gets Off: So far, Harper’s wacky Senator Mike Duffy has been cleared of 31 fraud charges over his expenses, costing the Canadian taxpayer half a million dollars for nothing. Another ‘entitled’ right-winger from the Canadian media, Duffy has spent taxpayers’ money like water, but the courts found the real villain in his dubious expense claims was the Harper Prime Minister’s Office that quietly told him this was all OK. Now the ethics commission, trying to save face, is investigating that office.

~~~

FUN AND INSPIRATION

2Tui_PohanginaValley_1020
Photo: Tui birds, by my friend Pohangina Pete

The Earth From Space: A new film Overview describes how astronauts felt seeing the Earth from space for the first time, especially the “paper-thin layer” of our atmosphere, the scars humans have inflicted on our planet’s surface, and the sense of being a part of all life. Thanks to Liliana for the link.

Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person: Three reasons: (1) we reject “certain candidates for marriage not because they are wrong but because they are too right — too balanced, mature, understanding and reliable — given that in our hearts, such rightness feels foreign”; (2) we may find our anxiety about being forever “single” outweighs our common sense in waiting for the right person; and (3) we want desperately to make the good feelings of falling in love last: “We imagine that marriage will help us to bottle the joy we felt when the thought of proposing first came to us.”

The Comma Queen: New Yorker editor Mary Norris has a whole series of fascinating and charming short videos about grammar, punctuation and spelling.

~~~

THOUGHTS OF THE QUARTER

A-Syrian-refugee-holding-009-640x384

This image above and the poem below are from the blog SeekersClub; thanks to Eric Lilius for pointing me to it. Photo credit above: Daniet Etter/New York Times/Redux /eyevine. “Syrian refugee Laith Majid cries tears of joy and relief that he and his children have made it to Europe.”

“Home”, by Warsan Shire:

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body.
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilet
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
mean something more than a journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
pitied

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough

the
go home blacks
refugees
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
savage
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off

or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
drown
save
be hunger
beg
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying-
leave,
run away from me now
i don’t know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here

(The poetry and prose extracts below are all from the blog Words for the Year, which posts an exemplary piece of writing daily.)

By David Foster Wallace, from Oblivion:

The truth is you already know what it’s like. You already know the difference between the size and speed of everything that flashes through you and the tiny inadequate bit of it all you can ever let anyone know. As though inside you is this enormous room full of what seems like everything in the whole universe at one time or another and yet the only parts that get out have to somehow squeeze out through one of those tiny keyholes you see under the knob in older doors. As if we are all trying to see each other through these tiny keyholes.

But it does have a knob, the door can open. But not in the way you think. The truth is you’ve already heard this. That this is what it’s like. That it’s what makes room for the universes inside you, all the endless inbent fractals of connection and symphonies of different voices, the infinities you can never show another soul.

By Warsan Shire, from “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon”:

they set my aunt’s house on fire
i cried the way women on tv do
folding at the middle
like a five pound note.
i called the boy who used to love me
tried to ‘okay’ my voice
i said hello
he said warsan, what’s wrong, what’s happened?

i’ve been praying,
and these are what my prayers look like;
dear god
i come from two countries
one is thirsty
the other is on fire
both need water.

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered
everywhere
everywhere
everywhere.

By Annie Dillard, from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

About five years ago I saw a mockingbird make a straight vertical descent from the roof gutter of a four-story building. It was an act as careless and spontaneous as the curl of a stem or the kindling of a star.

The mockingbird took a single step into the air and dropped. His wings were still folded against his sides as though he were singing from a limb and not falling, accelerating thirty-two feet per second per second, through empty air. Just a breath before he would have been dashed to the ground, he unfurled his wings with exact, deliberate care, revealing the broad bars of white, spread his elegant, white-banded tail, and so floated onto the grass. I had just rounded a corner when his insouciant step caught my eye; there was no one else in sight. The fact of his free fall was like the old philosophical conundrum about the tree that falls in the forest. The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.

By Dorianne Laux, “Twelve Days of Rain”, from What We Carry:

I couldn’t name it, the sweet
sadness welling up in me for weeks.
So I cleaned, found myself standing
in a room with a rag in my hand,
the birds calling time-to-go, time-to-go.
And like an old woman near the end
of her life I could hear it, the voice
of a man I never loved who pressed
my breasts to his hips and whispered
“My little doves, my white, white lilies.”
I could almost cry when I remember it.

I don’t remember when I began
to call everyone “sweetie,”
as if they were my daughters,
my darlings, my little birds.
I have always loved too much,
or not enough. Last night
I read a poem about God and almost
believed it—God sipping coffee,
smoking cherry tobacco. I’ve arrived
at a time in my life when I could believe
almost anything.

Today, pumping gas into my old car, I stood
hatless in the rain and the whole world
went silent—cars on the wet street
sliding past without sound, the attendant’s
mouth opening and closing on air
as he walked from pump to pump, his footsteps
erased in the rain—nothing
but the tiny numbers in their square windows
rolling by my shoulder, the unstoppable seconds
gliding by as I stood at the Chevron,
balancing evenly on my two feet, a gas nozzle
gripped in my hand, my hair gathering rain.

And I saw it didn’t matter
who had loved me or who I loved. I was alone.
The black oily asphalt, the slick beauty
of the Iranian attendant, the thickening
clouds—nothing was mine. And I understood
finally, after a semester of philosophy,
a thousand books of poetry, after death
and childbirth and the startled cries of men
who called out my name as they entered me,
I finally believed I was alone, felt it
in my actual, visceral heart, heard it echo
like a thin bell. And the sounds
came back, the slish of tires
and footsteps, all the delicate cargo
they carried saying thank you
and yes. So I paid and climbed into my car
as if nothing had happened—
as if everything mattered — What else could I do?

I drove to the grocery store
and bought wheat bread and milk,
a candy bar wrapped in gold foil,
smiled at the teenaged cashier
with the pimpled face and the plastic
name plate pinned above her small breast,
and knew her secret, her sweet fear—
Little bird. Little darling. She handed me
my change, my brown bag, a torn receipt,
pushed the cash drawer in with her hip
and smiled back.

By David White, from Sweet Darkness:

You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.

By Rosemarie Urquico, “You Should Date a Girl Who Reads”:

Date a girl who reads. Date a girl who spends her money on books instead of clothes, who has problems with closet space because she has too many books. Date a girl who has a list of books she wants to read, who has had a library card since she was twelve.

Find a girl who reads. You’ll know that she does because she will always have an unread book in her bag. She’s the one lovingly looking over the shelves in the bookstore, the one who quietly cries out when she has found the book she wants. You see that weird chick sniffing the pages of an old book in a secondhand book shop? That’s the reader. They can never resist smelling the pages, especially when they are yellow and worn.

She’s the girl reading while waiting in that coffee shop down the street. If you take a peek at her mug, the non-dairy creamer is floating on top because she’s kind of engrossed already. Lost in a world of the author’s making. Sit down. She might give you a glare, as most girls who read do not like to be interrupted. Ask her if she likes the book.

Buy her another cup of coffee.

Let her know what you really think of Murakami. See if she got through the first chapter of Fellowship. Understand that if she says she understood James Joyce’s Ulysses she’s just saying that to sound intelligent. Ask her if she loves Alice or she would like to be Alice.

It’s easy to date a girl who reads. Give her books for her birthday, for Christmas, for anniversaries. Give her the gift of words, in poetry and in song. Give her Neruda, Pound, Sexton, Cummings. Let her know that you understand that words are love. Understand that she knows the difference between books and reality but by god, she’s going to try to make her life a little like her favorite book. It will never be your fault if she does.

She has to give it a shot somehow.

Lie to her. If she understands syntax, she will understand your need to lie. Behind words are other things: motivation, value, nuance, dialogue. It will not be the end of the world.

Fail her. Because a girl who reads knows that failure always leads up to the climax. Because girls who read understand that all things must come to end, but that you can always write a sequel. That you can begin again and again and still be the hero. That life is meant to have a villain or two.

Why be frightened of everything that you are not? Girls who read understand that people, like characters, develop. Except in the Twilight series.

If you find a girl who reads, keep her close. When you find her up at 2 AM clutching a book to her chest and weeping, make her a cup of tea and hold her. You may lose her for a couple of hours but she will always come back to you. She’ll talk as if the characters in the book are real, because for a while, they always are.

You will propose on a hot air balloon. Or during a rock concert. Or very casually next time she’s sick. Over Skype.

You will smile so hard you will wonder why your heart hasn’t burst and bled out all over your chest yet. You will write the story of your lives, have kids with strange names and even stranger tastes. She will introduce your children to the Cat in the Hat and Aslan, maybe in the same day. You will walk the winters of your old age together and she will recite Keats under her breath while you shake the snow off your boots.

Date a girl who reads because you deserve it. You deserve a girl who can give you the most colorful life imaginable. If you can only give her monotony, and stale hours and half-baked proposals, then you’re better off alone. If you want the world and the worlds beyond it, date a girl who reads.

Or better yet, date a girl who writes.

Posted in Preparing for Civilization's End | Comments Off on Links of the Quarter: June, 2016