Ask Yourself This

Image by Min An from Pexels, CC0

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post called May I Ask a Question?, which summarized my thoughts on what makes a great question, the benefits of such questions, and the types that can achieve each benefit. Here’s a quick re-cap:

The most important qualities of a great question:

  1. elicits honest, thoughtful answers rather than clever, safe, automatic or socially acceptable ones
  2. is not so personal, so complicated, or so distressing to think about that it makes people hesitant to answer, but is personal enough, challenging enough, and provocative enough to elicit sufficient consideration, focus and passion to produce interesting, revelatory and possibly ‘useful’ responses
  3. encourages follow-up questions and deeper explorations into the answers and reasons for them.
  4. achieves one or more of the following benefits:
    1. knowledge, ideas, perspectives, deeper understanding, and/or insights that otherwise wouldn’t have been achieved, that helps move things forward and provides a better understanding of the situation (Why are things this way and not that way; what’s actually happening here and why; who else should we talk with; what’s working and not working?)
    2. appreciation of what we don’t know, need to know, and/or can’t hope to know (What are we trying to achieve, and why, and why do we care; what do we need to find out?)
    3. surfacing novel ideas and alternatives (What if we…; how might we…; and imagine if..?)
    4. helping us learn important and/or interesting things about ourselves and others (How do you feel about…; what do you think/believe about…; what do you wish…; what would you do if…; what if you could…?)

Some specific questions to get to know someone better:

  • If you were getting a portrait taken, and the photographer asked you to hold something in your hand that told viewers something important about you, what would it be?
  • What do you believe that no one else does? (the famous Peter Thiel question)
  • What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?
  • What do you wish you’d learned earlier in life?
  • In a few sentences, summarize your worldview or philosophy of life. What do you think is life’s meaning or purpose?
  • What would you like to be renowned for?
  • What are you most grateful for?
  • What would you most like to know about your true self, or about your future?
  • What’s on your bucket list, and what’s holding you back?
  • What quality do you wish you had much more of?
  • Who inspires you the most?
  • When in your life were you happiest, and why? What was the biggest turning point, and how did it change you?
  • What do you most like about yourself? What are you a role model of?
  • What important thing have you changed your mind about?

I’ve added a few questions to the list above based on Life Changing Questions, a ‘game’ I had the chance to play recently.

Reviewing the previous post, I got thinking about the kinds of questions we ask ourselves, and the questions we often don’t ask ourselves when perhaps it might be helpful to do so.

Asking yourself a question is a quite different process from asking one of others. There is no onus or pressure to answer the question, so we might easily get distracted. We might not be motivated to put the effort into really thinking about it. It’s harder to be objective when there’s no critical ‘audience’ for our responses.

We can of course ask ourselves the questions in the ‘getting to know someone better’ list above. But what if we made a regular practice of asking ourselves questions every time we had the chance? What questions might help us know ourselves better, or help us become more self-aware? What questions might help us surface our blind spots, or help us bring more focus to things that are important to us, and not just urgent, or help us decide how to spend our spare time, our vacation time, or our disposable income?

Thinking about this can quickly get us into the murky area of free will (ie whether we have any). But let’s suppose we do, or believe we do. What questions might be most useful to ask ourselves as a regular practice?

My sense is that it depends on what you value, your worldview, what motivates you, how well you know yourself and a host of other issues that are different for each of us*. So I wouldn’t presume to produce such a list for others. But in my own case, limiting myself to five questions to contemplate, say, at the start or end of each day, or even more often than that, I might ask myself the following:

  1. How am I feeling right now? And what simple thing might make me feel better? This is about self-awareness, not self-judgement. And the ‘simple thing’ might be a special tea, a bath, making a list, a stretching exercise, or some nagging task that I could just get out of the way right now.
  2. If I had the last 24 hours to re-live, what might I choose to do differently? This is not about self-recrimination or blame, but about learning from experiences and mistakes.
  3. What do I really want? This is Denmark’s Katja Hunter’s “one question”, and I love its spaciousness.
  4. What if I really didn’t want [the answer to #3]? “Who would I be if that thing I’ve always desired was not desired any more?” Contrarian self-help author Mark Manson describes it as shifting your values or identity by ‘trying on’ a new one, and, if it ‘fits’, letting that value- or identity-shift drive changes in what you believe and do. This ties back to the classical self-examination question What does it mean to live a good life?
  5. Who am I, really? Yeah, I know. Don’t get me started.

To do any practice consistently, I have to give myself a prompt so I don’t forget it and can’t avoid it. Maybe I’ll put these questions on my bathroom mirror.

* Ironically, when I googled the title of this post, I was taken to the page for a book with this same title, whose first suggested question to ask oneself is “What do I know for sure?” The author, a minister, responded to her own question, saying essentially that there is a higher power and that everything happens for a reason, two things I don’t believe at all.  Joseph Deitch in Fast Company last month suggested a good question to ask whenever you encounter someone who says something you don’t agree with, or believe, or think is correct or fair: “Why don’t I understand why they believe that?” Another recent article suggests, when feeling an overwhelming emotion, asking “Is this feeling useful?” Another suggests the more generic “Is this the best use of my time?” And of course there is the compassionate question that David Foster Wallace recommends in his This is Water speech, which is (as Carl Richards paraphrased it in a NYT column a couple of years ago) “What is the burden each of these people around me is carrying?”


Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 3 Comments

Why It’s Come to This

image from Max Pixel, CC0

The polarization of politics is a complex phenomenon. In a new book, Ezra Klein explains why there is a lot more to the current political quagmire than social media-driven disinformation and intolerance.

We humans like things simple, and it’s all too easy to see the world through the polarized lens created by the bubble and echo-chamber of your particular affinity groups.

So in this post I’m going to ask you to grit your teeth, PLEASE read all three of the articles below, all written four years ago in the run-up to last US election, keep an open mind about what each says, and be alert to your instinctive reactions to them:

  1. An obituary, and its back-story: Eli Saslow in the Washington Post writes about the tragic life and death of Anna Marrie Jones of Oklahoma, age 54.
  2. View from the left: Anne Amnesia from the blog More Crows Than Eagles digs into Anna Marrie’s story with her perspective on the larger picture. Anne was a Bernie Sanders supporter. She’s no longer blogging, but may well still be a Bernie fan.
  3. View from the right: Rod Dreher in the American Conservative reviews Anne’s story very enthusiastically but frames the situation utterly differently. Rod did, and says he will again, vote for Trump despite not particularly liking or respecting him.

As long as we, the precariat-becoming-unnecessariat, remain distracted by our polarized worldviews from seeing our common crises — social, economic, political, and ecological — we will remain unable to appreciate our shared predicament, let alone start to figure out how to deal with it.

Posted in How the World Really Works | 3 Comments

What Happened Here

this is a work of fiction

image by Vietnamese-American artist Dang My Linh from DeviantArt (I bought a copy of it — please support artists whose work you love!)

The work of historians is strange work. History is the telling of what was, with the possibility it might hint at what might be. Art, by contrast, is the telling of what is. I would much sooner be an artist.

But my lot in life has been to be a historian. History is, as its name suggests, a kind of story. And all stories are fictions, a making-up of what seems to be seen, what seems to be happening. But no one can know. There’s evidence that history began with human settlement, some ten or thirty thousand years ago, with the advent of agriculture, civilization, and abstract language. For a million years before that there was no human history because there was no need for stories about the past or future. The very word prehistoric means “before the stories”. Prehistoric humans simply were; why would they be interested in other times, when everything they need is right there, right then?

I wonder as I write this if I might in fact be the last historian, writing the final accounting of the past and the possible future from this tenuous and dramatic time nearing the end of the 21st century. This is perhaps the end of human history, the end of the need for any more stories. The humans that remain when history ends will be, I think, once again content to just be. They will be artists, not story-tellers, bless them.

This is not at all what I think most humans thought would be their final story, even as recently as a couple of decades ago. The first half of the century was one of collapse — of the over-hyped, mis-distributed and dysfunctional economy, and the collapse of stable climate, and of much of human culture. It’s an unfortunate word, collapse — I much prefer the thunderous french word s’effondrer, which clarifies that it is a crumbling of the foundations, from the bottom up, on which everything else was built, and which, by its use of the réflexif, admits that no one ‘outside’ was to blame; that things simply fell apart from within.

That was a time when everything was falling apart, seemingly endlessly, as all efforts to keep things together or to pull them back together failed. All predictable, of course: Any historian who had studied how life in the previous decades had unfolded in chaotic places like Lagos, Nigeria for example (back when it still existed), and that sad but hopeful city’s desolated, immiserated rural hinterlands, would see the model for how life would unfold everywhere on the planet over the decades to follow. The almost unlimited human capacity to adapt and persevere in the face of suffering has been both stunning and horrifically tragic. I can’t imagine any other species that would ever choose to live a life of constant stress, precarity, scarcity and struggle — other species would have the good sense to just give up, walk away, and leave the planet to those better adapted to the ghastly changes that have transformed the planet these past five decades. But not humans.

Something happened, however, amidst all the chaos, that transformed everything yet again, and that’s what this story is about.

It began in the 2020s, at the start of the waves of financial and economic collapse. There had recently been, at that time, great interest in the commercial, cultural and ecological potential of mushrooms. They were seen as pathways to the noosphere, miracle foods and medicines, and renewable replacements for a wide variety of scarce and non-renewable materials. There was an interesting convergence among techno-utopians, psychonauts, and commercial enterprises, that resulted in the development of some ‘living’ products made from mushrooms that would supposedly offer self-regenerating properties. So while they were initially used to produce self-repairing textiles, ecological toxin treatments and some new types of medicines to deal with cancers, viruses and autoimmune diseases, it wasn’t long before people were experimenting with ‘wearing’, consuming, and developing new products using ‘live’ mushrooms and other fungal life forms.

What they quickly discovered was the enormous symbiotic qualities of many fungi. They not only did amazing things on their own, they did some even more amazing things when they were combined with plants and animals. While this provided a small boon in new innovations, it could not begin to offset the series of economic collapses that, in just two decades, basically wiped out the capitalist economy, returning the planet to a radically re-localized economy built around sufficiency, not growth.

So while the commercial potential of mushrooms was largely, of necessity, shelved, the abundance of mushrooms and the paucity of paid work led a lot of people to explore what mushrooms had to offer personally and locally, and they were aided in these explorations by communications with like-minded people, through what was left of the internet.

An unexpected development was the discovery that, in some of the new mushroom-based skin patches being used to treat a variety of illnesses, there was some lingering symbiotic activity occurring on and inside the skin of the human patients. Because of their renowned resistance to genetic modification, mushrooms were being used to try to treat cancers and other genetic disorders, and it was found that somehow the mushrooms were ‘training’ various types of human cells to resist genetic modification, while the human cells were somehow ‘training’ the mushrooms how to be ‘smarter’ symbionts, infiltrating their partners more quickly and profoundly, and altering those life-forms’ functions in ways beneficial for both organisms.

There was of course a backlash when this began to happen — those fearful of these new discoveries began warning that mushrooms could ‘infect’ and ‘take over’ their human ‘hosts’, as some fungi apparently do to some insects. But with centralized systems falling apart, there was no way to coordinate any large-scale control over the experiments, so they continued.

And some of those experiments were producing evolutionarily significant changes. Certain types of mushrooms, it turned out, could, under the right conditions, grow to permeate the entire skin cover of the human symbiont, seemingly adding a great deal of protection to humans who had suppressed immune systems, and then penetrating further to re-regulate the immune systems of those with the opposite problem — autoimmune diseases. In addition, they interacted with the skin — the body’s largest organ — to help it deal with a variety of skin conditions, eventually ‘moulting’ a large part of the epidermis and leaving the human (or perhaps the human-fungal symbiont) looking much younger and healthier.

But the real game-changer was when some of those who were allowing their fungal symbionts extensive and prolonged access to their bodies, found that the mushrooms were actually rewiring the brains of these humans. In particular they were suppressing and rewiring the sympathetic nervous system. The explanation given by scientists was that the mushrooms perceived the SNS to be dangerously overactive and reactive and hence unhealthy for the combined symbiont, so to ‘heal’ the human it shut off the engrained ‘default pathways’ of the SNS.

The effect was extraordinary: The humans so ‘healed’ reported that it was suddenly seen that everything was just an appearance, that ‘they’ as ‘separate’ entities didn’t exist, and that everything was perfect just as it was. Yet it seemed they continued to function just as before, just without the reactivity, in a more equanimous and clearly at-peace way. And the change was permanent, even when the human ended contact with the fungus.

Given the terrible levels of stress endemic in the collapsing human society of the time, it’s probably no surprise that for most, the fear and moral doubt that surrounded this apparent dramatic change in personality was overruled by the desperation to have the peace of mind this SNS ‘re-boot’ seemed to offer. There were lots of holdouts at first, but once it was recognized that this seeming ‘altered state’ made dealing with the cascading crises of the time much more bearable, it wasn’t long before it became as automatic as a vaccine. Everyone was doing it, and there was no going back.

What was not realized was that this change was more than just an ‘altered state’. It was in a sense the end of the human individual, the end of the sense that people and the human race were in any way apart or separate from all life on the planet. As such it was the end of human needing, and hence the end of human volition. In the radically relocalized world where all that was now on offer was sufficiency, this ‘end of needs’ came at an ideal time.

That’s not to say things got materially easier or prosperity increased. Rather, it was seen that things didn’t need to be easier, and that there was no one or no thing separate to be prosperous. So human birth rates plummeted to almost zero, partly because it was now intuitively seen that there was insufficient food in the post-industrial world for all the humans and other creatures on the planet, and partly because it was intuitively seen that there was no reason to bring more children into the world until was a scarcity of them. Death rates actually dropped as wars became too expensive and were seen as pointless, as the technologies that caused the most deaths fell into disuse, and as people had no choice but to eat less, but better, with processed foods and animal fats no longer being available in the new ‘sufficiency’ economies.

While the struggle is not over, the remaining human population, down to less than half of their peak numbers, seems accepting of their new lot, and healthier to boot. With the collapse of the internet, a vast amount of human knowledge has been lost, but no one seems concerned about it. Humans once again live in community, and the drive to acquire, to succeed, to make things larger or better, seems to have evaporated.

Humans still talk, but much less than they used to. Without intention, the motivation for talk is mostly gone. There is more singing, more playing, more creative activities, but little desire for anything to last. With the sense that everything is one, connected, there is no more fear of death. There is no urgency for anything. I suspect that, to the humans used to a hyperactive-SNS life, their descendants a mere half-century later would hardly even be recognized as civilized; they would seem more like prehistoric tribespeople.

So mostly, now, there are no stories. It was the children who gave up on them last. When the adults started forgetting the ‘old’ stories and forgot how to invent new ones, the children, for a while, shared and created them among themselves. But even to them they soon seemed foolish, just make-believe. Better to sing, to dance, to play, to just lie in the sun together and laugh, and wonder.

And without stories there is no need for old historians anymore. I think it’s for the best. From here the entire arc and trajectory of civilization looks to be a form of collective madness, a colossal evolutionary misstep. The SNS likely evolved, like a fire alarm, to alert us that danger was at hand and that we needed to fight, or flee, or freeze. But when it is ‘on’ all the time, even in our dreamful sleep, it seems completely dysfunctional, of no use at all. I don’t think anyone would have guessed that it would be fungi, which have neither nervous nor vascular systems for signalling stress, that would find and flick the ‘off’ switch, for our collective good. But they did so, just in time.

And that’s the end of the story.


Posted in Creative Works | 3 Comments

Conversations on Radical Non-Duality

If you’re really into radical non-duality — the idea that there is no ‘you’ and that nothing separate is ‘real’, just an appearance in a limitless field of possibilities — you might want to subscribe to Frank McCaughey’s treasure trove of 70+ discussions and short films on the subject on Patreon.

It doesn’t matter if you’re (like me) a ‘seeker’ hoping (hopelessly) to ‘see’ this as true, or if your apparent self is gone and this astonishing ‘natural reality’ is already seen: Frank has done interviews with both, and they’re quite amazing. For the seeker with questions, there are lots of videos with very articulate answers, and IMO the interactive interview/discussion process that Frank uses with his guests allows these answers to be expressed more clearly and succinctly than is usually possible in the Q&A of group meetings (which most radical non-duality videos are recordings of).

You also get some context about how the ‘disappearance’ of the illusory self ‘happened’, as each story (of course it is only a story) is quite unique, although what is described and what is ‘left’ is unquestionably the same thing. Somehow, that’s reassuring to the struggling self.

And equally reassuring are the stories that those of us still seemingly afflicted/infected with selves tell Frank, about how easy, or how difficult, the incredible cognitive dissonance is to deal with, between the need to continue to ‘act’ and ‘function’ as a responsible person in relationships with others, and the intellectual appreciation that there is actually no person, no agency, no controlling ‘self’ inside us. Not to mention the cognitive dissonance this creates in our own heads! For some ‘selves’ this seems agonizing; for others it’s almost fun.

I was delighted that Frank has elected to post my conversation with him as Ep. 70 of his series, which is entitled Behind the Curtain. You won’t be able to see my episode, or any of Ep. 50-69, without signing up to support Frank on Patreon (which was well worth it for me). But even if you’re unable or unwilling to do so, there are some great episodes (see some of the links below) viewable by all. Here are my personal favourites to date (*indicates those still seemingly struggling with selves):

  • Ep. 68 — Giselle Suarez (US)
  • Ep. 67 — Niall O’Murchu* (Ireland) — Niall turns it around and interviews Frank
  • Film — This is it — between Ep. 64 and 63
  • Ep. 63 — Robin Kurkhus (Norway)
  • Ep. 62 — Jim Gagnon* (US)
  • Ep. 60 — Nancy Neithercut (US)
  • Ep. 57 — Michael Riley* (Canada) (warning: this lovely chat is 4 hours long)
  • Ep. 56 — Tim Cliss (UK)
  • Ep. 52 — Christian Milon (France)
  • Ep. 51 — Giselle Suarez (US)
  • Ep. 50Kenneth Madden (Ireland)
  • Ep. 49Tim Cliss (UK)
  • Ep. 47Giselle Suarez (US)
  • Ep. 37Tim Cliss (UK) (my partial transcript of this episode is here)
  • Ep. 34Boris Jansch (UK)
  • Ep. 29Lisa Lennon (Spain)
  • Zero & One — film that Frank made with Tony Parsons (UK), Jim Newman (Austria), Andreas Müller (Germany) and Richard Sylvester (UK) that got him started exploring this subject

Lots of other films, more interviews on non-duality and other, subjects and extra content from Frank’s renowned film Zero & One can be found on Frank’s channel.

I’d suggest you watch these (and all non-music videos including TED talks) at 1.75x speed, using any of the available browser extensions, for two reasons: (1) It forces you to pay full attention, so you’ll actually absorb, reflect, and retain more than you would watching it at actual speed, and (2) you’ll get through 50 minute videos in 30 minutes, giving you more time to think about the ‘obvious’ — like that nothing is real, ‘you’ do not exist, and nothing has any meaning or purpose. You’re welcome!

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Radical Non-Duality | 1 Comment

Early Creative Works

I started writing in my last year of high school, nearly 50 years ago. I’m not sure my fellow students liked my work as much as they related to the desperate passion embedded in it. Most of it was pretentious and angsty, but it had a few clever turns of phrase and some evocative imagery, and it captured I think some of the anger and dread and hopefulness and anomie of the late 1960s, so I’ve kept some fragments of it. Here is a bit of what I wrote way back  then:


on the riverbank
the cold autumn chill coming in
from over the water
splashing endlessly, wet and thunderous
over the jagged rocks.
time stops: as if waiting for moments long gone or never coming.
in the shadowed haze of overcast daylight
(with soft fine spray blowing in the icy wind
of the dull, shivering, timeless day),
the moment shocks the frozen soul with its unquestionable truth,
its unbearable silence, echoes
the infinite darkness of midday,
the infinite silence of wind
screaming through trees, leaves wet with tiny droplets
blown from the tumultuous river
turned to ice crystals by the winter gusts,
asking startling questions of frozen, weary hearts,
demanding no answers,
giving only the cold realization of utter solitude,
of unbearable loneliness,
of touching an infinite, unanswerable mystery.

study in green and grey:
the warm, wet, silent air whispers
death; the cat
running up towards me
in the dead silence
the dry grass rustling beneath its feet like hay,
purrs madly, fluffy and soft persian
all colours,
and is gone, incongruous, like the
ice-cream bell
sterile vitality
in a world of lost, sad eyes.
cries of lonely owls
faded dark green trees
against the motionless grey sky
silent and dark and dry,
a world of no energy,
so little wind that distant cries and barks
are heard in the vacuum,
so little motion that the children playing,
the dark, small birds against the hazy sky
exist only as landscapes of unreality…

but always there are the dark green, rough grey
sharp-contoured trees against
the wandering, unfocussable clouds:
form against the formless
frozen in time.

mid-night snow:
have you ever seen fresh snowfall sparkling under the streetlights
in the middle of a
windless night with no sounds and nothing moving except
the endless snow and
occasionally a car spinning its tires as it moves anonymously by
and the snow lands on your eyelashes
and you look up and try to catch the snowflakes on your tongue
and the snow above you seems to go
on forever?

there is a sparrow flying from branch to branch of a bare elm
in the park beside the frozen duckpond
on a sunday afternoon and
there is an old man sitting on the park bench throwing crumbs
to the birds and the pavilion in the background is silhouetted
against the stark winter sky
and in front of it are patterns of footprints in the snow
and by the side of the road are two imprints of
fallen angels

wilderland rites:
At night the forest is not what it seems,
The wolf, in the shadows of half-sleep, evolves into a dragonfly,
the fire into a clown, the owl into a junkie, the lady into a child in rags.
The forest becomes a desert, then a city. The clown offers a balloon to the child,
watches it rise into the crimson sky,
pulsing with ventricular booms.
The junkie becomes a priest.
Child becomes a surgeon.
Clown becomes a voodoo magician, laughs the laugh of birth and death.
Dragonfly into hypodermic, into the arm of the Patient Lover.
In the heart of the night come the mating calls.
The rapturous moans of the opium den.
On the beach of no footprints,
by the night lit by lightning,
is a scorpion with wolf’s tattered claws.
Becomes a sea-snake
rising to the song of a flute
played by a woman clothed in strips of ragged fur.
Tben the shadow of a vulture,
wearing the cloth of last rites,
and the snake’s devoured.

elegy for the sixties:
we are the flowers that bore no fruit,
cactic children, scions of extraordinary promise
never realized. on a distant embankment
we sit, wide-eyed execrable hybrids
of the years entre deux doctrines,
broken twigs still standing in infertile ground,
staring at the lush vineyards and orchards
that grew, as they were supposed to,
beyond the road that leads to the greenhouse, and the laboratory,
and the conservatory, where the best strains are kept,
and other places we will never know,
while here we wait, without anticipation, forgotten
in the rain.

Ignorance has won: our meagre forces collapsed before the war could begin, when we confirmed our suspicion that most of our people were fighting for the other side. The leaders to whom we looked for inspiration turned out to be wrong; not evil men, merely fools, so we were not even stirred to outrage, simply reduced to despair. We have become numbed and lethargic as many of our people have tired of the endless waiting and, in anger or indifference, gone over to the other side. Our arguments have lost their meaning and their definition, and the ensuing silence has lulled us into routine, a routine which we share with the other side, and which further blurs the line between us. Now only a handful of us remain, with nothing left to say, believing in nothing. We would have disbanded and returned to the world of the other side, but to declare our intention to do so would suggest that we are ready to make a decision, and we are not. So we wait; our last traces of pride and stubbornness prevail. At any rate, we now have nothing left to lose. Nothing, except the comfort of the routine, which amounts to nothing.

there is a girl in the garden:
she has eyes that are not of this time.
they shine in the sunlight, reflect
the deep green of the forest,
the magic of learning without fear.
she is the child in all of us.

there is a ghost that walks beside her: its image
grows stronger with the twilight.
its pace is heavier, and in place of eyes
it bears two gaping holes, wooden and vacant
sightless and unreflecting.
within them, the knowledge of what must be done
and cannot be done.
it carries a bottle
and speaks with the calcium in its bones.

For the thirty years after that I wrote almost no poetry or stories, and what I did write was execrable. The recurring depression that began in my early school years would continue to come and go for five decades before slowly dissipating. My preoccupation with work, family, and trying to keep myself together was complete, and it was only in 2000, recovering from the fog of anti-depressives, that I realized just how disconnected and mentally ill I was, and began to write again, and to heal. Here are a couple of short pieces I wrote that year:

THE BOX (2000)

This story is dedicated to those who have spent much of their lives fighting the noonday demon, its dessicating grief. Their hope for, and dread of, a ‘normal’ future and a ‘normal’ life depends on the continuing ingenuity of the medieval alchemists of pharmacology.

It was the Alien who first showed me The Box. I’d been walking in the forest, just outside of town, when I first saw her. Initially I thought she was a mirage: she looked amorphous, translucent. She looked toward me, through me. When she opened her mouth, what came out was not sound, but colour. An amazing profusion of purples and greens and a new hue I couldn’t even have imagined, couldn’t describe with the constricts of human language. It was colour squared, taken to another dimension. It was full of meaning and piercing clarity. The ripples and waves of tumultuous blues and blacks and iridescent reds swirled and lapped around me, tucking themselves against and through me like liquid scarves, their message perfect and unambiguous.None of the awkwardness and imprecision of speech and text.

She told me about her world and what she thought was wrong with ours. She read my numbing anxiety, the furrowed ridges and black chasms of my depression, the mute desperation of helplessness and hopelessness that defined me. Her understanding leapt like yellow fire, gave birth to another new soft colour that looked like peace, a colour so gentle that it ached. A colour totally foreign to the palette of man. She was telling me about The Box.

So I went with her and at the edge of the forest I saw The Box. Monolithic, solid, shiny, nondescript, about fifteen feet square and nine feet high, like a small, windowless room oddly nestled into a grove of spruce trees, moonlit, wet with dew. The Alien explained that The Box was uniquely for me, attuned to my consciousness. As I neared, The Box opened, extruded a tunnel, beckoning, inviting, suffused in a soothing beam of smoky blue-grey light.

I walked in and The Box closed. There was a platform, just big enough for one to lie on, and beside it an opening with a transparent chamber that took me down to a lower, similar, even more secreted room. Safety. Warmth. Rest. Darkness. Eternity.

I lay on the platform and felt suspended, weightless, just above it, cushioned by a soft, insistent updraft. Bathed in moving air. My head was encased in a diaphanous, eggshell-like cocoon. The cocoon was filled with textures, and set in motion a sensory journey of sights and sounds as breathtaking as the Alien’s spoken colours. Surreal, more here and now and present and rich and true than my sad reality outside The Box. These sensations, in concert with the weightlessness, the unconsciousness of the rest of my body, was at once transporting and disconcerting. I was at once inside and outside The Box, inside and outside my self. Hyper-real.

I learned that my instinct, my imagination, my thoughts, could move me, or at least the cocooned reality of me, through space and time and some other wondrous dimensions I didn’t understand. Dimensions in which the visual images of ‘my’ world flowed, morphed whimsically into flavours of images, not visual, but not conceptual either. As if I’d sprouted new senses and the ‘flavours’ were what these senses translated. And utterly authentic, incontestably valid, infinitely more than mere representations projected inside the kinetoscope of the head cocoon.

I learned that The Box and the head cocoon moved through these dimensions in concert, and that I could, with practice, control them. If I felt threatened or anxious when I came into The Box, by events or possibilities real or imagined in my grim external world, once inside I could move The Box a light-year through space or time in an instant. Or I could make time stop inside The Box so it would be invisible outside, as everything flowed through it, progressed through my stopped time. Or I could move ahead in time just an instant and then coast just ahead of the time of whatever I feared outside.

At first, when I went inside The Box, I simply slept, the sleep of the dead, sometimes for days at a time. Incredibly at peace, knowing that when I awoke I could return refreshed to the moment when I’d entered The Box, and re-enter the world, as if I’d never left it.

Then I began to use The Box to watch people in other countries, worlds, times. I saw creatures of spectacular, exquisite beauty, and scenes of unimaginable horror. While I lay inside The Box, I would ‘walk’ towards those I saw, althoughI knew I was prone on the platform in The Box. But they would respond as if I was really there, so perhaps I was.

At times I travelled to places to see people I knew, and my visit was never a surprise, never disconcerting or counterfeit. It was as if space and time had bent, adapted, evolved, reinvented itself to make the strange encounter natural. Conversations with those I knew, and discourse with creatures whose every presence staggered my imagination, were always astoundingly lucid, peaceful, full of recognition and import and understanding. So much that I wondered if the Alien was distorting reality to make it, finally, bearable for me.

I was especially suspicious of encounters that engaged my cut-off sense of touch, the only sense the head cocoon could not, I thought, manufacture stimuli for. Feeling and tasting a fruit with the flesh of a peach and the flavour of raspberry wine. Or standing in strange black rain touching the fronds of a purring creature covered in redolent cedar fur. Or making love non-stop for three days with someone known but somehow new, an ever-stranger. In all these experiences I suspected, but couldn’t confirm, that the amorphous body of the Alien was perfecting the reality of the event by supplying the missing, tactile sensory inputs, lying beside me in The Box.

But finally it didn’t matter if it was real or not. My senses, my instincts, my brain all agreed on the total plausibility of what was happening. If it was illusory it still had more immediacy than the reality in the increasingly pale and unsatisfactory world outside The Box.

So now I am free of the torments that plagued and paralysed me most of my life: the anxiety, dissatisfaction, dread, disappointment, apathy, exhaustion, terror, disengagement, grief, incompleteness, the absence of meaning and the lack of peace and the helplessness and emptiness that reduced me to a shadow, a pebble, a hollow man. Please don’t tell your, or my, government, or church, or boss about The Box. There is something about it that would horrify them. They couldn’t understand.

There is something you should know.

There is an Alien waiting for you, now, in the forest at the edge of your town, and s/he has a Box for you, too, with the promise of endless peace, ecstasy, understanding. Surrender to it and you will finally be free.


I wrote this story to try to convey a sense of what it must be like to live in the shadow of a dominant culture that is indifferent, or possibly hostile, to your culture’s very existence.

No one has ever seen the Light Creatures. They just arrived one day, and made quite an entrance. The night of their first visit they stayed for less than a second, but destroyed twenty trillion dollars worth of houses, buildings, roads and other human artefacts, and killed two hundred million people.

We think they’re probably very large, and move at the speed of light, though the scientists say this is impossible. Although their devastation was a shock at first, we now think they didn’t mean it, it was probably just clumsiness or carelessness, them being so big and fast and all.

What they left behind were these gigantic strands of electrical energy, kind of like that ‘crazy string’ that comes in a spray can, or like enormous pieces of spaghetti dropped from the sky, but a mile around and hundreds of miles long. Thousands of swirling, dazzling, high-voltage strings of hypnotic, shimmering white, red and purple, brighter than the sun.

At first we were full of fury, but after awhile we realized we couldn’t fight back, we couldn’t kill them. Hell, we couldn’t even find them, didn’t even know who or what they were. The politicians called the visit an ‘attack’ back then, and there was talk of a ‘counter-offensive’. People blamed terrorists or communists or global warming. There was lots of praying for god’s forgiveness. Global conferences were held, by military leaders at first, and then scientists, to decide how to respond. The security freaks in government wanted trillions of dollars to build special rubber shelters that could withstand a direct hit from the strands.

When the scientists started saying it probably wasn’t an attack at all, and that our millions of dead were just incidental damage from the Light Creatures’ visit, the politicos and generals fumed. The scientists said that the strands were probably sign-posts, markers, graffiti of a colony of huge fast-moving creatures made of pure energy. They even suggested that maybe it was ‘leavings’, just plain shit that the Light Creatures dumped off and we just kind of got in the way. The politicians went ballistic when they heard that. They had this fantasy that we could stop comets and change the spin of the Earth’s core if we set our minds to it. They couldn’t handle not being able to do anything to avenge two hundred million dead.

The second visit came a few weeks after the first, and was much less severe, killing eighty million people. From then on, we started to expect that this would be a regular occurrence. The people who wanted to defend against the Light Creatures gave up, as there was clearly no defence. The people who saw the visits as a divine message also gave up, since the message was impossible to decipher. There was more evidence that the Light Creatures didn’t even know we existed.

We started to study the strands. If you lived between about three and thirty miles from a strand, it was like basking in the midnight sun. You never needed any lights and the temperature gradient at that distance was always comfortable, and safe. The strands and their electromagnetic field destroyed most of the electric power grid and communications systems, and with them much of the world’s political and corporate power structures. But we had water, and energy.

The third, and latest visit from the Light Creatures came almost a year later, just a few months ago. It was the worst yet, nearly a third of the planet criss-crossed in high-voltage ribbon this time, destruction in the quintillions of dollars and deaths in the billions. Surprisingly we handled this one well. Families had moved closer together in the interim, and local communities had replaced virtual ones, so during the third visit, which lasted maybe ten seconds, most communities were either annihilated, with nothing left to grieve, or left unscathed.

Some people say it’s been humbling. We feel like ants at the mercy of some big kid who might stomp on us, on purpose or by accident, or who might walk by, oblivious, and leave us untouched. There’s no point in worrying about it, the next visit, whether there will be one. There’s nothing we can do to prevent it, lessen its impact. We can only go on with our lives.

Our new society is much more local, more egalitarian. In some ways, strangely, we have more control over our lives than we did before. We’re part of the decision of what crops get grown, what clothes get made, what medicines get ordered. We have more of a hand in our own lives. The strands divided us into autonomous communities but united us within these communities. Now that our world is so much smaller, we have a stronger sense of place, of where we belong.

Odd how such a destructive force could have liberated us from the prison of our culture. Life, and its satisfactions, are infinitely simpler, and more visceral, than before. We no longer look to the gods or the stars for answers. We understand that life is precious, and fragile, and serendipitous. We’ve lost everything we’d built for thirty thousand years, and found ourselves, our meaning, our answer, here, now, home.

Two years after that (early 2003) I started blogging, and my creative works have made their way into its 8000-plus pages alongside all the other things I’ve been disposed to write about. In the early years of the blog, I played with different forms of verse, and with two series of stories about several recurring characters and a dog, but I had been away from writing for so long that they were stale and clumsy. It took a half dozen years, and the promise of retirement, before I found my stride again. My right sidebar highlights what I think is my best creative work over the past decade, with the earliest (2009) at the bottom. 

I couldn’t say what, of all these writings, is my best, and my favourites among my creative writing change over time and with my mood and with each new learning. My most popular creative piece is, most likely, The Horses’ Bodies.

Posted in Creative Works | Leave a comment

What’s Apparently Happening: Frank McCaughey & Tim Cliss

Tim Cliss (left) in England; Frank McCaughey (right) in Dublin, Ireland (screen shot)

For those intrigued by the ideas of radical non-duality, who are not drawn to watch long videos and prefer to learn by reading, here is an edited transcription of much of an interview from a year ago, by Frank McCaughey (from his series Can I Be Frank? aka Behind the Curtain) of Tim Cliss. Tim’s message is much like Tony Parsons’ and Jim Newman’s, but you may find Tim’s engagingly compassionate way of speaking and his thoughtful turns of phrase resonate more with you, or provide a different and useful perspective on the subject. The unraveling continues.

Can I Be Frank #37 — Frank McCaughey talks with Tim Cliss

[A few of my ‘asides’ and interpretations are indicated below in square brackets. Note that both Tim (T) and Frank (F) were laughing almost continuously during this chat, and are speaking candidly and informally as good friends. It’s not a formal, ‘arms’ length’ interview. Tim smiles non-stop, and there’s no tone of authority in any of this. So don’t take it, or anything that is said, too seriously! If you want to get a sense of the playfulness of this interview, watch a few minutes of the video using the link above before reading.]

[0:00 — casual hellos and updates; discussion about talking about this with family]


F: Is your Mum interested in this?

T: (laughing) Are you joking? I’ve tried to explain it to her; I keep it really simple. When I was into Eckhart Tolle and the Power of Now, that was OK [with her]. Then she worried about me after that.

F: With my Mum it was “I know what you’re talking about, but let’s never talk about it again.”

T: Yeah. “I’m fine but just don’t ever mention it again”. Fortunately I talk with my brother about it and he’s good with it. He’s slightly infected you could say. It is like a virus and you aren’t getting rid of it — there is no cure. It’s a story but it’s more like you’re remembering something you’d forgotten, and once you’ve remembered it, you can never forget it again. I have no idea what it is that remembers, but something remembers. “Illusion” is about the best analogy we’ve got but it’s not an illusion — that term is quite misleading as well. Illusion suggest it’s there, and it’s not. If it were an illusion, once it was seen through it would still be there, just seen as it really is, and it’s not. The biggest misconception is that there is some enlightenment experience that would be the same for everyone. That’s just a fantasy story. When it happened it was certainly not what I was looking for, or hoping for.


F: What were you hoping for?

T: Bliss. With a little bit of ecstasy mixed in. But just bliss would be enough.

F: But we’ve talked about this idea of different perspectives, and I can’t help put on you this idea that there’s a subtle difference in how we see the world. ‘I’ see the world here, and there, there isn’t ‘anyone’ who sees the world.

T: That’s fine. You can’t help but do that. Seeing is just seeing. There is no change in perception. The world isn’t seen in a new way. The difference between me and no-me is really subtle, and yet enormous, massive. The me is the commentary, always assessing, judging. And then there’s just a lot of space; the perception is just more empty without the me.

F: I can see that there can only be what’s happening.


T: Yeah, and I start with that because nearly everyone gets that. There are times when I think I’ll never speak about non-duality again, but then it’s no different here from the place you’re at — you can’t not do that, if that’s what’s happening. It’s the only motivation I have anymore — to speak about this. The energy to be motivated for lots of other things was ‘mine’, and when I wasn’t there it didn’t happen anymore.

F: So the idea of striving for anything has disappeared?

T: All gone, yeah. And that’s really distressing, in ‘the process of falling away’, very distressing. ‘Me’ was screaming “you’re losing everything here, you’re dying here!”

F: But that unwinded itself over a period of time?

T: Seemed to, yeah. Over a couple of years I guess. Or you could say the unwinding started then. You could say it’s then forever unwinding. But that’s just a story — none of it is true. I don’t like to talk about my ‘awakening’ or whatever you want to call it because seekers then say “Oh, that’s how it is then”. And then it’s just seen as a story. And then you go “I’d like to have a go at that”. And then “It must be my turn soon.”


F: It’s like chasing nothing, endlessly.

T: I think most people are like that. They chase nothing their whole lives and then their body dies and that’s it.

F: That’s awful.

T: Not really. I don’t find it awful at all any more. Don’t get me wrong. It was awful for me. I suffered a lot trying to be the best me I could be. It’s endless torture.

F: These conversations do expose the futility and stupidity of that kind of seeking. Even when it’s explained that there is no liberation.

T: No. There is no liberation. You’ll never find what you’re looking for.

F: I love that, too. (laughing) Fuck.


T: Yeah. And the me can’t bear the end of hope. It will even take hopeless as a new path, a new thing to seek. You could make ‘nothing’ or ‘emptiness’ something to seek. But when you’ve been seeking a long time, the suffering can get unbearable. That’s how it was for me. More and more desperate. That’s why this is such a terrible message to hear. The speakers I loved and still love to hear have a message of hopelessness. There is only fulfillment — there is nothing beyond or behind. There’s nowhere to get to and nothing ever moves. All movement is just a story you’re telling. Inside and outside is empty. It’s just absolutely still. It isn’t eternal — that’s a story about going on forever. There’s nothing going on. So I say it’s ordinary but it’s also beyond wonder, beyond comprehension. And when there’s a giving up of trying to find it, because it can’t be found, then you could say — “there it is”. And yet you can’t say what that is because it’s nothing. And there’s everything in that. It’s just obvious that there can’t be anything else. The loss of time as a solid reality is the biggest aspect of what we’re talking about, because the sense of self is completely caught up with the ‘reality’ of time. The continuation of myself as an existent being — that is what I am. If that doesn’t appear, the self, which is screaming in fear that it’s dying, that it won’t exist, stops appearing, and in the absence it’s not even noticeable that it ever was. I talk about my story and what it used to be for me, but it’s just a story. No different from yours or anyone’s story. And then amazingly the stories don’t die, they just become beautiful stories. There’s a misconception that the story’s the problem. The story isn’t the problem. The problem is that it’s ‘my’ story. ‘My’ story is that I am the centre of the universe, that everything is in relation to me. And it’s that relationship that stops [when the self ‘disappears’]. So there’s nothing in relationship to me anymore. And everything is just as it is. I can’t know how it is for [others] but every body works the same way; we’ve just got this illusion of uniqueness. ‘Me’-ness, specialness. Here, there’s no special human beings anymore.


F: [describes how this strikes him, the emotion and rawness that comes up listening to this]

T: Raw, yeah. The sense of self is like a filter from life, a defence, a survival mechanism. We seem to be the only species that’s created an existential sense of our own beingness as unique and special and made our selves the centre of the universe. It makes perfect sense to me now. I hated my self for a long time — self was the enemy. I was just screaming for ‘me’ to stop. And then when it was right at the end, strangely, I screamed to save my own life. There’s this dichotomy in the seeker, desperately seeking the end of themselves, but when it comes to that they’ll do anything to survive. Because that’s all the ‘me’ is. And as a filter it doesn’t make life less raw. It filters to make life manageable because ‘I’ need to feel in control. ‘I’ can’t stand the idea of everything being completely chaotic, random, pointless, useless.


F: (laughing) ‘Me’ is this ball of tension trying to keep it all together, to know the world and confirm everything it knows. But it knows that’s impossible.

[discussion about the joys of running and the feeling of accomplishment and peace it gives, and how it gives us a brief ‘effortless’ respite from ourselves]

T: I think sometimes it’s that kind of experience that drives us to become seekers.


F: I remember sometimes getting caught up in the thought that there could be nothing, and that thought was absolutely terrifying.

T: It is terrifying. That’s why I say that this is not what the ‘me’ wants, what it most fears. Non-existence, the void, emptiness. And that emptiness is everything. The ‘me’ can make everything else oneness, but the ‘me’ is always separate from it because the ‘me’ has made itself ‘real’. And the lie is that ‘I am real’. It’s the lie on which everything else rests. The reality of everything stems from ‘my’ reality. ‘My’ reality makes everything else real. And when ‘I’ am not, then everything is free to be what it is. It’s not that it’s not real, it’s just that you can’t say what it is anymore [Tony uses the term ‘appearance’]. I can still call a tree a tree, and the difference is incredibly subtle but unimaginably enormous as well — when it is a tree and it is not a tree. And although that sounds ridiculous, and it’s not ‘known’, it’s obvious, but it doesn’t have the ‘reality’ that it would have had. It’s not an object, a thing.


F: The idea of the ‘void’ is terrifying, it makes me feel sick.

T: It’s terrifying. It’s death. But there’s nothing to die, so it’s the end of death. There aren’t many advantages with this shit, but the biggest one is that it’s the end of death. It’s the end of the possibility that ‘I’ could die, The reality (there is no reality really — but forget I said that) is that there is no death. Nothing exists. Nothing is born. Nothing dies. There is only what is, as it is. The stories of birth and life and death continue, but they’re just stories, and without ‘my’ story of ‘my’ life, they’ve lost all their weight; they’re just seen as beautiful stories. The ‘me’ just imprisons itself to keep the ‘me’ safe, and blocks everything else out, especially feelings, because they’re what the ‘me’ is most afraid of.

F: Because it has no control over them.

T: Yes. The me has no say over feelings, and it desperately wants to, so it employs strategies to avoid feelings that it doesn’t want to feel. That’s life for most people. I never know what word to use to describe this ‘absence of me’. I use that rather than ‘death of me’ because nothing dies. It’s just that the appearance of me doesn’t appear anymore. ‘I’ was an appearance, and then that appearance stops, no different than when it’s cloudy and then that stops.

[Dave’s aside: earlier Tim made the point that the self is not even an illusion (it’s a “lie” we tell ourselves), but now he’s using the word appearance, the word Tony uses to describe everything other than the self — it might be interesting to explore this different use of ‘illusion’ and ‘appearance’ when the two are clearly describing the same things]


F: It is true that this feeling of being and me-ing and the unraveling of the self does seem to be a bit of an ‘occurrence’.

T: Yes, and it seems that this unraveling can happen in one go, or [in others] seemingly over a long time, with pauses when nothing happens. But nothing really happens. The most amazing thing in my story of me, and the hardest thing to convey, is that it was absolutely obvious that nothing had happened. The destruction of me — it felt like I was being torn to pieces — was very unpleasant, not nice, bloody. I screamed a lot. But then the only thing that was really obvious was that none of that happened.

F: But for me as a person in the world I could never say nothing really happened because it wouldn’t be true.

T: Absolutely. It wouldn’t be true for ‘you’. There is no truth. This is the end of knowing anything about truth. Truth is just what the ‘I’ wants to know. The ‘I’ is always wanting to know what’s real, what’s true.


F: Sometimes I ask myself “Frank, do you really know in your heart what you’re looking for here?” And I don’t know the answer, though sometimes I think I do.

T: Yeah, that’s just how it is, until it’s not. But this isn’t “better”. Though if you asked if I’d go back to being Tim again I’d say “Not for anything.”

F: So when the self is gone is there relief? And is the seeking over?

T: There is no relief because there’s no ‘me’ to be relieved. There was “the peace that surpasses all understanding”. I remember thinking that’s what that phrase meant. I worked as a therapist, and we studied the supposedly first woman therapist, who used to say when giving counsel “All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” And I thought [when this happened] “That’s what she meant.” I’m making it sound spiritual and it wasn’t; there was just this ridiculously simple sense of peace, with nothing out of place, even though ‘my’ life was wrecked. The feeling of ‘OK-ness’ was overwhelming.


F: How did it happen? Did you just wake up (or not wake up) one morning…?

T: No. I had no idea that I was gone. Who would know? Something was not appearing anymore that was never there. So the absence was not ‘noticeable’. The only thing that was noticed was the absence of the symptoms that the ‘me’ seemed to produce, like anxiety, guilt, blame, a lot less judgement and measuring, And yet the ability to function is exactly the same — it was never ‘mine’. Functioning is natural. But much of what I didn’t like about myself is gone. That’s why this is worth talking about. I go for months without mentioning it, and then I say something like I said to you, that’s there’s no difference, and then I realize I would never want to go back to being ‘me’ again.


F: So the sense of me is seen as just an appearance?

T: Yes. And it’s most convincing. I like the old Advaita way of saying it, it’s like a veil — that everything is seen through ‘me’. Everything I see is seen ‘from’ me, which colours, flavours, and taints everything.

F: Yes.

T: And I don’t talk about it much but I did have some revelatory experiences [“glimpses”?] where when the ‘me’ came back I described it as “the veil had been lifted and there was life as it is”. And then the veil came down again. But there is no veil. Shit, it’s convincing though.

F: Yeah, but when you start to go down this road you shift from arguing about it to asking yourself if you can agree.

[I think Tim in his following comment misunderstands what Frank was saying]

T: No. ‘You’ can’t agree. But fortunately, Frank, there’s nothing to do. No happening is any more significant than any other.


F: The whole thing is a bit mad. It’s just always this.

T: Yeah you can say that but then people just seek ‘this’. At first you try to make your words as little misleading as possible. But then you realize no one can be misled, there is no misleading. It’s all fine. It doesn’t matter at all. There is no duality or non-duality.

F: Yeah, cause then it becomes another ‘thing’. There is a subtle difference though — the seeker doesn’t like it when someone implies they are in a special ‘state’ [or knows something you don’t but presumably could].

T: There is something to be said for knowing that hopeless is the only way, as long as you aren’t hopeful about it! You don’t want hopeful hopelessness. I was exactly like you [in my aversion to people who presumed to know or be special]. Preferences here are unchanged — opinions, politics, sports, foods, activities are all the same. There’s a lot of nonsense [among so-called ‘teachers’ of non-duality] about that.

F: Do you do ‘talks’, or ‘meetings’ about this?

T: I’ve tried, but not many people show up, and you have to really go to London to do them, since that’s probably the biggest audience for this message in the world. And this will never be a popular message. It’s offensive to a lot of selves. Once in a pub one of my mates had me by the throat. You do have to be a bit careful about it!

[thanks and farewells; recording ends at 1:19:01]

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | Leave a comment

A Different Kind of Animal

This clip is an 8-second excerpt of a short doc by Journey to the Microcosmos; this is almost exactly what I see under my little microscope

I am watching a couple of tardigrades — an animal quite distinct from any other in existence — under a microscope. They’re only about 1/2 mm long, but under the 150x lens of my $19 microscope they’re easy to see, and, if you start with wet moss, pretty easy to find too (they actively toss the moss around looking for food, so you just look for movement and there they are). They have 8 clawed legs, distinct heads, two ‘eyes’, brains, complete digestive and nervous systems, muscles (but no bones), and blood cells, but no one knows how they actually breathe or circulate blood and oxygen (they have no heart, lungs or veins). They’ve been around about a half billion years, can live over 100 years, and can contract into a dormant ‘tun’ state when living conditions are unfavourable, for an almost indefinite period, returning to life as conditions improve. And they are everywhere.

They give me pause, even though in many ways they’re much less strange than larger and equally ancient creatures like jellyfish and bats.

When I look at the tardigrades, I realize that, inside this body, there’s a similar world of billions of tiny creatures making me what I ‘am’. And that what ‘I’ am is not a creature, but a complicity of billions of creatures, gathered together in a shell called ‘skin’, just like the tardigrade. To call the collective within that skin a ‘creature’ is a mis-conception, a convenient naming convention, but nevertheless a lie. We apparent humans seem to use that convention in an honest and understandable attempt to make sense of things.

But that isn’t quite right. The thing that is trying to make sense of things, apparently, is the brain. The impossible complexity within what we label the digestive system also makes sense of things, usually quite brilliantly thanks to the billions of years of conditioned ‘knowledge’ in its DNA, and thanks to its experience (which, sadly, in the modern human body is horrifically limited due to the impoverished nutrition of homogenized and sterilized industrial agriculture, and to our equally sterilized, diminished living ‘environments’).

Making sense of things is what the brain does, and in very large and complex brains it does this in part by abstraction. It looks for patterns, invents models, and tries them out. Because this process is so slow, and so energy-intensive, it is unlikely it would have evolved as a survival system; until we fucked up their ecosystems, many species with large brain capacity thrived without any apparent need to abstract anything. Their brains instead serve almost exclusively (as ours used to) as what Stewart & Cohen call a centralized “feature detection system”.

Creatures like jellyfish have a highly-effective feature detection system, but it is distributed throughout their bodies rather than centred in one specialized processing ‘centre’. The fact they have been around for 650 million years while humans are still struggling with our first million, suggests their sense-making might be at least as good as ours.

As I’ve mentioned before, my hypothesis is that the abstracting capacity of large centralized brains was a spandrel, an unintended consequence of the growth of brains that occurred when we apes left our home in the trees of the rainforest and went to the sea, with its more moderate climate and its abundance of protein-rich foods. Human creatures never needed large brains in the rainforest that was our home for most of our million years on the planet — everything we needed was in abundance and in arms’ reach.

But when we left our forest Eden, likely because of drastic climate change (ice ages, catastrophic cosmic radiation etc), our survival depended now on a capacity to adapt to many different and new threats and environments. Early human ‘civilizations’ generally popped up in coastal and marine areas where there was an abundance of protein rich seafood. So my hypothesis is that our new protein-rich diets expanded our brains’ capacities, and that such expanded capacities were essential to our species’ survival (we apparently reached numbers as low as a few thousand humans in the transition, and lived almost exclusively by the sea).

These new larger brains would have some essential qualities — an ability to memorize more types of food, more places, and more diverse dangers. One such new memory would have been the discovery that after catastrophes (fires, floods etc) there would briefly be an abundance of a few homogenous plants, before successor species and the planet’s natural propensity for increasing diversity and complexity again took hold. What would have gone through the growing brains of prehistoric humans witnessing this? The fact that continually disturbing that diversity (via irrigation, the use of human-made fires, weeding etc) might allow that abundance of one type of food to continue indefinitely. Thence was born, I would posit, what is called catastrophic (monoculture, high-intervention) agriculture, enabling (indeed, requiring) the first human settlements. And in fact, this is seemingly how human civilizations began, independently in many places around the globe, and likely before language or other abstract inventions came into being.

So, I would argue, the capacity of abstraction wasn’t necessary for any of this to happen — just brains large enough to manage a greater diversity of memories, patterns and sense-making.

But such brains are capable of abstraction, and as long as the creatures with these brains were thriving on their new seafood diets, the capacity for abstraction was, I would suggest, inevitably going to be one of the experiments that nature tried out. Even if it was completely unnecessary, if it survived in these new larger brains, this new capacity was going to hang around. In that sense it’s analogous to sex and death — qualities that jellyfish and tardigrades show us really aren’t essential to a species’ or ecosystem’s capacity to thrive. They were never needed, but because the creatures that had them thrived, so did those amazing, dreadful characteristics.

So our brains evolved the capacity to abstract their environments in a very simplified model — to create the concepts of space and time as placeholders for their increasingly sophisticated memories, and then to begin to conceive of cause and effect — patterns that seemed correlated in space and time, and to start to ‘predict’ what might happen in an abstracted ‘future’. No matter that these models and predictions and the ideas, thoughts and feelings they provoked, were illusory and useless (too simplified, too slow) — the brain had evolved the capacity to notice features and patterns and make sense of them, regardless of their utility, and so it did.

And then came the pièce de résistance — in order to make these models more complete and satisfying, the brain invented, conceptualized, made up from nothing, the concept of a separate self, something to put in the ‘centre’ of the model which hopefully would make it more useful.

As I think most will admit, once the brain has decided something is true and real, it is very difficult to shift it. It has ‘made up its mind’. So, I would conjecture, ever since then, the brain has rationalized that everything that happens to that separate self is real, that this separate self actually controls the brain and body that invented it, and that everything else around this now-real separate self must perforce also be real — including space, time and other ‘people’ (abstractions of collections of cells and organs within a skin, including the brain that abstracts them and the ‘self’ that presumably sits at the centre of them).

Every decision that is apparently made by this collection, this complicity of cells and organs, is thereafter rationalized as being a decision ‘made’ by the self from its position in alleged control over the brain. And every conceived action of ‘other’ complicities of cells and organs is rationalized as being an action of that complicity’s controlling ‘self’.

This is of course what most of us ‘selves’ take for granted. But science is demonstrating that it just isn’t so. There is in fact, neuroscientists say, no such thing as a ‘self’, and the actions a particular complicity of cells and organs appears to take are in fact autonomous, merely being rationalized (made sense of) in the brain afterwards, as being the ‘self’s supposed action. And quantum science and astrophysics and philosophy are quickly converging on a consensus that there is no real ‘time’ or ‘space’ within which anything ‘real’ can happen — that these are just mental constructs, persuasive but illusory sense-making by the brain. And even more astonishingly, that there is no need for time or space or a separate ‘observer’ for the mathematics and physics to model with delicious precision what is actually apparently ‘happening’.

When this first occurred to me, I set it aside (like other things that seemed to make some sense but which I couldn’t make sense of). I started to explore ideas for ‘realizing’ the illusory nature of my ‘self’ and the apparent ‘unreality’ of time and space and everything separate. This naturally took me into spiritual studies, and then to self-proclaimed spiritual teachers (Eckhart Tolle, Adyashanti, ‘Direct Path’ non-dualists etc) who suggested pathways and practices that might lead to such realization, to a confirmation that this very strong intuition that there was ‘not two’ — nothing separate — was true.

I found the paths frustrating and fruitless (though this character is, by nature, impatient), and finally stumbled upon Tony Parsons and the other ‘messengers’ of what I (and some of them) have come to call Radical Non-duality, which posits this simple, hopeless, pathless statement:

There is no you. The sense of a separate person with free will and choice inhabiting a body is an illusion, an evolutionary misstep, a psychosomatic misunderstanding that arises in creatures with large brains. The brain and body have no need of a ‘self’ in order for the apparent human they are seemingly a part of to function perfectly well. Since there is no you, there is nothing you can do or learn or become to dispel or see through this illusion. It’s hopeless.

Nothing is real. Nothing is separate. There is no thing. There is only this (or everything, or whatever word you want to use), appearing as things and actions in (apparent) time and space. These appearances are not illusions like the self, and they’re not real, or unreal; they are just appearances. Inexplicably. For no reason or purpose. That’s it.

For the past four years I’ve been probing this, convinced that it’s too simple, too pat, and too outrageous to be correct. I am the definitive Doubting Thomas. But today I believe it more strongly, partly because it stands up intellectually so well to new discoveries and doubts, partly because there have been times when there has been a glimpse during which it was seen as obviously true, and partly because, well, it just seems intuitively correct. Something in me resonates with this statement of what is.

In some cases, it seems, the illusion of the separate self can just, without cause or reason, fall away, and, as in the ‘glimpses’, this truth is seen (but not ‘by’ me, not ‘by’ anyone) to be true. And in some cases the falling away of the self is apparently permanent. Frank McCaughey has now interviewed a number of apparent people who say this has apparently happened (but not ‘to’ anyone) and that there is no longer a sense of separation, self, or ‘reality’ ‘there’. Frank’s another Doubting Thomas like me, just as obsessed with this, and just as stubbornly and unwillingly imprisoned by his ‘self’ as I am.

When I first listened to (and later met) Tony and Jim, and then listened to Tim, Kenneth and others, I was suspicious that it was a con — they mostly know each other and in some cases have come to use many of the same words to describe the mystery that this message refers to. But it’s too consistent to be a con — no one could talk about this falsely for 20 years without making some mistake revealing it to be an invention. None of them is making any money communicating this message. And it’s not an easy gig, especially when some of the ‘messengers’ are struggling to make ends meet, continuing to work at terrible jobs, and in a few cases are not terribly well-read or articulate. Still, no matter how variably worded and described, it’s clearly the same message. I’m convinced that if Einstein were alive today he’d be on board with this, and people would be lamenting that he’d lost his edge, and his mind.

The reason that watching the tardigrades puts me in mind of this is that it brings home just how much of what is apparently happening is beyond our grasp, beyond our knowing, beyond our control, not just for now but always. For some, that might be enough to drive them to religion, or spirituality, or therapy, and leave it at that.

But this ‘I’ can’t leave it at that. There is something here, something obvious, something at once awesome and awful, something forever beyond our human selves’ reach. Something I’m guessing that, outside of selves, is universally and perpetually seen. The self does not stand in the way of the apparent complicities of creatures that appear, amazingly, out of nothing, without limit, without beginning or end or purpose or meaning, outside of time and space. Seeing what is is not an issue for the tardigrades, or the jellyfish, or the bats. There — everywhere — everything can see the wonder of everything that is. It is only the spandrel of the human self, that tragic cosmic accident, that cannot see.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 10 Comments

Links of the Month: January 2020

Too many great links to wait until the end of the quarter to post them all. So here we go with another Links of the Month:


cartoon by Michael Leunig

The Unnecessariat: A fascinating ‘future state’ scenario collaboration says that we are moving from a state of ‘precarity’ (everything is now precarious) to one of being ‘unnecessary’ (everything happens without the need of our labour, our votes, our actions, our decisions, or even our money — the ultra-rich have enough to keep computed GDP growing indefinitely). Of course, it’s all still built on faith in the economy’s ability to continue to grow unhampered forever, on the indefinite continuation of a very stable climate, and on our complacency. If we move from ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ to ‘cease, dismantle, hack’, can we fight back against this “not with a bang, but a whimper” dystopia? (Thanks to John Thackara for the link).


photo by Katie Forrester last week at the Bandon OR Circles in the Sand

Intentional Community: The Next Generation: Mike Mariani profiles [paywall*]  the current state of Intentional Communities in the US and describes the changes they have gone through over the past few  decades. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.

Organized innovation is an illusion: Nina Kollars (who also reveals how you might be the inadvertent ‘mule’ in a ‘triangulation fraud’ when on-line shopping) explains how innovation actually occurs — organically, at the front lines of organizations, unaffected by top-down ‘initiatives’.

Taking all sides: Rosa Zubizarreta explains an approach called Dynamic Facilitation, which entails, instead of strict neutrality on the part of the facilitator, the capacity to intervene as ‘respondent’ when someone offers a criticism of what someone else has said. So instead of the criticism being ‘directed’ at the idea originator, it is instead listened to and responded to by the facilitator, so the idea originator can listen more objectively than might be possible if the criticism was ‘aimed at them’ and taken ‘personally’.

Why are poor countries poor?: Vlog brother John Green explains that it is colonial resource theft and bribes by rich nations, and foreign-financed civil wars that have impoverished and immiserated most poor nations, far more than domestic corruption and disease which just feeds on the dregs rich nations have left behind.

Watch out Ford, he’s coming there next: Terry Christenson, a 72-year-old Métis who has dedicated his life to climate change activism, will be released from his latest jail sentence next month and [paywall*] then heads to Ontario for his next action.

Jordan the “nutty professor”: Another brilliant critique of the misogynist Canadian Prof. Peterson, this time by a Scottish publication.


photo from I’m Not Right in the Head Facebook page

George Monbiot on gaming democracy: “The oligarchs have discovered the formula for persuading the poor to vote for the interests of the very rich”. Thanks to Jae Mather for the link.

The pipeline that keeps bleeding: Andrew Nikiforuk explains how the post-Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Tar Sands pipeline deal was deliberately structured to compensate the corporate sellers at the expense of public taxpayers.

… as the Tar Sands keep gouging and poisoning: Get ready for Frontier — the newest and biggest yet (100 sq. mi., twice the size of Vancouver) bitumen sludge mine in the atrocity that is the Alberta Tar Sands. It’s absolutely game over for 2ºC-of-warming goals if it is approved. Expect it to get approved next month by the hypocritical and gutless Trudeau government.

How Google tries to have it both ways: Did you know Google maps “tailors” the national boundaries it shows you based on your ISP location?

The Ox-Bow Incident, redux: Those familiar with the novel will appreciate the irony in the residents of Oxbow, Saskatchewan seeking to discipline the schoolteacher who held a green-themed Christmas pageant for being “anti-oil”.

A taste for blood: US exports of blood products, mostly “donated” by poor Americans desperate for the small amounts of money they receive for them, now exceed US exports of corn and soybeans in value. Thanks to Ben Collver for the link, and the one that follows.

Fake news vs fiction: “Good, meaningful fiction does not confirm preexisting beliefs; its entire raison d’être is to disturb and challenge such beliefs.” Especially in India, deliberately provocative fake news is now causing an upswell in hate-killings, riots and other crimes. Coming soon to a place near you?

Homeless in Toronto: Four men describe what it’s like when the loss of a job, or your health, lands you, for years, on the street.

Banking while indigenous: An indigenous grandfather and his 12-year-old grand-daughter were publicly handcuffed in front of a Vancouver Bank of Montreal after trying to open an account there. A racist employee had called the police (falsely) claiming a “fraud” had been committed.

What’s ‘extreme’ to you..: US Homeland Security now lists non-violent climate protesters as equivalent ‘terrorist’ risks to mass murderers. Thanks to Ken Ward for the link. (British police apparently agree with DHS.)

Purpose-ly misleading: Hot on the heels of a “purpose-led life”, now we have business gurus and executives talking about “the purpose paradigm” and “purposeful careers”. It’s doublespeak for lauding over-paid, worthless billionaire “leaders” for throwing a few pennies of their obscene, mostly-inherited, unearned and untaxed wealth to philanthropic purpose, instead of dealing with the ghastly inequality of wealth, income and power that sucks any sense of real purpose out of the lives of the 99%. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.


another photo from I’m Not Right in the Head Facebook page

The theft of our autonomy: Jon Barnes explains how our patriarchal and self-domesticating culture (perhaps unintentionally) robs us of the capacity to self-manage and instead imposes dysfunctional hierarchies to make all but the most trivial decisions. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.

How to sound like…: Nahre Sol plays a happy-birthday-like motif in the style of ten different classical composers. Brilliant.

Things Parisians say: You never learned this stuff in high-school French class.

Pedalling with rail-bikes: Perhaps the ultimate cycling adventure is pedalling through the redwood forest on a cycle built for rails. Thanks to Beth Patterson for the link.

The Subjective Mood: Adam O’Fallon Price laments the marked shift in modern fiction from third person to first person narrative, and the lack of ‘objectivity’, the imaginative poverty and perhaps the narcissism that shift implies.

Kitbull: A charming and tear-jerking Pixar short, with a happy ending.

Seeing without eyes: Two sea creatures can ‘see’ without using eyes. Optical sensors in octopi’s skin detect changes in brightness and colour of surroundings and prompt changes in skin camouflage. And the brittle-star, a starfish cousin, has no eyes at all, and no brain, but still uses its skin sensors to perceive threats, safe hiding places, and prey.

False positives: There are a number of negative words like disgusted and ineffable that do not have corresponding positives (when the negative prefix is removed). Here’s a round-up of twelve of them.


image from Pixabay by aitoff (CC0)

Letting ‘you’ down gently: I’m working on a new blog article based on Frank McCaughey’s radical non-duality video podcast series called Can I Be Frank? (aka Behind the Curtain). But in the meantime, here are two superb new videos on the subject (transcripts of both to come):

Tony Parsons interviewed by Devasetu 

Tim Cliss interviewed by Frank McCaughey (18:57 on)

Donald Hoffman’s “conscious agent theory”: While not exactly non-dual, this theory holds that reality isn’t made up of “things” but rather non-physical “conscious agents” that invent a simulation of reality that optimizes survival; this is probably the most comprehensive interview on the subject to date.


Where did our languages come from? Probably not where you thought. Examples:

    • The Turkic languages (see map above; click on image to see full-size version) originated in what is now Mongolia before 500 BCE, and are now widely spoken in Siberia, in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, significant parts of Afghanistan and Iran, by the much-persecuted Uighur peoples of West China, and of course in Turkey. But the Turkish language was a late-comer to Turkey, being spoken in many Arabic nations and India before reaching modern-day Turkey around 1100 CE. Apparently the Uighur can understand speakers of modern Turkish.
    • The Indo-European Languages originated in the Caucasus mountain areas of Western Asia around 4000 BCE. By around 2000 BCE a separate branch, the Celtic Languages, emerged in the Alps; they spread west as far as Eire and then almost died out everywhere else by around 800 CE, before slowly expanding east again in Brittany, Cornwall, Wales and Scotland.
    • The Polynesian languages, including Hawaiian and Maori, all originated in what is now Taiwan, where they were nearly extinguished.
    • No one can agree on where the Uralic languages (Finnish, Hungarian, Estonian, the arctic Sami and Samoyed languages etc) originated. And the origins of the Kartvelian (Georgian) and Basque languages remain a mystery.
    • The lesson seems to be that new languages are best birthed and nurtured in isolated mountain areas and islands.

From Poetry Magazine (1921):

The Snow Man, by Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

*denotes paywall-blocked and ad-blocker-blocked articles: if you want to bother reading them, you can use text-only “reader” apps with your browser to circumvent the ‘wall’

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 1 Comment

The Apology

photo by the author

Eve Ensler, playwright, author, and screenwriter, recently wrote a haunting and powerful book called The Apology, and, after writing it, she realized that there was an apology inside her waiting to be spoken too. She explains:

After I finished writing The Apology, a book in which I wrote a letter from my father to myself apologizing and exploring, explaining in detail all the ways he had abused and harmed me, I realized there was an apology I needed to make — an apology that would force me to confront my deepest sorrow, guilt and shame, an apology that I had been avoiding since I moved out of the city to the woods where I now live with the oaks, locust and weeping willows, Lydia the snapping turtle, running spring water, foxes, deer, coyotes, bears and cardinals and my precious dog, Pablo. It is my offering to you. It is my apology to the Earth, herself.

Eve published the letter in Maria Popova’s wonderful blog BrainPickings. It’s worth reading Maria’s article in its entirety, but I’m taking the liberty of reposting it below because it may be the most moving, and important, letter written so far in this century:

Dear Mother,

It began with the article about the birds, the 2.9 billion missing North America birds, the 2.9 billion birds that disappeared and no one noticed. The sparrows, black birds, and swallows who didn’t make it, who weren’t ever born, who stopped flying or singing or making their most ingenious nests, who didn’t perch or peck their gentle beaks into moist black earth. It began with the birds. Hadn’t we even commented in June, James and I that they were hardly here? A kind of eerie quiet had descended. But later they came back. The swarms of barn swallows and the huge ravens landing on the gravel one by one. I know it was after hearing about the birds, that afternoon I crashed my bike. Suddenly falling, falling, unable to prevent the catastrophe ahead, unable to find the brakes or make them work, unable to stop the falling. I fell and spun and realized I had already been falling, that we have been falling, all of us, and crows and conifers and ice caps and expectations — falling and falling and I wanted to keep falling. I didn’t want to be here to witness everything falling, missing, bleaching, burning, drying, disappearing, choking, never blooming. I didn’t want to live without the birds or bees and sparkling flies that light the summer nights. I didn’t want to live with hunger that turned us feral or desperation that gave us claws. I wanted to fall and fall into the deepest, darkest ground and be finally still and buried there.

But Mother, you had other plans. The bike landed in grass and dirt and bang, I was ten-years-old, fallen in the road, my knees scraped and bloody. And I realized that even then nature was something foreign and cruel, something that could and would hurt me because everything I had ever known or loved that was grand and powerful and beautiful became foreign and cruel and eventually hurt me. Even then I had already been exiled, or so I felt, forever cast out of the forest. I belonged with the broken, the contaminated, the dead. 

Maybe it was the sharp pain in my knee and elbow, or the dirt embedded in my new jacket, maybe it was the shock or the realization that death was preferable to the thick tar of grief coagulated in my chest, or maybe it was just the lonely rattling of the spokes of the bicycle wheel still spinning without me. Whatever it was. It broke. It broke. I heard the howling. 

Mother, I am the reason the birds are missing. I am the cause of salmon who cannot spawn and the butterflies unable to take their journey home. I am the coral reef bleached death white and the sea boiling with methane. I am the millions running from lands that have dried, forests that are burning or islands drowned in water. 

I didn’t see you, Mother. You were nothing to me. My trauma-made arrogance and ambition drove me to that cracking pulsing city. Chasing a dream, chasing the prize, the achievement that would finally prove I wasn’t bad or stupid or nothing or wrong. Oh my Mother, what contempt I had for you. What did you have to offer that would give me status in the market place of ideas and achieving? What could your bare trees offer but the staggering aloneness of winter or greenness I could not receive or bear. I reduced you to weather, an inconvenience, something that got in my way, dirty slush that ruined my overpriced city boots with salt. I refused your invitation, scorned your generosity, held suspicion for your love. I ignored all the ways we used and abused you. I pretended to believe the stories of the fathers who said you had to be tamed and controlled — that you were out to get us.

I press my bruised body down on your grassy belly, breathing me in and out. I have missed you, Mother. I have been away so long. I am sorry. I am so sorry. 

I am made of dirt and grit and stars and river, skin, bone, leaf, whiskers and claws. I am a part of you, of this, nothing more or less. I am mycelium, petal pistil and stamen. I am branch and hive and trunk and stone. I am what has been here and what is coming. I am energy and I am dust. I am wave and I am wonder. I am an impulse and an order. I am perfumed peonies and the single parasol tree in the African savannah. I am lavender, dandelion, daisy, dahlia, cosmos, chrysanthemum, pansy, bleeding heart and rose. I am all that has been named and unnamed, all that has been gathered and all that has been left alone. I am all your missing creatures, all the sweet birds never born. I am daughter. I am caretaker. I am fierce defender. I am griever. I am bandit. I am baby. I am supplicant. I am here now, Mother. I am yours. I am yours. I am yours.

Eve Ensler

Please support the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in its efforts to fight the extinction of wild birds.

I am hoping to read Eve’s letter at our next local Transition meeting; it probably says what we’re about better than anything else ever has.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 3 Comments

Collective Intelligence to Make Sense of Complexity

I recently did a mini introductory workshop on complexity and systems thinking, describing the difference between complicated and complex systems using my friend Dave Snowden’s Cynefin Framework (characteristics of each type of system in red; approaches in green; small business example in blue):

I then introduced the systems thinking methodology of Dr Rosalind Armson:

and then introduced Dr Armson’s systems diagramming methodology and terminology, using a children’s story as a model (the ‘dragon’ in the story is an excellent metaphor for just about every complex predicament one can encounter; just replace ‘dragon’ with ‘alcoholism’ or ‘child abuse’ or ‘neglect’, or replace the ‘house’ with ‘Earth’ and the ‘dragon’ with ‘global warming’ or ‘systemic poverty’ and it’s pretty much the same ‘story’ — so I’ve used the letter ‘P’ as the symbol for whatever the particular predicament being explored is):

and then we charted that story:

Applying the same chart to describe, say an effective vs ineffective national housing, health or education system, the virtuous circle would be something like Finland’s (high tax rates to finance government programs, primary mandate to meet the common good, large ownership of and investment in public buildings/institutions/ infrastructure, and public benefits such as an educated and healthy citizenry and a low crime rate). [Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link]. The vicious cycle would be the one most of us are familiar with (constant downward pressure on tax rates, primary mandate of enriching private shareholders and landholders, institutions/land/ infrastructure largely or mostly privatized, constant pressure to cut services to offset reduced tax revenues, and commensurate high rates of homelessness and crime and low rates of physical and mental health and affordable housing).

The balancing elements that take a nation from the virtuous to the vicious cycle might be factors like the demand by a few very rich and powerful people to slash national tax rates (or else the rich will decamp to a lower-tax-regime state). This is what happened in Thatcher’s UK for example.

The balancing element that takes a nation from the vicious cycle to the virtuous cycle might be something like the Sanders/Warren proposals for universal health care in the US funded by a substantial tax increase to the richest 1%. I say might because the situation is extremely complex; we can’t know for sure we’ve factored in even the most important variables, and what elements might come into play to keep the vicious cycle intact. This is why there is generally (and justifiably) a lot of nervous, knee-jerk opposition to any radical change, and why self-reinforcing feedback loops are so hard to escape from.

Of course, real world complex systems (and their charts) are much more involved than this, with many more elements and cycles, and come with the sobering acknowledgement that (i) we can never know all of the elements at work, (ii) while we can guess at the cause/effect relationships in how we draw the arrows, we may later be surprised to find that they’re merely correlations and possibly not causal (or predictive) at all, and (iii) while diagramming what we think we know about complex systems helps us understand what is going on much better, the ‘answer’ (eg the balancing element that moves the system from a vicious to a virtuous self-reinforcing loop) will never simply ‘drop out’ (be deductively obvious) the way it may in merely complicated systems like a malfunctioning automobile.

The diagramming process also challenges our assumptions and judgements: If one of the supposed elements is ‘human greed’ or ‘stupidity’ (or some convenient ‘evil’ enemy), a more thorough study of what’s really happening is more likely to discover that what is happening, is happening for a perfectly justifiable and understandable (and not readily correctable) reason. As I assert in Pollard’s Law of Complexity:

Things are the way they are for a reason. To change something, it helps to know that reason. If that reason is complex, success at truly changing it is unlikely, and adapting to it is probably a better strategy. Complex systems evolve to self-sustain and resist reform until they finally collapse. That is just how they work.

Blaming someone for a system caught in a vicious cycle is usually simplistic and unhelpful, and changing governments (or CEOs) is rarely sufficient to escape the cycle. Assuming “we’re all doing our best” is generally a better approach.

This is why we (as a species) loathe complexity. We want things to be easy, binary, rationally deducible. We want to believe we have the control and power to make things better.

So having diagrammed (to the extent we can) a complex system, what is required to determine what (if anything) might be an appropriate action or reaction, is generally a collective intelligence process, involving a diversity of as many knowledgeable, open-minded, creative people as possible.

That brings me to the subject of this article, which is: What makes for an optimal collective intelligence gathering process?

There are two competing points of view on this, and I think it’s essential that they be reconciled if we have any hope of achieving a useful consensus:

  1. Evidence-based approach: Collect lots of data, look for broad patterns, deduce appropriate interventions
  2. Story/anecdote approach: Listen to lots of stories, synthesize understanding, infer appropriate interventions

When it comes to, for example, human illnesses, ‘big’ medicine prefers to do lots of evidence-gathering research, find correlations, and prescribe therapies that seem to work in the preponderance of cases. It fails to conduct longer-term studies because they delay interventions too long and cost too much, it can easily fall prey to bogus research paid for by medicine and food manufacturers (and is inevitably shy on evidence of the efficacy of non-money-making treatments like better diet), and it ignores the astonishing and largely unfathomable complexity of the human body and the utter uniqueness of each individual body’s reactions.

Some medicine, on the other hand, is based on personal experience, stories from individual patients, and conviction that what works in some specific well-known cases may work well in the general populace. It is often based on thin and sometimes highly-subjective data, and also is prone to biased and bogus self-interested research, and also inevitably remains largely ignorant of the complexity of the human body and the uniqueness of each body’s reactions.

Of course, most practitioners will draw to some extent on both approaches. For example, Dave Snowden and others have developed tools that collect large numbers of stories and seek out useful patterns in them. Another example is Michael Greger’s, which filters out biased and fundamentally-flawed nutritional ‘research’ paid for by vested interests, adds in the (small sample size, since these studies aren’t profitable to anyone and hence are underfunded) research that has been done showing strong correlation between specific whole food consumption and health and longevity, and suggests how each of us, factoring in knowledge of our own personal bodies, might make use of the inferences of that body of evidence.

But the current complicated medical system in most countries is simply incapable of producing anywhere near optimal outcomes for the very complex problems of human health.

What might work better? Clearly, a system that informed patients of appropriate illness prevention processes (diet, exercise, sleep, selective supplements), and encouraged and enabled patients to take personal responsibility for monitoring their personal health and the efficacy of various therapies for them personally, would almost certainly extend most people’s lives by years and their ailment-free lives by even more years, and that would have astonishing effects on almost every aspect of our modern society. But to change to such a system would likely involve the dismantling of the capitalist basis that underpins it, and an almost unfathomable change in public perception of the value of (paying for) public services. We’re caught in the vicious cycle of our dysfunctional and unsustainable health (and related social, educational, economic, and technological) systems.

Whether it could be done before the systems collapse is the key question. Once systems collapse, there’s a temptation to try to rebuild them (which almost always fails since the dysfunctional dynamics remain). And then something different is tried, until, for better or worse, a new system is created that has enough stability to be sustainable.

Now that the massive collapse of our stable climate, industrial growth economy, and other global systems appears increasingly imminent, there is some thought going into trying to answer this question. If there were a concerted effort by a large number of disinterested (unbiased but passionate), attentive, non-judgemental, dedicated, critical-thinking, coordinated, cooperative, collaborative, informed thinkers to collectively evolve a set of interventions that might either (a) mitigate collapse enough to reform the system so that it is once again sustainable, or (b) replace the existing dysfunctional system promptly once collapse occurs so as to produce the minimal amount of suffering to the human and more-than-human world, would it get enough attention to be implemented, or would it just be ignored as another radical ‘impracticable’ egghead ‘solution’?

A number of recent initiatives have broached this question. In the 1990s, David Bohm suggested a form of dialogue that might facilitate just such collaboration. One of the objectives of The Wisdom of Crowds was to identify how and when large collectives produce better answers than any small group, no matter how competent, could hope to produce.

More recently, Daniel Schmactenberger has spoken about the need for us to hone and practice our critical thinking, conversational and collaborative capacities and apply them, first to listening to and understanding those with whom we disagree (no one is to blame; we’re all doing our best; everyone has a piece of the truth; people believe what they do for a good reason), and then to engaging in earnest, purposeful dialectics to start to appreciate some potentially useful approaches to complex predicaments. Daniel also suggests some personal vows going into such deliberations: fierce dedication to knowing the truth, not turning away when that truth is unbearable, staying open-minded and caring and equanimous, constantly challenging everything one believes, and having the courage to seek out approaches and ideas even when you’re so far ahead of the curve there is no one who can guide you.

All of these initiatives eschew debate and rhetoric and resolve to dispense with misunderstandings, untruths, untruthfulness, and bias (conscious and unconscious) in our search for ideas and approaches to deal with the immense challenges we now face.

If you believe, as I do (at least for the moment) that there is no such thing as free will, what is the point of aspiring to do any of this? As I suggested in my earlier article, I don’t think we have any choice. Those of us with this turn of mind just have to look for approaches that might work, despite the apparent impossibility of any such approaches being found.
complex predicament map export
image courtesy SHIFT Magazine; click on image to view full-size

We have been in situations that were seemingly ‘impossible’ before, and when we reached the tipping point where staying with the existing system was obviously no longer an option, we introduced radical changes. This happened with the New Deal and similar programs worldwide that essentially suspended much of the capitalist system to deal with the 1930s economic emergency. It happened with the collective response to German atrocities in what became world war two, which required a near-global massive sacrifice of a beloved way of life to deal with an existential threat. It’s sometimes easy to forget how quickly and radically we’re somehow able to shift gears when we know we have no choice.

If we have no free will, neither do we have any choice about what we do, or fail to do, as economic and ecological collapse deepens. It will be interesting to see whether an increasing number of us have no choice but to start exploring collective intelligence gathering processes, à la Bohm or Schmactenberger, to try to mitigate and be ready to replace collapsed systems. It seems, we have to try.

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