May I Ask a Question?

Image from pixabay by Dean Moriarty, CC0

My friend Ben Collver recently loaned me a book called A More Beautiful Question, by Warren Berger, that arose from some ideas in Warren’s blog. The book is specifically focused on questions that spark business innovations, and his key questions boil down to “Why, What If, and How Might questions that can’t be answered with facts”.

Earlier this year I wrote a post about questions to ask to really get to know people better. And I’m familiar with the value of Appreciative Inquiry type questions.

So I’ve started thinking whether there is some larger question set and question criteria that might, in a broad range of circumstances:

  • Identify the qualities that make for a good question
  • Identify the benefits of asking questions (and when asking a question is most effective and interesting)
  • Identify the types of questions that can best achieve these benefits

Over the past few weeks I’ve read everything I could get my hands on on this subject, and I think I’ve been able to synthesize the results down into something useful.

Building on and generalizing my earlier post, I think the 6 most important Qualities of a good question are:

  1. They elicit honest, thoughtful answers rather than clever, safe, automatic or socially acceptable ones.
  2. They are not so personal, so complicated, or so distressing to think about that they make people hesitant to answer, but they are personal enough, challenging enough, and provocative enough that they elicit sufficient consideration, focus and passion to produce interesting, revelatory and possibly ‘useful’ responses.
  3. They don’t (for most people) require an enormous (ie discouraging) amount of time and energy to ponder to come up with a considered response.
  4. They encourage follow-up questions and deeper explorations into the answers and reasons for them.
  5. The responses to them achieve one or more of the six Benefits listed below.
  6. Both the question and the responses help us learn, and provide knowledge, ideas, perspectives, insights, and/or a deeper relationship with someone, that otherwise wouldn’t have been achieved.

And the 6 most important Benefits of asking, thinking about and responding to high-quality questions are that they help us:

  1. Understand why things are the way they are
  2. Appreciate what we don’t know, need to know, and/or can’t hope to know
  3. Imagine novel alternatives
  4. Iteratively move an idea or process forward or deeper
  5. Learn important and/or interesting things about ourselves and others
  6. Encourage people to articulate and share what they know and care about

Building on Warren’s three types of questions to spark business innovation, I looked through several hundred examples of ‘beautiful’ questions that seemed to have the 6 Qualities, and discovered that they generally had similar syntaxes, depending on the purpose (and hence on the Benefit they potentially delivered). While a few offered more than one of the 6 Benefits, most were clearly designed to offer just one of the 6, so I’m listing them below, sorted by Benefit. Key Question Types:

  1. To understand why things are the way they are
    • Why is it this way? What’s really going on here?
    • Why isn’t it that way? Why has no one (else) done… ?
    • What’s working, and what’s not working, and why?
    • Tell me a story about when things went really well.
  2. To appreciate what we don’t know, need to know, and/or can’t hope to know
    • What’s the ‘problem’ we’re trying to solve (and is it real and do we really care about it)?
    • Tell me a story about when things went badly.
    • What do we need to find out?
    • What are the risks of not knowing… ?
    • Who else should we be talking with or involving in this?
    • What are we missing?
  3. To imagine novel alternatives and workarounds
    • What if we… ?
    • What if things were different in that… ? Can we imagine a better state and then figure out how to get there?
    • How might we… ?
    • How might we begin to… ? What would be the first step forward?
  4. To iteratively move an idea or process forward or deeper
    • What if we… ?
    • Is this really true? Is this really important and useful? Is it actionable?
    • What’s happening here?
    • What are we missing?
  5. To learn important and/or interesting things about ourselves and others
    • What would you do if… ?  Imagine that you… ? What if you could… ?
    • What do you wish… ?
    • What do you think/believe… ?
  6. To encourage people to articulate and share what they know and care about
    • What do you think about this?
    • How do you feel about this?
    • What are your instincts telling you about this?
    • What are we missing?

We should recognize that we’re not all good at coming up with good questions, and we don’t all have the imaginative and creative skills needed to come up with interesting or breakthrough answers. That means assessing who’s good at asking, and who’s good at answering certain types of questions, and drawing on those strengths — and building our own competencies.

Some of the above questions (eg What if we…?) may require great imagination to move beyond the incremental. And answering some of the other questions (eg How might we…?) may require a rare level of imaginative thinking to answer affirmatively at all. Poor questions and unimaginative or ignorant answers are of no value at all.

So here are a few scenarios where asking (and answering) questions might be of particular value, and some sample questions (of the appropriate Type) that might help. I’ve provided one scenario to address each of the potential Benefits (though obviously in any real situation more than one Benefit might be achieved by asking questions, so questions of many Types might be appropriate).

What’s particularly interesting is that sometimes just asking the (right) question confers some, or even most of, the value.


Scenario: You, and someone you love and also work with, have recently been at constant loggerheads, disagreeing about what’s true, what’s good and bad, and what to do. You’re constantly triggering each other, resulting in anger, fear, tears and withdrawal.

Some Benefit 1 Question Types: Why has this been happening? What’s behind it? What’s really going on here? Why aren’t things smooth and easy and any upsets effectively and dispassionately resolved? What are we handling well, and why? What are we not handling well, and why? Tell me a story of when we were at our best. [then you’d move on to Benefit 2-3 question Types]


Scenario: You and your family are entrepreneurs worried about climate change and the state of the economy. You are thinking of moving to a more sustainable place, but there seem practical obstacles to any of the ones you’ve identified, especially with your fledgling business.

Some Benefit 2 Question Types: What’s the real problem we’re trying to solve here? What do we need to find out to make an informed decision? What are the risks of moving, and of staying put, that we might not have contemplated? Who can we talk with to get a better understanding of the situation and options? What are we missing here?


Scenario: You just learned that a new competitor for your small business is using cheap overseas labour and exploiting poor environmental standards overseas to offer products and services possibly comparable to yours for half the price. You have to innovate or your business may not survive. [In such a scenario, different types of questions might help achieve all six Benefits, but I’ve just listed some Benefit 3 & 4 Question Types.]

Some Benefit 3 & 4 Question Types: What if we did nothing? How might we create products and services that no offshore competitor could match? Is it true that this new company threatens us; is there anything we can really do anyway? What if the new competitor didn’t exist; what would we do differently? What are we missing here?


Scenario: You and three other people with complementary skills have recently been approached about a potentially exciting new social enterprise opportunity. None of you know each other, and you’ve convened to see whether you think you might get along well together in such an operation, and personally.

Some Benefit 5 Question Types: (this is one of Ben’s brilliant questions, after seeing the work of a portrait photographer who often placed objects of note in her subject’s hands:) 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? (the famous Peter Thiel question:) What do you believe that no one else does? (and another famous question) What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail? (and from my earlier post:) What do you wish you’d learned earlier in life? Of the people you’ve known in your life but fallen out of touch with, who would you most like to reconnect with, and why? If you had to write 200 words that summarize your worldview or philosophy of life, what would they be?  (and finally, a few adapted from Arthur Aron’s famous 36 questions:) Given the choice of anyone living in the world, who would you want as a dinner guest? 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? If you knew you were going to die soon, what would you do with your remaining time?


Scenario: Your small enterprise is dealing with a new challenge, but at your meeting a small number are dominating the conversation, and others are clearly feeling unwilling or incapable of proffering their thoughts.

Some Benefit 6 Question Types: (for the wallflowers) What are your thoughts and feelings on this (“Let’s go around the circle.”)? What are your instincts telling you? What’s your sense of what’s going on here? Are we missing something?


There is, unfortunately, no straight-forward checklist of questions, and no easy way to know exactly what to ask. Everything depends on context. And the art of divining and asking the right question, and asking it the right way, can require almost as much imagination as answering the most wicked and challenging question. But perhaps a ‘roadmap’ like the one above might be useful in getting you started and pointed in the right direction. What’s your objective in asking a question in a particular context (ie what Benefits are you striving for)? What Types of questions might achieve that objective and achieve those Benefits? And, once you’ve arrived at what you think are the right questions, before you ask them, ask yourself if they meet the 6 Qualities of a great question.

 

(Thanks to Ben and to Tree Bressen for their contributions to this synthesis.)

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Working Smarter | 1 Comment

Non-Duality Dude: A One-Act Play

image from Pixabay, CC0

(Scene One: Mid-afternoon, summer. The main floor of a small, open concept house. A forest is visible through the picture window; the sound of surf can be heard in the background.)

(Characters: Darien, an aging hippie, taken to wearing cutoffs and sandals. Seville, Darien’s (step-)daughter.)

(Darien is standing in the kitchen, looking at some pages on the counter.)

DARIEN: (reading aloud) “Great inequalities of wealth, of health, of power, of voice, of security and of opportunity are unsustainable and inhuman; they must end. The poor, the sick, the threatened, the ignored, the helpless, the uneducated, the uninformed, the misinformed, and those living without hope did not choose to be that way. They are preyed upon by a system that exploits and intensifies their misery and inexorably increases these inequalities. That system is untrammelled, unregulated, undemocratic, oligarchic, unsustainable industrial capitalism. That system is destroying our environment, our social fabric, and our very civilization. We have no option but to strive urgently to find a better way to live and to be.” (raises his eyebrows)

(Seville enters, heads for the refrigerator and pulls out the makings of a peanut butter sandwich)

SEVILLE: Hey! You found my speech. I wrote it for Bernie Sanders. But you have to read it with more conviction than that.

DARIEN: Hmm. Sadly, you may have actually found a way to make him even more unelectable than he already was. But it would be a great speech. Ground-breaking.

SEVILLE: Thanks. (beat) I was doing stretches after my run in the forest, and this woman came up to me and told me that the meaning of life rests in “the Five W’s”. I think she was high.

DARIEN: Huh. You mean Who What When Where and Why? Must be a journalist. You have to be high to do a job like that these days.

SEVILLE: No, not those Five W’s. She was pretty cool but also kinda scary. She sat down in front of me and started making marks in the sand with a stick, and telling me that it was important to understand that until humans learn to pay attention to the Five W’s there is no hope for us. She acted like she was a shaman imparting secret wisdom. You wanna know that the Five W’s are?

DARIEN: (shrugging) Sure. Enlighten me.

SEVILLE: Sit down, grasshopper, and I will tell you the eternal knowledge of the grandmothers. Or one stoned grandmother anyway.

(he sits; she takes a bite of her sandwich, and takes five glass beads from a dish on the table, placing them in a line and moving each as she speaks.)

SEVILLE: The first W is Water. Without it there can be no life. We are polluting it, wasting it, and running out of it, using it for mining and irrigation and concrete and cooling electrical generators (40% of it is used for that alone), almonds, walnuts and meat products. Flushing and washing and drinking is just a tiny portion of our water use.

The second W is Woods — forests. Without them there can be no life. They are essential to many species on which we depend, and are part of the respiratory and hydrological systems that all life needs. And we need them for our health, physical and psychological. They were our home for our first million years.

The third W is We. Humans are not meant to live or do anything alone. We are social creatures, and we have lost our sense of community, of belonging.

The fourth W is Wellness. Not just being well, but doing things well, becoming competent at things essential to our well-being.

And the fifth W is Wonder. Not “wondering why” but just having a sense of wonder, appreciation, awareness and attention.

That’s what she told me.

DARIEN: (looks impressed) That’s awesome. You remembered all that from what she said? You should have invited her over.

SEVILLE: She was high, Dad. And yes, I remembered it all. It’s all a matter of paying attention, listening. You can remember a lot if you want to. (Exaggerated grin.) You should try it sometime.

(Darien returns the exaggerated smile, gets up and puts on a kettle.)

SEVILLE: I’ve made a first pass at the ‘Elevator Pitch’ to explain non-duality to our unsuspecting and cynical world. I wrote it mainly for you, since I’m not as convinced as you are that it’s true. Instead of having to explain it over and over, I thought it might be easier if you just had a one-minute script that laid it all out.

DARIEN: Thanks. Look forward to reading it.

SEVILLE: You have to memorize it. You can do it. It’s important to you, so if there ever was a time to learn a script by heart, this is it. And by the way, I want to go with you when Non-Duality Dude comes to town. I mean, philosophers like Daniel Dennett seem so smart, but they don’t seem to get the idea that determinism and compatibilism are completely irrelevant to the question of free will if you acknowledge that there’s no ‘one’ to have free will and that all causation is just appearance. Yet Daniel blithely dismisses radical non-duality as ‘mad-dog reductionism’, and then goes on to tie himself in knots every bit as complicated as the ones Sam Harris does — both of them desperate to justify the moral argument that we are ‘kind of’ responsible, to some degree or other, for our actions, even though we have no free will. Why can’t they see how ridiculous those arguments are? (She retrieves a sheet of paper from her backpack) I mean, listen to this from Sam Harris: (reading)

Consciousness is already free of the feeling that we call “I.” However, a person must change his plane of focus to realize this. Some practices can facilitate this shift in awareness, but there is no truly gradual path that leads there. Many longtime meditators seem completely unaware that these two planes of focus exist… . I used to be one of them.

I’d stay on retreat for a few weeks or months at a time, being mindful of the breath and other sense objects, thinking that if I just got closer to the raw data of experience, a breakthrough would occur. Occasionally, a breakthrough did occur: In a moment of seeing, for instance, there would be pure seeing, and consciousness would appear momentarily free of any feeling to which the notion of a “self” could be attached. But then the experience would fade, and I couldn’t get back there at will. There was nothing to do but return to meditating dualistically on contents of consciousness, with self-transcendence as a distant goal.

However, from the non-dual side, ordinary consciousness—the very awareness that you and I are experiencing in this conversation—is already free of self. And this can be pointed out directly, and recognized again and again, as one’s only form of practice. So gradual approaches are, almost by definition, misleading. And yet this is where everyone starts. In criticizing this kind of practice, someone like Eckhart Tolle is echoing the non-dualistic teachings one finds in traditions such as Advaita Vedanta, Zen (sometimes), and Dzogchen. Many of these teachings can sound paradoxical: You can’t get there from here. The self that you think you are isn’t going to meditate itself into a new condition. This is true, but it’s not always useful. The path is too steep.

SEVILLE: Pffft! Talk about pretzel logic. And they’re all the same, these old white guy philosophers and theoretical scientists and dilettantes — Daniel and Sam and David Chalmers and Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen and John Gray and Michael Pollan and David Foster Wallace and Robert Sapolsky, saying on the one hand there is no real ‘self’ and no free will but somehow there is still responsibility and control and a ‘you’ that has them and can ‘kind of’ choose to exercise them. What’s with these guys? Why do they have to make it more difficult than it is? Why are they so invested in a barren and bankrupt line of thinking? Deep-rooted moral upbringing? Desperation to be ‘useful’? (exasperated sigh) Sorry, I just expect better of the world’s supposed leading thinkers.

DARIEN: (beat) My head is spinning. (He comes back to the table with 2 cups of tea.) Context please.

SEVILLE: (reaching into her bag and pulling out a file which she puts in front of him)  Daniel Dennett’s critique of Sam Harris’ book Free Will. You’ll hate it. 

DARIEN: Actually, I’ve read it. It wasn’t any worse than any of the other attempts to reconcile determinism with a ‘kind of’ free will. Futile, of course, but they’re sincere.

SEVILLE: That’s why I want to go with you to meet Non-Duality Dude. I don’t want sincere, I want uncompromising. If my whole worldview is going to be turned upside-down, I don’t want half-baked reassurances. I want the truth. And that new article by that quantum theorist guy Sean Carroll you pointed me to last week about why the universe is the way it is, that provides five possible answers, and then concludes that his current favourite is that “the universe just is”, I liked that! (she pulls out more papers from her bag) Especially this part: (reading)

You want to know why the universe is, you’re not going to get a satisfactory answer. You’re not going to be happy. The universe just is. You have to accept it. You have to learn to deal with it. There’s nothing further there. I like this. I mean I don’t like it sort of you know in terms of again scratching explanatory itches. But I think it’s the one that is most courageous, most brave. It faces up to the reality of it. All of these other attempts hit this little kid problem of saying, ‘Well, if that’s true, why is that true? Why is that true? Why is that true?’ And here you’re saying, nope. There is one level at which you just say, that’s how it is. There is nothing other than that. This is what Bertrand Russell was trying to say. I think this is probably the right answer. And I know that people don’t like it, but whether we like it or not, is not part of how we should judge a theory of why the universe is the way it is.

SEVILLE: The scientists are ahead of the philosophers, which is amazing since they have so much more to lose. This is a huge step forward from Sean’s multiverse theory, and he was so invested in that. He’s a theoretical physicist, and he’s largely debunked string theory, and now he’s saying “the universe just is”? It’s positively non-dualist.

DARIEN: Maybe. I wonder if he’s just tweaking his theoretical physics colleagues to come up with something better. One of the main criticisms of string theory is that it’s unprovable, and useless. The same criticism could, and probably will, be levelled at non-duality. Just as in Copernicus’ day, no one will care about any theory, no matter how astute, that doesn’t either substantiate their experience or give them solace. Science is built on the former, and spirituality on the latter. Radical non-duality offers neither.

SEVILLE: Radical non-duality also says people can’t choose what they want or believe or do. And they generally tend to burn heretics. But heliocentrism eventually proved a very useful theory, since it turned out to represent reality better than geocentrism. It only took a century. I think non-duality will eventually prove to be useful. Not to science and technology, but to those who have outgrown spirituality and are looking for a better representation of reality than gods and quarks and strings. We’re all inveterate searchers, you know. (beat) Now, (pulling a paper from her bag) here’s the Elevator Pitch on non-duality for you to memorize.

DARIEN: (flips the paper back and forth and looks astonished) I’m going to memorize all this?

SEVILLE: (exasperated) It’s two pages, for god’s sake. Try. I’ll help you with it. Actors have to memorize a hundred times this much. I even put it in “Several Short Sentences” style, ’cause I know you like that, and you can learn the lines by number. (beat) (rises) Gotta go — meeting Kari at the Coffee Cup and taking KT for a walk.

(Seville picks up her backpack and leaves)

DARIEN: (sighs, then reads)

  1. There is no ‘you’, no ‘person’, nothing separate.
  2. ‘This’ is everything, timeless, limitless, eternal.
  3. Our sense of identity and separation is ephemeral, illusory. It appears to arise in creatures with large complex brains that have (perhaps as an extension of the survival instinct) evolved the capacity to create a model of reality that includes a ‘self’ at the centre of that reality, and then to mistake that representation for the ‘real’ reality. It mistakes the map for the territory.
  4. That sense of separation emerges in humans at a very young age and is then reinforced by others suffering from the same illusion of separateness, for their entire life.
  5. It’s a very compelling and enduring illusion, since human brains are largely dedicated to try to make sense of everything they perceive and quickly get into shortcut “default settings” in their beliefs of what is and what is happening.
  6. This sense-making by separate selves entails the creation, as part of the representation of reality, of the ideas of space and time (here and now and elsewhere and past and future). That sense-making is what we call ‘experience’. But all ‘experience’ is, is imagined occurrences within the representation of reality dreamt up by the brain, as it tries to make sense of ‘this’, of everything.
  7. It can happen that the model, the simplified representation of reality conjured up by the brain with its invented separate self, can fall away, though there is no path to that happening, and it doesn’t happen in time, or to any ‘one’ .
  8. When that happens, nothing actually changes — it was all imagined. The apparent character or body continues to behave seemingly exactly as it did before, based on its embodied and cultural conditioning. The appearance of self-control, choice, and free will is simply an after-the-fact rationalization within the mental model of what was already going to occur, and that choice never existed in ‘real’ reality.
  9. When the sense of a separate self is no more, the only thing that might really change is that some of the energy that emerged as neurotic embodied and conditioned behaviour in the character, due to the self’s anxiety-creating belief it has control and free will, may begin to dissipate, since there is no longer a separate self to take ownership of the neurotic thoughts and feelings.
  10. But otherwise no one is likely to notice any change in the no longer self-afflicted character. It is as if a pervasive long-term hallucination suddenly no longer haunts the character.
  11. All that is left is ‘this’, everything, and the sense of wonder that its realization evokes, but in no one.
  12. There is only ‘this’, no thing apart, nothing separate, no time or space, no purpose or meaning, no life or death. Nothing is needed, nothing is missing, nothing actually ‘happens’.
  13. The separate self cannot imagine or realize this because it cannot conceive of its own absence, other than when the body and brain, which it presumes to inhabit, cease to function.
  14. But there may be ‘glimpses’ where there is, briefly, no self, no separateness, no time passing, just everything. When that’s seen, it’s awesome, unconditional, and unquestionably true. 
  15. That is what the separate self longs for, seeks hopelessly to find for itself, through therapy or religion or spiritual practices, and can never find.
  16. This is not to say that there is no reality external to our selves, our brains. In fact everything real is external to our brains; ‘all there is’ has no need of ‘consciousness’.
  17. But real reality is not what we perceive: it has no separate objects with boundaries where they end and something else begins, no colours or sounds or smells or tastes as we perceive them, no time or space in which anything happens. It is just an infinite, eternal, empty field in which everything apparently happens, wondrous and unperceivable by, and indescribable to, the separate self.
  18. How do I ‘know’ this? ‘I’ don’t. Some instinct inside me, some remembering in glimpses, makes it completely clear, obvious even, that this is true.
  19. But obviously, ‘I’ cannot hope to convince anyone else of its truth. But it’s what just about everyone who claims to be ‘enlightened’ or ‘liberated’ is clearly describing, in different ways.
  20. The only difference is that they mostly believe it’s something that individuals — selves — can attain. But they cannot.

(he puts his hands over his eyes)

(fade to black)


(Scene Two: A few days later; evening. Seville is lying on the couch watching a movie through a 3D headset. Darien is staring out the window at the forest.)

SEVILLE: Dad, can I ask you a question?

DARIEN: (beat) Huh? Sorry, I thought you were watching a movie.

SEVILLE: I am watching a movie. But I have the sound off. It’s how I always watch movies now. They have amazing special effects, and the UHD is awesome, as are the sets and costumes, but the writing and the acting and the music — pffff! — are invariably manipulative, predictable, derivative crap. So I just watch the picture and make up my own dialogue and soundtrack. Waaay better than anything the hacks could come up with. You should try it. You’ve got a great imagination. Right now, in my movie, Mackenzie Foy and Anne Hathaway are explaining quantum gravity and complexity theory to Matthew McConaughey. The actual plot is utterly ridiculous, but when you substitute lines from McConaughey’s quirky character in True Detective, for the lines he says in this sad little film, it gets quite interesting. Like, remember when McConaughey as Rust does the no-self monologue? (faking a Southern male accent) “I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself — we are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self; an accretion of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody.” (back to normal voice) Awesome. (she removes the 3D visor) Anyway, I have a question for you.

DARIEN: OK, shoot.

SEVILLE: The question is, Do you really believe Non-Duality Dude’s message, or do you just want to believe it?

DARIEN: (looking puzzled) (beat) Not sure I understand. What do you mean? I can appreciate it on an intellectual level, but I don’t pretend that I really get it, or that ‘I’ ever can.

SEVILLE: What I mean is, is this world just so fucked-up that you want to believe in the message because it makes all the horror and suffering moot, relieves you of responsibility and assuages your guilt and fear about what what people have done to this planet — and what is to come? Is it just your way of inuring yourself from the pain of Civilization Disease? I’m asking because you’ve described these glimpses of non-self, and they seem compelling, but my self has never fallen away to allow a glimpse, as far as I know. Maybe the glimpse was just a moment of quiet bliss that you wanted to be a glimpse?

DARIEN: Hmmm. I’ve considered that. It’s possible. I certainly do want to believe the radical non-duality message is true. But at the time the glimpse was ‘obviously’ more than just a moment of bliss. It was an ‘aha’ moment, a moment of true realization, and enormous relief. It made what was intuitive to me suddenly absolutely clear — that it just didn’t make sense that the world was so full of fear, violence, suffering, struggle and sorrow, and there had to be another explanation for the way things are. I know people who have suddenly become religious, and it wasn’t like that at all. It’s not a breaking down or a giving up or a letting go, it’s a seeing through. So yes, it’s possible, but at this point it seems unlikely that it’s just wishful thinking. (beat) You said you want to come to the meeting with ‘Non-Duality Dude’. What are you hoping will come out of that?

SEVILLE: (beat) Well, I don’t have any specific questions to ask. Whenever I think about the questions I have, I realize I already know the answers to them. The message is actually pretty simple. So I think a meeting of radical non-dualists might be kinda like a support group for me. It’s hard being the only one in my crowd who believes something everyone else can’t even fathom. Present company excepted, of course.

DARIEN: I’m afraid you may be disappointed. It’s likely most of the people in the room will just be seeking more satisfying answers than the ones their gurus, teachers, priests and other spiritual advisors have given them. They’ll probably ask really elementary questions that will make you groan, questions that you already know the answers to.

SEVILLE: Hah! As if I’m not used to that. (beat) I get the intuitive thing, that it doesn’t make sense the world would be so awful. I appreciate the non-duality message’s simplicity and completeness and elegance and the fact that scientists and philosophers are converging on the same mind-boggling realizations that non-duality has been asserting for a long time. I love being ahead of that curve. But while I really want to believe the non-duality message, and I’m ‘clear’ on it, my dissatisfaction and impatience is more than just my self’s resistance. On the one hand, I am afraid of living my whole life as a lie, a story, a dream, behind the veil of the self; and on the other hand I’m just as afraid of losing the intellectual, emotional and sensual ‘highs’ of new discoveries and sensations and experiences and falling in love with another person, damn it, and having them love me, too, this person, illusory or not. I don’t want to miss out, you know. I’m too young to be a monk. (grim face)

DARIEN: Except… there is no you. No you to miss out, no you to fall in love, no you to suffer or feel joy. If that was realized, seen, then there would still be love and joy and fear and anger and sorrow, but it wouldn’t be personal, wouldn’t be an experience. But it would be no less wondrous for that. You don’t have to be a monk. You don’t have to change anything. In fact, you can’t. What the amazing character called Sevi will do and be, she will do and be, and ‘you’ actually have no say in the matter. ‘You’ are just in the way of the wonder of that amazing character simply being who she is.

SEVILLE: (sighs) Non-Duality Dude says the self can’t do anything but seek, and in the process struggle and suffer except for brief moments of happiness. It’s one thing to be clear on that. It’s another thing entirely to live by and with that knowledge. Maybe it would be better not to know. (beat) Nah, ‘I’ just have to know. It’s in my conditioning. (beat) I thought I was a phenomenologist until Non-Duality Dude came along. Remember reading Spell of the Sensuous together? (she pulls a sheet out of her bag) Remember when it was simple as believing this? (reads)

Tribal cultures and other creatures appear to see, feel, and perceive the world in a fundamentally different, and more profound way, than we do in our modern Western culture. The invention of the written alphabet, and through it the invention of the concepts of absolute space and separate, linear time, and our conception of the air which surrounds us as merely empty space — allowed Western man to create a separate, thoroughly plausible, abstract reality, that, in the civilized world, with its need for hierarchy, laws, instructions, rules, and restrictions, was (and is) a more useful reality than the ‘real’ one. Over time, this abstracted reality and its artefacts have dulled our sensitivity, our awareness of and ability to reconnect with the ‘real’ world, the sensual world of which we are inextricably a part, and upon which our survival utterly depends, but which we are ever more unaware of, indifferent to, and detached from…

Today the speaking self looks out at a purely ‘exterior’ nature from a purely ‘interior’ zone, presumably located somewhere inside the physical body or brain. Within alphabetic civilization, virtually every human psyche construes itself as just such an individual ‘interior’, a private mind or consciousness unrelated to the other minds that surround it, or to the environing earth. For there is no longer any common medium, no reciprocity, no respiration between the inside and the outside. There is no longer any flow between the self-reflexive domain of alphabetized awareness, and all that exceeds or subtends this determinate realm. Between consciousness and the unconscious. Between civilization and wilderness.

SEVILLE: Pretty good description of the affliction of the separate self, huh? David Abram thinks we can sense our way back, re-open ourselves, and re-become “animal”. Non-Duality Dude would say that’s just another type of seeking for another experience. Do you think tribal cultures at some point were free of selves?

DARIEN: No idea. Human cultures, even the earliest ones with a written record, seemed pretty preoccupied with the individual and with responsible behaviour. Human species are a million years old, human art is at least 100,000 years old, and abstract language merely 30,000 years old. If art is ‘self’-expression, then the illusion of self is pretty old. It really doesn’t matter. David’s take on being “animal” seems pretty consistent with what Eckhart Tolle and Adyashanti and all the others describe as being “enlightened”, and unlike ‘Non-Duality Dude’ they all believe and preach that there’s a path to getting there. So, pick your poison I suppose. It’s all the same message.

SEVILLE: (beat) (raises eyebrows and shrugs) And on that cheerful note I’m going back to my movie. (smiles) Thanks for the chat!

(Seville re-dons the VR headset and lies down on the couch)

(the phone rings; Darien answers it)

DARIEN: Hello? (beat) Oh, hi Dad, yes we’re fine. (beat) I told you, Dad, non-duality is not a cult and it’s not something I would, or could, force your granddaughter to believe. (beat) No, it’s not nihilistic and Sevi isn’t going to go out and commit murder and mayhem just because she believes we have no free will. I gave you the book and video list; didn’t that reassure you that there is ‘nothing’ to be concerned about? (smiles to himself)

(Seville on the couch smiles and waves one raised hand)

DARIEN: Sevi waves hi. (beat) No, I don’t know who she’s dating. But she’s safe, and wiser than I’ll ever be. (beat) What if I summarized for you what the message of non-duality really is; would that help you appreciate that it’s not a cult and that everything is fine? (beat) OK, here goes. It takes about two minutes to explain, and just stop me if you want anything clarified. OK?

(Darien begins saying the Elevator Pitch that Seville gave him; he’s memorized it. He interjects some reassuring words and a few hesitations, but gets through the whole list. As he finishes, Seville raises her hand with a ‘thumbs up’.)

(fade to black)


(Scene Three: A few days later: early afternoon. Darien is drinking tea and doing a crossword puzzle. Seville walks in, clearly agitated)

SEVILLE: Holy… Fuck!

(Darien watches her pace around the room but says nothing)

SEVILLE: I… just… don’t… fucking… believe… it! (surprised happy face and turned up hands)

DARIEN: Don’t tell me… They impeached the bastard!?

SEVILLE: A glimpse! I had a glimpse! On the beach! I mean… there was a glimpse; there was no ‘me’ to have it. You know what I mean. It happened!

DARIEN: Tell me more.

SEVILLE: I was just… Kari and I had… Well, we’d been making out and as usual Kari immediately fell asleep, and I was just lying there on the beach, in a kind of post-make-out bliss, staring at the waves. And suddenly, there was no me! There was no time! There was (beat) ‘only this’! (quietly) Only this. And it was so obvious. I mean, how could I not have seen it before? And I knew that it was the real reality, and that it was eternal and, how do I say this, it would ‘wait for me’ until my self was gone. And I remembered, if that is the word, other glimpses, from when I was really little, like when you took me to that ancient village with the hobbit-style houses and the eight-foot-high hedges, and the fluffy snowfall one night under the streetlight when there was no sound, no movement other than the snow, and all the other times. It was completely different from a blissed-out state. It was crystal clear, absolutely true. And it was, like, completely unlike what I had expected. It wasn’t a state. It wasn’t an experience. It wasn’t going anywhere. ‘I’ wasn’t there. It was just… everything! It was “seeing through”. Amazing and wondrous and… wow!

DARIEN: (nods and smiles) Sounds a bit familiar. So now what?

SEVILLE: (beat) Now, nothing I guess. Everything’s changed, but everything’s still the same. ‘I’ am back, but not feeling bad about that, though I might later, if it doesn’t happen again. (beat) And now I’m asking myself the same question I asked you last week: Was this a real glimpse, or did ‘I’ just want to believe it was? Was I just so desperate for a glimpse that I invented one? There was no ‘dark night of the soul’ happening for me, so why did it happen then? Did I just dream it, or did it show me that ‘my’ whole life is just a dream?

DARIEN: Really good questions. Alas, I have no answers. Maybe there aren’t any.

SEVILLE: (beat) (sighs) So now what?

DARIEN: I don’t know. Lunch? Play the Glass Bead Game? Show me how that VR thingy works? Lie down in front of the pipeline workers’ bulldozers? Tell me whether or not you’re in love with Kari?

SEVILLE: (gives Darien a hug) Lunch. Maybe burritos and veggies. I’m not in love. (beat) And the rest we’ll just have to take one step at a time. (beat) Oh, and that woman with the Five W’s? She is a shaman, or at least she says she is. And she was high. I ran into her again and she says she can guide me through a psilocybin trip. Want to do it with me? Might answer your Michael Pollan questions.

DARIEN: What if I let you do it first and then when I do it you can be my shaman, my guide. Seems kinda fitting, don’t you think?

SEVILLE: You’re just scared.

DARIEN: That too.

SEVILLE: But… there’s no ‘you’ to be scared! (sarcastic smile)

DARIEN: Right. But I’m well-conditioned. I have no control over what I feel.

SEVILLE: Hmmm. Somehow there’s a total logic disconnect there. OK, would you acknowledge that new knowledge can affect your conditioning?

DARIEN: Seems plausible.

SEVILLE: So for example, since I was little, new knowledge has changed what you think about whether we can prevent civilization’s collapse and climate change, and changed what you think about the nature of the human ‘self’, right?

DARIEN: Yeah.

SEVILLE: And that has changed your behaviour — for example, what you write about on your blog, right?

DARIEN: I guess, sure.

SEVILLE: So it’s possible that the knowledge that there’s no you and no free will might eventually change your fear-driven behaviour, no?

DARIEN: Not so sure. Maybe. Knowing something intellectually, when you’re bombarded with claims that your knowledge makes no sense, makes it  lot less likely you’re going to change your behaviour, I would think.

SEVILLE: What are you scared of, exactly?

DARIEN: Hah. Do you want a list? It’s a long one.

SEVILLE: Underneath everything in the list, what is it you’re afraid of, and ‘who’ is it that’s afraid?

DARIEN: Suffering, I suppose. Yours, mine, other people’s…

SEVILLE: I’ve seen you suffer. You’re a bit loud, but you handle it pretty well when it happens. Geez, kidney stones, colitis attacks… You didn’t seem at all scared when they happened.

DARIEN: I guess when you’re in the middle of it, the fear gets replaced with coping with things in the moment.

SEVILLE: So let’s drill down a bit. So it’s the anticipation of suffering that underlies your fear. Right? You’ve said you’re not afraid of dying, as long as it’s not painful. You’ve said you’re afraid of being trapped, but that’s never really happened to you, has it? Even awful social events with strangers, even horrible work situations, when they happen you really cope with them quite well. “It wasn’t as bad as I thought” could be your mantra. So what is it that you’re really afraid of?

DARIEN: Well, doctor, I suppose it’s the fear of not knowing what’s going to happen and not being in control of the situation.

SEVILLE: But no one is in control, and ‘knowing’ is just the self’s pattern-making, sense-making. There is no real knowing and no control.

DARIEN: Well, exactly. That why everything is so scary. Anything awful could happen. It’s the anxiety underlying the fear that is unbearable.

SEVILLE: So who is it that’s anxious? (beat) I’m not trying to do a Byron Katie on you here, but who exactly is anxious about not knowing what’s going to happen and not being in control?

DARIEN: OK, it’s my ‘self’ that’s anxious. It’s my self that still thinks it knows things and is in control. My real fear is my self’s reaction to a possible unwanted situation.

SEVILLE; No wonder you want to believe so desperately that there is no self. If it would go away, everything would be perfect.

DARIEN: I guess. Though I already know intellectually that there is no self, and that everything is perfect.But that doesn’t overcome my conditioning, at least until or unless that self drops away.

SEVILLE: So you’re saying that your self is like a hallucination, that you know is not really real, but seems to be so you can’t ignore it?

DARIEN: Maybe. The self seems more profound than a hallucination. But you could be right.

SEVILLE: OK, other fears. Every once in a while you get really angry, and you’ve said anger is usually a mask for fear. What makes you angry?

DARIEN: These days, it’s mostly psychopaths in positions of power. Trump, Ford, Peterson, you know, scary guys with influence who do and say crazy things.

SEVILLE: So they’re ‘scary’. What are you afraid they’ll do?

DARIEN: Mmmm… Take away our freedom. Wars, fascist brownshirts, gulags, death squads, you know. It’s happened before.

SEVILLE: But ‘you’ have no freedom. You know that. (beat) Suppose the hippies had done everything they wanted last century, so we all lived in Eden. You’re not living in anguish afraid that some despot would take that freedom away and we’d be stuck with what we have today, are you? So what you’re really angry and afraid of losing is just something you imagine, something that never actually was or will be.

DARIEN: Huh. I think you’re too smart for me. I have no idea. I know my anger and fears and anxieties and anguish are unwarranted, but I can’t let go of them. My conditioning is too strong. I can’t not feel or think what I feel and think. My life is full of cognitive dissonance. That terrifying hallucination, conjuring up terrible imaginings of what might be, is just too present, too pervasive, for ‘me’ to ignore. I can’t will it or think it away. No reassurance makes it vanish. It’s triggered by all kinds of situations. And that hallucination kinda is me. That hallucination, that conditioned anxious seemingly-vulnerable self, and its reactions, is what I’m really afraid of.

SEVILLE: Remember when your brother took that Fear of Flying course and made it through one flight before the fear returned, and the pilot who ran the course admitted their success rate was next to zero? I guess that’s the same kind of hallucination, the same kind of unreal but un-ignorable ghost. So you think we’re just stuck with our ghosts, until the ‘self’ behind them disappears, or we die?

DARIEN: I guess. No one really dies, of course. There is no time. So there is no hope. But there is no self, either. They’re all ghosts, inventions, dreams.

SEVILLE: Well, I think we’ve made peace with ours better than most people. I suppose we’re fortunate in that sense. For some people, the ghost probably haunts them every moment of their lives.

DARIEN: I’m sure that’s true. Perhaps David Foster Wallace just found that ghost too unbearable, too pervasive, to live with. I’m sure the ghost is a lot less of a factor in my life than it was in the years before you were in my life. My self was really hard on me, and really scared, back then. Maybe Civilization Disease is just the affliction of the self, and some of us get it worse than others. And some of us heal somewhat, and a few are liberated from it entirely.

SEVILLE: So is there a question in all this for Non-Duality Dude when we go meet him? Or are we just going to go and compare symptoms with the other self-diagnosed people there? And listen to them ask him hopeless questions we already know the answers, or non-answers, to?

DARIEN: I don’t suppose we actually have any say in the matter.

SEVILLE: Uh uh. That’s a cop-out answer. My question is, given the state of your conditioning and the current circumstances as we understand them, will the character infected by your conditioned self apparently ask a question, and/or hobnob with the other participants, or just sit in the back row silently and be a smug silly bugger?

DARIEN: Smug silly bugger! I can identify with that! I think I’d be quite good at it.

SEVILLE: No you wouldn’t. You know too much and you care too much. I know what I’d like to see happen to you, whether or not non-duality helps or not. You ready? (she pulls out another piece of paper from her bag)

DARIEN: Always and never ready for your perceptive insights.

SEVILLE: (reading) 1. I’d like to see you as happy as you were in the year after you retired and let go of being an environmentalist. It was like you were weightless, and you took joy in everything. 2. I’d like to see you get past your fake misanthropy. Except for a lucky few like me, you shun people, on the basis you say they are ignorant and uninteresting. But underneath you know better. I think you’re scared of caring too much. And 3. I’d like to see you spend more time just paying attention, with all your senses. I think you’re scared of feeling. If radical non-duality helps you be happier, more caring, and more attentive, sign me up. If it doesn’t, let’s find something else. If I’m going to be an adult soon, I want you to be one too. (sad smile) (beat) So what would you like to see happen to me?

DARIEN: Hah! You’re already any father’s dream. What do I want to see happen to you…? I guess mostly I want you to be free. In the deepest and every sense of the word. Free to be, free to do, free of and from anything that constrains you and makes you unhappy. Come to think of it, that’s pretty much another way of saying what you want for me. Perhaps today’s ‘glimpse’ might have given you a sense of what that freedom might be like. Although I’m not sure the meeting with ‘Non-Duality Dude’ and the other attendees will make any difference to that. (beat) Seriously, if I were to write a play that had you as a character, just as you are, no one would believe that character could possibly be real.

SEVILLE: Um, what would the play be about? Hopefully not 45 minutes of the two characters talking about non-duality? — booooooooring!

DARIEN: You’re the one who watches movies with the sound off. Maybe it would be a play where the actors walk around a gesture and do things but don’t make a sound. The audience could make up the dialogue and the plot to suit themselves.

SEVILLE: I don’t think you have to go that far. What was it that Aaron Sorkin said made for great characters?

DARIEN: (counts the points off with his fingers) Show what your character wants or needs and how they overcome obstacles to get it. Have your characters fail early. Make sure your characters aren’t too good, that they have weaknesses and foibles. Make them driven, have them show that they really care. Have them find a creative, unorthodox, interesting way to overcome the obstacle. Use dialogue not action to convey the confrontations and power struggles. Have characters succeed, but at an unexpected cost. Have them learn something important about what matters in life. (beat) I think that was it.

SEVILLE: Yeeesh. Makes ’em sound like puppets. That list seems like a pretty cheap, lazy way to manipulate the audience into caring for the characters. Aaron’s earlier characters, like on Sports Night, were quirky, fun, clever, complex, and their problems were not terribly serious. You just wanted to be with them. God knows there’s enough struggle and suffering in the world without writers having to invent more of it. (beat) Hey! I have an idea. What if the play, instead of just being non-dualists blathering, was a play with characters who say they couldn’t write a play about characters like them? A recursive play about the ‘recursive self’?

DARIEN: Naaah. Too clever by half. Hmmm… The idea’s cute: Life is a script that the self gets only at the last minute, line by line, so write a play about characters who, in the script, are aware that their lives are just scripts that they get, only at the last minute, line by line. (beat) But the idea of dream-within-a-dream has been done, usually badly.

SEVILLE: But the difference here is that there is only the dream. There is ‘nothing’ (smiles) to wake up to. I think it has possibilities.

DARIEN: OK, I’ll play. It could start out with… me stumbling upon your speech for Bernie Sanders. And then there’d be some thoughts about the non-existence of the self and of free will, raising the cognitive dissonance between that and supporting an old idealistic politician as a kind of tension. (beat) And then maybe later… you could come in exclaiming that you’d had a glimpse… or at least that there had been a glimpse and that ‘you’ had briefly disappeared. And then the characters could acknowledge that they’re not real, just characters playing roles in a play, and have no control over the script, or even of what they’re going to say or do next. And they could tell the audience they’re not real either.

SEVILLE: Now that’s too clever by half.

DARIEN: But what’s the point? As you noted in your Elevator Pitch, I cannot hope to convince anyone else that any of this is true. Even though it’s what just about everyone who claims to be ‘enlightened’ or ‘liberated’ is clearly describing, in different ways. So what’s the point of annoying people by getting them to read or watch a play about something they can’t and won’t possibly believe?

SEVILLE: Yet Eckhart Tolle and Adyashanti and all those people don’t annoy people; they give them hope and inspiration.

DARIEN: And they do so sincerely and with the best of intentions, I know. But it’s cruel to give people hope that they can realize this, this disappearance of separation and self. They can’t realize it. There is no enlightenment or liberation for individuals.

SEVILLE: True. But it doesn’t matter that people won’t understand or believe you. You still have to tell them, deliver this preposterous, annoying message, don’t you? That’s your conditioning. It’s the only thing you can do. And when they read, or watch, they’ll do the only thing they can do, based on their conditioning. None of it matters. There are no minds to change. There is no one, either to give or to hear this message. There is nothing separate, no time. There is nothing happening. And yet it’s wondrous, amazing, this apparent life, even if ‘we’ are just characters reading our lines, playing our roles, not knowing what they’re going to say or do next until the script unfolds.

DARIEN: (beat) This character craves a chai, and, um… cole slaw, and raspberries over cashew ice cream.

SEVILLE: You making?

DARIEN: I have no choice in the matter.

SEVILLE: Then you have no choice but to make the same for me. And burritos.

DARIEN: (rises) Coming up.

SEVILLE: Apparently so. (reaching into her bag and taking out a file) (beat) I’ve written a play. Want to act in it?

DARIEN: As long as I don’t have to play myself.

SEVILLE: Promise. You don’t.

(fade to black)

Posted in Creative Works | 2 Comments

Links of the Quarter: September 2018

Cartoon by Hugh Macleod from Gaping Void

Physicist Sean Carroll, a leading-edge thinker and researcher on quantum mechanics and astrophysics. just did a podcast in which he says:

You want to know why the universe is, you’re not going to get a satisfactory answer. You’re not going to be happy. The universe just is. You have to accept it. You have to learn to deal with it. There’s nothing further there. I like this. I mean I don’t like it sort of you know in terms of again scratching explanatory itches. But I think it’s the one that is most courageous, most brave. It faces up to the reality of it. All of these other attempts hit this little kid problem of saying, ‘Well, if that’s true, why is that true? Why is that true? Why is that true?’ And here you’re saying, nope. There is one level at which you just say, that’s how it is. There is nothing other than that. This is what Bertrand Russell was trying to say. I think this is probably the right answer. And I know that people don’t like it, but whether we like it or not, is not part of how we should judge a theory of why the universe is the way it is.

The basic message of radical non-duality is that “all there is, is this”, inexplicable, timeless, eternal, and impossible for the human mind to fathom. That there is no time, space, purpose or meaning, no thing apart. That what we perceive as the universe is just an appearance, everything and nothing, at once real and unreal. Seems like a convergence to me, though I imagine the idea would still have most scientists wrinkling their noses.

Meanwhile, the debate on whether use of psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca and other psycho-pharmaceuticals can enable seeing the world as it really is — without the self (or at least disrupt the “default setting” which has us seeing it as it is not), continues, as Michael Pollan’s new book gains traction. Scientists and doctors are also looking at microdosing these substances to improve social connection, increase creativity, and reduce the psychological and physical symptoms of Civilization Disease. There’s increasing acceptance that it is a disease — that our globalized industrial society is inherently debilitating and requires us to spend our whole lives attempting to heal from its negative effects (video elaborating on this here — thanks to Susan Nelson for the link).

What an awful, and awesome, time to be alive.


PREPARING FOR CIVILIZATION’S END


Land use in the US, shown proportionally to area. Lower map shows breakdown of the acreage used for human food. From Bloomberg. Thanks to Ben Collver for the links.

Adapting to a Collapsing Society: University of Cumbria Professor Jem Bendell has written a paper “to provide readers with an opportunity to reassess their work and life in the face of an inevitable near term social collapse due to climate change”. The paper looks at the various types of denial and some strategies to learn to adapt to the massive changes we will soon face. Thanks to Paul Heft for the link.

Hothouse Earth: Yawn. Another research study concludes it’s too late to prevent runaway climate change, and explores the consequences.

For the Rich, the Future of Technology is About Escape: So says Douglas Rushkoff, who was recently wined and dined by a billionaires group. “They were preparing for a digital future that had a whole lot less to do with making the world a better place than it did with transcending the human condition altogether and insulating themselves from a very real and present danger of climate change, rising sea levels, mass migrations, global pandemics, nativist panic, and resource depletion.” Wonder if they’re ready for the unicorn bubble?  Thanks to Ben Collver for the links.

Climate Change Performance Index: An international organization maps policies and progress on addressing climate change, by country. Not good news.

Why Electric Cars Won’t Solve Climate Change: Richard Heinberg explains why electric cars could actually worsen climate change — they’re too little too late, and now even if we were to do the minimum of getting rid of cars entirely and reinventing communities locally, to drastically reduce energy use, runaway climate change is inevitable, and the wobbling economy is a wildcard that could well make things unimaginably worse.

The Next Plague: We are hopelessly unready for it. It is certainly coming, and probably sooner rather than later. This is not a good situation.

The Emotional & Physical Toll of Wildfire Smoke: Anxiety, fear, grief, and the impact on respiration, the heart, sinuses and eyes. How many more “lost summers” must we look forward to? Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.

Oh, and the Pentagon has Misplaced $21T: That’s trillions. Unaccounted for. I wonder what they spent it on? Thanks to Lorraine Suzuki for the link.


LIVING BETTER

When You’re On the Road and You Have Kids: On Facebook Don Amero writes: “‪It’s been getting tougher leaving my little ones when I head off for tours so I asked them for a stuffy that I could take with me and I’ll share pictures of our adventures. [Image above] is Snowball and Ellie. We’re going on adventures together. But first Coffee…” Great idea huh?

The McGill Office for Science and Society has produced a series of videos deconstructing some very popular videos spouting some dangerous untruths about health, genetics and food (including “miracle cures”) publicized through subtle spoofs of “junk science” that have gone viral.

How Long Does Food Last: Ignore the self-serving “best by” date, and look at this resource to determine how long your food will stay nutritious and healthy.

Is Electromagnetic Sensitivity Real?: Short answer: No. Why do people feel they are sensitive? Read the article or watch the video and find out.

Vegan Cooking, Caribbean Style: Rachel Ama should get a gig writing recipes for nutritionfacts.org, since her videos and recipes reflect the wisdom of Michael Greger’s scientific nutrition research. For example, she offers simple-to-prepare vegan recipes that hit all of Michael’s “daily dozen”. And if you’re in the mood for Southern vegan cooking with a little spice, another smart vegan chef on YouTube, Jenné Claiborne, offers tips for going (truly) vegan painlessly.

Spiceography: A list of the ingredients and qualities of all major spices.

Paleopoo: Recent studies of fossilized faeces of prehistoric humans reveal that for our first million years we were vegetarians, and specifically fruit-eaters. Our #1 source of food, world over, before agriculture, was wild figs, and their disappearance from our diet explains why our bodies often don’t get the fibre they need.

More Female Actors Please: As Lauren Gunderson, now the US’s most popular playwright, notes, 2/3 of theatre attendees are women, but most of the actors on stage are male. (I just saw her Book of Will — outstanding; catch it if you can.)

Two Remarkable Photographers: Rita Newman (Austria) and Ragnar Axelsson (Iceland). Thanks to Pohangina Pete for the latter link.


POLITICS AND ECONOMICS AS USUAL

Not Ready for 2020: Cory Booker castigates Democrats for simply opposing Trump and not offering a viable alternative or real policies addressing the critical issues of the day. So does Michael Avenatti. Will they run? Thanks to Tree Bressen for the first link.

Tax Cuts Are Mostly Used for Stock Buy-Backs, Not Wages and Salaries: CBC interviews discover that it’s more profitable to buy back shares than to expand or pay more wages, so that’s where the majority of the corporate tax cut windfall is being spent.

Elections Don’t Make Democracy: Our world is holding more elections but is simultaneously becoming less democratic.

Jonathan Pie on Brexit: Mr Pie, in a calmer mood, sends up both the pro- and anti-Brexit sides.

Will Trudeau Kill to Have the Kinder Morgan Trans-Mountain Built?: The National Observer cites an advisor to Alberta Premier Notley who suggests that protester deaths should be anticipated and might be inevitable. Now that Trudeau owns the pipeline (at exorbitant taxpayer cost), it will ultimately be his call. We’ve learned nothing from Ipperwash and Oka. Meanwhile, my friend Khelsilem insists the project will not go ahead.

Vancouver Island: The Old Growth Forests Are Gone: A disturbing time-lapse map shows that substantially all of the massive island’s old growth forests have been levelled, most of them in the past two decades, and most of the wood cut was exported raw. The destruction continues under the new NDP government. A disgrace. Thanks to Anton van Walraven for the links.

The Scourge of Sand & Gravel Extraction: China now extracts more sand and gravel (mostly for concrete, construction and roads) every 3 years than the US did in the entire 20th century. The ecological consequences, especially for the world’s rivers, are devastating. Thanks to Ben Collver for the link.

When It’s Too Late to Stop Fascism: A retelling of the rise of Nazism in Germany is chillingly similar to current events in the US.

 


FUN AND INSPIRATION (note: this section’s links are all videos this quarter)

Scene from one of the YouTube series Nature Relaxation Films by David Huting, shot on the Na Pali coast of Kaua’i. See also link to Flying Over Norway below, from the same series.

The Astonishing Music of Large Steel Bands: Almost since the steel band was invented, a hugely popular annual competition has drawn steel bands large and small to celebrate Carnival (which literally means “the end of meat”, in reference to the bounty of freshly harvested fruits and vegetables that come available at that time), by writing and performing a 10-minute extended version of a popular calypso hit written in the past year. The competition is fierce, contests are held in several countries where steel bands flourish (notably in Trinidad and London), and the music, while hard to really capture in a live outdoor Carnival recording (any specialists in acoustics out there willing to try to improve this?), is riveting, with bands of up to 110 drummers playing up to 12 different parts at a blistering pace (114 bpm but with 16th and even 32nd notes) show their stuff. Some bands have “junior” ensembles (under 21) learning from the older pros before they get invited to join the senior band, so you end up with dynasties of incredibly accomplished musicians. The compositions are as complex and varied as symphonies riffing off the original tune, and the sheer joy of the players is a wonder to behold. Especially recommended:

Ham Sarris is Now a Christian: Terrifying video, until you look closer… The era of fake video has begun; where will it end?

Orcas On Howe Sound: My friend Bob Turner celebrates the return of killer whales to Howe Sound, right beside my island home.

Flying Over Norway: Amazing drone footage of the Norwegian coast in 4k UHD.

Vlog Brothers Corner: Recent videos from the very knowledgeable and entertaining duo include On Prepositions, Why US Healthcare Costs are So High, Was the 2016 Election Rigged, and (an update on the aforementioned) What We Know About Russia and Election Meddling.  Oh, and the non-existence of free will! Well worth the time.

Asimbonanga: Johnny Clegg reprises (1999) the song he wrote about his countryman, Nelson Mandela.

Trevor Noah on Colonialism: How the British colonized South Africa, India, and other unsuspecting nations.

Black Cat Appreciation Day: A thoughtful post from Simon’s Cat. And if you need more thought-provoking-and-also-cute in your life, check out the New Jersey pool bears, or just for fun this mama cat looking after her kittens (note that dad cat stays on the sidelines).


THOUGHTS OF THE QUARTER

Cartoon by Hugh Macleod from Gaping Void

From James Baldwin, in The Fire Next Time:

I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain…

Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them…

Love takes off the masks we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.

From Seth Godin, on the importance of art:

Everybody holds back every time ‘cause that’s what you were taught to do. By your third grade teacher and by your coach and by that boss and by that other boss. Because if you put everything into it they’re just going to ask for more anyway. You know who doesn’t hold back? Artists. If David Mamet has a great line, he doesn’t say ‘I’ll save it for a future play; I’m not getting paid enough to use it in this play’.

School taught us to fit in. The reason they want you to fit in, is because once they do, then they can ignore you. They want you to be compliant. School taught you what management is, which is not leadership; it’s telling people what to do. Getting them to do it faster and cheaper than yesterday. Leadership is saying ‘we’ve all enrolled in this journey — let’s go over there, though I’m not sure exactly how we’re going to get there.’

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

Hierarchy is the Enemy of Learning


drawing by hugh macleod at gaping void 
I spent many years of my professional life advising small and medium sized businesses. My main advice to them over the years was: have iterative conversations with customers and colleagues about what you and they care about, and how things could be made better, and act on them. As I explained in my book Finding the Sweet Spot(yes, sadly, it’s now out of print) organizations that routinely do that are much more successful and resilient workplaces, and much more fun places to work.

Since retiring, I’ve often found that, in dealings with corporations and government organizations, my professional advice on how to improve products and services has been filed away by the poor underlings responsible for “customer support” or, worse, “customer engagement”. Not because they weren’t excellent ideas, but because the people I spoke/wrote to weren’t high up enough in the hierarchy to get anyone to listen to them. They were generally either new hires or specialists, without the ability to see how the idea would work, and not empowered to forward it on to anyone who could.

This has entrenched my realization that hierarchy is the enemy of learning, and that almost all the brilliant ideas that could be instituted in organizations in both the private and public sector never get heard by the people who have the knowledge to appreciate it and the capacity to implement it. In other words, the best ideas never see the light of day.

The stupidity that created and sustained such hierarchical systems probably stems back to the origins of human organization and even human language. There is considerable evidence that our ‘modern’ abstract languages date back to when humans first settled in one place and required organization to get large-scale work done: agriculture, military/defence, and later industrial processes of all kinds. Just to show how recent this is, anthropologists tell us that we’ve been making art three times longer than we’ve been using abstract languages.

Abstract languages were essentially invented to enable instructions to be passed down from the top of the hierarchy, and evidence of compliance passed back up. Our languages are inherently patriarchal: there is little nuance in our vocabulary, and few words that are without top-down agricultural, industrial or military value. (A read of all but the very best music lyrics and poetry demonstrates that. We have, for example, only one word for love.) It is excruciatingly difficult to contort our language into something that can convey feelings, passion, anything long-term — or anything but the simplest and most obvious changes to the way we do things.

In my work as an innovation consultant, I dealt with the double challenge of (1) managers and workers incapable of seeing how things might be done better differently, and (2) language that, except through the use of stories, made it extremely difficult to persuade or show how things could be improved. So the default is stasis, and the larger the organization grows and the more complex its hierarchy becomes, the more risk averse everyone becomes and the more difficult any kind of positive change becomes.

This is not anyone’s fault. It’s the system, stupid. (Though the system doesn’t actually exist.) We’re all doing our best, and non-hierarchical systems, at least in the current capitalistic economy and competitive social zeitgeist, just can’t survive at any scale. Small is beautiful, and bigger is almost always worse, but in our current industrial society even the most horribly ineffective large organizations will crush small effective ones (except those in niches too narrow for the larger companies to bother with), because the big guys have the money and power to out-advertise, out-produce, price-starve and buy out the smaller ones. Every business they buy and close is a write-off against the massive profits oligopoly guarantees them. And the religion of neoliberalism dictates that even the provision of public goods and services be centralized and made hierarchical for “efficiencies” and “economies of scale” (neither of which actually occurs), and, failing that, “privitized” (under the authority of even larger and less democratic hierarchies). That’s how the system works.

This is true not only in every consumer and industrial sector but in public sectors as well. Ever tried to institute a brilliant new idea in a school or medical organization? These are staffed and run mostly by bright, well-intentioned people, but these people are totally incapable of innovation — they haven’t been given the right opportunity to become creative or imaginative — and are, right up to the level at which they’re beholden to outside political forces, disempowered to institute anything new except on a pilot basis (pilots are good PR and offer the pretence of innovativeness without actually requiring any enduring change), and they haven’t the skills to do so anyway.

I’ve witnessed organizations whose executives knew the choice they faced was radical innovation or extinction. None of them still exists.

There are workarounds that enable front-line people, even in very large organizations, to make significant changes that are valuable to customers, without being sacked or disciplined for violating company polices and procedures that prevent good customer service from being offered. But this is exhausting, and the (mostly young) people who walk that line for a few years get worn out and quit to do work that doesn’t require lying to and disobeying the boss in order to do their job well. Sad to say, many of them face the same dilemma in every job they take, and often end up running their own small niche businesses instead, just so they can look at themselves in the mirror without shame.

As I describe in my book, these small niche enterprises don’t need hierarchy to function and are highly adaptive and (need to be) highly innovative. Everyone in them is listening carefully to customers and colleagues for ideas, and empowered to implement them. Their scale is small enough that they can change quickly. They never have to say to a customer “I’m sorry I don’t have the authority to do that”, and are never forced to shrug off possibly brilliant customer ideas because they haven’t the knowledge, skill or authority to do anything with them.

Over the last few years I’ve offered (based on my own sad customer experiences) excellent ideas to two provincial crown corporations, two of the national telcos, two large financial institutions, and three large educational institutions. They weren’t pie-in-the-sky ideas, but specific, step-by-step detailed process improvement ideas. In half of the cases it took me a half day on the phone to even identify someone willing to field my suggestions. In half of those cases, I gave up — they simply aren’t interested in interaction with customers at all, and see customers as a nuisance and distraction and hire (often offshored or outsourced) junior staff specifically to block customers from talking to anyone further up the hierarchy. None of my suggestions was seen by anyone with the authority to act on it, and mostly I got “thank you” emails telling me that they appreciated my comments while making it clear they didn’t understand them.

The only solace is knowing that these people really are doing their best with the impossible work situation they are stuck in, and that hierarchies of every kind will collapse when the military-industrial-corporatist economy that gave rise to them falls apart. That won’t take long now that real (not the fake ones governments report) inflation and unemployment numbers, massive and soaring corporate, government and personal debt levels, and artificially suppressed interest rates have reached utterly unsustainable levels. No wonder the execs are all buying up land in isolated areas to escape to. They somehow think they’ll be able to support themselves there without cheap, obedient hired workers to do all the essential work for them.

So I’m saying (probably no surprise) that it’s a waste of time trying to reform large hierarchical organizations (private, governments, education, health care included). They’ll be gone soon, bankrupt, and we have more important things to do. Most of those things entail relearning the lost art of community-building, so that, while none of us can be personally self-sufficient, innovative and resilient, our communities together just might.

At the moment, most of us are too indebted to the existing systems (financially, psychologically, and with our scarce time) to even consider anything else. But as the systems get worse (and don’t believe the fools at the NYT and your local politicians citing GDP growth as proof the economy is healthy), the organizations you now think you owe your career, your time, and your mortgage to will start to disappear, and you’ll have both the time and the need to relearn about community self-sufficiency. In most neighbourhoods, there is no cohesiveness and no local essential resources with which to build community, so those communities will eventually become ghost towns; you might want to find viable neighbourhoods that can survive as communities after economic collapse, and consider moving there and taking your loved ones with you. There aren’t many, and once you’re there you’ll start to learn how important community is and what some communities have already started to do.

Once reality sets in, and the problem of a collapsed economy is compounded by unaffordable energy and worsening climate crises, it’s going to be tough for everyone for a few decades or even a few centuries. Talk to those who lived through the Great Depression and you’ll get a taste, except this one isn’t going to end in anyone’s lifetime. Once we’re through it the small remaining human population will likely thrive, though in ways we don’t measure and probably can’t imagine.

In the meantime, when you get frustrated with hierarchy, appreciate that no one is to blame for it, and that it’s unreformable, and do your best to work around it. That’s good practice for the decades ahead. Instead of trying to help these bloated bureaucracies learn how they could do and be better, help those in your community learn what you can do, together, to thrive without the bureaucracies that, for a little while longer, we have to put up with.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 4 Comments

On Gratefulness: A Self-Enquiry


photo by geralt at pixabay CC0

Many so-called non-dual ‘teachers’ recommend self-enquiry as part of the process towards awakening, enlightenment, or whatever other term they use for the realization that there actually is nothing separate, that there is only an eternal ‘oneness’.

Radical non-duality (my term), the message of Tony Parsons (who I met in Wales last year), Jim Newman (who is coming to Vancouver in October, yay!), Richard Sylvester and others, states that there is no path, including self-enquiry, to such a realization, and that all teachings (Eckhart Tolle’s, Adyashanti’s, Rupert Spira’s etc), because they acknowledge a real ‘you’ that can become something, are inherently dualistic, and inherently futile. If the self falls away, they say, it is realized that there never was a self, a separate ‘you’, and this can happen to ‘anyone’ and is unrelated to any personal path, teaching or practice one may follow. If anything, they say, self-enquiry can actually reinforce the sense of the separate self and obfuscate this realization (or at least the intellectual appreciation of its veracity).

While I have come, for now, to enthusiastically accept the message of radical non-duality, my self does not give up easily, and it is (you may have noticed) quite enthralled with the idea and practice of self-enquiry. These days, that self-enquiry centres around eight questions. Just for the record, here are those questions and my self’s somewhat paradoxical and tentative answers to them:


1. Given my life is nearly perfect, why am ‘I’ not constantly filled with gratefulness, joy and generosity?

Tentative answer: I have no free will to be anything but what I have been conditioned to be, subject to the circumstances that have arisen. Without free will, ‘my’ self can only believe, and do, what its biological and cultural conditioning can believe and do given the circumstances of the moment. Nothing is predestined, mind you — the infinite complexity of the world ensures that the nature of our conditioning and the ‘circumstances of the moment’ are infinitely variable — but ‘I’ have no free will to be grateful, joyful, generous, or anything else (in thought, feeling or deed).

‘I’ do feel that I should be grateful, joyful, and generous, but I have no control over that or anything else. I am perhaps the world’s most blessed agnostic, but no one controlled that; it was a combination of the accident of my birth and of my life’s experiences (which were determined by my conditioning and the circumstances of the moment). So I recognize that there is really no one to be grateful to, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking I should be grateful. It couldn’t have been better, or worse; this is the only thing that could have happened given my conditioning and the circumstances. And since there is (really) no time and no thing, it’s only an appearance anyway, without meaning or purpose. I can still be grateful for the accident of my birth and for my generally fortuitous circumstances, of course. But not to anyone. Grateful suggests it could have been otherwise, and it could not. As a result, it’s more that I’m relieved than grateful, for reasons explained in question 2 below.

I am perceived by most who know me as generous, but that is likely because I recognize that most others’ accident of birth and circumstances have been much less fortuitous than mine, so I am conditioned to try to share some of my good fortune. ‘I’ have no choice in the matter.

As for why I am not more joyful — why I’m not completely joyful — I think my answer to that falls out of questions 2 and 3 below.


2. Given there is no real ‘me’ and hence no ‘personal’ danger, why am ‘I’ (apparently) driven by aversion and fear rather than by passion and curiosity?

Tentative answer: Same as #1: This is my conditioned behaviour. I have been conditioned to be cautious and to see the calamities of risk-takers as “their own fault”. The things that strike terror into me — the thought of extreme or chronic suffering or entrapment, or of terrible news, or of an uncontrollable or unfathomable threat, or of wasted time, or of failure, intimidation, humiliation, incompetence or letting people down badly — prompt me to play it safe and do as little as possible rather than risk doing something that could realize any of these fears, regardless of the potential upside. I find myself saying “good enough” a lot in my life.

It is quite possible that I could try to change this conditioning, by exposing myself to risks in a manageable way and realizing that my fears are unfounded or overblown (provided my conditioning and the circumstances of the moment would let me). This is how they treat phobias. But the success rate is apparently abysmal, and it often doesn’t last. Those who undertake it evidently have enough understanding of and motivation to overcome their phobia, and the circumstances of the moment offer enough reassurances, to get them to be treated. I think I perceive my life to be too good to be motivated to try to influence my conditioning. Facing my fears stirs up much anxiety in me, so I’m unlikely to do so (thanks to my conditioning) until and unless I reach the point where the discomfort of living with the fear exceeds the dread of facing the fear (and my skepticism of being able to overcome it by facing it).

I am generally (and occasionally extremely) joyful, but the extreme joy doesn’t last. My sense is that it doesn’t for anyone. Being a self is stressful, inherently dissatisfying (there is this instinct, this vague ‘remembering’ of when there was no separation, and that that was awesome and ‘perfect’ and separation can never hope to match it). There is always something worrisome, nagging, imperfect, to overshadow the joy, to sap the energy of the self-afflicted creature.


3. Why do ‘I’ spend most of my time in escapist solo activities, when I am surrounded by natural beauty and intelligent, caring people?

Tentative answer: Same as #1: I’ve been conditioned by fear, anxiety, and exhaustion (or laziness). I feel I should be more joyful when walking in the woods, or spending time with interesting people, but I’m not. I do spend time, weather and circumstances permitting, sitting outside in the sun, on the deck of my house or on the beach in Kaua’i, and I do enjoy it. And I enjoy the company of friends. But as passionate as I am about the importance of nature and wilderness and connection, I’m pretty anxious and uncomfortable when I’m away from the comforts of home. Fear of imagined danger or misfortune or even simple discomfort (rain, cold, minor injury, getting lost) interferes with my enjoyment. Likewise, worry about other people’s potential unhappiness with me takes much of the joy of social interaction away.

This may be an expression of exhaustion, or it may be that I am so disconnected from the natural world that I can’t really appreciate it unless there’s absolutely nothing to take my attention away from it. Exhaustion is, at least for me, an inevitable part of ‘self’-maintenance. Worrying about everything wears you out.

My misanthropy is long-standing, and stems from a combination of conditioned distrust and conditioned disdain. But behind it all sits the litany of fears listed above. Being mostly alone is just easier, and now that I’m retired, mostly possible. Being open and vulnerable is, for this self, too hard, not ‘worth’ the effort.


4. What is going on when ‘I’ am stirred by music, by falling in love, by light, by warmth, by water?

Tentative answer: Chemicals arising in the body. My guess is that these activities engender chemicals in the body that are both stimulating and relaxing at the same time. That’s the worry-wort’s holy grail: Stimulation without relaxation stirs up anxiety. Relaxation without stimulation puts me to sleep. I want both together.

Immersion in water also seems to engender an immediate increase in creativity and imagination, that would seem to be also chemical.

Perhaps all these stimuli interrupt what Michael Pollan and David Foster Wallace refer to as the “default setting” — the way the brain/body normally tends to process and react to sensations, thoughts and feelings.


5. How would psychedelic chemicals, if I took them now, affect ‘my’ behaviour?

Tentative answer: Perhaps the same way as #4 — a disruption to the “default setting”. But not necessarily in a pleasant way, and probably not sustainably. It’s possible that their use might lead to a long-term or even permanent different way of thinking, feeling, “being”, or even the disappearance of the self (I wish). But while Michael Pollan and Gabor Maté have reported permanent shifts in patients’ “default setting” — lifelong cures of addiction, depression and mental illness after using certain hallucinogens — I’m skeptical: My experience is that their use is disruptive and temporarily insightful, but provide no lasting benefit. (In that sense they’re a lot like meditation and other “liberation seeking” behaviours.) When there is a glimpse, what is left when the “default setting” returns is just a desire for more and longer-lasting glimpses.


6. Were there actually glimpses, or was that just wishful thinking?

Tentative answer: Impossible to say. As I’ve described them, they seem awfully close to what others have described as glimpses, and too much for even my creative mind to imagine in a moment of wishful thinking. So I’m dubious that they were just wishful thinking. But ‘I’ will never know.


7. Is the hallucination of the separate self inherent and inevitable in creatures with large brains, brains large enough to conceive of one?

Tentative answer: No. The appearance of selves would seem a logical, if unfortunate, evolutionary development of large brains trying to make sense of sensations to advance the survival of the creatures which evolved those brains for other purposes (ie optimal feature detection). In that sense selves are much like cancers and other seemingly promising but ultimately disastrous evolutionary experiments. But evolution is just an appearance as well, an amazing fractal pattern blossoming into apparent being apparently following a set of rules. So nothing is inevitable, and, as Stephen J Gould argued in Full Houseeverything evolutionary is highly improbable, given the nearly infinite number of other possibilities and variables.


8. If there were no illusory ‘selves’, would civilization have happened, and would ‘we’ now be blithely rushing to its imminent demise?

Tentative answer: Impossible to know. Everything is just an appearance. What appears seems to be evolutionary, and consistent with conditioning subject to the circumstances of the moment. So, probably not: self-afflicted creatures seem to behave in more neurotic, desperate, dysfunctional ways, without which it seems likely we’d be like our close cousins the bonobos, content to live peacefully in balance with the rest of life, in the trees of the tropical rainforest where we emerged. Why would we want to live otherwise?

It doesn’t matter anyway — nothing matters, really. There is no civilization, no world, no place, no time, no thing.


What has all this self-enquiry taught me? That my conditioning has entrenched a well-trodden “default setting” of mostly-fearful thinking, mostly-anxious feeling and imagining, distracted, disconnected sensing, cautious and unpracticed intuiting: a shadow existence driven by ‘self-ish’ fear. And for most of my life the circumstances of the moment (and the other selves around me) have reinforced that conditioning.

Now that I’m retired, they often do not, so I am at a loss. Nothing makes sense any more, especially this “default setting”. I long to escape from it, from ‘me’. But ‘I’ have nothing else. For now at least. Ungrateful bastard that I am.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 7 Comments

Your Self: An Owner’s Manual


Image by Darren Hopes in New Scientist

Congratulations! You have acquired a Self. Every one is different, but in some respects each is identical to all others. If you are still a small baby, this manual will probably not be useful to you until you are older, at which time it will answer a lot of questions about your Self. When you’re ready, here are some answers to questions you may have.

As a result of buying this Self, you are now entitled to call yourself ‘I’, ‘me’, and ‘myself’. You can describe your Self variously as a person, or as an individual, or by a name that you invent or which others may bestow on you, reflecting your Self’s connection with their Selves. You can now claim ownership of thoughts and feelings that arise in the body in which your Self is installed. In fact, you can claim ownership of that entire body — provided you know that with ownership comes responsibility. Note that you are now responsible for everything this body does, including what it thinks, feels and says, things that previously just arose and happened. Now they’re all about you.

Ownership of this body and its components provides you, for the first time, with a sense that you are separate, apart in space and time from everything and everyone else. For the first time, you are alive and conscious — Self-conscious! No going back to just being one with everything, now.

This separateness is actually just an illusion but it will appear quite real through your Self. This will take some getting used to, but soon it will be automatic, and you will start to act as if your Self, and everything it invents, is real. You will start to perceive people and places in space as real, and map them to keep track of them. You will start to perceive events in time as real, and chronicle them as if they really happened, or might happen in a time that has not yet arisen. You will start to believe you have a Life, and that you know things. Imagine it as a VR role-playing game, where everything looks real, where you can act as if it were real, and where you can perceive things as happening as a result of your Self’s actions. It may be disorienting for awhile, but you’ll get the hang of it, and the many other Selves around you will show you how to play. In no time, you’ll be playing your Self as well as they do!

Your Self has a lifetime guarantee. But having bought it, you cannot transfer it to another owner, and when the body your Self is installed in ceases to function, your Self will also cease to function. So take care of it — your Life depends on it!

You may find the operational controls for your Self difficult, at least at first. With the Self comes a sense of free will and choice, and it can be unsettling when the body your Self is installed in does or says something that you did not specify. Because you are now responsible for your Self, this can result in serious repercussions you did not anticipate. So be careful with your Self — it can get you into a lot of trouble and cause a lot of pain.

Other Selves will teach you how to acquire Morals and Ethics (in some models referred to as Right Living, the True Path, God’s Way and other terms) to keep your Self out of trouble. These are free add-ons to your Self that will help with navigation and with defending the Self’s actions, but they will require regular updates and maintenance to function.

The Self categorizes things in accordance with these add-ons as ‘Right’ or ‘Wrong’, and these categorizations do not always align with those of other Selves. It is very important to learn and follow this categorization scheme. You will learn this along with other categorization schemes that come with the separateness feature of your Self, such as Mine and Yours, Subject and Object, Past and Future, and many more. Although none of these distinctions is real, they must be mastered for proper functioning of your Self. Fortunately, thanks to the conceptual framework of the Self, all of these distinctions will appear quite real, so learning them is, while not easy, quite possible with careful attention.

Every morning the operating system of your Self must be rebooted, to recall all of the Self’s knowledge and reactivate its add-ons. Failure to do this is fatal for the Self. A program built into the Self will normally do this automatically, but in the case of injury, accident or exposure to certain chemicals (taken externally or induced internally at unexpected times by the body the Self is installed in), the Self may critically malfunction or even become totally inoperative for some time. Fortunately, this is almost always a temporary condition and the Self will self-repair and return to full operating condition in due course.

You may at times get exhausted and frustrated with your Self. That’s normal; things were probably much easier without it. But there’s a no-return policy on your Self, so you’ll have to get comfortable with it. It likes to escape from all its anxieties, so offer it plenty of distractions: mindless entertainments, addictive substances, music and obsessive preoccupations will often do the trick. There are a variety of therapies, meditation techniques and spiritual paths that can help ease some of the chronic fear, anger, shame and sadness that can often afflict your Self. You will learn to live with your Self, and it will get easier as you get older.

Finally, remember that your Self is not real. It’s just a piece of software. If it’s not performing to your expectations perhaps an upgrade is in order. Talk to your doctor or spiritual advisor to see how your Self might be improved to operate more exactly as you and those you love might desire. New add-ons and upgrades are being developed all the time.

Enjoy your Self, and good luck!

Posted in Creative Works | 3 Comments

Love Story


Humans are obsessed with stories. Most of our communications are stories. Most of our entertainments (film, music, theatre, reading) are stories. Our cultures are mostly about the shared stories we have come to believe. And often our primary concern when anything happens is deciding what it ‘means’, which in most cases is about how it fits into the ‘story of us’.

Thomas King famously wrote that stories are all we are. Yet, when we look at our stories closely, we can’t help but conclude that they are fictions, even lies. That’s true on several levels: they are necessarily oversimplifications, necessarily biased, necessarily ignorant (of what we don’t know), and necessarily omit many important details. And at a deeper level they are merely imaginings, pattern-making, re-conceptions of a small part of what seemingly happened. The map is not the territory; the story is not what really happened. And at an even deeper level, time itself is (many scientists now acknowledge) merely a human construct, an invention, so any story ‘set’ in time is necessarily an invention also. All ‘we’ are are stories, which are fictions, so ‘we’ are fictions too. And indeed non-dualists and not a few neuroscientists would say that is the case: there is no ‘we’. Though perhaps that is just their story.

But there is much more to our stories than what we believe. Everything we observe we make up a story about; that is how we make sense of it. Without our stories we would be useless (in fact, radical non-dualists would argue ‘we’ are completely useless, and that the characters ‘we’ seem to inhabit would function just fine without ‘us’, our separate selves). So when we watch a bird we concoct a story about its separateness, its colours and behaviours, its movement through time and space, and imagine things beyond that such as its history, its volition, its feelings. Each morning when ‘we’ awaken ‘we’ quickly recreate our own story, return to the bookmark where ‘our’ apparent life left off, and reinstate our beliefs about ourselves — ‘our’ separateness, ‘our’ equivalence with our bodies, ‘our’ attributes and moral and appropriate behaviours, ‘our’ movements, and begin again to grab on to the thoughts and feelings that arise in the brain and body and identify them as ‘ours’. We recreate and add to our own fiction every day. We cannot do otherwise. This is all ‘we’ are.

Although ‘we’ cannot actually realize that ‘we’ are a fiction (any more than a character in a dream can understand that it’s in a dream, and wake up from it), it is possible to grasp this intellectually. The idea of this — that the bodies we believe we inhabit would function perfectly without ‘us’, and that ‘we’ actually don’t do anything, beyond rationalizing and identifying with what happens to and in that body and its brain — is philosophically quite elegant (it explains a lot, and defies logical refutation, and believe me I’ve tried to argue against it). It’s also quite comforting — it frees ‘you’ from the responsibility for ‘your’ apparent actions and gives you some distance and perspective which are both healing and useful. It also inevitably increases your equanimity and acceptance of everything, and reduces your expectations and judgements.

But because we have been enculturated from the start both to believe ‘we’ are responsible, and enculturated to have expectations and to make judgements, it makes living in the world with this new perspective (I prefer that word ‘perspective’ — ‘way of looking at things’ — to ‘philosophy’) positively full of cognitive dissonance. It’s as if someone whispered in your ear that some distressing news item that everyone around you is discussing furiously and passionately was actually just a joke, a made-up story. You can totally understand the vehemence of everyone’s arguments, while also realizing that, since it’s all  a fiction, none of it matters. Others will suddenly find you detached, disturbingly dispassionate. But you can’t let on that it’s all a joke, that none of it matters. Radical non-duality is at once a wonderful perspective and a terrible secret.

When I was young, I was fiercely idealistic and fiercely romantic. I wrote poems full of anger and despair, dreamt of impossibly perfect romances, cried while singing love songs, raged against the machine, and plotted to change, or at least escape, the hopelessly-flawed world in which I lived. I loved more profoundly, more overwhelmingly, than I ever have since. And yet I hugely distrusted sex and lust, which seemed to me a distraction, an aberration, an impurity that diminished ‘true’ love.

What was going on there?

At a ‘purely physical’ level, nature/evolution was driving me to procreate. I’ve written before about the chemicals Gaia uses to do this. It’s a complex cocktail, but it’s evolved to work really well — no language or conversation or thinking or rationalization needed. In a way, despite my previous writing parsing this chemistry into intellectual, emotional, sensual and erotic components, this seems to be neither intellectual or emotional, but rather purely a physical/chemical/instinctual phenomenon. That’s not to say it doesn’t give rise to thoughts and feelings, but only that it requires no separate ‘self’ to take up and identify with those thoughts and feelings, for love to be profoundly felt.

Had I, at that age, not been afflicted with a self (and that self was, at that point, just coming out of its shell and beginning to flex its unexercised muscles), this ‘falling-in-love-ness’ would, I think, have manifested itself very differently, but, at least at first, wouldn’t have appeared much different to the casual observer. It was only when my self took ownership of this being-in-love-ness that it went from being just simply wondrous to being, at least for me, at best a bittersweet experience.

My idealism was an expression of many years of repression, and I’d guess that for most people, regardless of their political, philosophical or spiritual bent, idealism is an expression of repression — a deep wanting for things to be otherwise that, whenever it gets the chance to be expressed, comes out as fixed, inflexible, and black-and-white. Idealists, of course, can quickly switch allegiances to some very different ideal which they’ll hold just as tenaciously. That can be very destructive, both to the body politic in which the idealist holds clout, and to the individuals who care about the idealist and have to try to live with, and live up to, those ideals. My distaste for sexuality was part of that idealism — my remembered, long-ago sensations of love, before I locked my feelings away for fear of being hurt, had been more-or-less non-sexual, so these new, more complex, messier sensations struck the idealist in me as abhorrent, impure, dilutive and, I confess, less exclusive.

This idealism was and is, of course, an attribute of my ‘self’, not something inherent in the body/brain which ‘I’ presume to inhabit. Wild creatures are not idealistic because they are not attached to the thoughts and ideas that arise in their brains. They see thoughts and embodied feelings for what they are — fleeting conceptions and reactions that are unreal, invented, and ‘meaningless’, a by-product of (evolutionarily useful) intuitive reactions. And not “theirs”. Wild creatures probably feel them more deeply than we do (since they lack the filter of the self judging them), but probably for a much briefer time (since they don’t take ownership of them).

Now I have to be a little more precise in defining what I mean by ’emotion’. When a bird notices a cat, or another bird of its species, there will be an instinctive reaction — fear in the case of a cat, something else in the case of a bird (perhaps joy if the bird is recognized as part of the flock, love if it’s perceived as a potential mate, and anger if it’s perceived as a threat). These are profound feelings with deeply engrained evolutionary advantage, but they are not emotions in the sense a separate self feels emotions, in that there is no intellectual judgement or ownership of the feeling. The bird, based on its embodied and enculturated conditioning, will do what it will do in response to this reaction — flee, sing, flirt, or fight. But then, once the encounter (however long it lasts) has ended, the feeling will be ‘forgotten’ (while the learning will be retained as part of its enculturation). There is no evolutionary advantage to holding on to the feeling itself. The self, however, does hold on to feelings, because it believes they ‘mean’ something.

So when I speak of ’embodied feelings’ I’m referring to the instinctive, reactive feelings (love, joy, fear, anger, sadness etc) that we share with wild creatures (though wild creatures may feel them more profoundly than we do). When I speak of ’emotions’ I’m referring to the self’s internalizations that come from either ’embodied feelings’ or thoughts when the self takes ownership and attaches meaning to them (self-identified love, personal or compersive joy, chronic anxiety, enduring anger, inconsolable grief etc). We tend to use some of the same words for both, because ‘we’ don’t distinguish clearly between our selves’ emotions and the feelings that arise within the bodies we think we inhabit. It is telling, I think, that the ‘negative’ emotions that ‘we’ feel seem to last longer (thanks to our brain’s reinforcement of them, what Eckhart Tolle has called the reinforcing cycle of the egoic mind and the emotional pain-body) than the ‘positive’ ones. ‘We’ can resurrect anger over some long-ago slight for years, while we struggle to recall the purely positive feelings of a first kiss or other long-ago experience of love or joy.

When it comes to love, then, there is the embodied feeling of love, and then, some time later, there is the emotion of love. And there’s the rub. The embodied feeling is real; the emotion is a story. This story begins as a tale of all-consuming joy, but quickly the plot thickens: Does this other person, this other, separate self with free will and choice, love me in return? How can I prove my love and show my self to be deserving of the other self’s love? Suddenly there is a new story of ‘me’ and, even worse, a new (and impossible) story of who I imagine (and want) this other person to be. And a story of our idyllic future together, forever.

What is behind this ghastly and impossible story-building? The separate self is always longing for wholeness, always trying to escape the prison of the self. Falling in love holds out the promise to the self of a better story, an escape from the confines of one’s own story. Romanticism and idealism reveal themselves most diabolically in each newly concocted love story: a story in which life is more interesting, and more beautiful. A story in which the narrator is loved, admired, listened to, appreciated, and, by the narrator’s standards, very successful, and in which the narrator’s beliefs and actions are validated by the Other. A story in which the world, finally, makes sense, works well, and is under control. It is a story of impossible expectations, the ultimate fiction.

Starting with that disastrous premise, the story unfolds. Soon, expectations are lowered, and then lowered again. For those (including many idealists and romantics) whose selves have suffered a lot, the resulting disappointment may be too much to bear, and they will go in search of another person to fall in love with, in the hope a better story can at last be found with them. For those who are more equanimous, whose selves need less healing, the relationship may endure with the acknowledgement that no love story is true, and theirs could have been worse.

No one has control over any of this. ‘You’ cannot change your story. Your embodied and enculturated nature and conditioning, under the particular circumstances of the moment, may lead to an apparent change of direction in the ‘story of you’. But it is still only a story. Life is still life, love is still love, the world is still the world, and they are wondrous and wonderful. It’s only ‘our’ stories about them that are, in the long run, mostly painful, immiserating, terrible, and ultimately unsatisfying. And our stories, like ‘us’, are just fictions. There is no consolation in understanding that, yet somehow it is comforting. Although nothing has changed, it’s good to be in on the secret.


Speaking of secrets, I have confess that despite my distrust of them, I love well-written stories. Especially quirky love stories, though even these are dangerous. The image above is from a wonderful romantic subplot in the old TV series Sports Night.

One of my favourite projects was researching the 7 qualities of a great story. They (still) are:

  1. It gives pleasure, emotional connection, often through imagery.
  2. It provides some fresh understanding, “some fresh understanding of the familiar, or the expression of something we have experienced but have no words for, which enlarges our consciousness or refines our sensibility.” (TS Eliot)
  3. Every sentence must pay: “If you write a sentence that isn’t poignant, touching, funny, intriguing, inviting, etc., take it out before you finish the work.” (Frederick Barthelme)
  4. It takes a camera view: It lets the action and conversation tell the story and convey the ideas and thoughts and feelings of the characters. No asides or “… he thought”, please.
  5. It respects the audience’s intelligence. No manipulation, no incoherence, no deus ex machina.
  6. It leaves space for the audience. It allows them to fill in details from their own experience or imagination.
  7. It must in some way be really clever, imaginative or novel. The writer has to reach down and come up with something that tickles, that the reader would never have thought of, that’s a total surprise, astonishment, wonder. Something that makes you say “wow”.
Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 5 Comments

My Best Stuff


The inimitable Rev. Michael Dowd (bio) recently asked me to distill my list of some 80 “best posts” (on my right sidebar) down to my 10 best, since he and his wife Connie Barlow wanted to record audio versions of some of them to post on their sustainability page, alongside those of other writers about eco-collapse and sustainability such as John Michael Greer, Paul Kingsnorth, Theo Kitchener, Ronald Wright, Richard Heinberg, Joanna Macy and Jim Kunstler, and many other luminaries I greatly admire and have written about on these pages.

I of course agreed to do so. I wanted to focus on the ones that readers suggested they found most useful, educational, inspiring or interesting. About half of these would also be on my ‘favourites’ list because they were fun to write or because researching them taught me a great deal. But ultimately at least half of my ‘favourite’ posts are creative works. They’re the hardest to do, and often the least popular. But I’ve become quite fond of the recurring characters in my short stories, and three of my free-verse works would be at or near the top of my favourite writings.

So I provided Michael with some of both, and I list below, in no particular order, the 30 posts that I think comprise my ‘best’ writing, marked with a †  and/or my personal ‘favourites’ (marked with an *). For non-fiction articles the thesis or subject of each post is shown below the article name.

I hope this list points you to some of my work you might have missed. Comments are closed for older articles to fend off spam, but feel free to comment below or email me.


Ten Things I Wish I’d Learned Earlier (May 2017)†*
The 10 most important things I’ve learned since I started blogging

 A Future Without Us (Nov 2017)†
Life for humans after civilization’s collapse might well be joyous, sustainable and amazingly diverse

 The Mushroom at the End of the World (Jan 2017) (Long) (Book review/summary)†*
How economies really work and how we could prepare for the economy that will emerge after civilization’s collapse 

Complexity and Collapse (updated Jun 2016) (Long) (originally published in SHIFT magazine)†
How complex systems work and how they are leading to the inevitable collapse of our economic, affordable energy and ecological systems

Too Many Rats in the Cage: Civilization Disease (May 2013)†
Civilization has unintentionally made us all ill

Do We Really Want To Know? (Nov 2009)†
Industrial agriculture and other modern industries depend on our human desire not to know the unpleasant details of how the things we want are produced

The Dark and Gathering Sameness of the World (Apr 2006) (Book review/summary)†
The increasing homogeneity of our world threatens our survival and diminishes our lives

The End of Philosophy (May 2005) (Book review/summary)†*
We cannot and shouldn’t want to “save the world” from the rapacity and foolishness of the human species

The Problem With Systems (Jul 2016)†
We can’t “fix” society’s broken systems because they don’t really exist

The Admission of Necessary Ignorance (updated Jun 2016)†
A humbler, more equanimous approach to science and other human endeavours might serve us, and our world, well

 Several Short Sentences About Jellyfish (2014)†*
A research report on the world’s most amazing and enduring creature

The Rogue Animal and Gaia Consciousness (May 2005) (Book review/summary)†
Somehow the human species, attempting to make a better world, created a prosthetic, disconnected one instead

Manifesto (Mar 2010)†
A whimsical rant against our society’s uncritical acceptance of conformity and propaganda

The Value of Conversation (Mar 2010)†*
Skilled, thoughtful discourse is essential to human connection, health and survival

Ten Things to Do When You’re Feeling Hopeless (Sep 2010)†*
Ways of coping in a seemingly ever-worsening world

A Culture of Dependence (Oct 2010)†*
We can’t hope to change a culture whose systems we’re utterly, helplessly dependent on

A Harvest of Myths (Jul 2014)†*
The dubious assumptions on which we base our beliefs, stories and actions (notes from a Dark Mountain conference)

Several Short Sentences About Learning (Apr 2015)†*
How we actually learn and why we often don’t

Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care (Jul 2018)†
Before every cultural collapse, there is a period of acedia that portends it; we’re now in that period

All There Is, Is This (Apr 2016)*
The essence of radical non-duality and the non-existence of the separate self

On the Shoulders of Giants (Feb 2018) (Short Story)*
A father and daughter banter about the nature of free will

 Conjurer (2009) (Satire in verse)*
A lament on expectations

The Horses’ Bodies (Feb 2014) (Poem)*

Invisible (Nov 2016) (Poem)*

Calling the Cage Freedom (Nov 2017) (Short Story)*

Speaking Grosbeak (Jun 2015) (Short Story)*

Flywheel (Aug 2014) (Short Story)*

A Conversation (Jul 2009) (Short Story)*

Against Hope (Sep 2015) (Video)*
My PechaKucha presentation, a mix of light and dark; embedded at top of this post

Interview with Dean Walker (Jun 2018) (Video)*
Dean asks me about my evolving views on collapse, grief, and non-duality; a light and enjoyable conversation

Posted in Preparing for Civilization's End | 1 Comment

Non-Duality: Three Ways of Describing the Elephant

It’s now been 7 years since I began striving to become more “present” and 4 years since I gave up the struggle and accepted that there is no path to presence, liberation, awakening, enlightenment, or (fill in your favoured word here).

When I go back now and listen to podcasts of Eckhart Tolle, Adyashanti, Rupert Spira etc (like this one) I am amazed at how, despite the differences in wording and articulation, and the differences in “what to do” to realize the truth of non-duality, the messages are more or less identical: the separate self is not actually ‘real’; there is only a timeless, infinite, empty “fullness” or “oneness”.

As the graphic above illustrates, there seem to be three main lines of thought on the whole issue of how to “get there”, that depend on the speaker’s perception of what is “behind” the unreal self. The first, espoused by most of what I would call traditional non-dual speakers, holds that there is a “higher self” that is part of everything that is left when the egoic self is transcended, and that this is, for most, an arduous path requiring lengthy practices of one kind or another. In that respect it might be called the “spiritual journey” message, and it has much in common with some religions promising transcendence through effort.

The second line of thought, shown in blue, is espoused by so-called “direct path” speakers, who say that all that is required is a focused, skilled effort to “see through” the illusion of the self. With the right focus and discipline, they say, liberation can occur in a matter of seconds.

The third line of thought, the one I have come to embrace, shown in green, is what I have called “radical non-duality”, whose message is that there is no path to rid oneself of the self, because there is no self, and hence no ‘one’ with free will to do anything.

What all non-dualists seemingly have in common is their message about what it is like when the sense of separate self is gone: It is a loss, rather than a gain of something; it is not a “state”, particularly a “blissful” one; it is a “seeing” of what was always there, which, after the initial “wow” moments, then is seen as ordinary, obvious, and unquestionably real and true; and while it seems to change everything, nothing actually changes — there is only a loss of what wasn’t real in the first place.

Beyond that, there is little consensus, and I have heard articulate arguments for all three lines of thought (and advocates of each who are vociferously critical of the other two), as well as some beliefs and philosophies that seem to combine elements of more than one of these lines of thought. Though radical non-duality resonates much more with me, likely due to my particular biology, enculturation, philosophical and intellectual inclinations and encountered “glimpses“, I can appreciate that others may find it bizarre and unfathomable. And since this realization is unknowable by any ‘one’, there is no point trying to describe it or persuade anyone that any of these three apparently-conflicting messages about non-duality is true, or truer than the others. But they’re all, clearly, ultimately describing the same thing.

Hope this is useful for others exploring non-duality.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, _ Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care


Photo: Luke MacGregor for Bloomberg

A century ago, a small group of psychopaths, who had been largely ridiculed as incompetent buffoons for more than a decade before, rode a wave of confusion, chaos and anger over inequality to autocratic terror, and plunged the world into a horrific war that might well have ended human life on Earth, had the discovery of nuclear weapons been made by others than those who pushed us to the edge of extinction with a savage demonstration of its power, or if that discovery had come earlier, or later.

Since that time, we have watched the Doomsday Clock tick perilously closer to midnight, and then briefly retreat, only to edge closer again.

There is a strong argument to be made that we are once again at the buffoon stage, once again increasingly in the hands of a small handful of psychopaths whipping up fear and fury and setting the stage for global autocracy, confrontation and brinksmanship. The so-called leaders of most of the world’s most powerful nations are incompetent and unstable, and this has been the case at least since the events of 2001.

All civilizations end, and a study of them shows that there are usually two precursors to their collapse: widespread cultural acedia, and then a period of chaos.

You probably haven’t heard of the term acedia used, and it has several definitions, so I’ll start by defining it. It is

a disillusioned detachment, disengagement or dissociation that stems from an incapacity to cope with the realities of the moment. It may start with personal acedia, manifesting as a restlessness, a sense of hopelessness, anger, fear, anxiety, despair and helplessness, a sense of chronic and growing dis-ease, and then, when it infects whole communities, it morphs into cultural acedia, a collective incessant malaise, a “weariness of the heart”. “Most people”, Thoreau wrote, “live lives of quiet desperation”.

When a culture can no longer provide for the essential physical and psychological needs of its members, it inevitably starts to disintegrate — its members may try to revolt, or they may just walk away and leave the culture to collapse. It depends largely on what options its citizens have. It starts with the sense that the culture with which the members are, of necessity, associated and identified, no longer meets its essential needs, to the point the drastic step of revolution or abandonment is deemed less risky than staying with the sinking ship of state, manifests itself as a cultural malaise. This is cultural acedia.

Its effects are not limited to humans; they affect all mammals and other “social” creatures whose core sense of identity is connected to their culture. Scientists have demonstrated that rats whose community is in turmoil or which are isolated from their community are far more prone to what we would call the symptoms of emotional illness: acts of extraordinary violence, addictive behaviours, self-destructive behaviours, hoarding behaviours etc.

What most manifests this early acedic stage of social collapse is a moving away from caring. Caring for one’s fellow community members, for the shared qualities of the culture, and even for oneself, comes at a high emotional cost. When caring becomes too much to bear (such as when caring for a family member leads only to endless abuse, broken promises and disappointments), an essential coping mechanism is to detach, disengage, disconnect, even dissociate.

But surely, you may be thinking, the current situation is not so bad? By the measures of most societies, many if not most in the more affluent nations of the world are seemingly well off, no? Despite the ravings of some psychotic or despotic leaders, most people in these nations are safe, materially well-off, and, as much as possible, “free”.

Well, perhaps not. The soaring prevalence of stress-triggered chronic diseases (both physical and psychological) suggests something is not quite right. It is easy to blame the victims — our mostly sedentary, overweight and malnourished citizens. Or to blame the capitalist system that almost inevitably makes us that way.

But blame is not the point. Over the last century a remarkable consensus has arisen among health-care practitioners and those studying our culture that even an apparently-affluent society can suffer massive malaise and social disintegration, if it fails to meet the essential human needs that are common to all humans of all cultures. While these needs have been parsed in different ways, here’s a list of basic psychological/emotional needs combining the work of Johann Hari, Gabor Maté and David Foster Wallace, recent writers who have focused attention on what happens to us when those needs are not met:

  1. the need to belong to and connect with a safe and engaging community, starting with attachment to one’s mother in the critical first years of life
  2. the need for meaning and purpose in one’s life, including meaningful work
  3. the need to be valued, appreciated, and heard
  4. the need to be optimistic about the future for oneself and loved ones
  5. the need for control and a degree of autonomy over one’s life and work
  6. the need to be regularly and closely in touch with the natural world
  7. the need for a sense of place and home
  8. the need for freedom from chronic stress (financial, physical etc.) and the time and space to recover from it (including getting adequate sleep)

What characterizes our modern industrial culture is its failure to meet, or even really value, any of these needs. Prehistoric societies, up until about ten millennia ago, provided them all. With the advent of language, settlement and the chronic scarcities that accompanied exploding human populations, cultures that depended on large-scale settlement and agriculture quickly sacrificed the value of and attention to these needs in favour of meeting the more urgent and desperate physical, military, political and industrial needs of these new fragile, unstable civilizations.

“We are all homeless.”, Johann writes. To remedy our cultural malaise “we don’t need to be drugged or imprisoned, we need to be together.” By neglecting our basic needs, he says, we have turned the whole world into our prison. What’s at fault then? “It’s not you. It’s your cage.” David echoes this metaphor, describing most contemporary writing as “the song of a prisoner who’s come to love his cage.” In The Pale King he adds:

Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly with our full attention.

So now we live in a world where our sheer busy-ness, and multi-generational traumas handed down, deprive young children of the essential security of attachment and belonging that even many earlier war-ravaged societies provided. Hence we have an epidemic of related psychological illnesses, ranging from psychosis and chronic anxiety to PTSD and attention disorders, and a parallel epidemic of physical illnesses now primarily ascribed beyond any plausible doubt to traumas, mostly passed down unintentionally from each generation to the next and exacerbated by conflicts and encounters with similarly-traumatized peers.

And we have a world where most people despise or are bored by their work, which is mostly meaningless, offers little or no personal autonomy (and often far more responsibility than authority) and which in our increasingly-unequal society takes up more and more of their waking lives. A world in which many are so desperate for attention, appreciation and reassurance that they have to seek it in inarticulate, insubstantial, precarious online “friendships”. A world in which everything seems to be getting worse, including the prospects for future generations and the prospects for a secure and peaceful retirement. A world that offers no stable and enduring home, and no continuous contact with the more-than-human world. A world that suffers from chronic sleep deficits and attention deficits, an epidemic of stress-related diseases, and a collective sense of hopelessness, helplessness, disenfranchisement, fury and dread. A world of exhaustion.

Underneath the appearance of affluence (for the dwindling number who even have that) what most characterizes our modern industrial civilization culture is a severe and growing scarcity of everything that is important for a healthy and resilient human society.

No surprise then that we see an epidemic of acedic psychological and physical coping mechanisms: depression and anxiety disorders, addictions, attention disorders, autoimmune diseases, compulsive behaviours, self-destructive behaviours, and hoarding behaviours (the ultra-rich are furiously buying up remote islands and farmlands in the absurd belief they will provide sanctuary as economic, political and climate collapse worsens).

One of those self-destructive behaviours is supporting the psychotics who (just as the fascist/corporatist leaders did a century ago) promise a return to the good old days, the old order, and the old values, promise hope of a better tomorrow, stir up xenophobia and civil hatred through lies and promises of more for their followers and less for their “enemies”, and promise more autonomy for individuals (making “government” the inevitable whipping-boy), and more security against the trumped-up enemies. People afflicted with acedia voted for Trump, Bush, May, Brexit, Harper, Ford and the growing number of angry damaged megalomaniacs gaining power all over the world. You can’t blame them. When people are desperate and angry and feel hopeless and helpless they’re ready to try anything different from what they feel has led to the current (personal and collective) malaise. They can no longer care.

It’s subtle and deceptive, this wave of acedia, this wave of anger, fear and “sorrow of the world”. It manifests in different ways among different demographics, but it afflicts us all. Gene McCarthy used the term acedia in the 60s to describe the sentiment of those fighting the military-industrial complex and the continuation of the Vietnam War and other wars of colonial occupation and resource theft. Once that war ended, his concern about it getting out of hand was quickly ignored by the media and citizens alike. Now it’s back.

There is likely nothing that can be done to stem it, but we can at least be aware of the phenomenon, as acedia builds and gives way to growing chaos and then to collapse. Gabor stresses the need for us to start (over) with small children, giving them at least a sense of safe attachment, and then a sense of belonging, and enabling them to realize and fill the remaining essential needs in the list above. But for all of us, he says, the key is to stop blaming (our genetics, our parents etc) and recognize that we’re all doing our best and that our coping mechanisms (depression, addiction, attention disorders, autoimmune disorders etc) are perfectly understandable but ultimately unhealthy for us, so we would be best to strive to find a way of living that meets the eight essential needs as well as possible, even if that requires some dramatic changes in our lives.

David’s only prescription is to exercise as much freedom as we can muster (he wrote his Master’s thesis on free will) in the choice of what we pay attention to, rather than automatically falling back into our “natural default setting”.

That’s unlikely to make a difference for the billions already sliding into acedia, whose collective actions and inactions are likely to usher in an era of chaos (already evident in several political capitals) and empower psychopaths and despots who will churn things up further. But at least, instead of blaming them, or the media, or anyone or anything else, we will be aware that this is what inevitably happens as a culture reaches the scale and the limits at which it can no longer meet the essential needs of its members.

It’s going to be a rough ride, and I was hoping it wouldn’t be accelerating as soon or as quickly as it now appears to be. Maybe, like in 1945, we’ll avoid the bang again, and get to witness the whimper; if so, it will be perhaps the most astonishing one our planet has yet witnessed.

But it won’t be the end of the world.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 13 Comments