Spoiled By Perfection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 6 Comments

A Culture Driven By Fear: The Psychology of Collapse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in How the World Really Works, Preparing for Civilization's End | 15 Comments

The Path from Here to Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

My relationship with my self

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

My relationship with others

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

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

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

My relationship with love

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

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

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

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

What I do with my time

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

My worldview

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

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

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

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

My personal pleasures and recreations

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The path from here to here

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

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

The Evolution of the Self

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Problem With Systems

illustrative system diagram from my post on Systems Theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links of the Quarter: June, 2016

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

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

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

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

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



hopeful hour
cartoon by Michael Leunig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

Canadian Incompetence Corner:

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

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

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

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



Photo: Tui birds, by my friend Pohangina Pete

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

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

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




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

“Home”, by Warsan Shire:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By David Foster Wallace, from Oblivion:

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

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

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

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

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

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

it answered

By Annie Dillard, from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By David White, from Sweet Darkness:

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

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

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

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.

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

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

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

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

Buy her another cup of coffee.

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

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

She has to give it a shot somehow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or better yet, date a girl who writes.

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


wolf tattoo freetattoodesigns.orgRen stood in the middle of the stream, tossing his line into the water, not looking at all like a real fisher. He wore only a brief bathing suit, revealing the huge tattoo of a wolf howling at the moon that covered the whole back half of his body.

Gabrielle sat on the bank near him, playing with one of her piercings, her legs stretched out into the fast-rushing water. Her peasant dress was wet from wading in the stream and was now plastered to her body. She was shivering despite the day’s warmth and sun.

“You’ve gone all weird since you got into this non-duality shit,” she said to him. “I’m not sure I like you very much any more. We need you at the Lelu Island occupation. We’re not going to stop this LNG disaster by meditating. We have to block it. You’ve done this stuff, Ren, you know what we have to do to stop them.”

Ren didn’t reply, other than shrugging; he just kept casting into the water.

“You still have a great butt, though,” Gabrielle added, shouting a little over the noise of the water. Staring at the wet rocks in front of her she yelled out at him “You have an activist rep that goes back a long way, and your presence would make a difference. We need your organizing skill. Most of the people on the front lines are just kids. They don’t know what they’re doing, and the PR scum from Petronas are trying to scare them and provoke them into doing something stupid on camera so they can call in the cops. We need leadership, Ren.”

He waded over toward where she was sitting and crouched down in the stream. “You see this stream, and how it works its way around my body? I can’t stop the stream flowing no matter how I splay my hands and body. I could get 50 people out here with their arms out trying to stop this stream and it would accomplish nothing. That’s how complex systems work. They work around obstructions. The political and economic system that is working to introduce LNG is another complex system. You can’t stop it. We can’t stop it. It will just work around us. I’ve wasted too much of my life trying to change complex systems. Not going to do it any more”. He wandered back to the centre of the stream and cast his line out again.

Gabrielle scowled at him. “Activism can bring about change,” she shouted at him.

“Give me an example,” he called back at her.

“End of slavery and segregation. Women’s vote. LGBT rights.”

“Physical slavery, the ownership of people as property, was no longer needed with the advent of automated machinery, otherwise we’d still have it. Instead we have economic slavery, wage slavery. Most of the world’s people are economic slaves. We may not have legal segregation but it was just replaced by economic segregation. It costs money that most people of colour don’t have to live in the neighbourhoods with decent schools, and to pay for a university education that has any economic value at all. If your parents had wealth and power, you are pretty much guaranteed that you will have it, and vice versa. Your chances of moving out of the economic quintile your parents were in are less than 5%.

“And as for women’s suffrage, the vote was only ‘given’ to women when voting ceased to make any real difference, when the essential part of the political process had shifted from the voting booth to the back rooms. The ERA was never ratified for the same reason — it might have actually led to real change. Corporations have all the power now, and they’re totally dominated by men. And LGBT rights cost no one anything, so they were an easy ‘gift’ for the people in power to give away. Discrimination on the basis of sexual preference has been diminishing because it’s an anachronism of religious fundamentalism, and because the generation of terrified fundies is all dying off, not because people marched in the street for the end to it.”

Gabrielle jumped on Ren’s last remark: “Are you telling me that all the Pride marches had nothing to do with the incredible changes in the laws in the last decade?” she asked.

“Most of the people in the country couldn’t see why there should be discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the first place, but they don’t feel passionate about it. The fact that the marchers did feel passionate about it might have accelerated the change in laws a bit, but practices were already changing before the laws changed, and the minority of people who hate and fear them aren’t going to change their behaviours because of laws anyway. They’ll find ways to discriminate, to work around the laws, until they finally die off.

“Look at what all the marches for access to safe abortions have accomplished — the situation in many places has been getting steadily worse for four decades. The marches and activism temporarily moved the goalposts, but over time the stream of people in power — the patriarchy — who fervently believe abortion is wrong, have just found new ways to work around the laws, to erode them. Eventually the people who think abortion is evil will die off, and their kids and grandkids won’t care about the issue the same way, so then the practice, which was perfectly legal (though not safe) until around 1850, will become fully legal again. Not because anyone marched, or changed their mind, but because a new generation came along with a different mindset from the old one.”

“So you’ll admit that protests can at least ‘move the goalposts’, that they can lead to at least temporary changes?” Gabrielle replied.

“At least and at most, yes. I greatly admire people who are willing to put in the time on that basis, to do ‘holding actions’ as Joanna Macy calls them, that can at least prevent things getting much worse for a short time, and might even produce some fleeting victories. But in the long run they mean nothing. I haven’t got the heart for that any more.”

Gabrielle waded out into the stream and hugged him from behind. “Yeah, we’re getting old and tired. It’s hard. But to me it’s harder not to fight. If you won’t acknowledge the long-term value of passive protest, will you at least agree that direct action works? The work Derrick Jensen is doing to decommission dams and restore rivers is accomplishing a lot.”

“It’s ironic. The new resistance movements think they’ve invented something new with ‘Block it, Break it, Take it’. But this is precisely the tactics of the patriarchy, of the military and corporations. It’s always been that way — that’s what the system rewards. New regulation coming in to ban pollution that we profit from? Block it. Protest group chained together in the path of our new development project? Break it. New competitor threatening our margins or market share? Take it — buy them out and shut them down. Legal threats, bribery, offshoring, hiding profits in tropical island banks, numbered companies, deregulation, ghost-written laws for bought legislators, dumping toxins, paying third world authorities to kill opponents and protesters, everything involved in ‘externalizing’ costs and risks — they’re all workarounds using these same three direct action tactics to maximize profit and growth. Everyone knows its psychopathy but no one knows any way to change it. It’s the system, my dear, it’s designed and evolved to resist change and to block, break or take any attempt to change anything long-term.

“So by all means, take direct action. Just don’t expect it to have any enduring effect. For every dam that Derrick gets decommissioned there’s a huge new Site C dam to take its place. Your cleanup of the local riverbanks and oil slicks will make a difference for a while, but the effluent from the city nearby and the next deepwater or tanker disaster will undo it all soon enough.” He turned around to face her, hugged her and added, “Just promise me you’ll stay out of jail, and not get yourself hurt. No short-term victory is worth that.”

Gabrielle looked despondent. She buried her face in his shoulder and said quietly, “So let me get this straight. Your disillusionment with activism has to do with your understanding of the way complex systems work, and not with this non-duality stuff you’ve been reading, right?”

Ren smiled, and said: “The term ‘non-duality’ has a lot of very muddled meanings. Let me summarize what I currently believe before I answer your question. A lot of ‘moderate’ non-dualists argue that we have to behave responsibly, to do what we believe needs to be doing, even though they accept that there is no free will. They say otherwise we might well sink into nihilism. A lot of people who’ve studied the subject, scientists in particular, get fussed about whether our world is deterministic or subject to some degree of volition or ‘free will’. Einstein said, for example, ‘I am compelled to act as if free will existed, because if I wish to live in a civilized society I must act responsibly. . . I know that philosophically a murderer is not responsible for his crime, but I prefer not to take tea with him.’

“Radical non-dualists, on the other hand, assert that the world is neither deterministic nor subject to free will. For them, the whole question of ‘free will’ is moot because there is no ‘one’ to exercise it. And there is no ’cause and effect’ so the world is not deterministic either. They would argue that Einstein had no choice about either his behaviour or who he would take tea with, not because his actions were pre-determined but because there was no separate ‘person’ called Einstein. But the illusory self believes it is separate and has free will, and from the perspective of that illusion it can’t believe anything else. Nothing else makes sense. Einstein was getting close to this realization, though, I think, when he said ‘Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one. Space and time are not conditions in which we live, they are modes in which we think.’ At the moment the radical non-dualist position is the one that intuitively and intellectually makes the most sense to me.

“So to answer your question, yes, my disillusionment with activism has everything to do with an appreciation of the intractability of complex systems, rather than my enthusiasm for a radical non-dual worldview. In fact, as long as my ‘self’ hangs around, it has no choice but to act as if it has free will and hence act ‘responsibly.’ ”

Gabrielle thought for a moment and then smiled at him slyly and said: “You’re telling me that your very intellectual ‘self’ thinks that activism is risky and ultimately futile, but also that your ‘self’ must behave responsibly as if it had free will and self-control. So what, I ask your ‘self’, is the ‘responsible’ thing to do about Lelu Island?”

Ren laughed, bowed to her, and pointed at her, and then, with a sigh, almost reluctantly said “Stop the bastards.”

“And how, oh exalted and wise ‘self’ that is under the illusion of being Ren, do we do that?”

“You know what I was saying about complex systems being like a stream? It’s all about disrupting the flows. It’s about taking actions that cause the maximum amount of time, energy and money to restore things to the position and momentum they had before the disruption. Since they have the money and the bought politicians and the police and the media and the armies of lawyers on their side, we have to be smarter, and we have to catch them off guard. I knew I wasn’t going to dissuade you, so I wrote down some ideas that might work, and which will be inexpensive to pull off with minimal risk. Shall we call it a day and go stir up some veggies and I’ll walk you through them?”

“Yay,” Gabrielle replied. “I knew you’d come around. And I’m freezing. Are you just going to lay these ideas on me or are you going to come with me to Lelu?” Tweaking his bum gently, she added “I’ll make it worth your while!”

He refused to promise, but she knew the trick to convincing him, a technique she’d learned when they’d studied complexity theory together: She made it easy, and fun, for him to agree to join her.

As they unlocked their bikes and packed up their gear, Gabrielle said, “Now, let’s suppose one of these days the illusory self that calls itself Ren should vanish into the ether of enlightenment. Should we be concerned that the character that is left will shirk all responsibility and leave us high and dry on the front lines?”

“I have no idea. Since ‘I’ wouldn’t be around to take any responsibility for ‘my’ actions, it’s anyone’s guess. But since there actually is no free will, ‘I’ would think it likely that the character that once self-identified as Ren would probably continue to do the only things it could possibly do, so your ‘self’ might not even notice much difference, other than a little less moodiness and internal conflict.”

“I think I might like the self-less non-you even more than your current self-ish self. Just as long it doesn’t act all ‘enlightened’ and holier-than-thou,” she replied. Then she added: “Oh, and just out of curiosity, since I happen to know you’re vegetarian, what’s with this fishing thing?”

“It’s for my cat. Do you know what crap they put into packaged pet foods? It’s criminal.”

“Maybe we should do something responsible about that, too,” she replied. “Even though, in the long run, it is of course futile.”

image from freetattoodesigns.org

Posted in Creative Works | 1 Comment

Seeing Through Stories

image from Nick Smith’s friend John Wareham’s collection

This essay, like all essays, is a story. It’s my own patterning of what I’ve perceived, intuited, thought about and felt, and then recalled in an effort to make sense of it all. In the case of this particular essay, there is no empirical evidence of its veracity. In fact, it’s evidently not true. But it’s my story anyway, at least for now. Here it is, in all its apparent truthlessness:

Every story is an invention. If enough people hear it and believe it to be true — if it fits with their worldview i.e. the collection of other stories they have come to accept as true — it becomes a myth. A myth is not necessarily false; it’s just a story sufficiently widely accepted that people act as if it were true and are hesitant to challenge it. At this point it might as well be true, because anyone who denies it is likely to be, at best, ignored. Like all stories, myths are just simplifications, attempts to see meaningful and reliable patterns in the firehose of sensory and cognitive messages we are all bombarded with.

Every story is a lie. Not (usually) a deliberate one, of course. Most stories are invented with the best of intentions — they seem to make sense, and to be useful. They seem to fit with our other stories. But reality is unfathomably more complex than any story can ever tell. What we believe we perceive with our five senses and our dim brains is just an insignificantly tiny, filtered, incomplete and imprecise representation of all-that-is. Other creatures perceive the world very differently, and their stories of reality are utterly different from ours.

All stories are absurd oversimplifications, pale representations of the truth, sketches of what little our impoverished senses are able to pick up, that our muddled brains then fashion into models of reality. We do the best we can, but we have absolutely no idea what reality is. We cannot possibly know. The tools evolution has equipped us with only show us enough partial glimpses of reality to optimize our chances of survival without overwhelming us. So we make do with our stories, our sad representations, and in telling them to ourselves and each other often enough come to believe not only that they are accurate representations of reality, but that they are reality. We come not only to see our stories as reality in our minds, but to embody them with our apparently-separate whole being.

Behind every story is an attempt to rationalize what is happening. What is happening has nothing to do with ‘us’, these conjured-up ideas of separate, volitional selves. What is happening, what we seem to be deciding to believe and do, is the only thing that could have happened. ‘We’ act, seemingly with volition, and then our minds attempt to rationalize our behaviour, make it fit with what we believe we believe, what we believe motivates us. Our evolved minds are doing their best to help us, to make sense for us. But they actually are of no help at all.

It’s as if we are desperately playing along with a joke that we don’t understand, so that we don’t appear foolish for not getting it, for not expertly going along with it. It’s all a mad attempt to make sense of reality and truths that can never be made sense of, because we can’t possibly understand them, because we are trying to understand them from a perspective (that of the apparent volitional separate self) that is, like other stories, a complete fiction. Reality does not and cannot, to the separate, limited self, ever ‘make sense’.

Here is a partial catalogue of human stories:

  • What apparently was: histories and recountings and gossip and tales and reports
  • What apparently is: perceptions and conceptions and beliefs and worldviews and identities and selves
  • What could be: hopes and dreams and imaginings
  • What apparently happened: rationalizations and judgements
  • What allegedly happened: news and documentaries and essays and non-fiction (in all forms and media)
  • What might have been or might be: fiction and fantasy (in our heads and in all forms of media)
  • Why/how things apparently happened: models and theories and science and teaching
  • Art in all its forms: art re-presents all kinds of stories, meandering freely among all seven of the above types of story

So there is this blizzard of stories, those compiled and stored in a hopeless jumble in our heads and many more bombarding our senses. The pattern-sense-making that is the story of you is buffeted by trillions of other stories, the stories of other people, their pattern-sense-making, all of the stuff in the catalogue above and more. People telling you to listen to their story, to believe it instead of the story you already believe, to become that story instead of the story of you. And sometimes you will do so.

All of these stories are fictions, made-up imaginings, attempts to assemble a coherent whole from the tiny fraction of reality we can even begin to fathom. At one stage, a few of these stories might have seemed to have been useful, might seem to have helped us cope or get something apparently accomplished in the short run. They seemed to confer some evolutionary advantage. But even the appearance of accomplishment is just another story.

‘What seemingly happened’ was actually the only thing that could have happened, and it happened to no ‘one’, no separate ‘person’, and it was in any case just another story. There is actually no time within which anything can happen, can be ‘accomplished’. We just piece the results of our patterning, our sense-making, together by inventing time as a matrix, and then we fit what seemingly happened into it, to try to make sense of it. Our minds are good at such inventions, and it is all they can do to try to make sense of ‘what seemingly happened’.

But there is no sense to ‘what seemingly happened’, no purpose. And a little voice inside us whispers to us that something is not quite right with all these stories we want to believe, but we don’t know what it is. We have no other way of making sense. So we’re always unhappy, always searching, trying to make the ‘story of us’ turn out, somehow, a little better. We are perhaps intuitively seeking the wholeness that the accidental emergence of the separate self inadvertently destroyed.

You may say this story does not make any sense. And it doesn’t, it cannot. It’s just another oversimplified raid on the unknowable. But unlike most stories it might just point to something that is not a story. It might point to an intuition, a remembering, of what it was and is to be not-separate, to just be, indistinguishable from all-that-is. But since we lack any knowledge of how ‘we’, somehow, got separated, or how to get back home, ‘we’ are inclined not to listen to this little voice, and its annoying intuition that all our stories (including the story of us) are untrue, and that what is actually real is outside and before our apparently separate selves, that what is actually real is only and entirely and always all-that-is (paradoxically including all our stories). That not only is ‘all-that-is’ real, independent of any observer, but that there is no observer. There is only, unfathomably, all-that-is.

There had to be a story of you before there could be any of the other stories in the above catalogue. The story of the volitional separate you was an evolution, an adaptation or exaptation, a random variation tested out by Gaia to see if it might ‘fit’ better than what was there before the story. There is some evidence that something of the story of self exists in all creatures in brief times of stress. They see their ‘selves’ as a somewhat horrifying illusion that nevertheless enables them to escape from some acute crisis through fighting or fleeing or freezing. Gaia is merciful to those whose existential threats are rare and fleeting — she invokes the ghastly sense of self in such creatures only as long as the threat lasts, and then enables them to shake it off, as the nightmare it was.

For those of us who live in constant stress, however, we ‘smart’ domesticated creatures, the ghastly story of the volitional self endures until it overcomes us, until it becomes us. For us, the wonderful adaptation of the temporarily separate self becomes a horrific maladaptation, an eternal nightmare, a lifelong prison.

This is just another story, and a particularly useless and frustrating one, one that cannot be ‘realized’. Why then am I so attracted to it? In those rare astonishing moments when I seem to fall away and remember what it was like to just be, without story, what is happening?

When I watch the birds, I can sense that they are free from the horrible affliction of stories. They are not selves, they just are. They exist in the world raw, not sheathed inside the false protection of the illusory self. They have no illusion that anything can be other than the way it is. They have no illusion that they exist apart, or that ‘they’ will die. They are much wiser and freer than I, burdened with this self and these terrible stories, can ever be.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 6 Comments

The Admission of Necessary Ignorance (repost)

I am reposting, in their entirety, the ten articles I wrote that were published in SHIFT magazine (which is now on hiatus) between 2013 and 2015, since some of the links have changed and so that my blog contains the full text of these articles (useful for searches etc.) Thanks to SHIFT for the graphics (much better than my originals), and for publishing and editing my work.

citizen scientist
image licensed cc-by-2.0: NOAA National Ocean Service via flickr

The title of this article comes from an interview earlier this year with the distinguished biologist and philosopher Richard Lewontin. Richard has fought for years (often alongside his more famous colleague Stephen J Gould) with scientific absolutists of every stripe, from genetic determinists like Richard Dawkins to the neo-phrenologist pop neuro-“scientists” who would have us believe that we will soon understand what it means to be human (and accordingly understand and be able to modify all human behaviour) by deciphering the patterns of coloured lights in brain scans.

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

And while the new cult of scientism produces louder and louder assertions of grand theories of everything and promises of immortality and singularity, scientists and philosophers who know “you can’t be overly humble” marvel at the mystery of how the more we know and learn and examine with a critical and open mind, the more mysteries and inextricable complexities we discover and the faster absolute knowledge of anything retreats from our grasp. As Marshall McLuhan famously said: “Learning creates ignorance.”

Richard’s work is steeped in an appreciation of complexity. In his book The Triple Helix he argues that attempts to determine causality in complex systems fail to acknowledge the difficulty of separating causality from agency — stress, for example, is an agent that appears to trigger many auto-immune diseases and other increasingly-prevalent modern chronic illnesses. But stress is not the cause. Determining the possible causes requires a more nuanced, patient and holistic study of the entire system and all its inter-dependent parts.

He explains, for example, that 90% of the drop in rates of infectious diseases between 1830 and 1960 occurred before 1910 — before the emergence of understanding of germs or the use of isolation procedures, and long before the development of modern antibiotics. Why such an astonishing drop in the rates of these diseases? Nothing to do with science or medicine at all, he says:

The most plausible explanation we have is that during the nineteenth century there was a general trend of increase in the real wage, an increase in the state of nutrition of European populations, and a decrease in the number of hours worked. As people were better nourished and better clothed and had more rest time to recover from taxing labor, their bodies, being in a less stressed physiological state, were better able to recover from the further severe stress of infection. So, although they may still have fallen sick, they survived. Infectious diseases were not the causes of death, but only the agencies. The causes of death in Europe in earlier times were what they still are in the Third World: overwork and undernourishment. The conclusion to be drawn from this account is that the level of mortality in Africa does not depend chiefly on the state of medicine but on the state of international production and exchange.

Still, today’s scientists pore over the model of the human genome in the unquestioned belief that most if not all human diseases will soon be cured by finding and fixing the “defective” genes. It is perhaps not surprising that brain scan images look much like modernistic crystal balls.

Richard’s appreciation for complexity comes from the realization, as he explains in his book Biology as Ideology, that science’s — and notably biology’s — modus operandi is to disconnect, separate, and study things “in isolation”. When you study biological systems you discover that they are inextricable — there is no clear and functionally distinct boundary between genes, the organisms they seemingly comprise, and the environments within which we imagine them located and moving about as discrete things. Genes, organisms and environments co-evolved. Early living creatures exuded an oxygen-rich environment which then evolved other living creatures (including, unremarkably, humans) that thrived as part of that environment and evolved it further.

Likewise, the study of permaculture teaches you about succession, and that in order to create the most abundant garden you may have to encourage some plants that are ultimately of no use either in our diet or in the “mature” garden that evolves from these intermediary agents. Alas, even many permaculturists lack the patience and humility to spend decades studying and learning about the local ecology before they can understand how to intervene effectively, starting from today’s desolated soils, the legacy of ubiquitous catastrophic agriculture and, carefully following nature’s own sometimes convoluted and inexplicable pathways, yield an edible forest garden that — surprise! — thrives without further human intervention in precisely those ecological areas humans evolved to thrive within.

What complicates the role of the scientist in the 21st century is that they are tethered to the modern ideology of progress. Just as politicians and economists would have us believe that life is, on the whole and over the long haul, getting better and better, scientists have now been sucked in to believing and asserting that human knowledge, and hence our ability to apply that knowledge to solve problems, is getting better and better.

As Richard’s friend and colleague Stephen J Gould spent a lifetime demonstrating, there is no evidence for evolution being a “progressive” process. Evolution, we are learning (slowly) is a process of experimental adaptation and exaptation — full of the emergence of unexpected consequences of random variations that could never have been predicted or even imagined.

Evolution is not from lower to higher, or from less advanced to more advanced, or even from simpler to more complex. There is nothing progressive or intentional or foreordained about it. Humans are not the crown of creation or the culmination of any inevitable and extraordinary evolution — we are just one tiny new branch in the tree of life, a species whose only remarkable feature has been our inability to appreciate the necessity of living in balance with the rest of life on Earth, and our commensurate large-scale destruction of the very environment of which we are a part.

Of course, science doesn’t like to acknowledge that. That would require humility. It would require acknowledging that for all our learning the most important thing we’ve discovered is how staggeringly little we know and how unlikely it is we will ever really understand anything beyond the absurdly simplistic models of reality we have cobbled together so far. It would require admitting that we aren’t progressing, and aren’t likely to. It would require an admission of necessary ignorance.

What might happen if we were to emulate Richard Lewontin’s complex-systems approach to scientific exploration, discovery and appreciation?

What if we were to look at our feeble scientific models of reality with humility, and appreciate that we can’t hope to fully understand anything we study? What if we took a nuanced and holistic approach to complex phenomena, the type of analysis that leads to the discovery that the best approach to eliminating devastating diseases is probably political and economic, not medical?

What if we were to give up trying to control our genes and our people and our environments and instead sought to increase our adaptability and resilience and mobility, and to liberate ourselves from dependence on large centralized industrial systems — including the health-care, pharmaceutical, agricultural, educational and high-technology systems that currently fund, employ and draw their value from the scientific community?

Sooner or later, we are going to have to face the fact that our economic, energy and ecological systems are unsustainable and will, unevenly but inevitably, collapse, probably sometime in this century, in the lifetimes of our grandchildren if not our own. The Union of Concerned Scientists has already said this, and you can read it on the faces of climate scientists, even if they dare not say it in front of their employers, or to audiences not ready for the truth.

How might scientists shift their role from servants of a bankrupt industrial civilization to scenario planners, teachers of complexity, imaginers of possible ways to adapt to extreme and unpredictable change? What if we could put all those minds together, not to plan an escape from the planet or to conduct some reckless adventure in geo-engineering, but rather to look as cultural anthropologists at the collapse of past civilizations, and help us discover how to bravely, intelligently, creatively and even joyfully embrace and adapt to the hard road ahead. As a journey in humility. For our grandchildren.

We should ask them.


Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | Comments Off on The Admission of Necessary Ignorance (repost)

Beyond Belief (repost)

I am reposting, in their entirety, the ten articles I wrote that were published in SHIFT magazine (which is now on hiatus) between 2013 and 2015, since some of the links have changed and so that my blog contains the full text of these articles (useful for searches etc.) Thanks to SHIFT for the graphics (much better than my originals), and for publishing and editing my work.

I’m not spiritual. Really.

meditation 3

image: from a video made by a fan of Deva Premal’s Moola Mantra, original source uncredited

People often ask me if, in my self-proclaimed state of joyful pessimism and contemplative gratitude, I’ve finally discovered spirituality.

I insist that I have not.

Just about everyone I know who self-identifies as “spiritual” also believes our civilization will somehow be ‘saved’ from collapse (by science or technology, or the market, or wise leadership, or human ingenuity, or by a god or gods, or by a massive human consciousness-raising). What good is a ‘spirit’, after all, if he/she/it can’t save you from perceived disaster?

No thank you, no salvation needed here.

I’d like to think that most non-spiritual people have moved on, as Derrick Jensen puts it, “Beyond Hope” for saving our culture and our species. Tom Robbins says we now have no choice but to “insist on joy in spite of everything”.

We who are resigned to the inevitability of civilization’s collapse strive instead to be unattached and equanimous, but not nihilistic or depressed about it. We humans can only be who we are, and who we are is ignorant of complex systems and preoccupied with the needs of the moment. So it is. Life is wonderful and worth living every minute anyway. No soul or striving or sacredness required.

But a little voice inside me says: “That sounds kinda spiritual to me. Borderline Buddhist even. Are you sure you’re not spiritual? You throw around the word Gaia as a shorthand for all-life-on-Earth, but it sounds pretty Goddess-like. You have a picture of her in your mind, some kind of wise, wild, beautiful meta-creature?”

And I must confess that my belief that complex systems are unfathomable, and cannot be known or understood or ‘managed’ or predicted or changed or controlled by humans, no matter how rich or powerful or organized or skilled or motivated, sounds not dissimilar to the faith that some ancient peoples had in some higher, invisible, awesome power.

And I am on a journey these days to try to really see what I know intellectually – that my self, my mind, my sense of being all-of-a-piece, my sense of separateness, my sense of self-control and my sense of time are all illusions, conceptions, ideas that are extremely useful in surviving day to day, but ultimately false. If that truth-seeking isn’t a spiritual journey, what is?

Although it’s defined a thousand ways, spirituality is ultimately about belief, and faith. For most who call themselves spiritual, it is about belief in something larger and more important than ourselves and our species, and faith that there is a purpose to our struggle and a meaning to our lives.

I don’t understand the need of spiritual people for purpose or meaning or something larger than everything-that-just-is, the need for something to strive for and to progress towards.

My great-great grandfather, who lived through the Long Depression (which lasted from 1873 more or less until 1896) wrote in his diary about his duty to do whatever was necessary to leave things better for his children than they had been for him. This was the era of robber barons, urbanization caused by bankruptcy of family farms, and child labour, an era which followed a period of relative agrarian prosperity and equality. He was spiritual. He had faith that his struggle and belief would be rewarded in the afterlife and through increased opportunity for his children. He never lost his faith. His children and grandchildren would contend with WW1 and the Great Depression. Whether he was rewarded in the afterlife is anyone’s guess.

We boomers were really the first Western generation in recent history to challenge that faith en masse. Many of us became secular humanists in youth, and believers in the gods of money, markets and technology in middle age. Or were “born again”. Most of us have now become salvationists of one kind or another, seeing the world through very different evolved worldviews, and defining life’s meaning and their purpose accordingly.

These days we also have the advocates of scientism whose faith is, paradoxically, in scientific certainty and the knowability of everything. Science, its advocates contend, can ultimately solve any problem, reduce everything that can be known to simple equations and perfect models, and allow us to transcend our bodies and live anywhere, forever. It’s the new salvationist religion of science that, preposterously, self-identifies as atheistic. The myth of progress expresses itself in many different ways, each with its fervent and unshakable believers.

But every generation has its skeptics, and I think the boomers, the first generation whose rebelliousness was largely celebrated rather than suppressed, has retained more than its share. And just as we have politically moved Beyond Hope, we have culturally and philosophically moved Beyond Belief.

Stephen J Gould argued in Full House that the emergence of vertebrates (let alone humanoids), even in a physical environment ideally evolving for life as we know it, was a one-in-millions long shot. If we manage to render life on this planet extinct, he said, there is very little chance of it re-emerging in any fathomable time span, and even if it did re-emerge, it would almost certainly be unrecognizably different from the web of life that emerged from the primordial soup a few billion years ago. Our search for extraterrestrial life (at least in the sense we define the term) is foolish, he would assert, and the search for extraterrestrial “intelligence” (some form of life we could communicate with), is absurd, and based on nothing but faith, a will to believe in something in spite of its staggering improbability.

This does not sit well with people who argue that life tends to emerge and grow in complexity and resist “death” tenaciously whenever and wherever it can. Life, these believers assert, is predestined, the will of all existence. No matter that such belief is tautological.

So what does it mean to be “Beyond Belief”? It means appreciating and embracing complexity, and accepting that we cannot ever hope to fully know, predict or control complex systems (including our bodies and the microcosms within them, and social and ecological systems, and our planet, and all the macrocosms beyond it). It means accepting that in our study of science and technology (including the so-called “social sciences”) we may devise interesting and useful, within limits, models of reality, but that these are only absurdly simplistic and limited representations of reality — stick men on cave walls.

It means challenging everything you are told, everything you believe and everything you want to believe. It means appreciating and accepting what is without pretending or hoping to fathom it. It means becoming humble. It means learning to live without the need for meaning or purpose or progress or something larger and more important than the miracle of what just is, what has evolved from the universe’s infinite random walks through possibility.

OK, I used the word ‘miracle’. That’s pretty spiritual, isn’t it?

Nope, afraid not. ‘Miracle’ comes from the proto-Indo-European word meaning to wonder and to laugh. That is what awaits those who can let go of their beliefs and faith. To wonder, and to laugh. To notice. To really see. To really be.

Beyond belief, that is all that you need.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 1 Comment