Dave Pollard's chronicle of civilization's collapse, creative works and essays on our culture.
A trail of crumbs, runes and exclamations along my path in search of a better way to live and make a living, and a better understanding of how the world really works.

February 3, 2009

Why I Love Second Life

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 22:02

reflection 2
(This is a reworking of a private article I wrote a while ago for my Second Life colleagues. If you’re looking for the promised follow-up to my weekend “grouchy” post, I expect to post it tomorrow or Thursday, along with an explanation for some of the cognitive dissonance that’s crept into this blog in the past year. Thanks to all who have written me about my “grouchy” post — your comments and conversations have been very helpful. And yes, I’m still grouchy.)

I sponsor and belong to an Intentional Community in Second Life, an island that is so realistic and so beautiful that we have had film crews use it as a setting for animated productions. Cheryl and I set it up to learn about (and to the extent possible in a virtual world, practice) the principles and challenges of intentional community (i.e. a group of people living and/or working together towards a common purpose).

With all I have on my plate in real life, and given that I am so fortunate in all I have and all I have experienced, I am often asked why I am willing to spend time and money in Second Life, a virtual world, a place that is ‘not real’.

My answer comes down to my ‘Sweet Spot’ — where my Gifts (what I am particularly good at doing), my Passions (what I love doing), and my Purpose (what is needed in the world that I care about), all intersect. Over the past six years I have learned a great deal about myself, about how the world really works, and about some possible better ways to live and make a living. I’ve learned that I am meant to do eleven things, things that are at or near to this ‘Sweet Spot’. I’ve also learned that there is no such thing as mastery; there is only practice. So I spend my ‘real’ life, as much as possible, practicing doing these eleven things.

What I’ve discovered is that Second Love is a wonderful place to practice doing these things, in ways that are often not possible in ‘real’ life. Here’s a brief summary of these things, and how they apply in Second Life.

  1. Exploring and Discovering: Second Life has thousands of sites, each the invention of its creators, that represent every conceivable geography and biology, not restricted by what can exist in the real world. It also has, at any point in time, sixty thousand people, most of them quite bright, most of whom are looking to meet people who share their interests, ideas and passions.
  2. Reflecting and Imagining Possibilities: In Second Life you can create anything you can imagine. You can take tranquil walks among some of the most stunning scenery imaginable, and think, meditate, conceive, refresh, and see from a completely different perspective. And you can co-create, with others, what you imagine collectively.
  3. Writing: Some of the conversations that have been written here, typed out one line at a time together, are masterpieces of collective thinking, creativity, collaboration, romance and imagination.
  4. Loving: In every sense — intellectual, emotional, sensual, erotic, spiritual — our island is a place to find and express and ‘make’ love. You can fall in love in Second Life, perhaps more quickly and deeply than in ‘real’ life. And that love is real.
  5. Learning: This is a place where you can learn by teaching, by showing, by studying, and by just trying things out for yourself. It is, perhaps, the future of higher education. It’s a place where you can learn about the most important things for the future of our world: collaboration, consensus, community, conversation, and love.
  6. Conversing: No matter what language you speak, or how articulate you are, here you can practice being a better conversationalist, sharing ideas and feelings and knowledge and beliefs with others, with the written word, voice, music, art, and movement.
  7. Sensing and Being Present: Second Life is a dynamic place, with much happening at the same time. It requires you to learn to pay attention, to focus, to ‘listen’ for nuances in conversations. Presence is about the capacity to ‘let go’ and then ‘let come’, and here you can do both, powerfully.
  8. Playing: Although some denizens of Second Life get too concerned with rules and procedures and roles, Second Life was created as a place for play, and play is how all creatures learn best. We all need more fun in our lives, and this place makes that possible, even inevitable.
  9. Coaching and Showing: Second Life is a great equalizer — almost everything is free or nearly so, so what has value here in this world of abundance is the one thing that is scarce, and that we all have the same amount of — our time. What we give to others, with our time and our energy and our hearts, determines what we get out of this remarkable place.
  10. Self-managing: Second Life can be addictive, and heart-breaking, and one of the things we learn to ‘survive’ here is how to manage our time, our emotions, and how to give vent to our ideas in a constructive and disciplined way. We can learn to be more self-aware, self-knowledgable, and ultimately more self-sufficient here, which is a skill we’re going to need in the real world.
  11. Building working models: Our ‘real’ world is fragile, broken and full of struggle and suffering. Second Life gives us a place to build small-scale ‘models’ of a better way to live and make a living, collaboratively in community with those we love. The future of our ‘real’ world may well depend on the types of working model we construct first in places like this.

So now you know why I love Second Life, and why I spend time here. To all my Second Lifers: Thank you for the important work you do here. You have made, and continue to make, our island a place of astonishing beauty, joy, communion and discovery. So take a bow, beloved friends — you are a part of something very important, a model for others to follow, one that is evolving, innovatively, collaboratively, to be something magical, and wondrous.

(If you want to know more about what we do in Second Life, you can endure my very amateurish and low-res first YouTube video — 10 minutes long.)

December 20, 2007

Two Dangerous Lessons from Second Life

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 07:20
mask 3
(I’m still working on Part Two of my response to critics — specifically a defence of polyamorism as an essential component of effective Model Intentional Communities. Coming soon, I promise — Dave)

I want to confess two things I’ve learned about myself — things I’m not particularly proud of — from my time in Second Life. I suspect I’m not alone in these two sad admissions, and I even wonder if they are precisely what makes Second Life so appealing, and keeps so many addicted to it:

1. We judge people, and assess their ‘lovability’, by their appearance: “In Second Life, everyone is young and beautiful.” Those of us who are neither of these things in ‘Real’ Life have the opportunity in Second Life to:

  1. appeal to others who would probably, if they met us in ‘Real’ Life, not give us the time of day, let alone their hearts, and
  2. discover and love beautiful, attractive people, the people of our idealistic dreams.

No matter if it’s a two-way illusion.

Or maybe it isn’t an illusion at all. Stephen Downes has argued that ‘Real’ Life is no more real, no less an illusion, no less a construct of our minds and imaginations, no less an invention, than any dream, any Second or Third Life we may choose to ‘live’ in. Whether or not you buy Stephen’s argument, the sad reality is that we do assess and ‘value’ people on their looks. ‘We’ want to love who we want to love, and ‘we’ want to fuck who we want to fuck. Our bodies decide this, and fairness and rationality have nothing to do with it.

It’s insane that we should want to spend time with, and love, shallow young pretty airheads, instead of brilliant, sensitive, wise, articulate, informed, self-knowledgeable people, but we can’t help ourselves.

In Second Life we can have both. Everyone in Second Life appears lovable, aesthetically and erotically. So from the safety of our lovely avatars we can afford, and have a platform, to put our hearts and minds out there, completely, nakedly, and be accepted for who ‘we’ truly ‘are’.

2. We are attracted to those who offer mystery, passion, attention and appreciation, even when that is unhealthy, insincere, needy or manipulative:

These qualities feed our curiosity, or desire to ‘fill in’ and complete, our egos and self-doubts, and our need to love and be loved and wanted and needed. It’s the chase, the Game. In Second Life everyone is enigmatic.

We are all looking for people who complement us, who offer us what we want and lack and who let us offer what they want and lack. That is our social nature. When people give us attention and appreciation they are almost impossible to resist. No matter if that is mature and genuine, or childish, greedy and needy. Or false and cynical or psychopathically contrived to seduce us.

When it’s needy or manipulative it can get really ugly. It can lead to bizarre and co-dependent relationships that are sick, depraved, horrifically and endlessly painful. It can exhaust us, consume us and all our time.

We also love to be charmed. People who burn bright, who entertain and tease and lure us with their cleverness or brashness are irresistible. But often like magicians what they offer is illusion, and illusion is hard to sustain. Once you know the tricks they become tedious, the magic wears off, and the magician must, for their sake and ours, find new people to seduce with their sleight.

And, equally, we love mystery. One of the astonishing qualities of Second Life is its ability to make perfectly ordinary people who live mundane and (yes I know I’m being harsh and judgemental) rather superficial lives appear mysterious, profound and enigmatic.

It does this through the use of text rather than voice-to-voice communications (in Second Life you can use either though most people prefer to stick to text, with the excuse of conserving bandwidth, but in most cases I think really to create this mystery, and to allow more time to think and be clever). We all love to ‘fill in’ spaces, and it has astonished me when I’ve read and reread the ‘scripts’ of Second Life conversations (you can choose to save all your conversations automatically) how much I have ‘filled in’ those spaces to make the person I am speaking with exactly as I would want them to be, rather than who they really are.

And I am sure they are doing precisely the same thing, ‘inventing’ me to be exactly who they want me to be.

As long as this is done as a form of creative entertainment, as exercise for the imagination, it’s wonderful (and totally addictive). But I suspect in many cases we are creating in these other people impossible fictions, making them out to be what no human could ever possibly be, and then loving them, these creations of our own imaginations, hopelessly, unreasonably, dangerously.

We do this in ‘Real’ Life too, I think. We never really know the people we think we know and love (and until Vulcan mind melds become possible, we never will). We love who we imagine people to be, and that can create terrible problems when, as the relationship matures, they are revealed to be something very different from who we imagined.

That’s enough from me on this. These are half-formed, scary thoughts, and I just wanted to get them out there. What do you think?

Category: Human Nature

October 11, 2007

Second Life as a Platform for Virtual Meetings and Distance Learning Programs

Filed under: Using Weblogs and Technology — Dave Pollard @ 21:45
Second Life 2
Next month I’m participating in a ‘fireside chat’ on the future of education with a group of leading thinkers on the subject from around the world — in Second Life. We’ll all be there, represented by our avatars, sitting on a beach in this virtual world, warming ourselves by the bonfire, stretching our legs, having a drink, going for a walk among the palms, and chatting both in our real voices and by a displayed IM thread. The chat will be broadcast to others who don’t have avatars (so they can’t be present ‘in person’), and it will be recorded as a vlogcast.

Setting up my avatar, pictured above, was easy — you start by picking from a dozen ‘stock’ avatars. But it doesn’t take long to learn that you can no more keep the appearance you first entered Second Life with than you can keep the appearance you first entered real life with. It just isn’t done. You have to reinvent yourself, change your body, your skin, your hair, your clothes, learn some new moves.

Second Life is very much like real life — but not for the reasons you might imagine. It’s like real life in these ways:

  • There are clear codes of conduct that vary by culture, and these codes are mostly unwritten, and must be learned.
  • Unless you’re a master at computer scripts, you’re pretty helpless when it comes to making anything for yourself. You have to buy everything from others, or pick it up from the popular ‘free’ malls in Second Life.
  • It’s a fun place to hang out with friends and people you know.
  • It’s really lonely if you hang out there alone. There are a lot of lonely people wandering through Second Life.
  • Many of the people you meet are trying to sell you something, including sex.
  • It’s a complex social environment. There is more going on than you can ever know. Life there is unpredictable.
  • Most people judge most other people by appearance and first impression.
  • Most people are very serious, and quite a few seem quite desperate. Even the dance floors seem rather joyless places.
  • There are a lot of ego games being played. It is, despite appearances, a fiercely competitive place. This is entirely unnecessary but it is so. We may adopt new personas with our avatars, but we bring our neuroses and other emotional baggage with us.
  • When someone turns on their mike and speaks with their ‘real’ voice, it can really break the spell. Reality intrudes on one’s imaginings. No surprise that most people in Second Life communicate only with the IM/chat.
  • There is a discouraging amount of reproducing in Second Life exactly what exists and happens in real life. Given the imaginative potential of this world, this is ghastly to behold. 
  • There is the potential of ‘stalking’ in Second Life. It’s kind of dumb, because there are so many other characters there you can get infatuated with instead, but it’s possible, easy to do, and next to consequence free.
  • You learn by making mistakes, not by reading manuals. This is embarrassing, sometimes even humiliating. Some people will be kind when this happens. Some will be cruel. Most will be indifferent.

In some ways, Second Life is ‘better’ than real life. Therein lies its seductive appeal:

  • There are no physically ugly places there. Some places are surreal, mindbending like a good trip (in both senses of the word trip), provocative, stimulating, relaxing.
  • There are no physically ugly people there. Everyone is beautiful, even those who adopt grotesque appearances and costumes. Almost everyone is young, healthy and well-endowed. You need no food or water, or to consume anything to thrive. Everyone lives forever. (Some people may think this is not a good thing.)
  • You can buy weapons, but, from what I can tell, you can’t hurt or kill anyone with them, so they are pretty rare. 
  • Everyone can fly and teleport anywhere else instantly. There are no carbon emissions in Second Life, no pollution, no waste.
  • With some limitations (some severe, others not) you can do some interesting social simulations in Second Life and repeat them over and over, learning each time. You could, for example, create an intentional community, and experiment with real people ‘living’ in it to discover compatibility, learn to create consensus etc. Some aspects of Second Life are much like an idealized Gift/Generosity Economy, which is intriguing to study. You can live quite comfortably, free, or you can spend a small fortune if you want to.
  • You can record anything you want in Second Life, relive it over and over, and erase it whenever you like.

In some ways, Second Life is inferior to real life. These can ‘get’ to you quite quickly:

  • As superficially beautiful as the many created environments in Second Life are, they are strangely flat, two-dimensional. They lack the drama of real-life natural beauty.
  • There are no realistic wild creatures in Second Life. You can choose an animal as your avatar, but you just can’t behave like an animal, and the creatures ‘programmed’ to do things over and over in Second Life are mechanical, and therefore depressing. It’s a wilderness in there, but not in a good way.
  • The visual and aural effects in Second Life are very clever, and because so many people have been involved in their creation they rarely get boring. But they are all two-dimensional, not immersive, and the rest of your senses are not engaged at all. After a while you get a kind of numbness setting in as a result.
  • While it’s a complex social environment (ten million avatars have been created and tens of thousands are online at any time, moving or teleporting from one place to another), it’s not a complex ecological environment. The scenery is lovely but it’s fake. You can’t do ecological simulations there.
  • Voyeurism and exhibitionism are rampant, and tolerated, even encouraged. Staring at others is not a bad way to learn how to operate in Second Life, but it makes you feel uncomfortable, queasy.
  • Your whereabouts can be tracked throughout the vast spaces of Second Life, over time. Big Brother may be watching you. Probably is, in fact.

So what’s the potential here for holding virtual meetings and distance learning sessions in Second Life? I think it’s extraordinary, with a few caveats:

  1. There needs to be a way to require ‘full disclosure’ of your true identity as a condition of participating in serious events like meetings and education sessions. One click on someone’s avatar at a ‘full disclosure’ event and you should be able to see their real photo, age, gender, and highlights of their CV. That context is essential for trust and meaningful sustainable communication.
  2. There needs to be a way to ‘transport’ windows from your computer screen into the Second Life environment. Jumping back and forth from the Second Life view to the desktop videoconferencing or screen-sharing application is just too jarring. It spoils the whole illusion of really being there together.
  3. It would be very helpful (and not just for these applications) to have an nTag-type feature built into Second Life. nTag is a badge that contains magnetic information about your personal interests, skills and experiences, and when you are physically close to someone else who shares these qualities, it lights up and displays what you have in common. This would be relatively easy to add to Second Life, and would be a brilliant addition to it, perhaps even transforming into an important Social Networking tool.
  4. One of the critical advantages of face-to-face learning over distance learning is the ability to demonstrate to students how to do something, and let them practice. This would be much more difficult to do in Second Life, but without it, some face-to-face practice sessions will always be needed, which is a serious constraint. We learn by doing, not just by listening.

Despite these caveats, I’m really excited about the potential of virtual environments like Second Life as meeting and learning tools. I can even imagine having an Open Space event in Second Life, complete with the invitations, the opening forum, the breakout sessions (each recorded automatically), and even, virtually, the exercise of the Law of Two Feet. I wonder if any Open Space experts have thought about this. I betthey have.

January 24, 2001

Why I Love Second Life

Filed under: — Dave Pollard @ 21:50

BLOG Why I Love Second<br /> Life

reflection 2

With all I have on my plate in real life, and given that I am happier than
I have ever been in this life, I am often asked why I am willing to spend
time and money in Second Life, a virtual world, a place that is ‘not real’.

My answer comes down to my ‘Sweet Spot’ — where my Gifts (what I am
particularly good at doing), my Passions (what I love doing), and my
Purpose (what is needed in the world that I care about), all intersect.
Over the past six years I have learned a great deal about myself, about
how the world really works, and about some possible better ways to live
and make a living.

I have learned that there is little point in setting objectives or
plans for your life, because external events will always interfere with
their attainment, and because we end up spending most or all of our
lives doing what’s urgent, not what’s important. We do what we must,
then we do what’s easy, and then we do what’s fun. There is no time,
for most of us, to do the things that are really important to us, that
give our life meaning, that are what we are really meant to do.

I have also learned that I am meant to do ten things, things that are
at or near to my ‘Sweet Spot’. I’ve also learned that there is no such
thing as mastery; there is only practice. So I spend my ‘real’ life, as
much as possible, practicing doing these ten things.

What I’ve discovered is that Second Love is a wonderful place to
practice doing these ten things, in ways that are often not possible in
‘real’ life. Here’s a brief summary of these ten things, and how they
apply in Second Life.

  1. Reflecting and
    Imagining Possibilities: We have a place here where you can create
    anything you can imagine, and where you can take tranquil walks among
    some of the most stunning scenery imaginable, and think, meditate,
    conceive, refresh, and see from a completely different perspective.
  2. Writing: Some of the
    conversations that have been written here, typed out one line at a time
    together, are masterpieces of collective thinking, creativity,
    collaboration, romance and imagination.
  3. Loving: In every sense
    — intellectual, emotional, sensual, erotic, spiritual — our island is
    a place to find and express and ‘make’ love.
  4. Learning, Exploring
    and Discovery: This is a place where you can learn by teaching, by
    showing, by studying, and by just trying things out for yourself. It
    is, perhaps, the future of higher education. It’s a place where you can
    explore and discover where you belong, and find who you belong with.
    And you can learn about the most important things for the future of our
    world: collaboration, consensus, community, conversation, and love.
  5. Conversing: No matter
    what language you speak, or how articulate you are, you can practice
    being a better conversationalist, sharing ideas and feelings and
    knowledge and beliefs with others, with the written word, voice, music,
    art, and movement.
  6. Sensing and Being
  7. Playing: Sometimes we
    tend to get too earnest here, concerned with rules and procedures and
    roles, and we forget that Second Life is a place for play, and that
    play is how all creatures learn best. We all need more fun in our
    lives, and this place makes that possible, even inevitable.
  8. Giving, coaching and
    showing: Second Life is a great equalizer — almost everything is free
    or nearly so, so what has value here in this world of abundance is the
    one thing that is scarce, and that we all have the same amount of —
    our time. What we give to others, with our time and our energy and our
    hearts, determines what we get out of this remarkable place.
  9. Self-managing: Second
    Life can be addictive, and heart-breaking, and one of the things we
    learn to ‘survive’ here is how to manage our time, our emotions, and
    how to give vent to our ideas in a constructive and disciplined way. We
    can learn to be more self-aware, self-knowledgable, and ultimately more
    self-sufficient here, which is a skill we’re going to need in the real
  10. Building working
    models: Our ‘real’ world is fragile, broken and full of struggle and
    suffering. Second Life gives us a place to build small-scale ‘models’
    of a better way to live and make a living, collaboratively in community
    with those we love. The future of our ‘real’ world may well depend on
    the types of working model we construct first in places like this.

So now you know why I love Second Life, and why I spend time here and
hope to spend even more in future. It is because of you, dear friends,
loved ones and fellow community members — who you are and what you do,
and what you give and teach me and others.

Thank you for the important work you do here. You have made, and
continue to make, Perfect Paradise a place of astonishing beauty, joy,
communion and discovery. So take a bow, beloved friends — you are a
part of something very important, a model for others to follow, one
that is evolving, innovatively, collaboratively, to be something
magical, and wondrous.

Practice may not make perfect, but it has made Perfect Paradise.

December 18, 2013

The Circles We Move In

Filed under: Using Weblogs and Technology — Dave Pollard @ 22:53

Dave's FB Networks

Seb Paquet put me on to a free (limited, demo) app called TouchGraph that analyzes all your ‘friends’ on Facebook, and colour-codes them depending on the number of connections they have to your other friends. Mine is shown above, with my own rough ‘labels’ for the 13 main colour ‘clusters’ the app identified added around the edges.

A few caveats:

  1. The graph is only useful to the extent your ‘real’ friends are mostly on Facebook (only about 2/3 of mine are) and if you are careful (as I am) about only approving people as ‘friends’ if you know who they are (I have close to 300 ‘unapproved’ friends, because my FaceBook ‘newsfeed’ is busy enough with the 400 ‘approved’ friends I know).
  2. Choosing the number of friends to display can significantly change the graph, notably the number of ‘clusters’ it will try to display. My experience is that displaying more friends gives a richer, more accurate profile of your networks, while making the graph (which you can only save as a graphic in the demo version) less intelligible.
  3. Some of the friends will inevitably be shown in the wrong colour/cluster. If friend X is only friends with two of your other friends, for example, it will arbitrarily clump them in with one or the other cluster. You certainly know more than TouchGraph, but you can’t correct it in the demo version. At least 10% of the friends on my graph are in the wrong colour/cluster, for a variety of reasons.
  4. People who are not friends of any of your other Facebook friends will either appear on the sidelines in no cluster, or (depending on your cut-off number of friends to display) not at all. My graph is missing about 30 such ‘orphan’ friends; even though I know which cluster they ‘belong’ to, in the demo software I can’t connect them.
  5. Please don’t be offended if you’re a friend and not on this graph; there are many reasons why this could be so, and “some of my best friends are… not on my Facebook graph”.
  6. I hope no one is concerned that NSA, CSIS, MI5 etc. might be scanning this blog for names on their ‘watch’ list. I am almost certain that we are all connected to someone who’s connected to someone on their ‘watch’ list, and that they have much more sophisticated software than this to capture and use that information.
  7. I also hope no one is offended by my placeholder ‘labels’. Just as with my sidebar Gravitational Community categories, they are a simplification device. I am not labelling anyone, just noticing one clear attribute that most of the people in that cluster appear to have in common.
  8. The size of the circle only indicates the number of friends you and they have in common; it’s not an indication of closeness of friendship. Since these people tend to have large networks, they are more likely to have connections in multiple clusters, and hence to appear close to the borders of clusters. Some of them are truly ‘connectors’ in the sense Malcolm Gladwell uses the term; a few just have thousands of ‘friends’, some of whom are inevitably going to be friends of yours as well.
  9. OK, I’m going to stop putting the word ‘friends’ in quotes now; from here on in they’re implied.

With those caveats, I confess I found this graph absolutely fascinating. The fact that a ‘dumb’ software program, simply by identifying how many of your friends are friends with your other friends, can identify 6-14 distinct clusters of people, whose defining commonality just leaps out at you, is amazing to me. Subconsciously I always knew I moved in these different circles, but to have them identified explicitly was astonishing. Even within clusters, I can identify further sub-clusters of friends who, in the graph, are shown together.

I was also intrigued about two qualities of these clusters: (1) the widely-varying proportion of people in each cluster who I had met face-to-face (nearly 100% in some clusters, less than 20% in some others); and (2) the widely-varying proportion of new friends in each cluster (most of my Bowen Island and Collapsnik cluster friends are new in the last two years, and had I run this software then, neither cluster would have shown up at all). And while my name is still in an orange (Knowledge Management cluster) circle, because a tiny plurality of my friends fall in that cluster, it will, if my friend mix continues to shift as it has for the last year (and/or if more of my friends in some of the other clusters join FaceBook) change to light blue (Alt Culture cluster) by next year and either purple (Bowen Islanders) or light green (Collapsniks) by the following year.

The software app allows you to click on any of the friends and see which other friends they’re friends with. This was a real eye-opener for me. Very few of my friends had friends in more than one cluster. A few of my friends have 60-70 friends in common with me, but even they were clustered close together. To some extent, of course, this is a tautology — the clustering is based on patterns of shared friendship. But I was still struck by how, for example, some of my knowledge management friends and early blogging friends and Bowen Island friends have expressed agreement with my alt-culture and even collapsnik ideas — but have no Facebook friends in those clusters.

I looked closely at Seb’s networks, for example, and discovered I am connected with a large number of his friends, including having at least one friend in 6 of his 7 largest clusters. Yet on my graph, almost all of these common friends are in a single cluster. The person on my graph who is connected to the largest number of my clusters (other than me) is Charles Eisenstein.

What does all this mean? I’m tempted to think my circle of friends is more diverse than most people’s. Part of that may be attributable to the fact that I’m comfortably retired from paid work, so I have more time than most to cultivate non-work-related friendships. Part of it may be attributable to the fact I live on a small island (and have to some extent always lived in places isolated from many like minds) and so to find meaningful friendships I have had to search online and cast a wider net.

Like most of us, I think, my circles have emerged around four things (the community types in italics below are based on Aaron Williamson’s model of community and identity):

  1. Shared work (and play), things we do (communities of practice) — e.g. my Knowledge Management, Toronto Epidemiologists, and Pattern Language Artists circles
  2. Shared places we live (physical communities and ‘tribes’) — e.g. my Family, Bowen Islanders, Vancouverites, and Caledon Neighbours circles
  3. Shared beliefs (movements) — e.g. my Collapsniks, Alt Culture, and Caledon Alt Culture circles
  4. Shared interests (communities of interest) — e.g. my Early Bloggers, Second Lifers, and Poet Bloggers circles

I’ve thought about how I present myself to these 13 different circles I ‘move’ in, to see whether I might be guilty of keeping them disconnected from each other. But I don’t think I have done so. I bring the same persona to all these circles, the same one that is presented, as candidly as I dare, on my blog. And on others’ graphs I’ve seen I do seem to be a ‘connector’, despite my fussiness about who I ‘friend’.

My ten-year-old blog is, in fact, the common denominator behind all but the Knowledge Management, Caledon Neighbours and Family circles — the only three clusters to predate it (and to predate my presence on Facebook). My blog has got me the work and led me to the post-retirement activities I do (and to my book publisher). It led me to move to Bowen Island. It brought me into alternative culture and others who share my beliefs in civilization’s impending collapse. And it introduced me to other early bloggers and enticed me to try Second Life.

Or should I say my blog’s readers did these things. As the things I did, the places I lived, and my beliefs and interests shifted, so did the content and readership of my blog. Even now, much of what I have to say on Facebook is linking to my latest blog articles (and back, through my Links of the Month posts, which draw heavily on what friends have posted on my Facebook ‘newsfeed’).

The truth, I think, is that my single persona manifests itself differently in these circles, not by what I discuss with friends in these various circles, but by what I don’t discuss. We hear, and read, what we want to, and tend to disregard, to not ‘hear’, the rest, even when it comes from friends.

So, for example, while I am involved in the Transition initiative on Bowen Island, which brought Carolyn Baker (light green cluster) to Bowen recently to talk about coping emotionally with collapse, the people who showed up were, for the most part, not my Bowen Facebook friends (purple cluster). The reasons for this are complicated, but the bottom line is that none of my Bowen friends are (yet) her friends, and almost all of our 30 mutual friends are in my light green cluster — connected with each other but not with my other circles.

My Bowen friends (and my family, and my friends in most of the other circles for that matter) are not (yet) much interested in discussing or learning about collapse, so after a while I don’t talk about it — either they don’t hear it or they don’t want to. We talk instead about other things — shared activities, shared beliefs not related to collapse, shared interests, or what’s happening of consequence in our physical communities. I’m still the same person with the same beliefs, but the opportunity to ‘bridge’ my networks rarely arises. No big deal. When the opportunity to do so arises, I’ll be ready.

If you’re on Facebook, and try out the TouchGraph app, let me know what insights arise from it for you. And if you’re a student of community and networks, I’d be interested in your take on Aaron’s model of community and identity (see link above), and specifically the four things circles emerge and evolve around.

April 22, 2011

Letting Go

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 22:34


paragliding photo from wallpapers.org

I have started working on a project with Cheryl to create a place on our island in Second Life that will allow our members and visitors to go through a “letting go” exercise. The idea is that they will have their avatar (the character that represents them in the Second Life virtual world) willingly jumping off our island’s mountain, and being wafted by updrafts as they consider what is involved in “letting go” of some thought and/or feeling that is holding them back from being happy and truly themselves, and then landing safely on the ground. It’s intended as a metaphoric journey that may enable them to make a similar liberating journey in real life.

There are many, many websites, self-help books, methodologies and therapies that prescribe ways to “let go”. We are not presuming to tell people what to do or how to self-treat illnesses, phobias or traumas. We recognize that in the immediate aftermath of a tragic or unexpected event, not only should one not “let go” of one’s feelings, they are an essential and healthy reaction and part of the coping and healing process. We also recognize that treatment of profound or chronic mental stress and illness may need professional counsel, or at least the support of people who have the context to appreciate and guide the healing process. But in many cases the need to “let go” is just a matter of self-acknowledging, understanding, appreciating and accepting what is, and what we’re trying to do is create an experience to help people get past their “stuck” places and do this.

So with those caveats, here are some of my early thoughts on what the Letting Go experience might look like.

For those not familiar with Second Life, it’s a virtual world, created by its millions of “residents”, in which the residents create an avatar (a customized cartoon-like character) to represent themselves, and interact with others and the places they have “built”, in real time. Many people in Second Life create a space that gives them what they can’t or don’t have in real life — often a great body, youthful face, dazzling wardrobe, ideal home and longed-for possessions — and allows them to safely act out their avatar’s life anonymously, and in the process practice social skills, learn about themselves and other people, role-play doing things they would never dream of doing in real life, and even fall in love.

The magic of Second Life is that behind each avatar is a real person. And of course those real people have real feelings and real issues, one of which, often, is the inability to let go of thoughts and feelings that hold them back from being who they are, from being happy, or from doing what they really want to do.

Here’s how the Letting Go ritual might work:

  1. You walk up the mountain trail thinking about what it is that you want to let go of. It might be a cycle of thoughts and feelings that brings you a recurring sense of grief, sadness or shame. It could be some idea or situation that repeatedly instills anger. It could be some irrational belief, hope or expectation that imprisons you. It could be some constantly triggered anxiety or fear. As you walk up the trail, you just think about it, name it, articulate it in your own mind.
  2. As you reach the top of the mountain, you now have clarity about the thought or feeling you want to let go of. Now, you state it, in whatever way works for you. You might just say it quietly. You might shout it, or sing it, or dance it. You might write it down. You might draw it, or otherwise portray it visually.
  3. At the edge of the mountain, you pick up a rock from a rock pile. This rock symbolizes and embodies what you want to let go of.
  4. Now, you jump. Initially, you fall quickly, but as soon as you throw away the rock, your descent slows and stops, and breezes begin to waft around you, and you are carried by the updrafts so that you are “flying” instead of falling. You might choose to say certain affirmations as part of the Letting Go process, such as
    • I acknowledge and honour my feelings and thoughts as valid and real for me.
    • I will give myself time to understand and heal the damage that holding on to this thought or feeling has caused me.
    • I will spend some time focused on things that I enjoy or care about as I’m working through this issue.
    • I will accept what is, and what can’t be changed, predicted or controlled.
    • I will accept that I am a good person, and be good to myself.
    • I will seek closure about these issues, so they will not be re-stimulated in future if similar situations arise.
  5. Finally, you land gently on the ground. At your feet, there is a selection of shells, crystals and other beautiful mementos of your “letting go”. You select one that you like, which you carry as a reminder of this experience, so that if/when something happens to you that might once have provoked the old thought or emotion, you can look at it and remember that you have let go of this thought or emotion, and that it no longer troubles you.

I am not an expert in ritual, so I’d value your thoughts on this idea. What do you think?

April 18, 2011

First, Self-Accepting

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 13:57


forest in France — photo by Luca Montanari


Go for long walks.
Indulge in hot baths.
Question your assumptions,
Be kind to yourself,
Live for the moment,
Loosen up, scream,
Curse the world,
Count your blessings,
Just let go. Just be.

— Carol Shields


For more than eight years now this blog has chronicled my discovery of, and attempts to articulate, how the world really works, and how we might find ways to live better. It’s mainly been written as a public diary of my personal journey of learning and self-discovery, and my search for what I’m meant to do, and how I’m meant to be of use to the world.

When I retired from paid work a year ago, I thought I knew what I would do with my time. I was wrong. Instead of giving back to the world, and working on the projects (like stopping the Alberta Tar Sands, and ending factory farming) I had intended to work on, I have spent most of the past year doing nothing, and wondering why. It is likely a combination of exhaustion, anxiety, inability to handle the sudden freedom, and bewilderment at having too many choices, and not enough.

So for the past six months I’ve been trying to follow a set of principles of personal awareness and behaviour. My hope is that, if I can learn to be truly myself, in the moment, aware and relaxed, I will best be able to see what is, and hence know what I should do, both in the moment, every moment, and intentionally over the longer term.

Those principles are:

  • [In relationship to self]: To self-accept and self-manage, and let go of stories. I have been trying to understand myself better, and not try to change or “improve” myself. I now accept that I am most “myself” in warm, beautiful places, and when I am in love. I accept that I handle stress badly, and that I cannot hope to avoid stress in my life, so I need to be aware of it, and of whatever I’m feeling and thinking, and assess and cope with it appropriately. And I have been working to let go of the stories I’ve come to believe about Gaia’s dying, about (what I perceive as) people’s cruel and stupid behaviours and beliefs and unreasonable expectations, about what I imagine will happen if my worst fears are realized, and about my own perceived “failings”.
  • [In relationship to others]: To be generous and appreciative. I have been trying to help others, to give, to share, to be open, to see the best in people and situations, to be thankful, and to help radically imagine and generate new things and ideas and possibilities.
  • [In relationship to Earth]: To live naturally and presently. I have been trying to reconnect with my senses, my emotions, and with all-life-on-Earth, to trust my instincts, to value my time and enjoy its passage, to live sufficiently and sustainably and resiliently and not fearfully, and to learn to be more present in the moment.

I am told I have been modestly successful in doing these things recently, largely, I suspect, because they don’t require me to be anything other than who I am or do anything I am not inclined to do anyway.

Yet I have a long way to go. I’m not a patient person. I keep making the same mistakes, of unawareness and insensitivity, of inarticulateness, of inattention, of inappropriate reaction, of mismanagement of my time. I’m behind in my blogging and in my project work, and haven’t allowed enough time for reflection and creative writing. I have tried and pretended to be somebody else for so long it’s infuriatingly difficult to just be myself, to just be. I can’t “just be” until I have a good sense of who I really am, under all the “not-me” gunk that has become, over the years, attached to me.

So now I’m forgiving myself. I’m doing the best that I can. The work of saving the world, or my tiny portion of it at least, will inevitably go better when I’m present and ready for it, and when I know at least a bit better what “it” is.

What might “it” be? Damned if I know. I’ve decided to let go of presupposing to know what I’m intended to do to be of use to the world. I have some thoughts, but my sense is that if these things were really my intended purpose I would already be pursuing them, relentlessly. Here are a few things that might be my intended purpose, and why they might not:

  • Writing a collection of poetry and songs, or a film. But isn’t this just a self-indulgence? What are the chances my work will be good enough, and sufficiently recognized as such, to make a real difference?
  • Developing a series of games that are collaborative instead of competitive, consensual instead of violent, clever instead of derivative, experiential and immersive instead of pedagogical, that could improve how we learn about ecological, social and other complex systems. Such games could allow us to learn more powerfully and enjoyably about transition, about effective facilitation, about living in community, or even about ourselves (I’ll be writing soon about a project I’m working on to create a metaphoric “letting go” experience in Second Life.) Such games might even enable us to shift our perception in important ways that traditional learning tools (courses, books) can’t do. Imagine for example if we could, by entering into a simulated world that has no “clock time” but operates in the “Now time” of wild creatures, completely change our sense of time and free ourselves from its control over our lives, and its constraints? All interesting ideas, but would our dumbed-down, incurious, complexity-loathing culture ever accept such an innovation? And can we really be radical and bold enough in what we imagine to deliver on such a promise anyway?

I believe that my ability to write and to imagine possibilities are my gifts to the world, the things I do uniquely well. Perhaps my way of being of use to the world involves applying both gifts in ways that no one has ever done quite the same way before. Perhaps instead of writing words I’m meant to write musical notes, or images, or scripts of one sort or another, or some new construct for communicating meaning and for imagining that hasn’t even been invented yet.

I believe the key to resilience in the coming decades will be our ability, in the moment, to imagine ways around the crises we cannot prevent, predict or plan for. Maybe I can help with that.

I am hopeful enough these days to believe I could yet become the existential creature I once aspired to be: just “the space through which stuff passes, touching the right stuff in just the right way as it passes through.”

But I think I must start with the work of self-knowledge and self-acceptance, generosity and appreciation and imagination, living naturally and presently. That’s the road I am, at last, falteringly, taking.


PS: Last month my friend Joe Bageant died. I had the privilege of visiting Joe in his tiny writing studio in Hopkins Village, Belize. Joe taught me the importance of understanding why things (and people) are the way they are, before we begin any work to try to change them. And he taught me that community is born of necessity, so, while we might imagine it, we cannot hope to build a sustainable community-based society until the fall of our globalized industrial society is well-advanced. Damn. We will miss you, Joe.

March 21, 2011

Moth to a Flame

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 07:01


The green areas on this map (from the Forest Frontiers Initiative) are all that is left of the world’s wild forests, the only remaining areas that are large enough and sufficiently intact to support a natural and largely undiminished ecosystem. At current rates of deforestation they will all be gone in 50 years. The light brown areas are degraded forest, fragile and disrupted and now dependent on human ‘management’. Both the light and dark brown areas, comprising half of the world’s land surface, were wild forests as recently as 8,000 years ago. And most of the world’s deserts and grasslands, shown in white, have also been, at least intermittently, wild forests since the end of the last ice age, before human civilization spread across the Earth.

I think I am irrepressibly, compulsively drawn to ‘gentle’ beauty, and grace.

Some evidence:

  • What I have been looking for in a ‘winter home’ here in New Zealand and Australia is a place of extraordinary physical, natural beauty. I have come to see cities as ugly, fragile and crumbling human artifacts that deny and work against nature. Likewise farms and fields, monocultural lands that have been made possible by the atrocious razing of ancient forests. I have found beaches of staggering beauty here, but the best of them have no real forests nearly. So I am coming to the conclusion that my summer home on Bowen Island, Canada will have to fill my need for wild forests, and my winter home (probably Down Under) will fill my need for warm white sand and blue seas. As much as I appreciate and love to visit wild places that are windy or cold or rocky, I am not at home in such places. I long to find and belong to the last few places on Earth that are both gentle and wild.
  • What I look for in people is likewise gentle yet wild beauty. That can be physical, or emotional (strength, sensitivity, grace and creativity — I am drawn to artists who share my sense of unbearable grief for Gaia’s death), or intellectual (wit, articulation and ideas can also be beautiful). I don’t even have to have a personal relationship with these people — it’s enough to be in their presence, seeing, hearing, reading, witnessing their beauty.
  • I am also drawn to beautiful aesthetics on a smaller scale, both natural and human-made (light and shadow, scents, music, art, the tastes of natural food and the sounds of wild birds, trees and surf).
  • Although I once swore I had no needs, only wants, I think I was self-deluded. I need these different kinds of beauty like I need air. Without them I am apart, empty. Without them I retreat inside my head and imagine them. From too much practice I have developed a great imagination, invented a whole world of beauty to replace what has not been in my ‘real’ life. I was drawn to the virtual world of Second Life not for the usual reasons many others were (loneliness, boredom, low self-esteem etc.) but because it is a place of great, collectively-imagined and collectively-created beauty. More ‘real’ than my imagination, and who is to say any less ‘real’ than the physical world?

I don’t know why I need such beauty, or why this need drives so much of my passions and behaviour. When I am surrounded by gentle beauty I am both happy and present, in that magic state of awareness and relaxation that makes everything possible and effortless. In this state I often do my best creative work, and my best writing, and in this state I am most in love. In this state I can spend most of each day just eating and sleeping and playing and making love, and still sometimes somehow find the time to reflect and create and do what I do best to make the world a better place.

When this profound beauty is missing from my life, anxiety rushes in to fill the void, and with it the need to retreat back inside my head, to shun all responsibility and commitment, to create space and time for me to hide from all my fears and anxieties, to imagine them away.

I think this insatiable desire to be surrounded by physical, emotional, intellectual, erotic, sensory and aesthetic beauty accounts for much of my recent and intended behaviour — my move to Bowen Island, my polyamory lifestyle, my desire for company and for time and space alone, my endless fascination with walking at night, sleeping in safe wild places, brilliant women (and sometimes men), raw foods, marathon sex, candlelight, firelight and streetlight, world-weary women singer-songwriters, clever humour, silly infectious childlike laughter until you almost make yourself sick, intense late-night philosophic conversations, making love in the forest and on the beach, brilliant evocative writing, the sight of birds soaring.

Perhaps I’ve never grown up, and that’s why I want to cocoon myself in an impossible world of limitless and inextinguishable beauty. Perhaps I just can’t bear to face, and truly live in, the terrible ‘real’ world. Perhaps I just can’t see the terrible beauty of the real world. Perhaps I’m just still tired, exhausted, from living most of my life as a sheep in wolf’s clothing, pretending, from necessity, to be what I was not for so long I have forgotten who I really am. Still living in my sleep.

When I find out, I will let you know. Until then at least, this blog will continue to be my diary of discovery and learning, sometimes about the world and what must be done, but mostly about myself. I hope it will continue to be of use to you, dear readers, in your own journeys, until I am ready to face the real world and, finally, be of use to it. I owe the world that much, and more.

October 3, 2010

Too Smart For Our Own Good

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 03:41
purrr cartoon by patrick mcdonnell

purrr cartoon by patrick mcdonnell

Last month I linked to an excellent CBC video summarizing the life, work and philosophy of uber-celebrity Eckhart Tolle. Tolle doesn’t really say anything new in his books — I think Richard Moss’ Mandala of Being delivers the same “learn to be Present” message more effectively, and the bookstore shelves are crammed with meditation, spirituality and self-help books claiming to be able to teach you how to do this.

I confess that none of these books ‘works’ for me, though I continue to strive, through a variety of daily practices, to learn to be Present.

What intrigued me about Tolle’s horribly-named A New Earth is that in it he hints at how we humans came to be so un-Present and why it seems so hard for most of us to re-learn Presence.

In both his best-sellers, he tells the story of two ducks:

“After two ducks get into a fight, which never lasts long, they will separate and float off in opposite directions. Then each duck will flap its wings vigorously a few times, thus releasing the surplus energy that built up during the fight. After they flap their wings, they float along peacefully, as if nothing had ever happened. If the duck had a human mind, it would keep the fight alive, by thinking, by story-making…[even] years later… [Imagine] how problematic the duck’s life would be if it had a human mind. But this is how most humans live all the time.”

Tolle, unlike most writers on Presence, seems willing to credit most non-human animals with the “intelligence” to live (almost always) in the Present, in the Now, except for brief moments of stress. In the model below, which I have developed to attempt to illustrate Tolle’s thesis, wild creatures and human beings who have re-learned presence live the conscious, integral life shown on the right side. For such creatures, the triggers that cause suffering for most humans just bounce off; they fail to have any enduring impact. The spirit remains integral, unruffled and unpolluted.


By contrast, most humans live in the unhappy, anxious state shown in the left side. For them, triggers produce a vicious cycle of negative thoughts and “stories” (the “egoic mind”) and negative emotions (the “pain-body”). The stories we tell ourselves about the past, the future, ourselves and others are fictions, but our insatiable human egos grab onto them, and these thoughts trigger emotions like anger, fear, jealousy, hatred, self-hatred, shame, and anxiety, which fester in us and cause our egoic minds to invent even more stories to justify and perpetuate the pain-body negative emotions. Both the egoic mind and the pain-body are easily triggered by negative events (real or imagined) — in fact Tolle thinks they are addicted to them. The ego even casts a shadow over our sensory and instinctive lives, which the egoic mind cannot control and therefore does not trust. We therefore become “possessed” by our egos, which are not us. Our egos would have us believe that our thoughts and beliefs and feelings are “us”, when in fact all along we are really the consciousness that lies behind those thoughts, beliefs and feelings. Presence, then, is developing the capacity to push out and free ourselves from our egos and the negative thoughts and emotions that “normally” possess us, that we “normally” identify with.

Implicit in this model is the intriguing idea that, at some point in our evolution (and perhaps also in the evolution of other large-brained creatures like chimps, whales, elephants and ravens), we became too smart for our own good. Our brains, which were evolved by our bodily organs as a feature-detection, non-urgent decision-making and navigation system for their benefit, at some point passed the tipping point at which they developed ego. This is not the same as consciousness — indeed there is a mountain of evidence now that most creatures possess consciousness. Ego would appear to be an unintended and unfortunate consequence of the development of the brain to the point where it began to mistake its processing of thought and feelings for our consciousness, and we have been in a fight with our egos ever since. Whereas most Present creatures handle stress instinctively, and let it go quickly like the ducks in Tolle’s story, we “too smart for our own good” creatures have become consumed by, perhaps even addicted to, stress, and our egos, ever ready to cycle viciously through negative thoughts and stories and feelings whenever stress hits us, absolutely feed on it, to the point they possess us and we become unconscious of what is real, traumatized and trapped in and by our minds and feelings.

In this hellish unconsciousness, we crave attention and appreciation and adrenaline, anything that will give us temporary respite from our egos’ stories and the wrenching emotions that feed them and feed off them. This drives most human behaviours, which is why our species has become, through its inventions of civilization, dysfunctional, disconnected, massively destructive, and unsustainable.

Having explained this, Tolle then takes us through a variety of practices to relearn Presence. Most of them are familiar and, for most of us, I suspect, inaccessible and unhelpful:

  • practice awareness to realize that the egoic mind and pain-body are not “you”
  • don’t “mind” being unhappy, to break the addictive egoic thinking/feeling cycle
  • give: be generous
  • know yourself (i.e. your consciousness, not the “content” of your life — your job, your roles, your possessions, your beliefs etc.)
  • appreciate chaos and complexity (e.g. by spending time in “untidy” nature)
  • accept, don’t “mind” what happens (i.e. don’t label events as “good” or “bad”)
  • don’t “give yourself more time”, but instead “eliminate time”
  • learn to be still, and silent, and appreciate both
  • practice being at once aware (alert) and relaxed
  • become non-resistant, non-judgemental, non-expectant, and non-attached to whatever happens
  • rather than acting or reacting, let “right action happen through you”
  • practice sensing and perceiving without naming, thinking or conceiving
  • be aware of your breathing (and note that this is not the same as thinking about being aware of your breathing; I keep recalling my recent satori experience of waking up at early dawn and seeing nothing but a thick blanket of fog through all my bedroom windows, and then becoming aware of a strange noise and then realizing it was my breathing)
  • practice inner body awareness (sensing/feeling parts and then all of your body “from within”)
  • recognize and resist your attention- and appreciation-seeking (and other ego gratification) behaviours

All easier said than done, and mostly said better by others. I was intrigued that this list resonated quite strongly with my recently published list of Six Principles (be generous; value your time and its passage; live naturally; self-accept; practice being present; let go of stories). I suspect this might have something to do with the fact that Tolle and I have both spent much of our lives oppressed by anxiety and depression.

None of this is particularly new advice, either: The ancient Upanishad wisdom reiterated in Eliot’s Four Quartets put it more succinctly — datta, dayadhvam, damyata — give, empathize, exercise self-control.

Tolle seems to dismiss the human propensity for daydreaming and fantasizing (including, I would presume, activities in virtual worlds like Second Life), and even “falling in love” as forms of unhealthy, “compulsive”, addictive behaviour. He prescribes breathing and other “awareness” exercises as a means to learn to stop such behaviour from “tricking” you into continuing your compulsion, and learning to stop trying to justify it. This seems outrageously dismissive to me: artists, writers, players, lovers, creators, and other imaginers of possibilities may be “addicted” to their (our) recreations, but I see this as no more harmful or “unconscious” than our addiction to eating or sleeping. And a world of Presence without imagination would be, I think, a poorer one.

In the latter parts of A New Earth Tolle becomes, I think, a little carried away with the power of Presence. He appears to claim it can cure depression, anxiety disorders, addictions and lifelong traumas. While I’d acknowledge that stress (which is everywhere in our modern society, and that is no ‘story’) is only the trigger for many of our modern illnesses, not the cause, I think it’s arrogant and even cruel to encourage people to believe that these illnesses can be extinguished by what is in essence a mental trick.

Tolle also believes that millions of people are now re-learning to be Present and potentially ushering in a new era of global consciousness (hence the title of the book); I think this is a hyperbolic delusion, and the type of magical thinking that is the last thing we need as we begin to cope with the collapse of our civilization.

But the idea that we have become, as an accident of evolution, too smart for our own good is an intriguing one. If only the remedy for that — thinking less and being more — did not require more intelligence than most of us may ever hope to possess.

(Cartoon by Patrick McDonnell of ‘Mutts’ fame, from Guardians of Being, co-written with Tolle)

September 18, 2010

So What Next?

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 15:32

gaping void scared
drawing by hugh mcleod at gaping void

In my recent post The Freedom to Do Nothing, I quoted Ran Prieur:

When you begin to get free, you will get depressed. It works like this: When you were three years old, if your parents weren’t too bad, you knew how to play spontaneously. Then you had to go to school, where everything you did was required. The worst thing is that even the fun activities, like singing songs and playing games, were commanded under threat of punishment. So even play got tied up in your mind with a control structure, and severed from the life inside you. If you were “rebellious”, you preserved the life inside you by connecting it to forbidden activities, which are usually forbidden for good reasons, and when your rebellion ended in suffering and failure, you figured the life inside you was not to be trusted. If you were “obedient”, you simply crushed the life inside you almost to death.

Freedom means you’re not punished for saying no. The most fundamental freedom is the freedom to do nothing. But when you get this freedom, after many years of activities that were forced, nothing is all you want to do. You might start projects that seem like the kind of thing you’re supposed to love doing, music or writing or art, and not finish because nobody is forcing you to finish and it’s not really what you want to do. It could take months, if you’re lucky, or more likely years, before you can build up the life inside you to an intensity where it can drive projects that you actually enjoy and finish, and then it will take more time before you build up enough skill that other people recognize your actions as valuable.

This has certainly been true in my case. Now that I’m comfortably retired from paid work, I have the freedom to do nothing. I’ve been through a long list of things I think I should be doing (and should be passionate about doing), and realized that I haven’t the heart for them. I thought I wanted to work to stop the Alberta Tar Sands, and the atrocity of factory farming. I thought I wanted to create a model community, or at least be part of one. I thought I wanted to increase my connection to my emotions, to others, to all-life-on-Earth, to increase my resilience, capacities and competencies in ways that would be useful to the world.

But I don’t really want to do these things. At least not enough to overcome my internal resistance to getting to work on them. There are, I think, three main reasons for this (these are not excuses, merely explanations):

  1. I’m exhausted. For now, I just don’t want to work that hard at anything. I want things to be easy, and/or fun, at least for a little while until I am less tired, less worn out.
  2. I don’t think I could handle the stress. As I wrote recently, I have learned that I am anxious and fearful (of many things) and fragile and no use to the world broken, and I think working on these projects would break me, or at least my heart, to the point I would simply have to stop, and perhaps might never recover.
  3. I’m not convinced they would or will, in the long run, make any real difference. Industrial civilization has so much momentum, and is taking us over the edge of the cliff at such a pace, that trying to slow it down or divert it seems futile to me. In his latest book Twelve by Twelve (more about this book in an upcoming post), conservationist and international development aide William Powers laments that his work often seems pointless when years of hard work by conservationists can be more than undone by the forces of mindless globalization in a matter of days. When I speak with climate scientists, I find them utterly overwhelmed and filled with despair. The handful of credible economists and energy experts I follow are uniformly pessimistic that the idealistic pursuits of alternative economy movements and transition initiatives have even the faintest hope of working.

So, I keep asking myself, If not that, then what? What do I want to do with all this freedom I’ve just discovered I have? I know I don’t want to do permaculture gardening, which many of the post-civ writers I most admire do. I know local food security and sustainability are important; I just have no calling for them. I know I don’t want to chain myself to tractors or blow up dams or blockade roads or spike trees or break open the closed doors and cages of suffering farmed animals, as much as I know this work needs to be done and hugely admire those who do it. I don’t want to lobby or petition politicians or protest in the streets, in part because, as my friend Keith Farnish argues, this light green environmentalism merely plays into the existing power structure, and changes nothing. I don’t want to write op ed pieces or give talks or teach or otherwise try to persuade people what they don’t want to hear, or act upon.

What is the point of changing people’s beliefs? In the 1960s and 1970s we did manage to get a lot of people to think differently about a lot of things. But what has actually changed since 1970? In 40 years, what are the major changes in the Western world (I won’t presume to identify what major changes have transpired in the rest of the world). I think there have been six real megatrends in that 40 years, and none of them is good:

  1. Inequality and Desolation: Expectations regarding income, wealth and job security, for the large majority, have dropped. Average family assets have doubled but average family debts have tripled, so net wealth has not changed. It now takes two incomes to provide what one income could provide in 1970. Resource use and environmental damage have skyrocketed, and almost all of the wealth produced by that use and damage has accrued to less than 1% of the population, which is now obscenely rich. And the damage and inequality are accelerating, even under liberal regimes.
  2. Crumbling Public Institutions: Health and education systems, which most people believe to be the two most important services provided by the public sector, have steadily and seriously deteriorated since 1970 to the point that in many countries they are dysfunctional and teetering on collapse.
  3. Soaring Ignorance and Mindless Consumerism: The information media have so thoroughly discredited themselves since 1970 that now, virtually no one pays any attention to them or discusses any real news or important current events or problems. As people have stopped believing or buying their ‘information’, they have converted themselves into pure entertainment media, which has been much more profitable for them, since it requires no thorough, critical or investigative journalism, and focuses instead on celebrity gossip, trivia, fear-mongering and sensationalism.
  4. Staggering Technology Waste: Trillions have been spent on much-hyped ‘improvements’ in information and communication technologies, but for the vast majority, the principal technology remains the telephone, and the amount of information and the quality of communication of the average user of these extravagant technologies have actually significantly dropped compared to 1970.
  5. Endemic Political Cynicism: The idealism of the 1970s has morphed into the anomie and anger of the current decade, and interest and participation in the political process have plummeted.
  6. Social Disintegration: The exuberant “whole world is watching” sense of global community and collectivism that prevailed in 1970 has been replaced in 2010 by a new tribalism characterized by extreme individualism, a loathing for government regulation, disenchantment with the idea of single-tier egalitarian essential public services, atomization and anonymization of communities, and the commensurate rise in power of ruthless gangs (street, drug, oligopolist and corporatist).

This is what the idealistic hippie-boomer generation, that vowed to change the world 40 years ago, has actually produced. For all the talk, this is what we’ve shown. How can anyone take seriously the blatherings of those who say we’re at the dawn of some new (social network enabled) global consciousness raising? What real difference has the largest, richest, most educated generation in the history of the planet actually made, except to make the world much, much worse? And that’s despite all the efforts of those who’ve done the hard, thankless work of activism, education, innovation, and other public service — the vital holding actions that have prevented things from being even more terrible than they are. It’s a matter of no small shame to me that I was able to convince myself, for that 40 years, that I was actually doing some enduring good, when actually I was complicit by action and inaction in these six distressing trends, and, aside from benefiting financially (which has at least reduced my fears and anxieties about being poor), it was 40 years largely wasted.

I’ve said before that my distinctive competencies are writing and imagining possibilities, so I keep thinking that perhaps my gift to the world is stories — about how the world really is (in contrast to how the media portray it), and about how we might live better. But what good have stories done so far? Even if they change beliefs, what does it matter if the behaviour, the stuff people actually do, is activities that produce, perpetuate and accelerate the six megatrends above? In my post last year called No More Stories I wrote:

I am coming to believe that all stories, from the unactionable dumbed-down crap that we’re fed by the mainstream media, to the preposterous ‘history’ they pass off as ‘fact’ in so-called institutions of learning, to the regurgitated tripe from Hollywood, to the mountains of lies of corporatists in their greenwashing and advertising, to the formulaic and emotionally manipulative fiction to which we escape from our brutal and mind-numbing lives — are propaganda. They are meant to keep us in our place and distract us from discovering what is really going on in this world. Stories, I am beginning to think, are just more of civilization’s gunk that gets layered on us (some of it self-inflicted) from the moment we acquire the dreadful skill of human language, stuff that prevents us from being nobody-but-ourselves, and from understanding what is really needed, now, what we have to do, with all of our hearts and our minds and our senses and our instincts.

So: damn stories. If one is inclined to “rewrite one’s own story”, perhaps it’s time to give up fiction, turn off the projector, get out of the theatre and improvise living in the real world, where there are no scripts, just work that needs to be done and actions that need to be taken, if only we can readjust our eyes to the light. The director, it turns out, is a mannequin with a pre-recorded playback device in his megaphone, and the script was written by a machine using lines selected with a random-number generator.

And the part that each of us has been playing was actually written for someone else. The set is empty, the props are all falling down and blowing away in the wind. All that is left is Now.

So what next? I have argued before that human behaviour is driven, more than anything else, by what I’ve called Pollard’s Law:

We do what we must, then we do what’s easy, and then we do what’s fun. There is no time or energy left over for doing the right thing, what we aspire to do, what we think we should do, what’s merely important. None. That’s not laziness or cynicism, it’s just the way we (and all creatures) are built. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s a successful strategy, to focus on the needs of the moment.

Let me clarify what I mean by “we do what we must”. Imperatives for action can be externally imposed (“do it or you’re fired”) or internally imposed (“I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do this”.) It’s tautological — if a cause becomes so important to you that you can’t not be involved, then it becomes, for you, a “must”. I’ve been told by people whose courage blows me away (e.g. people whose whole lives are consumed with looking after physically or mentally handicapped relatives;  and people struggling every day to cope with the endless aftermath of some horrific past trauma) that it’s not courage if you have no other choice (or believe you have no other choice). It’s just doing what you must.

So now there is nothing I “must” do, I am spending time doing what’s easy and what’s fun. And in this terrible world, when you’re informed, and feel a sense of grief and responsibility for the state of our planet, and a feeling of hopelessness to do anything about it, nothing is really easy or fun. So I’m, largely, doing nothing. Living in my sleep. It’s not bad. But it’s not enough. I owe myself, and the world, more.

When I get discouraged looking for my Sweet Spot, I often try another exercise called Future State Visioning, in which I imagine myself (say a couple of years) in the future, doing what I would like to imagine myself doing, to see if that provides any insight on what I’m meant to do, or at least what might be easy and fun.

And if I’m completely honest with myself (to the extent I know myself enough to be completely honest), I confess I imagine myself doing mostly easy, fun, and pretty useless things:

I imagine myself surrounded by beauty (wild, natural places, art and exceptional people) and peace (places of quiet, little evidence of human activity, no stressful activities or emotions being expressed), living a life of safe, stress-free stimulation. Picture a cosmopolitan group of very bright people, meeting impromptu in a pub in the Alps during a (non-strenuous) bike tour, and talking about Transition. Picture being surrounded by vivacious people, cute animals, interesting lights and shadows, ancient forests, ocean beaches, dazzling sunsets, great music. Picture falling in love, easily, all the time. Picture an extraordinary Game of Cards with people of breathtaking genius. It’s an image of extraordinary awareness and complete relaxation at the same time. Perhaps it’s an image, an imagining of being always present.

I imagine spending half of my time alone, in wild, beautiful, yet still comfortable (to this spoiled Westerner with zero survival skills) places. That “alone” time is spent in equal parts sensing (paying attention), reflecting, imagining, creating (poetry, short evocative fiction, music, film), and writing this blog (with a greater focus on imagining and conveying how we could live more self-sufficiently — unschooling, self-managed health, locally-created entertainment etc.)

I imagine myself spending the other half of my time in the company of people who are exceptional: extraordinarily intelligent, informed, sensitive, imaginative, present, articulate, and emotionally strong. I picture myself just enjoying their company silently, or collaboratively writing, creating, throwing around interesting ideas, playing. I imagine some of these people being just-for-fun lovers who, in order to have acquired the above qualities, are probably 40-somethings, but who I picture looking much younger. (That is probably pathetic and unrealistic, but I haven’t yet outgrown it. During part of my 20s, my love life was actually like this, or at least that’s how I remember it — poly, just-for-fun, joyful, uncommitted, educational, varied, ego-nourishing, free — and I miss this.)

Why should I want my companions to be intelligent, informed and articulate if I just want to enjoy their silent company, when I’m increasingly disillusioned with, and tired of, conversation? I don’t know. I guess I just want to be comfortable with them, to know they’re “my kind” of people. Perhaps, since people are often known and judged by the company they keep, I just want to be known as the kind of person who hangs out in such company — an ego thing, an insecurity perhaps.

Perhaps this is why I was (and still am) drawn to the beautiful world of Second Life. There everyone you meet “is” young and beautiful and, if you take an appreciative approach to the avatars’ actions and conversations, you can imagine your companions having whatever qualities you want them to have. Everyone, especially you, is larger than “real” life. And maybe, then, they do “really” have those qualities. Maybe we imagine people even in “real” life to be who we want them to be. Maybe we imagine ourselves to be who we want ourselves to be, instead of knowing and accepting ourselves as who we really are. An idealist’s dream.

Would I quickly get tired of this idyllic, lazy, always-present, easy/fun life I imagine, if I were able to find it in “real” life? Would I then be ready to put this Vision, which I’ve had for most of my life, behind me, and move on to something more mature, more useful to the world?

Of course, a personal Future State Vision like this is just another story, subject to the same frailties and objections to stories that I outline above. Perhaps it’s just a trap, a fiction, an impossibility to chase, futilely, narrowing my focus to the point I miss the possibilities that could arise if I just went out and did some things that are completely different, since my stories are inevitably constrained by what I know, and not open to what I have never experienced or learned about myself. Perhaps my real Sweet Spot has yet to be discovered.

As much as I accept the validity of this argument, I know myself well enough to know that (a) the things I have recently done that are completely different have turned out not to have been particularly interesting or, in my mind, worth pursuing, and (b) as soon as I venture outside my comfort zone I again run up against the risk of stress, and commensurate meltdown.

“Where do you grab the dragon’s tail?,” William Powers asks his mentor in Twelve by Twelve, thinking about the need to address climate change and other crises of our time. She replies: “I think you should grab it where the suffering grabs you the most.” But what if that suffering, that grief, grabs you so hard you ache all over, but you lack the courage, the “intestinal fortitude” as it used to be known, the emotional strength, to grab the dragon’s tail?

Maybe sometimes it’s best not to fight the dragon.

Just in case anyone is still reading this endless exercise in self-examination, this public diarizing of my semi-competent personal truth-seeking, perhaps it’s time to wrap it up. What I think I believe, for now, is:

  • I should acknowledge my exhaustion and my many fears, not with the intention of trying to “fix” or change them, but just to accept them and accept that, at least for now, I should give myself time to recover, to get my strength back, appreciate who I really am and who I am not.
  • Since my Vision for myself seems to revolve around always being present, I should look more actively for ways to achieve that state of simultaneous awareness and relaxation — perhaps with greater presence, my purpose, my intentions, my gift to the world, what I should do next, will become clearer. Brief anecdote: I woke up from a dream last night just at dawn and the fog outside the bedroom windows (I normally have an amazing view of mountains and ocean) was so thick that for a moment I felt as if I were floating. Suddenly I became aware of this strange sound, and listened to it carefully, and then realized that it was my breathing. For the first time I was really focused on listening to my breathing, not (as I tend to be when I try to meditate) focused on thinking about listening to my breathing. This seems an important distinction, a revelation. Is this a taste of what real presence is?
  • I should acknowledge that, in some of its details at least, my Vision is not realistic, and, like all fictions, it’s a story I should, at last, let go of. No more stories. Less thinking and living inside my head. Instead: See. Be. Do.

That’s all I’ve got.

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