The Shaman

this is a work of fiction

 So I went to a shaman, asking for guidance about liberation and enlightenment. And she told me that she couldn’t help me find enlightenment, but she could possibly help me to see what was not enlightenment. I thought that might be a start.

So she took me to a forest clearing and we sat together on a fallen log, and she gave me a foul-tasting concoction to eat, and asked me to describe what I was experiencing. For a while, nothing happened. And then suddenly I began to see colours and hear strange sounds and then I experienced being in the middle of a scene of utter madness. All around me there were atrocities being committed, and strange creatures told me they had always been happening but I just hadn’t noticed, or perhaps I was just being kept in the dark. These were ghastly, cruel, miserable acts of unspeakable horror and violence, and soon instead of just happening to others they began happening to me. I was forced to eat poison and felt my teeth rotting and falling out. I was yoked with strangers and whipped to dig a hole in the ground and then to fill it up again. When I shouted about the insane things I was witnessing I was told by the obviously deranged mob of people all around me that I was the insane one, and that all that I was seeing was perfectly normal.

I said this to the shaman and she told me to just sit with this, that this was not enlightenment, and that none of this was real, and I would awaken from the nightmare. And then there was an explosion and everything was screaming and blood, and I passed out.

When I awoke I was, somehow, unharmed, and the shaman continued to hold my hand and asked me again to describe what I was experiencing.

In the distance I could see someone walking toward me, dressed in a robe of astonishing colours, with a golden aura around them. Even when this person came close I could not tell if it was a male or female, or its age, or even if it was quite human. But when this person, or creature, smiled and touched me I immediately understood that all was love, and that nothing else in the world was real. I was filled with this enormous feeling of peace and energy and well-being, and knew my purpose was to love this creature, to become one with it. That nothing else mattered.

I smiled at the shaman and thanked her for staying with me through the nightmare, and told her now I understood about liberation — it was all about losing your self in another.

The shaman smiled back at me and asked me, once again, to just sit with this, and told me to my dismay that this was not enlightenment either, and that none of this was real, and I would awaken from this dream, too. I insisted I did not want to awaken from it, if it was in fact a dream. It was the only thing in my life that had ever made sense. And suddenly the creature I loved with every fibre of my being moved even closer and our bodies merged into one, and with a rush of ecstatic bliss I again lost consciousness.

And when I awoke the magnificent creature was gone and once again there was just me and the shaman, still holding my hand. And I sighed and wept for what I had — at last! — found and then just as suddenly lost, and the shaman just sat quietly and asked me to describe what I was now experiencing.

I replied that I seemed to be back in the real world, but I was now full of grief over what I had lost. I kept waiting for a third surreal experience, but nothing seemed to happen. I felt bereft, impatient, dissatisfied. We sat together for what seemed like hours, and I just kept describing my thoughts and feelings, and the mundane things I saw and heard, there at the edge of the forest.

The shaman said to me that none of this was real, either, and that I was still dreaming, not really seeing at all, and that at some point that dream would end and what would be left would be as close as she could imagine to enlightenment.

I listened and sighed and finally, exhausted from all these unreal experiences, I again lost consciousness.

I am not yet awake, not sure I want to be. My instincts tell me that I would not, will not, survive awakening. Every once in a while I remember, back when I was very young, even before there was an ‘I’, what it was like to be awake, to just be, to see everything as it really is, and always has been. When I said that to the shaman, she smiled at me and nodded, but said nothing.

So now I sit here, on this log, living in my sleep, and every once in a while there is a glimpse, a suggestion of something I remember, something beyond understanding. There seems to be a clue in the gaze of wild creatures, the shadows in the moonlight, the water gurgling in the stream, the whisper of the wind. Something waiting. Something beyond me.

top image above from Pixabay CC0, by Cor Gasbeek; bottom image is mine

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Smart Women

(The following is fiction — just a fanciful story I made up that I wish were true. Since the email version doesn’t include the article category (“creative works” in this case) when it sends out feeds of my blog, I apologize to email subscribers for thinking it was real reportage.)


image CC0 from pexels.com

I guess it had to happen someday soon
Wasn’t nothing to hold them down
They would rise from among us like a big balloon
Take the sky, and forsake the ground…

Hold them up, hold them up
Never do let them fall
Pray to the dust and the rust and the ruin
That names us and claims us and shames us all
      – James Taylor

I‘ve always had a thing for exceptionally intelligent women. So when I agreed to act as seminar leader and graduate TA for the Philosophy of Science program at our university, I was delighted to discover that more than half of the class was women, and that in particular two of them brought with them reputations for brilliance and controversy. I had no idea what I was in for.

I met them both personally for the first time at a seminar entitled Dawkins vs Gould: The Philosophy of Biology, which I was ostensibly facilitating. When Karin and Marina squared off, I was expecting the fireworks to be around the two male philosophers’ differences over the role of religion and spirituality in science, or about the whole issue of “selfish” genes, but the debate immediately leap-frogged past that and into a far more (to me at least) interesting and existential discussion: It was about what we intuitively know (but cannot scientifically “prove”) versus what we intuitively “know”, or sense, that we cannot know.

It would be impossible for me to accurately summarize the different perspectives that Karin and Marina espoused, and after their animated discussions became something of a worldwide phenomenon in philosophy circles, I can only say that to some extent, as I listened to them, I felt I was witnessing The End of Philosophy — their thinking was so advanced that I felt they were, rapid-fire, rendering many of the most-discussed philosophical subjects of our time completely moot. They made what thousands of philosophers and scientists had spent their lives thinking and writing about seemingly completely irrelevant. The most important realization that came out of many hours listening to their dazzling intellects expound mind-blowing ideas that were way beyond anything I had conceived or read, was simply: Nothing matters. 

What was more remarkable is that they forced the listener to this astonishing and unexpected realization from almost diametrically opposite threads of reasoning and intuition: Karin from the Gould-ian scientific perspective of everything being random and unpredictable, and Marina from the metaphysical perspective that evolutionarily “consciousness” and everything that arises from it could not be real, and that therefore what is real cannot be known by the mind.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. These two women had already, as undergraduates, wowed their colleagues and professors to the point that whenever they volunteered to speak the rest of the class suddenly sat in hushed silence diligently taking notes — including the instructors. They were way over all of our heads, in an intellectual (and perhaps emotional and sensory and intuitive) world of their own, which we could never dream of being a part of. We were just delighted that they took the time to articulate what they were thinking so that we could just appreciate it. We were in the presence of genius — genii in fact, feeding off each other, and we could only bask in it, as full of awe as if we were watching two Grand Masters painting together.

That is to say that, while they didn’t “agree” with each other, they saw no purpose in debating. There is no absolute truth, after all, and they saw every point of discussion as being a way to move closer to an understanding, to explore, not to change the other’s position but to understand it and hence move forward towards a synthesis greater than either had thus far come up with individually. There had been an attempt, by the faculty leaders, to get them to have a formal debate, with structure and an audience voting for the winner, but neither woman would have anything to do with that, dismissing it as an “anachronistic male spectacle of no value”. Instead of responding to each other with “but…” they responded with “yes, and…”. Listening to them was like being in dizzying free-fall — they didn’t know where they were going, only that it was productive, creative, moving forward, and any formal structure would simply hamper that.

When our first session was winding up (we had run over our time and were being kicked out of the seminar room), I fatefully suggested that we retire to the campus lounge and continue the discussion (more accurately a two-woman dialogue — none of the rest of us had the audacity to interrupt their discussion with our own clearly-outclassed thinking).

I was a man in love, with two superhuman women, and as I ushered them and the entranced class to the lounge, I was trying to figure out how to capture this brilliance, before it was lost, before these two women just rose magically into the stratosphere together and disappeared, leaving us mere mortals behind, ashamed and dumbstruck. Fortunately there was a tripod on the stage of the lounge, left behind by the latest performing musicians I supposed, and I grabbed it, mounted my cellphone camera on it, pointed the camera at the two prodigies, said 50 words to (utterly inadequately) recapitulate what had already been exposed in their shattering discussion to date, and let them continue.

Four hours later we called it an evening. I put the recording up on YouTube, thinking it was the most important posting that impoverished medium had ever received, and for a couple of days it was almost completely ignored. Then to my surprise the number of viewers started to soar. At the next seminar date a week later, the room meant for a dozen discussants in the class was impossible to reach due to the crowd clamouring to attend and hear Karin and Marina expound further. I told them we would rendezvous at the lounge after the class, and that only registered students could attend until then. Two hours later the din outside the room was so loud we could no longer hear Karin and Marina speaking, so we retired to the 200-capacity lounge, surrounded by numbers so large that, once everyone had filed in, the lounge closed its doors to additional students to avoid violating fire regulations.

If you’ve been following this at all, you know how it snowballed after that. The second four-hour video racked up millions of views, the post-seminar meetings had to move from the overcrowded lounge to the university theatre, Karin and Marina were besieged by the media for interviews and by universities all over the world offering inducements for them to go there (none of which they accepted), and some of the world’s leading scientists, philosophers, intellectuals and “teachers” began sitting inconspicuously in the theatre during the talks (which were now broadcast live), furtively but energetically taking notes.

At the insistence of Karin and Marina, there was no Q&A during or following these discussions. They offered no explanation for this demand, perhaps wanting to spare the feelings of those who might be inclined to ask something.

After the fourth session — sixteen hours of staggering genius, enough for a lifetime’s exploration by lesser thinkers, in the can — I finally got up the courage to invite them to my place, just to take stock of what was happening. I think mostly because they found the sudden celebrity a bit overwhelming, and knew that my place was peaceful, private and unlisted, they accepted. Marina, who sat in the front passenger seat during the car trip there, spoke quietly and incessantly to Karin seated behind her, at a volume I couldn’t quite hear — I was so intellectually exhausted I was somewhat grateful for that.

At home I put on a playlist of instrumental music (enough words for me that day) and we sat together on my couch, wordlessly, drinking chai tea. Because they were both so quick in their thinking, at one stage my students had asked them to slow down and not talk over each other (which they did not as interruption, but as a kind of running counterpoint), Karin had the brilliant (and awesome!) idea of having me, as the facilitator, sit slightly behind and between them, lightly hold one of each of their hands, and gently squeeze only the hand of the woman who was talking, as a way of “moderating” the conversation and slowing down the flow of ideas unobtrusively. It worked. I was, of course, elated. To me, nothing afterwards could ever compare to this quiet alternating touch for sheer, raw eroticism.

So we sat on the couch together, holding hands just like that, as a nod to the roles we had found ourselves in. Finally Marina broke the silence:

“Josh — Karin and I have decided something, and we hope you won’t be disappointed with us. Today, if you were following, our discussion reached something of a dénouement. We’ve realized that we’re at an end. We’ve unraveled all we can together, and there doesn’t seem to be anything more that is essential to say. So as grateful as we are for the forum you have granted us, we think that the song is over. We can’t see the point in talking more. We’ve said all that we can think to say that’s of any value. So we’re going to take a vacation, and hope that what we’ve produced is good enough to meet the requirements of the seminar, and that you won’t be upset if we don’t return. This has been the most important experience of our lives, and we’ll always be in your debt.”

“The Masters’ painting is done,” I said, mostly to myself, with a sigh. Marina gave me a concerned look, but then, with a glance at Karin, immediately understood the reference, and smiled, and nodded.

“Yes, it seems so,” she replied.

We sat there quietly for a while and then Karin asked if there was “a spare bedroom” they could sleep in — they were dead tired and didn’t relish the trip back to the university to retrieve their cars and drive home. And I realized they were lovers.

I spent that entire night, sleeplessly sighing, fantasizing about what might be possible, what I wanted, what would be best for them. They obviously made love, and for what seemed a very long time, but they were discreet about it. My dream of course was that, in their blossoming personal lives together, I might play the same essential, connected role, holding them together, moderating and mediating their genius, that I’d come to play over the past month in their public lives. That would have been enough for me. I told you I had a thing for smart women, and I knew nothing like this would ever happen again.

It took until the early hours of dawn before I finally collapsed into sleep, and of course when I awoke, much later, my delightful charges had gone. They made the bed with fresh sheets, put the soiled ones in the washer, left me an absolutely wonderful, handwritten note that I will cherish forever, left some cute and provocative ‘selfies’ of the two of them in my email, and disappeared from my life forever.

I’ve watched the videos so often I can practically recite them from memory, and they were right — there was nothing more to say. Of course the deeply-threatened patriarchal establishment took their departure and unavailability as evidence of their arguments’ frailty, and in less than a year hundreds of articles in professional and popular journals had disingenuously criticized and finally dismissed their brilliant, fleeting work. I removed all the jealousy-tinged comments from the videos and closed off further comments. The videos spoke for themselves, and I’m sure their genius will eventually be vindicated.

So yes, nothing matters. But still, my heart will never be the same. I grieve I suppose for what never was, yet what happened was enough. I am honoured to have been there, and played a role. It is all just a story, and every story is meaningless, but it’s the only thing I have.

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Several Short Sentences About the Welsh Language

This information is based solely on somewhat unsubstantiated internet research and as such may not be entirely true, but it is certainly interesting. I explored the subject because I’m planning a trip to Cymru (Wales) this summer and wanted to be able to at least pronounce the place-names correctly. Of course, I quickly got side-tracked into etymology. Apologies for any misspellings, misinterpretations, (unintended) insults or factual errors.

1. The Welsh have at least four ways of saying “sorry”: They translate as “I apologize”, “I was wrong”, “Please give me a way out (of this)”, and “That’s unfortunate”. They mean quite distinct things and require different responses.

2. The Welsh phrase for “please” translates literally as “may it be seen to be good”.

3. The most common Welsh phrase for “you’re welcome” translates literally as “no problem”. Alternatively you can just use the same “may it be seen to be good” phrase to reply to a “thank you”.

4. The Welsh word for “goodbye” (hwyl) has no English translation and is apparently an ancient Brythonic word (the Welsh and Bretons from Brittany France are perhaps the only true “Britons” — the only people whose language remains unassimilated by the invading Angles, Saxons, Normans, and/or French). The meaning of hwyl is something like “joyous energy” or more colloquially “have fun”. No “god” involved in their farewells!

5. The Welsh greeting Siwmae/S’mae (North Wales) or Shwmae (South Wales) is an ambiguous expression that can mean either “how is it (going)?” or “it is how it is”, so it can be used either to ask informally how someone is doing or as a non-committal reply to that inquiry. (The French language has evolved a similarly functioning expression — Ca va? Ca va!). No need to lie and reply “I’m good, fine” if you’re not. It is how it is.

6. There are no general Welsh words for “yes” or “no”. You use the terms for “there is/isn’t”, “it is/isn’t”, or “I am/am not” or “I do/don’t” depending on context of the question, to reply in the affirmative or negative.

7. The Welsh language does not support the possessive concepts of ownership or property, so there are no prepositional words equivalent to “my”, “your”, “their” etc. So to translate “our car” you say something like “the car that is with us”; likewise for spouse, child, money etc.

8. The Welsh names for months are somewhat more Pagan and harvest-oriented, and less Roman than the English names (though somehow Augustus got his name in there). The names, English equivalents and their most likely original Welsh meanings are:

Ionawr — January (Janus / “Going Back to Roots”)
Chwefror — February (“Purification”)
Mawrth — March (Mars, Guardian of Agriculture [and war god])
Ebrill — April (Aphrodite, “The Opening”)
Mai — May (Maia, symbol of Fertility)
Mehefin — June (“Mid-Summer”)
Gorffennaf — July (“End Summer”)
Awst — August (“Augustus”)
Medi — September (“Reaping”)
Hydref — October (“Drying Up”)
Tachwedd — November (“Slaughtering”)
Rhagfyr — December (“Shortening Days”)

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 6 Comments

Nutrition Facts


Image CC0 from Pixabay
I‘ve recently spent a fair bit of time reviewing the vast number of reviews of clinical research done on the connection between nutrition and health, that have been reported on Michael Greger’s nutritionfacts.org site. Michael is a doctor and a vegan, but he receives no payment for anything he does on the site, and has shown he has no axe to grind, other than to lament the fact that lots of evidence connecting a whole-plant based diet with much better health and with much lower rates of the diseases that cause most deaths in affluent nations, gets ignored because there’s no money in it, and no emphasis on it in medical schools.

Much of this research is small-sample, and some but not all is rigorous, but Michael doesn’t cherry-pick the research he cites, or exaggerate its findings. He does amazing annual reviews of the latest research on the nutrition-health connection, and produces a prodigious volume of short, excellent, factual summaries. You can watch the videos or read the transcripts, whichever you prefer.

I’m reporting on this because I think it’s useful, interesting and compelling — it’s caused me to shift quite a few of my eating habits, and I’m already seeing some benefits. I am not advocating that anyone or everyone should become vegan — every body is different. These are just my notes from the 150 or so videos or transcripts I’ve viewed/read so far, in case they’re of interest to others.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

  1. Bottom line: There is overwhelming evidence, and almost no counter-evidence, that a whole-plant based diet is just about the healthiest diet available for most people, and that (unlike just about every other diet out there) it’s lacking in almost none of the essential nutrients needed to live a long and healthy life (though he does recommend even healthy eaters supplement their daily diets with up to 5000 IU vitamin D3 and 2500 mcg vitamin B12). Poor nutrition is also the only highly-plausible explanation for the epidemic of autoimmune and other diseases in affluent nations that are rare to uncommon in nations with very different diets to ours.

  2. For general health: Eat more of the following: vegan smoothies (use whole fruit not juice), all kinds of berries, raw spinach, bananas, coleslaw, kiwis, nutritional yeast, mushrooms, seeds especially flax seeds (especially good for sensitive skin) and sesame seeds, nuts especially almonds, pecans and walnuts, tea, most spices, beans/legumes, and whole grains. Avoid hydrogenated oils, eggs, poultry and all other meats, including fish (avoid these for a variety of reasons detailed on the site, which includes a comprehensive index by food type). Reduce but do not eliminate consumption of vegetable oils. Reduce or, even better, eliminate dairy products.

  3. For ulcerative colitis sufferers (I’m one): Diverse whole-plant-based diet is the best way to minimize inflammation. Turmeric (curcumin) is worth adding to tea and other foods daily as a natural anti-inflammatory. Get adequate sun exposure and/or take vitamin D. Eat broccoli and cauliflower especially. Avoid all dairy, and the sulfates in alcohol.

  4. For fibromyalgia and CFS sufferers (I know many): Diverse whole-plant-based diet is the best way to minimize symptoms. Supplement with at least 6 minutes/day strong exercise or 30 minutes/day walking. Avoid aspartame. For CFS, add 2.5T of cocoa powder a day to your coffee/smoothie.

  5. The best natural sweeteners: are molasses and date sugar (stevia is OK in moderation no more than twice a day if not adulterated with maltodextrin or other additives). Erythritol is the best non-sugar sweetener — it’s found naturally in grapes and pears but is now manufactured from yeast; it has no calories, causes no tooth decay, and produces no sugar index spike. The only downside is that it may cause you to eat more, so like anything, use in moderation. And avoid erythritol spiked with other substances.

  6. Non-diary “milk” and “protein” substitutes: Soy and almond milk are better than coconut milk, but not as good as whole soy/almonds. The site has no reviews on hemp milk, which is reportedly as good or better. Tempeh is better for you than tofu or edamame.

  7. Aromatherapy: Consider orange or lavender aromatherapy for anxiety, mild rosemary aromatherapy for alertness, and lavender aromatherapy for migraines. And if your anxiety is a social anxiety, consider butternut squash seeds (raw or toasted); they seem to alleviate it.

  8. The best teas: Green tea is better than black and has enormous health benefits; white tea is even better. Bergamot makes Earl Grey the best black tea. Dandelion, chamomile and (in moderation) hibiscus are the best herbal teas. Chai tea is excellent with its five healthy spices (cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, ginger). Adding cocoa powder to tea is good for you; cold steeping your tea is even better. Tea is as good for hydration as water (as an aside, carbonation, without adding anything else, has no effect on the health of water, except perhaps to make people drink more of it).

  9. Some whole plants that are less good for you: Rice (especially white) is not really that good for you. Neither are potatoes (sweet potatoes, which are unrelated, are excellent). Eat avocados in moderation — naturally occurring persin in them can be hazardous.

  10. Beware some forms of alternative medicine and nutrition regimes: There is now a large amount of medical evidence that homeopathy is just an expensive placebo, and hence in the long term “useless” (the British Medical Association now agrees). Take care with ayurvedic and other specialized supplements — they are mostly unregulated and often contaminated with lead, mercury and other dangerous metal toxins. Michael is dubious about “paleo” diets in general but these are so varied that it’s hard to generalize; see the paleo category in his index for more explanation on the specifics.

  11. Raw versus cooked versus frozen versus canned: Carrots and celery are the only vegetables whose nutritional value increases with cooking. Microwaving actually has the least negative effect on nutritional value of most foods; boiling is the worst. Bell peppers are most negatively affected by cooking and are best eaten raw. Chop cruciferous veggies like broccoli at least 40 minutes before cooking (chopping or chewing releases the essential nutrient sulforaphane, but cooking first destroys it), or add a pinch of mustard powder to the cooked veggies if you can’t (see the site for explanation of the chemistry). I know I eat more vegetables if I eat mostly raw vegetables (easier and to me tastes better). Frozen foods, unless preservatives/salt have been added, are actually as nutritious as fresh. Canning can destroy a lot of the nutritional value of fruits and vegetables and contaminate them with liner chemicals, though one exception is beans (but don’t buy beans processed with salt, and don’t rinse away the nutrients in the water the beans are stored in).

  12. Organic versus conventional: The main advantage of organic and non-GMO produce is that it is less likely to be contaminated with pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, hormones, and the other crap of industrial agriculture. That’s more important in some fruits and veggies (with skins that are eaten or permeable) than others.

  13. How to make a safe healthy effective natural mouthwash: Place 7 Tbsp green tea (+ peppermint if desired) in 1.5 litres boiling water and steep for 1 hr. Strain and add 1/2 litre water into 2 litre glass bottle; store in fridge. (This specific recipe is from another site, though the ingredients are the same suggested in nutritionfacts.org.)

Again, the above are just my notes from the site; your mileage may differ. And again, I’m not saying a whole-plant-based diet is right for everyone. But it sure has worked for me.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | Comments Off on Nutrition Facts

Links of the Quarter: March 2017

The events of the last three months have made it increasingly clear that we’re well into the first wave of global industrial civilization’s collapse.

  1. There’s been an astonishing increase in extreme weather events and climate anomalies, attesting to the rapid and unpredictable destabilization of our global climate.
  2. There’s been a sharp increase in the level and breadth of psychopathy of the so-called “leaders” of our political, business and economic systems — to the point there’s no longer even a pretence of honesty in public proclamations, a pretence of fairness in the simultaneous overregulation in some sectors (the security apparatus and corporate interests) and massive deregulation in others (any laws and institutions protecting the public interest), a pretence of justice or civility in the outrageous actions of the judiciary and law “enforcement”, or a pretence of legality or decency in the wholesale pillaging of public lands, resources and the commons by the corpocracy — attesting to the fear and desperation of those with wealth and power to protect and hoard what they have in the face of the inevitable crises ahead.

How does one ‘deal’ with the simultaneous collapse of so many systems upon which so many of us now utterly depend? How does one explain to one’s children that the idea of progress was a myth and that the future we are bequeathing to them is likely to be grim, desolate, unhealthy and, worst of all, completely unpredictable, as we swing from one wave of collapse, through temporary periods of stability, and then into the next even more bleak and bewildering wave?

I can see no way of coping with it beyond doing what one can at the local level to help those in our communities adapt to its fallout, and to do so with as much compassion, joy in the moment, generosity, and equanimity that we can muster. We can’t plan, or control, or predict, or even really prepare, beyond self-knowledge, staying healthy, and learning essential skills, for what may come next.

Not much else to say.


PREPARING FOR CIVILIZATION’S COLLAPSE


Winning caption, submitted by Audrey Orr, to a recent New Yorker cartoon caption contest; cartoon by Joe Dator

Will the Crash of 2018 Be the First Stage of Civilization’s Collapse?: The thorough and fearless British investigative journalist Nafeez Ahmed explains how by 2018 the short-term glut of energy will yield to a long-term intractable deficiency in affordable energy that will quickly bring about a massive crash of the global industrial food and economic systems that depend on an abundance of cheap energy. (Thanks to Guy Fraser for the link.) It’s looking more and more likely that America’s hapless current buffoon-in-chief will become known as the Peak Oil President.

Why Climate Scientists Fear to Tell Us The Truth: The climate is changing so quickly, and even the most pessimistic models of climate instability are being so quickly exceeded by alarming new data, that many climate scientists are beginning to suffer from PTSD-like symptoms and are self-censoring because (a) they don’t know how to tell the long-deceived public how quickly we’ve passed the point of no return, without inciting anger, hopelessness and denial, and (b) they will lose their jobs if they do so. They will tell you that the idea of containing climate change to under 2ºC is absurd, and that a catastrophic 6ºC of average global warming this century (with up to 15ºC warming in some polar and other areas) is increasingly looking like an optimistic forecast. Thanks to Andrew Campbell for the link.

Massive Arctic Temperature Anomaly Wreaks Havoc on Global Weather: Temperature variances in the arctic of as much as 40ºC within a few hundred kilometres have occurred on and off all winter, as the far north continues to see sustained long-term temperatures 5+ºC warmer than historical averages, contributing to massive glacier melt and the imminent complete disappearance of the arctic ice pack. British Columbia has, as a result of high-level polar winds produced by these anomalies, had the coldest, snowiest winter in decades, while in Eastern Canada record high temperatures are now yielding to massive early spring blizzards. Similar stories abound on every continent. At least one climate scientist says the jet stream, which moderates temperatures, may have been permanently disrupted, rendering the models used for long-term forecasting here on in more or less useless.

What 6ºC of Average Warming Means Locally: As optimists about our ability to deal effectively with climate change sound increasingly deluded and in denial, some communities have given up hoping for large-scale action on climate change and are commissioning reports on what 6ºC of warming will mean for agriculture, infrastructure and security in their communities.

Other Disasters On the Horizon: If economic and ecological crises weren’t enough, there are signs that the stop-gap measures at Fukushima’s nuclear reactors, five years after the tidal wave damage, are not working and full-scale melt-down may be inevitable. And there is other evidence, such as the potentially disastrous crumbling of the Mosul Dam (“a bigger problem than ISIS”) and the breaching of the US’ Oroville Dam and critical damage to the Clifton Court Reservoir, that our fragile and funding-starved infrastructure will rapidly crumble as extreme climate events become more commonplace. And we already know that we’re utterly unprepared for the type of major earthquake that will hit the North American West Coast likely also in this century, as worrying signs of its arrival are increasingly evident.


LIVING BETTER

Science Fiction for the Real World: John Michael Greer (who has recently been waxing philosophical about collapse and even touching on non-duality) suggests that some of the best ideas about what collapse might look like, and how to live through it and after it, might come from intelligent, non-formulaic speculative fiction; he contributes regularly to Into the Ruins, a quarterly compendium of such writing. Editor Joel Caris brings to it an interesting philosophy and writes thought-provoking intros to each edition that alone are worth the cost of a subscription.

Symmathesy: Nora Bateson has been developing new language around complexity, perceiving that the traditional mechanistic language of “systems” is simplistic and flawed and can lead to illogical and ineffective thinking. Symmathesy is her replacement for “complex system”, or more precisely for “adaptive co-evolving interaction”. Only by changing our ways of thinking about such interaction to a more holistic, less analytical one, she argues, can we start to appreciate how symmathesy actually works and how to work within, rather than upon, it. Thanks to Tia Carr for the link.

Risking Jail For Your Beliefs: On a par I think with whistle-blowers and truth-exposers like Edward Snowden, the five brave and principled valve-turners who safely shut down the Tar Sands pipelines for one day, made a huge personal sacrifice to show us all how to behave in the face of social and environmental outrages when other means have failed. They continue a long line of non-violent direct action heroes who deserve our commendation and support. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.

Eating Better: Michael Greger’s NutritionFacts website is a completely free, non-profit, comprehensive searchable (and entertaining) guide to everything there is to know about clinical research on the nutrition-health connection. Nothing for sale there, and nothing on offer except the truth, and it’s surprisingly simple and affordable. (For an overview, start here.)

Rebooting the Democratic Party: Young blogger Rebecca Meyer, a lifelong Democrat, articulately urges progressives to abandon the failed strategies, platforms and standard-bearers of the DNC establishment and reposition the party as a true progressive party.

Reinventing Organizations: Fredric Laloux’s book about how to structure and operate your organization as “teal” is generating much warranted enthusiasm — possibly the most useful set of new OD ideas in the last decade. One recent article presents a pretty thorough and mostly fair review of the basic principles of “teal” organizations, and then (IMO somewhat unfairly) criticizes the book because it fails to acknowledge that none of its ideas are new (they have been employed in different cultures for millennia). Thanks to Tree Bressen and Ben Collver for the link.

Could the Post Office Be the Solution to Hunger in Affluent Nations?: A fascinating new proposal suggests the USPS and its counterparts in other nations have precisely the infrastructure and processes needed for effective food distribution to the poor. Thanks to Lorraine Suzuki for the link.

Complexity-Based Approaches to Planning and Design: A new article from my friend Chris Corrigan suggests four shifts from traditional planning approaches that are often idealistic and assume we know more than we actually do: (1) Shift from Environmental Scans to Discerning Patterns through Anecdote Circles (making sense of rich stories about what is happening/needed, rather than analyzing less granular broad brush trends); (2) Shift from Visioning & Goal Setting to Scenario Planning (being prepared to adapt to alternate possible future states, rather than banking on one); (3) Shift from Goals & Objectives to Probes & Prototypes (trying iterative experiments informed by continuous intelligence-gathering, rather than creating things that might be vulnerable to shifting goalposts); and (4) Shift from Summative Evaluation to Developmental Evaluation & Continuous Learning (learning and constantly making incremental improvements and adaptations, rather than waiting until the process/project is complete for formal measurement and assessment). In a related line of thinking, Aleks Savic suggests that, because confirmation bias is evolutionarily selected for (it helps us communicate better and be more persuasive, even though it often leads us to make bad decisions) we would be better learners and designers if we acknowledged and embraced conflicting and unsettling beliefs and ideas.

Disentangling the Issues of Gender Identity: Rebecca Reilly-Cooper’s Sex and Gender: A Beginner’s Guide is a very long and very thorough explanation of the rationale for radical feminists’ heated and controversial disagreement with the trans community on the issue of gender identity.


POLITICS AND ECONOMICS AS USUAL


Photo taken shortly after version one of the US President’s anti-Muslim decree; original source unknown

Move Along Folks, Nothing Important Happening Here: While pundits ponder whether Der Drumpf is even more mentally ill than other current and recent global “leaders”, it might be worth speculating whether any sane person would go through what Bernie Sanders or Keith Ellison (thanks to Antonio Dias for the link) went through to fight the intractable bought-and-sold party machines that control most so-called “democratic” governments. Mental illness also underlies the utter despair and anxiety of those most at risk from Drumpf’s arbitrary and frivolous wrath, and the testosterone-fueled rage (thanks to Earl Mardle for the link) of his supporters in America’s surging neo-fascist movements. Even die-hard conservatives are aghast. And the corporate-controlled for-profit American “health care” system is so bloated and incompetent (thanks to Nancy Ryder for the link) even its supporters question how long it can continue. When we live in an insane culture, we should not be surprised at what it wreaks. In other countries — Canada for example — signs point to the same evolving trends: corrupt governments, emboldened hate groups, uncontrolled business scams, ultra-rich corporatist tax cheats, and a general feeling of anomie that anything can be done about it. And in states like Russia further along the path of collapse, in the remote outposts not protected by the power kleptocracy average life-spans have plunged back into the 50s as death begins to look like an attractive alternative to what the future holds. This is what large-scale system failure looks like.


FUN & INSPIRATION


Another New Yorker cartoon contest cartoon, this one by PC Vey, with three excellent ‘finalist’ captions: (1) “Is that a new outfit?”; (2) “We had meth on Tuesday.”; (3) “Are you sure the directions said to add mustard gas?”

When the World is Going Crazy, Sing: The phenomenal “pop-up” Toronto Choir! Choir! Choir! presents a haunting, stirring 1300-voice strong version of MILCK’s anti-Drumpf protest song I Can’t Keep Quiet. They’ve also covered Cyndi Lauper’s True Colours, Patti Smith’s Because the Night, and many other other songs. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the links. And for more moving music, watch The Black-Eyed Peas and many celebrity guests sing Where’s the Love?

All Consuming Tasks: Playing off our passion for categorizing things, John Kellden spoofs Seneca and Jorge Borges with his hilarious categories of convivial tasks. Read his links to Seneca and Borges first if you want to get the joke.

Albatross!: A baby at that, mostly ignored by the blathering adults nearby. On Kaua’i, just a few miles from where I’m writing this. Camera pans around often, so wait for the baby. Awwww!

New Species of Jellyfish Found: Deep in the ocean, looking like the animate alien vehicles they are.

The Phenomenon of Yacht Rock: If you enjoyed the rich harmonies and intricate compositions of late-70s/early-80s impresarios (think: Michael Macdonald, Christopher Cross, — etc) you may not have even realized that it was a recognized genre. Here’s a playlist of 200 of the best Yacht Rock songs. (My list of favourite Yacht Rock songs is here.)

Video For Your Treadmill Marathon: The national Norwegian railway has filmed dozens of hours of stunning silent footage out the front window of its cross-country passenger train locomotive, prompting other countries to do likewise. Mesmerizing way to distract you from your boring treadmill activities.

Drumpf Pie: Jonathan Pie sums it up in 3 minutes. Falling-down funny. Thanks to Jon Husband for the link.

Words for Emotions That Don’t Exist in English: A fun list of foreign-language words that mean things that can’t be said in one word in English, if they can be said at all. Language gets slippery, though: we can say what they words denote, but not necessarily what they connote; that requires a cultural framework to understand them. Thanks to Jae Mather for the link.

What the Vietnam War Looked Like From the North: Astonishing photos taken by North Vietnamese photographers, often at enormous personal risk. Thanks to Lorraine Suzuki for the link.

Ants Have a Global Monoculture Too: Research suggests hundreds of billions of Argentine ants, spanning four continents, may belong to a single mega-colony, and recognize each other immediately and peacefully as colony-mates. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.

Zip It Up: Research proves that filling in emptier lanes leading up to a zipper merge and then alternating at the merge point is not only not rude, it’s the best way to optimize traffic flow.


THOUGHTS OF THE MONTH

From Kim Stafford (son of the US poet laureate) (thanks to Tree Bressen for the link). Audio version here. Full book of post-election poems sold here.

The Flavor of Unity by Kim Stafford

El sabor que nos hace únicos.
— Inca Kola slogan

The flavor that makes us one cannot be bought
or sold, does not belong to a country, cannot
enrich the rich or be denied to the poor.
The flavor that makes us one emanates from the earth.
A butterfly can find it, a child in a house of grass,
exiles coming home at last to taste wind off the sea, rain
falling into the trees, mist rising from home ground.
The flavor that makes us one we must feed
to one another with songs, kind words, and
human glances across the silent square.

A Lesson in Time by Kim Stafford

We stood on a forest road at the meadow’s edge
so Joe could teach the story of geologic time.
Mateo set a little flag—red tatter

on a rusted wire—to mark the miasmic
gathering when earth first clenched dust
by the stern affection we call gravity.

In the meadow, grass wavered, and was still.
Then Charles began to step off eons
through the Hadean Period, as low sun

lit the pines gold. We arrived at
the Iron Catastrophe. Mateo set a flag
and Ruby laid down a stem of grass.

Under a sky made blue by oxygen
bacteria had formed, once volcanism
spewed steam from burnt stone, we

marched on. At each extinction, or
new creation, Mateo set a flag
and Ruby placed her stem of grass,

until Joe pulled two hairs from
my head to set in the dust. “The thickness
of these two strands,” he said, “we’ll call

the span of civilization.” Mateo set a flag,
and Ruby placed a stem of grass.

Some definitions from The Devil’s Dictionary (1906), by Ambrose Bierce

• absurdity — a statement of belief manifestly inconsistent with ones’ own opinion
• accident — an inevitable occurrence due to the action of immutable natural laws
• admiration — the polite recognition of another’s resemblance to ourselves
• adore — to venerate expectantly
• apologize — to lay the foundation for a future offence
• brain — the apparatus with which we think that we think; that which distinguishes the person who is content to be something from the person who wishes to do something
• corporation — an ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility
• debt — an ingenious substitute for the chain and whip of the slave-driver
• economy — purchasing the barrel of whiskey that you do not need for the price of the cow that you cannot afford
• hope — desire and expectation rolled into one
• mind — a mysterious form of matter secreted by the brain; its chief activity consists of the endeavour to ascertain its own nature, the futility of the attempt being due to the fact that it has nothing but itself to know itself with
• mine — belonging to me, if I can hold or seize it
• novel — a short story padded; a species of composition bearing the same relation to literature that the panorama bears to art
• oppose — to assist with obstructions and objections
• opposition — the party that prevents the government from running amok by hamstringing it
• outdoors — the part of the environment upon which no government has been able to collect taxes; chiefly useful to inspire poets
• peace — a period of cheating between two periods of fighting
• photograph — a picture painted by the sun without instruction in art
• plan — to bother about the best method of accomplishing an accidental result
• please — to lay the foundation for a superstructure of imposition
• prehistoric — antedating the art and practice of perpetuating falsehood
• presentable — hideously appareled after the manner of the time and place
• reality — the dream of a mad philosopher
• recollect — to recall with additions something not previously known
• resident — unable to leave
• responsibility — a detachable burden easily shifted to the shoulders of god, fate, fortune, luck or one’s neighbour; in the days of astrology it was customary to unload it on a star
• rich — holding in trust and subject to an accounting the property of the indolent, the incompetent, the unthrifty, the envious and the luckless
• riches — the savings of many in the hands of one
• self-evident — evident to one’s self and to nobody else
• talk — to commit an indiscretion without temptation, from an impulse without purpose
• ultimatum — a last demand before resorting to concessions

Posted in Preparing for Civilization's End | 11 Comments

pulse

you have tethered the big rubber dinghy
to a tree on the sea shore
so it floats, just off the beach

and the three of us climb aboard
and, as you insist, put on silk blindfolds
and nestle down on soft blankets
on the supple floor of the boat

for awhile we just bask in the sun
while our friend regales us with descriptions
of amazing brilliantly-coloured
deep sea creatures —
how they move, effortlessly
through the water, pulsing,
their fins and flippers and tentacles
sliding, guiding them through the sea

we can almost sense them
floating under and around our boat
as the waves push us, gently,
almost to shore and out again

pulsing, like a whale’s song

the air is the perfect temperature of our skin
and we imagine it is like this, too
for the creatures in the sea —
no boundary between skin and air and flume,
just one being flowing
outside of time

the sun comes out and warms us, and then retreats
and comes out again, as if to reassure us
it is there still and always

and then a sun shower, the strange feeling
of the sun’s heat and the cool drops
at the same moment
making us laugh

and the breeze is just a whisper
caressing us, teasing us to open to it

pulsing,
like a jellyfish spurting toward the ocean’s surface

the boat ripples with the waves
and follows them toward the shore
and away again

and now your fingers softly brush across our bodies
infinitely gentle touches
smoothing on the oil
that protects and lubricates,
arouses and calms

pulsing,
like the ripples of moonlight on the night sea

so we return the caresses
feeling our way sightlessly
each fingernail sliding deliciously over curves,
each firm hand gliding along flanks and sinews
until our whole bodies are engaged
in the exchange, every nerve ending
teased to the surface

pulsing, like hearts beating, lips sucking
in the still moment of a first kiss

and then, still laughing and smiling
we splay back out under the sun,
barely touching each other
and lie silently, listening to the surf,
feeling the sun and subtle wind and gentle rain,
taking in the scent of lilikoi, spider lily,
limu and coconut

this moment is complete —
it has no intention to it;
it is not leading to a conclusion,
a catharsis, a resolution;
it is just what it is

the cycles of caresses and sunshine and breezes
and raindrops and waves and scents
and breaths flowing in and out
fold over each other and back into one

there is no end to this moment,
no need for it to end, no limit to it,
it is always and has always been

there is no purpose or meaning to this
no objective, no need for anything to be done
there is nothing to be lost, or found, or held on to
no tomorrow, nothing that should be otherwise,
no need for any work, any striving,
anything different

there is only
this

Posted in Creative Works | Comments Off on pulse

The Jellyfish, the Silverfish, and Me


photo by Mitchell Kaneshkevich
About 650 million years ago, jellyfish evolved with, most likely, the first eyes of any creature on the planet. At first, apparently, these were only capable of  distinguishing shades of light and dark. It is not even clear that the evolution of sight from these genes was more than an accident — the genes seem to have many functions unrelated to sight, and may have evolved for other reasons. The evolution was quite a success — jellyfish quickly evolved to have up to 24 sets of eyes, though only the primary set can see in colour. What’s more remarkable is that jellyfish do not have brains, central nervous systems or any of the other characteristics we ascribe to “intelligent” creatures. Yet their eyes clearly “see”. And their eyes are very similar, genetically, to our own.

Is a jellyfish conscious? Does it have a self? If it doesn’t, how can its sophisticated behaviour evading predators and catching prey be explained? How could “instinct” be such an astonishingly complex quality that it can drive such effective behaviour in utterly different sets of circumstances without any reference to a ‘self’ to be protected and to survive?

I have watched silverfish (relative newcomers on the planet compared to jellyfish, emerging only 400 million years ago) show evidence of considerable cleverness at evading capture. They instinctively flee light (and they move incredibly fast), but they also will stop and hide in crevices in full light where they cannot readily be seen, rather than running to darkness further away. And they will not take a straight path, but rather a zigzag, uneven-speed path that makes it harder to catch them.

My observation of these two ancient and “primitive” creatures leaves no doubt in my mind that their actions are deliberative (etymology: “well-weighed, considered”). They appear to make decisions in the moment that optimize their chances of survival. In the case of jellyfish, they do so without brains or central nervous systems; the jellyfish has to ‘decide’, for example, when to use its venom (based on the chemistry it senses in the object it encounters) and when to conserve it (ie when the object is neither predator nor prey).

As a non-dualist, I have come to accept that the self (human and otherwise) is an illusion — it doesn’t actually exist. What we think of as ‘decisions’ made by us are in fact the only thing we could have done in the circumstances, drawing on a combination of the ‘inherent’ biological nature and the ‘learned’ enculturated nature of the creature ‘we’ presume to inhabit. The ‘deliberation’ itself is not conscious. ‘We’ (our ‘selves’) merely ‘consciously’ rationalize the decision after the inevitable action has already been taken. Our actions are no more conscious than those of the jellyfish and the silverfish. No self is required for the appropriate action to be taken, though one may be employed (pointlessly and unwarrantedly) to regret, pride ourselves for, or otherwise second-guess, the action taken.

Suppose we look closer at what happens when an apparently simple ‘decision’ is made. When the jellyfish is evading a sea turtle, or the silverfish is evading my shoe, or I am evading a car coming at me, this is what seems to be actually happening:

  1. Photons, a form of energy, hit the surface of the eye.
  2. Neurons (in the brain, or in the case of jellyfish, in a distributed neural network) pattern the photons and identify something separate that is judged, thanks to each creature’s biology or learning, to be a threat.
  3. Our organs of motility take evasive action.

But while the energy is real, the brains, the neural networks, the creatures, shoes, cars, and organs of motility are not. Also, since there is no time, none of the above actually takes place in time.

So let’s try again. What is really happening here?

  1. Energy in the form of photons is emitted.
  2. That energy is converted to electro-chemical form (messages).
  3. That energy is converted to kinetic, physical form (movement).

But still, you may be thinking, that energy is in separate particles in space and the conversion happens over time. Yet there is no separate anything, and there is no time. This way of thinking about what is happening is evidently still wrong. Why would we be so deluded by our minds and senses to believe this is reality?

We can only make sense of things in accordance with the tools we have to make sense. The evolved retina stores and ‘models’ the images it ‘reads’ from the photons in a two-dimensional raster, and the brain not surprisingly interprets what it ‘sees’ as something having separate two-dimensional substance. The brain also files as ‘memories’ successive images, creating a model of sequences of apparently two-dimensional images (and apparently three-dimensional when it blends the images from both eyes into a stereo image) that seemingly happen over what it perceives as ‘time’ (having invented time as a representational model of these sequences of images to ‘make sense’ of the sequence). This is simply the brain imagining, modelling reality as discrete sets and sequences the best and only way it can. It has nothing to do with true reality, which is just timeless energy appearing as nothing and everything — appearing as all-there-is and what-is-happening.

Here’s a metaphor — yet another inadequate model of reality that cannot hope to capture it, but might perhaps be helpful in getting a sense of it nevertheless. Imagine a 2GB movie in .mp4 format. We can’t make sense of the bytes directly — a brilliant alien species coming across the file in space might be utterly unable to ‘decode’ it. But, filtered through our senses, it is a powerful representation of reality, time and space. It’s complete. What apparently ‘happens’ in the movie is the only thing that could happen, under the circumstances of its production — events seemingly happening in time and space, with apparently real separate characters experiencing real things.

We can get so caught up in the movie that we ‘experience’ it as real. We may even cheer on and encourage the heroine, and boo the villain, towards a desired ending, although we ‘know’ none of this is real, and we know that the ending is ‘already’ as present and complete as the opening credits. Our interventions have no effect, yet we react as if they might.

Analogously, life — all-there-is — can be thought of as a meta movie. When ‘we’ apparently witness it, it appears to represent the reality of real people and depict actions happening over time. It appears that interventions should be possible, decisions between alternatives that will affect the outcome. But that is only an appearance, an illusion. Like in the 2GB movie, all our emotional and intellectual engagement is futile. The ‘movie’ all-there-is is already, timelessly, complete.

The mind cannot grasp this. It needs the model to make sense of things, and all-there-is is vastly too complex to be modelled by a self/mind that is itself a construct, a by-product of the patterning of the brain, which can only ‘know’ what it can represent. Our feeble brain equates ‘completeness’ with everything-being-foreordained, but nothing is foreordained; it is contingent on all the unfathomably complex circumstances apparently present when something apparently happens. But those circumstances are the energy of nothing and everything. Our struggling brains have to separate everything out in space and time to make any sense of it at all, but in so doing just create a model of reality that is infinitely less than the ‘natural reality’ of all-there-is.

I have in past described the self as a disease, an affliction. That is because, similarly to the way the mind is able to conjure up and then become anxious about all kinds of possible eventualities, the furious patterning that creates the self causes the hopeless sense that the self can and ‘should’ intervene in every situation, and creates its own confirmation bias by grasping at the situations in which the rationalization of the self most closely matched what apparently happened, and re-rationalizing the situations in which things apparently didn’t go as the self planned, to bring what had already been unconsciously decided into line with the self’s explanation for how ‘it’ made that decision. A lot of furious and futile energy accomplishing nothing, except perhaps to cause neurosis and other suffering. The self is like a useless and frustrating piece of very buggy software, or a virus, that apparently comes bundled with a very large brain capable of abstraction, and seems impossible to eradicate.

Natural reality — not the sad simple representation our minds perceive — is complete. You might say it’s ‘perfect’ but it’s not that and more than that. It is nothing and everything, one, timeless, all-there-is. There is no room in it for separate selves or separate anything.

None of this will make any sense unless there has been a ‘glimpse’ of it, when all-there-is is suddenly seen, when there is suddenly and briefly no self, no ‘you’. Thankfully my self has, on several occasions, left the room.

These glimpses are indescribable, but since several people have asked me about them, here’s a probably foolish attempt to describe them. Maybe if you’ve had one, some of this might resonate with you, and then the rest of this article might make some sense:

the glimpse

it is suddenly obvious what is really real —
oh, this! — of course!
why wasn’t it always obvious?
there is no need to do or strive for anything,
no need for purpose —
everything is just naturally as it is.
there is no fear of it going away,
as it’s recognized that it’s always there, timeless.

it is a remembrance, a connection to all other glimpses,
full of wonder, unveiled, unfiltered, unrestrained,
startling and unexpected, full-on,
open and with complete acceptance, without resistance.
it is totally stunning, completely alive,
intense in colour, sound, smell, flavour, feel.
in it, everything is effortless, free of anxiety and fear,
peaceful, still, weightless, unconditional.
it is a cheshire-cat-eyes-wide-open-endless smile
full of love (but of no one for no one),
at once an infinitely bright wow and an infinitely gentle mmmmmm.
it is like ‘awakening’ but only metaphorically, not really
no one has awakened.
the ‘I’ has just vanished.

what it is not:
it is not awareness, presence, consciousness,
wisdom, knowing, or understanding.
it is not bliss
(since non-blissful things happen in it,
though they are all taken lightly in stride).
it is not ‘I am’, not a higher ‘self’,
not anything personal or emotional.
it is not ‘more’ or ‘more of’ anything —
it is utterly different from anything
the self can experience or imagine.

what can somehow intuitively resonate with or evoke it, for ‘me’:
light — candles, path lighting, street lamps, a fire’s glow —
they somehow have a ‘wavelength’ that recalls the glimpse.
music, if it’s wordless and not connected to a personal memory.
sense perceptions in unperturbed, ‘uncivilized’ moments —
the whisper of the wind, the scent of rain,
the reflection of the sun or moon off the sea
or of light on a raindrop on a leaf at nightfall.
non-verbal sounds — birdsong and pounding surf and purring
and coyotes howling at the moon —
(language liberated from abstraction, judgement and intent),
scents that bypass the self’s circuitry — sandalwood, raspberries, lilacs,
and events that transport the animal creature beyond the self’s influence:
the sudden yes! of realization of something that was long elusive,
or the first limerence of falling in love.

But this doesn’t describe the glimpse at all. There is no describing it, no understanding it, no experiencing it. There is no path. One moment the virus is doing its worst, afflicting an innocent creature with its mad delusions. And the next moment there is nothing and no one ‘there’ or anywhere, and never was.

The jellyfish and the silverfish are free. For us, the afflicted, a life sentence. We wait, hopelessly, for parole.

Posted in Creative Works, How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 8 Comments

The Illusion of Community


graphic of four types of community and the qualities that make each cohere, by Aaron Williamson (my suggested additions are in red)
Much is being written these days, in political, social, business and collapsnik circles, among others, about community. Most of it assumes that there is such a thing.

A few years ago I wrote a response to Aaron Williamson’s then-new model of community and identity, diagrammed above. Aaron acknowledged that “a community or potential community is a complex system” and that “community itself is an emergent quality — community, per se, does not exist; it is a perceived connection between a group of people based on overlaps of intentidentity, interest and experience”. These four aspects of our ‘selves’ are shown as green circles, above. Elements of each aspect are shown in orange circles.

In this model, overlaps between ‘selves’ can result in the emergence of different types of community:

  • If the overlap is mainly common interests, it will emerge as a Community of Interest. Learning and recreational communities are often of this type.
  • If the overlap is mainly common capacities, it will emerge as a Community of Practice. Co-workers, collaborators and alumni communities are often of this type.
  • If the overlap is mainly common intent, it will emerge as an Intentional Community or Movement. Project teams, various communal living groups and activist groups are often of this type.
  • If the overlap is mainly common identity, it will emerge as a Tribe. Partnerships, love/family relationships, gangs and cohabitants are often of this type.

At the time I wrote “You cannot create community, all you can do is try to create or influence conditions in such a way that the community self-creates (self-forms, self-organizes and self-manages) [and emerges] in a healthier, more sustainable and resilient way.” I identified what I thought were 8 key qualities of such healthy communities and their members: Effective processes for invitation, facilitation, and the building of members’ capacities, strong collective processes, and members’ individual skills of self-knowledge, self-awareness, self-caring, attention and appreciation.

It’s hard to find good enduring examples of such communities. The late, great Joe Bageant taught me that “community is born of necessity”. He showed me what that meant by telling me the story of the isolated village of Hopkins, Belize (while I was visiting him there). Hopkins was formed when a group of slave ships ran aground in a storm 300 years ago, and the survivors escaped and made their way up the Caribbean coast and created a new community there, one which thrived without intervention until it was wrecked just in the last generation by foreigners through trawler overfishing of the Gulf, and the imposition of land title laws (and fences, and walls) on their ‘free’ indigenous common land.

Why did this community succeed for so long? Because the escapees had no choice but to make it succeed; it was life-and-death. This is the ultimatum the collapse of our civilization’s systems and culture will soon present us all with, as possibly two billion climate refugees in a Great Migration bring about the ultimate clash of cultures and the final demise of all of our civilization’s systems.

This is why few of what we would like to call communities today, are actually that: It’s too easy for most to just pick up and leave when they don’t like the people, processes or circumstances of their adopted, emergent communities. There is no necessity holding us together when things get uncomfortable, no requirement to live with and love neighbours we don’t particularly like.

We seek community now for a number of non-essential reasons driven by individual wants and ambitions: attention and appreciation, collaboration on projects, movements and enterprises where we share goals, skills, needs or passions, as well as for protection from perceived threats. The people I met in Hopkins sometimes sought these things, but they weren’t what created or held together the community. And as that community is being destroyed from outside pressures (the loss of their primary food source and their land), what brought and kept them together won’t help them withstand its demise. To anyone who’s studied indigenous cultures, it’s an old story.

So we look for others with whom to form community, individually — online in social media and virtual worlds, in dating services, in ‘meetup’ groups, in clubs, in social organizations. But most of us drift in and out of such groups, dissatisfied with their offerings, mourning their inability to find what we really want — existential connection. All that expectation is loaded up on the shoulders of spouses, governments and employers to fill the existential gap, which they can’t hope to deliver.

The traditional places where people seeking community congregated — churches, higher learning institutions, guilds, cooperatives etc, are in disarray, their memberships falling. This is partly because we’ve become too picky about what we want from so-called community organizations. We want them to cater to our individual wants and needs, and their ‘commercial’ replacements assert that they offer that, though they do not.

So what is this ‘existential connection’ that is lacking in modern ‘communities’? At its heart, I think it is connection to place and to all other life on the planet, which most of us have become disconnected, even dissociated from. We all ‘know’ somehow that living naturally is communal, connected, mutual, integral, unselfish, and loving — the very opposite of individual and isolated and competitive and the ‘optimizing of self-interest’ that underlies our entire modern dysfunctional and massively destructive economic systems.

When I go to meetups of new groups now, I often find such a sense of absolute desperation for community (of all four types), that when they achieve even the brief illusion of that integral sense of community, many present will start to cry in unrestrained (and infectious) appreciation and joy. They will swear to have made vital lifelong connections. But a month later those apparent connections will have vanished. Desperation is not yet necessity. We return to our fragmented, community-less lives.

If you’ve been reading my stuff in the last few years, you’ll know I no longer proffer any ‘solutions’. This predicament is endemic to our modern, global, dog-eat-dog, utterly individualistic culture, a culture that has crushed all of the remaining sensible ones. The system has to fall before we will once again learn what it means to know the necessity of living in community, of being community. There is no cure, no ‘fix’ for Civilization Disease, the disease of disconnection, fear and antipathy.

The problem with systems, as I’ve explained before, is that they don’t really exist. So while in a way the ‘system’ is the problem (it’s associated with our incapacity to reconnect and hence rediscover true community), it’s actually just a label our pattern-seeking brains use to try to understand why things are the way they are. Yet our minds, our ‘selves’ that supposedly sit at the centre of our communities (as depicted in the chart above) are themselves just labels, concepts, pattern-making, attempts to make sense of what ‘we’ cannot hope to understand. (Aaron, as a non-dualist, hints at this, though perhaps wisely he doesn’t really get into it in his writings aimed at business clients who are likely addicted to these illusions, and fiercely ‘self’- and ‘system’-driven.

Some day, in a world probably millennia hence with many fewer human creatures, there will likely once again be real community everywhere on what’s left of our planet. But they will not be communities of interest, practice, experience, capacity or even identity. The ‘selves’ in the centre of Aaron’s model will not exist. There will be no need for these parochial communities, or the selves that cohere them. There will be community of necessity, delight and wonder, non-exclusionary, embracing all life, free from self. There will be no choice. In the meantime, there is nothing to be done. One day, everything will be free.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 2 Comments

The Not-So-Incredible Adventures of Equani-Mouse


cartoon by Felicia Bond on wikimedia, CC-SA 3.0
The people were worried. The Evil Drumpf had seized power in the kingdom. He had installed his corrupt Minions in positions of power, and was plundering the Commons and threatening war with any neighbour who did not accept his absolute edicts. On the ramparts, the people looked hopefully toward the horizon. The children were crying.

“We need a miracle”, said one man.

“If only a hero would come and rescue us”, said another.

Suddenly there was a flash in the sky, and a luminous grey creature descended to Earth in front of the crowd.

“Get back, it’s a giant rodent!”, warned an observant woman.

“Eeew!”, cried the children.

But the giant rodent was undeterred, and turned to the crowd, speaking in a calm voice.

“Don’t be afraid”, the creature said, in a voice that seemed to reverberate around the ramparts. “I am here to help you in this time of need. I am — Equani-Mouse!” His name echoed through the crowd.

“Are you going to kill the Evil Drumpf and restore peace and democracy to the land?”, asked a young boy.

“Just tell us what to do to get rid of this demon, and we’ll follow you”, urged an anxious mother.

Equani-Mouse shook its head and smiled, beseeching the crowd to listen. “I am an expert in complex systems, and what you are dealing with is not a problem with one man, but a predicament. The Evil Drumpf is only one of a million connected variables, evidence of a system in late-stage collapse.”

“Drumpf isn’t a predicament, he’s a whack-job”, interrupted an adolescent. “He needs to be confronted and stopped, now.” The crowd buzzed and nodded in agreement.

Equani-Mouse sighed. “What you must realize about predicaments is that they cannot be ‘fixed’. The only approach to them is to understand and accept what they represent, and learn to cope with and adapt to them. Chop wood and carry water, before and after Drumpf, who is only a symptom of a much greater malaise.”

Many in the crowd frowned, and some outright scowled.

“Boo!”, one boy cried out. “The Evil Drumpf is destroying everything. He’s sick, and incompetent. Don’t tell us to accept him.”

“You’re a fraud!”, a man said, looking at Equani-Mouse menacingly. “You’re not here to help us at all. You’re trying to discourage us. You are probably one of the Evil Drumpf’s Minions!”

The crowd grew increasingly agitated and hostile. Finally, a woman called for order and said to Equani-Mouse: “Look, maybe you’re the wrong person, er… creature, for this job. All we want is justice, what our people have always sought: global human equality, a cosmopolitan world civilisation, fair and free trade, the spread of personal liberty and secular democracy to all corners of the globe. These goals are so obviously desirable that it is inconceivable that we should ever stop progressing towards them. Your telling us to just accept this aberration Drumpf is cowardly and unhelpful. Perhaps you could send us a super-hero better equipped for the task of liberating us and getting us back on track.”

The crowd cheered and applauded this comment. Equani-Mouse took a deep breath. and then replied: “You seem to think that civilization is destined to greater and greater levels of progress and humanity. Your textbooks and media and leaders lie, telling you only what you want to hear. You may be living a much better life now than your species did a couple of centuries or millennia ago, but compared to prehistoric humans, you’re less happy, less healthy, less resilient, less sustainable, more destructive, and most importantly less attuned and connected to the wisdom of all life on this planet. Your civilization is a hubristic affront to millions of years of astonishing evolution on this fragile and beautiful planet. Yet all you want from me is to enable you to try to continue what you have been doing, which is disastrous.”

There was silence. One boy said what others were apparently thinking: “What a loser. The giant rodent wants us to accept the Evil Drumpf as punishment for something we didn’t do, as if it were a plague or pestilence from God. Its advice is hopeless. I say we send it packing. We don’t need another hero. All we want is life beyond the Evil Drumpf. We have leaders, let’s follow them instead.”

Equani-Mouse smiled sadly, and replied:

“You may not realize it, but the Evil Drumpf won’t be able to do anything different from what your last leader, HopiumMan, did. He won’t do anything that is more than symbolically different from what your usurped leader MoreOfTheSameWoman would have done. Look around you. All the systems you’ve built are crumbling. Nothing is working the way it was designed to. You have inadvertently and foolishly desolated the planet and brought about the sixth great extinction of life on it. All your civilized systems are doing is speeding up that process, and causing universal suffering. There’s nothing you can do to change that but accept it, live joyfully in the time that’s left, and do your best to help all the creatures you share this part of this amazing planet with, in small ways that are within your control. A thousand small acts of loving kindness, compassion and understanding, taking joy in others’ joy, and equanimity — these are the ways you all have to do that. What the Evil Drumpf does is of no consequence, and all the news about his deeds is just a distraction causing you stress and grief for no reason.”

“Not buying that Buddhist crap”, said a woman standing near Equani-Mouse. “We can get rid of the Evil Drumpf and his Minions, but we need to be united and forceful, not stand meekly and idly by while he pillages our land and mistreats our people. Let’s join together and send up a prayer to show us the way. Who’s with me?”

The crowd moved toward the woman and slowly the group joined hands and once again turned their eyes to the horizon as the woman uttered her prayer. Suddenly the sky darkened with the shadows of two more flying figures. The wind picked up, and with a flourish a caped woman and a caped man landed in front of the crowd. Equani-Mouse was jostled aside. The woman spoke first:

“Equani-Mouse is wrong!” she shouted. “We can show you the way! I am BeTheChangeHumyn, and this is DeepGreenGuy. A better world is possible. Together we can help you defeat the Evil Drumpf and restore peace, democracy and progress to this great land!” Equani-Mouse winced at the word “progress” but said nothing, shaking its head sadly.

“We must organize, resist, refuse to give up”, BeTheChangeHumyn continued. DeepGreenGuy nodded and chimed in: “There is no honour in passivity. We are all by nature activists, and when we listen we know what needs to be done. We may fail, but we will if necessary die trying”.

Some people in the crowd looked nervous when they heard these last words. But almost everyone in the crowd agreed with either BeTheChangeHumyn or DeepGreenGuy, and as the pair walked away from the ramparts toward the Tower where the Evil Drumpf was, the crowd followed eagerly behind.

Equani-Mouse was left nearly alone, but it shrugged off the rejection. The only people left were a woman and her daughter, who walked over to Equani-Mouse to offer thanks. “They’re not ready for your message,” the woman said. “Their humynism, their activism, their hope, their outrage, it’s a religion to them, a salve, their way of coping.”

“I know,” Equani-Mouse replied, hugging the pair. The little girl smiled at the large grey creature and said, smiling “I thought you were going to try to convince them that there was no Drumpf, that everything that seems to be is an illusion”.

As they walked off toward the forest Equani-Mouse responded, laughing quietly, “Yeah, like that would have worked.”

Posted in Creative Works | 1 Comment

When Our “Health Care” Systems Fall Apart



Screen capture of part of the interactive Information is Beautiful visualization “Snake Oil Supplements”. The static image above shows only the results for tests related to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, pain and infections. The disease or condition for which the supplement was evaluated is shown beneath the name of the supplement in the circle; where the visualization did not have space to identify the condition, I have added it beside the supplement name in red. Please click on the circle on the original visualization for details of the precise conditions evaluated, and links to the specific tests/trials/studies that the evaluation is based on.

David McCandless regularly updates his “Snake Oil Supplements” data visualization, that shows graphically the results of many double-blind clinical trials and other tests of the efficacy of many supplements — herbs, plant extracts, vitamins, minerals, hormones and other commercial products, most of which are not regulated or inspected by the US Food & Drug Administration. It’s a stunning piece of work worth admiring in its own right (as is much of the other work on the Information Is Beautiful site).

The credits for this visualization are:

Research: Stephanie Smith, Miriam Quick
Sources: PubMed, Cochrane.org, Examine.com
RCTs and population studies. Metastudies & large trials used where possible.

A whole bunch of caveats (some theirs, mostly mine) to consider before anyone should put stock in this data:

  1. Every body is different. Just because a statistically significant proportion of test subjects reacted in a particular way to some supplement, doesn’t mean you will.
  2. Much medical research is funded by corporations and other vested interests. Research that doesn’t conform to the message the funders want to convey may never be reported.
  3. Many of these trials involve quite small samples of patients. Most of them carry the standard disclaimer “more research is necessary”.
  4. Tests by reputable public interest groups on supplements have revealed that many commercial supplements either do not contain much (or sometimes any) of the ingredient shown on the label, or are adulterated with other substances, some of which are toxic. This is what happens when the “free market” operates without regulation in the public interest.
  5. There are relatively few tests done on the health benefits of foods and other substances that are inexpensive and easy to obtain or grow/produce yourself, because there is no money to be made from the results of such research (in fact, positive nutrition results could lessen the number of sick people and lessen the use of commercial medicines, making the medical/pharmaceutical industry less “profitable”).
  6. The fact that tests suggest a health benefit from using a particular food or supplement in treating one specific disease, does not mean that supplement is beneficial for other conditions. Example: Fish oil (omega-3) seems to be promising in prevention and treatment of colorectal cancer, but not for other cancers, alzheimers/dementia, cardiovascular disease, asthma, depression or mental illness; it doesn’t seem to increase intelligence, and correlates with a higher risk of prostate cancer. So don’t rejoice or frown just because your favourite or least-favourite supplement shows up as beneficial or harmful for any one specific condition.
  7. Some of these results are when used as a preventive measure, while others are when used as a treatment. Click on the circles in the original visualization to see specifics of each finding.

I’m a believer that the best way to stay healthy is to take the primary role in the self-management of your own health. That means carefully monitoring what works for you, and researching and double-checking anything a health professional (or commercial vendor!) tells you. It means focusing on staying healthy, rather than scrambling for treatments when you fall ill. It means tracking your whole-body health (physical and emotional), eating well, exercising regularly, and doing other things that humans did to look after their health for the million years before the industrial health care system emerged. Although human health is likely better now on average than at any time since civilization (and disaster agriculture) began some thirty millennia ago, there is evidence we’re still much sicker than “prehistoric” humans.

When I contracted ulcerative colitis in 2006, self-management was critical to my recovery, and it has been largely responsible for my complete remission since then. I tried over two dozen suggested medicines and supplements during my recovery, and used regression analysis to determine that only two of them (mesalamine, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory related to aspirin but with a lower bleeding risk in long-term use, and low-dose iron) actually improved (or prevented worsening of) my health. The regression analysis likewise indicated the value of regular weekly (10km running and/or 6 hrs fast walking) aerobic exercise, additional core/upper body exercise, good sleep, a healthy whole-plant-based diet (vegetarian, and vegan since 2010), and other stress-busting activities.

Most of the supplements I tried provided no clear benefit (I eliminated them one by one, and then added them back one by one as a double check on their efficacy). This is consistent with the findings in the visualization — that most supplements are ineffective for most people. This is likely true for a complex set of reasons: Nothing works for everyone, many people get what they need from their diets and don’t need (sometimes absurdly expensive) supplements, and many people are ill because of poor diet and poor lifestyle dating back decades, and are unlikely to benefit dramatically from changes this late in the game.

Our bodies evolved over a million years to be optimally healthy just from eating what was available locally. Why would we imagine that exotic substances ingested now would somehow improve on what nature and evolution have given us?

In my last post I mentioned Nutrition Facts, physician Michael Greger’s non-profit volunteer-driven organization whose aim is to encourage more research into how healthy nutrition can prevent or delay almost all of the diseases that kill and sicken us in affluent nations. His speeches are well-researched, immensely insightful, evidence-based, and entertaining — well worth your time to explore (and most of his videos have transcripts, so you can choose to watch or read, whichever you prefer).

A few of the things I’ve learned from his research:

  • Many of the foods my body naturally seems drawn to (raw broccoli, cauliflower, mushrooms, spinach, cole slaw, berries, bananas, chilis and other spices, beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, tea) are precisely the foods best for me. Many of them are the richest in micronutrients and have natural anti-inflammatory properties (colitis is an autoimmune ie inflammatory disease). Many of them contain natural salicylates (like aspirin). Turmeric may even be as effective an anti-inflammatory as the mesalamine maintenance dose I’m taking now.
  • Several good reasons for adding more nutritional yeast, and taking B12 and D3 supplements, especially in the winter — good advice for all vegans.
  • While I usually allow myself occasional cheese, dairy or eggs when I eat at restaurants with no vegan options, the cheese and dairy can precipitate colitis attacks and the eggs are especially bad for LDL cholesterol. So to be on the safe side, I’m going to cease indulging in these entirely. I can bring my own vegan substitutes to restaurants.
  • Sulfites in alcohol can also precipitate colitis attacks by interfering with the positive effects of fibre in the intestines. Won’t kill me to be on the safe side here too.
  • Although my LDL cholesterol level is within safe limits, it could ideally be lower; reducing oils, using less coconut oil by substituting unsaturated oils, and using less (vegan) creamer in my tea would probably help. If I could develop a taste for tea without creamer or sweetener, that would be doubly advantageous. Could be a challenge though. And it means giving up my favourite sweet chai.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that none of the health care systems in affluent nations is sustainable. The American system is by far the worst, for reasons I’ve talked about before, and headed for collapse, no matter which party is in power. The Canadian system, which now covers only the costs of physicians, hospital care and surgeons (not alternative medicine, not prescriptions, not physiotherapy, not dental care, not eye care, not psychological therapy — ie less than half of most citizens’ total health costs) is not far behind, squeezed by out-of-control increases in drug costs, antiquated infrastructure, and, yes — over-dependence by patients.

The self-management process I follow is rare. Doctors I’ve spoken to say that if every patient followed my example the system would be fine, but few have the time, research skill, and practice looking after their own health, even jointly with their doctors, to do so. Some are completely (and deliberately) dependent on expensive medications for chronic, lifelong diseases (exactly as Big Pharma wants us).

The health systems as we know and depend on them are going down. They’re bloated, exploited by greedy pharmaceutical companies, burdened with obsolete infrastructure, fragmented rather than holistic in patient care, preoccupied with expensive cures for diseases of the very rich, and with the “war on drugs” (forcing doctors to try to solve the social problem of prescription painkillers appropriated by citizens struggling with untreated mental health issues and inadequate social support systems), unbalanced in its generalist/specialist mix, overextended (Canadian GPs can only bill the medical system for 10 minutes for each patient they see), demoralized, over-regulated in some places (thanks to lawyers and insurance companies terrifying health practitioners with opportunistic malpractice suits), under-regulated in other places (eg unscrupulous doctors trying to build their reputations by using clueless patients as guinea pigs for potentially dangerous ‘novel’ procedures), adulterated by fear-mongering hucksters of worthless-to-dangerous ‘alternative’ potions and treatments to vulnerable, ignorant customers, and utterly inflexible. It’s beyond reform.

When, like the rest of our civilization’s unsustainable industrial systems, our health care systems come apart, and are just abandoned by bankrupt governments and insolvent insurance companies and HMOs, leaving us to our own devices, if we aren’t prepared to take care of ourselves and others in our communities, we’re in for a rude shock. In health matters as in everything vulnerable to collapse, resilience starts with personal self-management, and then moves to community-based self-sufficiency. We have a very long way to go.

Posted in Preparing for Civilization's End | Comments Off on When Our “Health Care” Systems Fall Apart