Hierarchy is the Enemy of Learning


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 4 Comments

On Gratefulness: A Self-Enquiry


photo by geralt at pixabay CC0

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 7 Comments

Your Self: An Owner’s Manual


Image by Darren Hopes in New Scientist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy your Self, and good luck!

Posted in Creative Works | 3 Comments

Love Story


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

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

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

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

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

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

What was going on there?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

My Best Stuff


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Horses’ Bodies (Feb 2014) (Poem)*

Invisible (Nov 2016) (Poem)*

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

Speaking Grosbeak (Jun 2015) (Short Story)*

Flywheel (Aug 2014) (Short Story)*

A Conversation (Jul 2009) (Short Story)*

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

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

Posted in Preparing for Civilization's End | 1 Comment

Non-Duality: Three Ways of Describing the Elephant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope this is useful for others exploring non-duality.

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

Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care


Photo: Luke MacGregor for Bloomberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it won’t be the end of the world.

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

How Our Bodies Sense the World, and How ‘We’ Misinterpret It

Las Vegas street mural “sensory perception” by Jef Logan; flickr photo taken by wiredforlego CC BY-NC 2.0
When we look out over the sea, listen to a song, touch a pinecone, smell the salt air, or taste a raspberry, we perceive what our body senses as being ‘real’ and as being an ‘experience’, happening to ‘us’. In this article I’ll try to explore what’s really going on, and how ‘we’ ended up getting it so wrong.

The first sense that evolves, even before we are born, is the sense of touch. That sense is staggeringly complex itself, comprising not only sensations of physical contact but also sensations of temperature, pressure, something called ‘vibration’, relative position, change of position, pain, stretch, itch, and correlated sensations of adjacent places in the body, plus an unfathomable host of ‘feelings’ within our bodies. This sense evolves long before birth because, for example, it ‘tells’ our bodies the limits to which we can safely stretch, so we don’t tear ligaments or do other damage. At this stage the brain processes these sensory inputs autonomically — there is no ‘conscious’ thinking; there is no ‘self’ (yet) to be conscious of anything. The fetus has evolved over millions of years to respond to changes in its environment safely and healthily. Trillions of ‘unconscious’ actions and ‘decisions’ are made as it moves, digests, reacts, exactly as this happens in any other living creature, including the trillions of microorganisms in each human body.

The senses of taste and smell develop very soon after that, so that the fetus gets to recognize the smell of its mother, can immediately differentiate its mother’s milk from anyone else’s, and has started developing a sense of what tastes its mother finds preferable, which it can start to emulate when it’s born. Hearing follows a bit later, so that the infant will immediately be able to recognize voices as mother, friend or stranger, not as words, but as tones — safe or dangerous, reassuring or alarming — and react accordingly. Sight is the last sense to evolve, because it is the least important at the moment of birth. So while a fetus will feel pain (say, if the mother has a digestive ailment or a fall) that feeling is not identified as ‘pain’ or as something happening to ‘it’. It is just felt. From the moment of birth, a similar first-order reaction to visual stimuli begins to occur. The infant’s sense of sight converts the wavelengths reaching its visual receptors into signals, which it relays to its brain.

This is how the brain evolved — as what Stewart & Cohen call a “feature-detection system”. Jellyfish have a feature-detection system as well, but theirs is networked not centralized — they have no brain, yet have evolved and thrived longer than almost any other living creature on the planet. But the centralized feature-detection system seemed to work well, evolutionarily, and that’s how it evolved in humans.

As the infant grows, its brain starts to exhibit a second-order processing of what it senses: It will develop a model, based on instincts, memories, and conditioning, of appropriate reactions to some signals — to be attracted to, or repelled by, or to move around, different ‘features’ based on their sensory qualia. Even tiny microscopic creatures do this — this is not ‘consciousness’, in the sense of a feeling of being separate from everything-else. It is  the autonomic translation of sensory signals by the feature-detection system into reactive behaviours. When we’re asleep, many of these translations (eg the digestion of our midnight snack) continue — no ‘thinking’ intelligence, and no ‘consciousness’, is required.

The brain has evolved for millions of years, without any need for ‘consciousness’. We can find and consume nutritious foods and drinks, create temporary makeshift protection from extreme elements, and propagate the species very effectively without the need to perceive ‘ourselves’ as separate from everything-that-is. The myriad, amazingly diverse species of our planet have seemingly been doing so for billions of years. If this hadn’t been enough, and even optimal, evolution would have ended, or taken some unimaginable turn early in our planet’s history. Even activities like swimming and navigating a car can arguably be done not only well, but better, ‘subconsciously’.

But then, just a blink of an eye in the past, some time after humans split from bonobos and chimps, something strange happened to members of what John Livingston calls the “rogue primate”: The human brain, with lots of excess unused capacity and time on its hands, turned its feature-detection system around and looked at itself. It was, without too much difficulty, able to construct a model of reality, one that seemed potentially very useful and interesting, that perceived of the body in which it was apparently residing as something separate from everything-else.

The brain loves nothing more than finding patterns and making sense of things (sign of a good feature-detection system), and this new model was a doozie. It offered the possibility of being able to predict and prevent danger, and to aspire ‘consciously’ towards better (survival) outcomes for itself. This came with a huge learning curve, however. Everything-else now had to be parsed, labeled, and judged, relative to the survival and, increasingly, relative to the happiness of the apparent self. Thoughts and feelings, which had always arisen as fleeting ephemera in the brain and body, now had to be identified as belonging to the self, harnessed, evaluated, and dealt with. In order to properly categorize memories usefully towards the exercise of this new apparent self’s free will, a mechanism called ‘time’ had to be invented, along with the concepts of past, present and future.

And all this conceptual stuff had to be coordinated with other now-apparently-separate selves in the tribe, and the only way to do this was to invent complicated languages capable of the kind of abstraction and labeling the newly-emerged self was now preoccupied with.

So when ‘we’ go for a walk in the forest, we don’t see the natural reality of everything-that-is — a wondrous, timeless, spaceless, purposeless, meaningless dance of astonishing apparent happenings, with our bodies instinctively (and drawing autonomically on memory and conditioning) reacting in an evolutionarily appropriate way, unconsciously.

Instead, ‘we’ navigate the world through the intermediated model that our self has constructed to represent reality. ‘We’ see trees and other ‘separate’ things, with names and boundaries and purposes, and feel obliged to assign meaning and volition to what these separate things appear to be doing. Reinforced through the use of our abstract languages by other apparently-separate human selves, we ‘live’ within our selves’ constructed separate reality, the hologram they have created. Our ‘selves’ are, by their very nature, hopelessly disconnected from everything-that-is.

When ‘we’ look, we see only separateness, trees labeled as such, each apart and each comprised of endlessly separate components (leaves, molecules, cells, elements, atoms, quarks, waves, all the way down). We have cast aside the perceptual lessons of billions of years of evolution in favour of a wan, lonely and radically-imperfect conceptual model of reality. The self-preoccupied human can no longer see everything-that-is, because it doesn’t fit with the new model. There is no place for the separate self in everything-that-is. That’s why the separate self has a deep-seated sense there is something missing, something wrong, something that has been lost, and why we endlessly and hopelessly search for it.

So we think trees are green, each one separately growing and dying, each with an absolute border between it and everything-else. No other creature, it seems, is similarly afflicted — bees with their staggeringly-complex sets of eyes and fully-integrated feature-detection systems ‘see’ trees and flowers as just waves of colour and vibration (different colours and many more images per second, and with a range of other qualia we can’t begin to perceive or understand). They don’t fly into trees or what we would call ‘solid’ objects because they ‘know’ instinctively, and have learned evolutionarily, to fly around them — there is no ‘conscious’ decision to do so (“tree coming up, have to fly around”) because there is neither enough time for such ‘conscious’ decisions, nor any need for them. Instinct, intuition, ‘the guidance that comes from inside’, evolved over millions of years, is more than enough.

There can be a glimpse — a sudden wondrous awareness that this holographic representation of the self and its world is not real, and that everything-that-is is the natural reality, at the still point where there is no time and no space. And that glimpse reveals that the self-created model on which modern humans and their civilized societies now utterly depend (and believe to be the true reality) is not only a self-delusion but completely unnecessary, a model that hasn’t helped those afflicted with selves succeed better evolutionarily, while those (apparently few) who are not so afflicted function perfectly well without it.

The tragedy for those who seek such a glimpse — or enlightenment or whatever you want to call freedom from the self — is that there is no path to it. There is nothing that the self within its preoccupied world can do to get rid of itself, and trying only focuses even more intensely on the “I am separate” self and its hopeless predicament. I, the writer of this, know what a glimpse is, but it was not something ‘I’ experienced; it was an unexpected, and unattainable, brief falling away of this self. My self is back with a vengeance, but now I’m prepared to acknowledge the plausibility of this impossible message, and the more I study this possibility with a scientist’s and skeptic’s mind, the more it just makes sense. And the less all the complicated theories and models of scientists and students of human nature rooted in the belief in separate selves in time and space, make sense.

I am not writing this with the hope or expectation that anyone reading will understand or agree with it. It cannot be successfully described, argued, empirically defended, demonstrated or proved. Yet while achieving some clarity about this explanation of reality and unreality does not bring liberation from the self’s enduring sense of its own seemingly-irrefutable existence, its apart-ness and lifelong predicament, it somehow resonates with something deep inside, something that is beyond ‘me’, something that somehow ‘knows’, remembers, when the truth was seen, when there was nothing missing, nothing to be done, no thing apart. Only this.


I sit upon the forest’s sphagnum floor
each day
and will my stubborn self to fall away.

First, I try to meditate,
to “clear my mind of thoughts”,
but the mind is a small child
always grasping at new and shiny things:
“mine, mine, mine”.

So I try self-inquiry
but my self isn’t talking
without its lawyer present.

Then I try “just looking
but my self isn’t buying any of it.

I try “just letting go
but the self on the other end
just holds on tighter.

So I try surrender
and my self smiles, leans back,
and clasps its hands behind its head.

Finally I resort to resignation
but my self pulls out a life contract
and points to my signature.

Still, I remember, somewhere
deep inside these dis-enchanted bones — except
it’s not a memory,
it’s a piecing-back-together,
a reassembly of what somehow came apart.

There are no words for this

but it’s all that ‘I’ doesn’t have.

Posted in Creative Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 3 Comments

Links of the Quarter: June 2018


multimedia reprocessed/washed/painted photo produced by my friend Ron Woodall

Carlo Rovelli is a highly-respected theoretical physicist whose work is focused on the concept of quantum gravity. Each book, in which he writes about his latest thinking, is stranger than the last. His latest, The Order of Time, gently but firmly acknowledges that time is just a mental construct, a way for the human brain to make sense of things, and it doesn’t actually exist; it’s “just a story we tell ourselves in order to make sense of our existence”. Neither, he says, does space or anything in space really exist: “The world is made of events, not things”, he explains. How this happens, he acknowledges, is a mystery. “Time is the form in which we beings whose brains are made up essentially of memory and foresight interact with our world: it is the source of our identity”, he writes.

In his review of the book, Ephrat Livni sums it up this way: “Time is a story we’re always telling ourselves in the present tense, individually and together. It’s a collective act of introspection and narrative, record-keeping and expectation, that’s based on our relationship to prior events and the sense that happenings are impending. It is this tale that gives us our sense of self as well, a feeling that many neuroscientists, mystics, and [now physicists like Carlo Rovelli] argue is a mass delusion”.

One of these neuroscientists is Anil Seth. He argues that the perception of our self and our “conscious” reality is a “hallucination”. What we perceive, he says, is the brain’s “best guess”, based on its accumulated modelling of the world, about what the electromagnetic signals coming to it from the senses actually “mean” in reality. What we “experience” as the world is merely our mental model of it. “When we agree on our hallucinations, we call that reality. And the experience of being a self is also a controlled hallucination generated by the brain… We ‘predict’ our selves into existence.”

This is why I’m so taken with radical non-duality, whose preposterous and useless message is looking more and more like the truth about what is real, according to the latest learnings and theories in physics, neuroscience and philosophy. No glimpse needed.


PREPARING FOR CIVILIZATION’S END


photo by Ian Nelson of Hanalei Bay, Kaua’i  after the April 2018 floods, which swept away some livestock fences and introduced some species to some novel ecosystems

Evolutionary Dead End: xraymike exhaustively catalogues the last year’s news on climate change and economic overshoot, with dozens of supporting links. It’s a dismal report. I’m glad he’s tracking it all; I can no longer bear to.

A Wilderness Between Us: td0s writes about reclaiming the wildness that is our birthright, and our sanity. And then:

If the wilderness is gone, we fight where we stand. Instead of escaping to an unseen frontier, let us invite the wild in. Let it consume civilization from the inside out.

Life at the End of the World: A review of 3 new works: Richard Powers’ cli-fi novel The Overstory, William Vollman’s blistering critique of the nuclear power industry No Immediate Danger, and Paul Schrader’s film First Reformed. All three, are essentially, about the consequences of our disconnection from the natural world. None is a message of hope or redemption.

Speaking the Unspeakable: Mayer Hillman of the Policy Studies Institute no longer fears to say what most are unwilling or unable to say (thanks to Jae Mather for the link):

We’re doomed. The outcome is death, and it’s the end of most life on the planet because we’re so dependent on the burning of fossil fuels. There are no means of reversing the process which is melting the polar ice caps… I’m not going to write anymore because there’s nothing more that can be said.


LIVING BETTER


image from the Writing on Writing FB site

That Would Be No: Bill Leith writes about how, and why, to learn to say no.

An Untouchable Day Every Week: Neil Pasricha explains why we need one (and not on the weekend), for our productivity and peace of mind, and how to ensure we get one.

Community-Based Power: The remote Scottish island of Eigg is being visited by groups from all over the world studying Eigg’s electrical energy self-sufficiency which comes from a careful mix of wind, solar and micro-hydro power. Thanks to my brother Alan for the link.

Once More, What You Should Eat: Mark Bittman and David Katz review a ton of research on the connection between nutrition and health (and quality of life) and say, as nutritionfacts.org has been saying for years, for most people the best diet is a wide variety of unprocessed, whole plant based foods. One more time:

The basic theme of optimal eating — a diet made up mostly of whole, wholesome plant foods — has been clear to nutrition experts for generations… A diet cannot be optimal if it is not made up mostly of some balanced combination of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, and water.

And What You Should Not Eat: Deep Green Resistance activist Lierre Keith may be on the right (left?) side of the lamentable schism between radical feminists and trans rights activists, but the extreme anti-vegan position she takes in her latest book is enough to alienate even her strongest supporters. Nutritionist Ginny Messina attempts, patiently and thoroughly, to set the record straight on Lierre’s absurd claims:

It’s next to impossible to review this book; it is so packed with misinformation and confusion that refuting the claims could be another book itself… We get page after page of contradictions, fabrications, and misinterpretations. Not surprisingly, given the sources she uses, Keith is woefully confused about fats. She believes that saturated fat is needed for absorption of vitamins and minerals, that polyunsaturated fat is “low-fat,” and that we have a dietary need for cholesterol. In fact, we have no dietary need for either saturated fat or cholesterol—there is no RDA for either. The liver makes all the cholesterol our bodies require. And the two essential fatty acids required by humans—both unsaturated—are found in plant foods.

Two Natural Bug Bite Preventatives: Consumer Reports found only two natural (non-DEET) products effectively prevented mosquito and tick bites: 30% concentration of Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (but NOT cedar, cinnamon, citronella, clove, geranium, lemongrass, rosemary, or peppermint), and 20% picardin (black pepper plant) spray (but not lotion, even with the same concentration).

Atul Gawande on Science Careers and Conversations About Death: The doctor, frequent New Yorker contributor and author has written a lot of good stuff, but none better than his commencement speech to CIT about the dangerous growth in the misunderstanding and mistrust of science, and his article about how to talk, and think, about our and loved ones’ mortality and end-of-life quality. Thanks to Peter Frinton for the links.

Reversing Alzheimers: A former BC politician and doctor says he has a saliva test that predicts whether you will develop the disease, and that ibuprofen, an OTC anti-inflammatory, will prevent it if you test positive and start taking it early enough.

Bulldoze the Business Schools: A lifelong B-school prof says they’ve lost course and should be scrapped. “If we want those in power to become more responsible, then we must stop teaching students that heroic transformational leaders are the answer to every problem… The sort of world that is being produced by the market managerialism that the business school sells is not a pleasant one. It’s a sort of utopia for the wealthy and powerful, a group that the students are encouraged to imagine themselves joining, but such privilege is bought at a very high cost, resulting in environmental catastrophe, resource wars and forced migration, inequality within and between countries, the encouragement of hyper-consumption as well as persistently anti-democratic practices at work.”


POLITICS AND ECONOMICS AS USUAL


Cartoon by Lisa Rothstein for The New Yorker

Good Reasons to Distrust Canada: While Der Drumpf’s Trudeau-bashing is getting Canadians outraged and Americans apologetic (now there’s a switch!), there are lots of reasons for Canadians to be utterly ashamed of what we are doing to the world. A few recent examples:

Meanwhile South of the Border:


FUN AND INSPIRATION
image from the Facebook group Non-existent Existential Memes

Jonathan Pie, Feminist: The satirist lampoons the typical male confusion about the significance of the gender pay gap (and the propensity of the media in general to want to make things simpler than they are). His “interviewee” is brilliant.

Richard Bartlett on Belonging, and on American Exceptionalism: The Kiwi Loomio/Enspiral co-founder describes the urges and dangers of belonging, and how the US truly is different from other “developed” nations. (Both long but worthwhile reads.) Thanks to Tree Bressen for the links.

What Can an Old Folk Song Tell Us?: The musical duo Anna and Elizabeth do a bit of cultural anthropology, in two-part harmony.

What Every Country in the World Calls Itself: In it’s own language. Or in table form.

Siyahamba and Shosholoza: A choir from Congo Brazzaville blends two moving South African anthems. Stories of the songs here and here.

Circle Song: Bobby McFerrin & The Kuumba Singers do a circle song, a form of improv singing.

What’s That in the Sky? It’s Just Steve: Canadian hobbyists identify, and name, a new atmospheric phenomenon.

A Brief History of Timekeeping: Zach Holman presents an entertaining and well-researched analysis of why we keep time the way we do. (Leave ‘time’ for this — it’s long but worth it.)

The Wisdom/Madness of Crowds: Nicky Case’s brilliant little interactive explanation of what crowds are good, and bad, at. Thanks to Ben Brangwyn for the link. (This one also needs some time to do justice to it.)

Where Were You on the Night of…?: If you leave Google location set to “on” on your smart phone, Google Timeline knows exactly (to the metre) where you’ve been and how long you were there. It can give you a play-by-play, and even knows by your speed whether you drove, cycled or walked. Google promises they don’t upload this information; it’s for your eyes only. Uh huh. If you’ve forgotten the name of that vegan restaurant in Brighton near the pier you visited last year, it will tell you. If you’ve been doing something immoral or illegal, better not leave your phone lying around. Though it might actually give you an alibi if you need one. Of course, it could have been hacked…


THOUGHTS FOR THE QUARTER


another masterpiece from Bowen Island cartoonist Ron Woodall; the characters portrayed are the Bowen Island Black Sheep, our amazing local Morris Dancers

This edition of “thoughts for the quarter” is entirely quotes from David Foster Wallace, mostly selected from Amazon’s Goodreads service. Yes, I know there’s lots of evidence he was not a very nice person to some who knew him or worked with him. Still, he had a way with words:

“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”

“You will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.” (from Infinite Jest)

“Everything I’ve ever let go of has claw marks on it.”

“Whatever you get paid attention for is never what you think is most important about yourself.”

“The next suitable person you’re in light conversation with, you stop suddenly in the middle of the conversation and look at the person closely and say, ‘What’s wrong?’ You say it in a concerned way. He’ll say, ‘What do you mean?’ You say, ‘Something’s wrong. I can tell. What is it?’ And he’ll look stunned and say, ‘How did you know?’ He doesn’t realize something’s always wrong, with everybody. Often more than one thing. He doesn’t know everybody’s always going around all the time with something wrong and believing they’re exerting great willpower and control to keep other people, for whom they think nothing’s ever wrong, from seeing it.” (from The Pale King)

“I’d like to be the sort of person who can enjoy things at the time, instead of having to go back in my head and enjoy them.”

“To me, at least in retrospect, the really interesting question is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention. Why we recoil from the dull. Maybe it’s because dullness is intrinsically painful; maybe that’s where phrases like ‘deadly dull’ or ‘excruciatingly dull’ come from. But there might be more to it. Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient, low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention. Admittedly, the whole thing’s pretty confusing, and hard to talk about abstractly…but surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places any more but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets’ checkouts, airport gates, SUVs’ backseats. Walkman, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.”

“I’d tell you all you want and more, if the sounds I made could be what you hear”

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | Comments Off on Links of the Quarter: June 2018

Plus Ça Change


photo by the author

“Everything had changed, but nothing seemed different”
— Meg Hutchinson, True North

Lately I’ve been reading back over some of the old posts in this 15+ year-old blog. Some of what I wrote still mostly makes sense, but a lot of it has my eyes rolling back in my head. How could I have been so naive, so arrogant, so blind, so caught up in what everyone else believed and said?

Yet, I am learning that what we perceive, or more accurately conceive, as time, and its passing, is just an illusion, something our brains made up as a convenient way to categorize, store and recall what we think of as memories. A figment of our imaginations, though one widely shared and (as Einstein said) “very convincing”.

If there is no time, no past or future, and most of all no “now”, there can be no change, which has to happen ‘over’ time. As John Gray has written “We act in the belief that we are all of one piece, but we are able to cope with things only because we are a succession of fragments. We cannot shake off the sense that we are enduring selves, and yet we know we are not.”

If this is so, what is this apparent change that ‘I’ have gone through? If there is no time and no ‘me’, how shall I account for the fact that I once apparently believed that our civilization culture could and ‘should’ be reformed? That I thought things would be better if we worked to elect different governments or “reconnect with the Earth”? That I used to blame people for what I saw as their deliberate bad behaviour and stupidity, and ridiculed the idea of us not having free will?

During ‘moments’ when my self has fallen away, and there has been a glimpse, a true perception (not a conception) of what really is, it has been apparent that this magnificent life just is, and that there is no ‘reason’ or ‘how’ or ‘why’ or purpose or meaning for any of it, including the astonishing feat of co-evolution that has seemingly brought about an incredible complexity of atoms, cells, creatures and environments into the co-choreographed dance of life on Earth that, in our quieter moments, we so appreciate that we call it, all-of-it-as-one, Gaia. When there is a glimpse, this is still appreciated, still wondrous, but seen to be just an appearance, a game that nothing plays appearing as everything, outside of time and space. Time is seen as just a way of looking at the tiny subset of the infinite, endless possibilities that our senses are able to perceive, a way of ordering them to try to make sense of them, a putting of them in a seemingly-useful sequence, like cels in a movie that can then be played backward or forward to make sense of the memories — when those cels are just appearances and have no need for order or sense-making.

This is not a psychedelic or other self-awakening or personal enlightenment, or even an ‘experience’; it is not something you finally wake up from and ask whether it was real or not. It is not a ‘knowing’ — in fact it is the realization that nothing is or can be ‘known’ since there is no reason for it, no continuity, no existence within (our conceptions of) time and space. There is no explanation for it, and it needs none — it is totally obvious. It is just seen to be true, as everything we seem to know, including the knowledge of our selves, is seen through as illusion, false patterning like the animals we read into cloud formations, and like the characters and events in our dreams we try to make meaning of.

Human nature and institutions are not immutable, unchangeable, as the expression plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose suggests. But neither are they mutable. They just are, and (infuriatingly) also are not. They are our collective agreement of what is absolutely real, because ‘we’ can’t function without belief in absolutes, and belief in change. We’ve just all agreed, through mutual conditioning, to act as if our selves, and time and space, are real and separate and even controllable, even though very young children, who don’t get the joke, are incredulous and think we’re all acting, until we force them, with every word we utter and every action we take in their presence, to admit and then fervently agree that the naked emperor is indeed finely attired. Only on this strange footing can the business of the separate self and the adventure of ‘conscious’ human beings begin, ludicrously lacing together the unconnected fragments into a sad, veiled, and finite ‘life’. Our sense of separation is a horrible, fatal and incurable affliction. ‘I’ would rather be a bird, please.

Birds, I believe, are not encumbered with a sense of separateness, finiteness, mortality and self. That doesn’t mean there is no pain, no sadness, no fear; in fact I think these are felt much more by creatures without the veil of self, without the illusion that these are things to be suffered and (oh, progress!) overcome. And likewise, I believe, they feel more joy than our miserable selves are capable of. But for the birds these are not personal feelings; they are feelings that arise in what I can only, annoyingly, call ‘oneness’. These feelings do not belong to ‘them’ because there is no separate ‘them’. So there is no identification with these feelings, and the related thoughts, and hence they quickly dissipate, with no ‘one’ to attach them to.

I have thought a lot about what seems to be, in times of great stress, a sense of separateness, self-awareness and responsibility within wild creatures. How can there be what seems obviously ‘separation anxiety’ if there is no separateness? While the emotion is obviously real, that does not preclude it being instinctual — not automatic, but conditioned by the creature’s DNA and socialization. Wild animals show much more emotion when trapped than they do when they’re in (even acute) pain. Is that because entrapment is much more likely to be a death sentence in wild spaces than pain is, and the more virulent reaction is therefore evolutionarily selected for? Again, I am not saying they’re senseless — they likely feel much more fully and deeply than we can, living in our uncomfortable, artificial construct of reality instead of the ‘real’ world. I’m just suggesting that they are sensate creatures (alive and seeing and feeling the world principally through their senses and intuitions, seeing and feeling it as oneness, timeless, and endlessly wondrous) rather than ‘self-conscious’ creatures like our afflicted species (alive, and made endlessly anxious, only through the shallow representation of the separated world we conceive of and then attach our selves to).

‘I’ would rather be a bird, please.

The birds ‘know’, I think, that rien ne change, et rien ne reste immuable — that nothing changes, and nothing ever remains the same. We humans, sadly, will never understand.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | Comments Off on Plus Ça Change