The Mushroom at the End of the World

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s book The Mushroom at the End of the World is subtitled “On the possibility of life in capitalist ruins”. She’s not talking about the future, when the industrial economy has completely collapsed. She’s talking about the present, in places where collapse is already well underway. The book describes how alternative economies — not the neat tidy ‘sharing’ economies we idealists like to write about, but the underground economies that emerge out of necessity, and always have — evolve, and the lessons they have for us as our civilization culture continues to crumble.

It’s a radical and equanimous book — it leaves judgement about economics and justice and fairness to others, and instead describes what is, in well-researched, gritty detail. To do so Anna introduces many new terms to the lexicon of economics, necessary she says because analytic, mechanical models of economics fail to describe how economies really work, so a whole new vocabulary of holistic terms is needed, terms that describe the inseparable interdependence between creatures and environments, instead of the economist’s usual oversimplified model of ‘resources’ as something separate, and mechanisms of purported control.

To show this interdependence, she describes how one tiny piece of the economy actually works — the harvesting and distribution of matsutake mushrooms. She then shows how staggeringly complex and uncontrollable the workings of this completely self-evolved and self-organized economy are, and in so doing demonstrates that every aspect of our economy works thusly — the belief that we can fully understand and ‘manage’ an economy at any level is shown to be complete hubris.

A small and totally incomplete but core part of this economy is illustrated in the diagram above. Here are its essential components:

  1. Like almost everything in our modern culture, the creation of wealth through matsutake mushrooms starts with a salvage operation. Salvage is the process of exploiting value outside the capitalist supply chain. Drilling for oil is salvage. Harvesting crops is salvage. Contracted labour is salvage. The capitalist economy has outsourced almost all salvage operations to independent contractors to minimize risk. Capitalists attempt to control these contractors by controlling the elements of the supply chain as it enters and leaves the industrial economy (yellow area on chart). So Chinese slave labour garment factories are bonded to multination “brand” corporations through license agreements. They don’t care what goes on in the grey “salvage economy” area — let the salvagers argue with the environmentalists, lawyers, regulators and social justice advocates. Their job is to accumulate the salvage, alienate it (make it unrecognizable as to source, as much as possible, so customers are in the dark as to what factory farming or slavery or genetic alteration or other operation was involved — hence their opposition to labelling initiatives), and commoditize it for the market — the part of the supply chain that is low-risk and under their control.
  2. What we read about in economics books is just what happens in the yellow area of the chart, the most insignificant part, but it’s the part where almost all profit accumulates (as required by corporate charter), and the most expensive part (where the huge oligopolistic price increases are in the supply chain).
  3. Much of the book describes the life and process of the matsutake pickers in the forests of Eastern Oregon, in order to convey how unfathomably complex the essential salvage economy is. Forestry policies over the years (themselves dependent on innumerable variables) have resulted in ruined forest wasteland in much of Eastern Oregon. Timber companies clear-cut much of the state, then attempted to replant monoculture tree species to keep the industry going, and eventually, due to many other factors, abandoned the effort, leaving a mess. First Nations had paid close attention to the ecology and had found sustainable ways (including controlled burning) to manage the forests (as have indigenous peasant groups in most countries with forests). But when the First Nations peoples were slaughtered and driven out, their skills were lost. The unnatural mess left behind by the timber companies creates huge fire dangers that modern fire prevention measures actually exacerbate. But it would take a century (which our civilization doesn’t have) to manage these forests back to health through knowledgable ‘disturbances’ (the term Anna uses for interventions, planned and unintentional).
  4. As with our modern industrial agricultural policies (what is accurately called ‘disaster agriculture’ since it uses wholesale flooding, burning, poisons and plowing to keep unnatural monocultures going), we have no idea how to ‘disturb’ ecosystems in healthy, sustainable ways, so we just keep creating monoculture messes and abandoning them when yields disappear. Creating such disturbances, carefully and modestly, is the essence, Anna says, of intervening in an ecosystem for healthy succession over decades — true permaculture.
  5. The ruined mess in Eastern Oregon has allowed “uneconomic” fir and pine trees to flourish, and matsutake mushrooms thrive in such forests. At the same time, Japanese forestry policies and programs (which are in turn a result of western occupation after WW2 and other complex factors) have largely eliminated firs and pines there in favour of more profitable species, accidentally killing off the matsutake, a centuries-old staple and delicacy in Japan, in the process. So suddenly, with no local supply and a new supply in Oregon, a new economy was born in the ruined forests of Oregon, and also in the peasant forests in China and elsewhere.
  6. Except for a few war vets, whites are not inclined to pick mushrooms in the forest for a living. But Southeast Asians, many of them refugees to the western US from the Vietnam war and other American wars, are skilled at picking them, and delighted for an alternative to the discrimination and soulless labour in American cities, so they flocked to the freedom of the Oregon forests, creating entire communities along the ethnic lines (Lao, Khmer etc) they grew up with, in the forest.
  7. In the Oregon forests, they ran up against forest authorities, but have now reached an uneasy peace with these authorities. Legislation, Anna explains, requires “public forests” to be thinned for fire protection for one mile around all private structures, mandates the hiring of private companies to do the thinning, and allows logging but not mushroom picking in these “public forests”. The authorities have to work around these unwieldy and absurd laws. (You can be sure the anti-environment, pro-privatization Trump will make this situation unimaginably worse).
  8. Impromptu supply chains then emerged to connect the pickers with Japanese companies looking to sell to their domestic clients. Buyers, sorters, aggregators and other intermediaries evolved, again mostly along traditional ethnic lines according to the specialized skills needed. Japanese import companies, many of them based in Vancouver BC, were ready to alienate the new product and accumulate the salvage.
  9. Once in Japan, the mushrooms are re-sorted, because one of their primary uses in Japan represents an exit again from the industrial economy. Matsutake mushrooms are prized as gifts given in an economy built on relationships. They cement deals, honour rituals and provide tokens of appreciation. Gifts of this sort were once hand-made, rather than dependent on the industrial economy. With the collapse of the industrial economy, which now simply concentrates wealth and power without adding any value (affixing a label and marketing do not add real value), we will have to learn to hand-make, or hand-grow, our gifts again.

The industrial economy, Anna explains, is unable to deal with limits. It requires an endless supply of controllable, manageable ‘resources’ and endless growth. As we reach the limits to growth, the corporations in the oligopolistic industrial economy have scrambled to outsource what they cannot control, and they use their control of supply chains to bottleneck the salvage and the gift economy so they are forced to deal with, and through, the oligopolies (despite their massive cost).

One of the key concepts of the book is the idea of precarity — the reality that ‘natural’ resources and events are unpredictable and uncontrollable and can be disruptive.

“Precarity once seemed the fate of the less fortunate”, she writes. “Now it seems that all of our lives are precarious, even when for the moment our pockets are lined.” The hallmark of a culture and world in collapse is that precarity is ubiquitous. Thanks to precarity, America cannot be “made great again”, if it ever was, despite many Americans’ nostalgia for that dream.

The economy of the future will be one of increasing precarity, leaving less and less room for the industrial economy as it grows increasingly unsustainable. We have to start imagining how this emerging post-industrial economy will emerge and how we can survive and thrive in it. That post-industrial economy will not be a knowledge economy, it will be principally a salvage economy, with elements of a gift and relationship economy. It can’t be designed or controlled. It will evolve as it must, as it always has, in patchy, unorganized and then self-organized ways. It will be one, in Anna’s words, of “disturbance-based ecologies in which many species [and cultures] sometimes live together without either harmony or conquest”. It will take more imagination than what we have shown so far (Mad Max, neo-survivalism and new old west scenarios) to collectively navigate our way to such an economy.

Such an economy cannot be imposed or centralized because it doesn’t scale. Anna explains that the industrial economy began with European plantations, where (slave) labour and (conquered) land was, for a time, unlimited and controllable. The model was then exported to the factory. Without unlimited, controllable ‘inputs’, the model comes undone, as has now happened.

The emerging salvage/gift/relationship economy will of necessity be local and opportunistic, responsive to what is available at hand. The yellow area of the chart above will gradually disappear, as we find we can no longer afford to allow capitalists to exploit their concentrated power to appropriate obscenely disproportionate wealth while doing nothing of value. As they have disintermediated, so they will be disintermediated. Imports and exports will quickly become prohibitively expensive and rare, so production and consumption will mainly occur locally, near each other. That will require much more knowledge of local ecology and sustainable ‘disturbances’ that indigenous cultures had mastered. But that knowledge and those practices are local, and will not easily translate to areas they’re most needed — areas where indigenous knowledge has long been lost.

The idea of inventorying to tie up supply and force up prices will vanish — locally it will simply not be tolerated. We will have to relearn how to accumulate only the salvage we need, and how to do so simply and sustainably. And we will rediscover the value of gifts and relationships. The concept of ‘property’ will eventually die.

In the latter part of the book, Anna talks about the increasing importance of ‘noticing’ — studying humbly how things appear to work and how small disturbances work, or don’t. She also explains how interdependent we are with other creatures. For example, pine wilt nematodes, which co-evolved with pines in North America and which take out only sickly trees (healthy trees are immune), traveled with American pines shipped to Japan in the last century. Japanese pines have no immunity and hence were devastated by these insects, contributing to the scarcity of matsutake mushrooms in Japan and the explosion of matsutake picking in North America.

Nature selects relationships, rather than species, she asserts. Survival of the fittest entails how one fits in with one’s fellow species in each local place, and that’s more about relationships with other creatures (what one offers to the whole) than competitive advantage. These in turn are the result of what she calls “contingencies of encounter”, and these occur incessantly and need to be observed and appreciated in order to thrive in any local environment.

She also speculates that, based on some recent research, viruses may be the means by which DNA try out variations to see if they are naturally selected; they may not merely be ‘random’.

There is no such thing as a separate culture, she argues — creatures of different species and their environments “co-culture” each other as much or more than creatures of a single species do. Cats and dogs and even creatures in industrial confined animal operations are our co-cultures; the creatures in such operations create a human culture of enduring wilful ignorance, denial and indifference to suffering that permeates far more than just what we choose to eat.

So rather than studying cultures in isolation, we should be studying assemblages — the contingent, precarious, endlessly disturbed, coalescing “polyphonic performances of living”.

But we seem a long way from doing that, she concludes. Near the end of the book she describes the modern Japanese phenomenon of hikikomori: “a young person, usually a teenaged boy, who shuts himself in his room and refuses face-to-face contact. Hikikomori live through electronic media. They isolate themselves through engagement in a world of images that leaves them free from embodied sociality — and mired in a self-made prison. They capture the nightmare of urban anomie for many; there is a little bit of hikikomori in all of us.”

This book is an excellent summary of where, in our economic, social and ecological theories and practices, we have gone wrong, and how we might start to learn to notice what is actually happening, and then, humbly, take our place in the world.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 2 Comments

A Criminal Investigation

sherlock-holmes-147255_1280Recently I’ve been going back and reviewing a lot of the ‘less-than-radical’ non-duality material I’ve saved over the past two years, to see how relevant it still is to me.

I came to the conclusion that Tony Parsons, Jim Newman, Richard Sylvester (and other radical non-dualists), and Eckhart Tolle, Adyashanti, Rupert Spira, Jon Bernie, Mooji, and Ilona Ciunaite (and other less-radical non-dualists) are essentially communicating the identical message about the non-existence of the separate self and free will, about time as a mental construct, about what is real, what awakening is etc. The only real difference is the way this message is articulated, and (critically) whether there is a ‘path’ to awakening (and if so what that path is).

They all tend to agree, too, that it’s in the nature of the self, the mind, the ‘me’, to be unhappy about this sense of separation and (for some) to seek a path to ‘awakening’ from this sense.

I was particularly taken by a comment by (the non-radical) Adyashanti that turns the way we usually think about this seeking on its head. Instead of trying to find a path to realize what is real beyond the self, what if we instead asked How is it that the self/mind is able to sustain its/our belief in what is unreal so effectively? He frames the contemplation of this question as an investigation (perhaps the ‘crime’ being investigated is the terrible suffering and destruction wrought by all our ‘selves’). If everything is oneness — everything is just what is, timelessly, beyond our control — how is it we are all so effectively, continuously, fooled by our self/mind into believing otherwise?

There are some clues to this question that I have written about of late. One is the startling recent discovery of science (1) that there is no physically identifiable separate self, (2) that time is in fact just a mental construct that has no basis in reality, (3) that we do not consciously ‘make’ decisions (our minds rationalize what we’re already doing as being ‘their’ decision directly after the fact), and (4) that an illusory view of reality is often evolutionarily successful, ie that those creatures with a simplified, utterly incomplete perception of reality can and do out-survive creatures who see the world as it really is. David Eagleman and Donald Hoffman have recently made this latter point compellingly.

A second clue is the high degree to which our thinking (and the neural formations in the brain that co-evolve with it, and with our learning, notably during our formative years) is conditioned by those around us. If everyone around us believes that climate change is a hoax, or that the earth is flat, or that keeping other human beings as slaves is normal, or that criminals are responsible for their actions and should be punished, or that confining and then butchering wild animals causes them no suffering, or that industrial civilization is healthy and natural, it is really hard for an individual to sustain a conviction otherwise. We are social creatures and much of how we make meaning is derived through social exchange. And as George Lakoff and others have shown, we tend to hear what resonates with what we already believe and not hear what does not.

We humans now live in a prosthetic human-made world, and are utterly dependent on it. The tropical places and ecosystems where we thrived for a million years before our selves took us to inhospitable climates have long been destroyed by civilization culture, and couldn’t support anywhere near today’s human numbers anyway. So escaping the indoctrination of other selves is impossible, even if we were inclined to seek it.

What Adyashanti is urging is the recognition that the ‘I’ can’t know that it is itself unreal, so any such realization of the truth has to come from something beyond the I. Seeing this truth, he says, can create the “gap” that allows the suspension of our belief in this great illusion and enables the sudden realization of what is real and what is illusory, or what radical non-dualists (who deny however that the gap can be created intentionally) call the temporary “falling away” of the self. I’m not sure that this conjuring trick can really work, but in the spirit of investigation let’s explore it.

Here’s the question again:

How is it that the self/mind is able to sustain its/our belief in what is unreal so effectively? If everything is oneness — everything is just what is, timelessly, beyond our control — how is it we are all so effectively, continuously, fooled by our self/mind into believing otherwise?

The illusion of the separate self is evolutionarily advantageous, persuasive and socially reinforced (if it weren’t, there probably wouldn’t be ‘selves’). But still, why are we unable to see through this illusion, even when intellectually and intuitively we know (a) it’s not real and (b) that seeing through it may be the key to ending much of life’s unhappiness and suffering? What do we value more than the truth?

Perhaps it’s more important to be happy than to know the real truth. So unless and until we can no longer be happy without knowing the truth (and that may be true for those, like me, who have had ‘glimpses’ of ‘awakening’), we will cling to and remain addicted to the illusion — we don’t want to know it’s not real. There is something in the nature of people with selves that clings to hope and believes things will get better, so it takes a lot to let go.

Quite a few people report that their moment of ‘awakening’, of seeing through, came at terribly low, desperate times in their lives (though for others these moments arose during walks in the park, or shopping trips). Is the illusion of self-control just too comfortable, better the “devil we know” than the uncertainty of what is really true, unless and until we can no longer “stand our selves”? Or does ‘awakening’ come in moments when the self simply lets its guard down? And if so, are there things that ‘we’ can do to get it to let its guard down (meditation, drugs, exercises etc)?

The problem with this line of thinking is that it presumes some thing exists for whom happiness is more important than truth, some thing that clings to the illusion of the self, something that can no longer stand its self, other than the self itself. That there is a ‘we’ apart from our selves. We’re back in duality. We’ve just made a distinction between ‘we’ (actually just a higher ‘self’ which we don’t want to call a self) and a lower ‘self’ (the one we want to get rid of). This line of thinking is recursive and won’t get us anywhere.

Let’s look instead at the metaphor of dreaming. If we’re caught in a bad dream then (‘lucid’ dreaming aside) we have no agency to awaken from it. How does the mind make this dream seem so real and believable? In its ceaseless pattern-making, is it compelled to invent stories, and is it free during dream-sleep to make those stories credible and consistent and yet untethered from the factual anchors of our waking-life stories? Perhaps it makes the illusion of our separate lives seem real, when we’re not asleep, the same way.

But again, who or what is having these dreams, these self-made stories, if it isn’t the self itself?

The only apparent answer to this question is: no one. Without the self there is no ‘we’. The self/mind, conjured out of nothing by the chemistry of the large, complex brain, is just amusing itself, and making itself suffer, with the patterns and the stories that comprise the ‘story of me’.

In this light, the key question of our investigation becomes suspect, because if there is no ‘we’ without the self, there is no one for the self to fool, no one and no thing to believe in the illusion of the self. Except itself. Is your head hurting yet?

Perhaps this is where Adya is pointing us. The answer to his question, once we realize that there is no ‘me’, is that there is no ‘self’ either, that what seems to be a self is just pattern-making in the brain that is caught in an infinite loop of self-justification and self-rationalization, like a kitten chasing its own tail. And that loop is reinforced by similar loops in the brains of others, until we have whole cultures of apparent selves foolishly behaving as if they are responsible for, and influencing, the creatures they purport to reside within, and causing those creatures (and the natural, ‘real’ world) much stress-related illness in the process. It is as if these ‘self-conscious’ creatures are afflicted with an infectious disease that causes endless hallucinations and hysterical behaviour.

There are of course no separate creatures, no behaviours, and no cultures. There is only all-there-is, perfect, timeless, wondrous, beyond control of anything. But ‘we’, we who are not afflicted with selves but are just afflicted selves, cannot know that. ‘We’ can only hope for the end of our selves, for our end, so that all-there-is is seen, though not by ‘us’. It is the mystery that ‘we’ can never unravel, but we sense it, we somehow know it.

End of investigation. At least for now. The selves of the world are collectively accused of causing the afflicted creatures of the world a form of madness, in which they suffer and cause havoc in the illusory belief that they are in control, responsible and separate from everything else. The jury has looked at the investigator’s report and concluded that the selves cannot be guilty of the charges, or of anything, because they don’t exist.

Case dismissed, pending appeal.

graphic courtesy of pixabay, CC0

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Reality Isn’t What We Think It Is

This is a repetition of the opening paragraphs of December’s Links of the Quarter. Several people have suggested that it’s substantial enough and important enough to merit its own post, so it doesn’t get lost. It’s also a useful set-up for another article I’m writing, that will be posted in the next few days. 


cartoon by the late, incomparable Charles Barsotti

Paul Kingsnorth has described 2016 as The Year of the Serpent. He writes:

History to [New Yorker editor David Remnick] is the continuing, inevitable path towards goals which he and his fellow ‘progressives’ consider to be just: the dissolution of the nation state, global human equality, a cosmopolitan world civilisation, fair and free trade, the spread of personal liberty and secular democracy to all corners of the globe. These goals are so obviously desirable that it is inconceivable that we should ever stop progressing towards them. Their triumph is tied in to the very fabric of time itself. The election of Donald Trump, who opposes at least some of them, thus represents a kind of anti-history. Not the real thing; an aberration which can’t last. Like a dammed river bursting its banks, progress will inevitably resume its natural course, sooner or later.

This is the humanist worldview, the one that most progressives still hew to. The “aberrant” election of Trump has not shattered their faith; just made them more determined to fight for the course correction needed to achieve their “obviously desirable” goals. It is doubtful that they will abandon this faith for the ‘hopeless’ one of collapsniks — the belief that even if these goals are desirable they will never be achieved, and it would be more useful to refocus on preparing for collapse than in vainly struggling to radically and quickly reform civilization’s systems and avert it. But it is as futile to debate this with humanists as to debate social and political morality with conservatives; there is no useful common ground.

And of course ‘collapsism’ — the moving past the second denial to accept the inevitability of civilization’s near-term collapse as part of the sixth great extinction — is also a kind of faith. We collapsniks cannot prove conclusively this inevitability; it’s something we have come to accept because it most makes sense in the context of our admittedly utterly incomplete and feeble knowledge of history, of human nature, and of how complex systems seem to work. This seems, to us, to make more sense intellectually and intuitively than other worldviews, even though we would rather believe we were wrong and that David Remnick, Charles Eisenstein and their fellow humanists were right.

My recent journey has been to try to see beyond this second denial to consider a third and fourth that seem, in some ways, to mirror the first two and bring us full circle to our current predicament. I’ve described them as follows:

  1. That with the useful evolution of our large brains came the unexpected emergence of ‘self’-consciousness — the illusion of separateness from all-there-is, and the resultant suffering, alienation and destructiveness that comes with this affliction. And there is no ‘path’ to liberation from, or ‘cure’ for, this affliction.
  2. That as the ‘self’ is an illusion, a construct, neither humans nor other creatures have free will, choice, control, agency, volition or responsibility for what we do. Nothing is inevitable, predictable or foreordained, but under the specific circumstances and situation in which each of us finds ourselves in each moment, we cannot do other than what we do.

Burkhard Bilger, writing about David Eagleman’s research on the nature of reality, quotes him as saying: “[What the self perceives as] reality is a tape-delayed broadcast, carefully [edited, synched and] censored before it reaches us.” Our understanding of what was, is a model pieced together by the brain, not something experienced directly. ‘We’ do not live in the present at all. Donald Hoffman asserts that reality is nothing like what we think it is. The simplified, artificial model of reality that the brain constructs is attuned to fitness (survival), not to truth.  Seeing reality isn’t beneficial to our survival, he says. “Evolution has shaped us with perceptions that allow us to survive. But part of that involves hiding from us the stuff we don’t need to know. And that’s pretty much all of reality, whatever reality might be.” [Thanks to Kevin Barron for the link.]

Fellow collapsnik Brutus thinks it’s “cruel and pointless” to talk someone out of their faith in the reality of the self and free will. He criticizes Adam Bear who says:

A more speculative possibility is that our minds are designed to distort our perception of choice and that this distortion is an important feature (not simply a bug) of our cognitive machinery. For example, if the experience of choice is a kind of causal inference … then swapping the order of choice and action in conscious awareness may aid in the understanding that we are physical beings who can produce effects out in the world. More broadly, this illusion may be central to developing a belief in free will.”

Cruel and pointless, perhaps, but it’s in our nature to want to know the truth. Perhaps it’s just as cruel to convince people that collapse is occurring, if, as many now believe, there’s nothing we can do to avert it.

So, looking past all four denials: The sixth great extinction is at hand (1), and there’s nothing we can do about it (2). And this extinction is largely the result of the emergence of the illusion of the separate self — something we have always thought of as an evolutionary advance, but is actually an utterly useless and unnecessary affliction (3); worse, it underlies all suffering and most human destruction, and has no ‘treatment’ or cure (4).

Pretty dismal worldview, huh? Strangely, I find embracing it quite liberating. My job, now, is to chronicle civilization’s collapse, and to make sense of it any way I can. That may change, but I’m no longer searching for something that makes more sense.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 2 Comments

Being Wonder-ful

Attention Practice Chart
For a larger and more legible PDF version of this chart, click here.

In my previous post, I presented my “play-list” — activities that personally bring me joy and delight, that I try to indulge in as much as possible. I suggested that this might be instrumental in my developing an “attention and appreciation practice” — some ways of being that would be more open to my innate sense of wonder, and that might make me more useful and enjoyable to others at the same time. This post explains how my thinking about that has been evolving.

I know myself well enough to know that I’m unlikely to add any new ‘practice’ to what I am already doing — I’m such an experimenter that if it made sense for me to do so, I would have already done it by now. I’ve certainly started enough new ‘self-improvement’ practices over the years, especially since retiring, and I confess that none of them has stuck (the most recent casualty is my meditation practice).

So the most important prerequisite for this ‘attention and appreciation practice’ is that it be ways in which I can do what I am already doing, differently — simply by being more attentive, more appreciative, and more full of wonder.

Regular readers also know that I’ve recently come to believe that we don’t have free will — that the self that seemingly makes decisions and controls our lives is an illusion, one that causes us no end of grief and suffering. We are who we are, and as any specific situation arises we do the only thing we can do. Our inherent (innate and intuitive) and enculturated (conditioned) nature dictates our actions; our deluded self merely rationalizes what we did, or failed to do, after the fact.

So it may seem strange that I’m making a list of ‘activities’ in an attention and appreciation practice, as if I have any control over what I do or don’t do. What’s different about this list is that the items in this list are all about self-awareness, creativity and simple tool use. They’re not about ‘self-improvement’ or doing anything different, just about doing what we are already inevitably going to do a bit differently. Preferably, these tweaks should also make what we’re doing easier and/or more fun.

OK, I’m not sure I buy that subtle distinction myself. But some of the things on this list have become part of who I am in recent years, and generally have made me more useful and pleasant to be around, even though I haven’t really changed my nature or what I do. I may disavow this later, but that’s my story for now.

I created this list by reviewing the kinds of activities I regularly engage in already, and tried to assess the degree to which I am not attentive or appreciative in doing them. I then created a list of self-awareness techniques, creative approaches and simple tools that I have seen modelled by people who are more attentive and appreciative than I, and checked off the types of my regular activities that might benefit from these techniques, approaches and tools. If I thought they were beyond my lazy, self-centred, exhausted, and still only dimly self-aware self to do easily and enjoyably, they didn’t make the list.

The table I came up with is shown above. It’s pretty self-explanatory, but following are a few notes (by row # on the chart) I made that explain these methods a bit better:

  • Rows 1, 2, 16 and 17. These are the four ways that I think greater self-awareness and creativity can help me to be much more attentive and appreciative doing whatever I am already doing, and help me stop doing things that keep me locked in my head, disengaged from the real world, distracted, inattentive and unappreciative — hence the “big” checkmarks.
  • Row 5. Taking my binoculars instead of my camera when I go for walks and vacations was a no-brainer at increasing my attention on the real world right now. My new powerful $15 LED-lighted microscope has given me a similar wonder-ful glimpse of the amazing world right under our noses that we never see with our unaided eyes.
  • Rows 6 and 12. These are hard, especially apparently for males. They require an essential self-awareness of when you’re in your head versus when you’re actually present and attentive, both inwardly and outwardly. I am told I’m starting to do these, though, so I left them on the otherwise-easy list.
  • Row 7. The Teahouse Game entails (ideally at a teahouse where people hang around quietly for a while and are mostly visible across the room) making up possible stories about the people and relationships at the tables/sofas round you, based on what you observe (clothing, mannerisms, body-language) without eavesdropping, and sharing these speculations with the tea-drinkers at your table. You generally build on others’ stories in “yes, and…” fashion. It’s great fun, as long as it’s played appreciatively and quietly, and makes you really pay attention to details you’d normally never notice.
  • Row 8. Making introductions based on mutual interests and passions, rather than on what you “do for a living” or your roles, is a great way to quickly appreciate others and build faster and deeper friendships.
  • Row 13. I wrote this entire post, graphics and all, at my laptop on a “treadmill desk” while walking for 3 hours at 5.5km/hour — the equivalent of a pretty speedy 10k run in terms of exercise value. The desk has a comfy armrest and can be raised to any height that is optimal for computer work as you walk. It’s still not entirely fun, but much easier to do when you’re accomplishing something else the whole time — the 3 hours just fly by.

If any of the other methods or activities are unclear, let me know. This list now goes alongside my “play-list” on my laptop lid, as a constant reminder of how I might become more attentive and appreciative, easily, and have more fun — and wonder — in the process. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Working Smarter | Comments Off on Being Wonder-ful

Thinking About Play, and the Practice of Attention

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photo by Sara Dorweiler at Unsplash, CC0 license
I  have no “intentions” or “resolutions” about what to do in the future, since I have come to appreciate that we have absolutely no free will or control over what we do. So in the process of thinking about how my time in 2017 might be spent, I looked for clues from what I did in 2o16. I specifically wanted to know how I spent my ‘play’ time in 2016, my seventh year of retirement.

Almost everything written about play is focused on what motivates it, what its “purpose” is, how to do it or encourage it, what is or is not play, and other absurd psychological “analysis” of it. Even most definitions of play by so-called scholars presuppose its purpose and the psychology behind it. Since we’re all utterly different, and none of us has any choice over what we do, I find such analysis specious and sterile.

So let me start with my simple, bald definition of play: Play is any activity that provides its participant(s) with fun, delight, joy, and/or pleasure. Doesn’t matter if you’re alone or in a MMRPG with thousands of others. Doesn’t matter if it’s highly organized or unorganized, competitive or not, structured or not, or whether “winning” is even a part of it. If it meets the above definition, for you, then it’s play, for you; if it doesn’t, it’s not.

So, for me, some activities that are play are:

DAVE’S “PLAY-LIST”

  • just wandering around and paying attention in beautiful, warm places
  • enjoying stimulating music, smells, tastes, touch, sights, sounds and the play of light (the hedonist in me)
  • reading and participating in other ‘transporting’ arts, including watching well-crafted documentaries, non-formulaic imaginative works, and clever comedy
  • composing music, and writing (when I am in a space where I think I have something novel to express)
  • meeting, and enjoying the company of, animals and exceptional people
  • anything else that I discover makes me laugh or smile a lot

I hope one day to add swimming and dancing to this list, but my current incompetence prevents either of these from being ‘play’.

One challenge I face is that I’m really fussy about quality and the use of my time. I can’t and don’t take much pleasure in simple things — a walk in the forest, watching an ‘ordinary’ sunset. It’s not that I’m bored; it’s just that I’m easily distracted, not very attentive, and easily become anxious or fearful (Am I lost? Is there something I forgot to do or ‘should’ be doing?). Just as my taste in food runs to bold flavours, I also struggle to appreciate subtlety, nuance, the small wonders of life. I struggle to just pay attention.

The thing about play is that something can happen that will change an activity that is play into one that is not, at least for some of the participants. For me, these include: situations arising that make me feel anxious, pressured, annoyed, self-conscious, frustrated, manipulated, threatened, judged or self-judging, or when the activity becomes stressfully competitive, compulsive, causes others discomfort or distress, or has too many constraints. (Again, this is about play for me. I know some people for whom fierce competition, winning, stress and “extreme” excitement are essential to play as defined above, for them. I generally don’t play with them, because when they’re playing, it’s no longer play for me.)

So all too soon, crossword puzzles become a contest, as I track how many mistakes I made — a competition with myself. I quickly reach a plateau in online games that signal it’s time to move on to something new, but I don’t — what was originally play becomes a distraction from current anxieties, a compulsion. I take up a new hobby (a personal weather station that I won in a charity auction) and it too becomes an obsession, a statistics-gathering exercise that provides ever-diminishing pleasure. What’s the next form of play, quickly — this one is getting tedious! Play can often be (for me) a form of escapism from general anxiety, a distraction from all the things I have even more time to stress about now that I’m retired. This anxiety can prevent me from doing things (like more adventuroud forms of play) I would probably really enjoy, and cajoles me into doing things (like obsessing about when the power is going to come back on) that I don’t. Pretty unhealthy.

I recognize this is a coping mechanism. When I’m feeling stressed, I look for a distraction — any screen or game is a port in the storm of anxiety. It’s understandable. But it is not play, not useful, and not good for me.

I’m not alone in this. Many of those in my age-group are retired, but they have never learned to play. They don’t play at golf, they work at it. They get furious when they lose games or make a mistake or don’t “improve”. And many young people I know are addicted to video games, or other screen “entertainment”. I’m sure it seemed like play at first, and maybe it still meets the definition to them, but they “seem to be enjoying it less and less” even while it consumes them.

Play can also get tricky in some cases. If I’m playing poker with people who are just playing and not taking the game seriously, I can bluff and it’s still play. But the minute some player takes it very seriously and gets angry, it’s game over for me. Not play anymore.

Likewise I love to flirt, as long as it’s above-board and everyone knows and appreciates the rules. But many people have never learned them, and are deaf to the play signals, and mistake teasing or gentle provocation for manipulation, serious or unhealthy intent, deceit or hurtfulness. If it’s not play for them, it’s not play for me. Unfortunately it’s often hard to know, especially when people are anxious to please, or lack self-awareness, or are desperate — the opportunities for misunderstandings are huge. So I don’t flirt much anymore, unless I’ve made it clear in advance that’s what I’m doing and the “flirtee” signals unambiguously that they’re fine with it. Modern cultures are so complicated to navigate!

If we have no free will anyway, why does any of this matter? The main issue I think is that for many of us it’s hard to find forms of play we genuinely enjoy, and even when we do they can quickly turn into not-play either because of others’ actions or our own internal stuff. That ‘internal stuff’, at least for me, often boils down to a lack of self-awareness (I’m working on that) and an incapacity for attention, appreciation and wonder.

How can we find forms of play that are sustainably enjoyable? And how can we increase our capacity for attention, appreciation and wonder? Here are some of my thoughts on these questions:

  1. By making a list of types of play we enjoy, and keeping them in front of us when ‘free’ time becomes available, we at least increase the likelihood that we will end up doing something on the list rather than something that is just mindless, easy and distracting. I’ve put a copy of my “play-list” (the six bullets above) on my laptop, and as I write this I am listening to music (to my music “playlist”), which I normally wouldn’t do at this time of day — and I’m singing and dancing along and enjoying it.
  2. If we self-assess, after an activity we think of as play, whether it was really play (using the definition above), and if not, why not, that might help us hone our “play list” to ensure that our play time is actually “playful”. Example: When I came up with the name “play-list” for my personal play activities and started thinking about an “attention practice” in writing this post, this post started out as fun. It was play. But as the challenge of identifying a personal “attention practice” became clear, writing this post became challenging and frustrating. The writing stopped flowing out of me and became work.
  3. Perhaps it’s possible to develop an “attention practice”. I’m not a fan of CBT-type “mind mastery” exercises for increasing attention; I think they cruelly set up unreasonable expectations, ignore individuals’ differences in situation and natural behaviour, blame the victim without understanding what underlies their inattentiveness, and presuppose free will and choice over what we do. But there likely are some personalized practices that we can each discover that work for us. But I have no idea what an “attention practice” for me would entail. It would have to be things I could practice while already doing other things that needed doing, that could benefit from good attention skills (eg taking notes of meetings I have to attend could improve my listening and attention skills). The practice would have to be play, not work. It would have to be in my nature to do, or otherwise I’d quickly give it up. And it would have to enable me to be promptly aware that something I’m doing has ceased to be fun, so I can understand why and switch to another activity. It’s possible that along with increased awareness will come increased appreciation, and even an increased sense of wonder. But what such a practice would entail precisely is still a mystery to me. Maybe tomorrow defining such a practice will seem like play again, but I’m doubtful.

Exploring all this is part of the larger question I am asking about everything I do this year: How can I make everything I do easier and more fun, so I have the energy and enthusiasm to persevere doing things that seem useful to others and to the world, and do more of them, willingly.

 

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 3 Comments

Story-Telling

There are two large cutouts, facing each other, each bearing the identical likeness of a person known as Dave.

One is labelled “Dave the Creature”. In Natural Reality there are no creatures, just oneness, no thing separate at all, just what is apparently happening, living “full on” — “creaturing”. In this Natural Reality everything just is. There is no control, no god, no purpose or meaning or morality. There is no one to be terrified about this reality.

The second cutout is labelled “Dave the Self”. In Natural Reality there are no selves, either, nothing separate at all, just what is apparently happening. One of the things that is apparently happening is “selving” — in which illusory selves imagine themselves to be real and in control of the creatures they believe they reside ‘in’. These illusory selves are an unfortunate side-effect of the apparent emergence in some creatures of large brains capable of imagining separation. Although separation isn’t real, evolution often apparently favours illusions and simplifications that improve creatures’ fitness and survival, over perceiving what is actually true.

There is apparent conversing happening between these two cutouts, these two inventions, neither of which is real. But one of these cutouts, Dave the Self, believes it is real, and separate, and in control of Dave the Creature. The apparent cutouts, and the apparent conversing, are happening in the imagination of Dave the Self — ie in the imagination of something that isn’t real. But it thinks it is, so it is having this apparent conversation. Because it feels sad, and confused.

We can listen in, if you like:

________________________________

Dave the Creature: This is completely futile, you know. Neither of us is real. You are just a dream, or more accurately a horrible nightmare you can’t wake up from, a disease, an affliction. But it’s your dream, and you’ve invented me, given me this creature identity, so apparently you intend that I offer you some wisdom, or at least some solace. Should I put fingers on your forehead and ask “What can I do for you, my child?”

Dave the Self: I am tired. Tired of not feeling safe. Tired of suffering, and of causing suffering. I want to be dead, so you can truly be alive.

Dave the Creature: Hmmm. Such an apparently generous and un-self-ish desire! You know that in Natural Reality all that is is truly alive, and always has been truly alive. There is no ‘me’ to be truly alive, but there is aliveness, wholeness, beingness, all-there-is, unconditional love. There have been glimpses of it at various times during your selfing, and that’s why you’re now hoping you can die. So what is it that you don’t feel safe about? What are you so afraid of?

Dave the Self: Being trapped — blocked in or injured in this house, trapped in relationships, trapped in intolerable situations of endless and inescapable hardship, pain, dread, loss, anxiety, hopelessness. Suffering, and causing suffering to others. Being unable to control a threatening or unhappy situation. Failing. Social incompetence with strangers. Wasting time. Not knowing.

Dave the Creature: That’s a big list! Let’s take a look at it more closely. All of these fears, all these things you don’t feel safe about, right about — all these anxieties triggered by the power going off, or by seeing black ice, or when you feel a sudden sharp wrench in your back, or a hundred other things — these fears and anxieties are just imaginings. They aren’t real. The darkness and the black ice and the back spasms are real, of course, but they’re just happening, or aren’t. You want to be able to control what is happening, but since you aren’t real, you can’t control anything. You know that intellectually, of course, but that’s not helping, is it?

Not only is what is happening the only thing that can be happening, it’s happening outside of what you perceive as time. What you see as consequence is just the brain’s attempt to make sense of what is happening. But it doesn’t make sense. There is no consequence, no plan, no progress, no right or wrong, no meaning, no purpose, no ‘sense’ to anything that happens. There is pain happening, but there is only suffering when a self judges the pain, identifies with it. You can’t prevent pain from happening, and when there is medicating-of-pain happening, that’s simply what’s happening. You, Mr Self-Important, have nothing to do with it. You think if there was no you there would be no medicating-of-pain by Dave the Creature? There would be, or their wouldn’t, depending on the circumstances. No self is needed for it to happen. No self has any control over whether it happens or not.

You think that knowing will help you prevent or mitigate the things you fear. You can avoid travel, or driving, to try to avoid a black ice accident. You can study all the preventatives and treatments for acute pain and suffering, both physical and emotional, from drugs and practices and therapies to suicide. But knowing that will change nothing, beyond adding a bit of neurosis and a lot of unnecessary and futile dread. What is happening is what is happening. You have nothing to do with it. There is no time, no sequence, no consequence. Here’s how Mark Helprin put it in his novel:

Time was invented
because we cannot comprehend in one glance
the enormous and detailed canvas
that we have been given –
so we track it, in linear fashion,
piece by piece.

Time is a construct of the brain to make meaning of discontinuity, much as colour is a construct of the brain to make sense of electromagnetic radiation. It’s just patterning. It isn’t real. None of it makes sense because there’s no one to make sense of it and no thing to make sense of. There’s just what is happening — not now or yesterday or tomorrow — just what is happening.

I know that’s impossible for you to understand. It can’t be understood. But intuitively, you know it’s true, don’t you? When those out-of-time self-less glimpses have happened, you knew it then, and you know it now. You always have.

Of course, you cannot help yourself. Just because you know something intellectually or intuitively doesn’t mean you can change anything, including how you think and feel and behave. So all these fears, these things that make you feel unsafe, they’re not real, and they don’t serve any useful purpose. I know that’s not helpful, but you said you might want some solace, and that’s the best I can offer.

Dave the Self: That’s why I want to die. I know I’m useless, and the source of suffering. I just don’t want to take you with me.

Dave the Creature: No chance of that. Neither of us is real. You just imagine us both to be real. Your apparent death changes nothing. There won’t even be less suffering in Natural Reality if and when you did, because you don’t exist in Natural Reality. You’re just an abstraction with a lot of immiserating habits.

Dave the Self: But your body would die, if I killed it to end myself.

Dave the Creature: There is no body. There is no separate anything. There is only what is apparently happening.

Dave the Self: That makes no sense. Others would see a body dying, and those with selves, at least, would be upset about that.

Dave the Creature: There are no ‘others’.

Dave the Self: Perhaps, but they think they are. I’ve seen how they react to a body’s death. This would just cause more suffering.

Dave the Creature: So you’re going to go on suffering needlessly to supposedly reduce other selves’ suffering over your body’s apparent death.

Dave the Self: I guess so.

Dave the Creature: Well, that makes sense. At least to a self… I want to read something you wrote a while back, to see if that provides any perspective to what you’re struggling with. You wrote:

My whole life I have been bewildered, unable to really make sense of anything, just muddling my way through, and I have often  been quite fearful and socially anxious as a result. I have put great effort into many things but have nothing much to show for it. I’ve had some interesting insights, but nothing that’s of much practical use to anyone. I have been generous, but only when I could easily afford to be. I’ve been very lucky, “the world’s most blessed agnostic”. I have become more joyful and fun-loving, but more pessimistic, more curious, and more skeptical about everything, even whether we as separate ‘selves’ actually exist.

That’s quite remarkable! A self that’s come apart from its ego. Imagine what this world might be like if every self was able to recognize itself so clearly, and its life so humbly. It’s good that you doubt the existence of your self; if only you could also doubt the existence of this creature you cling to so desperately.

Dave the Self: It’s like I’m living in limbo, ‘knowing’ somehow what I cannot ‘realize’, and ‘realizing’ — making real — what I know is not real. How can anyone live like this?

Dave the Creature: No one can live like that. There is no one. If you don’t like the ‘dream’ metaphor, here’s another one to try, though metaphors are tricky because they are based on, and obliquely recapitulate, what is known, and this truth that you seek with such desperate futility cannot be known, cannot be expressed in language or story or any other medium that the self can understand.

Think about a time when your intuition, your instincts, told you something that your brain could not get its head around. Since I’m just a fabrication of you, I can provide one: On any number of occasions you have intuited that someone you cared about was unhappy with you. They didn’t say anything, and if there was something in their tone of voice or facial expression or body language it was far too subtle for the brain, or at least the mind, the ‘conscious’ part of it, to pick up on. In some cases you even acted on this intuition, and their response to your action confirmed your intuition, almost every time.

Where did this intuition come from?

Dave the Self: I have no idea.

Dave the Creature: That’s a good start. Now let me push it a bit further. Think about the times your creative writing has been most brilliant. When something amazingly clever and original just came out in words, almost effortlessly. You have tried to replicate this, but you can’t, because it’s not in your control, not within your reach. Where did this extraordinary creativity come from?

Dave the Self: Same answer, obviously. I have no idea. What’s your point?

Dave the Creature: One more step and maybe it will become clearer. Or maybe not. Remember the last few times you fell in love, suddenly, precipitously. Think about what it was like, palms sweating, the amazing look in your eyes, feeling ecstatic and invulnerable and utterly alive (at least until the anxiety came back), and wondering where this feeling that made everything else in your life temporarily unimportant came from.

Where did this feeling come from?

Dave the Self: I was not myself.

Dave the Creature: Whose self were you then?

Dave the Self: That does not make sense.

Dave the Creature: Exactly. None of it makes sense. There was just a sudden brief clarity when you, yourself, temporarily stepped aside, got out of the way, and these astonishing things — intuition, creativity, love — happened, without you. These things that made everything that you, yourself, did and do every day, every moment, irrelevant, non-sensical, pointless. What does that tell you? Look at this writing you’re doing right now, about these two goofy cutouts supposedly having a conversation. It’s all just putting in time, waiting for intuition, creativity, and love, and other things that have nothing to do with you, yourself, to arise. These self-less occurrences are expressions of life full on, and they don’t need you; you just get in their way with your silly sense-making that makes no sense.

Dave the Self: Boy, you really know how to make a guy feel better, don’t you. Before this conversation, I was just feeling sad, and confused.

Dave the Creature: You said you wanted to die. I’m giving you permission, and some reassurance that it’s OK, maybe better than OK.

Dave the Self: The only way I know to die is to kill this body. And I don’t want to do that.

Dave the Creature: You have no say in the matter. The play is already written, with its infinite number of scripts. In some of them, you kill your body. In some, something else kills your body, probably a stress-related disease that you’re ultimately responsible for, but maybe not, and then you die with it. In others, you die and your body, this apparent creature, apparently lives on, self-lessly, for an hour until an anvil falls on it and kills it, or until it is 85 years old, or forever. And all the scripts are in play, in the play. They all happen, apparently, really and unreally.

Dave the Self: That’s not helpful. You’re giving me a headache. You’re just making this up; you don’t really believe it.

Dave the Creature: No, because there’s no me. No creature. No you. No self. It’s all made up, by the apparent you. I’m sorry it’s not helpful. It can’t be helped. If I was real, and not just an invention of you, a projection, I could go back to creaturing. Fortunately, creaturing requires no cutouts. Neither does selfing, by the way. You can go on debating this with yourself and with other selves, if they’ll listen, forever, and it won’t get you anywhere. There is no thinking your way out of this.

Dave the Self: I know that. But somehow trying to think it through makes me feel better. It’s what I do, you know. So if all that’s left is making the prison of the self, the prison of my self, more comfortable, what ideas do you have about doing that?

Dave the Creature: You might try playing, though you’d have to learn how. If you get frustrated, if it’s a competition, a zero sum game, it’s not play. The amazing thing about play is that, if you do it right, everyone always wins, and has fun. You used to know about that. You’re on the right track trying to try to learn to dance, and to swim, but you’re way too anxious about it — and you can’t change that, either.

Exercise can also ease your anxiety and make you more comfortable. You take it way too seriously, too. Try to think of ways to make exercise easier, or more fun — maybe the swimming and dancing can help with that.

In your creative writing, think more about the future, and not necessarily the future of humans and specifically the future of privileged urban humans. Write about other worlds, worlds out of time. Imagine possibilities that have no obvious trajectory from here. Imagine, if you can, worlds without selves. I know, you cannot, but it could be fun trying. Write from the perspective of your beloved birds, for pete’s sake. And don’t anthropomorphize!

And write music. You’re totally incompetent at that, so you have nothing to lose from playing at it. You could be good at it, but if you are, it will be when you, your self, get out of the way. You might find it fun. Just begin. Try different stuff; you have the tools. Just make it up. Steal ideas if you must, but make it your own. Plagiarize creatively.

When the self-less stuff comes up — the intuitions, the awesome creativity, the falling in love with people and places and ideas and art — try to pay attention to where it is not coming from. This will be very hard for you, because you want to appropriate and conserve and replicate things you think are good, but you can get better at noticing what is happening. You might even learn, a little, about how to get your self out of the way. And the more you’re out of the way, the more comfortable you will be.

And notice, too, when the overwhelming stuff happens to you, when the anxiety and fear (and sometimes the anger and sadness, too) get the better of you. There may be no way to navigate the Feeling Path, but it could be comforting to know where on the path you are. Metta, Karuna and all that, versus falling into endless darkness. Being aware of the ‘self-full’ moments can be as informative as being aware of the ‘self-less’ ones.

Dave the Self: I wonder if I became really good at getting out of the way of the self-less stuff, if it might increase the chances that I could fall away, die, and you, or whatever is when there is no me, no self, could go on. I wonder if I could learn to nudge closer to the realization of self-less-ness, to liberation.

Dave the Creature: Not a chance. Making the prison more comfortable is enough.

Dave the Self: You’re pretty clever, and sometimes even unintentionally funny. I kind of like you.

Dave the Creature: I’m an invention of you. So you’re saying you like yourself. I’d never have guessed.

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Links of the Quarter: December 2016

lotq-nonduality-site
Ironic search result from the non-duality.one website. As they say “The paradox is that the ‘me’ cannot help but search, but what it’s looking for, a return to oneness, can never be found by the separate self. It will only be seen when ‘me’ falls away, but it will be seen by no one.”

Paul Kingsnorth has described 2016 as The Year of the Serpent. He writes:

History to [New Yorker editor David Remnick] is the continuing, inevitable path towards goals which he and his fellow ‘progressives’ consider to be just: the dissolution of the nation state, global human equality, a cosmopolitan world civilisation, fair and free trade, the spread of personal liberty and secular democracy to all corners of the globe. These goals are so obviously desirable that it is inconceivable that we should ever stop progressing towards them. Their triumph is tied in to the very fabric of time itself. The election of Donald Trump, who opposes at least some of them, thus represents a kind of anti-history. Not the real thing; an aberration which can’t last. Like a dammed river bursting its banks, progress will inevitably resume its natural course, sooner or later.

This is the humanist worldview, the one that most progressives still hew to. The “aberrant” election of Trump has not shattered their faith; just made them more determined to fight for the course correction needed to achieve their “obviously desirable” goals. It is doubtful that they will abandon this faith for the ‘hopeless’ one of collapsniks — the belief that even if these goals are desirable they will never be achieved, and it would be more useful to refocus on preparing for collapse than in vainly struggling to radically and quickly reform civilization’s systems and avert it. But it is as futile to debate this with humanists as to debate social and political morality with conservatives; there is no useful common ground.

And of course ‘collapsism’ — the moving past the second denial to accept the inevitability of civilization’s near-term collapse as part of the sixth great extinction — is also a kind of faith. We collapsniks cannot prove conclusively this inevitability; it’s something we have come to accept because it most makes sense in the context of our admittedly utterly incomplete and feeble knowledge of history, of human nature, and of how complex systems seem to work. This seems, to us, to make more sense intellectually and intuitively than other worldviews, even though we would rather believe we were wrong and that David Remnick, Charles Eisenstein and their fellow humanists were right.

My recent journey has been to try to see beyond this second denial to consider a third and fourth that seem, in some ways, to mirror the first two and bring us full circle to our current predicament. I’ve described them as follows:

  1. That with the useful evolution of our large brains came the unexpected emergence of ‘self’-consciousness — the illusion of separateness from all-there-is, and the resultant suffering, alienation and destructiveness that comes with this affliction. And there is no ‘path’ to liberation from, or ‘cure’ for, this affliction.
  2. That as the ‘self’ is an illusion, a construct, neither humans nor other creatures have free will, choice, control, agency, volition or responsibility for what we do. Nothing is inevitable, predictable or foreordained, but under the specific circumstances and situation in which each of us finds ourselves in each moment, we cannot do other than what we do.

Burkhard Bilger, writing about David Eagleman’s research on the nature of reality, quotes him as saying: “[What the self perceives as] reality is a tape-delayed broadcast, carefully [edited, synched and] censored before it reaches us.” Our understanding of what was, is a model pieced together by the brain, not something experienced directly. ‘We’ do not live in the present at all. Donald Hoffman asserts that reality is nothing like what we think it is. The simplified, artificial model of reality that the brain constructs is attuned to fitness (survival), not to truth.  Seeing reality isn’t beneficial to our survival, he says. “Evolution has shaped us with perceptions that allow us to survive. But part of that involves hiding from us the stuff we don’t need to know. And that’s pretty much all of reality, whatever reality might be.” [Thanks to Kevin Barron for the link.]

Fellow collapsnik Brutus thinks it’s “cruel and pointless” to talk someone out of their faith in the reality of the self and free will. He criticizes Adam Bear who says:

A more speculative possibility is that our minds are designed to distort our perception of choice and that this distortion is an important feature (not simply a bug) of our cognitive machinery. For example, if the experience of choice is a kind of causal inference … then swapping the order of choice and action in conscious awareness may aid in the understanding that we are physical beings who can produce effects out in the world. More broadly, this illusion may be central to developing a belief in free will.”

Cruel and pointless, perhaps, but it’s in our nature to want to know the truth. Perhaps it’s just as cruel to convince people that collapse is occurring, if, as many now believe, there’s nothing we can do to avert it.

So, looking past all four denials: The sixth great extinction is at hand (1), and there’s nothing we can do about it (2). And this extinction is largely the result of the emergence of the illusion of the separate self — something we have always thought of as an evolutionary advance, but is actually an utterly useless and unnecessary affliction (3); worse, it underlies all suffering and most human destruction, and has no ‘treatment’ or cure (4).

Pretty dismal worldview, huh? Strangely, I find embracing it quite liberating. My job, now, is to chronicle civilization’s collapse, and to make sense of it any way I can. That may change, but I’m no longer searching for something that makes more sense.


PREPARING FOR CIVILIZATION’S END

cartoon-e-flake
cartoon by Emily Flake in the New Yorker

Extinction Is the End Game: Xray Mike recaps the latest signs of the accelerating decline of civilization culture. And Ilargi riffs on the same subject. Excerpts from Ilargi:

Without the natural world that we were born into, or rather that our species, our ancestors, were born into, we have zero chance of survival. Because it is the natural world that has allowed for, and created, the conditions that made it possible for mankind to emerge and develop in the first place. And we are nowhere near making an earth 2.0; the notion itself is preposterous. A few thousand years of man ‘understanding’ his world is no match for billions of years of evolution.

Letting Go: Deb Ozarko describes what it means to let go of the belief that the collapse of our civilization can be averted or mitigated. Thanks to Wendy Bandurski-Miller for the link.

60ºC Variations in Arctic Temperatures Unleash Polar Vortex: While temperatures in the Canadian Arctic and North Pole have been up a stunning 36ºC warmer than normal, temperatures in nearby Greenland and Siberia have been 30ºC colder than normal. These are unprecedented anomalies, wreaking havoc on permafrost and local climate throughout the northern hemisphere. The impact of these “insane” and “terrifying” (in the words of climate scientists) extreme and enduring temperature shifts — glacial melt, severe storms, permanent disruption of the jet stream and ocean currents — cannot be predicted.

The End of Affordable Energy: Gail Tverberg explains how the demand for cheap-energy-fuelled growth will inevitably lead to economic collapse, as the affordable price for oil drops below the cost of its production. And as Ilargi explains, “What the world needs to do, but we very much doubt it will voluntarily, is not to look for other forms of energy to replace oil and gas, but to look for ways to use much less energy (90% or so) while still maintaining societies that function as best they can.”

Dave Talks About Collapse and Non-Duality: My latest interview with Carolyn Baker (audio-only version here).

60% of Global Wildlife Gone: The 2016 Living Planet report says that total populations of wild species have declined 60% from 1970s levels. The findings are based on long-term monitoring of some 3,700 vertebrate species spread across more than 14,000 distinct populations.


LIVING BETTER

lotq-keep-mick-stevens-cartoon
cartoon by Mick Stevens in the New Yorker

How to Live More Sustainably: My friend and fellow Bowen Islander Jae Mather explains the urgency of living more sustainably, hopeless as our situation may be.

Joe Bageant Explains Rednecks: Dear Joe, who died a few years ago, summarizes his explanation in Deer Hunting With Jesus why poor whites understandably and overwhelmingly vote Republican against their own best interests. Thanks to Bobby Arnold, another friend of Joe’s, for the link.

13 Sources of Free Images: No more need to dig through Google and Flickr for creative commons photos you can use; these images are completely free. Take that Getty!

The Best Indoor Plants For Air Quality: Ferns, palms and ornamental figs (but be careful if you have pets that nibble them). Thanks to Joe Mather for the link.

energy-savings

Dave Turns Down the Heat: My latest interview in the Bowen Island Undercurrent explains how (methods checked above; I’ve just put plastic film on my largest heat-loss skylight as well) I’ve reduced my energy consumption by 30% this year.


POLITICS AND ECONOMICS AS USUAL

cartoon-tom-chitty
cartoon by Tom Chitty in the New Yorker

Nothing Much to Say About Trump: Susan Sarandon explains why many progressives refused to support Hillary Clinton. Trump’s election was, like the Brexit vote, an angry, fed-up, frightened protest against a sense of powerlessness (check out the link to the brilliant Trump TV ad in this article from Paul, and this amazingly perceptive FoxNews analysis) in our global, increasingly unequal economy [thanks to Tom Atlee for these two links]. And like Brexit, it was an anxious revolt by rural/suburban residents against the apparent power of those in the ‘scary’ cities [thanks to Tree for this link]. Like much of the political discourse we are seeing globally, and will see more in the year to come, this protest is totally incoherent and disorganized, but we ignore it at our peril. While some short term damage by the latest clown-elect is probable, the election of the sociopathic Trump, like the election of the equally damaged Cheney (running the country in the guise of Bush) in 2000, is unlikely to change anything for long [thanks to George Por and Deanna Pumplin for these links]. He might even opt to try improving the US’s crumbling infrastructure. As Richard Heinberg and Rob Hopkins have both written: Before Trump, build resilient local community; after Trump, build resilient local community.

Environmental Journalism Under Siege: The journalists who covered the coordinated protests against the Alberta Tar Sands face prison time of up to 30 years for doing so. And in North Dakota, award-winning journalist Amy Goodman faces similar charges.

Is Your Anxiety Profitable?: Interesting article claims that not only do product-pushers exploit your sense of anxiety, you would be much less anxious if they weren’t doing so. The argument is that life hasn’t become any more stressful in the last century. So the reason there is so much more stress-related illness is that it’s profitable.

The Crimes of Empires: Arundhati Roy and Daniel Ellsberg meet Edward Snowden. Thanks to Jon Husband for the link.

Understanding the Alt-Right Movement: A fascinating and thorough if somewhat slanted explanation of a worldview honed from pain, frustration and fear. Thanks to KMO for the link.

Chronic Pain Patients “Collateral Damage” in War on Opioids: While bad street drugs laced with synthetic fentanyl are causing hundreds of overdose deaths, long-term chronic pain patients are being punished, deprived of vital medications, and mistreated by health care workers as “drug seekers” in the medical and political establishment’s zeal to try to reduce the “epidemic” of toxic street drugs. As always in dealing with addiction, they are taking exactly the wrong approach. Thanks for Daphne Bramham for telling the inconvenient truth.

Canadian Greens and NDP Continue to Self-Destruct: In their thirst for political power, Canada’s Green Party leaders continue to purge progressives who advocate radical positions on environmental, political and social issues, threatening to make them just another do-nothing centrist party afraid to rock the corporatist boat. Likewise, the BC NDP is waffling on opposing pipelines, dam sites and mining activities, afraid of alienating its labour base. As for the Trudeau Liberals, most of us knew before the election that the charismatic leader was just a Canadian Obama, a Harper-lite, with no interest at all in environmental protection except where he can get short-term political gain from token environmental posturing. There is now no true pro-environment party in Canada.


FUN AND INSPIRATION

lotq-will-mcphail-new-yorker-cartoon
cartoon by Will McPhail from the New Yorker

A $15 Toy That Will Make You See the World Differently: It’s not really a toy, but this LED-lighted 120x power microscope will astonish you with what it shows you of the world right under your nose. I’m buying one for each of the ‘kids’ in my life.

How Wolves Change Rivers: A short 5-minute video explains how complex systems involve millions of variables connected in unfathomable ways: How the reintroduction of a few wolves enriched and changed an entire ecosystem in just a few years.

Tim Minchin is Not Perfect: A stunning song poignantly explains who we are and what we are not. If you like your Tim edgier, try If I Didn’t Have You.

How Smart Is an Octopus?: Probably as smart as many mammals, though no one really understands how. I’m reading Sy Montgomery’s Soul of an Octopus at the moment, so I might write more about this. Thanks to Nancy White for the link.

Earth Weather, Beautified: A stunning near-real-time visualization of global weather conditions (configurable by clicking bottom left). Thanks to Paula Love for the link.

Is Time Real?: David Eagleman suggests that the brain constructs what we perceive as ‘time’ to make sense of discontinuity, in a similar way to how it constructs what we perceive as ‘colour’ to make sense of electromagnetic radiation — Neither is ‘real’. See the quote below by Mark Helprin for another way of seeing this.

Jim Page and the Power of Music: The definitive protest singer Jim Page (who’s promising some new songs soon on Standing Rock) explains why he does what he does.


THOUGHTS OF THE QUARTER

lotq-rebecca-clark-owl
barred owl sketch by the amazing Rebecca Clark

From WH Auden (thanks to Bill Watson for the link): The Labyrinth:

Anthropos apteros for days walked whistling round and round the Maze,
Relying happily upon his temperament for getting on.
The hundredth time he sighted, though, a bush he left an hour ago,
He halted where four alleys crossed, and recognized that he was lost.

“Where am I? Metaphysics says no question can be asked unless
It has an answer, so I can assume this maze has got a plan.
If theologians are correct, a Plan implies an Architect:
A God-built maze would be, I’m sure, the Universe in miniature.

Are data from the world of Sense, in that case, valid evidence?
What in the universe I know can give directions how to go?
All Mathematics would suggest a steady straight line as the best,
But left and right alternately is consonant with History.

Aesthetics, though, believes all Art intends to gratify the Heart:
Rejecting disciplines like these, must I, then, go which way I please?
Such reasoning is only true if we accept the classic view,
Which we have no right to assert, according to the Introvert.

His absolute pre-supposition is–Man creates his own condition:
This maze was not divinely built, but is secreted by my guilt.
The centre that I cannot find is known to my Unconscious Mind;
I have no reason to despair because I am already there.

My problem is how not to will; they move most quickly who stand still;
I’m only lost until I see I’m lost because I want to be.
If this should fail, perhaps I should, as certain educators would,
Content myself with the conclusion; in theory there is no solution.

All statements about what I feel, like I-am-lost, are quite unreal:
My knowledge ends where it began; a hedge is taller than a man.”

Anthropos apteros, perplexed to know which turning to take next,
Looked up and wished he were the bird, to whom such doubts must seem absurd.

By Mark Helprin, from Winter’s Tale [thanks to Eleftheria for the link]:

Nothing is random, nor will anything ever be, whether a long string of perfectly blue days that begin and end in golden dimness, the most seemingly chaotic political acts, the rise of a great city, the crystalline structure of a gem that has never seen the light, the distributions of fortune, what time the milkman gets up, the position of the electron, or the occurrence of one astonishing frigid winter after another. Even electrons, supposedly the paragons of unpredictability, are tame and obsequious little creatures that rush around at the speed of light, going precisely where they are supposed to go. They make faint whistling sounds that when apprehended in varying combinations are as pleasant as the wind flying through a forest, and they do exactly as they are told. Of this, one is certain.

And yet, there is a wonderful anarchy, in that the milkman chooses when to arise, the rat picks the tunnel into which he will dive when the subway comes rushing down the track from Borough Hall, and the snowflake will fall as it will. How can this be? If nothing is random, and everything is predetermined, how can there be free will? The answer to that is simple. Nothing is predetermined, it is determined, or was determined, or will be determined. No matter, it all happened at once, in less than an instant, and time was invented because we cannot comprehend in one glance the enormous and detailed canvas that we have been given – so we track it, in linear fashion piece by piece. Time however can be easily overcome; not by chasing the light, but by standing back far enough to see it all at once. The universe is still and complete. Everything that ever was is; everything that ever will be is – and so on, in all possible combinations. Though in perceiving it we image that it is in motion, and unfinished, it is quite finished and quite astonishingly beautiful. In the end, or rather, as things really are, any event, no matter how small, is intimately and sensibly tied to all others. All rivers run full to the sea; those who are apart are brought together; the lost ones are redeemed; the dead come back to life; the perfectly blue days that have begun and ended in golden dimness continue, immobile and accessible; and, when all is perceived in such a way as to obviate time, justice becomes apparent not as something that will be, but something that is.

Posted in Preparing for Civilization's End | 5 Comments

Imagining the Unimaginable

last-of-us
image by Przemyslaw Puchalski at Behance.net; licence: Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

A few days ago I received a message from Transition Network co-founder Rob Hopkins saying he’d enjoyed my 2013 post about imagination. We’ve compared notes since then, and for the last few days I’ve been thinking more about the topic.

Back when I first started blogging, I wrote, intending it ironically:

If we can’t imagine, we can do anything.

What I meant by this is that if we’re unable to imagine the potential consequences of our actions, we can commit the most terrible atrocities. I think psychopaths (and many politicians and other ‘leaders’ qualify here) find a way to shield themselves from imagining. They are driven by their disease to do ghastly things, and they don’t dare imagine what their actions could lead to. In particular, they’ve inured themselves to their own suffering, and as they act out their grief and anger they must also inure themselves to the suffering of others. That’s their nature, the only way they’ve learned to live and cope.

What I have described as an increasingly global culture of homogeneity and immense imaginative poverty is fuelled mostly I think by the simple lack of practice imagining things out of nothing, in a world that essentially leaves nothing to the imagination. Now, the rules of computer games are enforced by the software to ensure you can’t invent your own variations and diversions. War and every type of violence is acted out explicitly and displayed graphically in ‘entertainment’ media down to minute detail in high-definition. Business processes (and the technologies that now enforce them) have become prescriptive and rigid. Everything is organized for children, right down to with whom, and when, they will play. Through lack of practice we have lost the capacity to make things up without a template, a model to copy, and instructions to follow.

Those of us blessed to live affluent lives are now so accustomed to our current way of living that we cannot imagine any other way to live. All over the world privileged people spend most of their waking hours in front of one kind of screen or another (sometimes more than one at a time), distracting themselves with the same homogeneous, derivative content, looking for meaning and direction on what to do next. When the screens go dark, they are at a loss for what to do. When the screens go dark for good, they will be lost forever.

I am blessed, or cursed, with a rich, often overactive imagination. Some of the things I am imagining in our future are clearly unimaginable to most people, and in particular to the young people who have been most deprived of the opportunity to practice imagining.

Here are a few of the things I can now imagine (warning: some of what follows is pretty grim; if you’re sensitive you might want to skip the rest of this post):

  1. I can imagine a world without jobs or employment. The concept of a ‘job’ is anachronistic, even feudal — that one person or entity will provide certain benefits (a salary, health benefits, sick leave etc) to other people in return for those people’s loyalty. Organizational hierarchies offer psychological appeal to both ‘leaders’ who enjoy giving orders to obedient subordinates and reaping disproportionate rewards for what they do for the organization, and ’employees’ who don’t want responsibility, have been brought up to feel dependent and helpless, and are quite content being told what to do and how to do it. But increasingly this co-dependence is no longer required for organizations to do what they do — they can automate, outsource, offshore and contract everything. This is where we are headed, and fast. But the work world has made no provision to transition currently-employed non-executives (most of the ‘labour force’) to this brave new world, and the education system (which only teaches the way things were in the past) is oblivious to it. How will your grandchildren fare? How much longer will we keep pretending that all the people who’ve given up trying to find work are not really unemployed?
  2. I can imagine a world with plenty of resources that no one can afford. With fracking and other reckless, environmentally ruinous extraction methods finding more and more marginal energy resources, many are now saying that ‘peak oil’ was a myth, and energy will always be abundant. But as anyone who’s lived through a depression or in a failed state can attest, it doesn’t matter if there’s an abundance of something if no one can afford it. During the Great Depression (as in most depressions and famines before it), food rotted in the fields while people starved, because no one had jobs and hence no one could pay the struggling farmer to harvest it, or to replant next year or protect their fragile crops from diseases and pests and fertilize their degraded soil with enough chemicals to grow anything. When power lines came down in storms, the power stayed off for weeks or longer because the power company couldn’t pay its workers to fix them. It doesn’t take much to imagine, in our now utterly-dependent (and hence hugely fragile) global economy, a world of apparent natural abundance (and abundance of capacity) which is paradoxically full of starvation, deprivation and scarcity of even the basic necessities of life. But few of us can imagine this.
  3. I can imagine living at peace in a collapsing world. As the flywheel of civilization comes apart, there will be, here and there, now and again, for quite a while, some horrors that we shudder to think of. This is why we cling to and are so addicted to this civilization culture, and why we the desire to preserve it, even if that means befouling other planets or freezing vestiges of it in cyberspace. We can’t, we don’t dare, imagine what collapse might bring. But I can. I can imagine suffering so horrible that many will choose to just go off and die, of thirst and starvation (not a bad way to go, despite the propaganda of religions to the contrary). I can imagine such desperation to escape the hopelessness that millions of people will consume addictive poisons that will give them a brief high even while it rots their flesh. I can imagine the expression of utter misery of millions of humans through self-mutilation to the point of permanent disability and suicide, like battery-caged hens. I can imagine humans dying on doorsteps, ignored by passers-by. I can imagine humans eating our own young. None of this is new to dying civilizations. And I can imagine living at peace through all of this, and living at peace with the knowledge that this is coming. We’re all doing our best. We’re all suffering from civilization disease. This is how civilizations end. After it’s fallen, life will go on, free from the horrors we have wrought on each other and on our world, with the best of intentions. The world left behind will, eventually, once again (abandoned nuclear power plant meltdowns notwithstanding) be as it was for a billion years before humans appeared — wondrous, magical, peaceful (even in the eating of creature by creature).
  4. I can imagine future human cultures that are insignificant to the global web of life as it then exists, and are also free of the undiagnosed endemic human disease of the self. Civilizations (and populations of all creatures that dominate their ecosystems to the detriment of other species) tend to follow a normal curve. We’re currently at the ‘hockey stick’ point of maximum growth of almost everything we are involved with, starting to decelerate before the terrifying plunge down the other side. There’s no reason to believe we’re exceptional. That would suggest that a few millennia in the future there will be mere pockets of humans scattered in the most then-hospitable (without technology) parts of an unimaginably altered planet. Human populations will be nearly stable, but they’ll likely be in the final stage of the long tail of decline, flat-lining towards species extinction. But these final humans may well live wonderful, joyful lives. If that’s so it will be because they’ve lost their ‘selves’ — the well-entrained belief in humans of nearly all current cultures that they are in control of their lives and are responsible for their actions. A human without a self is a wild creature, and most wild creatures, it would seem, live thrilling lives inseparable from their environments, unconcerned with time, death, or responsibility. Yet, freed from these concerns — freed from human culture — they are peaceful, compassionate, accepting, and attuned to the welfare of all life on Earth. They are, in a word, not. There is no ‘them’; there are no identities, egos, beliefs, or concepts — the stuff that only belongs to those with the sense of having separate, individual selves — afflicting them. As for all wild creatures, their behaviour is what has enabled and continues to enable the survival of their tribe. They are as dolphins — they are just oneness, beingness. Miraculous, perfect, needing and aspiring to nothing. All our self-ish mistakes forgotten. True nature remembered. Impossible to imagine anything so different, no? Not for me.
  5. I can imagine seeing the world as a bird sees it. All senses and intuition, living life full-on. Not seeing anything as separate, but instead living in the world as a fetus lives inside the womb, as part of it. Seeing colour, movement, everything as beauty, as love. Living a life of continuous wonder and astonishment. Accepting everything and longing for nothing. Behaving in ways that evolution has rewarded through survival, but not as an individual, but as an expression of all-there-is. Experiencing the astonishing joy of flight, and of freedom. The most horrible thing we can do to any creature, human or more-than-human, is to domesticate it; to persuade it that it is separate, limited, dependent, responsible, mortal, and vulnerable. To teach it suffering.
  6. I can imagine a world without humans. But I no longer imagine such a world as better or worse than one with humans. We don’t really matter, for all our self-centredness and destructiveness. I can imagine a world where the void of our disappearance is filled with creatures we cannot fully imagine — light creatures, creatures that live outside of time and move in and out of space, creatures that are immortal, creatures that show the world that all there is, is this. What is most amazing is that such a world is already here, full of creatures invisible to us and oblivious to our existence, with ways of being beyond our fathoming.

These are, of course, just possibilities, imaginings. They are not predictions, which are impossible, and pointless. We will see.

Posted in Preparing for Civilization's End | 2 Comments

Gabi’s Letter

surfDear, sweet Ren,

I hope you slept well last night  8-)

I thought about what you were saying last evening about the non-duality stuff, and about how hard it was to explain the whole thing about not really having free will, but seeming to, and after tossing it around in my head for a while I started drawing what the ‘self’ seemed to be and what ‘we’ are like without one. I decided to share my sketches with you; here’s the first one:

what-is-happening-i1

So here is the ‘natural’ apparent reality for a creature without a self — a wild creature, or a human child before the self emerges, or after it falls away. Say this creature faces a situation (0), like the apparent choice between eating two things. Its biology (1) may lead it (2) to instinctively prefer one of the things over the other. Its experiences or learnings from other creatures (3) may condition it (4) to prefer the other. There is some patterning in the brain (5) that may bring up some thoughts or feelings (6) about the two apparent ‘choices’, but ultimately the creature’s behaviour (7), apparently selecting one or the other (or both or neither), is a consequence of the creature’s nature (2 and 4) alone. The creature has no free will, no choice, no control over what happens. What happens is the eating of one thing rather than the other (or both, or neither).

Now here’s what apparently happens when a creature with a self is in the same situation:

what-is-happening-i2

This creature faces the same situation of apparently choosing between two foods (0). Like with the unafflicted creature, its biology (1) may lead it (2) to prefer one of the things over the other. Its experiences or learnings from other creatures (3) may condition it (4) to prefer the other.

But at some point, what emerged ‘in’ this creature, possibly as an unintended consequence of us evolving large brains with excess capacity, was the embodied self/mind, the mental construction of the idea that this creature is apart from all-there-is, and this self came up with the idea (reinforced by others similarly afflicted with selves) that it had control over this creature’s actions, beliefs and decisions. So now instead of thoughts and feelings just arising and passing in this large brain, the ‘self’ was appropriating these thoughts and feelings as belonging to it (and to the creature), and reacting to them. The self is just brain-patterning on a larger, reflexive scale (5).

So now the self attempts (fruitlessly) to intervene in what is happening (6). It reasons that it, not the creature’s innate and conditioned nature, is actually making the decision ‘for’ that creature. When the creature moves to eat one of the two foods (or both, or neither) (7), the apparent decision is not actually made by the self at all — it’s still made as a result of the creature’s nature (2 and 4).

But the self has to take ownership of the decision (it’s been taught by other self-afflicted creatures that it is and must be ‘responsible’), so it rationalizes (8) the decision that has been made in such a way it can continue to believe it ‘made’ the decision. It reimagines what actually happened to conform to its central, controlling view of itself. And then, it second-guesses that decision (9), and congratulates or blames itself for that decision. Depending on the nature of the apparent decision (eg whether to give money to a homeless person), this can give rise to all kinds of guilt, shame, anger and sadness (10). And uncertainty over what might happen to the creature that the self wasn’t up to perfectly anticipating, preventing, and controlling, gives rise to chronic anxiety and fear (8,9, and 10 are what Eckhart Tolle calls the egoic mind/pain body vicious cycle).

All for no reason. The self has no control over any of it. What the creature does has nothing to do with the abstract, oversimplified model of reality that the self has concocted and attempts relentlessly to use to guide ‘its’ decisions. While the large brain enhances the creature’s capacity to intuit cleverly and to learn from its own and others’ experiences (a wonderful survival tool, and hence an evolutionary success), the self/mind (a disease that came along with the large brain) has been an evolutionary disaster, producing unimaginable suffering and destruction. It will soon suffer the end-state of all terrible evolutionary mistakes — extinction.

So it’s a tragic story. What seemed like such evolutionary genius (the large brain), is, because of the parasite that came along with it (the self), destroying our whole planet’s rich ecosystem of life.

I can see how you find all this infuriating — you seemingly have this knowledge about the true nature of reality that almost no one else can fathom (it is a pretty powerful delusion, this self), so people think you’re crazy or preoccupied with something unimportant when you should be doing something ‘useful’ (like paying attention to them and their selves’ issues).

And on top of that you know that the affliction of the self is incurable (though occasionally it goes into spontaneous remission), and that no practice makes the falling away of the self any more likely to occur.

But I still love you (aside from the fact you use the word ‘inflicted’ when you should be using ‘afflicted’). You’re almost as smart as me, and you have the handicap of being male.

As for the ‘realization’ beyond the intellectual understanding that your self is not really in charge of anything, and doesn’t really exist, when I see you stop worrying, I’ll know you finally got it. 

Unrealistically yours in any case,

Gabi

Posted in Creative Works | 3 Comments

Self-Detachment

detached-selfI‘ve been hosting my two wonderful friends from Peak Moment TV, Janaia and Robin, for the past few days, and mentioned to them the strange paradox of becoming increasingly ‘self’-aware, but only until/unless my ‘self’ falls away and this is no longer useful. And the equally strange paradox of realizing that the precondition for glimpses of ‘self’-liberation seems to be the limerence of the earliest stages of new love, but that in that limerence nothing else (including my ‘self’) matters — In love, I am simply not my ‘self’. Who or what, then, am I?

In her comment to my last post, Kari mentioned that she has found that in moments of exceptional creativity the self seems, likewise, to be largely absent (though when it returns and edits the creative work that somehow emerged without the self’s presence, that editing makes the ‘self-less’ work even better). Similarly, it has seemed to both of us that what one could call ‘intuition’ might be something that comes from outside the self, and hence might be the ‘whispering’ of ‘all-there-is’ in ‘our’ ears, giving us knowledge that the self cannot consciously countenance.

The essence of duality is that there is a ‘self’ separate from all-there-is. But in these four types of seemingly time-less moments (moments when the self falls away and all-there-is is ‘glimpsed’; moments of falling in love; moments of exceptional creativity; and moments of deep intuition) it is almost as if the impossibility of the self realizing that it is an illusion, is somehow breached. These are moments beyond thought, moments of what I used to call ‘presence’ before appreciating that that word is deceptive (because it suggests that it is a ‘conscious state’ that can somehow be worked towards or achieved).

It is tempting in these moments (and in the moments afterwards when the self tries to figure out what just happened) to invent a third person, an ‘observer’ or ‘witness’ (or even what some ‘spiritual teachers’, disturbingly, call the ‘real you’) that is separate both from the self and from all-there-is. It is as if the self realizes its ‘self’ for the illusion that it is, but only when it is seemingly outside itself. If the self is a recursive, or reflexive, imagined entity, perhaps it makes sense that it can only perceive itself non-reflexively, as a third person, an ‘other’.

With the understanding that I cannot control if, or when, my self falls away, I have found it interesting in the meantime to think about (a) how the self arose evolutionarily (possibly as an unfortunate and devastating consequence of the emergence of large brains), (b) what motivates it, and, (c) most recently this week, what ‘we’ are ‘apart’ from or ‘without’ it.

In the absence of a self, it would appear that behaviour of humans doesn’t noticeably change much, other than perhaps the gradual end of neuroses (chronic anxieties etc) and an end to such self-preoccupation. Without a self, humans (apparently) continue to do each moment the only thing they can do given the immediate and specific circumstances they face. They fall in love, or they don’t. They create, or they don’t. They have (and act on) intuitions, or they don’t. There is no longer a self presuming to be in control of, presuming to have some choice in, and presuming to be responsible for, these behaviours. Since that self and its control, choice and responsibility were illusory anyway, nothing appears to change. All-there-is continues to play the game of being, apparently, everything.

There is no self left who is relieved to no longer suffer under these illusions, so there is no ‘feeling better’ about the world or ‘oneself’, even though there is one fewer suffering self. The entire convoluted process of the particular self and all that ‘it’ is trying to do — trying to become more self-aware, trying to understand what motivates the self, or what falling in love or intuition or remarkable creativity imply about the self — just ends. Or more accurately (and even more paradoxically) it is seen (but not by any ‘one’) that the process never was, just as the self never was. All-that-happens keeps happening, including apparent actions involving an apparent human that other illusory selves keep calling by a particular name, but this is all an appearance. There is no person, there are no individual humans or selves. All-there-is is just all-that-happens apparently happening.

So what are ‘we’ without the ‘self’? Essentially, ‘we’ are not. What ‘we’ used to call ‘we’ vanishes (retroactively) when the self falls away.

So what is this apparent person that is left? Seemingly, just an appearance, like everything is an appearance. What is left is just what is happening ‘person-ing’. No subjects or objects, no nouns or pronouns, apply. If the self of a loved one falls away, nothing apparently changes (from the perspective of the remaining selves) other than a very subtle, probably imperceptible shift in the energy of that ‘person-ing’. The ‘person-ing’ continues to have preferences, express emotions (which were deeply embodied during the affliction of the self, and which, as time passes, are then modulated by its absence), and seemingly behave in ways that have been conditioned in the brain. Or more accurately, perhaps, the ‘person-ing’ continues to include ‘preference-ing’, emotional ‘express-ing’, and conditioned ‘behave-ing’. But there is no person.

Is there cause for the still-self-inflicted person left behind, who loves the now-self-less ‘person-ing’, to be fearful about this apparent change? Although this is a scary proposition for the self (after all, another self has seemingly died), in reality nothing apparently changes. The ‘person-ing’ will be indistinguishable from the self-inflicted person. It may have already happened to someone you love, and you didn’t notice. They may not have noticed, until there was no longer anyone to notice.

So what about the radical non-dualists who claim not to be teachers and not to have selves but who nevertheless hold meetings and prattle on about the illusion of self? If the disappearance of the self happens to ‘no one’ (once the self falls away, there is no one left to recognize the disappearance), how is it that these ‘messengers’ are able to deliver this message, and enthusiastically do so?

Apparently, ‘message-ing’ is a part of some ‘person-ing’. It is in the conditioned and embodied behaviour of some ‘messengers’ (more accurately, since there are no ‘messengers’ or other people, it is in the conditioned and embodied behaviour of some ‘message-ing’) to blather about the apparent possibility of this message being true. And there is a resonance, an intuition in other persons (or there is a ‘resonance-ing’ or ‘intuit-ing’ in some ‘person-ing’) that this message is true, or at least intriguingly possible and compelling.

What makes this message compelling to me (I think) is its simplicity, its internal consistency (it is perhaps the best candidate yet for a ‘grand theory of everything’ that is not hopelessly convoluted, incomplete and self-contradictory), and its resonance with the ‘glimpses’ that have happened when my self briefly vanished. I’m the ultimate skeptic, and this is the first explanation that doesn’t make the skeptic in me go “welllllllllll maybe… but…”. I’m not spiritual, but the scientist in me is totally comfortable with the basic unknowable-ness of everything, and with it the idea of infinity and infinite complexity. This message therefore just makes intuitive sense, to ‘me’. Even though I recognize it is practically useless.

Sorry for going on about it. I’m trying to focus on more creative work, but, just like my astonishing awareness about the nature of complexity (and hence about how the world really works and why we cannot prevent civilization’s collapse) a few years ago, this dawning about non-duality (and hence about who ‘we’ really are, or aren’t) is rather mind-blowing, and distracting. And they’re both hugely difficult, if not impossible, to explain to anyone else.

When you can kind of see something almost no one else can see at all, it starts to haunt you.

image via photo505.com

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