Blogging Without Facebook

Cartoon from the New Yorker by Lee Lorenz

Five years ago I summarized why I still blog this way:

I keep blogging because I owe just about everything about my current situation to my blog. My writing and my readers’ responses have shaped and radically altered my worldview. I quit my job because of it, and found my next (and last) two jobs through it. My book publisher found me through it. I’ve fallen in love because of it, and found many of the people who have become the most important in my life through it. So I can’t not blog. it’s part of who I am. It’s my auxiliary memory, my means to think out loud and figure things out when there’s no one I can talk to in person about things. By writing these terrible realizations about the inevitability of civilization’s collapse on my blog, I was able to formulate them and generate the courage to say them out loud, unapologetically. And I found lots of people who, rather than thinking my ideas were (as one reader put it) “doomer porn”, came out and said “Yes, that’s what I think and feel and sense and intuit too! I’m not crazy! You’re not crazy!”

Since then this blog has allowed me to discover how to eat well, and to discover and achieve clarity on radical non-duality, learnings which have been equally transformative in my life. And while writing about these things has alienated even more readers, it’s also produced, I think, some of my best work. And the realization that I’m still not crazy.

Eighteen months ago I quit Facebook (other than as a calendar for upcoming local events). That included ending cross-posting my blog posts there. I did that with a lot of trepidation, for two reasons: My work was read (and commented on) almost as much there as via email notifications and direct links. And many of my favourite bloggers (mainly the ones who provided links to reading that was important rather than their own original content) had stopped blogging and were using Facebook for this purpose instead (to reach a much vaster audience). Ending my cross-posts meant cutting myself off from them.

But I did it anyway. My quarterly links posts are as voluminous (and I think as useful) as they were before, largely because my favourite linkers continue to send me links by email. And my original writing and creative writing continue to develop with a much smaller but more coherent audience.

Sadly, many of the finest original content blog writers, their audience diluted and diminished by the firehose of useless, time-wasting and dangerous Facebook and Twitter blather, gave up writing. Blogging now can only provide the last two of the ten incredible blessings that the medium once provided that I listed above. The only remaining benefits of blogging are as an auxiliary memory (“what was that book all about again?”) and for thinking out loud (we learn much of what we learn by telling it, incoherently at first, to others). For many fine bloggers with busy lives, that just wasn’t enough to keep them going. For me, and the bloggers remaining on my right sidebar, it still is enough (some of the ex-bloggers and non-bloggers who still send me links and useful news about collapse and other interesting subjects, mostly by email, are shown in black on the ‘blogroll’). And a few others, unacknowledged on the sidebar, also send me interesting links for my Links of the Quarter posts. Thank you! But that is not why I blog.

Those two remaining benefits — auxiliary memory and thinking out loud — are, perhaps not coincidentally, probably the main reasons people have always kept diaries, and probably always will, as long as our species stays around and retains abstract language. I just keep mine in a public space, I think more out of habit than ego.

It’s sad that the golden age of blogs is gone, co-opted and diluted into mediocrity, its sense of community lost. Just as the late 1960s was an amazing time that couldn’t possibly last, so too were the magic years of blogging’s heyday. You can say that both were overrated, but those of us who blossomed thanks to them, know better.


Posted in Using Weblogs and Technology | 3 Comments

Writing Grey Words

In my last post, I played with using a grey colour (#999999) for all words that represent things that aren’t real — that is, they exist only as constructs of the mind, and in the absence of anyone, they simply don’t exist. It’s actually an extraordinarily large list. Our languages are built around the reality of these non-existent things, which is probably why wild creatures, absent their need or capacity for abstract mental constructs, have no need or capacity for abstract languages.

On the other hand, the list of what is actually real (ie what exists independent of the mind), which I showed in green (#008000) in my last post, is pretty small. For a start, these things are merely pointers; what is actually real cannot be known or understood by the separate person. And what really is, is both real and unreal; it is an appearance out of nothing. Aggravatingly to the separate person, one of these words that point to what is real-and-unreal, is ‘everything’.

So just for fun (or perhaps annoyingly) here are some words in each category:

Words that represent what is not actually real, but only a mental construct:

    • All pronouns (I, me, my, mine, you, your, yours, he, him, his, she, her, hers, one, they, them, theirs, and words including the term self, person, individual or similar subjective entity)
    • Forms of the verb ‘to be’ (am, are, is, was, were, will be, have been etc) that refer to something perceived as separate
    • Qualities, assessments, aspirations and aversions of perceived separate persons (eg enlightened, stupid, liberation, equanimity, war etc)
    • Words that describe things and actions that separate persons conceive or perceive to exist or happen in space and/or time:
      • Ideas (eg life, death, here, there, now, past, present, future, love, relationship)
      • Labels of a separate object (eg chair, face)
      • People, places and things, individual or group (eg Trump, his Towers, his lies and his stuff)
      • Qualities of perceived things or actions (eg happy, dark, quickly, annoyingly)
      • Actions involving causality, relationship or agency (eg led to, talked to, helped to)
      • Abstract concepts and perceptions of the (illusory) self (eg purpose, meaning, self-control, personal free will, individual choice; personal beliefs, thoughts, feelings and sensations; expectations, experiences, judgements, responsibilities etc)
Words that represent what is both apparently real and unreal, ie appearances out of nothing:

  • Words that describe what isthis, everything, nothing, unconditional love, oneness, what is actually happening
  • Gerunds that describe appearances rather than things (eg sitting rather than chair)
  • Also gerunds that describe what we have no words for in our languages because we don’t recognize their possibility eg wall-ing (what is apparently actually happening) rather than wall (which is the self’s mistaken perception of reality, a ‘psychosomatic misunderstanding’)

The problem with restricting conversation or writing to only what is both apparently real and unreal (ie actually real), is that you are limited to tautologies: All there is, is this. Everything is perfect, just as it is. It’s complete. Everything is unconditional love. There is no ‘you’. In languages where meaning (to the individual) is everything, such communications are, tautologically, meaningless, useless.

So what is the radically non-dual writer to do? Just be aware, I suppose, of what is written that refers to what doesn’t really exist. Write grey words, but accept that they describe only illusion, as compelling and as prevalent and as excruciatingly persistent as that illusion is.

And then, in oral conversation, and in thought, do the same: recognize when you are speaking, and thinking, grey words.


Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 6 Comments

It’s Not That

image from pixabay/pexels CC0

it’s not that we’re ungrateful or unappreciative —
we’ve just forgotten;
the veil of our selves prevents us from ever seeing,
from remembering this.

it’s not that we’re hateful, wilfully destructive, violent or intentionally hurtful —
we can’t help our selveswe simply react, as a body reacts to a bee’s sting.
there is no self control, no agency, no causality or responsibility,
no reality to anything our selves believe, or believe they do.

it’s not that we’re weak, lazy or afraid, or don’t care —
we’re overwhelmed, haunted
by the ceaseless hallucination of being separate,
of being apart from this,
and our suffering is so deep and so endless
we cannot dare really feel.

it’s not that we’re depressed, despairing, or bereft of hope —
that’s just our way of coping, dealing with our incapacity,
the absurd hopelessness of the prison of the self,
this life without parole.

it’s not that we’re oblivious, inattentive or in denial —
we just can’t know where, or how, to look, to see, wondrously, this.

it’s not that we’re uninformed, or misinformed, or don’t yet know,
or that we haven’t yet ‘risen’ to our potential —
we are doing all we can, which is, alas, nothing.

it’s not even that we’re damaged, disconnected, traumatized,
(although we are, it seems, these things) —
we are not the cause of anything.
yet our selves suffer, without respite,
from the illusion that it’s our fault
that somehow, horribly and inexplicably, we are to blame.

it’s not that.

it’s this.

Posted in Creative Works | 3 Comments

Links of the Quarter: December 2018

Na Pali coast, Kaua’i — photo by me, taken two weeks ago

Although it isn’t real, doesn’t really exist, my self is giving me a hard time these days. It doesn’t like the cold, and wet, and slippery roads. (It yearns to be back in Kaua’i). It doesn’t like when things don’t work right. It doesn’t like feeling incompetent, trapped, endangered, lost, and scared. It doesn’t like feeling compelled to do things, though it gets a thrill from the feeling of having done them half way right. It’s impatient, and annoyed with most people, especially itself.

But none of it is real. There is no one, no time or space, no causality or agency, no life or death, no purpose or meaning. No ‘one’ to blame. And while the idea of that seems ludicrous, or horrifying, to most selves, my self finds it endlessly fascinating, even as it is constantly fooled (by itself, helped by other selves) into believing that all of these made-up things are absolutely real. It is utterly hopeless, tragic, absurd, and inescapable. And as obvious as all this is to me now, intellectually and intuitively, almost no one else seems to get it. I don’t blame them.

But my self (it seems) continues to write about this, as if somehow that might help, beyond making the “prison of the self” a bit more comfortable. And my self continues to write about collapse, and about living better, and about human nature and culture and how the world seemingly works, and about whatever else comes into my mind that seems, to my weary and bewildered and lost and scared self, worth writing down. I have no choice in the matter. I smile more, these days, and pay a little more attention to things up close, the sensuous stuff, and I make a bit more eye contact; my way of redecorating my little cell. But I understand, ridiculously, that nothing matters. All that our selves think of as real is just invention, story, the brain’s feverish patterning. Like the friends of Godot, I am waiting, hopelessly, for the impossible. And that’s fine.


Cartoon by the awesome Michael Leunig

Would Human Extinction Be a Tragedy?: At least the NYT is allowing the odd Op-Ed to ask the question. The author’s answer is, of course, a qualified yes. And the inevitable anthropocentric arrogance pervades the article. But maybe one day we will seriously ask the question, probably when we’re burning the last of the forests and coal in a desperate effort to survive. For those still on FB, this group, which offers a very different and very human answer, is way ahead of the curve. Thanks to Derrick Jensen for the NYT link.

So You Think Forests Sequester Carbon?: Not if they’re burning.

Carbon Ideologies: A wonderfully-written book review by Nathaniel Rich of the prolific William Vollmann’s epic and despairing treatise Carbon Ideologies: “Nothing can be done to save the world as we know it; therefore, nothing need be done”, the book’s author writes. Nathaniel Rich, in his review, says “The demand problem, the growth problem, the complexity problem, the cost-benefit problem, the industry problem, the political problem, the generational-delay problem, the denial problem — Vollmann scrupulously catalogs all the major unsolved problems that contribute to the colossus of climate change”. Then he concludes:

[But] human nature is Vollmann’s true subject—as it must be. The story of climate change hangs on human behavior, not geophysics. Vollmann seeks to understand how “we could not only sustain, but accelerate the rise of atmospheric carbon levels, all the while expressing confusion, powerlessness and resentment.” Why did we take such insane risks? Could we have behaved any other way? Can we behave any other way? If not, what conclusions must we draw about our lives and our futures? Vollmann admits that even he has shied away from fully comprehending the damage we’ve done. “I had never loathed myself sufficiently to craft the punishment of full understanding,” he writes. “How could I? No one person could.” He’s right, though books like Carbon Ideologies will bring us closer.

The planet’s atmosphere will change but human nature won’t. Vollmann’s meager wish is for future readers to appreciate that they would have made the same mistakes we have. This might seem a humble ambition for a project of this scope, but only if you mistake Carbon Ideologies for a work of activism. Vollmann’s project is nothing so conventional. His “letter to the future” is a suicide note. He does not seek an intervention—only acceptance. If not forgiveness, then at least acceptance.

First, the Economy Collapses: Although climate collapse will finish off our teetering and unsustainable civilization, the inevitable first domino to fall will be the global industrial growth economy. Even those up on climate news are often unaware that economy and ecology are inextricably connected, and the crisis of a collapsed economy can come on much faster and create much more devastation much more quickly than climate events. Here’s an excellent 8-part explanation of why our economy is so fragile and over-extended, and what it will mean when it collapses beyond the capacity of bankrupt governments to put back together, from economist Mari Werner. Thanks to Daniele Colojacomo for the link, and the one that follows.

HyperNormalisation and Civilisational Collapse: A fascinating interview with British filmmaker Adam Curtis that espouses the view that much of the dread we feel about the coming collapse stems from the collective sense that the current insane state of the world is somehow normal and inevitable, from our naivete about power, and from the lack of imagination to conceive of anything different. His film is here.

The Looming Danger of Cults: When stress and suffering become overwhelming, desperate people often turn to cults — anyone who will give them an easy answer. I’ve met more than a few intelligent people who’ve fallen under the influence of cults, many of which have finely-honed, rehearsed messages designed to appeal to those with specific weaknesses and traumas, and many of which have ‘charismatic’ leaders and astonishingly-large and influential followers. Those who escape them are often terrified to reveal what they know due to fear of retribution from zealous, brainwashed followers. Sexual abuse seems particularly prevalent in many of these cults, along with bizarre diets, rituals and fetishes. Even large media organizations can be cowed by threats of legal action by many successful cults’ armies of lawyers. And young people, especially these days confused and insecure young males, seem particularly vulnerable to cults, which can recruit powerfully in the often-anxious and angry echo-chambers of social media. Some novels about post-collapse society describe communities and ‘tribes’ permeated by cults. I hope they’re wrong. More and more, I fear they’re not.


Sketch of St Francis, by the amazing Maryland-based artist Rebecca Clark

What the Green New Deal Really Means: It’s been deep-sixed by the Democrats as too radical, and is being discussed in more liberal countries, but it’s inevitable, and the sooner it’s embraced the better. But it will take much longer than the idealists think. The last New Deal only came into effect out of utter desperation after years of crushing depression. Once its fans realize the GND means massive government regulation (with strict enforcement and large penalties for violations), a huge redistribution of wealth through taxes, ends to subsidies and hundreds of new, expensive programs, it will be shut down. Until there is no choice. Problem is, by then the right-wingers will have bankrupted the government and given everything away to their rich friends, so there will be no money to implement it. But at least it’s out there, and we’ll see what our ‘leaders’ are made of, if we don’t already know.

Buy Safe, Healthy AND Cruelty-Free: Excellent lists of companies that produce safe and healthy cosmetic and chemical products (and those to avoid) are provided by EWG. Similar lists of companies that don’t test on animals or use animal products are provided by PETA. I only use products that make BOTH lists; they’re not easy to find, but they’re out there, and their products are outstanding as well as good for you and the world.

Don’t Talk to Me About Climate Change: George Monbiot suggests some new terms to use when talking about the crises facing our world, such as the following (thanks to Chris Dempsey for the link):

  • Climate breakdown instead of climate change
  • Our natural/living world instead of the environment
  • Wildlife instead of natural capital/resources/stocks/assets
  • Defending the planet instead of saving the planet
  • Climate science denier instead of climate skeptic
  • Refuges/sanctuaries instead of reserves

It Ain’t Easy Being LGBTQ: Nathaniel James clarifies that B is not G, and musician Laura Love explains why some WBW might legitimately want some of their own gatherings without T people invited, and might prefer other WBW as romantic partners, and that doesn’t mean they’re transphobic. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the second link and the one that follows.

Homeless Are Doin’ It For Themselves: A summary of the homeless self-organized activist movement in the US. As an interesting aside, despite Hoover’s horrific failure to manage his country and its suffering and homeless citizens through the Great Depression, he is celebrated in Belgium as the saviour of the nation’s starving during and after WW1.

The Tiny Nation of Užupis: A suburb of Vilnius has taken an April Fool’s joke and made it into a statement of what nationhood should really be about.

When Hate Comes to Your Town: How do you safely tell right-wing extremists their views aren’t welcome in your town?

Healing From Trauma: NHL superstar Theo Fleury talks about how he healed from years of sexual abuse, and how he almost didn’t. A moving story. Thanks to Beth Patterson for the link.

The Mushroom King Speaks Out: A rambling and fascinating interview with Paul Stamets, so famous for his knowledge of mushrooms and their mind-boggling uses they made him into a Star Trek character.

How to Pick Colours for Maps or Charts: Want to use colour to show gradation of a variable, or to clearly distinguish 12 or even 20 different lines or areas on a chart? Forget ROYGBIV and Internet Safe Colours, and give ColorBrewer a try. And here’s a link if you ever wondered why pink and brown aren’t in the rainbow.

When Should Serially Abusive Celebs/Leaders Be Allowed to Return to the Limelight?: Never. But what if they’re lynchpins of the whole organization? Same answer. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the second link.


Severe smog pollution in China is now an everyday occurrence. Photo by Damir Sagoli for Reuters.

The Madness of the Alberta Tar Sands: Its poor quality, and the temporary oil glut created by large-scale fracking, has meant that the environmentally ruinous Tar Sands bitumen sludge, which costs $50-70/bbl to produce, is wholesaling for $16/bbl. Guess who’s subsidizing the difference?

Monsanto Bought Off Researchers to Pimp Roundup: Is anyone really surprised?

How Inequality Tears a City Apart: Vancouver’s soaring wealth disparity drives the poor and young out, and brings the rich and entitled in, making the city worse off for everyone, and making home prices utterly unsustainable. Here’s how serious the home price/income gap has become. And here’s how to mitigate it — if only we had the political will (at all levels of government).

How Russia Helped Trump Win: Everything we know so far, from Jane Mayer at the New Yorker. It’s more than you might think.

Warning from Poland: Trends in several European countries are reminiscent of the precursors to violent upheaval that led to world wars in the last century, and which are increasingly evident in the US as well. This is how it begins, says author Anne Applebaum. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.

Another Article About How Fake Images and Videos Change Our Perception of Truth: From Joshua Rothman at the New Yorker, another warning about the risks of manipulated media. I told you so.

Got Milked? The Dairy Industry’s Fake Research

IP Lawyers Run Amok: An Australian research organization essentially extorted a half billion dollars from Wi-Fi component manufacturers (costs passed along to us) by threatening to sue for much more, for something they arguably didn’t invent at all.

Screening the Use of Screens: There is increasing evidence that what is presented to us on all kinds of screens is addictive and leads to antisocial tendencies. And even that dependence on them decreases our motor function. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the links.

Fast Company Asks if Capitalism is the Real Problem: Oh, no, wait, they’ve taken that link down. Kind of guessed that was over the line. Sponsors couldn’t have been happy. Thanks to Shasta Martinuk for the catch.


Photo via David Petraitis on FB — not sure if it’s his photo or not.

Tell a Sci-Fi Story in Six Words: Hundreds of people took John Kellden up on his challenge. My favourites?: “White guys in space with toys.” “In healing ritual, yesterday becomes someday.” “Show us how to be new.” Mine, of course? “It was realized there’s nothing separate.”

DJ Earworm Does It Again: The mashup master compiles the top 25 songs of 2018 into one blockbuster song/video, which is a lot better than any of the mostly mediocre derivative songs that make it up. Here’s last year’s masterpiece. They’re also pretty scathing portraits of pop music’s vapidity, superficiality and narcissism.

Most Romantic Dance Ever, or Just Creepy?: Zouk dance champions strut their stuff.

Nova Scotia Students Stumble On New Branch of Life: A species of living creature genetically distinct from the entire animal kingdom and the entire fungi kingdom was discovered — in two different forms — in a collection jar, by accident.

Christine Lavin: Laugh Til You Cry: The author of the notorious and fall-down funny (if somewhat dated) Sensitive New-Age Guys has a ton of lesser-known songs spanning four decades, from the gently satiric Attainable Love to the gorgeous The Kind of Love You Never Recover From.

The Seven Echo Chambers: An interesting new study sets aside traditional left-right labels and substitutes seven ‘tribes’ whose views are more internally consistent, and reveals that some of the issues Americans think of as divisive (like the importance and impact of ‘political correctness’) they actually overwhelmingly agree on. The Atlantic summarizes the findings. Thanks to Paul Heft for the link.

WTF is Holding Space: A Man’s Guide: An entertaining account of why men seem so unable to empathize, and why they’re often doing it wrong. Thanks to David Petraitis for the link.

The Indigenous Origins of Sign Language: A fascinating history of the uses of sign languages. Thanks to Chris Corrigan for the link.

Why Are Quality Headphones & Earbuds So Much Better Now?: Here’s a look at the surprisingly simple technology inside that makes all the difference.

A Mother Carries On Her Deceased Globetrotting Daughter’s Journey: Moving story of a local woman who discovered, after her daughter died at age 22 (7 years after being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour), that she was moved to continue her daughter’s travels.

People-Watching as Awareness Tool: A woman explains how teaching her kids to pay attention to details about people in crowds, just for fun, taught them to be wary for dangers that might not otherwise have noticed. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link and the one that follows.

Out of the Woods: A moving and troubling true story about a woman’s discovery of a lost boy in the woods.


Photo going around on FB. No idea of original source or even if it’s real. Who can say anymore?

From a 2013 speech by Harry Leslie Smith, who died at age 97 in his adopted Canada in February. Thanks to Dick Jones for the link. “Then aged 93, he declared that he would never again wear a red poppy. He first went to Remembrance Sunday in 1928, and says: ‘I don’t remember whether people wore poppies but they wore their grief like jagged glass.’ “:

Over the last 10 years the sepia tone of November has become blood-soaked with paper poppies festooning the lapels of our politicians, newsreaders and business leaders. The most fortunate in our society have turned the solemnity of remembrance for fallen soldiers in ancient wars into a justification for our most recent armed conflicts. The American civil war’s General Sherman once said that “war is hell”, but unfortunately today’s politicians in Britain use past wars to bolster our flagging belief in national austerity or to compel us to surrender our rights as citizens, in the name of the public good.

Still, this year I shall wear the poppy as I have done for many years. I wear it because I am from that last generation who remember a war that encompassed the entire world. I wear the poppy because I can recall when Britain was actually threatened with a real invasion and how its citizens stood at the ready to defend her shores. But most importantly, I wear the poppy to commemorate those of my childhood friends and comrades who did not survive the second world war and those who came home physically and emotionally wounded from horrific battles that no poet or journalist could describe.

However, I am afraid it will be the last time that I will bear witness to those soldiers, airmen and sailors who are no more, at my local cenotaph. From now on, I will lament their passing in private because my despair is for those who live in this present world. I will no longer allow my obligation as a veteran to remember those who died in the great wars to be co-opted by current or former politicians to justify our folly in Iraq, our morally dubious war on terror and our elimination of one’s right to privacy.

Come 2014 when the government marks the beginning of the first world war with quotes from Rupert Brooke, Rudyard Kipling and other great jingoists from our past empire, I will declare myself a conscientious objector. We must remember that the historical past of this country is not like an episode of Downton Abbey where the rich are portrayed as thoughtful, benevolent masters to poor folk who need the guiding hand of the ruling classes to live a proper life.

I can tell you it didn’t happen that way because I was born nine years after the first world war began. I can attest that life for most people was spent in abject poverty where one laboured under brutal working conditions for little pay and lived in houses not fit to kennel a dog today. We must remember that the war was fought by the working classes who comprised 80% of Britain’s population in 1913.

This is why I find that the government’s intention to spend £50m to dress the slaughter of close to a million British soldiers in the 1914-18 conflict as a fight for freedom and democracy profane. Too many of the dead, from that horrendous war, didn’t know real freedom because they were poor and were never truly represented by their members of parliament.

My uncle and many of my relatives died in that war and they weren’t officers or NCOs; they were simple Tommies. They were like the hundreds of thousands of other boys who were sent to their slaughter by a government that didn’t care to represent their citizens if they were working poor and under-educated. My family members took the king’s shilling because they had little choice, whereas many others from similar economic backgrounds were strong-armed into enlisting by war propaganda or press-ganged into military service by their employers.

For many of you 1914 probably seems like a long time ago but I’m 93, so it feels recent. Today, we have allowed monolithic corporate institutions to set our national agenda. We have allowed vitriol to replace earnest debate and we have somehow deluded ourselves into thinking that wealth is wisdom. But by far the worst error we have made as a people is to think ourselves as taxpayers first and citizens second.

Next year, I won’t wear the poppy but I will until my last breath remember the past and the struggles my generation made to build this country into a civilised state for the working and middle classes. If we are to survive as a progressive nation we have to start tending to our living because the wounded: our poor, our underemployed youth, our hard-pressed middle class and our struggling seniors shouldn’t be left to die on the battleground of modern life.

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

Conversation and Silence, Part Two

This is the second part of a two-part post; part one is here.

(photo of Killarney Lake by fellow Bowen Islander Jason Wilde)

If I stay here long enough
I will learn the art of silence.
When I have given up words
I will become what I have to say.

— Richard Shelton, Desert

Conversation, in the rare cases when it brings to the table the attributes I described in the first part of this article, can at least succeed at surfacing insights, helping us see different perspectives, attaining consensus on decisions, and helping to resolve conflicts. But when the necessary attributes for effective conversation are not present, or when the objective of talking is not one of these four purposes, I would argue that talking is pretty much a waste of time, and silence would be a better prescription.

But how, you might ask, can anyone advocate for silence when it is so often the handmaiden of abuse, oppression, patriarchy, enslavement, corpocracy, and desolation?

When these atrocities happen we must of course give voice to calling them out, stopping them, and condemning them. Although silence is not their cause, it is complicit in their continuation. Inequality of wealth and power, patriarchy, stress-induced psychopathy, and our obsession with ‘privacy’ and secrecy allow outrages to be perpetrated, shielded from our awareness, and covered up. These are the fall-out of our collapsing, exhausted, well-intentioned civilization, and I don’t believe we can ‘fix’ them until this terrible, unsustainable civilization has breathed its last — which won’t be long now.

Calling them out, naming them for what they are, and refusing to condone them, however, is done through exposition, not conversation. There is no decision, no consensus needed to make it clear that these outrages are not acceptable and must stop. Exposition — the stories of those who have suffered, the calling to account, the understanding of what has allowed this to occur and how to prevent its recurrence — these are not matters for deliberation, but for obvious action. In this, we may not always succeed, but we can never remain silent.

But only a tiny proportion of the massive firehose of talk that pervades our dying culture has anything to do with calling to account, or with real conversation as I defined it in part one of this article. Almost all of it, I’m coming to believe, is just noise, the wail of a species endlessly lamenting its unhappiness and its incapacity. What purpose does any of it serve? It fails to make us feel better, or even feel heard. It fails to bring about any real change, only hopelessness and helplessness and useless rage. It fails to inform, only to inflame, to deceive, to excuse.

I am lying on the beach, basking in the warmth, listening to the ocean, watching the birds, feeling the breeze, smelling the earth after a brief rain. Here, now, is a moment without the need for thought, for reactive emotions, for seeming actions. It is a time for love, for sensation, for joy, for paying attention, for play, for just being. Of course I could be doing something more ‘productive’, more directed at making something better. But I am no longer sure I believe that productivity and striving to make things better actually accomplishes anything, or at least nothing that lasts for long. Change happens when the generations attached to old ways of doing things die, and new generations, with somewhat different conditioning, take their place.

I listen to the supposed conversations of the other beach-goers. The conversations are vapid, meaningless, banal, unnecessary. They are about consumer decisions, unactionable news (political, economic, sports, weather), what someone supposedly did or said or should do or should have done or wants to do. They seek (with quiet or not-so-quiet desperation) reassurance, appreciation, attention, relief from the gnawing sense that something is not quite right, that they are somehow not quite right, not enough, missing something, all alone, owed something, needing something.

They — and all of us — are striving to heal ourselves from civilization disease. But words aren’t the path to healing; they just take us further inside our heads, inside ourselves where the disease lives. We find true healing in love, in laughter, in eating well, in exercise — and in silence, in paying attention without judgement, without evaluating, without expectation, without trying to ‘make sense’. Without thought, and its noisy partner, language, rehashing and second-guessing and re-living and lamenting a fictional past and dreading a fictional future. When it comes to our selves’ endless and incurable bent for suffering, words don’t help.

I don’t buy the hackneyed CBT/mindfulness/12-step orthodoxy that claims that by changing our thinking we can change ourselves, ‘re-program’ ourselves. There is no credible evidence that these acts of wishful thinking work. Wild creatures don’t need language to heal from their disturbing experiences, their tragic lives. Their therapy is wordless, silent, and it actually works.

I smile at those sitting or walking on the beach who have the good sense to just be silent, to just take in the mystery and wonder of everything just as it is. To notice, to pay attention, to stop thinking and reacting and judging and just open themselves to perceiving, sensing, being a part of all that is. And admittedly it is easier here on a quiet tropical beach with the surf pounding in than amidst the terrible knowledge of cities.

I smile at them. I salute them. If only for a moment they are, like me, beginning to begin to learn the humbling art of silence.

Of course silence is terrifying to those who have not learned the comfort and joy it offers. So many people have to fill the emptiness and pain inside with noise, with distraction, with entertainment, with anything that will help them even for a little while avoid the terrible feelings of hopelessness, of shame, of emptiness, of grief, of helpless rage, of terror and dread and regret that otherwise consume their waking hours. Silence is not for everyone, at least not until they have come to grips with the incurability of civilization disease.

And this is not to say there is no place for prose in our world. While it is should not presume to be conversation, thoughtful and well-crafted and non-manipulative writing, music, stories, poetry, films and videos, and other expository compositions (even blog articles) can, unlike twitter or facebook or texting or telephone blather, move us. Rather than taking us deeper into our heads and triggering our reactive emotions, such compositions can take us outside the suffocating default pathways of the brain and to other places, other ways of being.

So give me that rare creature, an excellent, purposeful conversation, or give me a composition that transports me, delights, fills me with possibility, or scream out your truth that shines a light on a terrible and outrageous reality. But if you have something else to say, fellow humans, please, for everyone’s benefit, just STFU, and give yourself, and all of us, the gift of silence.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 2 Comments

Conversation and Silence, Part One

This is the first part of a two-part article.
mindful wandering
photo by Maren Yumi on flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

It’s been a few years since I last wrote about conversation. I don’t see nearly the value in conversation that I used to. I still talk too much, and seemingly converse a lot, still mostly about subjects that are unactionable and don’t really matter. Old habit I suppose; this is long-conditioned behaviour. Language ties up the brain in comprehension and conception when the brain could be used, silently, for perception, for sensing and intuition and letting things come, and for demonstration and attention, which, even before embracing radical non-duality, I’d come to believe are much better uses of our bewildered brains.

I have come to distinguish real conversation (which etymologically means “turning with”, almost like dance, and which is a collaborative, interactive, iterative activity), from non-collaborative, one-way forms of talking including performance (relating something), instruction, and inquiry (Q&A), whose purpose is to tell a story, entertain, or give or get clarity, and which has a clear “audience”. These might be serial, with one person at a time spouting forth, but they are not really conversations. And if the back-and-forth results from a need for clarity due to inarticulate or lazy exposition, or a craving for reassurance, that’s not really conversation either.

So why should we ever need to converse? If not to relate information, tell a story, get clarity (ie learn), reassure, show affection, or entertain, what purpose does real, collaborative, interactive, iterative conversation serve?

I think real conversation can serve four purposes: to surface insights, to see different perspectives, to achieve consensus on decisions, and to resolve conflicts. These purposes are related: Seeing different perspectives and surfacing insights can help resolve conflicts and achieve consensus. They are about using a deliberative process to move beyond the fixed thoughts and ideas in our own heads and to appreciate others’ ways of thinking and seeing, with the goal of achieving agreement and cohesion with others we live and work with.

Here are the most important prerequisites, in my experience, for an effective conversation to achieve one or more of the above purposes:

  1. Capacity to be open to other and difficult ideas and perspectives: There is no point trying to collaborate with someone who is either incapable of considering or unwilling to consider different possibilities. If someone is totally set in their beliefs, or utterly lacking in imagination, conversation is futile.
  2. A basic level of capacity to articulate, and of social fluency: Articulation is the ability to convey one’s thoughts, ideas, beliefs and perspectives clearly. Social fluency is the emotional engagement and sensitivity to appreciate (and show appreciation for) others’ thoughts, ideas, beliefs and perspectives and see how and why they might be different from one’s own.
  3. Critical thinking skills: The capacity to draw inferences, challenge assumptions, weigh evidence, and synthesize information is essential to the development of a rational and thoughtful worldview and belief system. If you, or those you are conversing with, lack these skills, you can’t possibly hope to reason with them.
  4. Curiosity and creative/imaginative skills: Some people, for various reasons, are just shut down and unwilling to consider anything that doesn’t jibe with their ideology or belief set; others, through lack of practice, have lost the capacity to imagine anything that isn’t simple and obvious, or to put themselves in another’s shoes. Conversations with such people are likely to be just frustrating and pointless.
  5. Attention skills: We live in a world of attention deficit, distraction and information overload. In such a world, listening and paying attention are challenging and take practice. If those you’re conversing with don’t have and use these skills, they won’t hear you, so you’re wasting your breath.

You’ve probably noticed that these five prerequisites to effective conversation are all capacities; the people in the supposed conversation either have them or they don’t.

What I’ve discovered of late is that in most of the discussions I have (a) people don’t have one or more of the four purposes (to surface insights, to see different perspectives, to achieve consensus on decisions, and to resolve conflicts) for which conversations are well-suited; and (b) few of the participants have the five prerequisite skills for effective conversation.

Small wonder, then, that I find most attempts at real conversation fail. In the rare cases that true conversation occurs (often with the help of a skilled facilitator, who might also be one of the participants) the result can be magic.

Alas, as the world becomes more stressful, less attentive, more polarized and less socially fluent, such conversations seem to be increasingly rare.

Perhaps that is why some of us have been shying away from social discourse and spending more of our time in silence. I’ll explore that more in Part Two of this article.

Thanks to John Kellden and Michael Dowd for inspiring this post

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 1 Comment

The Death of Truth: A World Where Lying Pays

The character that is not me lies in the sun on the warm tropical beach, listening to the roar of the surf. It has no choice in this — it is conditioned to prefer warmth and sun and surf over cold and wet and concrete, no matter how masterfully constructed and adorned the latter may be.

‘I’ of course presume these to be my choices and my preferences. ‘I’ have recently returned from a trip to console a loved one dealing with grief. There was no choice in this trip either, though it seems there was to ‘me’. It seems to be in the conditioned nature of this character (a character that is only an appearance, but nevertheless is ‘real’ in the sense that the illusory ‘I’ can never be) to want to help those I love. That seems to be a preference of human characters in general, which I suppose has helped the species survive and evolve. Humans seem inherently preconditioned to care for each other and for the place they live and its resident creatures (biophilia), and to act altruistically. Seems a sensible evolutionary trait.

Another quality that seems inherent in human characters is honesty. It makes sense for the members of a tribe to be straight with each other, and with themselves, rather than deceptive. Honesty with tribe-mates leads to trust, and vice versa, and without trust the tribe cannot thrive. Likewise, it seems to be human conditioning to distrust outsiders who might, until it is proven otherwise, threaten the peace and equilibrium of the tribe.

But the world in which almost all human characters now live is decidedly non-tribal and decidedly untrusting, and that situation is getting much worse very quickly. There is no point rehashing how humans got to this point, but the current apparent reality is that lying pays. In our modern global human culture there are huge rewards for dishonesty. You can get away with cheating, murder, theft (on a grand scale), desolating the planet, and the accumulation of massive and dangerous levels of wealth and power, as long as you know how to lie effectively and consistently (including to yourself).

And now, as ‘I’ sit on the beach staring at the horizon, I worry about what seems to be the death of truth. Leaders — corporate, political and other — lie blatantly, and deny that they are doing so. As the intermediaries (media etc) through which we now get almost all our information become further removed from direct experience and personal iterative conversation, they also become more suspect, and liars are doing their best to make every information source suspect so that they have cover (plausible deniability) for their lies. It is now possible to create a video that ‘proves’ anyone said or did anything, with careful photoshopping, digital manipulation, CGI, and editing things out of context. And we believe what we want to believe (as evidenced by the recent surge in conspiracy theories, cults and nutbar gurus). We are terribly gullible when it comes to accepting as true what we wish to be true. And we want things to be simple and straightforward, when nothing is.

As I watch the waves I think about the savage and ludicrous Rwandan civil genocide, and about the improbable ‘success’ of Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Cheney, Trump and other pathological liars and hate-mongers who have ‘persuaded‘ people to believe, and to do, monstrous, insane things. I think about the zealous apologists for, and deniers of, the accelerating ruination of our planet’s biodiversity, health, soils, water, air, the destabilization of our climate, and the massive suffering our unsustainable and inequitable industrial growth economy inflicts on almost all the planet’s inhabitants.

And I wonder if any of these things would have been possible without the emergence of our sense of being separate selves with self-control and choice and responsibility, and all the anxiety and fear and anger and sadness and desperation and disconnection, so easily exploited by tyrants and liars, that this illusory sense of separation provokes and sustains.

Of course, I know that since selves do not really exist, they cannot have changed or caused anything. But our brains are constantly looking for patterns and connections, and reasons, when there are none. There is no meaning or purpose to anything, no reason ‘why’, no causality, and no time in which things change or evolve, although we want and believe there to be. So the seeming recent perfection of the processes and technologies of lying are just what has apparently happened, for no reason. They may seem to lead to massive wars, global and civil. They may seem to lead to the end of large-scale human civilization, and to the sixth great extinction of life on earth. But it is all just what is apparently happening, outside of space and time, without direction, agency or import.

That’s a message that the self-afflicted individual cannot possibly accept. It is too dark, too hopeless, too out-of-control. Too outrageous a truth. We can’t just shrug and accept it. It has to be another lie, a self-deception to make us feel better about our apparent failure to make the world a better place.

But it is the truth, even in this terrible world in which the truth seems dead, and in which lying pays so handsomely.

I sit on the beach, watching the occasional beach-wanderer trudge by, watching the sun set and the moon rise. Full moon tonight, and clear skies. The warm breeze carries the fragrance of plumeria and jasmine. The mynas natter to each other. The feral beach cats, neutered early in their lives and released into the wild, await the kindly volunteers who bring them food twice daily. I will return to the water’s edge after nightfall. I will shrug, and sigh, still lost and scared, but each day, a little more accepting. This is what is apparently happening. This is all there is.


Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 4 Comments

The Language of our Eyes

image from pixabay CC0

I’ve written about body language before. It’s fascinating to study the unspoken messages we send with our eyes, our faces, our tone of voice, our hands, and our whole bodies. But it can be dangerous (and not only to poker players): these messages vary enormously by individual, and between genders and cultures, and it’s not uncommon for people to send ‘fake tells’ — false messages to fool us — sometimes quite unconsciously.

Since writing my short story The Fortune Teller I’ve actually tried practicing making eye contact, as well as honing my listening and attention skills, and smiling more. And while everyone seems to appreciate getting authentic attention, eye contact seems, well, vastly more complex.

To start, obviously, more eye contact is not necessarily better. Staring and leering are rarely appreciated, and some people are just uncomfortable with eye contact, period. So I did some online research on how supposedly to make eye contact well, and discovered that, basically, there are no hard and fast rules, and the ‘research’ seems mostly sketchy, anecdotal, or sheer guesswork.

The following list draws on about 40 articles, few of which cite significant scientific support for their claims (and what research has been done seems mostly of dubious quality). So it may well be wrong. But there seems so little credible guidance on the subject that I thought anything would be worse than just reckless and discomfiting trial and error. So here’s what I’ve ‘learned’:

  • How long: Holding eye contact is a dominance display. But so is deliberately looking away first. Staring, in any culture, is just rude. Rule of thumb seems to be 3-5 seconds (about long enough to mentally note their eye colour). After that, rather than looking away, show attention by briefly looking down or off to one side and then immediately return to their eyes. It’s about gazing, which is very different from staring. Etymologically, gaze means give attention, while stare means stiffen. There’s a very subtle point at about the 5 second mark when an extended gaze may signal affection, reverence, or romantic interest, but even a second or two beyond that is into staring territory. And very short eye contact can come across as brusque or indifferent.
  • During conversation: One rule of thumb is to make eye contact 50% of the time when you’re talking and 70% when you’re listening. Seems a bit of a generalization, but try it and draw your own conclusions. I have noticed that breaking eye contact (suddenly, or for a prolonged period), or failing to provide enough eye contact, is a conversation stopper.
  • Smile: A genuine smile is a great complement (and compliment) to eye contact. But be aware people are usually pretty good at intuitively recognizing whether a smile is authentic (and not fawning or ogling or indifferent). And while a warm gaze combined with a warm smile is very engaging, receiving them together from someone else doesn’t necessarily signify anything more than politeness. Though it might.
  • Staring: If someone keeps staring at you, a way to discourage them is to stare back between and just above their eyes, as if you’re looking right through them. Or just look away if you can do so deliberately rather than reactively — people can tell which is which. And if you can’t keep your eyes off some part of a person’s body you’re interacting with, don’t think for a minute they won’t notice, at least subconsciously. Depending on what it is that’s mesmerizing you, if it’s appropriate mention it, and if it isn’t, look elsewhere.
  • Affection vs attention: Quick repeated glances, sideways glances, eyelids moving up and down, extended looks at the lips and mouth, and dilated pupils may (I repeat may) indicate affection or romantic interest or represent flirting (and may be taken as such if you instigate them, even unconsciously).
  • Gazing into space: I’m one of those people who listen and think best when undistracted, so I tend to gaze into space (slightly above and beyond who I’m listening to) when I’m concentrating on what’t being said. That can easily be misinterpreted as inattention or disinterest.
  • Body Position: It’s hard to make eye contact if you’re sitting beside someone else on a bench or sofa or long table. That’s why apparently dominants sit at the end of meeting tables, and submissives along the long sides. Maybe that’s one reason why ‘circle’ arrangements are so effective.
  • Blinking: Rapid blinking may be taken as dishonesty, discomfort or evasiveness. Hardly blinking at all may come across as staring, even if the rest of your face is relaxed.
  • Equitable eye contact: Giving most of your eye contact, just like giving most of your attention in any other way, to one person in a group or room, can come across as disrespectful, selfish, unfair, or distracted, to everyone else. (Then again, they might not care about you either.)
  • Other body language: Be alert for what you (and others) are conveying with your eyebrows, hands, mouth, posture, voice tone and other body language when you are looking at someone (see earlier body language article linked above). Just because people are focused on your eyes and face doesn’t mean they won’t pick up on other signals, especially if they are conflicting messages.
  • Eye movement: It’s much harder to interpret what the eyes (and the rest of the body) are saying in a still photo — movement is critical to our understanding; it tells a story, one that our intuition can ‘hear’ much better than our thinking brains. And coordinated movements (hand or body movements while you are just beginning to make eye contact, or while you sustain lingering eye contact) are supposedly major attention-getters.
  • Lie-detection: One study suggests holding someone’s gaze while asking them a simple question will get a more honest answer, and doing so while making a request may get a more positive answer (unless they look away, which could also be a ‘tell’). I confess I’m skeptical.

A great practice is to look in the mirror and then imagine you’re trying to convey, or react to, each of the circumstances above. (You can also look at video taken of you speaking with/to others.) You may be quite surprised to find that your eyes are sending a different message from what you intended. Or that your smile doesn’t convey the warmth and honesty you think it does.

Bottom line is that almost no one is highly competent or well practiced at either sending or appreciating the signals our eyes and bodies convey in this ‘language older than words’. But it’s a language worth (re-)learning, don’t you think?

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 1 Comment

The Technologies I’ll Miss

photo from the good folks at pixabay

As our civilization slowly falls apart over the coming decades, there are some technologies I will miss a lot more than others. Some of these are obvious — it’s now hard to imagine living without the Internet, running water, electric power, some life-saving drugs, and some almost indispensable appliances (fridge, laundry etc). With few possible exceptions, we’re going to have to learn to live without them all, since global economic collapse, the commensurate end of abundant, cheap, low-tech energy, and the massive migration that climate change will require, will utterly undermine the infrastructure, logistics and processes needed to keep these wonderful conveniences of modern life in production and in useful condition.

So I’ve started noticing and being grateful for these technologies, since I suspect future generations will see them slowly start to become unreliable or scarce, and, a few generations from now, our descendants will be mostly unaware they ever existed.

Here’s my top 10 technologies I’ll miss when they’re gone, beyond the obvious ones cited above. Thanks to their inventors and developers (almost always collective efforts, “building on the shoulders of giants”) for making my life easier, more joyful, and more comfortable. In no particular order:

  1. The LED. A little technology that allows light in places that could never before afford it, reduces energy use by 85%, is more durable than what it replaces, and will soon power, and make lighter, all the monitors we use for so many purposes.
  2. The digital camera and optical lenses. I am old enough to remember the mess and hassle of darkrooms, black and white photos, troublesome film, costly film development, and massive, clunky cameras. I appreciate how lenses can let us see what we could otherwise not: clear sight thanks to ever-more-sophisticated eyeglasses, and the marvels seen through incredibly inexpensive microscopes, binoculars and telescopes, and captured through zoom lenses.
  3. Cotton and polyester fabrics. They provide astonishing warmth very inexpensively (robes and sleeping bags), versatile, care-free, no-iron clothing and other goods for every occasion, and are the “stuff” that most inexpensive soft toys are made from.
  4. Wi-fi. Although still plagued by opportunistic lawsuits, this global protocol enables unprecedented collaboration, productivity virtually anywhere, and free telephony. What more could you ask for?
  5. Detergents. Although they are not harmless, detergents are a simple invention that are less environmentally toxic than most cleaning chemicals, and the most effective cleaning ingredients ever invented.
  6. Modern headset/earbud tech. Remember the tinny sound of transistor radios? The relatively simple but infinitely subtle technology of getting realistic sound to your ear is remarkable.
  7. Books. Ancient tech, and an enormous consumer of finite resources, but still the most indispensable tool for learning. And then gift them to others!
  8. Portable electric appliances. For tiny apartment kitchens (counter-top stoves, toaster ovens, kettles, coffee-makers, blenders, and yes, even microwave ovens), for emergency first aid (heating pads etc), and for unmatched pleasure (vibes etc) it’s hard to imagine how we ever did without these labour-saving devices.
  9. Blogs. Maybe they’re socially obsolete, but having my own site with my own stuff organized as I like it and accessible forever has changed my life: Allowed me to think out loud and evolve my worldview, found me love, jobs, and my publisher, developed my writing skills, and serves as my auxiliary memory.
  10. My treadmill desk. An extravagance, perhaps, but it’s the only exercise device I’ve ever kept using. I can do almost anything while exercising (so the tedium vanishes). To a substantial degree I owe my health to it. (Oops just thought of a #11:)
  11. Flash memory. Up to a TB of durable storage for practically nothing. And no dependence on “the cloud”.

I’m sure I could think of others. But it’s more fun to think of the 10 worst technologies that I certainly won’t miss when they’re gone. Again in no particular order:

  1. The cellphone. Dumbest invention ever. Incredibly expensive, tiny useless keyboard, tiny awkward annoying screen, outrageous monthly fees even without “roaming” charges, unreliable signals, rapid obsolescence, poor construction. Everything it does is done better by other, less expensive devices.
  2. Bluetooth. Wi-fi but with a hopelessly limited range. Ridiculously unreliable. Devices that use it are generally shoddy. This century’s version of the walkie-talkie.
  3. Private automobiles. Imagine the world we might be living in if this absurdly expensive invention had never come to pass, along with all the oil and land it has consumed, and all the pollution and time waste it has produced.
  4. Mass media: TV, radio, newspapers — all the media that purport to inform and entertain but instead pander, propagandize and distract. What a monstrous waste of time, energy and human endeavour.
  5. Money, and the banking industry: A grossly-overpaid, usurious industry that produces nothing of any value whatsoever, and through encouraging indebtedness creates massive misery, stress, dislocation and dysfunction. [Long rant omitted here]
  6. QWERTY: And typing keyboards in general. Why is progress towards voice (and handwriting) recognition so slow that we still have to rely on this absurd 19th century invention for manual typewriters?
  7. “Social” media: By which I mean media that pander to people and activities that are absolutely free of any original content. The cost of this utter waste of time, and the servers and machines and technologies and airtime needed to sustain it, and the psychological damage it causes, are incalculable. For what? So that people can tell others, who mostly don’t give a damn, what they like and don’t like, and what they’ve read that is probably incorrect, misunderstood, deliberately misleading and/or unactionable?
  8. The mattress: Must be the consumer item with the most unjustified high markup (up to 900%) and the least real innovation of anything on the market. Air beds, water beds, memory foam — we spend a third of our lives on these things and this is the best they can do?
  9. Heating systems: In affluent nations we’re living in bigger houses yet in smaller families than ever before. Most of the heat in our homes (and I presume, the “coolth” of air conditioners as well) is lost, wasted. Technology exists to essentially eliminate the need for heat or cooling, and to provide what is needed economically and sustainably, but almost no homes use it because it costs more up front. Insane.
  10. “Widescreen”: As absurd as the 20th century’s “quadraphonic stereo”, this takes a bad idea (presenting all online media on a screen with landscape rather than the portrait orientation that we’ve used, sensibly, for books and other information media since they were invented), and makes it even worse. I give it ten years.

I’m sure I could add many technologies to this list too (eg email and “intellectual capital” might be contenders), but my purpose isn’t to rant or to get people charged up, it’s to reflect on my gratefulness for good technologies, and to remind myself not to waste time, money and energy on the bad ones.

Hope this has been fun for you to read, and inspires you to be grateful for some of the wonderful technologies that make our lives better, and to the brilliant minds that made them possible. We’ll miss them when they’re gone.

Posted in How the World Really Works | 5 Comments

The Fortune-Teller

This is a work of fiction.

Image from Max Pixel, cc0. Photoshopped with ‘watercolour’ effect.

I had noticed the lemonade stand each time I had passed, but I hadn’t had time to stop before. It was an impressive stand, by the curve in the two-lane mid-island road where everyone in cars had to slow right down, and where the hiking trails crossed. Beautifully lettered in an ancient-looking script, the sign said “World’s best lemonade — $1.00 — Fortunes — $10”. There was a crystal ball on the table beside a large glass pitcher of lemonade. The adolescent girl sitting at the stand was dressed in an ornate peasant costume with a kerchief, and she had a penetrating, beckoning gaze that seemed to suggest she knew something you didn’t.

I gave her a loony for lemonade and she said to me “I wondered when you’d stop. The faeries are worried about you, you know.”

“They are, are they?” I replied, with a smile. “Why would they be worried about me?”

“Because you’re too much alone. And too much inside your head.”

“They must be pretty smart. What else did they tell you about me?”

“They didn’t have to tell me. It’s obvious to anyone who pays attention. You wear it. If you want to know more…” and then she turned her head towards the crystal ball and to the price sign.

“Ten dollars for a fortune. Seems a bit disproportionate to the price of the lemonade.”

“Lemonade is everywhere. Wisdom is scarce.”

So I dug around in my pocket and found and handed her a $10 bill. “Sit”, she said, motioning to the chair in front of the crystal ball. She wrapped the kerchief around her head, took my hand and looked into the ball.

After a moment she said “The crystal ball is just for effect. I don’t need it, but the customers expect it. They don’t see that someone can just know, can just see. The faeries taught me, but they just brought out something that they recognized was already there.”

She paused again and then said. “You can’t take too much at once, so I’m going to go slow and be short…. I’m sorry you’re struggling so much.”

I thought: Is there anyone who wouldn’t be taken in by that last comment, anyone to whom it somehow didn’t apply? But then she asked me what my question was, and I thought a bit and replied “Will I find a sense of peace before this body dies?”

She looked at me with a curious expression. “You won’t, but there may be a sense of peace. More likely that a sense of peace is no longer needed.”

She paused again and then said: “The faeries have three instructions for you. The first one is: Smile. All the time. Doesn’t matter if you’re with people or alone. It’s a muscle worth exercising. So just do it, and every time you catch yourself not smiling, start smiling again. But it has to be authentic, genuine; no grimaces or faking it…. Look at this amazing place”, she said, gesturing to the towering mountains and sun-drenched sea behind us. “What’s not to smile about?”

“OK”, I said, smiling. “That’s Instruction One. What are the other two?”

“That’s all you can manage for now”, she replied. “Come back in a week. We’ll still be here.”

I laughed, and went to speak but she interrupted me and said “No additional charge. As long as you at least try to follow the first instruction. OK?”

I nodded. As I turned to walk away I recalled that, throughout my visit, she had not followed her own advice — not once had I seen a smile on her curious, enigmatic face, and when I left her brow was furrowed. I resolved to ask her about that the next week.

For the first three days thereafter, I tried hard to follow Instruction One. It was enormously difficult, and I began to realize how unconscious, how out of our control, our facial expression is. I put a yellow smiley on my laptop, first beside the keyboard, and then beside the camera lens where I could not help noticing it. The next day I put a second one on the upper left corner of my left eyeglass lens.

My first appreciation was that unforced smiling actually did affect my mood, and that when I’m smiling, I notice things more often, and focus on them for longer, than when I’m just inside my head. It’s as if my brain is constantly saying “Hey, what is it that you’re smiling about?” and turning its attention to finding visual clues to justify the smile. It was my first realization that the brain’s incessant pattern-making is all about rationalizing what is already happening, not actually making anything happen, not actually deciding anything. And, looking (or, sometimes, listening), it is forced to find something worth smiling about.

This was a rather mind-boggling discovery, and I discovered it worked with the other senses too. When I smiled as I ate, I was more aware of the tastes, and more pleased by them. I also ate more slowly, more attentively.

My second appreciation, just as my Instruction One week was ending, was that when I was smiling, I was thinking less. The brain, it seems, has only so many cycles to apply to everything it does, so when it is focused on parsing sensory inputs to try to rationalize the constant smiling (perceiving), it has less bandwidth left over for conceiving, for abstract thinking. I realized that processing sensory inputs is an intellectual but not necessarily a conceptual process — the brain can notice and discriminate and appreciate colour and shade and intensity of light reaching the eyes without necessarily labelling or making judgements about what is seen. There are, it seems, two ways the brain “makes sense”. The first is instinctual, sensuous and appreciative, and the second is rational, analytical, meaning-making and purposeful.

From a non-duality perspective, I wondered: Does the body “do” the first and the self “do” the second? What would happen to ‘me’ if only the first happened?

I was smiling as I walked up to the lemonade stand for my second visit, and so was the fortune-teller girl. I relayed what had happened while following Instruction One and she nodded and beamed. When I asked about her unhappy expression the previous week she reassured me that she almost always smiled, but that she had been concerned about me and my demeanour; that I had had an expression of being at once lost and scared. When I said I thought I was ready for Instruction Two, she said, quizzically, that it was in some ways the same as Instruction One, just looked at differently. She also cautioned me that smiling was not a cure or solution for anything, particularly my sense of being lost and scared.

“Remember when you told me that when you were smiling your mind was preoccupied with sensory processing — colour and shade and line and qualities of light — rather than making meaning of these qualities?”, she said. “Well that’s your second instruction: Pay attention and notice. Notice the details, the qualities, of light and sound and texture and taste and scent, and more. Just that, leaving no room for thinking about what it means. As you’ve already observed, the more you sense, really sense with your whole being, the less you will think. And the less you will have to think.”

I was still smiling, and the seeming incongruity of the final sentence of Instruction Two made me laugh.

“You are a very remarkable young lady”, I told her. “Did the faeries really tell you all this, tell you to give me these instructions?” I didn’t say it condescendingly; regardless of the source of these insights, it was pretty clear this youthful fortune-teller really knew her craft.

She smiled back at me and sighed, leaning back in her chair. Then she replied “You know, there really are no faeries. It’s just easier to use them as a metaphor. Did you know that the original meaning of faerie is teller? They are the personification of fates, as faeries and fates come from the same root, the same source. And fate doesn’t mean predestination; it means simply ‘that which is told’.”

“Huh. So does that mean you are the faerie, the fortune teller, the vehicle for telling that which must be told?”

“As I said, there are no faeries. There is only that which is told. The word fortune has nothing to do with seeing the future, or with success or failure. Its original meaning was simply ‘that which is brought or borne’.”

I laughed, entranced at this curious adolescent with her “just for effect” crystal ball and the too-old-for-her kerchief-and-shawl peasant costume. I just had to probe a bit further:

“And you had no choice but to be this teller, this bearer of truths?”

“There is no choice. Just as you had no choice but to come to my stand. As for whether what is told or brought or borne is truth, I cannot say. It doesn’t really matter. So… see you in seven days?”

“Of course. I am off to pay more attention, and to notice more. Thank you.”

Over the next week, as my curiosity about my lemonade girl messenger continued to grow, my ‘practice’ of smiling and noticing deepened. I’d given the smileys on my laptop and eyeglasses much larger eyes, a reminder to notice as well as smile.

And then the third appreciation happened: I realized that, for me, the passage of time seemed to be slowing. The more I paid attention, the longer my days seemed to become, as if paying attention was taking less than no time at all.

And then, a few days later, a fourth appreciation: The more my attention was focused on everything else, the less of my nebulous time was ‘left’ to focus on ‘me’ and on what was happening inside my head. And as this happened, the distinction between ‘me’ and ‘everything else’ also became more nebulous. “Attention”, as the Laurence Cole song and the Eckhart Tolle saying both advise, “is the healer of separation”.

Needless to say, the days until my third visit to the lemonade stand seemed to last an eternity. I tried to guess what the Third Instruction might be. Finally the day arrived.

When I arrived at the lemonade stand, I sighed: the girl wasn’t there. Instead, behind the stand, a woman was picking berries from a wild raspberry bush growing by the road. As I walked up to the stand, I noticed a slight resemblance between the eyes of the berry-picker and those of my young fortune-teller. I asked the woman if she was the fortune-teller’s mother.

“Ah, so you’re the one”, she replied. “We are related, but she is not my daughter. Sit; she has asked me to stand in for her today.”

I am sure the disappointment registered on my face, but the woman took my hands in her own and gave me a reassuring nod. I looked down at my shoes, chagrined.

Observing my downcast look, the woman began to laugh. Her laughter made me smile, and soon her laugh, which went on and on, became contagious and we laughed together. I looked at her, and she caught my gaze, holding my attention with her deep grey, strangely familiar eyes.

When our laughter finally slowed, and I was lost in the details of her eyes, smiling deeply, she said: “Aha, you’ve guessed the third instruction: Eye contact. Just like the smile, it has to be authentic, genuine, connected. When you meet people, really look into their eyes until you see. Don’t think about it — just notice, pay attention. The eyes speak a language all their own, and with practice you can learn it. But you have to want to. It’s an astonishing language, one that it seems few people ever really care to learn.”

In fact I had not guessed the Third Instruction, and unlike the first two instructions, which seemed intuitive to me, this one was perplexing. I enjoyed smiling and noticing, but I didn’t really like most people very much, and this instruction seemed, well, personal.

When I expressed my dismay, the woman, without once taking her eyes from mine, said: “This is the hardest of these instructions. You might start by practicing with wild creatures — especially young puppies, kittens and birds. They won’t judge you. This is not about staring, it’s about observing. Notice movements of the eyes and face, but do so with your senses and intuition — don’t try to read or interpret them or think about them at all. Just give them your attention like you’ve been giving your attention to everything else these past weeks.”

I protested: “But I think, to some people, sustained eye contact could be interpreted as an act of aggression, rudeness, or even violence. I don’t think I could do that.”

“You can’t help what other people think”, she replied. “They will think, and think about you, what they will think, whether you notice them or not. Don’t worry about what they’re thinking, or whether they’re judging you. Don’t worry about ‘them’ at all. This is not about them, and not about you. It’s about seeing that there is only one, and that the eyes you are making contact with are part of that, just as your eyes are, as everything is. This is about connection in a way humans have largely forgotten to connect. Other people’s minds may interpret your innocent or curious or appreciative attention as aggressive, but their instincts, their bodies, can tell the difference.”

“Hmm, I’m not so sure. I know people who get angry if they think they’re being stared at or leered at, and I don’t really blame them. It’s a dangerous world.”

“Most people, like you, let their judgements, and their bad memories, cloud their perceptions of what is actually happening. That’s a risk you’ll have to take. You can look at someone with attention without looking at them with intention, without staring or leering…. Many people are afraid of discovering connection. If your senses tell you they’re reacting that way, give them a Canadian ‘sorry’ and look elsewhere. But I think you’ll be surprised at how many people will see your eye contact for what it really is — a connection. And if they do you might be amazed at what will come of that, including how it might change you.”

We were quiet for a while, and then I nodded, thanked the woman, asked her to thank her young relative for me, and rose. Before I left she said: “You may discover that what our little fortune-teller has told you is something you have always known, something everyone, deep down in their soft animal bodies, has always known. You’ve just forgotten. Smiling, noticing, eye contact — they just might help you remember what you really are.”

I wandered back along the hiking trail that led to my home. I was smiling, and listening attentively to the tonal qualities of bird songs in the surrounding forest, when I heard the voices of children off in the distance. As I got closer I caught sight of a group of youths of various ages in a clearing off the trail. They were laughing and playing, and all dressed in very colourful costumes. Some were playing ancient-looking musical instruments. Instinctively, one of them turned her gaze to me just as I looked at her. It was my fortune-teller, wearing an ornate bird costume festooned with feathers, and she smiled broadly at me, put her thumb and index finger together in an “O”, and held it up over her eye as she returned my gaze. I put my hands together in front of me and nodded to her. She laughed, returned the gesture, and chased off after the others into the forest.

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