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.

Posted in Creative Works | 4 Comments


barsotti truth
cartoon by the late, wonderful Charles Barsotti

This past weekend I attended a get-together of about 20 enthusiastic, knowledgeable people on the subject of radical non-duality, organized around the (rare) visit of Jim Newman (Non-Duality Dude) to North America.

The message we shared was the same elegant, uncompromising, hopeless message I’ve written about ad nauseam on this blog. The gathering was a deep dive into that message and its implications (for no one), and was relatively free of the questions and assertions about spirituality, enlightenment, process, purpose and journey that (IMO) indicate a lack of understanding of the radical non-duality message, and which often arise in such meetings. Many thanks to Rita and Jim and the organizers and participants who made it so thought-provoking, and such fun.

While I have, for now at least, fully embraced this message (it just makes sense to me intellectually and intuitively, resonates in a way I can’t explain, and jibes with what science is now beginning to postulate about the nature of time, space and the self), I noticed that my self was furiously asserting itself throughout the weekend, despite my determination to just sit back and pay attention. I caught my self (but of course couldn’t stop my self from):

  • trying to impress everyone
  • seeking reassurance that my understanding and ideas about the message were ‘right’
  • feeling jealous of those who seemed somehow closer to the ‘falling away of the self’
  • being absurdly curious about others’ description of ‘glimpses’ (for me the jury’s still out on whether what I described as a ‘glimpse’ two years ago was in some sense a brief ‘falling away of my self’, or was just wishful thinking, another experience of my self)

Who was ‘I’ trying to impress? Not the (apparently) smartest and most attractive and most equanimous people in the room, not really. I was trying to impress my self, reassure my self. It was my self that was jealous and curious and reactive. None of my behaviour had anything to do with anyone else in the room. It was, sadly, all about me, scared, lost me, hopefully (if not expectantly) and impossibly seeking, to realize, or at least to more fully know and appreciate, the truth of this message. And it was me who then felt ashamed of my behaviour, disappointed in my self, angry with my self, absorbed in self-ish anxiety.

This was and is, of course, the only way I could have and can behave. No one really has any self control, or control over anything. But that didn’t make my behaviour any less discouraging to observe.

I think this is likely a universal attribute of the self, this compulsion to impress, to get attention and appreciation and reassurance, and to be reactive and absorbed with self-judgement. That is not to diminish in any way the role that trauma and abuse play in the chronic mental struggle and misery that many (most?) suffer with. Look at the most obvious public example, Der Drumpf, and you can see the acting out and reacting to some dreadful constantly re-triggered past trauma, in the desperate seeking to impress, for endless attention and appreciation and reassurance, and in the fierce, compulsive, reactive negative emotions that absolutely define him.

But even without a traumatic past, my sense is that every self, in the desperate search to be free of the unsatisfactory, terrifying sense of separation from all-that-is, is endlessly driven to impress and to get reassurance that it is on the right track, that it is really OK, and that it is not utterly alone. We can’t help our selves. We are all ceaselessly trying to heal ourselves (our selves) and others we care about.

In radical non-duality terms, this healing effort is a manifestation of the attempt to make the unescapable prison of the self more comfortable. Mine has probably always been more comfortable than most, and my appreciation of the message of radical non-duality seems to have made it more so. My anger now seems to dissipate faster; my fears, once they’re recognized as that, and seen as unfounded and unhelpful, seem to be less overwhelming.

Most notably, my self has found that it is somewhat liberating to realize, at least intellectually, that it has no choice, no free will, no control over or responsibility for anything. That no one is to blame. Despite the apparent complexity of reality and of agency, it’s actually even simpler and more hopeless than that. There ‘simply’ is no you that can do anything.

Somehow to me, everything seems a bit easier with that perspective. Each time I thought up a question to ask Jim, thinking a bit made me realize I already knew the answer, that it truly is even simpler and more hopeless than we can imagine. Obvious, even.

We are conditioned to think of our selves as ‘residing’ within a particular brain and body. So it was illuminating to hear Jim remind us that “the me (the self) arises simultaneously in everything”. Not only am ‘I’ an illusion, but the perception that ‘I’ am located in a particular place is also an illusion. Everything separate is an imagining of the self.

I find this mind-blowing. Why do we have this sense of location? Actually, for no reason, but it is conceivable that the (self-)invention of the self requires a pretty heavy-duty brain to conjure up, and requires the affirmation of its ‘reality’ through the feelings of the senses and body, and through the relentless cultural conditioning of other selves insisting that we are inextricably located in (and hence responsible for) this particular brain and body. If the self is an illusion of the human brain and body, it’s perhaps understandable that the self perceives itself as located in the brain and body that created it. It is in a sense inseparable from its creator; even before it claims ownership of that brain and body, it realizes it has nowhere else to go.

And everything the illusory self thinks is happening to it is just an experience, a story, an embodied, felt rationalization, and inherently as unreal as the self that invented it. Yet each experience is so compelling the self feels it as real, just as a powerful film makes us feel that its characters and plot are real and we are personally a part of what is happening. The film is just a clever trick, and so is the self.

Someone at the meeting used the word radiance to describe the indescribable everything that just is. I like the term because it’s less mystical, more energetic and less abstract than a lot of other terms often used to describe it. It has a gerund-like sense of amorphousness (somewhere between noun and verb, but not really either) to it, that suits a word trying to “eff the ineffable”. Quantum scientists like Carlo Rovelli and Sean Carroll are starting to describe a universe that “just is”, like an infinite, timeless field of limitless potential. Even if it’s just a metaphor, ascribing radiance to it seems helpful, and a bit poetic.

And as happened with my visit with Tony Parsons in Wales last year, we pondered, as the event drew to a close, why anyone would be compelled (since we have no free will) to come together to discuss such an absurd, hopeless, useless message.

And we wondered, as well, why there aren’t millions coming together to discuss such an awe-inspiring, liberating, elegant, curious, internally-consistent, science-supported message. The possible answers to that are manifold, and endlessly fascinating.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 11 Comments

On Compassion: Michael Dowd Sermon

Michael Dowd based his sermon this past weekend on my Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care post, focusing in particular on the eight essential human needs listed above. He outlines a naturalistic, holistic, ecocentric approach to coming to grips with the state of the world, stresses the importance of collective self-care in ensuring we meet these essential human needs so that we can do the important work of caring for our world, and, I think most importantly, outlines the segments of our society who are in particular need of our compassion and generosity.

You can watch the sermon on YouTube here. He’s a very compelling and articulate speaker. Thanks Michael!

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | Comments Off on On Compassion: Michael Dowd Sermon


artwork from a collection of Nick Smith, possibly by John Wareham

“Hey, haven’t seen you in ages. How are you?”

“Well, I’m still the world’s most blessed agnostic, lost and scared, hopelessly dreaming of impossibly peaceful and beautiful places and bodies, and yearning for the end — at last — of separation. [pause] How about you?”

“Oh, I’m good.”

Posted in Creative Works | 2 Comments

True Story

Cartoon from poorlydrawnlines.

Tell me the true story, about the time when that man
Took you in to lend a hand, and how you took him for a spin
And that money you saved you stole from him…
Tell me the true story, of how you yelled at your Mom and Dad
Left home with all you had
And now you’re running scared, and you’re mad.
     — True Story, by the Small Glories

Two years ago I wrote (for the nth time) about stories. That time it was trying to deconstruct my own story — the old Story of Me I had built up over a lifetime that was designed to give meaning and coherence to my life and to provide a hint of how I might be of use to others. That’s what we do when we tell our stories. With friends we tell stories about what apparently happened, what we thought, how we felt, to use them as a sounding board for making sense of what happened, to fit it into our Story of Me. With casual acquaintances we tell stories about what we do or did “for a living”, usually in the hope that may lead to a connection, professional or personal.

Often good stories are prompted by good questions. But what exactly is a good story? And what is a “true” story? To me a good story, like any piece of good art, has seven essential qualities: (1) it gives pleasure, (2) it provides some fresh understanding, (3) every sentence in it counts (no padding), (4) it takes a camera or “theatre” view (says what was said and what objectively happened without any interpretation or judgement), (5) it respects the audience’s intelligence (no manipulation or deliberate obscurity), (6) it leaves space for the audience (to fill in their own details), and (7) it must be in some way really imaginative, clever, or novel.

I think what makes for a “true” story is element (4) — just describing what happened factually and letting the listener decide how to interpret it. Great songs (like the one excerpted above), or like this one, and great poetry, tend to be “true” stories, not cluttered with the writer’s self-absorbed reflections on what they thought or felt.

Why is this? Perhaps because it’s hard to relate to another person’s thoughts and feelings, but easy to follow and visualize and emotionally react to the events of a story. The facts are necessarily “authentic” in a way that the processed thoughts and feelings of a narrator can never be. So great songs convey the feeling in their tone, their melodies and harmonies, and great creative writing does so through its tone, the images it invokes and the perceptive adjectives it uses.

And then, the icing on the cake that rescues the song or writing from being just an observant tone poem or banal self-indulgence, is this: Some understanding can be conveyed by what the “camera view” of the teller focuses on, and by the clever juxtaposition or turn of phrase that helps you see something you couldn’t see before. In the song True Story it’s the realization that most of our stories aren’t really true, and hence are shallow, and that self-honesty and authenticity can create powerful (and necessary, if the relationship is to last) connection. In the song True North it’s the juxtaposition of constant change with the unchanging, and the realization that life consists of a balance of both. Of course, if the songwriters had written the two sentences I just wrote, their songs would have been terrible. The songwriters conveyed these important understandings through telling the stories, with a just a hint (in the song titles, in the harmonic resolution of the final notes of the choruses) that gently steers you to the understanding. (A lot of stories also contain three verses that lead you in a particular direction.) Great stories mustn’t hit you over the head (à la Aesop’s Fables “morals”) or manipulate you (eg a certain Supreme Court nominee’s fake tears and righteous privileged white male indignation).

In short, if you want to be a great story-teller, don’t tell me what you think (or thought), or feel (or felt), or believe (or learned), or what you think I should think, or feel, or believe. Tell me what happened, full of facts about what was said and done, and imagery and sensory information so that I can imagine myself there, and let me decide how that feels and what I would think. That’s a good story.

There is a great tendency (especially, it seems, in males) to try to ‘helpfully’ convey one’s own synthesis of understanding, rather than telling a story that leads to the same understanding. A synthesis is of necessity a sense-making, a judgement, and something of an oversimplification. As a result, it’s suspect. That’s why great presentations use stories (sometimes a single anecdote is enough), and why the most brilliant syntheses, no matter how often restated and no matter how cleverly articulated, are not memorable. They can be really interesting (many of my most-read articles, and some of the most popular works of non-fiction, consist of lists, often of the “how to” variety; these are all of necessity writers’ syntheses). But we intuitively don’t tend to trust them, and without a story they are almost invariably not specific or rich enough to be truly actionable.

Sadly, few stories meet the seven criteria above. It takes a mix of talents (imaginative, creative, compositional, perceptual and synthetic) to write a great story. I was amazed at how different (and more difficult) it was writing a play compared to writing a short story with a narrator, even though I always try to avoid “thought balloons” and “he felt…” passages in my fiction).

What happens if we strip away our thoughts (including syntheses) and feelings (including judgements and suppositions) from our stories? Two years ago, I deconstructed my self-aggrandizing Story of Me (everything I had supposedly accomplished, which was a self-assessment) and replaced it with a “humbler” supposedly less-dualistic Story of Me. But I now realize the replacement was just as judgemental as (just more self-deprecating than) the original. And just as dualistic.

Here’s something perhaps closer to a “true” story of me:

There is no ‘me’. The illusion of a ‘me’ within this character emerged at about age 6 and has been around ever since. It has never been comfortable in the seemingly-fraudulent, inauthentic role of Dave the Person, but as the chemistry of this body has changed and the stresses to ‘perform’ have eased, the illusory ‘me’ has been less depressed, though it is still almost as anxious and fearful and prone to escapism. Falling in love has provided powerful but only temporary respite.

That’s it. It meets almost none of the criteria of a good story. It’s neither interesting nor useful. By itself it is not a “true” story either, though I think I could construct (a much longer) one that would say essentially the same thing without the judgements and self-perceptions. But there would be no purpose in doing so. It would be a bad, true story.

Recently I attended a meeting of young entrepreneurs, faithfully telling the old “untrue” Story of Me and earnestly offering advice and reassurance. What compelled me to attend this meeting? The answer, of course, is that ‘I’ had and have no choice. Forty years of conditioning is well-nigh impossible to break. It shows that ‘I’ am holding on for dear life. Tomorrow, ‘I’ will go to several volunteer meetings and be deeply, momentarily engaged, even though there is no ‘me’ and even though nothing really matters.

And then ‘I’ will come home and start on another blog post, as ‘I’ can’t not write. It’s how ‘I’ have been conditioned to make sense of (and remember) things, and to express what ‘I’ have no other avenue to express.

Hopefully my conditioning, which seems to be gradually shifting, will increasingly see me writing stories that are (by the above criteria) both good and true. But I wouldn’t bank on it. Hopefully, over time, my conditioning will lead me to let go of the old Story of Me and to stop telling stories — both to myself and to others — that are neither good nor true.

But in the meantime — sorry, I’m doing my best and it’s all I can do. Lost and scared, ‘I’ am.

True story.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 2 Comments

The Agnostic Game

This little guy, unlike ‘us’, is completely immersed in the game of life; while he thinks and feels and senses, he takes nothing personally. He is just a part of all-that-is, in no way separate. His life, unlike ours, is not seen through the veil of the self; it is more aware and more full of wonder than ‘ours’ can ever be. Photo by the author.

All my life I have loved games — playing them, inventing them, even watching them. It’s not the competition, not about winning or losing. It’s more I think about the Power of Constraints — seeing how things work out under a certain set of rules or limitations.

And games are an important coping mechanism: escaping into World of Warcraft, or Second Life, or even crossword puzzles or Sudoku or solving murder mysteries, may provide an opportunity for people struggling with reality to deal with a smaller, less overwhelming world in which the ‘player’ might have a little more control, some less awful choices.

Etymologically, the word ‘game’ originally meant nothing more than ‘people coming together for fun’, and it is only recently that games have had the connotation of competitiveness, that games could be played alone, or that ‘gaming’ a system meant exploiting it to unfair advantage. Today, what we call a game might broadly be defined as an unfolding subject to a particular set of rules or limitations.

Back in 1970 (very early days for computers), John Conway invented the Game of Life, which demonstrated how a simple set of rules can produce a staggeringly complex variety of results. It built on earlier research into the nature of self-organizing systems. This later evolved into theories about complex adaptive systems, including Gaia Theory. Students of such systems began to think of the evolution of the universe and of life on Earth as a type of game, and began to speculate on whether or not this game had a ‘purpose’ or not, with spiritualists and agnostics taking opposing sides.

The message of radical (agnostic) non-duality — that there is no such thing as the ‘self’, or time, or anything separate — is gaining credibility as scientists dig deeper into quantum theory and the mechanisms of the brain and discover that there does not appear to be, in fact, either time or a self to observe anything. That message suggests that there is “only this” and “nothing apart” and that the brain invented time and the self and separateness as an evolutionary means of making sense of sensory inputs, to improve the creature’s chance of survival, not as a means of representing reality. ‘Real’ reality, according to this message, cannot be known or realized or understood by any ‘one’, since there is not really any ‘one’. It is impossible to explain what is seen (by no ‘one’) when the self falls away — such terms as “empty fullness” and “just energy in the form of nothing appearing as everything” and “unconditional love” are at best metaphors, and at worst annoying.

There is no helping that, but, perhaps for some with a passion both for science and philosophy, another metaphor might be useful, or at least interesting. That metaphor is life as a game, à la Conway. Not ‘your’ life, but all life, everything that is.

Suspend your disbelief for a moment and suppose ‘all there is’ is a field of energy, outside of space or time, which, for no reason, can appear as ‘everything’. Yes, I know that’s hard to imagine. What appears can take any form, which means that it can appear to evolve according to an apparent set of rules (like the apparent rules that govern evolution). In metaphorical terms, this appearing-as-everything could be thought of as ‘all there is’ playing a game with itself. Imagine it as the fractal appearances of ice creeping across a frozen window in winter, but on an infinitely greater scale. To be clear here: This appearance is not an appearance ‘to’ any ‘one’; ‘all there is’ by definition precludes any ‘one’ separate from ‘all there is’. And it isn’t appearing to any kind of mystical universal intelligence, spirit or consciousness — consciousness implies that there is something ‘else’ ‘separate’ from ‘all there is’ to be the subject or object of consciousness, and (if ‘all there is’ is truly ‘all there is’) there cannot be. Likewise intelligence implies that there is something that can know something ‘else’ apart from it, and there cannot be. I call this an agnostic game because ‘agnostic’ means (not, as most people think, ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I’m indifferent’, but) that it cannot be known by anyone.

Somehow, although I will confess it’s possible I believe this only because I really want to believe it, this mind-boggling explanation of ‘all there is’ seems to me the most coherent explanation I have ever heard. It makes sense to me intellectually (it is internally consistent, elegant, unambiguous, and the simplest unified theory of everything that I have heard). It resonates intuitively (the inevitability of struggle and suffering in life does not). There have been glimpses during which my self disappeared and this was definitely seen (though not by ‘me’) to be true (And no, I can’t explain how anything can be seen without an ‘observer’, but somehow it can, no mystical universal consciousness required). And it resolves (though rather uselessly and hence unsatisfactorily for most scientists) the biggest puzzles and mysteries that scientists are grappling with today.

Einstein described time as a “stubbornly persistent illusion”, and said “I might be called an agnostic”, and he often expressed the view that science had not and possibly would never be able to fully explain the nature of reality or of human nature. From my readings of his work I am convinced he would be very open to the message of radical non-duality. He would, I think, still assert that despite its validity, we cannot help acting as if our selves were real, and cannot help striving to make things ‘better’, and to explain things ‘better’ in useful ways, however imperfect and illusory they might be. And he would be right: we have no free will over what we do, or believe.

Just as it is not possible for me not to react emotionally (and make judgements) when I do a crossword puzzle (make mistakes, finish in record time etc), or when I play online, or even when I watch a visualization on iTunes, it is not possibly for me not to react emotionally (and make judgements) when I play the game of life. I can say “nothing matters” a million times, and still everything matters. I can acknowledge that there is no time, no right or wrong, no life or death, and no ‘me’ to which things are happening, not really, but still I worry and dream about the future, get upset about the day’s news, worry about my health, and am fearful of many things I can imagine happening to ‘me’. I can’t not see the pervasive hallucination of a separate self that haunts me. I cannot choose to do anything other than what this body I presume to inhabit was going to do in any case. As Neil Young wrote “Though my problems are meaningless, that don’t make them go away.”

So, perhaps you’re saying, “So what? If there’s nothing I can do, if it changes nothing, and if I can’t ‘get it’, not really, other than in a kind of simple abstract intellectual sense, why is this clown going on an on about this?”

The reason I care about this is its implications. It means that all our ‘personal’ feelings of fear and sadness and anger are subjecting us to self-inflicted suffering and misery for no reason. When we feel responsible for something we did or did not do, when we dread something to come, when we react to bad news, we are uselessly causing ourselves unhappiness. You may say that doesn’t matter if we can’t help ourselves. But perhaps just knowing we’re doing this might alter our conditioning a tiny bit, so that our self goes a little easier on us. If you point out to a friend hallucinating because of a drug, or a drug withdrawal, or a mental illness, that from your perspective the terrible hallucination isn’t real, it just might help them cope a little bit better. (Then again, it just might make them feel even worse.)

It also means, if you care about the terrible world we’re leaving for future generations and for the more-than-human creatures we share this tiny globe with, that you need not feel bad about it. Notice I said ‘need not’, not ‘should not’. We have no choice over what and how we feel. But somehow, at least for me, when I hear more terrible news, the knowledge that I need not feel bad about it, that it’s just my illusory self stressing about something that’s just an appearance, just something happening in a game, while the stubborn self in me keeps saying “that’s just an absurd rationalization”, something deeper in me says “yeah, you know, that’s right, and I still feel bad, but maybe not quite so bad about it”.

The message of radical non-duality asserts that there is no path to the realization of the illusion of the self and of the illusion of the separateness of everything, but that there are things that can be done to make the prison of the self seemingly more comfortable.

I am sorry that I am, and almost everyone I know is, trapped in this prison without parole. For (it seems) a blessed few, a kind of liberation can apparently happen, in which the self, for no reason, falls away, and instead of playing the game of life from behind the prison bars, looking through a veil and buffeted by fear and sorrow and anger, suddenly the game of life is seen exactly as it is, full on, awesome and eternal and unconditional and wondrous and boundless and weightless — ‘selflessly’.

I wish you that freedom. I wish to see everything, flying free.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | 7 Comments

May I Ask a Question?

Image from pixabay by Dean Moriarty, CC0

My friend Ben Collver recently loaned me a book called A More Beautiful Question, by Warren Berger, that arose from some ideas in Warren’s blog. The book is specifically focused on questions that spark business innovations, and his key questions boil down to “Why, What If, and How Might questions that can’t be answered with facts”.

Earlier this year I wrote a post about questions to ask to really get to know people better. And I’m familiar with the value of Appreciative Inquiry type questions.

So I’ve started thinking whether there is some larger question set and question criteria that might, in a broad range of circumstances:

  • Identify the qualities that make for a good question
  • Identify the benefits of asking questions (and when asking a question is most effective and interesting)
  • Identify the types of questions that can best achieve these benefits

Over the past few weeks I’ve read everything I could get my hands on on this subject, and I think I’ve been able to synthesize the results down into something useful.

Building on and generalizing my earlier post, I think the 6 most important Qualities of a good question are:

  1. They elicit honest, thoughtful answers rather than clever, safe, automatic or socially acceptable ones.
  2. They are not so personal, so complicated, or so distressing to think about that they make people hesitant to answer, but they are personal enough, challenging enough, and provocative enough that they elicit sufficient consideration, focus and passion to produce interesting, revelatory and possibly ‘useful’ responses.
  3. They don’t (for most people) require an enormous (ie discouraging) amount of time and energy to ponder to come up with a considered response.
  4. They encourage follow-up questions and deeper explorations into the answers and reasons for them.
  5. The responses to them achieve one or more of the six Benefits listed below.
  6. Both the question and the responses help us learn, and provide knowledge, ideas, perspectives, insights, and/or a deeper relationship with someone, that otherwise wouldn’t have been achieved.

And the 6 most important Benefits of asking, thinking about and responding to high-quality questions are that they help us:

  1. Understand why things are the way they are
  2. Appreciate what we don’t know, need to know, and/or can’t hope to know
  3. Imagine novel alternatives
  4. Iteratively move an idea or process forward or deeper
  5. Learn important and/or interesting things about ourselves and others
  6. Encourage people to articulate and share what they know and care about

Building on Warren’s three types of questions to spark business innovation, I looked through several hundred examples of ‘beautiful’ questions that seemed to have the 6 Qualities, and discovered that they generally had similar syntaxes, depending on the purpose (and hence on the Benefit they potentially delivered). While a few offered more than one of the 6 Benefits, most were clearly designed to offer just one of the 6, so I’m listing them below, sorted by Benefit. Key Question Types:

  1. To understand why things are the way they are
    • Why is it this way? What’s really going on here?
    • Why isn’t it that way? Why has no one (else) done… ?
    • What’s working, and what’s not working, and why?
    • Tell me a story about when things went really well.
  2. To appreciate what we don’t know, need to know, and/or can’t hope to know
    • What’s the ‘problem’ we’re trying to solve (and is it real and do we really care about it)?
    • Tell me a story about when things went badly.
    • What do we need to find out?
    • What are the risks of not knowing… ?
    • Who else should we be talking with or involving in this?
    • What are we missing?
  3. To imagine novel alternatives and workarounds
    • What if we… ?
    • What if things were different in that… ? Can we imagine a better state and then figure out how to get there?
    • How might we… ?
    • How might we begin to… ? What would be the first step forward?
  4. To iteratively move an idea or process forward or deeper
    • What if we… ?
    • Is this really true? Is this really important and useful? Is it actionable?
    • What’s happening here?
    • What are we missing?
  5. To learn important and/or interesting things about ourselves and others
    • What would you do if… ?  Imagine that you… ? What if you could… ?
    • What do you wish… ?
    • What do you think/believe… ?
  6. To encourage people to articulate and share what they know and care about
    • What do you think about this?
    • How do you feel about this?
    • What are your instincts telling you about this?
    • What are we missing?

We should recognize that we’re not all good at coming up with good questions, and we don’t all have the imaginative and creative skills needed to come up with interesting or breakthrough answers. That means assessing who’s good at asking, and who’s good at answering certain types of questions, and drawing on those strengths — and building our own competencies.

Some of the above questions (eg What if we…?) may require great imagination to move beyond the incremental. And answering some of the other questions (eg How might we…?) may require a rare level of imaginative thinking to answer affirmatively at all. Poor questions and unimaginative or ignorant answers are of no value at all.

So here are a few scenarios where asking (and answering) questions might be of particular value, and some sample questions (of the appropriate Type) that might help. I’ve provided one scenario to address each of the potential Benefits (though obviously in any real situation more than one Benefit might be achieved by asking questions, so questions of many Types might be appropriate).

What’s particularly interesting is that sometimes just asking the (right) question confers some, or even most of, the value.

Scenario: You, and someone you love and also work with, have recently been at constant loggerheads, disagreeing about what’s true, what’s good and bad, and what to do. You’re constantly triggering each other, resulting in anger, fear, tears and withdrawal.

Some Benefit 1 Question Types: Why has this been happening? What’s behind it? What’s really going on here? Why aren’t things smooth and easy and any upsets effectively and dispassionately resolved? What are we handling well, and why? What are we not handling well, and why? Tell me a story of when we were at our best. [then you’d move on to Benefit 2-3 question Types]

Scenario: You and your family are entrepreneurs worried about climate change and the state of the economy. You are thinking of moving to a more sustainable place, but there seem practical obstacles to any of the ones you’ve identified, especially with your fledgling business.

Some Benefit 2 Question Types: What’s the real problem we’re trying to solve here? What do we need to find out to make an informed decision? What are the risks of moving, and of staying put, that we might not have contemplated? Who can we talk with to get a better understanding of the situation and options? What are we missing here?

Scenario: You just learned that a new competitor for your small business is using cheap overseas labour and exploiting poor environmental standards overseas to offer products and services possibly comparable to yours for half the price. You have to innovate or your business may not survive. [In such a scenario, different types of questions might help achieve all six Benefits, but I’ve just listed some Benefit 3 & 4 Question Types.]

Some Benefit 3 & 4 Question Types: What if we did nothing? How might we create products and services that no offshore competitor could match? Is it true that this new company threatens us; is there anything we can really do anyway? What if the new competitor didn’t exist; what would we do differently? What are we missing here?

Scenario: You and three other people with complementary skills have recently been approached about a potentially exciting new social enterprise opportunity. None of you know each other, and you’ve convened to see whether you think you might get along well together in such an operation, and personally.

Some Benefit 5 Question Types: (this is one of Ben’s brilliant questions, after seeing the work of a portrait photographer who often placed objects of note in her subject’s hands:) If you were getting a portrait taken, and the photographer asked you to hold something in your hand that told viewers something important about you, what would it be? (the famous Peter Thiel question:) What do you believe that no one else does? (and another famous question) What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail? (and from my earlier post:) What do you wish you’d learned earlier in life? Of the people you’ve known in your life but fallen out of touch with, who would you most like to reconnect with, and why? If you had to write 200 words that summarize your worldview or philosophy of life, what would they be?  (and finally, a few adapted from Arthur Aron’s famous 36 questions:) Given the choice of anyone living in the world, who would you want as a dinner guest? What would you like to be renowned for? What are you most grateful for? What would you most like to know about your true self, or about your future? What’s on your bucket list, and what’s holding you back? If you knew you were going to die soon, what would you do with your remaining time?

Scenario: Your small enterprise is dealing with a new challenge, but at your meeting a small number are dominating the conversation, and others are clearly feeling unwilling or incapable of proffering their thoughts.

Some Benefit 6 Question Types: (for the wallflowers) What are your thoughts and feelings on this (“Let’s go around the circle.”)? What are your instincts telling you? What’s your sense of what’s going on here? Are we missing something?

There is, unfortunately, no straight-forward checklist of questions, and no easy way to know exactly what to ask. Everything depends on context. And the art of divining and asking the right question, and asking it the right way, can require almost as much imagination as answering the most wicked and challenging question. But perhaps a ‘roadmap’ like the one above might be useful in getting you started and pointed in the right direction. What’s your objective in asking a question in a particular context (ie what Benefits are you striving for)? What Types of questions might achieve that objective and achieve those Benefits? And, once you’ve arrived at what you think are the right questions, before you ask them, ask yourself if they meet the 6 Qualities of a great question.


(Thanks to Ben and to Tree Bressen for their contributions to this synthesis.)

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Working Smarter | 1 Comment

Non-Duality Dude: A One-Act Play

image from Pixabay, CC0

(Scene One: Mid-afternoon, summer. The main floor of a small, open concept house. A forest is visible through the picture window; the sound of surf can be heard in the background.)

(Characters: Darien, an aging hippie, taken to wearing cutoffs and sandals. Seville, Darien’s (step-)daughter.)

(Darien is standing in the kitchen, looking at some pages on the counter.)

DARIEN: (reading aloud) “Great inequalities of wealth, of health, of power, of voice, of security and of opportunity are unsustainable and inhuman; they must end. The poor, the sick, the threatened, the ignored, the helpless, the uneducated, the uninformed, the misinformed, and those living without hope did not choose to be that way. They are preyed upon by a system that exploits and intensifies their misery and inexorably increases these inequalities. That system is untrammelled, unregulated, undemocratic, oligarchic, unsustainable industrial capitalism. That system is destroying our environment, our social fabric, and our very civilization. We have no option but to strive urgently to find a better way to live and to be.” (raises his eyebrows)

(Seville enters, heads for the refrigerator and pulls out the makings of a peanut butter sandwich)

SEVILLE: Hey! You found my speech. I wrote it for Bernie Sanders. But you have to read it with more conviction than that.

DARIEN: Hmm. Sadly, you may have actually found a way to make him even more unelectable than he already was. But it would be a great speech. Ground-breaking.

SEVILLE: Thanks. (beat) I was doing stretches after my run in the forest, and this woman came up to me and told me that the meaning of life rests in “the Five W’s”. I think she was high.

DARIEN: Huh. You mean Who What When Where and Why? Must be a journalist. You have to be high to do a job like that these days.

SEVILLE: No, not those Five W’s. She was pretty cool but also kinda scary. She sat down in front of me and started making marks in the sand with a stick, and telling me that it was important to understand that until humans learn to pay attention to the Five W’s there is no hope for us. She acted like she was a shaman imparting secret wisdom. You wanna know that the Five W’s are?

DARIEN: (shrugging) Sure. Enlighten me.

SEVILLE: Sit down, grasshopper, and I will tell you the eternal knowledge of the grandmothers. Or one stoned grandmother anyway.

(he sits; she takes a bite of her sandwich, and takes five glass beads from a dish on the table, placing them in a line and moving each as she speaks.)

SEVILLE: The first W is Water. Without it there can be no life. We are polluting it, wasting it, and running out of it, using it for mining and irrigation and concrete and cooling electrical generators (40% of it is used for that alone), almonds, walnuts and meat products. Flushing and washing and drinking is just a tiny portion of our water use.

The second W is Woods — forests. Without them there can be no life. They are essential to many species on which we depend, and are part of the respiratory and hydrological systems that all life needs. And we need them for our health, physical and psychological. They were our home for our first million years.

The third W is We. Humans are not meant to live or do anything alone. We are social creatures, and we have lost our sense of community, of belonging.

The fourth W is Wellness. Not just being well, but doing things well, becoming competent at things essential to our well-being.

And the fifth W is Wonder. Not “wondering why” but just having a sense of wonder, appreciation, awareness and attention.

That’s what she told me.

DARIEN: (looks impressed) That’s awesome. You remembered all that from what she said? You should have invited her over.

SEVILLE: She was high, Dad. And yes, I remembered it all. It’s all a matter of paying attention, listening. You can remember a lot if you want to. (Exaggerated grin.) You should try it sometime.

(Darien returns the exaggerated smile, gets up and puts on a kettle.)

SEVILLE: I’ve made a first pass at the ‘Elevator Pitch’ to explain non-duality to our unsuspecting and cynical world. I wrote it mainly for you, since I’m not as convinced as you are that it’s true. Instead of having to explain it over and over, I thought it might be easier if you just had a one-minute script that laid it all out.

DARIEN: Thanks. Look forward to reading it.

SEVILLE: You have to memorize it. You can do it. It’s important to you, so if there ever was a time to learn a script by heart, this is it. And by the way, I want to go with you when Non-Duality Dude comes to town. I mean, philosophers like Daniel Dennett seem so smart, but they don’t seem to get the idea that determinism and compatibilism are completely irrelevant to the question of free will if you acknowledge that there’s no ‘one’ to have free will and that all causation is just appearance. Yet Daniel blithely dismisses radical non-duality as ‘mad-dog reductionism’, and then goes on to tie himself in knots every bit as complicated as the ones Sam Harris does — both of them desperate to justify the moral argument that we are ‘kind of’ responsible, to some degree or other, for our actions, even though we have no free will. Why can’t they see how ridiculous those arguments are? (She retrieves a sheet of paper from her backpack) I mean, listen to this from Sam Harris: (reading)

Consciousness is already free of the feeling that we call “I.” However, a person must change his plane of focus to realize this. Some practices can facilitate this shift in awareness, but there is no truly gradual path that leads there. Many longtime meditators seem completely unaware that these two planes of focus exist… . I used to be one of them.

I’d stay on retreat for a few weeks or months at a time, being mindful of the breath and other sense objects, thinking that if I just got closer to the raw data of experience, a breakthrough would occur. Occasionally, a breakthrough did occur: In a moment of seeing, for instance, there would be pure seeing, and consciousness would appear momentarily free of any feeling to which the notion of a “self” could be attached. But then the experience would fade, and I couldn’t get back there at will. There was nothing to do but return to meditating dualistically on contents of consciousness, with self-transcendence as a distant goal.

However, from the non-dual side, ordinary consciousness—the very awareness that you and I are experiencing in this conversation—is already free of self. And this can be pointed out directly, and recognized again and again, as one’s only form of practice. So gradual approaches are, almost by definition, misleading. And yet this is where everyone starts. In criticizing this kind of practice, someone like Eckhart Tolle is echoing the non-dualistic teachings one finds in traditions such as Advaita Vedanta, Zen (sometimes), and Dzogchen. Many of these teachings can sound paradoxical: You can’t get there from here. The self that you think you are isn’t going to meditate itself into a new condition. This is true, but it’s not always useful. The path is too steep.

SEVILLE: Pffft! Talk about pretzel logic. And they’re all the same, these old white guy philosophers and theoretical scientists and dilettantes — Daniel and Sam and David Chalmers and Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen and John Gray and Michael Pollan and David Foster Wallace and Robert Sapolsky, saying on the one hand there is no real ‘self’ and no free will but somehow there is still responsibility and control and a ‘you’ that has them and can ‘kind of’ choose to exercise them. What’s with these guys? Why do they have to make it more difficult than it is? Why are they so invested in a barren and bankrupt line of thinking? Deep-rooted moral upbringing? Desperation to be ‘useful’? (exasperated sigh) Sorry, I just expect better of the world’s supposed leading thinkers.

DARIEN: (beat) My head is spinning. (He comes back to the table with 2 cups of tea.) Context please.

SEVILLE: (reaching into her bag and pulling out a file which she puts in front of him)  Daniel Dennett’s critique of Sam Harris’ book Free Will. You’ll hate it. 

DARIEN: Actually, I’ve read it. It wasn’t any worse than any of the other attempts to reconcile determinism with a ‘kind of’ free will. Futile, of course, but they’re sincere.

SEVILLE: That’s why I want to go with you to meet Non-Duality Dude. I don’t want sincere, I want uncompromising. If my whole worldview is going to be turned upside-down, I don’t want half-baked reassurances. I want the truth. And that new article by that quantum theorist guy Sean Carroll you pointed me to last week about why the universe is the way it is, that provides five possible answers, and then concludes that his current favourite is that “the universe just is”, I liked that! (she pulls out more papers from her bag) Especially this part: (reading)

You want to know why the universe is, you’re not going to get a satisfactory answer. You’re not going to be happy. The universe just is. You have to accept it. You have to learn to deal with it. There’s nothing further there. I like this. I mean I don’t like it sort of you know in terms of again scratching explanatory itches. But I think it’s the one that is most courageous, most brave. It faces up to the reality of it. All of these other attempts hit this little kid problem of saying, ‘Well, if that’s true, why is that true? Why is that true? Why is that true?’ And here you’re saying, nope. There is one level at which you just say, that’s how it is. There is nothing other than that. This is what Bertrand Russell was trying to say. I think this is probably the right answer. And I know that people don’t like it, but whether we like it or not, is not part of how we should judge a theory of why the universe is the way it is.

SEVILLE: The scientists are ahead of the philosophers, which is amazing since they have so much more to lose. This is a huge step forward from Sean’s multiverse theory, and he was so invested in that. He’s a theoretical physicist, and he’s largely debunked string theory, and now he’s saying “the universe just is”? It’s positively non-dualist.

DARIEN: Maybe. I wonder if he’s just tweaking his theoretical physics colleagues to come up with something better. One of the main criticisms of string theory is that it’s unprovable, and useless. The same criticism could, and probably will, be levelled at non-duality. Just as in Copernicus’ day, no one will care about any theory, no matter how astute, that doesn’t either substantiate their experience or give them solace. Science is built on the former, and spirituality on the latter. Radical non-duality offers neither.

SEVILLE: Radical non-duality also says people can’t choose what they want or believe or do. And they generally tend to burn heretics. But heliocentrism eventually proved a very useful theory, since it turned out to represent reality better than geocentrism. It only took a century. I think non-duality will eventually prove to be useful. Not to science and technology, but to those who have outgrown spirituality and are looking for a better representation of reality than gods and quarks and strings. We’re all inveterate searchers, you know. (beat) Now, (pulling a paper from her bag) here’s the Elevator Pitch on non-duality for you to memorize.

DARIEN: (flips the paper back and forth and looks astonished) I’m going to memorize all this?

SEVILLE: (exasperated) It’s two pages, for god’s sake. Try. I’ll help you with it. Actors have to memorize a hundred times this much. I even put it in “Several Short Sentences” style, ’cause I know you like that, and you can learn the lines by number. (beat) (rises) Gotta go — meeting Kari at the Coffee Cup and taking KT for a walk.

(Seville picks up her backpack and leaves)

DARIEN: (sighs, then reads)

  1. There is no ‘you’, no ‘person’, nothing separate.
  2. ‘This’ is everything, timeless, limitless, eternal.
  3. Our sense of identity and separation is ephemeral, illusory. It appears to arise in creatures with large complex brains that have (perhaps as an extension of the survival instinct) evolved the capacity to create a model of reality that includes a ‘self’ at the centre of that reality, and then to mistake that representation for the ‘real’ reality. It mistakes the map for the territory.
  4. That sense of separation emerges in humans at a very young age and is then reinforced by others suffering from the same illusion of separateness, for their entire life.
  5. It’s a very compelling and enduring illusion, since human brains are largely dedicated to try to make sense of everything they perceive and quickly get into shortcut “default settings” in their beliefs of what is and what is happening.
  6. This sense-making by separate selves entails the creation, as part of the representation of reality, of the ideas of space and time (here and now and elsewhere and past and future). That sense-making is what we call ‘experience’. But all ‘experience’ is, is imagined occurrences within the representation of reality dreamt up by the brain, as it tries to make sense of ‘this’, of everything.
  7. It can happen that the model, the simplified representation of reality conjured up by the brain with its invented separate self, can fall away, though there is no path to that happening, and it doesn’t happen in time, or to any ‘one’ .
  8. When that happens, nothing actually changes — it was all imagined. The apparent character or body continues to behave seemingly exactly as it did before, based on its embodied and cultural conditioning. The appearance of self-control, choice, and free will is simply an after-the-fact rationalization within the mental model of what was already going to occur, and that choice never existed in ‘real’ reality.
  9. When the sense of a separate self is no more, the only thing that might really change is that some of the energy that emerged as neurotic embodied and conditioned behaviour in the character, due to the self’s anxiety-creating belief it has control and free will, may begin to dissipate, since there is no longer a separate self to take ownership of the neurotic thoughts and feelings.
  10. But otherwise no one is likely to notice any change in the no longer self-afflicted character. It is as if a pervasive long-term hallucination suddenly no longer haunts the character.
  11. All that is left is ‘this’, everything, and the sense of wonder that its realization evokes, but in no one.
  12. There is only ‘this’, no thing apart, nothing separate, no time or space, no purpose or meaning, no life or death. Nothing is needed, nothing is missing, nothing actually ‘happens’.
  13. The separate self cannot imagine or realize this because it cannot conceive of its own absence, other than when the body and brain, which it presumes to inhabit, cease to function.
  14. But there may be ‘glimpses’ where there is, briefly, no self, no separateness, no time passing, just everything. When that’s seen, it’s awesome, unconditional, and unquestionably true. 
  15. That is what the separate self longs for, seeks hopelessly to find for itself, through therapy or religion or spiritual practices, and can never find.
  16. This is not to say that there is no reality external to our selves, our brains. In fact everything real is external to our brains; ‘all there is’ has no need of ‘consciousness’.
  17. But real reality is not what we perceive: it has no separate objects with boundaries where they end and something else begins, no colours or sounds or smells or tastes as we perceive them, no time or space in which anything happens. It is just an infinite, eternal, empty field in which everything apparently happens, wondrous and unperceivable by, and indescribable to, the separate self.
  18. How do I ‘know’ this? ‘I’ don’t. Some instinct inside me, some remembering in glimpses, makes it completely clear, obvious even, that this is true.
  19. But obviously, ‘I’ cannot hope to convince anyone else of its truth. But it’s what just about everyone who claims to be ‘enlightened’ or ‘liberated’ is clearly describing, in different ways.
  20. The only difference is that they mostly believe it’s something that individuals — selves — can attain. But they cannot.

(he puts his hands over his eyes)

(fade to black)

(Scene Two: A few days later; evening. Seville is lying on the couch watching a movie through a 3D headset. Darien is staring out the window at the forest.)

SEVILLE: Dad, can I ask you a question?

DARIEN: (beat) Huh? Sorry, I thought you were watching a movie.

SEVILLE: I am watching a movie. But I have the sound off. It’s how I always watch movies now. They have amazing special effects, and the UHD is awesome, as are the sets and costumes, but the writing and the acting and the music — pffff! — are invariably manipulative, predictable, derivative crap. So I just watch the picture and make up my own dialogue and soundtrack. Waaay better than anything the hacks could come up with. You should try it. You’ve got a great imagination. Right now, in my movie, Mackenzie Foy and Anne Hathaway are explaining quantum gravity and complexity theory to Matthew McConaughey. The actual plot is utterly ridiculous, but when you substitute lines from McConaughey’s quirky character in True Detective, for the lines he says in this sad little film, it gets quite interesting. Like, remember when McConaughey as Rust does the no-self monologue? (faking a Southern male accent) “I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself — we are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self; an accretion of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody.” (back to normal voice) Awesome. (she removes the 3D visor) Anyway, I have a question for you.

DARIEN: OK, shoot.

SEVILLE: The question is, Do you really believe Non-Duality Dude’s message, or do you just want to believe it?

DARIEN: (looking puzzled) (beat) Not sure I understand. What do you mean? I can appreciate it on an intellectual level, but I don’t pretend that I really get it, or that ‘I’ ever can.

SEVILLE: What I mean is, is this world just so fucked-up that you want to believe in the message because it makes all the horror and suffering moot, relieves you of responsibility and assuages your guilt and fear about what what people have done to this planet — and what is to come? Is it just your way of inuring yourself from the pain of Civilization Disease? I’m asking because you’ve described these glimpses of non-self, and they seem compelling, but my self has never fallen away to allow a glimpse, as far as I know. Maybe the glimpse was just a moment of quiet bliss that you wanted to be a glimpse?

DARIEN: Hmmm. I’ve considered that. It’s possible. I certainly do want to believe the radical non-duality message is true. But at the time the glimpse was ‘obviously’ more than just a moment of bliss. It was an ‘aha’ moment, a moment of true realization, and enormous relief. It made what was intuitive to me suddenly absolutely clear — that it just didn’t make sense that the world was so full of fear, violence, suffering, struggle and sorrow, and there had to be another explanation for the way things are. I know people who have suddenly become religious, and it wasn’t like that at all. It’s not a breaking down or a giving up or a letting go, it’s a seeing through. So yes, it’s possible, but at this point it seems unlikely that it’s just wishful thinking. (beat) You said you want to come to the meeting with ‘Non-Duality Dude’. What are you hoping will come out of that?

SEVILLE: (beat) Well, I don’t have any specific questions to ask. Whenever I think about the questions I have, I realize I already know the answers to them. The message is actually pretty simple. So I think a meeting of radical non-dualists might be kinda like a support group for me. It’s hard being the only one in my crowd who believes something everyone else can’t even fathom. Present company excepted, of course.

DARIEN: I’m afraid you may be disappointed. It’s likely most of the people in the room will just be seeking more satisfying answers than the ones their gurus, teachers, priests and other spiritual advisors have given them. They’ll probably ask really elementary questions that will make you groan, questions that you already know the answers to.

SEVILLE: Hah! As if I’m not used to that. (beat) I get the intuitive thing, that it doesn’t make sense the world would be so awful. I appreciate the non-duality message’s simplicity and completeness and elegance and the fact that scientists and philosophers are converging on the same mind-boggling realizations that non-duality has been asserting for a long time. I love being ahead of that curve. But while I really want to believe the non-duality message, and I’m ‘clear’ on it, my dissatisfaction and impatience is more than just my self’s resistance. On the one hand, I am afraid of living my whole life as a lie, a story, a dream, behind the veil of the self; and on the other hand I’m just as afraid of losing the intellectual, emotional and sensual ‘highs’ of new discoveries and sensations and experiences and falling in love with another person, damn it, and having them love me, too, this person, illusory or not. I don’t want to miss out, you know. I’m too young to be a monk. (grim face)

DARIEN: Except… there is no you. No you to miss out, no you to fall in love, no you to suffer or feel joy. If that was realized, seen, then there would still be love and joy and fear and anger and sorrow, but it wouldn’t be personal, wouldn’t be an experience. But it would be no less wondrous for that. You don’t have to be a monk. You don’t have to change anything. In fact, you can’t. What the amazing character called Sevi will do and be, she will do and be, and ‘you’ actually have no say in the matter. ‘You’ are just in the way of the wonder of that amazing character simply being who she is.

SEVILLE: (sighs) Non-Duality Dude says the self can’t do anything but seek, and in the process struggle and suffer except for brief moments of happiness. It’s one thing to be clear on that. It’s another thing entirely to live by and with that knowledge. Maybe it would be better not to know. (beat) Nah, ‘I’ just have to know. It’s in my conditioning. (beat) I thought I was a phenomenologist until Non-Duality Dude came along. Remember reading Spell of the Sensuous together? (she pulls a sheet out of her bag) Remember when it was simple as believing this? (reads)

Tribal cultures and other creatures appear to see, feel, and perceive the world in a fundamentally different, and more profound way, than we do in our modern Western culture. The invention of the written alphabet, and through it the invention of the concepts of absolute space and separate, linear time, and our conception of the air which surrounds us as merely empty space — allowed Western man to create a separate, thoroughly plausible, abstract reality, that, in the civilized world, with its need for hierarchy, laws, instructions, rules, and restrictions, was (and is) a more useful reality than the ‘real’ one. Over time, this abstracted reality and its artefacts have dulled our sensitivity, our awareness of and ability to reconnect with the ‘real’ world, the sensual world of which we are inextricably a part, and upon which our survival utterly depends, but which we are ever more unaware of, indifferent to, and detached from…

Today the speaking self looks out at a purely ‘exterior’ nature from a purely ‘interior’ zone, presumably located somewhere inside the physical body or brain. Within alphabetic civilization, virtually every human psyche construes itself as just such an individual ‘interior’, a private mind or consciousness unrelated to the other minds that surround it, or to the environing earth. For there is no longer any common medium, no reciprocity, no respiration between the inside and the outside. There is no longer any flow between the self-reflexive domain of alphabetized awareness, and all that exceeds or subtends this determinate realm. Between consciousness and the unconscious. Between civilization and wilderness.

SEVILLE: Pretty good description of the affliction of the separate self, huh? David Abram thinks we can sense our way back, re-open ourselves, and re-become “animal”. Non-Duality Dude would say that’s just another type of seeking for another experience. Do you think tribal cultures at some point were free of selves?

DARIEN: No idea. Human cultures, even the earliest ones with a written record, seemed pretty preoccupied with the individual and with responsible behaviour. Human species are a million years old, human art is at least 100,000 years old, and abstract language merely 30,000 years old. If art is ‘self’-expression, then the illusion of self is pretty old. It really doesn’t matter. David’s take on being “animal” seems pretty consistent with what Eckhart Tolle and Adyashanti and all the others describe as being “enlightened”, and unlike ‘Non-Duality Dude’ they all believe and preach that there’s a path to getting there. So, pick your poison I suppose. It’s all the same message.

SEVILLE: (beat) (raises eyebrows and shrugs) And on that cheerful note I’m going back to my movie. (smiles) Thanks for the chat!

(Seville re-dons the VR headset and lies down on the couch)

(the phone rings; Darien answers it)

DARIEN: Hello? (beat) Oh, hi Dad, yes we’re fine. (beat) I told you, Dad, non-duality is not a cult and it’s not something I would, or could, force your granddaughter to believe. (beat) No, it’s not nihilistic and Sevi isn’t going to go out and commit murder and mayhem just because she believes we have no free will. I gave you the book and video list; didn’t that reassure you that there is ‘nothing’ to be concerned about? (smiles to himself)

(Seville on the couch smiles and waves one raised hand)

DARIEN: Sevi waves hi. (beat) No, I don’t know who she’s dating. But she’s safe, and wiser than I’ll ever be. (beat) What if I summarized for you what the message of non-duality really is; would that help you appreciate that it’s not a cult and that everything is fine? (beat) OK, here goes. It takes about two minutes to explain, and just stop me if you want anything clarified. OK?

(Darien begins saying the Elevator Pitch that Seville gave him; he’s memorized it. He interjects some reassuring words and a few hesitations, but gets through the whole list. As he finishes, Seville raises her hand with a ‘thumbs up’.)

(fade to black)

(Scene Three: A few days later: early afternoon. Darien is drinking tea and doing a crossword puzzle. Seville walks in, clearly agitated)

SEVILLE: Holy… Fuck!

(Darien watches her pace around the room but says nothing)

SEVILLE: I… just… don’t… fucking… believe… it! (surprised happy face and turned up hands)

DARIEN: Don’t tell me… They impeached the bastard!?

SEVILLE: A glimpse! I had a glimpse! On the beach! I mean… there was a glimpse; there was no ‘me’ to have it. You know what I mean. It happened!

DARIEN: Tell me more.

SEVILLE: I was just… Kari and I had… Well, we’d been making out and as usual Kari immediately fell asleep, and I was just lying there on the beach, in a kind of post-make-out bliss, staring at the waves. And suddenly, there was no me! There was no time! There was (beat) ‘only this’! (quietly) Only this. And it was so obvious. I mean, how could I not have seen it before? And I knew that it was the real reality, and that it was eternal and, how do I say this, it would ‘wait for me’ until my self was gone. And I remembered, if that is the word, other glimpses, from when I was really little, like when you took me to that ancient village with the hobbit-style houses and the eight-foot-high hedges, and the fluffy snowfall one night under the streetlight when there was no sound, no movement other than the snow, and all the other times. It was completely different from a blissed-out state. It was crystal clear, absolutely true. And it was, like, completely unlike what I had expected. It wasn’t a state. It wasn’t an experience. It wasn’t going anywhere. ‘I’ wasn’t there. It was just… everything! It was “seeing through”. Amazing and wondrous and… wow!

DARIEN: (nods and smiles) Sounds a bit familiar. So now what?

SEVILLE: (beat) Now, nothing I guess. Everything’s changed, but everything’s still the same. ‘I’ am back, but not feeling bad about that, though I might later, if it doesn’t happen again. (beat) And now I’m asking myself the same question I asked you last week: Was this a real glimpse, or did ‘I’ just want to believe it was? Was I just so desperate for a glimpse that I invented one? There was no ‘dark night of the soul’ happening for me, so why did it happen then? Did I just dream it, or did it show me that ‘my’ whole life is just a dream?

DARIEN: Really good questions. Alas, I have no answers. Maybe there aren’t any.

SEVILLE: (beat) (sighs) So now what?

DARIEN: I don’t know. Lunch? Play the Glass Bead Game? Show me how that VR thingy works? Lie down in front of the pipeline workers’ bulldozers? Tell me whether or not you’re in love with Kari?

SEVILLE: (gives Darien a hug) Lunch. Maybe burritos and veggies. I’m not in love. (beat) And the rest we’ll just have to take one step at a time. (beat) Oh, and that woman with the Five W’s? She is a shaman, or at least she says she is. And she was high. I ran into her again and she says she can guide me through a psilocybin trip. Want to do it with me? Might answer your Michael Pollan questions.

DARIEN: What if I let you do it first and then when I do it you can be my shaman, my guide. Seems kinda fitting, don’t you think?

SEVILLE: You’re just scared.

DARIEN: That too.

SEVILLE: But… there’s no ‘you’ to be scared! (sarcastic smile)

DARIEN: Right. But I’m well-conditioned. I have no control over what I feel.

SEVILLE: Hmmm. Somehow there’s a total logic disconnect there. OK, would you acknowledge that new knowledge can affect your conditioning?

DARIEN: Seems plausible.

SEVILLE: So for example, since I was little, new knowledge has changed what you think about whether we can prevent civilization’s collapse and climate change, and changed what you think about the nature of the human ‘self’, right?


SEVILLE: And that has changed your behaviour — for example, what you write about on your blog, right?

DARIEN: I guess, sure.

SEVILLE: So it’s possible that the knowledge that there’s no you and no free will might eventually change your fear-driven behaviour, no?

DARIEN: Not so sure. Maybe. Knowing something intellectually, when you’re bombarded with claims that your knowledge makes no sense, makes it  lot less likely you’re going to change your behaviour, I would think.

SEVILLE: What are you scared of, exactly?

DARIEN: Hah. Do you want a list? It’s a long one.

SEVILLE: Underneath everything in the list, what is it you’re afraid of, and ‘who’ is it that’s afraid?

DARIEN: Suffering, I suppose. Yours, mine, other people’s…

SEVILLE: I’ve seen you suffer. You’re a bit loud, but you handle it pretty well when it happens. Geez, kidney stones, colitis attacks… You didn’t seem at all scared when they happened.

DARIEN: I guess when you’re in the middle of it, the fear gets replaced with coping with things in the moment.

SEVILLE: So let’s drill down a bit. So it’s the anticipation of suffering that underlies your fear. Right? You’ve said you’re not afraid of dying, as long as it’s not painful. You’ve said you’re afraid of being trapped, but that’s never really happened to you, has it? Even awful social events with strangers, even horrible work situations, when they happen you really cope with them quite well. “It wasn’t as bad as I thought” could be your mantra. So what is it that you’re really afraid of?

DARIEN: Well, doctor, I suppose it’s the fear of not knowing what’s going to happen and not being in control of the situation.

SEVILLE: But no one is in control, and ‘knowing’ is just the self’s pattern-making, sense-making. There is no real knowing and no control.

DARIEN: Well, exactly. That why everything is so scary. Anything awful could happen. It’s the anxiety underlying the fear that is unbearable.

SEVILLE: So who is it that’s anxious? (beat) I’m not trying to do a Byron Katie on you here, but who exactly is anxious about not knowing what’s going to happen and not being in control?

DARIEN: OK, it’s my ‘self’ that’s anxious. It’s my self that still thinks it knows things and is in control. My real fear is my self’s reaction to a possible unwanted situation.

SEVILLE; No wonder you want to believe so desperately that there is no self. If it would go away, everything would be perfect.

DARIEN: I guess. Though I already know intellectually that there is no self, and that everything is perfect.But that doesn’t overcome my conditioning, at least until or unless that self drops away.

SEVILLE: So you’re saying that your self is like a hallucination, that you know is not really real, but seems to be so you can’t ignore it?

DARIEN: Maybe. The self seems more profound than a hallucination. But you could be right.

SEVILLE: OK, other fears. Every once in a while you get really angry, and you’ve said anger is usually a mask for fear. What makes you angry?

DARIEN: These days, it’s mostly psychopaths in positions of power. Trump, Ford, Peterson, you know, scary guys with influence who do and say crazy things.

SEVILLE: So they’re ‘scary’. What are you afraid they’ll do?

DARIEN: Mmmm… Take away our freedom. Wars, fascist brownshirts, gulags, death squads, you know. It’s happened before.

SEVILLE: But ‘you’ have no freedom. You know that. (beat) Suppose the hippies had done everything they wanted last century, so we all lived in Eden. You’re not living in anguish afraid that some despot would take that freedom away and we’d be stuck with what we have today, are you? So what you’re really angry and afraid of losing is just something you imagine, something that never actually was or will be.

DARIEN: Huh. I think you’re too smart for me. I have no idea. I know my anger and fears and anxieties and anguish are unwarranted, but I can’t let go of them. My conditioning is too strong. I can’t not feel or think what I feel and think. My life is full of cognitive dissonance. That terrifying hallucination, conjuring up terrible imaginings of what might be, is just too present, too pervasive, for ‘me’ to ignore. I can’t will it or think it away. No reassurance makes it vanish. It’s triggered by all kinds of situations. And that hallucination kinda is me. That hallucination, that conditioned anxious seemingly-vulnerable self, and its reactions, is what I’m really afraid of.

SEVILLE: Remember when your brother took that Fear of Flying course and made it through one flight before the fear returned, and the pilot who ran the course admitted their success rate was next to zero? I guess that’s the same kind of hallucination, the same kind of unreal but un-ignorable ghost. So you think we’re just stuck with our ghosts, until the ‘self’ behind them disappears, or we die?

DARIEN: I guess. No one really dies, of course. There is no time. So there is no hope. But there is no self, either. They’re all ghosts, inventions, dreams.

SEVILLE: Well, I think we’ve made peace with ours better than most people. I suppose we’re fortunate in that sense. For some people, the ghost probably haunts them every moment of their lives.

DARIEN: I’m sure that’s true. Perhaps David Foster Wallace just found that ghost too unbearable, too pervasive, to live with. I’m sure the ghost is a lot less of a factor in my life than it was in the years before you were in my life. My self was really hard on me, and really scared, back then. Maybe Civilization Disease is just the affliction of the self, and some of us get it worse than others. And some of us heal somewhat, and a few are liberated from it entirely.

SEVILLE: So is there a question in all this for Non-Duality Dude when we go meet him? Or are we just going to go and compare symptoms with the other self-diagnosed people there? And listen to them ask him hopeless questions we already know the answers, or non-answers, to?

DARIEN: I don’t suppose we actually have any say in the matter.

SEVILLE: Uh uh. That’s a cop-out answer. My question is, given the state of your conditioning and the current circumstances as we understand them, will the character infected by your conditioned self apparently ask a question, and/or hobnob with the other participants, or just sit in the back row silently and be a smug silly bugger?

DARIEN: Smug silly bugger! I can identify with that! I think I’d be quite good at it.

SEVILLE: No you wouldn’t. You know too much and you care too much. I know what I’d like to see happen to you, whether or not non-duality helps or not. You ready? (she pulls out another piece of paper from her bag)

DARIEN: Always and never ready for your perceptive insights.

SEVILLE: (reading) 1. I’d like to see you as happy as you were in the year after you retired and let go of being an environmentalist. It was like you were weightless, and you took joy in everything. 2. I’d like to see you get past your fake misanthropy. Except for a lucky few like me, you shun people, on the basis you say they are ignorant and uninteresting. But underneath you know better. I think you’re scared of caring too much. And 3. I’d like to see you spend more time just paying attention, with all your senses. I think you’re scared of feeling. If radical non-duality helps you be happier, more caring, and more attentive, sign me up. If it doesn’t, let’s find something else. If I’m going to be an adult soon, I want you to be one too. (sad smile) (beat) So what would you like to see happen to me?

DARIEN: Hah! You’re already any father’s dream. What do I want to see happen to you…? I guess mostly I want you to be free. In the deepest and every sense of the word. Free to be, free to do, free of and from anything that constrains you and makes you unhappy. Come to think of it, that’s pretty much another way of saying what you want for me. Perhaps today’s ‘glimpse’ might have given you a sense of what that freedom might be like. Although I’m not sure the meeting with ‘Non-Duality Dude’ and the other attendees will make any difference to that. (beat) Seriously, if I were to write a play that had you as a character, just as you are, no one would believe that character could possibly be real.

SEVILLE: Um, what would the play be about? Hopefully not 45 minutes of the two characters talking about non-duality? — booooooooring!

DARIEN: You’re the one who watches movies with the sound off. Maybe it would be a play where the actors walk around a gesture and do things but don’t make a sound. The audience could make up the dialogue and the plot to suit themselves.

SEVILLE: I don’t think you have to go that far. What was it that Aaron Sorkin said made for great characters?

DARIEN: (counts the points off with his fingers) Show what your character wants or needs and how they overcome obstacles to get it. Have your characters fail early. Make sure your characters aren’t too good, that they have weaknesses and foibles. Make them driven, have them show that they really care. Have them find a creative, unorthodox, interesting way to overcome the obstacle. Use dialogue not action to convey the confrontations and power struggles. Have characters succeed, but at an unexpected cost. Have them learn something important about what matters in life. (beat) I think that was it.

SEVILLE: Yeeesh. Makes ’em sound like puppets. That list seems like a pretty cheap, lazy way to manipulate the audience into caring for the characters. Aaron’s earlier characters, like on Sports Night, were quirky, fun, clever, complex, and their problems were not terribly serious. You just wanted to be with them. God knows there’s enough struggle and suffering in the world without writers having to invent more of it. (beat) Hey! I have an idea. What if the play, instead of just being non-dualists blathering, was a play with characters who say they couldn’t write a play about characters like them? A recursive play about the ‘recursive self’?

DARIEN: Naaah. Too clever by half. Hmmm… The idea’s cute: Life is a script that the self gets only at the last minute, line by line, so write a play about characters who, in the script, are aware that their lives are just scripts that they get, only at the last minute, line by line. (beat) But the idea of dream-within-a-dream has been done, usually badly.

SEVILLE: But the difference here is that there is only the dream. There is ‘nothing’ (smiles) to wake up to. I think it has possibilities.

DARIEN: OK, I’ll play. It could start out with… me stumbling upon your speech for Bernie Sanders. And then there’d be some thoughts about the non-existence of the self and of free will, raising the cognitive dissonance between that and supporting an old idealistic politician as a kind of tension. (beat) And then maybe later… you could come in exclaiming that you’d had a glimpse… or at least that there had been a glimpse and that ‘you’ had briefly disappeared. And then the characters could acknowledge that they’re not real, just characters playing roles in a play, and have no control over the script, or even of what they’re going to say or do next. And they could tell the audience they’re not real either.

SEVILLE: Now that’s too clever by half.

DARIEN: But what’s the point? As you noted in your Elevator Pitch, I cannot hope to convince anyone else that any of this is true. Even though it’s what just about everyone who claims to be ‘enlightened’ or ‘liberated’ is clearly describing, in different ways. So what’s the point of annoying people by getting them to read or watch a play about something they can’t and won’t possibly believe?

SEVILLE: Yet Eckhart Tolle and Adyashanti and all those people don’t annoy people; they give them hope and inspiration.

DARIEN: And they do so sincerely and with the best of intentions, I know. But it’s cruel to give people hope that they can realize this, this disappearance of separation and self. They can’t realize it. There is no enlightenment or liberation for individuals.

SEVILLE: True. But it doesn’t matter that people won’t understand or believe you. You still have to tell them, deliver this preposterous, annoying message, don’t you? That’s your conditioning. It’s the only thing you can do. And when they read, or watch, they’ll do the only thing they can do, based on their conditioning. None of it matters. There are no minds to change. There is no one, either to give or to hear this message. There is nothing separate, no time. There is nothing happening. And yet it’s wondrous, amazing, this apparent life, even if ‘we’ are just characters reading our lines, playing our roles, not knowing what they’re going to say or do next until the script unfolds.

DARIEN: (beat) This character craves a chai, and, um… cole slaw, and raspberries over cashew ice cream.

SEVILLE: You making?

DARIEN: I have no choice in the matter.

SEVILLE: Then you have no choice but to make the same for me. And burritos.

DARIEN: (rises) Coming up.

SEVILLE: Apparently so. (reaching into her bag and taking out a file) (beat) I’ve written a play. Want to act in it?

DARIEN: As long as I don’t have to play myself.

SEVILLE: Promise. You don’t.

(fade to black)

Posted in Creative Works | 2 Comments

Links of the Quarter: September 2018

Cartoon by Hugh Macleod from Gaping Void

Physicist Sean Carroll, a leading-edge thinker and researcher on quantum mechanics and astrophysics. just did a podcast in which he says:

You want to know why the universe is, you’re not going to get a satisfactory answer. You’re not going to be happy. The universe just is. You have to accept it. You have to learn to deal with it. There’s nothing further there. I like this. I mean I don’t like it sort of you know in terms of again scratching explanatory itches. But I think it’s the one that is most courageous, most brave. It faces up to the reality of it. All of these other attempts hit this little kid problem of saying, ‘Well, if that’s true, why is that true? Why is that true? Why is that true?’ And here you’re saying, nope. There is one level at which you just say, that’s how it is. There is nothing other than that. This is what Bertrand Russell was trying to say. I think this is probably the right answer. And I know that people don’t like it, but whether we like it or not, is not part of how we should judge a theory of why the universe is the way it is.

The basic message of radical non-duality is that “all there is, is this”, inexplicable, timeless, eternal, and impossible for the human mind to fathom. That there is no time, space, purpose or meaning, no thing apart. That what we perceive as the universe is just an appearance, everything and nothing, at once real and unreal. Seems like a convergence to me, though I imagine the idea would still have most scientists wrinkling their noses.

Meanwhile, the debate on whether use of psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca and other psycho-pharmaceuticals can enable seeing the world as it really is — without the self (or at least disrupt the “default setting” which has us seeing it as it is not), continues, as Michael Pollan’s new book gains traction. Scientists and doctors are also looking at microdosing these substances to improve social connection, increase creativity, and reduce the psychological and physical symptoms of Civilization Disease. There’s increasing acceptance that it is a disease — that our globalized industrial society is inherently debilitating and requires us to spend our whole lives attempting to heal from its negative effects (video elaborating on this here — thanks to Susan Nelson for the link).

What an awful, and awesome, time to be alive.


Land use in the US, shown proportionally to area. Lower map shows breakdown of the acreage used for human food. From Bloomberg. Thanks to Ben Collver for the links.

Adapting to a Collapsing Society: University of Cumbria Professor Jem Bendell has written a paper “to provide readers with an opportunity to reassess their work and life in the face of an inevitable near term social collapse due to climate change”. The paper looks at the various types of denial and some strategies to learn to adapt to the massive changes we will soon face. Thanks to Paul Heft for the link.

Hothouse Earth: Yawn. Another research study concludes it’s too late to prevent runaway climate change, and explores the consequences.

For the Rich, the Future of Technology is About Escape: So says Douglas Rushkoff, who was recently wined and dined by a billionaires group. “They were preparing for a digital future that had a whole lot less to do with making the world a better place than it did with transcending the human condition altogether and insulating themselves from a very real and present danger of climate change, rising sea levels, mass migrations, global pandemics, nativist panic, and resource depletion.” Wonder if they’re ready for the unicorn bubble?  Thanks to Ben Collver for the links.

Climate Change Performance Index: An international organization maps policies and progress on addressing climate change, by country. Not good news.

Why Electric Cars Won’t Solve Climate Change: Richard Heinberg explains why electric cars could actually worsen climate change — they’re too little too late, and now even if we were to do the minimum of getting rid of cars entirely and reinventing communities locally, to drastically reduce energy use, runaway climate change is inevitable, and the wobbling economy is a wildcard that could well make things unimaginably worse.

The Next Plague: We are hopelessly unready for it. It is certainly coming, and probably sooner rather than later. This is not a good situation.

The Emotional & Physical Toll of Wildfire Smoke: Anxiety, fear, grief, and the impact on respiration, the heart, sinuses and eyes. How many more “lost summers” must we look forward to? Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.

Oh, and the Pentagon has Misplaced $21T: That’s trillions. Unaccounted for. I wonder what they spent it on? Thanks to Lorraine Suzuki for the link.


When You’re On the Road and You Have Kids: On Facebook Don Amero writes: “‪It’s been getting tougher leaving my little ones when I head off for tours so I asked them for a stuffy that I could take with me and I’ll share pictures of our adventures. [Image above] is Snowball and Ellie. We’re going on adventures together. But first Coffee…” Great idea huh?

The McGill Office for Science and Society has produced a series of videos deconstructing some very popular videos spouting some dangerous untruths about health, genetics and food (including “miracle cures”) publicized through subtle spoofs of “junk science” that have gone viral.

How Long Does Food Last: Ignore the self-serving “best by” date, and look at this resource to determine how long your food will stay nutritious and healthy.

Is Electromagnetic Sensitivity Real?: Short answer: No. Why do people feel they are sensitive? Read the article or watch the video and find out.

Vegan Cooking, Caribbean Style: Rachel Ama should get a gig writing recipes for, since her videos and recipes reflect the wisdom of Michael Greger’s scientific nutrition research. For example, she offers simple-to-prepare vegan recipes that hit all of Michael’s “daily dozen”. And if you’re in the mood for Southern vegan cooking with a little spice, another smart vegan chef on YouTube, Jenné Claiborne, offers tips for going (truly) vegan painlessly.

Spiceography: A list of the ingredients and qualities of all major spices.

Paleopoo: Recent studies of fossilized faeces of prehistoric humans reveal that for our first million years we were vegetarians, and specifically fruit-eaters. Our #1 source of food, world over, before agriculture, was wild figs, and their disappearance from our diet explains why our bodies often don’t get the fibre they need.

More Female Actors Please: As Lauren Gunderson, now the US’s most popular playwright, notes, 2/3 of theatre attendees are women, but most of the actors on stage are male. (I just saw her Book of Will — outstanding; catch it if you can.)

Two Remarkable Photographers: Rita Newman (Austria) and Ragnar Axelsson (Iceland). Thanks to Pohangina Pete for the latter link.


Not Ready for 2020: Cory Booker castigates Democrats for simply opposing Trump and not offering a viable alternative or real policies addressing the critical issues of the day. So does Michael Avenatti. Will they run? Thanks to Tree Bressen for the first link.

Tax Cuts Are Mostly Used for Stock Buy-Backs, Not Wages and Salaries: CBC interviews discover that it’s more profitable to buy back shares than to expand or pay more wages, so that’s where the majority of the corporate tax cut windfall is being spent.

Elections Don’t Make Democracy: Our world is holding more elections but is simultaneously becoming less democratic.

Jonathan Pie on Brexit: Mr Pie, in a calmer mood, sends up both the pro- and anti-Brexit sides.

Will Trudeau Kill to Have the Kinder Morgan Trans-Mountain Built?: The National Observer cites an advisor to Alberta Premier Notley who suggests that protester deaths should be anticipated and might be inevitable. Now that Trudeau owns the pipeline (at exorbitant taxpayer cost), it will ultimately be his call. We’ve learned nothing from Ipperwash and Oka. Meanwhile, my friend Khelsilem insists the project will not go ahead.

Vancouver Island: The Old Growth Forests Are Gone: A disturbing time-lapse map shows that substantially all of the massive island’s old growth forests have been levelled, most of them in the past two decades, and most of the wood cut was exported raw. The destruction continues under the new NDP government. A disgrace. Thanks to Anton van Walraven for the links.

The Scourge of Sand & Gravel Extraction: China now extracts more sand and gravel (mostly for concrete, construction and roads) every 3 years than the US did in the entire 20th century. The ecological consequences, especially for the world’s rivers, are devastating. Thanks to Ben Collver for the link.

When It’s Too Late to Stop Fascism: A retelling of the rise of Nazism in Germany is chillingly similar to current events in the US.


FUN AND INSPIRATION (note: this section’s links are all videos this quarter)

Scene from one of the YouTube series Nature Relaxation Films by David Huting, shot on the Na Pali coast of Kaua’i. See also link to Flying Over Norway below, from the same series.

The Astonishing Music of Large Steel Bands: Almost since the steel band was invented, a hugely popular annual competition has drawn steel bands large and small to celebrate Carnival (which literally means “the end of meat”, in reference to the bounty of freshly harvested fruits and vegetables that come available at that time), by writing and performing a 10-minute extended version of a popular calypso hit written in the past year. The competition is fierce, contests are held in several countries where steel bands flourish (notably in Trinidad and London), and the music, while hard to really capture in a live outdoor Carnival recording (any specialists in acoustics out there willing to try to improve this?), is riveting, with bands of up to 110 drummers playing up to 12 different parts at a blistering pace (114 bpm but with 16th and even 32nd notes) show their stuff. Some bands have “junior” ensembles (under 21) learning from the older pros before they get invited to join the senior band, so you end up with dynasties of incredibly accomplished musicians. The compositions are as complex and varied as symphonies riffing off the original tune, and the sheer joy of the players is a wonder to behold. Especially recommended:

Ham Sarris is Now a Christian: Terrifying video, until you look closer… The era of fake video has begun; where will it end?

Orcas On Howe Sound: My friend Bob Turner celebrates the return of killer whales to Howe Sound, right beside my island home.

Flying Over Norway: Amazing drone footage of the Norwegian coast in 4k UHD.

Vlog Brothers Corner: Recent videos from the very knowledgeable and entertaining duo include On Prepositions, Why US Healthcare Costs are So High, Was the 2016 Election Rigged, and (an update on the aforementioned) What We Know About Russia and Election Meddling.  Oh, and the non-existence of free will! Well worth the time.

Asimbonanga: Johnny Clegg reprises (1999) the song he wrote about his countryman, Nelson Mandela.

Trevor Noah on Colonialism: How the British colonized South Africa, India, and other unsuspecting nations.

Black Cat Appreciation Day: A thoughtful post from Simon’s Cat. And if you need more thought-provoking-and-also-cute in your life, check out the New Jersey pool bears, or just for fun this mama cat looking after her kittens (note that dad cat stays on the sidelines).


Cartoon by Hugh Macleod from Gaping Void

From James Baldwin, in The Fire Next Time:

I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain…

Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them…

Love takes off the masks we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.

From Seth Godin, on the importance of art:

Everybody holds back every time ‘cause that’s what you were taught to do. By your third grade teacher and by your coach and by that boss and by that other boss. Because if you put everything into it they’re just going to ask for more anyway. You know who doesn’t hold back? Artists. If David Mamet has a great line, he doesn’t say ‘I’ll save it for a future play; I’m not getting paid enough to use it in this play’.

School taught us to fit in. The reason they want you to fit in, is because once they do, then they can ignore you. They want you to be compliant. School taught you what management is, which is not leadership; it’s telling people what to do. Getting them to do it faster and cheaper than yesterday. Leadership is saying ‘we’ve all enrolled in this journey — let’s go over there, though I’m not sure exactly how we’re going to get there.’

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 3 Comments

Hierarchy is the Enemy of Learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 4 Comments