What Motivates the Self?

palmNon-dualists talk about the hopelessness of striving for liberation from one’s self, which some call ‘enlightenment’; it will happen, or it won’t, they say, and if it happens, it will be realized (by no one) that the self never was real. In the meantime, the best that a self-inflicted separate person can do is “make the prison of the self more comfortable”.

If ‘we’ can’t control (or lose) the self, perhaps ‘we’ can at least try to understand better what makes it tick. Why do some ‘selves’ seek attention or appreciation (or even fame), and others love and affection, and others fortune, or independence, or sensual pleasures? What makes the self happy? What motivates it?

I am currently vacationing on a peaceful, warm tropical island. I know warmth and beauty are things I seek. I also know I seek sensual pleasures. And I am heavily driven by aversion to fear and to conflict.

I’ve been conducting a few experiments to explore this question What motivates the self? Here’s what (I think) I’ve learned. (If you try any of them out yourself, I’d be curious to know what you discover.)

What does the self pay attention to?  Recently, whenever I’m inclined to take along a camera, I take binoculars instead. I’ve come to realize that taking photos is mostly about future gratification: to create (and show others) a great shot later, and to remember what was. Looking through binoculars, by contrast, is a totally immediate, present experience. Also, it’s visually richer (sharper, larger, stereo image) and commands attention in a completely different way. I notice more of the details, and savour them more. It’s more synaesthetic than photography. It engages the emotions more. It quietens intellectual processing.

My self, however, is disconcerted — it wants to capture and save and analyze the image, as it can with a camera, but cannot with binoculars. Instead, it goes to work trying to memorize, which of course is impossible (too many details), so instead it starts to describe in words. It wants to make meaning of it. It appears the self is reluctant to just look, without judgement or thought about what it sees. It doesn’t see any point or purpose to doing so.

Do some sensory experiences by-pass the self’s intermediation?  T S Eliot wrote: “Midnight shakes the memory | As a madman shakes a dead geranium.”  What is it about some highly sensory events that seems more profound than anything our self can conceive of? Even more than touch, smell is to me a visceral sensation, the sense least amenable to verbal description. Smells evoke memories, not of events but rather of ambiences, moods, or tenors of experience. They evoke certain strong emotions more powerfully than visual images, and quite differently from the way music evokes emotion. So I assembled a bunch of things that I love the smell of (candles with lilac and other essences, fresh-baked bread, raspberries, coconut, etc) and just took time, eyes closed, to inhale them and pay attention to what the scent ‘did’ to ‘me’.

Some smells seem capable of transporting me. My self seems to drop completely out of the picture when this happens. This is true even when the smell evokes a memory — normally the self, when it remembers, immediately starts constructing a story about what happened and what it meant. But when the memory is “shaken” by a smell, this doesn’t happen: There is only a recalling of what was sensed, what was felt, with almost no mental energy about context or meaning. It seems that some smells can ‘short-circuit’ the intermediary role of the self and connect directly to something raw and primeval, something pre-separation.

What does the self make of sex?  Some non-dualists say that sex is the closest the self-inflicted person can get to oneness, while others suggest sex is just a distraction, an unreal escape, like alcohol, from the self’s frustration and unhappiness. For most mammals and birds, sexual arousal is a rare state that seems solely focused on reproduction. But there are some exceptions. For bonobos, sex with others is apparently a key means of calming anxiety (average frequency, even in very early childhood, is five times a day — and it’s always consensual — but the duration of each act is usually quite short). And while humans aren’t the only animals that masturbate, finding it pleasurable seems to require that there be a ‘story’ to go along with the sensation (a recent memory or fantasy). The unprecedented frequency and duration of aroused self-stimulation among humans suggests our selves, and their stories, are much more developed and complex than other animals’.

So it would seem that sex is important to the self because it calms some of the ‘helpless’ feelings (uncontrollable fear, hopeless grief, impotent anger) that the self is directly responsible for producing in the first place (only creatures with selves that feel they are in control of the situation can possibly feel such conflicted emotions). It would also seem that sex is important to our selves because it keeps ‘us’ addicted to the ‘story of me’. Once the self falls away, sex may well cease to be an imperative, a preoccupation, a needed mitigator of debilitating emotion, and may become no more or less important than any other pleasurable diversion.

How is the self involved in the creative process? I recently wrote (at the end of this post) that I wanted to practice writing every day until I had produced some small creative work meeting certain specific criteria. Just before that I had written what I thought was my best creative work in nearly a year, a short piece called Invisible. My subsequent “miniatures” haven’t nearly measured up. Why not, I wondered, when I have the criteria right in front of me?

Was Invisible produced, I pondered, in spite of my self? Did my self have anything to do with it, with the right, clever words and well-articulated phrases just coming to mind, the appropriate metaphors, alliterations, allusions, rich images, ironic observations (with a little critical editing of course)? If the conscious self/mind is not involved, where does this creativity come from: Is oneness speaking through me when my self temporarily and briefly gets out of the way? Sometimes it seems that way. I am aware that while this piece was pretty good, much better writing yet is possible, and my sense is that I’m on the cusp of producing something exceptional. That’s why I have tried to work at it (and many great writers insist that the principal necessary precondition to great writing is the disciplined practice of writing every day). But working at it, trying, seemingly makes no difference. Good writing comes, or it doesn’t. Perhaps it’s like the falling away of the self in that way. Perhaps the two are connected.

It’s a strange disease, this grasping, ubiquitous self. It wants to do its best for ‘me’, which it equates with itself. It knows it doesn’t exist, but doesn’t seem able to come to grips with this understanding, to ‘real-ize’ it. It wants ‘me’ to be happy, but not at the cost of losing itself. When it falls away, there are brief, astonishing glimpses of all-there-is, enough to persuade any self that that reality is the only real one, and is safe and whole and leaves no reason whatsoever for the self to have to hang around — but still, instead of getting out of the way for good, the self comes back, insisting it has more work to do.

When I do experiments like these, there’s a tendency to start think of the self as something separate from ‘the real me’. That’s the critical failing, I think, of non-radical (traditional) non-duality teachers — they encourage this evidently dualistic belief that ‘behind’ the self there is some real, authentic you, free of all the anxieties and negative feelings and useless thoughts that the self has. But all that does is to create yet another ego, another separation.

So while it is useful to see the self from a third person perspective, as these exercises were designed to do, I think it’s important to recognize that I am my self, and the self’s failings and delusions are mine. Denying that is just a mind game, another level of delusion.

There is no me, no mind, no self. But as long as there appears to be one, it seems only prudent to try to get to know it, not as a flawed room-mate, but as my self, the cause of ‘my’ disease.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 3 Comments

The Other Extinction

image by Marsel van Ooosten via overgrowthesystem.com
“Listen to this,” Ren said, looking up from his laptop. “This cog scientist Donald Hoffman ‘has spent the past three decades studying perception, artificial intelligence, evolutionary game theory and the brain, and his conclusion is a dramatic one: The world presented to us by our perceptions is nothing like reality. What’s more, he says, we have evolution itself to thank for this magnificent illusion, as it maximizes evolutionary fitness by driving truth to extinction’.”

He smiled at Gabrielle, who was playing with Ren’s cat. The cat, named Vegan, was jumping between several dozen handmade padded shelves that extended up and down all the walls of the main room of Ren’s house. Apparently the whimsical display, which included a swinging bridge, a solar-powered elevator and a three-level tree-house, had been written up in the local paper, and friends often brought their cats over to play with Vegan and try out the contraptions. Some cats were apparently more impressed than others.

Ren continued: “That idea is entirely consistent with non-duality. The apparent reality of the separate ‘self’ arose as an adaptation of the survival instinct, and it’s a complete fiction, but, as Einstein said ‘a very persistent one’. C’m’ere a minute and watch this.”

Gabrielle stopped and watched the video.  “Seems reasonable,” she said. “But what use is that information? What we may perceive may not be ‘real’ reality, but it’s all we have. It’s not like we have a choice to give up perceiving the world through the ‘interface’ of the self, and see it as it really is.”

“Yes, you’re right, ‘we’ don’t have a choice, but that’s because there is no ‘we’. When the self falls away after it’s seen to no longer serve a useful evolutionary purpose, suddenly true reality, or what non-dualists call ‘natural’ reality, is seen. What was the apparently separate ‘we’ vanishes, and what is left is the awesome inseparable oneness that is all-there-is. Or so I’m told.” Ren smiled, turning up his palms.

“And what makes you say that the self no longer serves an evolutionary purpose?,” Gabrielle replied. She sat on Ren’s brightly-coloured hammock swing in the middle of the room and slowly began to move it back and forwards.

Ren picked up Vegan and perched her on his shoulder. “I’m going even further than that. I’m saying it never really did. It was an evolutionary mistake. The evolution of our large brains was what actually increased our survival fitness — the brain’s capacity to model reality, anticipate and identify possibilities and prepare for them. But then something went wrong: The self emerged as an unanticipated consequence of the brain’s capacity to model reality. It mistook the map for the territory, the model for the reality. The brain’s very useful model seemed to suggest that there was something called ‘separateness’, and the emergent self was the embodiment of this ‘enhancement’ of the model. The self/mind reasoned that if survival was advanced by mis-perceiving entities as being separate (as the model did), then those entities were (in its ‘reality’) in fact separate, and the self could and should fear and protect the separate entity from ‘others’. But that mis-perception is actually leading to a great extinction that includes our own demise. And in the process that mis-perception has made us self-inflicted, anxious, dysfunctional basket cases.”

Gabrielle laughed and raised her eyebrows. “Well if there’s only oneness, it’s a bit of a conceit to believe self-deluded humans can actually destroy it, don’t you think?”

Vegan launched herself from Ren’s shoulder to a perch on the swing above Gabrielle’s head, landing ungracefully but righting herself quickly as if that was her intention all along, and swatting a cat toy suspended from the ceiling each time the swing passed close enough.

Ren replied: “We don’t actually destroy it, we just inadvertently make it apparently unfit for us, and for all life on Earth, until extinction takes us out of the game. But the game goes on, and will continue perfectly without us. Apparently.” He started drawing on the white board behind his computer:


He pointed at his drawing and expounded: “Imagine that the newly self-inflicted ‘individual’ is like a young child given a new laptop and being told that this laptop monitors and controls critical events in her life and protects her from unknown dangers, so she needs to use it diligently. Unfortunately the interface isn’t very good — the keyboard doesn’t work very well and error messages keep randomly appearing for no clear reason. And there’s no instruction manual, just what others have told her to do or not do. And everyone else has also received a similar laptop and they seem to be doing OK with it, so she just keeps trying her whole life to make the best of it — to run the right apps at the right time and fix the bugs and update for new virus protection and so on.”

He sighed and looked at what he’d drawn. Then he continued: “What she doesn’t realize is that all her frenzied activity at the machine really makes no difference at all — the laptop actually works autonomously with nearly-perfect software to protect and support her, and it completely ignores everything she does through the keyboard. The ‘desktop’ displays what’s going on, and usually it seems to be responding to the user’s keystrokes and other inputs, but this is entirely to humour the user — the program itself is far too complex to entrust control to someone who doesn’t know exactly what they’re doing. Now imagine that the user suddenly realizes this— that she ‘herself’ need do nothing, after years of struggle with this awkward and poorly-functioning tool. How would she feel — astonished, annoyed at the wasted effort, puzzled? Liberated?”

“That’s a pretty fragile metaphor,” Gabrielle replied. “But I like the distinction between the brain and the self/mind. I never thought about it that way: the large, imaginative brain being the successful evolutionary advance, and the self/mind being a rather useless, high-maintenance appendage that happened to come with it — an interesting but problematic emergence made possible by the capacities of the large brain, but in the long run mainly just a source of great anxiety and commensurate stressed activity. The worm in the wonderful new apple. I like that part of it. Most people probably couldn’t conceive of the brain functioning without the mind controlling it, or of them even being separate ‘things’.”

“But I have a better metaphor for you about the interface thing,” she added. She took the markers and eraser from Ren’s white board, erased the right side of what he’d done, and filled in the blank area anew:


“You’re going to love this,” she said, smiling. “You’re the one who says organizations actually operate through workarounds by the people at the front lines doing what the customer wants and needs despite what the policy manual says and what the technology tries to enforce. Think of your body as an enterprise, or a complicity if you will. The front line workers in the enterprise are the senses, tuned into the customers’ needs, and the collective intelligence of the whole organization — what by consensus and knowledge-sharing (rather than by fiat) gets invented, iterated, agreed upon and done — is its brain. Now tell me if it isn’t obvious what its ‘mind’ is?”

Ren jumped up and clapped. “I love it!,” he exclaimed. “Just as enterprises would do just as well, if not better, without their over-rated, mostly-useless disconnected management, the human animal would do as well if not better without the self/mind. Not without the brain, but without the self, without the mind. You’re a genius!”

Gabrielle bowed. Vegan looked at them curiously.

Jumping off the swing and grabbing her coffee mug off one of the cat wall shelves, Gabrielle wandered into the kitchen, calling back to Ren: “And my metaphor is analog. Organic.”

.     .     .     .     .

“So now I have a question for you,” Gabrielle said, returning with a fresh cup of coffee. “To what extent do you think humans are actually ‘blank slates’? I’m not talking about morality or gender identity or anything like that when I say ‘blank slates’ — only idiots and economists still deny that humans and most other creatures are inherently cooperative and unselfish within their ‘tribe’. I’m talking about what we are, or would be, without the influence of our culture. I see culture as inherently propagandistic and coercive, another unfortunate artifact of evolution. What do you think a human being would be if she were completely free of any cultural influence?”

Ren had taken Gabrielle’s place on the swing, and Vegan was in his lap. “Hmmm,” he said. “Well, in the first place, cultures don’t actually exist. Just as ‘systems’ aren’t real — they’re just generalizations about the complex and unknowable, mental patterning by a species that loves to see cause and effect and correlation even when it means nothing and is completely useless — so too are cultures just a fiction, a meaning we assign to what we perceive as collective behaviour, when there is really none.”

“But,” he went on, “it might be interesting to speculate about what a human might be without enculturation — without any of the beliefs and behaviours that stick to you because they are reinforced so often by so many that you cease to question them. For a start, I’d guess that a tribe of un-encultured people would do things together intuitively rather than ritually, and not need or value an abstract language of any kind. They might not have ‘selves’ at all — no ‘individual’ beliefs or behaviours or habits or patterns of activity — because they wouldn’t be seen as needed.”

“So how would the ‘blank slate’ be filled in?,” she asked. “Take me through one of your weird ‘thought experiments’. Let me picture her growing up.” She sat beside Ren in the swing. Ren looked concerned — the swing wasn’t meant for two. But he shrugged and said:

“OK. Let’s imagine we kidnap a whole bunch of new-born babies and smuggle them away to some ‘uncivilized’ place — let’s say some remote place in the tropical rainforest. They’re still just oneness at that age. They have no sense of self. So we hire some shape-shifting empathic language-free adult-looking aliens, and have them act out the role of care-givers: Breast-feeding, lots of physical contact, affection, attention and appreciation for several years, the whole Gabor Maté thing. The rainforest gives them all they need, and they’re generally safe in the trees, though jaguars are occasionally a concern. So they grow up together, relatively anxiety-free, without formal language (they don’t need it), and without being affected by the neuroses of adults. What do they do? Like all young wild creatures, they play. That’s how they learn. In accordance with Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour, except when some rare issue of stress or scarcity comes up, when they would presumably cooperate to deal with it, they would spend their time doing things that are easy and fun.”

“And then they’d grow up, and then what would they do?,” Gabrielle asked. “Would they be more like chimps, or bonobos? Or Robert Sapolsky’s baboons?”

Ren went over to his fridge and pulled off a page from an anarchist magazine that he’d taped to it. He handed it to Gabrielle. “This is how Wolfi Landstreicher thinks they would turn out” he replied:

In a very general way, we know what we want. We want to live as wild, free beings in a world of wild, free beings. The humiliation of having to follow rules, of having to sell our lives away to buy survival, of seeing our usurped desires transformed into abstractions and images in order to sell us commodities fills us with rage. How long will we put up with this misery? We want to make this world into a place where our desires can be immediately realized, not just sporadically, but normally. We want to re-eroticize our lives. We want to live not in a dead world of resources, but in a living world of free wild lovers. We need to start exploring the extent to which we are capable of living these dreams in the present without isolating ourselves. This will give us a clearer understanding of the domination of civilization over our lives, an understanding which will allow us to fight domestication more intensely and so expand the extent to which we can live wildly.

“That’s how I think we would be without enculturation,” Ren said. “It’s how some of us seem to be even with it. Maybe Wolfi is one of them. Maybe E E Cummings was, too. Maybe there’s not much difference between being “nobody but yourself” and being self-less. Or undomesticated. Or uncivilized. I don’t know.”

They swung back and forth silently for a few moments, with Vegan sitting half in Ren’s lap and half in Gabrielle’s as they stroked her together. Vegan was purring. Finally Gabrielle stood and pulled Ren to his feet, taking his hand and leading him out of the room.

“Where are we going?,” he asked.

“We’re going to extinguish our selves, and the truth,” she replied.

He looked at her mischievously. “That sounds like fun.”

“Not what you’re thinking,” she said. She pulled him out to his art-and-tool shed. She pointed to some lengths and panels of wood, then to his toolbox, and then to the apple tree in his yard. “We’re going to build a tree house. A home for wayward bonobos.”

For the next three days they worked around the clock, with Vegan supervising. When they finished, they had built a two-story playhouse, extending between the apple tree and an oak tree nearby. It had a roof, a rope ladder between the two levels, a ramp leading down to Ren’s hot tub, a rainproof carpet, a screened area for sleeping, and a set of solar-powered night-lights. And of course, a swing.

The evening they finished, they sat in the lower story, watching the sunset and an approaching storm. They ate raw veggies and dip from Gabrielle’s garden (Vegan, perched above them, ate fish that Ren had recently caught for her), and drank Ren’s homemade wine. They played a cooperative board game, and spoke using sign language:

<<“Desires immediately realized”>> he signed to her, smiling and looking at the reflection of the lights on the leaves of the apple tree.

<<And look,>> she signed back, plucking an apple from the tree just above her head:

<<No worms.>>



Posted in Creative Works | 6 Comments

My Best Stuff


I‘ve spent the last few days re-reading about 300 of what must be at least 2500 posts on this blog. I started it in February 2003, churning out short articles an average of at least once a day until 2007, longer pieces once every second day in 2008-09, and mostly essay-length pieces once a week since my retirement in 2010.

What I re-read were the articles I rated as my best two years ago, plus a bunch that I’d omitted but more recently re-discovered and considered adding to the list, plus everything I’d written these last two years. As I did, I deleted 11 articles from the list, despite the fact some of them had garnered a lot of attention, most of it complimentary. After culling a short list of possible additions, I added 16 new articles, bringing the current total to 58. They’re listed in the right sidebar. I’ve kept the four categories, but within each, they’re now listed from most recent to earliest. The pie chart above shows the distribution of these 58 posts by year. I’m at a loss to explain the year-to-year variances, which don’t correlate at all to my busyness or health.

There is also little correlation between my assessment of the quality of the article and the number of comments it received (including more recently the number of Facebook/ Twitter comments and ‘shares’). I did however weigh the tenor of the comments in deciding which articles belonged in the list.

Some of the articles are a bit dated and reflect beliefs I no longer hold; I’ve decided not to tamper with them. I will update the ‘Save the World’ reading list again.

I’m toying with the idea of creating a PDF of all 58 articles, and perhaps a separate PDF of all the book reviews I’ve written here (few of which made the list-of-58) that serve as my auxiliary memory from time to time.


Posted in _ Uncategorized | 1 Comment

play date

image by Ed Gregory from pexels — CC0 licensed

The shirtless stranger walks along the beach
and when he passes you,
as you are sunning and picnicking with your two friends
he smiles and waves

You smile and frown back, a mixed message,
waving half-guardedly, half-dismissively,
and, seeing that, he stops, and turns,
and begins to signal you with his hands

He points to himself, then covers his mouth with his fingers,
to convey that for some reason he cannot speak

He points to you, and then rubs his heart —
a flattery; when you laugh, he tilts his head,
points to himself, then to you, and then, smiling,
makes little walking gestures with his fingers,
and shrugs, looking at you intently with eyebrows raised:
an invitation

You smile back, skeptically, and as you meet his gaze
you shake your head, and look over at your companions,
who are laughing and urging you to go with him

He pouts, gently, and shrugs, and then turns away
then stops, turns back, points to himself
and makes pious motions with his hands,
then draws a halo symbol over his head:
to say he will not hurt you; and then
he makes a pleading motion with his hands
and reaches one arm out toward you,
beckoning you with his fingertips,
raises his eyebrows in a face of anticipation
and holds his breath

You scowl at him disapprovingly, but you are still smiling,
and he sees an almost imperceptible shift in your body,
as you rise, point at your companions, accusingly,
and then slowly walk over to him

He raises his arms in a childish expression of utter joy,
bows to you, and then, with an exaggerated swirl of his arms,
bows to your companions, and offers you his hand

You take it, and again he puts his fingers to his lips,
and then to yours,
to remind you that there is, it seems, to be no talking

As you walk, he points out things you’ve never noticed,
though you’ve tramped this beach a hundred times before:
a turtle, grazing in the shallow water among some low rocks;
seabirds diving into the pounding surf
and emerging with fish in their beaks;
the courtship of two mynas, heads bobbing,
a lovely, silly, synchronized ritual

Then from a resort near the water’s edge
comes the sound of Afro-Cuban music
and the stranger lifts your arm with his
and invites you to walk beneath it;
and you dance

His arms embrace you, steer you, lead you on,
with gentle and respectful grace

As you dance on, the stranger points out a sand-bar
a short swim out from the water’s edge;
you look at him dubiously, so he lets your arm go
and takes a few steps in, then reaches back, and nods

So you go with him, and the water is so warm —
you swim together through the pounding surf
and in no time you alight on the sand-bar
looking to those on shore
as if you walk on water

From a bag strapped to his waist,
he pulls a set of goggles,
fits them over your eyes,
then pulls you softly down into the water,
and as you open your eyes
schools of angelfish and wrasse
dart around your legs:
an underwater rainbow

Soon after, back on shore
you jump to reach some plumeria blooms,
but they are too high in the tree,
so the stranger kneels and motions you
to climb onto his shoulders
and you do

And as you thread the just-picked flowers through your hair
he walks on, his arms upraised to keep you from falling
and you tighten your bare legs around his neck
and grasp his large, soft hands

The world looks different from up there,
and you don’t even notice you’ve turned around
and are back close to your vacation home
and your friends, staring incredulously
as you approach

Gently, he lifts you down,
and bows again, to you and your companions;
you walk back into his arms, your arms around his neck,
and for the benefit of your wide-eyed hooting friends
you kiss him, slow and long and deep

And for what seems like forever
you just hold hands and look at each other,
and then, with a nod and a sigh,
he lets you go, smiles sadly, waves gently, and walks away

Posted in Creative Works | 1 Comment


painting by Dmytro Ivashchenko on wikimedia — CC-by-SA 4.0

It’s 80 degrees on the quiet sand, at midnight
but the wind is howling and the rain is starting up again

There is no one on the beach —
it’s usually quiet here anyway, the resort beach is a bit narrow
and there’s more popular ones just up the path

I can’t sleep, so I put on my bathing suit, grab my little flashlight
and wander down across the grass, cursing the stones and shells
on my bare feet,
past the narrow strip of trees and shrubs
where the feral cats live,
just beyond where the low path lights cast their lovely glow

I find a beach chaise and drag it onto the sand
where the waves just reach, and lie down on it
staring at the moonless sky and the dark warm sea,
like a tropical Canute

And the rains come down, so hard you can’t see
and I’m soaked but it’s warm and crazy
and on impulse I strip off my suit and lie there, naked
asking for a sign

This is the first result of a (hopefully) daily creative writing practice. The objective is to keep writing until something is produced that (at least to me) meets five criteria:

  1. It is lyrical, using words carefully chosen to flow, to hang together smoothly and strikingly, and to be, in places (especially the title or the beginning or end), memorable.
  2. It is observant, invoking imagery to ‘notice’ something that the casual observer might easily miss.
  3. It evokes an emotional response, referencing something that stirs the memory or imagination, or a sense of recognition and connection in the reader. And it leaves something to the imagination.
  4. It evokes an intellectual response, showing the reader something they may have sensed but didn’t know before, or saying something in a clever way that lets what is described be seen in a new light. To this end, ambiguity is fine if it is deliberate and not mean-spirited or pretentious.
  5. It is spare, with everything that doesn’t add something, left out.

I think identifying the criteria above, and the process of assessing my work against them, is probably at least as important as the miniature creative works I am hoping it will produce. And I am hopeful that over time the quality of these works will improve. It’s about time, I think.


Posted in Creative Works | 1 Comment

Fall Out

In recent weeks I’ve heard laments from several colleagues that their lives are so busy (mostly with the needs of of the moment — family, personal, health, financial and workplace struggles, and keeping their homes and other stuff in working order), that they have no bandwidth left for things they thought they’d have time for by now — activism, writing, volunteerism, beloved hobbies, building community, and just thinking about what they want to be doing next. Some wonder if they will ever have time for these important things — if they will ever have time for themselves. Time when nothing else urgently has to be done.

Our culture does its best to fill up our time so we don’t have any left to question or challenge the status quo. That’s a successful evolutionary strategy for any culture: Keep ’em with their nose to the grindstone, obedient and distracted to death. I tried to capture this when I coined Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour:

Humans have apparently evolved to do what we must (the personal, unavoidable imperatives of the moment), then do what’s easy, and then do what’s fun. There is never time left for things that are seen as merely important. Social, political and economic change therefore happens only when the old generation dies and a new generation with different entrained beliefs and imperatives takes over. Humans have, through all of this, evolved to be a collaborative and caring species, and we are all doing our best — we cannot do otherwise.

After I retired, nearly seven years ago, I was looking for a peaceful place and a quiet period of time to take stock of my life, recover from all the then-recent major changes in my life, and start to figure out how to “give back” something in return for my blessed life, good fortune and privilege.

Initially, I plunged into clearing a massive backlog of things that had been waiting for ‘time’ to be done — cultivating new relationships, writing, composing, studying, volunteering, increasing my self-awareness and self-healing, and trying (mostly unsuccessfully — perseverance, focus, and attention to detail are not my forté) to learn some new skills and try some interesting local experiments. In striving to do all this I reached the point where my calendar was nearly as full as it was when I had substantial family and work responsibilities.

But now, I’m starting to say “no” to most requests of my time and energy: It seems there is no limit to the number of demands people will make of your time if they perceive you have a lot of it. And I’m starting to have the same realization about my 7 post-retirement years that I had about my 37 working years: While much of what I’ve done was seemingly important at the time, none of it has really accomplished (or seems likely to achieve) anything particularly enduring.

That’s not to say all these years have been a waste of time: What I’ve done, I’m told, has been helpful, useful, supportive, and instructive to many others. Perhaps that’s enough. But if those people have also accomplished nothing that’s enduring, what exactly is all that ‘helpful’ activity worth? Is our life’s work ultimately just about helping each other make the prison of our exhausting and struggle-filled lives more comfortable? Is there nothing to show for all the bother but a collective “feeling better about ourselves”?

When I first began to wake up some mornings with the magic feeling of having nothing to do, nowhere to go, it didn’t take long before the feelings of guilt over my privilege and “lazy” inactivity arose. And with them came an avalanche of shoulds: I should volunteer to do this. I should contribute to that, and help out with this, too.

But if, as I now believe, we can’t change our culture or prevent its desolating collapse, and if we have no agency, no volition, free will or choice over what ‘we’ seemingly do in any case, then the guilt is ill-conceived and pointless. The activists and humanists — the believers in choice and responsibility and the debt that comes with privilege — can curse me all they want, but I seemingly am doing the only thing I can possibly do, conditioned by my culture’s indoctrination and my innate nature. For the past seven years “the only thing I can possibly do” has been, most often, the shoulds. What will it be now?

When you finally have the rare and extraordinary privilege of not having to do anything, when you move past the guilt of that privilege and the tyranny of shoulds, and when you realize that you have no agency or control or will or responsibility for what you do, what do you do then (not what should you do — what do you do)? What sense can be made of the observation of what one consequently does (or doesn’t do)? If I am not, but still I expect things of myself, and others still expect things of me, what then? And what sense do make of how it feels to seemingly do nothing, to just be? If all there is, is this — what is to be done?

What are some possible answers to these impossible questions?

Let’s set aside for a moment the desirable but improbable (or impossible) outcome that one’s self will just fall away, leaving the self-less character (that once thought itself to be a separate individual) staring at the world wide-eyed, seeing everything as new, seeing everything as it really is for the first time.

One possibility, that I’ve referred to before, is that the “seen-through” self will be treated as a chronic and likely incurable disease, not unlike any other disease: the “me” will just get used to this newly-apparent affliction and work through and around it as well as possible. The difference is that this incurable disease is one that everyone around us has, too — and most people are completely unaware of having it, and of the terrible consequences of having it. My sense is that more and more people will come to realize they have it, and search for a “cure”. If they are wise they will strongly resist “teachers” and anyone else who proffers a treatment for this disease, since it will be clear to them that as long as the self remains, there is no cure. Most, I suspect, will not be so wise.

Still, there is at least “making the prison of the self more comfortable”. But how comfortable can anyone be knowing that the prison is an illusion, that we are entirely self-confined? It seems likely that the frustration of this knowledge, and the cognitive dissonance of living a life seemingly in denial of our self-confinement, will far outweigh any sense of temporary comfort we can accumulate in our cells. We might even feel we are going insane, if it is possible to be more insane than believing the separate self is actually real.

Tony Parsons describes the feeling that arises when the contraction of energy produces the apparent self as “a sense of loss”. Yet the end of the self is also, apparently, a kind of loss. I wonder whether the meetings that he and other radical non-dualists have are really a kind of grief support group — except that this is a kind of loss (and therefore grief) that endures either until the self vanishes, or the body dies.

My other incurable disease (ulcerative colitis), because it has been in remission for so long, has only given me a dim sense of what it is like to live with a debilitating, chronic and incurable illness. At its worst, I remember it being so all-consuming that there were no emotions or thoughts whatsoever associated with it (they came later) — my entire energy at the time was caught up in the moment-to-moment coping process.

The disease of the self is more like a nagging, phantom, not-yet-identified disease — one that is not recognized or felt as real, even when one has great intellectual clarity that it is. I may understand that this disease underlies all my fears and anxieties and introduces a veil that mutes and muddies everything that is real, but that understanding does not alleviate the symptoms. And it seems not only possible but completely ‘normal’ to just cope with this disease — after all, we all have it, and if we act intelligently and responsibly we seemingly manage to live full and rich and successful lives in spite of it — even though we may know conceptually that ‘we’ are not real and that ‘we’ are in control of nothing.

Some people I know think it would be best for ‘me’ if I’d just “get over my self” — which apparently means behaving as if I didn’t know the terrible truth about it, and entails behaving as if I was responsible and in control, and as if I saw the ‘affliction’ of self as a mere invention, a self-indulgence, untrue and unreal. When I hear the same advice proffered to people suffering from other debilitating, incurable (and often poorly diagnosed) diseases, I can’t help thinking it’s cruel advice.

Although I am sure Patrick McGoohan wasn’t writing about non-duality in his brilliant 1960s series The Prisoner, it’s a brilliant allegory for it: McGoohan awakens one day to find himself in a bizarre prison “village” where the rest of the prisoners seem blithely unaware of their predicament. Throughout the series, he tries unsuccessfully to escape, and to identify who has imprisoned him and why. In the final episode (intriguingly entitled “Fall Out”) he gets a glimpse of his captor — which seems to be himself.

That seems to be where I am and what I am trying to do now — escape my self, despite knowing it’s futile to try to do so. With all my ‘free’ time, it’s the only thing ‘I’ can do.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 1 Comment

Birds of Kaua’i

Part of my practice of noticing is taking photos of birds (and other living creatures). Here’s what came into view today by the beach near Kapa’a:

plumeria blossoms

golden plover, locally called the kōlea

ubiquitous zebra dove

delightful songbird, the white-rumped shama

a ghost crab, just about actual size

the puffin-like java sparrow

red-crested cardinal

highly invasive, ruthlessly hunted and vocally creative myna, known for their pre-roosting mass “communal noise”

possibly a juvenile myna

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The Four Denials

Earlier this week I was interviewed by Carolyn Baker for her New Lifeboat Hour podcast. The 33-minute podcast is now edited and up here.

This is the first time I’ve tried to weave in collapse and complexity theory with non-duality. It worked out pretty well.

The title of our discussion was How to Live at Peace With the World, and in it I explain how my studies and readings, about how the world really works, and about complexity theory in particular, led me to become a ‘collapsnik‘. And then I talk about my 5-stage resilience framework (reproduced above, and available as a PDF here) and how my more recent study of non-duality (as part of my ‘Stage One’ self-knowledge work) have affected my perceptions of how we can prepare for civilization’s collapse.

What I talk about essentially is four ‘denials’ — four apparent truths that until the turn of this century I would have labeled as preposterous (and most people still do). Now I see them as undeniable:

  1. That our civilization is in an accelerating state of collapse that has precipitated the similarly-accelerating sixth great extinction of life on Earth.
  2. That this global collapse, which will bring down our economic, energy and ecological systems and all the other massively complex, interdependent and self-reinforcing systems dependent on them, cannot be prevented or mitigated by human efforts.
  3. That neither humans nor other creatures have free will, choice, control, agency, volition or responsibility for what we do. Nothing is inevitable, predictable or foreordained, but under the specific circumstances and situation in which each of us finds ourselves in each moment, we cannot do other than what we do.
  4. That “self-consciousness” is not just a sign of a creature’s high intelligence, but is an evolved affliction, a dis-ease that prevents its victims from seeing and being in the world as it really is. And there is no cure for this dis-ease other than death, except for the rare individual who is either born self-less or whose self suddenly at some point in their life falls away. Self-consciousness confers a short term evolutionary advantage, but in the long term is unnecessary and highly dysfunctional, causing horrific suffering and much of the destruction and violence we now see in the world.

None of these truths is intuitive or easy to explain or defend. Overcoming our denial of them is hard work and takes a great deal of study and thought.

And each of these truths, as it is realized, makes us more ‘hope-less’. But rather than lead to despair, they can, when approached with an attitude of loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, enable us to be at peace with our conflicted selves, other self-inflicted humans, and our desolated world. This realization doesn’t mean we then do nothing (or behave nihilistically). We humans have evolved to be a generous, collaborative and caring species. So we do the only thing, in the circumstances, we can do — our best.

Anything else is impossible.

I hope you enjoy the podcast, and encourage you to check out some of Carolyn’s other work.

Posted in Preparing for Civilization's End | 7 Comments

Updated Bio

image courtesy photo505.com

I was interviewed yesterday by my friend Carolyn Baker for her New Lifeboat Hour podcast — I’ll post more about that when the podcast and YouTube video go up. When we spoke, I realized that my bio is now 4 years old, and I decided to update it. The new bio is here, and also on the right sidebar. Next up for blog maintenance tasks is an overdue update to my ‘signature post’ list.

A tip for hard-copy readers: If you like any of my blog articles enough to print them out, you do not need to strip out the masthead and sidebars before doing so (at least on Chrome and Firefox). Just click on the article header (so the page displays that article only, not multiple articles), and then select File/Print. You will get just the article plus any comments. This seems to work for any wordpress blog. You can also save the article as a PDF, likewise without the extraneous masthead and sidebar content.

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microscopic photo of a tardigrade, a recently-discovered clawed bear-like aquatic creature about 1/16 of an inch long, that has been found thriving everywhere, including places of extreme cold and pressure; in poor climates they self-dehydrate to tiny condensed size and can hibernate, seemingly indefinitely, until they bounce right back when conditions improve; calling Dr Seuss!

You can’t see it,
though it’s all around you.

You can’t see all the colours and wavelengths
beyond the narrow human spectrum.
Look, here: a dazzling profusion, a cacophony of light,
but you don’t notice.
There are no words for all that is right here, invisible to you.

You can’t see the context,
what the wren’s flight, the monarch’s flit from flower to flower,
looks like from space.
The forest and the trees, as one.
It’s too far away from you.

You can’t see what that tiny thing looks like
up close, magnified 100 or 1000 times.
Move closer and you might almost see its eyes,
its claws, its hungry mouth,
almost feel its living breath on your dead skin.

If you could get even closer
you’d see that it’s mostly just space, mostly
nothing at all.
And then if you could move even closer
and look at the parts that aren’t nothing
you might see that they are mostly nothing too.
If you could get infinitely close
you would see something astonishing —
that all there is is the space between.

What you see is not what really is.
You can only see the map,
while the territory remains unexplored,
a wilderness beyond your reach, beyond your knowing.
You can only see what is reflected, represented,
on the thin, dull veil before your eyes.

You can’t see that everything that appears to be separate
actually has no boundaries.
There is nothing between cell and cell,
between organism and organism,
between organism and environment.
Everything is one, unbounded.
But you can’t see that.
To you, everything seems apart.

You can’t hear the intricacies of the bird song —
it is too fast, too subtle for you.
You can’t hear the leaf scraping against the tree branch,
the caterpillar munching its edge.
You can’t hear the coyote calling you home.

You can’t feel the unfathomable hive
of trillions of creatures inside this body
that you nonetheless call “yours” —
trillions all knowing what to do,
all doing what they do to keep you, apparently, alive.
How can you be so ungrateful, so unaware?

You can’t taste the long-hidden anger and fear
of the glassy-eyed man walking into the voter’s booth,
or the sap in the needles of the fir tree,
a thousand years old,
just fallen beneath your heavy feet.

You can’t smell the difference between yesterday’s rain,
that came from the north, where the factories are,
and today’s rain, from the west,
with the molecules of the prey scattered by the closing shark’s jaw,
and the hint of new hibiscus blooms.

You can’t perceive the pheromones speaking to your body,
telling it what is wanted.
Your body knows. It listens and responds, laughing.
But you cannot hear.
You still think you’re in control.

You can’t conceive that there is actually no time,
that everything that is happening
is at once immediate, eternal, and spontaneously, wondrously new.
Break down what appears to be separate moments
and discover they are just the brain’s place-holders,
an imagined categorization scheme,
a feeble, musty library catalogue of what the brain thought,
for a moment, were meaningful patterns.
Look between the moments for the Now
and discover there is no space between them,
no moments, not even Now.
Where did they go?

It’s all right there in front of you,
but you can’t see it. It’s a secret
you can never know.

Posted in Creative Works | 4 Comments