Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care

Photo: Luke MacGregor for Bloomberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it won’t be the end of the world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are no words for this

but it’s all that ‘I’ doesn’t have.

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

Links of the Quarter: June 2018

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


image from the Writing on Writing FB site

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Cartoon by Lisa Rothstein for The New Yorker

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

Meanwhile South of the Border:

image from the Facebook group Non-existent Existential Memes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plus Ça Change

photo by the author

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I’ would rather be a bird, please.

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

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Cultural Isomorphism

New Yorker cover by Charles E Martin from September 11, 1971

During today’s conference call of the Municipalities in Transition group, I had the pleasure of being introduced to Tom Henfrey of the Schumacher Institute, who introduced us to the term “coercive isomorphism”. I thought the term was intriguing and couldn’t resist researching it a bit. Here is what I learned:

We like to think that competitive markets encourage a diversity of approaches and strategies that differentiate organizations from the rest of the pack. But research suggests that the players in any particular industry, especially once it reaches a certain size, are constrained by suppliers (who are always seeking to standardize in order to scale up production volume profitably, leading to “coercive isomorphism”), by fear of failure from risk-taking (leading to copycat strategies ie “mimetic isomorphism”), and by employees (who, as skill and experience requirements rise, tend to be a smaller and smaller pool who move between competitors, come from similar educational and experience backgrounds, know each other, and are susceptible to groupthink, leading to “normative isomorphism”). The result is a tendency for greater and greater sameness and less and less diversity, innovation, real differentiation, or distinctive competence. So what’s on offer to customers is mostly “differences” of superficial style, appearance and brand, rather than differences of substance. (My reckless paraphrasing of this paper)

I started thinking about whether this happens not only in organizations, but in societies as well. It’s pretty clear that it does. We are constrained by what suppliers in an increasingly oligopolistic industrial economy provide, such as what we can buy to eat, and who we can vote for who actually has a chance to be elected. We are constrained by fear of failure and groupthink in our group activities, such as “poor” grades in school, and “needs improvement” ratings at work, which is possibly why so few take chances in their work lives, and why the boldest ideas in many groups are the first to be jettisoned. And we are constrained by the ever-increasing homogeneity of every aspect of our environment and lives, such as the uniformity of houses (“little boxes and they all look just the same”), socially-acceptable modes of dress, and the pressure, in a world of such uncertainty, to “fit in”. Cultural isomorphism.

This is an aspect of what Terry Glavin in Waiting for the Macaws wonderfully and poetically calls “The dark and gathering sameness of the world“.

And perhaps it’s also what ee cummings meant when he wrote: “To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”

I think what makes me most excited about the world after the current collapse, is the near certainty that the emerging human societies — necessarily tiny and local and low-tech and reconnected with and not disruptive to the rest of life on Earth — will be staggeringly diverse. They won’t travel far, because they’ll have neither the means nor the need to do so. So they won’t be able to merge with any other local human societies to create anything of scale, and hence will be immune to this cultural homogenization and isomorphism that has so diminished and desolated our world.

But I wonder: While there is unlikely to be isomorphism between societies, even those in geographic proximity, will cultural isomorphism be a factor within these small societies? To what extent is diminishment of the differences in beliefs and behaviours between individuals in a tribe not only inevitable, but definitive of its culture? Is there only a culture when there is a certain degree of sameness among members, as they become who they are largely (perhaps almost entirely) as a result of interaction with others? And what is the “tipping point” at which increasing cultural isomorphism ceases to be beneficial to the tribe (allowing social cohesion, consensus, collaboration etc) and begins to be dreadful (for all the reasons described above and more), and is our species by its nature fated to always cross it?

No answers here, but the questions, I think, are invigorating.

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Dean Walker Interviews Dave on Collapse, Grief & Non-Duality

This is a long (55min) and very indulgent interview that Dean did with me last week. He asks great questions, and lets me ramble on (perhaps a bit too much). It’s probably the closest to the real “me” that’s ever been recorded. Thanks so much Dean! Dean’s podcast is part of the Living Resilience website.

For those who subscribe to the feed and who therefore can’t see the video and my smiling face above, you can find it here. Apologies for my fuzzy sun-bleached appearance; I just didn’t have the heart to go inside where the video would be crisper, on such a beautiful day.

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

Useless Advice

I am watching a pair of violet-green swallows trying to get to their nest, which happens to be in the powder room vent of my house. Swallows have nested there every summer I’ve been here, though it means a sudden sharp flying turn up into the narrow vent in the deck ceiling. But they manage it with aplomb. It must be a new pair this summer, because they’re worried about me, sitting on the deck in the sun about 10m away; the past occupants learned I was safe and came to ignore me. So they take turns diving at me, squawking away in their tiny raspy voices. But when I just chirp back to them, they try a different tack: one dives at me to distract me while the other hurries, flying even faster to the opening to the nest. The distractor’s agility is amazing — s/he whirrs in front of me almost like a hummingbird, alternately almost coming to a stop and then whizzing off again. It’s a pleasant distraction. After a few trips, the swallow diving at me perches on the deck roof above me and squawks down. I natter back. After half an hour I’m deemed safe: both birds now race warily back and forth to the nest.

We can’t change who we are, and we have no free will or choice over what we do each moment, or what we believe. So this advice serves no purpose except, perhaps, to reassure those who already have a propensity for it. Mostly, this is just a reminder list for my poor, long- and needlessly-suffering self:

  1. Trust your instincts. They are wiser, more ancient and less susceptible to manipulation than anything you think you know.
  2. Eat well. Gradually move towards the diet our claw-less, fang-less bodies evolved to consume: a variety of whole, unprocessed, unadulterated plant-based foods.
  3. Avoid vexatious distractions. To heal from the damage this terrible industrial world has inflicted on us, we need respite and escape from the upsets of the moment, but the healthiest distractions calm us rather than ‘righteously’ stirring us up. They let love, not anger or fear, incite us to action. For this, swallows are better than screens.
  4. Move. Work up to 40 minutes of strenuous or 90 minutes of moderate exercise a day. If you can, work standing up. And get up, stretch and flex often.
  5. Be with nurturers not narcissists. Don’t hide away, but spend your social time with people who can help you, mutually, joyously, discover and be who you are.
  6. Learn something new every day. Something useful, that helps you be more independent, braver and more helpful to others. Not newspaper or social media crap.
  7. Catch yourself, but don’t self-censor. Self-awareness is something of an oxymoron, since your ‘self’ isn’t real. What is possible is to notice and consider what’s going on in your head and heart, rather than just automatically following their dictates.
  8. Challenge everything. Everything that you’re told, and everything you believe. Especially if there’s a “should” in it — all “shoulds” are lies.
  9. Pay attention. Inwards, but mostly outwards. Don’t make meaning — just observe, listen, sense with your whole body — to the light, shade, softness, scent, tang, colour, tone, harmony. The stuff beneath meaning.
  10. Be kind. To others, but to yourself first. We’re all doing our best, however incompetently, and blame is corrosive.
Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 2 Comments


What we think of as our ‘life’ is actually just an infinite series of fragments. Each day when ‘we’ awaken, a useless bit of software that has evolved in our brains starts up and stitches together from ‘memory’ what it believes to be the record of a continuous ‘self’ — events, beliefs, and what it perceives to be its (that is, your) history, thoughts, feelings, attributes, skills, passions, preferences, and apparent purpose, drawing on its ‘knowledge’ as far back as ‘it’ can ‘remember’.

It’s a brilliant trick, the brain’s way of trying to make sense (using its largely unused capacity) of the firehose of data coming at it from all its senses, from the body of genes and organs it seemingly evolved to serve, and from ‘intuition’ — that ‘teller of truths’ (if you listen carefully enough) beyond knowing. The extraordinarily complex human brain no longer uses its mental cycles to appreciate (in the true sense of that word) and co-evolve with everything around it, everything it is a part of, what is. Instead, it amuses itself looking for patterns and ‘meaning’ outside itself.  It believes that such a process can help it cope, and thrive, and it believes that it has the free will and control to make use of the sense and meaning it conjures up.

So it would have ‘me’ believe that the little 6-year-old boy pictured above left is the same ‘person’ as the 66-year-old man, looking equally mystified, pictured above right. And it would have ‘me’ believe that, between the times the two photos were taken, some tiny homunculus residing invisibly in the apparent body of the little boy has steadfastly and continuously steered and directed this inhabited creature to strive, grow, mature, progress and finally ‘become’ the old man.

But there is no homunculus, no ‘thing there’. That little boy is not, and never was, ‘me’. Neither is the old man. There is no me, beyond the fantasies of the brain trying desperately to draw equivalence and connection between things that are just, apparently, happening. There is a body, an apparent ‘creature’, an apparatus of skin, water, bones and organs, or of cells, or of molecules, or of atoms, or, drilling down, of an infinite number of increasingly-tiny apparent constituents, all in continuous flux, that, the closer you look, don’t really have any cohesion at all, no boundaries, no substance, and most of all, no continuity. Everything is just another way of looking at nothing. And yes, I know that unintelligible statement is annoying. I wish there were a more coherent way of saying it, but I’m quite sure there is not.

That little boy, when the photo was taken, was just beginning to get snared in the mass deception of separateness. He was meandering in and out of it, finding the rigidity and desperateness-to-know of being a separate ‘person’ exhausting and terrifying, yet witnessing others, more ‘popular’ than he, embracing it. He was happiest when he was just part of everything, unconscious of and oblivious to ‘his’ existence apart. He was happy when it was his senses and instincts, the connected-with-everything parts of ‘him’ that seemingly preoccupied and motivated him, and unhappy when it was his thoughts and ideas and conceptions and beliefs and feelings, the ‘self-conscious’ parts of ‘him’, that preoccupied and motivated him. Yet strangely everyone encouraged him towards this latter, unhappy existence.

So, unhappily burdened with this fearful, ridiculous ‘self’, he grew up socially awkward, and mystified by lies, deceptions, fierce emotional reactions, and acts of selfishness and cruelty. Such behaviour seemed completely deranged. So he hid from it. Perhaps it was just a nightmare, this mad, awful behaviour, and he would one day awaken from it and everything would be perfect and eternal and connected, as it was, before.

But one’s embodied nature can only withstand the relentless barrage of enculturation by others, so sure of their separateness and its wisdom, for so long before one leaves behind one’s perceptions of the connection and perfection of everything, and adopts the ubiquitous mask of individuality, with its language, beliefs, ideas and emotions borne of assurance of the separateness of everyone and everything.

For 60 (apparent) years ‘I’ have played this game, pretended to be what I ‘know’ I am not. Sixty years ago I somehow knew there was something terribly wrong, sad and sick with everything I was told was true. But as politicians and despots and other professional liars keep showing, if you’re told something, no matter how ludicrous, again and again for decades by everyone you know, with everyone telling you it’s true with absolute certainty, you start to believe it. You begin to act as if you believe it. This is the nature of enculturation. You come to believe that humans are individuals with free will and choice and self-control, and that humans are the crown of creation, endowed with the wise and magical ‘consciousness’ of their separateness and ‘intelligence’ unique on the planet and possibly in the universe.

You come to believe in your capacity to shape your life, and that it has a trajectory and a purpose and a meaning, that it and everything has a beginning and end, a ‘progressing’ ever forward in time, only to smash into the bitter rocks of death just as wisdom is dawning.

You come to believe there is a you, that there was a 6-year-old you that was and is the same person as the you that exists, separate from everything and everyone else, today, and will exist until… well, there the agreement ends and the truly magical thinking, constrained by the horrific prison of the self, begins.

How did we humans get to this insane place?

For millennia, since the emergence of the self, we have come to believe some truly preposterous things: That the earth was created in 6 days by a humanoid deity. That human health can be “improved” by lobotomies, bloodletting, phrenology, “hysteria” treatments for women, faith healing, burning at the stake, shock treatments, etc. That some humans (by race, gender or other distinction) are naturally, or scientifically, or by the grace of some god, superior to others, and entitled to abuse and even “own” their inferiors. That the sun and everything else revolves around the little blue planet we creatures seemingly happen to live on.

Few people still share the beliefs above, but there are many others, just as absurd, that most people continue to believe fervently: That the planet and universe somehow ‘began’ with a big bang, ‘before’ which there was nothing and no time and will perhaps end with a singularity (our newest creation myth). That there is some outer limit to what is, and some fundamental essence of which all-that-is, is composed. That we can and do (or soon will) ‘know’ absolutely what is real, what is right, and what is true. That our species can and will overcome every challenge it faces, and is destined for immortality and to reach out and fill the empty, ‘undeveloped’ universe. That we can grow and steward our population and our use of resources and our creation of wastes, forever, simply by being ever-smarter and/or ever-more-cooperative about how we do it. That the way we live (in our now-global culture, and in our various local micro-cultures) is, though it may need a bit or a lot of tweaking, the only possible sane way to live. That soaring rates of illness in industrialized nations are despite human progress and the modern diet, rather than because of them. That there is such a thing as progress. That ‘prehistoric’ humans lived short, brutal lives of immense struggle and suffering, and that life for our species has never been better.

At an ever-accelerating rate, we are starting to appreciate that none of these beliefs is true — that we have been lying to ourselves and to each other since our species first developed the capacity to lie and the language and other tools to do it convincingly. There is nothing malicious in any of this. Just like our geocentric, anthropocentric, overtly misogynist, blood-letting forebears, we lie because we don’t want to know the truth, or because we don’t want our loved ones to be hurt by the truth, or because we cannot bear the truth, or because the truth is just too complex to understand and we cannot bear not knowing. We can’t help ourselves. We have to believe we know, and that we will soon know better.

Cast aside all the beliefs above and it is easy to despair. When we realize that essentially everything we have believed all our lives was true is a lie, our immediate reaction is to find “some other story, a new story” that we can believe in instead. But that merely takes us further down the rabbit hole, into wacky unprovable “string” theories, faith in magical thinking, scientism, creeping nihilism (“nope, that isn’t going to work either”), pursuit of charismatic ‘leaders’ with easy answers, or mind-shattering cognitive dissonance.

And that’s where we are, in this modern world, desperately casting about for a new story and clinging fiercely but ambivalently to the discredited ones that underlie our entire civilization. We are caught in an existential limbo that is spreading throughout that entire civilization, and setting it aflame, as one seeming truth after another is pulled from under us. This has been going on for ten thousand years, though that’s just an instant in the evolution of our planet. It is now happening at a furious pace.

That’s where the six-year-old boy and the 66-year-old man came into the picture. The six-year-old boy ‘knew’ this was all madness, a made-up game in an anguished, dreadful rush to make sense of what ultimately made no sense at all. He ‘knew’ that the answer didn’t lie in the old stories or in a new story, in the discredited, preposterous beliefs or in a new set of precariously cobbled-together replacements. He could still ‘remember’ that place outside of space and time, that place that is without separation, without struggle, without suffering. That place that has no need for action, for beliefs, for knowing, for planning, for striving, for theories, for ideas, for progress, for meaning or purpose, for despair, or any emotion other than simple wonder.

Somehow, the 66-year-old man who does not exist and is not the same as the six-year-old boy, ‘knows’ this too. It had been forgotten, but recently, thanks to the blessing of time and resources and some little-exercised capacities, that place without separation is remembered.

This is not a matter of faith. It is not something ‘I’ believe, or that I just want to believe. It is not a ‘state’ and there is no ‘path’ to it. It is not ‘enlightenment’ or ‘awakening’ or ‘awareness’ or (thank heavens) a ‘higher consciousness’. It is not a ‘process’ of ‘letting go’.

It is the realization that there is nothing to let go of. But it is not ‘my’ realization.

I am not a believer that there will be, soon, the humanists’ dream — a sudden global raising of ‘consciousness’ just in time for us to work, furiously and together, to reform and save our staggering civilization just before it shatters. You know — the Hollywood ending. Isn’t going to happen.

But it is not impossible that, sooner or later, the self that afflicts us all will become untenable. That ‘it’ — the illusory separate self — will ‘realize’ it serves no useful function and will just fall away. It will not go easily. ‘We’ will not go easily. ‘We’ cannot believe that the world would be possible, better, perfect, without ‘us’. It will happen when the bodies we presume to inhabit die, in any case. But it might happen ‘before’. My guess is that it won’t happen, on any scale, before the end of the gradual, rolling but ultimately total collapse of our global industrial civilization by the end of this century. The self digs in harder when it feels threatened.

But I think it will happen as new human societies dawn in the millennia after civilization’s fall. It will happen at first because there will be no need for the self to emerge in the first place, in a peaceful future world of abundance and relatively free of stress. And then, victim of the virus of reconnection to everything-else, selves will fall away, unneeded and ignored — the useless bit of software will be mothballed in the brain, and the liberated human creatures will not encourage its re-emergence in their children and communities.

It will be realized that everything ‘we’ in our civilization culture believed so fervently was as ridiculous as our earlier belief in “the vapours” and the rewards of animal sacrifice.

All that will be left is fragments, pieces of everything appearing, wondrously, to no one, yet appreciated, awe-inspiring, beyond anything that ‘we’ could ever have imagined.

‘We’ won’t be missed.


Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 5 Comments

How Would We Behave Without ‘Selves’?

image: from Martijn Meijerink on, cc0
A growing number of researchers and theorists studying human nature, and the nature of the universe, from a wide range of disciplines, now seem to agree that most non-human creatures do not have, and have no need for, a sense of being separate ‘selves’ in control of and responsible for the bodies they seemingly inhabit.

Their argument is that, other than in moments of extreme stress, most creatures don’t see themselves, or anything else, as separate from the whole — they just are everything, and exist with no sense of time. That doesn’t mean they are in any way insensate — they live life full on and feel wonder and pain probably more than we do (with our tricks for buffering ourselves from reality). Their behaviour is the result of their embodied and enculturated ‘knowledge’, and requires no separate decision-making ‘self’.

In moments of extreme stress, the argument goes, these creatures’ evolved fight/flight/freeze instincts kick in, and briefly they act as if they were separate, until the danger has passed and they furiously ‘shake off’ the nightmare of the experience and return to just being everything. In this natural reality, they have no sense of time, no fears about the future, no fear of death, no anxieties. They don’t need them. Their bodies take care of themselves, so what possible use is there for the sense of a separate self?

Human babies apparently are born this way. Their sense of separateness emerges after birth (and is of course thereafter reinforced by every encounter with other humans who conceive of themselves as separate). So if it’s possible for us adults to access at all what it’s like to just be everything, it may be through a kind of intuitive remembering, or a glimpse in those rare moments when for a variety of reasons our separate self suddenly falls away, rather than through any spiritual journey or path.

Scientists are now discovering that human actions actually precede our brains’ ‘conscious decisions’ to perform that action — the separate self only rationalizes after the fact, and takes responsibility for having decided, what our evolved-to-thrive bodies have already started to do. Our human brains’ sophisticated models of reality, which allow us to think about the (actually non-existent) past and future, and to anticipate dangers to our (non-existent) separate selves and ‘learn’ from ‘their’ experiences as separate selves, were a logical evolutionary development, an extension of our instincts. But if so they are so slow and so utterly imprecise and simplistic that they are actually useless to us, and our listening to and believing their version of reality is likely at the root of much human mental and physical illness and suffering. We’d be better off without them.

Biologists and physicists, in addition to questioning the existence of time as other than a construct of the human mind, are starting to question the mind’s propensity for ‘knowing’-through-analyzing — breaking everything down into separate, discrete ‘parts’ as a means and precondition for making sense of it. Richard Lewontin for example argues in The Triple Helix that genes, organs, and environments are not separate from each other — there are no scientifically sensible ‘borders’ where one ends and the next begins. Everything makes more sense when seen holistically. Carry that to its natural conclusion, and what would make most sense is to accept that everything is one — particles and waves whose ‘separateness’ from everything else is just an invention of the mind.

To carry that argument further, it’s now accepted by many physicists that almost all of even the smallest-known element of ‘matter’ is — nothingness. Everything is mostly nothing. If so, and if as some scientific theorists now say there is no fundamental particle of matter or energy — ie it’s ‘turtles all the way down’ — then logically (1/∞) there is nothing. Everything is just an appearance. That is precisely what radical nonduality posits.

It could of course be argued that even if that is correct, it’s useless knowledge, a model without value — science as currently constituted can’t do anything with the realization that there is no time, no space, and no one. It’s equally useless as the foundation of a philosophy or religion. But if our bodies (absent the affliction of ‘selves’) know what to do, how to live, better than any empirical or scientific or philosophical or religious theory or model can improve upon, there is (again, absent selves) no need for anything to be useful.

Consider how we behave when emergencies arise — in an accident scene, or being on the verge of losing our grip at the top of a mountain. Those who have had those experiences say that while their thinking brains basically give up functioning in these situations, they are somehow able to achieve miraculous, “super-human” feats — when their selves are out of the way.

Of course, this is just a theory. It is hard to imagine that, if we could retain our sense of child-like (wild-like) wonder for our whole lives, we would thrive much better than we do with our calculating, imagining, patterning, probability-computing minds telling us what our separate selves ‘should’ do (or should have done) in any particular situation.

But let’s imagine for a moment this theory is true. How would ‘we’ behave if ‘we’ just lived our lives in wonder, free of the constraints and anxieties of separate selves? This is almost impossible to imagine (“this is what ‘we’ would be like if there was no ‘us’”), but here’s my guess:

We’re flying down to earth some millennia in the future. For a while we wonder whether there are any humans at all, since there are no cities, no monuments, no visible evidence of human presence of any kind. Until we notice, in some of the tropical rainforests (which due to climate change are not in the same places they are today), and along some of the warmer coasts, some rustling in the trees and darting movements along the forest floor.

There we see them, small tribes of naked apes — tall, strong, healthy-looking creatures. So we activate our cloaking devices and move in for a closer look.

To our surprise, they don’t look or act at all like the vestigial 20th century indigenous communities untouched by civilization culture that we have studied. True, they do have extensive ornamentation over their bodies and in their hair, which is likely a way of expressing their culture. But there is neither a tribal commonality to the designs on their bodies, nor a cohesion of style that would suggest the body canvas is a medium of self-expression. The art is more diverse and apparently improvisational, seemingly more about having fun and being creative than meaning something.

We’re listening for language, but all we’re hearing is a lot of birdsong, plus the calls of creatures we don’t recognize at all — newly evolved species perhaps? And then we realize that some of these sounds are coming from the humans — very complex but surprisingly short “check-ins” with tribe mates, we are guessing. We wonder if these post-civ humans are like birds in each having two distinct types of “voices” — ‘calls’ of warning and notification, and ‘songs’ of joy. Suddenly, that thesis gets some confirmation, as one human female sends out a long, rich line of song in some unknown language, and immediately others in the tribe join in in response, in a complex and improvisational harmony.

Soon, we realize that only a small part of these humans’ conversations are verbal — head movements, hand and arm and whole-body gestures, even subtle eye-movements are clearly conveying most of what these humans are ‘saying’ to each other. Their bird-like ‘calls’ seem to be used only when they are out of sight range of each other.

We had expected these post-civ cultures to be scavengers, using the surfeit of production of everything during civilization times as a means of continuing to use these useful and sometimes life-saving tools. But there is no evidence of anything that could really be called “technology” in this tribe.

So now we’re watching the faces of these humans, trying to decipher what they’re thinking and feeling. And the sense we get, the more we study them, is that while thoughts and feelings are arising in them, they are not much preoccupied with them; they flit across their faces but then are let go. What they perceive directly however — sights and sounds and other sensuous experiences — seems to impress them more deeply, and for much longer. Their faces easily and often take on expressions of wonder, almost child-like delight in the simplest noticing.

As we watch them, we realize that they have a powerful intuitive sense — they react instinctively and effectively faster than intellectual processing would allow. The look on their faces is attentive and peaceful, free from signs of stress and anxiety, but not what might be called ‘blissful’. Much of the time they are quite animated, strolling, dancing, doing flips and gymnastic or martial-art-like movements, exploring the areas around them, constantly in motion. But even then they are carefully sensing what is happening around them, and seem to sense things before they become immediately apparent.

We see them harvest foods — though browsing might be a better term, as if there are ‘gardens’ here we cannot discern them. The tribe members seem to know exactly what to eat and what not to eat, even the small children. Finding food seems to be no problem in the abundant forests where they live, so we try to figure out what they do with the rest of their time, aside from singing and body art. They seem exceptionally social and generous, touching and patting each other frequently, but to our surprise sex seems to be, while readily available, not especially frequent.

They spend a lot of time apparently doing what we would call ‘nothing’ — just sitting and watching and listening and sensing the world around them. This often leads to singing, solo or joined by others, but this singing is so gentle and quiet it seems more like purring than song. They sing often, it seems, but ‘talk’ only as much as they must. Their language, if it can even be called that, seems to be totally reactive to the immediate situation, and perceptual, not conceptual.

There seems to be no hierarchy among the tribe-members, perhaps because their lives are so easy and stress-free that they have no need for specialization or organization of activities. They seem highly spontaneous — they break into song or dance, and others join them, or don’t, with no perceivable pattern. If there is ritual here, we can’t see it. Their anarchism seems almost un-human, un-mammal-like, even — almost all indigenous human, primate and cetacean cultures we’ve studied seem more organized than this one.

This tribe seems to have no property, no possessions, personal or collective, not even shelters. This may be because they have no need of them, but it seems more consistent with their behaviour that they don’t even conceive of the idea of owning or possessing anything. It’s as if anything that happens is of no consequence to them — it is just what happens, the only thing that could happen.

More interesting still is that they don’t seem to have identities. Their members have different voice qualities, clearly enough that they could identify other individuals by these qualities, but they don’t seem inclined to do so. In fact their vocalizations seem more often directed to creatures of other species, and even to inanimate objects, than they are to other tribe-members. And one of their strangest behaviours is vocalization that is apparently directed to their bodies, or something within their bodies — using tones that seem instructional or reassuring or even self-hypnotic rather than self-reflective.

They seem astonishingly connected with the (other) wild species in their forest and coastlands, as if they could understand their ‘languages’ and ‘read’ their bodies and hence, their very way of being.

Many of the brainier 20th century mammal and bird species have been found to have what is called “theory of mind” — they are capable of seeing themselves and other creatures as separate entities and attributing characteristics to these creatures, and behaving accordingly. Strangely, this thriving, seemingly intelligent and healthy human tribe doesn’t show evidence of this capacity to differentiate at all. They just don’t seem to perceive of others as separate from themselves, and hence seem incapable of conflict with or deception of their tribe-mates, or other animals.

We also witnessed one wandering tribe member who was suddenly confronted by a jaguar. There was seemingly no thought of running or fighting, though from our perspective in the circumstances both actions would have been futile. Instead, the human seemingly just sat quietly and then fainted, and was quickly and peacefully devoured.

To avoid jarring the tribe-members too much by suddenly appearing to them, we instead transported and de-cloaked one couple from our group. But as we watch, we see that the tribe-members treat our people as if they were lost children — after showing us how to find food, and seeing that we were unwilling or unable to learn the lesson, they ignore us, as if we aren’t even there.

They seemingly have nothing to learn from us, nor us from them — we apparently live in utterly different, ‘unrealizable’ and unreconcilable realities. So we depart.

We cannot, of course, know whether this is how a tribe of people without the sense of being separate selves would behave, or whether they would thrive, or what it would be like to be them.

And I want to be clear that I don’t think the way of being I’m describing is anything like the way in which any known modern indigenous peoples live — I think we have much to learn from indigenous cultures but I don’t think they are any closer to a collective nonduality than we are. Nor do I think they are free from what I have called the ‘affliction’ of separate selves.

Would the planet be better off if humans were more like this imaginary future ‘self-less’ tribe, instead of like us? Would ‘we’ be happier, or rather, would we be at peace without always striving to be happier and being disappointed and anxious about everything that was not as our separate selves, and those we strive to please, hoped or expected?

And if we had a chance to give up our lives and live as they do, would we take the chance?

(PS: I’m thinking of writing a sci-fi/cli-fi novel about such a tribe of people. Thoughts on how to do this are welcome — I suspect it could be as hard to write as Riddley Walker.)

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Michael Pollan Has Lost His Mind

Painting by Cristobal Ortega Maila CC0 from

Michael Pollan, famous for his books on cooking, food and nutrition (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”), is about (May 15th) to release his latest book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches UsMichael gave a long and wide-ranging interview about the book to the less-annoying-than-usual Tim Ferriss, and Tim’s podcast and interview notes are the basis for this article.

The book describes the parallel changes in both the medical and social communities in attitudes toward psychedelics, a word that literally means “mind-loosening”. He urges the medical and regulatory community to be open-minded and humane in allowing research on and subsequent use of psychedelics as a managed therapy for a host of mental illnesses (including depression, anxiety, phobias, obsessions, addictions and PTSD). These diseases, he says, have in common that they occur when “the default mode network” (a series of connections in various parts of the brain that usually launch our thinking and reacting processes) becomes overly rigid, and caught in repetitive loops. Drugs found in plants such as psilocybin mushrooms, ayahuasca, 5-MeO-DMT, and synthetics such as LSD have been shown to quieten this network and its pathways and lead to powerful, long-term healing of these diseases, even with only a few doses.

There are of course dangers: people with already-disrupted default mode networks (those with psychoses, schizophrenia etc) can react badly to these drugs, and bad trips for anyone can be very unpleasant and have serious consequences. For this reason, Michael advocates avoiding the carelessness with which these drugs were used in the 60s, and wants us to develop secular community-based support groups with people experienced at guiding people safely through trips (“flight instructions”) and helping people to integrate and interpret them afterwards, before rushing into full legalization.

Michael describes his own personal trips as well as findings from many others he spoke with, as leading to the dissolution of the ego, ie “non-dual” realization and the “merging with something larger than you”.

When asked about Michael Pollan’s earlier description of this dissolution, Tony Parsons (at a meeting of his I attended last year in Wales) seemed to dismiss it as “probably just another experience”. Tony asserts that any “experiences” are experiences of an individual (self/ego) and hence nothing like the true falling away of the self and the seeing of natural reality. I’m inclined to believe him, though Michael’s description certainly matches at least the “glimpses” that have led many (including me) to believe that the self is an illusion (and “a useless bit of software” that arose as a consequences of the emergence of large brains).

What is remarkable to me is the degree to which Michael’s description of the discoveries and ideas that came from these experiences or events parallel the messages and insights into the nature of reality of many people in a wide array of disciplines — so-called “spiritual teachers” (Eckhart Tolle, Adyashanti, Rupert Spira etc), philosophers (John Gray in Straw Dogs: “We act in the belief that we are all of one piece, but we are able to cope with things only because we are a succession of fragments. We cannot shake off the sense that we are enduring selves, and yet we know we are not.”), scientists (Stewart & Cohen, Richard Lewontin), and artists (Jim Carrey, Terence Stamp, etc).

Tony has commented that the likely reason there are so few articulating this message is that (a) the loss of the self is not really an experience or event (it’s a realization that the self never existed), (b) it just isn’t in most people’s nature to question or to speak publicly about inexplicable “life-changing” events that leave no trace, and (c) it’s really impossible to put into words, since language is an invention specifically to facilitate communication between acknowledged separate “selves”.

Michael says this is reflected in the gushy, inane, often incoherent descriptions of many people who have “experienced” this (though it isn’t an experience). It’s impossible to describe. It’s not “higher consciousness” (in fact there is generally a quieting rather than a focusing or concentration of the mind). It’s not “consciousness” or “awareness” or “presence” at all — it’s absence, loss. Liberation, from the affliction of the self.

If Michael is right, and presuming we don’t extinguish human life on this planet before it happens, it might theoretically be possible to treat and even cure what I have called Civilization Disease” (including all of the aforementioned mental illnesses, and likely many related chronic physical illnesses and the general anxiety most of us have come to accept as “life”). If that were to happen, we might see a sudden large-scale walking away from our ruinous global industrial civilization, which depends utterly on our culture’s stranglehold over our “separate selves”. If enough of us “lost our selves”, how might the trajectory of the human species then shift? Would we learn, once again, how to live in community as one with everything around us?

If Tony is right, this won’t be possible; psychedelic drugs might enable us to glimpse, and to long for, oneness, but they won’t enable us, in any functional or enduring way, to “lose our selves” and just be, as we were before our selves arose in early childhood.

My guess is that Tony is probably right — the self has too strong and too established a grip on the creatures it inhabits to be shaken by medicines that briefly short-circuit the brain that gave rise to it. Sometimes I even question whether post-civilization societies, living without the stresses and barrage of information and distraction and propaganda that characterize the era of human civilizations, will escape the affliction of separateness and self-hood. We might be just inherently, as a species, too smart for our own good.

Still, the idea of separation and self-hood as a mental illness that might be treated by medicines that “loosen the mind” — liberating us from most mental and chronic physical illnesses in the process — is intriguing.

But I’m deeply skeptical. We are complex creatures, we humans, and every body is different. We may have a deeply transformative experience under the influence of these medicines, and some may find they heal some of the ailments that have defied all other attempts at treatment, at least for a while, maybe longer, and that’s wonderful. But what then? Things are the way they are for a reason, and I wonder if we are already too damaged, and if our propensity to do things that don’t seem healthy for us can ever be “cured”. We may briefly escape the damage that the self inflicts on us. But that will not destroy the self.

There is nothing to destroy, after all.

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