This is a follow-up to my story The Fortune Teller. It is a work of fiction.

It was raining, and the strain of the pandemic and all the extra things to remember was finally getting to me. I’d just come out of the grocery store, where half the things I’d gone to buy were out of stock. And on top of it all, when I got to my car there was a piece of paper on my windshield. I scowled: It would either be a parking ticket, undeserved, or advertising, unwanted.

I put the groceries in the car, snatched the paper off the windshield, climbed inside, removed my mask, took off my fogged-up glasses, and used the alcohol solution in my glove compartment to clean my hands. Finally, I picked up the paper and opened it up.

Here is what it read:

Hello again. It has been a while. I think you might need a reminder of some things you agreed to do:

1. Smile. Genuinely. All the time. Doesn’t matter if you’re with people or alone. It’s a muscle worth exercising. It will change how you relate to the world.

2. Pay attention and notice. Notice the details, the qualities, of light and sound and texture and taste and scent, and more, with your whole being. Just that, leaving no room for thinking about what it means.

3. Eye contact. When you meet people, really look into their eyes until you see. Don’t think about it — just notice, pay attention. This is not about staring, it’s about observing. Notice movements of the eyes and face, but do so with your senses and intuition — don’t try to interpret them.

It’ll do you good.

We’ll be watching.

Memories of the enigmatic young fortune-teller at the lemonade stand — what was it, two years ago? — came rushing back. I looked around to see if the fortune-teller was still around, and I saw a flash of motion behind me, but by the time I exited my car, there was no one there.

I turned the key to start the car, and turned on the defroster since the rain had fogged up the windshield too. My glasses and my windshield, both blurred to the point I could no longer see. Was there a message in that?

I slumped back, waiting for the inside to clear, and thought about the message. She had given me these three instructions, supposedly “from the faeries”. I had practiced them faithfully for a few months and they had made an enormous difference in my life. Why had I stopped? And how did my fortune-teller know?

The likely answer to the latter question was: I had probably encountered her somewhere, recently, and was so preoccupied, so inattentive, so unpracticed at making eye-contact, that I didn’t recognize her.

I still had the post-it note pad in my glove compartment that I used when inspiration for blog articles came to me while I was driving. I pulled it out, and made a pencil sketch of a face smiling, with one eye focused on a bird and the other on the eyes of another person. And big, listening ears! I stuck it on my dashboard. I smiled. I looked around, inside my car and then outside. And I put the car in gear and drove home.

Why had I stopped doing these things? In my complacency, my imaginative flights of fancy, my predilection for the conceptual over the perceptual, my habit of hiding inside my own head, was I becoming once again disengaged from the real world? Had I given up on it?

I arrived home with no memory of how I got there. And yet, for the first time in a while, I had noticed some things along the way that I hadn’t noticed before. The distinctive colour of the cedar trees. A swarm of birds flying overhead along the road. The sound of my own breath.

When I retrieved my groceries and started towards the house, I thought I was hallucinating. The fortune-teller, wearing the same too-old-for-her outfit, complete with head-scarf, was sitting in a chair on my front deck, stroking my neighbour’s cat (which had never let me even get close to it). The cat was sitting in her lap, blinking contentedly. I could tell my fortune-teller was smiling at me even with her CoVid-19 mask on. Her mask had cat whiskers drawn on it, along with the single word: Breathe.

I looked at her rather sheepishly, raised a “wait a moment” finger signal, went inside, put away the groceries, washed my hands, put on a new mask, cut up two apples into slices in separate bowls, and went back outside, offering one of the bowls to her, before moving a deck chair about ten feet from her and sitting down and nodding. My invisible smile was genuine.

She nodded a “thank you” and we ate the apple slices in silence. I filled my now-empty bowl with water for the cat and put it down near me. The cat, of course, ignored it.

I thought about the important lessons her three “instructions” had taught me:

  • That when you smile, in an unforced way, your brain actually starts paying more attention to what’s going on “outside” it, in an attempt to rationalize why you are smiling, until it finds something worth smiling about.
  • That smiling therefore shifts your brain from a conceiving (thinking, abstracting, judging) to a perceiving (instinctive, noticing, appreciating) mode. Definite improvement!
  • That time seems to move more slowly when you’re more attentive.
  • And that the distinction between you and “everything else” blurs when you spend less time thinking about yourself.

It was a bit chilly, so I retrieved a couple of blankets and passed one to her. The cat jumped down from her lap while she positioned it, and then immediately jumped back up and settled back in. I had the strange sense that the girl and the cat were somehow “connected” — it was as if they knew each other’s thoughts and feelings and were extensions of each other. The cat had never looked at me that way. At least, not that I’d noticed.

I was preparing to break the silence, to apologize for having “forgotten” the three “instructions”, but instead, something made me just look back and forth between the girl’s eyes and the cat’s body.

So she finally spoke first: “I’m sorry”, she said. “I should appreciate that you’re scared, and it was unfair of me to chastise you.”

“Not unfair”, I replied. “Generous, perceptive, observant, compassionate.”

I could read a smile and surprise in her eyes. How much more important eye-contact is when you must keep the rest of your face covered! She said: “But also unfair.”

I thought for a moment and then said: “I have come to believe we have no free will or choice over what we do, or don’t do. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t right in your observation.”

“I guess I was hoping that the reminder might somehow ‘recondition’ you, since you did follow its advice the first time it was offered. But not only is that unfair, it’s a bit condescending.”

“Everything we do, and every circumstance that arises in the moment, reconditions us. It’s not like you’re in advertising, or PR, or politics, or the media, or religion, using conditioning to manipulate others for your own purposes. Your windshield reminder may have just reconditioned me to inevitably do something different from what I was inevitably going to do without it. You changed the circumstances of the moment. It’s actually you who had no choice but to leave the reminder for me. So thank you.”

We looked in each other’s eyes, and while I could see the smile in hers, she lowered her eyes almost shyly and said:

“Are you ready to consider some more thoughts I can’t help but have, and which I may have no choice but to offer, unless you change the circumstances of the moment by telling me I shouldn’t?”

Her look was playful, not sarcastic. So much can be read in the eyes, so unambiguously, when you stop thinking and judging and just let the communication happen!

“Sure,” I replied, smiling back. “As long as you first tell me how you know I’m scared.”

She laughed. “Well,” she replied I could say that it’s a safe bet, since everyone is. But the difference with you is that, unlike most people, you know you’re lost and scared and bewildered. You telegraph it. And that’s why I said it. Because we both know it’s true.”

It was my turn to laugh. “Fair enough. OK, hit me with some more ‘instructions’, but remember, I can only handle so much at once.”

I didn’t need to look to know she was sticking out her tongue at me. She had told me this, about my limited capacity for new learning, back at our first meeting. And she was absolutely right.

“OK then,” she said, after a long pause. “Number 4: Listen beyond what is being said to where what is said comes from.” She paused to let that sink in, and then added: “Language is a terribly, desperately clumsy tool for communication, and we almost never say what we really mean. We can’t help it. We usually don’t know what we really mean, even if we had the right words to convey it. The feeling behind what is said is what to pay attention to. It’s what the communication is actually about. And, again, noticing, eye contact, and even smiling can help you sense that feeling, which is what you really want to address.”

I thought about this for a moment and then said: “OK, then help me out. What was the feeling behind what you just said to me? See if I picked up on it right.”

She nodded, and then said, with her usual bluntness, and looking me right in the eye: “I feel sorry that you’re scared, and that you’re scared for no sensible reason.”

She told me with her eyes what my reaction told her with mine: that I’d guessed her response, mostly, correctly.

And then her eyes filled with tears and she added: “You’re like an old bird who has always been caged, and now, at least a little free, you’re learning, very clumsily, how to fly.”

I teared up a bit too, and then said to her: “There are many far more ‘caged’ than I am. They need your counsel more than I do. So why me?”

“Because you’re ready to listen.”

Without rising, I did our signature palms-together bow, and she returned the gesture.

“The thing is,” she continued, “when people talk, they’re looking for appreciation, attention, and reassurance. They don’t really care about communicating, unless that’s a means to one of those three ends. When people challenge or question something you’ve said or done, what they’re really saying is: Help me fit what you’re saying (or doing) into my frame, my worldview. They want to make sense of it. Beyond that, its meaning is unimportant, and all that is important is understanding and reflecting back the feeling behind what they are saying. That’s really all that language can hope, at best, to communicate.”

I looked at her eyes, and then watched her skritching the cat. “Wow, that’s very profound. I think I get that, but maybe that’s all I can handle for now. I’ll have to think about this. I’m a slow learner, you know.” I looked up at her and smiled, playfully.

She laughed again. “That’s why I’ve written it down this time”, she said, holding up a piece of paper.

I just shook my head. “So there’s more?” I asked. She nodded. I shrugged.

“Number 5. This one’s simple. You have to get out more. You know in your head that everything is one, yet you are way too much apart. Too much time playing on your own, indoors.”

I put out my hands in a gesture of protestation. She could see my frown. I said: “Well… I don’t really like people all that much. I kinda prefer my own company most of the time. And much of the time the weather isn’t that great for being outdoors. I love my creature comforts.”

“Then bundle up. Buy some clothes that are warm and waterproof without being heavy or constraining. Get out and spend time with non-human life. The entire natural world, it’s all talking to you, showing you things, and a lot more eloquently and generously than humans do. Go listen, really notice, smile, and when you see deer or birds, make eye contact, gently. Pay attention and you’ll probably be a lot less scared, and maybe even less lost. Listen to the wind. Notice the colours of moss and rocks. Say hello to the more-than-human world.”

I nodded. “Sure, if I can make time for exercise every week, which I don’t particularly like, then no reason I can’t make time for that.”

“Yay!” she replied. Last one — Number 6. Let wild creatures show you that there are only two natural states — equanimity and enthusiasm. Everything else — fear, rage, panic — is just a temporary aberration.” She pointed at the cat.

I pondered again, and then said: “That’s an awesome observation. Can I use that in my writing?”

“As long as you agree to explore to see that it’s really true. It took me a long time to figure out. Humans are so rarely in this natural state that when it happens it seems unnatural, worrisome. We are chronically in unnatural states, conditioned into them by other humans. It’s no wonder wild creatures treat us with such great caution. And no wonder you don’t like other humans very much!”

I shook my head. “I’m concerned that that might just reinforce my sense that it’s utterly hopeless for human beings, that we’re all hopelessly broken and spend our lives just struggling to heal a bit and then die. If there’s no path to that ‘natural state’ that wild creatures live most of their lives in, what’s the point of knowing about it?”

“Isn’t it better to know the truth?”

“I don’t know. We believe in the truth we want to believe in, and sometimes I think that’s the only way we can stay sane. Do you live most of your life in that ‘natural state’ — equanimity and enthusiasm?”

“Hah! If only! Nope, I’m just another struggling human. I know about it only because the faeries told me. I know it’s right, but I can only know, I cannot really live in that world.”

“I though you said there were no real faeries?”

“Do you remember what else I said about them?”

“A metaphor for ‘that which must be told’, the knowledge that emerges, inevitably… if you’re paying attention.”

“Very good. Then you know the answer to your question. But you haven’t answered mine.”

I closed my eyes, and just breathed. “Hmmm. Isn’t it better to know? I don’t know. If we have no choice, it seems the question is moot. Some will know, and others never will. It makes no difference.”

“Ah, yes and no. Remember the Star Thrower story?”

I laughed. “It made a difference for that one.

I looked up, and she was gone. The cat was sitting on the blanket, looking at me quizzically.

Under its paw was a piece of paper with instructions 4-6 written on it. I picked it up, skritched the cat, noticed with some astonishment that it let me do so, and, with a smile, walked into the house.

image by tumisu at pixabay, CC0, photoshopped

Posted in Creative Works | 1 Comment

We Are Our Story

What I have called Civilization Disease is, I think, inextricably connected with humanity’s delusion of self and separation. Here’s what I think led to that:

  1. Nature is always trying out new possibilities and variations in the endless search for a better ‘fit’ for all creatures with each other and the evolving environments we all live in.
  2. When human brains got large enough, one possibility that nature tried was to create a conceptual representation of reality, with the human in the ‘centre’ of that representation. It’s a completely artificial construct, but it still had possibilities for evolutionary advantage. In fact, it’s conceivable that in a rudimentary way this false sense of self and separation is briefly evoked in many creatures during periods of extreme stress, when this illusion can trigger a fight/flight/freeze response, which is quickly “shaken off” as if it were a hallucination (you can see wild creatures do this) once the peril has passed.
  3. At various points over the past 2M years, humans have evidently faced extreme dislocation and the threat of extinction. We survived primarily by migrating to less naturally hospitable areas and adapting in place. One of those adaptations might well have been more extensive use of the represented model of self and separation.
  4. According to the entanglement hypothesis, there came a point in human civilization when the neural connections in the brain responsible for perceptual and conceptual activities became ‘entangled’. This allowed greater ‘sensemaking’ of what humans perceived, but also blurred the distinction between ‘what is’ and the brain’s conceptual representation of ‘what is’, to the point humans could be conditioned to act as if the latter was the ‘real’ reality.
  5. At that point, the primary function of the brain became to ‘make sense’ of everything it perceived by relating it to the seeming veracity of its conceptual representation of reality. And thus, everything had to be related to the ‘self’, the anchor of this model of reality.
  6. Compounding this immense and endless mental challenge, the integrated brain was now able to imagine things it had conjured up, and to represent them as real within the model. It could then imagine gods to be real, the past and future to be real, and things in that past and future to be real. With the development of abstract language, humans could then reassure each other of the veracity of their imagined models, and start to align them, further entrenching the illusion that this mentally constructed model was real. This imagined truth, which we call “knowledge”, supplanted instinct as the primary way in which humans understood themselves to be making decisions.
  7. The problem is that not only was this mentally constructed model not real, but it was not actually what was making decisions. Decisions continued to be made instinctively, based solely on biological and (more recently) cultural conditioning, as they had always been, so now the self had to rationalize all those decisions, to justify its existence and its ‘truth’ that it was real and in control of the human it presumed to inhabit. This gave rise to a host of new emotions (not felt by wild creatures or early humans) like hatred, shame, guilt, envy, jealousy, loneliness, sorrow, depression, and personal love, all of which depended on judgements, expectations, disappointments and other disconnects between what was actually real, and what the self imagined ‘had’ to be true to make sense of what was happening, and why that did not jibe with what the model of self said ‘should’ be happening — a colossal psychosomatic misunderstanding of reality.
  8. The profound mental illness that this misunderstanding produced was expressed in some new behaviours, rationalized on the basis that they made the world ‘better’ by requiring it to conform more closely with the self’s model of reality as it “rationally” “should” be. These behaviours included subjugation, incarceration, wars and genocides, and oppression of those whose behaviours the self (and the other selves of emerging human self-afflicted cultures) could not make sense of, and therefore judged needed to be controlled. Language and new technology enabled humans to mass-produce food (“justifiably” using human and animal slaves), which resulted in an exploding human population, more pressure on limited and fragile resources and environments, and more physical and psychological stress on everyone, in a vicious cycle that continues to this day. Other new technologies (such as more powerful weaponry, and propaganda) exacerbated the cycle. It is this cycle that I call “civilization disease”.

Each morning when a modern human awakes, it has to recreate its story, built around its self, to make sense of how and why everything is as it is, how it “should be”, and what has happened in the past and might happen in the future. All of this is entirely made up, a fiction, reconstructed anew each day. Without this story the self cannot exist, and to some extent, the self is nothing more than this story.

How might this have come about? It’s conceivable, under the entanglement hypothesis, that humans are now born with the “necessary stuff” to concoct (imagine) a self, the representation of everyone and everything around it in time and space, and the story that is the self’s script, modus operandi, and reason for existence.

But it would seem that infants don’t have this sense of self or separation from everything ‘else’, or a ‘story of self’. The metaphor I have been using, for now (and it is a very imperfect metaphor) is that the makings of a self are like a piece of invisible VR headgear that we are (now) all born with, but which is initially turned off. At some point in very early childhood, our parents, anxious to give us a sense of self so we can function in the world, “switch on” the headgear, and suddenly we see this representation — of mother and father and “others”, of separate “things”, and then, astonishingly, of our “selves” as something apart from this seeming “everything else”.

It probably takes a bit of perseverance by the well-intentioned parents and others before the headgear is just left switched on all the time, and before the child learns to switch it on each time it wakes up, so that soon the child is no longer able to see anything outside the headgear, and ‘forgets’ there was ever another sense of what was real. The headgear was always invisible, always projecting only illusion, but now it is on, all day, every day, automatically, and it becomes the only reality.

As I say, it’s an imperfect metaphor, but it’s the best I’ve found.

It is, of course, excruciating that the self now begins to do things, to try to make decisions and control things, but what it sees happening through its invisible headgear just never matches up. It must furiously rationalize the reasons why this is so, why things are never perfectly the way they “should” be based on the model that instructs the headgear’s display. Why the controls of this game don’t seem to be working at all.

That means, for example, justifying war against those whose behaviour makes so little sense to the self that it must be labelled “wrong” or “evil”. Actions must be taken to make things “better”. And when things don’t go well, there is all the guilt and shame and hatred and blame and justification for why these selves, all of which are purportedly “in control” of “their” human bodies, are “misbehaving”. And, of course, there is fear and anxiety about all the terrible things that “might” happen, which our befuddled, integrated brains endlessly confuse with what is actually happening, making everything seem hopelessly, maddeningly out of control.

The people I know who are “no longer” afflicted by the illusion of self and separation remain perfectly functional, and seem to me more well-balanced than the rest of us. And I have no reason to believe that it isn’t possible for someone to grow up with the headgear of self never switched on, and no one would ever notice, least of all the unafflicted humans.

So back to the ‘story of self’. When I meet people who have suffered serious trauma, it appears to me that there is a ‘hole’ in their story. It’s as if the memories of what happened have been erased, or smudged. There is no peace in that, however — something in the traumatized self seems to be endlessly aware of this hole, and always trying to find some way to cover it up, to “make sense” of it, to make the whole story coherent.

And that’s what’s led me to believe that we (ie our “selves”) are our stories, and that is why people are always so desperate to have their stories make sense, and become dysfunctional when they do not.

I think, to be bearable, our “stories of me” have to meet two criteria:

  1. They have to be coherent and have continuity — they have to hang together in a way that can be understood (made sense of) internally and told comprehensibly and believably to others. I think most of what is said in human conversations is just the relating of our personal stories.
  2. They have to progress, or at least have a meaningful trajectory — there should be steady advancement, the overcoming of obstacles, and, if not a happy ending, at least a sense of valour in the trying. There is a reason that so many of our stories are ‘hero’ stories, about conflict, overcoming challenges, and success or at least redemption.

When I talk with people who have suffered trauma, I notice again and again the enormous sense of shame I hear in the incoherence, discontinuity, directionlessness, hopeless incompleteness, and personal, often unspoken ‘failure’ in their stories. There’s a desperation to fill in the holes in their stories, that seems as great as the unbearable trauma that must have caused the holes in the first place, and an equal desperation to evoke reassurance from others, and in their own minds, that their story is, at least, understandable, headed in the right direction, and redeemable.

There have been a number of analyses, recently, of our civilization’s psychological malaise as being a reflection of the sense of our collective failure to produce a coherent, positive story about ourselves as a society. The tagline for a recent documentary is “We have given up on the future”, suggesting that we no longer hope for a story with either progress or redemption. Our story is broken, and if we are our personal stories, our culture is our collective story, and it must meet the same desperate, demanding criteria.

“We need to create and tell a new story”, we are told. Why? Because without a compelling (in both senses of the word) story we are nothing. We are worthless, meaningless, purposeless. “We are seeing the rise of a world without meaning, a society without narrative coherence”, another essayist writes.

The invisible headgear, the story, the storyteller, the self, the experiencer and the experience are all one and the same thing. And they are a fiction; they are just the invention of a frenzied, deranged brain, trying futilely to make sense of everything.

At various points during my life I have tried to summarize “the story of me”. My lifelong, hackneyed, self-aggrandizing bios have recently yielded to an anti-story, one that is completely lacking in narrative and flow. As I described it last year, it is this, a story about ‘my’ relationship with this apparent human ‘Dave’ creature ‘I’ arrogantly presume to inhabit:

I remain forever tethered to pursuit of the impossible truth that will finally make sense of everything, finally bring an end to the exhausting seeking. I am in a corner, now; I’ve painted myself in after a lifetime of striving to complete the picture, the picture that my latest belief denies the very existence of.

So I sit here with my box of colours, brow furrowed, wondering what this perfectly, tragically conditioned (and only apparent) creature will do next; I have no remaining illusion that ‘I’ have any agency over it (though that may be just what ‘I’ want to believe).

I want to believe that if I’m tired enough, completely exhausted, my self, this lost, scared, bewildered ‘I’ that carries with it a lifetime of questions unanswered, a lifetime of believed truths unresolved, will just let go, set me free from me. I want to believe it, but I do not.

What happens when we can no longer believe what we want to believe, when we doubt that what we believe is actually true? Perhaps we just keep painting, even knowing the picture cannot be completed, that the canvas is just a dream. Like the carpenter with only a hammer, perhaps we keep hammering even when there are no more nails, when we discover, in the endless buzz of cognitive dissonance, that there may never have been any nails. Keep hammering, what we were made to do, and taught to do, and told to do. The only thing we can do.

It’s a really horrible story. Even Beckett would find it unacceptable. But I refuse to write a better one, a more accommodating, accessible one, with a good plot and tension and conflict and learning and redemption. I sit here, furiously shaking my invisible headgear and shouting “Fraud!” No more stories, please. They are worse than just self-glorifying fictions. They are lies, straitjackets, shackles, and the immiserators and scapegoats of our whole pathetic, ruinous civilization.

They are nature’s, and evolution’s, greatest blunder. They are the cause of our disease.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Radical Non-Duality | 3 Comments

Has Our Diet, and Too Many Antibiotics, Made Us More Vulnerable?

This is the 16th in a series of articles on CoVid-19. I am not a medical expert, but have worked with epidemiologists and have some expertise in research, data analysis and statistics. I am producing these articles in the belief that reasonably researched writing on this topic can’t help but be an improvement over the firehose of misinformation that represents far too much of what is being presented on this topic in social (and some other) media.

There are a lot of chronic diseases — major killers of those of us in affluent nations — that are, even adjusting for average life-expectancy and underreporting, relatively unknown in the world’s struggling nations. Many of these are autoimmune diseases, chronic diseases that we get, or are unable to shake, because our immune systems overreact — they are so unpracticed at distinguishing between harmful and healthy cells that they attack both, usually excessively, since they “don’t know when to quit”. It was such a reaction that caused most of the deadly second-wave 1918 pandemic deaths — not the virus itself.

There are three main causes behind our bodies’ immune systems’ malfunctions: The first is immunodeficiency, when our immune systems are weakened by toxins or diseases (or deliberately by immunosuppressant drugs like steroids), and hence are unable to do their job. The second and third are causes of autoimmune (hyperactivity) malfunctions — nutritional deficiencies that starve our bodies of nutrients the immune system needs to function properly, or disrupt them with unnatural chemicals; and antimicrobial chemicals that kill parts of the immune system, usually “collateral damage” in the fight against disease, but also from environmental exposure to pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals.

I’ve written at length about our nutritional deficiencies over the years, and if you want a great recap of the connection between these deficiencies and our health, here’s a great summary. In this article I want to focus on the third cause — antimicrobial chemicals.

Antimicrobials include the whole array of things we use to kill other living things that we consider dangerous or just don’t want to put up with — antibiotics (antibacterials), antivirals, antifungals, antiparasitics, as well as pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and the many other substances that we apply to other living things, and to the surfaces of our homes and other buildings, that we then ingest indirectly by eating, touching or breathing them in. For the most part we use these substances liberally despite having little or no idea about their long-term negative effects on our health. But these substances are “antibiotics” — their purpose is to kill life forms, and since most of the DNA in our bodies is bacterial, it should be obvious that they are hazardous.

It is, of course, a balancing act. Several ghastly deadly human diseases have been either eradicated or are kept in check through the use of antimicrobials. But trying to fight microbes is a losing proposition — they outnumber us, they’ve been around a thousand times longer, they mutate with breathtaking speed, and under the right circumstances they can migrate around the world in a matter of days. And they are part of us, and an essential part of what keeps us healthy.

There is growing evidence that our overuse of antimicrobials and other “cleaning” chemicals is creating some nightmarish problems. Their use drives the microbes to adapt more quickly, developing immunity to our antibiotics and other antimicrobials to the point we are now running out of alternatives to deal with “resistant” strains, leaving us defenceless when these strains emerge. The arms race to keep ahead of new strains of pneumonia, tuberculosis, e. coli, salmonella, VD bacteria, c. dif, necrotizing fasciitis bacteria, and staphylococcus by inventing new antimicrobials is a losing game, and options are running out.

The explosion in crippling diseases caused by disabled or hyperactive immune reactions has led to calls for those of us in affluent nations to stop “sterilizing” everything and let our immune systems be naturally exposed to microbes of all types so they can “learn” to function properly.

There is evidence, for example, that what is behind the recent massive increase in people with serious allergies to pet dander and some foods, is parents’ well-meaning decision to prevent their young children from any exposure to substances that might provoke an allergic reaction. Paradoxically, that lack of exposure is precisely why so many children, and now adults, have debilitated immune systems that never learned to cope with these substances, and now suffer lifelong with every exposure to them.

For ten years I was prescribed, with the best of my doctors’ intentions, a massive oral dose of tetracycline antibiotic to treat a particularly miserable case of acne. The result is that my gut’s immune system was ravaged, and I believe that is why I eventually contracted ulcerative colitis, an autoimmune disease of the colon. With proper diet and extremely limited use of antimicrobials I have now been symptom-free for over a decade, but my immune system will likely never fully recover.

Those with prolonged severe colitis have resorted to what might seem a bizarre and dangerous treatment — fecal transplants deliberately intended to infect them with intestinal worms imported from Africa. It seems these worms were endemic to humans until the modern antibiotic era, and this disease was and is largely unheard of in places where the worms were found. The theory (which of course western doctors won’t hear of) is that the worms co-evolved with us and are an essential part of the human gut ecosystem. And when we decided they were ‘bad’, we ushered in a range of new intestinal diseases our immune systems couldn’t deal with.

And don’t get me started on the antimicrobials we force-feed and spray on and around factory farmed animals in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Nothing like providing babies with cow’s milk that has none of the natural immunity benefits of mother’s milk plus an extra dose of chemical antimicrobials and hormones. No wonder so many of us grow up with crippled immune systems.

Such is the balancing act. And now we’re in the midst of another pandemic, likely just a trial run for the really virulent pandemic that we’re likely to face in the near future. And we’re showing just how (unintentionally) incompetent we can be at trying to manage it.

My sense is that, especially in places where we use the most antimicrobials and similar toxic chemicals, we have become much more vulnerable not only to autoimmune diseases, but also to infectious (including pandemic) diseases.

Take a look at the map above, which shows the stark contrast between per-capita CoVid-19 death rates in the Americas and Europe, versus the rates in most of the rest of the world. It’s as if there are two different pandemics at work.

New York doctor and Pulitzer-winning biologist Siddhartha Mukherjee has just published an article pointing out this great mystery about the hugely uneven global distribution of the pandemic. Countries like India and Nigeria have per-capita death rates as much as two orders of magnitude less than those of the Americas and Europe. He dispenses with the usual explanations (under-reporting, misdiagnosis, demographic structure, government response, climate, “spacial distribution of the elderly”, family size, household size, population density, time delays, mobility), which may explain part but cannot explain anywhere near all of the variation. Why would Brazil, India and Nigeria, which are similar in climate, demographics and almost all of the above “usual factors”, have such staggeringly different death rates?

Just to demonstrate how anomalous this is, consider a 2006 study predicting the potential impact of a 1918-comparable novel “bird flu” (non-corona) virus happening that year. Their predictions are almost the exact opposite of what has happened with CoVid-19 — most bird flu victims, they predicted, will be in India and Sub-Saharan Africa, mostly people in their teens to thirties, and relatively few will be in the Americas and Europe.

Siddhartha wisely refuses to suggest any Occam’s razor explanation for the anomalous carnage of CoVid-19. But he does suggest one reason that is much more compelling than the usual ones: That the people in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa have a much stronger natural immunity due to previous exposure to other coronaviruses and infectious diseases.

Map from IHME showing their estimates of infections by country to date. Some recent studies suggest that this map would more accurately show almost all of Africa and South Asia as bright orange, and the rest of countries three shades “oranger”, on the basis that global infections (most of them asymptomatic) are actually at least 5x higher than IHME estimates. And that the IFE varies by country by up to an order of magnitude depending on the health, and “experience” of its citizens’ immune systems.

Indeed, while they have been dismissed as improbable, epidemiological studies have repeatedly indicated that more than half the people tested in countries in these areas had markers indicating they had been infected with CoVid-19, though the vast majority were asymptomatic. This correlates with WHO studies, similarly discredited, suggesting that five times as many people have been infected globally as the IHME and other modellers have estimated, and that the infection fatality rate (IFR) is commensurately lower (as low as 0.15% globally). That would break down to about 0.80% in Europe, the Americas, South Africa, and Australia/NZ, and only about 0.08% in most of the rest of the world.

The implications of this are quite staggering. They suggest that in much of the world, notably excluding countries that have worked the hardest to minimize exposure from the outset, we are well along the way to, if not already at, herd immunity levels. They suggest that, really, only those in the Americas and Europe, with their ten-times-higher IFRs, will see a really dramatic benefit from the current vaccines. It’s too early to say this is true for sure, but if it is, it will upset all our assumptions about pandemic risk and transmission.

So what does it mean to say the people in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa have a much stronger natural immunity due to previous exposure to other coronaviruses and infectious diseases? I would suggest it means that:

(1) their immune systems have not been weakened by toxins and diseases that cause immunodeficiency, or by our western diet’s nutritional deficiencies or antimicrobial and other “cleaning” chemicals that render the immune system unable to respond properly to microbial infections, AND

(2) their immune systems have actually had to deal with a wide variety of microbial infections in past, and now are resilient enough to deal with novel infections like CoVid-19. Not immune, but resilient.

I think it’s plausible to believe that reason (1) explains the high IFR of CoVid-19 in North America and Europe, where our immune systems are compromised and impoverished, and (2) explains the high IFR both in Latin America and among many indigenous peoples around the world, where their immune systems have never encountered this type of infection and hence are unable to cope with it.

It’s important to remember that a significant part of our “natural” immunity is inherited, passed down from generation to generation. When a woman is breast feeding a sick child her body will actually sample the child’s saliva, create an immune response, and put antibodies in the breast milk specific to the child’s illness.

I wonder, if CoVid-19 had been a 1920 pandemic instead of a 2020 pandemic, whether the IFR would have been very different in many areas, not because of the virus itself, but because of how our less-compromised immune systems would have handled it.

In the end, the mystery of CoVid-19 rests as much within our bodies as in the workings of the disease. And they have evolved, and will continue to evolve, together. But, just as we cannot continue to overlook our nutritionally poor and poisoned diets as a huge contributor to our diseases and suffering, we cannot keep overlooking the damage done by our excessive use of antimicrobials, and by all the other ways we damage and deprive our immune systems of the “learning” that they need to help us get, and stay, healthy.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves | Leave a comment

Links of the Month: February 2021

To the Thawing Wind
by Robert Frost

Come with rain, O loud Southwester!
Bring the singer, bring the nester;
Give the buried flower a dream;
Make the settled snowbank steam;
Find the brown beneath the white;
But whate’er you do tonight,
Bathe my window, make it flow,
Melt it as the ice will go;
Melt the glass and leave the sticks
Like a hermit’s crucifix;
Burst into my narrow stall;
Swing the picture on the wall;
Run the rattling pages o’er;
Scatter poems on the floor;
Turn the poet out the door.

Image by ex-Bowen Islander Jason Wilde, Killarney Lake, Feb. 2019


Since I last wrote about Kate’s model above, most of the orange areas of socio-economic scarcity and inequity have grown worse, and most of the orange areas of ecological excess and waste have grown worse. We seem determined to have the worst of both worlds — destroying the ecological balance upon which all life on earth depends, and so mis-distributing the “spoils” of our ecological despoiling that, instead of alleviating inequity, poverty, scarcity and suffering, we have ignored or aggravated them and allowed our social and economic systems to further stagnate and decay. The “doughnut” is getting much thinner, and time is running out.

I haven’t been writing a lot about civilization’s ongoing collapse, since there really isn’t much new to say. It is encouraging that groups like XR are starting to look at the broader collapse picture than just climate change, now using the acronym CEE — Climate and Ecological Emergency — to incorporate all 10 ecological crises shown in the outer circle on the chart above. But at the same time they are being pressured to incorporate the 12 socio-economic crises, shown in the inner circle of the chart. I would assert it’s now an impossible balance — aggressively addressing either emergency will almost surely exacerbate the other — and the tension is showing up in a rupture between progressive environmental activists and progressive “social justice” activists. How this tension will play out will be important, and fascinating to watch. Meanwhile, social and economic conservatives (who are also mostly climate change deniers) are still saying: “Wha, wha… what emergency?”

“Normal could well mean the end of global civilization as we know it”: Roy Scranton laments that in our exhaustion and desperation to return to “normal” we are presuming to resume the ecological devastation that is threatening to make much of the planet uninhabitable, and the rest merely awful:

Going back to normal now means returning to a course that will destabilize the conditions for all human life, everywhere on earth. Normal means more fires, more category 5 hurricanes, more flooding, more drought, millions upon millions more migrants fleeing famine and civil war, more crop failures, more storms, more extinctions, more record-breaking heat. Normal means the increasing likelihood of civil unrest and state collapse, of widespread agricultural failure and collapsing fisheries, of millions of people dying from thirst and hunger, of new diseases, old diseases spreading to new places and the havoc of war.


Cartoon in the New Yorker by Ngozi Ukazu

For the People Act, take two: Democrats have reintroduced their far-reaching 2019 act to stop gerrymandering, voter disenfranchisement and discouragement, and reduce the influence of money on elections through campaign finance reform. The 2019 version was, interestingly, opposed by the ACLU. Who knows if this one will succeed. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.

Trump OKs buprenorphine for treatment of addiction: In one of the Trump administration’s final acts, it approved a guideline removing onerous certification requirements for prescribing buprenorphine, “the gold standard for treating individuals suffering from opioid use disorder“. It is also the gold standard for treating chronic pain without the commensurate risk of addiction. Unless it is blocked by Biden, this could be the most humane, progressive thing Trump accomplished in his entire term.

The joy of small, courageous things: A fellow Bowen Islander movingly explains why he is happy driving a school bus during the pandemic.

Canada’s Senate confronts Trudeau’s cowardice: Canada’s unelected Senate showed itself to be more progressive and less indulgent of right-wing right-to-life groups than the elected Commons, by approving an amendment to the new draft right to die with dignity act that would allow people who fear losing mental capacity to make an advance request for medically-assisted death when that happens. Now Trudeau has to take a stand, by approving or rejecting the amendment. I’m not optimistic, but if he won’t act, the courts will again rule the law unconstitutional, and we’ll be back to square one until the ditherer is replaced with someone with backbone.

Yes, we actually mean “abolish the police”: Toronto’s Rinaldo Walcott argues eloquently for the abolition of police, incarceration, and ultimately the legal concept of ‘property’, replaced by less caste-ist, more communitarian and equitable means of dealing with the endemic social problems of our modern society.


From the New Yorker, by Barry Blitt

Hank Green on the media, attention, validation, and Gamestop: The Vlogbrother brilliantly explains why the media are now us: all about attention, influence, affirmation, and how that brings with it commensurate responsibility to the rest of the world. And why the power play between overpaid Wall Street market gamblers and mischievous small investors is not a dangerous ploy, but rather a finger pointed sharply at the Ponzi scheme that is the stock market and its shameful “hedge fund” exploiters.

The sickness of our food supply: Michael Pollan explains how fragile our oligopolistic, monoculture food supply is, and the incredible dangers that disruptions like the pandemic pose to it. Only a radically relocalized, resilient food system can prevent future crises that are even worse. And Sarah Taber explains that, just as an example, the massively-subsidized US corn industry exists solely “to turn rural land into a dependable & infinitely fungible financial asset”. Thanks to Peter Kaminski for the links.

We don’t care about “drug addicts”: Despite the simple solutions of making possession of drugs legal, opening up access to non-addictive alternatives like buprenorphine (see story above), and treating this as a true mental health and poverty crisis with appropriate social interventions, both the supposedly progressive BC Premier Horgan and the supposedly progressive Canadian PM Trudeau have done nothing, clearly conveying that, while they care about pandemic sufferers, they don’t care about people dying of toxic street drugs, which killed twice as many people in BC last year as CoVid-19. Horgan has even said that street drug use is a “choice”. Blame the victim. Disgusting.

Horgan deep-sixes UBI: The fake-socialist BC premier also, through the use of a carefully-stacked “panel” of conservatives, has used their report to cancel all plans to introduce a universal basic income in BC, and ramp up existing social programs instead. The trumped-up report, lauded by the clueless BC Green Party, was immediately criticized by the expert who has shown how effective UBI can be, Evelyn Forget, who said it in one sentence: “Those programs are designed to keep people dependent on the system instead of allowing their autonomy to flourish.”

Biden continues rogue ICE agency: Despite the superficial change in power, the deportations and mistreatment of immigrants continues unabated. Biden has also come out as an anti-Palestine zealot, condemning the minuscule BDS protests against Israel.

The cost of racism to Blacks: What is lost in the debate over “reparations” is that this is not guilt or atonement money, but an attempt to rectify the centuries-old systemic, entrenched racism and caste-ism that prevents descendants of oppressed minorities from ever being able to achieve a level of equity commensurate with that of privileged castes. It has been repeatedly shown that there is essentially no “upward mobility” path in western societies — the wealth and privilege you are born with, or not, is almost certainly your lifelong lot. Here’s a set of charts that illustrates how true this is. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.


cartoons from XKCD (Randall Munroe), of course

The reluctance to admit what we don’t know: In this age of instant experts, we have seen during CoVid-19 a terrible fear on the part of scientists to admit what we think is likely, but don’t know for sure. Zeynep Tüfekçi explains that his stems in part from fear of “you were wrong” accusations with the benefit of hindsight, but also stems from a tacit, unhealthy assumption, that until we know “for sure” we should just shut up and keep studying. In complex systems we never know anything for sure. We have to act on “the best currently available evidence”.

There is currently a controversy over whether vaccines prevent or blunt transmission. You won’t remember that one, soon, either, because the answer is that everything we know about how this disease spreads, and the preliminary data we have, indicates that they will, to some degree and likely substantially. But we’re waiting for more clarity on how much. So the current advice remains (as it should) that vaccinated people should keep wearing masks, especially around unvaccinated people—but there is little reason to constantly focus on this. If we are somehow surprised and transmission from vaccinated people remains high, we will know soon enough. If not, we will adjust. And then the controversy over this issue will be forgotten, too, after having further confused the public and damaged trust in institutions.

More current developments on the pandemic:


variations on a theme: top one appears British, original source not known; bottom one is American
so which one best describes your community’s page?

The cognitive bias codex: An organized list of all the illogical things we think and feel. Thanks to Paul Heft for the link.

Breath-taking: An explanation of how, improbably, our lungs work.

How y’all talk: Take this (US) personal dialect quiz to see where how you talk says where you’re from. Works for Canadians too. And here’s one for the UK.

Cellular landscape: A 3D rendering of a cross-section of a single cell, using nuclear resonance imaging.

The best Last Supper?: Plautilla Nelli’s massive 450-year-old masterpiece finally sees the light of day. Thanks to Natasha Chart for the link.

Should gay characters only be played by gay actors?: Jonathan Pie says this is PC gone mad. But does the same logic apply to the playing of men by women, and vice versa? And the playing of BIPOC people by whites?

Amazing colourized pictures: Two sets of historical photos, colourized for the first time.

How improv can make you a better parent: Why “yes, and…” is more effective than “but”. Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link (and the one that follows).

A game designer’s take on QAnon: Or, how to get people to look for patterns when there really aren’t any.

Crazy ping pong tricks: Amazing, but of course we aren’t seeing the outtakes.


Top cartoon by British cartoonist Tom Gauld. Bottom cartoon by German-American cartoonist Ali Fitzgerald.
Both from the New Yorker.

Some great non-duality talks:


cartoon by Sofia Warren in the New Yorker

From Caitlin Johnstone:

Americans: healthcare please
Government: Sorry did you say a new military base in northeastern Syria?
Americans: no, healthcare
Government: Alright you drive a hard bargain but here’s a new military base in northeastern Syria.

It’s self-evident that Silicon Valley oligarchs conspiring to censor conspiracy theories will not eliminate conspiracy theories; the only thing that can end conspiracy theorizing is for the government to become transparent and cease conspiring. So naturally we’re going with the censorship via Silicon Valley oligarchs thing.

At a time of great need the US government is letting its citizens freeze, go broke, get evicted, and die of preventable illnesses, so obviously it’s of paramount importance right now for Americans to rise up with one voice and direct their righteous anger at China.

From John Green, pre-CoVid-19, The Sycamore Tree (hear John reading the entire piece aloud here):

I’m in an airport when suddenly I feel the chill in the air. What’s even the point? I’m about to fly to Milwaukee on a Tuesday afternoon, about to herd with other moderately intelligent apes into a tube that will spew a truly astonishing amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in order to transport us from one population center to a different one. Nothing that anyone has to do in Milwaukee really matters, because nothing really matters. There’s no point to the human endeavor in the largest sense. We will leave no permanent legacy in this impermanent universe, and our central lasting contribution to Earth will be that we were the first species to grow powerful enough to muck up the planet…

Your nine-year-old points out two squirrels racing up an immense American Sycamore tree, its white bark peeling in patches, its leaves bigger than dinner plates. You think, my God that’s a beautiful tree. It must be a hundred years old, maybe more. Later, you’ll go home and read up on sycamores and learn that there are sycamore trees alive today that date back more than three hundred years, trees that are older than your nation… But for now you’re just looking up at that tree, thinking about how it turned dirt and water and sunshine into wood and bark and leaves, how it turned nothing into a place where squirrels play, and you realize you are in the vast dark shade of this giant tree, and that’s the point.

From Lauren K Alleyne (also pre-CoVid-19):

Nothing to Declare

There is no name for what rises in you
as you enter the dim world of the taxi
and wheel through the night, escorted
by smooth jazz and a battalion of street-
lights. At the airport, you heave the bags
you have stuffed to the limits of carriage
and check them in. You have no trouble
knowing what to do with your empty
hands. At security, the usual stripping.
You surrender your body to the scan,
the searching sweep, as if what is dangerous
is not what cannot be so easily detected.
You comply. At the gate, grateful to be
early, you sit with your books, plug in
devices that tether you to this place
you’re meant to be leaving, that crowd
out thoughts of arrival and its bittersweet
complications. Yuh going home or just visiting,
someone will ask, and you never know
how you will answer. You know the bones
of your mother’s brown arms will wind
around you, her breath against your neck
will baptize you again in names you have
no one to call you in the other place
you belong to. You know the waiting
untended in you will surge toward her,
and you know something else will sink,
sulk itself into a familiar, necessary sleep.
You know yourself now only as the ocean
knows this island—always pulling away,
always, always, returning.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End, Radical Non-Duality | Leave a comment

Why We Don’t Do What We Don’t Do

New Yorker cartoon by Kendra Allenby

Last night, trying to fall asleep, I started thinking about some of the things I know I would enjoy doing once the pandemic’s over — but probably won’t actually do:

  • Learning to memorize a short poem or script, for live performance
  • Learning to swim (I had started, and was making progress, but my wonderful instructor left the country)
  • Learning to dance (I have a great instructor, but CoVid-19 put this on indefinite pause)
  • Learning improv
  • Composing more music (I have the tools, and even some great ideas)
  • Learning to properly play the piano to sheet music (I can read music, but it takes ages for me to find the notes, especially in odd keys)
  • Learning to properly play the guitar (same problem, and I just can’t play barre chords)
  • Learning ASL
  • Going for more walks in the woods (there’s a large, gorgeous forest a mere two minutes’ walk from my house)

I have the time, and while I’m not well coordinated, there is nothing physically stopping me (at least post-pandemic) from doing all these things. This is not a terribly ambitious or costly or onerous “bucket list”. I know they’d be fun and rewarding. So why will I probably never “get around” to doing these things?

Recently I’ve expressed my views on why we do what we do each moment (our biological and cultural conditioning, in the context the circumstances of the moment). We have no choice. But how can this explain why we don’t do what we don’t do?

I’ve tried to invoke Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour to explain this, but it’s not very compelling. I do things that are dead easy but not much fun, instead of things that are pretty easy and great fun. What’s that about?

Our biological conditioning is all about maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. It impels us to do things (eating, sex, sleeping) that are biologically associated with pleasure, and to take actions (jumping away from oncoming traffic, defending a dependant from attack) that it associates with pain avoidance.

Our cultural conditioning is about repeating behaviours that have previously been rewarded, changing behaviours that have been ignored, and ceasing behaviours that have been punished, by others in our circles.

So how might this understanding be applied to explain our tendency to procrastinate, our apparent ‘laziness’ and lack of perseverance, persistence and self-discipline, and why we might skip an event we know we would really enjoy if we participated in it, and instead do ‘nothing’?

Our conditioned preferences and propensities vary from person to person, but there seems to be a universal human tendency to do what is seen to be urgent rather than what is seen to be important. Vacuuming the house will be more urgent to some than others (and some might actually consider it enjoyable, rather than just something nice to check off the list). And what is fun for some (skydiving) is horror for others.

But in a subtler sense, once the “urgent” things are done, there is, for each of us, I think, a balancing point in our conditioning between doing something that’s easy and doing something that’s fun. I don’t much like to travel (because in the words of the Procol Harum song, when I’m travelling, I tend to “only see how far I am from home”). But when I do travel, I often enjoy it immensely, and tell myself I should do it more.

For each of us, I’m guessing, there is a point at which doing something that is not urgent is “more trouble than it’s worth”. That is, in the unconscious conditioned calculus of each character, a determination is made whether or not to do something, and then the conscious mind is left to try to rationalize why it made that decision.

And for some, as the cartoon above depicts, doing “nothing” is excruciating; for them, doing something — anything — is always urgent. This is particularly sad to see in retired males (their lives lose their sense of purpose) and others afflicted with the endemic imaginative poverty of our modern culture.

Our biological conditioning has evolved to keep us safe, healthy, in balance with other creatures in our ecosystems, and happy enough to want to continue living and procreating. Our cultural conditioning has evolved in part to optimize the collective well-being of the tribe, family, and community, and in part to ensure we fit in well with our “group”. In much of our contact with others, we condition each other, diminishing the differences between us.

But in the process, we have created a “fearful” world. Our proclivity to constantly identify and do what’s urgent has created an arms race for our attention, and there is no better way to get attention (“The sky is falling!”) than to incite fear (and/or anger, its mask). So perhaps to some extent we prefer to do nothing (or something easy), rather than something fun, because our modern, made-terrible world has become so exhausting. The young of all species seem to be more inclined to want to play than their elders, perhaps because of this growing exhaustion. The point of “more trouble than it’s worth” is easier to reach when we’re low on energy.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found doing “nothing” (just being in the moment, noticing, paying attention to everything around me) to be more fun. Maybe that’s an exhaustion (or fear) trade-off, but maybe it’s just because, with fewer urgent distractions, I’ve actually started noticing more.

So, of course, I could pull out my synth, and find that set of chord sequences I started playing with a while ago, and compose something new from them. That would be enormous fun.

Or I could work on a short story that builds on one of my best-received stories, since I have some ideas that might make an enjoyable sequel — that would be harder (fiction is always more challenging for me to write than non-fiction), but it would likely be worth the effort in terms of personal satisfaction both while working on it and afterwards.

Or I could just sit here and notice, with endless and astonishing wonder, the colours and shading that lights of various types, natural and human-made, cast on the walls and other items in this room, and how these raspberries, that I had no choice but to buy and now eat, taste, and how this new Taylor Swift song can’t help but make me smile even though I know it wasn’t intended to be taken the way I’m taking it, and how the various pieces of the song fit together so cleverly, and its deliberately ambiguous words (“Forever is the sweetest con.”).

And how the scent of the air by the open window carries with it a million crafted and uncrafted messages that I somehow unconsciously recognize and know and respond to even though they will never even register let alone be recognized or understood by this arrogant, supposedly “conscious” “me”.

Every second in this amorphous, forever-stranger body, a trillion things are being done. None of them entails any choice whatsoever, any volition. There is never a choice. What I am not doing is not being done because my conditioning, in the context of the current situation (which includes how energized or exhausted I feel), has already “decided” that something else (which might be seen as “doing nothing”) is going to be done instead. “I” am not part of that process; “my” only role is to try to make sense of why and how that “decision” was made. But it’s quite possible that, not only does that decision not make sense to “me”, but that there was no “sense-making” involved in the “decision”. There may just not be any “reason” that “I” can fathom for it; it may just be, unsatisfactorily to “me”, what is happening.

“I” have been trying recently to be more attentive, to notice more instead of spending so much of my life preoccupied with my thoughts and feelings and what’s going on inside me. But we can’t even choose whether or not to see, to notice, to pay attention. Whether “I” will succeed in that aspiration of attentiveness is not within “my” control either. If there is an apparent shift to more attentiveness, “I” will be sure, however, to take unwarranted credit for it. And if there is no such shift, “I” may either blame my own propensity for distraction, or blame some outside force for my inattention — or, in my lack of attentiveness, “I” may not even notice.

In Straw Dogs, John Gray wrote:

We labour under an error. 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.

This statement goes beyond a declaration of the absence of free will, and declares the absence of a real self. With no “me” to make any decision, there cannot be any “real” decisions about what will apparently be done, or not done. Carrying this argument to its (ironically) “logical” conclusion, there is no time in which any decisions could be made anyway. There are things apparently happening, some of which look like consequences or results of other things happening, but there is in fact no causality, no sequence, no “all of one piece” continuity, so there are no decisions, and there is nothing “really” happening.

It’s all just a wondrous light show, within which apparent human bodies imagine a “me” seemingly making decisions about what will happen “next”. When there is no “next”. We just can’t take off the “me” headgear to see that, since “we” are that headgear.

So my synth waits. With no reason for me to compose something on it, or not. The synth is just one more alluring appearance through the headgear — no more or less alluring than this light, now, that’s a bit different from what it was a few minutes “ago”, an entirely new light, in fact. No more or less alluring than these raspberries, now eaten, or anything else.

In the world outside the headgear, beyond the fiction of “me”, and time, and space, and real things, and things really happening, there is no “why”. When everything else is seen as just appearance, or illusion, that’s the only explanation that, in some inexplicable, intuitive way, “makes sense”. In that light, effortless, place that “just is”, the question why no longer arises. Science, stuck with us inside the headgear, can get us close to that, can hint at it, point to it with mischievous unanswerable questions, but not all the way.

And there is no why for that, either.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Radical Non-Duality | 1 Comment

More Crossword Cleverness

I read recently that the editor of the NYT crosswords changes, on average, half the clues provided by crossword creators, before they’re allowed to be published. From what I’ve seen, that has not improved them. The editors tend to be old, white, top caste males who arbitrarily disallow words and phrases that they don’t know personally, even if they’ve made their way into the popular vernacular. Having to change one long “theme” answer can be almost as difficult as creating a new puzzle from scratch, so it’s pretty discouraging, especially if you’re a seasoned creator. On top of that, the puzzle “old guard” tend to change clues, particularly for longer “theme” answers, to better suit their own demographic. There has been some pressure to open up the ranks of both creators and editors to younger, more gender-balanced and diverse puzzlers, but it’s slow going.

As I mentioned in a post two years ago, I like coming up with alternative clues to some puzzles after I’ve solved them, alternatives that are a bit trickier (and hopefully cleverer) than the “straight” ones, while still being fair. This is especially fun, and challenging, for shorter words. I’m including a few examples below, but first, here are some of what I thought were some of the cleverest clues I’ve come across since that earlier post.

CLEVER CLUES (often with a “?” at the end of the clue to prompt the solver that there’s wordplay involved):

  1. “Something” can be heard on it:  ABBEYROAD
  2. Mine field?:  PERSONALSPACE
  3. “Becoming” someone:  MICHELLEOBAMA
  4. Workers making preparations to retire:  PITCREW
  5. Possible effect of doping: ROIDRAGE
  6. Invasive plant:  SPY
  7. Big drop of water:  FALLS
  8. What the answers to should be clear:  EYETEST
  9. Health care coverage providers:  SCRUBS
  10. It’s no six-pack, ironically:  BEERBELLY
  11. One who arrives around Hallowe’en:  SCORPIO
  12. Support staff:  CANE
  13. Store that should have a spokesperson?: BIKESHOP
  14. Opening of an account:  ASIRECALL
  15. Mass movement:  AGNUSDEI
  16. Who says “I found this on the Web”:  SIRI
  17. They often fall apart when the stakes are raised:  TENTS
  18. Local leader:  UNIONREP
  19. One who gives a lot of orders:  DAYTRADER
  20. Heavy metal shortage:  ANEMIA
  21. First set of choices:  MAINMENU
  22. One who won’t give kids a shot?:  ANTIVAXXER
  23. Noah’s predecessor:  STEWART
  24. Character raised in Rosemary’s Baby:  APOSTROPHE
  25. One who makes a living pushing drugs:  PHARMAREP
  26. Type least likely to show up in a hospital:  ABNEGATIVE
  27. Mobile home:  PHONECASE
  28. Reason for going out a lot?:  NARCOLEPSY
  29. Locks that might not be secure?:  TOUPEES
  30. Important thing to know, if you will:  ESTATELAW  (love that one)
  31. Not right, sarcastically:  YOUROTHERLEFT
  32. Drill setting:  BOOTCAMP
  33. Situation with no up side:  TIE
  34. Classified key to success:  SECRETSAUCE
  35. Company with striking footwear?:  TAPDANCERS
  36. Investments associated with CDs:  STEREOS
  37. Dimensions without planes?:  NOFLYZONES
  38. Part of a club:  MAYO
  39. Flight destination:  UPSTAIRS
  40. What some caddies carry:  LOOSETEA
  41. Get through lines quickly:  SPEEDREAD
  42. Party animal?:  PINATA
  43. They come out of many mouths:  WISDOMTEETH
  44. It can be found beneath the lower crust:  PIETIN
  45. It’s around a cup:  BRIM
  46. Dover soul?:  BRIT
  47. Tip used for icing:  SILENCER
  48. Vacancy clause?:  NOBODYSHOME
  49. Soup line?:  MMMMGOOD
  50. Pole star?  SANTA
  51. Make a little lower?:  CALVE
  52. Rock singer?:  LORELEI
  53. Flat bottom:  SOLE
  54. Stocking-up time?:  YULETIDE
  55. Where following a star might lead you:  FOOTNOTE
  56. Round-trip flight?:  SPIRALSTAIRCASE

INTERESTING CLUES (things I didn’t know, but was intrigued to learn):

  1. 60s-70s band named for an Aldous Huxley novel:  THEDOORS
  2. Notable feature of David Foster Wallace books:  ENDNOTES
  3. Headgear for Eminem: DORAG (or DURAG)
  4. Rice used in rice pudding:  ARBORIO
  5. Official cocktail of New Orleans:  SAZERAC
  6. Breakout entertainment: ESCAPEROOM
  7. In Australia her name is Karen:  SIRI
  8. Fictional land named in real-life law cases:  RURITANIA
  9. Large monitors:  KOMODODRAGONS
  10. Recess for a joint:  MORTISE
  11. Dirt, to some:  SCHMUTZ
  12. Mission, often:  HOMELESSSHELTER
  13. World’s tallest building:  BULJKHALIFA
  14. Cousin of tartar sauce:  REMOULADE
  15. “i” dot:  TITTLE
  16. Jewelled headwear:  DIADEMS
  17. Smallest infinite cardinal number:  ALEPHNULL

So here are the original clues for 14 crossword answers, the original answer provided, and, in italics, my own preferred and hopefully-cleverer or more interesting clue:

  1. Bronze producer:  SPRAYONTAN —  Trump’s false veneer?
  2. A mandible is part of it:  SKULL —  Head home?
  3. Wagner’s oeuvre:  OPERA —  Horse or comic follower
  4. System of unspoken words, abbr.:  ASL —  Silent conveyance vehicle, abbr.
  5. “Automatic for the people” band:  REM —  It sometimes comes right before “sleep”
  6. Gruelling grilling:  ORALEXAM —  Doctor looking down in the mouth?
  7. Mountain home:  AERIE —  Gang hangout?
  8. Pipe sellers:  HEADSHOPS —  Psychiatrists’ offices?
  9. Country:  RUSTIC —  Real estate’s euphemism for homely
  10. Embarrassed:  SHEEPISH —  Ovine?
  11. Organization that Helen Keller helped found:  ACLU —  US defender of last resort, too often
  12. Eats before a meal?:  APPETIZER —  Entrée, outside America
  13. Largest sesamoid bone in the body:  KNEECAP — Hit below the belt?
  14. Quiet:  SILENCE —  What we’ll often remember about our friends, sadly, per MLK
Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | Leave a comment

The Nature of Emotions

A rat who is working for food suddenly hears a warning signal followed by a shock he can do nothing to avoid. After it stops, he goes back to working for food. But soon, even the sound of the signal is enough to stop him from seeking reward. Even though he could continue painlessly during this interval to obtain food, he seems crushed by the anticipation and now “crouches tensely, trembling, defecating, urinating, hair standing on end.” The animal is, in scientific terms, scared shitless. He can do nothing to control his fate, and that is untenable.

— Melissa Holbrook Pierson, from The Secret History of Kindness

Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp spent his life attempting to map human emotions, explain them in terms of brain and body chemistry, and advocate for all animals on the basis their emotions are indistinguishable from ours.

The model he ended up with included seven categories of emotions (what he called ‘affective’ states) and corresponding, commensurate instinctive emotional behaviours for each. I’ve integrated them with Karla McLaren’s model, and separated out those that seem to be mostly enduring feelings we can carry or a long time (left column), from those that seem mostly situational and fleeting (right column):

Enduring Emotional States            Situational Emotional Feelings
angry, hateful, envious enraged
anxious, jealous, unappreciated fearful, apprehensive, bored, attention-craving, feeling ignored, helpless, abandoned, or trapped
sad, sorrowful, ashamed, grieving, guilty, apathetic, depressed or hopeless grieving, panicked
pleasure-craving, longing, lonely pleasure-craving, lustful
equanimous, enthusiastic joyful, playful, curious, seeking-to-explore or discover
affectionate, loving caring, protective, reassuring, compassionate

You’ll notice that two of these emotions, grieving and pleasure-seeking, appear in both columns because I think we can experience them either as enduring phenomena or acutely in the moment.

I would argue that wild creatures experience only the emotions in italics, which include (1) all the ‘situational’ emotions in the right column, plus (2) the ‘natural state’ emotions that are present in wild creatures most of the time (alternately equanimous and enthusiastic), plus (3) their emotions when they are suffering from chronic stress (anxious, like the cat with separation anxiety or the low-status baboon, or apathetic, like the chained junkyard dog). Sadly, as we encroach more and more on wild creatures’ habitats and freedoms (particularly in the case of factory farms and inadvertently mistreated pets), I think we’re seeing more of the latter.

I think that wild creatures likely feel all these emotions more intensely than we do (as there is nothing veiling them from feeling them full-on). But most of these situational emotions (the ones in the right column) are fleeting, lasting just long enough to deal in an evolutionarily successful way with the particular situation. And then it’s back to the alternating states of equanimity and enthusiasm we witness so often in our pets and wild animals.

And the reason I think they don’t feel the unitalicized feelings is that these feelings require a story, a rationalization, a judgement about intent, cause or motivation, which I believe requires a sense of self-hood and separation that these creatures (blessedly) lack. If you think you’ve seen evidence of a pet or other wild creature you’ve observed feeling that emotion, my guess is that what you’re really seeing is one of the italicized emotions in the same row of the chart. So we might mistake a cat’s attention-seeking for loneliness, or its acts of apprehension for love.

If the thought that your pet perhaps doesn’t really love you strikes you as outrageous or absurd, here’s what Melissa says on that score:

This is the basis of my dogs’ storied love for me, their one and only. Only I know the real truth. It is not this Melissa they love. If they bark menacingly at someone who approaches, they are not doing it to ensure my safety. There is but one thought in their minds: do not harm this person, for she is my most valuable possession. My large Swiss army knife, the one with all the extra attachments.

When I speak with people who have lost their sense of self and separation, they tell me that, when the illusory sense of self and separation is lost, the italicized emotions continue to arise, but they don’t arise ‘for’ and are not claimed ‘by’ any ‘one’, so they don’t seem to last long. But nothing in their behaviour appears to have changed — these instinctive, conditioned feelings are just part of their instinctive, conditioned nature, and they have no need for a ‘self’ in order for them to happen.

And while the unitalicized ‘self-created’ emotions may also still arise in them, they seem to do so less and less often, because the story that validates them is just seen to be a fiction. Without a self and a story to justify these feelings, they just arise and quickly dissipate. And these self-less characters are absolutely fine, and apparently little changed in their demeanour and behaviour, without them!

It is especially perplexing for some when they assert, for example, that their affectionate fathering and marital behaviour is unchanged despite it now being obvious that there is no one, no father, no children, no spouses, and no relationships — with the objects of their affection agreeing that nothing has seemingly changed!

I have attempted to argue (as Melissa asserts) that it is our biological and cultural conditioning, in the context of the situation in the moment, that entirely dictates our behaviour. My sense is that we are conditioned to feel the italicized emotions by our biology and our culture, but the unitalicized emotions are entirely self-constructed and self-inflicted, and have no basis in reality. We make up a story about what we think happened, or wish happened, or want to happen, and then we react to that story with these feelings, some of which prevail over our whole lives. Without a story, these feelings can never make sense. And all stories about the past or the future are fictions.

Jaak attempted to map the chemistry of emotions, with the objective of developing drugs that could treat unhealthy excesses of emotion without numbing the patient. He didn’t succeed (his only developed drug failed phase III trials), but I’m wondering if that’s because his successful experiments were all with wild animals, while the human emotions he sought to moderate with his drugs were mainly the unitalicized ones that his lab animals likely didn’t feel. Perhaps his failure was just considering the italicized and unitalicized emotions as equivalent in each category, when it turned out that what tempered a wild animal’s grief could not temper a human’s depression, and what tempered a wild creature’s rage could not control a human’s anger. The drugs can modulate the chemical flows in our bodies, but they can’t change our stories.

Eckhart Tolle writes about how our embodied emotions (“pain-body”) and our rationalizing brains (“egoic mind”) can create a vicious cycle: We feel angry; then the brain rationalizes that feeling (“X did something hurtful”), and amplifies it through judgement (“It was deliberate, cruel, and premeditated, and X needs to be punished”); that creates more feelings of anger and perhaps hatred, which provokes more righteous indignation and rationalization for those feelings, resentment, ideas of revenge and retaliation, and so on, ad infinitum. The consequences of this unending, sometimes escalating cycle can be wars, at various scales from personal grudges and vendettas to civil and international battles, that can go on for generations.

These vicious cycles only apply to our self-produced, story-dependent (ie the unitalicized) emotions, and are hence, I would argue, unique to humans.

When a human accidentally hurts a cat during play, the cat will instinctively reply with an act of fear, rage, and/or panic, but it will not assume the hurt was deliberate (why would it?), and it will not plot revenge for it. It will not feel angry, sad, hateful, ashamed, or guilty. It will lash out or flee and hide, but soon all is forgotten, other than perhaps the memory that may evoke an act of caution if similar situations arise in future, until it appears that there is no recurrence of the hurt, and then unbridled play resumes.

This is pure conditioning. The cat is not an automaton, and certainly feels pain. But its conditioned responses to each situation, benefitting from millions of years of evolution, are instinctive and protective, and not judgemental, scheming or spiteful, because such an entanglement and escalation of feelings and rationalizations is not in its interests and probably not in its capacity.

In the quote at the start of this post, Melissa Holbrook Pierson argues that all our behaviours are governed by our conditioning, and that the most effective means of conditioning any creature to behave in a certain way entails giving it the power to consistently achieve a pleasurable result (a treat for the dog, a trophy for the human, or even just the rush of pleasurable chemicals in the body that simple praise evokes) for a certain behaviour, rather than punishing it (yelling at the dog, jailing the human) for an undesired behaviour. This is how we are wired.

The rat in Melissa’s example is clearly paralyzed by deliberately human-induced anxiety. But it is not creating a story about causality between the warning signal and the shock. Its instincts for fear and apprehension have been deliberately triggered by the experiment, and, unable to fight or flee, it freezes, the only response left to it. It is, at least briefly, conditioned to fear the warning signal (much as we are with emergency alert alarms). But without a story, or recurrence of the conditioning shock, the rat won’t go on responding fearfully to the warning signal much longer, just as, if we hear too many emergency alert alarms that turn out to be false, we’ll stop reacting to them. Though, because we may be making up ‘worst case’ stories about them, it may take us longer than the rat!

Here’s how this conditioning and emotional response might play out in two different situations:

In Case 1, the human’s self turns a simple fight/flight/freeze instinctive response into a vicious cycle of emotions and stories justifying those emotions, potentially leading to an escalating fight, an unhealthy and unwise response, and long-term mental illness and trauma. Erase everything in the “Character’s Imagined Self” circle and you see how intuitively and intelligently wild creatures would deal with a similar situation — respond, shake it off and forget about it. What’s especially cruel is that for all the mental anguish, the self isn’t actually doing anything — it’s just making up stories to justify its response (which wasn’t ‘its’ at all), and then getting roiled up in self-produced emotions that those stories trigger.

In Case 2, the human’s self snatches defeat from the arms of victory, trying to hang on to something simple and good, stressing about making it last or losing it, instead of just enjoying it. Again, erase everything in the Character’s Imagined Self circle and see how effortlessly wild creatures are able to just be, and why they’re so much more equanimous than we are.

As Melissa puts it:

The same law of behavior affects all creatures’ actions: we do something, it produces pleasure or it produces pain or it produces nothing, and the result determines whether we continue doing it, stop doing it, or do it differently, and these are the only options. The bedrock rules of behavior function to our preconceptions much like the swallowing of that yellow and red capsule.

And so perhaps we’d be wise (if we only had the free will to do so!) to learn from our furred and feathered friends about the utter non-necessity of all the thoughts and feelings and stories we impose on every single situation, trying to make sense of it while just making it needlessly complicated and stressful.

A final thought: I listed above, based on my observations of pets and wild birds and animals over the years, two enduring emotions that I think are the ‘natural state’ for all wild creatures, when they’re free of human obstruction: equanimity and enthusiasm. I have seen cats and dogs and birds and squirrels and wolves and deer exhibit this effortless, gentle back-and-forth movement between the passive and the active tense.

And I have also seen precisely the same states, and the same movement, in a very few, fortunate humans — who have also been the most perceptive, the most creative, and the most inspiring people I have met. That capacity to move from being equanimous, open, attentive and non-judgemental, to being curious, exploratory, and passionate to discover and learn new things, is perhaps as close as we humans can hope to get to the perfect state that is every wild creature’s birthright, and which we have forgotten.

So now I’m going to put some birdseed out, since there’s some snow on the ground, and spend some time watching the masters.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Radical Non-Duality | 3 Comments

Healing From Ourselves

An attempt to make the subject of radical non-duality a little more accessible, and a little less annoying.

Image by Rahul Bhaisare from Pixabay CC0

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.
Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But remind of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

— TS Eliot, East Coker

There’s a very sad first-person story in this week’s New Yorker written by John Matthias, an 80-year-old poet in the midwest. John lived for 50 years with his artist wife Diana, who suffered from increasingly severe Parkinson’s-related dementia, living in a world of hallucinations she came to believe were more real than reality. Infirmity and CoVid-19 made their situation impossibly worse this year, and she was put in a home, while he was in and out of a psychiatric ward for exhaustion. Diana died of CoVid-19 in November.

My father suffered from hallucinations, first in the ’70s when he was going through withdrawal from demerol, and at the end of his life under the influence of Alzheimer’s. We learned that it was best to neither encourage nor argue about the reality he saw.

The story and the memories got me thinking again about the nature of reality. I have never had hallucinations, but I have frequently had, and indulged, and even written about, fantasies. These are more socially acceptable than hallucinations because there is supposedly little risk of harm to the fantasizer or those that the fantasies are about or otherwise impact — and of course, because the fantasies are recognized, usually, as not being ‘real’.

But I have come to believe that most of what we imagine about other people to be true is no more real than are hallucinations. We believe what we want to believe, not the truth. We can never even begin to perceive who another person really is, or what they feel. The person we project and imagine another to be is a complete invention, a fiction created in our own minds. That delusion can be enormously harmful to everyone involved, including — when “they” let “us” down — ourselves.

There have been moments, throughout my life, from a very young age, when suddenly the world was seen for what it really is — an indescribable wonder, nothing appearing as everything, weightless, outside of space and time, with nothing separate, no ‘one’ in it. These were not experiences, as there was no experiencer. ‘I’ was simply not present at all, nor was ‘I’ needed for everything to be just as it was. It was simply obvious that this was the ‘real’ reality, effortless, eternal, perfect.

This was almost the opposite of a hallucination. What was obvious was that ‘I’ as a person, something separate from everything else, moving in space and time, was an illusion, a kind of hallucination. Except that there was no ‘me’, no one, having that hallucination. Rather, ‘I’ was, and am, the hallucination.

As ‘I’ apparently returned, after each of these glimpses, it has become more and more clear that we human individuals, all of us, afflicted with this hallucinatory sense that we are separate and apart from everything else and in control of ‘our’ bodies, are no more real than the monsters John’s wife, and my father, imagined and cruelly suffered from.

So now, it seems, our whole species is suffering from the effects of our brains having conjured up, with the best of intentions to make sense of the world and keep us safe and thriving in it, this complete fiction of separate selves with free will and choice (which neuroscience says don’t actually exist), in a world of space and time and separate things (which astrophysics now says don’t actually exist).

‘We’ are ‘our’ brains’ inventions, nothing more, reinforced by ‘our’ bodies’ felt sense that yes, there does seem to be a ‘separate’ presence here, and further reinforced by the language and culture of all other human selves, desperately confirming that yes, we are real and separate and in control, and that time and space and life and death are real. It seems that all of us in early childhood contract a hallucination-causing disease that, because we are able to convince each other that our hallucinations are real, cause us all to act as if the hallucination of our “separate selfness” is actually real and actually interacting with others’ hallucinations. It is a form of collective madness, created by brains that, it seems, are too smart for our own good.

Imagine that you are wearing 3D headgear that shows the constant presence of monsters and portrays you successfully vanquishing them. Now imagine that after a while you ‘forget’ that you are wearing the headgear, and that the visions you see and hear reinforce, by what they say and do, the sense that there is no headgear — that this vanquishing is all absolutely real. Imagine that the voices you hear and the creatures you see (projections of others wearing 3D headgear that they have also forgotten they’re wearing) keep telling you that if you stop playing the game you will die, that there is only the game, and it is the ‘game of life’. So you begin to live in an endlessly harrowing simulation of reality that you increasingly confuse with actual reality.

But as compelling and as cleverly reinforced as this illusion is, when the game ends, when one of the monsters slays ‘you’, you don’t actually die, because the ‘you’ that is seen and heard with the headgear is just an illusion, just a clever projection. In the simulation, there is no ‘real you’. You fall back with enormous relief with the knowledge that that very compelling deathly 3D experience was not real. Yet just a moment ago you had the sense that that experience was terribly real. The chemistry in your body was exactly as it would be if the experience was real. But now you’re sure it wasn’t, because now you’ve taken off the headgear, awoken from the nightmare, and yes, this is the real reality.

But it is not. Unknowingly, ‘we’ are still wearing headgear, it’s just that we cannot see it, and cannot take it off. We’ve been wearing it since we were infants, when it was first ‘tried on’. What we think of as reality is just another mental projection, another dream, another hallucination of having a separate self immersed in space and time with things seemingly happening and appearing unquestionably real. Just as when wearing the 3D headgear, we now live in an endlessly harrowing self-created simulation of reality that we have utterly confused with actual reality. We have ‘forgotten’ what is actually real.

And so the game goes on, until, one way or another, the hallucination ends. And then it is seen that there never was a game, never were players, never was a ‘you’. But that is not seen by ‘you’ — because there was never a ‘you’ to see it in the first place. When this hallucination ends, so does the hallucinator.

There is no ‘cure’ for dementia, though there is considerable evidence that the current global epidemic of it is due primarily to nutritional deficiencies and excesses in our modern ‘western’ diet, so prevention and treatment is likely possible.

It should not be surprising, then, that there is no cure, either, for the ghastly, traumatizing illusion of the separate self, the illusion, since early childhood, we’ve come to believe essential to our survival and functioning, something that must be embraced and nurtured and never questioned. How can there be a cure for ‘us’, when ‘we’ are the disease? How can there be a means of taking off the ghastly, hallucinatory headgear when ‘we’ are the headgear, when we are the hallucination it creates?

Those few who seem unencumbered, or no longer encumbered, by this illusion of being separate, real selves, seem to function perfectly well without recourse to it. In fact, they seem in many ways healthier creatures, much less prone to the many negative emotions (anxiety, hatred, shame etc) that seem to need a sense of self and separation and control to sustain them. My sense is that they are like almost all wild creatures, and their functioning is completely unaffected by the presence or absence of the illusion of self. Their instinctive, conditioned responses, honed over a million years or more of evolution to optimize health and performance, are unimpeded by the confusing veil of self and separation that is inevitably conflicted over what it believes it controls but actually does not, and hence over what it ‘should’ do.

There is evidence that the human brain’s capacity to even conceive of a separate self and then believe that conception to be real, only dates back a few thousand years, which suggests that, prior to that, we, like all the other species unafflicted by this misperception/ misconception, thrived for most of our million years on earth without any need for selves.

This illusion of self and separation would seem to be a disease that cannot be healed. So for most people, its recognition is useless. But, as someone who has, all my life, been convinced that there’s something very wrong, something missing, in my understanding of how the world is the way it is, the simple appreciation that what is ‘wrong’ is not in what is perceived to be real, but rather in the illusion that the perceiver is real, is absolutely electric. Everything immediately makes sense (but of course in a way that is completely useless to the self, since there is no place for the self in it).

It’s now obvious (at least here) what those ‘glimpses’ were, in those strange timeless moments when the ‘me’ that perceived and conceived of things was suddenly absent. It’s now obvious why wild creatures, even those with brains as large and complex as ours, are not afflicted with the dreadful, debilitating mental illnesses that create such massive human misery, suffering, and world-destroying behaviours in our species. It’s now obvious that this intuitive sense that has always been here, that life shouldn’t be, and shouldn’t have to be, so hard and so complicated and so demanding and so cruel, was a correct one.

But though the diagnosis may be obvious, that does not mean there is a treatment, a therapy, a cure. The recognition that a hallucination is just that does not make it go away.

I look at the human world and I see endless unhappiness: Inexhaustible shame, trauma, sorrow, anger, hatred and grief over what apparently happened in the past, and anxiety and dread about might happen in the future. Blame of others and ourselves. Discontent and disappointment, feeling let down. Hopelessness, a sense of being trapped with no escape. Helplessness, a sense that everything is out of control in a dangerous, destructive, immiserating way. Dissatisfaction: Life should be better than this, ‘I’ should be better than this. Everything should be improving. Exhaustion: ‘I’ am tired of trying, of having to deal, of nothing ever being enough, or good enough. Dashed expectations. Criticisms. Ridicule. Shocks and unpleasant surprises. Endless regret for personal failures. Feelings of constant precarity, the threat of danger and loss. Living with disease and the threat of disease, physical and mental, acute and chronic, and of accidents and their consequences. Fear of death.

All of this is in ‘our’ heads. It is all invention, stories we have made up or others have convincingly told us. Fiction. None of it is true. But it is such a persuasive, powerful, culturally indoctrinating and endlessly-reinforced (by other voices, and our own) narrative that we cannot help believing it. ‘We’ cannot acknowledge, let alone remove, the headgear that projects these fictions, because ‘we’ are the headgear. We cannot ‘get over’ the illusion of our selves because we are that illusion.

The last time there was a glimpse, I wrote afterwards “There was no temptation to grasp onto it lest it be quickly lost again. It was clearly always here, everywhere, not ‘going’ anywhere, accessible always. My self would have been anxious not to lose it, but my self was, in that moment, not present. The glimpse was completely impersonal, not happening to anyone… It felt completely ordinary and obvious. Oh, that! Of course; how could I not have noticed?”

So tantalizing, to somehow ‘know’ that all these conceptions of misery and suffering are just inventions, with no basis in reality, and that ‘seeing through’ the illusion is seemingly so close, and always, in a way, there ‘waiting’. But not for ‘us’!

Tony Parsons often used to talk about “making the prison of the self more comfortable”. He said that’s what religions (including our worship of technology, money, pleasure, sex and fame) are about, and what meditation, spirituality, escapism (and fantasy!), addiction, and therapy are all about. We can never be free of the affliction of our selves, but through these pursuits we can, for a little while, feel less oppressed by them.

So here we are, apparently. Trying, impossibly, to heal ourselves from ourselves. Some therapists have actually come to grips with this, and now, in a kind of palliative way, do what they can to make “the prison of each patient’s self” more comfortable. The key to this, perhaps, is to appreciate that what is comforting is not the same for all, and that what may be of comfort for some, when indulged, can be very harmful to others, and to the planet.

“The whole world is our hospital”, Eliot wrote, in East Coker, the second of his Four Quartets, though it is not clear whether by “Adam’s curse” he meant mortality or the human thirst to know more than was good for us. Perhaps they are the same: Without the brain’s insatiable attempt to make sense of everything, it is unlikely the sense of a separate self, useless and afflicting as it seemingly has turned out to be, would ever have evolved, so neither the illusion of the self’s mortality nor the illusion of its capacity to ‘know’ anything, would ever have arisen.

Maybe, if we were humbler and more compassionate in the way we — foolish separate human selves — attempt to make the world a better place, we might see that world not as a hospital, but as a hospice. Not as a place for fixing that which, for the most part, cannot be fixed and does not need fixing, but, rather, striving to reduce, as much as possible, the collective pain and suffering of all creatures in the world, without judgement or blame or prioritization or expectation. That, however, does not seem to be in our conditioning.

There is no healing ourselves from the tragedy of ourselves, but it’s OK — It’s not real, it’s just a hallucination. While there is no actual time or space or anything separate or ‘real’ in this wondrous, timeless, deafening silence, ‘we’, trapped in this perilous time and space of our own invention, can never see that.

But it doesn’t matter. It’ll be over soon, anyway. No more hallucinations, no more struggle, no more prison, no more disease. Gone, the headgear that cannot be seen, or removed. Vanished, as if it never had been.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Radical Non-Duality | 10 Comments

We Know What We Don’t Want

Ingrid Michaelson in her enormously-fun video of the song Hell No! signs the word “no”. If you want to know the meaning of the other useful ASL signs in the images below, you’ll have to watch the video!

In a recent conversation with Tree Bressen, we talked about people we knew who had no idea what they wanted — in a relationship, in a job, in a home, or in their personal lives. But they were quite clear about what they didn’t want. It occurred to me that this probably applies to most people and most of their preferences and choices.

Whenever I have had a particularly momentous decision to make — say, where to live, which house to rent, what car to buy, what investments to make — I usually end up listing the criteria, applying a weight to each criterion, ‘scoring’ each of the alternatives… and then completely ignoring the total scores when it becomes clear to me I’ve already made the decision.

What I really want the score to do is justify that decision — to make it plain, and compelling, why I made that choice. When I do that — when I start rejigging the weights and scores until they match my decision — I realize that I’m mostly raising the weights of criteria that are negatives. I’m stacking the deck against options that, for all their advantages, have some attribute that I know I don’t want.

In other words, the decision process is largely a process of elimination of the various alternatives, starting with the ones that have some feature I know I’m not comfortable with.

While I know I have a propensity to be risk-averse, this seems a most unfortunate basis for making a decision. But think about a lot of the decisions we make: Who to vote for, what to make or order for dinner, which shirt to buy. Mostly, I think, we winnow it down and then make the decision by deletion, based on something we know we don’t want.

Ranked voting choices provide a particular dilemma. You are supposed to list your choices from 1 to n, until you have no further ‘positive’ choices, and leave the space beside the rest of the candidates blank. But how can you resist putting the highest number beside that particularly loathsome candidate, and then working backwards to your favourite?

Our preferences are clearly conditioned — both by our biology (eg early food preferences) and by our culture (eg music we like). And there’s plenty of evidence that ‘we’ don’t actually make any choices at all — our mental gymnastics are all designed to make sense of what we had, due to our conditioning and the circumstances of the moment, already ‘decided’ to do. Radical non-dualists (those who no longer have any sense of self or separation) say that their preferences remain as they always were, based on their conditioning; there is just no longer any attempt to rationalize or make sense of them, or to identify them as ‘theirs’.

Why would we evolve such that our ‘negative’ preferences — what we know we don’t want — are clearer to us, and more important in our conditioned choices, than ‘positive’ preferences?

When it comes to what we eat, most wild creatures learn by watching their mother and smelling their mother’s breath. That conditions them to not eat dangerous or poisonous foods, which is more critical to survival than selecting the most nutritious.

When it comes to choosing a mate, nature leads us to look first at health — strength, fitness, energy, positivity, beauty — and to reject candidates who we instinctively sense to be poor choices for child-raising. There have been studies that show that on average we settle down with someone after 7-10 serious relationships (and a similar number of sexual partners). The unanswerable question is whether holding out longer would lead to a happier long-term relationship, or would simply reduce the number of ‘available’ partners to choose from, leading to a less satisfactory relationship, or none at all.

There is strongly conflicting evidence about whether having had more relationships before settling down improves happiness thereafter, and also about whether second marriages or equivalent settled relationships are any happier than first ones.

My guess would be that in tribal cultures the average number of relationships before entering into a marriage or equivalent relationship is much lower than the 7-10 average in our modern culture. And I also suspect that many or most couples who stay together for years or a lifetime are more likely to do so because it’s not bad than because they’re actually happier. In other words, they stay together because they don’t want to split up rather than because they do want to be together. In fact, if you buy the arguments in the famous Dan Gilbert talk, our happiness (and unhappiness) is, by our very nature, not sustainable anyway, no matter our circumstances.

So perhaps that 7-10 relationship average is just the result of our conditioning, and finally encountering sufficiently few “don’t want that” triggers to prevent our natural evolutionary tendency to mate from having us stay with our latest relationship. “I don’t know for sure if I want this to be my primary, lifelong relationship, but I do know that I don’t not want it to be so. I could hold out for something ‘even’ better, but something instinctive is telling me not to do so. I don’t want to be alone, and the arguments for waiting longer until I find what I absolutely know I want are not compelling.” Very unromantic, but my guess is that many of us (or at least our conditioned bodies and our rationalizing selves) have ‘decided’ in exactly this way.

Of course, that’s not how it feels. When we fall in love, or lust, the chemistry is all about what we want. Nature is so clever that she’ll use our own body chemistry to obscure facets of our love-interest about which, with a clearer head, we would quickly say “Damn, I don’t want that“. But soon enough, the intoxication wears off, and we’re back to being just indifferently unhappy, wanting something new, something else, something that’s missing, and all too aware of what we didn’t realize, in the haze, we didn’t want.

I look at the trajectory of my life, and my sense is that I need and want much less than I did when I was younger, but that my apparent decisions are still based more on aversion (mostly to stress, anxiety, and my many fears) than on attraction. It’s still clearer to me what I don’t want (a sizeable list) than what I want (a very short one). But perhaps that’s just me, and getting old.

When I have spoken to people in my circles about this, it’s been astonishingly easy to reframe much of what they say they think they want (better relationships, adventures, fun, material comforts, freedom, joy, purpose) into terms of what they don’t want (acrimony, loneliness, stress, boredom, obligation, anxiety, responsibility, and the sense of helplessness and hopelessness). Is that just semantics or is there more to it?

I’m not sure how important all this is — probably not enough to warrant declaring it to be one of Pollard’s Laws, but it is interesting.

So — How well do you think you know what you want, versus knowing what you don’t want? What decisions in your life have apparently been driven by the weight of positive criteria, rather than by the avoidance of negative ones? What, more than anything else, do you (positively) want? And is that something more than freedom from what you don’t want?

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 6 Comments

The Public Will Never Go For That!

posters for Victory Gardens 1943; download an entire 1943 Victory Garden manual here

I‘ve often been accused of being a defeatist. I don’t believe the collapse of our civilization in this century can be avoided. I don’t believe that our now-global systems (political, economic, social, business, educational, health systems etc) that cause so much suffering, human and more-than-human, can possibly be reformed. I don’t believe that anyone or any group (sorry Margaret) has the power to bring about the kind of dramatic, radical changes that would significantly improve any of the predicaments we are currently facing or will soon be facing.

But I think that’s just being savvy about human nature, complexity, the nature of predicaments, and how change actually happens. It’s pessimistic, to be sure, but it’s not defeatist — it’s realistic.

So you may be surprised that this essay’s purpose is to confront what I see as real defeatism that I think, especially this year, has caused us to underestimate “the public’s” willingness to tolerate significant changes to our lifestyles, for the betterment of all. And the words that exemplify this defeatism most often are: The public will never go for that. 

I first noticed this underestimation of humans’/citizens’ capacity for change about 20 years ago, when I spoke with climate scientists. When they told me that they would never admit in a public conversation just how desperate the situation is regarding climate change and other facets of ecological collapse, I kept asking them: Why?

Of course they had legitimate concerns about job security. If they told the truth speaking as members of a government scientific body, they would probably be canned by the political interests who controlled that body. But they could, and did, sign on to collective pleas and lobbying from large groups of scientists speaking as individual scientists, like the Union of Concerned Scientists. But business leaders and citizens certainly noticed the cognitive dissonance between what they were saying on the record as spokespeople for their organizations, and what they were saying as part of a large but more anonymous group (and to their own close friends and families). Which story do you think most business leaders and citizens have chosen to believe? The one that says there’s still time, that we can “solve” the problem if, if, if only, and that we can get where we need to get by painless baby steps. Starting in five years.

But they told me there was another reason they didn’t say what they really believed, what they really knew, in public. And that was that they were afraid that a dire message that told people they had to make drastic changes in their own lifestyles, and major sacrifices, now, would simply be unacceptable to their audiences. They would not be invited back. They would be discounted as crazies, alarmists. People would simply not listen. People only want to hear reassurances, comforts, good news. Even if it’s untrue.

Now, to me, that’s defeatism. It indicates a failure to appreciate that throughout history people have been willing to make huge changes to the way they live, if everyone else is willing (perhaps with some cajoling) to do their part, too. And that’s the rub. We have given up believing in the potential for large-scale collective action in the public good. We have given up on each other.

That’s dreadfully understandable. Self-interested corporatists, conservatives and their media use the public will never go for that as a club to beat down any suggestion that large-scale collective action is possible. The public will never go for medicare for all. The public will never agree to make sacrifices to mitigate climate change. The public will never give up their guns, their cars, their vacation flights, to reduce needless deaths, global warming, or the spread of a pandemic.

The problem is, we don’t know that that’s true. Many countries have medicare for all, and have made major sacrifices for the benefit of all their citizens, including, if reluctantly, in New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan and other countries that have beaten CoVid-19 and long ago returned to near-normal lives.

Defeatism is the pessimistic assumption that “the public will never go for that”. It’s lazy, uncourageous, and weak. Instead of letting this fiction dictate not only what we do, but what we don’t do, we could be following many models around the world where the citizens have embraced the challenge, won the day, and collectively celebrated their successes.

The defeatists’ second line of defence is that would never work here. This argument is presented as a statement of fact, when it is an unsubstantiated opinion. It can be a self-fulfilling prophecy: Wait too long to act, implement ineffectual half-measures, watch them fail, see the public resentment over confusing, annoying instructions achieving nothing at all, or worse. See, we told you it would never work here. We couldn’t even get the public to

This defeatism, encouraged by corporatist interests, the ultra-rich defending their privilege, and nostalgic conservatives prompted by execrable media to yearn for a return to a safe, simple, ordered past that actually never existed, extends to every part of our modern society, and its effects are lethal.

There is overwhelming evidence that if we all shifted to a balanced, varied, plant-based diet, we would live an average of ten years longer overall and our healthy lifespans, the number of years free from chronic illness, would likely nearly double. This is not rocket science. If the food industry were prompted and rewarded to make it work, there is no reason why this would be difficult, or more expensive, or more time-consuming, or less delicious. But we can’t even get our national food guides to suggest it. Why? The public would never go for that. You can’t tell people what they can and can’t eat! Even if it’s killing them, and costing us all a fortune in treatments and hospitalizations and lost work time, not to mention its social costs and the massive amounts of human and animal misery and disease (including pandemics) it perpetuates?

In war-time, and during depressions, suddenly we find a way to get past this fiction, this excuse for mad, complacent, defeatist behaviour. In wartime (real wars where we have a stake, not the proxy/drone wars we fight now), people have readily given up their luxuries, and even some favoured foods and activities, and put in hours of extra toil each day, all to “support our troops”. During the Great Depression, corporate and some individual tax rates were as high as 90%, and everyone understood this was a necessary cost to prevent people starving.

We put the brakes on a horrific threat to our planet — the destruction of the ozone layer — in just 5 years, by simply banning dangerous refrigerants and working with the industry to invent safer alternatives. Many countries have done the same by quickly phasing out incandescent light bulbs, reducing the energy consumption of lighting by over 80% with no inconvenience whatsoever, and the lighting manufacturers are doing just fine, thank you.

Instead of the public will never go for that, and that would never work here, we might try another self-fulfilling prophesy: We’re all going to do this because it’s in everyone’s interest. I think we’d be surprised at how it might land.

Instead, we have governments reopening businesses, schools and public institutions and facilities just as the pandemic variants are starting to take hold. Why don’t we Go For Zero? The public would never go for that. That would never work here.

Instead, we have the new US president repudiating everything that Bernie and AOC urged Democrats to support and vote for. Why not medicare for all? The public would never go for that. That would never work here.

Instead, we have meat packers designated as essential workers, dying in massive numbers of CoVid-19 as their factories, which are veritable hot-houses of disease to begin with, working at close quarters to chop up the ghastly products of factory farms that are likewise hot-houses of disease and misery (and the origin of most pandemic diseases), have been responsible for a large proportion of the super-spreader events that have caused 80% of CoVid-19 infections. Why not shut down meat packers and factory farms (which account for less than 2% of wages and GDP in most countries while producing over 90% of animal “products”) and encourage people to eat something else at least until we can get them to clean up their act? The public would never go for that. That would never work here.

As long as we keep saying it, and allow our cowardly, complacent governments to keep saying it, it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. They have given up on us, and we have given up on each other.

Now that’s defeatism.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 6 Comments