In a Foreign Land

This is #25 in a series of month-end reflections on the state of the world, and other things that come to mind, as I walk, hike, and explore in my local community.

photo taken here in Coquitlam by Vancouverite Ashika Morasiewicz

In a foreign land there were creatures at play,
Running hand in hand, needing nowhere to stay,
Driven to the mountains high, they were sunken in the cities deep,
Livin’ in my sleep.

I feel like goin’ back, back where there’s nowhere to stay,
When fire filled the sky, I still remember that day.
These rocks I’m climbin’ down have already left the ground,
Careening through space.
I used to build these buildings; I used to walk next to you.
Their shadows tore us apart, and now we do what we do.
Driven to the mountains high, sunken in the cities deep,
Livin’ in our sleep.
I feel like goin’ back, back where there’s nowhere to stay.

— Neil Young, Goin’ Back

Yesterday I prowled the neighbourhood, looking for stories. I wondered as I wandered: What does this bustling community and its land and people have to tell me next, if I only pay attention?

Perhaps that nobody really knows anything. Or, maybe, that nothing can be known. I don’t know anything, anyway.

Or that there is beauty everywhere, but it seems like nobody notices. Maybe it’s too familiar to get people’s attention. It rarely gets my attention. You have to slow down, really look. Look closer. Then, sometimes, you can see. The dogs and cats notice. They’re not as domesticated as we are. What a strange quirk of evolution that we humans seemingly ‘get used’ to beauty so we don’t really see it anymore.

It’s just all happening. Or it seems to be. It’s at once mind-bogglingly real and not real at all. Sure seems real though. Amazing what our brains can construct to make sense of things, what they can imagine, what they can believe. And since ‘we’ don’t actually decide anything, or do anything, it doesn’t matter that everything these brains construct is a fiction. An interpretation in vacuo of the firehose of electrical impulses coming from our senses, one that can never actually reflect reality. But it doesn’t matter. What happens, happens, regardless.

Some who have studied birds for a lifetime surmise that birds don’t see separate ‘things’. They see movement, of course. But they just kind of ‘take in’ everything all-together-at-once and respond instinctively to what their senses perceive, without trying to make meaning of it, or parse it, or judge it. Even if they had a word for it, they would not identify something as ‘prey’, or even as anything separate from anything else. They don’t need labels to thrive.

I can see this inseparability-of-everything sometimes, when I pay attention, for a short time. And then I go back to being everyone else. Separating everything, tearing everything apart to make meaning of it. I’m used to it now, it’s how the circuits of this brain were formed, way back then, thanks to everyone I’ve ever met and everything I’ve ever read, back in all those times that never happened. It’s the only way I can think, the only way I ‘see’ things at all, most of the time, in this abstract, veiled way. It’s comfortable, living this illusion. It’s a tragedy, a waste, I guess, but it’s OK.

Beautiful, terrible world, PS calls it. Sounds about right. Amazing, astonishing, awful, awesome. We rush around as if we’re going somewhere, but it’s all already here, already decided, already done. It’s all in the can. We’re just the audience, barking in the stands, believing what is conjured up in front of us on the stage, on the retinal screen, is real, and happening now.

I realize I’ve never known anyone, not really, not even myself. Especially not myself. I’ve just made up stories and told them to others and they’ve shrugged and said, essentially, “close enough, I guess”. But they say that only if the stories I tell them are stories they want to hear, stories that mesh and resonate with the stories they’ve told themselves, with what they want to believe to be true. I know better than to tell them stories they don’t want to hear. There is no point. They won’t hear them, can’t hear them. It’s OK; they’re just stories anyway.

So there are these people walking round here, on the paths and sidewalks, seeming to be real. I have to walk around them or I’ll bump into them, after all. We all agree that we are all real. But what does that even mean? I know nothing about them, even the people I claim to know well. I don’t even know where ‘they’ end and ‘not-them’ begins, or anything at all about the ‘not-them’ stuff that makes up most of what they call ‘their’ body.

All I know is the pieces of a story they tell me about themselves, and the pieces I tell myself about them. And all I know about myself is, likewise, the story I tell myself about myself. The plot keeps changing though, and some of the story-lines are pretty thin. Way too many flashbacks and flash-forwards to be coherent. And the characters, including the protagonist of my own story, don’t hang together at all well either. Heroes or villains, I can’t tell. Just not believable, not someone anyone could ever relate to. They need to be spec’d out better if we’re ever going to believe they are real. Editor please!

As I wander through the neighbourhood, I make up stories about the people I see (and about the dogs and cats and birds too). It’s a writer thing. Some of the stories are, I think, clever, or at least interesting. The little boy in the mall commenting to his parents about having seen two Santa Clauses a couple of minutes apart. My story is that he wants to know which is the real one. That he wants so much to believe that somehow there is a real one that he’ll buy any story they tell him, no matter how preposterous. Like the people I know who want to believe Biden is really a good guy who knows what he’s doing, he’s just being presented badly by the press, and by his ‘handlers’, and his foes are taking what he says and does out of context, and lying about the rest.

But all that is just my story. It’s probably wrong. Maybe the kid’s about to discover the lie he’s been told, for ‘his own good’ (both the lie, and now the truth). Maybe that MAGA guy is about to wake up and discover the lie he’s been told about climate collapse. Anything can happen.

I could write a series of short entertaining stories now, about the anecdotes I witnessed, or thought I did, or maybe mostly invented, during my walk. That would be hard work, but it’s fun, and readers might find them amusing.

I could write about the woman going into the bistro as a man is leaving, and just outside the door, they both move the same way, and then both move the opposite way, trying to make room for each other, and then they both laugh, and the man then does a little dance-y spin to make fun of their uncoordinated movements, and then the woman puts her arm up and dances around him and for a moment they’re actually spontaneously dancing, before they laugh and nod and each go on their way. But you could probably write a story about them that would be just as good, and funnier, and more concise.

Or I could write about the homeless guy in the wheelchair who wheels over to the same place midway between the mall and the Skytrain station each day, out there on the edge of the parking lot, and erects a kind of makeshift tent out of tarps, without ever leaving his seat, to protect him and the chair and the little metal box at his feet from the rain, and how every time he sees me he nods and smiles, and gives a little bow in his seat, saying, always “Thank you again!” You could probably embellish that with a bit of a back story — he wears a kind of ersatz military jacket and has some very unusual tattoos. Hell, you could probably compose a whole short story about him, with a little imagination.

Instead, however, I sit by the window of my apartment, staring at the panorama of lights spread out below, and drink tea and eat nuts and seeds and berries, which are OK and which are supposed to be good for preventing prostate ‘problems’ and dementia. Can’t hurt, I guess.

And then I go to bed, tossing and turning, and then finally fall asleep.

the place I dreamt about, as depicted by Midjourney AI; my own prompt

In my dream I am wandering in the neighbourhood, but it is not ‘my’ neighbourhood. In the dream, we live in a tropical rainforest, not the boreal one I live in. In the dream, the people are all beautiful, all smiling, adorned with mutually-made body art instead of clothes. The food and water we need is easy to forage near where we live, and we live in hammocks in the trees. Most of the day is spent in various forms of play, and when we play, we laugh, we have fun, we get silly. Like other wild creatures, we go back and forth between two states: enthusiasm and equanimity.

In my dream there are wild creatures everywhere, but they’re not domesticated, not confined, and they are unafraid of humans. In this other reality, we are not doomed, as Loren Eiseley heart-breakingly said, to realize nature only in retreat. There are jaguars in this forest, I know, and we’ve all known those who were eaten by jaguars and other apex predators of this forest, our home, but this is not something we’re anxious about, something we change our behaviour and our lives to try to prevent. The jaguars have to eat, too, and if they choose us to eat, that’s in a sense an honour. It’s the only thing that could have happened. It’s OK. We may run, or fight, or freeze, and we may grieve those who have been eaten, but that’s what life is about. Nothing is right or wrong, good or bad. Just what is. Accepted. All just seeming parts of the one everything, in motion, in flux. Just a rearrangement. Just an appearance.

Just a dream.

In my dream all of this made sense. It seemed not only possible, but the natural way we humans were meant to live. Of course we are told that humans have never lived this way, but I don’t see why we couldn’t have, or might one day live that way again. It’s what I want to believe, even though it’s only a story. Gaia is my Santa Claus, I guess.

So I wake up, and realize it was ‘just’ a dream, but I wonder if what this brain and this concocted ‘self’ sees as reality is just a different kind of dream, just as unreal, just as much the brain’s invention.

Every morning, this brain does what it has been conditioned to do — recreating the story of a separate self with a past and a future, the story of linear time, the story of volition, and everything having a meaning and a purpose and somehow making sense, in order that this body can do what it must do, supposedly, to survive, and, most importantly, to look after its ‘self’. At least that’s how it appears, to the self. None of this seems of any import to this seeming body, this awkward and fragile bag of water and cells and organs and tissues, which does not perceive itself as being apart from anything else. This body — or its billions of constituents to be more precise — just act out their conditioning, not needing any sense of self or separation or time or purpose to do so.

It’s beautiful, what it does, without a thought, without anyone or anything in control. Astonishing even.

But we humans, possessed of selves, don’t notice much. We’re too used to it. Too busy trying to find what is missing, what is needed.

What was never lost.

Thank you to all the readers who have helped me hone and refine and sometimes totally change the thoughts and feelings and perceptions and conceptions that, year after year, this blog tries to chronicle. I have no idea what is going on, but your comments and letters and conversations seem to make this lost, scared, bewildered (but illusory) ’me’ a little less clueless, and this blog’s preposterous propositions a tiny bit less incoherent. This, it seems, is what I do. I can’t help myself.

And, I’m afraid, neither can you. May it turn out as it will, for you and those you care about, in 2024.

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7 Responses to In a Foreign Land

  1. Vera says:

    “The jaguars have to eat, too, and if they choose us to eat, that’s in a sense an honour.”
    I live in bear country, and feel the same way. Last year, the neighbor’s dog I walk every day surprised a bear mom on my porch, with two cubs. Cubs shinnied up the ponderosa, mom got very annoyed. I took the dog home right away, but when I came back, she was still there and upset. Ran towards me with a menacing gleam in her eye. I park my car at the bottom of my driveway, and was able to duck inside and honk; they all then went away. But what if my car hadn’t been there? I could not outrun her… there but for fortune… ain’t life amazing?

    Dave, as I have been following your non-duality adventure, I want to share some end-of-year feedback. I have only scratched the surface, and it all may be a cult, for all I know. But. The following rings true to me:

    It’s all one. There is a fundamental unity underlying the world we experience. All-that-is is one. (Of course, it’s a conjecture. But I have had glimpses too, and this resonates. And I find reports of mushroom stimulated loss of self credible.) And “seeing” that we arise from, and belong to, this fundamental unity, this ground of all being, is liberating and comforting at the same time…

    I think Sapolsky is right when he says, in the intro to his latest book, that “there is much less free will than generally assumed.”

    Your definition of the self as “embodied experience of being inside a physical entity (body) which is somehow apart from and distinguishable from everything else” makes sense to me.

    And finally, I have come to appreciate your stress on the apparent nature of what we experience.

    Here is a quote of yours that I love: “So oneness arises as wholeness and then plays the game of becoming separate.” :-)

    All the best for the coming year.

  2. Siyavash Abdolrahimi says:


    I’m impressed by the willingness to show up as fully as you do here and admit to what you call to being “clueless.”

    I think if my twenty year old self were to see a highly articulate, thoughtful septuagenarian refer to themselves in that way, he’d be entirely baffled and bewildered! Surely, one must have “figured things out” by your age?! “What is wrong with with this Dave guy?” – he’d ask!

    This reminds me of the inversion that seems most logical from the perspective of one dharma teacher: that with (a nondual spiritual) practice one (may) drop the urge to save the world and instead shifts towards aiming to save the world from oneself!

    Salam 2024!

  3. Peter Webb says:

    Thanks for taking us on your morning stroll around your thoughts.
    Beautiful and real non-grasping;
    just being true:
    so valuable

  4. Jim Meyers says:

    I usually just read your emails, but wanted to jump in here to say thank you and wish you a healthy and happy New Year.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks for the kind comments.

    Si, this is pretty much how my kids (and grandkids) see me — quirky and impossible to quite figure out, but well-intentioned and harmless and almost lovable when you get to know him. It gets easier to admit you’re clueless when you get old and aren’t being paid for what you know.

    Peter, I recently got interviewed by an Aussie permaculturalist for a podcast on the subject of collapse. I suggested she should talk to you for more practical ideas on how to be ready to adapt to collapse.

  6. Alastair McGowan says:

    Clueless, me too. What I have learned is that when someone says they have a solution to any of this apparent crisis point of the anthropocene, then they are likely to be deluded. But solutions will emerge, Gaia’s immune system will protect her, it’s happened before so we can have a degree of certainty there. But also, there are millions of brilliant souls and minds increasingly focussing on how the human species can survive, stop prevailing, and come into balance with Gaia. I came to your site after reading your explanation of Jeff Vails Theory of Power. It was 20 years ago that I was chatting with Vail as he presented his ideas. And here we still are pondering what seems like an intractable bind of our own deeply programmed behaviour that we don’t know how to escape from. We are all clueless if we cannot solve such fundamentals as the existential crisis ploughs on over the cliff edge. But maybe change is happening deep below the surface of it all. The internet 2 has only been with us a decade or so, and what the explosion of information and knowledge may do in terms of global human relationships, could
    take some time to begin to show effects. Information, as a human need which is as core shelter food and water might be the thing that places us all into a Power checkmate. And so many other aspects of ongoing change will have exponentiall numerous effects. We are clueless about the future but if we position ready to embrace it’s facilities as assiduously as a banker is constantly searching for a profit and as aggressively as an arms dealer promotes their wares, we might find the 4ight lever to pull at the right moment to pivot the existing culture into a positive world of real abundance and life worth living for all while healing the planet. Right know we have all the knowledge and technical means to make a shift into a bottom up civilisation, we just don’t have the human motivation to let go of the painful destructive ways. It doesn’t matter that we are clueless, we just need to recognise the patterns as they arise and steer them in the right directions.

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Alastair: One of the things I’ve discovered from studying complex systems is that what we’re facing now with the polycrisis is a predicament, not a problem. Problems have solutions, but predicaments only have outcomes. The best we can do is roll with them, learn to adapt to the new realities. But I hope you’re right that there is a lever that emerges that at least allows us to lessen the damage of collapse. My sense is that we’ve inadvertently gone “all in” in a war with Gaia, and, to mix sports analogies, she always bats last, and it’s really up to her now. It doesn’t look good, but it’s going to be interesting. I don’t think we’ll know how it all turns out in my lifetime (it’s a Long Emergency), but we might have some sense of it. Working on an article about the work of Ivan Illich and Gustavo Esteva, whose work in México, I think, might offer some clues as to what kind of human societies are likely to work post-civ.

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