First, Unlearn


two children of deaf adults (CODAs) teach each other ASL; photo by daveynin on flickr CC-BY-2.0

There’s a reason it’s so much easier for young children to learn things like new languages. They haven’t already “learned” the one best way to do things (like structuring sentences for example). With no preconceptions, they are not prejudging or trying to fit everything into their established worldviews and frames.

If your way of making sense of the world insists that sentences should have a subject, a verb, and an object, in that order, it’s going to be much harder to learn a new language that uses an entirely different order, and perhaps declensions and conjugations that change how a word is said and written depending on its context in the sentence.

We are the product of our conditioning, and that conditioning serves us well — it allows us to make sense of things even when large parts of it are missing. We just fill in the blanks the way our worldview makes best sense of it. It saves us a lot of time and energy, and informs our instincts to make the appropriate reactions, quickly.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that, if we want to learn a completely new way of doing something — speaking a new language, working in a self-managed business, or embarking on a program of self-directed learning, for example — it’s going to be hard.

Unlike the novice, to do these things you’re first going to have to recognize, or set aside, your existing conditioning about how these things are done (putting the words in a certain order in the sentence, following the hierarchical processes in a business, and doing what the teacher says is next to do). And then you have to unlearn those processes to clear the slate to learn this new way of doing things. Without that you’re going to be fighting every step of the way:

“This isn’t how I was told to do it. I can’t see how it could ever work. It doesn’t make any sense.”

“Please lay it out for me in a way that fits with my current understanding and way of doing things. Surely these declensions and conjugations are unnecessary and can be dispensed with, no? Surely some degree of hierarchy is necessary even in a self-managed organization, no? Who do I talk to about that? What is the structure and steps involved in a self-directed learning program?”

“OK, just tell me what to do and how to do it, in a logical (to me) order.”

There are terms for the “unlearning” process — deprogramming, detoxing etc. But we’re not machines whose old programs can simply be erased. The neural pathways in our brains physically co-develop with our early childhood learning, and they’re not nearly as plastic as we might think. If we haven’t learned any abstract language by the time of puberty, for example, linguists tell us we are then unable to ever learn such a language. Our brains and their connections have been put to other, non-linguistic uses, and we’re set for life. That’s how deep our conditioning runs. Try to learn a second language, and every fibre of your brain is trying to learn it relative to your first language, by “translating” word for word. It’s a hopeless way of learning a new language, but, in a sense, it’s the only way we know.

So I think words like “unlearning” and “deconditioning” are better terms to describe the agonizing process of trying to do things a new and utterly unfamiliar way to the way you’ve always done it.

To effectively learn to self-direct our education, we first need to “de-school”, before we can “unschool”. To effectively learn to work in a business that is non-hierarchical and collectively self-managed, like Teal organizations, we first need to “de-work” before we can learn the radical new process of “un-working”. To effectively learn a new language with utterly alien conventions, we first need to set aside everything we know about how languages are structured —”unlearn” the rules of our current languages — before we will be open enough to easily learn a new language.

But how, when “the old way” is the only way we know to do these things, do we decondition ourselves from, and unlearn, the old way, so we can learn the new one?

Here are a few ideas:

  1. There is a process used to learn new and exotic (to us) languages called Where are your keys? The idea is to associate phrases with actions, without parsing them grammatically or syntactically. That is how children first learn languages, orally. So someone takes their keys out of their pocket, drops them in front of the group, and says, in Skwxwú7mesh, “Here are my keys.” The rest of the group repeats precisely what was said. There is no parsing what was said grammatically or syntactically. The presenter corrects the pronunciations, and then says, in Skwxwú7mesh, “Where are your keys?” and looks at the group. Almost instinctively the group, perhaps with one participant nodding and speaking first, repeats the learned phrase for “Here are my keys.” The group will then pick up on the process and repeat the question in Skwxwú7mesh “Where are your keys?” and the leader will respond with the now-familiar “Here are my keys”. And every time the group sees a key or someone reaching into their pocket, they will immediately recall the phrase. This is precisely how young children learn language. The leader can now ask “Where are my keys?” in Skwxwú7mesh and introduce the answer “Here are your keys.” in the new language, without any mention of how the language “handles” pronouns. You don’t need to learn syntax, semantics, sentence structure or orthography. Your brain will figure that out mostly subconsciously if and when it’s needed. That’s what brains do. They don’t need to be taught.
  2. When I went through my “unschooling” process at the end of high school, the way I learned was through observation and demonstration. I was clueless about how to learn how to learn. But we can all reacquire the skill if someone (a peer, a young child, a wild animal or bird) shows us how they do it. We can show way more than we can ever tell in words, and we learn much more from watching than from being told “how” to do something. Same thing in self-managed organizations — put someone in a group that already demonstrates this strange, unfamiliar, unintuitive process and in no time they’ll see, and relearn, how to do it themselves. That’s absolutely not “best practices” or “case studies” or any of the other failed ways of improving organizational processes. Don’t think about it or try to capture it, just watch, follow, and let the relearning take care of itself. If birds can do it, so can we.
  3. And a third technique for reconditioning yourself is through the use of stories. Stories are subversive in that they bypass some of your categorizing, sense-making, analytical inclinations and “transport” you to a new place where all your attention has to be on following the story line, not judging its premises. Whole organizations like the World Bank have transformed themselves just by “getting the message” of a story that led them to understand what had to be done, rather than being told (and instinctively resisting) what someone said had to be done. When you make a great story your own, you fill in the gaps, you make sense of it yourselves, you don’t challenge its logic. You make it your own, and then you act on it.

I’m sure there are other techniques that also help you decondition and recondition yourself and your colleagues to learn something important and radically new. It’s principally a matter of getting out of your own way. But it’s damned hard, so don’t be embarrassed if learning something that is seemingly child’s play to a child, seems akin to moving a boulder with your breath to the older, conditioned you. And don’t expect your fellow learners and work colleagues to find it any easier. You’re going to have to help each other unlearn, and then help each other learn. Just watch the kids and the wild animals. You can do it.


Thanks to Tree Bressen for the very useful discussion on this article, and to the Eugene Teal group for prompting it.

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

Links of the Month: March 2021

And when everyone’s racing and you join in
If you can, try running with a smile
Because there is a danger in going too fast
Getting too far ahead can set you back
— Ellis Delaney, Right on Time


CIVILIZATION’S COLLAPSE


image from pixabay/pexels CC0

No shame in that: I’ve had the good fortune to have met some of the extraordinary scientists, historians, and students of our culture who have, together, convinced me beyond doubt that our civilization is in its last century. I could fill these monthly links with reports that make the case convincingly, at least for those inclined to believe the truth no matter how dark. But, as I’ve come to accept that we believe only what we want to believe, and the truth be damned, I’m not really inclined to keep making the case any further.

What I am concerned about is the overwhelming sense of despair, grief, anger, and even shame that so many of these remarkable and prescient people have withdrawn into in their later years. Some have become angry, bitter and dismissive, and others have just stopped writing and speaking and just become silent.

Unlike them, my angry, grief-filled years were in my youth, and, as I age, I have become more and more a believer that “we are all doing our best”, and that there is no point in getting distraught just because that has not turned out to be enough to prevent our civilization’s looming global collapse, and with it, climate and ecological collapse on a scale not seen in millions of years.

I am a bit of a newcomer to discovering the essence of shame. The more renowned one becomes for one’s expertise, it seems, the greater the sense of anguish, fury, and shame at one’s inability to use that knowledge and power to make things better. There seems to be a sense that one has failed the flock, let everyone down. It’s as if, metaphorically, after raising the alarm about the fire and getting everyone roused from sleep, it turns out everyone is trapped, the stairwells are impassible, and it is likely all will perish in the fire anyway. (This isn’t true just of environmentalists, by the way; I have seen this same sense of outsized shame from highly-esteemed people in many walks of life who have identified, but been unable to solve, their disciplines’ greatest challenges).

I am only amazed that I didn’t understand this before now. I suppose, as a generalist modestly knowledgeable about many things but renowned for none, I haven’t had to deal with that kind of ‘professional’ shame. But I think it’s tragic. It took me a half-century of writing to understand that, as much as it is expected and hoped for, there is absolutely no obligation for the writer articulating a problem to conclude with practical solutions to it. Sometimes it makes more sense to ask a profound question, and leave it unanswered, than to proffer some half-baked answers to it. In the same way, it may often make more sense to calmly provide evidence and argument that the situation is dire, and leave it at that. There doesn’t have to be an answer.

So this is my short thank you to those who have opened others’ eyes to the terrible knowledge of our current, insoluble predicaments. You are not to blame, not at fault, not responsible for not having solutions to problems that have none. Nor are you responsible for not telling us sooner, or louder, or more convincingly. You’ve done enough, already. Take a bow.

(PS Thanks too, to the NTHELove group. Just ’cause you get all this.)


LIVING BETTER


drawing by James Norbury (thanks to Tom Atlee & Tree Bressen for the link)

Tell me how the story ends: If you read nothing else this month, please treat yourself to Ann Patchett’s staggeringly brilliant story about how to tell a story. It’s incredibly long, and it will take your breath away. And change how you think about the art of writing.

What we don’t need: Another new story by Ann Patchett examines our incapacity to give up stuff we don’t need. The stuff that somehow “represents both the person we wanted to be and the person we are”.

Understanding trauma: The astonishing map in this article explains how chronic terror, oppression and trauma affects us. It’s written to understand how these things affect white Ashkenazy Jews in the US, but with a little word tinkering describes how I think members of nearly all oppressed and traumatized groups compensate to try to protect themselves (the black circles) and the beliefs and actions that are driven by these internalized compensations (the branches). I was especially struck by how so many of the women I know, across the spectrum, manifest these compensations and resultant internalized beliefs and behaviours. Aha! Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.

Replacing police with social workers: Another example, this time in Colorado, of the remarkable success that can come from deploying social workers equipped with compassion, skills and resources, instead of cops equipped with military equipment. The Colorado program builds on Eugene Oregon’s model CAHOOTS program.

No turning the clocks back, please: A majority in every country, and a majority of elected officials of both US parties, want to end the annoying and useless process of turning clocks back an hour every fall. But still, three years after this became clear, there is still no sign that the people’s wishes will be listened to, even for something so simple to implement. This is what dysfunctional government looks like.


POLITICS AND ECONOMICS AS USUAL


cartoon by Sofia Warren

An unusually high percentage of this month’s political links are from Canada. No idea why. A Canadian flag (🇨🇦) denotes them. There are similar things happening in much of the rest of the world, I’m sure.

Cryptoart and NFT’s are a “crime against humanity”: The latest fad in Ponzi scheme “free market” speculative vehicles is ruinously wasteful of precious energy and produces a scandalous amount of carbon emissions to “establish its value”. These “products” are valued in cryptocurrencies, everyone’s favourite gambling craze, whose value depends on how much energy they waste. The next piece of cryptoart should be a depiction of Nero fiddling while Rome burns. The auction houses are rubbing their hands together with glee.

(🇨🇦) The cost of BC’s unsafe Site C dam doubles to $16B: And the premier doubles down continuing to support it. Madness. And the official opposition supports it too.

(🇨🇦) Canadian farmers spike butter with cheap GMO palm oil: It was chefs complaining about butter that didn’t melt that blew the whistle on the latest Big Ag scam.

(🇨🇦) Kielburgers refuse parliamentary order to testify: The darlings of the US charity circuit (long supported by the Clintons as models of fund-raising skill) have refused to respond to a Canadian demand to appear in front of a parliamentary committee to explain why they’re, at best, playing fast and loose with disclosure about where the money they’ve raised in Canada, some of it in preferential projects where the Canadian PM avoided normal bidding practices to give it to them, actually went. Worst case is much worse. It seems that no one told them that when you “do business” in Canada, you can’t “plead the fifth”, or obtain immunity from prosecution before testifying.

Nevada Democratic Party staff quit when socialists prevail: When a slate of “Democratic Socialists” won positions on the board of the state party, the staff all quit. Ooh, can’t have real socialists in our party! Thanks to Tree Bressen for the link.

(🇨🇦) Canada’s Competition Bureau allows fraudulent newspaper “swap”: A barefaced deal to allow two huge Canadian newspaper chains to “swap” three dozen “unprofitable” newspapers and then immediately shut them down, was knowingly allowed by the Competition Bureau, on the basis the “onus of proof” of fraud and conspiracy was too high. Given the now-public evidence, this basically shows the Bureau can’t do anything to regulate even the most heinous anti-combines activities.

(🇨🇦) Canadian pioneer of rights for the elderly dies through MAID: Donald Bayne, who was railing against the disgraceful conditions in many of Canada’s senior care facilities, and who fought for the right of those facing dementia to medical assistance in dying right up to his own death, had terminal cancer, and received medical assistance in dying from his doctor, two weeks ago. He was 98.

The abusive narcissist next door: Caitlin Johnstone continues to call the war-mongering Biden administration to account for its atrocities at home and abroad. Where is the progressive press? And how lame to claim the recent bombing of Syria is “self-defence”.

(🇨🇦) The danger of abusers in competitive youth sports: Mentally ill people disposed to abuse young people are easily drawn into high-pressure youth sports, where they can wield power and influence over victims. The news is depressingly full of these situations, notably in skating events, gymnastics and swimming. Now it’s clear hockey is vulnerable to the same types of serial abusers, and there are few safeguards to prevent or catch repeat offenders.

(🇨🇦) A strange scandal in a Canadian mental health organization: Another CBC investigation has revealed that the National Collaboration for Youth Mental Health (NCYMH) is run by a woman who apparently uses multiple pseudonyms to skirt around a history of criminal offences, a designation as a “vexatious litigant”, and a disturbing record of staff resignations, with some alleging being threatened or subject to smear campaigns. It’s tragic when our most vulnerable find they cannot trust the very organizations established to protect them.

(🇨🇦) And the death toll from street drug poisonings in BC keeps soaring as the government sits on its hands: Six months after promising reforms to deal with deadly toxins in street drugs that kill far more people than CoVid-19, it’s still all talk and study and no action. When the provincial public health leader has clearly laid out the simple steps that are needed, this is inexcusable.

(🇨🇦) A special note of gratefulness to Canada’s CBC and BC’s Tyee for better-than-world-class investigative reporting. So proud to have these remarkable media organizations here stirring up shit when it needs to be stirred up. More please!


COVID-19 CORNER



There is a growing sense that the Infection Fatality Rate (IFR) of CoVid-19, far from being simply a function of age, might vary by country by as much as a factor of 10, within each age cohort, based on citizens’ diets and the health of their immune systems. Obesity, as a surrogate for immune dysfunction, correlates very strongly with CoVid-19 mortality.

Watch out for P.1: The big news about CoVid-19 this month is the ghastly toll of the Brasilian P.1 variant, which is reinfecting large segments of people who got the original disease in Brasil last year, and may be even infecting those who have been vaccinated. It’s completely out of control in Brasil now, infecting a much younger cohort, and thanks to the country’s incompetent government there is nothing to prevent it spreading to the rest of the world.

How high will the 3rd wave be?: The latest data from Europe and the Americas suggests that (1) variants with higher transmissibility are quickly taking over from the original virus as the source of most new infections, and (2) the rate of infections, having reached a relatively low plateau in February (but still much higher than the July-August plateau), is now moving significantly higher again. Some are suggesting the 3rd wave will be higher than the 2nd, especially in areas with high obesity rates, while IHME is predicting no 3rd wave at all. My guess is the answer will be somewhere in between, depending on how prevalent the P.1 variant becomes and how quickly effective vaccines and boosters against it are implemented. Hold onto your hat. Thanks to Paul Heft for the link.

When it’s your turn, take any vaccine offered to you, please: Zeynep Tüfekçi explains why the vaccines, at least in their ability to deal with the original virus and the B-type variants, are actually a lot more effective than the 95% and other “efficacy rates” quoted in studies would suggest, since they only measure the success at preventing any measurable degree of infection. They appear to be much more than 95% effective at preventing deaths, hospitalizations, and serious infections.

Do antivirals trigger new dangerous variants?: Zeynep also writes about the connection between very expensive antivirals like ramdesivir and the emergence of new virulent strains of viruses like CoVid-19. It only makes sense that very ill (and very rich) patients treated with such antivirals would be the perfect breeding ground for rapid evolution of viruses, perhaps even triggering whole new pandemics immune to our vaccines and with entirely new qualities putting us right back at square one. Just as overuse of antibiotics encourages resistant and deadly strains of bacteria, so too with antivirals.


FUN AND INSPIRATION


from xkcd, of course

Why email is not the right tool for anything: We use email because it’s simple and ubiquitous. But it’s suboptimal for everything we try to do with it. “It creates a tortuous cycle that increases the amount of work on our plate while simultaneously thwarting, through constant distraction, our ability to accomplish it effectively. We’re also, it turns out, really bad at communicating clearly through a purely written medium—all kinds of nuances are lost, especially sarcasm, which leads to frustrating misunderstandings and confused exchanges. But lurking beneath these surface depredations is a more fundamental concern. The sheer volume of communication generated by modern professional e-mail directly conflicts with our ancient social circuits. We’re miserable, in other words, because we’ve accidentally deployed a literally inhumane way to collaborate.”

How goats make up their minds: A study suggests it’s not about following the alphas, but rather democratic and emergent. We might want to try that.

The month’s best Beaverton headlines: The Canadian equivalent to The Onion is on a roll:

    • Headline: Canada approves another vaccine that you won’t get for like six months
    • Headline: Trudeau pledges to vaccinate at least eight more people by end of September
    • Headline: Ontario scrambling after discovering vaccines need to be actually administered to population
    • Headline: Trudeau clarifies that Saudi Arabia isn’t an ally, just an acquaintance we sell a fuckton of weapons to

Birdcams: The best of 2020: A short video captures some amazing moments.

Canada’s national anthem was plagiarized: Good thing Mozart isn’t around to file suit.

It’s all just a performance: A strange and funny rant by Hank Green reveals that we’re all just making it up as we go along.


RADICAL NON-DUALITY STUFF


drawing by James Norbury 

Our minds predict our reality: Cognitive scientist Anil Seth describes how and why we invented our selves. It was with the best of intentions! Also from Anil, an award-winning post reveals that the world we perceive comes from the inside-out.

Best radical non-duality talks of the month:


THOUGHTS OF THE MONTH
A reprise from 2016


Somali-Australian-British-American poet Warsan Shire

“Home”, by Warsan Shire:

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body.
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilet
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
mean something more than a journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
pitied

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough

the
go home blacks
refugees
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
savage
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off

or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
drown
save
be hunger
beg
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying-
leave,
run away from me now
i don’t know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here

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

Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark


image from piqsels, CC0

I don’t handle stress well, and  don’t like surprises. The three words that probably best describe me are lost, scared, and bewildered. Small upsets may cause me to overreact and to stew for hours or days. My phobias sometimes make me hyper-vigilant.

This is not a plea for compassion or reassurance. Compared to what most people live with, caught up in their thoughts and beliefs and feelings and reactions, struggling with unending anxiety, shame, anger, distress, exhaustion, guilt, grief, longing, loneliness, dread, and so on, my life is a picnic.

My last post, which a lot of people found refreshing, raged against politicians, religions, the medical profession (psychiatrists especially), the legal profession, and “do-gooders” (devout humanists who still buy into the myth of personal and cultural progress). Doesn’t sound like someone who repeatedly asserts “No one is to blame”, does it?

I should, of course, have made it clear that they can’t help being assholes — that’s just their conditioning, much of it informed by trauma and other forms of mental illness brought on by what I’ve called Civilization Disease. And in the narrow circles they move in, they condition each other and reinforce their fiercely-held, pain-induced beliefs, as they are themselves conditioned, by endless negative reinforcement.

Like all of us (*sigh*) they’re doing their best. Though I know it’s illogical and needlessly stress-making and not their fault, I can’t help getting annoyed by what they do. My biological conditioning is for freedom, and my cultural conditioning is for “fairness”, and being told that restricting people’s freedoms of choice over their own bodies is somehow righteous, offends both these sensibilities. But there is no choice, really, on their part or mine, so apologies for my accusations. The relentless cognitive dissonance of our modern world sometimes makes me behave foolishly.

I could have blamed “the system” (as I did for most of my life), instead of the people who have no choice but to be entrapped by it. But that’s just a scapegoat, too. There is no system — a system is just a name we use for what emerges from the collective actions of some subset or other of 7.8B people, each conditioned by their biology and their cultural conditioning to do the only thing they could have done in the circumstances of the moment.

So my recent rant was just me playing a role that I’ve played often, and sometimes to applause, a role that I have no choice in, and for which the script is just given to me, as it is for everyone, one line at a time, just in time to be delivered, with the appropriate degree, or lack, of passion and conviction, before yielding the stage. It’s actually rather comical. Except of course for our selves, those intense, exhausted judgers of everything, like dogs in the stands barking furiously at us actors, not understanding that none of it means anything and they should not take it seriously. But they’ve been conditioned to bark, our poor, tragic selves, to bark from infancy until death, in the belief that their barking should make a difference. That’s what selves do.

My rants, my essays of joy and lament, my stories, are all just different ways of barking. We get encouraged when other selves join in and bark furiously with us, and dismayed when they do not. We all want reassurance from the other dogs, all around the stage, that our barking is appropriate, useful, and meaningful. Though it is not.

But something strange has been happening lately.

I’m barking less often, and when I do, it’s less noisily, less passionately, and for a shorter time. My heart’s just not in it like it used to be.

Despite the fact this past year’s events have caused many calm people to become unsettled, and many anxious people to feel as if they’re living on a knife edge, and despite the fact that CoVid-19 is preventing me from doing some things that I really love to do, I seem to have become less anxious, and more equanimous. What’s wrong with me?

I’m still watching the stage intently, watching “my” character play its strange roles, alert to any perceived threat of danger to it, or to the other characters I care about.

This has all been happening very slowly. In recent years when I go on a trip I don’t plan things much anymore, and am not really fussed about doing anything. I am much less inclined to get upset with myself, even when I’ve done something unwise or unintentionally hurtful. When stressors arise, I still react as quickly, but not as intensely, and I don’t get as overwhelmed, overreactive and dysfunctional. And I get over it much sooner. Things that once would have caused me to lose sleep for a week, now I get over in a day.

I seem to need less — less reassurance, less attention, less appreciation, less encouragement. With less reactivity and less self-destructive behaviour there is less need for self-reflection, less need for thinking, freeing up more time to just notice, pay attention, and be. And I seem to need less stuff, stuff which is no longer, for me, a reflection of who I am or what I represent.

I don’t think this reduced reactivity is a result of being less engaged or more dissociated from the world and what is happening in it. Indeed, I seem much more prone to bouts of crying, not in distress but in joy, such as when I hear moving music or read an exceptionally powerful story (Read this story for example; it’s long but magnificent and worth the time, and I cried through much of it).

I’m still an insensitive, unobservant and inattentive person, but perhaps slightly less so than I once was, and I think there’s a chance that’s because I’m less frightened to really see and understand things that are awful for others, or for myself. I still care just as much, but I don’t get as personally charged about it, or take it on as something I have to fix or do something about. We’re all doing our best. Even me.

I could ponder what changes in my conditioning might have wrought this apparent growing equanimity: Quitting social and mainstream media and similar doomscrolling, except for a quick glance at headlines in more trustworthy publications, and, instead, reading more thoughtful, well-researched articles and books, and local news only where I can take useful action. Spending my time with more intelligent, creative, curious, less reactive, less judgemental, less damaged people. Slowly internalizing my changed worldview, even though it hasn’t changed my essential nature. (Those who have reconditioned me thus know who they are — thank you!)

It is awareness of these changes, whatever is behind them, that has allowed me to accept that we have no free will, and to do so without becoming a determinist, fatalist, nihilist, or gloomy or depressed about that (and I spent much of my earlier life struggling with grinding, devastating depression). Although I remain a terribly slow learner, my conditioning, from deep within my genes and instincts, and from those whose company I now keep and who condition me, as I condition them, is somehow making me a healthier, more joyful person, even as the world is accelerating full-tilt towards a ghastly civilizational collapse.

I think I have good reason to call myself the world’s most blessed agnostic. Perhaps I am less my self than I thought. This dog almost looks like it’s ready to settle down and enjoy what’s left of the show.

This character, the one I presume to inhabit, is up on stage, doing what actors do, doing the only thing it can do, waving surreptitiously to my self as it whimpers and covers its eye with its paws, way up there in the stands — willing it silently to understand: It’s hopeless, but we’ll be fine.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 4 Comments

The Right to Die

Stand back. This is a rant.


You have to wonder what kind of society you live in when you have the right, even if you are a psychopath, to buy and maintain an arsenal of machine guns, but you don’t have the right, even if you are suffering from a ghastly and excruciatingly painful disease that leaves you in a vegetative or demented state, to a simple, dignified death.

This is what happens when you have gutless, not-very-intelligent governments that are constantly being played by self-righteous religious groups, terrifying politicians that any right-to-die legislation (which now has to use the euphemism MAID — medical assistance in death — to avoid triggering the sensitive) will inevitably result in confused people dying after they’d changed their minds about wanting to, or the “legalized murder” of old people by greedy heirs or “lazy” caregivers.

If we applied such standards anywhere else, we would not be allowed to drive cars, since there is a risk that they might be deliberately or carelessly used by a few people to cause injury or death. It’s madness. Of course right-to-die laws could be abused by a small number, but the solution to that is to pass the laws and then charge the abusers (you know, like we do with drunk driving laws), not to sit on your hands and through inaction punish the innocent. Religious zealots, in cahoots with a clueless medical profession and a terrified legal profession, are holding the rest of the world hostage to their ideology. Their message is: We don’t want you to be able to end your life, no matter what. Suffer.

Senator Pamela Wallen tried to fix it. She rejected the Canadian government’s utterly inadequate rewrite of Canada’s right-to-die laws, not only because it’s cruel and inhumane and will lead to untold unnecessary human suffering, but because it’s patently unconstitutional — as the courts have already ruled, in rejecting the current law, which is equally lacking in compassion and backbone, and which the ‘rewritten’ law essentially restates with a few weasel words. She proposed several amendments to strengthen the right to die, which were passed, by a nearly 2:1 margin, by the Senate in a free vote.

Our dim-wit Prime Minister rejected Pamela’s amendments outright, even stalling off a step in the right direction for some sufferers of terminal psychological illnesses for two years (to let the next government deal with it before it becomes law). The man is totally without courage or character.

And his fucking lackey Justice Minister said simply he “does not believe we are entirely ready” to safely provide assisted dying for people with mental illnesses. Really. He plans to install “panels” (ie selected “experts” who will deep-six Pamela’s amendments) over the next two years to ensure they never see the light of day. The CMHA, in the pocket of right-to-life groups, said more bluntly “Until the health-care system adequately responds to the mental health needs of Canadians, assisted dying should not be an option — not now and not two years from now”. Guess who’s going to be on the “panels”?

Please think about that before you give money to “health” organizations like the CMHA that have an anti-choice agenda.

Like Pamela, I have a substantial history of Alzheimer’s in my family. I’m about to turn 70. My father and uncle, in their very early 80s, went through years of hell. Hallucinations. Paranoia about medical and support staff regularly killing and torturing other “inmates” overnight. So much terror about his invalid wife that he almost killed himself trying to “escape” to rescue her, since he couldn’t understand why, despite his warnings, his children weren’t doing so. Reduced to long meanderings about his bowel movements and asking desperately for help with severe constipation, brought about by the many meds he was “treated” with to keep him calm and doped up. Being expelled from care homes that deemed him “too violent and unpredictable” to be kept anywhere without constraint.

Thanks to Canada’s new and still medieval laws, that’s probably me in 10-15 years. I already show some early signs of cognitive problems. And nothing I can do — no advance directive, no declaration of sympathetic decision-makers who I trust to carry out my wishes, no passionate blog article — can prevent it. The doctors and lawyers can just shrug and say “Our hands are tied.” Which will be ironic given that by then I will probably be sedated and my hands strapped to a gurney.

I’m not asking a lot. I just want to be able to write, now, when I’m clear and level-headed, a statement that says the following, and have it respected when I’m not:

  1. I’ve had a full and remarkably healthy life. When there are signs that that period of my life is ending, I want to be able to give someone I trust the nod, and give them the right from that moment on to tell the doctor “It’s time” and have the doctor promptly respect that decision. You know, the same courtesy we provide for pets who are clearly suffering, physically or psychologically.
  2. I want that to happen before I lose my dignity. When I say I don’t recognize someone I know really well, then that would be a good sign that that’s happening. Even if I may have “lucid moments” after that. And fuck the preachers and patronizing politicians and social do-gooders who say “But he still probably has some good moments left! There’s still a human in there, he’s just confused. If he were not so sick, he wouldn’t want to end his life.” Fuck them all to hell.
  3. I have signed a do-not-resuscitate and do-not-intubate order and written an advance directive. But doctors and lawyers and courts do not have to honour it. I want them to be required by their professional oath and by the law to honour it. My body, my word on what happens to it. I am outraged that our government disagrees. This Prime Minister is the son of the courageous and competent leader who said, famously, that “there is no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation”. His son clearly believes it has a place in the nation’s hospital bedrooms.
  4. My father died when he simply refused to eat or drink. Even in his deepening madness, he knew there was a simple, compassionate way to end his own suffering. And let me make this clear, despite the rhetoric and propaganda from the right-to-life scare-mongering zealots: Dying from dehydration and hunger is almost always a peaceful way to go, and certainly no more painful than knowing you’re losing it and that it will only get much worse. I’ve done my homework. But my father shouldn’t have had to resort to that. He had the same orders and directives I have, and a compassionate and sympathetic family. And still, because of the law, that was his only way out. If he was about to die from a “physical” disease, he would have been better off. His wife (my stepmother) lived over a decade on force-feeding and intubation, unable to move, speak or do anything for herself; the look on her face, before it became simply blank, was one of endless confusion and distress. A decade of root canal would have been more humane.

If, a decade or two from now, the people I’ve designated to make decisions for me when I’m incompetent, have to act in that capacity, they have a ghastly choice: They can honour what they know I want, and risk possible criminal charges and imprisonment. Or they can buckle under to the right-to-lifers and obey the law, knowing it is the opposite of what I want, and that they’re condemning me to a prison from which there is no escape, other than the one my father was sane and courageous enough to take. No one should be put in that position.

We’ve been saying this for decades, since the current PM’s father made his statement and we tried to prevail upon him to add the right to die to his bill ending the criminalization of homosexuality and abortion in Canada. He had to fight foaming-at-the-mouth Conservatives just to accomplish what he did. It would be a wonderful legacy to his name if his son would muster up some courage and blaze the trail for the right to die with dignity. It’s not a big ask.

I should note that Canada is far from unique in its right-to-die laws. In much of the US and the rest of the world, the laws are even more restrictive, and in some places getting worse. Millions, perhaps billions, will face these same choices, dread, and terror. All because one ancient religious ideology continues to prevail over common sense.

I’ve read a lot of heart- and gut-wrenching stories, some of them dating back decades, from people caught in this ghastly human-caused quandary, and the suffering, guilt, and criminal consequences that it produces.

There’s a chance that, in ten or twenty years, someone may stumble on this post, and do a little research, and realize that my death, and the situation for those I trusted to bring my life to a dignified and peaceful end, was every bit as horrific as my father’s, and as horrific as the agonizing slow deaths of so many millions of others. If that situation should change, I will rewrite this post. I don’t expect I will have to.

Please, when you next vote, make this issue one you make your decision on, and get a clear, recorded affirmation from your candidates that everyone has the right to die in peace and with dignity. Otherwise, it will just go on, and on.

/rant

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 11 Comments

Can We Change Our Conditioning?

Swayed in part by Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s book about how animals (including humans) are conditioned, I have been writing a lot lately about the fact we have no free will, choice, or control over what the creatures whose bodies we presume to inhabit actually do. Our actions, I now believe, are entirely the result of our biological and cultural conditioning, given the circumstances of the moment.

Yet I am not a determinist. Nothing is predictable. The circumstances of the moment are the product of an infinite number of often-interrelated variables, and what those circumstances will be when our conditioning clicks in we can never know. What’s more, we are constantly culturally re-conditioning each other in ways we can never guess. Something someone said to you yesterday might be just what was needed, at exactly the right time, to make you, today, do X instead of Y, when without it you would have done Y. Just as we can change the behaviour of a beloved pet through positive conditioning, we can change each other’s. We just don’t have any choice about it!

That raises the awkward question of whether, through who and what we expose ourselves to, or whether/how we think about it, we can change our own conditioning. If we can, that would seem to contradict the idea that we have no free will.

So suppose I’m concerned about a phobia or bad habit that I have. I then, apparently, ‘choose’ to read, study, talk to someone, or practice something that, according to others, can effectively deal with the particular excessive fear (driving in bad weather, say) or unhealthy predilection (such as overreacting to unexpected happenings or news items). In taking that action, am I exercising choice?

I think not. When I do this, it’s because I have already been conditioned to have assessed this phobia or habit as unworthy, and already been conditioned to think that some course of action might address it. In different circumstances, or at an earlier time in my life, I might not have even recognized the phobia or habit as a problem, or the people in my life might have conditioned me to believe that such phobias and habits are insoluble so the only solution is just to ‘suck it up’. In that case, my conditioning would not have led me to take any course of action.

And similarly, while my conditioning can be affected by what I read, the ‘decision’ to read more about ways of dealing with phobias and habits is not ‘my’ decision at all, but merely the effect of previous conditioning.

Even the ‘choice’ to become more self-aware of the phobia or habit, and how it manifests in the moment to bring about an unhealthy fearful, angry or upset reaction, is not my ‘choice’. Nor is it my ‘choice’ to move to a place, say, with less bad weather, or to expose myself less to vexing people and more to option-opening experiences and learnings. In each case I was already predisposed by previous conditioning and circumstances to make such changes.

I could try to make the argument that philosophers like Daniel Dennett make about us having a ‘kind of’ free will. (If that stuff interests you, you can read the gist of his ‘compatibilist’ argument in the preface and introduction of his latest book online, using the “look inside” preview here.) But, presumably because of my own conditioning, I now find such arguments pretty much moot, since the reasoning is so qualified and rarified that it endlessly begs the question — do we have any choice over what we do or not?

And, to my astonishment, after a lifetime of answering ‘yes’ to this question, my answer, these days, is an emphatic and unqualified ‘no’.

And so, like biologist-neuroscientist Robert Sopolsky (“It’s insanely difficult for people to accept the extent to which we are biological organisms without agency”), I’ve come to believe that all the systems we have created based on the assumption we have free will (the entire penal system, advertising and PR, the health care system, and the industrial food system, for a start) are fatally flawed and will probably eventually have to be abolished (if and when the conditioning of the majority leads them to acknowledge this necessity).

This creates an horrific level of cognitive dissonance when you try to reconcile what most of us fiercely believe with what this realization implies. Try to tell the victims of a despot, a caste-ist regime, or an auto accident that “No one is to blame”! The very word ‘victim’ implies there was agency resulting in their victimhood.

Robert asserts that it makes sense to incarcerate those whose actions pose a significant threat to others, but only for the safety of others, not as a punishment or deterrent to the perpetrator. But what about the argument that time in prison conditions the imprisoned to avoid future imprisonable acts? As Melissa’s book explains, this argument is flawed for the same reason negative conditioning of pets is so inferior to positive conditioning, and has such a low success rate. But to suggest that the best response to an unhoused person sleeping where it disturbs others, is to offer them housing, not to arrest them and tell them to get a job, is beyond the pale for many. (“They have to take some responsibility themselves.”)

BC’s so-called “progressive” premier recently rejected his senior public health officer’s call to legalize all drugs and provide safe, free usage sites for those addicted to often-deadly street drugs. His argument was that, unlike the smaller numbers dying of CoVid-19 in the province, those dying from poisoned fentanyl were different because they had “made a choice”. In saying this he was, sadly, speaking for the majority of his constituents. When he was told to “walk back” the assertion, because many progressives found it highly offensive, he was clearly flabbergasted — it had never occurred to him otherwise. That is what he had been conditioned to believe. So the carnage from toxic street drugs (and our revolving-door incarceration systems) continues unabated.

And, since so few pet ‘owners’ will read Melissa’s book, compared to the millions who read the cruel, brutal prescriptions by people like the self-proclaimed “dog whisperer”, the majority will continue to abuse their pets instead of encouraging their pets to different behaviour through simpler, less exhausting positive reinforcement. We’re all just acting out our conditioning. We can do nothing else.

But, I hear the humanists saying, there is evidence that we’re at least conditioning each other in more positive ways — look at the drops in most crimes, and in wars (that we hear about), and the sharp decline in barbarities that were once committed unthinkingly by nearly all parents, teachers, law enforcers, prison owners, spouses, and armies.

Ah, the myth of progress. Today, hidden from view and not discussed in the media, we have “white-collar” crimes of stupefying proportions, oppressing most humans and almost all “domesticated” animals. Today, we outsource our wars to other armies, less morally ambivalent than we are, and we equip our soldiers with AI and drones so we have fewer of our own coming back in coffins. Today we intimidate and cow oppressed people, at home and across the world, with threats, arbitrary detentions, officially sanctioned murders, constant surveillance, non-disclosure agreements, and state-approved lies and coverups. They are as effective as, and more discreet than, bombs and nooses.

Still, we will believe what we want to believe. We have no other choice in that, either.

Some people have argued that, if we were to acknowledge the truth that we have no free will, it would lead to anarchy, nihilism and mass suicide. What is the point to life, they argue, if there is no way we can consciously make things better, if nothing we do really matters?

Of course, if it weren’t for our lifelong conditioning, there would not need to be a point. Life would be just accepted for what it is in all its astonishing wonder. Of course, governments and large-scale systems would collapse; they require a subdued, obedient, propagandized (well-conditioned) public to function.

It would certainly be a big change, if we all suddenly realized we have no free will. And very uncomfortable for those with great wealth and power. But for most of us, if we could “un-eat” from the tree of knowledge that taught us, millennia ago, that we have a choice and a responsibility and a duty, and let us see the world for what it really is, my guess is that our world wouldn’t be that different from the world of wild creatures, who have no illusions about free will, and seemingly do just fine without them.

Of course, that’s just a dream. We are far too well culturally conditioned for that to happen on any scale. We could no more see that we have no free will, no choice, no control, no agency or responsibility for anything, than we could see any of the larger illusions on which our now-teetering civilization is built.

We’re busy fiddling furiously with the controls of the game called life, looking out through the head-gear at our perceived reality, and thinking that what we are doing with our hands on the controls is producing what we are seeing through the headgear.

But if we paid attention, we might notice that what we’re seeing is actually occurring just a tiny moment before we move the controls.

And if we could get the headgear off, we might also notice that the controls have no lights, no power, no function at all, except illusion.

That’s how powerful our conditioning is. Even if we could somehow rip off the headgear and really see, who would dare tell all the other players, furiously and desperately wielding their controllers to improve their lives, to make the world better, that it was all for nothing, that none of it makes any difference?


image from Pexels, CC0

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 1 Comment

The Four Impossibilities

I‘m going to tell you some stories. All stories are untrue, but sometimes they may be useful. I’m going to use these stories to try to describe the message of radical non-duality, so that perhaps you might understand the message. I would never try to convince you of its veracity. I’d just love more people to appreciate why I’m so intrigued by it.

With that caveat, here are the stories. They revolve around what I am calling “the four impossibilities” — things that, due to its conditioning, the human brain can never conceive of as being even vaguely true. And each of the four is more impossible than the last.

The First Impossibility: There is no time. Everything is already exactly as it is. And there is no space. Everything is just an appearance, requiring no ‘position’.

Here is a story: At some point in our species’ evolution, the brain got large enough, and its neural circuitry integrated enough, to be able to (1) conceive of things that it cannot perceive (ie to imagine), and then (2) perceive these imaginary conceptions to be real. Prior to that, our truths were all embodied — a human saw something in the jungle it perceived to be “fast and yellow”, and instinctively, viscerally, froze, fled, or prepared to fight. That instinct was evolutionarily selected for.

In those early brains, “making sense” was simply a matter of correlation, a simple brain patterning process. There is actually no such thing as “yellow” — it’s the brain’s translation, its categorization, of the perception of certain wavelengths of light reaching the retina. And there is no such thing as “fast” — it’s the brain’s translation, its categorization, of the perception of those wavelengths of light reaching the retina in an apparent pattern from different places in the visual cortex. There is a biological or cultural conditioning in many species that “fast” plus “yellow” correlates with danger, and hence the needed response is fight, flight or freeze. That evolutionarily successful instinct (with variations of the perceptual triggers by species) is present even for creatures with tiny brains — aphids, silverfish and fruit flies, for example.

None of this requires conception, or even what we might call ‘conscious thought’. It is a purely perceptual, instinctive response. The fruit fly doesn’t need to conceptualize anything to fly out of the way of your swatting hand.

But then, at some point in the human brain, the capacity emerged to conceive of what was perceived, and then to conceive of what hadn’t been perceived (ie to imagine), and then to perceive that which had been conceived, as being, somehow, as real or even more real than what had been simply perceived.

So the conception (and labelling) of (certain instances of) “fast and yellow” as “tiger” occurred. And then there emerged the capacity, in the absence of any “fast and yellow”, to conceive (imagine) the possibility of a tiger suddenly appearing. And then, the final devastating step, there emerged the capacity to perceive the (imagined) tiger being right there (perhaps looking at us, or stalking behind us, or just around the corner coming up). The primitive human, unlike its fellow forest-dwellers, can now be anxious about a non-existent tiger.

Studies have shown that the body and brain react identically whether they are perceiving an actual stimulus, imagining that stimulus, remembering that stimulus, or considering the future possibility of that stimulus. To the body and brain, these are all the same. But confusing those four things can be very dysfunctional (just ask people who hallucinate), so the brain had to invent a new ‘quality’ to distinguish between them. That quality was time. By conceiving of a stimulus as being at an ‘early’ point, ‘mid’ point, or ‘end’ point in a ‘time line’ the human could then differentially ‘perceive’ this as a memory, an immediate (‘real’) perception, or a future possibility, respectively, and respond appropriately. The absolute difference between “tiger”, here now, and a memory or imagined future possibility of “tiger” became forever blurred.

But the ‘past’ and ‘future’ perceptions are not real perceptions at all. They are conceptions that the brain imagines it has perceived. In its newly integrated brain, the now-‘conscious’ human mistakes its conceptions for perceptions. Its model of reality has become infected by a psychosomatic misunderstanding, one that can no longer distinguish between what is real (perceived) and what is imagined (conceived). As an extreme example, sufferers from PTSD are constantly reliving a trauma that is not present, and reacting as if it were. And nostalgics are forever recalling an imagined past that never was.

You may question how it would be possible to function without the invented mental abstraction of time. How could we possibly remember anything, plan anything, learn anything? But the concept of time is completely inessential to these functions. Without the story of time, we would still automatically react appropriately to “loud flat buzzing” (alarm clock), because of our conditioning. Though we may think it, there is no need to actually think “Oh, that is the alarm; I must get up now”. Our conditioning would take care of it, much as it does when we arrive after driving somewhere and can’t recall how we actually managed the drive — it’s all automatic, well-honed responses building on millions of years of evolved instinctive capacity plus recent conditioned behaviours.

But how about the future? We may not ‘need’ the conception of a past to function, but surely we need to be able to imagine the future in order to be motivated to do anything and decide sensibly how to move towards it?

Except we don’t. The imagined future is a story we tell ourselves. It’s a fiction. It may shape our ideals, our hopes and dreams and plans and intentions, but it will have absolutely no impact on what we actually do. What we do at any moment of time (this is a separate argument that there is not space to revisit here) is strictly a function of our biological and cultural conditioning given the circumstances of the moment.

We may imagine, believe, want to believe that our imaginings and ideals and hopes and dreams and plans and intentions have an effect on what we do, but they only have an effect on what we believe. The only effect of our future imaginings is forever buried inside our own heads, a dreamer’s model of a non-existent future reality. A story. A “tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing”.

Carlo Rovelli is a highly-respected theoretical physicist whose work is focused on the concept of quantum gravity. Each book, in which he writes about his latest thinking, is stranger than the last. His latest, The Order of Time, gently but firmly acknowledges that time is just a mental construct, a way for the human brain to make sense of things, and it doesn’t actually exist; it’s “just a story we tell ourselves in order to make sense of our existence”.

Neither, he says, does space or anything in space really exist: “The world is made of events, not things”, he explains. How this happens, he acknowledges, is a mystery. “Time is the form in which we beings whose brains are made up essentially of memory and foresight interact with our world: it is the source of our identity”, he writes. And he’s a physicist; his life’s work is scientifically ascertaining what is real, and what is really happening.

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

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

And then there is physicist Sean Carroll saying that all explanations about the nature of space and time fail to pass scientific muster and that the most credible explanation is that “the universe just is” — that there is no time or space, just an “infinite field of possibilities”.

The final argument for the necessity of ‘real’ time is that without it, all events would be synchronous, happening at once, eternally, and the universe would be utterly discordant and completely incoherent. But that’s a circular argument. If there is no time, there is no ‘at once’ for everything to be happening in. Everything that is happening is just — already — an appearance.

As it is for time, so it is for space. What we conceive of as space is just a categorization scheme, like time but with more ‘dimensions’, for what we perceive to be happening. Just as we can’t fathom everything happening at one time (‘already’) we can’t fathom anything happening (‘here’) without a ‘space’ for it to happen in. But that’s just an abstract concept, a made-up model that happens to fit with the other invented abstractions like time to ‘make sense’ of the mysterious electromagnetic sensations that are perceived by the human body. A human body merely appears to be real, without any need, except in our own imagined reality, for there to be any time or space for it to be real in.

Yes, I know, this is impossible to see. But if scientists, braving the ridicule and outrage of their peers, are concluding this is true anyway, exactly as the message of radical non-duality asserts, then perhaps it’s worth at least trying to understand the message.

If you’re still game, let’s move on.

The Second Impossibility: There is no death. Everything is already complete.

Death requires the ‘real’ existence of time and continuity. When ‘we’ wake up each morning, we recreate a story about ourselves and our lives, and imbue it with a sense of continuity in time. Once we believe time is real, we believe things really happen in that imagined time. And that fictitious continuity we create begins with our supposed birth and ends with our supposed death.

When I speak with those who no longer have a sense of self or separation, and ask them why they don’t get tired answering the same questions over and over again, they say that “everything is constantly new”. Every question is a completely new one. There is no “over and over again”. There is no fear of death because there is no longer the false conception that time and continuity are real, since “everything is exactly as it is, already”.

The death that we fear so utterly is our brain’s invention, and nothing more. Wild creatures’ conditioned instincts will drive them to act in ways that may avert what we call the ‘death’ of their bodies, but they are not acting out of fear of death, merely in accordance with their evolutionary conditioning. They are sensitive, and smart, in ways humans have long forgotten how to be, but they don’t conceive of time, or death, as we do, and have no fear of it. They live in what some scientists have called “now time”, which is somewhat misleadingly called by some “the eternal present”. In fact, “now time” is not time at all, and there is no eternity and no present (sorry Eckhart). Everything is already still.

As difficult, or impossible, as it is for our sense-making models to fathom, every instant is utterly new and immediate, and already. There is no continuity to these instants, or our lives, except in our brains’ imaginations, which we, tragically, now imagine to be true. Just as we imagine the fiction of our birth, our lives, and our death.

Yeah, I know. That’s impossible.

The Third Impossibility: There is no thing. Everything is just an appearance, nothing appearing as everything.

Just as there is no time for anything (like death) to happen in, there is no space for any thing to really exist in. The sense-making model in our brains that catalogues everything into fictitious slots in time, also catalogues everything into fictitious dimensions in space. But just as there is no ‘now’ in time, there is no ‘there’ here, or anywhere, and nowhere for any thing to exist.

What appears, appears. For no reason. Only the human brain has to invent a reason for everything, in order to make sense of it. We have created a map, a model of the universe in our heads, at exactly the same moment we created ‘stuff’ to put in it, and a history and dimensions of space in which to log its illusory trajectory. It’s a clever trick, but only our selves, and other human selves, ever fall for it.

The Fourth Impossibility: There is no ‘you’. 

This wonderful map/model which we each create inside our heads, early in childhood, which seemingly makes sense of much of what we perceive — a universe full of stuff, moving in space and time — is missing one critical ingredient: an anchor to give it all meaning.

That anchor is the self. The self provides the conceptual ‘here’ and ‘now’ that sits at the focal point of our entire invented model of reality. And as a result, all meaning, all purpose to everything, all of the sense that we ascribe to what we have now convinced ourselves is really happening, revolves around us, our selves. Almost all human conversation is reassurances and debates about what is real and what is happening as it is conceived by our selves and other selves. The self has to make sense of everything. Everything has to have an order, a reason, a purpose. And a place and trajectory in space and time.

And it is all just an invention that we have mistaken for ‘real’ reality. Including the self. We quickly come to believe (thanks to conditioning by other humans) that the self is essential to all decision-making, and to our very existence. But it is not. Our biological and cultural conditioning, given the circumstances of the moment, determines entirely what the body we presume to inhabit does. We (our imagined selves) have no free will, no choice, and no control over these bodies’ behaviours. Our self is left to rationalize that decision, to make sense of its ‘reason’. Sometimes that is a perplexing, desperate, exhausting, and even traumatizing rationalization. But it changes nothing.

Neuroscientists have looked in vain for the self, and concluded that there isn’t one. It’s just an invention of the brain in its inexhaustible attempt to make sense of everything. Wild creatures’ every behaviour, including many behaviours that seem much wiser than humans’, can be explained as conditioned responses without recourse to any need for a sense of self. (That includes their behaviours in response to so-called ‘theory of mind’ experiments, by the way, though I’ll save that discussion for another day.)

Billions of years of astonishingly, unfathomably complex and successful evolution, none of it requiring a self to happen. As Tony Parsons describes it, the self, the ‘me’, is a “useless piece of software”. It seems to have evolved as a spandrel or exaptation of the emergence of large brains with excess capacity, but it is no more useful or necessary than our appendices, or the 98% of “junk DNA” that emerged in our bodies that was never, or is no longer, essential to our functioning. And, like our appendices, and our spinal columns (that are still not well-adapted to standing erect all the time), our ‘self’ can create enormous discomfort and dysfunction when it “acts up”.

.  .  .  .  .

This is all impossible to accept, or believe, or even understand beyond a theoretical, conceptual level. And yet, the more I learn about the four impossibilities, the more elegant and even obvious they appear to me. I’ve had the advantage of seemingly having disappeared on several occasions — what radical non-duality calls “glimpses” where there is ‘suddenly’ no self, and all of the above impossibilities are suddenly seen to be unarguably the case — but I think I would have come to admire the message of radical non-duality anyway.

And the reason for that is simply that this message fits with my stories. Just as I could never have accepted the arguments and ideas in David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous (about phenomenology and the nature of prehistoric cultures), or in John Gray’s Straw Dogs (on the inevitability of civilization’s imminent collapse), before my worldview and frames had, for reasons beyond my control, evolved to a point where I was “ready” for them, it is extremely unlikely that the message of radical non-duality would have resonated with me at all if my explorations of the past two decades hadn’t made this “impossible” message accessible, and plausible.

But that too is a story, just as the four impossibilities are just stories. I’ve resigned myself to the likelihood that, unlike Tony and the other radical non-duality ‘messengers’ listed on my right sidebar, this ‘me’ is likely to die before the message is ‘already’ seen to be true (rather than just intellectually grasped). I will have to settle for appreciating its resonance with the ‘glimpses’, its astonishingly logical internal consistency, and how it, impossibly, just makes sense.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Radical Non-Duality | Comments Off on The Four Impossibilities

Nostalgic for 2019


You know all that stuff that’s being written about the “return to normal” after CoVid-19? You know, the mainstream media’s endless blather about stock market indices and the “return to growth” (that indicates they still don’t appreciate that our all-for-the-1% “economic growth” must stop now to at least delay climate and ecological collapse, and that stock prices say nothing about the health of the economy or the well-being of the citizenry)? All of this unquestioned nonsense is the ultimate denial of the fact that the state of the planet and its trajectory in 2019 were actually truly awful, and unsustainable.

The zeal of the media for a return to life as it was in 2019 is a form of instant nostalgia. Nostalgia is longing for an idealized time in the past that never actually was. And it’s shared by conservatives (especially working class conservatives) and progressives (wanting to put the pandemic ‘behind us’ so that the absurd, impossible dream of steady progress towards a world of equity and affluence for all humans can once again be strived for).

I am told that in the aftermath of WW2, most people were so fed up with war and its miseries that they turned away from historical programs and novels and post mortems about the war, in favour of pre-war content. Holding on to the myth of progress dictated that they view the war as an anomaly, a blip in the inevitable path towards a better future. We are doing the same today.

But just as wars have continued unabated (though mostly, and conveniently, unreported), so too will pandemics continue henceforth, and they will become more and more common, and sometimes much more severe than CoVid-19, because we have done, and will do, nothing to address their underlying causes (factory farm proliferation, exotic animal harvesting, encroachment into the world’s last wilderness areas, and human overpopulation). We continue to act as if, like WW2, CoVid-19 was just an anomaly, a blip. We long to once again read novels and watch programs where people gather together, sometimes in huge numbers, uncovered, unprotected, and fearless. This is completely understandable (“human kind cannot bear very much reality”), and it is sheer folly.

When the next pandemic hits, or the next global drought, or the hurricane, firestorm or earthquake that kills hundreds of thousands and requires the permanent abandonment of some major city, will we continue to try to fabricate our narrative around the myth of perpetual progress, or will there be a reckoning?

As someone who’d prefer to know the truth rather than live a more comfortable lie, I try to imagine how our behaviours, and the way they’re reflected in our literature and popular media programming, may change to accommodate permanent shifts in the reality of our lives and our social fabric. Such change is a challenge, because our dominant narrative is of linear progress where the only options ‘going forward’ are either “like today, only more so”, or a “slipping back” to invented horrible times before the current Golden Age, full of Mad Max barbarism.

We simply cannot hear that prehistoric humans lived full, long (except when they were eaten by predators), healthy, low-stress, mostly peaceful lives, in balance with the rest of life on Earth. We have to believe that pre-civilization life was miserable, desperate, an endless, ghastly struggle to prevail over “Nature, red in tooth and claw”.

Being linear thinkers in an age of great imaginative poverty, we also can only imagine future dystopias that resemble this fictional horrific past. Most of the so-called “cli-fi” (climate science fiction) I have read is almost unbearable to endure, refusing to accept any possibility that a world without today’s modern technology could be anything but a backwards replay of the old wild west, dark ages, or ice ages.

We also have this myopic and misinformed habit of viewing all our problems as being acute (painful but short-lasting, and potentially ‘curable’, like an infection), when most of what we’re now dealing with are predicaments that are chronic (recurrent and likely life-long, and mostly incurable, like most autoimmune diseases). The climate and ecological ’emergency’ isn’t like a war that will end; it is a new and essentially permanent feature of the human condition.

If we were to try to create a forward-looking narrative that was less irredeemable, less linear, and less Hollywood-black-and-white, we might start by assessing some of the things we will, of necessity, relearn to deal with, and to do without. I’ve tried to do this in the timeline in the graphic above. But rather than see these necessary changes as inevitably causing lasting and unbearable suffering, I’ve tried to see them as opportunities for our once-imaginative, once-adaptable species to flex its resiliency and creativity muscles, and turn the challenges to our collective advantage. You know, better without the fucking build back.

So, for example, I think we’re entering a long period when major ‘natural’ disasters are going to become so frequent that it will not be possible to insure against them or to recover from them. When huge swaths of land are devastated by mega-hurricanes, state-sized firestorms, tsunamis, floods, and endless series of earthquakes (we are long, long overdue for an era of major seismic turbulence), we will simply have to abandon our fragile human settlements and relearn to live as ‘migrants’, perhaps permanently.

There are already hints of this in the patterns of migratory farm workers, “temporary” tech workers, and domestics and nurses from south and southeast Asia. Settlement is an incredibly expensive and hard-to-maintain lifestyle, and the larger the urban agglomeration, the more vulnerable it is, and the more dependent it is on ever-more-complex infrastructure and technology, and on cheap hydrocarbon fuels. Infrastructure in many areas that was not built to last centuries is quickly crumbling, and there is simply no money to replace it.

But there is no reason why a migratory lifestyle should have to be miserable. We were gatherer-hunters for most of our million years on the planet, and being a nomad, free to move and find sustenance anywhere, could be liberating. The coming generations of migrants, rather than being ‘refugees’, might actually be models for living a joyful, sustainable life in an age of sufficiency. They will of course face conflicts with existing “land-owners”, as there are no frontiers left on our horribly-overpopulated planet, but there is no reason why these can’t be resolved.

We are likely to learn, quite soon, not to be able to depend on electricity and clean water 24/7. These are our most vulnerable infrastructure-dependent resources, and we will discover, as millions have before us, how to adapt to interruptions. This will just become part of how we live, and we’ll figure it out. One of the ways we may do so is through self-produced electricity, using a mix of solar, wind and human pedal-powered sources to generate the electricity we want when the grid goes down. That could be good for us and the environment.

My sense is that we will soon have a lot more time to do useful things for ourselves because CoVid-19 has smashed the myth that most people’s labour is necessary for anything other than providing a face-saving means to funnel even more wealth from the poor to the rich. Introducing a guaranteed annual income, distributed as a “negative income tax”, would allow sufficient redistribution of spending power to allow all of us, at least in affluent nations, to live comfortably without getting into un-repayable debt, and it would not be complicated. It would mean most people would no longer have to do their bullshit jobs, and their time would be freed up to make and fix things for themselves, grow their own food, and unschool their children.  The idea of a “job” (ie voluntary servitude), and of “unemployment” (which are both recent inventions) could then become the stuff of history.

I know enough about epidemiology that I would be really surprised if another decade goes by without at least one or two serious global pandemics, and it is probable that the next one will be a “bird flu” (most likely an H7N9 variant) that will hit those with healthy immune systems hardest (like the second wave of the 1918 pandemic), and cause tens of millions of deaths. So we will likely have to get used to “permanent” social distancing behaviours. (I would therefore recommend you divest of any shares you have in sports arenas and rave clubs.) I think we will become very innovative once we get past seeing pandemics as an acute problem and start to appreciate them as a chronic predicament, an ongoing feature of modern human life. We will probably invent and learn to use masks that are less obvious and intrusive, and come to use them much as any other item of clothing that serves a purpose. And we’ll start to view massive concentrations of human numbers in one place as health hazards, and find ways to joyfully ‘commune’ that don’t require crowding.

Hopefully this learning will also help us realize the absolute insanity of factory farming, and ban it. But I don’t suspect it will.

And my guess is that, in lieu of going to social activities arranged for us by others, we will rediscover how to engage socially with each other in community through a variety of more useful, self-initiated activities — potlucks and potlaches, book circles, ‘sewing’ circles, sharing circles, fix-it fairs, learning circles, neighbourhood work ‘bees’, and other ways of usefully and joyfully socializing with each other that are yet to be invented.

Soon after that, I predict that other types of infrastructure — roads, bridges, dams etc — will just become too expensive to maintain, and when they become unsafe or impassible they will simply fall into disuse. That, along with the end of affordable hydrocarbons in a crumbling economy (a supply/demand curve with no point of intersection), will produce a rapid shift away from liquid hydrocarbons and from electricity produced by burning them.

That will mean, first, the end of commercial aviation, and soon thereafter, the end of the personal automobile and affordable home heating and air conditioning. But, except for aviation (and our delusional, profligate dreams of space travel), there are creative solutions for these changes, too: Electric bicycles, powered by self-produced electricity rather than the grid, may well be able to navigate roads that become impassable for cars. A passivhaus mandate for every building, especially using the latest iterations, might allow us to eliminate the need for furnaces and air conditioners. And we might learn from skateboarders and rollerbladers that wheels on our shoes, which were briefly popular a generation ago, might make walking a much more viable option, especially if we’re able to innovate some electric-assist for our footwear as well.

The end of cheap hydrocarbons will also mean that most international and other long-distance freight transportation will become unaffordable. And that will mean a lot of empty shelves in our stores, which will give us even more motivation to learn to make and repair our own things.

We will likely face lots of crises and predicaments in the coming years that will be novel — we don’t even know yet what they might be. I’ve guessed at a few of them in the upper right part of the graphic above, but I might be completely wrong about them. I have a track record of being approximately right in my predictions, but way off in when they would happen (much later than I thought). I might explore some of them in another post.

It’s going to be a challenging next half-century, the adventure of all our lives. And we can do this — though not by falling back to past lifestyles, but rather by using what we’ve learned in the past two centuries to do what we do, and what we will learn to do, much more efficiently and effectively. Not by seeking a “return to normal”, but by moving past our wasteful, untenable and inequitable “normal” to a more resilient and adaptive way of living.

There was nothing wonderful, and nothing “normal”, about 2019. Instead of longing for a return to some idealized past that never was, I am full of anticipation for a completely abnormal, tumultuous, perilous, and precarious future. Let’s see what we can do.

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | Comments Off on Nostalgic for 2019

Reminder

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.

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