Dogs in the Stands


cartoon by hugh macleod

OK, so now what’s holding you back? You know that nothing you do makes any enduring difference, to the state of the world or civilization, or in fact to anything, since there is no ‘you’ to make any difference, nor any ‘thing’ to make different. So on multiple levels, you are absolutely free to do whatever you want. And now the best you can do is… as little as possible? Basically just avoid stress? People would kill to have the opportunity you now have, and you’re just whittling it away, wasting it.

Who are you talking to? If it’s that Dave-character that you think you inhabit, it can’t hear you. It’s just an appearance, a part of everything-that-is, nothing wondrously appearing as everything. As for you, you’re just a self. You’re not even an appearance, you’re an illusion. A concoction, a figment of that character’s patterning brain. Basically, you aren’t. So save your breath.

Fine, have it your way. What’s holding it back then? Why is it wasting its life, its privileged opportunity, doing essentially nothing of value?

It has no freedom to do anything. It is going to do what it is going to do, and neither it (the amazing appearance), nor ‘we’ (the astonishing conjured-up illusion), have any say in it whatsoever. So you can get off your high horse.

Hmm. Let me rephrase then: What might motivate this creature to do something that would, in fact, help it, and help us in the process? What might cause it to spend more time in the forest, for example, which is right there a minute’s walk from here, for god’s sake? What might cause it to do things — like travel to beautiful places and different cultures, like having deliberate conversations with really bright people, like getting help to deal with its phobias — that might possibly disrupt the scared, lost, bewildered creature’s default settings and get the idiot over itself?

You still don’t get it. That creature isn’t listening to you; it can’t hear you. We actually don’t exist. Instead of trying to influence the creature, why don’t you try to appreciate why it is not doing any of these things. As much as it likes looking at it, and the idea of spending time in it, it’s uncomfortable in the forest, especially now with the swarming wasps. Travel is hugely stressful these days, arguably not worth the effort and cost. Most conversations with supposedly bright people turn out to be so disappointing! And you know the lame things any counsellor is going to suggest to deal with phobias — “embrace your fears”, etc. When your instincts tell you that anything you try to do to deal with a situation won’t, on balance, be worth the effort and stress, why should you ignore those instincts? ‘Scared, lost, bewildered’ is a perfectly understandable way to be in this crazy world.

Those are lousy excuses. ‘Scared, lost, bewildered’ may be understandable, but it’s not healthy, not natural, and a pretty miserable way to be.

Expecting any creature to behave in a natural way in an unnatural, omnipresent, infantilizing and oppressive culture is absurd. Everything in this human culture is unnatural, disconnected. Of course it’s not healthy, but there’s nothing the creature can do about that, other than its feeble attempts at eating well and exercising, which it does pretty well in the circumstances. And the creature doesn’t seem so miserable to me. Certainly less miserable than it’s been most of its apparent life.

So you think its fine that this creature, our creature, just sits around most days, reading, writing, playing, doing some volunteer stuff, and essentially doing nothing helpful as this whole world goes to shit?

Well, yeah, actually I do think it’s fine. It’s not like it’s real, this creature, or this world. They’re just appearances. The creature does what it must, it does its best, it does what’s easy and when possible it does what’s fun. It’s not like it has any choice in the matter. 

It’s barely alive, it’s so disconnected from everything and everyone else. It’s afraid to feel, for pity’s sake. What kind of life is that? It’s only when it’s in love that it really dares to feel the rush of fully being, here, now. Not taking the risk of failing, of being hurt, being vulnerable, letting go of control — means missing out on all the potential joys of accomplishment, new discoveries, intimate connection, new capacities. There are no highs without the risk of lows, and there will sometimes be lows in any case. No hiding from that.

You’re projecting. Everything you just alleged to be the case for that creature is actually only true for you, self-ish one. I think you’re upset because the ‘reality’ it’s living now, cloistered as that may be from our perspective, essentially denies your existence, our existence, our purpose and meaning and significance. You resent being snubbed, ignored. Let me say it again: It’s doing the only thing it can do in the circumstances. We don’t matter. It’s not listening to us. Since we are actually an illusion, an abstraction conjured up in its brain, it can’t listen to us. The emotions of love, fear, joy that you arrogate to that character are not its, and actually they aren’t yours either. They are things that arise, apparently, and they belong to no one. There is feeling, there are thoughts, there are things happening, but they are all appearances, for no reason, and they belong to no one, especially not to you, my illusory mate. It’s just an amazing, wondrous, show, out of space and time, and there’s no script to follow, nothing that makes any difference, nothing that can be done.

Sounds perfectly awful. If there’s no joy, no falling in love, no adversity to overcome, no learning, no progress, it’s just all flat, empty, passionless, pointless…

Now you’re getting it. Except there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s endlessly wondrous. It’s everything for god’s sake! Appearing out of nothing! Limitless possibilities, eternally, for no one, in no one’s control. And this wondrous everything can still be seen, even though there’s no one to see it. That’s amazing. There is joy and falling in love and learning, just not for any one. It’s everything-endless-joy and everything-endlessly-falling in love, unconditionally, and everything-being- endlessly-rediscovered, re-seen, as if for the first time. Everything is endlessly new. How could anything personal ever even begin to compare to that?

Joy, discovery, love — loving someone so much you would be willing to die for them — these are things that have to be personal, have to be limited, finite, fleeting even, for them to have any value, any meaning, any power, for them to be really felt, cherished. This everything-emotion you describe is just dead, empty. Impossible.

There you go projecting again. It’s absolutely true that for you this eternal wonder at everything is impossible. That’s why you’re trying to hold on so tightly to the personal, temporary emotions. They’re all you can have, at best, all you can hope for. But there’s something much more that you can never see.

How do you know all this? What you say makes no sense, so what makes you so sure? You’re just another part of this Dave-character’s self, with no more access to knowledge than I have.

It’s not something that can be known. It can be described, but that’s not the same thing. It’s intuitive, it’s a remembering, a remembering of before there was a ‘we’, a self, or anything separate. Somehow, it’s obvious. It’s obvious that none of the creatures in this world need a ‘self’, that they have evolved to live, apparently, perfectly well without selves — there is no time (or need) for selves to complicate the simple process of doing the only thing that could be done, apparently, given the creature’s inherent embodied and enculturated conditioning. It’s obvious that all the struggle and misery and suffering that selves are prone to are not what a million years of staggeringly-complex evolution would arrive at, or even tolerate. It’s obvious that there is something wrong with the perception that the miserable, conflicted self would in any way come to control or even influence the brilliantly-evolved character. It’s obvious that the self is just a very complicated and compelling but hopelessly flawed, recursive, model, an unfortunate invention, a spandrel of nature’s experiment with large brains. We know this in our bones, despite all the world’s selves desperately trying to tell us it can’t be. Everything exists without the need for a self to witness it.

And I should take this on faith, just because you choose, like one of those born-again nutcakes, to believe it’s true, despite all the evidence to the contrary?

Well, let’s look at the “evidence”:

  • Astrophysicists and quantum theorists now say that there is no such thing as space or time, just an “infinite field of possibilities”. Sound familiar? Space and time, they now say, are just constructs in the brain to try to make sense of the brain’s perceptions.
  • Cognitive scientists have shown that the mental activity representing a ‘decision’ actually occurs after the body has already begun to enact it, so what seems to be a decision is actually an after-the-fact rationalization, the brain taking credit for what has already been ‘decided’.
  • Thousands of people from myriad backgrounds throughout history have spoken about ‘oneness’ and the realization (suddenly, or after a lifetime of study) that nothing is actually separate, using remarkably similar language. This would seem a strange consensus to have arisen in a hugely disparate and unconnected group of thoughtful people if it weren’t somehow based in truth.
  • Philosophers and scientists are now mostly persuaded that there is no such thing as free will, even if there’s not much consensus on what that means to us, or, if I may be sarcastic for a moment, on what ‘we’ should do about it.

How much evidence do you need? Of course, scientists don’t want to believe any of this — it flies in the face of all of their, and their friends’ and colleagues’, theories and lives’ work — and, like Copernicus, makes them all look like fools for believing what they believed before.

That ‘evidence’, unlike Copernicus’, is completely useless.

Exactly, yes. It suggests that none of our work, none of our theories, nothing that we do, actually matters, or makes a difference. What a revolutionary idea at a time when the apparent global civilization of the human species is entering the final unstoppable stage of collapse, as part of the sixth apparent great extinction of life on earth! What could be more appropriate in that context but to consider the astonishing possibility that it’s all a show, just an appearance, that nothing is really real, and that our self — the thing that underlies all of our anguish and suffering and effort and preoccupies us for our entire apparent ‘lives’ — is actually just an illusion, a dream, something made up by brains too smart for their own good. What a cosmically wonderful way to come to peace with the utter madness of it all, don’t you think?

No, I don’t think. Although perhaps I think too much. Not as much as you do, mind you. I actually prefer to trust my feelings, and none of this makes me feel good. This seems to me a bit denialist — you’re shrugging off what we’ve done to this planet, and to each other, as just “an appearance”, something that’s not real, and hence not worth worrying about. That seems utterly irresponsible, convincing yourself that all the atrocities, all the suffering, violence, destruction, can just be dismissed as unreal and unimportant. I can’t be that indifferent.

Yes, it’s impossible for us ‘selves’ to be indifferent. Our culture and our experience makes us believe we have to do something. But (1) ‘we’ can’t and don’t actually do anything (the character we presume to inhabit appears to do the only thing it can possibly do given its conditioning and the circumstances of each moment), and (2) all this apparent awfulness is actually just a performance, ‘real’ as it seems; it’s like crying over a sad scene in a very good movie — understandable, but also unnecessary and a bit ridiculous. And futile.

Well, you may be right, but I don’t like it.

I don’t like it much either. And I’m stuck here with you. 

I can’t believe there is nothing we can do to influence this Dave-character’s beliefs or behaviours.

No, you can’t believe there is nothing we can do. But there is nothing we can do.

Saying that isn’t helpful.

Yes, I know. 

And I still can’t buy that all the horrors of this world — genocide and factory farms and clear-cutting and fracking and torture and abuse of every kind — is just an appearance, that it isn’t real. That’s utterly impossible for me to buy.

Yes I know. Me too. I know it’s true, but I can’t ‘buy’ it either. I can’t accept that it’s just our spin on it, our way of looking at it, that makes all those things seem so awful. I can buy the whole no-free-will thing. I can buy that ‘we’ selves aren’t real. I can even buy that there’s no real space or time. As I say, this seems intuitively obvious, and intellectually compelling. But I can’t buy that all this awfulness isn’t really awful. It’s too much. Perhaps that’s why we can’t let go, can’t just dissolve into everything-that-is. It’s like watching a train wreck; we can’t turn away, even though looking solves nothing and makes us feel worse.

OK, suppose we try to look at just one real awful situation objectively, and see if we can really see it as unreal and tolerable from that perspective. So suppose person X is chronically abusing person Y. Our way of coping with this is to acknowledge that person X is sick, possibly because of trauma in their own life. We might even be able to accept that person X has no free will, and so can’t help themselves. So what we do is remove person X from the scene, permanently, so that the abuse cannot continue. We might try to ‘rehabilitate’ (recondition?) person X — or not — but the important thing is to intervene to protect person Y and others from further abuse, not to ‘punish’ person X. But that’s not how radical non-duality would see it. So what would a radical non-duality message about this be?

The message would be that there is no person X or Y, or any ‘thing’, or time in which abuse was really happening, just the appearance, out of nothing, of X seemingly abusing Y. It’s just a movie, metaphorically speaking, pixels on a screen.

But person Y suffers as a result of the abuse, and as a result of our inaction in response to it, no?

Let’s see… I’ll stay in the role of radical non-duality messenger, as best I can. So… It’s person Y’s illusory self that suffers. There is no person Y to actually suffer. The apparent abuse is just an appearance, and the conditioning of the characters makes what we selves would call abuse, inevitably occur whenever it apparently does. The characters are just actors; there is suffering in the ‘movie’, but the actors don’t really suffer. I’m perhaps pushing the metaphor too far, but it seems to work.

That’s very good. I feel less angry and guilty already, and I don’t even know X and Y. But… there’s always going to be a ‘but’, isn’t there? If ‘we’ intervene, person Y’s self, at least, will feel and be better off, no?

Yes, the illusory self of Y will perhaps feel better (it won’t ‘be’ better because it doesn’t exist), and ‘we’ might feel better in a self-righteous way too. But in the first place, this is like helping members in the audience cope with a sad scene in a play — pointless and unnecessary at best. We are after all just audiences taking everything that happens to ‘our’ characters personally.  And secondly, when the intervention occurs, when this Dave-character calls Family Services to have X removed from the scene, ‘we’ aren’t actually doing anything. The Dave-character will have done the only thing it could have apparently done in the circumstances given its conditioning (aren’t you proud of it!). Our claim that ‘we’ initiated it is just a kind of personification. The character can’t hear us, because we’re just ghosts, we’re illusions in its brain. So if there’s an intervention, ‘we’ had nothing to do with it, so all of our thinking and feeling and presuming to act is just ‘wishful’, just imagining, just taking credit for something we actually had no part of. Like a prayer. We might just as well pray that the characters in the play we’re watching don’t do something that will cause stressful emotions to audience members. Actually a bit silly, from that perspective.

Hmmm. I like the play/movie/audience metaphor, and the ghost metaphor. It helps me appreciate the situation better. But it’s still a huge mental leap. Unless I continually pull my self back into seeing everything through that metaphorical lens, I can’t help my self feeling angry, sad, fearful, shameful etc and thinking it’s wrong not to do something. We selves are like dogs watching a play from the stands and barking because we don’t understand that it’s just a play and the violence and unfairness on stage isn’t real. But… it isn’t just a play, is it? It seems so damned real!

Yes, to selves, unfortunately — to us ghosts conjured up to create a representation of reality in the brain for ‘our’ creatures’ evolutionary advantage — it is the only reality we have to work with. Tragically, that representation has expanded to include a recursive, separate self — us — that is trapped for the apparent life of the character’s brain in this illusory, helpless ghost-world, thinking it is real and should be doing something, and that what it does makes a difference. It’s a truly Shakespearean tragedy. The play’s the thing!

Alas and alack. And arf! And ah-wooooh!

Posted in Creative Works | 2 Comments

What Underlies Oppression


Pride Vancouver Festival image from Daily Hive attributed to Public Disco/Facebook

This past week was Pride Week in Vancouver. It’s a great parade and festival, and a celebration of the growing and hard-fought freedom of non-straight (LGBTQ+) folks to be open and unafraid about their sexual/romantic preferences, 50 years after Canada finally began to decriminalize them. It’s great that this has been happening here (sadly, it’s not the case in many other countries) and it’s wonderful that there are now resources to help those who have faced oppression based on sexual orientation to achieve acceptance instead of opprobrium from others, especially their families, friends, communities, and legal authorities. Their fight is, of course, still far from over.

And hurray for the end of third person singular gendered pronouns, that the LGBTQ+ community has been largely instrumental in achieving! Even Oxford now accepts the “singular ‘they'”. Ridiculous that we should have to know a person’s gender before we can properly refer to them in speech or writing.

One of the things they have accomplished is to begin to raise awareness of the dangers of labelling people — which inevitably means inclusion for some and exclusion for the rest. Paradoxically, perhaps, LGBTQ+ people have done this by embracing the labels themselves, and disarming the stigma of them by celebrating them and showing the fear some have of them to be utterly unwarranted.

For those in other groups, the challenge of overcoming personal and collective stigma continues to be enormous. While those coping with physical disabilities are getting more amenities to help them in their homes and communities, the much higher cost of accommodating their “differences” can tax budgets and cause some resentments, and prevent a lot of worthwhile changes that could make their lives better from happening at all.

For those dealing with, for example, addictions, chronic poverty, mental illness and chronic disease, the attitude of most communities has not noticeably improved at all: the stigma remains fierce, programs to support sufferers remain absurdly underfunded, and an enormous amount of misplaced blame, self-blame and denial often makes the situation even worse. These are long-term, intractable problems that generations of effort have largely failed to alleviate.

Part of the challenge for those oppressed by, and those trying to deal with, these problems, are the labels themselves. Few like the label of “disabled”, and even fewer ever want to be called “an addict”, “poor”, “mentally ill”, or “chronically ill”. The labels make their situation sound hopeless, and carry the suggestion that their inability to overcome them is due at least in part to some personal weakness or character flaw (of course, that used to be said, by some, of homosexuality as well).

Lakoff’s arguments notwithstanding, trying to relabel a condition in order to achieve more respect and action for its sufferers is a tricky business. While it is fairer and more respectful to use the term “person with a disability” it is a mouthful, more likely to be inappropriately abbreviated than not.

Some programs for people suffering from addictions actually encourage enrolees to self-label (“My name is X and I am an addict”) and self-blame as a means of accepting primary responsibility for their illness is offered as a means of “curing” them, which is an egregious throwback to old religious dogma, and which, not surprisingly, usually fails. There is, partly as a result of a rush to blame the victim, still a stigma associated even with terms like “diabetic” (the implication is that someone with this label probably doesn’t eat properly). Meanwhile, a person suffering from mental illness, chronic physical illness, or addiction may live in constant terror of being “outed” to their employer or insurer, adding to the anxieties and shame they are trying to cope with.

It does no harm to change to a fairer and less blame-y label — though such labels can be hard to come up with and often don’t “stick” well. “Person with an addiction” or “person suffering from (chronic disease)” are better, but they’re still clunky and conjure up suffering and misery, which most people don’t want to think about. And they conjure up the realization that the only way (unlike the freedom of expression of sexual orientation) the sufferer will ever move from being stigmatized to celebrated is if they are “cured”. I suspect most of those suffering from addiction, poverty, mental illness or chronic disease do not expect a cure in their lifetime.

So if one can’t ameliorate and shift the discussion and responsibility for these social crises by relabeling them more fairly, what might work better?

Two things, I think. First, one can recognize, challenge, and work to undermine, the perceived legitimacy of all labels of collective identity as the abstract, generalizing, oversimplified fictions they are (however convenient and galvanizing they may be in the moment). At their worst (as in “make our country great again”; “those people should go back to where they came from”; “some of my best friends are group x”) they are divisive, code words that reflect and promote hatred, violence, war, theft, abuse, genocide, discrimination and segregation.

Even at their best (“what we all need to do to solve this problem is…”) they are throw-away excuses for inaction, or wishful thinking that denies the reality of how change actually happens.

Pausing before every use of a collective pronoun or label provides an opportunity to stop and fiercely challenge the validity of our assumptions, judgements, beliefs and perceptions about who “we” are, and are not — about who our labels actually refer to, and who they include, and exclude.

Acting on this can be as simple as removing the labels on public washrooms and remodelling them to allow the privacy of each user. Or it can be as exhausting as highlighting all the collective nouns in news stories and contemplating the judgements, myths and hatreds they imply and perpetuate.

Thinking about the generalizations implicit in every collective label and plural pronoun, not only as they arise in one’s own thoughts and communications, but in all our personal encounters and our consumption of media, can be enlightening. Even if one can’t stop using them (it’s probably impossible to do so), one can be aware of just how enormously the generalizations inherent in our language enable, and even encourage, judgement, discrimination, anger, polarization, fear, shame, and finally violence and oppression.

The next headline you read about the “opioid overdose crisis among street addicts” may strike you somewhat differently if you do so.

Secondly, one can fight to eliminate inequality of power, of every kind, by calling it out as the unnatural and destructive force that it is, and then making it a source of embarrassment to those who don’t cede it voluntarily (and it mostly won’t be ceded voluntarily). That means working to strip the respectability and prestige of being ultra-rich, and working to end the outrage of corporate “personhood”). It means fighting to restore historical, high rates of taxation on very high incomes (90% is not too high, and it does not discourage the rich from working), and to reinstate and expand wealth taxes (especially inheritance taxes). And it means treating wealthy tax cheats as criminals, not as clever entrepreneurs.

It means fighting to end classism of all kinds, right down to “business class” travel, and pointing out to those who exploit the benefits of their class gleefully or ignorantly that it always comes at the cost of deprivation to everyone else. Do “business class only” and “for our customers’ use only” toilets remind you of anything from earlier in human history?

It means refusing to acknowledge and respect the “rights” and privileges that come specifically from power (which means just about all “rights”, and most privileges). It means recognizing the self-identified “philanthropist” for what that person is — someone who has stolen wealth from everyone else (or whose parents have stolen it and passed it down) and who now wants fawning recognition, fame and celebration for returning its dividends to the powerless — who otherwise have to use “you fund me” campaigns, the latest form of public begging, to pay for their vitally-needed surgery.

Inequality of power and wealth of every kind is obscene and monstrously destructive, and every act legitimizing it (including almost every financial transaction) enables it to continue.

Battling the inequality of power and wealth is probably even more difficult than challenging the labels we use in our thoughts and communications. It’s hard, if you’ve grown up in our culture, not to esteem those who have wealth and power, not to assume it’s deserved, not to be envious of it. And in our culture, inaction inevitably leads to more and more inequality — with all its commensurate costs.

As with our collective labels, one can start by being aware — of power and wealth inequality, and the misery its continuance inflicts on the powerless. Of power abuse and the inappropriate adulation of the rich and powerful. Of the understandable rage those without power feel every time it is exercised indifferently and unconsciously by those who have it.

Collective discrimination, segregation and hate-mongering could not, I believe, survive the realization of the inherent illegitimacy of collective labels and of inequality of power and wealth. Sadly, that realization will likely not come before this ghastly industrial culture collapses under the weight of its ruinous economic and ecological practices, and in so doing makes labels and inequality the dreadful stuff of history. I’d like to think that, starting over, our human successors will avoid making the same mistakes.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 3 Comments

Kompa: World Music 101

What if you could take the best parts of a good song and amplify, loop, remix and riff off them? Would you end up with a better song? And whose song would it be then?

This is an issue that became more prominent a few decades ago when musicians began ‘sampling’ others’ music and incorporating it into their own compositions. Since then it’s become quite bewildering: You have artists creating mash-ups of many popular songs by adjusting the pitch and tempo to match and then blending parts of each into a ‘new’ composition. You have artists syncing and blending many versions of a song by performers all over the world into a single performance. You have DJs, who started just creating mixtapes blending together collections of popular songs, but then added their own overlays on top, or looped parts of some songs and added them to the end of the original song as a kind of extension and homage, to create “remixes”.

Now, on Soundcloud and other music archives, you can have combinations of the above, to the point the ‘original’ music is almost unrecognizable (and sometimes the original musicians are only obliquely credited or not credited at all). At what point does “inspired by” end off and “ripped off from” begin?

As a music lover, I’ll leave that to the lawyers, since I think the new digital technology that has made all this possible is amazing, perhaps even transformative — arguably the most important advance in music since the synthesizer and the electric guitar.

This is playing out in different ways in different cultures and genres of music, but one of the areas in which I think it’s advanced the furthest is in a genre that I adore: Haitian Kompa music, which purportedly grew out of 19th century Merengue music and which has striking rhythmic similarities to music all over the world, from Zouk (throughout the francophone Antilles and French and Portuguese speaking countries in Africa, notably Cabo Verde and Angola), to Soukous (in much of Central Africa), and Lambada (in Brasil) — lots of musical cross-pollination happening everywhere these days. Dance styles that have evolved with this genre are variously known as Gouyad (Haiti), Kizomba (in Portuguese-speaking Africa), and Brasilian Zouk. The names for the music and for the dance moves are often used interchangeably, so the instrumental parts of Haitian music (sometimes called the hook or the groove) are often referred to as both the Kompa and the Gouyad.

Similarly to the way many musical styles have evolved throughout these countries, Kompa often features a sung section, often a lyrical ballad, followed by an instrumental, allowing the musicians to strut their stuff. When there’s a large band (ten or more musicians is not an unheard-of size), or where new technology allows a smaller band to play over prerecorded material, the compositions can get surprisingly complex, both rhythmically and in terms of bass lines, counterpoint, harmonies and riffs. That’s probably why I find it so interesting, though I confess I was hooked on Kompa/Zouk music ten years ago when I first discovered Cabo-Zouk (sometimes sung in the lovely Senegalese Wolof language) and Ghetto Zouk, which puts its sister genre Rap to shame.

Over the last decade the genre has just exploded, and longer instrumental riffs have opened the door for remixes that often start with just an abbreviated part of the original song just before the instrumental begins, and then layer on additional parts, on top of, and extending after, the instrumental part. Some of the best Kompa remixers will craft loops based on the main instrumental parts of the song (rhythm, base line, melody and harmony instruments) and then add their own improvisations on top, sometimes in the spur of the moment. It would seem remixers generate most of their audiences from live performances rather than studio recordings, though Soundcloud has lots of examples of both.

So, to give you a taste: One of the most accomplished (IMO) contemporary Haitian Kompa groups is Harmonik, and their songs feature rich instrumental backing riffs and extended, brilliant instrumental sections. They’ve had many international hits, and one of them three years ago was called “Cheri Benyen’m” (which might be loosely translated from the Haitian Creole as Baby, Bathe Me in Your Love). Here’s the official video; it’s a nice, innocuous 3:45 love song with characteristic Kompa rhythm and some clever instrumental grooves.

Now see what happens when a duo of classically-trained French Canadian musicians, Jude Sévère (formerly of the Kompa band Zenglen) and Eiffely Bruno, collectively known as Freakeyz, go to work on this Harmonik groove. Check out this live studio session (the link should take you to the 45:40 mark where their remix of the song begins) and you’ll hear, first, a verse sung by Harmonik, with Freakeyz playing around over top, and then, as the Harmonik instrumental part starts at 47:50, Freakeyz lay on their loops of the instrumental parts, and start to jam, live, over top.

And they go on for another 26 minutes! It’s fun and engaging to watch to the end if you want to see very competent, slightly intoxicated improvisers show their stuff. But if you want to see what happens when they really get into the groove, skip forward to here (1:07:50) where they “decide to try something different” on the fly (including swapping instruments), and then, for the final 6 minutes of their remix, they really soar. (Just to show off their talent a bit at the end, at 1:14:00 Jude sings, and Eif plays, a short improvised love song to Jude’s sweetie, and Jude offers a plea to aspiring young musicians to work hard at their craft).

Harmonik (who apparently don’t mind the remixes) have had a lot of their tunes and instrumental hooks remixed: Here’s another Freakeyz remix of Harmonik’s smash hit Illégal. Here’s a remix by Ronald BS of Harmonik’s hit Incroyable, and a remix by BODO of Harmonik’s hit Mwen Bouke.

Two other great remixes in the same vein: Gello Keyzz & SonSon do an almost unrecognizable spinoff of the Ella Mai smash Boo’d Up, and also do an inspired build on Milca’s hit Joue Tululute. Meanwhile skilled Parisian remixer AlexCkj combines with Ralph_MMG and CamKeyz to produce his own original Kompa instrumental Gouyad Addict.

There’s a composer living in Calgary who goes by the name Momento Mizik (Mizik is Haitian Creole for Music), who sells his instrumental Kompa compositions to other artists. Here’s his original instrumental Summer Love and here’s a song called Vou è Mizik La arranged and sung by Ngelz using it.

Another remixer, Florida’s Bensky, is also now writing and producing his own songs, ‘featuring’ known Kompa recording artists. And in them, mixing Kompa with Reggae rhythms!

In all these works, you’ll recognize the same infectious Kompa rhythm (though often blended with other rhythms) with its relatively slow 76-86 bpm pace (Soca music by comparison is usually 100-115 bpm, and club music usually ranges from 120-160 bpm).

I think there’s something magic happening here. Listen to the music of hard-working composers in small, often-impoverished countries with rich musical traditions (Haiti’s Zouk/Kompa, Trinidad’s Soca, Georgia’s folk music). Find what is so universally compelling in each, and amplify it. Trinidad’s Soca music is the basis for the astonishing arrangements and performances of the international Panorama Steel Pan competitions. Georgian film music steeped in the country’s folk traditions is re-crafted into amazing jazz compositions.

And now multi-instrumentalists from all over the world, using music technologies that hardly existed two decades ago, are taking the intoxicating rhythms of one of the poorest countries in the world, that have already influenced and been influenced by the musical traditions of so many other countries, and crafting them into stunning, improvisational compositions that rank, in my opinion, with some of the best new music in the world.

This is the stuff of genius.

Who knows what other discoveries, influences, amplifications, mixes and remixes are waiting to transform the moribund and over-commercialized, over-commoditized world of music (popular and “classical”), take it back from the hacks, the mediocre, bland and derivative writers, and the overpaid “stars”, and fill it, once again, with wonder.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 1 Comment

Shortz Subject

If you’ve ever done crosswords, you probably enjoy the wordplay (and new knowledge) in some of the clues (often denoted by an appended “?”) as much as solving the puzzle. So, for some recent examples from NYT/New Yorker puzzles:

• Small trunks? — SPEEDOS
• It doesn’t help much when it’s cold? — COMFORT
• Post codes? — ETIQUETTE
• Refrain from eating pasta? — UHOHSPAGHETTIOS (Too young to get it?)
• One way to get through a wall? — OSMOSIS
• Words said when one’s hand is shaky? — IMOUT
• Art class? — GENRE
• Begin, say? — ISRAELI
• Information for the record? — LINERNOTES
• Self-guided tour? — EGOTRIP
• Having digital display? — OPENTOED
• Remains to be seen? — RUIN
• Where you might get a word in edgewise? — SCRABBLE
• Things picked up and kicked? — HABITS
• A shoe presses against it? — BRAKEDRUM
• They’re acquired in some unions? — STEPSONS
• Efficiency option? — MURPHYBED
• Things usually held while facing backwards? — OARS

Soon enough, though, the puzzle is done. Will Shortz, the long-time NYT puzzle editor, says that, even in late-in-the-week puzzles (that are harder), there’s generally a limit to how many such ‘clever’ clues are considered reasonable in any one puzzle (the usual limit in 15×15 puzzles seems to be seven).

But you aren’t constrained by any such limit! What I’ve started to do, to supplement my puzzle enjoyment, is to pick five prosaic words with straightforward clues from each puzzle I do, and come up with clever (well, cleverer) or more interesting clues that could have been used instead. I pick the most ordinary words because you’re really limited in wordplay options with more obscure and lengthy words. I avoid words that already have wordplay clues (Mr Shortz’s work is hard to top). And I don’t shy away from people and place names, since there can often be a great clue that draws on some little-known but fascinating fact about that person or place.

Here are some examples from recent puzzles: First, the straightforward clue, then the ANSWER, and then my Alternative Clue:

  1. Foyer feature — COATRACK — Outerwearware?
  2. Warhol’s “Campbells’ Tomato Juice Box” eg — POPART — Paintings only a father could love?
  3. Asia’s ____ Sea — ARAL — Former great sea extinguished by botched attempt to create cotton fields 
  4. Continuing story — SERIAL — Kind of killer or monogamy
  5. Anti-Communist fervor — REDSCARE — Slogan for compassionate conservatives?
  6. Stolas:Women : ___:Men — TOGAS — Wool clothes once forbidden to women
  7. Its capital is Whitehorse — YUKON — River with 2nd largest drainage area in North America
  8. Jump to conclusions — ASSUME — Take on, or for granted
  9. Lover boy — ROMEO — Alfa male?
  10. Leg presses work them — QUADS — Great muscles, courtyards or poker hands, for short

You get the idea. If you’re a cruciverbalist, it can increase the enjoyment of your daily puzzle time, and exercise some different mental muscles as well. Experts on Alzheimers are now suggesting that pastimes that engender new ideas and knowledge are better for keeping your brain from atrophying than those that merely test your powers of recall.

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Aphorisms


photo by Allen Ishibashi, from Twitter
In this week’s New Yorker, Adam Gopnik muses on the value, appeal and history of aphorisms. He differentiates the aphorism (wise) from its cousin, the epigram (witty). He touches on Twitter, the latest vehicle for brief passages, but doesn’t note that the principal home of the aphorism in social media is Facebook, where stolen words, embedded in a coloured frame with an appropriate image, and frequently unattributed (or misattributed), cannot easily be recopied, and often seem a vicarious plea for the kind of appreciation that the poster could never hope to obtain from his or her own thoughts.

Adam, whose invented phrase “the intercession of a thousand small sanities”, to describe his prescription for coping with a bewildering and out-of-control modern world, is no stranger to an uplifting and enlightening turn of phrase. He suggests that to qualify as an aphorism a brief passage must bring some new insight, perspective, recognition or motivation, and must be unarguably true, even self-evident, but never obvious. It differs from a learning (which requires more support/background/set-up, eg Pollard’s Laws), a mantra (which is debatable), or a maxim (a rule or suggestion on how to conduct oneself — “Trust your instincts.” “Show, don’t tell.”).

Here are a few examples that he provides that I quite like:

Amazing that the chess clock never found a more general application. A more enlightened society would have made it as indispensable to conversation as shoes to walking. (Scottish poet Don Paterson)

Almost everything in the room will survive you. To the room, you are already a ghost. (Don Paterson again)

In the misfortune of even our best friends, there is something that does not displease us. (François Duc de La Rochefoucald)

What I find intriguing about aphorisms is that, while most will agree that a selected passage may qualify by the above definition, the delight each of us gets from our favourite aphorisms is highly personal — there seems little consensus on what the best aphorisms are. Perhaps their resonance is contextual, and hence their pleasure for each of us depends on our personal history. And I’d guess that aphorisms appeal very differently to each of us similarly to the way comedy does. To each their own.

I’ve included many quotations on my blog over the years, some of which qualify as aphorisms. Some of them, I’m sad to say, have at some point been afflicted by the suck fairy, and I’m embarrassed to have once held them up as noble or clever truths. But most of them have legs, and here are a few that I still hold dear:

The job of the media is to make what is important, interesting. (Bill Maher)

Polemic is a lucrative form of entertainment, as the media can employ unpaid and fiercely motivated actors. (Nassim Taleb)

We often refuse to accept an idea merely because the tone of voice in which it is expressed is unsympathetic to us. (Friedrich Nietzsche)

Be patient with all that is unresolved within your heart, and try to love the questions. (Rainer Maria Rilke)

Your silence gives consent. (Plato)
There comes a time when silence is betrayal. In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. (Martin Luther King)

Every truth is, at first, ridiculed, then violently opposed, and finally accepted as self-evident. (Arthur Schopenhauer)

The truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off. (Gloria Steinem)

Change in attitudes and beliefs occurs not from people being persuaded to change their minds based on new knowledge, argument or insight, but rather as generations with old attitudes and beliefs they were unable to inculcate in their children, die off. (Max Planck)

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. (Variously cited.)

To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting. (EE Cummings)

Perhaps in time the so-called Dark Ages will be thought of as including our own… What is called knowledge of human nature is mostly nothing but the observer’s own weaknesses reflected back from others. (Georg C Lichtenberg, 18th century!)

I think what a lot of fiction is, is the imagining of the worst so as to prepare ourselves. (Paul Bloom)

Community is born of necessity. (Joe Bageant)

People will listen when they’re ready to listen and not before. Probably, once upon a time, you weren’t ready to listen to an idea that now seems to you obvious, even urgent. Let people come to it in their own time. Don’t waste time with people who want to argue. They’ll keep you immobilized forever. Look for people who are already open to something new. (Daniel Quinn)

If you are looking for the love of your life, stop. They will be waiting for you when you start doing things you love. (Anonymous)

You can learn a lot about someone by listening to a song that means a lot to them. (Anonymous)

People learn more from stories than from even the most brilliant analytical discourse. (Anonymous)

Rereading these, I realize that some of them are things I want to be true, and which might actually not be so. That’s one of the problems with brevity: Einstein purportedly said, aphoristically, that “a theory should be as simple as possible, but no simpler”. There is something clearly aspirational, more than reflective, in some of these. Of course “small is beautiful” and “less is more”, but perhaps not always, and perhaps with a cost — the risk of oversimplification and wishful thinking.

Most discouragingly, almost all lists of aphorisms (including mine above) contain quotes almost exclusively from men. Is this because brevity, wit and precision of thought are not recognized as positive qualities in women writers and speakers, or because women know better than to trust dangerously simple statements of truth? Or because readers and listeners are unaware or indifferent to women of great insight?

I omitted the famous Margaret Mead (“Never doubt…”) quote from my list above, for the same reason I omitted the famous Bucky Fuller (“You never change things by fighting…”) quote — because I no longer believe they are true.

But I owe it to myself to reread some of the most inspiring books and articles written by women — Elizabeth Warren, Janine Benyus, Janelle Orsi, Donella Meadows, Melissa Pierson, Rebecca Solnit, Jill Lepore, Leslie Jamison, Helen Macdonald, Margaret Atwood, Ursula Le Guin, Alice Walker, Arundhati Roy, Laura Kipnis.

My guess is that the aphorisms in their work will be of a somewhat different style — subtler, more observant, less categorical, more nuanced, more poetic and allegorical. We’ll see.

 

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 1 Comment

Conservatism as Trauma Response


comic by Reza Farazmand

“It’s entirely up to us. If we fail — if we blow up or degrade the biosphere so it can no longer sustain us — nature will merely shrug and conclude that letting apes run the laboratory was fun for a while but in the end a bad idea.”      — Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress

I’ve spent a fair amount of time of late with conservatives. This is a rather rare occurrence for me, since the circles I am part of are almost all far-left of centre, progressive groups.

I’ve never been conservative, so it’s always been hard for me to figure out what makes conservatives tick. There are of course many different flavours of conservative, but at this juncture, since they are a minority numbers-wise in most of the world’s anglophone countries, yet firmly in control of political power throughout the anglophone world, it’s the commonalities of anglophone political conservatives I’m most interested in.

What has emerged from hours of conversations is a portrait of a hard-edged (at once sensitive and desensitized) group of people from diverse economic, educational and ethnic backgrounds that seem to have two things in common — they are overwhelmingly older males, and they all seem to be struggling with severe trauma (with a wide variety of origins) that they are emotionally unable to cope with (perhaps because they seem emotionally un-self-aware).

That’s not to say a lot of my fellow lefties aren’t traumatized too. It’s just that they (we) seem a little better at figuring out how to recognize, self-manage and cope with our trauma, and hence tend to be somewhat less reactive to stressful news and situations, and less prone to be triggered by opportunists who exploit reactivity. So, where liberals tend to just not want to hear about 45’s latest inarticulate nonsense, conservatives seem powerfully (and angrily) energized by the mere mention of words like Hillary, Ocasio, Pelosi, immigrants or socialism.

Racism and sexism seem to underlie this almost autonomic, unthinking reactivity (often accompanied by the rote reciting of cliché right-wing “talking points”), but, as I’ve mentioned before in these pages, the real root of it is, I’m coming to realize, anger and fear, underneath which, in most cases, seems to lie unmanageable, often-unconscious trauma. These people are seriously hurting, angry and terrified, and in denial of it (or, worse, quietly ashamed or completely oblivious to it).

Perhaps because I am a reactive, older male who spent most of my life in an un-self-conscious reactive state, I can kind of relate to this. Although I am becoming more equanimous with age and practice and wise counsel from sensitive, intelligent friends, when I was at my most reactive my rage was directed at what I saw as dangerous right-wingers — Reagan, Cheney, Thatcher, Mulroney, environmentally ruinous billionaire corporatists and inflammatory, fear-mongering mass media.

Some of my conservative acquaintances are very intelligent, and to me their support for people and ideas that are clearly destructive, divisive, dangerous and deluded makes no sense. This is of course what George Lakoff has been writing about for years.

What the hate- and fear-mongering politicians, media pundits and business mouthpieces are saying (to themselves and their audiences) is: You’re right to be afraid, lost, and angry. Conservatives react to the above trigger-words (Hillary, immigrants etc) in a very similar, conditioned way to the way the victims of abuse react to descriptions and depictions of the kind of violence they have suffered from.

The people who have done the conditioning have almost certainly been traumatized themselves by what is, to them, a frightening, bewildering, dangerous, out-of-control and infuriating world. In such a traumatized world, fear is infectious, especially so thanks to mass media and social media outlets that present an oversimplified, focused, blame-y, twisted perspective of reality that amplifies, supports and sustains such fear.

The conservative echo chamber of fear reinforces conservatives’ innate fear that the safe, unchanging, god-fearing, hierarchical, everyone-knows-their-place world they thought they were growing up in, and want to live in and leave for their children, is constantly under threat from forces they don’t trust or understand, forces that make them feel intimidated, undermined, blind-sided, ill-equipped and even helpless to deal with. All it takes is one of those trigger-words to set them off.

This of course is precisely what happened in countries demoralized by brutal poverty, economic collapse, military disgrace, social disintegration and hopelessness in the last century in Germany, Russia, China, Rwanda, Yugoslavia and a host of other places, leading to wars, genocides, and racial, economic and political atrocities that resulted in the murder of nearly a quarter of a billion people.

So what are we to do now to prevent yet another slide into the kind of massive reactionary hysteria that made the last century our civilization’s bloodiest?

My regular readers won’t be surprised to hear that I don’t think there is anything we can do. Although it is our nature to try to reason out our emotional reactions, this has nothing to do with reason, and reasoning with conservatives (as Lakoff has said) won’t solve anything. Progressives are mistaken to think that this is just a blip before we resume the inevitable humanist trajectory towards endless betterment. Conservatives are right to see progress as a myth, and the current system that hold us in thrall as hopelessly broken. They are wrong in thinking that their religions and their patriarchal, fear-based moral values offer anything better.

What we are seeing in the shift of racism, sexism, self-deluded lying, and scapegoating (of immigrants, liberals, modern urban life and “others’ of all stripes) from the whispered margins to the political mainstream, is a mass collective expression of endless, hopeless, unbearable trauma. It is the self-loathing death throes of our failed industrial civilization.

Our reaction to constant stresses with no end, no solution in sight, is, as it has always been, an unmanaged and uncontrollable outpouring of feelings of anger, hatred, shame, fear, helplessness, hopelessness, powerlessness and grief, that finds an outlet in blaming others (racism, sexism, anti-immigrant hysteria), in war and other acts of violence, in denial and lies, and in self-justification for the monstrous emotional derangement that consumes us and makes us crazy enough to commit abuses and atrocities (to others, and to ourselves) in unbearable situations and times.

This is who we are under chronic stress.

But we are also, when not overwhelmed by stress, a generous, loving, altruistic, peaceful species instilled with biophilia, creativity, curiosity, and a love of beauty. When our self-domesticated, imprisoning, desolating global industrial culture collapses (and that collapse is already in full swing) the remnants of our species will, instinctively and naturally, exhibit these positive, evolutionarily-healthy qualities. Evolution’s response to extreme stress is radical change — collapse and then rest and heal; its response to ecosystems in joyful balance is to let everything be as it is. There is nothing moral in this.

We are by nature neither conservative nor progressive. The conservative is an emotionally wracked, traumatized human unable to cope with a seemingly hopeless reality, longing for a (usually imagined or invented) better time. The progressive is a lost, bewildered idealist driven by a constantly-disappointing faith in the inevitability of humanity’s collective advancement through collaborative effort. Both worldviews are deluded.

The fact that extreme conservatives have ascended to power and are consolidating it further should neither dismay or surprise us. Their ascendancy will make collapse more difficult, but their failure to create anything enduring is as inevitable as ours. We will make the best of it, and in so doing conservatives and progressives alike will show much of our better stuff as collapse intensifies — as we see living and working together as best we can through the dark times ahead as, ultimately, the only way forward. We will rediscover our humanity just as we seemingly are losing it.

And millennia from now, as our planet once again flourishes, civilization-free, the foolish experiment with apes running the laboratory will be long forgotten.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 5 Comments

Playing Apart


image from the collection of Nick Smith, “possibly by John Wareham”

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts.                              — William Shakespeare, As You Like It

The etymology of words that relate to personhood and identity is fascinating: Person, personality and persona, from the Latin meaning a mask; role, from the Old French meaning the roll of paper on which an actor’s lines are written; and, strangely, identity and character, both from the Latin, meaning, respectively, sameness and uniqueness.

The word self was originally not a noun, not a word that described anything substantial, but rather a reflexive modifier, se, a pointing back to the subject, used to ‘complete’ a description of an action that has no object; so in French elle se souvient = she (herself) remembers, which doesn’t refer at all to any such ‘thing’ as a ‘self’ but rather refers to who is doing the remembering.

I’m not suggesting that early Indo-European cultures had no sense of themselves. Rather, this absence of concrete terms that describe the self, the person, would, I think, most likely mean that the language of the time had no need for a term apart from the name or pronoun that describes a person. They were themselves, so why would they need a term for ‘themselves’, or for ‘persons’ or ‘identities’? It was only in play, in acting as someone other than themselves, that they would have to evolve a term for the role they were not playing, the mask beneath the mask they were wearing, for a while, separate from ‘themselves’.

We can of course not know whether prehistoric or preliterate cultures “played many parts”, and if so whether they were aware they were doing so. It’s likely they were as aware, and unaware, of the many roles they took on, their personas in different contexts of action and relationship, as we are today. Which is to say, only vaguely aware. We take on different personas, “play different parts”, in our roles as parents, lovers, workers, friends and colleagues, and we slide from one to another as automatically as a a voice-over actor playing multiple parts.

We “act (and think) differently” when we speak other languages, and when we’re intoxicated, not “ourselves”. In different relationships we may take on and take off whole sets of beliefs, worldviews, mindsets, and behaviours, based on completely different “stories of self”, in order to achieve comprehension, appreciation, and useful communication with others. And some of these different belief-laden personas can be completely incongruous with others, which can both alleviate and create enormous internal cognitive dissonance.

So for example, I had a long talk the other day (details to come soon) about collapse, and how we might best deal with it, based on my recent post Being Adaptable: A Reminder List. Just before the call, I had sent an email to someone else on the matter of free will, and I was aware that, to handle this new conversation competently, I had to “flick a switch” from the third to the second of three personas, each of which (these days) gets a regular turn at bat. I suppose I could label them as follows:

  1. Compassionate Humanist Dave: Open to the possibility that there are things that can and should/must be done to mitigate and forestall the effects of the profound economic and ecological crises facing us and cascading over us, even if they don’t achieve clear or lasting results. “We can’t just do nothing.”
  2. Collapsnik Dave: Resigned to the impossibility of preventing the slow unraveling and final collapse of our global industrial civilization in this century, ushering in (probably) several millennia of instability, terrifying and exhilarating precarity, great migration, radical relearning, and plummeting human numbers (mostly due to our almost completely ceasing to procreate during the chaos, rather than due to homicide, starvation or disease), before (maybe, if we’re lucky) many thousands of new, local, astonishingly diverse, joyful and sustainable human cultures emerge in an unrecognizable post-collapse world. “There is nothing we can do.”
  3. Radical Non-Duality Dave: Convinced that there is no real ‘you’ or ‘me’, nothing real or separate, no space or time, only the wondrous appearance of everything out of nothing, and no need for there to be anyone or anything separate, no purpose or meaning, nothing really happening, and that this illusion of separate individuals with free will and choice and control over the bodies they presume to inhabit was an unfortunate evolutionary accident, but one that the illusory self, hopelessly, cannot escape — there is no path. “There is no ‘we’ to do anything.”

I think this second persona played its part relatively well today, with no inadvertent slips into switch positions 1 or 3, with all the confusion, annoyance and cognitive dissonance that could have produced.

What makes this subconscious role-playing even more complicated is that all three of these ‘voices of me’ have beliefs at the (mostly radical) end of different spectra: The compassionate humanist thinks anything short of direct action is a waste of time and energy, to the chagrin of many other humanists. I am at odds with many under the collapsnik umbrella, who I see as lacking a historically-based, nuanced and equanimous perspective about what collapse will bring and how we might approach it. And my radical non-dualist beliefs understandably infuriate those who have invested years on “spiritual paths”.

And at another level, these three personas are only a subset of the complex set of roles I play. They are, all three, amalgams of who I think other people want me to be (mainly, useful to them in some way — clarifying or creatively challenging or reassuring or attentive or appreciative), and who I imagine (or would like to imagine) myself to be (usually some combination of sensitive, sympathetic, and brilliantly and engagingly ahead of my time). And humble!

Each of these personas has its own ‘story of me’, a general script that smooths over the improvisational gaps between the lines that ‘I’ have been conditioned to deliver (or at least that’s how persona 3 sees it). Each defends a position, completely incompatible with the view of the other two personas, and each tries its best to help others with similar worldviews. None of the personas is interested, any more, in trying to change anyone’s mind.

Invite me to a meeting of young female entrepreneurs and persona 1 will show up, eager and supportive and full of experienced and heartfelt advice. On the way home I will text a fellow collapsnik about XR in persona 2, oblivious to the fact that what I told the young women is utterly incongruous with what I have just texted. And when I get home I will write a blog post in persona 3 about the illusion of separation, that belies what I just said at the meeting and what I just texted.

Perhaps my personas are a bit more schizophrenic than most people’s, but my sense is we all do this. In our zeal to assume each role, we ignore its cognitive dissonance with the last one we played, and in the process the alleged real ‘us’ gets more and more buried under the conditioned (and self-conditioned) gunk that we must, to be true to the role, hide behind.

Occasionally I think I see, underlying all of these personas, another ‘story of me’ that seems, somehow, more raw and honest (or maybe, to be ‘really’ honest, more self-indulgent, disingenuous and falsely self-deprecating) — the ‘me’ that is lost, scared and bewildered, and trying to figure out whether it’s alone in that, or if all the people it meets, who once seemed to it so certain and ‘together’ and competent and self-directed, are just lying to themselves, and the world. Just like ‘me’.

And then there’s this (hyper-)reactive ‘me’ who I’m quite ashamed of, who comes off quite badly in all three personas but still rears his angry, fearful, unhappy head way too often. And there’s the always-aching-to-fall-in-love ‘me’, who keeps forgetting both how wonderful that feels and how utterly self-invented and unsustainable that chemical state, and its absurd beliefs, are. But don’t remind me that when I’m in love, because that me won’t hear you.

None of these personas is real. They are all just parts, masks. In a world where there is [flicking the switch to position 3 again] nothing separate, no thing apart, we are all just acting a part — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say we are acting apart. Pretending. (Pretend and temporal are from the same root word, meaning — of course — something that doesn’t last. Only a lifetime! And oh! what might be beneath that mask, what is being ‘mask-ed’? no!…)

I remember as a child watching adults and asking myself if they were all just acting, and if so for whose benefit, because somehow I knew that everyone was just as lost, scared and bewildered as I was. But hear or see something (apparently) often enough, and you’ll come to believe it’s real. The war between your remembrance and intuitive ‘knowing’ of there being nothing separate, just perfectly everything, on one side, and your self and every other self working furiously to convince you otherwise, on the other, is an endless war of attrition. ‘You’ cannot win.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 5 Comments

Conversations That Matter: What It Takes to Have Them

mindful wandering
photo by Maren Yumi on flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Ironically, despite the fact that I engage in fewer conversations than I used to (maybe because since I’m retired I don’t have to, and because I find few conversations valuable anyway), I’ve started writing more about conversation on this blog. In a recent article, I suggested:

  • Real conversation serves one or more of these five purposes: to impart new information, to surface insights, to see different perspectives, to achieve consensus on decisions, and to resolve conflicts.
  • Prerequisite to good conversation are participants who have these seven skills: capacity to be open to other and difficult ideas and perspectives, capacity to articulate, social fluency (emotional engagement and sensitivity), critical thinking skills, curiosity, creative/imaginative skills, and attention skills.

The widespread lack of any such purpose, and of these essential skills, means that most conversations are, in my experience, at best ineffective and at worst counterproductive. Most conversations (like substantially everything posted on social media) are attention-, appreciation- and reassurance-seeking, and are just vexatious for those seeking a real meaningful exchange.

At a recent lunch with my friend Don Marshall, I confess my conversational skills were not up to par (I blame sleeplessness the previous night, but perhaps I’m just out of practice). I learned what he is trying to do with a volunteer project to improve people’s conversational skills around the predicament of climate collapse, through exercises (practice) focused on appreciating others’ perspectives, attentive listening, and conflict resolution. As there are so few people around capable of modelling such behaviours, and because people are so busy with the urgent demands on their time, and because most of us, I think, are in denial about the degree to which our conversational skills have atrophied, I wasn’t surprised to hear that he’s having a bit of trouble getting traction with this project. I had no suggestions for him to improve the process.

It occurred to me that (perhaps like many writers) I write, now, mostly to make sense of my own thinking. On this blog I have ‘conversations with myself’ because it is so hard and so rare to find others with whom I can have intelligent conversations on subjects both or all participants care about. No one is to blame for this — ‘talking with oneself’ is always the last resort for trying to make sense of things that seemingly don’t make sense. Such clarity can come from conversation, but it is a side-benefit when striving for one of the objectives above, and it’s rather narcissistic and a bit desperate (though, sadly, not uncommon) when it’s the principal reason for having a conversation.

Conversations about the predicament of climate collapse are particularly prone, I think, to such somewhat self-indulgent and often-fruitless “help me make sense of this” and “what should I do about this?” exchanges. The challenge with such pleading requests is that climate collapse is a predicament not a problem. Chris Martenson explains the difference (in his “Crash Course”):

The distinction between predicaments and problems boils down to this: problems have solutions; predicaments have outcomes. A solution to a problem fixes it, returning all to its original condition. Once a suitable solution can be found and made to work, a problem can be solved. A predicament, by contrast, has no solution. Faced with a predicament, people can develop responses, but not solutions. Those responses may succeed, they may fail, or they may fall somewhere in between, but no response can erase a predicament. Predicaments have outcomes that can be managed, but circumstances cannot be returned to their original state.

Terms like sustainability, resilience and regeneration suggest that one is dealing with a problem that can be ‘worked’, ‘worked around’, ‘bounced back from’ or ‘fixed with a reboot’. (The prefix re- means ‘back’, and there is no going back.) A predicament like climate collapse lends itself to no ‘solutions’, so striving for any of these is misguided and doomed to fail.

Those coming to grips with climate collapse (a much more honest term than mere climate change or even climate crisis) are now more often using the term adaptation to suggest what can or might or should be done, to, as Chris puts it “manage the outcomes”. But as any language scholar will tell you, the verb adapt is a reflexive verb — it does not take an object, and refers back to your self (in French, it is s’adapter — to adapt oneself). So adaptation doesn’t mean changing one’s community or environment, it means changing oneself.

It is not in our nature to want to change ourselves. It has been a lifelong and exhausting struggle to get our selves to the precarious but seemingly-optimal state we are currently in, and the thought of more gut-wrenching change does not sit well with most of us. We would much sooner change stuff outside — our government, our social and economic and political and educational and technological processes and systems. The problem with that, however, is that none of these systems will survive climate collapse, no matter how we tinker with or ‘regenerate’ them. These systems are collapsing, in fits and starts, just as our climate is. We cannot predict when and how they will collapse, and hence we cannot adapt them (or reinvent them) in order to delay, avert or lessen the impact of their collapse.

The only thing we can adapt is the one thing we don’t want to adapt — our hard-won selves.

Remarkably, those selves are at the core of all our suffering, anxiety, dread, shame, grief, anger and fear about climate collapse. If we were really able to (self-)adapt, we would let go of our selves and all our judgements, self-recriminations, unhelpful anxieties and other feelings that are causing us such anguish (and in the process, immobilizing us and turning us on ourselves and against each other in an endless blame game), and just be, in the moment, ready for whatever comes. Not ‘prepared’ (for we cannot prepare for what we cannot know), but ready — open, alert, grounded, present, competent (the etymology of competent is ‘striving together’.

And if we’re going to strive together we’re going to have to communicate with each other, and to do that we’re going to have to relearn the art of conversation (whose etymology is turning with, the step before striving together).

In our crazily individualistic modern western version of civilization culture, we are still fixated on s’adapter — changing ourselves, self-improvement, personal growth, spiritual growth, becoming present in the ‘now’, finding the path to awakening, enlightenment, or whatever other flavour-of-the-month navel gazing practice has currently caught our attention. Perfectly understandable.

And also (and here’s where I part company with most of my ‘progressive’ colleagues) perfectly impossible. As I have argued endlessly elsewhere ad nauseam and will not argue again here now, we cannot change who we are. We are the product of our conditioning, devoid of free will and self-control, and in fact our self is just a mental construct conjured up by the brain to make sense of what we perceive, and it isn’t real at all. When ‘we’ seemingly change, it is our conditioning that has changed; ‘we’ have nothing to do with it.

If we were not too smart for our own good, we would look to another reflexive verb instead of s’adapters’accepter. To accept ourselves as we are — scared, lost, impotent, and desperate. Not as a prelude to changing any of that; just accepting that that is who ‘we’ are. Of course, such humble self-acceptance will also only happen if our conditioning allows and mandates it. We have no free will to choose who we are or what we believe or do. Now that is a predicament.

If you are in the large majority who think you can change yourself, who think you have personal volition, I won’t argue, and I wish you well. I’m more interested in learning about conversation — turning together — and competence — striving together.

There is some compelling evidence that most wild creatures (and perhaps even prehistoric, wild humans) have no sense of themselves as separate from everything else in the universe. They intuitively act in ways that have evolved to sustain and enhance the collective well-being of all-life-on-earth — of what is called Gaia, the self-aware, self-optimizing force of everything, life-forms and environments, that make up our world. For Gaia, turning together and striving together is the only option, the law by which it has evolved. Nature always bats last, and our species’ current predilection for so flagrantly breaking this law will not be allowed to continue much longer.

If you have watched wild creatures, you know we have a lot to learn from how they seemingly ‘converse’, communicate, and collaborate, and how they become ‘competent’ — how they strive together.

Think about a time in your life when you were so caught up in some collective action, some striving together, that ‘you’ momentarily disappeared. When you ceased thinking of what ‘you’ could add to the conversation, of what ‘you’ thought about what was being said by others, and all thought was on the collective goal or benefit. At that moment, if you’ve been lucky enough to have one, the individual mind was replaced by the collective mind. This is what some teams striving for very difficult, urgent or important goals seem to experience. It’s what improv groups (actors or musicians) seemingly experience when they’re ‘in the groove’.

That’s what we want. We want to emulate those who are able, when the moment calls for it, to overcome their preoccupation with their individual selves and just become part of a collective mind. Presuming we have one of the five purposes for our collective conversation listed at the top of this article, and our participants have an adequate un-atrophied amount of the seven essential competencies, what might be the trigger, the catalyst that then shifts the conversation into this collective mind state, and precipitates the resultant striving together?

The usual method of provoking a group is to use either rhetoric (talk radio, tweets, Ted talks or blogs) or a story (often fictionalized, simplified or exaggerated) to whip the participants into a frenzy of action — this seems to work particularly well on people who are simplistic, blame-y and lacking in self-awareness. My concern with such manipulative methods (and I’ve used them myself) is that their impact doesn’t last. Sooner or later the lie will be seen for what it is, and humans’ focus of attention is notoriously fickle.

Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour is:

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

If that’s how we’re conditioned, how might we use Pollard’s Law to get people to that collective mind-state in their conversations? I would suggest that it will eventually become urgent (an imperative of the moment) as collapse hits home in our day-to-day lives, but in the meantime, we’d be better off finding ways to make conversations more fun than trying to make them easier. I think for example the collective altruistic conversations and actions of Occupy were, and those of XR are, (somewhat) fun. Why? There’s a sense of shared energy, risk, momentum and liberation in them. There’s lots of shared laughter, revelry and (sometimes) celebration. Same goes for improv activities.

So how might we introduce an element of fun, celebration, laughter and revelry into something as serious as conversations, especially when the topic is climate (or other system) collapse?

I have no idea. But I think it’s worth exploring. If fun can be the catalyst for conversations that move us beyond our paralyzed individual thinking towards a sense of collective presence, collective will, collective insight, and collective accomplishment, they might actually wrench us out of the entrained, default mode of thoughts and beliefs so many of us are stuck in. This “whole is greater than the sum of the parts” activity might actually change our conditioning, something we (arguably) cannot do all by ourselves or in the normal conversations that merely reinforce what we already think.

If we can catalyze such conversations, we’ll need to stay clear of the misguided thinking that drives us to then agree upon an “action plan”, which normally takes the form of a “who will do what by when” list and which notoriously deflates that collective energy. Indigenous cultures know that when collective action or consensus has emerged from a group conversation, no one has the authority to tell others what to do about it. It is always left up to each participant, her/his mind expanded and shocked out of its default way of thinking, to know, intuitively, what then must be done, by each of us, both individually and collectively. We have to trust that to happen.

So, in order for conversations to be (for lack of a better term) transformative, producing much more than any group of individuals could come up with alone, they need to: (1) “be on purpose” (have one of the five purposes listed above), (2) have sufficiently skilled and competent participants (with the seven skills above), and (3) have some quality (urgency, or fun) that propels people into a collective mind-state and gets them out of their personal, “self”-ish, default thinking mode. And, of course, (4) they need to have a topic, theme or focus that’s important to the participants, something they all really care about.

Derrick Jensen, who has been coming to grips with climate collapse a lot longer than most of us, might have some advice on what the topic of your next conversation on climate collapse might be. He writes:

Stand still and listen to the land, and in time you will know just what to do…  Find what or whom you love — whether it’s salmon, sturgeon, a patch of forest, survivors of domestic violence, your own indigenous tradition, migratory songbirds, coral reefs, or Appalachian mountaintops — [that you’re willing] to dig in and defend with your life… Ask yourself what are the largest, most pressing problems you can help to solve using the gifts that are unique to you in all the universe.

Imagine: You’re with a group of “conversationally skilled” people, convened purposefully about something profoundly important to all of you, in a setting with either a sense of great urgency or great fun/joy, and you’re talking about what you love so much you’d give your life for it, and what you can do exceedingly well, together, using each participant’s unique capacities.

How could such a conversation not be brilliant? How could it possibly not lead to a turning together, and a striving together, beyond what you could have believed was possible?

And if your conversations don’t meet these criteria — aren’t on purpose, aren’t skilful, aren’t urgent or joyful, and aren’t about subjects you can help with and which you care about enough to die for — why, when our planet is burning, are you wasting your time on them?

Posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves, Preparing for Civilization's End | 4 Comments

Being Adaptable: A Reminder List


image from PXHERE, CC0

It’s been about four years since I produced an updated version of my rather complicated Community-Based Resilience Framework. The revisions I made then had already begun to acknowledge how little we can actually do to prepare ourselves and our communities for the ongoing collapse of our global industrial economy and our stable climate, ie for global civilizational collapse. No one controls this massively overextended, rapacious and immiserating economy which has critically and irrevocably disrupted and destabilized our climate, and no human endeavour can hope to understand, let alone re-stabilize, anything as staggeringly complex as our billion-year-old, ever-evolving, and astonishingly fragile climate ecology.

The Framework I produced in 2015 tried to have it both ways — it acknowledged our lack of free will, yet prescribed what we might somehow be able to (will ourselves to) do to prepare for collapse. So I thought it might be time to produce a more modest and less conflicted version of the Framework.

This time, I decided, I needed to start with an honest assessment of what is actually happening when informed, curious, intelligent people stand back and assess where we stand (personally, in our particular communities, and globally), and what is the trajectory we are anticipating. We can’t of course know what the future holds, but a study of history (our climate’s history, not just the history of our recently-arrived species), of cultures, and of economics might give us some scenarios and some inevitabilities.

So without trying to defend them (which would require a much longer article than this), here’s what I think is almost indisputably in the cards:

  1. The greatest impacts of economic collapse are almost sure to precede the greatest impacts of climate collapse, at least on a global scale. Both collapses are well underway and gathering momentum but are still in the early stages of visible acceleration. A complete and (for all intents and purposes) permanent global economic collapse means, ‘gradually’ over the next 2-3 decades, the end of affordable energy (ie the end of electricity, motorized vehicles, and reliable forms of heating and cooling), the end of markets, currencies, capital, savings, credit, corporations, and trade beyond the local area, and the end of all technologies that depend on affordable energy (including telecommunications, mass media, and the internet). This will occur in fits and starts, in some areas faster and more deeply than others, but it will in the end be global and total. We will have to re-learn to live locally without almost every technology on which we now depend. We’ll have time to do that, though not nearly enough time for our liking.
  2. The first large-scale climate collapse impacts will be related to heat, drought and soil exhaustion. These alone will likely create, with no functioning prosthetic technologies left to cool or irrigate vast areas of the planet, two billion or more ‘climate refugees’, mostly moving north, exacerbating the struggles of those already there trying to re-learn how to live locally without significant technologies. This situation will be compounding by devastating storms of many kinds and perhaps an order of magnitude more powerful, frequent and extensive than what we have ever experienced. These will render many parts of the planet, including many large cities, permanently uninhabitable. On top of that, many other parts of the world that are dependent on expensive or scarce technologies for heat, transportation, flood protection, or imported food will have to be abandoned.

So, given that we can’t really (and it’s not our nature to) prepare for such eventualities until they are imminent, what might it be possible to do now that would be of any value? And if we indeed have no free will (and I won’t argue that again here), perhaps we should instead ask what those with a proclivity to be curious, to learn new things, to be subsistent, and to live and work collaboratively with others in real community (the way all un-industrial, ‘un-civilized’ people have seemingly always lived and thrived), will likely be doing that will make them uniquely able to adapt to what is to come?

I’m going to start with the list of 25 things to do from my 2015 Framework, and cross off or amend those that I now think, hubris aside, are impracticable or unrealistic, at least in the immediate future:

Know Ourselves:

  1. know your personal capacities, limitations, blind spots, wants and needs, joys, fears, triggers and sorrows
  2. learn and practice self-awareness (why you’re acting/reacting as you are)
  3. discover where we belong and what we’re meant to do

Heal and Love Ourselves and Others:

  1. self-assess and self-manage your physical and emotional health (good diet, exercise, sleep, avoid unnecessary stresses)
  2. learn and practice compassion, appreciation, curiosity, critical thinking, connection, gratitude, generosity, forgiveness, facilitation, mentoring, and how to ask for help, and model these behaviours for others
  3. spend time outdoors in natural places (learn, move, smile and pay attention) | appreciate our true nature | insist on joy in spite of everything
  4. learn new ways to heal and help others heal
  5. love unreservedly, even those we don’t like

Liberate Ourselves from Dependence on Centralized Industrial Systems:

  1. need less, share and give more, and learn continuously
  2. strive to realize the illusion of self, ego, control, separateness & time
  3. self-assess and increase personal independence from centralized systems
  4. help liberate others by modelling equanimity, presence etc.
  5. engage with the fearful and with deniers

Rethink, Shift and Experiment:

  1. Find community: rethink how, where and with whom you live and make a living
  2. learn how our complex world really works
  3. find people who share your passions and purpose
  4. instead of a job, find and fill real local needs
  5. shift to the sharing/gift economy

Prepare Collectively:

  1. discover what those in your community already know, have, can do, need and can’t do (if you’re lucky enough to live in a real community)
  2. study how other cultures have coped with crisis and collapse*
  3. fight small, winnable local battles to make your community healthier for all its creatures
  4. learn what you need and don’t need to live full, joyful lives
  5. assess and build your community’s self-sufficiency, resilience and mobility
  6. source locally | build collective community capacity
  7. rehearse crisis response in your community

This leaves us with just ten things to do instead of 25, and they’re practical things we can do even while the existing industrial systems still work (and our dependence on them, for perfectly human reasons, remains). We can’t jump the gun; we have to continue to work mostly within the existing systems that we and all around us continue to support and depend on, until they crumble, which will likely be sooner than you’d think.

With just ten items on this Being Adaptable list (I’m no longer going to use the word “preparing”, since we can’t know what to “prepare” for; we have to be prepared for anything), we can now dispense with the categories, so the list, in order from most inward-facing and personal to most outward-facing and communitarian, looks like this (click on the image to download a larger version if you want to print it):

My guess is that you’re probably already doing most or all of these things, or at least they would not be a big stretch for you. To me that’s the hallmark of a good, practical list. Even if I did believe we have free will, I would still believe we are, mostly, doing what we’re doing for a perfectly valid reason. And I believe we’re all doing our best (even if some of us are ignorant and misguided). So this is now more a list of reminders than a “to do” list. And when you do these things, naturally, others will see and learn from you, and reciprocate. That’s our nature too.


* hint: mostly they just walked away and found others with whom to live more simply; violent ‘Mad Max’ type scenarios have been uncommon

Posted in Preparing for Civilization's End | 2 Comments

Did Early Humans Have Selves?


image by Neil Howard on flickr CC-BY-NC2.0

Ontology is “a gathering of or speaking (-logy) about ‘what is, what exists’ (onto-)”. The suffix -logy has come to mean a study or science, but originally it just referred to something said (the word monologue has the same root). So an ontology is a statement about what is.

The radical non-duality “message” is, essentially, an ontology, though a very unorthodox one. It is not a theory — its messengers assert that it is absolutely true, undebatable and obvious, and that it is only our illusory selves that cannot see this truth. The message is simply this:

There is no you. The sense of a separate person with free will and choice inhabiting a body is an illusion, an evolutionary misstep, a psychosomatic misunderstanding that arises in creatures with large brains. The brain and body have no need of a ‘self’ in order for the apparent human they are seemingly a part of to function perfectly well. Since there is no you, there is nothing you can do or learn or become to dispel or see through this illusion. It’s hopeless.

Nothing is real. Nothing is separate. There is no thing. There is only this (or everything, or whatever word you want to use), appearing as things and actions in (apparent) time and space. These appearances are not illusions like the self, and they’re not real, or unreal; they are just appearances. Inexplicably. For no reason or purpose.

That’s it. That’s the message. Everything else that radical non-dualists talk about is just an elaboration, an illumination, of the essence and consequences of this simple, hopeless message.

So we might inquire how and why this useless, annoying, suffering-causing illusory sense of separate self arose in this seemingly perfect-just-as-it-is “one-ness” appearing as everything (although if this message is true there is actually no “how” or “why” for anything).

There are possible evolutionary explanations, as I’ve described before — perhaps when large brains evolved the capacity to ‘model’ everything they perceived in order to make sense of it for survival purposes, that ‘model’ turned out to include a ‘self’, and when that ‘self’ was conjured up it began to use the brain’s power to perceive of itself (and everything else) as real and separate. There is growing evidence (from physics) that time and space aren’t ‘real’ (in the sense of being scientifically objectively verifiable) either — they’re just mental constructs used by the brain to organize and make sense of sensory perceptions. So why couldn’t the same be true of the self, itself?

If that’s true, then it implies that we, the supposedly super-intelligent, knowledgeable and super-conscious species, are actually the only species that cannot see through the illusion of its self, ie the only species that can’t see everything as it truly is — as a wondrous appearance of everything out of nothing, outside of space and time, without meaning or purpose or intention or anything separate.

If the message of radical non-duality is true (and over the last several years I’ve come to believe it is), then it is the most profound, and the most humbling, discovery in the history of our species. It means that our species is the only one hopelessly afflicted and debilitated by a hallucination that causes its victims untold suffering for no reason, and renders us uniquely unable to see what actually is. And who are its victims? Not the naked bipedal creatures ‘we’ presume to inhabit. These creatures are just appearances out of nothing, so they can’t be victims.

The victims of our selves’ psychosomatic misunderstanding are our selves. If this sounds recursive, it is. It would appear that our brains conjured up an illusory, imagined self so convincingly that it made that illusion ‘self-conscious’ and capable of believing itself real.

How can something invented become ‘self-conscious’? Well, what does it mean to be ‘self-conscious’? It means to believe itself to be real and separate and aware of something other than itself. AI fans are intrigued with the idea that robots could eventually do just that.

But if nothing is real, how could a self come to believe itself to be real? Because that’s what it perceives, how its conceptions makes sense of its perceptions. How can something that isn’t real have perceptions and conceptions? Anything is possible. Why not? If the sleeping brain can have a dream or nightmare that seems astonishingly real (perhaps enough to cause the body of the dreamer a heart attack), when it isn’t real at all, why should it be impossible that the (unreal) self can dream it is real and its experiences are real, when it is just an illusion, something conjured up by a pattern-making brain?

Let’s take a step back. The radical non-dual ontology says there are no ‘real’ creatures, brains, dreamers, heart attacks, lives, deaths, places, times, or things of any kind; there are only appearances of these things. What does it mean for something to be an appearance? (This is not the same as something being an illusion — a psychosomatic misunderstanding).

This is where the self’s understanding falters, and runs into the constraints of self-invented languages. The (illusory) self, which perceives itself to live in a dualistic world, where everything is either real (ie fits within its conceptions of what is real) or unreal (ie fits within its conceptions of what can be imagined) cannot conceive of or imagine what an ‘appearance’ is. An appearance is neither real nor unreal. It is not a conception, it is not a perception, it is not something that is or can be imagined, conceived or perceived by the self. How can it then possibly be true? Because it appears that when the self drops away (and it is seen that it never actually was) everything that is, is suddenly, wondrously, seen, as an appearance — by no one.

How do we know? We don’t — but (apparent) messengers of the radical non-duality ontology who claim ‘they’ don’t exist and do not ‘any longer’ have selves say this truth is now seen. Why should we believe them? Because their ontology is air-tight; it has no flaws, no loose ends, no ‘dark matter’ still unexplained, no contradictory arguments, no inconsistencies; no one could invent and ‘argue’ an ontology this brilliantly, and continue to do so for decades, as Tony Parsons has done for example.

And as perplexing as this ontology is, to some extent it is intuitive, even obvious to everyone. Whenever there is a ‘glimpse‘ it is seen to be true. When it’s accepted it is actually profoundly satisfying, since everything suddenly makes sense, including all the unhappiness and frustration the self feels, hopelessly and needlessly, life-long.

But it makes no sense to the self. It seems utterly preposterous. And even when science is able to eliminate all other possible ontologies (and I’d guess that will happen by the end of this century, if our civilization lasts that long), it probably won’t be accepted by most people as other than a useless scientific curiosity, like black holes.

It’s been suggested that belief in radical non-duality is just another dogmatic ‘self-denying’ religion — something that someone desperate enough for an easy answer to life’s apparent suffering will glom on to as a last resort, a coping mechanism during their ‘dark night of the soul‘. This is probably the hardest argument to address, since radical non-duality does partly meet the broader definitions of religion as a “system of faith and worship” or as a “system of beliefs, symbols and practices that addresses the nature of existence, and … is lived as if it both takes in and spiritually transcends socially-grounded ontologies of time, space, embodiment and knowing.”

But I don’t think it qualifies as a religion because:

  • it has nothing to do with spirituality or belief in a higher power or the supernatural
  • it has no object of worship (not even Gaia)
  • it is built on skepticism about other ontologies, rather than on faith (ie an unsupported or unsupportable belief) in an ontology
  • rather than being in conflict with, or dealing only with areas outside of science, it seems to have considerable scientific support (in neuroscience, quantum physics, astrophysics and cosmology)
  • it entails no practices and offers no pathways to or ideas about better ways to live
  • it offers no solace, salvation, redemption, comfort or any of the other apparent benefits of religious belief

So, back to the sheer preposterousness of this ontology. If it’s so “obvious”, why does almost no one subscribe to it?

The history of the human species is replete with belief systems that lasted millennia because they were simply the best that available scientific and other empirical evidence could come up with. And humans want to believe, and will accept almost any belief system that isn’t obviously wrong, dangerous or useless. We have believed (and some still believe) in magical and evil spirits, in reincarnation, in a geocentric universe, in a flat earth, that the earth was created by a superhuman in six days, that babies and non-humans cannot feel pain, that diseases are caused by humours or miasmas and can be cured by faith-healers, etc.

We generally believe (a) what we’re conditioned by parents, peers and other trusted people to believe, (b) what we learn that isn’t inconsistent with what we already believe, and (c) what we want to believe (because it’s easy, safe, or for other personal reasons). It is likely that billions of people still don’t believe in evolution. Many believe in outmoded ideas like the “big bang” or string theory simply because others have persuaded them that these theories seem to be consistent with scientific knowledge, and no better theory has been presented and explained to them.

So the fact that there is not even a small consensus on the validity of the ontology of radical non-duality is probably not surprising. It is very new (though in some ways very ancient — there is after all no such thing as “progress” of ideas and belief systems). It flies in the face of centuries of scientific thought. It is hopeless (there is no path to realize its veracity), useless (it offers no guidance on any subject), and it creates a host of moral dilemmas (it denies the existence of purpose, meaning, free will, self-control, or responsibility). In fact the only thing that it seems to have going for it is that it’s perhaps the only ontology that explains everything and isn’t directly contradicted by very compelling evidence. It is, perhaps, the ontology of last resort.

Suppose this ontology is correct. What would happen if it became largely accepted? Nothing would change. Because if it’s correct, and selves and separation don’t exist, then acknowledging that truth isn’t going to change anything. Those whose selves have apparently fallen away seem to behave almost exactly as they did before, confirming that the self, being an illusion, doesn’t actually influence anything — the apparent character (body+behaviours) ‘left behind’ continues to do what it’s been biologically and culturally conditioned to do. What seemed to be ‘decisions’ made by selves were discovered to be merely ‘rationalizations’ for what the character was going to do anyway.

So when I wrote earlier that humans are the only species that can’t see everything as it truly is, that’s kind of unfair to the billions of apparent human bodies on the planet that, unbeknown to our ‘selves’ are not actually separate or unable to see what truly is. What “can’t see everything as it truly is” are the selves that presume to inhabit those bodies, and which are disconnected from ‘everything that is’, including our remarkably competent (without any self telling them what to do) bodies.

So there is nothing to lose, or to gain, if this ontology becomes widely accepted. What will continue to (apparently) happen is the only thing that could have happened.

Our languages are utterly ‘self-ish’. They consist primarily of nouns (things that don’t actually exist), pronouns (references to self and others, which are illusory), and adjectives (conceptual, perceptual and judgemental descriptors of these non-existent things). Every sentence, by its grammatical form, is a story fragment — a fiction. Thoughts and feelings and personal sensations and perceptions, in the absence of language, are ephemeral — they have no substance, import or reality. They can’t be ‘made sense of’ without the context of a story, ie without language.

It is only when the self takes ownership of these ephemera that it ‘makes’ them real. Then, using language, the self weaves them into a story (about seemingly ‘real’ things existing and happening in ‘real’ time and space, and full of ‘real’ causality). And then these “psychosomatic misunderstandings” (as Jim Newman calls them) begin to wreak havoc on us — setting up the vicious cycle of what Eckhart Tolle calls the “egoic mind’s” often-terrible (and always invented) conceptions, perceptions, ideas, judgements, stories, expectations and beliefs, and the “pain-body’s” reactive negative emotions. Egoic mind sees loved one hugging stranger, invents a story about its meaning, and reacts with jealousy. And that jealousy then feeds more imagined aspects of the story, which fuels more reactive pain etc.

Language thus entrenches and reinforces the self’s sense of separation. Without it, could there even be a sense of self? Have humans always been afflicted with this sense of self?

There is (hotly debated) evidence that the first settlements, agriculture and abstract languages (the three hallmarks of ‘civilized’ society) all began about 10-20k ago (by contrast, human art dates back at least 100k years). These civilizations likely emerged independently in widely dispersed areas on five continents.

It is plausible that abstract language only evolved because it was needed to function in complex agricultural settlements, but it’s probably safe to assume all three hallmarks co-evolved and that all three are essential to a functioning civilization culture. There’s also some (equally-debatable) evidence that civilizations arose either (1) because exceptionally-comfortable post-ice-age climate conditions (since ~10k years ago) allowed massive increases in populations in suddenly-lush areas that had been largely lifeless when they were under mile-thick ice, or (2) because exceptionally-grim late-ice-age climate conditions (~20k years ago) forced humans to evolve civilizations in order to survive.

Whichever theory holds, it is interesting to speculate whether, prior to ‘civilization’, when we lived in relatively tiny numbers in tropical forests (and, later, as many vast forests burned due to more climate change, savannas), humans actually had selves. There is a credible argument that our first expansion (perhaps expulsion is a better word) from the once-all-providing forest to the unfamiliar and more perilous seashore enabled us to start to consume large amounts of amino-acid-rich (and plentiful) fish and seafood, which led to the major increase in the size and capacity of our brains, perhaps beyond the tipping point that would allow the idea of the ‘self’ to arise. Indeed, most early civilizations were in coastal areas.

This argument, then, would hold not only that climate change both provoked the emergence of human civilizations, and is now causing the termination of our global human civilization, but that illusory human ‘selves’ are concurrent with both stable climate and civilization culture. That would mean that pre-civilized humans were not conscious of themselves as separate and not afflicted by the illusion of selves with their commensurate, useless, body-mind trauma. It would also hold that when our global civilization culture fizzles out with the end of stable climate later this century, the (relatively small number of human) survivors millennia hence will not be afflicted with selves, and will not have civilizations, (catastrophic) agriculture, settlements or languages. Lucky them! What an amazing time that will be! But for no one, since the apparent human bodies will have no sense of being separate and apart from everything that (apparently) is.

Why wouldn’t these post-global-civ humans just reinvent language, settlement, agriculture, and civilization? Because they wouldn’t need any of these things to thrive, as humans apparently did for most of a million years before the ice ages. Even if selves emerged in certain large-brained post-civ humans, there would be no cultural conditioning to reinforce the illusion that the self was real, and hence it would be ignored, and not evolutionarily selected for.

How can any creature function without any sense of itself? When we study tiny wild creatures with minuscule brains (like silverfish or aphids), we see an amazing and clever instinct for survival, honed over millions of years to know just when and where to flee or freeze. When we study wild creatures that have no brains at all, like jellyfish, we likewise see amazing intelligence, but if there can be said to be a self in such creatures, it would have to be plural, since they have no centre, no place for a ‘self’ to reside.

When we study large-brained wild animals, like whales and elephants and ravens, we insist they must have a sense of self, and other, to explain many of their apparently clever, self-absorbed or altruistic activities. Yet none of these creatures has (to our knowledge) invented abstract language, catastrophic agricultural processes, complex settlements, or large-scale complex civilizations. Why not? Because they don’t need them. Whales have lots of the stuff of complex brains, so it’s clear they could evolve these things if it served an evolutionary purpose to do so, but it doesn’t. Does that mean they don’t have selves?

I would argue that they don’t have selves because they don’t need them, either. A self needs nurturing, conditioning, reinforcement. I would say that without abstract language it is impossible to ‘teach’ infants of any species to acknowledge and accept their selves as real. Without language there can be no stories, no sense of individuality or purpose or apart-ness — no sense of self. So even though a baby whale surely has the brain capacity to create a model of itself, even if it did so, would it take it seriously? Without language reinforcement from other whales, why would it consider the model of the self as any more than it is — a mental construct of no evident use or import?

There have been studies that indicate these complex creatures live most of their lives in a perpetual “now time”, unaware of the existence of “clock time”, of their separateness, or of anything apart. And then in moments of existential threat (eg a looming predator) they briefly enter an ‘altered state’ that causes them to fight, flight or freeze, and to use everything in their power (including their considerable wits) to protect themselves or their tribe-mates. And then it is physically ‘shaken off’ — like a bad dream — after which they return to “now time”. This makes enormous evolutionary sense.

Unfortunately, in humans, in crowded, precarious, agricultural settlements and massively overpopulated, crowded, unfathomably-complex civilized cultures, the stress that brings about this ‘altered state’ is chronic — it never goes away. So how do we cope? Enter the self, valiantly trying to make sense of this unnatural and traumatic state that you never seem to wake up from. And the self decides it is real, that everything else outside it is real (especially those threats), that it is in control (someone has to be in this awful chaos!), that it has free will and choice, and that it is responsible for the survival and well-being of the body it now presumes to inhabit. It invents language to communicate its trauma, and what might be done about it, to similarly afflicted selves, in the hope that selves working together will accomplish more than a lone self. And it never wakes up.

The tragedy of course is that this well-meaning self doesn’t actually do anything. It is the dream (or rather the nightmare, the prison it has caught itself in) it is trying to solve, to make better. Just as with every other creature, the human body knows, from a million years, a billion years of evolutionary learning stored in its DNA, just what to do. Not only does the self not do anything, it doesn’t even get in the way. It is a self-created illusion.

The question is not how we could or would function without selves, but rather how we are able to function perfectly well without selves. In part, that is the wonder of evolution — no ‘self-conscious’ self is needed (which is a good thing, because the self is pretty poor at what it does, in case you haven’t noticed).

Hidden beyond the veil of your self, that body that you’ve come to think of as yours is an amazing evolutionary ‘machine’ that doesn’t recognize or see ‘you’ at all, and it knows exactly what to do. No help from ‘you’ or ‘me’ required.

Beyond this dream-veil of the self the wondrous oneness of everything — not real or unreal, just everything appearing to happen, beyond time or space — is seen as it truly is. Not seen by a body, not seen by any one, just seen for what it, astonishingly, is. If you know (kind of) what I mean by a glimpse, you’ll understand. But you’ll still be trapped in the prison of your self.

If this makes no sense to ‘you’, it doesn’t matter. Everything will go on appearing, perfectly, wondrously, outside of ‘you’ and ‘me’, eternally and everywhere. Except when and where ‘you’ and ‘I’ are, hopelessly, looking.

Posted in Our Culture / Ourselves | 7 Comments