Tomorrow in our Land

To make hash out of body metaphors – deep in the breast is lodged a chip on our shoulder. Each of us have an unexamined surety that basically we-know-what-is-really-going-on. Sure we recognize we are often confused and mistaken but, fundamentally, our default approach to life is that we are uniquely plugged into its meaning. We are sure what god wants, or nature or the universe wants, or perhaps what evolution, history, politics, or economics wants. Pick the flavor that resonates with you.

When put as baldly as that it is not hard to recognize that although each of these options represent adversarial points of view, they none-the-less share certain characteristics. They each offer to their acolytes a degree of certainty about the unknown and the unknowable future. We looked last week at some of the dangers involved in forcing the future into the box of our expectations and today will tease a few more insights from it. It is not surprising we find such systems of thought seductive yet these overly simple views have a tendency to fuel fundamentalisms of one stripe or another. Fundamentalisms in turn tend to fuel violence as the heretics who threaten this surety must burn. This dynamic is well illustrated in the film about Ernest Becker’s work, Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality.

Of course in our more sophisticated moments we are sure evolution, nature and history have no actual direction. We avoid the teleological error in polite company. The problem with this overly simple view is that, as we learned earlier, ecosystems do seek out a type of goal as they evolve toward their climax communities. There are scholars of history who have claimed to find a type of cyclic ebb and flow in the human realm as civilizations rise and fall. They document another type of goal or end to which things are tending even if that end is not a stopping point but just another way station of an ongoing cyclical spiral.

I think we need to proceed carefully in looking for a middle way between these two overly simplifying positions we can take when we are orienting ourselves towards the future. It seems to me the first steps on the path to wisdom will of necessity involve a willingness to shake up our certainties and our uncertainties a bit. How else might we make the space in which something new can bloom?

Let’s not lose sight of what we are trying to do with mindfulness about ecology – waking up. We want to remove the numbness that fails to appreciate the preciousness of every breath of air, every drink of water and every bite of food we and all sentient beings partake of. We want to pierce the veil of our habitual mental abstractions that dulls our perceptions so we can know it is not true that ‘if you’ve seen one Redwood, you’ve seen them all.’ We want to nurture the insight that sees beyond the surface where things clothe themselves in the illusion of being unchanging and independent. We are willing to go through a stage of purgation to arrive at a stage of illumination.

These represent working skillfully with our nervous system by understanding its strengths and weaknesses. The idea is that by working with the nature of our minds and senses just as they are, we increase the degrees of freedom we are able to bring to bear when making the choices that build our future; choices that are always and only made moment by moment. Recognizing the power of choice places our feet firmly on the path that leads towards liberation.

The contemplative traditions can be maddening to those who want to be told what to do. Instead of offering dictates from above they recommend maturing your own wisdom so that you can determine what the best action to pursue is among all that are offered in each circumstance. Recognizing general guidelines can only ever be guidelines respects both the contingency and the patterns that confront us in every event.

Give too much weight to the patterns and it can seem the only way forward is to continue conservatively whatever is working now. Economic growth and resource exploitation is feeding, clothing and housing more people today than at any time in history. Why rock the boat?

Give too much weight to contingency and it can seem the only way forward is to build a new world on the rubble of the old. Every element of business as usual can be shown to be interdependently linked to exploitation of the poor and the theft of limited resources from future generations. Why not rock the boat?

Those of us who care deeply about the precarious situation we see our species in at this time need to wrestle with these questions and issues if we are to have any chance of dealing with what is really real. As tempting as it might be to cocoon ourselves in our own personal dogmatic certainty, the only actions that will effectively relieve suffering are those that are grounded in the reality of the situations we are confronting. Acting from habitual delusions robs us of the potential power we do have. Failing to recognize the full spectrum of freedom in the space of our choices restricts and limits the responses we believe are available to us, just at the time when a great dissensus is most sorely needed.

Consider an example that might be relevant for many readers, if not now than perhaps will be in the not too distant future. Consider a confrontation between a group of desperately hungry individuals and another group with access to food stuffs. Ask yourselves how many options might be viable? Remember this is an exercise about the real world so the TV and movie solutions are unlikely to have much actual value. In other words, while blowing away one of the groups with guns blazing is one possibility it should not exhaust all your options.

Which leads to the other point I wanted to tease out of our examination of our expectations about tomorrow. Real violence is not sexy. It inevitably includes an aspect of pathos, an element of the pathetic. The American culture might be the most removed from actual acts of violence, sickness and death of any people in the long history of peoples on earth, while simultaneously being surrounded by more images of choreographed, fake violence through ‘action’ movies and TV than any other peoples as well. When considering the freedom of choice around realistic actions to be taken in response to the crisis of our times, our being aware of this unprecedented manipulation of our fears is a necessary ingredient. The flip side of this violent hero worship also needs to be critically assessed. The flip side is hero worship of perfect, loving saviors. These are the heroes that set everything right with the world by promising to end all suffering. We encounter them in countless sit-coms and romantic dramas; getting married to the kind, sexy billionaire is one type. Between the heroes with guns blazing and the heroes saving everyone from all suffering, we as a people seeking to wisely nurture compassion need to make a middle way. We need to find a realistic way forward that can be expressed in the day to day choices of our lives.

A few minutes thought should quickly show how those generalizations about absolutes we adore are really not sufficient for dealing with a question like this about the allocation of food. It all depends on the details of the circumstances. What if the hungry party consists of a pregnant woman or two with children in tow? Might the wise move be different than if it were say, a biker gang? Or what if it was a gang but you were fairly certain further gangs could be expected to show up soon?

When I laid out the scenario did your mind immediately go to some sort of Mad Max, post-apocalyptic environment? What I had in mind was actually the United States as it is right now. There are plenty of urban areas that are food deserts (pdf) where people live surrounded by only fast food and liquor dispensers and need to travel many miles to access any truly nutritious food. There are plenty of places where desperate poverty lives side-by-side with such food luxury it is hard for most of us to even imagine, like the $25,000 Frozen Haute Chocolate dessert.

The future we will share is being built by the choices we are each making moment by moment. There are factors that will mold the shape of that future that could be considered predetermined, factors that are the effects of causes already sown. When the conditions for their fruition come about those effects will come about as well. Still, this reality of the most probable does not mean there is no longer any room for choices being made today to alter the conditions. What you and I do today matters.

The Box of Expectations

The desire to know the future runs deep. Every culture has had its forms of divination; many and colorful are the varieties of ways we have ritualized asking the cosmos what tomorrow may bring. We enjoy dabbling in astrological charts, Tarot readings, throwing the I Ching and reading tea leaves, to mention just a few of the more popular techniques of our own time. Mainstream culture dismisses all this as so much regression to our superstitious past while turning to the predictions of economists (to take a cheap shot) and scientific modeling (to give due credit to the best form of prognostication we have yet to develop collectively) for guidance.

However we might personally and collectively choose to populate our expectations, thoughts about the future remain powerful things. Some of the anger of the Occupy movement could be traced to shattered expectations of college students unable to find the employment they had been led to expect. Some of our most bitter interpersonal experiences likewise come from shattered expectations when we discover someone is not as honest, loving, loyal, trustworthy or dependable as we had anticipated. Fear of a possible nuclear attack has lead the world into the nightmare of mutually assured destruction (M.A.D. Indeed), and fear of a planet ravaged by climate change is bringing people out to protest against the largest corporations on earth. Thoughts about the future are powerful things.

The human mind plans. It is part of how we share concern for one another as well as to look out for our own survival. The wise seek out as much relevant information as they can assimilate to aid in making the best plans they are capable of, after all, lives can depend on it. Still, living skillfully with this aspect of mind involves learning to hold it with a light touch. Obsess about possible tomorrows and you will miss the opportunities for contentment that are available today. If our expectations are not held with a light touch the future looks predetermined. The role of choice and freedom all but disappears as we become dogmatically sure tomorrow will be just as we imagine it. We have put the real future of the real world into a box built out of our own individual expectations.

Those of us trying to walk mindfully with the aid of ecological awareness are particularly susceptible to the temptation to put the future into a box. Studying ecology’s limits to growth, overshoot, phantom acreage and the way peoples’ relationships with their environment has accompanied the rise and fall of civilizations, it is easy to adopt a default picture of the future that fails to fully account for the role of the unexpected. In other words, the real world will not fit into the box of our expectations. It is easy for us to understand how this is true for those who expect business as usual to continue indefinitely. The challenge is for us to recall it is equally true for those of us who expect disruptions and systematic failures.

It doesn’t really matter what analysis of the ecological crisis we find rings most true for us. From fast crash scenarios to catabolic collapse all of them use the only tool we have access to from every day, waking consciousness for making such prognostications – probability. We all would do well to admit that the crystal ball has grown dark, that there are limits to what we can know. Reason can extrapolate from current trends and our pattern matching ability can inform us about what is probable in our tomorrows by learning about what happened in our yesterdays. Still no one is able to predict the details of individual events of importance since they all include some degree of complexity: sensitivity to initial conditions beyond our ability to fully account for. Fixed predictions are folly, just the flip side of pretending no consequences can be predicted to follow from our current actions.

In my experience this is not a point of philosophy. The corrupting touch of the box of eco-crisis expectations has the distinctly noxious power to persuade one that the future is wholly horrifying and wholly determined. Once so persuaded it is not hard to convince oneself that the only escape from witnessing the death of millions is to die now and leave it all behind. There was a time I was driven half-crazy by the insanity of human beings actions on this planet. How I moved from there to here, where I am basically content and happy with life as it is, is the reason for my writing.

When I was six years old my Grandfather passed away. Among the items I received from him at that time was a Tarot deck. My Grandfather was a high ranking Mason and interested in the esoteric. It was a Rider Waite deck which I kept with me for the next fifteen years or so. The pictures were simply fascinating to my young mind; the Lovers, the Devil, the World and the Star with all those colors and symbols. It was an endless source of fascination. I don’t recall when I first started using them in readings but do recall that I knew from the beginning that they were also for teaching something important.

With a Tarot reading one is trying to use synchronicity to peek into the archetypal forces in play in one’s life and how those forces are constellated around whatever question the reading is about. The rational explanation anyway, ran along those lines for me. As an adolescent the desire to know whatever I could about the future was irresistible, particularly as the past had been quite pain filled.

The other use of the Tarot is said to be as a teaching medium. The cards are telling a symbolic story. A good example of how they can be read this way is found in Jung and the Tarot: An Archetypal Journey by Sallie Nichols. In her Jungian approach the cards illustrate the typical quests involved in growing up and growing wise. There are other readings of the symbolic story depending on which esoteric school is guiding the interpretation. Regardless of the framework, eventually the symbols work their way into the student’s dreaming mind and waken something there.

It is what I ultimately learned from the Tarot that makes this little autobiographical note relevant for this week’s discussion. What I learned is how to live without needing the crutch of Tarot readings. A lot of the wizard riddles are like this in my experience. The point of a system like Tarot, as I understand it, is to mature the student beyond the need to use the Tarot. Remember each time I threw the cards in a reading it was driven, at least in part, by discomfort in facing the future. To ask any of these divinatory systems about the future can be a humble openness to seek wisdom wherever it can be found or, and this is more typical than we want to admit, an expression of deep doubt about our ability to meet the events of life well, whatever they may be.This psychological position can equally apply to the mainstream techniques of creating science based scenarios. An obsessive preoccupation with the future can represent a lack of trust in both one’s own resources and the nature of the universe we find ourselves in.

Basically I learned to “lighten” up.

Humor teaches us not to take ourselves too seriously. When you are looking into your box of expectations about human life in the future is there a place for humor? Do you include the ridiculous and the playful? Can you allow the breezes of choice and freedom to blow through the box of your expectations, even perhaps turning over the whole apple cart? And have you learned when the whole edifice of expectations crumbles to laugh at our folly? I think that is a skill that will serve us all very well in the future, however it actually unfolds.

Chinese Finger TrapThe box of expectations can devolve into what I call the three lock box. This is a box that cannot be opened by oneself alone from the outside or the inside, a puzzle box metaphor. Be on guard against the three lock box, the one created by the evil trinity of I – Me – Mine. There is no escape from this box; given the premises which forged these shackles, only a suffocating claustrophobia awaits those suffering in its prison. Like the Chinese Finger Trap, the more you struggle to escape from this hellish box the more tightly it immobilizes you in its grip.

The key is to open the third lock, the one that is not wholly inside nor wholly outside nor do you alone have the key. The work is similar to what is needed to escape the Chinese Finger Trap – to relax. The key is that the locks that seem so real and solid are in fact nothing more than delusions born from our disordered desires. They are what appear when we are ignorant of our interdependence, the true role of relationships in our lives. They are not ultimately real.

This unholy trinity represents the ego in isolation. This I knows no Thou, this Me knows no You, this Mine cannot countenance Yours.

The insidious corruption of this monster extends its tentacles of suffering over numerous aspects of life in the modern world. The obvious manifestations are found wherever propaganda is used to deny the humanity of anyone you want to destroy, exploit or abuse. Examples of the form at its most crude include the Native Americans who were said to be no more than wild beasts, the Jews who the Nazis likened to rats, and today the towel heads and the great satan vying loudly to dehumanize each other. A little less crude are all those messages incessantly propagated in hyper-capitalist cultures about success defined as getting all the material wealth you deserve while crushing your competition. This is the basic premise of most ‘reality TV’, an oxymoron if there ever was one. The same heart of darkness is seen in the ubiquitous disregard for the poor and weak. The ease with which we forget the suffering of those in third world factories toiling to manufacture our consumer goods is one way we cut ourselves off from the reality of our interdependence. The list goes on to include our cold, heartless relationships with women, children and animals, all of whom are considered less than fully human by those who are less than fully human themselves.

From the inside of this three lock box everything on the outside is seen as dead objects. Descartes stated it clearly when he recognized value in his own thoughts while doubting everything and everyone else. It is too bad he was not making love when executing his soul searching, a less sterile certainty may well have come to him than ‘I think therefore I am.’ I tried to get to the heart of this with some word pictures.

When I – Me – Mine rules our perceptions, cognitions and emotions, the whole world, both within and without, is reduced to objects, food basically. The first awareness’s of anything are colored by the thought that darkens the doors of perception, “what can this do for me?” From within the three lock box, as Derrick Jensen put it, “It is easier to kill a number than an individual, whether we’re talking about so many tons of fish, so many board feet of timber, or so many boxcars of untermenschen.”

This hunger for objects which the denizens of the three lock box suffer from is never satisfied for long, regardless of its meal. Eat a boat and you want a yacht, eat an apartment and you want a sky scraper, and on and on it goes wherever the pied-pipers of Madison Avenue wish to lead you.

See the problem is that in creating this prison we think we are building ourselves a throne. Looking out for number one, we assure ourselves we will get what we deserve, all that we are due. A life of ease and happiness will finally be ours if we can just get X, where X is whatever our latest obsession happens to be. It’s almost amusing how such obvious ignorance manages to perpetuate itself even as one X after another fails to deliver, month after month, year after year. Something similar happened with the Tarot cards as year after year what I was asking from them they were not delivering. Eventually this alienation from the living flows of life only touched by trust can wake us up to the fact that we are feeding on the swill of swines, as it were. Consumerism as religion in whichever form it takes is a dead end road.

By setting ourselves apart from the whole of the earth, from the larger flow of life as it unfolds across generations, we find we have put ourselves into a psychologically untenable position. A terrifying fear of death is inescapable inside the three lock box. Haunted by this specter we find it easy to justify our acts of cold-hearted desperation. From this point of view it is as if we are on a sinking life boat and running out of food.

Isn’t that about how it feels to be ecologically aware in our time?

The first skill for dealing well with the phenomenon of the three lock box is to learn the characteristics by which we can recognize it is influencing us. In all its forms – perceptual, cognitive and emotional – it brings a sense of restriction. Its touch removes a sense of openness, spaciousness, and freedom.

Perception: We see the world in the same old way; Grey world devoid of wonder and beauty, nothing tantalizing, nothing tempting us to take out our hand lens and take a closer look. (You are carrying a hand lens right?)

Cognition: We tire of our studies and feel our minds are already over full with more knowledge than we will ever be able to use (note knowledge is only given value if it can get us something). There is nothing more of great importance for us to learn.

Emotional: Tomorrow will be just like today, endlessly, and today is bland, painful, boring, and meaningless. Or, equally extreme, today we are king of the world sitting in our new car / boat / house and sure tomorrow will continue to feel the same way.

Life outside the three lock box is one that does not suffer from these blinders on the doors of perception, cognition and emotion. It is open to whatever comes. It is naked before the happiness found in a single breath, aware of the preciousness of awareness itself beyond the lesser judgements of pleasant and unpleasant. Life outside the three lock box or the box of our expectations, is one characterized by relationships. The lonely isolation of the ego against the world is a mistaken perception of the value of human life and thereby all of life. This throne of character armor we are building to protect us from the fate of all mortal things is not a moat, not a palace. It is a prison.

Identify with life first, ‘your’ life second. Do this and then you are aligned with the indestructible force that has withstood cosmic calamities we can barely imagine; multiple mass extinctions, massive earthquakes and tsunamis, global ice ages and meteoric bombardment. Through it all the green strength persists. Identify first with mind’s naked awareness, with an open heart, and the locks on the box dissolve. Holding expectations with a light touch you find joy in your exquisite uniqueness as it unfolds moment by moment.

Earth Love

We say nature is red in tooth and claw and indeed it is; to eat is the means of survival. But reproduction is the engine of evolution and so cooperation and synergy are equally fundamental. So this is no objection to our aspirations for it. It is only with mankind that we find cruelty for cruelty’s sake yet this is no objection to our aspirations for it either, as it is also only with mankind that we find loving kindness and compassion being nurtured for its own sake. With the human being we find a life form capable of aspiring to extend love to all sentient beings – earth love.

I would like to share my aspirations for the world with you. Perhaps you will recognize some of your own deepest longings and hopes in them. Through the magic of sharing a heartfelt connection we will have strengthened one another’s subjectivity, we will have become friends. Making such connections are all the more valuable in our times when it is so hard to swim against the current.

The subject of hope is a difficult one because it is so easily contaminated with the idea that we need to achieve what we hope for. My earliest teachers used to warn not to “lust after results” and now, decades later, it still rings true. It is natural to want to achieve the outcome we are working on; we read in the hope of becoming better informed, we study in school hoping to earn a certificate or a degree which we hope will keep us off the streets and out of the unemployment line or perhaps we work hard for our employer hoping they will in turn reward us with some security. In all these ways and many, many others we hope for outcomes to accompany our efforts and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. It is human nature to act on our hopes and try to make them come to pass. The problems come when we convince ourselves we cannot be happy unless our hopes and dreams come to pass. That gets it all backwards, like looking through the wrong end of a telescope.

Our deepest aspirations form our character, that elusive yet pervasive quality that colors our reactions to the events of our lives. Integrity and honesty are qualities of character which we see expressed when keeping our word or remaining strong yet gentle under pressure. These character traits can bring a type of happiness to our lives that is not as fickle as feel-good emotions or quickly satiated pleasures. As the Stoics taught they are also not dependent on the events of the world we experience; how we choose to react to events remains our choice and in that choice we remain unbounded, free even if we find our bodies in chains.

I would like to live in a society that is wise enough to practice Buddhist Economics. In 1955 E.F. Schumacher coined the term as part of his work with Asian societies and then published an essay with the same name in 1966 which was included in the book Small Is Beautiful in 1973. It is worth mentioning this pedigree for those who might think our problems and their solutions were not clearly seen some time ago. The basic wisdom it had to share is that since human greed is boundless – like drinking salt water the Buddha taught – the highest quality human life is one that is happy and satisfied with the least possible. “From an economist’s point of view, the marvel of the Buddhist way of life is the utter rationality of its pattern – amazingly small means leading to extraordinarily satisfactory results… since consumption is merely a means to human well-being, the aim should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption.”

This is a nugget of wisdom shared by monks and nuns of every tradition, updated in the Voluntary Simplicity movement, and recently articulated meaningfully in John Michael Greer’s acronym L.E.S.S. – Less Energy, Stuff and Stimulation. A society respecting this wisdom will not be without greed and exploitation but on balance a culture that discourages such behavior, understanding it as a selfish, somewhat sad aberration, will provide fewer sociological niches in which such greed and exploitation can grow and thrive.

Not only would we then walk lighter on the earth but we would also have more time for creative pursuits, nurturing friendships and all the other noble and dignifying activities which are currently so often squeezed out of our oh-so-busy schedules. On a very practical level more people could live with a sense of contentment if the needs of all were met before the endless wants were provided to the few. Cultures of the past organized themselves around these types of values. Knowing this nurtures my aspiration even though I cannot see a way to get there as a society from where we are today.

I aspire to live in a world that appraises the success of a cultural order by how well it treats its weakest members. This might sound crazy in our time of celebrity-worshiping only the winners in our winner-take-all culture, yet it to has formed the social values of cultures in the past. The concern for the downtrodden was once a defining characteristic of Jewish, Christian and Muslim societies and continues to appear here and there where people show concern for the widow and orphan. Though helplessly out of fashion today, this hope is nurtured every time I encounter broken lives from broken homes populating our city streets; there must be a better way. It is also nurtured in the countless acts of kindness my city contains everyday. Action taken on behalf of the poor, sick, and the old make no headlines and provide none of the prizes our enculturation teaches us to value, still the acts of compassion and basic human decency are not extinct.

I hope to see that a large majority of people never doubt the dignity and worth of a human life. When Tibetan lamas came to the West they had a very hard time understanding our culture’s sense of self-loathing. I believe this uniquely western psychological trait was created by advertising. I do not think it is part of some ‘inherent, unchangeable human nature.’ To sell us a bill of goods we were sold, as we say, a bill of goods. Though in my opinion the human psyche has been deeply wounded by the psychologically manipulative tricks of the ad men, I think this damage is reversible.

One of my deepest aspirations is to live on an earth in which the industrial killing machine of modern warfare can no longer harvest lives by the millions for The Lord of Death. Nor will death squads be allowed to roam free with their instruments of torture, abuse and terror in jungles, ghettos or Guantanamos. This might seem the most unrealistic hope of all yet I believe it would be the direct result of just one basic, though fundamental change: an increase in our respect for women and children. If, on the balance, the number of rapes and beatings of women and children we as a society are willing to tolerate was minimized, it seems to me the ripple effect would reach all the way to the world’s battlefields and torture chambers.

Finally I aspire to live in a world in which the wisdom of our elderly members is prized highly. Recognizing the endurance involved in achieving old age with dignity intact, and the value of understanding that only experience can bestow, just might provide the stabilizing influence for the whole of the rest of our culture. It is easy to romanticize the Native American tribes debating with their elders in seeking out the best course of action as those that would be most likely to benefit the 7th generation, still the historical example remains. Again, on the balance, it encourages my heart as a realistically better way to live than what I see around me today.

These are the aspirations for  the changes I dream of seeing in our human relationships, the ecology of our social interactions. My conviction is that they reflect a basic respect for the earth, for life just as it is in all of its forms. These changes would represent a healing of the sickness that is causing us to poison our homes, steal an honorable human future from our children and murder whole species among our four-legged, finned and feathered brothers and sisters.

I will not surrender my dreams. Nor will I tuck them safe into an obscure corner of my being and watch everything I hold precious be destroyed. This is my earth love. It is comfortable thinking like a mountain; it has no need to take up gun, knife and chainsaw as its enemies do. We do not need to wake up tomorrow to a world transformed into the one of our dreams to be happy. Everyone of these aspirations can be put into practice in our own individual lives right now. We can act from that place that is courageous enough to admit to ourselves and to others around us that we dare to hold these aspirations. When we do, we discover something that has outlasted empires and civilizations throughout the long history of our earth – we discover the power of an indestructible intention.

I have met literally hundreds and hundreds of people in person and through writings that feel the same way. Each of us would express our deepest aspirations in our own unique way but that does not prevent us from recognizing the same aspirations in one another. Tens of thousands, maybe millions, of people right now are feeling this same throbbing, living heart of earth love. Looking out across our killing fields, heartless businesses, shoddy consumerism values and callous disregard for the preciousness of life, a deep and abiding revulsion arises within. It’s a call.

This indestructibility doesn’t come because we have some sort of super-power. It’s a recognition that the very pulse of life itself provides the spaciousness for such aspirations. Every couple falling in love, every wolf howling at a fresh moon, every dolphin cresting waves for the sheer exuberance of it are each reflecting this earth love, this mystery out of our planet’s deep time.

None of us can stop the seeds we have sewn from sprouting. Things will run their course. None of us is rich enough, smart enough, nor powerful enough to individually turn this ship around. However we individuals are not powerless. Recognizing our indestructible intentions together, it is hard to rationally justify a limit on just how far things might change for the better. It will take time, centuries perhaps. It will never become an angelic utopia and it cannot come about by trying to cut out or deny the darkness that dwells in the heart of each and every one of us. But even all  this taken together, it seems to me, it not sufficiently powerful to overcome the indestructible intention of our earth love.

There are many demons about in the world today but there are also many friends. Thank you, friends, for reading my aspirations for the world. What are yours?

Earth Love: Phenomenon

BlackSludgeLake(Credit: Liam Young/Unknown Fields)

Have you seen this man-made toxic lake before? This phenomenon is a small token of the price we are willing to pay to have our smartphones and other high-tech gadgets. The BBC recently wrote about The dystopian lake filled by the world’s tech lust. We outsource the pollution, hire the cheapest labor on earth we can find and then decorate our pockets and wrists with the products of so much suffering.

Don’t take my word for it. His Holiness the 17th Karmapa has been touring universities in the United States for the last few weeks. He stated at Stanford, “…we only see what we have in our hands when it comes to technology. We only see the new iPhone that we have acquired. We do not see directly with our own eyes all the natural resources and all of the human hardship that went into the production of that iPhone. Our attention tends to remain just at the surface with what we can see with our own eyes even though all the information about what went into the production of the iPhone for example is available to us… we seem to get stuck with just seeing what’s before our eyes and not looking at the larger picture of where this is all coming from.” (Time ~35:00)

At Harvard he stated, “Interdependence is not just about the sharing of information or an understanding we might arrive at in our brains, in our heads. It is about sharing the feelings in our hearts and about our real experience.” (Time ~24:00) At Yale he taught, “I think that in order to understand the necessity of environmental protection we need to understand how connected we are to one another and to our environment… We often feel at some distance from our environment, we divide the world into subject and object and we feel that the external environment is an object separated from us by some kind of boundary and at some distance from ourselves as subjects. We need to dissolve this artificial boundary and decrease the distance between ourselves and our environment.” (Time ~27:00 and ~30:00)

While on this tour he also mentioned that we humans are “shockingly selfish.”  Those words have haunted me, tearing away at the veil of normality my culture tries so hard to hide behind. Phenomenon created by our overdeveloped greed, like that toxic lake in Baotou China, does not disappear because we cover it up in slick advertising jingles and corporate logos. In today’s post I want to look at what kinds of phenomenon someone who carries a deep love for the earth in their hearts can become mindful of. Please do not take this as a holier-than-thou tirade; I own an iPhone and spent my engineering career in the computer business. The point is we are all in this together.

Another phenomenon to consider: the recent earthquake in Nepal. Close to one million Nepali workers are virtual slaves to the companies that employ them throughout the gulf region. Many would like to return home to check on their families and properties, but most cannot. They must seek permission from the corporations employing them to leave the countries in which they work, a feudalism-like law clause known as kefala. We don’t much care to know the details of how the oil infrastructure of the world works, just so long as gasoline comes out of our pumps and our store shelves remain properly stocked. It brings to mind Susan Neiman’s Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy in which she investigated how the Lisbon earthquake was a manifestation of evil for eighteenth-century Europeans. Her point was that it shook their conviction that the world made some sort of sense. Part of my haunting wonders what blowback might be in store for the overdeveloped world since the countries less enthralled with greedy consumerism are paying such horrendous costs in seeing their traditional monuments crumble and centuries of traditional lifestyles overturned.

A final phenomenon to consider; a letter published last month in Nature Climate Change updating research first published in that journal in 2013. The research concerns the disconnect between many of our climate models and the surface temperature increases as they have been measured in the last 15 years or so. The climate models have been agreeing that the mean global temperature should be warmer than what we are experiencing given the current carbon content of the atmosphere. Skeptics and denialists have made much of this discrepancy while those seeking understanding have worked hard to find what factors are not being properly included in the models that might explain the discrepancy.

Model makers have added numerous factors to their models in the attempt to have stronger correlations between their simulation runs and the temperature data. Simply put, the models track well for close to a century of data but then around the year 2000 something goes a bit awry. The models find that we should be suffering an even greater degree of mean surface warming than we are. Does this mean the science has been crying wolf and we can all forget about those dark and dismal prognostications and go back to increasing our numbers and shopping at Wal Mart forever? Not quite. As so often happens when dealing with fallible human intelligence, what first seems one way turns out to be another. In this case what seems to be some slightly good news, that the warming is less drastic than our best science considers most probable, is most likely not good news at all. Quite the contrary.

Which illustrates the first point I want to make about waking up in our age of ecocrisis as it concerns our relationship with the phenomena unfolding in the world around us. I have mentioned before that I think those who let their despair over the depressing reality of a civilization committing suicide to commit suicide themselves are making a mistake. Humility suggests we should be wary of any one way decisions like this since however much our current analysis might support our conclusions, it is the nature of intelligence to evolve and change.

Here is not where I insert “the happy chapter” and anyone who thinks I might needs to read our kitchen table conversation. What I am getting at is more subtle, perhaps something only us older folks can really appreciate. It comes from looking back on all those things we were so certain about in past decades and how, if we avoided the temptation of shutting down thinking through one fundamentalism or another, those certainties changed from one decade to the next. When considering the meaning of the phenomenon our earth presents we would do well to recall the wisdom in the Taoist tale of The Lost Horse:

A man who lived on the northern frontier of China was skilled in interpreting events. One day, for no reason, his horse ran away to the nomads across the border. Everyone tried to console him, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a blessing?” Some months later his horse returned, bringing a splendid nomad stallion. Everyone congratulated him, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a disaster?” Their household was richer by a fine horse, which his son loved to ride. One day he fell and broke his hip. Everyone tried to console him, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a blessing?”

A year later the nomads came in force across the border, and every able-bodied man took his bow and went into battle. The Chinese frontiersmen lost nine of every ten men. Only because the son was lame did the father and son survive to take care of each other. Truly, blessing turns to disaster, and disaster to blessing: the changes have no end, nor can the mystery be fathomed.

As told by Ellen J. Langer, in The Power of Mindful Learning

To return to the climate modeling – a few weeks ago the mystery just might have been solved. The researchers examining oceanic factors knew these great bodies of water had the proper magnitude of influence on climate to cause the variations encountered but could not figure out just how such an influence might be accounted for. Most people have heard about the El Nino in which the temperature of the Pacific Ocean changes for a year. There is a similar phenomenon that causes variations in the surface temperature that stretches across decades. It is known as the ‘Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation’ (IPO) and when it’s known variations were added to a climate model the researchers discovered it explains the temperature discrepancy between the simulations and the measured data. They were able to model back to 1920 and found the fit significant.

Frighteningly what this means is that as the IPO ceases, once this natural reprieve from our climate forcings ends over the next little while, the most probable outcome will be a rapid acceleration of warming. Quoting the abstract, “Recent history suggests that the IPO could reverse course and lead to accelerated global warming in the coming decades.” In other words our time right now – this time since the year 2000 characterized by record breaking drought and wildfires on the west coast and storms like Sandy and Katrina on the east and south coasts, not to mention bark beetle infestations, accelerated species extinctions and the rest of the list of horrors – this time has actually been a moment of mercy. It is as if we had been given one more opportunity to slow down the train heading over the cliff. That same period saw the global peak in conventional oil production which now looks to have occurred around the year 2005. Not unrelatedly, global financial games desperate to prop up currencies that require growth in a world where the oil-fed engines of growth have stalled have dominated the headlines since 2008. At a time when we know it is unsafe to burn the oil and coal we already have, we indulged in an orgy of tar sands and shale oil development, new coal trains and pipelines, and now new deep sea drilling in the Arctic if Shell gets its way.

That finding in climate science should have dominated headlines world-wide. The deafening silence in the media brings me to the second point I want to make about phenomenon in the age of limits. The overdeveloped world inherits a combative attitude towards the natural world; the wilderness is to be tamed, the frontier to be settled. Our Faustian cultural ambition of increased scientific understanding is based on the belief that knowledge is power. Not just any power but power over, as illustrated in the uses we have put our sciences to in our technologies. We have already looked at how we turned away from appropriately human scaled use of technology to embrace that which has made us Homo Collosuss.

Events are conspiring to teach us that in this hubris we were quite mistaken. The ‘forces of nature’, the ‘acts of god’, the ‘phenomenal world’ is much larger than we are and farther beyond our control than we imagined in our feverish dreams fueled by the oily devil juice. Phenomenon will proceed along the ways of cause and effect as it always has, regardless of what we might think about it. We can choose to focus on the latest Hollywood scandal and ignore the ecological sciences but phenomenon like the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation we have been discussing will inevitably run their course.

As practitioners learning to transform the poison of this ecological darkness into the nectar of an enlightenment, this humble assessment of our true position seems to me very fundamental. Our lives and those of others are as threads in a tapestry. They will be shaped by, and of necessity will need to deal with, the phenomenon of their environment.

Seen rightly, fully accepting this allows us to set aside a crushing burden that was nothing but delusion anyway. Our job is not to save the world. Our job is to spread kindness and happiness as opportunity presents itself. Whatever phenomenon appears moment by moment is our path. There is already enormous suffering in our world and rational analysis can only conclude much more is probably coming. Collectively we have chosen not to take advantage of this time which could well turn out to have been a lull before the storm. Due to interdependence you and I and everyone else will have to deal with that. Yet ultimately, what is more important is how we as individuals choose to use this time. I suggest we use it to strengthen our skills of empathy and personal freedom of choice. In this way we are properly preparing for the trials to come.

The future holds sickness, old age and death. These are coming to the globalized industrial system just as assuredly as they are coming to each of us and our loved ones. Making peace with that, perhaps we can teach one another a better way to live than this endless and futile flight from death we enslave ourselves to. Those who can be happy even while accepting the world of phenomenon just as it is have plenty of work to do.

The battlefields are spreading. We need people trained in triage.