Evolutionary Likelihood

“DNA courses like an ever flowing river down the generations. The river of DNA that flows through us into the future is a pure river that leaves us exactly as it finds us with one exception. There are occasional, very occasional, random changes called mutations. Because of these there is genetic variation in the population and that is what opens the way for natural selection – a world filled with good DNA.”
Growing Up In the Universe, Richard Dawkins

 

I think a lot of us carry a set of unrealistic expectations about how our experiences of body, feelings and mind should be. The idea that others do not suffer the same anxieties we ourselves do is mistaken. Each of us bears our unique habits and preferences, our own hot button issues and our own intolerances yet these all take place against a larger backdrop of what we share in common with everyone else who is having this human experience. Hunger and anger, pride and shame, comfort and anxiety, love and hate all bear a signature that is recognizable however and in whomever they express themselves. Our identification with the characters of theater and movies works because these common, shared human characteristics are so easily recognized.

The question then becomes what attitude will we take towards what we find within the human experience? If you love and care for life as it is, one would do everything in one’s power to nurture and protect whatever life depends on – good food, clean air, and fresh water. Evidently that is not how we feel about this human experience. Evidently, at least collectively, when we see the highs and lows of human nature they frighten and disgust us; we see monsters and animals instead of our humanity.

Contemplative experiences restore the deep mystery of the mind’s awareness to our assessment of human nature. Familiarity with the mind’s vast spaces restores a cosmic dignity to the human adventure. We are children of the stars and do well to remember that, if we are to stay awake to how precious each moment of being alive truly is. I suggest that to appreciate both the fragile nature of the planetary ecosystems on which human life relies and the preciousness of human compassion we need to be thoroughly grounded in evolutionary theory. It provides the modern middle way between the extreme views of an all-powerful creator god on the one hand and blind, meaningless chaos on the other.

Reasoning compliments contemplation. In this instance the reasoning behind evolutionary theory offers a way of understanding where our human nature came from, how it was shaped and formed into what we experience. It is a story of how our very bodies and minds have come forth on a planet teeming with food and challenges. It is your story as you embody yet another expression of the DNA life stream that has run pure for billions and billions of years. The evolutionary perspective can also be used to combat the illusory idea that life should be other than it is. The body, speech and mind that make up the contents of our awareness’ primary experience are not fallen versions of a once perfect, heavenly Adam and Eve but built up gradually, step by step over vast stretches of deep time through a type of exploratory groping through jungles of possibilities – all the ticklishly enticing and equally actual instances of DNA’s expression.

Evolutionary theory takes the steam out of the self-criticisms that arise by expecting ourselves to be something we are not, something other than human. We are working our way towards an understanding of the human mind rooted in evolutionary theory where understanding the forces at work will provide a scientifically solid basis for compassion and empathy. It is easier to have true compassion for oneself and others when the reality of our situation is appreciated. By clearing the deck of ideas such as perfect souls become flawed by sin and human beings purposefully designed by an all perfect and all knowing designer, we find space is made for nurturing and expressing the value of being a human being on its own terms. The evolutionary perspective also seems critical to me because it removes the narcotic, semi-conscious belief our behavior indicates is widespread; the idea that modern humanity is so special we are bound to succeed. We dare not take it for granted that everything is going to work out fine in the end because some invisible insurance policy is underwriting the human experiment. It is all too easy to allow thoughts of the absolute or ultimate to remove value from the contingent and relative.

That said, none of these comments should be construed as applying to whatever ultimate or absolute may or may not exist. The point is how different views of what reality consists of have implications for how people behave in the here and now. This is more about what is acceptable in public discourse than what one might hold in one’s innermost heart. In public discourse we can expect those involved to appeal only to demonstrably real features of our experience and stick with reasoning for whatever conclusions or explanations of that experience are offered. The likelihood one would rationally assign the hypothesis of a supernatural creator in public discourse changed with the addition of this evolutionary knowledge to our cultural inheritance.

There is no question that evolution by natural selection is a fact of life. Its results are noted in biological laboratories every day. Studying this subject offers an opportunity to exercise intellectual integrity and courage. The reasoning is tight and specifically designed to not depend on any supernatural explanations. Life, which seems so carefully designed for a purpose, is found to not quite be so, not as it seems anyway. These intuitions run counter to much of the philosophical and religious thought within our cultural inheritances. Courage is needed to wield this knowledge as a hammer to tap idols and find which ring hollow but skill is also required if the knowledge is to be effective in conserving what is valuable among our inheritances. This knowledge is a like a sharp sword that while very effective for cutting away ignorance can also cut oneself if we are not careful.

The Reverend William Paley is often credited as representing the traditional view in his 1802 book Natural Theology in which he introduced the world to an (in)famous watch in what has come to be known as the argument by design. The book opens by discussing a man walking along and kicking a rock that then later in his travels coming upon a watch. The rock is a simple object obviously brought forth purely from the interplay of the forces of physics. The watch on the other hand is equally obviously designed for a purpose and whereas the rock could be brought forth by the blind forces of physics, the watch could only have been brought forth by a designer. The good Reverend went on to draw the analogy with the natural world where mountains, clouds, oceans and lands might be brought forth by the blind forces of physics but animals in all their variety and complexity are designed for a purpose and so imply there must be a designer; the Reverend’s creator god.

Hume was the first to point out the argument by design basically shoots itself in the foot. What is to be explained is the order and complexity we find in living things. To propose a designer is just to posit a more ordered and more complex origin since that which could design something as complex as the animal kingdom in all its varieties, including us, must be even more complex in itself. What is posited is no solution to what needs to be explained, it just takes the argument around in a circle.

Daniel Dennett has recently given us a wonderfully picturesque and accurate term for any step in a logical argument that basically just amount to “insert miracle here.” He calls it relying on skyhooks. If building the argument that justifies a large degree of belief in a theory is likened to building a brick building, each part of the logical progression of the argument proceeds by working with what has come before as step by step it progresses to its conclusions. We use cranes capable of lifting the doors and windows of our insights and clarity. A skyhook by contrast attempts to explain a source of design complexity without building on the lower layers. The use of skyhooks is intellectually dishonest.

Though the appeal to a creator fails as a rational argument the very real puzzle remains – animals look “overwhelmingly and compellingly like they were designed.” (Dawkins) Compare the complexity of say a Boa Constrictor to that of Paley’s watch and it is not just more complicated, the Boa is a billion times more complicated. Fred Hoyle, former president of the Royal Astronomical Society, provided a very picturesque illustration of just what it is that needs to be explained. Imagine a hurricane sweeping through a junkyard. The chance of it spontaneously assembling a 747 airplane is equivalent to the chance of an eyeball being formed. Eyes and 747s can’t come into existence by chance, a single lucky shake of the dice, but they can if we spread out the luck. Evolution will then occur if the tiny, lucky steps accumulate. This is key:

Smearing out the luck and accumulating it.

Hoyle’s junkyard hurricane making a 747 drives home the point that chance alone could never produce the complexity of living forms we find on our planet. It is highly improbable, astronomically improbable; in a word it would be a miracle. How then can evolution climb this mountain of improbabilities without relying on a skyhook at any time?

Take the evolution of the eyeball. Eyes have been reinvented in numerous forms by numerous species independently of one another throughout evolutionary history. We can understand how the first step on this design path might be a simple cell that due to a random genetic mutation bears some sensitivity to light. If we imagine this primitive ability to sense light and dark at the base of a huge mountain then the fully formed mammalian eyeball, which is very nearly functionally perfect, would be on the mountain’s peak. On one face of this mountain is a sheer cliff from top to bottom. Jumping from the primitive light sensitive cell to a fully formed eyeball in a single lucky genetic mutation would be like jumping up this cliff. It would need a lucky shake of the dice equivalent to the hurricane producing a 747.

On the other face of the mountain of probabilities, instead of a sheer cliff there is a path winding its way back and forth, leading step by step up to the heights. In places the path might be steep but nowhere is a leap of miracles required. This is Mount Improbable where evolution spreads out the probability. All that is required is that this individual with the light sensitive cell use their limited but potentially useful information to their advantage as it seeks to survive and reproduce. Critics of evolution have asked what good is half an eye. Perhaps the light sensitive cell is just enough to indicate the presence of a predator giving it a slight advantage over its blinder brethren. Over the vast stretches of geological time 1% of an eye is of more advantage than 0%, 1/8 of an eye will prove more adapted than 1/16 of an eye and so on through a gently progression.

It is not enough to have chance find these improbable, but not wildly improbable steps. The results of the lucky break must be retained as per the algorithm: smearing out the luck and accumulating it.

A final illustration well captures the essence of the evolutionary mechanism that allows it to climb Mount Improbable without recourse to skyhooks. This example is demonstrated in the Royal Institution’s Christmas Lecture of 1991 given by Richard Dawkins in part 3, Climbing Mount Improbable. Imagine we have two combination locks. Each has three dials with the numbers one to six etched on them. The first lock is a normal combination lock in that you need to have all three numbers correctly set on the dials for the lock to open. The second lock is different; it uses a gradually opening mechanism so that if you get the first dial correct the lock opens up a little. Set the second dial correctly and it opens yet a bit more and so on.

Because there are three dials with six possible settings each for each lock there are 6 * 6 * 6 = 216 total possible combinations. To open the first lock you have a 1 in 216 chance of guessing right. This is like trying to climb Mount Improbable’s sheer cliff. Opening the second combination lock is a very different affair. To get the first dial to open your luck need only find the one correct number out of six. Do so and the lock will partially open. Additionally, and crucially, once the first dial is correct it remains open so the second dial also only needs a one in six chance to get it right and the same for the last dial. In the gradual combination lock the total number of possible combinations remains 216 but the working out of the correct one explores a space of 6 + 6 + 6 = 18.

Evolutionary action is similar to the gradual combination lock. It smears out luck and accumulates it.

The Evolution of Cooperation

“In the world according to Margulis, bacteria are the protagonists. Not only were they the only organisms on Earth for most of its history; they are the organisms in which virtually all major metabolic pathways evolved and they remain the crucial intermediates in biogeochemical cycles. Eukaryotic cells are viewed as tightly integrated bacterial assemblages, plants and animals as assemblages of assemblages. Cooperation, not competition, is the wellspring of evolutionary change, giving rise to a biota so highly integrated that the concept of the biosphere as a ‘global superorganism’ has a significance beyond metaphor.”
Andrew Knoll (italics added)

 

One afternoon a few billion years ago a bacteria absorbed another bacterium but instead of dissolving the stranger in its digestive process it managed to work out a mutually beneficial exchange. This primordial act of cooperation between cells gave birth to the form of life we value most, that which is based on the Eukaryotic cells. A similar primeval cooperation incorporated the mitochondria which have survived as the cell’s powerhouse to this day and the chloroplasts that convert sunlight into sugars in all our green plants.

Cooperation is so obviously fundamental to all forms of life we can easily lose sight of its importance. Atoms dance cooperatively, we could say, to form molecules. These molecular elements interactively cooperate to produce all the myriad forms throughout our universe including organic matter in which the intelligent cooperation among an astonishingly high number of astonishingly complex parts takes place.

The immune system found in mammals, for example, creates cells that kill other cells yet ‘know’ only to kill the foreign invaders. Somehow these cells are able to unerringly identify self and other so that the whole immune system can rest safely in the midst of all the other systems that go into mammalian life. A less well known example is the fact that our cells are programmed to die. The wonderful documentary Death by Design, The Life and Times of Life and Times illustrates how vital this capability is. That a cell knows when and where to dissolves its boundaries back into the larger chemical soup is what allows the proper growth characteristics to be maintained while cells are replaced. Cancer is a disease, at least in part, where cells do not die on cue. It gets better, “it turns out for cells to stay alive they need signals from other cells to tell them to stay alive, and if they don’t get those signals then they kill themselves.” (18:20 – 18:30) Here is cooperation taken to its extreme where an individual gives its life for the sake of the larger whole which is its environment.

The point of the example is not to project altruistic human values onto individual cells but to break out of an overly anthropomorphic interpretation of intelligence.

The circulatory system is another characteristic system of mammalian life that is worth spending a moment contemplating. It provides communication channels across vast distances – an end to end layout of an adult’s arteries, capillaries and veins would stretch approximately 60,000 miles – through lock and key like mechanisms, diffusion gradients and a host of other cooperative exchanges. This example is particularly relevant for those of us in the urban environments of the developed world. Modern cities are constructed around the automobile where the overpasses and clover leaves, on and off ramps and the clogged highways and arterials resemble nothing so much as the pattern of circulatory systems. Driving our automobiles on those streets is only possible due to the cooperation of every other car on the road. Thousands of anonymous humans with lines on the road, a few lights and a few rules manage to function more or less successfully day after day. For the most part the drivers satisfy whatever need or desire inspired their traveling, we get where we are going.

Cooperation is the defining characteristic of humanity’s social life. Economic relationships are built around an agreed upon means of exchanging value in currencies that acquire their worth partly through acts of international cooperative agreement. Currency collapses illustrate their empty innate nature. That our international deliveries arrive on time and goods are manufactured as expected join countless other factual acts of cooperation to make the modern world possible. Even our worse psychopathic predators, individual and institutional, have spent most of the moments of their lives in one form or another of cooperation with the society and environment they have found themselves in. The point is that wherever you look, you find the fabric of cooperation.

Another point that should be noted is how some of our cooperative relationships can be a source of endlessly fresh joy and happiness. Part of the mind training a contemplative undergoes is learning to recognize or remember or be mindful of this aspect of reality. Because cooperation is so pervasive it can come to feel common and can all too easily be taken for granted. To be blinded in this way is an ignorance born from forgetting that for us one day all this will end. How precious a breath or a simple footstep will seem to us then, how much more so a kiss or a friendly word.

All of this cooperation is taking place in dynamic environments full of surprises. They are not rigid structures but rather mutual interactive adaptations continually adjusting to changing conditions. Every grain of sand an ant carries and every dollar bill exchanging hands are unique, never to be repeated instances. Yet the ant nest being built or the purchase being conducted will resemble others that are found throughout time and across all sorts of different locations.

This idea of making continual adjustments in order to guide a dynamic process to its goal is the study of cybernetics. The word comes from the Greek for steering. An oarsman sights his ship’s destination in the distance and keeps their eye on it while continually adjusting the vessel as it drifts a bit to the left and then to the right again and again. Cybernetics is the design science behind much of our advanced technology from radar and missile guidance to thermostats. It is used anywhere the regulation of behavior depends on feedback. This is also how mammalian physiology maintains homeostasis, keeping within a range of bodily temperatures that are not threatening to life. Cybernetics reminds us that the cooperation we are examining often comes about only through active, ongoing, complicated interactions among many forces and features simultaneously. It is not a simple add-on serendipitously cobbled together by evolutionary development but a defining characteristic.

Ecosystem science has found a vast collection of cooperative relationships. Of course not all ecological interactions are cooperative but due to the interdependent nature of all phenomena even the most violent and disruptive are ultimately included in the overall ordering of the biosphere. Succession offers an example where one set of plants takes over from the work of the previous set, yet overall the whole succession process is working towards a maximization of energy use. It is not too dissimilar to the programmed cell death from the biosphere’s point of view.

Another example is found in the relations between predator and prey as each ‘cooperates’ to keep their respective populations within the carrying capacity of their environment through a cybernetic dynamic. Though perhaps stretching the idea of cooperation too far, from the larger point of view it is this complex method of adaptive interaction that provides the environmental conditions for the continual survival of both species. They are cooperating for their own wellbeing.

This brings us to one of the central insights of modern evolutionary theory: the teaching about the role of the survival of the fittest. Evolution is a matter of differential reproduction. Some individuals will project their genetic endowment into the future by having offspring that survive and other individuals will not. Life’s incredible fecundity assures that this filtering process will take place – consider the number of Dandelion seeds a single stalk hosts or the pine tree with its hundreds of cones each carrying a bundle of seeds, the thousands of individuals involved in polliwogs, sea turtles, squid and salmon spawnings. Only a few from these multitudes will find all the causes and conditions line up just as they must to nurture and maintain their individual lives until they in turn are able to produce their own germ cells. This is differential reproduction.

Chance plays a large role in determining which seeds will sprout or which infants will reach adulthood but it is not the only factor at work. The other determinants all involve how well the individual organism adapts to their environments. Adaptive skill applies to the internal environment where cybernetic balance maintains physiological integrity. Adaptive skill also applies to interactions with the external environment where the individual finds food, predators, mates and all the inanimate elemental forces both nurturing and threatening.

An individual could be defined as that which happens at the interface of these internal and external environments.

If survival of the fittest only conjures up Nature programs full of red teeth and claws you are entertaining a simplified caricature of the actual mechanic life has used to ratchet its complexity. Such caricatures slip easily into Social Darwinian clichés: only the strong survive; might makes right; you’re either first or your nothing. These are just selfishness and greed parading around in puffery illegitimately stolen from the science of evolution. The collaborations we touched on inevitably play significant roles in any and all evolutionary adaptations. There are many circumstances where the bullies die out and the cooperative survive, so to insist on ruthless competition as only “natural” flies in the face of reality.

It does however justify the winner-take-all environment of the modern globalized monopolies of hyper-capitalism. Though we deny the validity of Social Darwinism in public discourse we act as though we really believe it is the fundamental truth about life, the universe and everything.

Cull the sick and the weak to make the population stronger. This is the toxic philosophy that is eating like a cancer at the modern mind. It is behind the gas chambers for Jews, starving “welfare queens” to death, obscene CEO salaries, Wall Street eating Main Street, taking resources for ourselves from the barrel of a gun, abusing our women, children and elderly and going all google-eyed at the billionaires amassing their wealth by absorbing or destroying every smaller enterprise they could get their hands on.

Cull the sick and the weak to make the population stronger. A better summary of satanic values would be hard to find. I use the term satanic in its technical sense for that which is opposite the values of Christianity. This exalts the opposite of what Christianity taught about service to the poor and vulnerable. The problem with this view of ‘survival of the fittest’ is that it assumes because we understand some of the survival part we also understand the parameters of the fittest part. Our comprehension of adaptation is far too narrow and self-serving.

I am not denying the role of population genetics or that aspect of nature which is mercilessly red in tooth and claw. I am only suggesting that when our thoughts consider these things they do so within the larger environmental context. The view of Gaia includes these elements that do indeed cull the weak and the sick to strengthen the population but only as one tool among many and never with the mono-vision with which we have pursued it. I am suggesting that the older view of evolutionary theory that saw all acts of altruism, symbiosis and cooperation as aberrations needing special explanations is dated and incomplete. It is true the equations of population genetics suggest, as J.B.S. Haldane famously quipped, “I would lay down my life for two brothers or eight cousins” but this is not the only behavior we see out in the real world.

This is all the more remarkable when we understand the nature of the evolutionary process where a blind watchmaker with deep time tinkering has managed to produce endless forms most beautiful. We will take a look at this tinkering free of sky hooks next week.

Hyperobjects

People who have taken the time to learn the facts about the ecological situation of earth are typically shocked by the bleak starkness of the scientific message. Those who take this knowledge to heart and attempt to feel it are immediately struck by an inability to fully grasp the reality of the whole cursed thing. Some of our philosophers agree. Timothy Morton claims circumstances like climate change are Hyperobjects in a book by the same name – they have a dimension that remains out of our reach. His analysis is that the modern mind is incapable of appropriate comprehension; it grows numb before the immensity of what he calls ‘A Quake in Being.’ He writes, “hyperobjects are futural… they scoop out the objectified now of the present moment into a shifting uncertainty.” (pg. 122) In other words if climate change, bottleneck, overshoot and all the rest of the ecological blowback is really real, everything about the way we live our lives today is subject to an uncertain future.

One aspect of that uncertain future remains highly probable, namely, that if any of those ecological scenarios truly describe it there is going to be a lot more suffering on this planet. Already we suffer from powerlessness as it is not at all clear there is anything individuals can do that is going to be nearly effective enough to make much difference.

We are polluting our nest and tearing down our home because we have lost touch with our human nobility. Last week touched on the role of our intention to act without harming the earth or bringing additional suffering to sentient beings: ‘Our intention could be said to be the simple desire to see the end of unnecessary suffering for ourselves, our species and the whole of the living earth.’ The point was made that however mixed our motives might be, we should recognize that which is inspiring our better aspirations is a factor of our being that is clear, even pure – something steady we can rely on to guide us. Here we come to the loadstone of the path, the magnetic radiance that gives our questions of purpose and meaning a bearing of true north. Compassion is large enough to include a land ethic. This ethic carries universal appeal without relying on any particular religious or philosophical framework.

Of course it is also said the road to Mephistopheles backyard is paved with good intentions. Once someone has become familiar with this material they face a serious choice. We can put it all down the memory hole and forget about it as much as possible. Not that hard while getting through the busy day. If we choose not to forget about it the question then becomes rather basic, focused, and simple; what can I do?

The point of this blog project is to share the idea that learning to work with our minds is one of the wiser things we can do. We cannot solve our problems with the same mind that created them. There is profundity and depth easily accessible through contemplating these ecological subjects. They concern each and every one of us and our loved ones and our hopes for the future and thoughts about what it is to be a human being. It is not surprising that this crisis brings forth visceral reactions in us.

I am suggesting that those of us who prepare ourselves now for the fallout stand a better chance of being of benefit to others in the days to come. I am also suggesting that those who are suffering from the knowledge of our precarious situation can find comfort and strength in the contemplative sciences. In adopting the contemplative traditionsI do not suggest we hijack another culture’s traditions wholesale but instead work hard to find the way our own understanding can be put into its service. This entails looking at our scientific accomplishments.

Starting next week our discussion will take up a model of the human mind rooted in evolutionary psychology and neuroscience. It provides a context to understand the contemplative practices we are exploring and the reason why compassion is at the heart of all our efforts. Understanding the nature of our body, speech and brain as the results of the evolutionary process provides a ground for a self compassionate acceptance of our shared humanity with all its follies and wisdoms. As we will see, self compassion tends to be a tricky beast for most of us.

An argument could be made that we are polluting our nest and tearing down our home exactly because we are lacking in sufficient self compassion. If we truly were motivated by a desire to nurture ourselves, wouldn’t we insist on shifting our societies towards more sustainable practices? Wouldn’t we insist on taking better care of ourselves and loved ones than working in the grinding rat race that could very well be destroying our home?

There seems to be a lack of appreciation of the noble dignity we humans embody. In the history of ideas some scholars have traced this to the discovery of evolutionary theory. By this way of thinking we lost our nobility when we were seen to be descendants of animals. The presentation of evolution as a theory of competition instead of cooperation and as a mechanical process instead of one everywhere displaying an embodiment of mind, has removed the traditional supporting justifications for considering the human state precious. It is rather interesting that this presentation of evolutionary thought is just what is needed to justify the social relations found in capitalist societies.

We will begin looking at this next week.

Intention

It takes an enormous amount of courage to open ourselves to the emotional impact of our fears about the future. In a time like ours when corruption, lies and greed are in the driver’s seats, thinking people carry rawness inside, a spot that is tender, painful. We who are ecologically critical of so many of our society’s daily activities have had to stay quiet and get on with the necessary tasks at hand so many times we could not help but build walls of armor to protect ourselves. That is what happens when you take the abuse day after day while feeling powerless to alter course. Somehow we need to find a way to fight the numbness. Somehow we need to find the maturity that can thrive on the tension between the darkness we unwillingly participate in and the purity of our vision.

An epidemic of unhappiness seems to be spreading and not just because this was the week that five of the world’s major banks were declared criminal for manipulating foreign currencies and exchange rates. It seems to me that those I meet and talk with are running on empty. It is as if we are growing tired waiting for the next shoe to fall. Most people of my acquaintance are attuned to stories like the record breaking heat wave in India, the oil spill on the Santa Barbara coast and the goosing of our pretenses about regulating greenhouse gases by giving fracking endless capital and Shell a green light for deep water Arctic exploration, just to mention a few of the environmental stories of the last week or so. There is a Presidential election coming to America soon, could we possibly be less excited about it bringing any substantial improvement between the governed and the governors? The stock markets are reaching record heights yet everywhere people are saving if they can, saving up for a rainy day most are sure is just around the corner.

The posts of the last two weeks have tried to shake the frames by which each of us envisions the future. The dismal assessment I just touched on is part of why it seems important that some space and freedom be granted to tomorrow.  Who knows just exactly how all these trends will play out? (No one.)

Our cultural stories have not left us well prepared for the most likely type of future bearing down on us and our children. In our stories happiness accompanies material wealth; parties and good times being had by all. We lack stories about satisfying lives being found in challenging circumstances or stories that celebrate character for its own sake, even if it does not eventually lead to getting the girl, the house in the Hampton’s and an eight figure bank account. Our stories are all crafted around the glow or glare of the spotlight; heroic deeds performed by larger than life gods and goddesses. No longer a slave to taste we bravely explore torture, blaspheme, and abuses of every kind within these same well-worn story tracks. Our stories are born from our sense of ourselves as a people. They dictate where meaning can be found, how relationships should go, what goals in life are worth pursuing and what each of us should expect from life in return.

Those are the expectations that are poisoning us, those that get deep inside and dictate to us what we should expect of life. For more and more people the expectations are not being met and the cognitive dissonance this is creating is coming to a boiling point. To escape being slave to your culturally created expectations – strengthen your intention. Ask not what your planet can do for you but what you can do for your planet.

The key to a mindful resistance to ecocide is to examine alternatives and ask what skills, attitudes and intelligence do we want to try and bring to the tasks of living well with our ecological knowledge and ethic? It is common enough that there is no viable alternative available today. That is when we need to respect the power of our intention. We may need to participate in a fossil fuel burning form of transportation to earn our daily bread but we do not have to approve of it. We can continue to foster in our hearts the desire to see a wiser society capable of meeting its transportation needs on a human scale. We may need to participate in the industrialized agribusiness to put that daily bread on the table but we do not have to approve of it. We can continue to foster the hope that sooner or later our societies will again live within their means and not depend on phantom acreage.

This may look to be a tiny thing in the face of the challenges we are confronting. Yet it alone might have the power to sustain the hard work of remaining open to our world and our times. It sustains the view that recognizes that in spite of all our ego-games and self-involvement there remains in us something that is pure, something that is clear. Our intention is beyond the limits of our cognitive mind since it includes our emotional makeup and our talents for navigating time. Our intention is not like a prayer or an aspiration, though it is often expressed in those ways. Our intention, if I was to put it into words, could be said to be the simple desire to see the end of unnecessary suffering for ourselves, our species and the whole of the living earth.

It seems such an outrageous dream, such an unrealistic hope. These objections miss the point. The path to the end of suffering is made up of steps that minimize suffering. Stands to reason, right? Those steps are surely within our reach. Not a day goes by where each and every one of us does not have at least a few opportunities to choose between lessening some form of suffering or not.

I prefaced this with a few words about our stories because it’s easy to misunderstand talk about our pure intention. With our cultural stories for context, ending suffering is typically heard as ‘nothing hurts’ but that is not what is meant. We cannot remove the pain from life but we can remove suffering from that pain. Like many of the teachings related to the middle way what is being alluded to is subtle. The Stoics had some element of the right understanding when they encouraged students with, “He is most powerful who has power over himself.” They recognized there is a value to staying true to one’s ideals, that it delivers a happiness that is not dependent on the fickle winds of fate and fortune which we cannot control.

Those of us who dwell in the overdeveloped world are of necessity enmeshed in systems which harm the earth. Modern life entails participation in activities we don’t approve of, activities actively damaging our planet. Often alternative means for procuring life’s necessities are not available. Mass produced, mass marketed, mass consumed industrialized culture suffers from mono-vision. For all our talk of freedom and technological progress there is a surprising dearth of real choices for how we work, move, eat and educate ourselves. Monopolies abound, dissensus not so much. An honest appraisal of our situation recognizes that there is much we as individuals do not control.

Yet, it is equally true that there is very little we as individuals do not influence in any way. Here the cracks begin, the cracks where the light gets in. Here is why holding one’s intention clearly is so important. Knowing what you stand for both steadies us for the hard work of remaining open and readies us for taking advantage of any opportunities that present themselves to participate in more life affirming alternatives.

Ultimately the core industrial processes as we know them will prove to be a short chapter in our species history. Consuming and wasting as many non-renewable resources as fast as possible to maximize profit and growth is simply not a sustainable value system for organizing cultures. The temporary energy bonanza now coming to an end enabled it and we were quick to add the delusions about our special place in the sun it required. Today as the age of consequences is just getting started, the search for alternative values and stories by which to organize and understand our social lives is apparent everywhere. We are losing our reference points and along with them the legitimacy of our former institutions. It can be very unsettling to live through the twilight of idols.

Get to know your pure intention. It is not the weakling modern ad-copy makes it out to be. It does not guarantee 15 minutes of fame, nor riches, nor even popularity. It will, however, provide a steady light – just that which is most valuable in a time of darkness.