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.

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.


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 dripping with fame. 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. Has anyone noticed what they have done to the young people in our midst?

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. Our ancestors understood this well and enshrined them in the corporal and spiritual act of mercy.

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 unnecessary suffering from that pain. What is here 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 whatsoever. 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.


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.

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? How shall I live?

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 traditions I 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, in part, 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.

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. The poor are less likely to  make this mistake. 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, for all we can tell, 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.