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.

The Music of the Spheres

Ecological thinking embodies explorations of relationships between living things and those living things and their environments. The living things can be as large as a blue whale or as small as a bacterium. The environments can be as small as a drop of pond water or as extensive as the whole universe itself. With the proper use of the right tools these relationships can be explored in great detail. Part of a contemplative’s satisfaction and wellbeing comes from spending the time that is needed to really enjoy these details.

Spending time with mammals leaves little doubt that there is awareness behind their eyes. It is a commonplace that our cats and dogs have personalities we come to love. Many people take this obvious acknowledgment of awareness as just a first step and extend the same recognition that there is some sort of awareness to the birds, insects, invertebrates and all the rest of the species populating the biosphere with such endless forms most beautiful.

This living world is in contrast to the deadened one too many of us habitually inhabit. The modern industrialized environment is so dominated by human artifacts that it is all too easy to forget to take even a single moment for mindfulness; for remembering how special it really is to be alive for the few years we are each allotted. This is why it is so helpful to have tools to support our efforts at remaining awake. The tools remind us that we are not isolated freaks of nature persecuted with self-conscious awareness of our mortality but are actually bearers of human dignity within a large community of life.

The dead world is the other way of viewing existence: that the pessimistic, nihilistic, thoroughly reductive materialism where only the dog-eat-dog of selfish, cruel, competitive power seekers all tragically and robotically unfree is “really” real. Many think that this is the necessary view that science teaches us, many more fear that this might be the case and refuse to look long and deep into the ways of the deadened world. They fear a silent universe. In the classical contemplative teachings all these insights are welcomed as the courageously clear analysis of the way the grey world really is. There is suffering involved in birth, sickness, old age and death, a suffering that is both individual and planetary. For you as an individual, things can look rather bleak. Our running away from this truth only makes us more haunted and hunted, more susceptible to the snake oil salesmen offering relief through a new purchase. The ancient advice is to stop running away, to look directly on the ways of being. Then you might have the power, the inspiration, to find the cracks where the light and magic can get in. The rumor is that there is a world of rainbows hiding just below the surface of the grey.

To help in this work, and it is work, there are tools of escape. The grey world is no more “really” real in any absolute sense than any of the other many conceptual castles we are capable of constructing for ourselves. The tools are everywhere once we are clear that the task is lessening our self-absorption. The first one I recommend for your consideration is kept on the person: a simple hand lens that fits easily into a pocket or purse. This is a simple tool that unlocks a whole new world within the world. Examine the ice on the pond, the weave of your clothes’ fabric, the luminous sheen on a dragonfly wing, the multiple eyes of your friendly neighborhood spider and any of countless other items populating your immediate environment. An appreciation for the intricate intelligence within forms naturally arises as we become more acquainted with their details. Unfortunately the human nervous system can quickly become numb to any stimuli it encounters repeatedly but with a hand lens always close you train in looking again, in really seeing the individual form in front of you and not just the conceptual label that normally accompanies perception.

PocketMagnifierKorzybski taught us in the 1930s that the menu is not the meal. His master work, Science and Sanity, is well worth spending time with if you have a scientific bend to your intellectual curiosities. In this work he points out how quickly our nervous systems can label this living, green stuff under our feet grass and by this very move miss all conscious perception of the individual, unique blades. He goes on to point out that those individual, unique blades have a reality to their existence that the abstraction “grass” does not. The simple expediency of using a hand lens every day in all kinds of places to examine all kinds of things helps wake us up to our senses again and slip out of the too settled grey zone of abstract conceptual thought. This simple hand lens acts to focus our curiosity outward, out into the world beyond our immediate personal concerns.

So as you are out walking under the sky with your hand lens in pocket, what other practice might we participate in? One I find fruitful is taking on the chore of picking up the human garbage I see along some part of my walk. Find some part of the environment you frequent regularly in which it is possible to see the natural world, however slight such a glimpse might be. Take a moment to pick up any human made pollution scarring this experience of the natural world, or at least a bit of it. The hope is that others might enjoy a view of the living planet and find relief from their grinding, daily concerns in a moment of appreciation of the world’s beauty. I live in an urban area so choose a park walkway for this practice. I have found the world readily cooperates, providing new trash to work with most every day. Sure it is a small thing and certainly will not save the world but that is just the point; it is a practice that embraces the reality of what I can do which is not much, but it is something.

The next set of tools is for the home. I was taught that every well-appointed home should have a few basic mind tools; a microscope, a telescope and a set of encyclopedias. Perhaps the last is now passé with the arrival of the internet but the others are all the more needed in our time of experts. In the same way that the hand lens widens the world one lives in, the wonderful (and for the most part affordable) basic microscope and telescope delivers whole new worlds. The thing is, it is just not the same to see a photo of a cell or the rings of Saturn as it is to gaze on these things with your own eyes. Of the many foolishness’s of our times perhaps none is more destructive of a zest for living then the pervasive sovereignty of experts. Somehow most of us have been left with the impression that if we are not able to contribute some new insight into a science or invent a new math or algorithm, then there is nothing for us in exploring the marvels of the world on our own. Here is the secret – encountering reality is beneficial to our mindstream, our souls if you will. It is not an exclusive club for the wealthy and powerful, the super-smart but rare genius but a very democratic feature of the human experience. It is yours for the taking.

For example, I have had quite awe inspiring experiences playing with the spectrum of light revealed by a prism. Sure I had read in my physics books that sunlight consists of all the colors of the rainbow, even saw the photo.  But when I got my hands on a water prism and reproduced some of the experiments of Newton, Boyle and Goethe… something deep inside me changed. The world became a more magical place. All these tools can work the same way. All it takes is an alert awareness, a relaxed curiosity. The microscope, telescope, hand lens and prism can unite with rational studies to educate the imagination, the inner senses. How this in turn works out in practice will occupy us for the rest of this post.

Consider how contemplation of geese flying overhead can lead to a rich sense of being at home on the earth. In the presence of this event, these migrations, your consciousness is participating in an ecological and evolutionary adaptation that has been going on for centuries, millennia, and if you allow for all that has ever flocked across the face of Gaia, for hundreds of millions of years. It is just a single detail within the biosphere yet a necessary one. As they glide by in the sky and within your awareness, are you able to sense the timelessness of the event? How innumerable individual animals have come and gone yet the pattern remains? What is important is that the role be carried out, that this particular niche in the manifold exuberance of life’s anti-entropic explorations is wholly filled. If there were no geese another species would have evolved to take advantage of the same resources.

In the same way there seems to be a role for self-conscious beings given our particular human apperception of existence. Poetically, our thisness meets the other’s thusness as we ask, what makes the grass green? Who or what makes that which is real, seem real to me? Final, complete introspective investigation uncovers the most intimate ‘this’ is simply ‘thus’, beyond perceiver and perceived as two. All the contemplative tools are designed to provide an entryway into this insight, whether they are tools to hold in the hands or tools to hold in the mind.

Perhaps one way into a taste of this non-duality and the way our sense of reality mixes with it in contemplation is through thinking about what is known in the west as the Music of the Spheres. This is said to be the harmonies the planets are making as they follow their celestial movements and is a fine example of a tool held in the mind. The music of the spheres is like a Zen koan. Sound is the label we give to the human sensory neuron-firings stimulated by vibrations in the earth’s atmosphere which cause the delicate bones of our inner ear to move. Where is any objective sense of sound in all of this? Really apprehended, one experiences an unmovable silence in the heart of all sounds, an emptiness of the element of the absolutely real in sound that seems to exist in sound until we take full awareness of its processing. In this state of mind, now consider the Music of the Spheres as a profound not-sound since there is no atmosphere in space to carry the vibrations we label sound. Yet one could say the planets sing as their orchestrated movements unfold across the spacetime of relativity and vibrate using the most fundamental macrocosmic force of all – gravity.

Just as there is a kind of silence in sound when apprehended with due weight given to the role of our nervous systems, there is a kind of sound in what we perceive as silence. Perhaps we are so constructed as to be deaf to the rest of the orchestra of existence outside of our atmosphere; we are after all wholly children of our Mother Earth. Perhaps all things in all scales, from the collision of galaxies through the spinning and orbiting of planets, on down to the molecular world’s non-stop shaking and the quarks ceaseless vibrations (to say nothing of strings) are all producing harmonious “sound.” The Music of the Spheres indeed!

What good is training with such thought experiments? It is not to assert dogmatically that there is such a sound beyond sound and that what we typically experience as sound is just a delusion. Nor is it meant to assert the opposite. In becoming open to the possibility that there is a Music of the Spheres that we can hear though the faculty of intuition and insight one also entertains an awareness of the larger, cosmological context in which an awareness of “sound” is taking place. The context of galaxies through to quarks is the web of fullness on which our sense of what is “really” real selects a very particular slice due to the construction of our nervous systems. Such has been our human nature “from the beginning”, part of what Biblical Genesis called our being created in the image of god.

The reason tradition says to train this way is that from this view it is possible to recognize the inescapable interdependent quality of all conscious experience which in turn alleviates suffering by transforming it from something “really real” in an absolute sense and hence life as hell, into something “real, but not quite how it seems” which can open one to experience life as sacred world here and now. These are advanced teachings, hard for the conceptual mind alone to grasp since they are about awareness itself, that more fundamental feature of mind all sentient beings share and on which our conceptual thoughts themselves depend.

The Music of the Spheres is the koan for hearing. Similar contemplations can arise for the other senses as well. Both techniques – sharing the deep time role of geese overhead and looking deeply into what hearing is – are ways of shifting the center of gravity of one’s awareness outside the ego. Wisdom teachings insist that however painful it might be for ego to see through its delusions it is worth the effort. We can remember that what we actually are is mystery yet we can be assured it is a wholly natural fruition of all that is, a bud on the flowering process of life, a wholly owned expression of causes and conditions written in deep time and across deep space.

Softening the boundary between self and other, one’s allegiance can become increasingly aligned with the side of all living things instead of narrowly focused on your life or your species alone. You will find yourself rejoicing in another’s good fortune and saddened by another’s misfortunes. Equally, taking good care of yourself respects the sliver of the divine other in the budding of life you happen to know most intimately. I suggested in a previous post that when we hear mindful we think heartful. In the same way I suggest that when we hear other we think other-self or larger-self or rest-of-self: in a word, family. In studying ecology we learn we cannot really discard garbage, that it cannot really be thrown away because there is no away wholly disconnected to everything else. This is similar – there is no other that is wholly other. Again, ecological concepts weave well with concepts from the contemplative traditions.  Next week we will look at the contemplative traditions most recognized tool, meditation.

Fools and Fisher Kings

“May all sentient being enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.
May they be free from suffering and the root of suffering.
May they not be separated from the great happiness, devoid of suffering.
May they dwell in great equanimity free from clinging, aggression and prejudice.”
Traditional Tibetan Buddhist Prayer

My interest in sharing ecological insight through this blog project is not to simply provide additional intellectual bling for you to dazzle your friends with at your next party. We moderns have forgotten the older role of knowledge as doors and passages into deeper places of awareness and experience in our rush to monetize and mechanize everything. No, what we are exploring here are some of the ways in which our daily lives might so deeply incorporate an acknowledgement of reality as to be transformed by it, transformed into wiser and more compassionate human beings.

For knowledge to effect a transformation like this requires that it be absorbed at levels deeper than the endlessly chatty internal discursive dialog that we experience in our conscious awareness. Look back on your own experiences, which ones have had an actual life changing effect, however small? Can you recognize how these work their way into your psychic makeup far deeper than the stream of chatty internal talk ever does? Traditionally this deeper absorption of learning has been referred to as learning it bodily; we say we know it in our bones or our hearts or that we have a gut instinct.

Yogas in the East and alchemy as explained by Carl Jung in the West are schools of thought that try to capture this universal experience of allowing teachings and learning to enter us so deeply that they change the way we view the world and our lives within it. They recognize something the cultures of today tend to dismiss, namely that the dichotomy between body and mind is not as solid and real as it sometimes seems, that profound knowing is as much an act of the body as of the mind. All of this is part of what mindfulness means as I am using the word.

I thought long and hard about including the term mindful in the title of this blog. So much foo-foo has accumulated around the term by now that an argument could be made that it no longer conveys anything meaningful. But I think we have already conceded too much intellectual ground to the perversions of evaluating all things human through the lens of the market. I hope to battle for the right of this word to regain the cutting brilliance it has earned through centuries of use. Foolish, I know, yet perhaps a fool more like Perceval in the Grail Castle and less like Don Quixote tilting his lance at windmills.

Mindfulness in these contexts is of course a translation of a concept from the ancient languages Sanskrit and Pali. We can expect there to be a bit of a struggle to fully comprehend what it means both because of the challenges involved in transplanting core concepts from one culture to another, particularly over centuries, and in this case because some of what is alluded to by mindfulness is intrinsically difficult for the human mind to fully comprehend. A good place to start is to clear the decks a bit by mentioning what it is not.

Mindfulness is not the latest trick for executives to master the art of pursuing profit with one pointed concentration, despite the many workshops and conferences promising just that. Mindfulness is not a shortcut to psychological well-being and popularity, nor is it meant to be an excuse for spacing out during your efforts at learning and the concentration involved in study. Mindfulness is not an esoteric, occult power that will lead to Svengali-like power over other people’s minds as we saw when Obi Ben Kenobi convinced the guards that “these are not the droids you’re looking for” with a wave of his hand.

So what is mindfulness then? Well if at this point I offered a pithy sentence or two that would only defeat the whole purpose. The whole point of using the handle mindfulness is to indicate something other than the typical conceptual discursive thinking experience which is our mind’s default. You know, that endless ruminating about our to-do list, how we should have done this or that differently in the past, how the future will likely be better or worse than right now and how without the slightest bit of effort thoughts seem to be able to plan, plan, plan…

A Zen master would likely leave it at that at this point, more than enough said already. I am not such a wise being and in fact share the very modern propensity to want to talk about everything, including that which cannot really be talked about. Assuming this is sufficient warning not to take anything I have to share too seriously, since I am really just another bozo on this bus, from here on in I am going to talk freely about what has helped me. The whole world has become a culture of Western modernism to some degree, my hope is that as a member of this mono-culture some of what has struck me might resonate with others.

In the culture of Tibet people locate the mind in the region of the heart. A number of indigenous peoples including some of the Native American tribes see things the same way. This sounds strange to us since we are so used to allocating thought to the grey matter in our skulls and dismissing the role of the rest of the nervous system. Neuroscience however confirms that the endocrine, hormone and neurotransmitter molecules throughout our bodies all have roles to play in creating this awareness we experience. The classic yogic inner map of the body with the chakras as nexus points along the spine is not so far from the modern scientific view after all.

In the culture of Tibet people locate the body as centered in the head. Now we are really confronting something that just seems to be nonsense to us. Consider this though; four of the five sense gates of the body are all located where? Adorning the skull of course. Observing this they simply gave it the weight it seemed to deserve in an introspective analysis. In the Western mainstream traditions introspective analysis is burdened with a bad boy reputation. Psychology tried to make this the central tool of its scientific research under Wilhelm Wundt in the 1880’s but that did not work out so well, so the whole idea that objective truths could be found from introspective observation of inner states of consciousness was tossed overboard. This Western blind spot does not change the fact that the same human body structure is shared the world over and there is no reason to assume a priori it would not reveal itself to have common characteristics for all those who approached an investigation of it with a certain care. The yogas teach this is exactly the case, something not to be accepted as dogma but investigated for oneself.

Anyway, now I think my pithy sentence about what mindfulness actually is might be understood. I know I said such a thing would defeat the purpose but I also said I’m a fool. So rushing in where angels fear to tread; I suggest it might be helpful to hear the term mindfulness and translate it internally as heartfulness.

Last week wrapped up a dismal estimation of the most probable outcome of humanity’s overshooting the boundaries and limits of the natural world. Understanding the ecocide slowly unfolding around us day in and day out breaks your heart. Those with the courage to allow themselves to feel this in the body are like the knights of old, chivalrous and questing yet covered in armor in a desperate attempt to protect themselves. Look out from your visor, through the bars of the man-made environment and catch a glimpse of the landscape through which you roam. The land has grown desolate and grey. The soil no longer productive without a dose of toxic chemicals forcing it to grow crops, the trees wilting under the sun that is burning too hot thanks to the smokes belching out of our tailpipes, the streams and oceans clogged with plastics and heavy metals lending a satanic sheen to the waste land.

In our hearts we know this is not the way it needs to be, we know that somewhere there is a fortress of sacredness still at the center of the world but how can we find it? Questing without pause, accompanied by thoughts of collapse and extinction when we wake and as we fall asleep, eventually something snaps and we find ourselves in the center of the world, in the castle where we encounter an old king long in pain, suffering a mortal wound but unable to die; the industrial world grown old and now hollow and meaningless, yet unable to let go. Before our vision a procession of wonders clamors by; iPhones and big screen TVs, dancing maidens and fighting gladiators, angry preachers and crying, starving children, beached whales and missing species. We are stunned into silence. Numb, we thicken our armor and try to forget all about the castle.

This is the Western story of the Grail quest; the esoteric, initiatory tale born in the underbelly of Christian cultures in a time of plague, famine and social breakdown. In the tale the procession included a glimpse of the Grail Maiden, a special feminine force bearing the cup said to contain the blood of the god-man, the anointed one, the Christ. The knight is banished from the castle. Wandering alone, locked in the unforgiving character armor choking off the free flow of breath, that vision of the Grail Maiden stays in our hearts, haunting us with the feeling-idea that there is a harmony to life on earth. What is the grail that contained the blood of the anointed but the body’s very flesh itself? Who is the Maiden but the earth, Gaia holding all flesh?

Years more are spent wandering in The Waste Land.

For the fortunate knights another crisis comes pealing like thunder from the sky. It comes to the ones foolish enough to continue caring, despite the burden it has added to the heavy weight of dealing with the world grown grey and toxic in the mono-vision of the marketplace. Another snapping and again the quester finds themselves in the castle, again they see clearly the king with his mortal wound, unable to die. However, this time the years have changed the knight. He is still a fool yet now there is a sacredness involved. Though the knight cannot see it yet it prompts him to not remain silent anymore. He asks the Fisher King:

What ails you?
What can I do to help?

With a shout of joy the king finally dies in peace. The processions fade and the walls of the castle fall. Astonished, the knight removes his visor to gaze upon the earth. Where once there was grey desert now green shoots are cutting through the crusts. Where once streams full of drugs and poisons boiled, now clear, pure waters flow laughingly. Where once the dreadful pale of silence hung on the air like a weighty gloom, now voices fill the atmosphere with the call of birds, the howling of monkeys and the croaking of frogs. Humbly the knight goes forth, no longer a stranger but completely at home on the earth. In his heart, as wide open as the sky itself, reverberates the lost secret word: yes, and thank you.

Those magical questions move a person’s psychic center of gravity from purely ego concerns to the larger self. Those questions set the knight on the true path. We will look at some practical means of traveling on that path next week.

Not Cleared for Takeoff

The investigation of ecological concepts that have occupied the last cycle of posts ended with a look at the critics of the ecological crises, those who in one way or another deny that humanity will encounter limits to its growth. The ecologists are actually making a much stronger claim; that before this century is out earth will have reached tipping points that will have major effects on the fate of our species. In order to evaluate these claims it is necessary to add data to the theories we have just reviewed. Data plus theory equals evidence.

There is a general sense in our cultural exchanges that reasonable people can hold a dissensus about what the ecological evidence means for people alive today. I believe that this is complete hogwash. I believe that among people of goodwill an examination of the evidence of necessity leads to a strong degree of confidence for the claim that we face a crisis situation.

These might seem like outrageously naive or perhaps bold claims in a time of post-modernism’s relativity of truth. Or perhaps insisting that reality really is one way and not another strikes the ears of the modern American as dogmatic? I hope to share why it is nothing of the kind but to do so will take us on a journey through what it is we do when we reason. Western Enlightenment values fuel the scientific quest. Science has honed the skills of objectivity to a fine edge, some would say to a fault. I recommend Eastern contemplative practice and the study of its wisdom but not as a substitute to our own cultural inheritance. The approach that fully engages the western practitioner takes all the most sophisticated science and philosophy of our own development onto the path.

The next cycle of posts will be about this reasoning we do, in particular the so-called problem of inference. Before starting those however, the next few entries will touch upon a few subjects I feel are timely and useful from the other side of this blog, mindfulness.

Out of respect for our teacher through these lasts posts I would like Dr. Catton to have the last word. This prefaces his book Bottleneck, Humanity’s Impending Impasse and serves as a fitting summary of what we have learned about ourselves from the ecological point of view. Like a koan it is worthy of contemplation. It cracks open the heart:

From 1776,
when the Newcommon steam engine
had been upgraded by James Watt,
its use lead to escalating reliance
on fossil energy,
temporarily giving
increasing fractions
of the world’s human population
gigantic powers.
With subsequent technological developments
Homo Colossus acquired through
the next nine generations
the delusion of limitlessness.

Now this
from the “Controller” in the tower:

HUBRIS 1776 ABORT YOUR TAKEOFF!
I SAY AGAIN ABORT YOUR TAKEOFF IMMEDIATELY!
YOU ARE ATTEMPTING TO TAKE OFF FROM
A RUNWAY THAT IS TOO SHORT.
TAKEOFF CLEARANCE CANCELLED.
ACKNOWLEDGE.

Cargo Cultists and Cornucopians

“We must learn to live within carrying capacity without trying to enlarge it. We must rely on renewable resources consumed no faster than at sustained yield rates. The last best hope for mankind is ecological modesty.”
Overshoot, William Catton, italics in original

We are coming to the end of our travels with Mr. Catton through the fundamental ecological concepts people need to be familiar with to understand the true forces shaping the events of the 21st century. We examined succession and carrying capacity, what it means when a population is in overshoot and the die-off that occurs when a carrying capacity deficit develops. The journey with Homo Colossus started by looking at how technology had provided a means of increasing the planet’s human carrying capacity, mostly through increasingly efficient means of taking over natural environments for human use. We touched on how the use of fossil fuels enabled the giantism of our prosthetic tools to birth Homo Colossus. We then looked into how science has discovered the limits to growth that will bring about the termination of the Age of Exuberance in which the giant lived. Its phantom acreage could not survive because it relied on drawdown; a critical dependency on a non-renewable resource. Today we are looking at two more of Dr. Catton’s concepts, colorful labels for how people can react to these circumstances that only make the sufferings involved increase: Cargo Cults and Cornucopians.

These are difficult subjects. Those who insist on this ecological analysis can be seen as curmudgeons or inspired by no more than a misanthropy seeking revenge against a world that failed them in some way. The conceptual tools of Cargo Cult and Cornucopian thinking are meant to provide easy to remember and apply generalizations to aid the ecologically educated see through specious arguments. They are useful tools when we are confronted on every side by a pre-ecological understanding of life on earth and human societies. They are not meant to inflate our own self-importance by denigrating ignorant outsiders from within a cult of our own. The spirit that inspires these subjects is not one of sour grapes but a cold, honest assessment of where mankind is in relationship with the rest of the planetary biosphere. By understanding that we could be facing a die-off we are more likely to act in ways that avoid it. No one knows just where the line between a sustainable carrying capacity and a carrying capacity deficit can be drawn. By assuming the worse we are best prepared to avoid doing those tempting but ultimately futile things that will just make our circumstances worse. The scientific evidence points towards a return to the human scale over the next decades and centuries but in a habitat with a greatly diminished carrying capacity. Mindful of ecology we can be inoculated against the coming Caesars promising it can be morning in America again and all the other short-sighted solutions sure to be marketed to the public as the limits to growth continue to bite.

The ecological view that has been sketched out in the last few posts provides a unique critique of society. It is not able to endorse “they’ll think of something” or “there’s plenty of coal” or “it’s different this time” or “we can transition to renewables” or any of the other thought stoppers bandied about in the media echo chamber. The why is simple; ecology insists no sustainability is possible if drawdown and its phantom acreage are part of the system; even takeover has its limits now that the human race has grown so large and prosthetically powerful.

Oil powers the modern world. Make no mistake about it. There is no single substance on the planet nearly as critical to our lives in the industrial world as oil. It moves our transportation, creates our plastics, feeds our pharmaceutical industries and holds together the global economy in countless ways. The stated goal in the industrialized world is to accelerate the rate at which we drawdown the remaining reserves of this critical, non-renewable substance. Our stated goal is to increase production. To increase production, we say in a clear sign of muddle headed thinking since acquiring oil is extraction, not production. It is stealing from the future, from that inevitable day when our children will be out of luck if they need a substantial volume of oil for anything.

Industrialized agriculture feeds the modern world. It too is dependent on oil but also on takeover. The expanding ecological footprint of our expanding population is taking over land and sea that was once home to a wide diversity of plants and animals. Our takeover strategy for expanding the earth’s human carrying capacity is causing the sixth great extinction. This is nothing more than stealing from life itself. We best be careful; real life is a complex web of interdependencies and we could saw off the evolutionary branch on which we are sitting, as it were.

An ecologist will tell you these are both seriously risky behavior:

Drawdown: An inherently temporary expedient that temporarily increases the life opportunities for a species by extracting from the environment a resource faster than it is being replaced.

Takeover: Increasing the life opportunities for one species by reducing life opportunities for other species.

Both of these methods for enlarging carrying capacity are eventually fatally flawed. That they are flawed is vehemently denied by camps of very vocal opponents whom Dr. Catton labeled the Cargo Cultists and Cornucopians. The Cultists deny drawdown is a problem and the Cornucopians see no problem in a strategy of endless takeover. In the table below, reproduced from Overshoot, the Cornucopians are further refined into Ostrichism and Cynicism. Most of what passes for green in politics and corporations within business as usual is provocatively labeled Cosmeticism.

OvershootTable2Those who insist that there is no real problem for the industrial world in the future due to our unprecedented use of, and singular dependency on, fossil fuel energy are like the Cargo Cults of the Melanesia islands. They know their cargos come from this special process, geographic exploration in this case, and they are sure that if we just keep repeating this special process the goodies will keep coming. The inhabitants of the Melanesia Islands did not know the actual source of the westerner’s goods in the larger world of supporting industries, so they could not understand just how ridiculous their efforts really were. In the same way today’s cultists who do not know the actual geological characteristics of petroleum reserves are incapable of seeing just how ridiculous their efforts really are. The position that our technology will necessarily always save us is unjustifiable by rational analysis, it is an article of blind faith.

Those who insist that there is plenty of everything needed for mankind to continue consuming and growing more numerous as it has the last few hundred years for at least a few hundred years more are well described as Cornucopians. They see the larder of nature as made for man, man is to have dominion and any suggestions to the contrary are just lies made up to deceive the faithful. While there is a religious element in Cornucopian thought, not all Cornucopians are religious. When a pundit is assuring us that if the supply of one non-renewable resource (oil) ever does run out we will simply find a substitute, they are really just stating their belief that takeover can continue without end. Another act of blind faith.

The hardest part about this wrenching societal transformation that promises to move civilization beyond its one time Homo Colossus phase is psychological; what it is doing to our beliefs and through those to our very sense of identity and purpose. Being semi-consciously aware that we are strangling life on the earth is making us mean.  More and more we elbow one another out of the way to assure our own place at the diminishing feeding trough. This is particularly troubling in light of the fact that the increasingly common failure of Homo Colossus’ giant tools and toys doesn’t promise a more enlightened mode of being human. In fact with our hubris-lead, overdeveloped sense of privilege the loss of these giant yet familiar systems is likely to just make us meaner still. Insecurity brings fear and as fear spreads to more and more people expect the most probable outcome to be a return of barbarisms.

What is threatened is our belief in progress and the liberalism we thought we could afford during the Age of Exuberance. This is a threat to our very identity as members of a society organized along the lines of democracy and constitutional government. Not long ago scholars were seriously entertaining the idea that perhaps we had reached the end of history, so sure we were that our generation represented some ultimate culmination of the forms of human organization. Such exaggerated puffery affords us a glimpse into the darker fears of a society. Our fear is that life without modern conveniences might not be worth living. What we fear is not real. Human life before neoliberalism’s “free market” was not the nasty, brutish and short tragedy we seem to think it was. The generations that lived before consumerism were not aware that they were inconceivably impoverished because they lacked cell phones, to be a bit flippant. Quite the contrary actually; embracing an ecological modesty that strives to cooperate with the non-human environment instead of dominating it seems to provide a type of dignity and purpose that is all but lost in our society of alienation and anomie. Sadly, such thinking goes against the grain of everything we have been taught to value in our time of non-stop bread and circuses. This is a subject we will be returning to down the road since it gets to the very heart of how individuals and families can be happy and compassionate human beings in spite of the tenor of the times.

As circumstances change, continuing to do the same things we have been doing starts leading to different results. This is noticeable in numerous arenas today. Business as usual increasingly fails to deliver the goods; in fact, it begins to make things worse. When these things happen the natural human tendency is not to step back and reanalyze why they might be delivering diminishing returns but to double down, to pour even more effort into the operations that in the past provided the payoffs we seek. Like the Cargo Cults, our current debates about fracking, Keystone pipelines and all the rest are the trappings of a ritualistic confusion. We don’t notice they are hollow, no more effective at delivering the goods than those coconut runways and grass hut control towers in Melanesia. Our cultural witch doctors are running around assuring everyone that proper execution of the societal rituals, from Wall Street to the White House, will bring the times of plenty and prosperity back. From an ecological analysis they are mixed up about what time it is, like poor Linus who so wanted it to be Christmas he disappointedly waited for the Great Pumpkin to arrive. The sense of waiting for deliverance in the West is so pervasive it is palatable. It is why many who are familiar with the ways of history expect to see a new Caesar walk onto the public stage before too long.

Of course the cheerleaders of the Cargo Cults have a whole phalanx of flacks to call on to give their witch doctoring a sense of respectability. Enter the Cornucopians. These are the think tanks and research arms of governments and businesses who assure us that there are plenty of non-renewable resources remaining for the species to carry on producing, polluting and propagating for many centuries to come. Their optimistic message reverberates particularly well in the can-do culture of the United States. The Cornucopians’ cataracts project blind spots uncannily well fitted to justify a lifestyle of consumerism. On the fringes of respectable scholarship a few Cultists express concern that the engineering challenge of converting to a new fuel source might be extremely difficult but gratefully, with a wink to the Cornucopians, they insist we have plenty of time to work on it. Certainly there is no need to have people seriously alter the way they are living right now, this year.

The ecologists show up somewhere in the public conversation growing ever more alarmed though they are barely heard above the din. With one voice they are warning us all that it is later than we think.