Sunday, January 24, 2016

A Gaian Future--or No Future

I just finished reading the latest book by the venerable Harvard biologist, Edward O. Wilson, entitled (somewhat presumptuously) The Meaning of Human Existence.  Wilson, who does not shy away from controversy, is unapologetically biocentric in his outlook, insisting that both the potential and the constraints of human nature are accidental products of our biological heritage as a branch of large primates who stumbled onto language and symbolic thinking, which coevolved with a larger cranial capacity to allow such distinctively human traits as complex socialization and self-consciousness.

The constraints he mentioned are, above all, tribalism--the strong inclination to identify with a group, and to treat all outside the group as potentially hostile outsiders--as it combines with religion, by which he means, above all, religious fundamentalist ideologies that serve to rationalize a group's sense of superiority by viewing themselves as the Chosen People of God, and to suppress critical thinking that challenges their ideological orthodoxies.  Wilson has a thinly disguised contempt for all forms of tribalism, nationalism, and fundamentalism, but sadly sees them as "cultural parasites"--an endemic bad habit of human nature based on our socialization.  And I agree entirely with his judgment on this.

The potential, of course, is the capacity of humans, especially those who are scientifically literate, to transcend such tribal ideologies and (what Blake called) "mind-forged manacles" of religious or nationalistic orthodoxy, in order to recognize and celebrate both our common humanity and our total dependence on the health and resilience of the biosphere that sustains us at all. This potential, which blossomed during the Scientific Revolution and the European Enlightenment in the West, and in the rise of Buddhism in the Far East, is alone what makes a Gaian future possible. But only if we can find ways to propagate it so that it does not threaten people's cultural, religious, or nationalistic tribal loyalties, causing a murderous backlash of hateful fundamentalism.  Tall order!

So what, then, do we mean by a Gaian Future?  I'll begin with what it is not. It is NOT a world in which a single ideology triumphs, so that we all happily abandon all our prior identifications and call ourselves "Gaians" while singing "Kumbaya" around a solar-powered campfire. To be sure, I would not mind this a bit, just as a committed Muslim ideologue dreams of an entire planet subjugated to the Will of Allah, living under Sharia law, or a committed Christian Fundamentalist sees everyone on the planet kneeling down to Jesus and the Absolute Truth of the Bible.  But it ain't gonna happen for me, any more than for them. Tribalism, as Wilson observes, is too deeply rooted in human nature to allow for any such global utopian fantasy.

Rather, I see a Gaian future as one in which everyone is entitled to his or her own religious or political belief system and the communities that share it--but through systematic efforts at universal education in science and the humanities, everyone cultivates and shares a common understanding of what is real and what is not.

And what is real is, above all, the following understandings:

  1. That we, as humans, are a part of, not apart from, the biological world (Gaia) that sustains us.
  2. That all living organisms and communities, ourselves included, are driven by the urge to eat, survive, and reproduce.
  3. That we all, therefore, depend for our survival on three basic, asymptotic values: health (internal homeostasis); competence (ability to compete, within and between communities); and resilience (ability to adapt to unpredictable changes in our shared environment, both biological and cultural).
  4. That "we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality," in which "whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." (MLK) 
  5. That we are therefore ethically obligated, by both scientific understanding and the shared wisdom traditions of all religions, to "take care of everyone, and abandon no one" and to "take care of everything, and abandon nothing."(Lao Tzu)  In other words, to constantly cultivate and practice tolerance, compassion, and understanding for others, including both other cultures and other beings, with whom we share this unique living planet. To work together, whenever possible, to take care of our common home--our land, air, water, and biota--and restore it to health and resilience, for the benefit of all future generations.
That's it.  In every other respect, the communities, cultures, and tribes of the planet are free to believe, to be and to do whatever they wish.  This is the Gaian Future, to which I pledge myself, right to my dying breath. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Obama's Buddha

I just saw an interesting clip from the Lion's Roar, a Buddhist E-Zine, about Obama's Buddha, which I highly recommend. Apparently, President Obama has a variety of keepsakes--gifts from admirers--that he carries in his pockets as talismans, to remind him of his larger purpose of serving humanity. Among these are a rosary from Pope Francis and a tiny Buddha, a gift from a monk.

The interview gives us a refreshing insight into the essential decency and warmth of President Obama as a person, and I have no doubt that he is sincere in sharing this private side of himself with the young woman who is interviewing him.

Still, I have many good friends who are bitterly disappointed with, and even hostile to the President, for very good reasons, and in many instances I share their disappointment, though not their hostility. My friends complain, rightly, that Obama has continued, and even expanded, the horrific Bush-Cheney policies in the Middle East, especially the ghastly Drone program that is murdering countless innocent people throughout that desperate region in a vain and heartless effort to snuff out suspected "terrorists." And he is enthusiastically pushing the Trans Pacific Partnership, which is essentially selling out our democracy to Glomart, giving a global corporate tribunal veto power over any and all legislation or policies to protect the public interest in environmental protection and labor laws--that he is, in effect, nothing but a finger puppet on the claws of the Glomart Godzilla (as my acquaintance Aditi Gowry from the U. of Texas at Austin described the role of corporate executives during a conference I attended).

All this may be true, yet it is also true, as E.O. Wilson has noted, that good people do bad things, simply because of the inherent constraints of the position they are in and the culture whose interests they uphold. (His own example of this, from growing up in Alabama, were the decent, solid folk he knew who nevertheless were staunch upholders and defenders of the blatantly racist social order in which they all lived).

My guess is that President Obama's power is largely illusory; he is constrained on all sides, but above all, I suspect he is terrified of the Imperial Secret Government--i.e. the Military Industrial Complex, the Pentagon, CIA, NSA, FBI, and corporate elite who actually run things behind the scene--who are heavily invested in the status quo of global domination, rampant consumerism, fossils fuels, the endless wars and expansion of military power and surveillance throughout the world--the same massive criminal syndicate that doubtless staged the 9/11 fraud and offed both John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. when they threatened their power.  President Obama knows well, I'm afraid, that if he tried to challenge or undercut this monster regime, they would not only kill him, but would destroy his family as well, and would wreak untold harm everywhere by backing the ascent to power of another poisonous monster like Cheney.  And so he has no choice, from his own perspective, but to enable them, while doing good within the severely limited domain of influence he actually has (e.g. the Affordable Care Act, which was the best that the combined Glomart powers of the Insurance Industry and Big Pharma would allow him).

But underneath it all, I am convinced that he is still a good, decent, gentle, and compassionate man. May that tiny Buddha in his pocket (and his friend--Pope Francis's Rosary) continue to whisper to him...

Saturday, January 2, 2016


A new year has begun, and as is often the case this chilly time of year, I am a bit despondent. Our future prospects on this planet give us little reason for hope--the steady, meteoric rise of a vulgar, shameless, self-obsessed lout like Donald Trump, who now seems on an unstoppable path to the Republican nomination for the presidency (not that any of his rivals, though marginally more civilized in their demeanor, are any better); accelerating climate disruptions, seemingly past the tipping point where they are irreversible; the worldwide proliferation of psychotic religious terrorist movements like ISIS on one hand, and lone psychopaths living out their sick fantasies by mass murder in public places on the other; the growing swarm of refugees worldwide from war-torn lands and other places rendered uninhabitable by droughts and floods, or by poverty and violent, genocidal tyranny--the list goes on. Our global commercial/industrial civilization (Glomart) is obviously drawing toward its inevitable demise--an incremental descent into chaos, violence, despair, starvation, and death that is simultaneously ecological, social, political, and economic. Not much to hope for.

Still, I dream. Of what? you ask. Let us (once again) imagine...

Imagine a seed group or Sangha--a Dharma Gaia Circle, that meets periodically--once a week, say--with the specific purpose of integrating vertical (body-mind-spirit) and horizontal (self-community-planet) healing, through the cultivation, in diverse forms, of three essential disciplines: Tonglen, Satyagraha, and Permaculture. The circle would be rooted in Buddhist practice, but open to anyone of any culture or faith tradition, and its meetings would follow this protocol:

  1. Begin with "checking in"--self-introductions and/or brief updates on our lives and practice.
  2. The Facilitator then asks a participant to offer an opening benediction in his/her own faith tradition--or to read a poem from Earth Prayers or a similar Gaian anthology.
  3. This is followed by a period of formal meditation practice, beginning with a guided meditation using the 10 Breath Dharma Gaia sequence: Breathe, Observe Let Go; Be Well, Do Good Work, Keep in Touch; Learn, Teach, Heal, Create. (This is the core practice that constitutes a Dharma Gaia Circle).
  4. Following a period of silent meditation, the Facilitator passes around a Talking Stick, allowing each participant to share any insights that have arisen from his or her meditation session--or to simply pass the stick on. On the second go-around, participants could optionally respond, mindfully and skillfully, to anything that others may have shared about their practice.
  5. Participants could then (either) watch a Dharma Talk, or discuss a portion of a book they have decided to read together, or both. 
  6. Thereafter, participants could share healthy snacks and socialize.
  7. In addition to the above meetings, participants would periodically meet for Gaia Walks, which are a hybrid of formal walking meditation and a casual hike, in some refreshing locale, whether urban or rural. The rules for a Gaia Walk are as follows: (1) Breathe mindfully while walking, coordinating breath with walk, but walking naturally, and deeply observing the life that is all around; (2) Keep conversation to an absolute minimum, only to draw others' attention to something worth seeing, right then and there (e.g. a blue heron). (3) Walk in a normal, casual manner, smiling and making eye contact with passersby, but minimizing interaction. The idea is that no one outside the group should be able to guess that you are doing walking meditation; if you should meet someone you know, who has something to talk about, feel free to withdraw and chat if necessary.  The goal of Gaia Walking is to practice integrating mindfulness with our day-to-day existence in the world. But it is also simply to enjoy the sacred beauty and diversity of a living planet.
Now imagine that Dharma Gaia Circles catch on, budding off, and proliferating, staying in touch via the Internet. Soon people everywhere are meditating, reading good Gaian books,  taking Gaia walks, and practicing Tonglen, Satyagraha, and Permaculture in Dharma Gaia Practice Centers that form the nucleus of urban ecovillages and permacultural communities, while providing growing ranks of peaceful activists, speaking truth to power, organizing nonviolent noncooperation with evil in all forms, and cultivating local self-reliance and withdrawal of their financial support for Glomart.

Imagine, that is, the Spontaneous Remission of the Cancer of the Earth, starting right here, right now!

May it only be so...