Saturday, November 10, 2018

The Gaian Categorical Imperative

Immanuel Kant, the eminent early 19th Century Prussian philosopher, sought out a purely logical, self-evident basis for ethical behavior that was entirely independent of either religious mandates (like the Ten Commandments) or hypothetical outcomes (i.e. self-serving potential consequences) for our moral choices. This was his way, in keeping with the time, of freeing morality from Christian religious beliefs or obligations and making it the freely willed choice of the rational, autonomous self. As a result, he arrived at the following formulation:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.


In other words, for example, theft is immoral because if one were to adopt the general principle that stealing is good, then there would be no point in stealing anything, because whatever you stole would, in turn, be stolen from you, without any logical basis for complaint or recourse. Hence, the maxim ("Stealing is good") is inherently self-contradictory.

Not bad, as an effort to create a purely logical basis for morality. But then there are instances where this logic breaks down. As a college undergraduate, on first reading Kant, I discovered one such instance: the Four-Way Stop. The "principle" behind a four-way stop is that the right of way is conferred to the person on the right, if both arrive at the exact same time. But what if drivers arrive from all four directions simultaneously? Then obviously, both maxims ("defer to the driver on the right" or "just go first,") if applied universally, would defeat the purpose: either the four cars would stay there forever, or they would all crash in to one another. In order for the situation to resolve itself, one driver, at least, would have to choose to act aggressively, in an entirely self-serving manner, and the others would have to yield. But neither approach, or behavioral principle--Machiavellian aggressiveness nor Christian forebearance and yielding--could be willed to be universal, without contradiction.

So despite Kant's best efforts, there probably is not a purely logical, context-free guide to ethical behavior. There is, however, a context-bound guideline, if we return to Earth from the intelligible, timeless Platonic realm of pure logic, and reinhabit a living planet in these times. This I formulated some years ago, and it has stood the test of time...at least for me. So here is my Gaian Categorical Imperative:

In every decision you make, strive to promote the health, competence, and resilience of yourself, your community and your planet simultaneously.

This formulation is not strictly categorical in the Kantian sense, but it is predicated on a series of premises that cohere with the reality we currently inhabit, and in some ways always have inhabited:
  • That humanity is a part of, and not apart from, the natural world or Gaia;
  • That "whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly" (as Martin Luther King put it);
  • That all living organisms depend, for their survival, on three values: 
    • Health (internal homeostasis); 
    • Competence (the skills, whether innate or learned or both, to survive long enough to breed, within a relatively stable ecological context);
    • Resilience (the flexibility to adapt to unpredictable changes in one's ecological context).
  • That any benefit to a subsystem (self, organization, or community) that is destructive to its biological support systems (community, ecosystem, bioregion, or planet) is ultimately and necessarily self-destructive as well.
These three survival values--Health, Competence, and Resilience--are common to all living organisms. They also map very nicely onto the three core injunctions of Buddhist meditation: we promote our health by breathing; we promote our competence by observing; and we promote our resilience by letting go.
Prior to the last century or so, the ecological footprint of human civilization was small enough, relative to our planet, that we had little need to consider the ecological consequences of our personal and collective choices. The world was big enough, and the aggregate human footprint small enough, that we could take our biological support system, our air, water, and biomes, for granted. This is why, for example, there is nothing in the sacred texts of our ancestors--the Bible, the Qu'ran, the Sutras, etc.--that directly addresses ecological awareness or responsibility. It was a non-issue.

But that is no longer true. In the Anthropocene era we presently inhabit, where humanity has dominated every niche, all of our significant decisions have direct or indirect implications for the health of our local, regional, and global ecosystems. If we benefit ourselves at the expense of our communities, we will generally end up in jail. But if we benefit our communities at the expense of our planet--whether by pumping fossil fuels, using plastics, or spraying pesticides, we may become billionaires, but we do so at the expense of our children and grandchildren's future survival and well being.

As a consequence, if we are to survive, our entire educational system, all of our global cultures and civilizations, will have to be reconfigured along these lines--to make "the good" synonymous with what, in any given circumstance, best promotes our own health, competence, and resilience, along with that of our communities, our bioregions, and our magnificent, irreplaceable living planet Gaia. Just imagine if our educational systems were reconfigured around the goal of promoting the health, competence, and resilience of ourselves, our communities, and our planet! Instead of building mere competence (to thrive within the existing framework of industrial civilization) as is presently the case, such an educational system would emphasize all three--health as a positive state, not just the avoidance of disease; competence in all necessary survival skills--not just in a narrow specialization that could land you a job with a corporation; and resilience to be able to adapt to the vast, unpredictable, and potentially catastrophic changes in our civilization and biosphere as a result of ongoing and self-accelerating ACD (anthropogenic climate disruption). This would be, in short, an educational system built around the Gaian paradigm of Permaculture.



Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Nothing Am -- A Dystopian Fantasy


Last night, my wife and I watched a superb RSC television production of King Lear, Shakespeare's most apocalyptic play. My favorite character in this play has always been Edgar, the resilient, protean son of Gloucester who is framed as a patricide by his evil bastard brother Edmund, and escapes certain death by disguising himself as "Poor Tom," a desperate mad beggar wandering the heath. I have always loved Edgar's soliloquy, as he flees, leaving his comfortable, aristocratic life behind forever, to take refuge in madness and chaos:

I heard myself proclaim'd;
And by the happy hollow of a tree
Escaped the hunt. No port is free; no place,
That guard, and most unusual vigilance,
Does not attend my taking. Whiles I may 'scape,
I will preserve myself: and am bethought
To take the basest and most poorest shape
That ever penury, in contempt of man,
Brought near to beast: my face I'll grime with filth;
Blanket my loins: elf all my hair in knots;
And with presented nakedness out-face
The winds and persecutions of the sky.
The country gives me proof and precedent
Of Bedlam beggars, who, with roaring voices,
Strike in their numb'd and mortified bare arms
Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary;
And with this horrible object, from low farms,
Poor pelting villages, sheep-cotes, and mills,
Sometime with lunatic bans, sometime with prayers,
Enforce their charity. Poor Turlygod! Poor Tom!
That's something yet: Edgar I nothing am!

This powerful speech brought to mind a dystopian fantasy I have often nurtured, based roughly on the story of Edgar taking refuge in madness, and then, through dint of sheer resilience, compassion, and cleverness, protecting his blinded father and returning, ultimately, to avenge Edmund. The fantasy is set (needless to say) in a postapocalyptic world, wrought by climate change. Here is a brief version of it that I wrote this morning:

--------------------------

Nothing Am

After the climate threshold, the point of no return, had passed, the rate of melting polar ice accelerated steadily, according to its own insidious feedback: decreased albedo from the loss of ice resulted in ever faster melting of the remaining ice as the temperature at the poles rose steadily, and the release of methane gas from the the methyl clathrates under the sea and in the permafrost—the “clathrate gun” as it was now known--caused an even faster acceleration of melting ice. Throughout the world, coastal cities were swamped, as hordes of refugees fled to higher ground, bringing chaos and violence to those already there. The social infrastructure was collapsing, already strained to the limit by escalating hatreds and violence between rival religious and political factions, along with gangs of hungry, destitute marauders preying on everyone they encountered. Although the super-rich barricaded themselves within high walls and barbed wire, the value of their money plummeted, and their labor force rebelled in many areas, as their armed guards, formerly their servants, became in many instances their masters. Soon our once beautiful world was reduced to scattered, shrinking islands of fiercely defended wealth—not just money, but food and arable land--in a growing sea of rampant violence, chaos, starvation, disease, and death. Suicide rates skyrocketed, even among the super-rich, as people lost all faith in any future other than the vast suffering, violence, and death encroaching on them from every angle, with nowhere to run…

Edgar Markham, who only recently had been a mathematics professor at a community college in a midwestern city, living in the nearby suburbs with his wife Cindy and daughters Tracy and Laurel, was now wandering the violent, destitute streets in the last ragged set of clothes he owned, looking for anything that could pass for food—lemon peels, dandelion roots, blackberries. His house had been burned down, his family murdered in cold blood, his daughters probably butchered for food by one of the warring gangs of marauders prowling his former neighborhood. Like most other people, Edgar had often contemplated suicide, but something held him back. When he awoke one morning, having taken refuge from the chill night air and predatory marauders in a collapsing barn on a weed-choked field on the outskirts of town, Edgar remembered to perform his usual, private morning ritual. This time, for emphasis, he said it out loud. With every breath, he intoned as follows: “Breathe…Observe…Let Go…Be Well…Do Good Work…Keep in Touch…Learn…Teach…Heal…Create.”  Whether or not these verbs made sense in his—and the world’s—present dire circumstances,  they made him feel better, ready to face another day of wandering, begging, hiding, and simply getting through.
               “What’s that?” 
He jumped, startled by a female voice from the opposite dark corner. Edgar scanned the dirty floor of the barn for a board, a stick, anything to defend himself. He had learned at his cost that women were no more to be trusted in this dying world than men.
As she stepped from the shadows, he relaxed. She was, like him, ragged and destitute—nearly everyone was, except the super-rich and their hired thugs. But she had a warm, gentle, and curious expression in her eyes that was quite, quite different from the stone-cold looks of desperation, mistrust, and incipient violence that he was used to seeing everywhere else. He let out a long breath, and allowed himself a slight smile.
“It is a mantra, a kind of private ritual I invented for myself some years ago, to cope with the steadily encroaching horrors all around us, after the Catastrophe. It’s kept me alive for what it’s worth.”
“Can I try it?”
For a moment, Edgar was overtaken with a deep, unaccustomed joy that threatened, only momentarily, to morph into an aching lust. He breathed, observed, and let go of that. And then he instructed her in the mantra.
Her name was Veronica, “Roni” for short. And he found her to be a truly remarkable person. A refugee from one of the innumerable flooded East Coast cities, she had joined a “horde”—so they were called—of fellow refugees who looked out for each other, fought off marauders, scavenged or stole food, hid from soldiers and police, and set up encampments where they could, so—unlike Edgar who was very much a loner after he lost his home, job, and family--she was quite skilled in the arts of survival and community-building.  However, her “horde,” along with many others, had been massacred at night (because they were Hispanic) by right-wing death squads  and she alone had escaped, taking refuge in this very barn, and stealing out at night to harvest herbs, berries, and roots from wooded areas at the edge of the ruined fields. A devout Catholic, Veronica fingered her rosary every morning, repeating the “Hail Mary…” So she was familiar with mantras, even though she didn’t call it that.
Veronica turned out, however, to be very open to the Buddhist teachings that Edgar had learned and practiced over the past few years. She particularly liked the fact that people could use his mantra to calm their inner fears, depression, and anxiety, even if—unlike her—they were not “believers.” She had the singular capacity of isolating her devout Catholic faith from an otherwise open, inquiring mind, and so felt perfectly comfortable practicing Buddhist meditation, as instructed by Edgar, and at the same time adhering to her rosary and Catholic faith. She saw no contradiction at all, for she agreed with Edgar that Buddhism is not a "religion" or mandatory belief system at all, but rather a practice, like yoga or tai chi or even knitting or macramé, for calming and training the mind—that it was a discipline that did not require you to “believe” anything, but that allowed practitioners to believe whatever they wished, as long as it did not contradict the cultivation of wisdom and compassion—or (more properly speaking) wisdom/compassion conjoined as one. This, as Edgar explained to her, was the deep teaching at the heart of all authentic religious traditions—loving God, neighbor, and self as three-in-one.
And so Edgar and Veronica quickly became a couple, collaborating in the daily struggle for survival, defending one another against dangers, quarreling periodically, making love carefully so as to avoid pregnancy (the very idea of which they abjured, given the dying, violent world all around them). But for Veronica—and also for Edgar—simply surviving was not enough. She was determined to create another community, like the one she had lost, but even better.  Her devout faith sustained her in this effort, even as his daily practice sustained him. And it no longer mattered to her whether or not he accepted the “one true faith.” They were together, and that was all that mattered.
And soon, the community grew. They instituted “Dharma Gaia Circles,” which were groups of people who would practice Edgar’s mantra together (supplemented, for Catholics, by Veronica’s rosary practice) to alleviate despair and anxiety, and to cultivate a calm, pragmatic determination. They then instructed one another in the Three Essential Disciplines of Tonglen (or meditation to cultivate compassion), Satyagraha (nonviolent refusal to cooperate with evil) and Permaculture (the arts of self-reliance, community-building, and regenerative design, aimed at healing the planet, one site at a time.)
In time—although it may have taken centuries—this led to a Gaian culture taking root worldwide on the ruins of global agro-industrial civilization. This Gaian culture was one where everyone understood the difference between faith and belief—that faith, which is intuitive and ultimately inexpressible, is what unites us, while beliefs are mental formations that distinguish us and our clans from one another, enabling us to articulate our faith according to the norms of our particular culture or subculture. It was a culture where everyone understood that humanity was a part of, not apart from, Gaia—the sacred web of life, and that—as William Blake put it, “Everything that lives is holy.” Yet it was a pragmatic culture, informed by Permaculture principles of Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share, where education was geared toward helping people overcome ideological attachments and cultivate the scientific method of observing and interacting to see what works, in solving any given problem. It was, in short, a world of true abundance, a world of Enough—a world where the Gaian Categorical Imperative became the norm—to strive, in everything they do, to promote the health, competence, and resilience of themselves, their communities, and the one planet—Gaia—that they all share.

So may it be.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Using the Dharma Gaia Mantra

The tenfold Dharma Gaia Mantra is a meditation technique I developed some time in the late 90s or early 2000s--I forget exactly when I came up with it. At the time, I had immersed myself in the Buddhist teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, reading every book of his I could get my hands on, and going to lectures and retreats with him or with his niece, Anh Huang, whenever possible.

So I decided first to write a kind of nonsectarian digest of his core teachings that I could share with my students, and this evolved into a handout I called "Axioms for Clearing the Mind," which I distributed every semester to my students, first at Hampton University and thereafter at Tidewater Community College. These axioms, including the mantra, were very well received by my students, and by others with whom I shared them, and since then, the mantra has become an integral part of my own practice.

I would therefore like to offer a bit of commentary on each of the ten verb phrases I have chosen for my Mantra...


I have superimposed the ten injunctions on a Tetractys, an essential figure from Pythagorean sacred geometry, illustrating the notion that ten is the number of completion, of wholeness. It turns out that this arrangement when looked at deeply, yields many insights about the relationship between these injunctions:

I. The First Triad: Reinhabiting the Present Moment.

Breathe

This first injunction stands alone, (the number 1), signifying that it contains within itself all the others. And indeed, Buddhist and other sacred wisdom traditions throughout the world emphasize our breath itself as that which, when contemplated, connects (or reconnects) mind to body, and self to world. It is no accident that the word "spirit" derives from the Latin verb spiro, spirare meaning "to breathe;" a linguistic root also present in words like "inspiration" (breathing in) and "expiration" (breathing out). Likewise, in Greek, the term for "Holy Spirit" is hagia pneuma, literally meaning "holy breath." The same is true of the Hebrew word ruach, which also translates as both "breath" and "spirit;" the same is true for the Sanskrit word prana and the Chinese word chi. (Only in our alienated and fragmented Cartesian scientific-industrial civilization has the numinous concept of "spirit" lost all connotative association with the simple, Earth-bound act of breathing).

Yet our own breath, like the "Holy Spirit" in Hebraic and Christian traditions, still informs and embraces all things, still connects us to the rest of life and the universe (our habitual distinction between "natural" and "supernatural" being likewise illusory). At the basic physical level, our breath connects us with all green plants and trees. As they breathe in carbon dioxide and draw up water, plants use solar energy to catalyze the transformation of these two simple molecular compounds, CO2 and H2O, into complex, energy-storing sugars (C6H12O6), which act as batteries, storing that solar energy for use in building up the structures of the plant--roots, stem, branches, and leaves. Their waste product is free oxygen, O2, which still carries the embodied solar energy that powers our own metabolism as we breathe. Without plants, there would be no free oxygen in the atmosphere, since it reacts with carbon and many other elements, and its equilibrium, or "resting state," is in energy-neutral compounds like CO2.  In short, we breathe in what plants breathe out, and vice versa. With every breath, we connect with the world of plants, and hence with the interconnected web of life as a whole. We thus participate in Gaia, the body of Dharma, as so elegantly articulated by Martin Luther King, as an "inescapable network of mutuality" in which "whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."

Observe - Let Go

These two injunctions complete the triad that lies at the very basis of Buddhist practice: We breathe, in order to observe, and we observe in order to let go. And we let go in order to breathe. And we repeat this as often as necessary, in any given circumstance, in order to restore equanimity--to calmly abide in the present moment, regardless of the "noise" all around us or in our heads. This is what Thich Nhat Hanh aptly labels as "the essential discipline"--a way of using our own breath to return to, and reinhabit, the present moment.

What do we observe?  First, our breath itself--in and out.  Then any thoughts or feelings that come creeping back into our consciousness. Then anything we see or hear around us, if it catches our attention. We don't suppress thoughts, feelings, or obsessions; we don't indulge them; and we don't allow ourselves to get hung up on them. We simply observe them mindfully, and--when they are ready to dissipate, we let them go, and return to our breath.  If it helps, you can add "abide" to this triad, although abiding in the present moment is not something that you do; it is something that happens quite naturally, as a result of breathing, observing, and letting go.  A good, useful rule to follow for life is this: No matter what happens, good or bad, just breathe, observe, and let go. This is the foundation of meditation practice, in every spiritual tradition on the planet.

II. The Second Triad: Reclaiming the Day.

Be Well - Do Good Work - Keep in Touch

I have borrowed these three middle injunctions, with gratitude, from popular radio host Garrison Keillor--they are his sign-off from his 5-minute morning radio program, "Writer's Almanac." I chose them because they comprise the best generic daily agenda I have ever known. So let's unpack them a bit: 

Be Well. This injunction refers first, of course, to taking good care of our bodies, by good diet, rest, and exercise. If you are sick or in chronic pain, of course, it is a lot more difficult to "be well" in mind and spirit. But with consistent practice (in breathing, observing, and letting go), it is possible to restore your basic equanimity, or as Pema Chodron puts it, "lighten up."  As Sylvia Boorstein puts it, "Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional." There is a deep teaching in her witticism, for suffering--the thing we fear the most--is a direct result of living in the subjunctive--in the "if only..." mode--or wishing things were other than they are. 

Obviously, if you are in severe or chronic pain or emotional distress, it is difficult not to wish things were other than they are. But there are many contemplative tools available, in various spiritual traditions, to gradually uproot this ingrained habit we all have of longing for relief, of living in the subjunctive "if only" realm of suffering, when the present moment becomes unbearable. One, from the Judeo-Christian tradition, is well known: "Thy will be done"--the core devotional mantra of the Prayer of Jesus. A secular version of this is the old familiar sign-off of Walter Cronkite: "That's the way it is." Either or both can be used, whenever necessary, to break the spell of longing--of wishing things were other than they are. Such relief will be temporary, of course, but it can always be repeated--and a regular meditation practice (breathe-observe-let go) makes it easier to remember to do so.

Do Good Work.  Once we have re-established “wellness” it is time to renew our vow to do what needs to be done, and do it well—for the sake of ourselves, our loved ones, our community, and all of life. “Good Work” always has two complementary aspects: Arête and Agapé. Arête is doing things well—doing it in order to do it, with mindful attention to detail. Agapé is “right livelihood”—working for the right reasons—to promote the health, competence, and resilience of ourselves, our family, friends, and colleagues, community, society, and all of life.

Keep in Touch.The third personal vow to renew, once we have regained the equanimity to do so, is to take care of everyone and abandon no one—that is, to be attentive at all times to the inner and outer needs of others—both those close to us and complete strangers. Remembering that nothing we’ve done or failed to do in the past has any necessary effect on what we choose to do right now, this vow presents us with a good opportunity to write that letter, make that call, or do that good deed that we have been putting off for whatever reason—to make “keeping in touch” an integral part of our generic daily agenda.

III. The Final Tetrad: Reclaiming our Lives.

Learn - Teach - Heal - Create.

The final four injunctions enable us to establish or renew a worthy life agenda; they can be viewed as an elaboration of “doing good work” and “keeping in touch;” standing goals around which to organize our life plans, whether for a day, a week, a decade, or a lifetime:

Learn:  Everyone we see, and every situation we encounter, is our teacher, so we must be ready at all times to learn. Make learning—of new skills, new knowledge, or new insight—a lifetime project. Try not to let a day go by without learning something worthwhile. It keeps life forever fresh and interesting, no matter how old we are, or what our circumstances may be.

Teach: Everyone we see is potentially our student, so we must be ready at all times to teach. Our learning is ultimately useless and will die with us unless we also make an effort, whenever possible, and in whatever ways are appropriate, to impart what we know to others—to share our knowledge and experience, in order to improve the lives of others.

Heal: Everyone we see may be hurting in some way, so we must be ready at all times to heal. We don’t need special medical or psychological skills to be healers; it just takes sensitivity to others’ needs and a willingness to be there for others when they need us, seek help for them if we lack the skills ourselves, and leave them alone when they want to be left alone.

Create: Everyone we see may need our own special gifts, so we must be ready at all times to create. We often delude ourselves into thinking “I’m not creative,” but this is a lie; there is creative potential in all of us. Our task is to discover our own special gifts, and then put them to use for the well-being and inspiration of others and for all of life.

Tips for Practice: There are many ways to use this Dharma Gaia mantra in our daily meditation practice. One I like is, in sequence, to focus on contemplating the meaning and value of each injunction, then practicing it, and finally vowing to keep it up. (This turns a 10-fold guided meditation into a 30-fold one, and can be used to improve our concentration). 

Another, more simple approach is to set the Tetractys chart in front of you for reference, and then, for each injunction, use the participial form, so it becomes less of a "command" from a supposed higher self or inner parent, and more of an observation of what you are actually doing: "Breathing...Observing...Letting Go..."  

Feel free to experiment with whatever technique works best for you--or simply use the mantra, like training wheels, to get started on meditation practice, and then drop it when it is no longer needed. 

One final option, if you wish, is to add the predicate "Gaia" to each of the final four injunctions--e.g. "Learn Gaia, Teach Gaia, Heal Gaia, and Create Gaia." As a deeply committed Gaian, whose primary, overriding allegiance is to the global web of life itself, and who has dedicated his life to promoting ecological awareness, understanding, and responsibility in every way I can, I routinely add "Gaia" as a predicate to these four lifelong injunctions, because this works well for me. If it works well for you, so be it. If not, feel free to improvise.


Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Creating Gaia

"You may call me a dreamer, but I'm not the only one..." --John Lennon.

Yesterday, October 9, was John Lennon's 78th birthday, and to celebrate it, I posted on Facebook a deeply touching videoclip of three talented young children in Russia, performing Lennon's iconic song "Imagine" before an adoring audience. All these children, of course, were born long after John Lennon's death by murder in 1980, yet they were all deeply touched by, and continue to carry on, his legacy--the dream of a world where such toxic mental formations as countries, religions, and possessions no longer are pretexts for people killing and dying...a Gaian world with "all the people sharing all the world..."

Having always been a dreamer myself, fond of imagining a world without "greed or hunger," I now have the good fortune of having retired from teaching and moved to a part of our world--the Willamette Valley in the gloriously beautiful state of Oregon--where environmental awareness and responsibility have become embedded in the default ethos of the dominant culture, and where many bright, creative people not only share this dream, but are actively engaged in making it happen, from the ground up.

One such pragmatic visionary is my online Permaculture teacher at Oregon State University, Andrew Millison. He is a vibrant, keenly intelligent, and personable young man, who is bringing the visionary teachings of the late Bill Mollison and his many brilliant disciples--David Holmgren, Sepp Holzer, the late Toby Hemenway, Geoff Lawton, and many others throughout the world--to a whole new generation of talented, idealistic young people.  He has the formidable talent of condensing Mollison's and Holmgren's vast array of ecological design insights into lucid and readily accessible brief lectures and presentations, many of which are now freely available onYouTube.

As I study and learn these brilliant, insightful design principles and practices, and see innumerable examples of their successful application in practice, my pervasive gloom about the political degeneration of our nation and the ecological devastation of our planet fades comfortably into the background of my consciousness. For these are patterns on the macro scale that I can do precious little about, other than voting, canvassing, environmental lobbying, and going to the occasional demonstration--all of which can often feel like exercises in futility.

But Permaculturists are out there every day, actually repairing the planet, one design site at a time, by designing systems that not only emulate nature, but interact symbiotically with the natural world, regenerating topsoil, reducing consumption of resources, mitigating pollution, and repairing the vast damage our industrial civilization has done to our living planet. And--more importantly--they are dedicated to teaching and propagating these principles of healing through design across the entire planet. This is why I plan to devote the rest of my days, to my very last breath, to learning and teaching Permaculture, and--to the extent I am able, within my limited skills and small range of influence--to healing and creating Gaia.

One idea I have for this--which again, may or may not ever come to pass within my remaining life span--is to work with the many new friends I am making here to create a "Dharma Gaia Practice Center" somewhere in or near Salem. Such a center would be first a Permaculture demonstration site, where residing members could give guided tours of the steadily evolving permaculture design on whatever landscape we find, and teach workshops on the methods we use. But it would also be a place where a wide array of hands-on classes could be offered, not only on permaculture design practices, but also on "learning Gaia" through co-sponsorship, with community organizations such as the Audubons or the Native Plant Society, of nature walks around the property or surrounding landscape, or as I like to call them, "Gaia Walks"--where a protocol would be observed, or encouraged, to limit chatter so that we could give full attention to the tour guide. In short, my envisioned "Dharma Gaia Practice Center" would be closely modeled on the Aprovecho Institute of Cottage Grove OR, established by my class mentor, Tao Orion.

Finally, rather like Breitenbush Community nearby, or the Omega Institute in upstate New York, it would be a place that also invited skilled teachers of various "vertical" modes of holistic healing of body, mind and spirit--e.g. yoga, tai chi, ayurveda, meditation techniques, etc.--as well as the "horizontal" healing practices (self-community-planet) of permaculture and satyagraha (i.e. nonviolent, Dharma-based modalities of political engagement). The underlying vision of this Dharma Gaia Practice Center would be a place that integrates vertical and horizontal healing, emphasizing the linkage between healing our fragmented body-mind-spirit systems; healing out community, nation, and world; and healing our homes, our landscapes, and our living planet.

As usual with such dreams, I have no idea if such a vision will ever come to pass in my remaining lifetime. But that does not matter. As the Parable of the Sower illustrates (and permaculture confirms), all that matters, ultimately, is the soil and growing conditions into which we drop our seeds. And I know of no richer soil for a seed such as "Dharma Gaia Circle" and "Dharma Gaia Practice Center" than right here in Oregon. If I get it started but never live to see it, so be it. What we learn dies with us; our only legacy is what we teach, heal, and create.

Monday, October 8, 2018

The Five Enemies of Gaia

These are dark days: our once idealistic, once democratic republic, hijacked by a maniacal tycoon, is spiraling down, down, down, into tyranny, plutocracy, chaos, and rancor; we are no longer citizens but mere consumers, our democratic institutions sabotaged by corporate greed and corruption, and our very consciousness colonized day and night by Glomart media and advertising.  In tandem with this incremental and accelerating collapse of our civilization, we watch with dread as Gaia, our global life support system, goes into its final convulsions from a fever induced by excess levels of CO2 from fossil fuels--unprecedented wildfires, massive floods and hurricanes, melting ice caps north and south, collapsing ecosystems and vanishing species, bleached out coral reefs, fished out oceans full of jellyfish, catastrophically declining insect populations--a panoply of biological horror stories from all over the world. Yet our Glomart-corrupted politicians persist in their pig-headed denial, while multinational corporations blindly pursue their profits, served by a bloated military-industrial complex that is secretly engaged in "special operations" sending out murderous drones and spreading endless, asymmetric warfare all over the world in the hallowed name of "national security"--all oblivious to the social and environmental catastrophes they are wreaking everywhere we look.

It all makes peace of mind rather elusive--instead, levels of public anxiety are at an all-time high throughout the world, and many in the younger generations are terminally alienated, finding illusory refuge in drugs, violent movies or video games, gangs, or pornography. What then can we do?

One way of thinking about Buddhist teachings is that they are tools of thought that can be used to train our minds for times like this--whether personally or globally--when things look utterly bleak and all hope seems to have vanished. One such tool is the famous mandala that illustrates the Wheel of Samsara. This mandala is arranged concentrically to illustrate the laws of Karma, or what Buddhists call pratitya samutpada--roughly translated as "codependent origination" or "this is because that is (and vice versa)." This doctrine of codetermination is also fundamental to the systems sciences and Gaia Theory. So it is a point of convergence between Buddhism and Gaia Theory that is well worth exploring further.


At the hub of the mandala are three symbolic beasts--the pig, the rooster, and the snake--signifying, respectively, ignorance, hatred, and desire (or greed). These are the "drivers" of Samsara--the world of delusion in which most of us are trapped. Each issues forth from the mouth of the other in a circle, signifying the codependence of these "three poisons," each giving rise to--or quite literally vomiting up--the other.  Surrounding this is a ring that is light on one side and dark on the other, with human figures swimming up and down, roughly analogous to the "Wheel of Fortune" in western iconography. This depicts our cyclical transmigration though various lifetimes--upwards due to our virtuous deeds, and downward due to our mean or selfish deeds. In the next broad layer, we see images of the Six Samsaric Realms into which we are reborn--the Hell realm, the Hungry Ghosts, the Animals, the Human realm, the Asuras or "jealous gods," and the Devas, or deities.

These are not "places" so much as ego-generated delusions, default states of mind we all tend to inhabit at various times as we go through our lives. In brief, Hell dwellers are driven by fear, hatred, and violence; Animals are driven by sensual desire and anxiety; Hungry Ghosts are plagued by inner thirst, despair, and desolation; Humans (most of us) are capable of rising or falling, based on our choices; Asuras or "jealous gods" are driven by relentless ambition (rather like many university professors, politicians, or businessmen), and Devas can be thought of as analogous to the super-rich, those we all envy for their luxurious and carefree lives but who, like all the rest of us, inhabit the Samsaric realm of consciousness engendered by ignorance, greed, and hatred, and who therefore, as Bob Marley once put it "think they're in Heaven but they're living in Hell." In the outer circle are depicted the 12 links of codependent origination, from ignorance through attachment to birth, old age, and death.

With this model as our backdrop, we can gain much insight into our current plight on our threatened civilization and planet, and--ideally--use this insight to convert our collective despair into equanimity and resolution. So let us begin with the Three Poisons, to which I would add two spin-offs, resulting in the "Five Enemies of Gaia:" Ignorance, Greed, Hatred, Denial, and Despair.

Ignorance refers, in Buddhist theory, to the root delusion we all share as our birthright--that "I" am an autonomous, persistent entity, separate from "you," from "him and her" and (above all) from "them."  This is a delusion because this "self" is actually no more than a mental construct that enables us to function in a community mediated by language. It has no actual form or substance--if we try to find it in our bodies or our minds, we will soon give up looking. It is what the Romans called a persona, a mask that we fashion from our genetic predispositions and our experience and that we identify with, calling it (appropriately) our "personality."  Yet we grow and change constantly in response to external stimuli and the internal processes of growth and aging. Our memories extend back to early childhood, yet that "I" we remember was vastly smaller than, and different from, the "I" of today.

This delusion is entirely natural--we share it with all other living organisms, from bacteria up to ourselves--simply because in order to function, all biological systems must surround themselves with a permeable membrane that separates "outside" events from "inside" processing of those events. This deeply rooted concept we have of ourselves as separate entities no doubt developed from these biological roots--our need to protect our body-mind systems from the world--only the "world" today includes, and is dominated by, language and other abstractions such as money--not just by predators, rivals, poisons, or diseases.

This basic underlying ignorance of our true nature--as temporary moire patterns in an ongoing flow of matter, energy, and information (like waves in the ocean or pixels dancing on a screen)--inevitably engenders the two other poisons: greed or attachment, and hatred or aversion. We crave, or become attached to, people, places, things, or concepts (mental formations) that enhance our self-image or satisfy our (temporary) desires, but this craving is never satisfied; we hate and fear all those who threaten, not only our physical well-being, but also our ego concept--our assiduously cultivated sense of our own value and importance.

As the Tibetan mandala above shows, these three emotional states--ignorance (i.e. the delusion of separateness), greed (attachment) and hatred (aversion) ceaselessly give rise to each other at the core of our self-consciousness. We crave things, people, and power to reinforce our self-importance, our "me-ness." But this craving can never be satisfied--more is always better. And it is always haunted by fear of loss--of our money, our possessions, our power over others--and so we objectify these threats by our hatred of, and violence toward others. Our "me-ness" gives rise to meanness. (Donald Trump is, of course, the avatar of Samsara--the very personification of all-consuming ignorance, greed, and hatred).

These "three poisons" at the core of our ego-construct, as the Tibetans aptly call them, also give rise to two toxic spinoffs--denial and despair. Denial is simply the refusal to acknowledge blatantly obvious realities that directly threaten our power and our samsaric worldview--the structure of mental formations we erect to validate our greed and hatred. There are many forms of denial, but by far the most insidious--the one that makes it an "enemy of Gaia" along with ignorance, greed, and hatred--is denial of climate change: the refusal, by an entire, empowered political subculture (the US Republican Party and the corporate elite whom they serve) to acknowledge the obvious, well-attested reality that our fossil-fuel-based global economy is destroying our planet and imperiling all future generations.

One might even say that with Trump, ignorance, greed, hatred, and denial have become the main platform of the Republican party, as they set forth (with vehement hatred) to dismantle democracy, enrich the super-rich yet further, impoverish the poor and destitute, assert patriarchal dominance over women, and dehumanize immigrants and ethnic or religious minorities. And all this has given rise, within a broad swath of the American public and throughout the world, to the Fifth Enemy: Despair.

Despair is not an external enemy--it is the enemy within. But it likewise arises from, and in turn engenders, ignorance, greed, and hatred.  And we see, in popular culture and in the constant chatter of the Internet, a virtual epidemic of despair spreading among younger generations, in direct response to the entrenched greed and hatred of their elders. In its most corrosive form, despair engenders mindless and indiscriminate violence--hence the crazed gun nuts who mow down innocent people in crowds, schools, concerts, movie theatres, and even churches. And when despair mixes with political hatred, we get terrorism (for a terrorist is nothing but a revolutionary without hope). When it mixes with greed, we get the murderous drug cartels of Central America or street gangs of our inner cities. We see it also in the rising suicide rates of teenagers, for if there is no hope for the future, why live?

So what can we do about the Five Enemies of Gaia--Ignorance, Greed, Hatred, Denial, and Despair?

The first thing to recognize is that these enemies are not people, not "others"--not even the corporate elite nor  the belligerent right-wing neofascists that people on "my side" love to hate. All these "enemies" can be also found within our own consciousness, as well as being so clearly manifested in Trump and his clueless devotees.  When we meet hate with hate or violence with violence, hatred and violence proliferate, becoming ever more deadly.

The Buddhist solution to all of the above begins with the simple act of breathing, observing, and letting go. As we gradually learn (through conscious breathing) to simply observe, rather than either indulging or repressing, our thoughts and feelings, we simultaneously develop the capacity to let go of our toxic emotions, our addictive cravings, our fears and anxieties--and to simply abide in the present moment.  From this foundation of calm abiding and insight, we are then able to cultivate empathy for others--even ignorant right-wing fascists (without justifying their behavior)--and thus to develop genuine, unfeigned compassion--for ourselves, for those closest to us, for everyone else, and for all living beings.  We can then make that baseline compassion the foundation of our everyday behavior, rather than our greedy. angry, or anxious obsessions. In this way, we cultivate the ability to be well, do good work, and keep in touch on a daily basis, and to consecrate our lives to learning Gaia, teaching Gaia, healing Gaia, and creating Gaia.





Friday, October 5, 2018

Strange times


We live in strange times indeed. On one hand, those of us in the Consumer Class (a more accurate term, I feel, for the tedious and much-overused term "Middle Class") in most industrial nations have never had it better. With even modest professional salaries and pensions, we can live in comfortable, secure, climate-controlled houses, often far larger than we need; travel all over the world in hours or at most a day or so; use our computers and cellphones to connect with others all over the planet and instantly find out any information we seek; listen to a vast array of music and see an equally vast array of films and TV programs to entertain us during idle hours; enjoy the previously unimaginable  benefits of modern medicine to heal our diseases and prolong our lives; eat fresh food and sample cuisines from all over the planet throughout the year--all luxuries that our ancestors could not have even imagined.  (They would think they were in paradise if somehow they could revisit the present and see us as we are now...)

And yet we are quietly anxious, not happy--largely because those of us who can still evaluate evidence or take the time to read and to search out the truth of things are well aware, whether we admit it or not, that--we are on the precipice of an unprecedented global catastrophe.  The fossil fuels that provide the limitless energy we take for granted to power all these luxuries have a side effect--release of vast quantities of CO2 emissions that concentrate in the upper atmosphere--which has effectively doomed our planet, not in the far-distant future, but starting already, quite visibly, everywhere: relentless headlines of record-breaking droughts, floods, hurricanes, and wildfires, along with growing dead zones in the oceans, melting glaciers and ice caps, rising seas, and swarms of environmental refugees from the global South pouring over national borders. The pace of global heating spurred by this atmospheric change has now gone into a runaway feedback loop, for as icecaps melt, the northern oceans absorb rather than reflect heat, and as warming oceans kill off coral reefs worldwide, the calcium carbonate of which they are made breaks down into yet more CO2, while methyl hydrates, with 10 to 50 times the heat-trapping potential of CO2, are then released from the permafrost, bubbling up under the Arctic and Antarctic seas...We have no way of knowing whether the ecosystems of our planet can withstand this ever-more-rapid heating of the climate, as changes which normally would take thousands or hundreds of thousands of years now are occurring over mere decades.

The psychological, social, and political consequences of this unstoppable, runaway global climate disaster are unsettling, to say the least--and likely to get a lot worse, fast, in the coming years. We have already witnessed, for example, the rapid erosion of liberal democratic institutions and the rise of fanatical, authoritarian demagogues worldwide--Trump being only the most obvious example of a dangerous trend which is also afflicting Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Hungary, Turkey, the Philippines, and elsewhere--as nativist zealots in these and many other countries gain public support, demonize or threaten their opponents, and seize power, calling for closing borders, deportation of immigrants, summary execution of criminals or "enemies" of the regime, and promising to restore a mythical, ethnically "pure" past.

But this craziness goes well beyond political destabilization, resurgent fascism, and polarization.  In a future-oriented, essentially optimistic culture like our own, we are likely to see a growing cognitive dissonance between the future people have always been taught to envision and work toward--a future of ever-growing affluence and technological wonders--and the actual grim future prospects unfolding day by day, as our planet heats up uncontrollably, as ecosystems collapse, and as social cohesion degenerates into turmoil and violence.

According to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the four stages of grieving are denial, bargaining, anger, and acceptance.  At present, most of us in our political and mass media culture (especially science-denying Republicans) are in deep denial, while many scientists, activists and technological optimists have already moved on to bargaining--dreaming up quixotic technological fixes or utterly implausible calls for global cooperation--even as nations become more insular, belligerent, and defensive.

But woe unto all of us when denial and bargaining give way to anger--especially the anger of the betrayed Millennial generation whom we have robbed of any prospect for a decent, livable future--whom, in our short-term greed, willful ignorance, and denial, we have doomed to a horrific future beyond imagining. We are already seeing clear evidence of such hopeless rage in the brutal and vicious behaviour of ISIS and other Islamic fanatical groups, as well as among the narcotics cartels and street gangs of Central America and--increasingly--in our own cities. Even the election of Donald Trump by a large swath of disaffected, angry white Americans throughout the heartland states could be seen as yet more evidence of this hopeless, destructive rage. But far worse "lashing out" is likely to come, as the general, inescapable panic increases worldwide.

What's left?  According to Kubler-Ross, the final step in the grieving process is Acceptance. But while individual acceptance of the death of a loved one is fairly easy, since one's own life will go on, acceptance of one's own mortality--in the case of a terminal disease--is far more difficult, but is eased by the awareness that new generations will arise and life will go on after we are gone.  But what will it take to accept the imminent collapse of a whole global civilization, the end of our history, and the death of a whole life-sustaining planet even? How will we accept the idea that there really is no future, no hope, for any of us or our descendants?

This is where spiritual practice becomes our only recourse--to take us beyond despair, into a new kind of empowerment--not as saviors of our current, moribund civilization, but as seeds of a new one, rather like the fire-activated seeds of certain trees, that germinate only after a forest fire has consumed everything else around them into ashes and dust.

And the good news is, such seeding is already happening. It is called Permaculture--an ethical design protocol that works in accordance with, not against, Gaia, our biological support system.  What would happen if the tremendous "seed-power" of this fledgling, world-wide Permaculture movement were somehow synthesized with the already well-established, transformative "seed-power" of Buddhist practice--to transform denial and rage into acceptance and empowerment?  And what if THAT went viral? That is my aim, my goal, my life purpose, which I will pursue to my last breath. Here is how it might work:

Imagine...a set of small, self-replicating steps that might unfold as follows:

  • Small "Dharma Gaia Circles" form, who practice the integration of contemplative meditation practice--reinhabiting the present moment, accepting impermanence, letting go of attachments, and cultivating active compassion--with both social/ecological activism and permaculture theory and practice. The core practice of such circles, of course, would be the 10-fold Dharma Gaia mantra: contemplating, practicing, and vowing (with one verb phrase on each of ten full breaths) to--
Breathe, Observe, Let Go; 
Be well, Do Good Work, and Keep in Touch; 
Learn, Teach, Heal, and Create--Gaia.

  • These circles go on to establish Dharma Gaia Practice Centers, which offer ongoing training programs to their communities in the three essential disciplines of Tonglen meditation (to train our minds to let go of attachments, accept impermanence, and actively cultivate compassion), Satyagraha (to organize others to resist the tyranny of corporate greed and fascism without giving in to hatred or violence); and Permaculture (to restore the health of Gaia, starting with our own back yards).
  • These go viral--before the electric grid starts to collapse, due to energy costs and social chaos--and Dharma Gaia Circles (or their equivalents in other religions and cultures) start popping up everywhere, like wildflowers. The equivalents, of course, would take names within their own cultural tradition reflecting the healing of the Earth (e.g. Tikkun for Jews, or the Mustardseed Project for Christians, et al.)
  • Gaians (as we are now widely known) reach out to all people, no matter how wounded or desperate they may be, assuring them, for example, that they can be Gaian Christians, Gaian Muslims, Gaian Jews, Gaian Hindus, Gaian Buddhists, or Gaian whatever...
  • As a direct consequence, such trends as solar, wind, and biomass energy, along with relocalization of the food economy, holistic healing modalities, regeneration of topsoil through carbon sequestration and other permaculture practices, a newly evolved political culture of Gaian democracy, and innovative Gaian technologies of all sorts start to make wider and wider swaths of the world look and feel as the Willamette Valley is already starting to look and feel today--as more and more people abandon addictive consumerism and start growing gardens, growing community, and growing awareness.
Could this actually happen?  Who knows? But just in case it is possible, I will be conducting my first actual Dharma Gaia Circle on October 21, at my Unitarian Church in Salem, Oregon. If we don't plant seeds, nothing will grow.


Thursday, August 23, 2018

Now what??



Back in the Eighties, Norman Myers, an eminent British environmental scientist, published the first Gaia Atlas of Planet Management, a richly informative compendium of maps, charts, and statistics from all over the world, illustrating diverse indicators of global ecological crisis everywhere on the planet, along with heroic efforts to imagine or design a better way to a sustainable future. Outside of James Lovelock's seminal work, this Gaia Atlas series (there were several others to follow) was one of the first widely distributed publications to use the name "Gaia" in designating our planet as viewed from an ecological perspective. I still vividly recall the concluding line from his introductory chapter that has stuck with me ever since:  "We have two choices: a Gaian Future--or No Future." I immediately adopted this as a slogan which I used repeatedly in my own essays, presentations, and publications, and which I would constantly repeat to my students.  By "a Gaian Future," I meant a future in which humanity recognizes its kinship with, and total dependence on, the rest of the biosphere.

At that time I had high hopes that such a Gaian future was just around the corner--that Lovelock's Gaia Theory marked a kind of evolutionary turning point in our collective consciousness, and that "Gaia" would soon become a household word, as all human institutions, starting with education, but moving on to commerce, journalism, politics, and even religion embraced the model and metaphor of Gaia and went on to encourage and subsidize political, technological, social, economic, and cultural innovations that reflected our awakening to our total collective dependence on the health of our unique living biosphere.

Suffice to say, I was wrong.  The Gaia concept was instantly ignored, ridiculed, and marginalized by the dominant culture--and especially the scientific community--and was embraced only by the scientifically illiterate and credulous "New Age" subculture, mostly in California--much to the dismay of its authors, Lovelock and Margulis, who were both serious, widely-respected scientists.  Christians condemned it outright as resurgent paganism.  Instead, mainstream commercial culture embraced the anodyne buzzword "sustainability," which they could manipulate easily in any self-serving way they desired, as in "a sustainable profit margin."  And "green" bccame an all-purpose advertising moniker for promoting slightly less destructive ways of doing business, as in "green laundromats."

But mention "Gaia" in polite company, and you would get little more than raised eyebrows--as if to say "but you don't look like a new-age hippie..."  Vanished utterly from public discourse is any shared understanding of "Gaia" as a serious, far-reaching scientific model to signify our understanding that (1) we are a part of, not apart from, the biosphere, and that (2) life itself has created, and continues to sustain, the thermal, atmospheric, and geochemical conditions that in turn sustain life. Yet the irony is, serious earth systems scientists have already embraced the Gaia model in its totality--they simply call it "earth systems science" and consign it to specialized graduate programs at major universities, well away from the public eye.

At the same time, Glomart--the relentlessly expansive, money-based, fossil fuel-driven Global Market Economy, run by multinational corporations pursuing the endless expansion of resource extraction, production, consumption, and waste, has gone on its merry way, plundering and polluting the planet, and sustaining itself by marketing the ethic of consumerism ("you are what you own"), brainwashing the public by constant advertising, and buying off the governments who would regulate them...

The net result, of course, is that this money-driven economy has become a terminal cancer on the Earth, for cancer can be defined as any subsystem that parasitizes and ultimately destroys its own biological support system. Because corporations know that environmental awareness is bad for business, their domination of consumer culture through mass media and advertising has caused any prospect of a Gaian future to disappear from public consciousness.  As fossil fuel-driven climate change reaches (or surpasses?) its tipping point, we are left facing the dire prospect of no future, or a future of self-accelerating social and ecological collapse so unspeakably horrible that no one in their right mind would want to inhabit it.

This leaves us with a quandary best epitomized by a book of essays I recently purchased, entitled We're Doomed. Now what? by Roy Scranton. The author (whom I recently met at a bookstore nearby, when he was on a promotional tour), is a fortyish English professor at Notre Dame and an Iraq War veteran, who is entirely convinced that our global civilization is about to collapse into unspeakable chaos and that there is nothing we can do about it.  His book is thus a kind of threnody for our civilization and for the planet as a whole. It is full of gloomy reflections on war, empire, popular culture, and the paradoxes of modern life, with our unprecedented affluence combined with abject despair about the future, but it is devoid of any hope or useful suggestions.

In contrast, Paul Gilding, an Australian environmental consultant and former CEO of Greenpeace, has written a book and presented a widely viewed TED talk entitled "The Earth is Full". The talk begins by making the compelling and unarguable case that our industrial civilization has already exceeded the Earth's carrying capacity, and that collapse is imminent, but his more optimistic take on it is based on an analogy with the period just before the outbreak of World War II, when the entire western world outside of Germany--Europe, North America, and Australia/New Zealand alike--was in deep denial about the threat posed by the rise of Nazi Germany. He recounts how once the catalytic event of Hitler's invasion of Poland occurred, followed by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the entire industrial and economic infrastructure of Europe, America, and Australia shifted abruptly from denial into overdrive, converting almost overnight into a coordinated industrial war machine, to prepare for the now-inevitable global war with Hitler and Japan.

Gilding therefore believes that at some point, some cataclysm wrought by climate change will have the same effect on our global civilization as a whole, turbo-charging a conversion from fossil fuels to renewable resources, from rampant grown of production and consumption to recycling and frugality, and so forth.

I doubt it. For one thing, the analogy is wildly inaccurate. On the eve of World War II, we all faced a common enemy--the aggressive and brutal imperial fascism of Germany and Japan. And such an imminent, tangible threat makes it easy to mobilize public support behind a mass conversion to war preparation. Today, however, there is no comparable common enemy. We are our own enemy, in our assiduously reinforced greed, ignorance, and denial. And the threat is abstract--even when ice packs are melting, hurricanes are increasing, droughts and wildfires are rampant, fisheries are depleted, ecosystems collapse, animals and plants disappear forever, and environmental refugees swarm across distant landscapes, our daily lives, here in the comfortable, insulated middle class, go on much as usual, while our headlines focus mostly on Trump's latest outrageous tweets.

So between Scranton's gloomy hopelessness and Gilding's false last-ditch optimism, what's left?

Permaculture.

How so?

I have no real doubt that Glomart, our global industrial civilization, is doomed to incremental collapse into chaos, violence, starvation, and despair, and that the resulting damage to Gaia, our global biological support system, may take centuries, millennia, or possibly millions of years to heal, or to regenerate into a healthy, diverse biosphere. But we still have choices about how we cope with the coming collapse. Even if we can't hope for Gilding's fantasy of a civilization-wide awakening and mobilization, we can each, within our immediate domain of influence--our families, friends, and everyone else we can reach--practice and propagate the ethics, principles, and protocols of regenerative design, as we grow gardens, grow community, and grow awareness.

The more people who embrace Permaculture design principles, and work together to implement them, the better off we will be when the s*** hits the fan. That much I know for sure.


Parallel Government?


Today, I was reading an article on Alternet on all the innumerable ways in which Trump is alienating the rest of the planet--including abandoning global trade agreements, torpedoing the nuclear treaty with Iran, insulting our allies by imposing punitive tariffs, and--worst of all for the future of the planet--withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement. The article enumerates various ways in which these reckless actions are spurring other nations of the world to unite against him, leaving the US isolated in a hostile world. But there is one silver lining on the very dark cloud of Trump's chaotic reign and the profound threats it poses to democracy, the rule of law, and our common global future. To quote this article,

"To the consternation of the Trump administration, the next crucial meeting, a Global Climate Action Summit, will take place in September -- and guess where? --  in California."

This astonishing development--a major international summit meeting on US soil to enforce a vitally important global climate treaty from which the US itself has withdrawn, was the work of California's brilliant and courageous Governor Jerry Brown, who has led a coalition of state governors, mayors, and corporate leaders throughout the nation in affirming and implementing their intention to abide by the Paris accord, and to reduce or eliminate their dependence on fossil fuels in accordance with the agreement.

Reading about what Governor Brown and others (including our own Governor Kate Brown) are doing encouraged and inspired me, for according to Gandhi, when all other efforts fail to reform or transform a corrupt, oppressive, or morally bankrupt regime, the final stage of a nonviolent Satyagraha campaign involves what he referred to as setting up a parallel government. That is, rather than attempt the bloody mess of a violent overthrow (which almost always backfires, leading to a disintegration of social order into bloody anarchy, internecine conflict, and horrors beyond imagining), one leads and coordinates, among principled leaders in government and the private sector and individuals, a mass refusal to cooperate with tyranny, by setting up a parallel government--which can be a virtual government, without any fixed location as a target--to take over the tasks of maintaining a coherent and just social order, and even practicing diplomacy, until such time as the tyrannical regime fails due to its own internal contradictions.

World War II offered many illustrations of parallel government, through the establishment of "governments in exile" for France and other nations under Nazi occupation, including Germany itself. But Brown is pursuing something new: a nonviolent, virtual "parallel government"--not in exile, but within and beyond the scope of the current dysfunctional regime in Washington, consisting not only of elected officials (governors and mayors) but also of corporate leaders, the media, public administrators, foreign governments, and ordinary citizens, all resisting the Trump regime in myriad ways.

So this "parallel government" need not be a literal government, in the sense of elected officials deliberating on policy, to be administered and enforced through a network of agencies, adjudicated in the courts, enforced by police, and defended by armies. Rather, it is coalescing as a network of agreements, both explicit and tacit, that are perfectly legal, among foreign powers, state governments, cities, corporations, and citizen groups, and even among officials within the US Government who retain some integrity about their calling.  This, in turn, along with sustained nonviolent citizen resistance, may be the most effective way of creating a protective abscess around the infection of the Trump regime, until that regime is finally dislodged from power. whether by impeachment, resignation, or electoral defeat and subsequent arrest for high treason.



Thursday, August 9, 2018

Why be good?

Years ago, I met an earnest young, red-haired evangelical Christian woman who loved to engage in "Christian apologetics" as they call it--that is, spirited debate with "nonbelievers" to persuade them of the truth of Christian revelation.  (At that time, I was sort of a borderline case, interested in and sympathetic to Christianity but not enough to make a commitment). At one point in the conversation, she pulled out what seemed to be her trump card (no pun intended), her clincher, by posing the following challenge:  "If you don't believe [in the basic Christian ideology of a just but merciful God, the self-sacrifice and resurrection of his only begotten Son as our sole path to salvation, and a moral universe where the good are rewarded with eternal bliss in Heaven and the evil are punished with eternal Hellfire after death], why be good?"

Why indeed?  My answer at that time was rather flippant and imperfectly digested: "Because it makes biological sense." This answer is subject to challenge by a skilled debater on any one of many grounds--such as wasps who paralyze and insert their eggs into the larvae of other insects, whereupon their own larvae consume the larger larva from within, rather like the famous hideous scene in Alien. Or the incontrovertible fact that in most mammalian species including primates, the most aggressive male--the Alpha Male--gets to impregnate all available females in his troop by fighting off or terrorizing all the other male rivals, until a younger male challenges him as he grows old and decrepit.  Or the fact that outright criminality--theft, violence, and deception--are commonplace throughout the animal and even plant kingdoms, as individuals compete for available resources, avoid predators, or snare their prey.

So the study of animal or plant behavior, as I now know, provides no model at all for ethical behavior, and we land yet again on this woman's thorny question: Without a religious belief system that commands belief in rewards or punishments in the afterlife, "Why be good?"

Conventional, popular Buddhism throughout Asia offers another version of the rewards-and-punishment scheme, in the widespread belief in Karma as a kind of balance sheet for our actions and their consequences that transcends individual lifetimes, such that karmic debt accumulated in one lifetime comes due and is either paid off, or increased, in the next, and where one's incarnation in the next life is determined by one's conduct in this life.  Just as various figures in the Catholic hierarchy, from the Pope on down, devised bribery schemes whereby people could buy salvation by lining the pockets of the Church or the local monastery, Buddhist cultures have similar schemes for paying off one's karmic debt in advance by making offerings to one temple or guru or another. I encountered one such scam in Thailand: at a Buddhist temple we visited, hawkers would sell us birds in little wooden cages, and we could accumulate "merit" by releasing the birds within the temple precincts.  Then, of course, they would go out and trap more birds, or even the same birds, and repeat procedure, in order to milk the gullible tourists.

So given the universality of this kind of self-serving behavior--whether fraud, violence, or hypocrisy--in both the biological and social world, if we choose not to believe in an ideology we can neither prove nor disprove (such as the existence of God, heaven and hell, the law of Karma extending across lifetimes) then why, indeed, be good?

More sophisticated Buddhists, such as the Dalai Lama, have a more nuanced answer: if we reason that just like us, everyone alive seeks the exact same things--happiness and security--and wishes to avoid the exact same things--suffering, betrayal, or violent death--it makes logical sense, then, to be good--to take care of everyone, and abandon no one. This is a purely logical version of the Golden Rule--to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It is predicated on the idea that beneath our differences, we are all basically the same--scared, hungry little animals who are looking for ways to be safe, well-fed, and loved.

This way of thinking works, but only upon reflection, and only up to a point. It does nothing to negate the tendency we all have to lash out or strike back when we feel threatened or offended. And such reactive tendencies often override reflection and rational deliberation altogether. Furthermore, there is never any shortage of cynics--among them most business people and politicans--who will simply argue that it is a "dog-eat-dog" world and those who are unwilling to cut corners, to play dirty, or to hit back will lose out in the end. Machiavelli argued, for example, that in the realm of politics, morally upright behavior will always render a leader vulnerable to those without scruples, who would take advantage of him in short order. He therefore recommends that any shrewd politician must only make a public show of morality, but be ready to abandon it--to lie, to cheat, or to betray others--at a moment's notice, should circumstances warrant this.  He goes further to say that only through such willingness to abandon moral principles can a ruler acquire enough power to dupe, terrorize, and defeat his enemies and establish stability within a state, thereby serving a greater, more lasting good.

Machiavelli's arguments are soundly reasoned and hard to refute, and they are predicated on an assumption about humanity--that we are essentially no different from any other animals, and that we are incorrigibly self-serving--with which I am sure Edward O. Wilson would concur! So again, why be good?

There is a classic, more subtle Buddhist response to this perennial conundrum that does not rely on a belief in reincarnation, and that fully accepts humanity's animal nature.  And that is that bad behavior, ranging all the way from simple anger and resentment to lying, fraud, violence, and murder--is, in effect, its own punishment, for it creates inner confusion and perturbations in one's consciousness that prevent one from achieving the mental clarity that is a prerequisite to awakening and inner peace. And these inner perturbations in turn have ripple-effects on everyone around you, creating a tsunami of suffering, both inner and outer, and coming right back to you, in whatever forms "you" take, now or in future generations. This understanding is predicated on the Buddhist realization that the idea of a separate self is ultimately a delusion, a kind of moire pattern generated by ignorance, greed, and hatred. And as Chogyam Trungpa has put it, the only thing that is reborn is your neurosis.

I have found the truth of this insight in my own experience and practice. When I have a clear conscience--when I have spent my time well, and been gentle and helpful to my wife and to all those around me, my meditation goes much better than if I am agitated, resentful, feeling guilty about procrastination, or obsessed with political attachments and aversions. And that, in itself, is a sufficient answer to the question "Why be good?" even if evil and corruption pervade the world (as they always have).

Finally, the best answer I know to the question "Why be good?" is that our own virtuous behavior promotes the health, competence, and resilience--the three survival values of all living organisms--of ourselves, our communities, and our planet simultaneously.
















Monday, July 16, 2018

Balderdash!


On August 22 of this year, my mother, Geraldine (nee Kane) Ellis, would have been 100 years old, had she not passed away 20 years ago. So I am dedicating this blog entry to her memory.

Back in the late 70s, when I was a graduate student at the University of Oregon, I drove across the country with my parents, who were visiting my brother, then in California, while I was returning to Oregon from a visit home in suburban Philadelphia. While we were stopped in Salt Lake City, we visited the Mormon temple complex, including the Mormon Taberacle (where we heard the famous choir rehearsing), and then went to the visitor center.

The whole exhibit turned out to be an elaborate propaganda ploy for inducing the visitors to convert to Mormonism. First we went up a long, spiral ramp with murals of familiar scenes from the Old and New Testaments, such as the Fall of Man, Noah's Ark, Abraham and Isaac, Moses and the Red Sea, Daniel in the Lion's Den, and so forth, right up to the Annunciation, the Virgin Birth, and the Crucifixion (on the assumption that visitors, as biblically literate Christians, would feel right at home).

Then, on the upper floor, the big push began in earnest, with a diorama showing the figure of Joseph Smith in the woods of upstate New York when--Voila!--a bright electric light goes on, and a figure in white robes--the Angel Moroni--appears to him with golden tablets containing the Book of Mormon. And so forth...

Our guide was an impeccably dressed blonde-haired man with shiny skin and perfect teeth, whose carefully rehearsed enthusiasm grew in intensity as he retold the story--of Smith's revelation, of the new sect, of their persecution and exile, and finally, after Smith's death, of their triumphant establishment of their New Jerusalem under Brigham Young on the shores of Great Salt Lake.

My mother, showing her best Victorian manners, listened politely to the entire presentation, but on our way back to the car, after we passed a sculpture of a robed angel whose feet floated just about the ground, handing the "staff of Aaron" to Joseph Smith on the shores of the Missouri, my mother stopped, put her hands on her hips, and said, "What a bunch of balderdash!!"

This story has stuck with me ever since that day. It evokes a habit of mind that my parents both instilled in me from childhood, for which I will be forever grateful: the habit, that is, of skepticism--of knowing and calling out "balderdash" when I hear it.

I thought of this story the other day, when I was reading an excellent book by Alan Wallace, an eminent scholar and practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism. This particular book, one of many he has written, is on the Lojong teachings, also known as the Seven Points of Training the Mind--a series of 59 pithy slogans, divided into seven categories or "points," to help practitioners train their mental processes so that they can transform any adverse circumstance into a seed of awakening to wisdom and compassion.  Wallace's commentaries on these slogan are, by and large, keenly insightful, and imbued with his exhaustive study of the vast body of sutras and commentaries in the Tibetan tradition. For this reason, he is one of my favorite Buddhist teachers.

And yet...there is one thing about Alan Wallace's teachings, along with those of many other Buddhist teachers, both East and West, that sticks in my craw: his insistence upon belief in the doctrine of reincarnation, or "rebirth" as many Buddhists call it, as a prerequisite for understanding the body of Buddhist teachings and achieving true wisdom and compassion.

I am reminded, when I see such insistence, of a young devoutly Christian woman who challenged me, after hearing a Bach cantata, as to whether I "believed" what I had just heard, sung along with on the final chorale, and applauded. As she engaged me afterwards, trying to convert me, she at one point said, "All you have to believe is..."

"Wait," I interrupted.  "I don't 'have to believe' anything."

And the same goes, I'm afraid, for Alan Wallace, much as I admire him and have learned from his teachings. I cannot agree to "believe" in reincarnation, as a prerequisite, as he would have it, for achieving true enlightenment--any more than I have to "believe" in the divinity or the resurrection of Jesus, in order to be "saved."   For me, any claim, from any religious tradition, that I "have to believe" anything is, ipso facto, BALDERDASH.

So what about this Hindu/Buddhist doctrine of reincarnation/rebirth--the idea that my current suffering is the consequence of my karma, my accumulated misdeeds and delusions from past lives--or, conversely, that we should predicate the injunction to extend compassion toward all--even our enemies--on the notion that, in some past life, they all were my mothers? Or that after we die, we ascend to some Bardo where we await rebirth, and when our practice is sufficiently advanced, we can choose our own rebirth?

A quick scan of the belief systems about the afterlife throughout world history that we know about  will disclose two salient facts: (1) they are all completely different, and deeply rooted in the mythology of each particular culture; and (2) they all serve the pragmatic purpose of giving people a  reason, based on hopes for bliss or fear of the unknowable (i.e. what happens to them after death), to behave themselves--that is, to act in socially adaptive ways and curb selfishness when it threatens the social order. Any thematic commonalities between these widely divergent narratives of the Afterlife can be attributed to this pragmatic purpose of encouraging good behavior while alive. But of course "good behavior" is often construed as behavior benefitting one's own tribe, as against their rivals or enemies. This is why so many people, throughout history, have been willing, based on their hopes for the afterlife, to take up swords and massacre their enemies--from the Christian crusades to the present-day fervor of ISIS terrorists and even the Buddhist zealots in Burma who are annihiliating the Rohingya Muslims in order, they claim, to protect their Dharma-based culture from the barbarians.

But if one does not believe in past and future lives, or chooses an honest agnosticism about the whole question, can one still be an authentic Dharma practitioner? Alan Wallace would probably say no. But fortunately, I have some able assistance in rebuttal of this claim from Stephen Batchelor, the British author of an excellent book called Buddhism without Beliefs. In a recent open letter to Wallace,  Batchelor observes that the belief in reincarnation was a commonplace throughout the Hindu world at the time of the Buddha--just as the belief in the One True God of Israel was part of the cultural furniture for Jesus and his disciples. But he also cites specific instances in which the Buddha remains silent in the face of this and all other unanswerable questions. On this basis, he argues--rightly I feel--that no mandatory beliefs--in rebirth or anything else--are a prerequisite to authentic Dharma practice--the cultivation of wisdom and compassion. We don't need a self-serving excuse to practice compassion, once we understand that doing so is intrinsically gratifying, even while it contributes, however slightly, to healing a very sick society, culture, and planet.

My own take?  I believe in recycling--not "rebirth" per se. Like every other living organism, when I die, the elements composing my body will decompose, quickly entering the food chain through worms, maggots, and microorganisms, and become raw materials for the new growth of microbes, plants, and animals of all sorts. As for my mind--that unique perspective on the world that looks through my eyes and is conditioned by all of my past experiences, my unique heredity, and so forth--it will wink out as surely as the Cassini Spacecraft did when it crashed into Saturn, for that mind, like the Cassini spacecraft, depends entirely on the delicate and complex organization of its component parts to function as an information processor. And when all those connections are broken, it will cease to exist as sure as the spacecraft did when it burned up in Saturn's dense atmosphere.

But as long as I know that this thing called "I" is actually just a temporary configuration of Gaian elements--Earth, Air, Fire, Water--organized into the trajectory of a living system, from conception to birth to life to death, it does not really matter whether I live or die. As William Blake, a poet and visionary whose deep wisdom I can always rely on, put it,

Little fly
Thy summers play,
My thoughtless hand
Has brush'd away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art thou not
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink & sing
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength & breath:
And the want
Of thought is death;

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.

(Happy Birthday, Mom!)