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 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.


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.