Friday, July 1, 2022

What is Meditation, Really?

In recent decades, our western consumer society, both here in North America and in Europe, has wholeheartedly embraced the East Asian core practices of meditation and mindfulness, but as with all such cultural borrowings, we have dramatically simplified and commercialized these practices, turning them into commodities for consumption in popular magazines, self-help books, TV programs, psychotherapy clinics, and even sessions at corporate conferences or stress reduction sessions for workers in the Pentagon! In the process, we have often stripped these practices of the richness of their original cultural contexts—and in the process, bastardized them.

In part, this is an entirely normal process; as it was with Christianity or Islam, Hindu and (primarily) Buddhist spiritual traditions have adapted themselves to the pre-existent sensibilities of other cultures as they have spread out from their cultures of origin, often losing much in the translation, but sometimes gaining in clarity and simplicity as they shed their original cultural trappings and constraints as well.  Very few American Buddhists, for example, practice with the rigorous discipline of Japanese Zen monks, the asceticism of Southeast Asian traditions, or the philosophical subtlety and ritual complexity of Indo-Tibetan traditions.

At their best, such simplifications (as with Thich Nhat Hanh’s stripped-down Buddhism or the Dalai Lama’s charismatic wisdom, simplicity, and humor) have inspired widespread adoption of very useful, effective methods for realizing the benefits of meditative practices, cultivating inner equanimity, and becoming more compassionate, and more actively and effectively involved in healing our social and ecological pathologies throughout the world.

But the widespread commercialization of “mindfulness” and “meditation” has also led, quite frequently, to narcissistic, self-serving attitudes like those found on the “Insight Timer” app (which opens with the query “How are you feeling today?” and features innumerable sappy recordings to play while cultivating self-absorption). This attitude has led to some ludicrous extremes, like one ad from an investment firm promoting “mindful money management” so that participants can get even richer, more quickly, with calm and deep concentration on their portfolios.

What is missing here?  One word: Ethics. Every authentic spiritual tradition on the planet, whether Indigenous; Western-Abrahamic (Judaism, Christianity, Islam—and their offshoots); or Eastern-Dharmic (Hindu, Buddhism, Taoism—and their offshoots) has had ethics at its core, rooted in the recognition that, as Martin Luther King, Jr. memorably put it, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”  Or as the Buddhists put it, “This is because that is.” You will not find a single (authentic) religious sage, in any tradition on the planet, who would disagree with this basic insight, from which all ethical responsibility arises. This “inescapable network of mutuality” is, indeed, inescapable. It is our own living planet, and beyond that, the universe.

Hence another beautiful articulation of this core Dharmic insight: “Everything that lives is Holy” (William Blake).

So what does this have to do with mindfulness or meditation?  Simply this: Unless meditation is grounded in this fundamental awareness of the “inescapable network of mutuality,” it is just self-indulgence, no more “spiritual” than a prize fighter taking three deep breaths between rounds. It helps him—but nobody else.

So what exactly is meditation? There are, of course, many definitions, and to a considerable extent, those who practice meditation need to discover, for themselves, what it is—through their own practice, whether alone or under the guidance of a teacher or mentor.  So here is my own definition, which you can take or leave as you will:  Meditation is breathing, observing, and letting go. Again and again.

Let’s unpack these.

BREATHE: Whenever we talk of “spiritual” traditions or “spirituality,” the question arises (whether we visit this question or not), “What do we mean by ‘spirit?’”  For many, especially modern Christians, “spirit” refers to something nebulous and supernatural, the “Holy Ghost” that is somehow connected in the Trinity with God the Father and with Jesus the Son. Hence it is, for many, something they “believe in” just as they have been taught all their lives to believe in God and in Jesus as the Son of God.  But in fact, “spirit” is rooted in the Latin verb “spiro, spirare” which means “to breathe.” Not surprisingly, the same exact equivalence of “spirit” and “breath” can be found in other languages and religious cultures as well: “ruach” in Hebrew, “pneuma” in Greek, “prana” in Sanskrit, “chi” in Chinese, “ki” in Japanese—and so on. So we can safely say that spirit = breath.

But breath is not a thing; it is a process. From a biophysical perspective, the free oxygen we breathe is a transform of solar energy, released from plants as an energy-rich waste product of photosynthesis, and inhaled into our lungs to power our metabolism. And the Carbon Dioxide we exhale is essential plant food, enabling them, through photosynthesis, to manufacture simple sugars (C6-H12-O6) that serve as storage batteries for the energy they need to grow from seed to flower and fruit.  Thus, our breathing in and out is deeply connected with the breathing out and in of plants, another instance of that “inescapable network of mutuality” that entwines us all…

So breath is spirit because it connects us, literally, with everyone and everything else. If we breathe in that spirit (if you will pardon the word play), we are meditating. If not, we are simply doing what someone else told us to do, without knowing why.

OBSERVE: One immediate benefit of simply following your breath with your awareness—the core instruction of meditation—is that you stop thinking about anything else, if only for that moment. And this enables you to observe—to look deeply, first at your own breath, in and out; then at the body which is doing the breathing; then at whatever physical and emotional sensations are playing in and around your body and mind; then (with more practice) at your own mental processes, and finally, at your inner narrative—the things you are thinking about, dreaming about, fantasizing about, or fretting about. Simply stepping back, as it were, and observing these things from a place of calm induced by slow and steady breathing means that you are no longer obsessed with them, whether it is a pain in your left leg, a disturbing memory, a flare-up of anger with your spouse or children, or a craving for chocolate. Observing them detaches you from them; you learn to simply acknowledge their presence, with compassion for yourself and others—and with practice, even for those who may have triggered the anger, desire, or obsessive thoughts and feelings.

LET GO: Just as attentive breathing is a prerequisite to observing yourself and others with insight and compassion, observing, in turn, is a prerequisite to letting go. You know you have let go, as Thich Nhat Hanh points out, when you can gently smile at your own passing thoughts and obsessions.  Putting it simply, we breathe in order to observe, observe in order to let go, and let go in order to breathe.

It takes a lot of regular practice—you will not “get it” right away. All of us—even experienced meditators—get distracted, all the time. But rather than beating yourself up for getting distracted yet again, the key—once again—is compassion, first toward yourself and then toward others—especially those who may have triggered you with obsessive feelings of anger, rage, or even the converse, like lust.

And then—once you have forgiven yourself for getting distracted (and other people, memories, or things for having distracted you)—simply go back to your breath and start again.

Here is a simple mantra you can use as “training wheels” for meditation: BREATHING, OBSERVING, LETTING GO, ABIDING.   I did not bother expanding on “Abiding” because it is not a practice in itself—it is the goal of practice.  We BREATHE with gratitude and benevolence; we OBSERVE with insight and compassion; we LET GO with joy and relief, and at that moment, we are ABIDING in equanimity and peace. Repeat as often as necessary.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Life without hope


"We all sit here stranded, though we're all doing our best to deny it." --Bob Dylan

This is a difficult post to write. Despite everything, I have always been a congenital optimist, even though I have prided myself on my ability to look unblinkingly into the vortex and still find a reason to hope. My habitual metaphor has been my ardent hope for some viral, self-replicating "butterfly effect" that would trigger the "spontaneous remission of the Cancer of the Earth." But there comes a time...and for me, that time has come. Let me begin with a quote from a writer I follow on Medium named Richard Crim, who is very proficient in climate science:

The last time CO2 levels like this were seen on Earth, was three million years ago, according to the most detailed reconstruction of the Earth’s climate by researchers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and published in Science Advances.

At that time, there were no ice sheets covering either Greenland or West Antarctica, and much of the East Antarctic ice sheet was gone. Beech forests were growing in Antarctica and temperatures were up to 7 degrees Fahrenheit (4.℃) warmer globally, at least double that at the poles, with sea levels some 20 meters (65 feet) higher than today.

This quote says it all. By raising CO2 levels to their current level, closing in on 450 ppm, we have initiated a host of irreversible, interlocking feedback loops that will dramatically accelerate the heating of the Earth, regardless of what we do to stop carbon emissions. But unlike the last time (3 million years ago), this heating will not be gradual, and hence will not enable the biota to adapt over hundreds of thousands--or millions--of years. Crim has coined the apt term "bomb time" to describe our current predicament.

Think of it this way: human time scales, compared to geological time scales, are infinitesimal--like the blink of an eye. Yet in the last 70 years--my lifetime--the CO2 level in our atmosphere has risen from roughly 300 ppm--slightly higher than the average high of 280 ppm over the previous 800,000 years (as measured in the bubbles of antarctic ice cores)--to the current, utterly unprecedented level of 420 ppm and rising steadily. When you graph my lifetime onto a geological time scale, it is the merest blip.  Yet within this blip of time, the atmospheric CO2 level has shot up, almost vertically, as seen on this graph:

In short, the fossil fuel age of the last 150-200 years looks, on a geological time scale, like a brief spike in energy release that could be compared to a volcano or a meteor impact--or a bomb. This means that this explosion of energy released into the atmosphere from the global proliferation of fossil fuels will play out inexorably in the next few decades, as the convergent feedback effects of loss of albedo from melting ice at both poles and all mountain ranges, methane release from melting permafrost, carbon release from wildfires and logging, ocean heating and acidification (and carbon release the calcium carbonate that builds dying coral reefs and shellfish), sea level rise, loss of (carbon-sequestering) vegetation due to prolonged drought, violent storms and floods, wildfires and so on. All of these destructive trends are strongly predicted to accelerate in the coming years, until the global climate reaches a new homeostasis, a new, higher set point, that is well beyond the tolerance of most of today's biota--at least large multicellular organisms like ourselves, or the food we eat. (Bacteria and fungi will do fine, no doubt, since they reproduce and evolve far faster than we do, and can already withstand temperature extremes far beyond our own tolerance.)

When you put all these (fully validated) climate data together, the conclusion is inescapable: we are fucked, and any effort to reduce climate emissions, convert to electicity, stop eating meat, or launch vastly expensive (and energy-intensive) geoengineering schemes--will be like arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Or to cite another, perhaps more apt cliche, our goose is cooked, regardless of what we do.

So how do we live without hope? That is the question for this generation--which may well be the very last generation of humans--ever. I don't pretend to have a satisfactory answer to this conundrum, but these thoughts may help somewhat.

First, remember that the present is all there is. The future is just a mental formation, enabled by the unique gift of human language, which enables us to imagine such a thing. It does not actually exist, however, except in our minds. 

I learned this lesson from a hummingbird I saw hovering and feeding on a hanging fuchsia on the shady side of our house, during the utterly unprecedented heat wave of last summer, when the temperature here in the (normally cool and pleasant) Willamette Valley rose to an ungodly 114 degrees.  The hummingbird, like me, was suffering from the heat--and like me, he is doomed.  But he needed to eat, to sip the lifegiving nectar of that fuchsia, and the sight of him sipping from the flowers despite the torrid heat gave me a transport of grace, a moment of pure joy, that has stayed in my memory ever since. Having no concept of "the future," the hummingbird was enthusiastically embracing the present moment--the delicious, life-sustaining nectar--despite the appalling temperature. So should we all embrace such moments of grace as they arise: the laughter of children, the eyes of our beloved, a delightful symphony or string quartet,  the rising sun over a misty lake... they are truly all that matter, impermanent though they may be.

So here are a few humble suggestions for coping with a world without hope, with no future at all.

  1. Breathe, Observe, and Let Go. Cultivate a spiritual practice every day. It does not matter which brand you choose, or what you "believe;" they all have useful  practices for facing and enduring the traumas and vicissitudes of life. The main benefit of all such practices is that they help you accept that that is, to let go of wishing things were other than they are (such longing is the source of all human vices and all human suffering). If you are a "believer," try "Thy Will be done" as a good mantra; if you are not, try the old Walter Cronkite sign-off, "That's the way it is." Whatever works best for you. 
  2. Be well, Do Good Work, Keep in Touch. Take care of everyone and everything, and abandon no one and nothing.  Starting with yourself, take good care of your body, feelings, and mental state; then turn to your livelihood and daily tasks, and attend to them mindfully; finally (and most importantly) be there for those closest to you--spouse, family, friends--expanding your circle of care to include everyone you encounter, and ultimately, all living beings, including even your enemies. My own favorite mantra for this is a line from William Blake: "Everything that lives is holy"--however impermanent.
  3. Learn, Teach, Heal, and Create. No matter what happens as the momentum builds in the ongoing and accelerating collapse of our civilization and biological support system, organize your life around these four standing goals: to cultivate resilience through the constant learning of new knowledge and skills; to teach what you know to others; to heal, as best you can, your own and others' physical and emotional distress, and to take care of the portions of our living planet entrusted to us--our own gardens, farms, and communities; and finally, to use your creative gifts in whatever ways nourish your own life and that of others. Hence the slogan I have put on my own self-designed bumper-sticker that sums up all of the above, a succinct recipe for cultivating resilience in a time of growing chaos and catastrophe:  Grow Gardens, Grow Community, Grow Awareness.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022



The above two symbols, the tetrahedron and the solar cross, are both sacred images based on the number four--the Tetrad--associated with the Earth, or Gaia, and symbolizing manifest stability and totality; hence we have the four seasons; the four classical elements (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) which are also the four basic requirements for life; the four limbs of vertebrates; the four corners of most buildings; and the four dimensions of space-time (length,width, depth, and time).

 In Buddhism, the number four also has many foundational uses, including the Four Noble Truths, the Four Brahmaviharas ("Abodes of God" or adaptive mental attitudes), the fourfold mantra (Om Mani Padme Hum) representing the totality of the Dharma. For today's Dharma Talk, I would like to map these Buddhist tetrads onto one another, and onto my favorite mantra, or core injunctions of meditation (Breathe, Observe, Let Go, Abide) in order to investigate the insights that arise from this superposition. The correlations are as follows:

OM--Breathe--First Noble Truth (Suffering)--Benevolence

MANI--Observe--Second Noble Truth (The Causes of Suffering)--Compassion

PADME--Let Go--the Third Noble Truth (Realization or liberation)--Sympathetic Joy

HUM--Abide--the Fourth Noble Truth (The Path of awakening)--Equanimity.

OM, the seed syllable of the Cosmos.

Om (sometimes rendered "AUM") is the sacred seed syllable in all Dharmic religions--Hindu, Buddhist, and all others.  It is often described as both the name and the voice of God, or the Sacred itself, and reciting it with full attention is said to achieve ineffable communion with the Divine--with all that is. Therefore, it can aptly be correlated with the first injunction: BREATHE, since "breath" and "spirit" share the same root meaning (Latin spiritu from spiro, spirare--to breathe) and are synonyms in most other languages (e.g. ruach (Hebrew), prana (Sanskrit), and Qi (Chinese) or Ki (Japanese). 

Hence, both OM and BREATHE correlate with the first of the Brahmaviharas, Maitri (Pali Metta), whose meanings combine gratitude and benevolence--the default attitude we should take toward everyone and every other living being when we encounter them, and more deeply,  gratitude for the sacred miracle of life itself, as we take each breath.

MANI, the Sanskrit word for the Jewel of Karuna or compassion. 

Whereas Maitri is the default attitude we should cultivate toward everyone, Karuna or compassion is the attitude we assume toward all who suffer. It is not, simply "pity," however. It refers to active identification with all who suffer (including ourselves), coupled with an authentic determination to help alleviate their suffering in any ways we can. Hence it is correlated with the second injunction, OBSERVE, to look deeply into the suffering of ourselves and all other beings.

Padme, the Lotus of full awakening.

Padma (or Padme) refers to the Lotus--a sacred symbol throughout the Far East--as a symbol of full awakening or enlightenment--rising pristine above the muck, like a magnificent flower in a wetland. Hence it is correlated with the third injunction--LET GO, or to free oneself from all afflictive attachments, all "wishing things were other than they are."

HUM, the "Peace that passeth all understanding."

The Fourth seed syllable wraps up all the others, and hence symbolizes the fourth Brahmavihara: Equanimity. It also can be correlated with the Fourth Noble Truth--the Path of Awakening, which the Buddha outlined, in his inaugural Sermon at Benares, as the Eightfold Path: Right Understanding, Right Aspiration, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.  And it can be invoked nicely by the injunction "Abide."

There are many meditative practices that can be derived from this superposition of Buddhist tetrads. For example, one could start by inwardly reciting, on four consecutive breaths, the following mantras or injunctions in any sequence you wish:

1. Breathe with gratitude, Observe with compassion, Let Go with selfless joy, Abide in equanimity;

2. Suffering, the Roots of Suffering, the Release from Suffering, the Path of Cultivation;

3. Benevolence, Compassion, Joy, Equanimity

4. Om Mani Padme Hum

Improvise as you wish, but also remember that Mantras are simply training wheels, which you can let go of when you no longer need them...

Monday, March 7, 2022

This could be it.

He who is the author of a war lets loose the whole contagion of hell and opens a vein that bleeds a nation to death.”--Thomas Paine

All changed, changed utterly:   
A terrible beauty is born. --W.B. Yeats

As everyone now knows, Putin has invaded Ukraine, and it is not going well for him, despite his overwhelming advantage in firepower, as he steadily escalates the mass murder and mayhem he is inflicting on the Ukranian people. The entire world has condemned and isolated him, cutting off Russia from commerce, the performing arts, and sports, and sequestering their finances... As a result, the Russian economy is now in a nosedive, his currency essentially worthless, and his hapless citizens, increasingly destitute, desperate, and disillusioned. Meanwhile the Ukrainian people, despite his relentless and increasing bombardment, are united against him, inspired by their heroic leader Zelenskyy, and are willing to fight to the death no matter how much horror and suffering he inflicts on them.

What worries me most is that Putin has burned his bridges; like Macbeth, he is " blood / Stepped in so far, that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o'er (III. 4.136–8) 

He cannot possibly "win" in Ukraine without destroying the entire nation and terrorizing its population, and making yet more enemies around the world (a Pyrrhic victory indeed!). And he'll have his hands full trying to subjugate a population of 40 million who loathe and despise him (as they discovered to their cost in Afghanistan).   But on the other hand, he cannot withdraw, without losing face, and hence--in Russia especially--losing power and most likely, his life as well.  Furthermore, narcissistic thugs like Putin (and Trump) are incapable of admitting failure, for that is tantamount to the death of their own bloated ego, which they worship as a deity, and which he equates with the tribal deity he shares with his people: "Mother Russia."

His only other option is nuclear war--with which he has already darkly threatened the West, and which he knows (with whatever rational faculties remain in his fevered brain) is tantamount to suicide, not only for himself, but for all the rest of us. And herein lies the true peril of this moment. This could be it--the end of human civilization, the end of most if not all of us, the end of most larger living beings, and the end of Gaia as a habitat for human life. Will it come to this?

Who knows? Anything can happen. But the odds of this unimaginably horrific outcome are becoming more likely by the day. My one remaining hope is that a cabal of his own oligarchic cronies will conceive of a multipronged strategy to dispatch him, before it is too late. As a Buddhist, I am not supposed to wish ill, and especially to wish death, on anyone--but then one of the Jataka tales of the Buddha's earlier incarnations featured the protagonist willingly taking on a karmic debt by murdering a ship captain who was plotting to drown all 200 of his passengers--and this might be an analogous case.

The real challenge here, however, is that up to now, Putin has gained wide popularity in Russia by being a strong leader who restored Russia's economy after the Soviet collapse and thereby restored their global standing, and who weakened and humiliated Russia's historical adversaries in Europe and the US in particular, by scheming to appeal to British nationalism and undercut the EU by organizing the Brexit campaign behind the scenes, and to elect his own "useful idiot" Donald Trump to the presidency, and dividing the nation. (These were all actions for subverting his enemies that would impress Machiavelli!) However, with this bloody and brutal invasion of Ukraine, Putin has stepped over the line (as Hitler did), making the fatal transition from steely, competent authoritarian to paranoid, ruthless, and dangerous thug.

But if anyone dispatches Putin, it must be Russians themselves--for if we in the West were to attempt such a thing, it would simply unite the Russians against us, make Putin a martyr to Russian nationalism, and most likely trigger a nuclear war that will end everything.  Nontheless, as a highly intelligent, subtle, and crafty people, some of the high-placed Russian oligarchs might already have considered this option. We can only hope. (I hold out some hope for a Brutus-like figure--a high-placed Russian oligarch who is Putin's trusted confidante, to realize the danger he poses to all civilization and life on Earth, and plot a quick way to dispatch him...) 

Otherwise the best we can do is (1) practice Tonglen for the Ukrainian people (breathe in their vast suffering and fears; breathe out solidarity, determination, and hope); (2) even try Tonglen for Putin himself (breathing in the inner fears, resentments, and insecurities that engender his desperate and neurotic lust for power and restoration of empire, and breathing out the wisdom he has abandoned--awakening his dormant Buddha-nature from underneath all the layers of fatuous egocentricity. (3) practice the Gesthemane Prayer (Matt: 26: 36-56): 

O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.

These are the best antidotes I know for paralytic anxiety about the world.

And if, indeed, all is lost--if our only remaining options are a quick and ugly death by nuclear holocaust, or a slow and excruciating death by global heating, starvation, endemic warfare, and ecocide--

"O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done."

And meanwhile, let us all take care of everyone and every being, and abandon no one and no other living thing. Let us therefore, for now...

Breathe, observe, let go;

Be well, do good work, keep in touch;

Learn Gaia, Teach Gaia, Heal Gaia, and Create Gaia;

and then...

Grow gardens, Grow community, and Grow awareness.

...till death do us part.

Monday, February 7, 2022

The Four Useful Attitudes

In both Hindu and Buddhist wisdom traditions, there is a very useful formulation that, in Sanskrit, is called the four Brahmaviharas, roughly translated as "the Four Abodes of God." These are (1) Maitri (Pali "Metta"), referring to a blend of gratitude and benevolence; (2) Karuna, meaning empathy or compassion; (3) Mudita, meaning selfless joy; and (4) Upeksha (Pali "Upekkah"), meaning equanimity. In Buddhist traditions, these are often referred to as the four limitless mindsets, suggesting that they can and should be cultivated continually. But a more secular and colloquial way of thinking about these is as simply four useful attitudes to cultivate.

One Indian guru I have read, Swami Satchinananda, suggested that we think of these as a repertoire of attitudes we should deploy, as necessary, with everyone we encounter. I found his teaching on this to be very useful, so I would like to share it with the community. Maitri, or benevolence, should be our default attitude toward everyone we meet, which can be cultivated with the practice of gratitude. It means that we encounter everyone with a default attitude of benevolence, since they are all, potentially, our teachers and/or students, for whom we would give thanks. This is remarkably easy once you get the hang of it. One way to monitor your attitude toward others is to pay close attention to your own facial expressions, and particularly the muscles around your eyes and mouth, for these, quite automatically, tend to tighten up when you feel uncomfortable around someone. With practice, you can notice this, and deliberately soften the muscles around your eyes. Try it! The causality is reversible here: just as a sense of external threat instinctively causes you to tighten up your eye muscles (to make you less vulnerable), the deliberate relaxing of those muscles (accompanied by deep, measured breathing) can cause you to feel less threatened and more benevolent. Once you've experienced this, it is quite magical! Karuna means compassion, but not pity; that is an important distinction, for pity involves looking down on people, whereas true compassion is empathy--the ability to use your imagination to put yourself in another person's shoes, and to feel their suffering vicariously. And this too can be cultivated through practice. One of my favorite techniques for cultivating empathy is the Tibetan technique of Tonglen: breathing in another person's pain, anguish, and suffering--taking it upon yourself (like Jesus on the cross), and then breathing out selfless love, comfort, and relief to them (like the resurrected Jesus). This makes you more likely to devote some of your time, energy, and resources to actually alleviating their suffering in reality, and not just in your imagination. Mudita means joy, but not just the giddy, egocentric pleasure of chocolate cake or good sex. Rather it refers to selfless joy--the joy you feel--and can actively cultivate--when you see a wildflower, your children's smiles, or the exuberance of college graduates at their commencement exercises when they receive their diploma. So think of it as vicarious joy. This applies also, of course, to the enjoyment of art and music--which are a kind of gratitude for the skills and inspiration of the performers, artists, or composers. Finally, Upeksha, or equanimity, is the attitude you should practice bringing to those you DON'T like, as an antidote to the rage and fury they often trigger in us, either by their boorish behavior or by simply being who they are. And, needless to say, this is an ongoing challenge, but like the other three--benevolence, compassion, and selfless joy--it can be cultivated by simply noticing when rage has arisen, going back to our breath, and observing, then letting go of it. This takes practice, of course: the teaching of Jesus to "Love your enemies" and "Bless them that curse you" is the most difficult injunction of all. Martin Luther King shed considerable insight on this when he told us "When Jesus told us to love our enemies, he did not say that we necessarily had to like them." So you can think of equanimity as quietly and patiently cultivating selfless love, even for those you don't like. And this does not necessarily entail engaging them in any way; it just entails monitoring, being honest about, observing, and letting go of your own aversive reactions as they arise. And like all the rest, this takes practice.

Here is a simple exercise for cultivating the four useful attitudes. You can do it on a single breath, or on four consecutive breaths. Here is how it works on a single breath: (1) On the in-breath, focus on the phrase "Breathing with gratitude." (2) On the pause between inbreath and outbreath, focus on "Observing with compassion." (3) On the out-breath, focus on "Letting go with (selfless) joy" and on the pause before the next in-breath, focus on "Abiding in equanimity." OR you can devote a whole breath, in and out, to each of these phrases. Try combining this with visualizations if you wish--e.g. gratitude for the trees that provide the oxygen you breathe; compassion (as you hold your breath) for all who, for one reason or another; "can't breathe" due to various forms of inner or outer suffering; joy in "letting go" of attachments, resentments, or any other form of wishing things were other than they are; and calmly and peacefully abiding, like a tall sequoia or a mountain, high above the noise and confusion of life... Experiment!

Another possibility: the familiar mantra OM MANI PADME HUM can be used in a similar way, by imaginatively assigning each of the four adaptive attitudes to one of these words: OM (breathe), MANI (observe), PADME (let go), HUM (abide). This makes sense, since "OM" is the seed syllable for the "Holy Spirit"--the breath of life; "MANI" denotes the Jewel of open-hearted compassion; "PADME" denotes the Lotus of awakening to our higher selves, of letting go of attachments; and "HUM" denotes tranquility or equanimity.(

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Beyond Hope

 Many years ago, in the early 90's when the Internet first enabled online conversations with people all over the world, I got into a dialogue with a guy named Jay Hanson, who lived in Hawaii and passed away in 2019. Jay was a thoroughgoing pessimist, and his website,, was, by far, the darkest and most unnerving scenario for the future of humanity that I had ever encountered. 

At the time, I was still an optimist; I still believed that if and when Gaian consciousness--the dawning awareness of our total dependence upon a unique and magnificent living planet--spread inexorably around the globe, it would lead to a great awakening, and that everyone, from the top down and bottom up simultaneously, would reduce their consumption of fossil fuels, build out solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass systems, grow organic food, limit their reproduction, preserve threatened species and ecosystems, clean up pollution on air, water, and land, and learn how to close the loop on manufacturing, recycling everything. 

My byword in those days was a quote from Norman Myers, editor of the first Gaia Atlas of Planet Management, who said in his preface, "We have two choices: a Gaian Future, or No Future." And so I argued vehemently with Jay Hanson about this, but he was adamant that given our inherently aggressive, self-serving, and short-sighted animal nature, we would never abandon our dependence on fossil fuels--and the instant wealth and gratification provided by them--until it was far too late, the oil ran out, the climate heated up, the system crashed, and humans died off en masse, turning savage and cannibalistic along the way to oblivion.

Fast forward thirty years, and it appears that Jay Hanson was right about this. Years of persistent, truthless climate denial by Republicans, and hypocritical doubletalk by Democrats (who are equally dependent on the fossil fuel industry), coupled by 24/7 advertising for more and bigger cars, houses, and consumer goods,  have closed any window of opportunity we might have had for an orderly and phased transition from a "growth" economy to a ecologically sustainable steady state, or from fossil fuels to renewables.  Meanwhile, the rising levels of atmospheric CO2 have already pushed the global climate beyond many tipping points, ensuring a horrific and catastrophic future for younger generations and their descendants. So it appears we now have only one choice: no future.

All of which begs a painful question: what do we tell our children now? But let's first ask a different question, taken from the tired old joke about the Lone Ranger and Tonto, when they are surrounded by hostile Indians: "What you mean 'we,' white man?"

A quick scan of the rising number of editorials about the climate crisis will reveal no shortage of recommendations on what "we" need to do. "We" must convert, en masse, to solar and wind-powered electricity; "we" must put a price on carbon emissions; "we" must build carbon recapture machines to suck all the excess CO2 out of the atmosphere; "we" must block the sun's rays by geo-engineering, whether by sending big mirrors into space or generating stratospheric dust clouds for albedo; "we" must ban all SUVs and pickup trucks; "we" must prohibit the eating of meat; and so forth...But who is this "we"? Certainly not ordinary citizens, who are powerless to do any of these things; nor corporations, who have an overwhelming vested interest in the status quo, which ensures continued rising profits into the next quarter; nor our elected officials, who depend entirely on these corporations and their wealthy stockholders to fund their ever-more-costly re-election campaigns. So what should we do?

Let's convert this to a different question: knowing that our "civilization"--that is, our fossil fuel-driven global market economy (Glomart)--is doomed to a catastrophic collapse and die-off that has already started, what can you and I (not the generic, unspecified "we") do, starting today?

For starters, I will turn to the wisdom of Lao Tzu, who, writing during the catastrophic "Warring States" era of Chinese history, laid out a simple recipe for social regeneration. Let's take it one line at a time:

Cultivate Virtue in your self/And Virtue will be real.

Real cultural transformation always begins with personal transformation--from the bottom up, not from the top down, "Virtue"--the (untranslatable) Chinese concept de--can be understood as the ability to work effectively with things as they are (rather than as we might wish them to be). This, of course, entails cultivating such qualities as equanimity, mindfulness, empathy, and skillfulness.

Cultivate it in the family/And Virtue will abound. Or as the old Crosby-Stills-Nash tune had it, "Teach your children well." That is, from an early age, teach them to cultivate their innate curiosity and love of all living things, and the skills of coping, of self-reliance, and of compassion.

Cultivate it in the village, and Virtue will grow. This is vitally important in our time, when most of our social connections are remote--via the Internet, our workplaces, or our social hangouts (whether school, church, or local bar)--while we are estranged from our immediate neighbors. But true community is face-to-face; people you've worked with, learned from, or taught, and whom you can call on or assist, when disaster strikes.

Cultivate it in the nation/And Virtue will be abundant.

Cultivate it in the universe/And Virtue will be everywhere. These last two I group together because they point to the importance of playing the long game--setting goals that will extend well beyond the span of our own lives; in this case, a Gaian future arising from the ashes of No Future. 

In practical terms, this recipe for regeneration can be summed up in a few of my signature slogans:

Grow Gardens, Grow Community, and Grow Awareness.

Learn Gaia--i.e. learn Permaculture principles and practices;

Teach Gaia--i.e. teach regenerative knowledge and skills to others at every opportunity;

Heal Gaia--apply what you have learned to healing, as best you can, our topsoil, our biota, and our communities;

Create Gaia--through all of the above, dedicate your life to creating a Gaian future for yourself, your family, all living beings, and all future generations--no matter what happens. 

Monday, January 24, 2022

A Gaian Revolution


Unlike the connotations of “revolution” that arise in most people’s minds these days, a Gaian Revolution does not entail a violent overthrow of a government or social order from the top down, as in the French Revolution, the American Revolution, or the Communist Revolutions. Rather, I refer to the older, less violent, but more comprehensive meanings of the word, as implied by such concepts as the Industrial Revolution, the Scientific Revolution, the Gutenberg (print) Revolution, the Reformation, the Italian Renaissance, the Carolingian Renaissance (12th Century)—and long before that, the rise of Islam and Christianity from combined Hebraic and Hellenic roots, and the rise, in the Far East, of Buddhism—and giving rise to all of the above, the worldwide Agricultural Revolution, starting around 10,000 years ago. Each of these revolutions changed everything; they arose when pre-existing socioeconomic, cultural, intellectual, and spiritual orders had clearly become obsolete, and could not adapt to the changing world around them. Some (but not all) of these revolutions were spearheaded by charismatic leaders; others arose out of a zeitgeist created or activated by some new technological innovation or scientific discovery. (Neither Gutenberg nor Galileo nor Darwin, for example, were charismatic leaders; they were simply tinkering, and stumbled upon an innovation, an insight, or an observation that changed everything, through calibration and feedback.)

So what is the Gaian revolution?  It begins, like many of these others, with a new insight by a scientist—Dr. James Lovelock—a British atmospheric chemist who, as a consequence of his research (for the US Jet Propulsion Lab) into the startling difference between the (equilibrium) Martian atmosphere and the (far-from-equlibrium) atmosphere of our own planet, derived an explanation, based on systems theory, that seems perfectly obvious in retrospect, but that no others had thought of: that life itself—the biosphere—is directly responsible for the constant mixing of our atmosphere (through photosynthesis, respiration, and other biogenic reactions) that keeps it in a stable, but far-from-equilibrium state, and has done so for several billion years. This insight might well have become buried in the scientific literature and had no cultural influence whatsoever, if Lovelock had not taken a walk with his neighbor, novelist William Golding, who, with his classical background, suggested that Lovelock call his new theory the ”Gaia” hypothesis, after the ancient primordial Greek Earth-mother goddess. Lovelock took Golding’s advice, published his findings as Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth—and all hell broke loose in the scientific community, because he had violated a deep taboo within the scientific literature: never to mix myth and science. So they attacked his theory with a vengeance because it also violated their other major premise—scientific reductionism, or the idea that all causality can be explained from the bottom up; that is, by looking first at mechanisms at the atomic and molecular scale, then working up from there to larger and larger macro-scales. But Lovelock’s theory began from the insights of emerging general systems theory and cybernetics: that while the parts constitute the whole, the emergent characteristics of the whole reciprocally influence the behavior of the parts. That is, causality is a two-way street, from parts to whole and back again. Hence a simple explanation of Gaia theory is this: life creates, sustains, and propagates the biosphere, which in turn sustains and further propagates life.

But while Gaia as a scientific model was already revolutionary, it still retained the mythic resonance of its name, and this led to its embrace by the counter-culture (arising out of the cultural convulsions of the Sixties and Seventies) and simultaneously to its vehement denunciation by Christian fundamentalists, who saw it as a heretical resurgence of paganism. So Lovelock and his colleague, Lynn Margulis, managed to alienate both the mainstream scientific community and the religious right! And this endeared them even more to the “new age” counter-culture—much to their own dismay.

But besides being both a myth and a scientific model, Gaia gained cultural currency among intellectuals  as a metaphor for the holistic way of thinking championed by leading-edge philosophers such as Fritjof Capra, William Irwin Thompson, Francisco Varela, Humberto Maturana, and Ken Wilber. And because it resonated with the worldwide environmental movement, it likewise became a new banner for activists in that movement as well. Finally, of course, entrepreneurs saw dollar signs in its rapid cultural dissemination, so (with no understanding of, and even less concern for) its revolutionary implications, they trivialized the Gaia concept, turning it into a niche-marketing device for cosmetics, tarot cards, and yoga paraphernalia. (see

But while all this was happening, another revolution was occurring, well beneath the radar of mass media. Around the same time as Lovelock was working out his revolutionary hypothesis, the Australian agronomist Bill Mollison, inspired by Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog and the systems thinking that infused it, conceived of a revolutionary new, Earth-friendly approach to the design of landscapes, gardens, and human habitat, which he called “Permaculture”—a portmanteau word for “permanent agriculture” (later expanded to “permanent culture”).  Mollison likewise acknowledged Lovelock’s Gaia theory as the source of his inspiration for emulating natural systems in his designs. And significantly, he and his colleague David Holmgren designed a 72-hour curriculum for teaching others the principles and basic practices of permaculture design, and this curriculum became self-replicating, and has spread all around the world, simply because these design principles are universal, and apply to every conceivable bioregion and ecosystem.

And so now we have two of the prime prerequisites for a global Gaian revolution: Gaian theory (i.e. general systems theory, as applied to living systems) and Gaian praxis (permaculture or regenerative design). The third prerequiste, of course, is the obsolescence of our existing status quo of “More is always better”--industrial consumer culture and media-driven politics as a blood sport, all while the forests burn and ecosystems collapse worldwide. (There is little need, these days, to elaborate on this!)

And the fourth, which is yet to come, are effective means of codification and dissemination, since the Gaian revolution presently goes under a bewildering variety of names, each appealing to distinct constituencies that are often unknown to one another, or even in competition for limited philanthropic donations or grants to their respective nonprofits. Hence we have the proliferation of concepts and entities like Postcarbon Institute, Transition Towns, Biodynamics, Steady State Economics, Ecovillages, Green parties, etc. etc.—all pursuing their own variations or portions of a common goal: what Paul Hawken and Daniel Christian Wahl refer to, in their latest books, as “regeneration.”

This is all very inspiring for intellectuals or activists—people like me, who are already “on board” with the whole Gaian vision of a human culture that is symbiotic with, rather than parasitic upon, its biological support system. But what about the ordinary Joe and Darlene out there, driving their pick-ups or SUVs to Walmart or Costco to fill them up with processed food wrapped in plastic, trying to make ends meet, worried about their children getting gunned down in school, getting brainwashed daily by strident corporate media and 24/7 advertising everywhere they look, which constantly drums in the notion that to be is to buy; that their identity and value are entirely contingent on how much stuff they own. How can a Gaian Revolution reach, and involve, the broad masses of stressed-out and brainwashed humanity, here and elsewhere?

If I had a good answer to this, I would already have accepted my Nobel Peace Prize. I don’t. But I have, at least, an idea worth sharing. What are two things that those of us who live in individual suburban homes or duplexes are likely to have in common with our neighbors—even if we don’t know them at all, and even if they are polar opposites in their politics? First, we both eat food and drink water. Second, we both own, or at least have some control over, the land we occupy.  That is the starting point for a Gaian revolution. We are both Gaians, whether we know it or not!

The next step is to find a good occasion to meet our immediate neighbors, where they are less likely than usual to be hostile or suspicious of our motives. One of the easiest ways to do this is to be out in our yards when they are out in theirs, and use the occasion to strike up a chat about gardening. Or even, during harvest season, bring our neighbors some fresh tomatoes or strawberries!

And here is where I can introduce our Gaian marching orders: Grow Gardens, Grow Community, Grow Awareness. In that order.  By growing gardens, we become less dependent on Glomart (e.g. our global market economy) and more dependent on Gaia (our topsoil). By growing community, we become less isolated—less dependent on television and the internet, and more habituated to actual conversation with our neighbors.  Then we can form Garden Guilds, which are “cells” of Gaian consciousness, where we can meet periodically in potlucks, keep in touch online, sponsor gardening educational events at our homes or elsewhere, organize neighborhood work parties to assist one another in expanding our self-reliance by growing more food, teach Permaculture principles and skills to our children and youth, and donate our surplus produce to feed, house, and teach in turn, the growing masses of homeless and landless people all around us. It is through such simple mechanisms—growing gardens, growing community, and growing awareness, that the Gaian revolution can gain traction, and transform or displace Glomart—one backyard at a time.  But as we all know, there is no time to lose!