Monday, April 5, 2021

Cultivating the Three Essential Values


Every living organism on our planet, from any of the five kingdoms (Bacteria, Protists, Fungi, Plants, and Animals) depends, for its survival, on three essential values, or criteria for survival: health, competence, and resilience. These can be briefly defined as follows:

    Health is internal homeostasis, the proper functioning and interrelation of all of the complex elements of the open, autopoietic systems we call "life." For humans (and, to a certain extent, other complex multicellular beings as well), this includes not only physical health, but mental and spiritual health as well. Mental health is often called "emotional intelligence"--the ability to cope effectively with adversity, while spiritual health is, at a deeper level, faith, or acceptance of that that is, whether this is in the context of religious belief systems ("Thy will be done") or simple, unadorned stoicism ( as old Walter Cronkite would put it. "That's the way it is.")  Faith is often confused with belief, but beliefs are simply culturally evolved mental formations for articulating and reinforcing one's faith. Faith unites us all; beliefs divide us.  In its essence, faith is saying "yes" to life--it is what we have in common with sunflowers, butterflies, and whales.

Competence is, as the root verb suggests, the ability to compete; that is, the skills--whether innate or learned or both--necessary to compete effectively and thus survive--and even thrive--within a specific ecological or sociocultural niche. It is, by and large, what people are taught in schools and colleges. But it is context-bound--skills that are adaptive in one context are often either useless or maladaptive in another.

Resilience is adaptive flexibility--the ability to adapt to unpredictable changes in one's niche, or context. Often, in both the nonhuman and human realms, competence and resilience are at odds. The more highly competent and specialized one becomes within a given niche--whether a wetland or a modern corporation--the less resilient one is when circumstances change.  Wolves, for example, are highly competent top predators.  But predation is all they do, so they rely upon very specialized niches in order to survive. Coyotes, conversely, are nowhere near as competent at predation as wolves, but they make up for it by their amazing resilience--their ability to adapt to a wide diversity of niches, and still find enough food to survive. In the human realm, likewise, a highly competent, super-rich stockbroker is likely to be far less resilient than the average small farmer, if the stock market collapses and his wealth vanishes.

So again, these three values--health, competence, and resilience--are essential to the survival of all living organisms, ourselves included.  So how can we best cultivate all three?

There are, of course, a vast number of techniques for cultivating these three values, but seldom, at least in my experience, do these techniques--from physical therapy to job training to psychotherapy--address any more than one at a time.  Many East Asian holistic disciplines, such as yoga, qigong, and tai chi. are far better at nurturing all three values, since--unlike the west--they do not draw a strict conceptual boundary between body, mind, and spirit. 

So I wish to share my own approach, which works well for me. I call it the "Dharma Gaia Mantra," and it consists of ten verb phrases or injunctions, repeated and contemplated on the breath, which can be used, optionally, with a visual diagram--the Pythagorean Tetractys.

Here, in brief, is how it works:

BREATHE: The first injunction--from which all others derive, like a tree growing out of a seed, has multiple benefits for our physical, emotional, and spiritual health. The quiet, steady rhythm of our breath has many therapeutic effects on our metabolism, our anxieties, our ability to concentrate, and our ability to focus our attention on the present moment. In India, for example, a whole branch of yoga--Pranayama--had grown up around cultivating these physical. mental, and spiritual benefits of conscious breathing. And quite naturally, our breath connects us to all other life--to Gaia--by taking in the oxygen provided by trees, and giving back the CO2 that the trees need.

OBSERVE: Facilitated by our breath, the ability to observe--to attend mindfully to what is going on around us (and within us)--is a key to cultivating competence--the ability to focus on, and learn from, what we are doing in any given moment.

LET GO:  Facilitated by observing, the ability to let go of attachments--to ideas, to ways of doing things, to limiting self-concepts--tends to increase our resilience--our ability to stay flexible and adapt when things go wrong, or when circumstances change unexpectedly.

These three cardinal injunctions--breathing, observing, and letting go--in turn constitute the foundation for developing the higher skills we need to get through life:

BE WELL--to cultivate or restore our health, whether physical, mental, or spiritual;

DO GOOD WORK--to observe what we are doing. in order to cultivate our competence;

KEEP IN TOUCH--to take care of everything and everyone, abandoning nothing and no one, in order to cultivate our resilience--our ability to learn new skills, to get along with others, to build social capital.

And finally, as the fruition of all these efforts. to establish and renew four essential life goals:

LEARN to nurture our own health, competence, and resilience;

TEACH to share what we have learned with others, so that they, in turn, can nurture their health, competence, and resilience;

HEAL--to use the knowledge and skills we have acquired to take care of, and nurture, the health, competence, and resilience of other people, of our society, and of our ecosystems;

CREATE--to use our innate and acquired skills to solve problems in a new way, to benefit ourselves and others, and to leave an inspiring legacy for others after we die.

Just repeat this mantra mindfully (not by rote)--whether in formal meditation, during morning exercises, or simply to overcome moments of stress, confusion, or depression, and see how well it works. Feel free to improvise.

Hope this helps!  


Tuesday, March 30, 2021

The Two Worlds - Glomart and Gaia

 What is the essential difference between a number line and a sphere?

This should not be difficult. A number line is defined as infinite in both directions, with zero in the middle. This is the essence of arithmetic: if you add 1 + 1 + 1...and keep on going, you will never stop; no matter how large the number becomes, there will always be one bigger.

Conversely, a sphere is a finite surface, which can be measured exactly as A (area) = 4 pi R squared.  If you enter any number at all into R--the radius of a great circle bisecting the sphere--the result will be a finite number--not infinity.

So what?

Quite simply, this basic distinction between a number line and a sphere may well spell our doom as a global civilization--or even as a species. Because we all live, simultaneously, in two worlds; one governed by an abstract (and infinite) number line; the other governed by the realities of a finite sphere. And these two worlds are fundamentally incompatible.

A "world" can be defined as a self-organizing complex adaptive system; a system that evolves spontaneously according to its own intrinsic and recursive production rules. So let's look at these two worlds more carefully.

The first world--based on the production rules of arithmetic--is the only one that most of us, and  certainly most policymakers, ever think about. For most, this is "the world"--that is, the global market economy. To distinguish it from the other world we inhabit, I have coined the portmanteau word Glomart. It is the Order of Money--the world governed by the laws of arithmetic, for money itself is only arithmetic--an abstract numerical transform of the marginal (and ultimately arbitrary) value of commodities on the market.

And so Glomart refers to the world of commerce, meaning the extraction, production, distribution, buying and selling, consumption, and disposal of commodities. And all these are measured by money--that is, by arithmetic. And in the infinite sequence of arithmetic, the cardinal production rule is quite simply that more is always better.

The other world we simultaneously inhabit is the one we take for granted, and mostly don't think about at all: our life-sustaining biosphere, which many of us now honor with the name of Gaia--the ancient Greek name for the primordial Earth Goddess, more recently recycled into a kind of shorthand for our current understanding of the biosphere as a self-organizing, self-maintaining, far-from-equilibrium complex adaptive system, which inhabits a finite sphere, and is therefore not growing any bigger.

Glomart provides our livelihood, our material needs, our technological innovations. Gaia gives us the very oxygenated air we breathe, the fresh water we drink, the topsoil that grows our food, and the photosynthesis that drives the whole process with energy from the sun.  We need Glomart to make a living and buy the things we want and need.  We need Gaia to live.

And yet, the maximizing logic of Glomart--the money game--is fundamentally incompatible with the optimizing logic of Gaia--the game of life. Here is a simple way of stating the difference between the two worlds:  In Glomart, more is always better. In Gaia, enough is enough

Glomart depends for its survival on the endless expansion of production and consumption of commodities; Gaia isn't growing any bigger, and runs according to an optimizing logic where too much or too little of any given value is toxic to the system. (Think, for example, of personal values like blood pressure, weight, or body temperature, or ecosystemic values like population, precipitation, or predator-prey ratio). 

From these diametrically opposed cardinal production rules--the maximizing logic of money and the optimizing logic of nature--we may derive others as well. Here are a few other examples:

1. Glomart:  You are what you own.  Gaia: You are what you do.

A culture rooted in money--in financial transactions--inexorably becomes a culture of consumerism, where people are judged by how much they can buy.  In the natural world, there is no such thing as ownership--predators compete for prey, just as plants compete for available sunlight and nutrients. And  the species that does things right--develops the best survival skills for any particular niche--is the one that survives. But when conditions change, symbiotic relationships often prevail.  Both competition and cooperation in the living world are based on doing, not owning.

2. Glomart: Nothing has value until it has a price.  Gaia: Value is incalculable because it inheres in systemic relationships.

In our commercial (money-based) civilization, value is equated with market price.  For example a tree in the forest has no value at all in Glomart until it is chopped down and rendered into board feet or consumer products.  Conversely, the Gaian value of a tree is inherent in all of the myriad ways it benefits (and in turn is benefited by) other life: topsoil building, evapotranspiration to create cloud cover, habitat for a wide range of species, oxygenation of the air, symbiotic relationships with fungi, etc. When it is cut down as a commodity with market value, all of those other values to the rest of life vanish.

3. Glomart: The Bottom Line is the bottom line. Gaia: Life itself and its perpetuation are all that matters.

This basic rule of Glomart--the supremacy of the Bottom Line (i.e. the profit margin) over all other values, is the major premise of every corporate board room on the planet. It follows inevitably from the cardinal rule of arithmetic (or money): that "more is always better." Thus the short-term profitability of any corporate decision is their mandatory criterion, regardless of any long-term damage to our society or to the biosphere (especially if they can buy out legislators so they will roll back environmental and other regulations). 

So this is our plight: we need Glomart to make a living, but we need Gaia to live.  And Glomart, with its arithmetical logic of maximization, has become a cancer on Gaia, parasitizing our biological support system to sustain its infinite expansion, just as a tumor does to our bodies.  And Cancer has only two possible outcomes: death (systemic collapse) or spontaneous remission.  The first is most likely; the latter, rare but possible--if conditions are sufficient.

So how, in these twilight days, with Glomart inexorably consuming Gaia, can we become agents of (possible) spontaneous remission? I wish I knew.  I don't, but I have a general suggestion.

We can all strive to live according to the production rules of Gaia, rather than those of Glomart, whenever possible. Those production rules, again, are as follows: 

1. Enough is enough: before you buy anything, ask yourself two questions: (1) do I really need this? (2) if so, is this the most responsible use of resources for this purpose? 

 2. You are what you do: shift your focus from how many toys you have to what skills you can cultivate and apply to making your community and planet a better place for all.

3. Value lies in mutually beneficial relationships more than in commodities or possessions.

4. Life itself is what matters, now and for future generations.  Evaluate all your choices accordingly.

 If enough of us start prioritizing the values of Gaia over the values of Glomart, we may yet, in some unpredictable way, trigger a "butterfly effect" that enables and encourages others, everywhere, to shift their own values accordingly.  We may yet become agents of spontaneous remission of the terminal Cancer of the Earth. In my own autumnal years, this is my one remaining goal in life--and will be until my last breath: to grow gardens, grow community, and grow Gaian awareness.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Thoughts on a Dark Day

We hear the agonizing question constantly from activists of all sorts: How can we change our society and save our planet?

The short answer is, we can't. We can (and should) elect honest and decent policymakers to make minor improvements, of course, but these small gains are likely to be overwhelmed by the combined forces of greed, ignorance, hatred, denial, and despair. But over all, our global industrial civilization--the complex adaptive system I call "Glomart"--has become the Cancer of the Earth. And Cancer has only two possible outcomes: death (systemic collapse) or spontaneous remission.  The latter is very rare, however, and we have no idea how it happens. And the death spiral of our civilization and of Gaia, our biological support system, has already begun.

The cancer of our Earth began with the Agricultural Revolution, which resulted in a runaway feedback loop: the resulting surplus of grain fed, and thus engendered, more people, and required more people (as cheap labor) to erase diverse ecosystems in order to plant yet more grain. Cities, consumerism, specialization, trade, and empire all followed necessarily, as did the money system, an abstract transform of the inexorable recursive logic of maximization (more is always better). 

All of this accelerated with the Industrial Revolution and the discovery of seemingly limitless energy from fossil fuels.  And now, of course, it's far too late: Glomart (the Global Market Economy--our cancerous Agro-Industrial Civilization and collective "man vs. nature" mindset) has now colonized the entire planet, like a cancer spreading throughout the whole body, parasitizing its own biological support system in order to keep growing exponentially. 

We cannot stop the Glomart juggernaut (and Gaian death spiral), since we inhabit it. So what CAN we do? 

To this my answer is always the same:  (1) Breathe, Observe, Let Go; (2) Be well, Do Good Work, Keep in Touch; (3) Learn Gaia, Teach Gaia, Heal Gaia, Create Gaia. And finally--practice and propagate Permaculture: grow gardens, grow community, and grow awareness. And (with considerable luck) as Glomart collapses, enough self-sustaining Gaian communities will survive, amidst the encroaching chaos, to take root, propagate, and grow a new Gaian culture, gradually healing our ravaged planet.  It may not ever happen--probably won't--but it is a goal worth pursuing, something to live for, in any event. And this aspiration can sustain us in benevolence, compassion, joy, and equanimity--right up to our final breath.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Being Gaia

Breathe...Observe...Let Go.

Here is a delightful anecdote shared by an internet friend on Nextdoor; I do not know the original source:

BREATH I noticed a child monk—he can’t have been more than ten years old—teaching a group of five-year-olds. He had a great aura about him, the poise and confidence of an adult. “What are you doing?” I asked. “We just taught their first class ever,” he said, then asked me, “What did you learn in your first day of school?” “I started to learn the alphabet and numbers. What did they learn?” “The first thing we teach them is how to breathe.” “Why?” I asked. “Because the only thing that stays with you from the moment you’re born until the moment you die is your breath. All your friends, your family, the country you live in, all of that can change. The one thing that stays with you is your breath.”  

This ten-year-old monk added, “When you get stressed—what changes? Your breath. When you get angry—what changes? Your breath. We experience every emotion with the change of the breath. When you learn to navigate and manage your breath, you can navigate any situation in life."

Breath is life--the very life of life. Along with food, solar energy, and water, it is what we have in common with every other living being on our planet. But unlike these others, breath is not a "thing" but a process:  as we inhale, we draw in oxygen that trees and all other photosynthetic organisms give us.--and free oxygen is actually embodied solar energy. And that potential energy, stored in free oxygen, becomes available through our respiration and blood circulation to power our metabolism.  The waste product, predictably, is CO2--which we release with every exhalation. These CO2 molecules in turn are taken up by plants and--driven by solar energy--recombine into simple sugars (C6H12O6) which act as batteries, storing energy for plant growth and development. And the byproduct of this essential photosynthetic reaction is, of course, O2. So as we breathe in, the trees breathe out; as we breathe out, the trees breathe in. 

But breathing goes even deeper. While it is an involuntary process (without which we would shortly die), it also can become the subject of our attention, and since our minds can only focus on one thing at a time, the simple discipline of focusing our attention on our breath takes our minds off of whatever was preoccupying us at that point: our bodily aches and pains; our feelings of hurt or rejection; our addictive urges for another piece of chocolate or for sex; our fears or anxieties; or our restless, obsessive thoughts, such as annoying "earworms"--snatches of a tune on endless repeat. The minute we focus our full attention on our rising and falling chests, on the inflating and deflating bellows of our diaphragm and abdominal cavity, and on the stream of air flowing in and out through our mouth or nostrils--we discover a deep calm--no matter how agitated we might be.  This is the reason, for example, why rescue workers routinely instruct traumatized, hysterical accident victims to "take three deep breaths." 

And so there is an intimate--and integral--connection between the rhythm of our breath, the act of observing it, and our state of mind, as the wise young monk said in the story above. We breathe in order to observe; we observe in order to let go; and we let go in order to breathe. And as this simple discipline goes on, gently letting go of whatever thoughts, feelings, or obsessions arise in order to return our attention to our breath, we gradually develop a deep equanimity--calm abiding--which once established, we can revisit thereafter, whenever we encounter stressful circumstances or, conversely, whenever overcome with a moment of selfless joy, such as seeing a newly blooming flower, an ocean sunset, or a newborn child.  This is one of the many ways of understanding the core mantra Om Mani Padme Hum:

OM--Breathe, and therefore re-establish your intimate connection with Gaia and with the universe;

MANI--(the Jewel) Observe, with compassionate attention, everything that is happening around you and inside your head.

PADME--(the Lotus) Let Go of attachment to all forms of craving--to wishing things were other than they are, and experience the transcendent joy of being alive in the here and now;

HUM--Abide in equanimity; "the peace that passeth all understanding."


Sunday, March 7, 2021

A Beacon of Hope

 " need for greed or hunger/A brotherhood of Man/Imagine all the people/Sharing all the world..."

--John Lennon, "Imagine"

In these days, when greed and hunger are rampant throughout our country and all over our desperate planet, these verses from John Lennon's iconic song "Imagine" seem impossibly naive--almost a bad joke. Or so I thought--until I stumbled across a community project in Seattle that seems like a real-world embodiment of John Lennon's idyllic vision.

The project, appropriately named Beacon Food Forest,  is located on city-owned land in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Seattle.  Staffed entirely by volunteers, it is a community garden, based on agroforestry and permaculture principles, that was established on a barren patch of grass.  It now provides free food to citizens, as well as educational outreach and a convivial public gathering space. Altogether, it includes the following elements (taken from their website):

  • Food forest: This semi-natural area is made up of fruit and nut tree guilds and berry bushes. Groundcover includes some edible greens like kale and chard. Perennial plants are dispersed all over the site (including edible plants such as sunchokes, orache, burdock, cardoon).

  • Helix vegetable garden: The 2,000 square foot garden grows annual greens, roots, squash and nightshades. More familiar food plants are an easy entry point into foraging at Beacon Food Forest.

  • Medicinal and culinary herbs: There are several herb gardens/spirals and individual plants around the site.

  • Gathering and teaching spaces: Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the Beacon Food Forest project each have a large gathering plaza with benches next to a tool shed and notice board/map. This is where our potlucks and workshops take place and visitors can rest and observe the site.

  • Native plant guild: The wetland and prairie at the southeast border of the site have been restored and now grow native food plants such as wapato, camas and native berries, as well as grasses traditionally used for basket weaving.

The enthusiasm of the volunteers who run this magical place is evident in their promotional videoclip, and in greater depth, in a series of interviews that my friend and teacher, Andrew Millison, recorded here.

I found this project deeply inspiring because it models a gift economy--one where social and experiential capital are exchanged for the biological capital--vegetables, fruits, and herbs--necessary to our survival. And this is a positive sum, win-win arrangement: the more social and experiential capital we share with others, the more we get in return, without losing any of what we already have. And so the mutually beneficial cooperative relationship between plants in the various guilds here are reinforced, and reciprocally reinforce, the mutually beneficial cooperative relationship between the people--both volunteers and visitors. This is a marvelous illustration, on a small scale, of a mutually beneficial Gaian economy, as opposed to our extractive, dysfunctional zero-sum Glomart economy (based only on money). It is what happens when you replace "the bottom line" with the flourishing and propagation of life itself--including our own--as our ultimate personal and social goal.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

An afternoon on Mars

This panoramic view from the Mars Rover is oddly beautiful: a reddish, stony landscape with a variety of rocks, the hilly crest of the crater, ancient, dry watercourses, sand, and more rocks and stones.

And nothing else, no matter how far the Rover will drive across the surface.  Nothing else.

No sound but occasional random gusts of wind buffeting the surface of the rover.

And people want to travel there, and set up a research station?  Why?

Of course I understand--the lure of the unknown, which has drawn our relentlessly curious species over the next horizon for hundreds of thousands of years, since we first developed brains big enough and the vocal apparatus needed to share our thoughts--and our questions--with one another.  But all the earlier explorations on our own planet found more life--more people, animals, plants, cultures--just beyond the horizon. On Mars, they've found nothing like it--and even if they are looking for possible biosignatures of ancient microbes on the apparent delta deposit leading into the crater, these microorganisms--if they existed at all--will have been dead for billions of years.

I have no problem with these explorations; in fact, like most other curious humans, I find them fascinating. But I can't get over how appallingly lonely--how ultimately boring, despite the variety of rock formations--it must be on Mars, with no animals, insects, grasses, flowers, trees, watery oases, even mosses or lichens to enliven and transform the dusty surface.

How incredibly lucky we are to live--to breath oxygenated air, drink fresh water,  listen to the rustle of the trees or the call of birds, and contemplate wildflowers up close, on this wondrous, life-sustaining blue planet! As William Blake said, "Everything that lives is holy." 

If nothing else, these stark and barren new images of Mars can serve as a reminder of the fragile, sacred miracle of life, right outside our doors.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Gaian Enumerations

 Throughout its history, Buddhists have used enumeration as their most frequent Dharma training technique for young aspirants, whether monks (Bhikkus) or nuns (Bhikkunis) or laypeople.  Hence these aspirants are taught to memorize these, including the Four Noble Truths, the Six Paramitas, the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, and the Twelve Links of Codependent Origination (to name a few). And having such enumerations readily at hand, they can practice and internalize the Dharma teachings more easily. 

Over the years since I first embraced the Gaia concept as the epicenter of my worldview (starting in 1981, when I first discovered Lovelock's Gaia theory), I have found myself--without any knowledge or intent--emulating this practice, by organizing my Gaian thinking around just such enumerations, mostly threes and fours. So here are a few of these enumerations that have organized my thinking:

 The Two (antithetical) Worlds: Glomart and Gaia. By "worlds" here, I refer to complex adaptive systems of which we are an integral part, and on which we depend for our survival. Glomart (my own coinage) refers to the money-based Global Market Economy; Gaia refers, of course, to our living planet: the biosphere as structurally coupled with our atmosphere, hydrosphere, and geosphere. We utterly depend on both--Glomart for our livelihoods and possessions; Gaia for our very lives. Yet the production rules of Glomart (based on the maximizing logic of money--"More is always better") are fundamentally incompatible with the production rules of Gaia (based on the optimizing logic of living systems--"Enough is Enough.")

The Three Survival Values:  Health, Competence, and Resilience. These are common to all living systems, from bacteria to human beings to whole nations and Gaia herself. Health is internal homeostasis; Competence is ability to thrive within a stable, predictable niche; Resilience is ability to adapt to unpredictable changes in one's niche.

The Three Levels of Identity: Self, Community, and Planet. From these, coupled with the Three Survival Values, we may derive the Gaian Categorical Imperative: Make every decision based on what promotes the health, competence, and resilience of ourselves, our communities, and our planet. Any benefit to a subsystem (self or community) which is detrimental to its larger support system (community or planet) is ultimately self-destructive.

Garrison Keillor's Generic Daily Agenda: Be Well, Do Good Work, Keep in Touch. These can also be seen as a good way to enhance our own health, competence, and resilience.

The Three Aspects of Dharma:  Principle, Precept, and Practice. That is, the Principle of codependent origination; the Precept of universal compassion; and the Practice of meditation.

The Three Injunctions of Meditation: Breathe, Observe, Let Go. These form the foundation of any meditative practice. 

The Four Aspects of Gaia: Myth, Model, Metaphor, and Movement. These pertain, respectively, to Gaia as apprehended in the subjective, objective, cultural, and social domains.

The Three Core Ethics of Permaculture: Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share.  There are variants of the third, of course; it does not mean "redistribution of wealth" (which scares a lot of people) but rather, it means "reinvesting the surplus back into Earth Care and People Care."

My own Three Permaculture injunctions: Grow Gardens, Grow Community, Grow Awareness. Each of these enhances the other: By growing gardens and sharing food and techniques, we grow community; by doing both, we grow awareness of our embeddedness in, and dependence on, Gaia.

My Four Gaian Life Goals: Learn Gaia; Teach Gaia; Heal Gaia, Create Gaia. These, of course, are self-evident. They encourage us to keep learning all we can about our embeddedness in Gaia, to teach what we know to others, to heal our threatened biosphere in whatever ways are necessary, and to create a human culture that is symbiotic with, rather than parasitic upon, Gaia.