Tuesday, May 14, 2019

To what should I devote my life?

As we contemplate our threatening and uncertain future these days, with everything falling apart at once due to a "perfect storm" of accelerating climate change, deterioration of our global ecological support system, disintegration of our social fabric--both nationally and internationally--into outright fascism, belligerent nationalism, warmongering, corporate and military predation, and fanatical hatreds on all sides, we all face a searing question that has been memorably posed by environmental journalist Dahr Jamail in his recent book The End of Ice:

“From this moment on, knowing what is happening to the planet, to what do I devote my life?

Answers will vary, of course. Some, perhaps most affluent people, will opt for hedonistic denial--continue pursuing their private dreams of bigger houses, luxury vacations, large SUVs, exciting new career possibilities, idyllic vacations, happy children, and so forth. Like drunken passengers on a cruise ship on the Niagara River, they will continue to drink, dance, and laugh, ignoring the roaring around the bend, until the boat tips over the precipice.

A vast number of others, at the poorer end of the spectrum, will be too preoccupied with daily survival in an increasingly violent and hostile world to give much thought to anything beyond getting through the day.  Those few of us who strive to remain aware and not escape into denial face a yawning vortex of despair as everything--starting with climate--goes from bad to worse with each passing day, week, and year. So how can we keep our balance on this thin line between denial and despair? In a world without hope, or where hope is increasingly elusive, to what do we devote our lives?

Some have already opted for despair.  For example, Roy Scranton, an English professor I recently heard at a bookstore, has published a self-indulgent collection of his own essays, entitled We're Doomed--Now what? For him, and for other writers like him, despair is chic. I obligingly purchased his book, only to find that he had recycled many of his earlier academic essays that had nothing to do with climate change, and that when he focused on his presumed topic, he knew nothing more about climate change than I do, but enjoyed wallowing in despair.  When I asked him if he had heard of permaculture, he shrugged off the question--how could I possibly be so naive as to offer alternatives to total despair? 

Dahr Jamail's own response to his question is far more nuanced, although he admits that he must reformulate it from day to day, fending off the vortex of despair as he goes. And that is simply to devote his life to doing good, which in his own case as a journalist and activist, means exposing the cruelty and mendacity of the powerful, and faithfully describing what he sees and what he is told by researchers, in order--against all odds--to awaken his readers to reality. 

My own response, likewise, varies from day to day.  But it is rooted in my cultivation of the Dharma--the ongoing awareness of impermanence, interbeing, and oneness. One practice I find very useful is what Buddhists call "The Five Remembrances"--five inescapable realities of life that most of us prefer not to think about. By deliberately calling them up, as a meditation practice, we familiarize ourselves with them, and they are less threatening to our equanimity, which in turn is a prerequisite to our generic daily agenda: being well, doing good work, and keeping in touch. The five remembrances are as follows (as rendered by Thich Nhat Hanh)

1. I am of the nature to get sick; there is no way to avoid getting sick.
2. I am of the nature to grow old; there is no way to avoid growing old.
3. I am of the nature to die; there is no way to avoid dying.
4. I am of the nature to lose everything I cherish; there is no way to avoid losing everything.
5. My actions are my only true possession; by my actions shall I live.

On days when I feel overwhelmed with grief and rage for what we are doing, in our ignorance, greed, and denial, to our unique and magnificent living planet, I modify the first four remembrances by adding in the larger extensions of the first-person subject, as follows:

1. "I (and my community, and Gaia) am of the nature to get sick; there is no way to avoid getting sick..."

--and so forth.  The effect of this practice, sincerely applied as often as necessary, is to restore my equanimity once again, so I can resume my Dharma quest to grow gardens, grow community, and grow awareness--to practice Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share, and to learn Gaia, teach Gaia, heal Gaia, and create Gaia--up to my last breath, no matter what happens.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

A Truffula Seed

This is an initial draft of a sermon I plan to deliver at UUCS in early April.


While western colonialist culture believes in “rights”, many indigenous cultures teach of “obligations” that we are born into: obligations to those who came before, to those who will come after, and to the Earth itself. When I orient myself around the question of what my obligations are, a deeper question immediately arises: from this moment on, knowing what is happening to the planet, to what do I devote my life? –Dahr Jamail

READING:  [Excerpts from] The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss, ending with the line,

"UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better. It's not.

"So catch!" cried the Onceler; he let something fall.
"It's a truffula seed, the last one of all.
You're in charge of the last of the truffula seeds.
And truffula trees are what everyone needs.
Plant a new truffula. Treat it with care.
Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air.
Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack,
Then the Lorax and all of his friends
may come back."


I've always been a Dr. Seuss fan.

So when I first encountered The Lorax, in 1971, shortly after great national awakening of Earth Day 1970, it resonated deeply. I remember a party with my college friends, where I brought my copy to show them, and a flamboyant, theatrical young woman in our group named Nancy entertained us all with a dramatic reading. When she got to the moral of the story, the party fell silent as she paused dramatically on the half line:

"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better. It's not."

Dr. Seuss was right, of course. Nothing has gotten any better--only a whole lot worse, since that evening some 48 years ago. Unlike Dr. Seuss's penitent villain, the Oncelers of the real world--from Monsanto to Exxon Mobil to Donald Trump--have yet to repent, even as the "grickle grass" grows up all around us: toxic pollution of land, air, rivers, and even the ocean; deforestation and desertification; loss of biodiversity;  and above all, the looming spectre of accelerating climate change from fossil fuels that threatens our common future. Yet the Oncelers still rule, with their unshakeable faith in the economics of "biggering and biggering and biggering and biggering!"

But the Onceler is not just the villain. He is also the penitent first-person narrator, telling his sad story to the little boy--the stand-in for the reader--below his dark, isolated tower. And in making this narrative choice, Dr. Seuss knew exactly what he was doing.

We are all, after all, Oncelers--not just the rich and powerful. From the time of the Agricultural Revolution, some 12,000 years ago, we have drawn a conceptual barrier--that had not previously existed in any human tribe-- between "man" and "nature"; between the "civilized" and the "wild." On this side, in our cities and cultivated fields, we were safe. Outside of these--the "wild," was a place of both danger and opportunity. The danger came first from wild animals who would threaten us or our crops--whether lions, tigers, bears, wolves, or deer, rats, mice, and swarms of locusts all feeding on our crops. The opportunity came from the fact that the Wild was lawless--a place where no constraints applied, and we could find some new "resource"--whether forests, minerals, or--significantly, other arable land we could raid and steal from those already there, clearcut, and plant with monocultures to feed our growing population.  The entire history of our agro-industrial civilization--from the walls of ancient Babylon to Trump Tower--could be seen as the inexorable working-out of this basic Onceler ideology--that "nature" is nothing but a "resource" for human expansion, and it has no value at all until it is transformed into commodities for sale and profit.

So when the Onceler arrives to set up shop amid the beautiful Truffula Trees, waving in the breeze and nurturing a rich ecosystem of "brown barbaloots, "humming fish" and "swomee swans," he, like our ancestors and most entrepreneurs today, sees it as nothing but a "resource" to turn into hot-selling commodities like "thneeds" as quickly as possible.

While the Onceler represents the powerful corporate and industrial interests who have everything to gain and nothing to lose from plundering the planet and exploiting its inhabitants in order to maximize their profits, the Lorax--the fuzzy little guy who "speaks for the trees" and pesters the Onceler to no avail, is an apt image of the environmental movement, in which I have been an active participant throughout my life. But the nagging Lorax only creates contempt and resentment in the Onceler, who shrugs him off, while he keeps "biggering"--until the last Truffula Tree falls.

So it is with the Environmental Movement, which after a few early victories such as banning DDT and the Endangered Species Act, is now again on the defensive, first ridiculed and marginalized on Fox News by corporate toadies like Rush Limbaugh, and now in full retreat under the onslaught of Trump and his billionaire minions in the fossil fuel industry, who have launched an all-out attack on every environmental regulation they could find.

 So I would like to focus on the final passage--where the now-repentant Onceler entrusts the young boy--a stand-in for the reader--with the very last truffula seed of them all. This precious truffula seed is the key to the boy's understanding of the word inscribed on the pedestal in the midst of the gloomy, dying landscape: UNLESS. The hope it embodies is entirely conditional: a seed must be planted in good soil, in the right climate conditions, nurtured with "clean water and fresh air," and protected "from axes that hack" if it is to be viable.

This truffula seed--and not the futile nagging of the Lorax himself--is thus the key to the allegory in Dr. Seuss's tale. But is there a viable truffula seed in a time like ours, when everything seems to be falling apart at once?

Many proposed solutions for our current global crisis are floating around these days. They fall into three broad categories: technological fixes, political action, and personal or community-based initiatives. Unfortunately, none are very convincing.

Technological fixes, like proposals to geo-engineer the atmosphere or extract excess CO2, are prohibitively expensive and would require an unprecedented level of cooperation among the world's governments to pull them off. And even then, as completely untested technologies, they might backfire badly. Also, they embody the same kind of linear mentality that caused the problem to begin with: shield the atmosphere from excess solar radiation, and then we can carry on with business as usual, drilling more oil and gas, plundering our resources for commodities, cutting down forests to build more suburbs, and "biggering and biggering..."

Political solutions, like the Green New Deal, are courageous and inspiring, but face a huge uphill battle against entrenched corporate interests with vast pools of money to buy off politicians and saturate the airwaves with hysterical propaganda about "socialism." And even if, against all odds, this bold initiative passed, it would face entrenched and ongoing opposition from those with a vested interest in the status quo.

Personal solutions fall into two categories: green consumerism and adaptation. Green consumerism refers to the notion of personal responsibility--if we each make changes in our purchasing habits to reduce our ecological footprint, the net effect will be to reduce overall carbon emissions, and thereby save our planet. In theory, this is true. But as Bob Dylan once said, "Most people don't do what they believe in; they just do what's most convenient, and then they repent." And of course, a multi-billion dollar advertising industry is out there brainwashing us day and night with appeals to convenience--spelled P-L-A-S-T-I-C--regardless of environmental consequences.

This leaves adaptation, whether it is cities spending billions to wall in their waterfronts to protect against sea level rise, or smaller-scale "transition town" movements, where people teach each other the skills they will need to grow their own food, build their own houses, create their own currency, and so forth--to secede, in effect, from the rest of the dying world.  But such transition towns could quickly devolve into entrenched, embittered survivalist communities, bristling with weapons behind high walls and barbed wire. Who wants to live like that? As Robert Frost once said, "Something there is that does not love a wall."

So what is left?  In this time of rapidly accelerating climate catastrophe, as we collectively face a terrifying future of combined environmental, social, and economic collapse, what can we do? How do we navigate the treacherous waters between the alluring Scylla of television-induced denial and the Charybdis--the vortex--of despair? Where can we find this precious Truffula Seed of resolution, and how can we nurture it?

If I had an easy answer to this dilemma we all face, I would already have collected my Nobel Prize. I don't. So I think we all need to find our own Truffula Seed--our own still center from which to face the day, beyond false hope, and beyond abject and useless despair. So I will offer my own Truffula seed. If it works for you, plant it and cultivate it; if not, improvise.

My Truffula seed is a dicot, in that it consists of two complementary commitments we all can make. The first is a formal statement of a Gaian Categorical Imperative--an ethical code to live by:

"In everything you do, strive to assume responsibility for the health, competence, and resilience of yourself, your community, and our living Earth--simultaneously."

Health, competence, and resilience are the three essential survival values of every living system at every scale from the simplest one-celled organism to the blue whale--to us. Health is internal homeostasis--being well. Competence is the ability to thrive within, and serve the needs of, an existing, predictable community--doing good work. And Resilience is the ability to adapt to unpredictable changes in the world around us--keeping in touch.

 If we benefit ourselves in ways that are destructive to our community, we will probably end up in jail. If we benefit our communities in ways that are destructive to the planet, we may become billionaires--but our children will curse our bones. Only when we benefit all three--ourselves, our communities, and our planet--are we doing truly good work: learning, teaching, healing, and creating.

The second commitment is a simple slogan, a plan of action for the first. Here it is:

"Grow gardens; grow community; grow awareness."

Growing gardens improves our own health and that of the Earth by reducing our dependence on topsoil-destroying, pesticide-dependent corporate agriculture. It also strengthens our bonds with our neighbors and community. As Permaculture teacher Geoff Lawton once said, "You can solve all the world's problems in a garden."

Growing community improves our individual and collective competence.

Growing awareness enhances our resilience, both individually and collectively.

Our garden begins, not in our backyard, but in our heads. It begins
by reclaiming the present moment. This was a core teaching of the eminent Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. In all our anxiety about our future, we forget the simple fact that the present is all there is. The past is gone, and the future hasn't happened yet.  Both past and future are what the Buddhists call "mental formations,"--fabrications of the mind with no basis in reality. The past is irretrievable; all we can do is learn from it. The future is imaginary. We have no way of knowing for sure what will happen even tomorrow, to say nothing of ten or twenty years from now. We know, however, that our future--and that of our children--will be shaped--and constrained--by decisions we have made in the past, but also--more importantly--by the decisions we make in the present moment. So how do we reclaim the present moment?

By breathing, observing, and letting go. We breathe in order to observe; we observe in order to let go; and we let go in order to breathe. The minute we do so, we calm down, our breath becomes more slow and even, our heartbeats more regular. Simply breathing reconnects our minds and our bodies, bringing us back to the present moment. Our breath is our home base, connecting us to the Earth and to one another.

Then we can turn to our day's agenda, by renewing three simple vows.  The radio host Garrison Keillor had a wonderful sign-off on his morning radio program, "Writer's Almanac" which I have adopted for my own generic daily agenda:  "Be well; Do good work; and Keep in Touch."

Be well--take care of this precious body while you have it. One good way of doing this is by growing fresh, organic vegetables in your own gardens. This enhances your health, competence, and resilience simultaneously.

Do good work--focus mindfully on the tasks at hand, for the best interests of yourself, your community, and the planet as a whole. This is a good way to build competence and grow community.

Keep in touch--take care of everyone, and abandon no one. This is a great way of developing your own and others' resilience and growing awareness.

So I would like to leave you with a simple guided meditation that I use in my own daily meditation practice, to maintain my equanimity and focus no matter what happens in the world around me. It consists of ten verb phrases, on the breath, divided into two sets of three and one of four.

The first set helps us re-inhabit the moment:  Breathe, Observe, Let Go.
The second (with gratitude to Garrison Keillor) helps us reclaim the day: Be well, do good work, keep in touch.
And the third consists of four general life goals around which we can orient ourselves--the only things worth doing with our lives:

Learn, Teach, Heal, and Create.

This is my Truffula seed--my way of reconnecting every day with my still center and renewing my own commitment to growing gardens, growing community, and growing awareness. It is yours to use if it works for you; if not, improvise.

So I would like to try a guided meditation today. Please sit up, straight and relaxed, settling into your breath as we contemplate and practice these injunctions on the breath:

Breathing...observing...letting go...
Being well...doing good work...keeping in touch

Saturday, December 29, 2018

The Utopian Fallacy

Recently I read an article by one Richard Bartlett entitled "Courage Before Hope: A Proposal To Weave Emotional and Economic Microsolidarity."  In a long and elaborately thought-out discourse, Bartlett lays out a grand scheme that depends on creating intentional communities of "people with life-supporting values" coming together to "grow our power to influence the distribution of resources." There are many interesting insights in this article, but I am afraid the author is laboring under a delusion, which I like to call "the utopian fallacy."  So here is how I commented on his plan:
You have done some careful and creative thinking about navigating the treacherous pass between denial and despair in the coming bad years. I guess my only reservation is the “intentional community” fallacy — the dream of creating a whole community of like-minded, equally aware, creative people to set yourselves apart from a dying world and create your own mini-paradise.
There are several problems with this approach:
  1. How will you protect yourselves from the dying, desperate masses who will want what you have, and be willing to kill for it? And how do you accomplish this protection without poisoning your souls and becoming vicious, mean-spirited survivalists who gun down everyone in sight?
  2. “Intentional community” is somewhat of an oxymoron, because our intentions are as individual as our fingerprints. And this inevitably leads to conflict, which must be resolved by some agreed-upon laws or authority — and enforcement.
  3. A planet-sized problem demands planet-sized solutions; nothing smaller will suffice. But these cannot be top-down (i.e. creating some sort of global political authority that everyone will respect) because we are tribal by nature, and so any such world government would have to be maintained by force against the ever-present forces of ignorance, greed, hatred, denial, and despair.
All of the above being the case, my own solution can be summed up in a simple slogan: GROW GARDENS; GROW COMMUNITIES; GROW AWARENESS. Note that I use the verb “grow” rather than “build.” To unpack these a bit:
  1. By “grow gardens” I mean practicing Permaculture (regenerative design based on ecological understanding). This is a bottom-up, rather than a top-down solution. And it engages with the planet as it is, not an imaginary planet we are trying to create from scratch. As founder Bill Mollison often said, “The problem is the solution.” That is, by looking deeply at any given problem, you can turn it to your advantage.
  2. By “growing community” I mean propagating Permaculture, by sharing the fruits of your success with your neighbors — whoever they are — and teaching them in turn how to incorporate ecological design principles into their own gardens and community gardens.
  3. “Growing awareness” is a net consequence of the above. When people have a clear choice between an adaptive, life-affirming way of living and a maladaptive, violent, greedy way, they will quite naturally choose the former.
Two books I highly recommend, both by the late Toby Hemenway, lay out these ideas clearly and cogently: (1) Gaia’s Garden (a guide to backyard permaculture); and (2) The Permaculture City. 
By doing so, we have the best chance of becoming agents of the spontaneous remission of the cancer of the Earth, by nurturing the health, competence, and resilience of ourselves, our communities, and our planet simultaneously.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Things dying...Things newborn

At the midpoint of Shakespeare's visionary late romance The Winter's Tale, the old Shepherd, who has just discovered the abandoned cradle containing the infant Perdita, meets his breathless (and clueless) son, the "Clown," who reduces catastrophe to low comedy by getting all mixed up in his descriptions of what he has just seen: an offshore shipwreck in an approaching storm, and a bear feeding on a "gentleman" (whom we know to be Antigonus, the doomed emissary of Leontes court, charged with abandoning the child on "the seacoast of Bohemia" before his famous "exit, pursued by a bear.") After hearing his son out, the Shepherd remarks,

"Now bless thyself, thou metst with things dying, I with things newborn."

This is a good thought for the new year.  To be sure, we scarcely need to be reminded of all the "things dying" these days--our fisheries, our forests, our biodiversity, our stable climate (the willful disruption of which by our fossil fuel-dependent industrial civilization promises a greatly accelerated die-off in the near future), and the basic shared values, civility, and integrity without which our democratic institutions degenerate into tyranny and endemic corruption. So where is this "newborn child" who promises eventual regeneration?

There are, of course, a number of candidates.  For politically minded people, she may be incarnated as someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez--the young, beautiful, outspoken new congresswoman from the Bronx who has become an overnight superstar for the political Left, while striking fear and loathing into the republicans and their goons at Fox News. Inspiring political leadership, especially when built around new and visionary memes like a "Green New Deal," can do much to alleviate the political gloom and despair that most of us have felt since the rise of Trump.

Cultural history has shown, moreover, that real transformation starts more from the ground up than from the top down.  So even if we manage to elevate aspirational new political figures like Alexandria or Beto O'Rourke to positions of influence, they will still face a massive global corporate elite with an overwhelming vested interest in the status quo, and a bottomless supply of money to buy off politicians, saturate the airwaves, rig elections, and enforce their agenda--growth and more growth, regardless of the cost.

This is why I tend to invest my own energy and aspirations into "things newborn" at the local, grassroots level--things such as the worldwide Permaculture movement,  but also, more subtle changes like the mainstreaming of the idea of "mindfulness" (though often depleted of any ethical content) and the rising interest, across a broad spectrum of the public, in locally grown food.

When I was young, roadside farmers' markets were a common sight when my family drove out into (what was then) the "countryside."  As that countryside was paved over with bland, soul-numbing suburbs and big-box malls, farmers' markets vanished, simply because everyone drove to the supermarket...and then to superstores like Walmart...where they could get everything they could possibly want, all at once, for dirt cheap. It did not matter in the slightest that all this (mostly processed) food had been grown far away, on vast, soil-depleted, monocultural fields saturated with pesticides and petrochemical fertilizers, nor that the merchandise had been made by cheap, exploited laborers in China or Guatemala. It was cheap and readily accessible, and that was all that mattered.

Fast-forward to today. Once again, farmers' markets are flourishing--against all odds--not only in the "country" but also in towns and cities. This may seem insignificant--we still have vast big-box stores being built everywhere on acres of asphalt. But it does herald a growing shift in our collective food preferences, which can be encouraged and accelerated. And the rise of larger Saturday markets, like the one here in Salem, where local merchants and craftspeople of all kinds sell their fresh produce, art work, and other hand-crafted items, heralds a regeneration of community-scale commerce, all of which diversifies the local economy and dramatically reduces our carbon footprint (since these goods are grown or made locally and do not have to be shipped across oceans and continents to get to us).

Piggybacking onto such trends are initiatives like the City Repair Project in Portland, or the Transition Town movement, striving to reweave the bonds of cooperation and conviviality that once characterized the village life of our ancestors, but with the specific intent, today, of overcoming the legacy of mutual alienation caused by our self-centered culture of industrial consumerism, and rebuilding trust, so that we can once again build economic and ecological resilience into our communities and rely on each other when disaster strikes (as will become more common with advancing climate disruption).

Political involvement is, of course, essential, and always will be.  But given the perennially corrupting influences of money and power, we cannot rely on political leadership alone to make the vast changes we need to shift from a parasitic to a symbiotic relationship with Gaia--our global biological support system.  We need to make those changes ourselves, starting with our own minds (cultivating equanimity, wisdom, and compassion in whatever ways work best for us, in order to face an increasingly dire and frightening future with resolution and confidence), then healing and recreating our gardens, our communities, and our social and political fabric itself.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

The Gaian Categorical Imperative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Nothing Am -- A Dystopian Fantasy

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

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

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


Nothing Am

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

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

So may it be.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Using the Dharma Gaia Mantra

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

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

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

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

I. The First Triad: Reinhabiting the Present Moment.


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.