Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Getting Mystical About Minerals

As I've gotten more serious about gardening in the past few years, I've been trying to learn everything I can about growing healthy crops. Inevitably, it gets back to the soil. Without healthy soil, plants will struggle (or not grow at all) and those that do survive to bear fruit or other edible parts will be deficient in elements that are crucial for human health.

I've had a wonderful time studying the writings of William Albrecht, a soil scientist whose career spanned the middle part of the 20th century. A lot of what he wrote has been earth-shattering for me. The main focus of his work was on the importance of soil minerals for plant health. We hear a lot about the declining mineral content of our food crops and how our soils are becoming more and more depleted, yet if you study most organic gardening manuals you'll find they almost totally neglect to mention the importance of minerals. In most organic gardening books, the advice is to build organic matter into the soil, as if that's all that's needed to grow nutritious crops. Worse are the claims that organic food is naturally higher in vitamins and minerals than conventionally grown crops. There is a grain of truth here, but the most significant fact is that any food grown on minerally-deficient soil will itself be deficient in minerals. It doesn't matter whether it was grown organically or conventionally, if it's absent in the soil it will be absent in the plant.

While much of the focus of Albrecht's work was on growing healthy feed for livestock, the implications extend to humans as well. Albrecht studied the soils across the entire US and found most to be extremely deficient, except for the nation's breadbasket. The southeastern US has the worst soils, a result of the fact that high heat and high rainfall are two very significant factors in soil depletion. Basically, anywhere you find forests growing you will find minerally deficient soils.

Here's why. Albrecht taught that there are two types of foods, what he called "Go foods" and "Grow foods". "Go foods" are made essentially from the atmospheric elements, carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. These "Go foods" give us energy--they're carbohydrates after all, all starches and sugars. "Grow foods" require the elements in the earth, the soil minerals, and these "Grow foods" are necessary for growing healthy bodies capable of reaching their full genetic potential. In deficient soils, you get "Go foods" or a lot of starchy, sugary things, or rampant growth (think kudzu vines) or lots of cellulose (think forests).

Carbohydrates are precursors for amino acids and proteins. They're useful as they are, for immediate energy and stored energy (fat), but to contribute their most important benefits, they must interact with the soil minerals in order to construct proteins. Without those soil minerals, we'll eat foods that concentrate mainly starches, instead of a full range of starches, proteins and minerals. Humans (and livestock) eating from deficient soils get fat because they're eating too many carbs. Albrecht noted that those eastern soils were great for fattening cattle. They weren't so great for raising healthy cows who could reproduce with ease and maintain genetic health over generations.

In Albrecht's book, Soil Fertility and Animal Health, he showed a bunch of maps of the US, charting various aspects of soil fertility. They all show that same swath through the nation's midsection, and they all show the poor condition of the soils in the southeast.

Out of curiosity, I decided to look online to see if I could find a map of the US showing the distribution of diabetes. I was curious whether there would be any correlation between diabetes and soil health. On the one hand, this makes little sense, considering that we now bring in food from all over the country and the world. People just aren't eating all that much from their own soils. But I remember reading that diabetes rates are at their highest in the southeast. And of course, we know that diabetes results from consuming too many starches and sugars. It would be kind of wild to find a correlation.

I found this map, and good grief, it looks just like Albrecht's maps!

How can this be? Is it just a coincidence? Are we still eating enough local or regional foods so that if our soils are deficient we'll be more likely to become diabetic? Maybe so. Or maybe it's the water supply that matters more--water tends to be local, so maybe it's a factor of how mineralized the water is. Milk and dairy products probably tend to be somewhat regional, and I'm sure there are other regional products as well. Maybe it's enough.

I've only included one of Albrecht's maps because they're all of very poor quality for capturing screen shots, but if you want to check them out, go here, agree to the terms of use, then click on Albrecht, William A., Soil Fertility and Animal Health (it's the third item down the list). The maps are scattered throughout the first two chapters of the book.

All of this is so interesting to me because for the past year or two I've been having a somewhat mystical experience with minerals. Before I came across Albrecht's work, I was having weird intuitions leading to the same knowledge.

As I've deepened my experience with voluntary simplicity, I've begun to learn about the importance of place. As I've mentioned before, this is why I'm so interested in the topic of environmental determinism. On an intuitive level, I've experienced how place creates us, how we're not these isolated entities but rather expressions of the earth.

I've looked at the places I've lived, and tried to assign personalities to them. For instance, this place on the high desert plains seems to have a very practical, grounded, conservative personality. It's an understated place, not wildly exuberant, yet it's solid and healthy. Pennsylvania on the other hand (where I was raised) is exuberant, creative, and expressive. Nothing is understated there. And it's a fast-paced place.

The people in each of these two places seem to share the personality of the land. Here, people are very practical and understated. In Pennsylvania, they're artsy and expressive. Here you don't have the folk artists that you do back there. Appalachia has an energy that makes people creative. Colorado's eastern plains do not.

When we become truly naturalized to a place, I believe we begin to express the personality of the land around us. And the more naturalized we become, the stronger we express what the earth wants to express.

I intuited that each place has varying concentrations of what I call "sky energy" and "earth energy". Sky is about the mental sphere, it's about creativity and innovation, it's about doing. Earth is grounded, it's about practicalities, it's about being rather than doing. This part of Colorado seems to have an abundance of earth energy, whereas Pennsylvania has an abundance of sky energy.

After exploring these kinds of thoughts, Albrecht's writings take on incredible significance. My "sky energy" is the same thing as his designation of "Go Foods". They refer to carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Likewise, my "earth energy" is the same as his "Grow Foods".

The problems our society is having seem to be caused by too much sky energy. We are too busy doing, innovating, rationalizing--all of these sky-type activities, and we're not grounded anymore. Our actions are disconnected from the earth, so we rape and pillage the earth. We need to bring back more earth energy.

In order for us to be healthy and in order for the planet to be healthy, we need to eat from mineralized soils. It sounds kind of crazy. But think about it. We are getting physically weaker, generation by generation. We have this worldwide epidemic of obesity and diabetes. That's a sign that something is seriously wrong. I don't think it's any coincidence that we also are suffering from all these other societal woes: overpopulation, climate change (how about that sky energy!), environmental destruction, peak oil (love that carbon) and so on. It all makes a crazy kind of sense to me.

In order for us to reach our full human potential, we need first and foremost to be healthy. Health comes from eating from mineralized soils, so that our foods will concentrate the full range of vitamins, minerals, starches, and proteins, and so that earth and sky energy will be balanced within us. In mineralized soils, plants can express their full genetic potential. When we eat from mineralized soils, we will be able to reach our full genetic potential.

My theory is that we can't fully attune to the energy of our spot on earth until we achieve a balance between earth and sky energy/go and grow food energy. When we achieve that balance by remineralizing our soils and eating locally, we will be able to reach our full potential. We will be healthy in body, mind and spirit, and our actions will be in alignment with the intentions of the earth around us. We need to take in the earth (and sky) literally through the local plants, animals, yeasts, honey, bacteria and minerals that we eat. If we fuse in this way with our environment by literally internalizing it, we will be complete expressions of Gaia. I can't imagine anything but harmonious actions flowing out of us if we were so healthily fused with Gaia.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Without Predators...

Over the weekend I read the most important book I've come across all year, Where the Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators, by William Stolzenburg. I've read hundreds of environmental books over the years and certainly had a degree of awareness about how critical predators are for ecosystem health, but this book shot home that truth in a most brutal way.

Without predators it all collapses. Without predators we enter a cascading spiral of extinctions, an extreme loss of biodiversity, a dumbing down of life. It's clear we've doomed ourselves in so many other ways already, but this is one of the biggest nails in the coffin. Where does the spiral end, if not in the extinction of virtually all higher lifeforms? Sure, things will survive, but we're not likely to be among the living, and the world left behind will be a very sorry place for a very long time.

The book documented many examples of these cascading spirals of loss, what are called "trophic cascades", brought about by the loss of top predators.

For instance, when we eradicated the deer's predators we created a cascade leading to the loss of countless other species in those habitats: songbirds, bears, orchids, trillium lilies, pollinating insects, cedars, whole forests, etc. In some places that have been studied, up to 80% of species have been lost due to the overpopulation of deer. I'm oversimplifying a bit--the deer cause the brunt of the damage, but certainly not all of it. Surging populations of raccoons, skunks, and weasels, for instance, are probably more direct culprits for the loss of songbirds (at least the ground-nesting and understory-nesting birds) than deer, although the deer are responsible for clearing out the understory.

The most interesting thing I learned from this book is that fear creates diversity. The author described what happened when wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone. In the seventy years the park had been wolfless, the burgeoning elk population had decimated the park ecosystem. Even the rivers were in horrible shape because no vegetation was able to grow to hold the banks in place. Once wolves were reintroduced, scientists noticed thickets of willows beginning to spring up, mostly in the river bottoms. This was unexpected because there were still far too few wolves to have any serious impact on elk numbers. The elk should still have been browsing down any new willow shoots that sprang up.

What the researchers eventually realized was that the willows were coming back because of fear. When the elk had no enemies, they browsed indiscriminately, everywhere. But once they had an enemy again, their old survival instincts reawakened. They recognized certain types of terrain to be dangerous and thus began avoiding them. Mostly these places were river bottoms, stream courses, and other incongruities in the land that would cause them to slow down during a chase. A wolf, who is so much lighter and more agile than an elk, doesn't need to slow down nearly as much to accommodate changing terrain and can catch up with an elk more readily in such places. So when the fear returned, the willows also returned--in river bottoms and other places that posed a hazard to the elk. Once the river bottoms repopulate with willows, it's expected to have a (positively) cascading effect--halting erosion, bringing back songbirds and beavers, fish and amphibians, aquatic insects, etc.

In another part of the book a French ecologist, Jean-Louis Martin, studying an archipelago in which some of the islands were free of deer and others overrun by them, said, "For me it was sort of a major lightbulb which came on. [...] Suddenly what I realized working there [is] that carnivores are mainly not animals which eat prey, but which change the behavior of prey."

It's this changed behavior, caused by fear, which holds the world together. And we've largely wiped out the predators, thus changing the behavior of vast numbers of species. We need to occupy niches constrained by fear. Fear is what creates diversity. An elk-free thicket of willows is a pocket-sized niche--a diminutive ecosystem which evolves its own flora and fauna. Humans on the savannas of Africa knew to avoid thickets, which might be hiding lions, so those were human-free thickets. What evolved in those thickets was surely different than what evolved in the surrounding open land where humans modified the environment with their hunting and gathering activities and their mere presence.

When you think about this fear-effect, and multiply it by all the many species and all their different fears, you have millions or billions of niches and microniches (probably an infinite number of niches)--the very richness needed for innovation and speciation.

But eradicate fear and you erase diversity. It all falls apart.

Simply by virtue of being born a living being on this planet, we enter a compact that requires us to participate in the intricate dance of eating and being eaten, and that means dancing with fear. All of the diversity here comes from this dance of life and death. Life is the process of energy being transformed by death. As we feast on death and try to avoid being feasted on for as long as possible we create an environment primed for diversity.

Humans are the only animals with the power, on a large scale, to eradicate fear. You can look at at least the last ten thousand years of our history and see it as nothing more than an all out war against fear. And we've done a damn good job of eradicating fear, haven't we? We don't worry about being ambushed by a lion when we hang out the wash, or warily watch the skies so that a black eagle might not carry off one of our toddlers, or pay any attention to our surroundings when we're on our ski vacations to make sure we don't find ourselves surrounded by a pack of wolves. It's a nice world isn't it?

But by denying fear, by trying to make life pretty and serene and safe at all times, we are in fact denying life.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Stop Doing And Allow

Those of us who are awake have been trying frantically to save the world, trying this, trying that, organizing, protesting, raising awareness...all to no avail. The solution, however, may be much simpler:

Stop doing and allow.

Human culture is an organic expression of the earth. When that expression becomes unbalanced it simply will evolve into something else. The current paradigm is untenable and it naturally is about to fail. It's already cracking. We scratch our heads, trying to figure out how to dismantle the system. But the system is already dismantling itself! We are on the brink of total, worldwide economic collapse. Are activists required here? Nope. Just sit back and watch the machine dismantle itself. It's an organic process that will unfold without our help. Gaia seeks balance and balance will be restored without us skittering about the surface consumed with our manic activist "doings".

"Doings" come about within the current paradigm and remain largely ineffective. Birthing a new paradigm requires "being", allowing, and emerging. A different, and much simpler, thing altogether.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Where Are The Solutions?

I had an interesting thought last night. I haven't had time to work with it, so I'm not even sure it makes sense, but let me try to flesh it out a little bit here.

As should be obvious from my other posts, I've been learning a lot about the power of place. This is something that seems to be virtually ignored in our time, but an idea that has kept popping up over and over again throughout the ages. Most recently, in the 20th century, it went by the name of environmental determinism. Environmental determinism got a very bad reputation (and rightly so because it was often used to justify racism) and the whole concept of environmental determinism was just dismissed, which was really tossing the baby out with the bath water.

Now, I don't like the term "environmental determinism". I think the land influences us (and dramatically so) but not in a deterministic fashion. I prefer to think instead about propensities or potentialities held in the land, or even personality held in the land. What wants to express itself in one locale is different from what wants to express itself in a different locale. And what gets expressed is not only a region's unique flora and fauna and weather patterns and geological features, but also human culture, the collective "personality" of a local population, its unique cuisine, dialect, art, technology, products, wisdom, etc. The collective human "personality" of a region is just as much a product of the land as is its plantlife and wildlife. It springs forth from the local conditions.

A few years back I read Jared Diamond's book, Guns, Germs, and Steel. While Diamond seemed very concerned he might be accused of environmental determinism, what he proposed was really just that. His thesis was that specific geographical features of the land, in specific places in the world, gave rise to the domestication of animals, the rise of agriculture and settlements, the first city-states, etc. The lands which were conducive to the development of these things gave rise to successful empires which could then raid and maraud and colonize those other lands which were at a disadvantage. Those disadvantaged lands lacked many of the necessary features that Diamond believes gave rise to modern culture; they may have lacked domesticable species of animals, or lacked annual grains, or had geological barriers that prevented the spread of new technologies, etc.

So the spread of Western culture and the destruction of so many non-Western cultures, languages, histories, environmental resources, etc.--essentially the plundering of the rest of the world--looks like a natural process of the earth. The land gave rise to this sorry phenomenon. That's basically the take-away message from this book. Not a happy message at all, yet I absolutely believe it.

This of course gets me into hot water, and here the subject of environmental determinism becomes a very dangerous one again. So, the implication is that all of this decimation is okay because it's just a natural process of the earth?

It's not okay with me, let me make that clear. If we could have travelled down some different and more harmonious path I dearly wish we would have. And I understand how obnoxious an idea it might be at first blush to claim that all of this human folly and madness is really not our fault at all because it's simply a process of the earth. What a convenient way to absolve ourselves of responsibility!

But let's look at this as broadly as we can. First, let's realize that we're not at the end point of history (or let's assume, at least, that we're not). What seems like a cancerous spread of Western destructiveness is a process, and that process is ongoing and may yet turn around into something constructive. Maybe this destructiveness has swept across the globe in preparation for something constructive to sweep back over it.

This period of time in which we've been globalizing and destroying is also the same period of time in which we've been evolving our consciousness and also evolving our individual egos. It's a terribly dangerous time. Once you separate out from your unconscious fusion with the environment into an isolated dot of awareness you begin to objectify all that is outside of yourself. You can't recognize that all that is seemingly Other is really a part of you, so you maraud and plunder and conquer and decimate. And it's all quite inevitable. Ego means believing the self is discrete, not connected with the rest of creation. This phase of human evolution--when we've just woken up and we still believe we are only isolated dots--is so dangerous and destructive because it's literally every man for himself. We can't yet focus on the collective, only on our individual survival and comfort, so we maraud and pillage in order to gain individual advantage.

But simultaneously as we've been awakening and marauding our way around the globe, a positive trend has developed. We've connected. We've manifested technology that can help us evolve to the next phase, a phase of conscious reintegration back into Oneness. Globalization has been horrible in so many ways, but the rise of the internet and other technologies that connect us couldn't have come about otherwise.

So here we stand at a point of transition. We've been Self and Other for so long that some of us have actually begun to see through it. When everything outside of us is Other, there are infinite opportunities for us to See. We can see the devastation our sense of separateness causes (and now on a global scale) and we can begin to see how everything is interconnected. The damage we cause to one part of the earth causes a huge web of effects. It becomes more and more obvious the more dire our situation gets.

So now I finally get to the thought that occurred to me last night. What if just as there were places on this earth which possessed the unique properties which gave rise to our destructive modern world, might there not also be places out there now ready to birth the next paradigm? I titled this post "Where Are The Solutions?" because I think the solutions are literally out there. One thing I've been discovering lately is that there's no such thing as metaphor. We talk about finding solutions, looking for solutions, locating solutions--all these metaphors that suggest solutions are out there in some physical place. Maybe they really are!

Are there geographical locales with the right set of properties to birth a new paradigm? A post-consumer, post-ego paradigm? How would we find those places and how would we work with them to encourage their solutions to spread? The first thing would be to take an inventory of the places where viable solutions are arising.

For some reason Curitiba came to mind, although I don't really believe that Curitiba's solutions are enough. But anyway, let's use that as an example. We would want to examine everything about that locale to try to figure out what unique qualities of that locale allowed these solutions to arise. And from there, maybe we would try to identify other locations possessing similar features as likely places to further incubate and spread the solutions.

With technology that connects us globally now, once we have a few of these prime new-paradigm incubator places the changes could spread contagiously even to less-ideal locales.

An additional way to approach this would be to have everyone inventory their own locale for its strengths and weaknesses and then try to figure out what part of the solution could be birthed in that spot. A global solution will be made up of millions or billions of local solutions. We could each ask ourselves, "What solution wants to be birthed here through me?"

Wouldn't it be great to see a wave of change sweeping over the globe, as the gift of each locale is discovered and offered up?

Sunday, October 25, 2009


I admit it, I'm power-hungry. I want to learn everything I can about power, I want to acquire power, I want to wield power in this world. I want to become more powerful than the top CEOs and all the world's political leaders and the wealthiest men in the world. Not only do I want to do it, but I'm convinced I can succeed.

What's this? So I've become a megalomaniacal hermit now? Hardly.

It's just that in the past few years I've been learning a lot about power. What I've discovered is that there's a total disconnect between how the world at-large defines power, and real power. What passes as power is a total sham. In fact, those in positions of so-called power tend to be the weakest and most vulnerable among us.

What it gets back to (and I'm sorry I keep posting about this over and over) is the link between ego and materialism. Ego is about making yourself look bigger than you really are. People who grow ego do so by heaping up stuff around them to make themselves look bigger. Without their piles of glittery gold, their timber and mines and dams and enslaved minions, they're the same size as you and me. We confer power on them (and it's a choice we make) because they look so much bigger than us. But all their piles of glittery crap are not them and do not confer any real advantage.

What it is, is that we're stuck in a very adolescent stage of our human evolution. We think all of this external stuff gives us power. If we just have more money, more piles of glittery crap, we can be powerful! But if you have piles of glittery crap, all you end up doing is defending your crap, acquiring more crap, scheming about crap, identifying with your crap, destroying other people's crap, controlling crap. All to look big. That's power? Excuse me, but No!

Those with that kind of power are the very weakest among us, because all you have to do is take away their glittery piles of crap and look at what's left. Poof. Hey, where did the power go? Seems to have vanished into thin air.

Was it ever real? Heck no.

So let's talk about real power. Awhile back, one night while meditating, I had a vision. I was looking at a man. He was standing in the middle of rolling open range with his back to me, under an immense sky. He had his head tilted upwards and with his arms was making a kind of beckoning motion. On the horizon, clouds were building and roiling and I understood that the man was calling up the weather. I could feel an almost tangible link between the man and the sky and there was a sense of immense power both in the sky and flowing through the man.

I understood that the man and the weather were not separate. They were the same phenomenon. It's not that the persona of the man, this individual ego, by some act of will was actually calling up the weather. He and the weather were coexpressions of the earth. They were what wanted to manifest right there at that moment. That expression blossomed from the land in perfect harmony.

When we as individuals are present, when we live directly and are attuned to what IS, then what manifests through us will be a harmonious and life-sustaining expression of Gaia. We are nodes of Gaia, unique expressions of our little place in the matrix. Each individual represents a confluence of personal and ancestral history intersecting with place and time--a unique node yet tied into a greater identity. Ultimately we are Gaia. Our experiences are personal and unique at the tips of our nodes, yet collective when we slip down a little. I often call our egoic selves "isolated dots" of awareness. But we only seem to be isolated dots, because those dots are actually the very tips of Gaia's nodes. I know my language is getting a bit ludicrous here, but I hope you can catch the gist of what I'm trying to say.

The man who was calling up the weather was actually simply being present. He slipped from his identification with isolated dotness down into his fuller identity. Of course this isn't really simple at all. For the vast majority of humanity isolated dotness is all that exists. As long as we identify with ego we can't touch a larger identity. We can't tap into Power. The man in my vision tapped into Power. He harmonized with his greater identity and by doing so stitched together earth and sky.

Power as I understand it is Gaia/God-consciousness/Divinity (whatever you want to call it), coursing through us and finding expression. When we are attuned to this greater identity we manifest what wants to manifest. With this kind of Power, the earth cannot be raped and pillaged. With this kind of Power there is no war or genocide. With this kind of Power there is healing and harmony, there is right-livelihood for everyone. Power is about attuning to what wants to manifest here through me.

When you possess that kind of Power, you become a person of influence. Your actions have integrity--and far more than personal integrity--the deepest integrity possible. Get good at tapping into that kind of Power and you'll tap into solutions and new paradigms and harmonious actions. With that kind of Power the other kind of power could be dismantled.

Shamans and healers tap into Power all the time, but Power is available to all of us. To be the fullest expression of who we're meant to be, we have to learn to tap into Power. To heal the earth, we have to learn how to do this. Shed ego, slip into a larger identity. A new paradigm is waiting.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Slowing Down

Adopt the practice of voluntary simplicity and you'll drop the manic aspects of modern life. Sanity will return as you seek and eventually find a more natural rhythm to your daily activities. Humans were designed for the slow life, we've just forgotten that little kernel of wisdom. We need time to acclimate and adjust to shifting rhythms and energies.

When the price of gasoline began climbing upwards a year or two ago, I learned to slow my driving way down. The speedometer usually stays around 60 now (sometimes as low as 55 or as high as 65) while I'm on the interstate, instead of my old 75, 85 and beyond.

Because of an odd time-sharing arrangement with my ex-husband I'm on the interstate a lot, driving my son back and forth to and from his school which is 92 miles away from the end of my driveway (don't ask, please). So for over four years I've been able to experience the shifting energies as I travel back and forth between these two geographic points.

The first few years were rough. I was always drained and often had awful headaches after making the trips. At the same time I began to notice things. Each place I travelled through had a distinct energy, even a personality. Wiggins hill (a ten or fifteen mile stretch over rolling rangeland) had a downright spiritual energy. Insights would come to me there. I noticed the effect that hill had on other drivers--hypnotic, sleep-inducing apparently. I once watched a guy dream himself an exit ramp and very gracefully exit off into the grassland. (He was okay, and the idiot was back on the highway again in a minute or two.)

But it's only been since I've slowed down that I've begun to understand the impact the land has on me. Once I slowed down, the fatigue diminished and the headaches became fewer and far-er between. I realized that 75 mph is not a human pace. We need to arrive in each place, acclimate to the shifting energies before we move on. You can't do that at highway speeds. Even my 60 mph is too fast, but it's a heck of an improvement over 80.

We were designed to engage with our environment at a walking pace, adjusting to shifting energies with each footfall. In my favorite book of all times (David Abram's The Spell of the Sensuous) Abram quotes stories from both Gary Snyder and Bruce Chatwin that illustrate what happens when indigenous culture meets up with the fast-paced automobile.

In Snyder's account he was travelling in the Australian Outback with a Pintupi elder and the man suddenly began to talk to him very rapidly, telling a Dreamtime story. As soon as that story ended he rapidly began telling

another story about another hill over here and another story over there. I couldn't keep up. I realized after about a half an hour of this that these were meant to be told while walking, and that I was experiencing a speeded-up version of what might be leisurely told over several days of foot travel.

Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990), p. 82

Bruce Chatwin's account tells how he was travelling in a Land Cruiser with an aboriginal man who sat motionless in the front seat until he crossed parts of his songline, at which point he'd launch into frantic action.

As Arkady turned the wheel to the left, Limpy bounced into action. Again he shoved his head through both windows. His eyes rolled wildly over the rocks, the cliffs, the palms, the water. His lips moved at the speed of a ventriloquist's and, through them, came a rustle: the sound of wind through branches.

Arkady knew at once what was happening. Limpy had learned his Native Cat couplets for walking pace, at four miles per hour, and we were travelling at twenty-five.

Arkady shifted into bottom gear, and we crawled along no faster than a walker. Instantly, Limpy matched his tempo to the new speed. He was smiling. His head swayed to and fro. The sound became a lovely melodious swishing; and you knew that, as far as he was concerned, he was the Native Cat.

Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines (London:Penguin Books, 1987), pp. 293-294.

You might be thinking, So what? We don't have stories and songs embedded in the landscape. We don't need to slow down because we don't have parts of ourselves embedded in the landscape. It's not like we need to retrieve something there. We can just skim the surface, get from point A to point B (as quickly as possible). After all, the land is only a backdrop for our human activities. It's not as if it actually pertains to us.

But we've forgotten something. The land creates us. We've only to look at cases of environmental deprivation (like the horrific case of little Dani in Florida a few years ago) to see how true this is. The mind we create in here, behind the sheltering encasement of our skulls, is really just environment that we've internalized. Without the environment, the land, we literally would have nothing to know.

I've started to think of the land as our true mind. What's inside our skulls is simply a storage and retrieval device. It's not mind itself. David Abram, in reflecting on the anecdotes I quoted above, said it's as though

at such times, it is not the native person who speaks, but rather the land that speaks through him as he journeys across it.

David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous (New York: Pantheon Books, 1996), p. 174.

What are we? Nothing but globules of land that grew feet and consciousness. Look at evolution in high-speed. Watch the earth begin to excrete life. Watch those globules of life organize themselves and coagulate and complexify, watch some of them crawl ashore, grow legs, grow consciousness. And here we are, globules of earth and we think we're separate from the earth? We think our consciousness is not the consciousness of the earth? What is it then?

If we were disembodied spirits floating in the ether, what could we know? With no points of reference, how could we even know we were? Consciousness requires physicality. With no physicality, no Self and Other, no Point A and Point B, there can be no knowing.

My favorite definition of genius is the keen ability to make novel associations. And what is an association? It's comparing A to B and seeing similarities. Could we do that in the rarefied ether? No, we need the land. The land provides all points of reference. Genius, knowledge, information, consciousness--those things reside in the land. Gaia and Mind, they're one and the same.

I still need to get a hold of Edith Cobb's book, The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood. She studied the lives of geniuses and found that insights often came to them when they returned physically or mentally to the landscapes of their childhood. It's as if that land was an extended neural network--knowledge and wisdom existed out there and these geniuses returned to retrieve it.

Why is it important for us to slow down and let the land begin to speak through us again? Because that's where wisdom resides. When we live in our puny little egoic minds, skimming over the surface, riding fast, guess what we do? We abuse the surface, we destroy countless aspects of Mind, we diminish the ways in which we can know ourselves, we limit possibilities and we ignore all of the harmonious solutions that want to rise through us out of the land.

We are globules of land and the land will speak through us if we slow down and let it.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Just Keep Your Head in the Sand

Tell me, why do we do these nonsensical things:

Come up with plans to geo-engineer a solution to global climate change, rather than changing our ways.

Come up with health care reform schemes that will still allow vast fortunes to be funnelled into the dysfunctional and corrupt pharmaceutical, medical and insurance industries, rather than changing our ways.

Continue to seek pharmaceutical treatments for the symptoms of our unhealthy lifestyle choices, rather than changing our ways.

Try to mend the economy by returning to business-as-usual, rather than changing our ways.

Are we so undisciplined now that it's impossible to take responsibility for the messes we have made? Must we always be engineering solutions that allow us to continue along just as before, as dysfunctionally as ever? Have we gone so soft we always expect to be bailed out of the scrapes we get ourselves into? Whatever happened to discipline, sacrifice, and a willingness to put the greater good ahead of immediate gratification? Nobody seems to want to do the work involved in creating a healthier paradigm. It's just business as usual. Keep your head in the sand. Keep doing what you've always done.

What's going on with that? Why can't we immediately and drastically curtail greenhouse gas emissions, fix the healthcare system (not access to it--first we have to fix the medical system so that medicine is about healing again, not about profits and drug-pushing--then we can worry about access), take responsibility for our health by living well in the first place, and begin the transition to a steady-state economy. But no, all of that requires work, discipline and sacrifice. And you can't ask that of anyone these days, it seems.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Geo-Engineering Hubris

Last month the Washington Post published an article by Samuel Thernstrom entitled "Could We Engineer A Cooler Planet?", which argues that geo-engineering may be the most sensible approach to handling climate change.

Herman Daly very eloquently argues against such madness in a brief response that, unfortunately, was not published. It's available for viewing on the website: "Geo-Engineering the World for Candles".

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Moving Beyond Belief

The amazing capacity of the human mind is what distinguishes us from all the other critters on the planet. The refined ability to reason and make complex plans, to postulate, to question, to debate--these are skills that set us apart. (Not to imply that other animals don't have amazing mental skills, some of which are comparable or perhaps even more advanced than our own.)

It amazes me that we don't use our mental skills more mindfully. It seems these are our greatest gifts and yet we most frequently use the powers of the mind to alienate, destroy and degrade. We create mental constructs, like "consumerism", " partisanship", "economic growth", "us versus them" in all of its forms--all kinds of destructive belief systems that bear little resemblance to reality.

As I enter my fifth year of seriously practicing voluntary simplicity I notice that beliefs are becoming less and less important to me. What people think, all the mental gyrations they go through in response to something--that really doesn't matter much to me anymore. What matters is what IS. I'm trying to learn to experience just that, without turning on that machine in my head that wants to spin and spin each experience, turning it into fixed belief. I waste much less time lost in my head and I spend much less time worrying or caring about what other people believe.

My greatest teacher on this subject has been my buddy John. I met him when I first moved out here four years ago and we've been great friends ever since. But the thing is, belief-wise we couldn't be farther apart. If beliefs were all that mattered we should be constantly at odds if not at each others throats. But we just never go there. We've never argued or debated our beliefs. And you know what, it's made for a very pleasant relationship. Ignoring beliefs lets me just experience this guy directly--his kindness, humor, generosity, helpfulness and his thoughtful ways. Focusing on our beliefs and our differences would blind me to what really is. So tell me, what actually matters--what he thinks about an issue, or how he actually lives in each moment?

I think we could all live more graciously with each other if we quit focusing on beliefs and paid more attention to what IS. Couldn't we all benefit from learning (or re-learning) to live directly, without creating all this spin in our heads? Wouldn't the world be a happier and healthier place? Wouldn't we move a step or two closer to harmony and peace?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Problem with Our Way of Defining Success

I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers: The Story of Success. Although I enjoyed it immensely, there have been a few thoughts niggling in the back of my mind--a few things that don't quite add up for me. One of those involves the way that Gladwell defines success. Well, no, it's not the way he defines success--because he never actually defines it--it's the underlying assumption that in our society everyone already knows what success is, and therefore it's not even open for debate.

But I think it should be open for debate.

There were several points in the book where I became uncomfortable. One point was in the chapter, "The Trouble with Geniuses, Part 2", where he was comparing the way wealthy parents raise their children to that of poor parents. He referred to a study conducted by sociologist Annette Lareau on a group of third graders. She found there were only two identifiable parenting styles: one which was employed by the wealthy parents and the other by the poor parents. The wealthy parents were deeply involved in their children's lives, shuttling them to and from lessons and practices, asking questions about their playmates and school, scheduling an endless array of activities, and constantly processing and talking things through with their kids. The poor parents, on the other hand, took a laissez-faire approach to child rearing. There were no scheduled practices. Instead, the kids were sent outdoors to play with the other kids in the neighborhood. There was no advocating for the needs of their children at school, and generally the kids were simply left to fend for themselves.

Lareau called the strategy of the wealthy parents "concerted cultivation" and the strategy of the poor parents "natural growth." The "concerted cultivation" strategy created youngsters who knew how to take initiative and act on behalf of their own needs and interests. They knew how to "gain advantage". The "natural growth" strategy created youngsters who were"often better behaved, less whiny, more creative in making use of their own time, and had a well-developed sense of independence" but they also had "an emerging sense of distance, distrust, and constraint." [The words and phrases in quotation marks in this paragraph are Lareau's words, not Gladwell's.]

It's clear to me that the children of the wealthy parents were being shaped for success in our society, and the poor children simply weren't. But this gets me to the heart of the matter. Gladwell notes, "Lareau stresses that one style isn't morally better than the other." Morally better, no. But scratch out that word--morally--and you can be sure almost everyone will think that one of those styles is heck of a lot better--generally--than the other, and I think you know which one.

Why is it better? Because that style of parenting churns out youth indoctrinated into the western model of success. These kids have learned how to push their way to the top, they know how to work the system, they can get what they want. It's a system based on self-absorption and self-promotion and I believe frankly that it's unhealthy, not only for individuals, but also for the planet.

What initially caused me to think there might be a problem with our definition of success was my reading last year of Amy Chua's book World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability (see my earlier post "Infiltration and Naturalization, Part 1"). When outsiders strode into a country--outsiders who shared our Western model of success--and it was a country that didn't share that model, the outsiders were able to essentially snatch control of that country's markets and resources. As I said in my earlier post, outsiders are like invasive weed seeds--entering an ecosystem that has never had the opportunity to evolve a line of defense against it. "They ride in with their wads of cash, and what human ecosystem has yet evolved a defense against that?"

An undeveloped country develops through "natural growth" in the same way that poor children develop through "natural growth". It seems to me that a philosophy of "concerted cultivation" only begins to happen when people, countries, or the corporations that spring from them, lose their connection with the land and a more natural way of being. When you are connected to the land and you are living small (i.e. living within the confines of your own ecosystem, and living sustainably) there is no need for extreme self-promotion, expansion, extraction, growth, profits and transactions. There is no need for manic doing. People who have lost their connection with the land become those who are likely to exploit the land, particularly on foreign soils, where they don't have to see the damage they do.

Amy Chua found that when market-dominant minorities were driven out of a country, that country often collapsed economically. The citizens who remained usually didn't possess the business skills and financial acumen to keep the country going. What occurred to me was that this was not a failing of the native people; it simply demonstrates a very core difference in cultural values. Business skills, financial acumen--those are skills valuable to people who have no connection with the land. They don't possess the land in their hearts or their souls, so they seek through transacting and exploiting to possess the earth physically. Indigenous people, however, still at least to some extent are part of the land, inseparable from it. Capitalism has little appeal to them. There is not much motivation to become materialists, brilliant entrepreneurs, leaders of industry. They still remember how to live in harmony with the earth.

What our world suffers from right now is way too much doing. We've been way too busy, way too "productive" (i.e. destructive). Manic soccer practices are the precursor of manic gold mining, manic coal burning, manic rainforest-chopping-down, manic suck-every-drop-of-oil-out-of-the-ground. This is success??

It's only been in the past century that we've begun in earnest to move off the land (of course the roots of this go back to the industrial revolution and--before that--to our first city-states thousands of years ago). This exodus from the land which was once a trickle is now a torrent, and the implications are enormous. Over half the world's population now live in cities. It's an unprecedented situation. Our current ideas about success have been birthed in the urban landscape. This is not what we need. It leads to exploitation. What we need is to redefine success from a global perspective. We don't need to go back to the land, necessarily, but we need to take into account the land and its limits.

If we got back to living locally (in the cities as well as the countryside), and if we worked to create a steady-state economy, we could achieve a model of success that would be far less manic, much more satisfying for everybody, and sustainable. What we need is to work towards balance. Balance in the lives of our children, balance in our own lives, and balance in the world. To me, success is not success if it's exploitative. And most of what passes as success today rests on exploitative practices.

There's more I want to get to on this subject. Richard Louv's book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder would tie in very nicely here, but it will have to wait for another day.

Some Reflections on Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers

If you haven't had a chance to read Malcolm Gladwell's newest book Outliers: The Story of Success, get busy. It's number three on the NYT bestseller list, so I know a lot of you have already read it, but if you haven't I'll tell you it provides a lot of food for thought in a quick little package.

(My library only had the large print version--and I am getting near that age for reading glasses--so maybe that's why I seemed to fly right through it. Maybe I need to get all of my books in LARGE PRINT.)

There were a few interesting premises:

1. That invariably we need to devote at least 10,000 hours of practice to our area of interest in order to achieve mastery.

2. That no one achieves success in a vacuum and that many of the most successful people in society, while extremely talented to begin with, benefited from a lot of lucky breaks and fortuitous situations. Fortune smiled on them.

3. That we underestimate the effects of our cultural heritage, which can persist for many, many generations. He used the example of the feuding Scotch-Irish settlers in Appalachia (the Hatfields and McCoys and their ilk). He believes their tendency towards violence is a result of the "culture of honor" of their herding highland ancestors back in Ireland and Scotland. Herders, Gladwell points out, are always vulnerable to raiders, so they must fiercely defend what's theirs, unlike the settled farmers who didn't run the risk of having their entire livelihood snatched in the dead of night. The herder needed to show he was tough and prove that it wasn't worth the risk to provoke him. But, of course, there always were provocations and when there was, the herder (or Appalachian descendent) would often defend his honor to the death. Gladwell also cited recent studies that showed current subjects from Appalachia are far more twitchy and likely to take insult than people from other regions. So the vestiges of an old culture are still affecting behavior today.

Gladwell gives many other examples--the rise of a group of Jewish lawyers in New York, the superior math skills of the Chinese, the story of Gladwell's mother...all of them show what happens when you have a fortuitous mixing of chance, a positive cultural legacy, the right timing and determination. He also gives a number of tragic counter-examples.

Outliers provided me with food for thought concerning two different issues I've been grappling with in recent years. Those issues are: the importance of place in shaping culture (hence the reason I've been researching environmental determinism of late), and the way modern society defines success. I think each of these issues deserves its own post, so I will be working on those today.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Krikorian, Immigration and Racist Subtleties

Yesterday I talked about the subtle biases of each age and how we often can't identify them until we've evolved into a new paradigm. I mentioned the racism underlying Ellsworth Huntington's idea of environmental determinism early in the twentieth century and how glaringly obvious it is today.

My thought was to write a post that would compare the subtlety of Huntington's racism to the subtlety of Mark Krikorian's attitude toward immigrants. However, in looking back over Huntington's book I realize that most of his comments were anything but subtle. Sure, he didn't own his racism--he presented everything he said as the findings of scientific research by others (i.e., the "studies have shown" defense).

Krikorian's attitude toward immigrants is subtle, though, and harder to tease out. Like Huntington, he is trying to sound fair and unbiased. But what are we to make of a sentence like this one:

The possibility, then, is that immigrants will assimilate into this new people, forming, in the extreme case, not an ethnic subculture like so many others (which will fade in importance over time) but instead a separate national community, a Hispanic Volk, demanding recognition on par with Anglos.

(p. 19, The New Case Against Immigration)

A Hispanic Volk?? He's comparing the Hispanic community in the U.S. with Nazi Germany. Of all the analogies he could have made, why this one, you have to ask?

Which reminds me of something Srinivasan Pillay said in his post "Why Rational Thinking Is Not All It's Cracked Up To Be":

Another reason that I think that "surface rationality" is questionable is that we often make decisions based on how options are presented to us. This has been called the "framing effect".

Krikorian's use of the word Volk is a clever way to subtly frame the issue if you want to shape the perceptions of your readers. If Krikorian understands, like Srinivasan Pillay, that emotion underlies what seems to be rational thought, it would make sense that he would want to elicit a strong emotional reaction from his readers. If the readers fear that Hispanic immigrants are threatening to be the next Third Reich (however subconsciously that might register), that fear is going to make them more likely to take Krikorian's additional "rational" arguments as Truth.

In a future post I'll be looking more broadly at Krikorian's ideas about assimilation.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Magical versus Rational Thinking

I've been on a bit of a reading binge the past week, completing a total of six nonfiction books and having three more underway. Whenever I do this, interesting things begin to happen (like not getting anything else accomplished??) the way the juxtaposition of so many ideas and perspectives leads me to novel thoughts or insights. The topics may be wildly different, and yet my mind works in the background to synthesize what can be synthesized, always on the lookout for some grand unifying theory, I guess.

Here are the six books I read this week:

Woman Who Glows in the Dark: A Curandera Reveals Traditional Aztec Secrets of Physical and Spiritual Health, Elena Avila with Joy Parker

The Time Before History: 5 Million Years of Human Impact, Colin Tudge

Race: A History Beyond Black and White, Marc Aronsen

The Tribe of Tiger: Cats and Their Culture, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony, Robert B. Edgerton

Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell

The three other books I'm reading are:

The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language, Christine Kenneally

The New Case Against Immigration: Both Legal and Illegal, Mark Krikorian

Civilization and Climate, Ellsworth Huntington

Quite a mix, isn't it? In the next few days I hope to make several posts on the thoughts that have arisen as a result of absorbing this massive jumble of words. But today I want to focus on just one line of thought and that concerns magical and rational modes of thinking.

The Time Before History had me taking in the whole sweeping span of our evolution, so the events of the past few centuries (or even millennia) seemed to all be part of the same modern moment, just a blip in time.

Woman Who Glows in the Dark, and Sick Societies both made me realize magical thinking is not something far off in our past. European cultures believed in witchcraft in recent centuries (i.e. right now, modern times, if we take into account our long history) and many indigenous people still believe to varying extents in witchcraft.

Race, an excellent young-adult book by Marc Aronson (and by no means beneath an adult readership), traced the evolution of various forms of discrimination from ancient times up to our present-day racist notions.

Civilization and Climate was written in 1915 by Yale geographer Ellsworth Huntington. I'm reading it as part of my research into the subject of environmental determinism. Huntington was one of the biggest proponents in modern times of the idea that climate is a major determinant of human behavior. Environmental determinism eventually became passe because it was frequently used to further various racist agenda, and I didn't have to get very far into Civilization and Climate to see the glaring racial bias. Although Huntington was a scientist and was clearly trying to use a sound methodology that eliminated bias, the fact is he was a product of his times and his culture and was so totally immersed in the racist paradigms of his time that he couldn't begin to see his own biases. None of us can really comprehend the limits and biases of our own time and culture. We have to escape the paradigm before we can see it clearly.

So, all of these various ideas came together in my mind and I had a new insight: magical thinking is the same thing as rational thinking. Until now, I've always seen magical thinking as irrational, the opposite of rational. Yet these books all pointed to something different. In my post Tracing the Rise of Ego and Materialism I shared my ideas about our human evolution. It's my belief that we've evolved from unconscious fusion with our environment (our earliest tribal, pre-literate days) to a conscious but separate state of being (the present time) and that we're on a trajectory which will eventually bring us back into fusion with the larger environment, only then it will be a conscious fusion.

Magical thinking and rational thinking both have emerged in the current blip of history. They both emerged now as a result of us becoming conscious, separating out of the matrix that birthed us, developing egos and a sense of Self and Other, of subject and object. I can't emphasize enough how recent this has all been. As we developed consciousness and language and a sense of separateness, we began to try to make sense of everything. Before we separated out there was no way to make sense of anything. We just were. If you're fused with everything else there are no points of reference, but become a separate dot of awareness and suddenly you can start comparing everything and trying to make sense of everything. On top of direct perception we added this drive to make meaning. Magical thinking is an attempt to make meaning, to attribute causes to effects, to theorize about the way all of these separate things interact. It's a very rational thing to do. These theories may not be accurate, but then again neither may quite a few of our scientific theories be accurate either. Our scientific theories suffer from the unconscious biases of the day--we theorize from the current state of our knowledge, but that state of knowledge will always be incomplete and therefore erroneous. I don't mean to imply that I think science is bunk--I believe we get closer and closer to the truth as we evolve and as science evolves. What I want to point out is that magical thinking and rational thinking are not separate phenomena. They are the same phenomenon. It's the phenomenon of humans playing with metaphor, playing with consciousness, trying to make meaning.

All of this is necessary if we're ever to reach our next phase of evolution. By making meaning of things, consciously, what we are really doing is internalizing (or re-internalizing) everything that's out there. We're using mind to bring all the parts of the matrix back together. We separated from it in order to become conscious and we'll use our consciousness to join back with it. Our search for meaning is our search for oneness.

I still want to delve into this a bit more, but this post is getting a bit long. For today, I'll just close with a link to an article on by Srinivasan Pillay: "Why Rational Thinking Is Not All It's Cracked Up To Be". He hits on the idea , which I've been encountering more and more frequently, that we use rational thinking to come up with reasons for what are ultimately emotional or gut-level decisions. We think we are being unbiased and using the most neutral higher-level cognitive functions of our minds, but really we are driven by emotions. My way of interpreting this is that we have a direct perception of reality--what IS--and our way of experiencing direct perception is through feelings. We want to make sense of our direct perceptions, so we start to layer meaning on top of them. That the meanings may not end up being accurate is beside the point. We can go along for long stretches of time applying inaccurate meanings to phenomena, but eventually we seem to break through to a new paradigm that allows more accurate meaning to be attributed to our direct perceptions. Inaccurate meaning inevitably gives us feedback--and not happy feedback--so we evolve a new paradigm of meaning. What was the feedback from our magical thinking about race? What is the feedback we're getting from our magical thinking about a growth economy? What is the feedback we're getting from our magical thinking about limitless resources, or pollution?

Anyway, I could go on. When I get back to this subject I want to include a quote from Ellsworth Huntington's Civilization and Climate (published 1915)where he is trying to show how very unbiased he is, but it's clear to us how very, very biased he is, and compare it with a very similar quote in Mark Krikorian's book The New Case Against Immigration (published 2008). Krikorian certainly doesn't believe he has a bias against any particular type of immigrant (Latinos), but to me it just glares off the page.

P.S. Ellsworth Huntington's book Civilization and Climate is in the public domain and is available free in digitized form at

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Too Much Information

In my last post I talked about how I gave up the newspaper and let go of the part of my persona that needed to be an "informed citizen". I want to expand on that a little bit today.

I find that living simply involves so much more than physically simplifying my environment. The mental clutter has to go too. And, man, in our culture, with so much going on all the time and so much information available, it's easy to have a mind full of nonsense. Just crammed full.

I've always been an information junkie, but embracing simple living has forced me to take a good hard look at this "need to know" business. What do I really need to know? What kinds of information should I let in? Is it my job, as one measly individual, to be informed about every thing of significance in the world? And how could one measly individual possibly contain all of that? In our global society, there's just too much going on. Even the most informed citizen would have to be missing huge chunks of information and would never truly be able to see the big picture. We will always be acting from partial information.

When I accepted the impossibility of being truly well-informed, I changed directions. There are a few things I choose to study, and I prefer to be informed through books and longer treatments of these issues, rather than snippets on the Internet or in news reports. The things I want to know, I want to know as fully as I can. All the rest, I leave to others. I know that the knowledge others have gleaned is out there, should I ever need to tap into it. But I don't need to try to hold it all in my puny little head. What's the point of that anyway? To be able to contribute well to this world, I think we each need to focus on our own small part of it. We need to become experts in our own small patches of earth, not generalists. The wisdom we find in our own patch of earth will have practical applications. All that general knowledge is just wind, hot air.

True knowledge is derived from direct experience. The less we focus on the diffuse knowledge of the Internet and other media, and the more we turn to real knowledge birthed in the matrix of earth and sky around us, the more meaningful our actions will be. Our actions will spring from Truth which waits all around us if only we could be present. Truth waits to be apprehended--to be directly perceived. Can we adequately apprehend Truth from the news snippets we watch on t.v. or read on the Internet? Finding Truth (and the practical knowledge that derives from it), requires presence--to be right here, right now, in this moment.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Art of Letting Go

Learning to live simply is learning the art of letting go. There's irony here--to live simply, simply let go--it sounds easy until you try it. You quickly realize it's not such a simple thing at all. Not when our culture is prompting us constantly to accumulate and hoard, to fill our lives with stuff, information, and endless activity. And not when so much of our identities are wrapped up in those external things. Letting go, which should be the simplest of all tasks, can seem unbearably difficult.

What got me started on my journey towards simplicity was the inkling four or five years ago that I needed to give up the newspaper. Until then it had been a daily ritual dating back to my elementary years, and something I had never questioned. It's good to be informed, right? So, that's all there was to it. Good citizens are informed citizens. I'll never be sure why the urge to give it up awakened in me. I was wasting a full hour every morning reading the thing so maybe that's where the first hint of dissatisfaction crept in.

I remember when the urge first appeared, I experienced such a strong feeling of resistance to it. Not just resistance--when I took a good hard look I had to admit it was fear. Fear? How could I fear something so ridiculously inconsequential?

But I did. I feared it so much that I actually didn't cancel the paper, not then anyway. Only later, a year or two down the road, was I was finally ready. It had to incubate that long, the idea. I had to learn how to let go. When I was finally ready, it was absolutely painless but it wouldn't have been if I had forced the issue too soon.

I've found this to be true with everything I've subsequently surrendered. Always the fear and resistance initially, followed by a period of not taking action, just letting the idea incubate, followed finally by a very graceful act of letting go--painlessly.

I think what it boils down to gets back to my post about ego and materialism. These things that I give up aren't me, but I've so identified with them that my egoic self believes they are me. To give up these external things is very threatening to a self that believes they define its very essence. To lose the newspaper wasn't just about losing a thing, it was about losing the "informed citizen" part of my persona. And--ouch--that hurts. Or it did until the idea had gestated long enough for me to understand--informed citizen, no I'm not that.

Embracing simplicity is such a zen thing. Bit by bit you discover--no, I'm not this, no I'm not that. Eventually you let go of all the external things you've identified with and all the labels you've given yourself and guess what?--there you still are. You haven't been diminished. You aren't reduced to nothing. There you are. If anything a fuller embodiment of what it is to be human. Not identified with ego anymore. Swept clean of all that clutter. Like an empty vessel, but filled and overflowing with infinite nonstuff--the very finest stuff of all.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Awakening to the Power of Place

My awakening to the power of place has taken many years. When I was a child I was held and formed by the power of my home territory
--the woods and fields, the rolling hills, the creek and the tiny streams that fed into it, the pond, the barns and farmyards. But I wasn't aware of it. Totally immersed in it, I had no perspective. I was the youngest of five kids and the only one to be born after my parents moved to Soap Hollow, so I was fortunate to spend my entire childhood blissfully fused with that particular landscape.

It was only once I left home that I began to get some perspective and realize how profoundly that terrain had influenced me. The first hint came when I would bring boyfriends home from college. They'd complain of this extreme sleepiness--it was almost a stupor they'd fall into. And it clicked that home always made me sleepy too. A hypnotic peaceful sleepiness. At first I tried to rationalize it. In the summers the buzzing drone of cicadas in the tulip tree weaved a hypnotic spell. And for years there was an old mine shaft up the back road on the opposing hill, whose huge fan was always humming in the background. I thought maybe its white noise was the culprit. But eventually the mine shut down and the fan was turned off, yet still the hypnotic energy of our place in the hollow remained.

I began noticing other things too when I went home. Not only sleepiness, but vivid dreams. And if I stayed more than a day or two, I'd fall into this deeply contemplative state. Always armed with a stack of books (some things never change) I'd delve into deep philosophical subjects and fill my journals with profound reflections. I'd take long strolls up the back road, into the woods, to all of my old haunts. I felt monk-ish--very spiritual, deeply contemplative, fused with nature. Intuitive too. And always there was a feeling of timelessness.

All of my life I've had what I tentatively label "past life" memories. I don't ultimately know what they are, and it doesn't really matter. But whenever I went home those memories would drift to the surface, fleetingly, but with much greater frequency than when I was anywhere else. They'd come to me, brief images, like a slide show set just a little too fast. I could just grasp the mood, the feeling sense, more than anything. The whole constellation of a different time, a different place, a different persona. A familiar feeling-sense--familiar yet different. Exactly like memory. And always an aching sadness, the feeling of loss and beauty. Blissful, but it hurt too.

As a child, I was a dreamer--in daylight and in sleeping hours. As a teenager, when I was obsessed with the works of Jung, I kept a dream journal for several years. Some mornings I would wake up recalling as many as seventeen dreams. A frequent dream motif was the black bear. Usually these were very pleasant dreams, but occasionally there was an ounce of healthy fear.

It occurred to me that the black bear is a perfect symbol for the energy of the landscape of my childhood. Sleepy, contemplative, dreamy, fused with the natural world. When I moved to Colorado the black bear dreams stopped, but they've been replaced by occasional mountain lion dreams. I can remember the exact night this change occurred.

It was when I had been living in Colorado for a year. I had just weaned my son and decided to go off into the mountains for my first weekend alone since his birth. The first night I was camping I was brought bolt upright in the tent twice with dreams of incredible realism. In the first dream, a black bear and her cub simply walked through my campsite and moved on. In the second dream, a mountain lion silently padded into camp on magnificent huge paws and flopped down. It seemed like something was trying to get my attention with these dreams--I can't remember another time I was brought bolt upright by a dream, let alone two in one night. I think all the dreams were saying was that the mountain lion somehow reflected my new life in the West, whereas the black bear had represented my life (and the energy of the land) back in Pennsylvania.

Today, though, I'm still a dreamy, contemplative person. Would I be who I am had I grown up immersed in a different sort of energy? I think not. The energy of this new place is certainly shaping me, but that specific terrain in Pennsylvania that held me for my first seventeen-and-a-half years really created me and defined me, and defines me still.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Money Suicides

I run the risk of sounding extremely flippant by posting this, but I'm having a hard time remaining silent. It's these "money suicides" I keep hearing about, an almost weekly occurrence. They're driving me crazy.

If I could just catch these guys by the lapels before they do the final deed, I'd have a few things to say (and by guys I do mean guys, as I haven't heard any women mentioned in the news reports yet--not that they aren't just as capable, I'm sure).

"Oh you silly little boy! You thought that money mattered? You thought that this game of yours was real? You thought your red hotels on Boardwalk and Park Place mattered? My dear child, let's fold up the board, there's a good boy, put on the lid, and let's take a little walk outside. Come with me, that's right, come along.

"Here, take off your shoes. Feel the grass beneath your feet, see the robin pulling worms, the grasshopper leaping from your path. Little boy, see the clouds moving in, roiling on the horizon and promising more rain.

"Crouch down on your knees here. Yes, get dirty. Here is where a mole has burrowed just below the surface and here is the hole where the cat tried to uncover him. Take hold of this earth in your hands. Scoop it up. Feel the heat and the warm moist breath of that soil on your skin, so sensuous!

"Roll on your back now and be held by this ground beneath you. Look to the skies above you. You are immersed in creation--yes! this living breathing conscious creation. It's below you, above you, inside of you, in your breath and your bones. The universe creates itself through you--can you feel it? What a miracle!

"Think of all the magnificent ways creation could revel in its aliveness, just through you, little one! What fun. How delicious. And not just through you, but through everyone and everything else. Can you see it all around you?

"This, now this, is the truly fun game. So. Let's forget about your little tantrum back in the house. Do those plastic hotels and that silly paper money matter so much now? See, isn't this much better?"

Now, I want to be clear, I don't mean to make light of suicide--but in these situations I do feel it's an extreme form of childishness. To end your life in a tantrum about stuff--stuff! Stuff isn't real. The people left behind to pick up the pieces are real.

Our materialistic culture is a very childish culture, and I mean that in every sense of the word. As a whole, our culture hasn't evolved beyond a very childlike way of expressing itself. Here and there we have a few adults, but barely a few.

My hope is that people will see the financial crisis for what it is--an opportunity to mature beyond materialism. To become the first adults.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Evaluating What Belongs

I'm starting to acquire an intuitive sense of what belongs. Paring down my life to what matters most, and eliminating clutter, has opened up space for me to start recognizing what wants to manifest and what fits in here. I still have a long way to go in streamlining my physical surroundings, but I've also come an incredible distance already.

At times, I find myself slipping into that different set of eyes--the one that sees nuance and layers. It's when I look out of those eyes that it becomes glaringly obvious what doesn't fit. Recently it was the realization (I know how goofy and trivial this will sound) that my black bag--what I use to carry my books and notebooks and whatever else I need whenever I go out--just doesn't fit. It feels all wrong somehow--I can't explain. I could get all rational and come up with all sorts of explanations for why it might not be a good fit, but really all that matters is I know it doesn't fit. Not that I have anything to replace it with at present, but now at least I recognize that it ultimately doesn't belong.

This all presents a fascinating new approach. Imagine having this kind of radar on all of the time. Being able to feel the pull of objects that want to belong in my space and sensing when the energy is all wrong. Imagine if everyone had this radar--what kind of "consumers" would we become? Consumers of beauty and harmony, maybe?

I've noticed though, too, that even when I'm totally immersed in the perfection of my surroundings--even when everything belongs--there's always a sort of tension present. I might describe it as a yearning, or even a dissatisfaction. Here is utter perfection--how I revel in its bliss! And yet simultaneously there's this tension or yearning. What is that?

I think maybe it's just the pulse of creation. This blissful perfection of the moment is static, whereas life is ever-changing. The yearning, I think, is the universe pulsing through me, seeking the next moment, the next now. Reinventing and re-experiencing itself in each new now. The static present rubbing up against the forever-malleable future means there will always be a dynamic tension existing in even the most harmonious of nows.

When I experience bliss, and can't just be still with it--wanting to know what to do with it--that's the pulsing of creation. That's the dynamic tension of a conscious universe creating itself.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Simple Living Goals

With the new year spreading out before me, I want to reflect a little on where I've been and where I intend to go from here.

This past year marked an incredible deepening of my experience with voluntary simplicity. I've felt the old paradigm finally cracking and falling off like the seed-coat on a sprout. I'm seeing with new eyes. More and more I'm convinced you can't go halfway with simplicity or any other sort of emptiness practice. Halfway gets you to individual discrete changes, good in and of themselves, of course--but only a full immersion in emptiness can shatter the old way of seeing.

So, what constitutes my emptiness practice--what does my "full immersion" look like? For one thing, I've tried to minimize outside distractions. This has been an ongoing project for several years, which continues to broaden. It means no newspaper or periodical subscriptions, no catalogs (except seed catalogs for now), no watches, no cell phone, no GPS or other techno-gadgets except the computer, and no television. For certain spells I've also avoided the Internet and telephone, although never entirely, and I'm still trying to figure out where these two things fit into my life.

I also do without many other comforts of consumer culture. I don't have a microwave, I won't use a dishwasher, and I use a reel mower to mow the lawn. I cut my own hair, brew my own coffee, knead my own bread, and grow at least some of my own food. I don't believe that fingernails or toenails should ever cost money to maintain (beyond the cost of a set of nail clippers), or that straight hair should be curly, or that brown hair should be blond or black or red. I don't exercise in a gym (what a contrivance!)--never have, never will , as long as there's the great outdoors. Therefore, I'm not constantly scooting around from nail salon to gym to beauty shop to coffee shop to bakery name it. Grocery store, yes. Bank. School. Library. Post office, occasionally. Recycling center and landfill every few months. That's usually about it.

Spending. For 2008, my conspicuous consumption, excluding food and household supplies (like toilet paper) can be itemized as follows: a waterbath canner and some more canning jars, one soaker hose, a faucet V thingy, a fan-type sprayer attachment, hose washers, some clay pots, three Pyrex dishes with lids, a five-gallon bucket to hold my homemade laundry detergent, a five-gallon bucket to use this coming year for making compost tea, a deep-socket set which was needed for disassembling something, a coil brush for the fridge, a set of twin sheets, a few items of clothing for my son. All of which amounted to roughly $150 in costs and very little of my time.

I've still been in the process of physically downsizing. This past year I sold off two more big pieces of equipment from my old business, and continued to sell off, recycle, donate or trash things I no longer needed or wanted. The house feels more and more tranquil and supportive the more stuff I manage to clear out.

I rarely have any background noises in my house, except for the hum of the fridge, the computer fans, and the washer and dryer. Well, when I'm alone that is--it's all a bit different when Collin's here! Long stretches of serenity and silence have been crucial for me in my deepening experience with simplicity.

The first hours of the day have always seemed to hold a sacred power. I make sure I'm present and receptive at that time of day. It's when the more profound insights seem to want to play peekaboo--I get glimpses of what is trying to awaken in me. Sometimes I can even catch hold. The evening hours, too, can hold a bit of magic, so when I'm able I set aside some evening time. The middle of the day tends to be mucky for me, energetically-- that's the time for grounding, practical work.

The biggest insight in the past year has been a deepening understanding of the power of place. I will be working hard in the next year to try to convey the new ideas that have evolved. Because I have to do a lot of travelling, I've had a lot of time to explore the power of place. My alone time in the car, experiencing shifting energies as I pass from place to place has been an enormous gift. Without those countless hours behind the wheel (and in spite of my grumbling about them) I would not know what I know now.

In the next year, I will be continuing the process of downsizing. I will be growing even more of my own food, which can only help to firm up my renewed relationship with the land. I will be spending a lot more of my time writing. Beyond that, I will be living in my new paradigm and trying to uncover its possibilities. I will strive to live directly, not vicariously through anyone else, nor vicariously through any machines or gadgets or contrivances. I will seek to have only immediate experiences with what truly IS.

I wish you a very joyful New Year and success with whatever goals you have set for yourself this year.