Reflection 70: Joanna Macy

February 27, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

 

I have never met Joanna Macy yet she is a landmark in my conscious life. Her book, Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory: The Dharma of Natural Systems (State University of New York Press, 1991), expands the linear notion of cause and effect to the three-dimensional realm of mutual interaction and causality. Macy sets out to track the influence of feedback in goings-on in the world. Yes, everything is connected, not rigidly, but through interactive processes that create the dynamic universe we live in. That universe—and our consciousness of it—does not simply unroll in a straight line, but keeps recreating itself through an infinite series of stages never twice the same.

 

It’s true, you can’t go home again because home will have changed since you left it. Home is a state of consciousness locked in memory but no longer in existence. With the upshot that, if home isn’t the same, you aren’t the same. Everything changes, that is the law of consciousness. The mutual interplay of simultaneously changing elements within a system is what Joanna Macy deals with in her book.

 

This work has tremendous implications for consciousness because when the observer looks at her world, the world looks back at her, both aware all the time of their mutual engagement. What you perceive is partly the result of your own process of seeing and partly due to the simultaneous influence of the world seeing you. You know what it is to catch someone’s eye eying your eye. There’s always more going on than meets one eye in isolation. We are never isolated; we are always engaged with that portion of a world making up our current situation. We and that situation are mutually engaged, even if we may not be aware of our personal contribution.

 

I devote this post to Joanna Macy’s ideas expressed in her own words. All quotes are from Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory.

 

Reality

z The illusion that knower is separate from . . . the world she would know . . . drives her into error and derails her pursuit of truth. (Page 130.)

 

Self/I/Ego

z Everything subsists in relationship and knows no independent self-existence. (Page 110.)

 

z In the web of relationships which form what we call the self there are no clear lines of demarcation whereby it can be asserted “This is I.” (Page 110.)

 

z To be a person . . . is to participate, at every level of our being, in a reality wider than that enclosed by our skin or identified with our name. (Page 184.)

 

z As a social and linguistic convention, the notion of an “I” is useful, but, if taken to represent a fixed or separate entity, it is a fiction. (Page 184.)

 

z What is to be overcome, or rather “seen through,” is not this stream of events, this fountain of thoughts and feelings, but the construct of “I” we impose upon it and the assumption that it is separate from other beings. (Page 216.)

 

Reflection/Meditation

z The Buddha [did not] “pour” precepts into his followers’ heads so much as invite them to free themselves of habitual ways of seeing. (Page 127.)

 

z The mental distortions which obscure to us the nature of our being in the world [can be] viewed in a merciless light. . . .

     This is done by directing attention not to the things we see but to how we see them, the dependently co-arising nature of feelings, thoughts, and perceptions. (Page 136.)

 

z Skillful meditation, that journey into the wilderness where we confront our own tricks and delusions, can empower social action, freeing us to respond in simplicity and immediacy to our fellow beings. (Page 217.)

 

z The grip of ego is weakened not only in meditation, but also in acting on behalf of others. The risk-taking and courage which moral action often requires can catapult us beyond . . . individual self-interest. We are shot into a larger space where the old boundaries of self dissolve. (Page 217.)

 

Relationships

z The persistent labors of many on behalf of the public weal, as well as the simpler, more mundane acts whereby pleasure is found in giving pleasure, testify to a widespread intuition that we are, by nature, part of each other. (Page 188.)

 

Transformation

z What do we do with this clamoring ego, this posturing “I” that distorts our perceptions . . . ? Religious faiths offer means of transcending it by setting it into larger perspectives, The common element is the transformation that occurs as consciousness encounters and opens to wider dimensions of reality. (Page 215.)

 

z Like roots, trunk, and branches, we beings are interconnected and part of each other. Our griefs and hopes are not separate, nor can our fulfillments be private, for we are as organically linked as a tree. To act with this knowledge, and shape our lives and institutions to reflect it, requires transformations that threaten our comfort and security. It requires a dying to old ways. This is easier to accept and face when we realize that, like a flame, we are ever dying and renewing, for that is the nature of things. (Page 219.)

 

Values

z Value is intrinsic to each act because action . . . represents, in the last analysis, what we are and what we become. (Page 110.)

 

z Ethical norms . . . are grounded in the very relativity that, in the mutual causal view, conditions all existence. These norms and values reveal that the liberation of the individual and the health of her society are inseparable. Indeed, they point to a profound mutuality between personal and social transformations. (Page 212.)

 

z Moral values are not acquired by intellectual assent alone, as many religious teachers have affirmed, but involve a reorganization of personality. By the same token, they do not transform society unless they transform the doer himself. (Page 215.)

 

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Reflection 69: Values

February 25, 2009

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Acquisition of wealth is one of our values because it heightens the probability of personal survival. Not so much the survival of our physical person as survival of consciousness as we practice that art. That is, survival of those inner worlds we have been busy building for ourselves all these years.

 

Values are key concepts we derive from living our lives. They are envelopes for keeping life-enhancing experiences all in one place in our minds so they are readily available to us when we need them. Winning, justice, truth, beauty, freedom, love—these are names of a few common values. Just to say them stirs us mysteriously from within. They excite us, get our blood flowing faster to make us ready for intentional action.

 

Values are abstractions drawn from experience. As such, they are hollow, requiring new situations to give them substance in the here and now. Values are primal meanings waiting to happen, to be called to the fore of conscious judgment so we know which way to go and what to do in unfamiliar situations. Values are guides to the route by which the idea of the future can be realized in the actual present. Without them, what would we aim at? What would we work for? Who would we be?

 

Values give definite shape to the possibility of consciousness in specific situations. We are always on the lookout for instances of their embodiment, and perk up when we discover them. Much has been written directly and indirectly about values because blood has been stirred and even shed in their name. I here offer a few excerpts from my reading in recent years.

 

Parker Palmer, 2005. z  The Dalai Lama, Aung Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandella, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Vaclav Havel, and Thich Nhat Hanh, . . . . such people came to trust, not resist, the journey of heartbreak described by the Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Kahn: “God breaks the heart again and again and again until it stays open.” Hearts like these have been broken open to a largeness that holds the promise of a better future for all, a “habit of the heart” without which democracy cannot survive, let alone flourish.

 

Terry Tempest Williams, 2004. z  The heart is the path to wisdom because it dares to be vulnerable in the presence of Power.

 

H. Maturana & F. Varela, 1987. z  The world will be different only if we live differently.

 

Mahatma Gandhi, 1869-1948. z  Become the change you seek in the world.

 

Leonard Joy, 2002. z  If we are to be purposive together, we must create spaces where we have conversations about what it means to be human on our planet.

 

Joy. z  Values development reflects a change in the nature of the relationship that a person has with self and other. When this comes from reflective self-awareness, I see the individual as being on a spiritual path and attainment as spiritual development.

 

Joy. z  Societal progress depends on self-reflecting individuals aspiring to higher values and finding resonance with others in this aspiration who together become an effective force for change.

 

Duane Elgin, 1993. z  Each person is a vitally important and unique agent in the process of planetary evolution.

 

Elgin. z  It is only through our individual awakening and creative action that the Earth will awaken as well.

 

G. Lakoff & M. Johnson, 1999. z  The environment is not an “other” to us. It is not a collection of things that we encounter. Rather, it is part of our being. . . . We cannot and do not exist apart from it.

 

Lakoff & Johnson. z  We appear to be the only animals who can reflect critically on their lives in order to make changes in how they behave.

 

Fritjof Capra, 1982. z  Detailed study of ecosystems . . . has shown quite clearly that most relationships between living organisms are essentially cooperative ones, characterized by coexistence and interdependence, and symbiotic in various degrees. Although there is competition, it usually takes place within a wider context of cooperation, so that the larger system is kept in balance.

 

Capra. z  What survives is the organism-in-its-environment. An organism that thinks only in terms of its own survival will invariably destroy its environment and, as we are learning from bitter experience, will thus destroy itself.

 

Capra. z  Value systems and ethics are not peripheral to science and technology but constitute their very basis and driving force. Hence the shift to a balanced social and economic system will require a corresponding shift of values—from self-assertion and competition to cooperation and social justice, from expansion to conservation, from material acquisition to inner growth.

 

Michael Polanyi, 1962. z  Where great originality is at work in science or, even more clearly, in artistic creation, the innovating mind sets itself new standards more satisfying to itself, and modifies itself by the process of innovation so as to become more satisfying to itself in the light of these self-set standards. Yet all the time the creative mind is searching for something believed to be real; which, being real, will—when discovered—be entitled to claim universal validity. . . . Such are the acts by which [the human mind improves itself].

 

Henry David Thoreau, 1854. z  If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

 

Charles Gibbs, 2005. z  So what do we do? We might begin by seeing ourselves as citizens of the Earth and children of the abiding Mystery at the heart of all that is. Then . . . set out on a journey to encounter the other and find ourselves.

 

¦

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

In Reflection 65 (I’ve Got Mine, February 18, 2009), I wrote of conflict as arising from competing needs “to have and control the resources required to survive at a desirable level.” Possession and control of resources is what we generally mean by “wealth.” Wealth comes in three basic forms. 1) Earth resources ranging from food and water to goods and real property; 2) human resources such as skilled labor, healthcare, and, ultimately, life itself; and 3) financial resources sufficient to obtain resources of the first two types. In brief, wealth comes down to possession and/or control of land, labor, and money.

 

Because survival depends on such wealth, a major portion of human consciousness is devoted to these three issues. The Haves have them in sufficient amounts, the Have-nots want more. Money isn’t really a survival resource in its own right, it is a means of obtaining such resources. The basics of survival, then, come down to two types of resources: tangible resources derived from land on planet Earth, and life which endures over time. World enough and time—that’s what survival at a desirable level comes down to. That is our wealth.

 

As a resource, land provides the essentials—food, water, energy, minerals, and place with enough room to move around in. As a resource, life is essential to the procurement and enjoyment of those material resources. If you have little property but live a long life, you can count yourself wealthy. On the other hand, if you have vast stores of goods—but live only for one day—you rank with the poorest of the poor. As resources, land and life are both essential components of personal wealth, which is found by multiplying your property times your lifespan, producing the wealth equation:

 

Land x Life = Wealth, or simply L1 • L2 = W

 

where L1 is in units of area (the size of your Earthly footprint) and L2 is in units of time (your lifespan in years). Wealth, then is in acre-years (or the metric equivalent).

 

Consciousness, of course, is an aspect of life, so is a vital resource in and of itself. Which elevates human consciousness to a survival necessity. Something you’d never suspect, given the ease with which we project our beliefs onto the world rather than strive to understand it, or drink and drug ourselves into warped states of awareness unto oblivion. This adds additional terms to the wealth equation to account for being bullheaded or messing up:

 

L1 • L2 = W – (BH + MU)

 

That is, each of us is accountable for the stewardship we exercise over our property and our lives. Mahatma Gandhi is off the scale upwards, Bernie Madoff doesn’t even register. Stewardship is where consciousness comes into the picture of personal wealth. Measuring personal or corporate wealth in dollars doesn’t even begin to tell the true story. Lack of conscious stewardship devalues the gross total, often severely. Usury? Forget it. Ill-gotten gains? Uh-uh. Tax avoidance? Go back to Go.

 

Think how much time and effort we put into balancing checkbooks, figuring taxes, looking for jobs, earning money, saving, spending, borrowing, worrying, fighting—all for the sake of surviving at our preferred level of wealth. While ignoring the footprint we are stomping into the Earth, as well as the waste and consumption we are inflicting for the full duration of our lives. In the U.S., most of us end up in the poorhouse, indebted to our planet, which has put up with our abuse for so long without complaint. That indebtedness is our true legacy. Maybe we did manage to get the kids through college, but then condemned them to a life of servitude on the very same planet we did our best to deplete. As I wrote in Reflection 65:

 

As things now stand, there are more humans on the planet than it can provide for, all wishing to be upwardly mobile, to have more than their neighbors. Conflict is inherent in this situation. Conflict without any satisfactory resolution, without any end. As long as some people can cry, “I’ve got mine!” while others go landless, naked, or hungry, the survivors are living at the expense of the destitute.

 

The sum total of our collective pursuit of wealth is told by global warming, peak oil, and the current financial crisis that is so extensive and so devastating that no one can think what to call it. For now, it is the crisis so shameful that it has no name. We have been living—and continue to live—at the expense of the Earth and all its creatures. We have become agents of global depletion, degradation, and destruction. Entropy, thy name is humanity.

 

Well, folks, here we are. The crisis is not out there somewhere, not on Wall Street—it is in here, inside our own consciousness, so-called. Which, much to our surprise, is now bankrupt. Our lack of stewardship over our personal consciousness has gotten us to this point. We could have seen the crash coming, but chose not to. We averted our gaze out of politeness so not to make waves.

 

What do we do now? Leave it to Obama? The only viable solution is to rock the ship of state by making the biggest waves we can to dump the sleeping passengers out of their beds onto the floor. Each one is then in charge of picking himself up, opening her eyes, and becoming fully conscious of the need for stewardship in living every aspect of life from now on. Not stewardship as an afterthought but stewardship at the core.

 

If we can do that, we may be able to restore the wealth equation to a state of balance in our case. But if we keep on being bullheaded or messing up, our personal portion of the crisis will spiral downward. I have written earlier on in this blog of various failures of consciousness. Well, our take on today’s world is what they look like. And feel like. The study of consciousness is not academic; it has profound implications for humanity and its living Earth. To save ourselves, we must first know who it is we are trying to save. As the Oracle at Delphi advised, that journey starts with an inward turn.

 

Take full responsibility for every action; look inward; act outwardly. Not later. Now!

 

¦

 

Reflection 67: Coma

February 20, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Trust Jonathan Schell to speak the truth. His “Obama and the Return of the Real” (The Nation, February 9, 2009, pages 18-22) spells out the commonality between five current crises—economic, ecological, energy/natural resources, military/nuclear armaments, and American colonialism. “All the crises,” says Schell, “display one more common feature: all have been based on the wholesale manufacture of delusions.” He calls this endemic spread of delusion, “a crisis of integrity of the institutions at the apex of American life.” He sketches details of the story yet to be told:

 

of groupthink; of basic facts relegated to footnotes; of wishes tweaked into facts; of deepening secrecy; of complex models, mathematical or ideological, used to supplant, not illumine, reality; of new offices created to draw false new conclusions from old facts; of threat inflation; of the sinking careers of truth-tellers and the rising careers of truth-twisters.

 

I call this collapse of trusted institutions a massive failure of consciousness. It’s not so much that regulators have failed to impose standards from the outside as that individuals have failed to exercise judgment in consciously and deliberately regulating their own behavior from the inside. The attitude has been to do what you can get away with when no one is watching. Hence the urge to privatize and deal secretly with matters which rightfully should be conducted in the open as public affairs.

 

Through the deeds of its most powerful leaders and institutions, influential Americans have worked their way into a frame of mind where short-term, personal self-interest has been designated the highest priority. This is cited as a basic economic principle put forward by no less a figure than Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations (1776). But the context for that notion was Smith’s earlier The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), in which he wrote:

 

The wise and virtuous man is at all times willing that his own private interest should be sacrificed to the public interest of his own particular order or society. He is at all times willing, too, that the interest of this order or society should be sacrificed to the greater interest of the state or sovereignty of which it is only a subordinate part: he should, therefore, be equally willing that all those inferior interests should be sacrificed to the greater interest of the universe, to the interest of that great society of all sensible and intelligent beings, of which God himself is the immediate administrator and director (Prometheus Books, page 346).

 

Where have you ever seen that idea cited as the true foundation on which he built the liberal national capitalism put forward in the later book? Yet in Wealth of Nations itself he wrote this:

 

Every individual is continually exerting himself to find out the most advantageous employment for whatever capital he can command. It is his own advantage, indeed, and not that of the society, which he has in view. But the study of his own advantage naturally, or rather necessarily leads him to prefer that employment which is most advantageous to the society (Modern Library, page 482, italics added).

 

Without placing that quotation in the context of the prior one, it reads as if Smith is advancing the notion that self-interest determines what is advantageous to society, whereas he is saying just the opposite, that what is beneficial to society determines what is to each individual’s advantage and governs how he should exert himself. The image of the invisible hand that Smith introduces three pages later is not the hand of self-interest but that of an implicit, moral and social influence transcending self-interest.

 

The perpetrators (who wove the five crises into what Schell calls “a kind of Gordian knot”) all operated within the same frame of mind which regards personal judgment as superfluous, whereas it is truly at the core of the moral dimension of consciousness and human action. Lack of oversight is secondary when lack of personal judgment is the problem precisely.

 

Where leaders are corrupt, they corrupt the system all the way down. Where leaders are not fully conscious or responsible, the institutions they head become brain dead and operate in a coma.

 

Waving the banner “Make Obama Fail,” the coma-stricken Republicans are gleefully stonewalling Obama’s efforts at recovery, taking joy in balking his efforts however they can. Rather than solving the nation’s problems, they are compounding them. In lockstep frame of mind, they take pride in putting their judgment to sleep, which is exactly what their leaders tell them to do. They think they are playing a game when the global situation calls for hard labor.

 

That is the cause of the five crises: playing games to score the most points. As if life were a game. Bush-Cheney did it for the sake of personal power. What they did was turn our democracy into a dictatorship for the duration of their reign. Enron tried it. Wall Street got good at it. The mortgage industry did its best. Energy and transportation industries play their parts. Backed by the pentagon, the arms industry kills people—foreigners and Americans alike—as if they were so many pawns in a game of chess.

 

This is worse than a delusion. It is a crime against the Earth and all life.

 

As for the rest of us, we take the Do Not Disturb sign on the doors of our great institutions quite literally. Don’t make waves. It isn’t patriotic. So we don’t. Which is how we put ourselves into a stupor all by ourselves. As if it were our duty to self-administer drugs to dull our senses. We are in this together because we are all half-asleep.

 

Failures of consciousness all round! Until we come to grips with that one, the situation isn’t going to get any better. Who’s to revive us? There’s nobody here but us chickens.

 

¦

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

I live in one of the most beautiful stretches of the East Coast, the kind of place people move to when they retire. Here be mountains, lakes, woods, trails, streams, pounding surf, and wildlife. Here I live among eagles, purple finches, beavers, white-tailed deer, coyotes, snowshoe hares, deer mice, porcupines, harbor seals, and a host of other native inhabitants. My drinking water comes from the watershed of Eagle Lake in Acadia National Park, a watershed about as undeveloped as any this side of the Mississippi River. Intuition tells me this is a good place to live.

 

A great many others think so as well. They come from all over—New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Delaware, Connecticut, Massachusetts—all seeking the promised land of their dreams. They sell their houses in the Land of Away and move to Maine. But then a funny thing happens. They become very sensitive to any sprawl or overdevelopment that might threaten their values and privacy. The feeling is unanimous: Pull up the drawbridge; Let no others trespass on this sacred ground.

 

There you have it—territoriality. I’ve got mine, but you can’t have yours! Not here, not now. No Trespassing signs spring out of the ground; motion detectors rise in every yard. This attachment to home turf is one of the most prominent features of consciousness. It even floods over into the games we play, many of which are territorial contests between those eternal rivals, the Home Team and aliens from Away. Think football, basketball, soccer, Monopoly, backgammon, chess, checkers, and many others. To win is to rule the field, the course, the board—all stand-ins for what really counts—the territory.

 

Robins define their boundaries, singing from the treetops, along with scarlet tanagers, mockingbirds, and every other bird, declaring, “I’ve got mine!” Which translates either as “Come and share it with me” (directed at females of the species), or “I’m warning you, keep away!” (directed at rival males). Coyotes mark their territories, as do wolves, foxes, dogs, cats, otters, and a great many other territorial animals. Including humans. We clean our houses, mow lawns, plant hedges, put up fences, and so on, all marking this one place on Earth as distinctively ours.

 

The whole concept of ownership, the basis of much of our law, is territorial. Our concepts of justice and fairness are based on territory—what’s mine and what’s yours. When we get paid for work we do, that paycheck belongs to us. We stash it in a bank account that is legally ours. Even when we go shopping we are claiming our own. Personal consciousness is at the forefront of such territorial issues. We are always alert to the need to defend what is ours against roving bands of light-fingered hooligans. Even street gangs are territorial. No, street gangs especially are territorial because their members have no real property to call their own; they have the conscious lust or urge to possess real property, but not the wherewithal.

 

Getting married, who does not have the thought, “Now I’ve got mine!” That first baby may arouse a similar feeling. The roots of slavery are much the same: I can’t do this on my own. So other lives are co-opted or taken by force, much as cattle are branded as private property. Many of our so-called human rights center on issues of property or territoriality. Right to life. Right to earn a living. Right to be free. Rights are claims that, when you make them, the state or community will back you up. So states are in the business of implementing and defending the dictates of consciousness. The drive to band together for mutual benefit is powerful magic.

 

When rival claims are made to the same territory, all hell is apt to break loose. It is on the basis of no whim that Palestinians and Israelis are locked in conflict, Palestinian consciousness and justification versus Israeli consciousness and justification. In Iraq, Kurds are fairly settled in the mountainous north, while Shiites and Sunnis have at one another over the issue of territory. These issues will never be resolved satisfactorily until each party holds sway over its own turf.

 

Sovereignty is at the heart of conflicts around the globe. Such conflicts erupt from personal consciousness when individuals act on the basis of their need to have and control the resources required to survive at a desirable level. As things now stand, there are more humans on the planet than it can provide for, all wishing to be upwardly mobile, to have more than their neighbors. Conflict is inherent in this situation. Conflict without any satisfactory resolution, without any end. As long as some people can cry, “I’ve got mine!” while others go landless, naked, or hungry, the survivors are living at the expense of the destitute.

 

The only solution is to reduce the human population in each territory to a level that it can provide for sustainably. Otherwise, the territorial struggle will go on. War will go on. Starvation will go on. Neglect and brutality will go on. Injustice will go on.

 

World violence is situational because human consciousness is situational. The battle is built into us. We can sing, “This land is my land, this land is your land,” only when the singers are a small group in a big land. When the land’s capacity to support life is neared, the singing will cease. The drawbridge will be raised, guns purchased, rockets aimed.

 

This is the brink of understanding to which the introspective study of consciousness can lead us. Must lead us if we are to work toward an effective solution. If there are too many of us consuming too many resources at too high a level of technology for too long a span, what are we going to do about the situation? For indeed that is the situation we have created for ourselves. No one did it to us. We are fully responsible. It is too late to blame anyone but ourselves.

 

In the current world situation, singing out “I’ve got mine!” isn’t good enough. Living on the backs of the helpless isn’t good enough. Winning the game of life isn’t good enough. Hogging resources isn’t good enough. Relying on conventional views of human consciousness isn’t good enough.

 

What needs to happen is that we’ve got to become conscious of one another so to release the inherent compassion we are capable of feeling for the tribe beyond our individual selves. The human tribe as one tribe among all tribes on Earth—all equally deserving of a fair run at survival.

 

Can we do it? If we can’t we are lost, indeed. We have no option but to heighten our consciousness and give it a try. We all know the chorus of Woody Guthrie’s This Land is My Land:

 

This land is your land, this land is my land

From California, to the New York Island

From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters

This land was made for you and me.

 

But here’s the final verse:

 

In the squares of the city—In the shadow of the steeple

Near the relief office—I see my people

And some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’

If this land’s still made for you and me.

 

Now we know that the grumblin’ and wonderin’ was an early sign of the transformation in consciousness that is now so desperately needed. This land isn’t made for you and me, we are made to suit this land. That is what consciousness has to tell us, if only we will look into the matter. Stewardship—of our numbers, of this land, and of our claims to it—is the real issue.

 

¦

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

The biblical Book of Job is the story of a “devout and prosperous man” suffering physical misery from unknown causes. He attributes his suffering to God punishing him unjustly. Job’s friends say that God would never punish an innocent man; therefore, Job must be wicked. Job insists on his piety and innocence. In the end, God puts in an appearance as the omnipotent creator and judge of the universe, and proceeds to scoff at Job’s puny understanding in comparison to his own wisdom, and Job’s physical weakness in comparison to the mighty crocodile, God’s chief of beasts.

 

What could Job answer to that? Awed by God’s argument and physical presence, he admits he is out of his depth, comes to despise himself, and duly repents.

 

The rhetorical structure of this tale is similar to a court of law in which Job is the injured plaintiff, his “friends” witness against him, and God plays the role of presiding judge. From the outset, Job appears set up to score a moral point for the court itself rather than receive justice. The suffering at the heart of his quarrel with God is judged to be irrelevant. The outcome is rigged in favor of religious instruction: Without complaint, accept suffering as the will of God the Almighty!

 

God’s argument consists chiefly of listing his powers and accomplishments. Job’s suffering is beside the point. Job can’t perform any of the feats God lists in his resume, therefore the plight of this no-account human before him is of no interest to one who has far weightier responsibilities.

 

The irony being that God, we know now, has none of the knowledge or powers he claims for himself. The Almighty comes off as haughty and pretentious, whereas Job leaves no doubt that his suffering is real and unbearable (quotes from The New English Bible, Oxford Study Edition, 1976):

 

My body is infested with worms,

and scabs cover my skin (Job 7.5).

 

My brothers hold aloof from me,

my friends are utterly estranged from me;

my kinsmen and intimates fall away,

my retainers have forgotten me;

my slave-girls treat me as a stranger,

I have become an alien in their eyes,

I summon my slave, but he does not answer,

though I entreat him as a favor.

My breath is noisome to my wife,

and I stink in the nostrils of my own family.

Mere children despise me

and, when I rise, turn their backs on me;

my intimate companions loathe me,

and those whom I love have turned against me.

My bones stick out through my skin,

and I gnaw my under-lip with my teeth (Job 19.13-20).

 

Job’s friends say or infer that he is being punished because he is wicked. Eliphaz the Temanite says, for instance:

 

For consider, what innocent man has ever perished?

Where have you seen the upright destroyed?

          This I know, that those who plough mischief and

sow trouble

          reap as they have sown;

          they perish at the blast of God

          and are shriveled by the breath of his nostrils

(Job 4.7-9).

 

And later adds:

 

Do not think that [God] reproves you because

you are pious,

          that on this count he brings you to trial.

No: it is because you are a very wicked man,

          and your depravity passes all bounds (Job 22.4-5).

 

To this slander, Job responds:

 

I swear by God, who has denied me justice,

          and by the Almighty, who has filled me with bitterness:

          so long as there is any life left in me

          and God’s breath is in my nostrils,

          no untrue word shall pass my lips

          and my tongue shall utter no falsehood.

          God forbid that I should allow you to be right;

          till death, I will not abandon my claim to innocence

(Job 26.2-5).

 

          Let God weigh me in the scales of justice,

          and he will know that I am innocent! (Job 31.6.)

 

In the end, out of the whirlwind, God confronts Job:

 

Who is this whose ignorant words

          cloud my design in darkness?

          Brace yourself and stand up like a man;

          I will ask questions, and you shall answer.

          Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?

(Job 38.2-4.)

 

In all your life have you ever called up the dawn

          or shown the morning its place? (Job 38.12.)

 

          Have you descended to the springs of the sea

          or walked in the unfathomable deep?

          Have the gates of death been revealed to you?

          Have you ever seen the door-keepers of the

place of darkness?

          Have you comprehended the vast expanse of

the world?

          Come, tell me all this, if you know.

          Which is the way to the home of light

          and where does darkness dwell? (Job 38.16-19.)

         

Has the rain a father?

          Who sired the drops of dew?

          Whose womb gave birth to the ice,

          and who was the mother of the frost from heaven,

          which lays a stony cover over the waters

          and freezes the expanse of ocean?

          Can you bind the cluster of the Pleiades

          or loose Orion’s belt? (Job 38.28-31.)

         

          If you bid lightning speed on its way,

          will it say to you, ‘I am ready’? (Job 38.35.)

 

And so on. God assails Job with items of received wisdom 2,500 years old. This is fable, not history. This is mythology—man putting words in God’s mouth to achieve a certain effect. This is theater, not theology. The men who wrote and edited these words are long dead. Their life situations and perspectives cannot be imagined today, much less understood. Their consciousness at the time bore slight resemblance to the story of Job as we can interpret it. Modern consciousness has evolved to fit us to a different world than that of the fifth or sixth century B.C.E. And to a different concept of God, which must now contend with the Big Bang, evolution, and all that has been learned about human nature, the Earth, and its universe in the meantime.

 

A great deal of poetry is to be found in the Bible, along with wisdom, drama, history, and other matters of interest. But the framework that holds it together—the concept of God—is flawed in accounting for consciousness at the time it was written in terms that were to the advantage of a particular group having a vested interest in how God was portrayed. Which is, none other than the priestly profession, intent in those days on assuring its own power, influence, and wealth by spreading God fear and consciousness through the land. Their livelihood depended on overreaching themselves. People who made a living from God were not neutral in portraying the deeds, sayings, and attributes by which he was made known to others.

 

No matter how eloquent the rhetoric, no one can rightfully claim that such writings were aimed at conveying a higher sense of the truth. Job, for instance, was hoodwinked, both by his friends and his God. On the basis of its own internal evidence, this story makes little sense. No matter how strongly someone wants to believe such events actually happened, the proper genre for this piece is historical fiction. It was fiction when written; it remains fiction today.

 

Consciousness flows with the ages. It has come a long way in 2,500 years. In some minds, at least. In others, it has traveled a lesser journey. The mindset that claims such writings as the Book of Job reveal eternal truths in literal language—such mindsets exist at a more primitive stage of development than can grasp or grapple with what is happening in today’s world. Spiritual truth, poetic truth—these are apologies for consciousness having advanced beyond its lowly beginnings. That Bush 43 could pander to a constituency taking biblical writings as a guide to proper behavior in the 21st century speaks a terrifying truth: that consciousness has atrophied in a significant portion of the American mind. That wishful thinking replaces wisdom for those who fear the future, and so look backward to a past dressed in the familiar words and cadences of bygone eras. Beware all truths advanced as eternal.

 

Novelty is the essence of consciousness, not sameness. To live in the past is to prefer dead times to living. If we are not on the leading edge of our own consciousness, we are relying on less than our full potential deserves or requires. If we insist on clinging to past stages of consciousness, Earth will move on without us, leaving us pondering the likes of Job, looking for insights and wisdom in outmoded speeches written for effect in times that once were, but are lost to us now.

 

If you wake up as the same person you were yesterday, you can be neither fully conscious nor alive. I find that a very scary thought. If we live not on the edge, where are we situated? That is the question of the ages. If we are anywhere but in the foremost rank, we are probably not where we claim to be.

 

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Reflection 64: Blogosphere II

February 13, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

 

I wrote earlier (Reflection 8: Blogosphere, October 16, 2008 ) that “blogs hold promise of creating a cooperative, synchronized interaction between individual worlds of consciousness on a scale far grander than one-way broadcasts in the mass media have ever achieved through dominance and brute force.” But added, “As it is now, blogs add up to a clamorous Babel of noise and opinion.”

 

Which is it to be, a force for order in the world, or a source of disruption and confusion? As I see it, the blogosphere feeds on itself by seizing on every crumb of information in the media and subjecting it to eternal digestion into finer and finer bits until it ends up as drivel.

 

My son recently gave me The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging, in which I found a list of eight “Sources of Inspiration” on page 84. There I immediately grasped what the trouble is. On that page some of the most successful bloggers in the world tell their secret: Feed off of the media and one another! The whole enterprise is incestuous. Opinions galore, but not a sign of original thought in the bunch. Well, one sign in the eighth item: “On the street” reporting, which reads:

 

Are the teachers at your children’s school upset by student test scores? Is the cafeteria manager concerned about the quality of the produce? Maybe your local pharmacist is worried that seniors don’t understand recent changes in Medicare. all of these stories are worth covering.

 

To those who click out blogs of this sort, I salute you. You’re my kind of folks, making the most of your personal resources.

 

The other seven sources of “inspiration” are derived from existing media: 1) newspapers, 2) political publications, 3) general interest publications, 4) TV news and news websites, 5) radio, 6) large new-media sites (HuffPost, Politico, BoingBoing, Daily Kos, etc.), and 7) blogs on your blogroll.

 

In a word, many or most blogs are derivative. They chew on themselves and other media. Feeding on the same cud, they grind away until nothing is left but drool from the chops. Then onto the next bite, then the next.

 

Whatever happened to investigative reporting? To actually being on the scene, doing original interviews, getting hard facts down on paper? Standing for the truth by putting your body where the news is? The blogsphere is getting to be little more than a roll of toilet paper, every sheet the same. That doesn’t sound like the best use of human consciousness to me.

 

What gets chewed over already exists in digital form on the Web, while most of life is organic, fleeting, and vulnerable every moment—and definitely cannot be reduced to binary code. Blogs don’t deal with living material—with people, animals, trees, flowers, birds. They deal instead with digitized cast-offs of cast-offs of cast-offs. The scheme seems to be, get noticed by reworking the printed words of the movers and shakers. To get famous, rehash the verbal orts of the outrageous, rich, and notorious.

 

Here’s a painful truth. Much of the blogosphere is staffed by an army of hacks. Clever, sometimes, but hacks nonetheless. Like so many army ants coursing through the jungle tearing at every stem, leaf, or leg in their path.

 

Where, I ask, is consciousness in this feeding frenzy? Where are original thought, judgment, curiosity, doubt, passion, and all those other facets of human consciousness we know so well because they make us who we are?

 

On the other hand, maybe I miss the whole point. Maybe chewing the cud is the next stage of human evolution. Maybe the grazing animal in each of us is finally slobbering her way out of the closet. Maybe squatting in our cubicles and taking it easy by doing as little real work as possible is the coming thing. Just maybe. But I don’t believe it. A blog is as valuable as the life equivalent that goes into it. Which to me takes three things: conscious effort, passion, and judgment. Without one of the three, a blog might as well be plopped from the stern of a cow.

 

Like high-colonic enemas, rants (including this one) are good for the soul. They scrub the kidneys, liver, pancreas of all the waste they’ve been storing for months. I highly recommend them. But if you launch your rant into the blogosphere, please let it be your original and not a variation on somebody else’s complaint. Look into your consciousness and see what gems you can find, then fling them forth. Maybe that’ll unclog your system and open the gates to consciousness and original thought.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

Is there such a thing as a meeting of minds? Can community consciousness exist? I do know that groups can take concerted action, some by the will of the majority, some by consensus, some by executive decision. But what does that say about community consciousness?

 

What strikes me about the seven of us is that we’re all coming from different directions. We’re here to suggest topics for a statewide committee* in Maine to focus on in coming months, but so far each of us has proposed a different topic. It’s early in the meeting. I’ll just sit back and watch the process develop. Except I’m always the first one to open my mouth. What have we got so far? Pri says we have to move the state toward a moral economy (implying that the economy we have now is immoral). Robert says global warming is at crisis stage and is priority number one. Don’t forget health care, says Carole. The system we have isn’t working. I say, we need to educate our children for tomorrow, not yesterday as we are currently doing. Don’t forget the energy crisis, says Robert, it’s hitting everybody, now, this winter. In his calm voice, Gray says taxation is a statewide issue; we need a paradigm shift so we can buy collectively and pay less than we do on our own. That brings up whether or not capitalism has a chance of working, says Ed, which so far is not supported by the evidence. I say, don’t forget the environment which is footing the bill for all our past and present excesses. Whatever happened to compassion, says Jan, the we in we the people? We can’t pretend we can go it alone on rugged individualism. Look where that’s got us. And so it goes for a couple of hours, round and round the room, Ed taking notes all the while. The case management approach is expensive. Buy collectively, buy better. Social responsibility is a responsibility to share. Have taxes pay for programs that work. Whatever happened to enlightened self-interest—as an alternative to greed? The issue is not I have but we have together. What taxes? Sales, capital gains, income? Beware those who secretly believe in eugenics, survival of the fittest, and superior races ruling over their inferiors. But then in the last half hour the group comes together. Community. Cooperation. Compassion. Empathy. United we stand, divided we fall. One for all, all for one. Fairness and equity. Yes, we can! The moral economy is a we economy. Global warming and the energy crisis are we problems. Health care is a we issue. Educate for we awareness and mutual accountability. Taxation provides the wherewithal to turn this population of assorted individuals into a we nation. Nobody owns the environment; it has to be managed for the benefit of all species—the Big We, including humans. That’s the way Maine has to go. The state seal features the North Star at the top, with the motto Dirigo—“I lead.” Make that we lead. How to do that, that’s the conversation we want to get moving in this state.

 

There’s no way I can truly represent a conversation that evolved over two-and-a-half hours, so this attempt is largely fiction informed by truth. What it leaves out is the sense of struggle in listening to one another and to one’s inner self at the same time. Community consciousness, if it exists, is hard-earned, temporary, and specific to a given occasion. It has to be painstakingly built up over the duration of each and every occasion. But I do believe that seven minds can eventually attain a kind of resonance so that each voice speaks to and for the collective mind of all seven. At least that’s what we seem to have achieved.

 

One thing I haven’t said: we aren’t strangers coming together for the first time. We’ve known one another for fifteen years, coming together some fifty times a year since 1994. We know who we are and trust who we are. That makes a big difference. We’ve settled on a common language that works for us all. Which makes it easier to hear and feel what is being said. We’re all unique individuals, but we can eventually settle into a group that works together.

 

Different as we are, do we share a kind of consciousness in common? I think, yes, a consciousness earned through numerous encounters and discussions over the years. Our approach now is cooperative more than competitive. Which suits us to our times as an alternative to the temper of independence that has put the nation in the state we find today—near total collapse.

 

The scary part is how long it takes to develop community consciousness that emphasizes common interests over winning and personal selfishness. It takes decades to turn making a killing by oneself into making a living together. In fluid communities, people move in and out faster than the group requires to reach a workable level of cohesion. Even members of Congress aren’t around long enough to learn how to be effective in working together. And that favors a two-party system which outlasts them all—and distinctive party lines impervious to any impulse to compromise, much less cooperate. Our system of governance balks the gradual evolution of community consciousness on a national level.

 

Which leaves us where? Raising the hood, looking down at the motor which runs our political and economic systems, wondering where we went wrong, and what we can do now to get moving again.

 

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__________

 

* Friends Committee on Maine Public Policy.

 

 

 

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

I dream about seeing a hole in the sky. It is raining. A young boy is riding a tricycle as we walk up the street together, I in the lead, he behind. I fear he won’t be able to pedal against the runoff coming off the hill, but he pedals faster and plows like a boat through the water. The street dips and we go downhill for a ways and come to a log cabin surrounded by mud filled with exposed tree roots. I tell the boy that the rain made all that mud. The road, filled with mud, turns sharply to the right. Looking up, I see a round hole (like a smoke hole without the smoke) in the sky, or rather, a hole in a translucent dome above the rain. Through the hole I see clouds lit by the sun. My eyes zoom in on the hole so I can see it clearly. Outside and under the hole, the rain is made of dashed lines which remind me (in the dream) of the snow on black-and-white television screens in the 1950s. Through the hole the clouds are made of similar dashes moving at an angle to the rain. I recognize this as a very unusual situation. I have never seen a hole in the sky before in my entire life. I mention this to some people we meet. . . .

 

Waking up, I am still amazed by seeing a hole in the sky. A round hole at the zenith overhead. Probably several feet in diameter, big enough to put your head and body through if you could get up to it. Child, tricycle, street, hill, rain, cabin, mud, hole in the sky—this fragment of a dream is wholly engaging and seems convincingly real.

 

What to make of it? The situation is this: the boy and I are together, though our relationship is unclear. The street reminds me (now that I’m awake) of School Street in Andover, Massachusetts, where I lived in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I used to walk my toddler son around the block in those days, he exploring the walkway to every house while I waited out by the street. The rain reminds me of the dashed lines beneath clouds on the screen of the L.L. Bean weather station I got for my last birthday. I have seen tree stumps and roots in mud, but no particular incident comes to mind. Explaining the cause of the mud to the boy is very much me in my teacher mode. I can’t account for the log cabin. The hole in the sky is very much like the circle representing the sun on my weather station. When the station predicts that precipitation is about to end, dashed rain, clouds, and sun appear together on the screen, the disc of the sun seeming to emerge from behind the clouds. I never actually saw the sun in the dream; it was inferred from lit edges of clouds.

 

I often think about the edges of things—about how the brain sharpens the contrast between surfaces to heighten such edges, creating a kind of line-drawing cartoon that is more distinct than reality itself. The hole in the sky had a very distinct edge, slightly lighter than the dome it was in, like a hem of pale material folded back on itself. Which reminds me of my first experience with Mercator projections (Reflection 60: Discovery, February 6, 2009), because there would be no way to fold a circular hem in the dome of the sky without slitting or slashing it so the smaller area would fold over the larger. I can’t suggest that I was specifically aware of that problem in the dream; it feels more like something I added in processing the dream now that I am awake.

 

I was emotionally concerned about the boy on the tricycle—whether he could go against the flowing runoff or not. The strongest feeling I had was the sense of wonder at seeing a hole in the sky. All dreams have a novel cast about them, and that seemed precisely the point in this one. I seemed very much my everyday self in judging a hole in the sky to be a novel event, and therefore worth commenting on. Which is how my dreams often run while I, the dreamer, are my same old self. Dreams, that is, often place me-as-I-know-myself in bizarre situations.

 

Many of my dreams are about attending or teaching specific classes in school, which is not surprising since I spent 18 years of my life as a teacher and another 19 years as a student before that. But in dream after dream I am neglecting my duty by not showing up for class, or showing up for the class after being unaccountably absent for six months, or I am not prepared, or I know nothing about the subject I am expected to teach, or I’m not wearing any clothes, and so on. My dreamworld is made up of one bizarre situation after another, to which my conventional self is expected to make a fitting response.

 

So I hazard the guess that I am normally conscious when I dream, but because I am deprived of sensations I am familiar with, as well as the ability to act, the situations within which I dream exist in a parallel universe ruled by feelings of novelty, wonder, awe, fear, anxiety, uncertainty, and self-doubt. All the dream situations are possible in that they are variations on stock situations I am familiar with, while at the same time they are novel in taking place in fantastic locales concocted by my unsituated brain trying to figure out where it is and what’s happening. The best it can do is guess on the basis of the few clues suggested by my autonomic nervous system (heart beat, sexual arousal, carbon dioxide level, hunger, etc.) which carries on 24/7 whether I am awake or asleep.

 

From my days working at Harvard Observatory, I retain the image (from a book in the library) of a robed man standing on a ladder, poking his head and shoulders through the celestial sphere (which rips in his case), to confront stars and planets directly as they wheel overhead. It’s a wonderful image because so full of practical details, while the overall concept is preposterous and very dreamlike. I’ve carried that image with me for 48 years. It may have a bearing on the hole in the sky I discovered this morning in my dreams because it came to mind while trying to describe that hole. Memory evidently plays a prominent role in dreams, mixing and matching details drawn from a host of situations to create a landscape wholly novel and fantastic. And, entertaining, once you get past the anxiety.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

Does the endless stream of consciousness add up to anything, or is it strictly momentary—this, then this, then this? Instant by instant, do we build a larger life? Or do we waste it second by second, day by day, year by year? If conscious life doesn’t add up, what is the point?

 

Blogging about consciousness is like sneezing into a paper handkerchief, then tossing it into the wastebasket. A dated blog is about as valuable as the contents of a trash bag bound for the dump. Useful once, perhaps, but who cares about it now?

 

Think of all those projects that seemed so important at the time. In recent years, I have given my life to studying eelgrass, horseshoe crabs, great blue herons, bald eagles, harbor seals, shorebirds—to what end? I have spent years writing up hikes on hundreds of trails. Before that, I spent more years tutoring students with learning disabilities, grading stacks of papers and exams, taking thousands of photographs. At the time, each moment at the leading edge of my conscious life was precious in and for itself. I couldn’t have done it any differently.

 

But aside from lost opportunities and entropy, what have I contributed to Earth’s welfare? Is this life a loser’s game? I went to work for the National Park Service hoping to protect woods, streams, ponds, and bogs from human encroachment—but what I really did was sit indoors at a computer for five years and put an endless stream of words on paper made from trees, words that few read and no one remembers.

 

We have all kinds of tricks to make our conscious efforts seem meaningful. Getting a paycheck for the time we put in is the most common. Even standing by the water cooler talking about last night’s Red Sox game isn’t wasted if we get paid by the hour. Putting our talents and energy at the disposal of others in exchange for money and favorable performance ratings can be cited as proof of our value to society. We are trained in school to this way of thinking, accepting praise and grades as true indicators of our personal merit. We learn early on that consciousness can be bought and sold—and should be put on the job market if we want to feel good about ourselves.

 

But does it add up? If our value is our usefulness to others, what do we get out of the bargain? That is, is money sufficient justification for selling our minds and bodies to others one hour at a time? Is that the highest and best use of our unique gift of consciousness? Can we truly be conscious on another’s behalf? That seems to be what society expects of us. We are supposed to convert our precious hours of wakefulness into enough money to keep credit card companies off our backs. That, in essence, is how the fine print reads in our social contract.

 

So we make ends meet by selling our consciousness to pay for food, housing, transportation, healthcare—which seems OK to us as long as there’s enough left over for CDs and videos, the latest high-tech gizmos, golf now and then, and a daily latte. Does that add up to a life?

 

Without being aware how we do it, sometime in our twenties, thirties, or forties we generally discover ourselves as conscious beings apart from the conventional world. Till then, we’ve just cruised along without giving much thought to managing our special gifts. We’ve probably taken some kind of job, gotten married, had children, and built a growing pile of questions. Reviewing those questions, we discover we have the option of reserving consciousness for our own purposes, or continuing to put it up for sale because we can’t see ourselves breaking free of the system.

 

This can precipitate a crisis, leading to estrangement from family and friends, a bout of self-indulgence, shopping binges, or even becoming a Buddhist monk going around in a saffron robe begging for a daily bowl of rice. Some people leave the city and move to Maine. That’s what I did. I spent two-and-a-half years living by myself on an island, throwing myself into nature, trying to gather my wits. That’s how I met herons, eagles, horseshoe crabs, and the like.

 

That was the smartest move I ever made. From a social or family perspective, perhaps the dumbest. Either way, I found myself dying in the life I was in, suffocating from lack of air because I had so walled myself into a cubicle to keep from seeing what life was about on the outside. Nobody but myself could save me from continuing to do the proper—the expected—thing. I’d backed myself into a corner, and it was clearly up to me to get myself out.

 

So, 22 years later, here I am, blogging about consciousness. Which puts me on the leading edge of my own life and awareness. And that, I feel now, is the right place to be. Risky, yes, even dangerous. But I maintain that life isn’t a living unless we use our native faculties to connect ourselves as best we can to the situations we place ourselves in. Dulling consciousness is not an option. I’ve been that route and it leads nowhere.

 

The land trust meeting is over about 10 p.m. I drive to the shore, get my rowboat, and head into the night. I strap a flashlight to the bow so I can see ice floes in time to dodge them. The tide is going out, bearing the floes southeast. I come to one so big that I can’t see a route around it. I don’t want it to push me into the tidal falls, so I head up-current to find a way past it. I row and row—does this ice ever end? It must be a quarter-mile long. Finally, the ice narrows, then gives way to open water. I row around it, only to find another floe in the dim glow of my beacon. I dodge that one, come to the ledge, which is at least stationary, and row around that. My light begins to weaken, then fades to black. But I know exactly where I am, and steer straight to the island from there. Well not exactly straight; first I have to dodge the mussel bank, that too a familiar landmark. Even though I can’t see it, I can feel my oars scrape on shells in the shallows. In another 100 yards I figure I’m at the mouth of the cove, and head in. I haul the boat up to the head of the cove, bungee a blue tarp over it, and that’s that, another adventure.

 

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