Monday, June 30, 2008

Wendell Berry on limits....

From Harpers Magazine May '08
Faustian Economics: Hell hath no limits
by Wendell Berry

The general reaction to the apparent end of the era of cheap fossil fuel, as to other readily foreseeable curtailments, has been to delay any sort of reckoning. The strategies of delay, so far, have been a sort of willed oblivion, or visions of large profits to the manufacturers of such :"biofuels" as ethanol from corn or switchgrass, or the familiar unscientific faith that "science will find an answer." The dominant response, in short, is a dogged belief that what we call the American Way of Life will prove somehow indestructible. We will keep on consuming, spending, wasting, and driving, as before, at any cost to anything and everybody but ourselves.

This belief was always indefensible -- the real names of global warming are Waste and Greed --- and by now it is manifestly foolish. But foolishness on this scale looks disturbingly like a sort of national insanity. We seem to have come to a collective delusion of grandeur, insisting that all of us are "free" to be as conspicuously greedy and wasteful as the most corrupt of kings and queens. (Perhaps by devoting more and more of our already abused cropland to fuel production we will at last cure ourselves of obesity and become fashionably skeletal, hungry , but -- thank God! -- still driving.)

The problem with us is not only prodigal extravagance but also an assumed limitlessness. We have obscured the issue by refusing to see that limitlessness is a godly trait. We have insistently, and with relief, defined ourselves as animals or as " higher animals." But to define ourselves as animals, given our specifically human powers and desires, is to define ourselves a limitless animals -- which of course is a contradiction in terms. Any definition is a limit, which is why the God of Exodus refuses to define Himself : "I am that I am."

In keeping with our unrestrained consumptiveness, the commonly accepted basis of our economy is the supposed possibility of limitless growth, limitless wants, limitless wealth, limitless natural resources, limitless energy, and limitless debt. The idea of a limitless economy implies and requires a doctrine of general human limitlessness: all are entitled to pursue without limit whatever they conceive as desirable, -- a license that classifies the most exalted Christian capitalist with the lowliest pornographer.

This fantasy of limitlessness perhaps arose from the coincidence of the Industrial Revolution with the suddenly exploitable resources of the New World -- though how the supposed limitlessness of resources can be reconciled with their exhaustion is not clear. Or perhaps it comes from the contrary apprehension of the world's "smallness," made possible by modern astronomy and high-speed transportation. Fear of the smallness of our world and its life may lead to a kind of claustrophobia and thence, with apparent reasonableness, to a desire for the "freedom" of limitlessness. But this desire, paradoxically, reduces everything. The life of this world is small to those who think it is, and the desire to enlarge it makes it smaller, and can reduce it finally to nothing.

However it came about, this credo of limitlessness clearly implies a principled wish not only for limitless possessions but also for limitless knowledge, limitless science, limitless technology, and limitless progress. And, necessarily, it must lead to limitless violence, waste, war, and destruction. That it should finally produce a crowning cult of political limitlessness is only a matter of mad logic.

The normalization of the doctrine of limitlessness has produced a sort of moral minimalism: the desire to be efficient at any cost, to be unencumbered by complexity. The minimization of neighborliness, respect, reverence, responsibility, accountability, and self-subordination -- this is the culture of which our present leaders and heroes are the spoiled children.

Our national faith so far has been: "There's always more." Our true religion is a sort of autistic industrialism. People of intelligence and ability seem now to be genuinely embarrassed by any solution to any problem that does not involve high technology, a great expenditure of energy, or a big machine. Thus an X marked on a paper ballot no longer fulfills our idea of voting. One problem with this state of affairs is that the work now most needing to be done -- that of neighborliness and caretaking -- cannot be done by remote control and the greatest power on the largest scale. A second problem is that the economic fantasy of limitlessness in a limited world calls fearfully into question the value of our monetary wealth, which does not reliably stand for the real wealth of land, resources, and workmanship but instead wastes and depletes it.

That human limitlessness is a fantasy means, obviously, that its life expectancy is limited. There is now a growing perception, and not just among a few experts, that we are entering a time of inescapable limits. We are not likely to be granted another world to plunder in compensation for our pillage of this one. Nor are we likely to believe much longer in our ability to outsmart, by means of science and technology, our economic stupidity. The hope that we can cure the ills of industrialism by the homeopathy of more technology seems at last to be losing status. We are, in short, coming under pressure to understand ourselves as limited creatures in a limited world.

This constraint, however, is not the condemnation it may seem. On the contrary, it returns us to our real condition and to our human heritage, from which our self-definition as limitless animals has far too long cut us off. Every cultural and religious tradition that I know about, while fully acknowledging our animal nature, defines us specifically as humans -- that is, as animals (if the word still applies) capable of living not only within natural limits but also within cultural limits, self-imposed. As earthly creatures, we live, because we must, within natural limits, which we may describe by such names as "earth" or "ecosystem" or "watershed" or "place." But as humans, we may elect to respond to this necessary placement by the self-restraints implied in neighborliness, stewardship, thrift, temperance, generosity, care, kindness, friendship, loyalty, and love.

In our limitless selfishness, we have tried to define "freedom," for example, as an escape from all restraint. But, as my friend Bert Hornback has explained in his book The Wisdom in Words, "free" is etymologically related to "friend." These words come from the same Indo-European root, which carries the sense of "dear" or "beloved." We set our friends free by our love for them, with the implied restraints of faithfulness or loyalty. And this suggests that our "identity" is located not in the impulse of selfhood but in deliberately maintained connections.

Thinking of our predicament has sent me back again to Christopher Marlowe's Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. This is a play of the Renaissance; Faustus, a man of learning, longs to possess "all Nature's treasury, " to "Ransack the ocean.../ And search all corners of the newfound world..." To assuage his thirst for knowledge and power, he deeds his soul to Lucifer, receiving in compensation for twenty-four years the services of the sub-devil Mephistophilis , nominally Faustus's slave but in fact his master. Having the subject of limitlessness in mind, I was astonished on this reading to come upon Mephistophilis's description of hell. When Faustus asks, "How comes it then that thou art out of hell?" Mephistophilis replies, "Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it." And a few pages later he explains:

Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place, but where we {the damned} are is hell,
And where hell is must we ever be.

For those who reject heaven, hell is everywhere, and thus is limitless. For them, even the thought of heaven is hell.

It is only appropriate, then, that Mephistophilis rejects any conventional limit: "Tut, Faustus, marriage is but a ceremonial toy. If thou lovest me, think no more of it." Continuing this theme, for Faustus's pleasure the devils present a sort of pageant of the seven deadly sins, three of which -- Pride, Wrath, and Gluttony -- describe themselves as orphans, disdaining the restraints of parental or filial love.

Seventy or so years later, and with the issue of the human definition more than ever in doubt, John Milton is Book VII of Paradise Lost returns again to a consideration of our urge to know. To Adam's request to be told the story of creation, the "affable Archangel" Raphael agrees, "to answer thy desire/Of knowledge within bounds [my emphasis]...," explaining that

Knowledge is as food, and needs no less
Her temperance over appetite, to know
In measure what the mind may well contain;
Oppresses else with surfeit, and soon turns
Wisdom to folly, as nourishment to wind.

Raphael is saying, with angelic circumlocution, that knowledge without wisdom, limitless knowledge, is not worth a fart; he is not a humorless archangel. But he also is saying that knowledge without measure, knowledge that the human mind cannot appropriately use, is mortally dangerous.

I am well aware of what I risk in bringing this language of religion into what is normally a scientific discussion. I do so because I doubt that we can define our present problems adequately, let alone solve them, without some recourse to our cultural heritage. We are, after all, trying now to deal with the failure of scientists, technicians, and politicians to "think up" a version of human continuance that is economically probable and ecologically responsible, or perhaps even imaginable. If we go back into our tradition, we are going to find a concern with religion, which at a minimum shatters the selfish context of the individual life, and thus forces a consideration of what human beings are and ought to be.

This concern persists at least as late as our Declaration of Independence, which holds as "self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights...." Thus among our political roots, we have still our old preoccupation with our definition as humans, which in the Declaration is wisely assigned to our Creator; our rights and the rights of all humans are not granted by any human government but are innate, belonging to us by birth. This insistence comes not from the fear of death or even extinction but from the ancient fear that in order to survive we might become inhuman or monstrous.

And so our cultural tradition is in large part the record of our continuing effort to understand ourselves as beings specifically human: to say that, as humans, we must do certain things and we must not do certain things. We must have limits or we will cease to exist as humans; perhaps we will cease to exist, period. At times, for example, some of us humans have thought that human beings, properly so called, did not make war against civilian populations, or hold prisoners without a fair trial, or use torture for any reason.

Some of us would-be humans have thought too that we should not be free at anybody else's expense. And yet in the phrase "free market," the word "free" has come to mean unlimited economic power for some, with the necessary consequence of economic powerlessness for others. Several years ago, after I had spoken at a meeting, two earnest and obviously troubled young veterinarians approached me with a question: How could they practice veterinary medicine without serious economic damage to the farmers who were their clients? Underlying their question was the fact that for a long time veterinary help for a sheep or a pig has been likely to cost more than the animal is worth. I had to answer that, in my opinion, so long as their practice relied heavily on selling patented drugs, they had no choice, since the market for medicinal drugs was entirely controlled by the drug companies, whereas most farmers had no control at all over the market for agricultural products. My questioners were asking in effect if a predatory economy can have a beneficent result. The answer too often is No. And that is because there is an absolute discontinuity between the economy of the seller of medicines and the economy of the buyer, as there is in the health industry as a whole. The drug industry is interested in the survival of patients, we have to suppose, because surviving patients will continue to consume drugs.

It is this economy of community destruction that, wittingly or unwittingly, most scientists and technicians have served for the past two hundred years. These scientists and technicians have justified themselves by the proposition that they are the vanguard of progress, enlarging human knowledge and power, and thus they have romanticized both themselves and the predatory enterprises that they have served.

As a consequence, our great need now is for sciences and technologies of limits, of domesticity, of what Wes Jackson of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, has called "homecoming." These would be specifically human sciences and technologies, working, as the best humans always have worked, within self-imposed limits. The limits would be the accepted contexts of places, communities, and neighborhoods, both natural and human.

I know that the idea of such limitations will horrify some people, maybe most people, for we have long encouraged ourselves to feel at home on "the cutting edges" of knowledge and power or on some "frontier" of human experience. But I know too that we are talking now in the presence of much evidence that improvement by outward expansion may no longer be a good idea, if it ever was. It was not a good idea for the farmers who "leveraged" secure acreage to buy more during the 1970s. It has proved tragically to be a bad idea in a number of recent wars. If it is a good idea in the form of corporate gigantism, then we must ask, For whom? Faustus, who wants all knowledge and all the world for himself, is a man supremely lonely and finally doomed. I don't think Marlowe was kidding. I don't think Satan is kidding when he says in Paradise Lost, "Myself am Hell."

If the idea of appropriate limitation seems unacceptable to us, that may be because, like Marlowe's Faustus and Milton's Satan, we confuse limits with confinement. But that, as I think Marlowe and Milton and others were trying to tell us, is a great and potentially a fatal mistake. Satan's fault, as Milton understood it and perhaps with some sympathy, was precisely that he could not tolerate his proper limitation; he could not subordinate himself to anything whatever. Faustus's error was his unwillingness to remain "Faustus, and a man." In our age of the world it is not rare to find writers, critics, and teachers of literature, as well as scientists and technicians, who regard Satan's and Faustus's defiance as salutary and heroic.

On the contrary, our human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning. Perhaps our most serious cultural loss in recent centuries is the knowledge that some things, though limited, are inexhaustible. For example, an ecosystem, even that of a working forest or farm, so long as it remains ecologically intact, is inexhaustible. A small place, as I know from my own experience can provide opportunities of work and learning, and a fund of beauty, solace, and pleasure -- in addition to its difficulties -- that cannot be exhausted in a life time or in generations.

To recover from our disease of limitlessness, we will have to give up the idea that we have a right to be godlike animals, that we are potentially omniscient and omnipotent, ready to discover "the secret of the universe." We will have to start over, with a different and much older premise: the naturalness and, for creatures of limited intelligence, the necessity, of limits. We must learn again to ask how we can make the most of what we are, what we have, what we have been given. If we always have a theoretically better substitute available from somebody or someplace else, we will never make the most of anything. It is hard to make the most of one life. If we each had two lives, we would not make much of either. Or as one of my best teachers said of people in general: "They'll never be worth a damn as long as they've got two choices."

To deal with the problems, which after all are inescapable, of living with limited intelligence in a limited world, I suggest that we may have to remove some of the emphasis we have lately placed on science and technology and have a new look at the arts. For an art does not propose to enlarge itself by limitless extension but rather to enrich itself within bounds that are accepted prior to the work.

It is the artists, not the scientists, who have dealt unremittingly with the problem of limits. A painting, however large, must finally be bounded by a frame or a wall. A composer or playwright must reckon, at a minimum, with the capacity of an audience to sit still and pay attention. A story, once begun, must end somewhere within the limits of the writer's and the reader's memory. And of course the arts characteristically impose limits that are artificial: the five acts of a play, or the fourteen lines of a sonnet. Within these limits artists achieve elaborations of pattern, of sustaining relationships of parts with one another and with the whole, that may be astonishingly complex. And probably most of us can name a painting, a piece of music, a poem or play or story that still grows in meaning and remains fresh after many years of familiarity.

We know by now that a natural ecosystem survives by the same sort of formal intricacy, ever-changing, inexhaustible, and no doubt finally unknowable. We know further that if we want to make our economic landscapes sustainably and abundantly productive, we must do so by maintaining in them a living formal complexity something like that of natural ecosystems. We can do this only by raising to the highest level our mastery of the arts of agriculture, animal husbandry, forestry, and , ultimately, the art of living.

It is true that insofar as scientific experiments must be conducted within carefully observed limits, scientists also are artists. But in science one experiment, whether it succeeds or fails, is logically followed by another in a theoretically infinite progression. According to the underlying myth of modern science, this progression is always replacing the smaller knowledge of the past with the larger knowledge of the present, which will be replaced by the yet larger knowledge of the future.

In the arts, by contrast, no limitless sequence of works is ever implied or looked for. No work of art is necessarily followed by a second work that is necessarily better. Given the methodologies of science, the law of gravity and the genome were bound to be discovered by somebody; the identity of the discoverer is incidental to the fact. But it appears that in the arts there are no second chances. We must assume that we had one chance each for The Divine Comedy and King Lear. If Dante and Shakespeare had died before they wrote those poems, nobody ever would have written them.

The same is true of our arts of land use, our economic arts, which are our arts of living. With these it is once-for-all. We will have no chance to redo our experiments with bad agriculture leading to soil loss. The Appalachian mountains and forests we have destroyed for coal are gone forever. It is now and forevermore too late to use thriftily the first half of the world's supply of petroleum. In the art of living we can only start again with what remains.

And so, in confronting the phenomenon of "peak oil," we are really confronting the end of our customary delusion of "more." Whichever way we turn, from now on, we are going to find a limit beyond which there will be no more. To hit these limits at top speed is not a rational choice. To start slowing down, with the idea of avoiding catastrophe, is a rational choice, and a viable one if we can recover the necessary political sanity. Of course it makes sense to consider alternative energy sources, provided they make sense. But also we will have to re-examine the economic structures of our lives, and conform them to the tolerances and limits of our earthly places. Where there is no more, our one choice is to make the most and the best of what we have.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Lessons from North Korea

Great article on the failings of industrial agriculture and "developmentality" policy and economics from John Feffer, co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies and the author of numerous articles on food policy.

Monday, June 16, 2008

More groovy Buddhism podcasts! Yay!

Tibetan Buddhist scholar and author Bob Thurman has some great podcasts available for download.

He's also got a new book on the shelves: Why the Dalai Lama Matters. Check it out!

And here's a TED talk by Thurman on "Becoming Buddha - On the Web"...

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

On 'Vagabonding' and Responsibility

A version of this essay is published at Brave New Traveler Magazine.

Some say that my teaching is nonsense.
Others call it lofty but impractical.
But to those who have looked inside themselves,
this nonsense makes perfect sense.
And to those who put it into practice,
this loftiness has roots that go deep.

From the Tao Te Ching, by Lao-Tzu (chapter 67)

In a recent post to The Traveler’s Notebook, traveler, journalist and eco-philosopher Tim Patterson provided a how-to guide to traveling for free (or very cheap) – a practice that could be called “vagabonding” – for which he was promptly assailed by a number of readers for advocating a kind of shiftlessness and irresponsibility.

He was nailed with all manner of epithets – called irresponsible, a “hippie,” a bum, an idealist, impractical, a “rich, privileged, arrogant hipster,” and the like. In reality, Tim was just offering some practical low-budget travel advice. As such, the vitriolic feedback he got from a number of readers is way out-of-proportion.

But why is that? What brought on this storm of denouncements?

I think I have an idea.

You see, as humans, whenever we have a strong emotional reaction to something, that’s a great opportunity to learn something about ourselves, the way our psyche works, the way our minds are wired up. When we react strongly, that’s usually an indication that some fundamental metaphysical axiom, in other words, some deeply held belief, is being challenged.

Tim’s piece giving practical low-budget travel advice struck a nerve with some folks. And my sense is that these are not oddball folks – rather they are probably fairly typical, fairly mainstream in their beliefs and attitudes.

I suggest this because one of the primary fundamental axioms held in our dominant Western “civilized” culture has to do with the importance of getting somewhere in life. From a very young age, we’re urged to “achieve” this or that, “become responsible,” and to “make something of ourselves.”

Well that’s a curious phrase, isn’t it – “make something of yourself”? Aren’t I already something? Of course, that isn’t what’s intended by the phrase – we’re meant to make something important of ourselves. And in this case important means to embody success, as understood in the conventional way.

So let’s look at this idea of success:

Stealing an illustration from Alan Watts, we ask: What’s the outcome of success in business as we know it? More business! That means more investment, more production, more stuff, more expansion, more proliferation of mostly material ticky-tacky, and to go along with all this, more bulldozing over ecosystems to make it all possible.

Now, granted, all this business – this busy-ness – has produced some technological marvels and various benefits to our lives and to society. But if one is to take a reasonably objective view, one has to ask the question, “At what cost?”

And for all our technology and busy-ness, we’ve got nuclear weapons, climate change, deforestation, a precipitous decline in biodiversity rivaled only by the extinction event that did away with the dinosaurs, GMOs, an environment full of toxic chemicals, “Reality TV,” high-density Confined Animal Feeding Operations, the largest disparity in wealth between the rich and the poor in human history, unprecedented levels of violence and social decay in our cities, etc. etc. etc., and to top it off, an economic system that itself survives by accelerating the rate of all of these forms of destruction and desecration and depravity.

Even so, a belief held very deeply by most folks in our society is that in the present, we are now better off than ever before in human history. But considering the above, I’m disinclined to be so sure about this.

But here’s how all this relates to vagabonding, and notions about “responsibility”:

Responsibility in our society means getting somewhere in life. It means making something of yourself.

There is only one requirement to be a vagabond traveler, and that is to relinquish any notion of or attachment to getting somewhere in life or of making something of oneself other that what one already is.

Being a successful vagabond traveler requires one to viscerally experience the basic realization that the conventionally held fundamental metaphysical axiom of our “civilized” culture is an illusion and is absurd. To rip off ol’ A-Dub again, “It’s like a mosquito biting an iron bull - It’s the nature of a mosquito to bite, and the nature of an iron bull to be un-bitable.”

A vagabond traveler realizes that naught but frustration, anxiety and suffering can come from blindly applying oneself to a futile task such as this. Thus a successful vagabond traveler sees the inherent emptiness in the conventional notion of success, and therefore, as is written in the Tao Te Ching, “has no fixed plans / and is not intent upon arriving.” (chapter 27)

To illustrate this emptiness, let me chart a conventional course of success.

You’re told in grade school to study hard so that you can get into a “good” college. OK, what then?

In college you study hard in order to earn a degree, and get into a good graduate school or professional program. OK, what then?

You work very hard to distinguish yourself in graduate or professional school, so that you can get a high-paying and/or prestigious job. OK, what then?

If you’re a university professor, you work very hard to get tenure. If you’re in a business of some kind, you work very hard to get a promotion, to get a raise in pay, to “climb the corporate ladder.” OK, what then?

Well, with this money and status you must live in a house and drive a car and participate in certain recreational and social activities commensurate with you income level and professional status. This is necessarily expensive and, from the planet’s perspective, most often obscenely resource intensive. OK, what then?

Perhaps along the way you marry and have children. You have to begin to put away money for (1) your own retirement, and (2) to be able to pay to send your children through this same system of studying and working to achieve the thing and make something of themselves as well, and on into the future, ad absurdum…

At the end of it all, if you’ve been clever, “responsible,” and a bit lucky, you get to retreat to the Elysian Fields of Retirement. This seems to be the goal most people in our society are working for, although what they’ll do when they get there I don’t know.

N.B.: My late grandfather, incidentally, had a bumper sticker on his truck that read “RETIRED. Don’t Ask Me To Do A Damn Thing.” And indeed, that was how he lived. And well done for him. (I mean that honestly; no sarcasm intended.)

Anyway, the point is, what’s the point of all this? Where are you trying to get by going through all this? To ask this question another way:

At what point when you have amassed X amount of personal fortune, accumulated Y amount of material possessions, and achieved Z status as ‘an upstanding member of society’ do you shout “Enough!” and commence living a life of contentment?

Looking around our society, it seems that hardly anyone has reached this point. We’ve all got that thousand-yard stare, squinting intently and with considerable anxiety at the horizon – out there, in the future, when we’ll finally have enough. Then we can relax and begin to live. (I suppose.)

This is, I think, the defining characteristic of the conventional mind in our society – never satisfied in the present, never content with what is, always grasping for something more. And we’re certainly inundated with enough marketing and advertising and PR to encourage this mindset.

You see, in a sense, the vagabond traveler is a kind of avatar for our society. She is one who has seen the inherent emptiness behind the conventional understanding of success, who has realized the futility of living a life in unending pursuit of an illusory future happiness.

The vagabond traveler embodies the realization that there is no place other than here, and there is no time other than now. So if one is going to enjoy one’s life, it has to be done in the here-and-now. If one is incapable of enjoying life in the present then one is incapable of enjoyment, period, because the present is the only time there is and “future enjoyment” does not exist.

In the Tao Te Ching (as translated by Stephen Mitchell), the word “content” appears 11 times. Here are some examples showing what Lao-Tzu was trying to tell us…

From chapter 8:
“[The Tao, or natural way] is content with the low places that people disdain.”

“When you are content to be simply yourself / and don't compare or compete / everybody will respect you.”

From chapter 30:
“Because he is content with himself / he doesn't need others' approval.”

Chapter 37:
“The Tao never does anything / yet through it all things are done.

If powerful men and women / could enter themselves in it / the whole world would be transformed / by itself, in its natural rhythms / People would be content / with their simple, everyday lives / in harmony, and free of desire.

When there is no desire / all things are at peace.”

From chapter 39:
“In harmony with the Tao / the sky is clear and spacious / the earth is solid and full / all creature flourish together / content with the way they are / endlessly repeating themselves / endlessly renewed.

When man interferes with the Tao / the sky becomes filthy / the earth becomes depleted / the equilibrium crumbles / creatures become extinct.”

Chapter 44:
“Fame or integrity: which is more important? / Money or happiness: which is more valuable? / Success of failure: which is more destructive?

If you look to others for fulfillment / you will never truly be fulfilled.
If your happiness depends on money / you will never be happy with yourself.

Be content with what you have / rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking / the whole world belongs to you.”

From chapter 65:
“If you want to learn how to govern / avoid being clever or rich.

The simplest pattern is the clearest / Content with an ordinary life / you can show all people the way / back to their own true nature.”

From chapter 80:
“If a country is governed wisely / its inhabitants will be content.
They enjoy the labor of their hands / and don't waste time inventing / labor-saving machines.”

(Of course, on the topic of travel, the Tao also says in chapter 80:

Since they dearly love their homes / they aren't interested in travel.
There may be a few wagons and boats / but these don't go anywhere….
…And even though the next country is so close / that people can hear its roosters crowing and its dogs barking / they are content to die of old age / without ever having gone to see it.”)

So what the vagabond traveler actually represents is a higher kind of responsibility – one who is more in touch with reality and the true nature of the Universe; although the typical mind will always label her as “out-of-touch,” “impractical,” and a “denier of reality.” This mis-labeling and the anger that comes with it – the anger that was showing up in several of the reactions to Tim’s post on low-budget vagabond travel – arise because the deepest Self, beneath all those layers of conventional Mind, resonates with the truth exposed and illustrated by the liberated vagabond, the free-spirited wandering ascetic. And for one strongly identified with the egoic mind and thus caught up in conventional notions of success, that resonance is frightening.

This deepest Self, this universal thing that the Hindus call Atman, has hidden itself inside each of us, playing this colossal game of hide-and-seek. This hallucination that we are “isolated centers of sensation locked up in a bag of skin” (what is indicated in Western psychological parlance by the term “ego”) - hides our true nature from ourselves. Tim’s essay on traveling for free struck such a nerve with folks because he wasn’t addressing individual egos in terms that are comfortable, but rather speaking directly to the Universal Self hidden within all of us in terms intended to draw it out and expose the ongoing illusion of our conventional lives.

This Universal Self knows full well the illusory nature of success in the conventional, egoic sense, and moves naturally to embrace the Tao of Vagabond Travel that Tim illustrates in his piece. A strong negative emotional reaction to this Tao of Travel is simply indicative of folks’ identification with the ego. And when the ego is threatened, it gets defensive - we all know what that’s like, huh!?! Who among us has never reacted angrily and all-out-of-proportion before?

So remember folks, as Lao-Tzu said:

I have just three things to teach:
simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts,
you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.

(Tao Te Ching, chapter 67)

Don’t be too hard on yourselves. Or each other. (Which is to say the same thing.)

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Open Water!

Yesterday I swam 3k and 2k open water races, near Pinehurst, NC. I think that is the most I have ever swam in one day. Sick!

The photos were taken by my friend and benefactor Eric Elbel.

Enjoying a pre-race snack

Psyched to swim!

Contemplating the start/finish

Kate and I discuss strategy

Rounding a buoy

Kate emerges at the finish

After a long slog!

Me, Sonia and Kate ruled the 2k!

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

New piece on Brave New Traveler

Well, I think I set a record for the fast-track to publishing this time!

A week or so ago my buddy Tim published a piece in The Traveler's Notebook called How To Travel the World For Free (Seriously).

His essay is basically an advice column for very-low-budget travel. But it has some metaphysical undertones that struck a nerve with some readers, and unleashed a heated discussion in the comments section.

If you care about the details, you can read for yourself, but basically some folks were breakin Tim's balls for being a "privileged idealistic hippy" and an "arrogant irresponsible hipster," etc.

Hipster? Man, that's low. I'm from Oakland, and that's just WRONG.

Anyway, the disproportionate negative reaction got me thinking. (uh-oh)

Why would people - ordinary people - flip out because Tim suggested to go traveling, not to worry about shit, and just let the Universe do it's groovy thing?

I got obsessed with this question (like I do), and yesterday morning I could not do anything else until I had written up some kind of answer.

So between 9:30 and 11 AM I vomited out this treatise on a kind of Taoist take on eco-travel.

I emailed my vomit to Tim, who looked it over and forwarded the vomit on to the editors of Brave New Traveler, and apparently it was vomit they could dig, because this morning there it was - my vomit published for God and everyone to read on the World Wide Web (and not just on this blog where I can put what-ev I want when-ev).

OK, so that's like maybe less then 24 hours from neuron to that a record? It has to be close to a record. Seriously.

So.....READ IT!

And leave comments!

The title they gave it is: The Tao of Vagabond Travel

I wrote it, but in the interest of full disclosure: the ideas aren't mine. I stole them from Alan Watts, Lao-Tzu, Buddha, and Jesus.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Zen of Sport

A lot of debates have been coming up recently over the case of Oscar Pistorius, the South African double-amputee sprinter. With the use of specially designed prosthetic leg extensions, Pistorius has been training in order to participate in the upcoming Summer Olympic Games.

The debate is over whether Oscar’s prostheses give him an unfair advantage. In January of this year, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) ruled him ineligible for competitions conducted under its rules, including the 2008 Summer Olympics. This decision was recently overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, when the Court ruled that there is insufficient evidence to prove that Pistorius's prostheses give him an advantage over so-called able-bodied athletes.

Oscar’s participation in the Olympics is hotly debated by competitive athletes around the world. But I think the debate misses the point. And further, it’s completely obvious why the debate misses the point – it’s symptomatic of what I would call our misguided understanding of the purpose of sport.

You see, the question of whether Oscar’s prostheses give him an advantage is only relevant when one is placing exclusive emphasis on the purpose of sport – in this case, of sprinting – being to see who can get to the finish line first. So the whole purpose of the race is to see who can get from the starting line to the finish line in the shortest amount of time.

I realize that, to most people, this seems like the obvious and completely appropriate purpose of a sport such as sprinting, or for that matter distance running, swimming, cycling, and so on. But I happen to think it’s a terrible purpose.

You see, if the race is all about getting to the end of the race, then for the duration of the race one’s mind is somewhere else – specifically, at the finish line. One becomes obsessed with the finish line, and that particular numerical score one receives there that quantifies the time it took to arrive. This in turn determines one’s value as an athlete, and as a person, as it were.

This same attitude permeates one’s training regimen as well. If the purpose of sport is that little number one gets branded with at the finish line, the then purpose of training becomes that moment in the future where one’s value is obtained, the mark of success or failure as an athlete. Thus in all of those hours, days and weeks of training, one’s mind is never in the here and now, but rather at that singular moment sometime in the future when dreams are either realized or crushed.

I realize that this is all a perfectly “normal” attitude for competitive athletics, but it strikes me as rather perfectly morbid. With this attitude, one is completely incapable of enjoying sport. Training simply amounts to a kind of grim drudgery one undertakes in order to keep the demons of poor performance at bay. It’s a recipe for suffering and misery so far as I can tell.

Our society has this attitude towards sport because it has this attitude towards everything – life, work, career, hobbies, relationships, etc. In our society, everyone is all about getting somewhere. This seems to be the defining characteristic of what we call “civilization,” this constant desire – a longing, really – to be somewhere else, in both space and time.

I’m not sure where that somewhere is, or when it is, but it is certainly not here and now. Our society believes that the present is completely unsatisfactory, that things will be much better in the future. And so we must race to get there as soon as possible, in flight from the dreadful here-and-now.

Now I can’t imagine a better recipe for perpetual suffering, misery and anxiety! To take as a fundamental metaphysical axiom that the present is never good enough, is never right, and that things will only be enjoyable sometime in the future is a guarantee that one will be in a state of chronic anxiety until the moment of death.

But just look around and you will see that this is true of just about everyone. Most everyone seems to be in a perpetual state of sacrificing the present for the future – “If I can get into such-and-such a program in University, then I’ll have attained success…” or, “If I can get that promotion…” or, “If I could only make more money…” or, “When I can buy a new house (or car)…” or, “Once my house (or car) is paid off…” or “When I can eventually retire…”

Perhaps the most telling are the huge numbers of so-called religious people who have entirely given up on this present life, and are just kind of holding out, biding their time until they die, so that they can go to Heaven! “Yes, then the fun will begin, if we can just hunker down and endure a few more years of this mess down here on Earth…”

You see, the predominant attitude in our society is that the present is never right, is never good enough, so we must get to that better future as quickly as possible. But of course, it’s impossible to get to the future, because as soon as you find the future has arrived, you realize that once again it’s just “plain old now.”

And you can pick up and move your whole life, feeling that here – wherever you are – is a dreadful place to be. But once you’ve settled in “over there,” you look around and find that once again you are actually right back here – the same old you with the same old anxieties, albeit relocated to another geographical spot, but in fact everything’s pretty much the same.

So we’re a society that’s pegged our happiness and well-being and peace-of-mind on accomplishing something that’s flatly impossible and on its face patently absurd. To recall an ancient Zen proverb, we’ve become like a mosquito biting an iron bull – it’s the nature of a mosquito to bite, and the nature of an iron bull to be un-bitable. So we just stubbornly go on with this, in perpetual frustration and suffering. Is there any wonder that the pharmaceutical companies rake in billions every year selling us mood-altering drugs like Prozac? They’ve got a guaranteed market of hordes of perpetually dissatisfied, depressed and anxious people!

So we’re obsessed with getting to the finish line, and as a consequence, we’ve missed out on the whole wonderful race along the way. In other words, a tragically large proportion of us get to the end of our lives and find we haven’t lived at all, being always focused on something in the future, some place other than here and some time other than now.

And because we’re so obsessed with getting to the finish line as fast as possible, we have this morbid approach to athletics where all that matters is reducing that little number that indicates how long it took to get from A to B.

The truth is that to reduce the distance between A and B is to make B the same as A, since one is in much the same state of mind when one arrives at B as when one left A – as travel time decreases, the distinction between the two vanishes to zero. And then one finds that there’s no point in going from A to B, because “there” has effectively become “here.” What are you going to do then?

Athletics ought to take a lesson from dance, or music. When you dance, you don’t pick out a spot on the floor and devise the quickest way to get there. No, not at all – you dance, and that’s the whole point of it. Certainly not to end up somewhere as quickly as possible.

Similarly, as Zen philosopher Alan Watts liked to point out, when you go to a concert, you don’t just go to hear the finale. The point is the whole thing that’s going on as it’s going on. Otherwise, the best orchestras would be those that played the fastest, and the best composers would just write finales! Everyone would take their seats, there would be one huge crashing chord, and then everyone would get up and go home! How ridiculous!

So the point of athletics is not this business about getting to the finish line first. It’s about the race itself, and being present to that. Really we ought to weep at the finish, not because we weren’t fast enough, but because we were too fast, and now it’s all over! We ought to weep out of nostalgia for the dance of the sport.

Alas I realize that once again I’ve expressed an unpopular opinion. People will surely go on about the grim task of “training,” intently focused upon that moment in the future when all present pain and suffering will be vindicated – when one will finally clasp the golden chalice of accomplishment and in so doing make one’s ego a permanent fixture of the Universe – and in the processes miss out on the here-and-now-ness of sport and life.

Luckily for me, I’m a mediocre-at-best swimmer. This means I can swim without succumbing to the expectations of others to achieve anything – win races, set record times, or what have you. No one expects any of that from me, which makes it easier for me not to expect it from myself. Thus I can get right down to the business of grooving on swimming, of being in the moment right down inside the here-and-now of the water, of tuning into the full experience of my body – my musculature, my breathing, my stroke and kick, and this flowing-gliding kind of dance I do with the water.

I won’t get to the finish line first, but that doesn’t matter. I don’t want to get there fast – I’m having way too good a time grooving with the water to hurry this thing up.

And I think this is the attitude we ought to bring to sport and to life in general. I don’t want to ask Oscar Pistorius if he enjoys an unfair advantage. I want to ask him if he enjoys the race, if he enjoys the life process itself. Is he having an uproariously good time? That’s what I want to know. I hope he is.

Of course, they don’t give out Olympic Gold Medals to the one who’s enjoying him- or her- self the most. But with a deep sense of personal peace and satisfaction in the present moment, who needs an Olympic Gold Medal?

Sunday, June 01, 2008


Artist Chris Jordan has created these staggering, mind-bending representations of disturbing statistics about our society. The above image is 60"x90" in it's actual size, and depicts one million plastic cups, the number used on airline flights in the US every six hours.

Go to his site and see zoomed-in versions of this and many other pieces to get the full effect! Un-friggin-believable!