Gratitude for what we once had

To separate is sometimes in the cards.
Though you may feel relief, it makes you sad
To contemplate the scattered, broken shards
Of intimate relationship gone bad.
Your consolation lies in moving on,
But at your peril you neglect to mourn.
For new connections there is time anon;
The old must die before the new is born.

The hardest gratitude is what we’ve lost,
Appreciating that which did not last.
To feel this is to know the future’s cost,
And free yourself to leave behind the past.
It’s difficult, but trust yourself to cope—
To step into the unknown, ripe with hope.

— JJM, #56 from the Yi Jing Sonnet project

Image result for slipping through my fingers

How much of our thinking about happiness is culture-bound?

“For most of human history, life was solitary, poor, brutish, nasty, and short…Food was scarce; health was poor; a day of work was long, and when you got up in the morning, your entire To-do list was trying not to die today.”
— Daniel Gilbert, in a World Minds video

 ….And yet, by the close of the colonial period, very few if any Indians had been transformed into civilized Englishmen. Most of the Indians who were educated by the English-some contemporaries thought all of them-returned to Indian society at the first opportunity to resume their Indian identities. On the other hand, large numbers of Englishmen had chosen to become Indians-by running away from colonial society to join Indian society, by not trying to escape after being captured, or by electing to remain with their Indian captors when treaties of peace periodically afforded them the opportunity to return home.
James Axtell

[Benjamin Franklin told a story about this, but Google won’t find it for me. Perhaps you will comment below if you can locate it. Thanks!]

Daniel Gilbert may be the world’s foremost expert on happiness, but the picture he paints of the lives of hunter-gatherers is badly out of step with what anthropologists have learned from present-day hunter-gatherers in New Guinea, South America and Africa. More basically, his recommendations are valid only within the context of modern Western society, and, even his concept of happiness seems culture-bound.

Before agriculture, people were less numerous and more dispersed. Food was plentiful, and on average, pre-agricultural peoples spent much less time than we spend obtaining the necessities of life. More important, their work was not onerous or demeaning. They didn’t have to stuff down resentment of the boss or frustration with traffic. Can we even imagine what it would be like not to be alienated from our work, to experience no separation between what we are moved to do from moment to moment and those activities that support our existence? Maybe happiness is feeling whole, feeling integration between what we find it natural to do and what sustains ourselves and our communities. 

It may be that the Native Americans were not hunter-gatherers but engineers and stewards of a rich and completely sustainable ecosystem, which they maintained almost effortlessly with well-timed fires and plantings of fruit trees and food plants within natural ecosystems. While the Europeans developed expertise in the short-term efficiency of monoculture, American Natives were wisely intuitive ecologists, experts in a traditional brand of permaculture. I have heard this often enough that I begin to believe it.

Gilbert’s reference to the “to-do” list is just a quip, of course, but it betrays his prejudice that ties happiness to activities of some particular types. He imagines that because pre-agricultural people were less secure against weather and disease they must have lived in fear. But the opposite is almost certainly true. It is we whose cortisol levels are chronically high, we who live in anxiety about whether we will lose our jobs and our homes, we who listen every day to reports of random, insane violence, and perk up our ears when the terrorist threat level goes from red to orange and back to red.

Image result for africans dancing joy

To Thomas Hobbes’s famous “nasty, brutish, and short”, Gilbert curiously adds the adjective “solitary”. He knows from his data that lonely is miserable, and relationship is the most important factor in individual happiness. But he doesn’t seem to know that Western culture has torn us asunder, framed our relationships as transactions in a zero-sum game, and devalued the cooperative relationships that contribute so much to a fulfilling life. He doesn’t seem aware that contemporary America is the most pathologically individualistic, isolating, alienated culture in the history of humankind.   

We live in a transactional economy, carrying the existential fear that maybe we have nothing to offer, or that tomorrow’s robot will make us obsolete. Our forebears lived in the grace of a caring extended family, in which a place was assured for everyone without calculation of the balance between what they offered and what they received. We live on an earth that we are transforming into products in a one-way dive toward global ecosystem collapse. They lived as animals in nature, trusting the bounty of Mother Gaia to provide their needs. We have power and control. They had faith and relationship.   

We live under the shadow of a belief that our precious selves are products of the nerve impulses in our brains, and that oblivion awaits us when those nerves cease to fire. They knew (instinctively and culturally) that the short lives of their bodies are woven into nature’s cycles, and that their core awareness will cycle into another birth and yet another. 

More speculatively, hunter-gatherers had senses which, in us, have fallen into disuse. We have learned to focus on the outer five senses, shutting out, suppressing or fearing mystical experiences, out of tune with our intuitions and the transpersonal messages that animals and less “civilized” humans experience every day. Gilbert knows that people are happier when they are surrounded by nature, because it has been documented and quantified (most famously by Gilbert’s Harvard colleague, E.O. Wilson, who popularized the term Biophioia).  But does any one of us know—can we even begin to imagine—an unshakable sense of wellbeing that is deeply grounded in a life in communion with nature?

                         Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

— Wordsworth wrote this in 1802! What would he make of the alienation which we routinely tolerate today?

Our Western culture and the science that undergirds it have brought us knowledge and a richness of possibilities unimaginable to our ancestors; but I would not count happiness among the boons of a 21st Century Western lifestyle.


Counseled in Humility…

…by the only person from whom I can accept this message.

Stances Marotiques À Mon Esprit

Non mon esprit vous n’êtes sot,
Mais onc ne fûtes Philosophe,
Point n’est sagesse votre lot,
Pourtant ne manquez pas d’étoffe.

Point trop mal vous dites le mot,
Assez bien raillez sans déplaire,
Or un sot ne le pourrait faire :
Non mon esprit vous n’êtes sot.

Mais flatter ne fut mon métier,
Partant souffrez cette apostrophe ;
Bien êtes un peu singulier,
Mais onc ne fûtes Philosophe.

Triste, gai, libertin, dévot,
Sans fin variez votre assiette,
Et donc à bon droit je répète :
Point n’est sagesse votre lot.

Or évitez des esprits vains,
Commune et triste catastrophe,
Car certes n’êtes des plus fins,
Pourtant ne manquez pas d’étoffe

Joseph Quesnel est né cette journee en 1746

Stanzas for my heart, after Clément Marot

No, dear heart, you are not dumb,
But nor are you a mystic sage,
Of wisdom you have ne’er a crumb
But you can read what’s on the page.

Well-mannered you know how to be
And when you’re rude, you know your bound
That proves to me your mind is sound
None charge you with stupidy.

But flattery is not my craft
And as myself I do address
(This makes me just a little daft)
We are no sage, we must confess.

Sad, gay, devout or libertine—
At life’s buffet you’ll choose your dish;
You can be generous or mean,
Live freely as you freely wish.

You need not fall flat on your face,
Or spring the traps that tempt our race—
Just know you’re not a know-it-all
And fix you eye upon the ball.

— Translation by JJM

The War to End All Wars

Today we celebrate the War to End All Wars. It didn’t, and our take on the day has been misdirected by 101 years of propaganda glorifying war. Armistice Day has been turned into Veterans Day. The day to celebrate humanity’s long overdue renunciation of the brutal inhumanity of war has been turned into a day to celebrate the glory of people who gave their lives for their country. They didn’t, of course, give their lives for their country. They gave their lives to protect banking and business interests that profit from control of resources and profit from the conduct of war itself, profit exorbitantly by capitalizing on the chaos and deprivation of war, and the mentality of “spare no expense” that war encourages on both sides.


Read Katy Burns’s article on the War to End All Wars

The Meaning of Life

I don’t know that this is right, but it is my best guess, at this point in my investigations, both scientific and introspective.

Consciousness exists independent of space, time, and matter. Life is consciousness taking up residence inside a physical body.

Living cells have some resemblance to machines, but here’s one difference: human-designed machines are engineered for reliability, which means that quantum fluctuations are averaged over so many particles that the machine’s behavior is absolutely predictable. For example, silicon computers are miniaturized until they have a few thousand atoms in each transistor, which is as small as they can be without danger of quantum uncertainty causing unpredictable behavior.

Remarkably, the behavior of living cells is the opposite. They are “engineered” to be hypersensitive to quantum fluctuations, so that a single quantum event can be amplified to cause behavior changes in the cell as a whole. I don’t know that this is true, but there’s some evidence for it. Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff have argued that quantum events are important in microtubules that carry streams of charged particles in and out of cells. Most directly, Stuart Kauffman has studied the molecular structures of dozens of neurotransmitters, and he concludes that most exist in quantum superposition states, like a computer memory cell that is simultaneously 1 and 0. This is the behavior characteristic of qubits, which are the building blocks of quantum computers. This suggests that the human brain might be capable of a kind of information processing that no conventional computer (technically, a Turing Machine) can perform. But more important: it means that there is an opportunity for a conscious will to intervene behind the veil of quantum uncertainty, and still produce macroscopic effects through a living body.

Illustration to Blair's "The Grave" (first edition 1813); tombstones in smoke and flames; in the foreground a partially draped nude man kneels, his arms raised in the air, seen from behind; a gowned female figure, representing his soul, flies downwards from the sky and embraces him; a proof before title.  1808 Etching

In conventional understanding, physical behavior of quantum-scale objects has an element of pure randomness built into it. If my hypothesis is correct, then what is called “quantum randomness” is not really random, but it is a realm where free will may find an open window into the material world. There is experimental evidence that human intention can modify processes that quantum mechanics calls “random”. Robert Jahn, Dean of Engineering at Princeton University, performed experiments demonstrating exactly this phenomenon over a period of 30 years in the Princeton PEAR lab. And more recently, Dean Radin has compiled evidence that human intention can modify quantum interference fringes.

I am encouraged by this model, rudimentary as it is, because it is both fully consistent with all we know of quantum physics, and also suggestive of ways that we might explore understanding a broad and compelling body of psi research that the mainstream of science has categorically dismissed. (And Yes, this is a proposed solution to the Problem of Free Will, in either a classical, deterministic mechanics or a quantum mechanics that includes pure randomness.)

— Josh Mitteldorf

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain

It’s really quite simple, but it’s a story we’re not encouraged to learn or to pass on.

Every year the world economy grows. Every year, the economy needs more currency to lubricate a larger volume of trade. Collectively, we need more money to be injected into the economy. This newly-created money is not earned. Nobody has earned it, but someone gets to spend it. It’s a boon, a windfall. Who gets to spend this new money into the economy?

Most people would answer, “It’s the people’s money. We the people should get to spend it.” Our Founding Fathers gave this answer when they empowered Congress with the exclusive right to coin money.

But that’s not the system we have at present. Since 1913, private banks create new money and private bankers get that boon. When you think about it that way, maybe “the rich get richer” isn’t a law of nature, but rather an artifact of the Federal Reserve Act of 1913.

It’s not a small amount. For most countries, the amount of new money corresponds to the growth in their GDP plus the inflation rate, a few percent a year. For the US, the amount is much larger because the US dollar is used as an international reserve currency. Almost all nations use US dollars for international trade even when they’re not trading with the US. So for the US, it amounts to about $1 Trillion per year, or $3,000 per year for every man, woman, and child in the country. Money that should belong to us that goes instead to the banks.

Worse than theft is murder. In order to maintain the status of the US dollar as the primary vehicle of international exchange, we have attacked any nation that threatens to use an alternative currency. We have subverted governments in Venezuela and Iran for this reason, and we have bombed Libya and fought a hot war in Iraq for the sake of the bankers.

Next time you see a bumper sticker that says ABOLISH THE FED, you know that that’s what they’re talking about.