Tag Archives: social issues

Thoughts on “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer

My daughter gave me this book as a gift, and I have to say, I loved it. She obviously knows me well.

Kimmerer is Native American and a Professor of Environmental Biology. So this book is essentially a weaving of environmental science writing and spiritually based storytelling. Science and spirituality used to inhabit opposite ends of the spectrum, but not anymore. The people who are at the forefront of each discipline are exploring the relationships between the two, and Kimmerer’s skill as a wordsmith makes this book a joy to read, even when she addresses painful issues, which are unavoidable when writing about environmental topics.

I have Bruce King’s portrait of Skywoman, Moment in Flight, hanging in my lab. Floating to earth with her handful of seeds and flowers, she looks down on my microscopes and data loggers. It might seem an odd juxtaposition, but to me she belongs there. As a writer, a scientist, and a carrier of Skywoman’s story, I sit at the feet of my elder teachers listening for their songs.

(pp. 5 – 6)

We live in a society that is detached from the sources of that which we consume. As a result, we do not have to think about where everything comes from, and the true cost to our world in the mass production of commodities that are destined for landfills. But as Kimmerer points out, almost everything that we use, every item that finds its way into our homes, is made at the expense of another living entity.

Just about everything we use is the result of another’s life, but that simple reality is rarely acknowledged in our society. The ash curls we make are almost paper thin. They say that the “waste stream” in this country is dominated by paper. Just as much as an ash splint, a sheet of paper is a tree’s life, along with the water and energy and toxic byproducts that went into making it. And yet we use it as if it were nothing. The short path from the mailbox to the waste bin tells the story. But what would happen, I wonder, to the mountain of junk mail if we could see it in the trees it once had been?

(p. 148)

There is a long section later in the book that is worth quoting. Kimmerer uses the myth of the Windigo as a metaphor for our current state of mindless consumption.

No matter what they call it, Johnston and many other scholars point to the current epidemic of self-destructive practices—addiction to alcohol, gambling, technology, and more—as a sign that Windigo is alive and well. In Ojibwe ethics, Pitt says, “any overindulgent habit is self-destructive, and self-destruction is Windigo.” And just as Windigo’s bite is infectious, we all know too well that self-destruction drags along many more victims—in our human families as well as in the more-than-human world.

The native habitat of the Windigo is the north woods, but the range has expanded in the last few centuries. As Johnston suggests, multinational corporations have spawned a new breed of Windigo that insatiably devours the earth’s resources “not for need but for greed.” The footprints are all around us, once you know what to look for.

(p. 306)

We all have important decisions to make, and every choice, regardless of how insignificant it may seem, will have lasting consequences. We are indeed at a crossroads, and we no longer have the luxury of complacency. Every one of us has a responsibility, to begin the healing process and start undoing the damage that we have done as a collective species.

We do indeed stand at the crossroads. Scientific evidence tells us we are close to the tipping point of climate change, the end of fossil fuels, the beginning of resource depletion. Ecologists estimate we would need seven planets to sustain the lifeways we have created. And yet those lifeways, lacking balance, justice, and peace, have not brought us contentment. They have brought us the loss of our relatives in a great wave of extinction. Whether or not we want to admit it, we have a choice ahead, a crossroads.

(p. 368)

I strongly encourage you to read this book. It will inspire, outrage, and motivate you. Remember, everything that you do matters. Act accordingly.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 48” by Lao Tzu

Learning consists in daily accumulating;
The practice of Tao consists in daily diminishing.

Keep on diminishing and diminishing,
Until you reach the state of Non-Ado.
No-Ado, and yet nothing is left undone.

To win the world, one must renounce all.
If one still has private ends to serve,
One will never be able to win the world.

This passage really hits home for me. I have always considered learning to be of utmost importance in my life, the gathering and accumulation of knowledge and wisdom. But over the years, I have had to accept the fact that thoughts and knowledge are also just things to which we become attached. So for me, I have had to practice the subtle art of letting go of things I have learned, of not clinging to old ideas. In doing so, I am opening myself up to the inflow of new concepts, new knowledge and wisdom. As I look around at the social insanity that plays out in the world around me, I can see how so much of the discord is a direct result of the tenacious clinging to the antiquated ideas which we have learned. And this is not limited to one side of the socio-political spectrum. It’s rampant everywhere.

There is a line in the song “Soul Kitchen” by The Doors which encourages the listener to “Learn to forget.” I believe that Jim Morrison was echoing the ideas expressed by Lao Tzu in this passage. We must let go of the things we learned that no longer serve us or society, and make room for new ideas.

Thanks for sharing in my musings today. Cheers!

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Thoughts on “Burmese Days” by George Orwell

This book has been sitting on my shelf for years, waiting to be read. A friend of mine, Dave, gave it to me before he moved. Every time I would see it nestled among the other books, I would think “Oh, I should read that,” but then got sucked into another book. But finally, I got around to it.

Burmese Days was Orwell’s first novel, published in 1934, more than ten years before Animal Farm or 1984. It is a tale of British imperialism and expresses some of Orwell’s ideas which would become dominant in his later more popular works.

The central location in the story is an English Club in Burma, which has been instructed to start allowing native people in. The result is tension that seethes with racism.

“… Anyway, the point’s this. He’s asking us to break all our rules and take a dear little nigger-boy into this Club. Dear Dr. Veraswami, for instance. Dr. Very-slimy, I call him. That would be a treat, wouldn’t it? Little pot-bellied niggers breathing garlic in your face over the bridge-table. Christ, to think of it! We’ve got to hang together and put our foot down on this at once…”

(pp. 23 – 24)

This attitude of racial superiority is offensive on so many levels, but was the dominant paradigm at the time. This feeling of racial superiority is manifest in the concept of the “white man’s burden,” the belief that it is the job of the white man to civilize blacks and indigenous people. But as Orwell points out, this is nothing but a lie intended to justify the exploitation of people, cultures, and resources.

“Seditious?” Flory said. “I’m not seditious. I don’t want the Burmans to drive us out of this country. God forbid! I’m here to make money, like everyone else. All I object to is the slimy white man’s burden humbug. The pukka sahib pose. It’s so boring. Even those bloody fools at the Club might be better company if we weren’t all of us living a lie the whole time.”

“But, my dear friend, what lie are you living?”

“Why, of course, the lie that we’re here to uplift our poor black brothers instead of rob them. I suppose it’s a natural lie enough. But it corrupts us, it corrupts us in ways you can’t imagine. There’s an everlasting sense of being a sneak and a liar that torments us and drives us to justify ourselves night and day. It’s at the bottom of half our beastliness to the natives. We Anglo-Indians could be almost bearable if we’d only admit that we’re thieves and go on thieving without any humbug.”

(p. 39)

Orwell asserts that we have lots of freedoms, but these “freedoms” are only meant to be distractions, and that true freedom, and the freedom that matters, is denied.

It is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live. It is a word in which every word and every thought is censored. In England it is hard to even imagine such an atmosphere. Everyone is free in England; we sell our souls in public and buy them back in private, among our friends. But even friendship can hardly exist when every white man is a cog in the wheels of despotism. Free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted. You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself.

(p. 69)

Orwell also addresses the relationship between money, power, and fame. People who are truly obsessed with money see it as a way to attain power and fame. This results in a vicious cycle of corruption where individuals will do anything and destroy anyone to get what they want.

“Money! Who is talking about money? Some day, woman, you will realise that there are other things in the world besides money. Fame, for example. Greatness. Do you realise that the Governor of Burma will very probably pin an Order on my breast for my loyal action in this affair? Would not even you be proud of such an honour as that?”

(p. 140)

The rest of the book reads like a Shakespearean tragedy. Plots are set in motion, tragic events unfold, and the book ends on a sad and unsettling note. But what is most unsettling is how little our cultures have changed. These prejudices, the disregard for others, and the striving for personal gain at the expense of others is still rampant. Orwell must be squirming in his grave.

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Evolution #11: Changing Times

Tomas: You ever wonder if the world is changing? Like, for the worse?

Abe: All the goddamn time.

Tomas: I see it all over. Not just in the big ways. It’s little ones. Sure, the weather is changing, resources are running out, and everyone seems to be loads crazier than before… But whatever is happening now? It seems way bigger. End of days-type business, you know?

In this issue, two men are on a train, discussing changes in humanity. It’s hard for this to not resonate. Our world, and everything in it, including all of us, is changing at a pace that we have not seen in the history of humanity. Change breeds uncertainty, and rapid change creates such a high level of uncertainty that the result is fear. You can see it everywhere, regardless of political leaning or spiritual belief. People are afraid and trust in others is diminishing. This fear is being exploited by media and corporations who see it as an opportunity to capitalize on this trend, offering home security systems, homes in “safe” gated communities, healthy this, secure that.

If you pause and take a step back, it is easy to see how insane this has become. Personally, I feel there is still a way out. Yes, the world will change. Yes, people will change. How that change manifests is still up to us. I choose to help foster a more positive change, and as such am doing small things on a personal and local level. Small changes ripple out and become larger shifts. Never underestimate the impact that your smallest decision has on the world.

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Evolution #10: Creating Our Own Horrors

We made a world where everyone is alone. Full of locked doors and safe rooms, away from the horror. But we’re all locked in with the monsters. The ones we create. The ones we are.

It is difficult to look around these days and not see the fear, isolation, and fragmentation that is rampant in our society. The level of distrust against the “other” has created pockets of people who are willingly keep themselves separate from all people who are not like them, who do not think and act in exactly the same way. And this isolationism is leading to more fear and distrust, creating a vicious whirlpool that threatens to suck us all down into a dark vortex.

I was told once that we are only as sick as our secrets. This is why I feel it is imperative that we break out of this habit we are in of isolating ourselves from people who we label as different and begin to have open, honest, and empathetic conversations. Because if we don’t, we are increasing the risk that we will end up with a world of horror, with all of us locked away in with our own internal monsters in cells of our own construction.

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Thoughts on “Evolution: #09”: The Effect of Ideas

The effect of ideas. The placebo effect. Fanatics who worship different gods “blessed” to walk across fire, or take venomous snake bites without pain. There’s real evidence that our minds can be trained to trick our bodies into wondrous things. So what if the opposite is true…? Isn’t it just as possible that we convince ourselves the world is going to Hell — and our bodies start to believe it?

When I read this passage, it resonated with me. Thoughts are powerful and definitely have an impact on how reality manifests. As I look around and see all the tension and anxiety permeating our world right now, it’s no wonder that more and more negativity seems to be manifesting. This is why I have taken myself out of a lot of social media platforms that have just become too toxic. I’ve also limited my news intake. Just by doing these small things, I’ve noticed a dramatic change in my life. I’m much happier, less stressed, and far less fearful.

We are all active participants in creating the world. As such, we have a choice as to what kind of world we want to bring into being. I for one will do all I can to envision and work towards something better than what we have now. I refuse to allow myself to mentally construct my own Hell.

 

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“Meditation is Not What You Think” by Jon Kabat-Zinn

I picked this book up on a whim. I was at a Barnes & Noble café getting a coffee, and they were offering $5 off this book with any café purchase, so I could not pass it up. I had not read any Kabat-Zinn books, but had heard great things about him and was eager to read his work.

Overall, I really liked the book, a lot. It is the first in a four-book series, and was originally published as part of a larger book called Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness. It seems like it is the appropriate length, and that it might have lost some of its impact if buried within a bigger tome.

In his introduction to the book, Jon eloquently expresses something that I have been feeling, that humanity is at a crossroads, or a threshold, and that the collective choices we make now will impact the course of humankind.

I don’t know about you, but for myself, it feels like we are at a critical juncture of life on this planet. It could go any number of different ways. It seems that the world is on fire and so are our hearts, inflamed with fear and uncertainty, lacking all conviction, and often filled with passionate but unwise intensity. How we manage to see ourselves and the world at this juncture will make a huge difference in the way things unfold. What emerges for us as individuals and as a society in future moments will be shaped in large measure by whether and how we make use of our innate and incomparable capacity for awareness in this moment. It will be shaped by what we choose to do to heal the underlying distress, dissatisfaction, and outright dis-ease of our lives and our times, even as we nourish and protect all that is good and beautiful and healthy in ourselves and in the world.

(p. xxiii)

While there is a wealth of insight and information in this short book, for me, there is one critical paragraph that, although long, really encapsulates everything that this book coveys: that collectively, we need to slow down, become more mindful of our thoughts and actions, and begin to shift the direction of humanity toward the kind of sane, sustainable, and supportive future that we so desperately need.

As the pace of our lives continues to accelerate, driven by a host of forces seemingly beyond our control, more and more of us are finding ourselves drawn to engage in meditation, in this radical act of being, this radical act of love, astonishing as it may seem given the materialistic “can do,” speed-obsessed, progress-obsessed, celebrity-and-other-people’s-lives-obsessed, social media-obsessed orientation of our culture. We are moving in the direction of meditative awareness for many reasons, not the least of which may be to maintain our individual and collective sanity, or recover our perspective and sense of meaning, or simply to deal with the outrageous stress and insecurity of this age. By stopping and intentionally falling awake to how things are in this moment, purposefully, without succumbing to our own reactions and judgments, and by working wisely with such occurrences with a healthy dose of self-compassion when we do succumb, and by our willingness to take up residency for a time in the present moment in spite of all our plans and activities aimed at getting somewhere else, completing a project or pursuing desired objects or goals, we discover that such an act is both immensely, discouragingly difficult yet utterly simple, profound, hugely possible after all, and restorative of mind and body, soul and spirit right in that moment.

(pp. 71 – 72)

Our paradigm is about to shift in a huge way, and I for one will do everything I can to attempt to make this shift a positive one, and that begins by changing myself. I have made a lot of conscious changes in my life over the past couple years, and continue to examine myself honestly to see where I can continue to grow and improve. Meditation and mindfulness practice have played an important role in these personal changes. I encourage you to pick up this book and begin to manifest changes in the world by changing yourself, if you have not already begun to do so. If you have already started on this path, I encourage you to continue. What we do today is important.

Thanks for stopping by and reading my musings.

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