The Human Shadow at War

I’m in Spain dropping off my daughter at a Masters’ Program.

Before arriving, I wanted to learn about the country, especially, the moments in its history that shaped its national psyche or soul – those events people can’t stop talking about no matter how much time has passed. If a foreigner asked me what he should learn before visiting the U.S., I would point him toward the Civil and the Vietnam wars.

When I study history, I choose to focus not so much on the what-and-when but on the why-and-who. I prefer to focus on the protagonists, rather than on specific events.

One of the moments that shaped Spain’s psyche was its three-year civil war that ended in 1939. Its principal protagonist was General Francisco Franco.

I watched several documentaries, and in one reenactment, was struck by the tenor of the voice used by the actor playing the role of Franco. Girlish and high pitched, I found it incongruent with the man who was ultimately responsible for the death of 500,000 of his countrymen. I suspected that I was in the presence of a wounded child, so switched from the documentaries, to dig into Franco’s childhood.

How to Build a Monster

The day Franco was born, his violent and alcoholic father was in a whorehouse. Franco Senior picked on his son’s feeble figure and high-pitched voice, calling him names like “Paquita” (female/diminutive version of Francisco), and “Marica” (slang for homo). When drunk, his father would entertain himself by pinching his younger son’s penis and asking his older brother if he could see anything between his legs. His brother would top-off the humiliation by calling his brother dumb and “little match” because of his large head and sticklike body. Franco’s mother would rescue him, and he would rush behind her sucking his thumb. As a result, young Francisco idolized his mother, even going as far as asking her to marry him when his father left the family for another woman. While Franco served in the military he lost a testicle which may have been the beginning of his prolonged sexual shortcomings. When Pilar Eyre, author of a biography on Franco, interviewed his Doctor about the incident and possible repercussions, he said: “My experience in this field leads me to believe his sexual life was nonexistent. He wasn’t interested in sex, he silenced his desires with his hunger for power and was therefore able to remain celibate almost all his life. Ambition replaced orgasms in his particular case.”

Before leaving for Spain, I had written two articles on mass shootings in America, linking several of the tragic events to the absence or abuse of fathers, the troubled childhoods of its perpetrators, and the absence of positive male role models or mentors in their lives. After reading-up on Franco, I wanted to continue my exploration by learning about the young lives of other infamous figures in world history.

Adolf Hitler was 14 when his father died. He had a poor record at school and failed to secure the usual certificate. He then spent two idle years in Linz, where he indulged in grandiose dreams of becoming an artist while not taking any steps to earn a living. His mother was overindulgent to her willful son and even after her death, he continued to draw a small allowance with which he maintained himself for a time. His plan to become an art student was foiled when he failed twice to secure entry to the Academy of Fine Arts.  He earned a precarious livelihood by painting postcards and advertisements, and drifting from one municipal boardinghouse to another. During this period, he led a lonely and isolated life. In these early years, Hitler showed traits that characterized his later life: inability to establish ordinary human relationships; intolerance and hatred both of the established bourgeois world and of non-German peoples, especially the Jews; a tendency to passionate, denunciatory outbursts; and a readiness to live in a world of fantasy to escape from his poverty and failure. In 1913, Hitler moved to Munich. Temporarily recalled to Austria to be examined for military service, he was rejected as unfit; too weak to bear arms. Hitler greeted the war with enthusiasm, as a great relief from the frustration and aimlessness of his civilian life. He found comradeship, discipline, and participation in conflict intensely satisfying, and was confirmed in his belief in authoritarianism, inequity, and the heroic virtues of war.

The Russian dictator Joseph Stalin was a frail child born into a dysfunctional family in a poor village in Georgia. Permanently scarred from a childhood bout with smallpox and having a mildly deformed arm, Stalin always felt unfairly treated by life, and thus developed a strong, romanticized desire for greatness and respect, combined with a shrewd streak of calculating cold-heartedness towards those who had maligned him. He always felt a sense of inferiority before educated intellectuals, and particularly distrusted them.

Italian strongman Benito Mussolini was born into a poor family and lived in two crowded rooms on the second floor of a small, decrepit palazzo. Because Mussolini’s father spent much of his time in taverns and most of his money on his mistress, the meals that his three children ate were often meagre. A restless child, Mussolini was disobedient, unruly, and aggressive. He was a bully at school and moody at home. Because the teachers at the village school could not control him, he was sent to board with the strict Salesian order at Faenza, where he proved himself more troublesome than ever, stabbing a fellow pupil with a penknife and attacking one of the Salesians who had attempted to beat him. At rallies—surrounded by supporters wearing black shirts—Mussolini caught the imagination of the crowds. His physique was impressive, and his style of oratory, staccato and repetitive, was superb. His mannerisms were theatrical, his opinions contradictory, his facts often wrong, and his attacks frequently malicious and misdirected.

These four characters – Franco, Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini – were directly and indirectly responsible for the death of close to 100 million people.

In a nutshell, war and suffering is the price humans pay for unresolved boyhood traumas.

Lessons of History

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. – George Santayana

For me, there are two lessons to be learned – and never forgotten – in studying the lives of these villains: one political and one personal.

The political, is never to choose a leader without first learning about his/her past. In fact, I propose that along with medical checkups and tax returns, we should require every candidate for high office to undergo – and make public – a thorough psychoanalytic examination.

On the personal side, much is to be learned about working with our shadow.

“The Shadow” is a concept first coined by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung that describes those aspects of the personality that we choose to reject and repress. Aggressive impulses, taboo mental images, shameful experiences, fears, irrational wishes, unacceptable sexual desires— things we all contain but do not admit to ourselves that we contain. (Source: ‘Carl Jung and the Shadow: The Ultimate Guide to the Human Dark Side’).

Once we repress, we project, seeing in others what we are unaware, or won’t admit, lies within us. Although our conscious mind is avoiding its own flaws, it still wants to deal with them on a deeper level, so we magnify those flaws in others.

For example:

HITLER: “If the Jews were alone in this world, they would stifle in filth and offal; they would try to get ahead of one another in hate-filled struggle and exterminate one another.” (Chapter XI of ‘Mein Kampf’)

ANDREW JACKSON, 7th President of the United States: “[Indians]…have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire of improvement. Established in the midst of another and a superior race, and without appreciating the causes of their inferiority or seeking to control them, they must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear.” (At fourteen, Jackson was a tall, skinny, freckle-faced youngster with red hair and steel-blue eyes. He drooled when he talked, especially when excited. Because of this failing he was the butt of many cruel jokes, against which he could retaliate only with his fists. At sixteen, Andrew inherited three to four hundred pounds sterling from his wealthy Irish grandfather. This sum he wasted on high living, gambling, and horses).

DONALD TRUMP: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems…They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.

In his ‘Little Book on the Human Shadow,’ Robert Bly says that as children we are living globes of energy, but one day we notice that our parents, our teachers, and our culture, do not approve of certain parts of that energy, so we carry an invisible bag behind us where we put all that unwelcome stuff. We spend much of our life, Bly says, deciding what parts of ourselves to put into the bag, and the rest of our lives trying to get them out again. The bigger the bag, the less the energy. If we identify ourselves as uncreative, for example, it means we took our creativity and put it into the bag.

Eating our Shadow

How do we empty the bag and eat our shadow?

When I was in my early teens, my parents’ relationship had hit the skids, but no one dared talk about it. Among my siblings, I must have been the one who tiptoed to our parents’ bedroom door and pressed my ear against it to hear them moan to make sure everything was all right. When those reassuring noises went silent, one night, while we were watching an episode of Bonanza (a western) and eating dinner, I had the temerity to ask my father why he no longer made love to my mother.

His eyes narrowed and lit up with rage.

What did you say?”

I remember wanting to shrink and disappear within the folds of the reclining chair on which I sat, or that little Joe Cartwright (my favorite character in the show) would get shot dead right then and fly off his horse. Anything to deflect my father’s burning stare. Without a word, he got up and walked out of the room. Unintentionally, I had lifted the veil covering the romantic sham of my parents’ relationship. I must’ve been scared from seeing my fantasy of a happy family dissolving. My question had been an honest one, one desperate for an answer, but I got none.

I placed that moment into my bag and can’t tell you what specific hurt I caused for putting it there, but I’m sure I did.

Several years ago, I decided to look into the bag of my unconscious and bring out its content. I did it slowly, having learned that eating one’s shadow in one bite causes mayhem.

Guided by a modern-day shaman, I relived the episode with my father. As the therapist guided me back and deep into that fateful moment, the scene morphed in stages. The first descent did not do much to change the stage, scripts, actors, or feelings; I was still a frightened child cowering under my father’s enraged glare. But by the second and third descent, I began to see him, not as an overpowering, forbidding presence, but as another child who had simply been caught telling a white lie. With my eyes closed, I saw him weeping, and heard him tell me about his own childhood wounds. Bound by a common heritage, we embraced and became friends. I took his hand and we walked away through an open field conspiring for a world without adults.

I then told my wounded child the words he wanted to hear that night: that while true that his parents did no longer love each other, he had nothing to do with it and nothing to be be afraid of since their love for him would forever remain intact.

The Wounded Child

In ‘The Dance of Wounded Souls,’ Robert Burney writes that the inner child we need to heal is actually our “inner children” who have been running our lives because we have been unconsciously reacting to life out of the emotional wounds and attitudes (the old tapes) of our childhoods. We can do that by working on developing a relationship with those wounded parts in us. So long as we are judging and shaming ourselves we are giving power to the disease. We are feeding the monster that is devouring us.

The first step is to open a dialog. The adult must become a kind of wizard or mentor to the wounded child. Its own Yoda.

“Our lives are determined less by our childhood than by the traumatic way we have learned to remember our childhoods.” – James Hillman, Archetypal Psychologist

Shadow work is the process of making the unconscious conscious, gaining awareness of our impulses and then choosing whether and how to act on them. We begin this process taking a step back from our normal patterns of behavior and observing what is happening within us.

The next step is to question, “What does this outburst of anger or sadness want from me?” When we observe ourselves reacting to psychological triggers, we must learn to pause and ask, “Why am I reacting this way?” This teaches us to backtrack through our emotions to our memories, which hold the origins of our emotional programming. As we work to understand and accept our shadows we can then seek to unlock the wisdom they contain. Fear becomes an opportunity for courage. Pain is a catalyst for strength and resilience. Aggression is transmuted into warrior-like passion. This wisdom informs our actions, our decisions, and our interactions with others. We understand how others feel and respond to them with compassion, knowing that they are being triggered themselves. (Source: ‘Carl Jung and the Shadow: The Ultimate Guide to the Human Dark Side’).

Ordinarily in Western culture we have only two ideas: either we express, or we repress. Either one expresses anger or one represses it. Zen practice points to a third possibility: in meditation one might allow the anger to come in, so that the whole body burns with anger. The anger is not repressed; your whole body is anger. When the meditation ends, one has the choice of expressing it or not, but expressing it might not involve the lashing scene in which you scream at someone and wear tracks on your mind; it does not contribute to the disintegration of your own psyche. (Robert Bly, Little Book on the Human Shadow).

“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”  – Gospel of Thomas.

As I’ve continued emptying the bag, not only have I found repressed emotions, but distinct personalities, much like the famous case of Sybil Dorsett.

Beating Sybil by two, I have thus far discovered and catalogued eighteen such fragmented soul parts, which, when repressed or denied, have made me say (or not) and do (or not) things I’ve regretted. I call them ‘My Bestiary’ and have given each a proper name. Next to their name, I have listed the negative expressions of their energy and identified compensating qualities that I work to strengthen to keep them from running amok.

This reintegration amounts to re-establishing a conscious relationship between these fragmented soul-parts, or splinter personalities. One can’t be rid of them and shouldn’t. Our wounds, after all, parent our destinies and keep us in the body, and in the world. This re-centering does not obliterate conflict or multiplicity of soul but allows for the coexistence of a more central and detached vantage point from where an untouchable core of the personality serenely views the conflict.

Properly channeled and synthesized, these unconscious psychic energies enrich our lives, make us recover our polytheistic souls, or wholeness, and resurrect the incandescence hiding inside our hurting, dull, and rigid clay statues.

Franco, Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini carried enormous, heavy bags behind them. Unemptied, 100 million people died as a result.

What’s in your bag?


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You’re Flogging the Wrong Horse, Mueller!

Prosecute our Educational System Instead

When will we learn?

That we don’t have a “gun problem” or a “drug problem”, but collectively, one of despair.

That we don’t have an “immigration problem” but a development opportunity in our backyard.

That the important issue is not that the Russians meddled in our electoral process with deceitful propaganda, but that many voters were so easily duped.

When will we stop focusing on consequences and pay attention to causes?

I’ll say it again:

  1. We’ve scratched the surface of the “drug problem” by injecting it with $1.5 Trillion since 1971, and it has done nothing to lower the rate of addiction.
  2. We can confiscate the 270 million guns owned by Americans, but mass killings won’t stop because the despair felt by many young men will still be there.
  3. We can Band-Aid the “immigration problem” by building a wall all the way to the Moon and across the entire southern border; it will be riddled like swiss cheese with underground tunnels in no time. Hunger is a powerful motivator. Think East Germany and the Berlin Wall.

We will not stop Russia or any other foreign power from attempting to influence our elections for their benefit, as they can’t, and haven’t been able to stop the U.S. from doing the same.

What we can, and must do, is arm our voters, especially those coming behind us, with a powerful antidote: critical thinking skills.

Here’s a sampling of social media messages posted during the last election by fake accounts with convincing names such as United Muslims of America, Black Matters, Woke Blacks, Heart of Texas, and Being Patriotic:

“… hype and hatred for Trump is misleading the people and forcing Blacks to vote Killary. We cannot resort to the lesser of two devils. Then we’d surely be better off without voting AT ALL.” (Clinton’s spelling by the way, is not a typo).

“American Muslims [are] boycotting elections today, most of the American Muslim voters refuse to vote for Hillary Clinton because she wants to continue the war on Muslims.”

Being Patriotic “America has always been hinged on hard-working people. If you remove jobs, you’ll remove our country from the world map.

Being Patriotic

Heart of Texas: If Hillary becomes President of the US, the American army should be withdrawn from Hillary’s control according to the amendments of the Constitution.

Heart of Texas

Lastly, my favorite, from The Army of Jesus:

Like if you want Jesus to win

Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities. – Voltaire

With their spread amplified by paid advertisements, some 130 million Americans saw at least one of the posts disseminated by Russian actors according to Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch.

What most stuns me about these posts, is not their absurdity, but their lack of subtlety and sophistication. It’s as if those who wrote them believe the U.S. is mostly populated by village idiots.

In 1983, the Reagan-appointed National Commission on Excellence in Education wrote the following in their report: ‘A Nation at Risk’:

“The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

Little has changed, and since 1983, two generations of young adults have already marched through the assembly lines of our public schools and into our voting booths.

What is the purpose of education anyway?

Is it to produce new cogs and wheels to replace those that wear out inside the machine of our industrialized, tech-driven economy?

Or, is it to foster creativity, love of learning, grit, citizenship, and an open mind?

Scott Walker, the Governor of Wisconsin, believes the former, and tried to change the century-old mission of the University of Wisconsin system – known as the ‘Wisconsin Idea’ – by removing the words that commanded the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition,” replacing them with “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

Critical thinkers are amiable skeptics, wrote Heather Butler for Scientific American. They are flexible thinkers who require evidence to support their beliefs and recognize fallacious attempts to persuade them. Critical thinking means overcoming all sorts of cognitive biases. Roughly speaking, critical thinking helps you figure out whether you should believe some claim, and how strongly you should believe it.

In his paper ‘Teaching Critical Thinking, Lessons from Cognitive Science’, Tim van Gelder says “humans are not naturally critical thinkers. Indeed, like ballet, it is a highly contrived activity.  Running is natural; nightclub dancing is natural enough; but ballet is something people can only do well with many years of painful, expensive, dedicated training.  Evolution didn’t intend us to walk on the ends of our toes, and whatever Aristotle (‘Man is a rational animal’) might have said, we weren’t designed to be all that critical either.  Evolution doesn’t waste effort making things better than they need to be, and Homo sapiens evolved to be just logical enough to survive while competitors such as Neanderthals and mastodons died out.

But it can be taught, and even better, a growing body of research is proving that more so than intelligence, wise reasoning leads to greater wellness and longevity.

But our schools and universities don’t teach it, as they don’t much teach the Humanities anymore – the philosophies, literature, religion, art, music, history and language that help us understand ourselves and our world. These disciplines are rapidly being replaced by Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

But I forget: rationalism is the new bogeyman, and most of us recoil when having to read anything longer than one page.

My concern with this whole ‘Russia Collusion’ thing is not with the threat outside influences present to our representative democracy, but more importantly, with the threats from within. An unthinking society is easier prey to homespun propaganda that triggers aberrant human emotions like fear, vanity, greed, envy, tribalism, scapegoating, and thirst for vengeance (Aldous Huxley must be smiling smugly in his grave).

When it comes to education, I side with our federalist (or nationalist) forefathers: Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, believing that something as vital to democracy as the education of its citizens must not be left to the vagaries of competing ideologies.

Here’s part of Jay’s essay ‘Concerning Dangers from Foreign Force and Influence’ published in the Federalist Papers:

“Among the many objects to which a wise and free people find it necessary to direct their attention, that of providing for their safety seems to be the first. I mean only to consider it as it respects security for the preservation of peace and tranquility, as well as against dangers from foreign arms and influence, as from dangers of the like kind arising from domestic causes.  Let us therefore proceed to examine whether the people are not right in their opinion that a cordial Union, under an efficient national government, affords them the best security that can be devised against hostilities.”

Sadly, my vote for a unified approach to education is half-hearted, realizing that long-gone are the days when John Jay could confidently assure that “once an efficient national government is established, the best men in the country will consent to serve.”

But still…how we educate future generations in the Union, has, in my opinion, a direct bearing on the country’s security and prosperity so must not be left in the hands of philistines like Scott Walker, or the Texas School Board, which, in 2010, adopted textbook standards emphasizing the Christian influences of the nation’s founding fathers and diluted the rationale for the separation of church and state.

Despotism can only exist in darkness, proclaimed James Madison, and I agree. Our schools should be producing light bulbs, not mindless cogs and wheels.

So, Mueller, while you keep flogging that horse, you might want to consider what Mark Twain once said:

In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards.


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Off With Her Head!

Why We Can’t Talk About Climate Change

In “Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans”, Plutarch chronicles the battle of Triganocerta between the forces of the Roman Republic – led by Lucullus – and the army of the Kingdom of Armenia led by King Tigranes the Great.

As Lucullus’ forces advanced across the Tigris towards Armenia, Plutarch reported:

“The first messenger that gave notice of Lucullus’ coming, was so far from pleasing Tigranes, that he had his head cut off for his pains, and no man dared to bring further information. Without any intelligence at all, Tigranes sat while war was already blazing around him, giving ear only to those who flattered him.”

In the ongoing mud-slinging contest around climate change, many heads are falling.

“Why can’t we talk about climate change?”

Mary Thompson’s question weighed on my mind as I crossed a crystal landscape painted by a heavy snowstorm the night before, then frosted by early morning icy gusts. Every bare branch in the forest was garlanded with sparkling ice, and the snow crunching under my boots glinted like sifted flour of a full moon.

Why can’t we?

Mary is not only a dear friend, but a wild, wise woman, a modern-day Shaman and renowned author of the essential book ‘Reclaiming the Wild Soul’. More than the jargon contained in all the reports from the International Council of Science, to me – through her vivid landscape poetics – Mary does more to mend the umbilical cord that once tethered us to the Earth, and to evoke a visceral shudder when witnessing the consequences of our species’ rapacity and indifference born from our estrangement from the Wild.

In her short, moving piece, Mary recounts a recent hike:

“Another couple passes me, thighs like pistons. They’ve already climbed and descended two other valleys and are freely sweating. “It’s too warm for this time of year,” the woman tells me. I agree, and then hear their story: they live in Santa Rosa and only just escaped last October’s devastating fires. Heat and drought are not words they welcome; they have already been scorched. I say, “I’m afraid this is the new normal, the climate is changing.” The man looks away from me, quickly changing the subject. It’s clear that he doesn’t want to hear what I am about to say…”

I’ll tell you why I think he much rather cut off your head, Mary, than hear what you have to say (My emphasis on his gender is pertinent to the first part of my answer).

The reasons, I believe, are threefold: A twisted story, our neurobiology, and our addictions.

A Twisted Story

Mutilation of Uranus
The Mutilation of Uranus

Myths are the dreams of cultures. They are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves – our cultural DNA.

Here’s a sampling of the Western World’s stories of the ‘Great Mother’:

In the Olympian creation myth, Uranus (Father Sky) came every night to mate with GAIA (Mother Earth), but he hated the children she bore him. Uranus imprisoned Gaia’s children deep within Earth, causing pain to Gaia. She shaped a great flint-bladed sickle and asked her sons to castrate Uranus. Cronus, the youngest and most ambitious of her sons, ambushed his father and castrated him, casting the severed testicles into the sea.

In Greek mythology, DEMETER is the goddess of the harvest and agriculture, who presided over the fertility of the earth. Demeter’s virgin Persephone was abducted to the underworld by Hades. Demeter searched for her ceaselessly, and, preoccupied with her loss and her grief, the seasons halted; living things ceased their growth, then began to die.

In the religion of ancient Babylon, TIAMAT is a primordial goddess of the sea. She is the symbol of the chaos of primordial creation. In fierce protection of her progeny, she rebelled against her husband. Her rebellion brought down the wrath of all the gods, and Marduk was chosen to defeat her in battle as she was perceived as the demon of chaos. This archetypal masculine hero rent her in two during the power struggle. He turned Tiamat’s severed body into earth and sky, took over rulership of earth, and recreated humanity ruled by an all-male divine council.

GAIA, DEMETER & TIAMAT are all archetypes of the Great Mother: elemental creator and destroyer – the Womb and Tomb of life. She is the vernal spring and the harvest, as well as the blasted landscape, ravaged by drought, fire, or flood. In myths she is often destroyed, as humanity fears her all-encompassing power, her desire to never relinquish her children and to keep them infantile forever. The ambivalent mother archetype is projected in infancy onto the actual mother, who is both loving and protective, and at the same time, all-powerful

My mother loved to bake. As a young boy, in Shop Class, I made her a wooden kitchen palette, painted it fire-engine red, and lovingly gave it to her on Mother’s Day. My brothers never forgave me. It became her chosen instrument of flagellation – always at the ready – landing on our tender hides with loud smacks until it finally cracked. No one messed with my mother.

Men fear the irrational, the capricious, the chaotic, and distrust intuition – all those mysterious forces that constellate their unconscious.

For psychologist Carl Jung, the transition from unconscious life to conscious life in the development of humanity and the individual is mirrored in the separation of the child from the mother: “The first creative act of liberation [of the unconscious] is matricide” (Jung, ‘Collected Works’ 1954c, p.96).

“Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” Genesis 1:28

In ‘Madness at the Gates of the City’, author Barry Spector says that our world has been conditioned by 5,000 years of andocracy: a social system ruled by men, in which the stories are primarily of male heroes who create the world by killing Mother-Serpents.

These old, twisted, or lopsided narratives, were given greater authority by the Scientific Revolution’s conception that matter (from the Latin mater: mother) is lifeless.

When men agreed that the world was dead, the world itself became ‘Other’ – Barry Spector

“Progress typically runs from simple, dark, slow, primitive, and natural, to complex, light, speed, rational, and enlightened; in other words, from feminine to masculine. Our notions of masculinity are tied up with the myth of progress and the imperative to transcend nature.” (Spector)

That’s the reason, Mary, we don’t want to hear what you have to say.

“You cannot reason a person out of a position he did not reason himself into in the first place.” – Jonathan Swift.

Counter-arguments produce anxiety, because we perceive them as attacks upon our blind faith in progress. If one grows from wet/dark/feminine to dry/light/masculine, appeals to sustainability become entwined with threats to masculinity. (Spector)

If you would have asked the man, instead, about our species’ current-day plans for terraforming Mars and establishing the first human colony in outer space, he would have been all ears, cheerfully riveted.

Having befouled our Mother’s kitchen, left the stove burners on for days, and shattered her crockery, we wish to flee from our recklessness and her growing wrath. The scale of our destructiveness is so grand, we feel there is nothing we can do, so we pine for another chance, somewhere out there.

Our Neurobiology

Day Zero
Day Zero for Cape Town

“History is replete with examples of social organizations, whether a business or a nation, that failed to perceive the realities of a changing environment and didn’t adapt in time to prevent calamity. Hubris and a self-reinforced dynamic of mass delusion characterize the waning phases of these once powerful groups. In hindsight we ask, “What were they thinking?” (Bradford, Jason. ‘The Neurobiology of Mass Delusion’).

Think back to the Great Smog of London of 1952, the Deep-Water Horizon Oil Spill, and The Bhopal Disaster. Now think ahead to June 4, 2018: Day Zero for Cape Town, South Africa – the day when fresh water taps are expected to run dry.

What are we thinking?  Or better said: How are we thinking?

Visual signals get processed in more than one brain region, and the signal first arrives at the primitive hindbrain where it can respond before we are conscious of the threat. Playing runner up is the neocortex, our lumbering master of rational thought. Emotions motivate and guide us.

When we succeed or fail at a task, or are praised or scorned for a particular behavior, emotional reactions are our rewards (feels good) or punishments (feels bad) and become the guideposts for our future thoughts and actions. They become our “mental models,” setting what is important in life and largely defining who we think we are. When mental models are tied to rewards, we fear and rebel against their disruption. Because it receives and processes sensory input faster, our emotional mind can censor from conscious awareness information that may interfere with the task required to make the goal. (Bradford)

You, Mary, are disrupting and threatening our cherished, “feel-good” notion of progress.

It also appears that humans are inveterate optimists. We like to see our glasses half full, our clouds silver-lined.

Using and MRI scanner, Tali Sharot, associate professor of cognitive neuroscience in the department of Experimental Psychology at University College London, and neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps, recorded brain activity in volunteers as they imagined specific events that might occur to them in the future. Some of the events they asked them to imagine were desirable (a great date or winning a large sum of money), and some were undesirable (losing a wallet, ending a romantic relationship). The volunteers reported that their images of sought-after events were richer and more vivid than those of unwanted events.

A growing body of scientific evidence points to the conclusion that optimism may be hardwired by evolution into the human brain. We hugely underestimate our chances of getting divorced, losing our job or being diagnosed with cancer. We expect our children to be extraordinarily gifted; envision ourselves achieving more than our peers; and overestimate our likely life span (sometimes by 20 years or more).

To make progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative realities — better ones — and we need to believe that we can achieve them. Such faith helps motivate us to pursue our goals. To think positively about our prospects, we must first be able to imagine ourselves in the future. Optimism starts with what may be the most extraordinary of human talents: mental time travel. But, while mental time travel has clear survival advantages, conscious foresight came to humans at an enormous price — the understanding that somewhere in the future, death awaits. (Sharot)

Ajit Varki, a biologist at UC San Diego, argues that the awareness of mortality on its own would have led evolution to a dead end. The despair would have interfered with our daily function, bringing the activities needed for survival to a stop. The only way conscious mental time travel could have arisen over the course of evolution is if it emerged together with irrational optimism.

You are raining on our parade, Mary, so off with your head!

Our Addictions

addicted

“The whole American economy would collapse if we all recovered from our addictions.” – Erica Jong

And addiction, is the habitual avoidance of reality. 

From where I now sit, at sunset, cross-legged on a hardened snow berm by the river’s bend, the reality of global warming seems dubious. It is 30 degrees out here. Ice falls are stuck fast to the rock wall, and ice floes rigidly to each other blocking the river’s flow at various points. Much like our opinions, to which we desperately cling, impeding rational, civil discourse.

 

“We must shift America from a needs- to a desires-culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. […] Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.” – Paul Mazur, leading Wall Street Banker. 1929

To consider the alternative reality, according to the prevailing – “full steam ahead” – narrative of those championing the status quo, would mean that we would have to give up our desires, comforts and conveniences, to scale back our consumption; to radically change our way of life. And we don’t want to do that, Mary, and that’s why we won’t talk about climate change.

We much rather be flattered and comforted, like King Tigranes the Great.

So, off with your head!


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Hunger Artists

The Curse and Blessing of Dissatisfaction

Reaching for Stars.png

“And the world will be better for this. That one man scorned and covered with scars, still strove with his last ounce of courage to reach the unreachable star.” – Miguel de Cervantes

In Chapter 11 of Theo’s ongoing journey, while visiting his brother in Florida, he wonders:

“As I consider my brother’s two houses, two boats, his devoted wife, three wonderful children, and his comfortable life enveloped in tropical balm, I wonder, with a slight degree of frustration, why it has fallen on me to be so restless and dissatisfied…always asking myself: Is this it?

The poet Stephen Dunn has a term for people like me: ‘Hunger Artists’ he calls us, “all going forward because the food they ate tasted wrong and the world was sad.” But I’m beginning to sense that moving forward is not enough. Finding better-tasting food to bring joy back to the world should be the purpose of any quest.”

The poem to which he refers reads:

“In spite of their lack of humor

I love Thoreau and Jesus, Marx

Malcom X. I love their obstinate courage,

Hunger Artists all, going forward

Because the food they ate

Tasted wrong, and the world was sad.”

“All the heroes, the saints, the seers, the explorers and the creators partake of it. They do not know where their impulse is taking them. They have been possessed for a time with an extraordinary passion which is unintelligible in ordinary terms. No preconceived theory fits them. No material purpose actuates them. They do the useless, brave, noble, the divinely foolish and the very wisest things that are done by man. And what they prove to themselves and to others is that man is no mere creature of his habits, no mere automaton in his routine, no mere cog in the collective machine, but that in the dust of which he is made there is also fire, lighted now and then by great winds from the sky.” – Walter Lippmann

Theo appears consumed by that “divine dissatisfaction” dancer and choreographer Martha Graham spoke about – “a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than others.”

Is it madness?

Or is it the only path available when you sense that the world is mad?

“Much Madness is divinest Sense –

To a discerning Eye –

Much Sense – the starkest Madness –

’Tis the Majority

In this, as all, prevail –

Assent – and you are sane –

Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –

And handled with a Chain.” – Emily Dickinson

Or nailed to a cross…or forced to kill yourself by drinking hemlock.

Like author E.B. White, who once said he held one share in the corporate earth and was uneasy about its management, Theo considers the scorecard:

From the year 1500 to 2000:

– Human population has increased 14-fold.

– Production 240-fold.

– Energy consumption 115-fold.

Impressive! But…

as author Yuval Harari asked after presenting those figures in his book ‘Homo Sapiens’: are we happier as a result?

“Did the wealth humankind accumulate over the last five centuries translate into a new-found contentment? Was the late Neil Armstrong, whose footprint remains intact on the windless moon, happier than the nameless hunter-gatherer who 30,000 years ago left her handprint on a wall in Chauvet Cave?”

 

 

If the answer is not a resounding and categorical “YES!”, what’s the point?

Theo is in the process of turning over his share – his membership card to the world – and is walking away.

But away where? What for?

He considers the legacy of other Hunger Artists:

“After Jesus, the Catholic Church, the Crusades, the Inquisition, pedophiles.

After Buddha, unbridled capitalism, sweatshops, call-centers, pollution, anomie – a consuming greed in both India (its cradle) and in China.

What about Socrates’ Greece: near financial collapse, unemployment, despair.

Thoreau’s Walden?: despoiled planet, life diminished.”

The world does not seem to want to listen, as I wrote in ‘Off with Her Head!’

We don’t want to hear:

“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” – Jesus

Or

“I am convinced that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime if we will live simply and wisely.” – Thoreau

Or

“The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.” – Socrates

Or Buddha’s second truth: Suffering is caused by selfish craving and personal desire.

We have capitulated, in order to fit in.” Theo recalls his brother’s earlier words as they sit under a clear, starry sky.

Theo wants to “fit out”, and midway in his journey, he is still struggling to rid himself from the suffocating clutch of all the beliefs he’s unwittingly assumed.

“Mine,” he wrote in his First Letter to his crew, “is a spiritual journey, in which I intend to question all the conventions of our modern world – all the ideologies, myths, and illusions that shape our understanding of the world – and think everything anew, as if for the first time: What is Happiness? What is Love? Why Death? What’s the meaning of our short presence on this Earth? How can we live with greater joy, purpose, and presence? I am headed towards a new orientation to life, if you will.”

Some have branded his journey as “escapism”.

To which his response is to quote Henry Miller:

“The real escapist is the man who adapts himself to a world he does not subscribe to.”

Godspeed Theo! Stay hungry, and bring us better tasting food.


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The Perfect Metaphor for Love

Found high-up in a Cloud Forest

El Tenidero framed

After my divorce in 2011, followed by a few tumultuous attempts at virtual dating, and ending with an extremely dangerous dalliance, I gave up, realizing I knew nothing about love and relationships, and told myself that if I ever was given another shot at it, I first needed to move away from the ‘Land of Women’.

So, I wrote this letter; a temporary farewell if you will, to women in my life:

“Now, leave me be! I can’t deal right now with your tears or menstrual blood. Stop seeing me in shining armor. I am no charming prince, nor have all the answers. Don’t ask me to go out and slay more dragons. I am tired, and just want to sleep. Don’t seek in me constancy, or nerves of steel. Don’t expect me to pay your bills at the baker or butcher shop, nor place a new toilet paper roll nor fill the empty ice trays. Don’t expect me to open doors for you or place my coat over a water puddle so your shoes won’t get wet. The only thing I want to do for now is to step down to the serfs’ mess hall to drink a pint of mead with the stableman and devour a mutton’s leg held with my bare hands. Let me sleep on the floor. Don’t daub my face with anti-wrinkle cream. Don’t trim my nails or beard. Don’t hold dinner for me or stay awake waiting for me to read you mushy poetry. I’ll be hunting deer and sleeping under the stars. Besides, for now, the only book I wish to read is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. And please, above all, stop asking me how I feel!”

Then, I plunged into a months-long study on love, romance, sexuality, eroticism, relationships, and the personal unconscious. I ran the gamut, starting with the evolutionary origins of human sexuality, to the often-sexless courtship of Medieval troubadours, all the way to our current age of excarnation, hook-ups, serial monogamy, polyamory, and digitized vaginas. I vowed that if I was to have one last shot at love, I was going to be fully prepared, and walk into it with eyes wide open.

I figured that if we are required to study seven-to-ten years to become doctors, for example, or eight to practice law, we should at least dedicate some time to one of the most important aspects of our lives and our humanity. I also knew that I needed to explore the unconscious feelings that surrounded my ideas of women, to dispel false – or twisted – mystifications. If you consider my background, you’ll see what I mean.

“It is the woman in our heads, more than the woman in our beds that causes most of our problems.” – Sam Keen

About two years ago, at eleven at night on January 15, 2016, my phone beeped with this message:

“How are you?”

We had dated for two years while I lived in Costa Rica in my early twenties. Thirty years had passed since we last heard of one another.

I did not feel fully prepared, but so many serendipities were occurring in my life at that point that I considered her message as another sign from the universe. I seized it, we picked up right from where we started, and have been in a wonderful relationship ever since.

Meant to be? Is it true love? Is she my “other half” Plato proposes in the Androgyne Myth?

Genealogy and ancestry are now big business. People are hungry to know where they come from. I prefer to trace the ancestry of our ideas – our cultural DNA. We are the intellectual offspring of the ancient Greeks.

In a nutshell, the myth explains that long ago, there were three genders: male, female, and androgynous. Males were descended from the sun, females from the earth, and those who were androgynous, descended from the moon. They were powerful and vigorous and made threatening attacks on the gods. The gods did not want to destroy them because they would then forfeit the sacrifices humans made to them, so Zeus (the Sky-God of Indo-Europeans) decided to cut each person in two. Because they longed for their original nature, people kept trying to find their other half and reunite with it. When found, they would embrace and stay together, not wanting anything else.

“And when one of them meets with his other half, the actual half of himself, the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and one will not be out of the other’s sight, even for a moment: these are the people who pass their whole lives together; yet they could not explain what they desire of one another. For the intense yearning which each of them has towards the other does not appear to be the desire of lover’s intercourse, but of something else which the soul of either evidently desires and cannot tell. Suppose Hephaestus, with his instruments, to come to the pair who are lying side by side and to say to them, ‘What do you people want of one another?’ They would be unable to explain. And suppose further, that when he saw their perplexity he said: ‘Do you desire to be wholly one; always day and night to be in one another’s company? For if this is what you desire, I am ready to melt you into one and let you grow together, so that being two you shall become one…I ask whether this is what you lovingly desire?’ There is not a man of them who when he heard the proposal would deny or would not acknowledge that this meeting and melting into one another, this becoming one instead of two, was the very expression of his ancient need. And the reason is that human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love. – Aristophanes.

Sweet, but it sounded too cloying and absorbing. I also suspected that the myth had less to do with relationships, and more with the split between our female and male essences I discussed in Part II of my Series on Objectification.

Having unwittingly surrendered my sovereignty – my ‘Inner King’ – during my marriage, the idea of “losing myself”, or melting into another, as the myth says, was not something I wanted in a future relationship.

In my studies, I came across this vow, proposed by Sam Keen:

“I vow that I will defend the integrity of my separate being and respect the integrity of yours. We will meet only as equals; I will present myself to you in the fullness of my being and will expect the same of you. I will not cower, apologize, or condescend. Our covenant will be to love one another justly and powerfully; to establish and cherish inviolable boundaries; to respect our separate sanctuaries. We will remain joined in the sweet agony of dialogue, the contest of conversation, the dialectic of love until we arrive at a synthesis.”

Keen’s words immediately resonated with me, so I added this to the vow, and sent it to my girlfriend:

“Already whole, we will not look for the other to complete us. Rather, we will look for the other to complement us.”

And that was that…for a while.

But something kept nagging at me: neither the myth nor Sam Keen explained what both halves were coming together for.

I dug deeper, finding this quote from the renowned American mythologist Joseph Campbell, best known for his work in comparative mythology and religion:

“Marriage is a recognition of a spiritual identity.”

That did not help much either.

What does that “spiritual identity” look and feel like? What is the “synthesis” Keen suggests a couple must arrive at through “the sweet agony of dialogue, the contest of conversation, the dialectic of love”?

Then my girlfriend’s daughter announced her wedding.

Having little money to gift her, I decided to create a recipe box, and in it, I included the quotes on love and relationships I felt could guide the newlyweds when struck by the inevitable conflicts that arise in a long-term, committed relationship.

This one made a lasting impression in my mind:

Single Recipe for Dany and Mariano

A few weeks ago, I flew down to Costa Rica to visit my girlfriend and attend her son’s high school graduation. The day after the ceremony, we drove north to the province of Guanacaste, and trekked high-up into the cloud-forest of the Volcán Tenorio National Park.

The night before, we hiked the path leading from our small hotel to a river at the base of the park. I was stunned when we got to its end, having never seen water of this intense blue before.

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Its name is Rio Celeste. Sky Blue River.

“Overflowing, Alive, Joyous!” The phrase of the quote I had included in the recipe box rang in my head. I was eager to climb up the top and reach the river’s springhead.

We left very early the next morning. It had rained hard the night before, and it was still drizzling and overcast when we reached the base of the trail. An hour into the hike, I was glad I listened to my girlfriend, and had rented rain boots and ponchos from an enterprising ‘Tico’ who operated a makeshift stall by the parking lot.

Midway up the mountain, we reached a tranquil section of Rio Celeste where the water’s vibrant color makes you understand how it got its name.

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We kept going; sloughing across the narrow trail, bruised and scraped, knee-deep in mud, calves burning by then; both realizing, in silence, that age was taking its toll on our tired bodies (she’s 51 – I’m 55).

She walked ahead of me, and seeing her bravely forging ahead, I recalled the fifteen reasons (and counting) I’ve compiled on why, every single day, I make the conscious choice to be with her. One of them stems from this phrase in German: “Jemand mit dem man Pferde stehlen kann”: She is someone with whom one can steal horses – daring, adventurous, insouciant; she has my back, as I do hers.

We were exhausted when we reached this crossroad:

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But we decided to climb the remaining 3000 feet to ‘Teñideros’: the place where Rio Celeste is born.

Tenidero

It didn’t hit me at first.

Of course, I was intellectually intrigued by the ‘alchemical magic’ created by the confluence of two ordinary rivers – the clear one to the left, with the mineral-rich, white one in the middle – producing, in their joint flow, such an unbelievable, ethereal blueness.

It wasn’t until I returned home and received the prints of the photos I had taken on our journey that I was struck.

I had found it! The perfect, visual metaphor for love in a committed relationship.

El Tenidero.jpg

And my memory instantly connected that visual, with the recipe I had given my girlfriend’s daughter:

Love is an art, an activity. It is a standing in, not a falling for. It is primarily giving, not receiving; giving as the highest expression of potency, experiencing oneself as Overflowing, Alive, Joyous!

I also made the connection with the “synthesis” to which Sam Keen alluded:

Syn·the·sis (noun): the combination of ideas to form a theory or system.

So I sent my girlfriend that last photo with this letter:

“Upon receiving the photos of our fascinating trek to Rio Celeste, this one has kept me thinking about us.

Why?

Because in it, I visualize the combination of your feminine essence (the earthy and mineral) with my masculine (crystalline) one, producing in their interlacement, something much more beautiful and meaningful than on their own.

It is a visual metaphor for two persons, singular, becoming one person, plural.

Both rivers, merging in that intense and vibrant blueness, have not lost one atom of their singularity. None has absorbed the other. They join to give rise to a new expression of their natures. They combine the best of each other in a new riverbed – a joined enterprise – that by themselves, they could never fashion.

Now they flow together, singing their joys, gurgling their newfound passion, carving in their drift new landscapes and a common future, as they meander towards that final, salty embrace with the sea.

I love realizing that together, we are creating our own Sky Blue River.”

On our way back from Teñideros, we made a final stop here:

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The Woman in Theo’s Head

“It is the Woman in our heads, more than the women in our beds that causes most of our problems.” – Sam Keen

Anima

In Chapter 10 of his ongoing journey, Theo circles back to a quandary that had troubled him for many years: the haunting presence of a powerful female archetype.

He describes her as:

The Ideal, the Eidolon, a woman in the league of Mary Magdalene, Cleopatra, Bathsheba, and Helen of Troy, driving Kings, Emperors, Prophets and Poets mad, chewing them alive, then spitting out their bones with regal indifference. Women, as poet Robert Bly noted, who throw a spark into dry wood, pull energy from a stagnant psyche, and are capable of stirring the sea with a single hair.

Often incorporeal – in fantasies, books, and dreams – Theo has also projected this mysterious energy onto flesh-and-blood women whose features matched the blueprint in his imagination: black eyes (avid, plaintive, and supplicant), raven-black hair, and olive skin. Beyond the physical, such blueprint also contained intangible traits, that, upon projection, endowed these women with a fascinating and irresistible allure: exoticness, seemingly-innocent seductive cunning, primitive sensuality, graceful femininity, and maddening elusiveness.

Jungians call her The Anima: the unconscious image of ‘woman’ in the minds of men.

In her two-part essay, ‘The Archetypal Female in Mythology and Religion’, Dr. Joan Relke says that the “anima manifests as an inconsistent creature: appearing positive one moment and negative the next; now young, now old; now mother, now maiden; now a good fairy, now a witch; now a saint, now a whore. She can be cruelly provocative, taunting, seductive, and terrifying on the one hand, and gentle, solicitous, and wise on the other. She is an active protagonist in dreams and fantasies, and male projections.

Think Marilyn Monroe.

Marylin Monroe

“Thousands, even millions of men projected their internal feminine onto Marilyn Monroe. In the economy of Monroe’s psyche, her death was inevitable [because] no single human being can carry so many projections.” – Robert Bly, ‘A Little Book on the Human Shadow’.

For years, Theo considered these apparitions to be the manifestation of his “ideal mate” and pursued each one with impulsive avidity only to pay a heavy price every time the fantasy failed to match reality. The final blow came a few months before he decided to walk-out of his previous life and embark on a new journey.

He recounts:

Fed up with the turmoil, the sleepless nights, the dizzying fevers, the maddening arousals and ensuing disillusions; desperate to rid myself from the chthonic allure of the myth that had caused me so much trouble in life – like Melville’s Captain Ahab, but accompanied and aided, not by Ishmael, but by the psychoanalytic theories and case studies of Jung and Freud, I sailed across my dream-logs, journals, books – harpoon in hand – searching for the archetype, and for clues of where and when it had first infected me with the psychic parasite that feeds on dangerous infatuations, and that makes some men prefer to endlessly pursue a chimera, rather than tussle with a woman of flesh and blood, fury and tears, scars and wrinkles, and a fragile, fractured, but ultimately endearing humanity.

What Theo discovered was shattering but ultimately enlightening.

Pouring through his dream-logs he found this one of August 26, 2001:

She visited me again last night, in a long white cotton wrap-skirt like those worn by peasant girls or gypsies. I was sleeping in the dream, while she sat on the bed with my head nestled in the warmth of her crossed, bare legs, and caressed my hair. I began to dream-up stories, the words forming above us in wraithlike filigrees of smoke, which she rapidly copied inside a small, black leather notebook as her face looked forwards and backwards.

Like a powerful search beam, the last phrase illumed in his memory something he had recently read in Robert Bly’s book ‘Iron John’:

“When a man is ready to make a decisive move toward ‘The Legends,’ a feminine figure whose face looks both ways may appear in his dreams. It is as if she has two faces: one looks toward the world of rule and laws, and the other toward the world of dragonish desire, moistness, wildness, adult manhood. This dream figure is not a flesh-and-blood woman but a luminous eternal figure. The Mysterious Hidden Woman loves privacy, overhanging trees, long skirts, the shadowy places underneath bridges, rooms with low lighting…she wants passion and purpose in a man, and carries a weighty desire in her, a passion somewhere between erotic feeling and religious intensity.

Mysterious Beauty

Again, Dr. Joan Relke:

“They are temptresses, using sexuality to drag one into the depths of the unconscious, to the destruction of the conscious will and ego, and into the wider world of the ‘Self’. The anima lurks in the unconscious, wielding her supernatural power to drive our lives either towards mystical knowledge, consciousness and individuation, or towards oblivion in sensual urges.”

All along, what Theo, time and again, had been searching for in vain, driven blindly by sensual urges with disastrous consequences, was not something, or someone outside himself, but an integral part of his psyche. More than simply “anima”, this luminous figure constellated the intuitive, non-rational and creative energies Theo had repressed for far too long, living one-sidedly in the world of reason, rules, and laws (I wrote about the dangers of such one-sided existence in Part III on my Series on female objectification).

Theo came close to oblivion.

Now, with growing knowledge, passion, and purpose, he journeys towards wholeness, looking to arrive at a synthesis of the World of Legends and the World of Rules; to achieve a harmonious balance between his duties and his dragonish desires.

CLICK HERE to keep up with Theo’s Love and Existential Tumult across the Fourth Saros.

man in forest spooky halloween mood

 

What I’ve Learned About Anxiety – A Winter Meditation

I’m taking a break from my series on ‘Objectification’.

As I write this, a powerful snow storm is pummeling the Northeast. A “Bomb Cyclone” by the name of Grayson, more fitting a pretentious British aristocrat than a winter hurricane.

In its wake, ‘Lord Grayson’ brings what looks like fast-falling white rain with wind gusts blowing snow from the eave of the porch in curling dust sheets and sheer clouds of sifted flour, covering with fresh powder all the tracks left on the back lawn by the residents of the surrounding wilderness – deer, rabbit, raccoon. If only it were that easy to erase man’s careless footprints…our mistakes.

This time, for once, I am hoping the Weatherman gets it right: that we do lose power and that the roads become unnavigable. I get a thrill when Mother Nature pinches our ears, reminding us who’s in charge and setting us right. She did it with record fury last year, and, I suspect, has greater calamities in store for us under her apron. Fed-up of being abused, she is turning on a dime from ‘Great Nurturer’ to ‘Great Devourer’.

Larger flakes fall. Stepping out feels like walking into a giant snowglobe. I carry a heavy load of firewood into the house just in case; a roaring fire already crackling inside the fireplace; my third cup of coffee by my laptop. I’m settling in, or hunkering down, to write this to you.

The world, for a day, might stop. No cars, emails, phone calls, blaring screens…no noise. If the snowfall tapers before dusk, I will enter the forest and nurture myself from its sepulchral stillness, suckle from its dreamlike quietude. Another thing to add to the endangered list: Silence, now mostly found only inside cathedrals or wood paneled libraries, in the ocean deep, or far in the fathomless universe…a blessed hush, capable of soothing our anxieties like a steaming bowl of your grandmother’s special soup.

Anxiety…I suffer from it, but it doesn’t assail me with a sudden, frantic, hyperventilating force. It’s more like an ever-present, throbbing toothache. What causes it? I wonder, as I read Theo’s introduction to Chapter 8 that begins right after he turned-down his last opportunity for employment:

“I feel like Wile E. Coyote, unwittingly having ran past the edge of a precipice while chasing the elusive Road Runner, and suddenly realizing that there is no solid ground under my free-floating feet. I no longer stand on the edge of the abyss, but have jumped, and must now quickly flap my wings to prevent a free-fall and crash. But I have no wings to flap, and even if I did, I wonder if it’s the flapping that must stop; the compulsive urge to propel oneself; the need to feel one is getting somewhere despite not knowing exactly where that is. Why not surrender to the wind, as novelist Toni Morrison suggests, and just ride it? More than fear, it is anxiety’s implacable hands which have me in their grip, squeezing my entrails almost to the point of suffocation. Yet, despite the uneasiness and uncertainty, I don’t remember having felt this alive.

Theo’s renewed sense of aliveness tells me that there is a good kind of anxiety, one described by philosopher Soren Kierkegaard as “the dizzying effect of freedom”. Theo is leaving the familiar world to enter one of endless possibilities; a kind of existential paradox of choice. Hence the anxiety.

“Because it is possible to create — creating one’s self, willing to be one’s self, as well as creating in all the innumerable daily activities — one has anxiety,” wrote Rollo May in ‘The Meaning of Anxiety’, adding that “creating, actualizing one’s possibilities, always involves negative as well as positive aspects. It always involves destroying the status quo, destroying old patterns within oneself, progressively destroying what one has clung to from childhood on, and creating new and original forms and ways of living.”

Theo wrote about this in his first letter to his crew.

But then, there is a different type of anxiety: an obsession with an uncertain future. A “wakeful anguish”, as poet John Keats called it.

I am prone to making dire predictions, with a worse track record than 16th Century French apothecary Nostradamus. Countless ones can be found within the 1500 pages of my journal that never came to pass, except for “I’m getting old”, which is not much of a prediction, is it? I couldn’t get a job palm reading at a country fair, much less be accepted into the world of gypsies.

What’s going to happen?, or more accurately, What’s going to happen to me? is anxiety’s quiet whisper, wrote Lisa Miller in her article ‘Listening to Xanax’.

Prescriptions for benzodiazepines, or ‘Benzos’, like Xanax, have more than tripled in the last 20 years to 94 million. They are the “greatest things since Post Toasties” said Stephen Stahl, chairman of the Neuroscience Education Institute in Carlsbad, California.

We have entered the Age of Anxiety.

‘Benzos’ suppress the output of neurotransmitters that interpret fear – an evolutionary adaptation. If our hunter-gatherer forebears would’ve taken Xanax before heading to work, we wouldn’t be here. Just imagine this scenario: “Hey! Let’s pet that cute Saber-Toothed Tiger.” “Yeah, cool, let’s do it!” Get the drift?

But we no longer face just simple-fanged threats, ones over which we have a clear choice to fight or flight. Today, we are besieged by situational anxiety from multiple threats that are everywhere and nowhere at once; many global in scale and seemingly abstract, e.g., the growing intensity and destructiveness of weather events, mass-extinctions, coral bleaching, icebergs calving, trucks ramming pedestrians on sidewalks, or cyberwarfare. While another form of denial, I cannot help but feel paralyzed and often guilty of choosing to no longer read the dire reports.

What to do, besides popping a chill-pill; a “I don’t give a damn pill”; a “Special Kiss from Mommy” as Miller called Xanax?

Ironically, anxiety researchers are beginning to circle back to a practice that is 2500 years old: “Mindfulness”; now a $1.1 Billion industry in the U.S. (Buddha should have patented that one). In a nutshell, mindfulness is the process of bringing one’s attention to what’s occurring in the present moment.

In his 1950’s book, ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity’, philosopher Alan Watts, perhaps the foremost interpreter of Eastern disciplines for the contemporary West, said the future is an abstraction, a rational inference from experience which exists only in the brain.

“The primary consciousness, the basic mind, which knows reality rather than ideas about it, does not know the future.” – Watts.

It’s unlikely that the primary brains of the shivering animals outside are looking ahead at, and planning for tomorrow’s predicted sunshine.

Think about it. The future is just another story we humans tell ourselves, one that emerged, I guess, when we became conscious of the passage of time and our mortality; when we realized that things change.

“The real reason why human life can be so utterly exasperating, and frustrating is not because there are facts called death, pain, fear, or hunger. The madness of the thing is that when such facts are present, we circle, buzz, writhe, and whirl, trying to get the “I” out of the experience. We pretend that we are amoebas, and try to protect ourselves from life by splitting in two.” – Watts

But there is a contradiction, Watts warned, in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity. “If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life. Yet, it is this very sense of separateness which makes me feel insecure. Running away from fear is fear. Wanting to get out of the pain is the pain.

The only way out, it seems, is not out at all, but in, much like the practice of judo: you master a force by giving into it.

It is still snowing after more than five hours, and as I look out the window, I can feel the strain of the rigid branches of the pines from the weight of the accumulating drifts. If it gets any colder, and the wind intensifies, they might snap. In contrast, I imagine the supple willow by the nearby river; it’s springy boughs gently yielding, giving in to the force, dropping the snow, and bouncing back again. Like a dance.

How to become a Willow?

To understand joy or fear, Watts suggests, you must be wholly and undividedly aware of it (mindfulness). So long as you are calling it names and saying: “I am happy,” or “I am afraid,” you are not being aware of it. Understanding them requires a single and undivided mind.

“If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.” Matthew 6:22

The second thing to do is stop living in the abstraction we call the future. I know it’s hard, but I’ve discovered it helps thinking about it this way:

We don’t only read the last chapter of a book. We don’t attend a concert just to hear the finale. We don’t eat (although I sometimes do) with our mind focused on dessert. And we better not be making love only to achieve orgasm or while comparing it with previous sexual encounters.

“There are two ways of understanding and experience: compare it with memories of other experiences and so to name it and define it, or, be aware of it as it is, as when, in the intensity of joy, we forget past and future.” – Watts

When each moment becomes an expectation, life is deprived of fulfillment. Expectations are reckless enemies of serenity, wrote contemporary philosopher Alain de Botton.

But what about those larger dangers; those existential threats that have humankind in their crosshairs? Is there an alternative to being frozen by fear or numbed by helplessness?

Most of you, I’m sure, know the story of the old man by the shore that watches a young boy saving starfish by hurling them, one by one, back into the ocean. With cynical and apathetic detachment, the old man approaches the boy who is preparing to launch another starfish, and scoffs at his futile endeavor, pointing at the thousands that still lie on the sand.

“I’ve done this walk every day for ten years, and it’s always the same,” the old man says. “There must be millions of stranded starfish! I hate to say it, but you’ll never make a difference.”

The boy replies: “Well, I just made a difference for that one”, and continues with his work.

While we may not be able to solve all the problems that afflict humankind or our planet, we can – and must – resist detachment, lending our words, our voice, our hands and hearts, to a cause that resonates deeply within us: our chosen Starfish.

The town’s Weatherman joins me in the hall of the world’s most inept prognosticators. Grayson’s hissy fit is almost over. We did not lose power, and the snowplows kept the roads open. Yet, I am serene. I began writing this piece early this morning and have not felt the passing of the last seven hours. Not once, did I think of the future, but remained immersed in the present, telling you this story.

A fluffy white cushion, twelve inches deep, lies on the ground. I am not free to live in any moment but this one, so I am heading outside, to fall into its soft embrace.


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