Something Extraordinary Happened

Is humanity on the threshold of an evolutionary leap?

Five hundred million years ago, during the Precambrian era, the instructions for building an eye jumped from plants to animals. The blueprint was encoded in the RHO gene tasked with the manufacture of the rhodopsin protein — near identical to the one in the human eye. Considered one of the major leaps in evolutionary history, this gift to animal life came from microscopic forms of marine plankton called “dinoflagellates.”

In a 2010 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers suggest this extraordinary gene transfer occurred through symbiosis – from dinoflagellates to jelly fish. This seemingly-impossible merging of plant and animal DNA was a game changing event for life on earth.

My metaphorical imagination is making me think that the submicroscopic piece of DNA now infecting close to a million people is actually meant to open a third eye in us all. Like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, Covid-19 seems like a dark emissary carrying a threatening, yet pivotal message for humanity: Wake up!

Wake up from your addictions and your delusions, from your insatiable appetite for more and more stuff causing your relentless assault on the environment. If you’re looking for someone to blame, take a hard, honest look at yourself! Your addictions and insecurities were precisely what forced me to unleash my fury. You seem incapable of listening unless death itself comes pounding on your door. Do you hear it now? How many do I need to suffocate to death until finally awakening the third eye within you?

The pineal gland, also known as the third eye, is a miniscule organ located deep in the human brain which is activated when exposed to light. French philosopher René Descartes called it the “seat of the soul.” A sacred and revered tool of seers and mystics, the third eye opens the pathway to clarity, imagination, and intuition.

For a long time now, it seems nature has been trying to speak to our intuition, or embodied knowledge, warning us that our modern way of life is not only unsustainable but detrimental to our well-being. Her message can be perceived in the increasing levels of depression and anxiety, particularly in affluent societies.

In the U.S. alone, antidepressant use has soared by 65% in the past 15 years. Close to 50,000 people died from opioid overdoses in 2018. The country produces and consumes 90% of the world’s Ritalin to treat attention deficit, and, every year, doctors write nearly 50 million prescriptions for Xanax or Alprazolam to ease anxiety.

If we’re so rich, why are we so miserable?

A painful hangover would be well worth it had the party been smashing, but it doesn’t appear we’ve been having such a good time in our frenzied race to the land of plenty.

Could it be that the voice of our intuition has been telling us all along that we’re on a slippery slope to self-annihilation but we no longer feel able to control our destructive impulses? Ironically, our desperate pursuit to ‘secure’ our future has now made us more vulnerable than ever.

An organism at war with itself is doomed. — Astronomer Carl Sagan

What’s it going to take? A million deaths? The wipeout of the world’s coastal megacities by rising seas? Hordes of desperate climate refugees pouring across borders? The sudden collapse of pollinator communities and ensuing global famine? What!? “Civilizations die from suicide,” warned historian Arnold Toynbee, “not by murder.”

Something truly extraordinary happened 500 million years ago giving rise to our capacity to see.

If Covid-19 awakens humanity’s third eye, the current crisis will be hailed as a new leap in evolution; the pivotal moment when we decided to write a better and more sustainable chapter in the storybook of humankind. If it doesn’t, and we proceed with business as usual, I’m afraid it won’t take long for nature to excise the cancerous scourge we’ve become.

Author Dave Hollis recently said that in the rush to return to normal, we should use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to. It is my fervent hope that we’ll all heed his wise counsel.

Not the End of the World

But a new beginning, perhaps.

It’s neither the end of the world, nor the end of humanity. Not yet, at least.

But it sure feels that way, doesn’t it? Now that a virulent microbe has stopped us dead in our tracks making an eerie hush descend upon humanity’s frenzied existence.

Were it not for the tragic loss of life and financial pain, I would allow myself to feel vindicated for having called for a collective time out less than a year ago:

“Sometimes I find myself wishing the world would stop. Wishing someone would make all stoplights turn red; throw a monkey-wrench into the gears of the madly-spinning carousel; flip-off the world’s main breaker switch plunging humanity into quietude. Just long enough for us to come together and figure out what the hell we’re doing.”

Well, here we are. What now?

Necessarily, for most, sheer survival will take precedence over philosophical or existential questions. I am in that same boat, with no life jacket, and taking-in water at alarming speed. But like the musicians aboard the RMS ‘Titanic’ who played to their tragic end, as a writer, I feel called to lend my mind and voice to discover and share whatever can be learned from the current crisis. For this is precisely when artists go to work, said Toni Morrison. “There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”

From a practical standpoint, I could limit my work and actions to urging the United States to demand that China permanently ban the trade of wildlife for human consumption as a non-negotiable condition to resume trade talks. For that’s how this whole mess started, as far as my research goes. Such a ban would lower the probability of a new contagion. Once the current one subsides, we could go on with business as usual.

But business as usual, I argue, is precisely what is pushing humanity to the brink, so I think it wise to not let this crisis go to waste and explore what it’s trying to tell us.

“Cracks in the foundations of our life narratives can have the surprising effect of clearing space for unforeseeable developments,” says philosopher Gabriel Rockhill. “Like the seeds that sprout in toxic soil or push through slabs of oppressive concrete, re-emergence and reinvention become possible.”

The loud cracks now being heard around the world are symptomatic of a system beginning to show signs of structural fatigue and nearing collapse, none louder than the silent crumbling of our illusions.

Our cherished illusions of certainty, security, and human supremacy… gone!

The illusion that our relentless and voracious encroachment into the natural world can proceed without consequence.

The illusion of our separateness from nature which makes us blind to what John Muir once said, that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

The illusions of limitless growth, progress and economic prosperity now crumbling at a dizzying speed.

Finally, our illusory and hubristic faith in human reason and technology which makes us blind and deaf to our natural instincts and nature’s wisdom.

An era can be considered over when its basic illusions have been exhausted. — American playwright Arthur Miller.

The Anthropocene era, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment, appears to be ending. That, at least, is my most fervent hope.

The emergence of a new era, called ‘The Ecocene’ by many, will depend on a new understanding of human-nature relationships and on ecologically informed ways of thinking and living.

Intimations of what this new era promises are already manifest. Nature is presenting us with a picture of her rapid healing power when unburdened and unsullied by man’s heavy footprint. Skies are clearing, so are waterways. Once more, dolphins frolic in Venice canals. Birds are back in Wuhan. For those who demand more objective metrics of well-being, consider that air pollution is responsible for seven million deaths per year, and that close to 9000 children die of malnutrition every-single-day. To put those numbers in perspective, the latest (4.1) death count from Covid-19 is forty five thousand.

The emergence of the Ecocene, however, depends entirely on what we do once the dust settles.

“In a very real sense,” says American author Jeff VanderMeer, “the history of the world can be seen as an ongoing battle between good and bad imaginations.”

I believe we are now starting to experience the real consequences of our bad imaginations, consequences which make no distinction between rich and poor, the powerful and powerless, or between generations. We are all in the same boat, or Ark if you will, called Planet Earth, facing a common enemy… not just a virus, but ourselves.

Meanwhile, the voice of good imagination has grown steadily louder as humanity rushes towards the abyss. We just haven’t been listening.

For example, in her eye-opening 2014 TED Talk, English economist Kate Raworth wonders, “what if economics didn’t start with money but with human well-being?” She then examines the two sides of that story. “On the one hand,” she says, “our well-being depends on us having the resources we need to meet our human rights to food, water, health, education, housing, energy. And on the other hand, our well-being also depends on our planetary home. For the last twelve thousand years, the conditions on this planet have been incredibly benevolent. We’ve had a stable climate, plentiful water, clean air, bountiful biodiversity and a protective ozone layer. We’d be crazy to put so much pressure on these life-support systems [to the point where] we actually kick ourselves out of the very sweet spot that we know as home.”

But that’s precisely what we’ve been doing: moving dangerously away from that sweet spot, particularly since the Industrial Revolution.

The voice of good imagination is also coming from the young who look upon the actions or inactions of their elders with dismay. “We deserve a safe future,” says 16 year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg. “Is that really too much to ask?”

No, Greta, it’s not. We all want the same thing. But I’m afraid nothing will change unless we change.

By “we,” I mean those whose way of life is at odds with the planet. Who live at right angles to the land. Whose interactions with the natural world, excess consumption and investment decisions compromise the health of the world by undermining its support systems and regenerative capacities. I’m talking about the fortunate ones who live in developed countries. The change must begin there.

No government or international body can save us from our addictions or temper our auto-destructive impulses. Technology, alone, won’t help either; this is just one more human illusion currently crumbling before our very eyes. And no, Mr. Musk, none of us want to join you in Mars.

We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. — Albert Einstein

Changing our way of thinking starts by becoming informed citizens of planet Earth. In this quest, we have only one choice: either accept the science or not. Science is not a matter of belief or disbelief. Those who choose not to accept the science should do the world a great favor and book themselves the first space flight out of here.

For all the rest, a good starting point is learning how humans impact the environment and the top 10 solutions to reverse climate change.

Next, take a hard and honest look at your consumption. Not through the lens of sustainability alone, but far deeper. Examine all the stuff you purchase and ask yourself: Do I really need this? Has all the stuff I’ve been accumulating added to my happiness and well-being?

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

If you are among the lucky few to have investments, exercise the right to demand that your money stop funding companies which are part of the problem. Become a conscious investor, as Vinay Shandal urges in this TED talk. If you, like me, have a pension, write a letter to the fund’s manager asking her to divest from industries which are undermining our collective well-being. Or, if you live, say, in Norway, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, or China, call the officer who manages your country’s sovereign wealth fund and tell him the same thing (okay… maybe not China).

For those who believe their individual actions won’t make a difference in the grander scheme, I offer you the story of seven year-old Benjamin Ball.

The current crisis is humanity’s first, and perhaps last reckoning moment. The perfect opportunity to quickly move back to that sweet spot Kate Raworth talks about. If anything, with death lurking so closely at everyone’s doorstep, it should make each of us question how we’ve been living up to this point and seize the moment to change course.

When we finally come out of this, we’ll be stepping up to a crossroad where we’ll have to choose between “business as usual” and the ultimate survival of our species. Let us wisely use this sheltered time to decide which path to take.

Adventure, Danger, Honor, and Glory

The path of the male warrior.

My inner barbarian awoke from its civilized slumber while binge-watching documentaries on wars of conquest and the rise and fall of empires.

I felt unsettled, tugged by two contrary forces: one modernly conscious (woke?) — scoffing at the sight of grown men acting out their atavistic impulses and yearnings for status and glory through battlefield carnage — the other, an unconscious stirring, marked by goosebumps, raised hair, a quickened pulse and puffing chest with every scene depicting the victors raising their bloodstained weapons and hollering like madmen.

There I was, thinking I had evolved… no longer bound by instinct.

Adventure, with all its requisite danger, is a deeply spiritual longing written into the soul of man. — John Eldredge, ‘Wild at Heart’

I realized it will take more than gentle appeals for inclusion, vulnerability, empathy and compassion to ‘correct’ a man’s tendency towards tribal aggression forged during millions of years in evolutionary history. Fully taming the warrior fierceness in men, I further concluded, is not only impossible, but foolish and dangerous.

Consider the runup to World War II.

In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain tried to appease Hitler on three occasions, finally conceding the Sudetenland, in northern Czechoslovakia, in exchange for Germany making no further demands for land in Europe. Chamberlain boasted it was “Peace for our time.” Hitler salivated, and, emboldened by Chamberlain’s fragility, invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia, followed by Poland — on 9.1.39 — the day the British finally declared war. Chamberlain resigned shortly after and was replaced by Winston Churchill, nicknamed “The Bulldog” for his dogged tenacity and ferociousness. The United States joined the fight in 1941, and, to this day, the Americans who helped free the world from the scourge of Hitler’s diabolical ideology are revered as “The Greatest Generation.”

Today, young men have few paths to greatness. No mighty struggles, no crusades, no calls to conquest (besides video games), no loftier badge of honor than a virtual sword, and no codes of conduct like those which guided the Knights of the Round Table and the Samurai in Japan.

Yet, the stirring remains… always will, and the consequences of not leading boys and young men onto paths to glory through heroic quests are self-evident.

Many of the things that parents have nightmares about (risk taking, alcohol, drugs, and criminal activity) happen because we do not find channels for young men’s desire for glory and heroic roles. Boys look out at the larger society and see little to believe in or join with. They want to jump somewhere better and higher, but that place is nowhere in sight.— From ‘Raising Boys’ by Steve Biddulph

That place, Steve, is everywhere in sight. There are enough worthy battles out in the world to test the strongest of men. But in our society’s misguided attempt to tame the wild spirit of boys, they now cower and fear its expression, or, worse, vent it through self-harm or harm to others. “Some boys are so afraid they will become domestic,” says Robert Bly, “that they become savage, not wild.

If we are to overcome the challenges of the 21st Century, we better change our messaging, fast.

Rather than telling boys there is something fundamentally wrong about being male, I suggest we teach them how to harness their innate fierce energy in service to a cause greater than themselves. Let us drag them — kicking and screaming — out of their dark rooms and away from their screens to initiate them into spirited men of noble purpose!

Let’s inspire them with tales of true heroes; not the super-kind, nor those whose only proof of worth is their wealth, fame, or online celebrity. I’m talking about ordinary people. Those who have dared respond to the calling of their age and brought their unique talents to bear on the challenges of their time.

Let’s instruct them on the innate wiring of the male software — with both its virtues and glitches — and allow them to tinker with it until coding an evolved expression of manhood.

While we’re at it, let’s help them demystify the female gender so, when reaching puberty, they’ll know how to relate to women with realism and respect rather than through the confusing and delusory spectacle of porn.

Further, we must help boys develop a code of honor and conduct and the strengths of character essential for a flourishing life and to withstand and overcome the inevitable obstacles, disappointments and defeats inherent in every hero’s journey. They must learn, from the start, that life is neither a cakewalk in wonderland, nor a buffet where one gets to choose what one wants. It’s a sit-down dinner, where what is served is what they must eat — joys, sorrows, victories, failure, love, rejection, loss… the whole enchilada.

Above all, we must let them know they are needed.

Because right now, about the only thing our well meaning, but confused culture is telling boys is that they’re toxic and not wanted. This, while the world burns and gets overtaken by chest-thumping bullies and highchair tyrants. We are, I fear, nurturing a generation of Chamberlains, drained of all masculine power, and if history can teach us anything at all, it is that the most dangerous man is not one with power but one who feels powerless. Hitler was such a man.

My warning has nothing to do with raising boys under idiotic injunctions like “men don’t cry” or “man-up!” As I’ve said before, men’s seeming incapacity for emotional intelligence is partly responsible for warfare. But a crucial line must be drawn between being empathic and being weak. “Brave men are vertebrates,” said British author, G.K. Chesterton, “they have their softness on the surface and their toughness in the middle. Modern cowards are all crustaceans; their hardness is all on the cover and their softness is inside.”

Our world could use more vertebrates, right about now. We need fierce, gentle warriors steeled with an inner strength informed by the wisdom of water — supple, pliable, but ferocious, persevering, and invincible!


Related reading:

My Father Would’ve been a Nazi

 

Sorry not Sorry, Millennials

A conditional apology from a boomer-ish.

During my father’s recent memorial, I got a taste for the intergenerational conflict currently exemplified by the cry of “OK boomer.”

The boomers and Gen-Xers in my family were slightly outnumbered by the millennials, and in terms of political leanings, there were 4 ultra-conservatives, 3 ultra-progressives, 3 apolitical, and me, self-described as non-partisan, a-moral, un-ideal, non-religious, and pledging allegiance to little else than the Earth and all living beings. An explosive and interesting mix, indeed.

The timing was perfect: the impeachment trial, the Iowa caucus, Australia devastated by fire…

Ensconced for an entire week in my father’s house amid freezing temperatures and dismal weather, tempers flared at every turn. But since there was nowhere to run, things had to be hashed out.

What struck me, deeply and painfully, was the angst among the young adults in our clan. Citing crippling student debt, stagnant wages, unaffordable housing and health insurance, a nearing collapse of social safety nets, and a planet on the brink, every single one expressed extreme reluctance to bring children into the world.

The mood was borderline nihilistic.

Having no house of my own, currently on Medicaid, deep in debt, and struggling to pay off my daughter’s college loans, it was easy to relate, even at 58.

What a shame, I thought, that we — the outgoing bunch — were handing them such a dismal world outlook. So I decided to offer millennials a heartfelt, generational apology, which, understandably, was met by the outcry and stern rebuke of some of the boomers around the dinner table. How dare I apologize!

I just couldn’t help but contrast their pessimism with the excitement and sense of hope I felt when my firstborn arrived into the world in 1993. As she emerged from her mother’s womb and scanned the delivery room with her wide open, curious and impossibly-blue eyes, I felt my timeline suddenly extend a whole century and the word “legacy” entered my consciousness for the first time. That legacy was now on trial.

But wait a second… I thought, after everyone flew back to their respective homes. Are previous generations not due proper credit, respect, and admiration for, say, nearly ending world hunger and having drastically reduced infant mortality rates and deaths from infectious diseases? Is the fact that 90% of the world’s population can now read and write not earn us any accolades when just a century ago 7 out of 10 were illiterate? What about world poverty? At the start of the boomer generation more than 70% of the world’s population was extremely poor. By 2015, that number had dropped to less than 10%. And life expectancy? While I will likely die before my 80th birthday, thanks to advances in medical science, millennials will probably enjoy an extra decade in pretty good health provided they stop worrying so goddamn much.

To be fair, I also worried a lot before deciding to have children. That’s why I took so long to have them. Being an inveterate catastrophizer, I considered everything that could go wrong and likely make me fail as a father. By a ton, or more, I underestimated the amount of shit that would soon hit my fan.

By the time my second daughter showed up, I was bankrupt, living in self-imposed exile in one of the most expensive places on Earth, with no college degree, no network, and four mouths to feed. Prior that, I had lived for 34 years in a third-world country under mostly military rule and ravaged by 30+ years of civil war that cost the lives of 200,000 thousand people. Throughout, I witnessed car bombs, executions by firing squads, political assassinations, and coups d’état. I made and lost fortunes running several businesses under systemic corruption and bouts of extreme inflation and a collapsing currency. My family received several death and kidnapping threats which eventually made us flee our home country.

Yet, I’m still here. Scarred and wounded, of course, but doing just fine. My daughters are thriving. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the priceless gift of their presence in my life, I would’ve ended it long ago. It was their light and their future which kept me going.

Perhaps the prevailing millennial malaise can be partly explained by the fact that we old people are terrible storytellers. We don’t share our victories, accomplishments, and survival stories with the younger generations as much as our parents and grandparents did. We no longer sit at the table or by an open fire to mesmerize and inspire our children with our tales of adventure. Instead, we let the peddlers of media doom and gloom drive the narrative. No wonder they’re afraid. If a young zebra spent its time watching National Geographic documentaries, it, too, would never dare venture out into the savannah.

So, ok, Millennials… granted, we forgot the warming of the planet. We bad. Don’t forget, though, that global warming didn’t show up on our radar until the U.S. drought of 1988, and it wasn’t until 1997 that the Kyoto Protocol on climate change was adopted, which, mind you, was drafted by Boomers and Gen-Xers, as was the recent Paris Accord. So we’ve had less than thirty years to tackle this problem. In the meantime, though, we’ve been busy putting out other fires across the world, like patching-up the ozone layer, increasing the world’s production of renewable energy 6-fold, and putting you through college.

Besides, I am sure you wouldn’t want to inherit a world where every problem has been solved for you. That would rob you of the opportunity to test your mettle and prove your worth.

So get to work, and while you’re at it, have as many children as you can so when they grow up and dare berate you for your generation’s ‘dismal’ legacy, you, too, will have something to brag about while inspiring them with your tales of derring-do.


Related stories:

Failure to Launch! A challenge to young men.

Fire and Stories

 

The Gift of Melancholy

Working through the pain in life.

A feeling of sadness and longing,

That is not akin to pain,

And resembles sorrow only

As the mist resembles rain. — ‘A Day is Done’ by Henry W. Longfellow

Depression and anxiety are big business in America.

Antidepressant use has soared by 65% in the past 15 years. The country produces and consumes 90% of the world’s Ritalin to treat attention deficit. Every year, doctors write nearly 50 million prescriptions for Xanax or Alprazolam to ease anxiety.

And yet, these maladies are at an all-time high, particularly among the young.

For this, I blame Thomas Jefferson. Better said, I blame his dangerous assertion that a supreme being gifted Americans with an inalienable right to pursue happiness; something Howard Mumford Jones described as the ghastly privilege of pursuing a phantom and embracing a delusion.

What’s so wrong about sadness anyway? Or melancholy? Why does everything have to be rainbow colored all the time?

I sometimes drive an hour to the ocean, hoping I will find it thoroughly obscured by fog. I am not a bore, but want a break from all the rainbow violence in the world. — Meghan Flaherty

My younger daughter and I are profoundly melancholy. The type who prefer foggy days, shadowy places underneath bridges, mournful adagios, dark alleys, dusty attics crammed with old books, creaky chairs, rooms with low lighting…

In her teens, she was diagnosed with clinical depression and prescribed Zoloft which she dutifully took for a long time. Last year, she quit cold turkey. “I’m fed up with numbness!” she said. “I no longer know what it is to be happy because I no longer feel sad.”

The characteristic American expectation of positive emotions and life experiences makes feelings of sadness and despair more pathological than elsewhere.

In her paper ‘From Good Cheer to Drive-By Smiling,’ Christina Kotchemdova says that since cheerfulness and depression are bound by opposition, the more one is classified as normal, the more negative the other will appear. And when a culture labels normal sadness or depression as “abnormal,” those who experience these emotions become ashamed and alienated from themselves, thinking that the problem must be them.

While it’s great business for pharmaceutical companies, it is an invisible obstacle to empathy. “Melancholy,” proposes Alain de Botton, “is a key mental state and a valuable one. Melancholy is generous: you feel pity for the human condition.”

Had Abraham Lincoln been president today, he would’ve been prescribed Zoloft in a heartbeat.

“No element of Lincoln’s character,” declared his colleague Henry Whitney, “was so marked, obvious and ingrained as his mysterious and profound melancholy.”

“With Lincoln we have a man whose depression spurred him, painfully, to examine the core of his soul,” wrote Joshua Wolf Shenk for The Atlantic. “A man whose hard work to stay alive helped him develop crucial skills and capacities, even as his depression lingered hauntingly; and whose inimitable character took great strength from the piercing insights of depression, the creative responses to it, and a spirit of humble determination forged over decades of deep suffering and earnest longing.”

“But Lincoln’s melancholy,” Shenk adds, “is part of a whole life story; exploring it can help us see [his] life more clearly and discern its lessons. In a sense, what needs “treatment” is our own narrow ideas — of depression as an exclusively medical ailment that must be squashed; of therapy as a thing dispensed only by professionals and measured only by a reduction of pain.”

The first time I felt empathy was when fate toppled me from the pinnacle of power and wealth forcing me to take-on what I first considered the most humiliating jobs. It’s when I met Darren, who had the letters “L” and “R” tattooed on his left and right wrist as a reminder of the brutal beatings he suffered as a young boy for not being able to distinguish which was which. The time I met Steve, with whom I first went dumpster-diving. And Lorraine, who worked three jobs to put her son through college while caring for her ailing parents. “Losers!” is how I once considered these wretched souls. Ever since, I have never again used that word.

Had I taken everyone’s advice and taken antidepressants to numb my pain during that tumultuous time in my life, I would’ve missed the gift of empathy. Ever since, I have taken all my suffering and transmuted it to light — the light of compassion and wisdom.

“Whatever greatness Lincoln achieved,” says Shenk, “cannot be explained as a triumph over personal suffering. Rather, it must be accounted an outgrowth of the same system that produced that suffering. This is a story not of transformation but of integration. Lincoln didn’t do great work because he solved the problem of his melancholy; the problem of his melancholy was all the more fuel for the fire of his great work.

In psychotherapy, the integration to which Shenk alludes is called “shadow work.” It means bringing to light all the wounds we’ve suffered and repressed in life; the unavowed emotions that, when not brought to surface and given fresh air, have the nasty habit of rearing their ugly heads in other areas of our lives — alcoholism, drug addiction, illicit affairs, violence, etc.

When we stop resisting something, we stop giving it power. Absorbing instead of fighting against. The pain that signals a toothache is the pain that saves your life. Sometimes the only way out is through. — Sarah Lewis

How does the mind absorb suffering? By realizing that resistance and escape are false moves; that pain and the effort to be separate from it are the same thing. Wanting to get out of pain is the pain, said Alan Watts in ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity.’

Swallowing a pill, in my mind, works only as a temporary repressor of difficult emotions. It doesn’t make them go away. In my book, they’re called “the stuff of life,” and when courageously tussled with, not only awaken empathy, but can fuel the fire of great work.

Melancholy might paint a landscape gray, but it is only in shadow where light is perceived.


Read further: ‘A Counterbalance to Unpleasant Memories

Why Are We Here?

What’s our purpose?

In some regions in Mexico, the hummingbird is known as ‘Porquesí,’ meaning “just because” — a wonderful and poetic name for what seems but a caprice of nature… a jeweled whim!

In Oaxaca, they call it ‘Biulú’, or ‘what remains in the eyes,’ for once seen, no one can forget this ecstatic little bird plumed with divinely superfluous beauty.

God, the great Ecstatic, speaks and struggles to speak in every way he can, with seas and fires, with colors, with wings, with horns, with claws, with constellations and butterflies, that he may establish his ecstasy. — Nikos Kazantzakis

Asked by theologians what one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of his creation, British biologist, J.B.S. Haldane answered: “An inordinate fondness for beetles.”

350,000 known species!

Just because.

beetles

The Western, scientific mind, however, appears incapable of apprehending this superfluous beauty without demanding a functional answer for its purpose.

At what cost, I wonder?

Does knowing that the hummingbird flaps its wings 12–90 times per second, or that it’s the only bird that can fly backwards, or that it makes a single migratory journey of 2000 miles in Winter make it more beautiful or memorable? Or does it have the opposite effect? Isn’t the magic spoiled once we discover the magician’s secrets? While we might still be impressed by the magician’s sleight-of-hand, would we not be thereon barred from becoming enraptured? a word that, at origin, means “carried off bodily.”

Piglet: “How do you spell love?”

Pooh: “You don’t spell it, you feel it.”

If we, for instance, knew every biological change occurring in the male and female bodies during sex, would we ever again move “out of our minds” to be lost in sensation? Might knowing everything about the function actually provoke disfunction? Might knowing, say, that 87% of adults in Greece report having sex at least once a week not cause anxiety among U.S. adults where only 53% do?

Tell me… how often do you have sex? Are you performing like a Greek? Should you? Can you?

What’s the purpose of sex among humans anyway? Reproduction?

Not only, says Mexican poet Octavio Paz. It is so much more… “it’s an erotic ceremony in which sex is transformed into metaphor. In this sense, it is similar to language. The agent that moves both poetry and eroticism is our imagination. Poetry erotizes language as imagination transforms sex into a passionate erotic ritual.” Passion, says David L. Norton, is but an arabesque upon animal sexuality. Focus on the mechanics and you’ll kill Eros, or ardent desire.

Wanting to know is part of our cultural DNA. Our curiosity has helped advance the human adventure. But I can’t stop wondering if our insistence on dissecting, measuring, inspecting, prodding, analyzing, labelling, and trying to discover the purpose of everything precludes an embodied participation with the rest of creation.

Do not “all charms fly at the mere touch of cold philosophy?” asked Edgar Allan Poe.

What Do You Do?

After losing all my wealth, I dreaded accompanying my wife to parties. We lived at the time in one of the most expensive places in the U.S. and I had had little success finding a job. I dreaded parties because of the unease I felt when asked the trite question: “What do you do?” — a question actually used to measure us against an arbitrary standard of value and success.

Infuriated by this insistence on wanting to pigeonhole my humanity, I soon came up with this answer: “As little as possible to enjoy life as much as possible.” As you can imagine, I wasn’t invited much thereafter.

Had they instead asked me, “What’s your story?” I would’ve kept them spellbound for hours.

But having a story doesn’t neatly answer society’s demand for a purpose-driven narrative so perhaps it’s time we change the term ‘human being,’ to ‘human doing.’

In Paulo Coelho’s ‘Manuscript Found in Accra’ he says that if we were to ask a river if it feels useless because all it does is flow in the same direction, it will answer, ‘I’m not trying to be useful; I’m trying to be river.’ Ask a wildflower if she feels useless for just making copies of herself and she’ll answer: ‘I’m beautiful. Beauty is the sole purpose of my existence.’

Ask a poor person in my native country about his purpose in life and he’ll likely answer, “to survive,” before punching you in the nose.

An [American] reporter from a local newspaper came to our house to interview my wife about the Japanese tea ceremony. This reporter continually asked, “What is the meaning? What for? Why do you do that? What is the purpose for that?” This kind of question was directed at everything in the making of tea — at every gesture, every implement. Without thinking or deliberating, my wife finally replied, “No meaning… meaningless meaning. It is purposeless purpose.” — Buddhist Gyomay Kubose Sensei

In Taoism, a Chinese philosophical tradition dating back 3000 years, there is a principle called Wu-Wei, or purposeless action. The Western mind, as I said, has a hard time with this. I say this because I still do.

Without a concrete purpose, what would motivate action? Without the need for nectar, what would propel the hummingbird toward the flower? Without goals, what would get us out of bed? Where would I, say, find the motivation to write my book if not for my express purpose of wanting to help boys become good men.

Like in sex, I think the crux lies in spontaneity. By not trying too hard. By focusing on the process (erotic ritual) not the target (orgasm).

“The right art,” cried the Master, “is purposeless, aimless! The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed in the one and the further the other will recede. What stands in your way is that you have a much too willful will. You think that what you do not do yourself does not happen.” — Eugen Herrigel, ‘Zen in the Art of Archery’

In ‘The Way of Chuang Tzu,’ Thomas Merton says, “the true character of wu-wei is not mere inactivity but perfect action. In other words, action not carried in conflict with the dynamism of the whole — or Tao (The Way) — but in perfect harmony with the whole. It is not mere passivity, but action that seems effortless and spontaneous because performed rightly — in perfect accordance with our nature and with our place in the scheme of things. It is not conditioned or limited by our own individual needs and desires. It is complete free because there is in it no force and no violence.”

Forgive me for bringing sex back into the picture, but I cannot avoid imagining how rapturous the sexual experience would be under wu-wei.

Chuang Tzu vividly conveys the wisdom and efficacy of spontaneous action — or going with the flow — in this story:

At the Gorge of Lu, the great waterfall plunges for thousands of feet, its spray visible for miles. In the churning waters below, no living creature can be seen.

One day, K’ung Fu-tse [Confucius] was standing at a distance from the pool’s edge when he saw an old man being tossed about in the turbulent water. He called to his disciples and together they ran to rescue the victim. But by the time they reached the water, the old man had climbed out onto the bank and was walking along, singing to himself.

K’ung Fu-tse hurried up to him. “You would have to be a ghost to survive that,” he said, “but you seem to be a man, instead. What secret power do you have?”

“Nothing special,” the old man replied. “I began to learn while very young and grew up practicing it. Now I am certain of success. I go down with the water and come up with the water. I follow it and forget myself. I survive because I don’t struggle against the water’s superior power. That is all.”

To allow oneself to surrender and go with the flow can be frightening because it challenges some of our most basic assumptions about life, about who we are as humans, and about our role in the world. From a Taoist point of view, our most cherished beliefs are precisely those which lead us to a state of disharmony and imbalance — that we exist as separate beings, that we can exercise willful control over all situations and that our role is to conquer our environment and progress.

Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell. — Edward Abbey

“Humans cling to progress,” says John Gray in ‘Straw Dogs,’ “not so much from genuine belief, as from fear of what may come if they give it up.” Gray calls humanism, not science, but religion — a doctrine of salvation.

If progress is an illusion, how are we to live?

Gray says the question assumes that humans can live well only if they believe they have the power to remake the world. The aim of life, he said, is not to change the world, it is to see it rightly.

The hummingbird does not struggle to change or remake the flower. Nature shapes its bill according to the flowers in its proximate environment. Therefore, its actions, as Merton said about wu-wei, seem effortless and spontaneous because performed in perfect accordance with its nature and its place in the scheme of things.

What happens when humans live in discord and dissonance?

I’ll let author Sam Keen respond:

“Stress is not simply a dis-ease; it is a symptom that you are living somebody else’s life.

Depression is more than low self-esteem; it is a distant early warning that you are on the wrong path and that something in you is being pressed down, beat on, imprisoned, dishonored.

Burnout is nature’s way of telling you you’ve been going through the motions but your soul has departed.”

One way I have found to place myself in harmonious accord is to ask myself “why” I do what I do, instead of “what for”.

“What for?” implies a specific target: The publication of my book, the notoriety, the acclaim, and the potential material rewards.

Asking “why” shifts my attention to subjective, but ultimately more lasting rewards. I am writing my book to help boys grow into good men. To restore balance and harmony to the world. Because while writing it, I enter a state of flow and never feel like I’m working. Because by nature, I have a talent for writing and have found a need in the world that can be served by it.

While still purposeful, this focus engages and activates my heart, body, mind and soul — Psyche and Eros.

One day, I hope to transcend even further, and answer the question of “why am I here?” like the hummingbird: “Just Because,” thus becoming unforgettable for having discovered that a spiritual life is not a search for meaning or purpose, but a release from both.


Flipping God the Bird

A lesson on defiance.

It was one of those mornings. The kind where as soon as you wake up, the world greets you with a shitstorm… an eviction notice, a threatening email from a bill collector, your lover’s suitcases by the front door… take your pick.

For me, it was the 17th rejection to my latest book. For fuck’s sake!

No matter how noble my intentions or how hard I work, the world appears determined to thwart my best laid plans and lay waste to my illusions.

Yes, I’ve trained myself on the life force of clear-eyed optimism. I have accepted the universal law of resistance and have more grit than Sisyphus. But still. There are times when it’d be nice to see a silver lining in my otherwise gunmetal clouds. Just a pinpoint of light at the end of the tunnel, for fuck’s sake!

As I pounded my laptop lodging the 17th rejection to my growing list, dawn broke through the window arrayed in radiant blue.

 

It seemed insane for me to remain indoors banging my head against the same wall while nature beckoned me with her splendor. So I suited up, wanting to ease my distress by surrendering to her soothing embrace.

Silence is so hard to come by anymore that upon entering the wild, I try my best not to fracture its hallowed stillness, especially not with my first-world laments. As it is, our frenzied, noisy existence has made it impossible for us to figure out what to do in quietude and has rendered us insensible to nature’s austere beauty. No wonder we’re always bored and desperate to find the meaning of life. Like discarded violins in the dusty attic of our past — strings slack, tuning pegs broken, and cracked bouts — we no longer resonate, vibrate, thrum, or harmonize with nature so can’t play our once rightful part in the concert hall of Earth. Not surprised we seem bent on destroying her.

My boots sank deep in snow as I trudged around the entrance gate leading to the trail. I advanced slowly, like a camel, still ruminating. Gusts swept through the tall trees making them groan, creak, and knock against each other producing hollow sounds, toppling large clumps of snow from their branches, and churning the white powder underfoot in diaphanous swirls that pricked my face.

The wind died down. Faint ticks and rustlings, the only sounds… sacred whispers… like a symphony about to begin.

I decided to silence the fretful voices in my head, shed my human integument, and commune with the wild in spirit.

That didn’t last too long…

 

“Salvation is a sham!

Disrupting my incipient serenity, the defiant voice of Greek writer Kazantzakis boomed in my head.

Man’s worth lies in that he live and die bravely, without condescending to accept any recompense; with the certainty that no recompense exists, and that that certainty, far from making our blood run cold, must fill us with joy, pride, and manly courage.

No salvation, no hope, no expectation of recompense… how liberating must it be to live that way!

“I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free!” is the epitaph on Kazantzakis’ tombstone.

Hope, for the Greeks, is not a gift. It is a calamity, a negative striving, for to hope is to remain always in a state of want, to want what we do not have, and, consequently, to remain in some sense unsatisfied and unhappy. — ‘The Wisdom of the Myths’ by Luc Ferry

As I reached the river and turned right, I recalled these words from Rudyard Kipling: “You’ll be a man,” he said, “if you can dream, and not make dreams your master; if you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same. If you can make one heap of all your winnings and risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, and lose, and start again at your beginnings, and never breathe a word about your loss.”

Will I ever become such a man?

Joining the chorus of these audacious, carefree men, Nietzsche’s ‘Zarathustra’ accompanied my ascent to the highest peak of the vast wilderness I was in:

“Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman — a rope over an abyss.”

“I love the great despisers,” spoke Zarathustra, “because they are the great adorers and the arrows of longing for the other shore. I love him whose soul is lavish, who wants no thanks… always bestowing and desiring not to keep for himself. I love him whose soul is deep even in the wounding. I love him who is of a free spirit and a free heart. I love him who chastens his God…”

My God is not All-holy,” echoed Kazantzakis. “He is full of cruelty and savage justice, and he chooses the best mercilessly. He is without compassion, nor does he care for virtues and ideas. He loves all these things for a moment, then smashes them eternally and passes on.”

My God is not Almighty. He struggles, for he is in peril every moment. He is full of wounds; his eyes are filled with fear and stubbornness. But he does not surrender, he ascends.”

My God is not All-knowing. His brain is a tangled skein of light and darkness which he strives to unravel in the labyrinth of the flesh.”

My God struggles on without certainty. Will he conquer? Will he be conquered? Nothing in the Universe is certain. It is our duty, on hearing his cry, to run under his flag, to fight by his side, to be lost or to be saved with him. He cannot be saved unless we save him with our own struggles; nor can we be saved unless he is saved.”

“We set out from an almighty chaos, from a thick abyss of light and darkness tangled. And we struggle — in this momentary passage of individual life — to order the chaos within us, to cleanse the abyss, to work upon as much darkness as we can within our bodies and to transmute it into light. It is not God who will save us — it is we who will save God, by battling, by creating, and by transmuting matter into spirit.”

“My prayer is not the whimpering of a beggar. My prayer is a report of a soldier to a general: ‘This is what I did today, this is how I fought to save the entire battle in my own sector, these are the obstacles I found, this is how I plan to fight tomorrow.’”

I have given my book everything I’ve got. Where will I find the strength and spirit to fight another day?

 

I reached the summit and sat down under a tree to catch my breath.

Kazantzakis’ God — not almighty, not all-knowing, not all-just and benevolent — contrasted starkly with the one I was raised to trust and believe in. The compassionate one, who answers all our prayers.

But I have since realized that the meek shall not inherit the earth. Blessed are not the poor in spirit. That justice is not always meted out on the unjust. Sinners are not always punished. Life is not game of musical chairs where everyone gets a chair. And that regardless of my best efforts, my book might never see the light of day.

I must come to terms will all this.

“Only that life is worth living, Kazantzakis said, “which develops the strength and integrity to withstand the unavoidable sufferings and misfortunes of existence without flying into an imaginary world.”

When fortune lays waste to our illusions, what can we cling to if not hope?

Sitting deep in snow and lost in thought, I felt a light tap on my head.

As if by a celestial tablecloth bluely shaken on high, a faint breeze stirred the snow-laden branches above me and let fall a glittering drizzle of miniature diamonds which kissed my face with icy pinpricks.

 

Which made me recall another defiant call, this from author John Cowper Powys: “Do thy worst, O world! Still, still, and in spite of all, will I enjoy thy beauty!”

God changes his appearance every second. Blessed is the man who can recognize him in all his disguises. At one moment he is a glass of fresh water, the next, your child bouncing on your knees, or an enchanting woman, or perhaps merely a morning walk. — Nikos Kazantzakis ‘Zorba de Greek’

I rose and began my long walk to the house in a state of agitated defiance uttering these phrases under breath:

Bring on the shitstorm, I will still enjoy the view!

I will not kneel in prayer to ask an almighty, benevolent God for good fortune. Hereon, I will make my own.

If my book flounders and dies without seeing the light of day, I will start another and then another and never breathe a word about my loss.

I will accept hardship as a man, sharpening my sword against every obstacle on my way, walking the tightrope on the edge of uncertainty viewing the abyss with a defiant stare.

If God insists on testing my resolve without cutting me some slack, I will prove my worth without hope for recompense or salvation. The ascent alone will be my reward.

Waiting for me as I walked into the house was the 18th rejection to my book. For fuck’s sake!

Fuming, I stepped out on the front porch, and with a lit cigarette insolently dangling from my lips, I flipped God the bird.

No lightning struck me.

Regaining composure, I realized my contempt was misplaced. Deserving my rebuke wasn’t God or fortune. It was myself! My ego. The slobbering beast and slavish pursuer of esteem and recompense. Surrender the beast, and you’re free!

With that, I rushed to the bathroom, stared at my insolent reflection in the mirror and flipped myself the bird.