Conservatives and the Environment

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Cal Thomas, a well-known columnist wrote about climate change in a recent column. He doesn’t believe the climate is changing, or that, if it were, human activities have anything to do with it. One reader of the local paper caught him lying about that.
He cited one source as saying the Earth hasn’t warmed in eighteen years. The source in fact said that the earth had been warming steadily in that time. The other two sources Thomas cited were run by like-minded conservatives, so we can probably assume they had no more interest in being impartial than he did. Conservatives dislike the whole idea, and like to dismiss it as a way liberals (and presumably a majority of scientists) have devised conspiratorially to dictate to everyone.
Why did Mr. Thomas get so emotionally involved as to lie? Why does anyone? We all have biases. But one reason might be that one’s complicity in an ongoing catastrophe may be hard to acknowledge, especially if your political faith is partly defined in denying it.
Whether or not you believe human activity is causing climate change (I’ve always thought it plausible), what should be apparent is that humans spread pollution all over the world, destroying many plant and animal species. Elephants, rhinos, and lions are merely some of the most visible.
It should also be clear that destroying plant life, especially deforestation, is detrimental to the ability of plants to change carbon dioxide into oxygen, which is more urgent when we pump tons of CO2 into the atmosphere yearly. That’s just one of the more obvious ways we destroy the environment we depend on for life ourselves. It’s an example of liberty become licence, in the name of profit.
Profiteering is one of the things conservatives accuse liberals of in connection to climate science. Is that really likely? Profits from clean energy are mostly potential at this point, while profits from the fossil fuel industry are well-established, so the profit motive is much more likely to be projection on the part of conservatives. It’s the fossil fuel industry that has for years been casting doubt on climate science. They want all our eggs in their basket, even though their basket is poisonous. Is propaganda to stop a new industry the way the free market is really supposed to work? Conservatives in this country are wedded to the idea of the free market, but it isn’t an unmixed blessing.
A good example of negative capitalism is illegal drug trafficking. This is capitalism without regulation, and we see how it operates. Torturing and killing are standard.
Are they capitalism unmasked? One would hate to think so, but there’s no doubt they are capitalists. They produce and deliver a product for which there’s a demand, and they’re ruthless in accomplishing that.
Is that essentially different from oil and coal companies hiring scientists to cast doubt on climate science? What they’re doing is a lot less overt than beheadings, kidnappings and murders, but is on a more massive scale, and arguably more damaging.
It’s interesting how bitter Thomas and other conservative commentators get on the subject of human activity causing climate change. They really want the whole world to agree with them, and may be bitter in part not just because of the disagreement, but because a sizable portion of the world considers them immoral.
They aren’t immoral just for their beliefs, nor are they they only ones who are immoral. Living in this country it’s very difficult not to be complicit in the massive pollution that interferes with the natural processes that keep all of us alive. Think of all the products we manufacture that don’t biodegrade. Probably millions of tons each year that leave piles of eternal trash littering the world. The one thing you can say in favor of this trash is that it’s convenient.
I contribute my share of trash too. When I give patients medications I use plastic med cups and plastic cups, and throw them away after one use. When I started working in a hospital almost fifty years ago it was somewhat different. A lot of the equipment was metal, and we sterilized it in an autoclave for repeated use. Now bedpans, urinals, and wash basins are all plastic. IV fluid containers used to be glass, now they’re plastic. IV tubing and oxygen tubing is all plastic. So are the lancets with which we stick the fingers of diabetics to check their blood sugars. Syringes are mostly plastic, and are only used once. The facility where I work generates a lot of plastic trash every day, and then you can multiply it by many other nursing homes in this area, two hospitals in the city where I live, and others nearby, plus doctor’s offices. That’s only one region, and includes only the medical industry. Consider how many other things are made largely of plastics, including computers, phones, CDs, DVDs, toys, etc. All these things are attractive, but are bad for the environment, since they don’t biodegrade. And I don’t see us trying to find alternatives to any of these things.
That means we still aren’t serious about the problem. My meditation teacher said that pollution would continue while people called each other names about it. The name-calling hasn’t stopped, and the pollution continues.
Our country can be great when we truly face our challenges. Right now most of us aren’t willing, and Cal Thomas lying about what our problems really are doesn’t help matters.

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Emptiness

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Emptiness (And Ice Cream)

 

She eats ice cream

Because of an emptiness

Deeper than stomach or bowels.

She is hunger in human form:

For loneliness,

For attention,

For love,

Expressed in pain medicine and ice cream.

Buying things might ease it:

A beautiful home,

Ferocious car, clothes,

Furniture, widescreen TV,

Computer, smartphone

Books, music,

But the emptiness remains unfilled.

“He’s not nice, he’s empty,”

My teacher said about the Dalai Lama.

That’s an emptiness I don’t understand.

What emptiness manifests as kindness

Instead of selfish sorrow?

What emptiness forgives his country”s enslavement,

While striving nonviolently

For that wound to heal?

It’s not the same emptiness

That destroys and fouls

Air, land and water

To power a civilization

Believing only in possessions and power.

It’s the emptiness of a man who freed slaves,

Of a man who labored

To free descendents of slaves,

And all the other oppressed at once.

Was that emptiness?

Or was that a man acquainted with grief,

Full to overflowing with tears

At the suffering humans impose on each other?

Was he empty, full,

Or both at once?

Whatever it was,

He acted out of it

To win a war,

To heal his country,

And possibly a whole world.

It was an unselfish hunger,

At least in that

His own suffering was not his concern.

And so I turn to look

At people I know to suffer,

Uncertain what to do to help.

I am empty from not acting.

Maybe they’re empty from acting on impulse.

Two different kinds of emptiness

Amounting to the same thing.

The question is what and how to build.

Even the wise don’t always know,

Must have faith

Their work will not be wasted

In torrents of emotion sweeping the world.

The sky will keep on crying

Until heaven too is empty.

And mortal emptiness is filled

With something more substantial than ice cream.

 

I wrote this at the beginning of the month. The woman in the poem was also a portrait of myself. Little difference between her and me, except circumstance.

But the whole idea of emptiness recalled to me that long-ago conversation with my meditation teacher, which I didn’t understand. Every three months or so we would have Sesshin, a period of intensive meditation, and each morning we would chant a piece of writing in Kanji; Japanese in Chinese script. It was a Buddhist text, I think a pretty early one, and part of it said, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form,” (there was a translation beneath the phonetic way to pronounce the Japanese). I never understood what that meant.

Now, perhaps, a memoir by William Patrick Patterson, Eating the I, explains that in terms I can understand.

Patterson entered the Gurdjieff work in New York City more than 40 years ago. His teacher had been a student of George Gurdjieff, and had been given responsibility for the work in the USA. While Patterson talks about what was being taught, and gives examples of how his teacher, Lord John Pentland, behaved, he balances some of the more important teachings with what was happening in his personal life. At the beginning he’s living with the woman who will become his wife, waiting to find a job. There are unavoidable tensions, since he’s extremely depressed, and she’s paying his way. They fight, and in parallel with that life, he begins to learn that he has different selves, with which he identifies at one moment, but which are gone the next.

He repeats PD Ouspensky’s experience of trying to “remember himself”, which he more or less explains as being aware of both body and mind, while he does errands. He sees someone on the street who looks Indian, and goes into a reverie about India, fantasizing about finding enlightenment there, and after his errands, realizes he’s forgotten to remember himself.

He denies in the group that he’s interested in black magic, then another group member finds a book about that in his bookcase, which he’d bought, read part of and completely forgotten. What else, he asks his teacher, has he forgotten?

Another clue is given in a group meeting. During a conversation, the teacher remarks that to really listen, one must be empty. That seems obvious enough. How often, when we talk to others, DO we really listen? I often catch myself waiting my turn and preparing what I’m going to say, instead of REALLY listening. The parts of one who do this are disparate selves, of which we’re usually not conscious. To know one’s self (ves), one must observe, which means splitting one’s attention: not only to what one’s doing, but which self is doing what, what’s happening in one’s body, in one’s emotions. Which part of me is doing what? What do I do that’s genuine, and what that’s merely habit?

When Patterson asks another group member what emptiness is, the man replies that we’re all constructs: little selves built around little pieces of our lives.

Patterson finds a job, and becomes successful at it. He marries the woman he’s been living with, perhaps a measure of the positive impact of his spiritual work. He becomes interested in Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan lama come to the West, and flirts with the idea of pursuing that way. It’s a pretty serious flirtation: When Trungpa asks him why he’s come (to Trungpa’s center in Barnet, Vermont), Patterson answers he wants to learn to meditate, though he thinks he’s come for a seminar. Trungpa tells him to do sitting meditation, alone, for ten hours a day for two weeks. Parts of Patterson don’t want to, but he does it anyway, which is more than most would do.

He sits for 45 minutes, rests for 15, then continues, from 7am to 5pm every day.The practice is boring, but he follows Trungpa’s cursory instructions on how to sit and breathe, and after more than a week finds that his mind has been breathing, that he can relax, let his body breathe, and observe that. Things slow down. He begins to enjoy the meditation.

On the last day he’s enjoying it so much that, rather than take his last 15 minute break, he continues sitting. Trungpa and other leaders of the center come to the room at the end of the day to meditate too, and Patterson meditates with them. He begins to get tired, though, his body begins to complain: back and legs especially, but when he hears Trungpa’s chair creak (usually signal of the end of meditation), the pain magically goes away. But the meditation doesn’t end. Once more comes the signal, as his body protests, once more the pain goes away, and returns when meditation doesn’t end. Then it’s over.

He considers joining Trungpa at a planned center in Colorado, but at the last moment reconsiders, and stays where he is. Still, he’s learned some of the correspondences between Gurdjieff’s teaching and Tibetan Buddhism. Meditation has given him opportunity to observe himself at a sort of leisure.

At his job Patterson is successful, though he has conflict with one of his superiors, something sort of archetypal, as with irreconcilable opposites. If he were to portray himself as purely heroic, he’d probably say he beat the man in some way. As it is, the man tells him, when he leaves the company, that he’s played for a stalemate, and that’s what he’s gotten.

At the suggestion of another group member, he meets an art teacher, and begins to learn to draw and paint, practicing to allow (after a good deal of practice) the painting to come out of him with little thought. Things begin to express themselves through him that have meaning.

He also becomes unfaithful to his wife with one of his coworkers, cares a good deal for her, but realizes that wife and family are more important to him.. They have two sons together. He travels, partly on business, partly on intuition. Eventually he feels it’s time to leave New York and go to San Francisco, for no obvious reason, but does so. There, after waiting a long time to find a job, he eventually meets a man called Sunyata.

This was a 90 year old man born in Denmark who had been a gardener in England when he met the poet Tagore, who invited him to India “to teach Silence.” It seems that Sunyata, a name he took in India, was a natural mystic, without much “headucation’, as he put it, who was born enlightened. He never had to struggle, as most do, to attain anything. The name he took means full solid emptiness, and he said, after he’d built himself a hut, that there he could “do nothing, be nothing, and enjoy nothing.”

He became known by mystics in the area, as well as some visitors, and much later was persuaded to visit the United States. He found that he enjoyed California, which is where Patterson met him.

He spoke, but not a lot, and with no particular authority, or even as if he knew what he would say next. But concisely. In most ways different from Lord Pentland, but similar in one : he felt to Patterson as if no one was there. “There was no “I” or ego, there seemed to be an absence and a presence, the ambiguity of which I had no words.”

Patterson was attracted to him, began spending time with him, and marveled at him. He says, “For Sunya was empty. There were so very few “I”s there. And what there were, as Sunya would say,”was never any problem.””

Gurdjieff speaks about having to fuse our “I’s, and there is little doubt that he did, and that virtually everything he did after that was intentional. Patterson never claims to have done this. He speaks of “breathing through” things, working to stay open, not to identify, and not to express negative emotions. Remembering one’s self seems largely a practice of avoiding identification, either with one’s states (“I”s), which come and go, or with influences from the outside. Gurdjieff said that we’re subject to more outside influences than we know, that the impulse for war comes from these, and that war could be avoided if we had the strength to resist these influences. But history is largely the story of war. For as long as we know about, we have been influenced, and continue to be.

Sunya, it seems, was a walking definition of emptiness, as his name states. But emptiness on a higher level than the emptiness we usually see in ourselves and others, which is essentially hunger, and which we usually try to fill in foolish ways.

I’m no different from the lady I wrote about. My addictions are slightly, but only slightly, different. The same hunger drives them. The same wish to be filled without having to do anything about it, other than consume.

That’s the influence of the world, the babyishness that still exists in me, wishing to be filled by others instead of filling myself by my own efforts. Or is that emptying myself of a lot of immature and foolish “I”s that I allow to run my life?

In either case, I’m not much different from anyone else. I look for satisfaction in the outside world instead of trying to create it.

Patterson eventually leaves the Gurdjieff group. At one point, a little while before doing so, he expresses to Lord Pentland that he doesn’t trust him or others who run the organization. At this point Patterson has been in the group a decade or so, and STILL doesn’t trust the leader? “The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves,” might be the appropriate quote here.

So Patterson eventually does leave the group, but does so gratefully. The distrust he had expressed was his, whether or not there was any basis for it, but he also recognized that he had benefited greatly from what he had learned.

Since that time he has written a number of books, and made a film about Gurdjieff, his ideas and activities. The phenomenal contribution that Gurdjieff made to Western thought and practice (though it has little obvious influence) is something worth thinking and writing about. It’s quite clear to me that there is nothing dated about his ideas: they are as discomforting and applicable today as they were a hundred years ago.

Patterson has his own view of them, which no one else need agree with. He does have the advantage of having experienced the work from inside, which I have not. He also has the advantage of having persisted in his path, which I also have not. For me it’s theoretical, though it’s a theory that FEELS right. Patterson’s teacher, Lord Pentland, observes that we can’t rely on feelings, that we must observe them a long time while doing parallel work before they can become trustworthy.

And despite the feelings one of my “I”s has about Gurdjieff, his views and practices,  those feelings have so far not been enough to get me to try putting any of it into practice.

 

 

Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War

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With the current political divisions in this country, it’s hard not to be reminded of the
Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln, who presided over it. Especially with the new movie about him that I haven’t seen, but would like to.

Opinions about Lincoln have always been divided. Many consider him our greatest pre-sident, or one of them.

A recent article pointed out that during the Mexican War of 1848 he supported (as a Congressman) the right of Texas to seceded from Mexico. But the Civil War happened because he refused to allow the South to secede from the Union, a decision ultimately causing the deaths of some 620,000 soldiers, and a good many civilians. The bitter-ness of that war is still with us.

Why did Lincoln make that decision? The article was in a financial magazine, and was about a book written about Lincoln, Lincoln Uncensored, by Joseph Fallon, which I haven’t read, though I’d like to, so naturally they looked for the money in the situation. There was no income tax then, so national government was financed by tariffs on trade of which, according to the article, some 75% came from the South. A pretty compelling argument.

It’s known that Lincoln wasn’t necessarily opposed to slavery, just its extension into new territories. He played with the idea of sending slaves back to Africa, believeing that blacks and whites couldn’t possibly get along. He was surprised to discover that black leaders weren’t enthusiastic about that idea.

Of course he eventually did sign the Emancipation Proclamation, mostly to strike a blow at the South. A lot of Southerners have resented that ever since.

He’s said to have been a consummate politician, which not everyone would think a compliment. Politics exacerbates divisions between people as much as it does anything else, but politics seems to be something we’re stuck with. Humans haven’t figured out a way for large numbers of people to live together without power being an issue. Some have thought anarchy would be the best way, but relatively few humans rise to the standard of responsibility and morality necessary.

It’s hard to know what might have happened had the South won the Civil War or forced a stalemate. Science fiction writers have played with the idea, suggesting that a victorious South might have been a fertile ground for Communism, and that the North and South would have been unable to stop competing and simply allow each other to go separate ways.

And would both or either have allied themselves with Britan and France in the World Wars, or would one or both have allied with Germany?

It seems likely that the Northern states would have continued developing on a technological track. Maybe a victorious South would have considered that necessary too, or maybe they would have been content to remain an agricultural region.

The enforced Union of the two regions has contributed to the power of this country, but a great deal of bitterness still remains, as we’ve seen ever since. Southern defeat brought us the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow. Northern victory gave it financial dominance, and, arguably, intellectual dominance too. The financial picture has changed somewhat in the past 50 years, but some of the poorest states remain in the South.

After the Presidential election a movement in several Deep South states started petitioning for the right to secede. One columnist suggested it might be a good idea to let them go, pointing out that most of the states involved are poor, and receive a lot of their income from other states, via Washington, DC. Isn’t it interesting that these are the most conservative states, claiming to stand for smaller government and individual responsibility?

The columnist’s take on the petitions was that if they were granted those states wouldn’t do very well on their own, and I think his view is hard to dispute. Customs that don’t allow all citizens the opportunity to maximize their potential are unlikely to be very successful in the wider world. Little industry and few entrepeneurs are also strikes against the region.

Abraham Lincoln believed that North and South could learn to live together, although the relationship had been uneasy from the beginning. Maybe, had he lived, he might have persuaded both sides to forgive, but there’s a limit to what one individual can do. Southerners despised Northerners for being money-mad (not without some reason), and worried that the North would take their property (slaves) away, which eventually happened.  The compromise the South had demanded before acceding to the Constitution of the United States was for each slave to count as 3/5 of a person, giving the South more representation and most of the Presidents before the Civil War. It was a long time after that before a Southern president was elected again.

Northerners, on the other hand, felt Southerners were trying to dictate to THEM, as they did to their slaves. There weren’t that many Abolitionists in the North, but Southerners didn’t want slavery even to be DISCUSSED in the Congress. That was a fight they were unable to win, though, especially as the USA began expanding, and issues about fugitive slaves and importation of slaves into new territories arose. The fact is, neither North nor South cared that much about the slaves, who probably ended up worse off than anyone else involved.

By the time Abraham Lincoln began running for president it probably wasn’t a surprise to anyone that war was soon to follow, though it took a few coincidences to make it happen when it did. I’m not even sure if many of the soldiers had a clear idea what they werer fighting for, except for their respective parts of the country. That rivalry may have been the most fundamental reason for the war, though by that time there were enough others.

I wonder too how many people would have predicted the North would win. There was a lot of trade in the South, both tobacco and cotton being in demand in Europe, which made a European alliance possible. But such an alliance never happened (possibly in part because Europeans had outlawed slavery), and though the South had most of the good generals, and the Southern soldiers were arguably better, the North had more factories and more soldiers to use as cannon-fodder, so the North won.

So I question whether Abraham Lincoln was a villain or a hero. Or maybe a better way to frame it is, would anyone else have been a better president at that time? Maybe allowing the South to secede would have been a better choice. It’s probably the choice I’d have made in that position (but I would never be in that position). But who would have been unmoved by the financial aspect that supposedly decided Lincoln? And if Lincoln didn’t stand up for liberty , who would have? Government is always based on power, both financial and military. Peaceable solutions aren’t impossible, as witness the dissoution of the Soviet Union, and the changing of the South African regime, but they’re also not very frequent. Though much of eastern Europe made a fairly peaceful transition, but Yugoslavia didn’t, nor did Chechnya.

Lincoln’s  only other choices were to let the South secede or to come up with a compromise that would be acceptable to both sides. The latter was unlikely, though, as all the compromises of the 1850s had only further enraged each side. It would have taken a political genius even greater than Lincoln to have found such a compromise, and there doesn’t seem to have been one around. We’ll never know what would have happened if the South had peaceably seceded–all we know is that it didn’t happen, and the Civil War and its aftermath didn’t work out too well. North and South, as well as conservative and liberal, black and white, still have a long way to go in the task of learning to live together.

But no matter our view of Lincoln, the Civil War or current politics, we still have the possibility of learning to do better. We live in a time of tension, and of expectation of disaster, but that may turn out to be the challenge that helps us start learning to do things a better way. Humans tend to do best (and sometimes worst) when their backs are against the wall.

So was Lincoln a hero or villain? Like anyone else, he seems to have been some of both.

This New American Century

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Imagine a young couple, both less than 30 years old, with two children, who can’t find jobs. There must be a lot of such people around now, with the economy the way it is, especially if they don’t have any particular education or specialized skills. They’ve made some stupid mistakes, so they have legal troubles not yet resolved. Not everyone has those problems, but all of us have probably done stupid things when we were young. It would be one thing if they weren’t trying, another if they’re trying, but so far without success.

Some might say, let them die. America’s largely been about competition throughout our history, but relatively fair competition. And I don’t think anyone can say that Americans in general are hard-hearted, though some are. Are we becoming hard-hearted as a nation? Mitt Romney didn’t think so when he said that Americans couldn’t possibly die from lack of health insurance. The pain he’s likely to cause by revamping Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security isn’t real to him, since he’s not in the position of needing those things, and apparently has no idea about people who are. Maybe he means well, though I wouldn’t count on that, but being clueless doesn’t suggest his being good presidential material.

Cal Thomas, in a column a year or more ago, talked about how there were good things in the Great Depression: that people helped each other more. Certainly that part of it was a good thing. How many of us would trade a financially comfortable life for that?

Maybe it would be good for us if we did, though. Maybe each of us would find a sudden new perspective on our own value and that of others. I think that many of us hunger for that, but are afraid of the price. The problems we face as a nation won’t be easy to solve, any more than our personal problems. We all want security, but we also want to live, and too much security can eventually strangle life. Maybe that’s one of the root causes of the hatred we see here. People are insecure, and prefer to blame others for it.  Scapegoating is pretty universal. It’s a symptom of fear, and fear is very useful as a tool for manipulation.

So, returning to the couple I mentioned before, let’s suppose further that their health isn’t very good, and that they have no health insurance. Whoever might be helping them is going to help them with those problems too, and healthcare isn’t cheap. Since neither of them have jobs, they can’t repay whoever helps them. What happens next? Does whoever helps them stop? Do they finally find work and begin supporting themselves?

I’m speaking here of only one couple, but the above problem is a lot larger than that. A lot of young people are unable to find work. Sometimes it’s their own fault, sometimes it isn’t. What is to be done? Do we as a country, as a community, as a state, invest in these young people and help them to eventually succeed, or do we cast them adrift?

I read a book on 17th century pirates, whose main place of activity was the Caribbean. According to this, English families, during the Cromwellian Civil War, used to send their boys away from home as early as the age of 7, since they couldn’t afford to support them. Many of these boys ended as pirates in the Caribbean. Where else could they have gone? They had no education, and no one to sponsor them in getting one or finding a decent job. So they drifted into being outlaws because it was their only way to survive, and into homosexuality, since women were rarely available.

As a country we’re entering into a period comparable to that one. We have no actual civil war as yet, but I wouldn’t exclude the possibility. And I also wouldn’t exclude the possibility of poverty touching a lot more lives than it does now.

The age of cheap energy is about over with. We have some oil, natural gas and coal left, but the supply is finite, and we don’t know how much longer it will last. People have begun using renewable energy like solar and wind, and there are probably other sources out there to be exploited if we can figure out how and invest in them. But suppose we don’t. And suppose that even if we do, we can’t use energy as we’ve become used to doing. Then our economy stops expanding.

The age of cheap energy roughly corresponds with the history of the USA. The American Dream was built at least partially on cheap energy. Can there be an American Dream without it?

We’re in an age that is in some ways unprecedented. There have been ecological catastrophes before, but they’ve been mostly pretty localized. That’s unlikely to be true this time. Most areas of the world have been subjected to ecological degradation. We can change this if we want to, but we get things from this behavior that we like.

We like possessions. We like wealth. We don’t like to think of the true cost of things, that means that when the cost comes due we won’t want to pay it, and the price will grow correspondingly higher.

We’ve had many people tell us, beginning thousands of years ago, and continuing through the last century and into this one, that we need to change our ways. But we don’t like change. We’re willing, as a group, to do almost anything to avoid it.

Not that there aren’t those who do like change, and will rise to meet it, given any resources at all, but they, I think, are a minority. Perhaps I’m wrong about that. Humans can be quite adaptable when it comes down to it, but being willing to do the things to adapt doesn’t come easy to many of us.

It’s easier to ignore the problems, hoping they’ll go away, and maybe some of them will. But there are too many, and too excruciatingly difficult for many of them to just disappear. This coming century will be a time of adjustment, and maybe for long after that. We may have reason to consider the command-ments of Jesus again, that we are told to love our enemies, bless those who curse us, and be humble (which I imagine is the interpretation of  ” poor in spirit”). To say nothing of his exhortation to treat anyone in need as if it was him.  How many of us do these things now? Perhaps we ought to start practicing.

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A friend sent me an article about Melvin Morse, who has spent much time investigating Near Death Experiences (NDE’s). These aren’t entirely unfamiliar in public discourse. I remember seeing a TV program about them some years ago, and finding it pretty interesting. Morse focused primarily on children who had had NDE’s, but the stories don’t come only from children. Adults have them too. They may or may not be a universal experience, perhaps conditioned by various psychological atitudes. Morse mentions that some come from children old enough to describe their experiences, but not so old as to have acquired fears about death that an older person might have. Not that his conclusions are uncontroversial. One scientist is quoted as saying that the experiences come from  brains that are disintegrating into death, and don’t prove life after death. A good many scientists, though, now tend to believe that the whole universe is conscious, and is set up to produce consciousness. There are still scientists who believe that the production of life, on this planet or any other, is accidental. While their evidence may not be entirely wrong, I’m inclined to think there are too many things that such a mechanistic view fails to explain. I’ve mentioned some of them in a previous post.

Morse’s primary interest in NDE’s, he said was to be able to heal families grief at death of a family member, especially a child, though his data seems to have a lot of other implications. That certainly seems like a worthwhile goal, so it’s surprising to discover that he and his wife had been arrested for allegedly “waterboarding” their 11 year old daughter. What could have induced a man with his apparent inight to behave in such a way?

Waterboarding, if what he did was anything like the controversial method used in interrogation of terrorists some years ago, is an extremely severe sort of discipline to practice. It suggests an element of sadism in his personality, to say the least. But the friend who sent me the article pointed out the other aspect of what he had done, which I hadn’t be astute enough to notice. Beginning with Morse’s conviction that NDE’s are valuable experiences, that people who have had them enjoy life, are much less frightened by death, and are able to live in more balanced ways than they previously had, one cam understand that he wanted his daughter to experience this. As the article about him pointed out, stories may be impressive, but the real benefits come from experience. So trying to get her to experience an NDE was the next logical step. Logical, but not ethical.

For one thing, the method used (waterboarding) seems a particularly cruel way to induce an NDE, especially for one’s own daughter. Besides that, his daughter was still a child, and a child is incapable of informed consent. If an adult wished to undergo that sort of experience, in hopes of experiencing an NDE, one might question his or her sanity, but not that they had the right to make that choice. There are a whole range of examples of people who have had a spiritual experience or insight who attempt to convert others to their point of view. Some manage to do so responsibly, others don’t. Jim Jones is an example of someone with a peculiar power over people, and perhaps much insight, whose attempt at building a movement went tragically wrong. As the friend who sent me the article pointed out, that’s the effect of ego. Wanting to save the world is all very well, but if ends and means don’t harmonize, the results are rarely good.

The same has been true of larger movements as well. No less a figure than Saint Augustine of Hippo justified forcible conversion to Christianity. The general Christian perception at the time was that paganism was demonic, while Christianity was the truth with a capital T. Given that assumption, all kinds of behavior can be justified. Christianity still remembers pagan persecution of Christianity; what is less well-remembered is that Christians, once they got political power, persecuted pagans even more, to say nothing of heretics, Jews and witches later on.

The same was true of Communism and Nazism, which notoriously persecuted people for their beliefs. I’m sure the list doesn’t end there. In the case of religion, as well as other forms of understanding, there are different levels, and very few can truthfully claim to completely understand any phenomenon in totality. Unfortunately, that kind of claim can be very tempting, as well as the actions that kind of belief can provoke.

The friend who sent me the article gave, I think, a very good perspective on it. “The scientific w0rk being done in this area can never be more than a statistical analysis of those who experience NDE’s. Thus, the views of Huxley, Heard and Gurdjieff is just their perspective of the experience. I grant you that the experience of some is expressed more beautifully than others, yet the truth is in the individual experience.” I certainly can’t disagree with that. Some accounts of spiritual experiences that I’ve read have really resonated with me, but that’s no guarantee of their truth, since I haven’t had such experiences myself.  Anti-black and anti-Jewish sentiments resonate with others, which is no guarantee of their truth either.

One possible test of the truth of such views is the ability of the person who becomes a teacher to lead his students into similar experiences. There’s a good deal of testimony that George Gurdjieff, mentioned in some of my previous posts, was able to do this. One of his students, recounting such an experience (which I wouldn’t characterize as an NDE), said he had always thought (as a writer) that it was ridiculous to say that such experiences couldn’t be described, but that he found this to be the case with his own experience. He said it was deeply personal, and that he suspected that such an experience must always be so. That seems to validate my friend’s view. The experience is always personal, but the teacher with sufficient understanding of how humans work can lead people into making the efforts that will produce experiences beyond ordinary experience. This gives the teacher a great deal of power over the student, though, and he or she must be careful not to misuse that power. The point is not the teacher’s fame or power, but the student learning to become what he or she is capable of being. Teachers seduced by power or fame will be unable to be honest enough with themselves to avoid damaging students or others around them.

Another student of Gurdjieff’s recounted a number of unusual experience he’d had, which one might charcterize as spiritual. How much of them he was able to describe remains questionable, though. He said that in one, he suddenly thought, This is why God hides himself from us, but was later unable to remember why this had occurred to him. Gurdjieff called what he taught “the science of being born again, the greatest in the world”. His own experiences would have been crucial to the teaching, and the means he used to teach, but what would ultimately count would be the ability of his students to go beyond their usual boundaries, experience for themselves whatever they could find there, and then make good use of their experience. From the outside, it would appear that he never succeeded in succeeded on the scale he would have liked to, but quite a number of people have written books about his positive influence on their lives, and it may well be that his teaching continues under the radar, with what effect it’s difficult to say.

So it seems to me that Morse’s scientific work was valuable, but that in “waterboarding” his young daugher, he took it too far, which is why my friend entitled the letter about his activities, Prometheus. He quotes, “In the Western classical tradition Prometheus became a figure that represented human striving, particularly the quest for scientific knowlege, and the risk of overreaching or unintended consequences. In particular, he was regarded in the Romantic era as the lone genisus whose efforts to improve human existence could also end in tragedy: Mary Shelley, for instance, gave The Modern Prometheus as the subtitle to her novel Frankenstein (1818).” We have plenty of examples of scientists and others pursuing knowledge that might turn out to be useful, but could also easily be misused. Morse, unfortunately, is one of the scientists who went too far.

Let me give my friend the last word here. “The point of this glorious existence and the mystery of it is: each of us must continually fight to be ourselves, and understanding that is both the meaning and mystery of all.” I can’t improve on that.

 

 

Symbolizing Change

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Almost 40 years ago I spent several months working in a restaurant in Switzerland. It wasn’t a fancy place, but a restaurant in a train station. Western Europe, at least, has (or had at that time) a very extensive rail system, easy to travel on, and with a restaurant in most, if not all stations. This particular one was in the small city of Zug, about halfway betwen Zurich and Luzerne. If interested, you can doubtless find it on a map. It was a very pretty place, right on the Zugersee, a fairly large lake, only two or three blocks from the station, and there were swans in the lake, which I’d never seen up very close before.  Most of the city was on the eastern shore, tucked up against a mountain, but not one of the spectacular mountains of Switzerland. It was closer to the size of the mountains here in the Roanoke Valley in Virginia. There was a movie theater downtown, to which I often went, and even closer was a confiserie, where I would go and order several kinds of fruit pastries. That was, once I got established there.

I had come across an ad for a company that would arrange summer jobs in Europe for students, and I wanted to do that. I had just finished a year at Akron University before I left, and landed first in Luxembourg, where the company had a sort of tour, party and orientation for about a week before sending us all to our respective jobs.

. Since I had just finished taking a year of German in college, I was made a waiter. I wasn’t at all fluent, to begin with, but being a waiter, and constantly interacting with people helped me to become so in a relatively short time, but on a low level. I could have simple conversations with people, but couldn’t understand what people said on radio, TV, or in movies. Nor could I read very well. I never made the effort to acquire the vocaublary and knowledge of grammar that would have made me an accomplished German speaker, but I could get along in ordinary simple situations. Even this limited accomplishment gave me great self-confidence. Unfortunately, I didn’t extend my skills or apply the lessons I learned there to the extent I could have later on.

Several of us Americans arrived at the same time, and were housed in the second storey of the railroad station, along with some other workers. There were a number of Spanish people there, a Swiss guy, a Maylaysian guy, and later an Egyptian. A lot of us used to congregate in one of the rooms upstairs in the evenings when we were done working. We’d drink, talk, play chess, listen to records, and so on. Through the window you could see the mountain off to the left, and the lake right in front of you. Of course I listened to what music there was. There weren’t a lot of records, but I listened to them all, though I can’t remember the names of many songs or artists. I do remember three full-length LP’s (this was in the days before CDs, you know): one by Deep Purple, which I didn’t care much for; Meddle, by Pink Floyd, which remains my favorite of their albums; and Seventh Sojourn, by the Moody Blues.

I was reminded of this recently when I got a sudden yearning to listen to the Moody Blues again. It was generally considered unhip to like them back then, but I always kind of did. Some years after Switzerland, I bought a collection of some of their best songs, thinking that was quite enough for me, but then I remembered a song from Seventh Sojourn that I liked, and bought the album so I could add it to the cassette copy I’d made of the LP. This was in the 80’s, way before I finally made the transition to CDs.

Nowadays, instead of a fullblown stereo system (although I still have some very good speakers), I have a combination record player, CD player, cassette player, and radio, which I got for about $100. My appetite for music has declined since the 70’s, so that’s quite adequate for me.

So I listened to the collection, then listened again to Seventh Sojourn, and found its songs running somewhat obsessively through my head. I usually have music going through my head most of the time anyway, but not from this album, which I had largely forgotten about since the 70’s. I suppose there must be a reason why a particular song or group of songs becomes prominent in my consciousness at any particular time, but I usually haven’t managed to figure it out.

Such a thing happened to me not quite 12 years ago, when I woke up one day with a song from The Band in my head. That had been one of my all-time favorite albums for about 30 years, but I’d never listened that closely to this particular song: Whispering Pines, a very poingnant and regretful sort of love song. That day I listened to my tape of the album in my car, but that really wasn’t satisfactory, so I went to Burlington, Vermont (I lived in Vermont then, and worked in a small town 20 miles or so from the city), went to one of the big chain bookstores, and bought CDs of the first two Band albums. I listened more closely to that particular song, as well as to both albums, and noticed things about them I hadn’t before. Although the Band had three good singers, Richard Manuel, their piano player and occasional drummer, who had co-written Whispering Pines, was their primary lead singer, and an extremely good one. He had a somewhat troubled life, and committed suicide sometime in the 80’s. Just how good they were instrumentally jumped out much more clearly to me too. At any rate, I could no longer complain of the sound quality that I possessed.

The sequel to my sudden obsession with that song came only a couple of months later, when I met my future wife online, which turned my life onto a higher plane. I think perhaps this new obsession may have a similar significance for me too. The Moody Blues were a band who seemed to be oriented towards the mind and spirit, and while their lyrics may have been trite at times, their music had a certain power to it that I liked. I have recently undertaken something that I don’t care to get into now, but that I hope will be positive for my life and that of others. I think the Moody Blues music symbolizes that for me, and whether you enjoy their music or not, I hope you’ll be willing to wish me well in my endeavors. I certainly wish all of you well, especially in this time in which drastic change seems imminent. May we all face our futures in the best possible way for each of us and the people we care about. That’s my wish for anyone who cares to read this, as well as everyone else I care about…at the very least.

 

Standing Up

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The other day the owner of Chick Fil A got publicity for refusing to hire LGBT workers, and applause for standing up for what he believes in. I noticed that because I saw an exchange on Facebook between a couple of brothers. The more conservative of the two said he’d go out to Chick Fil A because he’s tired of liberals who are intolerant of other points of view. I hope I’m not like that, though there are certainly points of view I disagree with. I guess a lot of people did go out to Chick Fil A (last Wednesday, I think it was). I don’t think I have a problem with people standing up for what they believe, though I may disagree. My father stood up for what he believed in during World War II, and I think it opened up his life, at least partly because that’s how he met my mother. But I suspect his stand still wouldn’t be very popular with a lot of people.

My father was brought up a Quaker, and Quakers are usually pacifists. He had two brothers, one of whom was a doctor, and served the armed forces that way, in Asia, I believe. His other brother was an ambulance driver, I think in France. My father didn’t feel the military was the way to solve problems, so he became a conscientious objector. He served most of the war in a Civilian Public Service camp in North Dakota, though that wasn’t where he went first. He served two places in Indiana, and public sentiment was against CO’s in both, so he had to move on. This was at a time when conscientious objection to war was generally unpopular, so he had to pay for the privilege of serving outside the military. By the time I came along, during the Vietnam war, things were different.

One of my favorite authors, Robert Heinlein, thought that all conscientious objectors were cowards, but he didn’t know my father. What he said was probably more true of me. I became a CO because that was my family’s expectation, and I don’t really think I’d have made much of a soldier. There was a time when I looked down on soldiers who did serve, to some extent, but that’s not something I’m proud of. I was recently reading about Jim Webb, one of the Congressmen for Virginia, who served in Vietnam with conspicuous bravery, and did a lot of different things after returning to this country, before getting into politics. I can’t disrespect what he did, but I don’t think his point of view makes what my father did wrong. Both were doing what they felt was right. Anyone can disagree with their points of view, but I think both were sincere, and not all of us are called to do the same things.

So I don’t know if liberals are more intolerant than conservatives. I think I see quite a lot of intolerance on the part of the latter, but that doesn’t make me or anyone else immune from being intolerant too. I hope I’m not, but I won’t say I could NEVER be. It’s something I try not to give in to, though. I wrote, in a previous post, about a conversation with a conservative woman, and I’ve thought since that I allowed myself to lose my temper, which is not the best way to make friends and influence people. She was saying that using government funding to build infrastructure would burden all our children and grandchildren with debt, and how could I guarantee that jobs would come even if infrastructure was built? What I probably SHOULD have said was something like, I doubt jobs will come if we DON’T build infrastructure. One of the things I DID say was that such a project would create jobs. I think most conservatives would agree that people working instead of being on welfare or unemployment is better. And it would give people money to spend, which might well make the economy work better.

More than twenty years ago I was living in a meditation school, and one of the people who stayed there for awhile, with his family, was a man whose politics were conservative, as most of the rest of ours were not. One day he and I got into a discussion. As best I remember, he said that on his private property he should be allowed to do anything he wanted. The first response I could think of was, suppose you decided to store toxic waste on your property, it got spilled, and affected me and my family? Where do your private rights end, and mine begin? And where do our collective private rights end and those of the community begin? I don’t remember where the conversation went after that, but I think that’s still a valid question, especially in light of the behavior of at least one coal company in West Virginia, who built a toxic waste dump near a small community, whose health it began to affect. They had built one such dump previously, and it had broken open, killing a number of people. The people of the community shown in the movie protested the dump, and protested even more when the company wanted to mine the last intact mountain in their area. They managed to stop the coal company, but that probably wouldn’t have happened in a lot of countries. Money and power count for more than the welfare of the citizens in general in a lot of places in the world, and this country seems to be getting more that way.

Jobs are getting shipped overseas (and have been for a long time) because companies can pay workers less, as well as mistreating them, without penalty. They also often don’t have to worry about regulations against pollution. A couple of years ago I was chatting online with a woman from Colombia, who told me that she lived in town that wasn’t extremely large, but there were many casees of psychosis there. I had read that artificial fertilizers may cause mental problems, so I asked if they were used there. She said they were used a LOT, to the point that there were no fireflies there anymore. Can you imagine? I suspect that was what was causing those psychoses, though of course I don’t know for sure.

The middle class in this country grew after World War II because most people were getting decently paid, and because the government helped returning veterans with the GI bill. One reason why most (but by no means all) were getting paid decently was because of the labor movement, which had become legal during FDR’s administration. If we want to go back to the times before the war, when employers could pay employees barely enough to live on, and make them work in unsafe environments besides, we can do as the Republicans want to, and cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. That takes the financial burden off the government, and puts it back on the individual, which works fine for those who are wealthy, but that’s not most of us. Either we’re all citizens of this country, and in this together, or we’re not. Republicans seem to be saying we’re not. I intend to have the benefits that I’ve paid into all my working life (45 years now), and are something that I was promised, as an American citizen.

If Republicans want to cut things, how about the military? I read an estimate that it costs something like (depending on how you calculate it) $1-1.4 TRILLION a year. Another friend I sometimes chat with online said she wanted a military that works, which I can’t disagree with, but why does our military need some 1100 bases around the world? Why can’t we go back to simply defending our country? And 1100 bases is just the most visible of the waste in that budget. With that much money to spend, can we expect that none of it is being spent wastefully or fraudulently? I read that Medicare fraud is something like 14% of the budget, obviously way too high, but that Medicare is STILL more efficient than private health insurance. That doesn’t speak well for the private sector, and even Mitt Romney virtually admitted that when he admired Israel’s health system, which is a single-payer system.

I’ve rambled a bit in this piece, but my original point is that anyone has the right, if not the duty to stand up for what he or she believes in, and that neither liberal nor conservative has the right to do more than disagree. Forcing people to live with YOUR rules is something that happens in other countries. It’s not supposed to happen here.