REVIEW: Pedagogy of the Oppressed

“We often think of peace as the absence of war, that if powerful countries would reduce their weapon arsenals, we could have peace. But if we look deeply into the weapons, we see our own minds — our own prejudices, fears and ignorance. Even if we transport all the bombs to the moon, the roots of war and the roots of bombs are still there, in our hearts and minds, and sooner or later we will make new bombs. To work for peace is to uproot war from ourselves and from the hearts of men and women. To prepare for war, to give millions of men and women the opportunity to practice killing day and night in their hearts, is to plant millions of seeds of violence, anger, frustration, and fear that will be passed on for generations to come.”

— Thich Nhat Hanh, “Living Buddha, Living Christ”

There are many Western intellectuals who claim to be against the evils of oppressive structures while: (1.) hiding in the isolation of academia, (2.) benefiting from those unjust structures without doing anything meaningful to challenge them, (3.) “helping” the oppressed on a superficial level without addressing any deeper systemic issues, (4.) perpetuating the ideas of the oppressors themselves.

Noam Chomsky wrote about these types of intellectuals in his 1967 essay, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals.” He said that intellectuals, unlike the average citizen, are a privileged minority who are in a unique position to influence society. They should seek to “speak the truth and expose lies’’ rather than remain silent and apathetic. Yet they often fail to meet these moral standards.

Even though in the Western world, intellectuals have the right to freedom of expression and have access to more information than those in other nations, they often represent elite class interests. They maintain the status quo, and support the current ideologies in power, while neglecting to criticize the unjust policies of their own countries.

In traditional education, intellectuals are primarily trained for conformity. The institutions that they work for, according to Paulo Freire in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” focus on socialization, conditioning students to follow a certain social order. Students who question those in authority too much are filtered out over time. They are not supposed to critically think about, or act against, the structures already in place. Traditional education is not about a radical transformation in consciousness. It is more about a subservience to power.

According to Freire, education is never neutral. It is either on the side of the oppressor or the oppressed. While the oppressed are dehumanized, treated as abstractions or disposable objects or inferior beings, those who oppress are dehumanized through oppressing others.

Oppressors depend on the low position of the oppressed to maintain their power. They form exploitative relationships, taking advantage of unfair conditions for their own gain. They have a mentality of more for themselves and less for everyone else. Oppressors want the oppressed to feel unworthy, helpless, and isolated, because under those states, they are easier to control.

After years of teaching literacy to peasants and laborers, after being put into prison and then exiled, Freire came to believe that education should liberate people instead of imprison them.

The oppressed have to reclaim their humanity for themselves, even though at times, they may fear taking on responsibility, internalize the values of their oppressors, or follow charismatic leaders more than their own consciences.

Freire attacked the passive methods of learning in education as well. Students are often seen as ignorant while teachers are seen as authorities. Students are taught to take in information, to rote learn, to listen so they can regurgitate answers on exams, rather than participate in relevant issues.

When schools value the humanity of their students, learning is done in collaboration and with mutual respect. There are open possibilities for individuals to grow. Themes connect to the existential struggles in people’s lives, helping them to overcome their unjust circumstances.

Education has to help the oppressed to reflect on the causes of their oppression. Even though oppressors have tried to limit the critical thought of the oppressed, people need the freedom to learn about themselves and make their own choices.

bell hooks, in a similar fashion to Freire, argued in “Teaching to Transgress” that education should be (1.) communal in spirit, (2.) rooted in the values of care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect, and trust, and (3.) promote the well-being of the individuals involved.

Students caught in oppressive circumstances often feel powerless to make a difference. They are alienated from their communities. They are conditioned over time to see themselves as inferior to their oppressors.

hooks, on the other hand, argued that education should be about fostering an open space where different perspectives are shared, students are encouraged and not belittled, and everyone is respected.

hooks (Gloria Jean Watkins) experienced both educational environments when she was raised in the segregated south, when she was bussed into a majority white school during integration, when she attended college, and when she taught at different universities. Freire’s work helped her to clarify her own feelings of marginalization and shame under those oppressive systems.

Freire also learned how unjust conditions could impact a person’s ability to learn. He grew up in Northeastern Brazil around poor rural families. During the Great Depression, he suffered from extremes of poverty and hunger. He even had to temporarily drop out of elementary school to work.

In Gadotti’s book, “Reading Paulo Freire,” Freire said, “I didn’t understand anything because of my hunger. I wasn’t dumb. It wasn’t lack of interest. My social condition didn’t allow me to have an education. Experience showed me once again the relationship between social class and knowledge.”

People ultimately want to be free. They want to grow and change and live authentically. But they are constantly being undermined by the interests of interconnected power-structures. hooks called some of these power-structures the “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”

From an early age on, whether through violence or propaganda or censorship or other means, people are trained to obey their masters. They are taught about their inferiority rather than their intrinsic value, fractured rather than united, and dehumanized rather than treated with dignity.

Those in power usually shift the burden of proof onto the powerless, pressuring them to prove that they are worthy of their basic rights. But these systems, which have so much control and influence, need to justify their legitimacy to the people. If they fail to do so, then they should be changed or dismantled.

Sometimes, though, when the oppressed rise to power, they carry over the violent patterns of their former oppressors. That is why there needs to be a radical education of self-discovery and inclusion and critical thought, a place of transformation for everyone who seeks to learn. When people aren’t united, when they aren’t free, then the same oppressive practices will resurface.

Freire believed that people have to learn how to be themselves. Education is a process, a path of critical effort. Individuals must seek out the “whys” of their existence. They must be free to choose their own paths.


Breakfast of Champions

I’m a book reviewing machine.

I’ve been programmed to write about “Breakfast of Champions” by The Creator of the Universe.

Here’s another possibility: I am a character in a Kurt Vonnegut novel. Kilgore Trout can’t be the only one to suspect he’s in a fictional universe, which on some days, seems far too absurd to even be a cheap imitation of reality.

But you, dear reader, are neither a character nor a biological machine. Beyond your clothes and hair, flesh and blood and organs, you are much more than a robotized thing.

You are an unwavering band of light.


Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions” and Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” share some similarities. Although they’re set in different time periods, both authors are criticizing a deep-rooted ugliness in American society. Both authors are commenting on the division of communities, and the alienation of individuals, through the evils of racism and sexism and classism.

Both authors are asking what it means to be free in a country that so often treats its human beings terribly. Many human beings, for generations and generations, were not even considered to be human beings.

Many are still not.

Vonnegut does not ignore how cruel people can be toward each other. He nauseatingly forces his readers to look at what happens when, instead of everyone treating each other with the dignity that they deserve, they categorize each other instead.

In “Breakfast of Champions,” he shows what it is like to live in a decaying America. Unregulated companies use up the natural resources of the land with barely any legal consequences. The rich exploit the poor while blaming them for being poor. Politicians order young soldiers to commit atrocities in unnecessary wars. Neighborhoods are separated by class and race. Organized crime is the undercurrent of many businesses. Communities repeat the same violent patterns that they learned from their ancestors, patterns as old as centuries of slavery and genocide. They pass down their ghosts to their descendants, pretending that the worst parts of themselves are over.

Yet in such a systemically unjust world, people still have a choice. They can still use their “free will” to be compassionate to one another. They can show small kindnesses to strangers. They don’t have to hate just because they were taught to hate. They don’t have to become unthinking, unfeeling machines.

People are not mere robots programmed by their environments, their genes, or even “The Creator of the Universe” to be a specific way or to follow one set path. They aren’t predestined to meet a certain fate.

Many people can choose to behave humanely, even in an unjust country. But if the same force of societal ignorance continues as it had in the past, there may not be enough time left to prevent a nuclear or environmental catastrophe. Homo sapiens may become another extinct species, unable to adapt to the chaos of their natures.

If humans are to ever survive together, they must acknowledge each other. They have to see that other beings suffer just like them, want just like them, cry just like them, and love just like them. They deserve to be respected, not because of their status or wealth, but because they are human.

Man’s Search For Meaning

“This book does not claim to be an account of facts and events but of personal experiences, experiences which millions of prisoners have suffered time and again. It is the inside story of a concentration camp, told by one of its survivors.”

Viktor Frankl

The life of the average concentration camp prisoner was a daily struggle for existence. They had their belongings stolen. They were stripped and tattooed.

Their identities were ripped away as they were reduced to a number among other numbers. For them to live, if only barely, if only briefly, was to know of death.

Every man was controlled by one thought only: to keep himself alive for the family waiting for him at home, and to save his friends. With no hesitation, therefore, he would arrange for another prisoner, another “number,” to take his place in the transport. (Frankl 19)

Viktor Frankl was number 119, 104. His job in camp was digging and laying tracks for railway lines. Eventually, he was allowed to tend to prisoners who were sick, injured, and dying.

The capos, unlike most of the other prisoners, earned cigarettes as well as other privileges. For ordinary prisoners, cigarettes were luxury items, sometimes traded for soup, which was crucial for survival. But there were cigarettes left for those who had lost themselves to despair as well:

The only exceptions to this were those who had lost the will to live and wanted to enjoy their last days. Thus, when we saw a comrade smoking his own cigarettes, we knew he had given up faith in his strength to carry on, and, once lost, the will to live seldom returned. (Frankl 21–22)

When prisoners first entered the camp, they were shocked. Unable to grasp the brutal reality of their conditions. They saw barbed wire and spotlights. They heard shrill commands in German. Ragged humans slumped together in a gray dawn. As the days passed from the train ride to the camp, the prisoners dulled into a nightmarish world:

In psychiatry there is a certain condition known as “delusion of reprieve.” The condemned man, immediately before his execution, gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute. We, too, clung to shreds of hope and believed to the last moment that it would not be so bad. (Frankl 23–24)

Prisoners who arrived at camp were cooped together in the cold. They were starved. Guards would walk over and inspect each of them, deciding on whether they should be sent off to work or die. With one finger pointing to the right or left, there was existence or non-existence, life or execution:

“Was he sent to the left side?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Then you can see him there,” I was told.


A hand pointed to the chimney a few hundred yards off, which was sending a column of flame up into the grey sky of Poland. It dissolved into a sinister cloud of smoke.

“That’s where your friend is, floating up to Heaven,” was the answer. But I still did not understand until the truth was explained to me in plain words. (Frankl 26)

Prisoners had their most precious items stolen, which included wedding rings, writings, jewelry, and photographs; anything that resembled their former lives.

They were stripped until they were trembling and naked. Then they were whipped, beaten, washed of lice, and shaven.

In Auschwitz, prisoners had to adapt to the most horrendous conditions imaginable. They were cold and unclean and wore weathered clothes. Their feet were cracked in the mud. They slept huddled together after hours of exhaustive labor.

Suicide loomed in every prisoner’s mind , from the ever present danger around them to the utter hopelessness for the future. While some prisoners killed themselves, usually by electrocution from touching a barbed wire fence, others, despite the smallest chance of survival, continued through grueling days. Even then, they were aware they would likely be sent off to the gas chamber.

As prisoners grinded on under brutal circumstances, they were desensitized to emotions such as disgust and pity and compassion. After so much trauma, many had become apathetic, detached from their feelings, having only an instinct to survive.

To many, physical punishment didn’t matter nearly as much as the agony of injustice. They felt a complete helplessness to do anything about the terrible conditions that had spread through the camp.

Guards regularly punished prisoners for the smallest of infractions. If somebody stepped out of line, talked back, or helped someone who was struggling, they would be beaten or murdered. They were treated with the same respect as livestock.

Prisoners, who had once lived as husbands and wives and students and doctors and professors and musicians and teachers and shopkeepers, were barely afforded the dignity of their humanity.

After being reduced to such a low state, prisoners became primitive in their need to live each day for one more day. They wanted to make it for just a little longer.

They often daydreamed more than they lived. They imagined they had their simplest desires fulfilled from cake to cookies, from warm baths to deep sleep. They craved an illusion of peace while bearing a terrible reality:

When the last layers of subcutaneous fat had vanished, and we looked like skeletons disguised with skin and rags, we could watch our bodies beginning to devour themselves. The organism digested its own protein, and the muscles disappeared. Then the body had no powers of resistance left. One after another the members of the little community in our hut died. Each of us could calculate with fair accuracy whose turn would be next, and when his own would come. After many observations we knew the symptoms well, which made the correctness of our prognoses quite certain. “He won’t last long,” or, “This is the next one,” we whispered to each other, and when, during our daily search for lice, we saw our own naked bodies in the evening, we thought alike: This body here, my body, is really a corpse already. What has become of me? I am but a small portion of a great mass of human flesh… of a mass behind barbed wire, crowded into a few earthen huts; a mass of which daily a certain portion begins to rot because it has become lifeless. (Frankl 42)

Once they were woken out of their longing and dreams, the prisoners cramped together to work. They moved to the shrill whine of sirens. They barely fit their swollen feet into their wet shoes before another day of labor began. If their feet could not fit inside their shoes, they would have to trudge through the snow, barefoot and frostbitten. After days of weakness, undernourishment, and starvation, they generally lost the ability to care about anything except a fulfillment of their needs. Even their feelings of compassion for other prisoners had numbed after so much trauma:

There were fifty of us in the prison car, which had two small, barred peepholes. There was only enough room for one group to squat on the floor, while the others, who had to stand up for hours, crowded round the peepholes. Standing on tiptoe and looking past the others’ heads through the bars of the window, I caught an eerie glimpse of my native town. We all felt more dead than alive, since we thought that our transport was heading for the camp at Mauthausen and that we had only one or two weeks to live. I had a distinct feeling that I saw the streets, the squares and the houses of my childhood with the eyes of a dead man who had come back from another world and was looking down on a ghostly city. After hours of delay the train left the station. And there was the street — my street! The young lads who had a number of years of camp life behind them and for whom such a journey was a great event stared attentively through the peephole. I began to beg them, to entreat them, to let me stand in front for one moment only. I tried to explain how much a look through that window meant to me just then. My request was refused with rudeness and cynicism: “You lived here all those years? Well, then you have seen quite enough already!” (Frankl 45)

As the prisoners struggled, sometimes their only salvation came through reflection, religious rituals, debate, or the recollection of a loved one. Frankl imagined his wife while marching on sore feet, touching her with his memories, imagining where she was and how deeply he loved her.

“This intensification of inner life helped the prisoner find a refuge from the emptiness, desolation and spiritual poverty of his existence, by letting him escape into the past” (Frankl 50).

By creating such a rich inner life for themselves, prisoners developed an intense appreciation for nature and art. In contrast with their suffering, they found glory in the simplest miracles of existence:

Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, “How beautiful the world could be!” (Frankl 51)

Another time we were at work in a trench. The dawn was grey around us; grey was the sky above; grey the snow in the pale light of dawn; grey the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and grey their faces. I was again conversing silently with my wife, or perhaps I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious “Yes” in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. “Et lux in tenebris lucet” — and the light shineth in the darkness. For hours I stood hacking at the icy ground. The guard passed by, insulting me, and once again I communed with my beloved. More and more I felt that she was present, that she was with me; I had the feeling that I was able to touch her, able to stretch out my hand and grasp hers. The feeling was very strong: she was there. Then, at that very moment, a bird flew down silently and perched just in front of me, on the heap of soil which I had dug up from the ditch, and looked steadily at me. (Frankl 51–52)

Most of camp life, however, wore on the very existence of the prisoners. They had to suffer from an endless injustice, which threatened their most cherished values, beliefs, and higher purpose.

The brutality of their world ground their dignity down to its barest form, where they sensed that at the end of all their struggle was death. They were used up until their bodies failed them, until their will to go on, to persevere, eventually faded.

After so many nights of relentless abuse, their spirits were like the thin lights of candles, dwindling into an enveloping darkness.

Camp inmates often were tormented when they had to make choices or take an initiative for themselves, believing that their lives were subject to fate. Small decisions could lead to life or death, whether in the moment or in the future.

On Frankl’s final days before being rescued, he had a chance to escape with some of the other prisoners but he refused. Afterward he wondered whether he should have left with them. Only later on he wrote:

We found out just how uncertain human decisions are, especially in matters of life and death. I was confronted with photographs which had been taken in a small camp not far from ours. Our friends who had thought they were traveling to freedom that night had been taken in the trucks to this camp, and there they were locked in the huts and burned to death. Their partially charred bodies were recognizable on the photograph. (Frankl 71)

Trusting in fate, at times of almost certain death, was an acceptance of what was to come. In other ways, it was one defense against the evil of the camp.

Apathy was another way of psychological defense, of survival. After having to deal with malnutrition, poor hygiene, starvation, and routine slaughter, prisoners looked for every opportunity to endure.

Despite their apathy, exhaustion, and irritability, inmates were never completely lost, never completely forsaken to the hell of their imprisonment.

They still had a choice, a chance within every moment, to act humanely. There were some individuals who, under extreme duress, acted heroically:

Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress. We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way (Frankl 74–75).

Everything was stolen from these inmates except for their inner freedom. Some prisoners, despite experiencing so many horrors, maintained their dignity.

Even though these individuals were surrounded by the most extreme external restrictions, they still had a choice to reflect on the unique meaning of their lives. They could still hold onto a higher purpose. Their attitude of spiritual freedom was a crucial element in their ongoing struggle for existence:

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not. (Frankl 76)

While so many prisoners fell into despair because of the brutal injustice perpetrated against them, there were some who remained compassionate, courageous and loving, giving of themselves when they had no obligation to give, accepting their fate when others denied it, selflessly helping when everything was taken from them, up until the time of their execution. They died with no names, no families and friends, but they never gave up their humanity.

To give away their last bite of bread, to stand up to a guard, to offer a kind word before walking into the gas chamber, despite never receiving any praise or recognition, was to act with freedom.

While inside the camp, there was no time, no sense of a future. Once survivors were freed, they began to feel an unreality, an alien world to their own.

They had to grasp the meaning of their lives again and to not lose themselves to a dreadful past, to apathy, giving up any future possibilities. Some individuals strengthened their inner lives, maturing after the horror of their experiences. Others resigned themselves to a life that was no more:

Naturally only a few people were capable of reaching great spiritual heights. But a few were given the chance to attain human greatness even through their apparent worldly failure and death, an accomplishment which in ordinary circumstances they would never have achieved. To the others of us, the mediocre and the half-hearted, the words of Bismarck could be applied: “Life is like being at the dentist. You always think that the worst is still to come, and yet it is over already.” Varying this, we could say that most men in a concentration camp believed that the real opportunities of life had passed. Yet, in reality, there was an opportunity and a challenge. One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners. (Frankl 76)

Prisoners who could imagine a reason to survive, who could find a “why” for their existence, could withstand the most unbearable circumstances:

We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. “Life” does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross. Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand. When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden. (Frankl 85)

Inside the camp, there were those who could undergo the daily atrocities and those who could not. Even among those who could, they survived not only from hope, not only from having a genuine purpose in a world that was against them, but from chance.

For the guards themselves, there were those who took a sadistic pleasure in making the prisoners suffer and die. Then there were those who were sympathetic but remained silent to the abuse, to the tortures, hardening themselves after many years. Finally, there were those who secretly helped and cared for the prisoners, despite a chance of severe consequences from their superior officers.

Some prisoners, who had been promoted to the most marginal powers in the camp, became as sadistic as the worst guards. Other guards, moved by compassion, could bring a prisoner to tears from the smallest act of kindness. No one in either group was entirely good or entirely bad. Life asked each of them a question, in every circumstance, which was this: “What kind of humans would they be?”

From all this we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two — the “race” of the decent man and the “race” of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people. In this sense, no group is of “pure race” — and therefore one occasionally found a decent fellow among the camp guards.

Life in a concentration camp tore open the human soul and exposed its depths. Is it surprising that in those depths we again found only human qualities which in their very nature were a mixture of good and evil? The rift dividing good from evil, which goes through all human beings, reaches into the lowest depths and becomes apparent even on the bottom of the abyss which is laid open by the concentration camp. (Frankl 94)

When the prisoners were finally released after so many years of unrelenting evil, returning to the world was an ordeal for them. They drifted as if lost in a dream, unable to feel like human beings for a long time. It was so difficult for the prisoners to recover from their time at the camp, where death was their companion.

They often ate an enormous amount once they were liberated, compensating for years of watery soup and stale bread.

Pressure had been building inside every one of them for so long because they had to repress so much trauma. Eventually, this pressure erupted into talk, into a discussion of what had once been too taboo to speak about in camp, into screams and nightmares and long cries about all those who were murdered, into a readjustment back into the unfamiliar world of the living:

One day, a few days after the liberation, I walked through the country past flowering meadows, for miles and miles, toward the market town near the camp. Larks rose to the sky and I could hear their joyous song. There was no one to be seen for miles around; there was nothing but the wide earth and sky and the larks’ jubilation and the freedom of space. I stopped, looked around, and up to the sky — and then I went down on my knees. At that moment there was very little I knew of myself or of the world — I had but one sentence in mind — always the same: “I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and He answered me in the freedom of space.” How long I knelt there and repeated this sentence memory can no longer recall. But I know that on that day, in that hour, my new life started. Step for step I progressed, until I again became a human being. (Frankl 96)

Some of the prisoners who were freed returned to where they once lived. Many of them could not find their families anymore. Others traveled back to their hometowns, but their community could not empathize with them or realize the magnitude of their suffering.

Some of the survivors still held onto hope. They hoped for their husbands and wives and kids, for a place to live, for a future that shimmered beyond all those barbed wire fences and towers.

Some may even have found a purpose after all their suffering, but not because of what the Nazis desired. They looked for what would transcend them, what had meaning for them, until slowly, day by day, they could reclaim their humanity again.

Short Spring Poems

plastic eggs
cracked open
in blades of grass,
she pushes her brother

the moss of
wet rocks,
a splash

white trees
lean over, leaves
bare through
the beat sun

the last
a jet
glides through
clouds and blue

the dew

a cardinal
over a twig

in the spring,
two snakes
dry across
the mud of
each trail,

over their
black scales
and blood

trips over
her own feet
in the field,

a raven flies
off near the

Sci-Fi Poem: Another Earth


Born from
the wet
tar of
nights of
in domes,
looking out
of windows in windows
at a smear
of horizon,
their eyelids twitching
until they rub them
with their fists
flies were writhing
inside their pupils

In the spring,
they breathe in
a yellow haze,
coughing out
the blood spit,
their flesh
spreading on
their backs
like red
on bark

In the winter,
float down
so silent
taste like
dry bones

Poem: Shadows of a Hidden Sun

One day,
if we do
our secrets
will become the
crying pain
of our flesh

Yet we
so often
in our
not knowing
who we are
because we
have rejected

We forget
that we
all our
and the

In a
we have
made out
of our years,
we want
cross the
sand of
we want
to find a
place that is
more than
we are

On our
the moon
of a hidden

is no one
to guide

Blackout Poem: From the Texts of Alan Watts and Philip K. Dick

From the texts of Alan Watts and Philip K. Dick

All change

takes place in


There is no

past, present, and future,

There is essentially timeless


Time is a transformation,



overlapping realms

of secret


from no clearly understood


The immediate now

is the flowing


from the infinite

multitude of

lines and








which surround


Review: The Art of Living

Calm your mind. Open up to what is arising and passing. If you stir up the mud at the bottom of a lake, the water will be unclear. But when you let the water be as it is, not trying to flatten the ripples or scoop out all the mud, the lake will settle down. Then you will not only see the still water, but a reflection of the mountains on the surface.

When you watch the rain, you are the rain just as much as the rain is you. Rather than feeling that you are an observer who is passively watching each of the droplets hit the ground, there is only the splash, splash, splash.

The rain exists beyond your words. Beyond your images and concepts and memories. Yet all too often, you divide yourself from the rain, creating an idea of you, an idea of the rain, an idea of how the rain sounds, an idea of how you should feel when you see the rain, and so on. You forget to smell the freshness of the rain because you are attached to what you think about it.

It is normal for you to separate your experiences into endlessly finer categories. You discriminate between past and future, good and bad, black and white, ugly and beautiful, life and death, young and old. You are looking for order and security. Your universe is placed into a mental filing system.

But as Alan Watts once said, “You confuse the menu for the meal.”

When you can be mindful, when you can let go, then you will come back to the purity of who you are. You will harmonize with nature. Breathing in, breathing out. You are here. 

You are not alienated from the rest of life. You inter-are. You are made up of relationships. 

A flower cannot unfold without the soil beneath it and the sun above it. It needs non-flower elements to be.

For the petals of a rose to glisten with dew, there first had to be a Big Bang. Conditions before that flower existed helped that flower to be. When that rose wilts back into the old earth, another flower will take its place. 

Energy cannot be created nor destroyed, only transformed.

Just like a flower, you are made up of non-you parts. You cannot exist without the oxygen you breathe or your ancestors or the gravity of the planet. You cannot exist without the water from the oceans or the clouds drifting above you. There is no you apart from anything else.

As Heraclitus said, “You cannot step into the same river twice.”

Your thoughts, feelings, and perceptions are changing. You are not the same person at five or fifteen or eighty. You may feel the same inside, and believe that you are going to remain young forever, but you are a constellation of processes, transforming in every moment. You are dying and being born. You are changing with the conditions of the universe. You are the conditions of the universe.

Don’t attach to one view of life and claim that is the best view to have. When you cling to your beliefs and refuse to open to what is happening, you will suffer. Your dogmatism will cause other beings to suffer too.

You are all the lives you have influenced. You are all your distant ancestors who survived for you to be born. You are all your descendants who will grow after your decomposition.

You are the sun and water and trees and moon. Without them, there is no you.

Your interconnection with all living beings will help you to see beyond yourself. When you become more aware of the changing conditions of your existence, you will not judge everything outside your flesh as separate from you.

You don’t have to look for ways to isolate yourself from other sentient beings. Clinging to your beliefs and refusing to consider differing perspectives will only cause you to suffer more. You are in others as others are in you.

It’s up to you to be kind, compassionate, and loving.

Every moment is a chance for you to deepen your practice. Talking about philosophy is not enough. Your life is your message. Your teaching.

When you are mindful and compassionate, your presence will influence the people around you. Everyone you meet will be a continuation of you. Your practice is a practice not only for you, but for your siblings, parents, children, neighbors, and the rest of your community.

When you think you are separate from the rest of the world, you will try to run from the world. You will seek pleasure while avoiding pain. You will look for comforting answers to the mystery of existence. You will hide from unpleasant truths.

Rather than resisting ideas that you don’t want to accept, look within yourself. 

See yourself in the world just as the world is seen in you. You are not only the blood in your body, but the stars in your blood. You don’t have to climb a mountain to find what is already here. You only need to see.

If you walk in a park, will you notice the leaves falling from the trees? Will you feel the breeze brushing against your skin? 

Look for lessons in what is already an intimate part of you. There is more wisdom in a crumbling leaf than in a thousand words about impermanence.

When you walk, walk. When you sit, sit. When you breathe, breathe. Rather than seeking to become important or achieve something outside of yourself, rather than dwelling on your regrets or rushing off to do the next thing, continue to do what you are doing, but with total freedom.

When you nourish yourself, you will nourish other beings. You will care for those who are suffering, who need someone to be there for them. 

You are not only working toward an end goal of compassion, peace, and kindness. You can embody those qualities now. Every step can be a step of love.

When you live in the present moment, you will begin to see the impermanence of all things. Flowers blooming in the spring mornings and withering in the autumn sun, a lover with age spots on her hands, a flash of lightning in the clouds. 

Without impermanence, a child can never mature into an adult and an acorn can never grow into an oak tree. For there to be birth, there has to be death. Yet at the ultimate level, there is only a transformation of what is.

When you are aware of your own impermanence, every moment is precious, a fleeting miracle. You will care for everything in your life, while knowing that nothing will last.

Pain and anger will fade away just like joy and happiness. Seemingly unstoppable empires will collapse before the rise of future civilizations. Everyone you know will die. Their bodies will break down into the dust of bones. Plants will grow over their forgotten tombs.

There is no you that remains the same. Your perceptions, thoughts, feelings, moods, and behaviors all change over time. From the cells in your fingers to the bacteria in your gut, from the wrinkles on your skin to the hormones in your glands, from the neurons in your brain to the oxygen that you inhale, you are transforming. 

You are not alone. You are not an unchanging entity, separate from the universe. You are the same and yet different.

Life is like a garden that you can cultivate. You can water the seeds of hatred and ignorance and greed, or, you can water the seeds of peace and joy and compassion. You have the freedom to choose. It is up to you.

When you tend to yourself, you will tend to others. When you tend to others, you will tend to yourself. You must be wise enough to select the most wholesome seeds to water.

Sometimes in your relationships, you may fall into unwholesome habits. You may forget to be grateful and engaged. As the weeds grow in your garden and in theirs, both of you will suffer. But it is never too late to cut away the weeds and to plant new seeds again.

Rather than chasing after abstractions of success, pleasure, power, and reputation, see these cravings for what they are. When you desire to taste the bait, biting down with all your force, you will only get hooked. You will find freedom only when you can let go.

Be aware of your fear, your need for intimacy, your sorrow, your instinct to survive. You are connected with this earth. Be compassionate with your suffering and nourish your love.

Smile because you are alive on this beautiful earth. You are only here for a short time.

Understanding Our Biases

Calvin and Hobbes

“We see things not as they are but as we are.”

—Anais Nin

“The human brain is a complex organ with the wonderful power of enabling man to find reasons for continuing to believe whatever it is that he wants to believe.”


“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

—Isaac Newton


We like to think that we are rational. Yet we are often unaware of our cognitive biases. Cognitive biases are systematic errors in the way we think about information. They are distorted patterns in our sensations, perceptions, and interpretations, influencing our beliefs, values, judgments, and decisions.

These biases occur as a result of our biological limitations. Our brains can only take in a fraction of information out of the total amount of possible information in the universe. We wouldn’t be able to function if we had to process every millisecond of every detail in our environments. So our brains simplify what we perceive to be more efficient organs, but as a consequence of this neural simplification, we unconsciously make errors.

Our nervous systems make sense of the signals in our environments. Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to survive. We select some information as relevant while rejecting other information. But what we perceive and recall, what we integrate into our nervous systems, is never equal to all of reality.

We continuously make internal models of what we experience, mostly below the level of our conscious awareness. As we engage with our environments, our environments are represented inside of us. Our nervous systems are constantly changing with the conditions of the universe.

Our existence is intertwined with the cosmos. We are interdependent with other organisms on our planet. The chemical elements that we are made up of once came from the stars. Without the sea and air, without the sun and moon, without the flora and fauna, we would not exist.

Yet we cannot consciously choose to circulate our blood or beat our hearts or grow our teeth or fire off an exact number of neurotransmitters in our frontal lobes. We cannot smell like a hound or sense infrared like a pit viper or sprint like a cheetah. We cannot perceive the same realities as a forest of redwood trees, a cluster of honey mushrooms, a pack of wolves, or a bacterium inside a zebra’s stomach.

Our realities are not only relative to our nervous systems, but to the tools that we use to extend our biological capacities, such as microscopes and telescopes, thermometers and computers. Through our nervous systems and tools, we can glimpse into infinity. We can communicate with each other about these “glimpses” using linear symbol-systems made up of words and numbers and images and sounds.

Bucky Fuller, an inventor and architect of the twentieth century, once wrote, “The universe consists of non-simultaneously apprehended events.”

We will never be able to fully comprehend all the events happening from the microscopic to the macroscopic, events from the past and present and future, events from hundreds of billions to trillions of different galaxies. There are so many events that are too unfathomable for our primate minds to consider.

The events that we consider are not always considered in the same way either. We interpret the information we take in through our biological, sociological, and psychological lenses. These lenses are interrelated rather than separate. They change over the span of our development. Because we all have such unique ways of interpretation, there is a lot of miscommunication between members of our species.

Robert Anton Wilson, guerilla ontologist and author, said in his Maybe Logic documentary:

Every kind of ignorance in the world all results from not realizing that our perceptions are gambles. We believe what we see and then we believe our interpretation of it. We don’t even know we are making an interpretation most of the time. We think this is reality.



We tend to favor information that conforms to our beliefs and values. We resist information that goes against our beliefs and values.

Sometimes we have trouble accepting evidence that challenges us, contradicts our beliefs, and causes us to question our assumptions. We may even avoid what upsets our precious delusions, isolating ourselves in a bubble of ignorance.

When our beliefs harden into dogmatism, then we turn into one of the blind men touching the elephant, claiming that the elephant is a tree or a snake or a fan, while never seeing its true nature.

The more that we attach ourselves to abstract notions of absolute truth, while being unable to respect the perspectives of others or correct the flaws in our own views, the more rigid we will become.

Lao Tzu wrote in Chapter 76 of the Tao Te Ching: “A man living is yielding and receptive. / Dying, he is rigid and inflexible. ” (translated by R.L. Wing)

Robert Anton Wilson, in Prometheus Rising, wrote:

Intelligence is the capacity to receive, decode and transmit information efficiently. Stupidity is blockage of this process at any point. Bigotry, ideologies, etc. block the ability to receive; robotic reality-tunnels block the ability to decode or integrate new signals; censorship blocks transmission. (276)


We are usually conditioned to think of a hammer in a limited way. We may see it, for example, as a tool that drives in nails. While a hammer can drive in nails, it has other possibilities that we may not be aware of.

A hammer, for instance, can pull nails out of boards, shape metal, smash rocks, measure, chop, bang, and demolish the walls of a house. It can be made out of steel, bone, wood, plastic, and rubber.

At a much smaller scale, a hammer is a complex of interactions between subatomic particles. At a much larger scale, it is an insignificant point, a hint of light, in the vastness of outer space.

From inside the courtroom, a hammer (gavel) can act as a demonstration of justice. In world history, when a hammer joined together with a sickle, it showed the solidarity of the proletariat. In Norse mythology, it represented blessings, protection, fertility, and power.

From a practical perspective, a veteran will have much more skill with a hammer than a novice. A sculptor will use it for different aesthetic reasons than a laborer. An infant may put a squeaky toy hammer in his mouth, tasting plastic for the first time, while a carpenter will raise a barn for her community.

In American folklore, John Henry once outpaced a steel-powered rock drilling machine. He died after winning his grueling race, a sledgehammer still clutched in his hand.

While the tale of his endurance became a legend, an inspiration for the workers he strived with, he was still only a man.

John Henry succumbed not only to the stress of his heart, but to the future power of technology. Machinery would soon replace many of his fellow workers, removing them from their purpose and livelihoods. Those who were still employed would eventually resemble the same machines that they depended upon: cold, lifeless, and efficient at production.

Through their dependency on machinery, some of the skills that were previously passed down from generation to generation were not only weakened, but forgotten.

Even though immigrants, ex-slaves, convicts, among many other poor workers, had struggled together to build America’s railroads, they were often alienated from the fruits of their labor. They earned low wages under deadly conditions. Then they were rejected when they were no longer seen as useful to their employers anymore.

John Henry was an ex-slave on the rails. In some versions of the tale, he built his hammer out of the chains that once restricted his freedom. His prowess with a hammer was not merely a gift, but a stance against his oppressors. He vowed through his grit to never let another man own him again. He may have been forced to work under deplorable conditions after the Civil War, which was common for many African Americans in the Reconstruction Era, but he used his power against the institutions that had dehumanized him.

Whether he won or lost, John Henry was a hero. He stood tall, not only for himself, but for all the underdogs of humanity. He spoke for those who didn’t have a voice. He sweated until his death for workers who were persecuted, exploited, and displaced under the brutal pace of “progress.” His hammer was not just an instrument of his worth. It symbolized an integral part of American identity.

The hammer was groundbreaking when it was invented. It has since evolved in design and purpose, meaning and material.

The hammer is simple, yet complex. It says more about our human nature than we may realize. But it depends on our perspective to look at its depth, just as with everything else in existence.

Throughout our lives, we often cling to what we are used to while ignoring what could be. We may think that a problem has only one solution, an individual has only one identity, or a thing can only be used in one way, while we don’t look for more possibilities than we are comfortable with.

Our old knowledge can prevent us from knowing more. We may even refuse to acknowledge a given reality because we are so fixated on what we think we know. How can we adapt to what is new, or correct our prejudices, or imagine the unimaginable, when we are trapped by our narrow conceptions?

We must empty our teacup if we are to learn. We cannot let our teacup overflow with opinions and conceit. Sometimes we need to unlearn what we once believed, letting go of our attachments to certain stories.

Everything can be our teacher.

When we view ourselves as beginners, we can ask the questions that aren’t regularly asked. We can approach familiarities as if they were new again. When we no longer drag around our prejudices and outdated notions about how life should be, we can open ourselves to more possibilities.


We often overestimate our level of knowledge, expertise, and competence. Yet we are limited creatures, ignorant about not only what we don’t know, but what we don’t know we don’t know.

Sometimes we think that what we think is all there is to think. But after we have been beaten down by the wisdom of hard experience, we may come to realize how foolish we once were.

Our simplified understanding of a complex subject does not mean that the subject is simple. Maybe there are other views that we have not examined or comprehended. There may be subtleties to fields that only specialists can grasp after decades of education, experience, and diligent practice. We may never have all the answers to the questions we seek.

When we aren’t humble enough to accept our limitations, when we refuse to ask for help, when we don’t reflect anymore on the mysterious and the unknown, we can become proud of our illusion of knowledge. Our ignorance can make us feel that we are superior, when in actuality, we don’t have the humility, or the honesty, to seek the truth of our conditions.


Just because somebody that we know, trust, admire, and respect believes in a particular idea, that doesn’t mean that idea is necessarily true. Even if most of the population believes in X or Y, including sixty biologists, our grandmother, the cranky neighbor down the street, the former leader of Norway, the quarterback on our favorite football team, and our elementary school teacher, that still does not make X or Y (or any other answer that we can imagine) necessarily true either. At the same time, even a notorious liar can speak the truth.

Our ignorance about the truth of an idea, and our failure to come up with a valid answer, does not mean that we should accept any alternative out there.

Our lack of knowledge means only that: a lack of knowledge.

As far as we know, we don’t know. And when we don’t know, we can try to figure out what the most reasonable answers are, but we shouldn’t believe in ideas that aren’t supported by sufficient evidence. We can always suspend our judgment while remaining open to future possibilities instead.

Even when we do accept certain ideas as valid, we should accept them tentatively, because what we believe today may be wrong tomorrow. It is better to have a degree of certainty with room enough to doubt that certainty.


We are often persuaded by compelling personal stories. Some people are eloquent speakers, born with the gift of the gab. What they tell us may even be partially true. At the same time, we have to consider whether their stories are exaggerated, made up, delusional, prejudiced, misinformed, improbable, and so on.

Can their beliefs be tested? Can their stories be verified by credible witnesses? When they speak, are they being logically sound? Do they talk about events that seem too unlikely to be true?

Sometimes people use premises that make sense, but then they jump to grand conclusions based on those premises.

Sometimes they assume too much when they argue their points because they want their conclusions to be true. Then they selectively look for information that fits their conclusions. They are eager to persuade, to convince, but they may not have logically arrived at their conclusions beforehand.

They may even take their assumptions as givens and then proceed further on in their argument. Despite their ready acceptance of their own points, some of us wouldn’t be so ready to agree with their assumptions.


We tend to more easily feel compassion for people who are closer to us than for people who are not as close to us.

When the number of those who are suffering increases to be on a massive scale, when human beings are judged more as abstractions than as vulnerable individuals, our compassion fades.

We must not be indifferent. We have to listen to the stories of those who most need our help, who are traumatized, who have gone through crises, so we can care for them, so we can be there for them, so we can see their humanity.

It is far too easy for us to ignore others when they are presented as numbers. We have to learn their perspectives.

We’re interconnected, dependent on each other in this world, while dependent on this world to be. We all want to be happy and healthy and safe. We want to belong to harmonious communities, not ones that are divided out of hatred and fear.

As Martin Luther King Jr., a minister and civil rights leader, once said in St. Louis in 1964:

We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.


We are more likely to act in a similar manner to how those around us act. We may feel more comfortable conforming to social pressures rather than thinking critically for ourselves, especially when we are uncertain, alienated, and persecuted.

We normally take cues on how to behave based on the behavior of those around us, but when we do so, we may neglect our intuition, reason, and ethical judgment, sacrificing our values for the values of the herd.

What we do matters to those around us. What others do matters to us. We are highly influential in our interactions with each other. Our actions can have significant consequences for other beings. Our social environments profoundly affect not only how we feel, but how we treat the people around us, and how they treat us.


We often underestimate the severity of threats and warnings. We act as if dangerous events could never impact our personal lives. Natural disasters, market crashes, motor vehicle accidents, viruses, and so on, are often ignored, disbelieved, minimized, and underestimated.

We feel uncomfortable when certain ideas contradict our values, beliefs, and attitudes, even when those ideas are valid, even when those ideas can better prepare us to deal with future crises.

We are resistant toward information that challenges our sense of normalcy and comfort and security. Rather than plan for catastrophes, we downplay them. Rather than confront potential emergencies, we deliberately ignore them.


We have a tendency to overestimate our abilities, talents, and intelligence. We may even believe that we have more control over a situation than we do. When we feel superior and overconfident, we aren’t being that accurate in our assessment of ourselves.

Sometimes those of us who understand the least about a given subject are the most confident. We may fail to recognize our incompetence because we are not aware enough of ourselves or of the given subject. We are ignorant of our ignorance, believing that we are wise. Our hubris distorts what we see as reality.

The more that we learn, the more we will come to realize how much we don’t know. We will never know all there is to know, but as our knowledge expands, we can become more aware of who we are and where we are going. We can reflect back on the patterns of our personal history.

When we are conscious of our humanity, of our ignorance, of our potential for growth and destruction, we can humbly explore the universe. We can invite mystery into our lives. We can become curious again.


We tend to believe in ideas that: (1.) we remember, (2.) we hear frequently, and (3.) emotionally affect us.

Rumors are often more attractive than complex facts. Gossip spreads faster than sober analysis.

Media outlets repeat sensationalist stories while censoring more critical narratives from being presented to the public. They manipulate their viewers into feeling sympathetic, outraged, fearful, hopeful, and disgusted, while not offending their advertisers and corporate owners.

Politicians know how to appeal to their voters, delivering passionate rhetoric on some issues, while never giving straight answers on more pressing concerns. They show off a carefully cultivated persona—smiling, shaking hands, dressing in expensive clothing, kissing babies, attending lucrative events, pretending to care about the same issues as their base—while covertly serving their own class interests.

When we don’t critically think about the quality of the information we consume, we will be seduced by misinformation. We will gobble up emotionally engaging stories. Propaganda will overtake our recollections of historical events.

Available information is not always credible information.


When we aren’t aware of our biases, we can easily be fooled. Sometimes even when we are aware, we can be fooled. While our ignorance works against us, it can be profitable for those who wish to take advantage of us.

Rather than only believing what makes us feel good, or what other groups believe, we have to examine the information we receive. We can reflect on our moral choices, on our values and beliefs, seeking to know more than what we have been indoctrinated to think.

When we refuse to accept what is true for a long enough time, we will eventually settle into the false comfort of delusion. Through our self-deception, we may hurt ourselves or those around us. We have to critically think about our lives so that we don’t make poor choices with even worse consequences.

We can open our minds to future possibilities, to hidden meanings. We can help those who are suffering, who are ignored, hearing their stories, tending to them the best we can.

When we can examine our existence, question what we are taught, and abandon our prejudices, we will mature as human beings.


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