Good Medicine: How to Turn Pain Into Compassion with Tonglen Meditation

We are often caught in a dualistic trap of desire, aversion, and ignorance. We make judgements about life, categorizing events as good or bad, pleasurable or painful, right or wrong, moral or immoral.

We desire what seems attractive and pleasurable, while we avoid or resist suffering, pain, distress, confusion, uncertainty, and hurt.

Then we ignore what doesn’t stimulate us, what seems uninteresting and boring. In many cases, we ignore what is too hard and painful to accept. Distracting our minds from what is.

Through tonglen practice, we can change our relationship to desire and aversion and ignorance.

Rather than being averse to pain, clinging to comfort, or ignoring what we don’t like, we can be mindful of ourselves, of all the energy in our bodies, without judgement, without attachment.

We can work with our suffering through being present. Instead of categorizing experience as good and bad, right and wrong, pleasurable and painful, we can simply be with what is.

When we drop our storylines, we can become friends with our pain and not cling to fleeting pleasures.

Then we can transform ourselves from our awareness of a changing, nuanced life.

We can inhale our suffering and exhale our joy. As we breathe, we can wish others to feel our joy and to not feel our suffering.

Rather than hiding from our sorrow and pain, we can directly engage with it—not in following the storylines of our sorrow and pain, or in justifying why we feel or think in a given way, but in seeing the energy behind everything.

When we look into ourselves with honesty and compassion, we can extend our view to others.

It is so easy to believe that we are the only ones who feel anger and pain, fear and depression, and so on, but we are not alone. Other people feel like us too.

Rather than reinforcing old habitual patterns of alienation and isolation, we can remind ourselves that we are all human and dependent on each other.

When we feel sadness, we can connect to the sadness of others, when we feel happy, we can connect to the happiness of others.

Our lives are the perfect material for our compassion. The more we focus on our patience, the more we realize how impatient we are. The more we focus on our anger, the more we discover how often we become angry. Every moment is a teacher, helping us to become better humans.

When we breathe in, we can imagine ourselves inhaling thickness, darkness, heat, heaviness, claustrophobia, or pain.

When we breathe out, we can release all that dark energy, transforming it into cool, bright light.

We can take in what is hard and let it go.

We can use our friends, our family, our troublesome associates, anyone, as material for our practice.

When we suffer, we can wish for others to not suffer as we are suffering. When we feel happiness, we can wish for others to feel happiness as we do. Through our practice, we can compassionately connect to all of life.

From “taking and sending,” we can awaken our compassion.

Instead of hiding from our suffering, we can learn to embrace it. We can visualize ourselves taking in pain, then sending out tenderness and care.

We can take in what is dark and send out the light. Through this daily practice, we will soon find that the distinction between what is given and what is taken, the inner and outer, life and death, good and evil, blurs.

For more on tonglen practice:

https://youtu.be/-x95ltQP8qQ

Noam Chomsky on Donald Trump (Updated: 6/7/20)

Noam Chomsky on Donald Trump:

If you look at the “Trump phenomenon,” it’s not so surprising. During the last fifteen years, in election after election, more candidates have arisen that were once considered “intolerable” to the republican establishment. The answer for this intolerability is that over the years, under neoliberal policies, the democrats and republicans have shifted more to the right.

“The democrats — by the ’70s — have pretty much abandoned the working class.”

In 1978, the Humphrey–Hawkins Full Employment Act was the last kind of progressive policy (which Carter had ordered down “so that it had no teeth”). While democrats shifted to resemble moderate republicans, republicans moved so far right that they fell off the spectrum.

Republicans have a primary constituency — extreme wealth and corporate power — that they have to serve. It’s hard to get votes when serving those interests. Therefore, they historically have appealed to evangelicals, southern racists, and disenfranchised white people, under the pretense of certain issues such as voting against abortion or fighting for gun rights. These issues are not necessarily favored by the establishment (and were previously not supported by the republican party), but they are tolerated in recent decades because they ultimately serve the real constituency.

“As for Trump’s base, they are indeed quite loyal. Most Trump voters were relatively affluent and probably are fairly satisfied with the ultra-reactionary policies. Another important segment was non-college-educated whites, a group that voted overwhelmingly for Trump (a 40 percent advantage). There is a close analysis of this group in the current (Spring 2018) issue of the Political Science Quarterly. It found that racism and sexism were far more significant factors in their vote than economic issues. If so, this group has little reason to object to the scene that is unfolding, and the same with the white Evangelicals who gave Trump 80 percent of their vote. Among justly angry, white, working-class Trump voters, many apparently enjoy watching him stick his thumb in the eyes of the hated elites even if he doesn’t fulfill his promises to [working-class voters], which many never believed in the first place.

What all this tells us, yet again, is that the neoliberal programs that have concentrated wealth in a few hands while the majority stagnate or decline have also severely undermined functioning democracy by familiar mechanisms, leading to anger, contempt for the dominant centrist political forces and institutions, and often anti-social attitudes and behavior — alongside of very promising popular reactions, like the remarkable Sanders phenomenon, Corbyn in England and positive developments elsewhere as well.”

Trump, on the other hand, understands how to serve corporate interests while getting the votes of evangelicals and extremists. The democrats, in their focus on his outrageous antics, are helping him succeed in the 2020 election. For example, democrats vigorously attacked Trump for Russia-Gate, for which evidence was slight (possibly for corruption), but there is more evidence for important things like the Israeli election interference. Furthermore, the highest interference in the United States elections is campaign funding. Campaign funding alone gives the highest prediction of who will win. Not to mention, the United States interferes with elections often, overthrowing leaders in coups, installing dictators and puppet leaders, placing harsh sanctions on impoverished countries. While the democrats invested a lot of their energy into Russia-Gate, they wasted a lot of time when they could’ve focused on crucial problems that can devastate the world, such as climate change.

***

Trump is basically a conman, a showman. He’s never had any political experience prior to being president, speaks all over the place in his speeches, never showing a consistent political position.

He knows how to get the mainstream media to focus on him.

“In order to maintain public attention, you have to do something crazy. Otherwise nobody’s going to pay attention to you.”

While he’s showboating, lying, or doing something to offend a lot of people, in the background, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and other members of the government that are writing executive orders, are working to “systematically dismantle every aspect of the government that works for the benefit of the population.” This ranges from worker’s rights to health standards to environmental regulations. Those in power want more power for their constituency at the expense of the people. Meanwhile, some of the most disastrous policies under the Trump administration are barely discussed.

“This generation is going to have to decide whether organized human existence is going to continue. Global warming and nuclear war are the two main issues… Trump’s actions are making both of them much more dangerous.”

The United States has pulled out of the international effort to reduce the effects of climate change. Trump hasn’t only withdrawn from the Paris Climate Agreement, cut a large portion of the EPA and environmental regulations for multinational corporations, but he’s actively increased the threat of climate change. Even in his State of the Union Address, he barely talked about the environment or pollution — other than “beautiful, clean coal.” His administration has drastically taken away funds for research on renewable energy sources, but has increased the subsidies for multinational oil and gas companies.

Additionally, when Trump started his second year in office, “the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists advanced their Doomsday Clock to two minutes to midnight, citing increasing concerns over nuclear weapons and climate change. That’s the closest it has been to terminal disaster since 1953, when the US and USSR exploded thermonuclear weapons. That was before the release of Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review, which significantly increases the dangers by lowering the threshold for nuclear attack and by developing new weapons that increase the danger of terminal war.”

Meanwhile, his Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 is “an enormous gift to the very wealthy, [giving] virtually nothing to anyone else.” The architects of the bill, such as Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, worked to undermine the already weak welfare and benefits systems of the general population. Paul Ryan had successfully accomplished his goals with the “‘Donor Relief Act of 2017’ and the deficit cuts that open the way to sharp reduction of entitlements: health, social security, pensions — whatever matters to the people beyond the very privileged.”

He exploded the “the deficit (a trademark of Republicans since Reagan), which means that they can move on to cut away at entitlements, as the chief architect, Paul Ryan, announced happily at once. The US already ranks near the bottom of the [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] countries — the 35 richer and more developed countries — in social justice measures. The Republican triumph will sink it even lower. The tax scam is only the most prominent of the devices being implemented under the cover of Trump buffoonery to serve wealth and corporate power while harming the irrelevant population.”

Trump’s policies on immigration, such as separating children (even infants) from their mothers, is having disastrous effects on people already in turmoil. Many of these families are fleeting from poor countries, suffering the consequences of US foreign policies, seeking security far from their homes. For example, “Honduras has been the main source of refugee flight since the US, almost alone, endorsed the military coup that ousted the elected president and the fraudulent election that followed, initiating a reign of terror.”

Trump’s hateful rhetoric has roused the passions of many extremist groups. His leadership has further pushed the narrative of fear for outsiders or “invaders,” including his claims about a Nicaraguan army ready to invade or a caravan of miserable criminals that want to cause harm. He’s exploiting people’s resentment and anger about their stagnating conditions, which has grown for more than forty years, due to the effects of enhanced corporate power.

He has strongly supported the Saudi War in Yemen. Despite UN agencies warning that the Saudi blockade could lead to one of the largest famines in modern times. The blockade prevents many “desperately needed imports of food, medicine, and fuel.”

Yemeni people are tragically dying from the world’s worst cholera outbreak. With “firm U.S. backing of systematic Saudi destruction,” priceless antiquities destroyed and countless deaths out of control, there seems to be little help for civilians.

There is little help for victims elsewhere either, such as in Raqqa, after a US-led attack on ISIS had absolutely obliterated the city. Rather than rebuilding or helping those harmed from such destruction, Trump has instead “sharply cut funding to the [United Nations Relief and Works Agency], which barely keeps millions of Palestinian refugees alive. In general, ‘make America great’ means great at destroying, and that’s where the greatness ends. It’s by no means entirely new, but is now raised to a higher level and becoming a matter of principle.”

Trumpism is a consequence of neoliberal policies. Many lives have declined or stayed the same while only a few have become more powerful. Deregulated financial institutions are bailed out of multiple crashes while those who suffer are ignored and forgotten. American voters have become bitter, angry, and depressed, while they compete on a global scale for stagnated wages. “The real surprise in the election was the Sanders campaign, which broke with a long tradition of pretty much bought elections, and was stopped only by machinations of the Obama-Clinton party managers. The Democratic Party is now split between the donor-oriented New Democrat managers and a growing activist social democratic base.”

“What all of this portends, worldwide, is far from clear. Though there are also significant signs of hope, some commentators have — with good reason — been quoting Gramsci’s observation from his prison cell: ‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’”

***

Updated: 6/7/20

[On Trump’s response to the George Floyd protests during the coronavirus pandemic] Trump wants to call forth a strong military response to those protesting against police brutality. His ideology is very simple. It’s called “me.” He wants to appeal to his white supremacist/racist base by calling for law and order.

Trump is concerned with his own power. His outrageous antics will be tolerated by the corporate sector as long as he enriches them (the already rich and powerful). While at the same time, during COVID-19, he’s removing regulations for how much air pollution can be emitted. This is estimated to increase the number of deaths by the tens of thousands, mostly of poor black people. What matters to him are his electoral prospects, not the people who suffer the consequences of his policies.

Trump-republicans are trying to pass legislation to immunize corporations, so they can order their workers back to work, despite the threat of Covid-19. White-collar crime prosecutions, such as for wage theft and environmental violations, have dropped significantly, while the general public is being consistently robbed through tax havens and stock buybacks.

[In response to the Coronavirus pandemic] The government could have used their resources to do research on viruses and prepare for vaccines. They’re blocked by (Reagan and Thatcher) neoliberal policies, which aim to put decision-making power into the hands of private tyrannies (corporations), whose goals are short-term profit. While the government is partially accountable to the public, the corporate sector is not.

“This is a capitalist crisis exacerbated by neoliberalism, exacerbated further by malignancies like President Trump. Countries did respond in one or another way to the crisis. The US just didn’t respond… Since the stock market went down, he finally noticed. Since then it was just efforts to cover up on chaos. Some of the things that have been done are just surreal like [for example] everyone’s concerned, of course, about getting a vaccine. There was a scientist in the government in charge of vaccine production. He was fired by the president. Why? Because he questioned some of his quack remedies.”

Trump has surrounded himself with sycophants like Mike Pompeo. Everyone else has been kicked out and not just in the last few weeks. For example, he had purged all the inspector generals, who were hired (incidentally by the republicans) in the departments of the government to weed out corruption.

“Trump has created a total swamp of corruption. He has just fired all of the inspector generals. That’s a coup reminiscent of a fascist state.”

This pandemic was caused by a “capitalist crisis, neoliberal crisis on top of it. Gangsters from the top capitalist class exacerbating it.” The corporate sector manipulates this terrible crisis to make profits, while the poor suffer the most.

_____

Works Cited:

Noam Chomsky: If Trump Falters with Supporters, Don’t Put ‘Aside the Possibility’ of a ‘Staged or Alleged Terrorist Attack’, chomsky.info/20170327/.

“Climate Change and Human Rights.” Global Policy Journal, www.globalpolicyjournal.com/blog/26/04/2018/complete-disaster-noam-chomsky-trump-and-future-us-politics.

English, TeleSUR. “Special Interview: Noam Chomsky.” YouTube, YouTube, 16 Feb. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=sDYIINbaKWs.

Johnson, Stephen. “Noam Chomsky Says Trump and Associates Are ‘Criminally Insane’.” Big Think, Big Think, 7 Feb. 2019, bigthink.com/politics-current-affairs/chomsky-says-trump-is-criminally-insane?rebelltitem=3#rebelltitem3.

Talk, Secular. “Chomsky BRILLIANTLY Dissects Trump, Democrats & RussiaGate.” YouTube, YouTube, 23 Apr. 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=llzoItQgLOQ.

Now!, Democracy. “Noam Chomsky on Pittsburgh Attack: Revival of Hate Is Encouraged by Trump’s Rhetoric.” YouTube, YouTube, 2 Nov. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hn_M4xK-Bpk&t=781s.

Now!, Democracy. “Chomsky: By Focusing on Russia, Democrats Handed Trump a ‘Huge Gift’ & Possibly the 2020 Election.” YouTube, YouTube, 18 Apr. 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLyS0E91H1o.

NUTMEG, PRIMO. “Noam Chomsky on Trump-Russia Collusion.” YouTube, YouTube, 24 Mar. 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=TtqWezfIhMY&t=21s.

Polychroniou, C.J. “‘A Complete Disaster’: Noam Chomsky on Trump and the Future of US Politics.” Truthout, Truthout, 7 May 2018, truthout.org/articles/a-complete-disaster-noam-chomsky-on-trump-and-the-future-of-us-politics/.

Chomsky, Noam. Barat, Frank. “NOAM CHOMSKY: ‘Trump’s Ideology Consists Of Two Letters : Me’” June 2, 2020. https://youtu.be/n_LD6alcsn0

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. This tale is not concerned with the great horrors, which have already been described often enough (though less often believed), but with the multitude of small torments. In other words, it will try to answer this question: How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?”
 
 The life of an average concentration camp prisoner, of one who had no special status or distinguishing marks on their sleeves, was one of daily struggle for existence.
 
 Tattooed on flesh, stolen of possession and identification, reduced to number among other numbers. To live, if only barely, if only briefly, was to know of another’s 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.”
 
 Viktor Frankl was Number 119, 104. His job inside camp was digging and laying tracks for railway lines before eventually tending to the sick, injured, and dying.
 
 For the Capos with their regular rations, they earned cigarettes as well as other perks. For ordinary prisoners, cigarettes were luxury items, traded for soup to prevent starvation. Then there were cigarettes for those who had lost themselves in despair.
 
 “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.”
 
 When a prisoner first entered the camp, they were shocked. Unable to grasp the brutal reality of their situation. Barbed wire and spotlights. Shrill commands in German. Ragged humans slumped in a gray dawn. As the days passed from the train to the camp, 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.”
 
 Prisoners who first arrived to camp were starved and cooped together in the cold. Guards would walk to each person and inspect them, deciding on whether they would work or be sent to 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.
 
 ‘Where?’
 
 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.”
 
 Prisoners were removed of all their items, including wedding rings, writings, jewels, photographs, anything resembling their former lives. They were stripped into a trembling nudity, whipped and beaten, washed of lice, shaven until completely hairless.
 
 “Thus the illusions some of us still held were destroyed one by one, and then, quite unexpectedly, most of us were overcome by a grim sense of humor. We knew that we had nothing to lose except our so ridiculously naked lives. When the showers started to run, we all tried very hard to make fun, both about ourselves and about each other. After all, real water did flow from the sprays! Apart from that strange kind of humor, another sensation seized us: curiosity. I have experienced this kind of curiosity before, as a fundamental reaction toward certain strange circumstances. When my life was once endangered by a climbing accident, I felt only one sensation at the critical moment: curiosity, curiosity as to whether I should come out of it alive or with a fractured skull or some other injuries. Cold curiosity predominated even in Auschwitz, somehow detaching the mind from its surroundings, which came to be regarded with a kind of objectivity. At that time one cultivated this state of mind as a means of protection. We were anxious to know what would happen next; and what would be the consequence, for example, of our standing in the open air, in the chill of late autumn, stark naked, and still wet from the showers. In the next few days our curiosity evolved into surprise; surprise that we did not catch cold.”
 
 In Auschwitz, a prisoner adapted to the worst conditions imaginable. Cold and unclean, sleeping huddled for a couple hours after hard labor, shirt weathered, feet cracked in mud.
 
 Suicide loomed in every prisoner’s mind — from the ever present danger that took those around them, threatening at every moment, to the utter hopelessness of the future. While some did kill themselves, most popularly by electrocution when touching a barbed wire fence, others, despite their small chance of living on, bared grueling days of survival, aware that they would still be sent to the gas chamber.
 
 As time went on under harsh conditions, prisoners were desensitized to emotions such as disgust and pity and compassion. From being around so much trauma, they had become apathetic, blunted of caring, in the instinct to survive. From day to day, physical punishment didn’t matter as much as the agony of injustice, of the helplessness to do anything about the terrible conditions that spread through camp.
 
 Guards regularly punished prisoners for the smallest of infractions. If somebody stepped out of line, talked back, helped another person who was struggling, or couldn’t do their work, they would be murdered, if not beaten. They were treated with the same respect as livestock.
 
 Prisoners, who had once identified as husbands and wives and students and doctors and professors and musicians and teachers and shopkeepers, were barely afforded the dignity of being human.
 
 After being reduced to such a blunted state, prisoners became primitive in their need to live each day for one more day. Just a little longer. They often dreamed more than they lived. Imagining that they had simple desires fulfilled from cake to cookies, from warm baths to deep sleep, they craved the illusion of peace while living 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.”
 
 Once woken from their longing in dreams, prisoners huddled together to work from a shrill whine of sirens. They barely fit their swollen feet into wet shoes before a day of labor began. If their feet could not fit inside those shoes, they would have to trudge through the snow, barefoot and frostbitten. While undernourished and starving, prisoners generally lost the ability to care about sex or anything except for a fulfillment of basic needs. Even feelings of sentiment, of caring, numbed from repeated daily 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!’”
 
 As prisoners endured the nightly struggle of a concentration camp, sometimes only salvation could come through thought, in the rituals of religion, prayer and debate, in the rumination of a loved one. Frankl imagined his wife while marching with sore feet, touching her with memories, with his imagination of where she was, how 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.”
 
 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 small 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!’”
 
 “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.”
 
 Most of camp life, however, wore on the very existence of the prisoner. One lived with mental turmoil, pain which constantly threatened one’s values, beliefs, and high purpose, “throwing them into doubt.” This brutal world ground the prisoner’s human dignity down to nothing, where the end of all struggle was death. People were used up until they their bodies failed, until their will to go on faded, like the flickering light of a candle, falling to enfolding darkness.
 
 Camp inmates often were tormented with making decisions and taking an initiative, believing that their lives were subject to fate. Small decisions could lead to life or death, whether in the moment or future.
 
 As Frankl wrote on his last days at camp before being rescued, when he thought about escaping, “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.”
 
 Trusting in fate, at times of certain death, was acceptance of what was to come. In other ways, it was a defense mechanism against the evil of the camp. Apathy was another way of survival, of psychological defense. In conditions of starvation and death, of malnutrition and poor hygiene, of regular slaughter and grueling work, of being treated as livestock instead of as humans, prisoners had to find ways to endure.
 
 Despite the apathy, exhaustion, and irritability of the prisoners, they were never completely lost, forsaken to the hells of their psychological conditions. They still had a choice, a chance within every moment, to act humanely. There were many 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.”
 
 Everything could be taken from an inmate but their inner freedom. Some prisoners, despite the most terrible conditions, still maintained their human dignity. Amidst great suffering and death, they had to choose and not choose.
 
 Surrounded by the most extreme external restrictions, prisoners had the choice to reflect upon what had meaning for them, holding onto their purpose. Their attitude of spiritual freedom was a crucial element in an ongoing struggle for their 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.”
 
 While many prisoners slumped into despair or conformity under a brutal injustice, there were some who remained compassionate, courageous and loving, giving of themselves when they had no obligation to, accepting their fate while selflessly helping others, up until their extermination. They died with no names, no families and friends, but still had the integrity to not lose their humanity.
 
 To maintain dignity while trampled on by the jackboot, to give a last piece of bread away to a sickly child, to offer a kind word before walking before the gas chamber, despite not being known or praised for their sacrifices, was to act with freedom.
 
 “This young woman knew that she would die in the next few days. But when I talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge. ‘I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard,’ she told me. ‘In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.’ Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, ‘This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.’ Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. ‘I often talk to this tree,’ she said to me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. ‘Yes.’ What did it say to her? She answered, ‘It said to me, ‘I am here — I am here — I am life, eternal life.’”
 
 Inside the camp, there was no time, no sense of a future. Outside of the barbed wire fence, prisoners felt an unreality, an alien world to their own. Prisoners had to struggle to grasp the meaning of life and not lose themselves in the past, in apathy, in giving up to future possibilities. Some strengthened their inner lives, maturing under the horrors of their experiences, while others resigned themselves to a previous way of 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.”
 
 A prisoner who could imagine a reason to survive, a “why” for their existence, in the moment or future, could endure 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.”
 
 Inside the camp, there were those who could endure daily atrocities and those who could not. Even among those who could, they survived not only from hope, from genuine purpose in a world against them, but from chance.
 
 For the guards themselves, there were those who took a sadistic pleasure in making the prisoners suffer. Then there were those who were sympathetic but remained silent to the abuse, to the tortures, hardening themselves after years. Finally, there were those who secretly helped and cared, despite negative consequences from their superior officers.
 
 Some prisoners, who had been promoted to marginal powers, 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 the question, in every circumstance, what type of person 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.”
 
 When the prisoner was finally released from camp after so many years of hard suffering, returning to the world was an ordeal. A prisoner drifted as if lost in a dream, unable to feel, unable to become human. It was so difficult for prisoners, after being routinely abused, to recover from the endlessness of a camp, where starvation and death were companions.
 Prisoners often ate an enormous amount once liberated, compensating for years of watery soup and stale bread.
 
 There was a pressure that had built inside every inmate, a repression of their yearly suffering into the unconscious, which had to eventually erupt though talk, through a discussion of what had been taboo to speak about in camp, through screams and nightmares and long cries to those murdered, a readjustment back to 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.”
 
 Some of those freed returned and found no homes, no families anymore. Others traveled to their hometowns, where their community could not truly empathize with them or know the magnitude of their past. Yet those who survived still held onto hope for a wife, husband and child, for a future, for a meaning that lingered beyond those barbed wire fences and spotlighted towers. They found purpose in their suffering, but not through what the Nazis desired. They endured in utter depravity, for years and years, only to seek that which could transcend them.

Tao: The Watercourse Way

without an inside,
there is no outside,
by taking away evil,
there is no good,
without black,
there is no white,
without joy
there is no suffering,
there is no before
without an after,
no feminine
without masculine,
ugliness without
beauty,
life without death:
both are inseparable
like poles on a magnet

everything relates to everything
and then returns back to itself,
from one to two to three to
the ten thousand things,
one is not one without
the ten thousand things

when there are
no opinions,
no purpose,
no action,
things come and go
of themselves

when there is mystery
in what cannot be named,
to name it is to not know it,
to know it is not to talk of it

people take care of themselves
when they are not forced,
snow cracks the most rigid pines
while the willow yields and bends

a great warrior doesn’t need to fight
even though a weapon is available

the most powerful ruler is not free
but is burdened with worry, fear, isolation

the truly powerful have
no ambition, no status,
they do not hold themselves above anyone,
they do not praise or blame,
they act by not acting,
they do not force others,
and everything is still accomplished

the wise ones behave righteously
with no thought of good and bad,
they decide on what to do and do
but do not preach to others

when striving for peace,
there will be war,
when seeking pleasure,
there will be suffering,
when there is youth,
there will be old age,
when there is health,
there will be sickness,
from trying to control,
there is a lack of control

there are transformations
along the path of life to death:
not minding what comes or goes,
there is joy in every change

to desire or strain not to desire,
one is still in the Tao,
not a part of it, but It

let the mind alone
and it will harmonize,
force the mind
and it will resist

twenty haiku

“A haiku is not just a pretty picture in three lines of 5–7–5 syllables each. In fact, most haiku in English are not written in 5–7–5 syllables at all — many are not even written in three lines. What distinguishes a haiku is concision, perception and awareness — not a set number of syllables. A haiku is a short poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived in which Nature is linked to human nature. As Roland Barthes has pointed out, this record neither describes nor defines, but ‘diminishes to the point of pure and sole designation.’ The poem is refined into a touchstone of suggestiveness. In the mind of an aware reader it opens again into an image that is immediate and palpable, and pulsing with that delight of the senses that carries a conviction of one’s unity with all of existence. A haiku can be anywhere from a few to 17 syllables, rarely more. It is now known that about 12 — not 17 — syllables in English are equivalent in length to the 17 onji (sound-symbols) of the Japanese haiku. A number of poets are writing them shorter than that. The results almost literally fit Alan Watt’s description of haiku as “wordless” poems. Such poems may seem flat and empty to the uninitiated. But despite their simplicity, haiku can be very demanding of both writer and reader, being at the same time one of the most accessible and inaccessible kinds of poetry. R. H. Blyth, the great translator of Japanese haiku, wrote that a haiku is ‘an open door which looks shut.’ To see what is suggested by a haiku, the reader must share in the creative process, being willing to associate and pick up on the echoes implicit in the words. A wrong focus, or lack of awareness, and he will see only a closed door.”

~ Cor van den Heuvel

***

hammer echoes 
shingles at dawn,
silent red clouds

***

light stills dust
into the steel
guitar strings

***

rain
slipping through 
porch

***

baby curled in,
eyelids

trembling

***

bay waves
glittering beyond
piers on shoreline

***

cherry drops 
in pond,
rippling

***

pregnant belly of
sunlight, bouncing
over an open book

***

yellow leaves
flickering in sun
with brown leaves

***
 
waterfall gurgles, froth 
rocks

***
night pumpkin
shadowed by
legs on stairs

***

rustling bush,
peeled in the 
wind of its leaves

***

hands full of
sunlight
wrinkled shadow

***

callused flesh,
fingertips roll
on soft strings

***

full moon fills 
in power lines,
crow flies off

***

trash bag wraps
in the wind of
highway tires

***

boot plops in
mud, sucks
back into air

***

cattails in

a mud puddle,

splashing fish

***

sun in tree

light, peeling

white bark

***

red leaves

shadow on

a roadside

***

skeletal oaks

twisted in mist,

on snowy hills

***

in brown forest,

rainfall dripping

in cracks of winter bark

Reflections on “True Peace Work: Essential Writings on Engaged Buddhism

“Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby. To suffer is not enough. We must also be in touch with the wonders of life. They are within us and all around us, everywhere, any time.”

— Thich Nhat Hanh

_________________

nuclear bombs with

mushroom unfolding

and sunlight opening

the petals of

yellow

violets

a child dragging

herself

through mud streets,

lips scabbed and dry,

eyes open in the

napalm rain

and blue birds

chirping

in the moist

rainforest

below a mist

of mountain clouds

shuddering

before a gun,

robbed

of homeland, lost

in a feud

under blood

drones

and sighing

on a mountain,

overlooking

endless endless

trees,

red leaves

yellow leaves

green leaves

_________________

Lose all dogma,

Be open to everything,

Don’t force your beliefs on others,

Walk your own path

_________________

It’s necessary to occasionally leave from civilization, meditating in the wilderness, sitting in the quiet hum of solitude, hiking through the mountains, in order to heal from civilization and turn inward and listen again. Too much noise from civilization pollutes the mind. Too much attachment wears anyone down eventually. The wise, who are filled with loving-kindness, do by not doing. Their presence is powerful in its authenticity and their benevolent actions stem from being grounded, peaceful, and compassionate. They master themselves so they can help others.

_________________

The Buddha said: “Victory creates hatred. Defeat creates suffering. The wise ones desire neither victory nor defeat… Anger creates anger… He who kills will be killed. He who wins will be defeated. Revenge can only be overcome by abandoning revenge… The wise ones desire neither victory nor defeat.”

_________________

Our governments condition us to separate ourselves from the Other. We are routinely taught to hate and fear what we don’t understand. Children starve daily and nuclear weapons are stocked up and environmental disaster heightens to threaten the planet and tribal groups murder over natural resources and corruption spreads through political systems.

In our societies, we forget our traumas and remember and then forget again.

How can we help others when it’s so easy to forget? We have to be aware of our own lives so we can be aware of the issues of the world. To see ourselves in the Other, whether we are a weapons manufacturer or a child with cholera in Yemen, whether we are a corrupt president or a farmer whose land was stolen, lets us be aware of the interdependence of this world.

We are in everyone and everyone is in us. When we see the deep relationship of the world, it is our responsibility to help others because they are who we were, are, and could have been.

_________________

Nhat Chi Mai

Mai, loving Mai,

crumpled in her

bone robes

and burnt hair,

sacrificed all

to end enduring

massacres in

jungles under

blood suns

where bomb smoke

filled the eyes of

newborns

Mai, loving Mai,

dead in the

pagoda dirt,

sacrificed

so the lost

could work for

peace

_________________

Those who try to harm us are our most beneficial teachers. We should be grateful to them because we can then practice our patience, tolerance, and forgiveness.

When we are angry or jealous, our minds are not well adjusted. We’re not balanced or peaceful when we are lost in negative emotions. Those who try to cause us harm may do so because of their anger, envy, pain, bitterness, and so on. They act from their suffering just as we act from our own — whenever we’re upset, sad, jealous, etc. Under different conditions, they may be a friend instead of an enemy.

Instead of hating people who try to harm us, feel compassion for them instead. Instead of judging the entirety of their lives because of an action or negative feeling, we must see ourselves in them.

_________________

The rainforest is my lungs, the sun is my heart. I am made of elements of air, land, and water. Without the trees and flowers and soil and bees and birds and grass, I cannot exist. They are in me as I am in them. From a spec of dust to the stars, interdependent and changing, I am. As seeds are watered to become trees, as decomposing animals fertilize the soil, everything is in transformation. I must protect my planet because this planet, ever-changing in its growth and death, is never separate from me.

I must be aware of my relationship with the earth. I must not mindlessly consume and destroy. Respect should be given to the land and water and air. If I can, I will work to prevent the destruction of what nourishes all living things.

_________________

The persistent cycle of delusion, greed, and aversion, clinging to a past, present, and future, to pleasure and desire, to the idea of having a separate, isolated self, can be broken with wisdom (gained in meditation) and morality.

Every step is a step to be free. Every moment is a chance to be loving and peaceful.

To be enlightened is not to avoid life, not to ignore all of the traumas and wars and violence that causes people to suffer, but to joyfully live in the world, even among all the sorrows (Joseph Campbell). One can simultaneously hear the “birds chirping” and know the “depths of hell.”

_________________

Be at home in the present moment to heal the past. Build communities of peace and love wherever we go.

People are not obstacles to overcome when working on the self. They aren’t distractions. They are teachers, even those who are cruel, violent, and sad.

Care for children and see the child in every adult. Know that even those who are immoral now were once tender babies. Those who underwent so many traumas, who repeat those destructive patterns in adulthood, were once so scared and vulnerable to the world.

_________________

Before speaking, be mindful of breathing. Allow a pause before responding rather than speaking impulsively. Listen deeply, learning about not just the words of the speaker, but their underlying fears and worries, uncertainties and curiosities. When speaking, use the language of loving-kindness, working always to develop harmony rather than causing division. After speaking, let go of the words. They belong to the community now.

Instead of holding onto views of right and wrong, discover what the reasons are for a person’s view. What in life led them to such a position? Does it help or hurt, is it truthful or a lie, does it cause suffering or a benefit to others?

Refrain from unkind words about people not present. Do not fall into unwholesome habits, picked up from others. Break apart conditioned patterns of communication.

_________________

Our boundless energy to help others comes from taking care of ourselves.

Comparing ourselves to others, feeling secretly satisfied when others fail or do badly, will not sustain our lives.

Giving too much, focusing on too many projects, championing for too many causes, while neglecting our own health, will only lead to burnout and depression.

We do violence to ourselves when we ignore our own nourishment. We hurt ourselves when we focus on the task, whatever work needs to be done, the details of an important project, while failing to be mindful of ourselves, of another person, totally and sincerely.

Reflections on “The Art of Slow Writing”

From formlessness, form arises. A story, essay, poem, novel, begins from a slight agitation, a dream, an image of the sun sprinkling over the water, from a hidden place deep in the unconscious. It is raw, muddled. A piece of soft clay that must. be shaped repeatedly before hardening. There may not even be a final form in mind, only the steady cut of steel to unformed material, as shavings float away to reveal a mysterious figure.

Write when you’re ready, when you can. If you wait for inspiration to guide you, if you need to conjure up the perfect image of a masterpiece before you glide your ink pen across a piece of paper, you’ll never start.

Start anywhere. Linger longer in silences, playing with time like a zen monk plucking a daisy from a field, open to what comes.

No expectations, no high standards.

Just write. It could be shit. Who cares? That’s what revision is for.

Write. Write often. Revise even more often.

Go through a couple of drafts before you expose your work to other people for a critique.

Decide what tools are best for you: being physically intimate with a scrap of paper and a pen, clicking away on the keys of a steampunk typewriter, going stream-of-consciousness on a modern computer.

Whatever you use will mold your writing. While a golden retriever and pit-bull are both considered dogs, each has its own bark.

There is no ideal time to write, especially when you have a full-time job, kids, and hobbies. If you truly want to write, you’ll make it work, though.

From waking early, long before the clouds have parted to let sunlight in through the curtains. From those precious moments before the school bus squeals to a stop in front of your house. From an unpaid lunch hour in between a ten hour shift. From a weekend when everyone else is at a bar, watching the football game.

Usually having too much free time can make you lazy with possibilities. But to aspire to work under a constraint can paradoxically be the most productive writing help.

Writers should endure an apprenticeship to develop their abilities. They can learn from masters, alive and dead. Everyone and everything can be a teacher. From television shows to trying new formats, from copying the prose of novelists to mimic their structure to reading wide varieties of material, every experience shapes the development of the artist.

Writers must be patient when struggling for progress.

They must endure in themselves, so that they can become who they first believed they were when they began writing.

Most people will not work for years to steadily improve their craft. They will dabble around, then give up. They will see minor success, then give up. They will get distracted, settle down with a family, find a full-time job, play a video game, then give up.

Writers must have the heart to continue.

Solitary walks through changing trees. Musing in nothingness with sunlight on pine needles, open to all ideas, but not holding on. Writing comes without any obstruction when you idle without a purpose.

Writing is process, not result. Journals kept of meticulous notes, observations, image patterns, daily thoughts. Learn through life and write about life. Some material written ten years ago can be useful in a future novel. Work slowly, deliberately, not rushing to produce.

Henry Miller considered the relationship that one has with books to the one that one has with life.

Are you a slow reader, a note taker, one who is methodical in your learning? Do you linger on certain lyrical passages, feeling the syllables seduce your lips?

Are you one of those people who breezes through a work, taking in information for a moment, only to forget everything a week later?

Writers need to deeply read in order to deeply write.

Insights of the Dhammapada

A mind of peace will create peace. A mind of conflict will create conflict.

Holding on to past slights, injustices, and insults will keep them alive within.

Letting go of those things will release the feelings of hatred, resentment, and bitterness.

A mind lazy with indulgences will become a slave to desire and temptation. A disciplined mind will not be affected by the greatest temptations.

Rather than living through the extremes of life, behave with open honesty, moderation, and mindfulness.

Instead of directing anger and vengeance at what one hates, loving kindness will dissolve those feelings and free one’s heart.

An undisciplined mind is consumed with fleeting pleasures, distracted by thoughts, concerned with what somebody has said or done, what’s happening around them, and so on.

The disciplined mind is mindful, aware of what’s within. The undisciplined mind is neglectful, unaware.

The disciplined mind is alive while the undisciplined mind is one of the living dead.

While the restless person seeks greater and greater pleasures, never satisfied with what they have and complaining about what they don’t have, those who are virtuous spread their message with right speech, right action, right livelihood, etc.

“Just as a sweet-smelling lotus blooms

Beside the highway upon a heap of filth,

So does the disciple of the perfect Buddha

Rise above those bound blindly

To the limitations of the world.”

A foolish person seeks status, power over others, a satisfaction of desires, craving after something more. Fools act in a way that will bring grief, regret, and suffering to themselves and others. They may not know the consequences of their deeds until those deeds eventually consume them. They are untouched by wisdom because their minds are not wise.

Those who are wise act to bring joy and harmony to themselves and others. Wise people associate with other people who are better or equal to themselves. If they cannot find anyone, they walk their path alone.

Wisdom comes from self-mastery. In mastery, there is no clinging to comfort, discomfort, praise, blame. One controls one’s senses instead of being restlessly lost in desire.

It is better to speak one peaceful word than to speak a thousand vain verses. It’s better to live in awareness for one day than to dwell forever in ignorance.

Those who commit wicked deeds may enjoy themselves until they intimately learn what their deeds have led to and what they have become as a result of their immorality.

Don’t underestimate how small choices can shape a person’s character. Just as a pot can fill, drop by drop, one can become good or bad, moral or immoral, overtime.

People who use harsh words will come to regret them. An individual must consider their own feelings and those of others. He or she should empathize with others and realize that one feels fear and anger and sadness as much as every other human. If one continues on the unethical path, one will find pain, loss, regret, grief, and the unwholesome results of their actions.

A person’s life is transitory. Body fragile, decaying overtime until death. Do not cry for a misspent youth, regretting what should have been. Treat the world with loving-kindness instead.

“Unwholesome action, hurting self, comes easily. Wholesome action, healing self, takes effort.”

To be unethical is to bring forth suffering. The foolish mock the wise for their moral teachings, while ignorant of the good and lost in wrong views. Nobody can be good for anyone else. It is up to each person to act righteously. They hold the freedom and responsibility alone.

Among the liars, be honest. Among the stingy, be generous. Practice loving-kindness with an angry person. Don’t worry about criticism or praise or the reputation of others. Always show moderation in speech and action.

Master mind-body.

It is easy to find faults in others and hide them in oneself. It is easy to be greedy and envious and bitter, comparing and judging. It’s far more difficult to live the path of peace, honesty, self-control.

Those who speak beautifully or who look pretty aren’t attractive if they are greedy, angry, and ignorant. An old man is not an elder simply through advanced age either. Only from truthfulness, loving-kindness, generosity, and non-attachment, one is truly attractive and wise.

Look deeply into the transitory nature of life. Understand the inevitability of death. Don’t cling to any ideas of eternalism or nihilism. Meditate to find a refuge within.

Now is the time to be the truth of living.

Don’t postpone being righteous anymore.

Be simple and clear. Let go of the past, let go of the present, let go of the future. Only meditate with what can be controlled in every moment: mind, speech, actions. Build confidence, meditative absorption, insight and mindfulness and right effort. Choose a path that is ethical and not something that promotes greed and restlessness, ignorance and anger.

Civilized to Death (book review)

Civilized to Death (book review)

“An era can be considered over when its basic illusions have been exhausted.”

— Arthur Miller

Modern civilization is seen as necessary for “progress.” With every breakthrough in technology, science, medicine, and so on, with every new comfort and convenience, advancement and novelty, what is the cost?

People often assume that progress is steadily increasing, and at a linear pace, believing that the livelihoods of the hunter-gatherers were primitive, dangerous, and simple, despite their survival for most of human history.

Since the domestication of animals and move into agriculture from small bands of roaming hunter-gatherers, civilizations have both developed and fallen from a depletion of natural resources, conflict, famine, and disease. Populations have become denser and temperatures have risen to new global extremes every year.

Humanity, overcome with dissatisfaction and anxiety, has rushed into a shadow future. They have chased after novelty without knowledge, or concern, for the consequences of their desires.

Americans, for example, generally work longer hours than in past decades while the global competition rises and wages stagnate. The rich get richer while the poor get poorer. Rates of people who struggle with starvation, who earn ten dollars a day, who can’t afford to deal with a medical emergency, increases steadily.

Civilization doesn’t necessarily imply progress. Hunter-gatherers are not inherently miserable. One must ask always when speaking of progress, “progress for whom?”

What seems like progress for one person, group, community, or civilization, may be contextually a benefit, but not absolutely. Furthermore, what is normalized for one group may not necessarily be “good” for that group or another group, but rather, an adaptation overtime of that group to an advantageous environment. Those who do not gain any benefits from that environment would suffer, die, or merely not flourish enough to gain much from it.

In our modern age of progress, millions of people have been displaced from their homelands due to war, conflict, famine, persecution, and climate change. More species are increasingly going extinct while the ocean currents have slowed down.

While every unstoppable civilization such as Rome, Sumer, and Ancient Egypt, have all crumbled in the past, they have done so regionally. If our civilization falls, it will happen at a global scale.

Hunter-gatherers may not have been idealistically perfect but those who survived and succeeded through reproduction did so from trust, cooperation, and generosity. They would’ve perished under brutal environments if not for their interdependence and mutual interests.

The days of the hunter-gatherer are over, however. It is too late to turn back to the prehistoric world. Population densities have swelled beyond small bands of undomesticated hominids.

“We’ve lost too much of the knowledge and physical conditioning necessary to live comfortably under the stars. If our ancestors were wolves or coyotes, most of us are closer to pugs or poodles.”

Even though no one can return back to prehistory, it’s possible to learn from the past to create better conditions for the future. If stories of the past are misused, misunderstood, or abused, however, then the accepted narrative of civilization can imprison just as much as free.

There’s an assumption of prehistory as being a Hobbesian nightmare where people brutalized each other in harsh environments to survive and reproduce, where primitive peoples lived lives that were “nasty, brutish, and short.”

While precivilization is condemned, civilization is often seen as perpetually improving, all despite human nature’s competitive, aggressive, and bloody history. This view of humankind is routinely used in the justification of slavery and war and colonialism. Rather than connecting more intimately with one another, civilized people are conditioned to not trust each other, to compete, to feel shameful over their bodies and instincts.

There may be a more accurate story than the Hobbesian one. When studying modern foragers, who have similar relationships with their environments as peoples did thousand of years ago, from how they settled conflict and had children to how they hunted and built their homes, structural insights into their groups can help researchers see the past.

Looking deeply at the anatomical/physiological functions of the human body, especially since human beings have evolved for thousands of years as hunter-gatherers (longer than as agriculturalists), provides a glimpse into the past as well.

“Well over 95 percent of the time that our species has existed we’ve lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers moving about in small bands of 150 people or fewer.”

These bands, despite how long ago they lived or where they had come from, were egalitarian, mobile, social, and generous. Power was fluid rather than hierarchical, based more on social value than status and property. Women were given similar opportunities to men, gaining respect for their intelligence, skill, and integrity, while being able to make decisions that would profoundly impact the rest of the group.

With these universal traits displayed among the hunter-gatherers, however, there are still no absolutes. Exceptions of child abuse, unequal treatment between the sexes, disproportionate power, and so on, can exist and have before, but never on the scale of hierarchical, agriculture-based societies.

While hunter-gatherers, traveling with minimal shared supplies, relied on each other for reciprocal generosity, treating each other as extended families, giving and receiving in order to survive and to grow, when the State first arose, people became inferiors, subservient to kings, priests and dictators, being taxed and controlled by those with unequal power.

For hunter-gatherer tribes, an individual is prized for their intelligence, hunting skills, and so on. When they exceed their skills through arrogance, selfishness, pride, or an unequal amount of power, they are laughed at, socially exiled or eventually killed. As long as they provide social benefit to the group, they are mutually benefited themselves. In agricultural societies, however, there is a conflict regarding the messages of promoting generosity and support and sharing, competition and survival and private ownership. Large populations with complex civilizations are prone to conflicting value systems.

Nevertheless, humans have complex moralities based on social values that were deeply woven into their biological makeup for thousands of years to ensure their survival.

While civilization has definite benefits, what is the long term cost of perpetual expansion? Civilization has solved many problems while simultaneously being the reason for those problems to exist in the first place. Everything from gum disease to obesity, depression to anxiety, overly medicated children to heart attacks, rose since the advent of civilization rather than before it.

Agricultural societies may have developed independently from each other, thousands of years ago, due to extremes in climate. As the hoarding of resources began, complex social hierarchies did as well. These hierarchies may have led to more conflict among groups, artistic creation, nuanced relationships with the dead, ritualistic practices, warfare, and enslavement.

While hunter-gatherers revered the flow of nature and relied on it with their lives, the agriculture-based civilizations dominated and controlled it. Rather than mobility and sharing, humans became sedentary and owned more possessions. They became conditioned by the institutions that had arisen with their settlement. As humans domesticated plants and animals, they too became domesticated.

When civilizations encountered foraging societies, they often brutalized them through the theft of land, enslavement, human sacrifice, rape, wanton murder, exploitation, torture, spread of disease.

The stronger the civilization, the greater the need for using up natural resources while expanding to conquer other places and peoples. Those apart from civilization were seen as less human and treated as such. And within powerful civilizations, the disparity between wealth and freedom grew between the powerful and the powerless.

Rather than living as an egalitarian web of relationships in a band of intimates, rather than as an extended family caring for one another’s benefit, people were treated like property in civilization. These forced participants, who were enslaved and worked until death, who procreated out of necessity for survival, for the labor of the system, who were manipulated by their rulers to keep civilization from collapsing, were not treated as humans anymore. Those who tried to break away from the confines of civilization were severely punished or manipulated into returning out of desperation and systematic coercion.

This practice continues today: “Multinational corporations routinely expropriate land in poor countries (or ‘buy’ it from corrupt politicians), force the local populations off the land (so they cannot grow or hunt their own food), and offer the ‘luckiest’ among them jobs cutting down the forest, mining minerals, or harvesting fruit in exchange for slave wages often paid in company currency that can only be used to buy unhealthful, industrially produced food at inflated prices at a company-owned store. These victims of market incursion are then often celebrated as having been saved from ‘abject poverty.’ With their gardens, animals, fishing, and hunting, they had been living on less than a dollar a day. Now, as slave laborers, they’re participating in the economy. This, we’re told, is progress.”

While civilized people are systematically forced to remain in civilization, they are conditioned to fear any alternative. They are routinely propagandized with fear of death, fear of old age, fear of outsiders, fear of a dangerous environment, fear of disobeying the structure of society, fear of being different, and fear of questioning.

While fear is being mass communicated to those who serve the system, messages of self-interest are justified as natural for a species that is interpreted as inherently competitive and selfish.

While the social hierarchical system, built upon control and expansion, rationalizes itself under these premises, messages of altruism, generosity, and sharing, which are prominent in foraging groups, are conflicted with and misrepresented.

Foragers nevertheless have some form of social hierarchy, except their structure is in support of social autonomy. People can gain more power in these groups, except at the expense of the group. Those who violate the rules of the group, benefiting themselves at the expense of others, are shamed, excluded, or eventually killed, depending on the person’s effect upon others. Foragers are often quite aware of the social hierarchy in their groups and have ways of keeping a check on power, maintaining egalitarian principles with tradition, stories, humor, and so on.

Another way that foragers have often maintained social harmony is through group fluidity. Members of small bands can leave the group, join other groups, based on climatic conditions, the hunt, and so on. In many tribes, once women are old enough, they leave their families for another tribe. Rather than based on biological necessity, many foragers come together out of a mutual practicality and show attitudes of abundance rather than scarcity.

These behaviors may be influenced from their evolutionary past. Humans share a common genetic ancestor with bonobos and chimpanzees. Those who argue the progress myth often cite chimpanzee behavior as the source for human aggression, conflict, and war, but conveniently ignore the deep human relationship to bonobos. Bonobos are mostly peaceful, resolving conflict with sex and bonding, rather than with war. While chimps do show some organized group violence, bonobos are different.

Whereas hunter-gatherers are highly mobile in small groups, adapting to changing environmental conditions, experiencing occasional food shortages while still being mostly well nourished, millions of people in modern societies, dependent on certain crops or water sources, are often undernourished.

Caloric restriction, which occurs at periods with hunter-gatherers, may actually be healthful, preventing some neurodegenerative diseases, cancer, diabetes, while supporting a longer lifespan.

Foragers don’t necessarily die at an earlier age than those born in agricultural societies. There may be a higher mortality rate among infants and children, which statistically, brings the average of life expectancy down, but those who live usually do so into a healthy old age, similar to those in agricultural societies. Except the children who grow up in the foraging communities had better quality of life in regards to childcare, clean air and water, communal support, etc.

Living in agricultural settlements with swelling populations drastically altered human beings. Status, family dynamics, power, treatment of women and children, food quality, exposure to new diseases, relationship to death, worsened. Even the worship of friendly and nourishing gods transitioned into religions where a God dominated nature and had absolute power with His control. While foraging societies protected their young ones, having an extended family to raise a child, within agricultural societies, children were seen as property, labor, as potential heirs to wealth, as rivals.

Even in modernity, infants and children develop quite differently than those in hunter-gatherer societies. C-sections, which don’t provide the immunological advantages of natural births, less time physically touching an infant, less time breastfeeding, more separation from offspring, contribute significantly to the emotional development in people in agricultural societies. In foraging groups, infants are closely attuned to, nurtured, and emotionally responded to, by dozens of loving caregivers beyond the mother or father(s). They are breastfed longer and supported in a cooperative social world.

“When you receive no significant social support from your society and have to work two jobs just to pay for the daycare that allows you to go to work, nobody can blame you for putting your kids in front of the TV, feeding them what you can afford, and not wanting to spend the night comforting them when they’re restless. Many progressive European societies have policies that replicate hunter-gatherer parenting values by assuring community support for parents via generous maternity and paternity leave, subsidized medical and child care, and free education.”

Societies that support infant/childhood development and a healthy expression of sexuality during puberty correlated with more peace and fewer mental/behavioral problems. In societies where there was less developmental support, such as in the US, the likelihood of violence as well as mental/behavioral conditions rose.

Modern societies have often repressed play in children, healthy sexuality in teens during puberty, homosexuality, and so on, while increasingly over medicating those who show conflicting behaviors to the procedures of the controlling systems. Institutional structures, from religions to governments, have controlled, punished, repressed, misinformed, and shamed people for their natural human tendencies. This has predictably increased the rates of anti-social behavior, anxiety, and depression in young people within industrialized nations.

In hunter-gatherer groups, children and teenagers are treated with respect and autonomy. They play their social roles of hunting, foraging, and tool making, until their play becomes an essential part of the group. Rather than being infantilized, they’re free to become themselves. When they do choose to work, if they choose, it is only for a few hours a day, often in the spirit of play.

Meanwhile in modern civilization, people are working for longer hours while wealth inequality is growing. Even those who own more than 99% of the wealth are trapped within the system, desiring only to acquire more, while the poorest of the population are starving. This inequality creates more distance between people and makes their suffering an abstraction. The wealthy may seem like winners, but with money comes isolation from others, working tirelessly to compete with rich peers, ignoring natural impulses to help those in need, while still feeling unsatisfied. Having a vast amount of money/power makes people detach, have more trouble when reading social cues, feel less empathy for others, while their risk of heart disease, stroke, and depression increases.

Modern civilization deals with death differently too. While in industrialized societies, people are put on expensive machines and treatments, attempting to prolong the quantity of their lifespan (but not the quality) for a miserable length of time, doctors are discouraged from being near their dying patients or frankly giving them the truth of their conditions. Yet in foraging societies, death is present with people. Terminally ill or elderly people are neglected, given an option of committing suicide, killed by a member of the tribe, if they’re no longer able to help the group. Rather than wasting away into nothing, they’re put out of their misery.

Civilized life is no better. Deprived of nature, socially isolated, working more than 40 hours at a job that one hates, paying off debts, consuming more and more medication, pursuing happiness through materialism, people live for a mirage of successes in industrialized societies.

In these same societies, aberrations of behavior, strange thoughts, auditory hallucinations, and so on, are seen as conditions to be overcome, treated, and suppressed. In foraging, shamanistic groups, people experiencing strong hallucinations, for instance, are often integrated as healers in their cultures. They’re supported lovingly rather than repressed.

As more conditions are managed in industrialized nations with prescription medications — often leading to high rates of addiction and overdose — therapeutic psychedelic drugs with little to no toxic effects are demonized in the population. Psychedelics with a long history in tribal cultures as healing agents are penalized severely in the civilized world, despite an assortment of benefits in treating people with depression, anxiety, addiction, PTSD, etc. Furthermore, psychedelic medicines can lead, under the proper conditions, to enhanced awareness, profound mystical experiences, and long term well-being after an initial dose.

As population exponentially increases in modern civilization, humanity is further devalued. “Endless growth is the ideology of conventional economics and the cancer cell.”

Insight into how humans successfully lived in the past can help those in the present design a world based on inborn, natural values, which allows societies to flourish.

There can be a promotion of cooperation in egalitarian communities, a vast network of people helping each other, or there can be institutions that distort human values, preying on people’s fears, controlling their lives with propaganda and violence and social repression. In the second scenario, “progress” will inevitably lead to extreme climate change, civilizational collapses, planetary ruin.

It will take a radical shift in consciousness for people to work toward the values of environmental protection, egalitarian treatment, communal development, investing in alternative energy sources, applying effective therapeutic approaches to social deterioration, challenging long-standing institutions, and so on. It may even be too late. But there is still hope.