The Way of Zen (Alan Watts)

Children are conditioned to accept the codes of their given society. They are reinforced with different symbol-systems from their parents, religions, schools, communities, cultures, peer groups, and so on, internalizing these systems (to varying degrees) overtime. They eventually think, feel, and act in accordance with these “reality tunnels,” despite whether they rebel against or conform with them. Ultimately, they will assimilate certain “realities” into their identities.

One of the first symbol-systems they learn is language. They learn what the agreed upon symbols to designate meaning are. Different cultures have different tacit agreements over not only what some words mean but what should be said and not said, what should be in one category and not another — essentially how their chosen realities are to be divided to make sense.

Children not only have to learn the codes of language, but they learn, whether consciously or not, many other forms of agreement.

“For the necessities of living together require agreement as to codes of law and ethics, of etiquette and art, of weights, measures, and numbers, and, above all, of role. We have difficulty in communicating with each other unless we can identify ourselves in terms of roles — father, teacher, worker, artist, ‘regular guy,’ gentleman, sportsman, and so forth.” (Watts, Alan)

People identify with the categories, and sometimes stereotypes, chosen and placed upon them. They aren’t merely one role, but a multitude of related roles. Father and son, laborer and high-school drop-out. Daughter and sister, amputee and white veteran. Son and brother and fatherless. Methodist and Japanese. Out of the innumerable roles available, people learn to identify with a conventional view of “self.” They believe that they have a persistent identity with a history, apart from everything and everyone else.

“According to convention, I am not simply what I am doing now. I am also what I have done, and my conventionally edited version of my past is made to seem almost more the real ‘me’ than what I am at this moment. For what I am seems so fleeting and intangible, but what I was is fixed and final. It is a firm basis for predictions of what I will be in the future, and so it comes about that I am more closely identified with what no longer exists than with what actually is!” (Watts, Alan)

The history of a person’s identity, of their memories of past events, is continuously selected for and interpreted (often without conscious awareness, depending on the emotional intensity and regularity of those events). Out of an infinitude of events that transpire in one’s life, some are chosen as significant while others are not. Experiences that are seen as insignificant, nonsensical, irrelevant, and so on, are discarded overtime.

People interpret the events of their lives using the different symbol-systems that they have internalized. Experiences are processed through their mental filters to make sense to their perspectives. They select one type of past and not another. One event is seen as good or bad, right or wrong, scary or pleasant, but not another. Some experiences are chopped up into familiar signs, while other experiences are forgotten. These signs represent only a narrow spectrum of “reality” out of all the information that exists.

What is represented is only a finger pointing to the moon. As Alfred Korzybski wrote, “The map is not the territory.”

Furthermore, people communicate their realities with language. Their language is an “abstract, one-at-a-time translation of a universe in which things are happening altogether-at-once — a universe whose concrete reality always escapes perfect description in these abstract terms.” (Watts, Alan)

To account for all that happens in the universe, to even perfectly describe a “a particle of dust,” would take an infinite amount of time. Thinking (communicating with ourselves), speaking (communicating with others), using a string of symbols abstracted from the past, will never fully grasp “every breath, every beat of the heart, every neural impulse.” (Watts, Alan)

“Taoism [on the other hand] concerns itself with unconventional knowledge — with knowing life directly, instead of in the abstract, linear terms of representational thinking.” (Watts, Alan)

Conventional thinking isn’t shunned, but rather, is used as a tool and not as the Truth. Taoism is based on a hunch, an intuitive state. Peripheral vision of the mind. Taoists will “feel” a situation and know it, without limiting it. While the intellect is trying to box the world into rigid categories, and grasp at the past and future, the Taoist doesn’t cling to their experiences. The intellect will exhaust itself in seeking the Tao, in its need to define it.

Chaung-Tzu once said, “The perfect man employs his mind as a mirror. It grasps nothing; it refuses nothing. It receives but does not keep.”

The mind isn’t reduced to idiocy, although those who are conditioned to accept Western systems as true may believe that to be the case. The Taoist plays with his innate intelligence, spontaneous and aware. Instead of forcing out a solution, she lets go of her mind until stilling into a pure naturalness. Then he directly knows the Tao, unconscious of good and bad, moral and immoral, black and white, up and down.

Rather than darkness or light, there are infinite shades of the Tao.
To define the Tao is to not know the Tao. To grasp it is not to grasp it.
In the doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism, as in Taoism (which heavily influenced Zen), there is no “true” division in life. Human beings, but not nature itself, are the ones to separate “things, facts and events” into categories. These categories are relative to different perspectives, but they are never truly fixed, permanent, or absolute.

“Ordinarily a human organism is counted as one thing, though from a physiological standpoint it is as many things as it has parts or organs, and from a sociological standpoint it is merely part of a larger thing called a group.” (Watts, Alan)

For a Buddhist, to describe “reality” in a fixed, linear manner with symbols, is not to know “reality.” To describe it, or the self, as permanent and separate, is to not grasp the changing ineffability of life. There is no enduring self that persists, for “the ego exists in an abstract sense alone, being an abstraction from memory, somewhat like the illusory circle of fire made by a whirling torch.” (Watts, Alan)

Every moment is a rebirth, a coming back to the present. Buddhism above all is a practice, seeing the world with clear awareness. “Such awareness is a lively attention to one’s direct experience, to the world as immediately sensed, so as not to be misled by names and labels.” (Watts, Alan)

There is a watching of sensations, feelings, thoughts, without any purpose or judgement. Like a mirror, the mind is “passively active,” purely reflecting what arises and falls away. When there is nothing to be grasped, there is no one to grasp it. When there is no one to grasp, then there is no division, no subject and object.

The Buddha did not try to create a philosophical system to satisfy the questions of restless minds. He often maintained a “noble silence” about questions dealing with gods and the origins of the universe and absolute reality, because to him, they were irrelevant when understanding the way to liberation from suffering (dukkha).

To seek such answers is to cling to abstractions again. Lost in the perpetual cycle. Many of the questions that people ask about meaning, life and death, are merely subtle ways of trying to categorize the world, turning their uncertainty and fear into familiar ideas. “Thus the world that we know, when understood as the world as classified, is a product of the mind, and as the sound ‘water’ is not actually water,’ the classified world is not the real world.” (Watts, Alan)

To be liberated is to have no intention of liberation. To try to become someone important, to achieve something outside of oneself, to adhere to some dogma of ultimate truth, is to be confused with the compulsive habit of symbolizing. The more one tries to figure out the Answer, the more frustrated he or she becomes.

“I have no peace of mind,” said Hui-k’o. “Please pacify my mind.”

“Bring out your mind here before me,” replied Bodhidharma, “and I will pacify it!”

“But when I seek my own mind,” said Hui-k’o, “I cannot find it.”

“There!” snapped Bodhidharma, “I have pacified your mind!”

To try to empty the mind is to get caught up in the mind again. To let go of the mind, of thoughts and impressions, “neither repressing them, holding them, nor interfering with them” is to free the mind. To practice no-thought is not to block all thoughts from coming in. Then one would be as good as a stone. Thoughts come and go. That is all. To let go is to trust in one’s natural spontaneity. There is no effort.

Línjì Yìxuán said, “There is no place in Buddhism for using effort. Just be ordinary and nothing special. Relieve your bowels, pass water, put on your clothes, and eat your food. When you’re tired, go and lie down. Ignorant people may laugh at me, but the wise will understand…. As you go from place to place, if you regard each one as your own home, they will all be genuine, for when circumstances come you must not try to change them.”

One doesn’t try to silence one’s feelings, thoughts, impressions. One is not trying to be indifferent or removed from the world. There is an awareness of what is. Subject and object, knower and known, white and black, arises relative to everything else. Everything depends on everything else to be.

Thich Nhat Hanh said, “If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. ‘Interbeing’ is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix ‘inter-’ with the verb ‘to be,’ we have a new verb, inter-be. Without a cloud and the sheet of paper inter-are.

If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way, we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.

Looking even more deeply, we can see we are in it too. This is not difficult to see, because when we look at a sheet of paper, the sheet of paper is part of our perception. Your mind is in here and mine is also. So we can say that everything is in here with this sheet of paper. You cannot point out one thing that is not here-time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper. That is why I think the word inter-be should be in the dictionary. ‘To be’ is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper is, because everything else is.

Suppose we try to return one of the elements to its source. Suppose we return the sunshine to the sun. Do you think that this sheet of paper will be possible? No, without sunshine nothing can be. And if we return the logger to his mother, then we have no sheet of paper either. The fact is that this sheet of paper is made up only of ‘non-paper elements.’ And if we return these non-paper elements to their sources, then there can be no paper at all. Without ‘non-paper elements,’ like mind, logger, sunshine and so on, there will be no paper. As thin as this sheet of paper is, it contains everything in the universe in it.”

There is no such thing as a separate self. Everything relies on everything else to be given a shape, even non-shapes. One’s mind-body gives structure to experience, while there isn’t experience without one’s mind-body. Sunlight makes sight as sight makes sunlight. The “individual” and “external universe” are simply abstract limits that one has set up. There is no “between” between the two, because the division is not truly there. People give importance to their ideas of what is “me” and “mine” in contrast to the experiences that they have, as if they are apart from them, as if they “have” them. They identify with narrowly selected memories and social roles and feel as if they are permanent. Meanwhile life passes them by and they don’t notice. They have become so fixated on their ideas of what life is rather than seeing what is happening to them.

To even get caught up in ideas about what Zen is, and what Zen isn’t, is to stink of Zen. One can be as attached to their spiritual self as to their material self, believing they are a certain type of person and not another.

“For this reason the masters talk about Zen as little as possible, and throw its concrete reality straight at us. This reality is the ‘suchness’ (tathata) of our natural, nonverbal world. If we see this just as it is, there is nothing good, nothing bad, nothing inherently long or short, nothing subjective and nothing objective. There is no symbolic self to be forgotten, and no need for any idea of a concrete reality to be remembered.” (Watts, Alan)

Once a master drank tea with his two students. Then he suddenly tossed a fan at one of them.

“What’s this?” he said.

The student opened it and fanned himself.

“Not bad,” he said.

He passed the fan to his other student.

His other student placed a piece of cake on it and offered it back to his master.

When there are no longer any names, the world isn’t “classified in limits and bounds.” While most people want to classify things in their proper places, a master trusts in spontaneity, in “no second thought.” Zen masters are not emotionless beings without pain or hunger pangs. They can be sad, jealous, angry, and so on. The difference between them and others is that they are wholehearted, neither blocking out nor indulging in what they are aware of.

Zen is not to “confuse spirituality with thinking about God while peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.” (Watts, Alan)

Thoughts fall away when they’re not necessary anymore. Muddy water is best cleared when left alone. Zen is about seeing reality concretely — undivided by labels and titles and names and numbers and right and wrong. To sit in quiet awareness is to let the distinctions of me and other, subject and object, come go and come again. Without commentary, without purpose, there only is. Zen masters are neither gods nor are they perfect. They are simply human. Nothing special.

As Ikkyu said:

“We eat, excrete, sleep, and get up;

This is our world.

All we have to do after that —

Is to die.”

One awakens to what reality isn’t. Ideas of what one is, of what the universe is, seem more nonsensical the deeper one goes into it. Reality is ineffable, despite whether someone claims that “they are nothing” or “they are something” or “they are everything.” Rather than flitting from system to system, all people are already here, their “senses fully open to receive the world.”

There is nothing to be achieved, no one to blame, no past, no future, no birth, no death.

Only here, only now.

To some Westerners, the present seems like “nothing more than the infinitesimal hairline,” dividing the past from the future. For the linear-minded, for those who only know about reality through their compulsive thinking, the world will rush past them. Their ideas seem all-important to them, but their symbolizing can never sustain their heart beating, their breath, or the operation of their muscles, glands, senses, and organs.

They believe they are consciously in charge, but their minds only grasp at slivers of experience, which they are constantly interpreting and analyzing, dividing and separating. Yet in only a moment, they can see life as it truly is. The past and future, which they are so preoccupied with, is an abstraction. There is only this moment, moving but still. it’s here for everyone. Precious and timeless.

Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living

We are already at home in this moment. Yet we spend so much of our lives denying what is here. We get lost in all our storylines, believing that we are permanent, that we are separate from other beings in the world.

We chase after ideas of happiness while fearing to lose what we have. We buy a fancy convertible, work in an office with a window, marry our high-school sweetheart, drink alcohol on Friday nights, climb up a mountain, write a book, study for a bachelor’s degree, make money on the stock market, and on and on. Nothing is ever enough to satisfy our growing desire. In the end, no matter how much we resist, we are all subject to old age, sickness, and death. We cannot capture life. It slips through our fingers, drifting away.

Rather than facing ourselves directly, we repress what causes us to suffer. We act out. We project our personal issues onto others. It is so hard for us to sit with our confusion, fear, and loss. It is so hard for us to soften our hearts to our grief.

“When we find ourselves in a situation in which our buttons are being pushed, we can choose to repress or act out, or we can choose to practice. If we can start to do the exchange, breathing in with the intention of keeping our hearts open to the embarrassment or fear or anger that we feel, then to our surprise we find that we’re also open to what the other person is feeling. Open heart is open heart. Once it’s open, your eyes and your mind are also open, and you can see what’s happening in the faces and hearts of other people. If you’re walking down the street and way off in the distance — so far away that you can’t possibly do anything about it — you see a man beating his dog, and you feel helpless, you can start to do the exchange. You start out doing it for the dog, then you find you’re doing it for the man. Then you’re also doing it for your own heartbreak and for all the animals and people who are abusing and abused, and for all the people like you who are watching and don’t know what to do. Simply by doing this exchange you have made the world a larger, more loving place.” (Chödrön, Pema)

We can react to suffering by hardening or softening our hearts. When we are genuine with ourselves, we can look deeply at our sorrow, our fear, our irritation, and transform that energy into compassion. Every moment, we are being tested.

“If we are wholehearted about wanting to be there for other people without shutting anybody or anything out of our hearts, our pretty little self-image of how kind or compassionate we are gets completely blown. We’re always being tested and we’re always meeting our match. The more you’re willing to open your heart, the more challenges come along that make you want to shut it.” (Chödrön, Pema)

There is no true distinction between what is within us and what is outside of us. When we cause other beings to suffer, we are suffering. When we love others, we love ourselves. When we are aware of life, we can use all of life as a humble lesson for our growth.

Our mistakes are opportunities for us to be more vulnerable and honest and kind. An irritating person is our teacher, a mosquito is our teacher, a crying baby is our teacher. We cannot be in this world without encountering the suffering of others. Rather than reacting, we can mindfully tend to where we are and who we are. We are gardeners who are planting seeds of compassion and love and peace. We can turn our compost into a bloom of flowers.

“We make a lot of mistakes. If you ask people whom you consider to be wise and courageous about their lives, you may find that they have hurt a lot of people and made a lot of mistakes, but that they used those occasions as opportunities to humble themselves and open their hearts. We don’t get wise by staying in a room with all the doors and windows closed.” (Chödrön, Pema)

When we understand our own suffering, we can understand another’s suffering as well. We practice not only for ourselves, but for all the beings who have felt pain, sadness, hatred, envy, and anger, because we have been them. We are them.

When we blame and repress and protect our hearts, we alienate ourselves from the world. We stick to limited notions of who we are, categorizing existence into conceptual frameworks. We water the seeds of suffering in ourselves, which harm everyone around us. Rather than moving toward what is true, we resist what is unpleasant. We cling to our expectations and suffer through our ignorance, attachment, and aversion.

“It seems that we do attack our own image continually and usually that image appears to be ‘out there.’ We want to blame men or we want to blame women or we want to blame white people or black people, or we want to blame politicians or the police; we want to blame somebody. There’s some tendency to always put it out there, even if ‘out there’ is our own body. Instead of working with, there is the tendency to struggle against. As a result, we become alienated. Then we take the wrong medicine for our illness by armoring ourselves in all these different ways, somehow not getting back to the soft spot.” (Chödrön, Pema)

We are not separate from nature. We are not separate from other beings. Rather than pushing others away, we can share who we are, even from our presence alone. We often want to escape from being aware of who we are, of where we are, distracting ourselves with TV and drugs and jobs and sex. We miss the sacredness of our ordinary experience when we look outside ourselves for happiness, truth, permanence, and security.

“Because we escape, we keep missing being right here, being right on the dot. We keep missing the moment we’re in. Yet if we can experience the moment we’re in, we discover that it is unique, precious, and completely fresh. It never happens twice. One can appreciate and celebrate each moment — there’s nothing more sacred. There’s nothing more vast or absolute. In fact, there’s nothing more!” (Chödrön, Pema)

We begin to heal when we stop hiding from ourselves. When we are right here, right now, we are no longer resisting our confusion, our fear, our pain. Our tendency is to cling to certainty while hiding from uncertainty. We waste so many years of our lives running after achievements and rewards and goals, never feeling entirely satisfied.

“This moving away from comfort and security, this stepping out into what is unknown, uncharted, and shaky — that’s called enlightenment, liberation.” (Chödrön, Pema)

We do not have to eliminate our thoughts and feelings and perceptions. We can accept them as they are and then let them go. Trungpa Rinpoche said, “Good and bad, happy and sad, all thoughts vanish into emptiness like the imprint of a bird in the sky.”

We can kindly be with our vulnerabilities. As we learn more, we open up more. Life is a dance, an ever-changing movement. We are “willing to give, willing to open, willing not to hold back. It is described as letting go of holding on to yourself, letting your stronghold of ego go. Instead of collecting things for yourself, you open and give them away.” (Chödrön, Pema)

We can be gentle with ourselves. We can be curious about the moment we’re in. Our maturity comes from being with what is unfolding, while releasing it. Giving without holding on. We don’t have to judge ourselves as winners or losers, right or wrong, good or bad. Our practice is to be ourselves completely.

“The truth sinks in like rain into very hard earth. The rain is very gentle, and we soften up slowly at our own speed. But when that happens, something has fundamentally changed in us. That hard earth has softened. It doesn’t seem to happen by trying to get it or capture it. It happens by letting go; it happens by relaxing your mind, and it happens by the aspiration and the longing to want to communicate with yourself and others. Each of us finds our own way.” (Chödrön, Pema)

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

“The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts. They alter patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance.”

Marshal McLuhan

Our nervous systems are plastic. We are always in the process of forming new neural connections while losing old ones. In the microscopic spaces in between our neurons — whenever we perform a task, experience an event, or think a thought — chemical reactions “register and record experiences in neural pathways.” (Carr, Nicholas)

Certain sets of neurons in our brains are activated. They join together and exchange neurotransmitters with each other. When our experiences are repeated, synaptic links between our neurons strengthen while irrelevant synaptic links weaken overtime. Our brains are constantly growing, reorganizing, and developing “ever-changing cellular connections inside our heads.” (Carr, Nicholas)

Our nervous systems adapt to different environments. How we think and feel and perceive reality is not entirely determined by our genes or childhood experiences. We’re capable of changing our nervous systems through what we do, how we learn, how other people treat us, what we think, how we feel, where we live, and even the tools that we use.

While our neuroplasticity gives us a chance to recreate ourselves, we can also develop bad habits. We can be stuck in rigid behaviors, repeating what causes ourselves and others suffering. While certain neurons strengthen overtime, others are pruned away. If we are not careful, we can become more efficient at what hurts us than at what helps us.

The tools that we use are also using us. They are molding us, shaping us, the more that we use them. Some of these tools, such as intellectual technologies, impact our brains far more than other tools.

Nicholas Carr, technology writer and author of “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” wrote, “Although the use of any kind of tool can influence our thoughts and perspectives — the plow changed the outlook of the farmer, the microscope opened new worlds of mental exploration for the scientist — it is our intellectual technologies that have the greatest and most lasting power over what and how we think. They are our most intimate tools, the ones we use for self-expression, for shaping personal and public identity, and for cultivating relations with others.”

We aren’t yet aware of the total effect of our intellectual tools and how they will change us as a species. Some tools, such as the printing press and Internet, have moved beyond our control. We cannot predict how far they will technologically progress.

Intellectual technologies are not merely our aids. They have the power to reshape our lives. They change our activities and meanings and identities. They extend our capacities. These tools are developed with a certain set of rules while we also adapt to the rules of what we create. As we manipulate information, as we interpret our world through the logic of the tools that we use, our brains change. The more closely that we use these tools, the more our senses, thoughts, feelings, and actions are fused into what we create.

While the clock, map, printing press, and television have all revolutionized our existence, the Internet has dominated us on an unprecedent scale. “It’s becoming our typewriter and our printing press, our map and our clock, our calculator and our telephone, our post office and our library, our radio and our TV. It’s even taking over the functions of other computers.” (Carr, Nicholas)

We can send and receive messages every hour of every day. We can connect for commerce and business purposes: placing orders, tracking shipments, banking, advertising, selling, searching through catalogues, and reviewing products.

We can also connect with other people socially. We can upload and download. We can post our videos, blogs, music, paintings, poems, and podcasts. Our creations can be liked and commented on. They can be edited and reuploaded and blogged about and tweeted. Users can gossip and share and argue and show off and chat and like. Communities can unite, political causes can gain traction, and news about our daily happenings can spread to other people.

We use the Internet far more than other intellectual technologies such as the television and newspaper and radio. Our Internet usage has risen every year while our offline reading has diminished. With so many options available to us in one tool, we’ve become endlessly distracted by what is offered to us, sacrificing our attention for hyper-stimulation.

“By combining many different kinds of information on a single screen, the multimedia Net further fragments content and disrupts our concentration. A single Web page may contain a few chunks of text, a video or audio stream, a set of navigational tools, various advertisements, and several small software applications, or ‘widgets,’ running in their own windows… Whenever we turn on our computer, we are plunged into an ‘ecosystem of interruption technologies,’ as the blogger and science fiction writer Cory Doctorow terms it.” (Carr, Nicholas)

The Internet is a medium that is made to attract us while distracting us. While the book is an intellectual technology that supports our calmness and attentiveness, letting us develop our ideas in a sacred space of silence, the Internet is designed to compete for our attention all the time. As we enter into an online environment, we are conditioned to rush through our thoughts and scan for relevant information and seek our next reward.

“The Net delivers a steady stream of inputs to our visual, somatosensory, and auditory cortices. There are the sensations that come through our hands and fingers as we click and scroll, type and touch. There are the many audio signals delivered through our ears, such as the chime that announces the arrival of a new e-mail or instant message and the various ringtones that our mobile phones use to alert us to different events. And, of course, there are the myriad visual cues that flash across our retinas as we navigate the online world: not just the ever-changing arrays of text and pictures and videos but also the hyperlinks distinguished by underlining or colored text, the cursors that change shape depending on their function, the new e-mail subject lines highlighted in bold type, the virtual buttons that call out to be clicked, the icons and other screen elements that beg to be dragged and dropped, the forms that require filling out, the pop-up ads and windows that need to be read or dismissed. The Net engages all of our senses — except, so far, those of smell and taste — and it engages them simultaneously.” (Carr, Nicholas)

The Net immerses us in a universe of fast-paced stimuli. Whenever we click on a link, we are rewarded with Web pages, videos, articles, comments, posts, etc. Whenever we Google a topic, we are provided with pages of answers. We send texts and receive replies, we post on Facebook and notifications pop up, we blog daily and gain new followers. The hyper-interactivity of the Internet reinforces us with so much dopamine that we’ve become “lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.” (Carr, Nicholas).

The more that we go online, the more the “real world recedes as we process the flood of symbols and stimuli coming through our devices.” As we become oblivious to what is around us, we use this hyper-interactive tool to engage with each other online. We create profiles of our identities and update our statuses, evaluating our social standings. The more that we use the Net, the more self-conscious we become. We judge others and compare our lives to their lives and fear losing our preferred status.

The Internet is designed to keep our attention for as long as possible. The more time we spend on it, the more distracted we are, which ruins our ability to concentrate for long. This medium distracts us with its competing messages and stimuli. We’re seduced because we are constantly seeking out more novelty, complexity, and information. The Net indulges us with stimulation. We are overloaded with fleeting information, seeking more and more.

“What we’re not doing when we’re online also has neurological consequences. Just as neurons that fire together wire together, neurons that don’t fire together don’t wire together. As the time we spend scanning Web pages crowds out the time we spend reading books, as the time we spend exchanging bite-sized text messages crowds out the time we spend composing sentences and paragraphs, as the time we spend hopping across links crowds out the time we devote to quiet reflection and contemplation, the circuits that support those old intellectual functions and pursuits weaken and begin to break apart. The brain recycles the disused neurons and synapses for other, more pressing work. We gain new skills and perspectives but lose old ones.” (Carr, Nicholas)

Net users experience extensive activity across all regions of their brains. Book readers experience neural-activity in “regions associated with language, memory, and visual processing, but they don’t display much activity in the prefrontal regions associated with decision making and problem solving.” Net users mentally coordinate through a swarm of competing distractions, all while making judgements in seconds. While readers digest information at a slower pace, they are comprehending what they are learning at a deeper level. Internet users, on the other hand, are overtaxing their brains and learning superficially.

Our brains need a lot of space and time to process information. We have to transfer information from our working memories to our long-term memories, intertwining what we have just learned with what we knew before. We store this information in our conceptual schemas. Our schemas are interwoven with our long-term memories. They are organizational frameworks that enable us to look into new patterns and deepen our understanding.

“Imagine filling a bathtub with a thimble; that’s the challenge involved in transferring information from working memory into long-term memory. By regulating the velocity and intensity of information flow, media exert a strong influence on this process. When we read a book, the information faucet provides a steady drip, which we can control by the pace of our reading. Through our single-minded concentration on the text, we can transfer all or most of the information, thimbleful by thimbleful, into long-term memory and forge the rich associations essential to the creation of schemas. With the Net, we face many information faucets, all going full blast. Our little thimble overflows as we rush from one faucet to the next. We’re able to transfer only a small portion of the information to long-term memory, and what we do transfer is a jumble of drops from different faucets, not a continuous, coherent stream from one source.” (Carr, Nicholas)

When we are distracted, we cannot remember much. When we cannot remember, we cannot develop rich networks of connections in our brains. Our understanding then becomes shallower. When we can read a linear text without links, ads, retweets, likes, comments, tabs, and other potential distractions, we can retain more, reflect more, and develop our knowledge. Frequent interruptions, on the other hand, scatter our thoughts, make us feel anxious, and weaken our memories.

We gain skills with the Net but those skills generally involve our “lower-level, or more primitive, mental functions such as hand-eye coordination, reflex response, and the processing of visual cues.” We’re also better able to scan through a lot of information to find what we are pursuing. By repetitively clicking on links and headlines, we are adapting into quicker problem-solvers, looking for relevant patterns in data. While we are better at multi-tasking, we have sacrificed our ability to think creatively, concentrate for longer periods of time, and process information.

“Given our brain’s plasticity, we know that our online habits continue to reverberate in the workings of our synapses when we’re not online. We can assume that the neural circuits devoted to scanning, skimming, and multitasking are expanding and strengthening, while those used for reading and thinking deeply, with sustained concentration, are weakening or eroding.” (Carr, Nicholas)

We are given more information than we can handle. “We are forever inundated by information of immediate interest to us,” so we are conditioned to crave more, while never feeling fully satisfied. Rather than developing our knowledge, we are skimming through the Net, barely registering what enters into our nervous systems.

“The Web places more pressure on our working memory, not only diverting resources from our higher reasoning faculties but obstructing the consolidation of long-term memories and the development of schemas. The calculator, a powerful but highly specialized tool, turned out to be an aid to memory. The Web is a technology of forgetfulness.” (Carr, Nicholas)

We need to be attentive to consolidate the information that we have learned. Forming connections between our memories “requires strong mental concentration, amplified by repetition or by intense intellectual or emotional engagement. The sharper the attention, the sharper the memory.” (Carr, Nicholas)

The more time we spend on the Internet, the more we will unlearn our former intellectual skills. As we replace our deep knowledge with efficiency, we will depend on a tool that grows stronger as we are made weaker. While our dependence on the Net heightens our capabilities when we use it, we are diminished even more without it.

“Our growing dependence on the Web’s information stores may in fact be the product of a self-perpetuating, self-amplifying loop. As our use of the Web makes it harder for us to lock information into our biological memory, we’re forced to rely more and more on the Net’s capacious and easily searchable artificial memory, even if it makes us shallower thinkers.” (Carr, Nicholas)

We not only become shallower thinkers on the Net, but we lose our capacity for higher emotions too. Our higher emotions, such as compassion and empathy, come from a calm and attentive mind. We need time to reflect on our moral decisions. When we are constantly interrupted, we have more trouble processing the subtle emotional states in ourselves and others.

As we meld with our tools, we become more like them. When we pick up a sword, that sword stretches to feel like part of our arm. When we wear a pair of glasses, we look forward with new eyes. When we study a map, we examine abstractions drawn in space.

When we go online, we adapt to an algorithmic logic written in hidden code. We follow the scripts that the designers have made for us to follow. We consume ourselves with mindless online rituals until they are burned into our neural pathways. We now have smartphones as well as personal computers, which are with us everywhere we go: at home, at work, in school, on the sidewalk, in the car, at the doctor’s office, in bed, in the bathroom, in nature. We have over-stuffed ourselves with stimuli, craving ever more. But there is a cost.

11/22/63 (review)

“We never know which lives we influence, or when, or why. Not until the future eats the present, anyway. We know when it’s too late.”

Image for post

Stephen King wrote an epic time travel book after extensive research.

In 11/22/63, a humble high school teacher is sent back to the ’50s to prevent the assassination of JFK. What he doesn’t know is the significance of the butterfly effect. Every small action ripples out, affecting everything and everyone, in an interconnected web of spacetime. In Indra’s net.

King explores the responsibility of using freewill (is it really that free?) in a probabilistic multiverse, where the obdurate past harmonizes itself. As Alan Watts once said, “You never know what will be the consequence of the misfortune; or, you never know what will be the consequences of good fortune.”

For our main character, Jake Epping (George Amberson), the consequences matter. Friends will die, lovers will suffer, and whole futures will be annihilated in a plume of radioactive dust.

11/22/63 is not merely a story about time, but about the significance of our actions, and whether those actions matter metaphysically. It is a tragic timeline of love experienced in another life, strangers intertwined, synchronicities, and cosmic patterns that cannot be seen from limited human perspectives.

From generation to generation, we will pass on our ghosts. We may have been born with different faces and have come from different places and eras, but we will often repeat the same traumas that have scarred us from our past.

We will still build and destroy.

We will still love and hate.

We will still be born and grow old and die.

Like an ouroboros swallowing its tail in an infinite cycle, we’re in a process of integration and disintegration. We cannot escape our future.

Civilized to Death (book review)

Image for post

“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.

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.