“We often think of peace as the absence of war, that if powerful countries would reduce their weapon arsenals, we could have peace. But if we look deeply into the weapons, we see our own minds — our own prejudices, fears and ignorance. Even if we transport all the bombs to the moon, the roots of war and the roots of bombs are still there, in our hearts and minds, and sooner or later we will make new bombs. To work for peace is to uproot war from ourselves and from the hearts of men and women. To prepare for war, to give millions of men and women the opportunity to practice killing day and night in their hearts, is to plant millions of seeds of violence, anger, frustration, and fear that will be passed on for generations to come.”
— Thich Nhat Hanh, “Living Buddha, Living Christ”
There are many Western intellectuals who claim to be against the evils of oppressive structures while: (1.) hiding in the isolation of academia, (2.) benefiting from those unjust structures without doing anything meaningful to challenge them, (3.) “helping” the oppressed on a superficial level without addressing any deeper systemic issues, (4.) perpetuating the ideas of the oppressors themselves.
Noam Chomsky wrote about these types of intellectuals in his 1967 essay, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals.” He said that intellectuals, unlike the average citizen, are a privileged minority who are in a unique position to influence society. They should seek to “speak the truth and expose lies’’ rather than remain silent and apathetic. Yet they often fail to meet these moral standards.
Even though in the Western world, intellectuals have the right to freedom of expression and have access to more information than those in other nations, they often represent elite class interests. They maintain the status quo, and support the current ideologies in power, while neglecting to criticize the unjust policies of their own countries.
In traditional education, intellectuals are primarily trained for conformity. The institutions that they work for, according to Paulo Freire in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” focus on socialization, conditioning students to follow a certain social order. Students who question those in authority too much are filtered out over time. They are not supposed to critically think about, or act against, the structures already in place. Traditional education is not about a radical transformation in consciousness. It is more about a subservience to power.
According to Freire, education is never neutral. It is either on the side of the oppressor or the oppressed. While the oppressed are dehumanized, treated as abstractions or disposable objects or inferior beings, those who oppress are dehumanized through oppressing others.
Oppressors depend on the low position of the oppressed to maintain their power. They form exploitative relationships, taking advantage of unfair conditions for their own gain. They have a mentality of more for themselves and less for everyone else. Oppressors want the oppressed to feel unworthy, helpless, and isolated, because under those states, they are easier to control.
After years of teaching literacy to peasants and laborers, after being put into prison and then exiled, Freire came to believe that education should liberate people instead of imprison them.
The oppressed have to reclaim their humanity for themselves, even though at times, they may fear taking on responsibility, internalize the values of their oppressors, or follow charismatic leaders more than their own consciences.
Freire attacked the passive methods of learning in education as well. Students are often seen as ignorant while teachers are seen as authorities. Students are taught to take in information, to rote learn, to listen so they can regurgitate answers on exams, rather than participate in relevant issues.
When schools value the humanity of their students, learning is done in collaboration and with mutual respect. There are open possibilities for individuals to grow. Themes connect to the existential struggles in people’s lives, helping them to overcome their unjust circumstances.
Education has to help the oppressed to reflect on the causes of their oppression. Even though oppressors have tried to limit the critical thought of the oppressed, people need the freedom to learn about themselves and make their own choices.
bell hooks, in a similar fashion to Freire, argued in “Teaching to Transgress” that education should be (1.) communal in spirit, (2.) rooted in the values of care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect, and trust, and (3.) promote the well-being of the individuals involved.
Students caught in oppressive circumstances often feel powerless to make a difference. They are alienated from their communities. They are conditioned over time to see themselves as inferior to their oppressors.
hooks, on the other hand, argued that education should be about fostering an open space where different perspectives are shared, students are encouraged and not belittled, and everyone is respected.
hooks (Gloria Jean Watkins) experienced both educational environments when she was raised in the segregated south, when she was bussed into a majority white school during integration, when she attended college, and when she taught at different universities. Freire’s work helped her to clarify her own feelings of marginalization and shame under those oppressive systems.
Freire also learned how unjust conditions could impact a person’s ability to learn. He grew up in Northeastern Brazil around poor rural families. During the Great Depression, he suffered from extremes of poverty and hunger. He even had to temporarily drop out of elementary school to work.
In Gadotti’s book, “Reading Paulo Freire,” Freire said, “I didn’t understand anything because of my hunger. I wasn’t dumb. It wasn’t lack of interest. My social condition didn’t allow me to have an education. Experience showed me once again the relationship between social class and knowledge.”
People ultimately want to be free. They want to grow and change and live authentically. But they are constantly being undermined by the interests of interconnected power-structures. hooks called some of these power-structures the “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”
From an early age on, whether through violence or propaganda or censorship or other means, people are trained to obey their masters. They are taught about their inferiority rather than their intrinsic value, fractured rather than united, and dehumanized rather than treated with dignity.
Those in power usually shift the burden of proof onto the powerless, pressuring them to prove that they are worthy of their basic rights. But these systems, which have so much control and influence, need to justify their legitimacy to the people. If they fail to do so, then they should be changed or dismantled.
Sometimes, though, when the oppressed rise to power, they carry over the violent patterns of their former oppressors. That is why there needs to be a radical education of self-discovery and inclusion and critical thought, a place of transformation for everyone who seeks to learn. When people aren’t united, when they aren’t free, then the same oppressive practices will resurface.
Freire believed that people have to learn how to be themselves. Education is a process, a path of critical effort. Individuals must seek out the “whys” of their existence. They must be free to choose their own paths.
Eric Arthur Blair (1903–1950), better known as George Orwell, was an English writer. Although he was an accomplished essayist, he gained his fame through later works such as Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
He was born in India but grew up in England. When he was eight years old, his parents sent him off to a private prep school in Sussex. As a young adult in the 1920s, he served as a member of the Indian Imperial Police. After Blair resigned from his post in Burma, he tramped around London and Paris. He set out as a wanderer, sometimes without any place to stay, recording the daily struggles of the poor.
He wrote enough to get by but didn’t find much acclaim until years later. During different periods of his early adulthood, he picked hops in a field, washed dirty dishes in fancy restaurants, taught teenagers at a private school, and clerked in a bookshop.
Ever since the publication of his first book (Down and Out in Paris and London), which was seen as too scandalous for the time, he wrote under the pseudonym of George Orwell.
In 1936, at the start of the Spanish Civil War, he volunteered to fight in Spain. He joined up with the communists and anarchists and socialists, among other leftist groups, in opposition to fascist powers.
During a battle on the front, a sniper shot him in his throat, almost killing him. While recovering from his wounds, he was forced to flee to France after conditions around him became too unsafe (Soviet propaganda turned against the militia he once was a member of). After many dissenters were repressed, Blair became disillusioned with intellectuals who supported the Soviet Union. Throughout his life, however, he deepened his commitment to democratic socialist principles.
Blair wanted to fight against the Nazis in WWII, but the British army rejected him due to his poor health. He accepted a position at the BBC instead. While there, he contributed a minor part to the propaganda campaign against the fascists. Eventually he quit so he could work on literary pieces for the Tribune, a democratic socialist magazine.
During different periods in his life, Eric Blair worked as a dishwasher, novelist, journalist, schoolteacher, bookshop clerk, and soldier. He was a tramp on the muddy roads of England, a lieutenant in the trenches of Spain, and wrote about it.
His writings exposed the brutal inequalities in authoritarian systems. As a result, his ideas were seen as too subversive. In some countries, his novels were banned and burned. People caught with his words were put in prison.
Blair had his blind spots as well. Some scholars have criticized his racist, sexist, homophobic attitudes. Yet many of his experiences were so impactful that he was forced to confront his prejudices.
He felt a lot of guilt, for instance, as a privileged white man in the service of the British empire. During his employment with the Indian Imperial Police, he had to take on the compromised role of an authority figure. He was seen as an outsider, as part of an occupying force, oppressing the poor of another country. The more that he adhered to the duties expected of him, as if he were performing before the locals, the more ashamed he felt. After five years as a police officer, after witnessing the direct effects of imperialism, he quit his position.
He later disguised himself as a tramp, voluntarily living in destitution, so that he could learn more about those in extreme poverty. While many in the lower classes had no way out of their unjust circumstances, he could escape. Even though his family were “lower-upper-middle class,” (as he wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier), he still had socioeconomic opportunities that others didn’t have.
After his time in Burma, though, he had changed. He wanted to write authentic stories about the downtrodden. He often took the side of the poor laborer who struggled for higher wages, of the vagabond who roamed the countryside, of the hopper who slept next to other workers in a tin hut, of the miner who toiled in the coal mine.
Blair was known for being a sharp critic of injustice. He looked through the biases of ordinary living to find truths that most were afraid to admit. He attacked authoritarians in every guise, despising those who wanted power for themselves while hiding their true intentions behind propagandistic language. Despite their claims of morality, many ideological groups imposed their order through violence and censorship.
Blair wrote with a sense of wry humor, almost as a defense against his own disappointment. His opinions were unflinchingly honest. He believed that while people were so capable of progress, they were still susceptible to the dangers of totalitarianism.
Orwell, George. The Complete Works of George Orwell: Novels, Memoirs, Poetry, Essays, Book Reviews & Articles: 1984, Animal Farm, down and out in Paris and London, Prophecies of Fascism… Frankfurt am Main, e-artnow, 2019.
Orwell, George | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. iep.utm.edu/george-orwell/. Accessed 17 Sept. 2022.
John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) was an English philosopher. He wrote On Liberty in 1859.
1. Individual liberty must be protected against all forms of tyranny. Tyranny can arise from the state, a powerful minority, or the prevailing opinions of the masses.
2. Mature people should have sovereignty over their bodies and minds. Societal power can justly be exercised over those individuals, socially and legally, when preventing them from harming others.
3. The majority has the potential to suppress the ideas of the minority. Those who are in power, whether they are part of the minority or majority, have historically persecuted those who are not in power. There needs to be precautions in place to protect people from an abuse of power.
4. Punishing individuals for having differing views is harmful to society. People should have the right to publish what they want. They should have the freedom to agree or disagree with popular beliefs. They should be able to determine how they want to live as long as they are not causing suffering to others. If they are mature enough to make their own life decisions, they are mature enough to accept the consequences of their actions.
5. People are not infallible. They are not perfect. Even the wisest individuals will make mistakes when pursuing the truth. Civilizations grow out of the failures of past ages. Even the present time may seem inhumane to future generations.
6. Nobody has the right to decide the best way to live for everyone else in the world. Many possibilities exist for a meaningful existence. People have varying degrees of knowledge in certain subjects. And they know nothing about other subjects. The more that they learn over time, the more they will become aware of what they know and don’t know. Those who impose their dogmatic beliefs on others act from an assumption of infallibility.
7. Individuals come from different backgrounds. They have a variety of preferences, perspectives, and experiences. People grow through a diversity of views. They are challenged to examine their old beliefs when they are confronted with new evidence. Ideas have to be tested continuously rather than obeyed out of custom and habit.
8. Societies are held back when individuals are too scared to share their opinions. If they are punished for their thoughts, then more people will be hesitant to express themselves. They will self-censor. They will hide their minds. They will internalize what is deemed as acceptable by their dominant culture. They will rebel.
People should not be afraid to make mistakes when seeking the truth. Many timid geniuses have been suppressed before they have reached their conclusions. Many promising minds have been smothered by the negative pressures of the masses. Geniuses, although small in number, can only prosper when they are free to think.
9. There may be errors hidden in accepted views. Some ideas, once considered true, have eventually been shown to be false. No belief is above being criticized, even the most cherished ones. Nonconformists, who often question the prevailing dogmas in society, shouldn’t be silenced or denounced. They should be honored for disturbing the unthinking complacency of the masses, for challenging the status quo.
10. People do not exist in isolation. If they harm themselves, they may negatively affect those who are closest to them. Individuals should be free to express themselves. Other members of society have the right to approve or disapprove of their choices. But when their actions are harmful to their communities, then they have to be held accountable.
Questions and Criticisms:
1. How is harm defined? The meaning of harm changes throughout Mill’s essay, especially when applied to the blurring contexts of public and private life. Will there ever be a universal definition of harm?
2. Practically speaking, do the ends justify the means if the moral gains are higher than the moral losses? Who determines what ends are justifiable, especially if the means are unjust?
3. Mill supported colonialism on utilitarian grounds. He believed in liberal values for certain members in his society, but then made exceptions for this standard.
He considered England, which was a major hegemonic power of the time, to be acting out of civilizing benevolence.
When he was writing in 1859, England had already committed atrocities in countries such as India. Mill believed that England was justified in “civilizing” places that were considered “primitive.” He wanted to educate the “barbarians.”
These “backward” countries were all coincidentally outside of Europe.
Powerful countries often intervene in the affairs of weaker countries. They claim to be humanitarians. They talk about peace and justice, while actually serving their own self-interests. These interests can be devastating for the population, while enriching those in power.
In a factory, a girl’s bones stick out through her brown flesh like shards of glass, as she hunches over, as she gazes down, seven days a week, for cents an hour, sewing brand merchandise that will eventually fill up luxury condominiums and office buildings
Overseas, in a town owned by outside corporations, two workers nap under a mirror of gnarled machinery so they can complete a shipment on time; in three years they will be replaced when they turn nineteen and twenty three for younger women without fetuses in their wombs
In shantytowns, rows of roofs rust through the oily dead of air, and trees lean over, their limbs curled beneath the sky; soon all the bark will peel back into white skeletal dust and space, before the last motes settle
In gated communities equipped with security cameras guard dogs walkie-talkies whistles pepper spray tasers and electronic key codes that change every week, sprinklers will spray over identical lawns at dawn until the grass glistens like fallen crystals
In a a suburb shaded by trees, a boy jumps higher in his new designer shorts and shoes and shirt and headband, scoring a basket off the backboard, while his father works at an international bank, approving and denying loans
A pop superstar smiles in a commercial for life insurance, his recognizable teeth enhance across electronic screens in shops, airports, and living rooms; an ad flashes with mild side effects of diarrhea depression fatigue insomnia high blood pressure paranoia irregular heartbeat; regularly scheduled programs return with words from their sponsors
I’ve been programmed to write about “Breakfast of Champions” by The Creator of the Universe.
Here’s another possibility: I am a character in a Kurt Vonnegut novel. Kilgore Trout can’t be the only one to suspect he’s in a fictional universe, which on some days, seems far too absurd to even be a cheap imitation of reality.
But you, dear reader, are neither a character nor a biological machine. Beyond your clothes and hair, flesh and blood and organs, you are much more than a robotized thing.
You are an unwavering band of light.
Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions” and Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” share some similarities. Although they’re set in different time periods, both authors are criticizing a deep-rooted ugliness in American society. Both authors are commenting on the division of communities, and the alienation of individuals, through the evils of racism and sexism and classism.
Both authors are asking what it means to be free in a country that so often treats its human beings terribly. Many human beings, for generations and generations, were not even considered to be human beings.
Many are still not.
Vonnegut does not ignore how cruel people can be toward each other. He nauseatingly forces his readers to look at what happens when, instead of everyone treating each other with the dignity that they deserve, they categorize each other instead.
In “Breakfast of Champions,” he shows what it is like to live in a decaying America. Unregulated companies use up the natural resources of the land with barely any legal consequences. The rich exploit the poor while blaming them for being poor. Politicians order young soldiers to commit atrocities in unnecessary wars. Neighborhoods are separated by class and race. Organized crime is the undercurrent of many businesses. Communities repeat the same violent patterns that they learned from their ancestors, patterns as old as centuries of slavery and genocide. They pass down their ghosts to their descendants, pretending that the worst parts of themselves are over.
Yet in such a systemically unjust world, people still have a choice. They can still use their “free will” to be compassionate to one another. They can show small kindnesses to strangers. They don’t have to hate just because they were taught to hate. They don’t have to become unthinking, unfeeling machines.
People are not mere robots programmed by their environments, their genes, or even “The Creator of the Universe” to be a specific way or to follow one set path. They aren’t predestined to meet a certain fate.
Many people can choose to behave humanely, even in an unjust country. But if the same force of societal ignorance continues as it had in the past, there may not be enough time left to prevent a nuclear or environmental catastrophe. Homo sapiens may become another extinct species, unable to adapt to the chaos of their natures.
If humans are to ever survive together, they must acknowledge each other. They have to see that other beings suffer just like them, want just like them, cry just like them, and love just like them. They deserve to be respected, not because of their status or wealth, but because they are human.
“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?” (Frankl, Viktor)
The life of the average concentration camp prisoner, who had no special status or distinguishing marks on their sleeves, was a daily struggle for existence.
They were tattooed on their flesh. Most of their possessions were stolen. Even their identity was taken away as they were reduced to a 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.” (Frankl, Viktor)
Viktor Frankl was Number 119, 104. His job in camp was digging and laying tracks for railway lines. Eventually, he tended to the sick, injured, and dying.
For the Capos, who still got their regular rations, they earned cigarettes as well as other perks. For ordinary prisoners, cigarettes were luxury items, traded for soup to prevent their starvation. Then there were the cigarettes left 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.” (Frankl, Viktor)
When a prisoner first entered 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.” (Frankl, Viktor)
Prisoners who first arrived at camp were starved and cooped together in the cold. Guards would walk over and inspect each person, deciding on whether they would be sent to work or die. With one finger pointing to the right or left, there was existence or non-existence, life or execution.
“‘Was he sent to the left side?’
‘Yes,’ I replied.
‘Then you can see him there,’ I was told.
‘A hand pointed to the chimney a few hundred yards off, which was sending a column of flame up into the grey sky of Poland. It dissolved into a sinister cloud of smoke.
‘That’s where your friend is, floating up to Heaven,’ was the answer. But I still did not understand until the truth was explained to me in plain words.” (Frankl, Viktor)
Prisoners had their most precious items stolen, which included wedding rings, writings, jewels, and photographs; anything that resembled their former identities. They were stripped until they were trembling and naked, 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.” (Frankl, Viktor)
In Auschwitz, a prisoner had to adapt to the most horrendous conditions imaginable. Cold, unclean, sleeping huddled together after eternities of hard labor, shirt weathered, feet cracked in the 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 commonly by electrocution when touching a barbed wire fence, others, despite their small chance of living on, bared through those grueling days of survival, aware that they would still be sent to the gas chamber.
As time grinded on under ever harsher 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, having only the instinct to survive. After so many days, their physical punishment didn’t matter nearly as much as the agony of injustice. They felt a complete helplessness to do anything about the terrible conditions that had spread through the camp.
Guards regularly punished prisoners for the smallest of infractions. If somebody stepped out of line, talked back, 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 lived as husbands and wives and students and doctors and professors and musicians and teachers and shopkeepers, were barely afforded the dignity of their humanity.
After being reduced to such a blunted state, prisoners became primitive in their need to live each day for one more day. Just for a little longer. They dreamed more than they lived. Imagining that they had their simplest desires fulfilled from cake to cookies, from warm baths to a deep sleep, they craved the illusion of peace while bearing a terrible reality.
“When the last layers of subcutaneous fat had vanished, and we looked like skeletons disguised with skin and rags, we could watch our bodies beginning to devour themselves. The organism digested its own protein, and the muscles disappeared. Then the body had no powers of resistance left. One after another the members of the little community in our hut died. Each of us could calculate with fair accuracy whose turn would be next, and when his own would come. After many observations we knew the symptoms well, which made the correctness of our prognoses quite certain. ‘He won’t last long,’ or, ‘This is the next one,’ we whispered to each other, and when, during our daily search for lice, we saw our own naked bodies in the evening, we thought alike: This body here, my body, is really a corpse already. What has become of me? I am but a small portion of a great mass of human flesh … of a mass behind barbed wire, crowded into a few earthen huts; a mass of which daily a certain portion begins to rot because it has become lifeless.” (Viktor, Frankl)
Once they were woken out of their longing and dreams, the prisoners huddled together to work. They moved from a shrill whine of sirens. They barely fit their swollen feet into wet shoes before another 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 into apathy 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!’” (Frankl, Viktor)
As prisoners struggled to endure, sometimes their only salvation came through reflection, religious rituals, debate, or the recollection of a loved one. Frankl imagined his wife while marching on his sore feet, touching her with his 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.” (Frankl, Viktor)
By creating such a rich inner life for themselves, prisoners developed an intense appreciation for nature and art. In contrast with their suffering, they found glory in the simplest miracles of existence.
“Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, ‘How beautiful the world could be!’” (Frankl, Viktor)
“Another time we were at work in a trench. The dawn was grey around us; grey was the sky above; grey the snow in the pale light of dawn; grey the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and grey their faces. I was again conversing silently with my wife, or perhaps I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious ‘Yes’ in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. ‘Et lux in tenebris lucet’ — and the light shineth in the darkness. For hours I stood hacking at the icy ground. The guard passed by, insulting me, and once again I communed with my beloved. More and more I felt that she was present, that she was with me; I had the feeling that I was able to touch her, able to stretch out my hand and grasp hers. The feeling was very strong: she was there. Then, at that very moment, a bird flew down silently and perched just in front of me, on the heap of soil which I had dug up from the ditch, and looked steadily at me.” (Frankl, Viktor)
Most of camp life, however, wore on the very existence of each prisoner. They had to suffer ongoing turmoil, which threatened their values, beliefs, and high purpose, “throwing them into doubt.” (Frankl, Viktor) The brutality of their world ground their dignity down to its barest form, where they sensed that at the end of all their struggle was death. They were used up until their bodies failed them, until their will to go on, to persevere, had faded. After so many nights of relentless abuse, their spirits were like the lights of candles, dwindling into enveloping darkness.
Camp inmates often were tormented when they had to make decisions or take an initiative, believing that their lives were subject to fate. Small decisions could lead to life or death, whether in the moment or in the future.
On Frankl’s last days at camp before he was rescued, when he thought about escaping, he wrote: “We found out just how uncertain human decisions are, especially in matters of life and death. I was confronted with photographs which had been taken in a small camp not far from ours. Our friends who had thought they were traveling to freedom that night had been taken in the trucks to this camp, and there they were locked in the huts and burned to death. Their partially charred bodies were recognizable on the photograph.” (Frankl, Viktor)
Trusting in fate, at times of almost certain death, was an acceptance of what was to come. In other ways, it was only one defense 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 a way to endure.
Despite the apathy, exhaustion, and irritability of the prisoners, they were never completely lost, never completely forsaken to the hells of their 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.” (Frankl, Viktor)
Everything could be taken from an inmate but their inner freedom. Some prisoners, despite the most terrible conditions, still maintained their human dignity. Among the greatest suffering and injustice, they still had to choose and not choose.
Even though they were surrounded by the most extreme external restrictions, prisoners had the choice to reflect on what had meaning for their lives. They could still hold onto their higher purpose or discover a new meaning. Their attitude of spiritual freedom was a crucial element in the 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.” (Frankl, Viktor)
While many prisoners fell into despair or conformity because of the brutal injustice perpetrated against them, there were still some who remained compassionate, courageous and loving, giving of themselves when they had no obligation to give, accepting their fate when others denied it, selflessly helping others when everything was stolen from them, up until the time of their extermination. They died with no names, no families or friends, but they never forgot their humanity.
To give their last bite of bread to a child, to stand up to a guard, to offer a kind word before walking into the gas chamber, despite never being known or praised for their innumerable small 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.’” (Frankl, Viktor)
While inside the camp, there was no time, no sense of a future anymore. Outside the barbed wire fence, prisoners felt an unreality, an alien world to their own. They had to struggle to grasp the meaning of life and to not lose themselves in their past, in their apathy, in giving up any 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.” (Frankl, Viktor)
Prisoners who could imagine a reason to survive, a “why” for their existence, in the moment or in the 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.” (Frankl, Viktor)
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, not only from having a genuine purpose in a world that was against them, but from chance.
For the guards themselves, there were those who took a sadistic pleasure in making the prisoners suffer and die. Then there were those who were sympathetic but remained silent to the abuse, to the tortures, hardening themselves after many years. Finally, there were those who secretly helped and cared for the prisoners, despite negative consequences from their superior officers.
Some prisoners, who had been promoted to the most marginal powers in the camp, became as sadistic as the worst guards. Other guards, moved by compassion, could bring a prisoner to tears from the smallest act of kindness. No one in either group was entirely good or entirely bad. Life asked each of them a question, in every circumstance, which was this: “What 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.” (Frankl, Viktor)
When the prisoners were finally released from camp after so many years of hard suffering, returning to the world was an ordeal for them. They drifted on as if lost in a dream, unable to feel, unable to be human for a long time. It was so difficult for the prisoners, after being routinely abused, to recover from the endless torment of the camp, where death was their companion.
Prisoners often ate an enormous amount once they were liberated, compensating for years of watery soup and stale bread.
Pressure had been building inside every one of them for years because they had to repress so much trauma. Eventually, this pressure erupted into talk, into a discussion of what had been too taboo to speak about in camp, into screams and nightmares and long cries about all those who were murdered before them, into a readjustment back into the unfamiliar world of the living.
“One day, a few days after the liberation, I walked through the country past flowering meadows, for miles and miles, toward the market town near the camp. Larks rose to the sky and I could hear their joyous song. There was no one to be seen for miles around; there was nothing but the wide earth and sky and the larks’ jubilation and the freedom of space. I stopped, looked around, and up to the sky — and then I went down on my knees. At that moment there was very little I knew of myself or of the world — I had but one sentence in mind — always the same: ‘I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and He answered me in the freedom of space.’ How long I knelt there and repeated this sentence memory can no longer recall. But I know that on that day, in that hour, my new life started. Step for step I progressed, until I again became a human being.” (Frankl, Viktor)
Some of those who were freed returned to where they once had lived. Many of them could not find their families anymore. Others traveled to their hometowns, but their community could not truly empathize with them or know the magnitude of their suffering.
Some of the survivors still held onto hope. They hoped 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 for them to be. They endured the utter depravity of their conditions, for years and years, seeking what would transcend them, returning to their humanity again.
Calm your mind. Open yourself to what is arising and passing. If you stir up the mud at the bottom of a lake, the water will be unclear. But when you let the water be as it is, not trying to flatten the ripples or scoop out all the mud, the lake will settle down. Then you will see not only the still water, but a reflection of the mountains on the surface.
When you watch the rain, you are the rain just as much as the rain is you. Rather than feeling that you are a separate observer, passively watching each droplet fall down, there is only the splash, splash, splash.
There is a rain beyond your words. Beyond your images and concepts and memories. Yet you often divide yourself from the rain, creating an idea of you, an idea of the rain, an idea of how the rain sounds, an idea of how you should feel when you see the rain, and so on. You forget to smell the rain because you are attached to what you think you know.
You often separate your experiences into endlessly finer categories. You discriminate between what you see as good and bad, black and white, ugly and beautiful, life and death, young and old. You organize and measure and judge. Your universe is placed into a mental filing system.
Yet as Alan Watts said, “You confuse the menu for the meal.”
When you are mindful, when you let go, you can come back to the purity of who you are. You can harmonize with nature. Breathing in, breathing out. You are here. Like a bow sliding across a violin, you are open to the continuous hum.
You are not alienated from the rest of life. You inter-are. You are made up of relationships. A flower cannot bloom without being connected to non-flower elements like the soil beneath it or the sun above it.
For the petals of a rose to glisten with dew, there first needed to be a Big Bang. Conditions before that flower existed helped that flower to be. When the rose wilts back into the old earth, another plant will take its place. Energy cannot be created nor destroyed, only transformed.
Just like a flower, you are made up of non-you parts. You cannot exist without the oxygen you breathe or your ancestors or the gravity of the planet. You cannot exist without the water from the oceans or the clouds drifting above you. There is no you apart from anything else.
“You cannot step into the same river twice,” as Heraclitus once said. Your thoughts, feelings, and perceptions are changing. You will not be the same person at five or fifteen or eighty. You may feel the same, and believe that you will remain young forever, but you are a constellation of processes, transforming in every moment. You are dying and being reborn. You are changing with the conditions of the universe.
Don’t attach yourself to one view of life and claim that is the best view to have. When you cling to your beliefs and refuse to open yourself up, you will suffer. Your dogmatism will cause other beings to suffer too.
You are all the lives you have influenced. You are all the ancestors who survived for you to be born and all the descendants who will grow old after you have decomposed.
You are the sun and water and trees and moon. Without them, there is no you.
Your interconnection with all living beings will help you to see beyond yourself. With awareness, you don’t have to judge everything outside your flesh as separate from you.
You don’t have to look for ways to isolate yourself from other beings. Clinging to rigid beliefs, avoiding alternative perspectives, and not empathizing with the vulnerable, will only cause you to suffer. You are in others as others are in you.
It’s up to you to be kind, compassionate, and loving.
Every moment is a chance for you to deepen your practice. Talking about philosophy is not enough. Your life is your message. Your teaching.
When you are mindful and compassionate, your peaceful presence will influence the people around you. Everyone you meet is a continuation of you. Your practice is a practice not only for you, but for your siblings, parents, children, neighbors, and the rest of your community.
When you think you are separate from the rest of the world, you will try to run from the world. You will seek pleasure and avoid pain. You will look for comforting answers to the mystery of your existence. You will hide from unpleasant truths.
Rather than hiding from what you don’t like or attaching yourself to abstractions, look within yourself. See yourself in the world just as the world is seen in you. You are not only the blood in your body, but the stars in your blood. You don’t have to climb a mountain to find what is already here. You only need to see.
If you walk in a park, do you notice the leaves falling from the trees? Do you feel the breeze brushing against your skin? Do you exhale as you step on the soft soil?
Look for lessons in what is already an intimate part of you. There is more wisdom in a crumbling leaf than in a thousand words about impermanence.
When you walk, walk. When you sit, sit. When you breathe, breathe. Rather than seeking to become important or achieve something outside of yourself, rather than dwelling on your regrets or rushing off to do the next thing, continue to do what you are doing, but with total freedom.
Be present with what you are doing. When you nourish yourself, you will nourish other sentient beings. You will care for those who are suffering, who need someone to be there for them. You are not only working toward an end goal of compassion, peace, and kindness. You are those things. Every step can be a step of peace.
When you live in the present, you will begin to see the impermanence in all things. A flower blooming in spring and withering in the autumn sun, a lover with age spots on her hands, a flash of lightning in the clouds. Without impermanence, a child can never mature into an adult and an acorn can never grow into a tree. For there to be birth, there has to be death.
When you are aware of your impermanence, every moment is precious, a fleeting miracle. You can care for all things in your life, while knowing that nothing ever lasts.
Pain and anger will fade away just like joy and happiness. Seemingly unstoppable empires will collapse as civilizations develop. Everyone you know will die and break down into the dust of bones. Plants will grow over your forgotten tomb.
When you know the truth of your impermanence, you will be grateful for what you have while knowing that it won’t be yours forever.
There is no you that remains the same. Your perceptions, thoughts, feelings, moods, and behaviors all change over time. From the cells in your fingers to the bacteria in your gut, from the wrinkles on your skin to the hormones in your glands, from the neurons in your brain to the oxygen that you inhale, you are transforming. You are not alone. You are not an unchanging entity, apart from the rest of the universe. You are the same, but also different.
Life is like a garden that you can cultivate. You can water the seeds of hatred and ignorance and greed or you can water the seeds of peace and joy and compassion. You have the freedom to choose. It is entirely up to you.
When you tend to yourself, you tend to others. When you tend to others, you tend to yourself. You must be wise enough to select the most wholesome seeds to water.
Sometimes in relationships, you may fall into negative habits. You may forget to be grateful and engaged. As the weeds grow in your garden and theirs, both of you will suffer. But it is never too late to cut away the weeds, to plant new seeds again.
Rather than chasing after abstract notions of success, pleasure, power, and reputation, see these cravings for what they are. When you desire to taste the bait, biting down with all your force, you will get hooked. Only when you can let go, mindful of your suffering, will you be free.
Be aware of your fear, your need for intimacy, your sorrow, and your compulsion to survive. You are connected with this earth. You can show compassion to your suffering while nourishing your love.
Smile because you are alive on this beautiful earth. You are here for only a short time.
“I do not say that children at war do not die like men, if they have to die. To their everlasting honor and our everlasting shame, they do die like men, thus making possible the manly jubilation of patriotic holidays. But they are murdered children all the same.”
― Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
“I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another.”
― Erich Maria Remarque
“The master class has always declared the war; the subject class has always fought the battles; the master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, and the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose — including their lives.”
― Eugene V. Debs
“Nationalism of one kind or another was the cause of most of the genocide of the twentieth century. Flags are bits of colored cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people’s minds and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead.”
― Arundhati Roy
“The atmosphere of war brutalizes everyone involved, begets a fanaticism in which the original moral factor is buried at the bottom of a heap of atrocities committed by all sides.”
― Howard Zinn
War is profitable for the ruling class but not for the dead.
But what if the dead could talk back?
Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted in Hollywood during the Red Scare. He continued to write for major pictures under a variety of pseudonyms, eventually winning two Academy awards for his uncredited work. Before his successes with movies such as Spartacus and The Brave One, Trumbo had written a blistering antiwar novel.
Johnny Got His Gun sticks to readers like gauze dressings on third-degree burns. It is as brutally honest as it is gruesome. It is an ugly book because war is ugly, because violence is ugly, because the systemic exploitation of human beings is ugly.
Behind all those patriotic slogans about fighting for honor and democracy and freedom, behind all those militaristic ideals about duty and glory, behind all that jingoistic propaganda crammed into the minds of the young and ignorant, there is an ugly greed for more power. There is mutilation and death and rot.
Joe Bonham served in WWI but he could’ve been a soldier in any war. He woke up in a hospital bed after an artillery shell exploded, disfiguring him. The war took his arms, his legs, his face, his nose, his mouth, his eyes, his ears, his flesh, his organs, his almost everything. It had turned him into a mucus dripping meat. A burned torso, gurgling out of a throat. A bandaged wound, trapped forever inside of himself.
He was deaf. He was blind. He had no eyes to see, no nose to smell, no tongue to taste, no lips to speak, no ears to hear. His life was darkness and dreams. Sometimes there was no difference. Yet he could still think. He could still remember who he was, even after drifting through years of insanity. He could still breathe through a tube in his throat. He could still tap his head and squirm. He could still feel the sun warmth on his tingling skin. On his last patches of skin. On his forehead slicked with sweat. He was as alive as any dead man could get.
The warmongers had pinned a sickening medal to his body. Those bastards decorated him with false awards and then ignored him. Yet they continued to enact their aggressive policies and propaganda. They continued to throw their annual parades and marches. They continued to sacrifice the lives of more sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, for their goals of endless expansion and domination.
They didn’t care about his suffering. He was useless to them after his body was used. But he was still a man, he was still a man, he was still a… human being. Wasn’t he? If he wasn’t, then there was no point in existing anymore. Maybe he could be a human again if only he could communicate. If the nurses let him outside into the world, he could scream out of his lightless tomb, defying all the swine who had manipulated him, who would manipulate more generations into their deaths.
Joe Bonham deserved his dignity. He deserved to be recognized not only for who he was, but for what they had turned him into. He had to warn all the impressionable children around the world, forcing them to stare at his fate. He had to warn every naïve kid who was so eager to sacrifice themselves for their government, who was so certain that their side was righteous and just and good. He could show them what war could do to a human being. He could show them what was left of a human being after war.
Our dreams are private myths and our myths are public dreams. Each represents the gods within us, energies that conflict and harmonize.
Our stories, told in different cultures and times, are born in us, and change as we change. They show us our paradoxical natures. They guide us as we cross through the dark forest to find the light.
Sometimes our public myths will match our private ones. Then teachers will appear, helping us to learn more about our internal journeys, interpreting our paths with familiar symbols. At other times, opening ourselves to the mysteries of life, engaging what is deep and sacred, can only be handled alone.
We can be enraptured with what is beyond us, in awe of the unknown. We can experience a timelessness that permeates through all forms, that is transcendent of symbols, even though during most of our lives, we are conditioned into the dualities of I and thou, black and white, good and bad. To claim the absolute truth is not to have found the truth. To know is not to know. To not know is to know.
Myths change from environments to individuals, from individuals to groups. The gods of the rainforest are different from the God of the mountain top. The divine in nature is different from that of the church. Even the nomadic tribes who hunt, who rely on movement and intimate bands, perceive other realities than the settled farmer does.
Myths endure from an evolution of ideas and from how well they can touch the archetypes of humanity. Otherwise they will fade into their own oblivion. Myths must adapt to the period they dwell in, relative to culture, environment, economy, and myriad other influences. If they do not bend with the moment, they will break from their archaism.
In myth, often there is a hero. A hero must leave home, venturing into the unknown. To leave their safe comfortable life, to be thrust into danger, is to begin their quest, whether physical or spiritual. The only way for them to return back home is to go through their trials.
What distinguishes heroes from average people is their willingness to sacrifice themselves for an ideal, another being, or the purpose of the quest. What the hero defends will not always be commonly accepted, but as they let go of their selfishness, and confront the dangers ahead, they are truly courageous.
The hero must slay the dragon. In every stage of life, from childhood to old age, a dragon will arise, whether in the form of greed, inhibition, stagnation, or resistance. Individuals must first look within themselves to find their own way.
Mythology can act as an interpretive system for deciding what paths are the wisest to take, what practices can lead to a higher purpose, how to reduce the despair of other beings, and so on. Disciples can perform elaborate rituals that represent the crucial stages of human existence. From learning to love to embracing death, mythology weaves in stories that point to inner truths, showing what swords will slay what dragons.
When heroes cross the threshold of their experience, they transform. They return to where they began after they left for the first time. During their arduous journeys, their consciousness changes, heightened among the ordinary.
A Bodhisattva is enlightened but still chooses to remain in the world, helping to free all beings from their suffering (Dukkha). The shaman broods from their sacred wisdom, guiding others through language, penetrating rituals, visions, and medicines.
At the deepest level of consciousness, the hero is love. Interdependent being. They have an enduring compassion for all living creatures, a reverence for nature. The hero has experienced oneness, an interconnection with all that is. They have shed themselves of their old skin only to be reborn again. This cycle of birth-death-rebirth will repeat over eons in endless forms.
The troubadours believed that love was the highest meaning of life. They would undergo pain only for the chance of finding themselves in another. The Bodhisattva will “joyfully participate among the sorrows of the world” while the “mystic will swim in the symbolic ocean.” (Campbell, Joseph)
While one myth will celebrate the divine through the masculine, another myth will honor the feminine more. Some stories contradict each other logically while still suggesting the same essential messages.
Beyond any dualistic judgments of birth and death, up and down, black and white, here and there, right and wrong, and past and future, at the ultimate dimension, existence hums from a timeless energy. The cosmos is interdependent, perfect, whole.
While “the map is not the territory” (Korzybski, Alfred), a mythological map can be useful for the right person, at the right time. Travelers can navigate down its paths and landmarks and dead ends, until eventually moving beyond any known land. A map is not a final authority on where to go or what to experience. It is a guide, directing those who are curious, who dare to question and seek, beyond themselves, toward the transcendent.
Domesticated primates (humans) think themselves into their relative neurological realities. Within the framework of these “realities,” they make assumptions about what is true and false, right and wrong, essential and inessential, real and fake.
Humans filter the universe through their nervous systems. They don’t perceive what is objectively true (which is not to say that an objective truth does or doesn’t exist), but rather, they interpret a particular aspect of reality. Mediated through their past beliefs, experiences, conditionings, and so on, they may “see” all of their life through the “reality tunnel” of the Marxist, Fascist, Atheist, Christian, Buddhist, feminist, misogynist, Democrat, Republican, protestor, cop, doctor, patient, Caucasian male, African American female, pessimist, optimist, lover, fighter, bad son, good daughter, and so on.
People make endless guesses about their identities and the identities of others, often without realizing they are doing so. While it is easier to see the prejudices and biases in others, it is more difficult to see those same qualities within.
“Every type of bigotry, every type of racism, sexism, prejudice, every dogmatic ideology that allows people to kill other people with a clear conscience, every stupid cult, every superstition, written religion, every kind of ignorance in the world all results from not realizing that our perceptions are gambles.
We believe what we see and then we believe our interpretation of it; we don’t even know we are making an interpretation most of the time. We think that this is reality.” (Wilson, Robert)
People not only don’t know but they don’t know that they don’t know. Their specific “reality” appears to be the true one, while other people’s realities, the more they diverge from their own, seem increasingly bizarre and nonsensical.
Human minds often function as if they were made up of only two parts: the Thinker and the Prover. Whenever the Thinker is convinced of a given reality, the Prover will unconsciously work to organize all “evidence” in favor of it being true. Signals that are consistent with the Thinker’s preferred reality tunnel are incorporated into it while other signals (that are irrelevant, unpleasant, or contradictory) are forgotten, ignored, rejected, resisted, and rationalized.
Human brains are matter in spacetime. They’re wrinkled organs, weighing close to three pounds each. There are roughly 100 billion neurons in one brain. These neurons communicate with each other electro-chemically in vast networks.
Brains generate ideas, influenced by all the signals that they have been exposed to in every moment, from an ancient set of scrolls, to a drama on TV, to a fight with a sibling, to the taste of a strawberry, to the warmth of sunlight, and so on. Nervous systems control a lot of what is taken for reality, such as thought, memory, emotion, touch, vision, breathing, temperature, pain, and so on.
While ideas are not equal to all of reality, they can make up the approximate models of given realities.
Just as brains resemble the hardware on a computer, ideas are its software. Anything, from psychedelic mushrooms, to the organization of a political revolution, to eating a vegetarian diet for three years, can change the consciousness of a person.
Certain programs written onto the hardware of the brain are genetic imperatives, imprinting, conditioning, and learning. The mind is bound to what it imprints at vulnerable stages of its development. Its software turns into hardware over time, further setting the structure for conscious thought.
Out of an infinite number of signals in the universe, the domesticated primate (human) is imprinted with a limited number of those signals during different stages of life, contributing to the development of a sense of self. Learning, conditioning, novel experiences, and so on, add to this structural foundation. As the brain matures from birth to old age, more intricate models of reality may build up over time.
At the level of the oral bio-survival circuit, humans are hardwired from birth onward to seek a sense of security, nourishment, and a womb-like feeling of safety, while avoiding what is harmful, dangerous, and life threatening.
“In summary: the bio-survival circuit is DNA-programmed to seek a comfort-safety zone around a mothering organism. If a mother isn’t present, the closet substitute in the environment will be imprinted.” (Wilson, Robert)
Domesticated primates (humans) are genetically hardwired to look for security in their family, immediate group, and tribe. They may be further conditioned to identify with other symbolic groups such as the university they attended, their profession, the religion they were raised in, a political party that had impacted their adolescence, and so on.
They may even transfer their security-need onto symbols such as money, which in itself is of no value (you cannot eat money) except in the agreed upon value determined by other members of that particular group.
“In traditional society, belonging to the tribe was bio-security; exile was terror, and real threat of death. In modern society, having the tickets (money) is bio-security; having the tickets withdrawn is terror.” (Wilson, Robert)
Those who do not belong to the same group are often categorized as outsiders, or even, enemies. They’re perceived as hostile, aggressive, or challenging to that group’s interests and purpose. Any element, from a dissident citizen’s writings to a protest for systemic change, which could threaten the security of the group, is resisted and rejected.
The emotional-territorial circuit is concerned with power, dominance and submission, superiority and inferiority.
People unconsciously struggle for status in their social group. In a tribe, members fit into various roles, each person assuming different responsibilities and functions. Some members assume top dog roles while other members fall into bottom dog roles.
These roles can be divided into the four quadrants of “I’m ok/you’re ok, I’m ok/you’re not ok, I’m not ok/you’re not ok, I’m not ok/you’re ok,” under the basic terminology of Transactional Analysis.
This model, along with other similar models, which represents the earliest imprinting and subsequent conditioning of one’s ego role in society, will vary based on the strength of early imprinting, the dynamics of the group in relation to the individual, how successfully the individual is conditioned out of robotically following an imprinted role, and so on.
Furthermore, each of these four quadrants, while convenient, can be endlessly divided into ever finer categories. People don’t exist in one of these quadrants completely, but rather, fall on a spectrum in between these extremes, which will shift as their nervous systems change.
Humans (domesticated primates) use symbols and are used by symbols. Those who control the symbols have the power to control other people. These symbols include, but are not limited to: art, music, mathematics, maps, and words.
Symbols often rule the lives of people without their awareness of them. Certain ideas have been passed down from generation to generation, transferring between nervous systems from thousands of years ago to this very moment. Over a long enough span of time, some of these ideas have begun to no longer seem like representations of certain realities, but as unquestioned truths, such as with the State, the wheel, the plow, the alphabet, agriculture, Roman road systems, etc.
Symbols, such as words, do not exist in isolation. Words carry around underlying assumptions about psychological states, emotional tones, explanations of the physical universe, and references to innumerable aspects of what makes up existence and meaning and purpose.
“Since words contain both denotations (referents in the sensory-existential world) and connotations (emotional tones and poetic or rhetorical hooks), humans can be moved to action even by words which have no real meaning or reference in actuality. This is the mechanism of demagoguery, advertising and much of organized religion.” (Wilson, Robert)
The semantic time-binding circuit makes distinctions out of raw experiences. It puts labels on the ineffability of life. Its purpose is to endlessly divide and sub-divide, categorizing all the universe into predictable patterns, which make sense.
Every new generation adds information to former generations, re-classifying the outdated information of the past. Novel connections arise between what once existed and what currently exists, leading to discovery, insight, and progression.
While entropy shows a gradual decline into disorder, information is negative entropy, coherence and order, where understandings birth out of chaos. When information increases exponentially, new patterns are recognized from a randomness of events. Over ever shorter periods of time, more advancements develop in music, art, technology, science, and so on.
Despite all this informational “progress” over the centuries, the majority of domesticated primates (humans) are still trapped in their lower, more primitive circuits. They have evolved with reptilian and mammalian brains from earlier epochs in time.
Lower circuits can often be manipulated through a fear of outsiders, threats to safety, challenges to trusted authorities, appeals to tribal loyalty, and a distrust in those who are perceived as different, alien, or hostile.
While the first two circuits establish homeostasis in a civilization, the third (semantic, time-binding) circuit seeks out higher states. The third circuit has always been controlled, partially or totally, through the creation and enforcement of rules, taboos, prohibitions, laws, traditions, rituals, and cultural games — most of which are unconscious, unstated, and seen as “common sense.”
Those who are in power want to control third-circuit insights, and establish order, because ideas that are unknown and new and radical often challenge the power structures already in place. There have always been fluctuations between progressive ideas and traditions, but as time passes in civilization, so does the informational content.
Informational content may act to support all of life such as with movements for equality and rights, medicines that treat infectious diseases, scientific revolutions that upend the fundamental understanding of spacetime, and so on. On the other side, informational content can destroy all of life, such as with nuclear bombs, drone strikes, oil spills, assault rifles, child labor, book burnings, etc.
Everything that has manifested in civilization — from planes to trains, skyscrapers to highways, napalm to baby clothes, microwaves to toe rings — has birthed because of ideas, connecting symbolically through imaginations, developing, changing, self-correcting, evolving over time.
Through imagination, people exist with a potential for generating unknown amounts of growth and destruction. In a world of limited resources, overpopulation, and institutions that seek to maintain their primate order with warheads, lower-circuit manipulations, and ink excretions on paper to establish their power, there is another force that is still accelerating: information. Through information lies the possibility for high knowledge, liberation, and awareness.
The socio-sexual circuit awakens during adolescence — at the onset of puberty. During this vulnerable stage in human development, sexual preferences, taboos, dysfunctions, and fetishes have the highest chance of being imprinted. These imprints may be due to chance, trauma, genetics, and environmental influences.
People generally mimic what’s deemed as acceptable by their culture while hiding what is not, keeping certain parts of their sexual profiles secret. Every tribe has its own rules about what is considered sexually moral and immoral.
There are, in every society, controls over sexual self-identification and related behaviors. Whether these controls are ignorant or enlightened, biased or liberated, is one matter. Nevertheless, the innate purpose behind these measures is to influence the survival, variability, and evolution of the gene pool. Those who make and enforce these rules often want power over what people can and can’t do, which in turn, gives them more control over their choices, values, identities, and meanings.
Despite these attempts at domination, there will always be unknown variables in sexual attraction, reproduction, mating, and future evolution.
“Taboo and morality are tribal attempts to govern the random element — to select the desired future.” (Wilson, Robert)
Those who act as authorities in select groups within their societies, such as monks, nuns, priests, shamans, teachers, philosophers, parents, politicians, scientists, journalists, celebrities, and so on, decide what symbols are acceptable and unacceptable, moral and immoral, right and wrong. Those who control these symbols can control the limits of information.
The socio-sexual circuit keeps a check on the semantic time-binding circuit. Frequent checks are necessary to prevent an unrestrained rise of innovation and to keep order.
Children are generally taught to follow the rules of their given society, to accept those rules as normal. They are not commonly taught to question their leaders, criticize those in authority, or develop into critical independent thinkers.
Tribal guides, such as parents, teachers, priests, and police officers, desire for children to think/act semi-robotically, mimicking agreed upon values, following the traditions of the past, so they’ll be accepted into the preferred roles of their groups.
Most people are programmed to be just smart enough to do their roles properly, but not smart enough to question the roles they are placed under. They are trained to follow certain unspoken rules within their groups (of gender, class, race, age, etc.) but not to question them too much.
They will vote for leaders who appeal to their primitive circuits, such as charismatic politicians who claim to be patriots, who denounce outsiders that threaten their traditional values. To stir up the emotions of the population based on outside threats, to speak eloquently about hope and change, is a way for those in power to manipulate ordinary people. Politicians prey on vulnerabilities, reinforcing a desire for security and a fear of the unknown.
Groups often apply similar tactics to re-imprint the nervous systems of individuals. Many cults, militaries, religions, and terrorists, who have re-imprinted (brainwashed) those who were initially outside their groups, used methods of isolation (removal of contradicting realities), harsh punishments for unacceptable behavior, rewards for acceptable behavior, the reinforcement of group superiority over individual inferiority, mind-altering drugs, initiations to earn special statuses, the normalization of security inside the group (protective mother/father figure) alongside a fear of the unknown (outside perspectives), etc.
“The easiest way to get brainwashed is to be born. All of the above principles then immediately go into action, a process which social psychologists euphemistically call socialization. The bio-survival circuit automatically hooks onto or bonds to the most appropriate mother or mothering object; the emotional-territorial circuit looks for a ‘role’ or ego-identification in the family or tribe; the semantic circuit learns to imitate and then use the local reality-grids (symbol systems); the socio-sexual circuit is imprinted by whatever mating experiences are initially available at puberty.” (Wilson, Robert)
Domesticated primates (humans) are born with nervous systems. These nervous systems can adapt to a wide range of different reality-tunnels. Whereas in the past, groups may have existed separately from other groups, while still maintaining a sense of stable reality, in modern times, in this interconnected world, groups bump up against each other constantly, clashing over what reality is.
The symbol systems that some groups hold to be true and logical and moral, to other groups, are seen as false and nonsensical and immoral. Many groups confuse their symbol systems (maps of reality) with reality itself. To the most dogmatic believers, their reality is the only true reality. Anyone who opposes them is deluded, immoral, or heretical.
In modern times, through a constant exposure to different reality-tunnels, group identities are being challenged more often than before. The more dogmatic the group, the more dangerous it is for that group to be around outsiders with dissimilar views.
Beyond the first four circuits (oral bio-survival, anal territorial, semantic time-binding, socio-sexual) is the neurosomatic circuit.
Pranayama breathing, meditation, visualization of white light, prolonged sexual play without having an orgasm, psychedelic/cannabis consumption, among other techniques, can trigger highly pleasant and unpleasant sensory states, depending on the level of the practitioner.
Yogis, gurus, mystics, and heretics have described this circuit as an orgasmic experience, union with all/God/the infinite/the divine, crossing the abyss, and so on. Some have entered this state through a terrible internal struggle while others seem to naturally flow there without much suffering.
The fifth circuit is intuitive and non-linear. Whereas the third circuit hyper-thinking rationalist will build linear models of reality, and the second circuit alpha will behave differently based on who is dominant in the social hierarchy, the fifth-circuit mystic will sense the gestalt, the organic whole, between data points in infinity.
The neurogenetic circuit moves beyond all lower circuits. This is the circuit of genetic memory, the collective unconscious, the Tao, non-duality. Coincidences become significant and paradoxes are solved with wordless understanding. There is no true distinction between what exists out there and what exists within.
On the level of this circuit, infinity fits within a flicker of sunlight. All of the cosmos, from the quarks inside of atoms to the planets of distant galaxies, from the birth of the Big Bang to a child’s sigh on an Argentinian beach, interconnects with each other, rising and falling, being and not being. Life and death are like the root systems of expanding trees.
The mind becomes what it focuses on. A mind that thinks about thinking is meta-thinking. To think about thinking about thinking, ad infinitum, to reflect all of life like a mirror, to be totally absorbed in an idea, a feeling, a moment, without any mental separation, is to use the meta-programming circuit.
This circuit can program all the lower circuits, switching between them like channels on a television set. Similar to non-action in Taoism, the meta-programmer adapts to each circumstance, engaging life fully, while not holding on.
The human brain may be physically small compared to the universe, while inside the brain, the entire universe operates. As the mind encounters certain reality-tunnels, the mind can inhabit the logic of those reality-tunnels, while knowing that there is more out there.
The nervous system takes in a limited number of “existential” information, or data points, from the infinite possibilities of the universe.
Then the nervous system creates models of reality from this changing data — editing, combining, classifying, removing, adding — mostly below the level of conscious awareness.
So many thoughts, feelings, perceptions, sensations, and so on, are processed every millisecond. While at the same time, most of people’s lives are forgotten. Irrelevant/contradictory information is constantly being ignored, resisted, rejected, and rationalized.
Only fragments of experience are selected to fit into one’s conscious beliefs.
Even those experiences are constantly interpreted. They’re being analyzed, misremembered, revised, and forgotten.
People narrow their perceptions even more by filtering their identities through the different symbol systems of race, class, gender, politics, religion, height, fitness, personal hobbies, sexuality, ad infinitum, creating ever more distinct reality-tunnels for themselves.
Domesticated primates (humans) are a lot more creative than they will ever realize. They are the artists of their own existence, capable of, but not always aware of, neurologically programming their relationship with the universe. They inter-are with all that is. Every person creates his or her own universe while the universe is creating every person.
All human systems have degrees of order and chaos within them. As this balance shifts, so does the system and those who are in it. The more complex the system becomes informationally, the more unstable it will become as well.
As information increases exponentially, major transformations will take place in the system, which will radically change the realities of future people — sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.
Look at the difference in perception between a hunter-gatherer and an industrialist, an astrologer in ancient Egypt and a quantum physicist in the 20th century, a child factory worker in 1890 and a computer software engineer in 2019.
The breakdown of an old system may be the sign of a breakthrough into another model of reality, another visionary step, another way of seeing.
From death, life springs, but from life, death returns. Just like a caterpillar bursting through the hold of its cocoon, exposed to the wind, stretching out to flap its colorful wings, for only a moment, before eventually meeting its end.
Systems are not isolated information organisms, destined to evolve or self-destruct, while unable to affect anything outside of themselves. They are interconnected with the energies of other systems, gleaming with promise like the beads of Indra’s Net.
As entropy is a measure of the increasing disorder in a closed system, there is still the quantum probability of energy underlying the fabric of every event non-locally. As information increases in an uncertain but probabilistic state of coherence to chaos, order to disorder, systems will change and neurological realities will adapt to their interplay, until there is another transformation in consciousness.