Breakfast of Champions

I’m a book reviewing machine.

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

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

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

You are an unwavering band of light.

***

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

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

Many are still not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Man’s Search For Meaning

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

Viktor Frankl


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Was he sent to the left side?”

“Yes,” I replied.

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

“Where?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Art of Living

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Energy cannot be created nor destroyed, only transformed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REVIEW: Johnny Got His Gun


“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.

The Power of Myth

Joseph Campbell once said that our dreams are private myths and our myths are public dreams (43). Each represents the gods within us. They are symbols of our energy in conflict and harmony.

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 through a shadowy forest until we find the light.

Sometimes our public myths match our private ones. Then teachers appear, helping us to learn about our inner quests, interpreting our paths with familiar symbols. At other times, opening ourselves up to the mysterious, engaging with the deep and sacred, can only be explored alone.

We are often in awe of the mysterious. We seek out a timelessness that permeates through all forms, transcending the symbols that we have come to depend upon. 

Yet in our ordinary lives, we are conditioned with the dualities of me and you, black and white, good and bad. 

Myths change over time in different environmental conditions. The gods in the rainforest are not the God on the mountain top. The divine in nature is different from that in the church. Even the tribes who hunted like their ancestors before them, who depended on skilled movement in intimate bands, perceived other realities than the settled farmer.

Myths endure out of an evolution of ideas. They survive by touching the archetypes of humanity. Otherwise they will fade away, forgotten in time.

Myths have to adapt. They have to grow with the conditions around them. If they cannot bend, they will break.

In mythological tales, there are often heroes. Heroes must say goodbye to their safe comfortable homes before venturing into the unknown. To leave behind their former lives, to be thrust out into danger, is to begin. The only way for them to return back to where they started is to pass through a series of trials.

What distinguishes heroes from ordinary people is their willingness to sacrifice themselves for an ideal, another being, or the ultimate purpose of their quest. What the hero defends will not always be accepted, but as they let go of their selfishness, and confront the dangers ahead of them, they will become truly courageous.

In every stage of life, from childhood to old age, a dragon will arise, whether in the form of greed or inhibition, stagnation or resistance. Individuals must 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 lead to a higher purpose, and how to reduce the despair of other beings. 

Disciples can perform elaborate rituals that represent the crucial stages of human existence. From learning how to love to embracing death, mythology weaves in stories that point to inner truths, showing what swords will slay what dragons.

When heroes cross a threshold of experience, they will transform. During their journeys, they will be challenged to their depths. Their consciousness will shift after their ordeals. If they succeed, they will return to where they began, heightened from a newfound knowledge.

A bodhisattva is enlightened but chooses to remain in the world, helping to free all beings from dukkha. A shaman broods with sacred wisdom, guiding others with language, penetrating rituals, visions, and medicines (Campbell 93, 147).

At the deepest level of consciousness, the hero is love. Heroes are compassionate toward all beings and have a deep reverence for nature. They sense their interconnection with everything that is around them. Along their paths, they have shed their old skin only to be reborn again. Throughout all of time, this essential cycle of birth-death-rebirth repeats in endless forms.

The troubadours believed that love was the highest meaning of their lives. They would undergo intense pain for only a chance of finding themselves in another. The bodhisattva “joyfully participates among the sorrows of the world” while the “mystic swims in the symbolic ocean” (Campbell 21, 147).

While one myth will celebrate the divine in the masculine, another will honor the divine in the feminine. 

Even though these ancient stories may contradict each other, they often suggest the same essential messages.

Beyond the dualities of birth and death, right and wrong, here and there, and past and future, at the ultimate dimension, all of existence hums with timeless energy. The cosmos is interdependent, perfect, whole.

While Alfred Korzybski once wrote “the map is not the territory,” a mythological map can be relevant for the right person, at the right time.

Travelers can navigate through its narrow 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.

Reflections on Prometheus Rising


“What the Thinker thinks, the Prover proves.”

Robert Anton Wilson


Domesticated primates (humans) think themselves into 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 particular aspects of reality. Mediated through their beliefs, experiences, conditioning, and so on, they may view their existence through the “reality tunnel” of a Marxist, Fascist, Atheist, Christian, Buddhist, feminist, misogynist, Democrat, Republican, protestor, cop, doctor, patient, Caucasian male, African American female, pessimist, optimist, nihilist, clumsy 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 far more difficult to see those same qualities within.

Robert Anton Wilson once said in a lecture:

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.

People not only don’t know all of reality but they don’t know what they don’t know. Their “reality” seems like the real reality, while other people’s realities, the more they diverge from their own, appears 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 consistent with the Thinker’s reality tunnel are incorporated into it while signals that are irrelevant, unpleasant, and contradictory are resisted, ignored, forgotten, and rationalized.


Human brains are made up of matter in spacetime. They’re wrinkled organs, weighing close to three pounds each.

One brain has roughly 100 billion nerve cells or neurons. These neurons communicate with each other electro-chemically in vast networks.

Brains generate ideas, influenced by all the signals they have been exposed to in every moment, from an ancient set of scrolls, to a drama on TV, to a fistfight with a sibling, to the taste of a fresh strawberry, to the warmth of sunlight, to the pressure of gravity, and so on.

Nervous systems control a lot of what is taken for reality, such as thought, memory, emotion, touch, vision, breathing, temperature, pain, etc.

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.

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, setting the structure for conscious thought.

Out of the infinite number of signals in the universe, the domesticated primate (human) is imprinted with a limited number of signals during different stages of life, contributing to the development of a sense of self. Learning, conditioning, novel experiences, and so on, contribute to this structural foundation.

As an individual’s brain matures throughout their lifespan, different models of reality are refined.


At the level of the oral bio-survival circuit, humans are hardwired from birth on to seek out security, nourishment, and a womb-like sense of safety, while avoiding any harm and danger:

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 closest substitute in the environment will be imprinted. (Wilson 48)

Domesticated primates (humans) are genetically hardwired to look for security within their family, immediate group, and tribe.

They may be further conditioned to identify with other symbolic groups such as the university they graduated from, their profession, the religion they were taught at a young age, a political party that influenced them in their adolescence, and so on.

They may even transfer their security-need onto symbols such as money, which in itself is of no value (one 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 52)

Those who do not belong to the same group are categorized as outsiders, or even, as enemies. They may be perceived as hostile, aggressive, and challenging to that group’s interests and purpose.

Any element, from a dissident citizen’s writings to a protest for systemic change, which could potentially threaten the security of the group, is often resisted.


The emotional-territorial circuit is concerned with power, such as with dominance and submission, superiority and inferiority.

People unconsciously struggle for status in their social groups. In a tribe, members fit into various roles with everyone assuming different functions and responsibilities.

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 an individual’s ego role in society, will vary based on the strength of early imprinting and conditioning and the dynamics of the group.

Furthermore, each of these four quadrants, while convenient to use, 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.


Humans (domesticated primates) use symbols and are used by symbols. Those who control the symbols have the power to control the people. These symbols include, but are not limited to: visual 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 no longer seem like representations of certain realities, but as unquestioned truths, such as with (to use some of Robert Anton Wilson’s examples) the State, the wheel, the plow, the alphabet, agriculture, the Roman roads, and so on (95).

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 various aspects of 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 95)

The semantic time-binding circuit makes distinctions out of raw experience. It puts labels on the ineffability of life. Its purpose is to endlessly divide and subdivide, categorizing all the universe into predictable patterns, which make sense to the individual.

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 is a gradual decline into disorder, information is negative entropy, coherence and order, where understanding births 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, 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 of those who are perceived as different, alien, and hostile.

While the first two circuits establish the homeostasis of a civilization, the third (semantic, time-binding) circuit seeks out higher states.

The third circuit has always been controlled, partially or totally, through the formation 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 and traditional ideas, but as time passes on in a given civilization, so does the informational content.

Informational content can support all of life such as with movements toward equality, medicines that treat diseases, scientific revolutions that upend the fundamental understanding of spacetime, and so on.

On the other end of the spectrum, informational content can destroy all of life, such as with nuclear warfare, drone strikes, oil spills, assault rifles, child labor, book burnings, etc.

Everything that has ever manifested in civilization — such as planes and trains, skyscrapers and highways, napalm and baby clothes, microwaves and toe rings — birthed because of ideas, connecting symbolically through different imaginations, developing and changing, self-correcting and evolving over time.

Through the 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 control other primates with nuclear bombs, lower-circuit manipulations about outsiders, and ink excretions on paper, there is another force that is accelerating: information.

Through information, there exists a possibility for higher 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 acceptable in 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, meanings, and identities.

Despite these attempts at domination, there will always be unknown variables in sexual attraction, mating, reproduction, and future evolution.

“Taboo and morality are tribal attempts to govern the random element — to select the desired future (Wilson 130).”

Those who act as authorities such as monks, nuns, priests, shamans, teachers, philosophers, parents, politicians, scientists, journalists, celebrities, and so on, want to decide what symbols are acceptable and unacceptable, moral and immoral, right and wrong. Those who control these symbols 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 maintain order.

Children are generally taught how to follow the rules of their given societies, to accept those rules as normal. They are not usually taught to question their leaders, criticize those in authority, or develop into highly critical thinkers.

Tribal guides such as parents, teachers, priests, and police officers desire for children to think and act semi-robotically, mimicking agreed upon values, following the traditions of the past, so that they’ll be accepted into the preferred roles of their social 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 forced to follow. They are trained to conform to 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 lower circuits, such as charismatic politicians. These figures will claim to be patriots, denouncing outsiders that threaten their traditional values.

To stir up the emotions of the population based on a fear of outside threats, to speak eloquently about hope and change, is a way for those in power to manipulate ordinary people. Politicians prey on the vulnerabilities and biases of the population, taking advantage of their desire for security and their anxiety toward the unknown.


Groups often apply similar tactics to re-imprint (brainwash) the nervous systems of individuals. Many cults, militaries, religions, and terrorist organizations have used isolation (removing contradicting realities), harsh punishments for unacceptable behavior, rewards for acceptable behavior, a reinforcement of group superiority over individual inferiority, mind-altering drugs, risky initiations to earn status, unquestioning obedience to an authority (protective mother/father figure), alongside a mistrust of the unknown (outside perspectives are usually seen as antagonistic):

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 169)

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, accustomed to their own isolated reality, in modern times, where the world is more interconnected, different groups bump up against each other more frequently.

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 given realities) with reality itself. To the most dogmatic believers, their reality is the only true reality. Anyone who opposes them is deluded, immoral, and heretical.

In modern times, through a constant exposure to different reality-tunnels, group identities are being challenged more often than before. It can be dangerous for dogmatic groups to be around outsiders with dissimilar views. Being around outsiders threatens the identity of the dogmatists.


Beyond the first four circuits (oral bio-survival, anal territorial, semantic time-binding, and socio-sexual) is the neurosomatic circuit.

Pranayama breathing, meditation, visualization of white light, prolonged sexual play without orgasm, psychedelic/cannabis consumption, among other techniques, can either trigger highly pleasant or unpleasant sensory states, depending on the experience level of the practitioner.

Yogis, gurus, mystics, and heretics have described this circuit as an orgasmic experience, merging with God/the infinite/the divine, and crossing the abyss.

Some individuals have entered this state after 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, and 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.

At this level, infinity fits within a flicker of sunlight.

All the cosmos, from the quarks vibrating inside of atoms to the birth of stars in hundreds of billions of galaxies, from the Big Bang to the present moment, is interconnected, rising and passing, being and not being.

Existence is the infinitely expanding root system of trees.


The mind becomes what it focuses on. A mind that thinks about thinking is meta-thinking.

To think 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 the idea of non-action in Taoism, the meta-programmer adapts to each circumstance, fully present with all of life.

While the human brain seems physically small compared to the universe, 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, recategorizing, removing, and 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 experiences are forgotten. Irrelevant or contradictory information is ignored, resisted, rejected, and rationalized.

Only fragments of experience are selected to fit into the conscious beliefs of every individual.

These experiences are reinterpreted, over and again. They’re forgotten, exaggerated, misremembered, hallucinated, and reconstructed.

People narrow their perceptions even further from the symbol systems of race, class, gender, politics, religion, height, weight, hobbies, sexuality, and so on, 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 are interwoven with everything that was or is or will ever be. Every person creates their own universe while the universe creates every person.


All human created systems have degrees of order and chaos within them. As this balance shifts, so do the systems and those who rely on them. The more complex a system becomes informationally, the more unstable it will become as well.

As information increases exponentially, major transformations will take place within the system, which can 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 Babylon 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 up, but from life, death returns. Just like a caterpillar bursting through the hold of its cocoon, exposed to the breeze and the sun and stretching its wings for the very first time. But one day, after its final flight is over, another caterpillar will be born.

Systems are not isolated information organisms, destined to evolve or self-destruct alone, 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 the measure of increasing disorder within a closed system, there is still the quantum probability of energy underlying the fabric of every event non-locally.

As information increases in the probabilistic state of coherence to chaos, order to disorder, systems will change and neurological realities will adapt to that. Then once again, there will be a transformation in consciousness.

A Manual for Living (Epictetus)

Epictetus (50–135 CE) was born as a slave in Hierapolis, Phrygia. After Emperor Nero’s death, he eventually gained his freedom and taught Stoic philosophy in Rome for close to 25 years. Emperor Domitian, who feared the dissenting influence of philosophers, banished Epictetus from his home. He traveled to Nicopolis in the northwest of Greece and developed his own school, teaching in exile until his death. His ideas impacted historical figures such as Emperor Hadrian and Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Although Epictetus never wrote down his teachings, his disciple Arrian, who was a famous historian, recorded what he had said.

Epictetus’s main works are the Discourses and the Enchiridion.

Sharon Lebell has interpreted his timeless philosophy in “A Manual for Living.” She is the author of such inspiring works as “The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness” and “The Music of Silence: Entering the Sacred Space of Monastic Experience.”

Lessons of Epictetus:

1.) Some things are in your control and other things are not. Some of the things in your control are your opinions, aspirations, desires, aversions, and actions. These things are under your influence to a certain degree. Some of the things that are not in your control are the body you are born with, who your parents are, and your status.

Once you have learned what is in your control, don’t concern yourself with what is not in your control. Your death, for example, is not in your control, but your attitude toward the idea of death is in your control. Your response to your fleeting time on earth, to the death of a family member and friend, to how you communicate with those who are grieving, is in your control.

2.) Events are as they are. Your interpretation of different events is what gives them meaning, value, and significance. If you’re undisciplined, you will divide your experiences into rigid categories of right and wrong, good and bad, true and false.

Your judgements create heaven and hell.

3.) What matters is what you can do with what you are given. Look for opportunities in every obstacle you encounter and respond in an appropriate manner. You may need patience for adversity, self-restraint for lust, humility for criticism, compassion for the suffering of others.

4.) You cannot be expected to give what you do not have, whether that is money, power, time, or skills. If you can help, do so without any expectations. If you can become powerful and rich and famous while still maintaining your integrity, then do so.

At the same time, you will be challenged throughout your life. To preserve your integrity, to make the right moral choices, you may need to let go of a certain level of comfort, status, and money. You may even be ridiculed or persecuted for holding onto what you value as true and ethical. When you focus on what you can do with what you have, you will live harmoniously. When you neglect what is in your control and resist what is natural, you’ll never be at peace.

5.) Events are impersonal — neither good nor bad. They will unfold as they do, despite all your wishes and expectations. Undisciplined people will look for signs that reinforce their beliefs, prejudices and opinions, while disciplined people will adapt to nature and act from their own moral principles.

Events will reveal their hidden lessons to you when you are humble enough to receive them. You must remain open and honest, while not sticking to the rigidity of your own conclusions.

6.) Wise people do not blame others or beat up on themselves. They look inside themselves for useful answers.

It is easy to label the universe in black-and-white categories, judging events as successful and unsuccessful, right and wrong, good and bad. It is far more courageous to look within yourself — examining your motives, intentions, desires, and aversions — while deciding on what action is the best one to take in each situation. Always ask yourself, “What is the right thing to do?” Then do it.

7.) Think about the purpose behind your speech. Many people express any passing thought that enters into their minds without concerning themselves with the consequences of their words. Unchecked speech can run away from you. You can fall into unthinking habits that disrespect yourself and others.

Speech is neither good nor bad but people often talk to each other in a careless manner. It’s seductive to prattle on about nothing, to chat about trivial matters, to gossip about another person when they are not nearby, to laugh at someone else’s misfortunes rather than laughing with them. Speaking in this way degrades you as a person and strains your relationships. It is better to remain silent than to indulge in harmful speech. You become what you focus on.

8.) Life is too short for you to indulge in mindless consumption. Be aware of what you absorb, whether it’s from a TV show, songs on the radio, political speeches, or arguments. Discover what nourishes you, what enhances your well-being, rather than what feeds your ignorance, greed, and anger.

When you don’t choose for yourself, someone else will choose for you. And they always have their own agenda.

9.) You are influenced by the communities you are in. Without realizing it, you’ll adopt their values, opinions, aspirations, and habits. You’ll learn how they interpret the world. Be careful about the people you are around, even if they are kind, talk about wanting to improve themselves, and desire to know you more. They may not be a healthy influence on you due to their ignorance, destructive behavior, and prejudices. Seek out those who uplift you, who make you a better person, not those who diminish you.

10.) Do not feel compelled to justify yourself. Let your worthy deeds speak for themselves. You cannot control what others think about you, but you can control the development of your character.

Einstein: His Life and Universe (Review)

Albert Einstein was:

— An absent husband and father, who occasionally burst with warmth and tenderness toward those closest to him, even though he was often wryly detached in his life.

After cheating on his first wife, Mileva Marić, he eventually convinced her to divorce him in exchange for half of his Nobel Prize winnings. He desired to marry his cousin Elsa, who he became romantically involved with during his first marriage. In his second marriage, he still had relationships with other women. Despite Einstein’s infidelity, Albert and Elsa shared a deep bond together, raising two stepchildren as their own. Elsa supported his scientific work, nursed him back to health, guarded him against intrusions, shared the glamor of his celebrity, and moved with him to the United States.

— A brilliantly intuitive theoretical physicist who developed the theories of general and special relativity, which led to radically new understandings of matter, energy, space and time.

— A visual thinker known for his famous thought-experiments.

— A revolutionary scientist early in his career, but a conservative later in his career.

He defended epistemological realism and often attacked the findings of quantum mechanics. He believed in an underlying reality, one that followed elegantly predictable laws, but was unknown to theoretical understanding. He failed to find a Grand Unified Theory.

— A loner, rebel, and non-conformist.

— A playful man with a childlike curiosity.

— A gifted violinist.

— A slacker in his youth.

— A patent clerk.

— An absentminded intellectual who focused so intently on the ideas that stimulated his imagination that every other concern was blocked out.

— An aloof man who delved into scientific ideas to escape from the emotional turmoil of his life.

— A German-Jewish secular humanist.

While Einstein was proud of his Jewish heritage, especially during periods of rampant antisemitism, he wrote that he was free from attachments to nationality, class, state, religion, and so on. Einstein considered himself to be a human being first. He stated that even though he was dimly aware of the laws of physics, he was too limited in his knowledge to believe or not believe in a God. He honored the mystery of the universe above all.

— A disorganized teacher who often improvised his lectures.

— A democratic socialist who denounced the atomic bomb, war, class inequality, racism, militarism, nationalism, and authoritarianism.

— An international celebrity who loved to complain about his status, but secretly enjoyed the attention.

— A German-Swiss-American citizen who criticized fascistic ideas, whether in the form of Nazism or McCarthyism.

He was considered to be a national security threat, and a Communist sympathizer, by some officials in the American government.

Some of Einstein’s Contributions to Science:

— Light is made up of small packets of energy called photons. Photons can behave both like particles and like waves, depending on what experiments are used to measure them.

— E = mc², which expresses that energy is equal to mass times the speed of light in a vacuum squared. From this formula, particles are shown to have rest, kinetic, and potential energy. Mass and energy are not separate entities, but can change into each other. Additionally, any change in an object’s energy changes its mass and any change in an object’s mass changes its energy. Knowledge of the inseparable relationship between mass and energy led scientists to develop nuclear energy, and to eventually build the atomic bomb.

— Motion in time is relative to the position and velocity of the observer, while light is constant and the laws of the universe are the same. Time itself is not absolute, but dependent on how fast an object travels, what direction that object travels in, and where it is relative to the mass and the position of other objects around it.

— Space and time are not separate entities, but rather, are interwoven in four dimensions (three dimensions for space and one dimension for time). Mass causes spacetime to curve, and the more massive an object is, the more curvature there is. Gravity is no longer a mere force in the Newtonian sense, but causes a warping of spacetime. Spacetime is not flat, but curved. Light (or photons) travels along a curved path.

Fahrenheit 451: Review

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.’ In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.”

Neil Postman

Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in 1953, less than a decade after WWII. During this period, there were book burnings and banned books and a Great Purge. There were blacklists and mass propaganda mediums and censorship and imprisonments and executions. There were fears of an impending nuclear war. The annihilation of all humanity in a mushroom cloud.

Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 after expanding themes from two of his short stories and one novella. He finished his first draft in only nine days. Since his novel’s original publication, a number of schools have censored, redacted, and banned his work.

In Fahrenheit 451, Guy Montag is a fireman who exists in a dystopian future. Rather than putting out fires, he burns books. People in his society are consumed with vapid entertainment, distracted from critical thinking and wonder, alienated and lost and alone, unable to express themselves, unable to speak to each other meaningfully.

They don’t sense the miracle of life in a blooming flower, in a breath, in each other.

They lumber around with seashell radios embedded in their earwax. They consume life from inside a prism (or prison) of screens. Then when they are tired (they are tired all day), they swallow a sleep of pills, drifting into dreamlessness. They are force-fed the regurgitated information of the State. There isn’t any time to think, to sit in silence, to contemplate the flowers and trees and clouds. To be alive, meditating on the world in quiet, is not a consideration. They gaze at an amnesia of images, barren within.

Montag is at first like the Others, lifeless, married to a wife who doesn’t love him, brash in his opinions, stinking of kerosene and ignorance. Then he meets a curious teenager. Her name is Clarisse McClellan and she is unique and alive and radiating out through her youth. She sparks an awakening in Montag.

She shows him that there is more to reality than in his mechanized worldview. There is a mystery that he cannot grasp. In his realization that life is more, more than consumption, more than subservience, more than a routine until death, he desires to awaken others.

Knowledge is a fire that “illuminates away the darkness of ignorance.” It catches in the hearts of those who dare to learn. Montag is a fireman who burns books to snuff out the fires within others. Books are dangerous. They are dangerous to those who wish to control, who wish to suppress certain ideas from coming to light. When people are capable of critical thinking, they will question and consider new ideas. They will rebel against what is unjust. Their fires will expand from inside them, reaching others. They will seek their own unique meanings. They will take action.

Those who control a population, who manipulate to secure their power, money, and status, always want more for themselves, while feeling insecure about losing what they have stolen. They fear uprisings that burn for the truth. To maintain their power and control, they will distract, censor, and divide. They will use violence when they can, but if the people internalize the values of the system, then the oppressors will not need physical violence all the time.

As George Orwell said, “All tyrannies rule through fraud and force, but once the fraud is exposed, they must rely exclusively on force.”

People in Montag’s society are taught to be obedient. They desire what they are conditioned to desire. They are given the slimmest choices for personal freedom and believe that they are free. Life feels like it is free to the enslaved when they do not know any other way to be. For those who know of more but do nothing, who remain silent at times of injustice, suffer in cowardice. They could have helped, but didn’t.

Montag is reborn like the salamander of his firetrucks. In folklore, salamanders make their homes in the flames without being consumed. Montag once lived from inner darkness. Now he lives through his own glow, aware for the first time.

Many members of his society confuse their darkness for light. Their souls have withered away so much that they are only flesh on skeletons. They do not want to be freed because they desire the comfort of their ignorance. They live automatically, unable to think, to choose how they will authentically be. They do not want to challenge themselves to learn because they fear what is unknown. They fear their own inferiority in comparison to those who are educated. Beyond all their petty dramas, an entire universe stretches infinitely over them. Knowledge is their insignificance.

They huddle together in hate because they are numb to the suffering within themselves. These people plug themselves into the dominator system, addicted to the violence of the media. They’re conditioned to passively accept themselves as separate creatures with egotistical wants. They don’t realize that they live in a community, except through their shared consumption of technological entertainment, a hidden form of mass indoctrination. There’s no unity, compassion, or caring between them anymore, because any humane organization is a threat to the system. There is only a city of lost people.

In Fahrenheit 451, love is a commercial product, happiness is sold as a pill. People are not only watched, but want to be watched, under constant surveillance. Clouds choke over the black butterflies of dreams. Dissidents are silenced until their language is felt dimly but not spoken. Never spoken. Once the flames are all put out, there is absence.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (review)

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Haruki Murakami doesn’t run because he’s competitive. He runs only to run, improving himself every day, at longer distances.

He recognizes his own age when he runs, slowing down years after his prime. As he pushes on, he passes scenic landscapes in different countries, seeing the steam of his breath in an Autumn park, feeling the flutter of his heartbeat, listening to the slow beat of jazz.

Running helps him to be alone, which is natural for him. Being alone is necessary for his mental and physical well-being.

As he runs, he accepts the clouds of his thoughts. Ideas float by in an endless sky, drifting in and out of awareness. Mostly, he runs in a void, unconscious of any inner chatter.

Murakami deeply absorbs the people and places in his life. Physical exertion allows him, just like in his writing, to process his joy and sorrow.

He never suspected that he would become a famous novelist. At first, he made more money from owning a jazz bar than from writing, but then he chose to sell his business to write fully. After concentrating only on writing, he worked for several hours every day, sacrificing his health.

After he ran for a while, he quit smoking cigarettes and eating junk food. He didn’t like long-distance running at first, but enjoyed the process once he could control how he ran. Running every day helped him to become better at time management, healthy eating, and losing weight. He shed bad habits while gaining more of an appreciation for self-discipline.

Murakami has run for over twenty years, starting at the age of thirty three, and considers the beginning of his running practice to be when he became a real novelist.

Running marathons has humbled him over his career. Whenever he would train too little, or think too highly of his skills, he would suffer his consequences alone.

Running can be scary and nerve wracking. It can be tough in the rain and snow and cold and heat. It can be tiring and long and painful. But then there are mornings of sun and moments of flow and high adrenaline.

Running, as well as writing, depends not only on the people who engage in those activities, but on the dynamic conditions that influence each person.

For Murakami, a novelist needs three main qualities to be successful at their craft: talent, focus, and endurance. He believes that writers are born with a certain amount of talent, which will eventually leave them, as they age and lose their energy. But a writer can compensate for a lot of their weaknesses with supreme focus.

As a writer writes, they become more skilled at concentrating on their task. To write daily is to build up one’s writing muscles, just as a runner develops their muscular endurance through running.

A novelist needs to have enough energy to write, not just for weeks, but for years. For them to be able to write for that long, they need to write often.

People are born with different levels of innate abilities as well. These abilities can be stretched overtime, but some people naturally have more ability than others. Murakami believes that people need to accept their strengths, as well as their limitations, and progress from there.

Through his maturation as a running novelist, he has learned that everyone moves at their own pace and time. He doesn’t write or run (or do anything) to prove himself to others, but rather, participates for the sake of the activity.

Through his artistic work, he inadvertently benefits his running. Through his running, he inadvertently benefits his writing.

He compares writing a novel to climbing a mountain. Eventually, his lungs will shrink, his legs will give out, but he still pushes himself farther up the steepest slopes, until hopefully, reaching the top. Every novel is a mountain.

After running mile after mile, he still steps forward. While he may not be the fastest runner, he will continue his journey, over and over, on and on, silently and alone, until he cannot go anymore.