Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Drama of the Cosmos

The Drama of the Cosmos

"I wanted a perfect ending. Now I've learned, the hard way, that some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a
clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to hange, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's
going to happen next.
Delicious Ambiguity."

Gilda Radner
(1946 - 1989)
            Every aspect of the universe, every star, every planet, every life form, every rock, every molecule, every atom, everything, is part of a process, part of a series of events that has a beginning, an end, and many steps in between.

            People used to know this.

            Once we were, as a people, more aware and more connected to the natural idea of processes, more connected to the natural world and to nature where processes are obvious and visible everywhere, all the time. Morris Berman may have described it best in his book "The Reenchantment of the Earth." He said, "The cosmos, in short, was a place of belonging. A member of this cosmos was not an alienated observer of it but a direct participant in its drama."

            It is worth exploring the concept of disconnection further, as it may help explain why it seems so easy for people to get impatient and want a quick fix to their challenges in life.

            Many scholars believe that we ceased being direct participants in the drama of nature a long time ago, as long as 7,000 to 10,000 years ago, when humans stopped their nomadic existence and began settling in large groups that eventually became cities.  Many mindsets were formed during this period, and a new relationship with nature became firmly entrenched in our culture. Nature became the provider of resources, the wild land to be tamed, and the prize to be owned.

            Chellis Glendinning, in her ground-breaking book “My Name is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization,” says that the domestication of animals 10,000 years ago may have been a turning point in our disconnection from the natural world.

            A long time ago, when our connection to the natural world was more easily seen, people fed themselves mainly by subsistence farming, growing only enough to feed their families. The size of the population was kept down by high infant mortality and a natural spacing of births caused by the suppression of ovulation during the three to four years women would breastfeed their children.  Today breast feeding, if done at all, is done for 3 to 4 months on average.

            Around 5000 BC, the invention of the metal plow literally changed the face of the Earth for all time. Crop productivity increased, irrigation assisted agriculture began, and families began producing more food than they needed. The excess food had to be stored and sold.

            The population began to increase because of the larger supply of food. Women began breastfeeding less, since they had to spend more time in food production. People cleared increasingly larger areas of land and began to control and shape the surface of the Earth to suit their needs.

            The domestication of animals changed forever our relationship with the other life forms on this planet. Author Chellis Glendinning says that the relationship with the natural world changed from one of "respect for and participation in its elliptical wholeness to one of detachment, management, control, and finally domination." She feels that the domestication of animals and the transformation of our earthly neighbors into food resources created a condition where the human psyche maintains itself in a constant "state of chronic traumatic stress."

            Urbanization began as people began to settle around the large farms they created. Specialized occupations and long distance trade developed. The trade in food and manufactured goods made possible by agricultural based urban societies created wealth and the need for a managerial class to regulate the distribution of goods, services and land. Separation of people by economic class was now firmly in place.

            As ownership of land and water rights became a valuable economic resource, conflict increased. Armies and war leaders rose to power and took over large areas of land. A new class of powerless people, the slaves, minorities, and landless peasants, were forced to the hard, disagreeable work of producing food.

            Forests were cut down and grasslands were plowed to provide vast areas of cropland and grazing land to feed the growing population of these emerging civilizations and to provide wood for fuel and for buildings.

            The massive land clearing altered many habitats and hastened many species to their extinction. Machines that could harness energy by burning fossil fuels increased the average energy resource use per person. The number of people needed to produce food was decreased, so our connection to the land through the growing of food was steadily eliminated.

            Our eating habits, our living habits, the way we treat animals, the way we let technology into our lives, and the way we take in our information about the world dramatically affects our connection to the planet and to ourselves.

            Even the technological choices we have made are determined by cultural forces in play at the time. The steam engine is an interesting example of this. A working steam engine was created around the time of the birth of Christ by Hero of Alexandria 18 centuries before James Watt, the recognized inventor of the steam engine, built his. No one was very interested the first time it emmerged, though, since slaves were already doing the jobs. It wasn't until slavery was outlawed in England in the 18th century that the need for such a device attracted investors.

        The most recent statistics from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey indicate that only 21 percent of infants are being exclusively breastfed for four months. This percentage drops to 16 percent by six months of age. More and more parents send their children to daycare, denying them the comfort, security, and connections that can only come from being with a parent.

     Our disconnected ways are firmly entrenched in society and even our birthing and child rearing practices continue this tragedy. Unnecessary Caesarian births are at an all time high.

            Few children are allowed to become comfortable with nature, and parents are quick to scold them for tracking dirt (precious earth) into the house. Bugs are killed on sight, and most children grow up fearing nature.

            We have many obstacles to overcome if we are to reestablish ourselves as dynamic participants in the natural world and to restore an appreciation for the time it takes to realize a dream.

            Many of today’s DVD prophets do us a great disservice by not being clear about how long it took them to realize their dreams. When you attend their costly workshops or buy their books, you get the idea that once they understood how to think or perceive their lives correctly, all of a sudden, in the blink of an eye, their dreams came true. However, that way of looking at the outcome doesn’t acknowledge the lengthy, often decades-long process that preceded the burst of insight or epiphany that was followed by their success. The fact that only a tiny percentage of participants from those workshops realize their dreams is a testament to this reality.

            Scott Berkum, in his book “The Myths of Innovation,” reminds us that throughout history, we have often only been told of the end result, the epiphany, and not about the process that led there. Nearly all textbooks teach about end results and few consider the process. Teachers reinforce this omission by teaching to tests, to outcomes, and to course objectives. It’s not their fault, since their salaries and jobs depend on their students’ test scores which is often tied to whether or not a school will receive federal and state funding. There is no time for process, only answers to the test questions.

            But the reality is that successes, discoveries, and bursts of insight are not isolated events that come on suddenly, but are the result of all the thinking and hard work that has come before. They are the final piece of a complex puzzle. All the days, months, and years of thinking, sorting, and occasional confusion that went before the answer was realized becomes a distant memory. I wonder if this tendency to forget the pain of the process is programmed into our species as an evolutionary survival trait. It is well-known that hormonal influences allow the memory of the intense pain of childbirth to fade in most women. If not, who would want to go through that again?

            Today we have few opportunities to explore processes.  Mass education emphasizes the result and the destination, not the journey. History is taught only in terms of what happened when, not how it happened, why it happened, and what forces of society and the individual were at play at the time to make it happen.  Students are tested to give the right answer, and they are taught that there is only one answer when in reality there are usually many. Critical thinking and reasoning are rarely taught in school and our children often turn out to be one dimensional, unreflective thinkers, content to get their answers from the TV news, newspapers, or the latest television or DVD evangelist.

            Our schools are bastions of homogeneity, stripped of creativity, dumbed down so that the 25 children in the room will act as expected. Any who don’t, any child who exhibits creative, out of the box thinking or a learning style that rejects the prepackaged pace of school curricula today is often deemed a “problem” who requires “special education.” They are usually removed from the class, sometimes medicated, and always ostracized for being different.

            Have you ever wondered why there are so few big thinkers in the world? With the greatest number of people ever on this Earth, why don’t we seem to have more people like Galileo, Kepler, Helen Keller, Isaac Newton, Emilia Eherhart, Einstein, or other great philosophers, scientists, and theologians? Do you think it’s because all the big discoveries have already been made? That is unlikely.

            Could it be because most of the big thinkers who discovered the way the Earth, our Solar System, and the universe works were somewhat nuts themselves? In fact, they not only thought outside the box, they lived outside it as well.        

             Some had mental illnesses, including depression and bi-polar disorder. Isaac Newton, the discoverer of gravity and the inventor of calculus, all before age 27, was a sickly, lonely and morose child. He would have been a “special ed” kid for sure. Would he have been able to make the discoveries he did if he has lived under today’s school system? I doubt it. He likely would have been ridiculed, isolated, and medicated.

Ferris tells us that this man, who through painstaking observation and research wrote the Three Laws of Planetary Motion that survive intact to this day, had no computers, no telescopes for the majority of his life, and no Internet.
            Johannes Kepler, described by Timothy Ferris in his book “Coming of Age in the Milky Way” as a “self-loathing neurotic,” discovered how the planets in our Solar System move in the late 1500’s, how they move faster when they are closer to the sun and slower the further away they get and how their orbits are shaped like ellipses, not circles.

            Yet this brilliant thinker was a man of great social ineptitude, who, with his food-stained clothes, made a living casting horoscopes for European princes, but was rarely paid. Immanuel Kant would later describe Kepler as ''the most acute thinker ever born.''

            But Kepler, the most acute thinker ever born, had a life plagued by sorrow. His six year old son, Friedrich, was killed by smallpox carried by soldiers fighting the Thirty Years War. His wife grew despondent and died soon after of typhus. His mother, accused of practicing witchcraft and barely acquitted (her son tried to defend her and did an awful job), died six months after her release. Shortly after, Kepler wrote about a dream he had of a trip to the Moon where he looked back and saw the continents of Earth. His descriptions are remarkably like what we later saw when Apollo astronauts photographed the Earth on their way to the Moon.

            Kepler died on November 15, 1630 at the age of forty-eight after falling ill with a fever on a trip to collect some of the money an emperor owed him for horoscopes he had cast.  On his deathbed, it is said he did not talk, but pointed his finger first at this head and then at the sky. His epitaph was of his own writing:

            I measured the skies, now I measure the shadows
            Skybound was the mind, the body rests in the Earth.

            His grave was trampled under by war and has since vanished.

            How many of the world’s potentially great thinkers, philosophers and theologians are locked away in mental institutions or hopelessly medicated by a culture who no longer understands – and in fact fears - process, creativity, and bursts of insight?

            Tycho Brahe, a contemporary of Kepler whose precise observations, made just with his naked eye, enabled Kepler to make the discoveries he did, was described by Ferris as

". . . an expansive giant of a man who sported a belly of Jovian proportions and a gleaming metal alloy nose -- the bridge of his original nose had been cut off in a youthful duel. Heroically passionate and wildly eccentric, he dressed like a prince and ruled his domain like a king, tossing scraps to a dwarf named Jep who huddled beneath the dinner table."

            Tycho died of a burst bladder at a formal dinner in his honor because it would have been impolite to excuse himself. But the accuracy of his naked-eye observations rival those made with future telescopes and computers.

            Hildegard of Bingen, a nun, scientist, politician, philosopher, musician and artist who lived in the 10th Century AD, saw visions of God that inspired her thinking and her incredible musical compositions and artwork.

            These great thinkers, these men and women who observed and defined the laws of the universe and the movements of the planets, were disturbed individuals by our Western standards. Imagine them in a public school of today. How long would they last before they were removed as troubled children and classified as special education kids and medicated?

            No new Keplers or Galileo’s or Tychos or Hildegards? No wonder.

            There are educational models that address these issues and do their best to help children reach and honor their potential. Most are rejected and even ridiculed by mainstream public education, but the success of their graduates provides plenty of evidence of their effectiveness.

I am writing a book about being patient . . .

We have a lot to unlearn about the way things work

 "If one more millionaire/billionaire modern day philosopher tells me that I can get rich tomorrow if I only clean up my thinking and attend his or her weekend ($5,000) seminar, I am going to burst!"

            Everything in the universe is governed by a process. Some of those processes take millions, even billions of years.  Yet somehow we live our lives believing that we can have whatever we want whenever we want.  As a species we lack patience completely.  But this wasn’t always the way it was.  For centuries humans had patience and little else.  They understood that things took time.  And if you wanted to learn something new, it was understood that it would take time to learn it.  If you wanted to learn how to paint, you didn’t think you could learn that in a weekend or even in ten weeks.  In fact, you knew that it might take you 10 years as an apprentice in order to learn how to paint.  So what happened to our patience?

            This chronic lack of patience may be the single most important factor contributing to the challenges of the world today.  We expect instantaneous results for everything we do and we get angry when we don’t get our way.  We conclude that we have failed if we don’t get what we want, when we want it, and exactly the way we want it.

            How would the world change if all of a sudden you didn’t need to have exactly what you wanted and have it immediately?  What if you knew it might take 10 years to achieve your goals and your dreams?  I’ll bet some of you would get very depressed right away!

           But think about how freeing that could be, to take the time, to integrate new knowledge, to allow your goals and ideas to evolve, to grow, to change. Imagine taking the time to process new ideas and new perceptions.

            Nearly all of education at every level suffers from this chronic lack of reflection and integration time. Students are expected to learn an entire field of study in just a few weeks. This, of course, is impossible, but the student goes away from the experience thinking that they are done with the subject.

            This may be the greatest damage being done by the system – turning out people who think that the superficial look at the subject they have had during their brief class makes them proficient.

            Since the post World War II push to demonstrate that the United States was the world leader in consumer goods production and the relentless propaganda presented to the American people that their success must be measured by the size of their bank accounts and the number of gadgets in their homes, so many who have been brought up in or embraced Western cultural values have had difficulty in finding their true path. That era resulted in an economic system shackled by the doctrine of supply and demand. An endless supply of widgets must be manufactured, whether or not they add value to our lives, which must be endlessly purchased by the people in order for the nation to survive.

          Generations have been indoctrinated since birth to get a good job (meaning one that pays enough to afford all the things you want to buy, not one that fills your soul), become independent as soon as possible and leave your family (certainly no later than 18 years of age), get married (to someone of the opposite sex who has a good job, of course), and buy a house.  So many of us have come to believe that these ideas are based on fundamental truths or forces of nature that hold the very fabric of the universe together.

           Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Lump into those erroneous assumptions the confused ideas we have about what makes a man a man and what makes a women a women and the result is one mixed up, confused, fearful, unhappy society that seeks fulfillment in shopping malls and drowns their sorrows in alcohol, drugs, or the modern-day legal teen drug of choice, video games.

           The drive to make money and collect possessions is so strong that our very sense of self-worth is intimately tied to our salary and our bank account balance. Is it any wonder that our schools turn out single focused, homophobic, money driven people? Is it any wonder that the divorce rate and the college dropout rates are 50 percent and more? We haven’t a clue how to manage our lives, our relationships, or our search for knowledge and meaning.  We stumble through one self-help program to the next, searching for the answer from outside instead of looking inside.

           It is no surprise that we are desperate to “get rich quick,” to buy book after book, DVD after DVD, and watch endless talk shows with guests that profess of having “the way” to get us rich? Of course, this plays in very nicely with the fundamental tenant of our economic system: goods must be manufactured and bought for the system to continue. We make the modern day prophets rich by buying their books, their inspirational calendars and datebooks, and their audio and video programs, all of which do little more than make us feel like we are losers since we aren’t financially successful after reading the book, watching the program, or attending the lecture.

           But they are seductive and addictive and we can’t wait until the next book, paying little attention to the fact that our situation has changed little, except that we now have an extra expense from all those inspirational books and materials.

           Do any of us really know what we are searching for? Money, to be sure, tops the list, but how we make that money seems to be a minor consideration. But we do know one thing – and even our modern prophets have this at the top of their lists – we want to be rich. We want the American Dream – houses, cars, entertainment devices, the latest computer, and on and on. Have you ever heard any of the modern prophets tell their audience that you don’t need money to be truly happy? Sadly, too few reveal that basic truth.

           It is important to note that what has been described as the classic search for the American Dream is not an evil conspiracy to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. It is simply U.S. Economics 101. For the American economic system to work there has to be endless consuming. A natural consequence of that system is that there will be a small percentage of the population, about 3 percent, who has 80 percent of the wealth, provided to them dutifully by those of us who embrace the wage slavery required to earn just enough money so that we can buy the goods that they manufacture.

           Not enough money? No problem. Just borrow what you need and pay it back later, with interest. When President George W. Bush said at the first press conference after the September 11th attacks that the best thing Americans could do for the country was to go shopping, he wasn’t being heartless or evil. He was simply being an advocate for the economic system that is in place in the US and has been since the nation’s beginning. Every U.S. president has that responsibility, no matter how progressive they appear to be during their campaign.

           Our first challenge may be figuring out what our true values are, not just accepting the ones that have been handed down to us by well-meaning parents and a mass education system designed to support our nation’s economic values. Identifying the influences that have shaped our lives and deciding which ones to keep and which ones to discard may be an important step towards self discovery.

           Malidoma Some, born in West Africa, holds three master's degrees and two doctorates from Sorbonne and Brandeis University. He currently devotes himself to speaking and, with his wife, Sobonfu, conducts intensive workshops throughout the United States. In one of his classic books, “Ritual and Community,” he said,

"Industrial cultures live with the essence of two extremely dangerous phenomena. One is the good side of production; the other is the danger of what happens to the tools for production when they are devoid of any spiritual strength ... "

"... The spirit liberates the person to work with the things of the soul. Because this reaching out to the spiritual is not happening, the Machine has overthrown the spirit and, as it sits in its place, is being worshiped as spiritual. This is simply an error of human judgment. Anyone who worships his own creation, something of his own making, is someone in a state of confusion."

           We have to examine what we value and what we have placed value on. We have to decide what is important to us, what we would take a stand about, and what we want to be remembered for a hundred years from now. It’s important.

           And it doesn’t happen overnight. It is a process.  It takes time.

           A process? Taking time? That part of you that has been trained to demand the quick fix, instant gratification, and the idea that you are supposed to feel good all the time or you are just not doing it right will be telling you right now to put down this book and find one that outlines the steps to get rich tomorrow. That’s OK. Feel that feeling. Feel that resistance. Embrace it. And then categorize it as one of those influences and conditioning of your life that may need reassessing.

           How different would your life be if you grew up learning of the complex process behind every fact, the troubled times, the hard luck, the beautiful bursts of insight that make up every life today and throughout history? How different would your life be if you never saw a television drama where deeply complex issues were resolved in an hour (actually, about 42 minutes after you take out the commercials)?

           How different would your relationships be if you never saw a movie where one minute a couple is arguing and one ends up walking out the door when the scene shifts and they wake up in bed together the next morning? It is the moments in between the start and the end of anything that matter, yet we have few opportunities to learn how to manage those moments in-between.

           This book is about those moments in between and how to fully live them, how to embrace the process that is your life, how to be comfortable with uncertainty, with, as Gilda Rader called it, “delicious ambiguity,” and how to appreciate your life as a journey and not just as a series of destinations.