The intention supporting the sharing of these particular writings is to give you a look into the intersection between my mind and the world, and how my standpoint is evolving, but also how it is staying the same. The vast majority of these writings were not done in the world of academia, and reflect my philosophical nature and tendencies to question what is often taken for granted by the middle of society. I cannot bear to live the unexamined life, and I hope these writings shed light upon that aspect of my standpoint, my place in this world, my place within humanity.
In Honor of Dr. King and Gandhi (January 2009)
(The following is a version of an op-ed the Ashland Daily Tidings published back on January 21, 2009.)
Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and I wanted to share some thoughts with you all. It is amazing to think that it was less than 45 years ago that segregation was still a legal part of the culture in the U.S. I have so much respect for what Gandhi and Dr. King both stood for and were willing to give.
Gandhi may not come to the top of the mind when one thinks of the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., but he very much was a part of it. It was Gandhi who had inspired Dr. King to use nonviolence to confront the fearful power of separate thinking. The courage and conviction these men displayed is, unfortunately, a very rare thing. The battles these individuals were willing to choose are still very much alive today. I hope and pray we all can embrace the idea and practice of nonviolence in our lives.
I believe it was Gandhi who said “there is very little difference between thoughts and deeds.” I think this directly applies to violence. Often we think of violence as just physical acts, but it is so much more than that. Violence is a way of thinking, and most of it is not physical at all. It comes in many shapes and forms, from the passive aggressive jabs and jokes that are exchanged between friends and family to the honking of one’s horn in anger against the person who is irresponsibly talking on their phone while driving.
Violence is a feeling, that feeling when someone has hurt or wronged you and you want the same for them. An eye for an eye is an act of violence. Killing that fly, which is bothering you by merely being a fly, is violent.
Violence is ruling our world, through the governments and its economics, through the power of fear. It is at the very base and foundation of our culture, and it is time for all of us to see it for what it is. The feeling of superiority is violent thinking, because anything superior must be defended against that which is inferior. Think about it, when we say that the U.S. is the best country in the world, what are we really saying?
Please look at a picture of the world today, taken from outer space, and ponder how unnatural the lines in the sand we have drawn, really are. In a sad way it is humorous, quite childish, like children fighting over a sandbox. We must find the courage to talk about it for what it is. Violence is rooted in self-loathing, a lack of self-respect and the belief in separatism. How could any of us be violent, if we truly loved and respected ourselves and felt the oneness of all humanity?
I truly believe this issue is the biggest threat to all of us. This is much bigger than an economic depression and bigger than global warming. I believe this because it is not talked about on the news, there isn’t a cool documentary about it, because we, as a whole, are in denial about what violence really is. It is the sleeping dragon within all of us.
I am making a vow of nonviolence, or “ahimsa,” today, and I hope and pray you all will do the same, for all of our sake. I have hope and faith in humanity because I know the amazing healing power of truth and love. These powerful tools we all have within us, truth and love, don’t work on their own but require effort and commitment. I have faith in us all. Deep love and sincere gratitude to all of you, wherever you are.
Gratitude (February 2009)
(The following is a version of an op-ed the Ashland Daily Tidings published back on February 28, 2009.)
It has been said that gratitude is the parent of all virtues, and I believe it to be true. If you think about it, how can you be kind or loving or any of the other important virtues unless you are grateful? I am thankful for everybody and everything in my life, and this includes the struggles, for within every adverse situation lies an opportunity for personal growth or insight. I am also thankful for the “no-thing” in my life, or life itself, for the gift of the breath and the beat of the heart, these are simple yet amazingly powerful things to acknowledge.
A year ago I made a conscious decision to voluntarily live a more simple life. I bought a small yurt and moved into it on my brother’s farm this last June. Living simply in a yurt has brought a much deeper sense of gratitude to my life. I do not have running water yet at the yurt and bring it in from an outside source. This does not seem like a big deal when I realize more than 1 billion people on this planet do not have clean water at all. Often when I am filling the water jug I use, I am amazed at the miracle of running clean water from a faucet. Sometimes it is easy to forget that without water, none of us would even be here.
In this culture that is full of conveniences and luxuries, it is easy to loose track of how blessed we all are. We live in a culture full of material abundance that is still looking for “more of something.” I believe the current state of the economic world is a symptom of a lack of gratitude among other moral shortcomings that are a product of widespread psychological illness. I think it is safe to say greed has gotten the best of us and greed is the opposite of gratitude.
When I think of the economic collapse that appears to be taking place, my thoughts go to nature, which always seeks out equilibrium. I pray that humankind will stop the unsustainable practices that have led to this inevitable outcome and learn from nature instead of trying to conquer it. The idea of unlimited economic growth, within a system that has limited resources, is insane. The next time you are feeling overwhelmed by the details of life, stop, go outside and go for a walk in a park or even your yard if you have one. Just observe the peace and balance nature has to offer and take some deep breaths, things may seem different in an instant. I believe there is a direct connection between feeling grateful and being at peace with oneself.
There seems to be a lot of confusion in regards to wants and needs in this culture. We tend to want what we don’t need and don’t want what we truly need. I think this confusion is directly connected to a lack of gratitude because if you don’t really know what you want and need, how can you be sincerely grateful for what you have? Do you know what the problem with wanting more is? As soon as you get more, you want more again, and again. I think this is a vicious cycle a lot of people are caught up in, in this land of consumerism. If you want less, you will instantly have more. This is true because abundance is a state of mind and not a place you arrive through acquiring material things.
Life/Death (October 2009)
I was pondering what Halloween means to me and to our culture at large, and thought I would share with you. I have been disenchanted by the commercialization of “The Holidays” here in America, and have been making an effort to rethink what their deeper more traditional meanings are. If you look into the history of Halloween there are multiple versions on its meaning and origins. Here are some things I found while digging a little – All Hallows’ Eve (All Saints Eve) in honor of all saints known and unknown, Samhain “Summer’s End” marking the end of the harvest in ancient Celtic times, and the Day of the Dead.
The Day of the Dead hit a cord within me, and represents an area I often ponder. Death, the great unknown which is feared much by most, and even viewed as taboo by some. In this very linear culture of material things that have a finite “shelf life” the concept of Death is the end of life. I have made an observation within myself and of those around me – the more one is into the “things” the less one is into one’s true self, which has no end and defies the illusion of Death.
How am I dying? This is a very interesting question to ask ourselves compared to “How am I living?” I truly believe the quality of our life experience is rooted to our relationship with the unavoidable biological failure we will all experience (some call this Death). It is this relationship with Death that all other relationships are built upon.
Are you truly living or are you just trying not to die?
The harvest season is a time of plenty, a time to reap what we have sewn. I have found great spiritual lessons within my experiences of growing things. There is much symbolism in the garden, and plenty of lessons to learn. I think it is interesting to look at the “harvest” aspect of this cycle and how it is a death of the plant that provides the harvest of the fruit. It is this continual transference of energy from the earth and sky, to us, and then back again. There is no end, just transitions, summer to fall, light to dark, flower to fruit, and manifested to unmanifested, and then back again.
How about the Saint thing? Those are some big shoes to fill! Are they not? We all know of saints, and many of us probably look up to them quite regularly. But I ask you, how many of you feel like a saint? If the answer is no, why is this so? Are there not enough opportunities for us to be saintly? I believe many of those we consider to be saints would deny the accusation, but their actions say otherwise.
I have been looking at our culture more than ever through my studies at the university, and we definitely need a lot more saints here in the good old USA! You may be laughing right now thinking I did not need to attend the university to see this one! Well your right, but I have been studying the American Culture lately through one of my Anthropology classes, and have seen a few things about our cultural beliefs that make the economic insanity and the social decay of our country seem very logical and predictable. In short – Individualism, the very life blood of the American way of life, is destroying the social fabric of our democracy’s existence. One thing I have learned from studying cultural anthropology is that it is very difficult to clearly observe and examine our cultural beliefs because I am doing so through the “lens” of my cultural perspective. Even with that said, I do believe we as Americans, as a whole, need to question a lot more than we are!
Stepping down from the soap box I will just say I hope and pray we all find the courage to be more saintly. Not in image, but in action. I know in my heart we all can act like saints. It is in these saintly actions that salvation lies, within the true expression of fearless love for the “stranger” that is you.
The Yoga Ritual (April 2010)
(The following was written for an anthropology course in Ritual and Religion. This single course had a life altering affect upon me. If it weren’t for this course I probably wouldn’t have pursued a degree in anthropology, which would have fundamentally changed my education in psychology, and not for the better! Anthropology has been a grounding force for my studies in psychology and Native America.)
The ancient yet modernly popularized practice of Yoga, is a simple ritual and at the same time an extremely complex subject. This is a ritual practice that is done by millions of people throughout the world that spans age, gender, race, culture, political view, and religious or spiritual beliefs. The practice of Yoga can be preformed by an individual, in the intimacy of the home or as a group in a communal setting. Whenever and wherever it is practiced, the time and space of practice is that of a sacred unity. The word Yoga is derived from the Sanskrit root yuj meaning to unite or union with God. After giving this definition I think that it is important to state that Yoga means many different things to many different people. It is a very personal practice that at its core is about the personal experience one has while practicing it. I can not articulate it any better than B. K. S. Iyengar does in his book Light on Yoga, “As a well cut diamond has many facets, each reflecting a different color of light, so does the word yoga, each facet reflecting a different aspect of the entire range of human endeavor to win inner peace and happiness.” This ritual that I am writing about is the one of balancing the mind, body and spirit connection.
Let’s now take a look at one of the facets of Yoga from my point of view. I have been practicing this ritual for over two years now on a fairly regular basis and at times have practiced several times a week and multiple times a day. The physical practice of Yoga that would come to most minds is called Hatha Yoga. The word hatha in Sanskrit can be translated to meaning force as in physical force or energy. The postures that are performed are commonly referred to as asanas. There are thousands of postures and as many variation as there are people on this planet. As I have stated, this is a deep personal experience and the experience depends directly on the intentions of the practitioner. What one brings to Yoga is the foundation of the ritual experience.
Culturally, Yoga came from a place and time of a much more simple way of life. Its roots can be traced back to ancient India and has been influenced by Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. I believe this is a very important aspect to consider, when describing how one approaches this ritual in these modern times and especially in this Western culture. Before I practice this ritual I focus my attention on the quality of the breath and the state of the mind. In this busy culture where most things are moving quickly and with an erratic rhythm, focusing the attention in this manner is the first step in setting an intention of practice. I also bathe and use of a neti pot, in preparation for the practice. The neti pot is a small vessel that dates back to ancient India and resembles a teapot that is used to flush the sinuses with a saline solution. This can aid with the important aspect of breathing through the nose while practicing.
Most of the practices that I have participated in usually are ninety minutes in length and have consisted of groups that range from two people to thirty people. These people do not necessarily know each other and all bring a different aspect to the experience of the ritual. The practice is lead by a teacher that could be viewed as a guide that leads one on an internal journey. The clothes that are worn are usually functionally simple, comfortable, allow freedom of movement yet are not to revealing so that to distract others. There is no written or stated rule that governs what a person wears but it is possible to wear inappropriate clothing. The space where I practice on the community level is in a room that is roughly thirty feet by thirty feet and can hold approximately fifty practitioners. It is a beautiful room that was finished with the sole purpose of this ritual in mind. The floor is made of bamboo, the walls are lightly colored and the lighting can be varied to match the energy and feeling of the current practice. When you walk into the room, barefooted to show respect for the sacred space, it is warm and inviting like a second home that welcomes you. Being barefooted can also symbolize the stripping away of one of the first layers that modern culture has developed. The simple, and at times very functional act of wearing shoes numbs our senses, decreases the balance and puts a layer between us and the ground that we come from. Removing this layer can be the first step in dissolving social-cultural roles and transitioning to the remembering of who we are.
One of the first things that are noticeable when entering this room of practice is a small altar that is at the head of the room. It consists of a small yet sturdy antique looking table with candles, a singing bowl, incense and a sculpture of Nataraja. Nataraja is a depiction of the Lord Shiva as the cosmic dancer who performs the divine dance of creative destruction. The sculpture is fairly elaborate and the general Mandala form is present. There are many facets of meaning and symbolism within this sculpture. The primary symbolism is the destruction of the ego’s control of the mind and the creation of the connection between mind, body and the spirit. The symbolism of the purifying process known as creative destruction is at the core of this ritual and this is the unity of Yoga. It is also common that offerings are made by the teacher in the form of burning incense at some point in the practice.
The practitioners use a textured soft foam mat to cushion the floor and aid in traction while performing the formalized asanas or postures. The structure of the practice varies from day to day and teacher to teacher. Some teachers use a circular pattern of how the students are arranged in the room and some use a more linear and grid-like structure. The teachers physical position is also varied and a key element in this ritual. The teacher starts the practice facing the group and as the ritual unfolds moves around and through the group. The ritual is often started with all practitioners seated in the crossed legged position eyes closed to encourage a meditative state of mind. Sometimes devotion is given by the teacher and often they remind the students to ask themselves why they are practicing this ritual. It is not uncommon to hear a teacher say that they are students as well and that we all learn from each other. The roles of student and teacher are not grounded in the sense of hierarchy and there is no projection or suggestions of superiority or inferiority. The teacher guides the students through a series of formalized movements linking the different asanas. This is done with formalized oratory, physical examples and individual anatomical alignment manipulations that are referred to as adjustments. There is much attention put on the breath of the practitioners by the teacher. A breathing technique that is commonly used is called Ujjayi and is done with the mouth closed inhaling and exhaling through the nostrils. It has an audibly recognizable sound that is similar to the sound of the ocean. It is said that the breath is the bridge to the spirit and in many languages the words spirit and breath are interchangeable. The movements of the practitioners are to be fluid, like as if one is moving through water. This fluidity is critical to calming the mind and reaching the desired altered state that is ironically the natural state. Near the end of the ritual the students perform one last asana, which is Savasana meaning corpse pose. This posture is performed by laying flat on the one’s back with the arms to the side as if one was dead. This is a deeply relaxed state and it is not uncommon for people to actually fall asleep. The purpose is to allow the body to recover and integrate the benefits of the practice. It could be viewed as the climax of the merging of the mind, body and spirit but not necessarily so. It is not uncommon for the teacher to give another offering at this point in the form of burning incense, singing or playing an instrument like the singing bowl. The ritual is usually ended as it began with the practitioners all seated cross-legged with their eyes closed. This is usually the point where I feel the diminished sense of self the strongest and actually can feel the entire room. The teacher may give another devotion at this time, usually devoting the practice to peace. The ritual is closed with the verbal exchange between the teacher and students of the Sanskrit word Namaste which means, “I honor in you the divine that I honor within myself and I know that we are one.”
Peeling the Onion
Analyzing the ritual of Yoga could be likened to peeling one hundred differently colored onions. There are many layers to go through and depending on what style or Yoga you choose to explore the layers will appear to look different, but at their most basic level they are all the same. I will attempt to cut to the core of what this ritual means to me and what I have gathered from the observations that I have made of others. At one level this ritual could be said to be the deepest way to experience life at its raw essence and at another level it is a way to feel good by working the body and slowing the mind.
There is a bit of formalism with this practice particularly with the structure of how the practitioners are physically arranged in the room, how the teacher speaks and how the specific movements are performed. The feeling of the ritual can be different when comparing the linear grid type structure to that of the circular pattern in regards to where the practitioners are in the space. The archetypal symbol of the circle can help manifest the sense of community, interconnectedness of all, and the disillusion of the concept of beginning and the end. The use of formalized speech, especially in the oratory fashion, can really aid in the feeling of being apart of the larger whole. I think this aspect of the practice is the foundation for the diminishing of the sense of individual self that is so critical to experiencing the unity within diversity that this ritual can provide. The importance of performing the set of prescribed movements in a particular style or form is not about how they look but about what is happening within the body in regards to its alignment. It is this attention to alignment that can restore the balance of the nervous system and the subtle energy centers of the body that are so critical to the healing that takes place.
Traditionalism definitely plays a role within the practice of Yoga. The teachers that I have practiced this ritual with embrace and honor the ways of the past but do not let that limit the evolution of the practice. The use and preservation of the archaic linguistic form Sanskrit, is probably the strongest aspect of traditionalism used in this ritual. From a students perspective I think that there is some value in connecting this ritual, at least for the time being, to the ancient ways and times of India because of her reputation as one of the world’s centers of spirituality. I do believe that allowing the practice to evolve and continuing the invention of this tradition is imperative for its survival and reaching its potential.
It could be said that invariance runs through the veins of Yoga. The set of repetitive disciplined actions that are performed with precise physical control is the medium of this practice. One of the goals of Yoga is to be mindfully present in the moment. Combining the disciplined movements with the one pointed focus of the mind actually creates new neuron-networks, that rewire the brain and reshapes the individual. Just as the close attention to detail of the monastic lifestyle can create a sense that all of life is sacred, so to can Yoga. When practiced diligently the gaps between the feeling of interconnectedness and the omnipresence of God, become smaller and smaller. These gaps I refer to are filled with the thoughts of separateness and the belief in living a temporary life. One of the goals of this ritual is commonly referred to as taking the practice off the mat or living a yogic life.
Rule governance plays a subtle yet important role in this ritual. From the clothes that are worn, or not worn in the case of the bare feet, to the unwritten rule that casual conversation does not serve the goal of entering a meditative state, this ritual would not be the transforming force that it is without some rules that are followed by all. Another rule that is generally followed is that a practitioner does not enter the practice grossly late, for this to would be distracting and change the energy and significance of the ritual.
Sacral symbolism is apparent through most of the practice. The initial gesture of removing the shoes can be very symbolic as I have already mentioned, but I would like to add that I feel that this really bolsters the sacredness of the room itself. The sacredness of the room is palpable, even to a first time visitor. I believe this is because of the intentions that have been put into this space from it origins, it was created to be a sacred place. The symbolism of the Nataraja sculpture is complex but the basic Mandala form that it has is a very strong symbol psychologically and I believe it affects us positively at the unconscious level. Carl Jung coined the term collective unconsciousness in regards to the presence of the Mandala form that spans the cultural history of humankind both through time and space. I believe that there is a lot more weight to this theory than most people think, especially with this ritual.
The act of performing is at the core of Yoga. This practice is definitely not a spectator event. This ritual is about embodying the grace of the spirit and, without actively performing the movements of the ritual, the experience is not there. Observing the ritual would change the energetic dynamics of the experience and is not usually permitted. The performance of the group directly affects the experience of the individual practitioner. The concept of a focused group multiplying the energetic field within the group and thus the energy that is experienced through the practice is palpable and talked about, usually outside of the practice itself.
Emotional releases are very common within this ritual and are very much encouraged. When a practitioner goes deeply into the different layers of being that are experienced in Yoga, the emotional body is encountered and there is usually some releasing and healing that happens. It is a well-known fact in the field of psychology that repressing emotions can cause physical damage to our bodies and is linked to many forms of diseases. This speaks to the awesome healing power potential of Yoga. The emotional releasing that can occur is a purification process that does not just happen at the metaphysical level. The release of these held emotions actually frees the energy flow at the cellular level throughout the body. I have felt and seen the physical changes that can come from the releasing of held emotions, in my own body. It is said that Yoga turns back the clock of aging and I believe that this aspect of the practice is why that happens and is probably one of the most important aspects of this ritual.
I have personal experience with the awesome power of transformation that lies within this practice. The radical resocialization that happens when a practitioner comes to the mat with the intentions of letting go of what no longer serves and opens the heart to what is possible is nothing short of a miracle. When this level of practice is embraced, the attention of the practitioner is in the present moment and is met by the field of pure potentiality where all things come from. Through this ritual I have healed myself of the addiction to drugs, sex, money and the bottomless pit of wanting. I can vividly remember the moment of being on the mat, deep into the internal journey and physically feeling a shift within me that dissolved the wanting.
Through this ritual, the diminishing sense of self and the realization of the interconnectedness of everything are potential shifts in one’s perception and experience of reality. When the practitioner focuses the one pointed attention of the mind on the breath and its connection to the movements, the doorway to the true self is graciously opened. Experiencing the true self that is beyond the Western concept of self in its totality is more like experiencing no self. I liken this to the Buddhist concept of nothing or no thing, the energy field where all things come from. The concept of the field of pure potentiality is another way to look at this. When a practitioner totally lets go of the concept of the self, this field of energy becomes accessible and our destiny as creators is realized. This is truly a magical experience where the senses are noticeably enhanced and additional senses are recognized. This can be a real challenge to deal with because it is so far out of the accepted social norms.
This Path to God
The experience that is available to the practitioner of Yoga is beyond words, just as God is beyond the human mind that has developed the words. This ritual has been likened to that of Shamanism and is believed by some to have evolved from it. The stories of Yogis in India displaying supernatural phenomenon and having psychic abilities well beyond the five senses of the Western World, lends to the potential roots in Shamanism. When I consider that we humans use so little of our brains and know so little of how they work, I believe in the magic of Yoga. It is very common for someone to be drawn to the physical benefits of this practice, which are too many to list, and then they discover the deeper side of Yoga that is the doorway to the divine, which is the true self. When a practitioner comes to Yoga like a soft piece of clay, letting go of the beliefs and behavioral patterns of the past that no longer serve the path of love, the transformative potential is truly infinite. To me Yoga is the operator’s manual for being. Yoga is practicing being the creative spiritual beings of love that we all are. It is this universal powerhouse that we call love that is the unifying force within Yoga. It is this power that can bring strangers together and help them realize that they are not strangers after all, but rather of the same universal one being. Yoga is really about embodying unconditional love, for oneself and for all of creation. I am very committed to this ritual because of the truly life transforming potential that it possesses and that I have experienced. I am training to become a teacher of Yoga so that I can help my fellow sisters and brothers of humanity learn and practice this truly empowering ritual of self-discipline and self-realization. I have tasted the sweet nectar of the divine and now I am practicing not wanting that nectar but to let it flow naturally like thick honey, at its own pace. One of the lessons that I have learned from Yoga is to be able to see the perfection within the imperfection of life. To fully accept the lessons that are presented by life is a truly transforming skill to master. I am no master of this skill or Yoga but I am a very appreciative student. Yoga is a great teacher of the beautifully simple ideology of the beginners mind, keeping a mind that is empty of expectations and open to the mystery of life. Yoga is a gift; it is a gift of gold from the divine to the divine. This is the kind of gold that you can not spend but you can give it away, for this kind of gold is made in the heart of those that have the courage to open it up and look for it. The more open that the heart becomes, the more that the gold flows from it. Yoga embodies the circle of life and has the potential of creating the unity within the diversity that this world so desperately needs to survive its misidentified self. I believe that Gandhi once said, “No culture can survive if it attempts to be exclusive.” I know that Gandhi was a believer and practitioner of Yoga and this world should revisit the teachings of his and others that speak the language of love and non-harming. There are very thick books written about this ritual that do not cover it all. I have left out way more than I have included in this paper, partly because I have not enough room and time in this assignment but mostly because I am still learning so much about the true depths of this ritual. It has been a privilege to write this, this paper has given my practice a new level of depth and has helped to stoke the fire that is required to walk the path with heart. I am very grateful for the ritual of Yoga and for the opportunity to share about it, thank you.
I want to close this paper with a poem from the Sufi poet Hafiz.
This path to God
Made me such an old sweet beggar
I was starving until one night
My love tricked God himself to fall into my bowl
Now Hafiz is infinitely rich, but all I ever want to do
is keep empting out my emerald filled pockets
Upon this tear stained world
Iyengar,B.K.S. (1966) Light on Yoga, Schocken Books
Native Americans and Positivism (February 2011)
(The following was written for my studies in Native American Studies, and it was intended to address the lack of positive stories about Native Americans.)
When searching for positive stories of the relationships between Native Americans and Euro-American settlers and their descendants, one may feel like they are looking for water in the desert. This is not to say there is no water in the desert, it is just not in plain sight or in abundance. I am not suggesting there are many hidden positive stories within the historical archives; this claim would be romantically naïve. However, I believe it is important and relevant to acknowledge how the present is created through the telling of the past. I also see the concept of – multiple causation – as being important for understanding the context of Native America, both past and present. The absence of positive relationships stories within “American” history sheds a light on multiple human behavioral-tendencies: the conflict of cultures (Red and White) was primarily negative, the agenda of the nation-state (U.S.A.) was to destroy the Native American Nations, “bad” news sells, and history is a malleable concept that can be shaped to support the current agenda. I see all of these aspects working together to form a “historical” record that is primarily void of these positive relationship stories, which we are searching for.
Along my search, I found a very interesting article titled, After This, Nothing Happened: Indigenous Academic Writing and Chickadee Peoples’ Words from the First Peoples Child & Family Review (2009). This article deals with the challenges the Indigenous people of Turtle Island (North America) face today with respect to creating a healthy identity and reality through the writing process. Koptie uses a quote from Plenty Coups that speaks to the state of many Indigenous people of Turtle Island – “But when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.” In the context of why there are not more positive relationship stories, I see Plenty Coups words as having double significance. First, the destruction of the way of life for many Indigenous peoples was heart breaking. Second, trying to live in a state of heartbreak is not conducive with telling positive stories. This is to say that when one is deeply depressed and heartbroken it is very difficult to see anything as positive. I am not suggesting that Indigenous peoples should have just looked for the “silver lining” in their situation, because I do not think that there was one, but I do see Plenty Coups statement that “After this nothing happened” as being filled with great meaning. It seems to me, Plenty Coups was saying, “nothing happened” that had any real cultural significance or meaning that was worth speaking of. “Indigenous scholars today face a daunting challenge in the creation of academic literature that accurately presents the truth of the de-civilization struggles currently happening throughout Turtle Island” (Koptie 2009:145). To me, this speaks to the need of both Indigenous and Non-indigenous scholars/writers to help right the wrongs of the past, and present, by creating positive literature. I believe, due to the nature of this “daunting challenge” is exactly why it needs to be addressed by both sides of the Indigenous line. “As re-writers of colonial lies, we carry an ongoing responsibility to advocate for the recovery of self-determination, self-governance and territorial integrity” (Koptie 2009:145). Through this acknowledgement that history can be re-written, Koptie is making a call for papers that will lead to a healthy and positive future, for all.
Being A Guest In Hoopa
Looking to my own experience with Native Americans I do have some very positive relationship stories from my time in Hoopa, California. Over ten years ago I started to help teach swift-water rescue courses to tribal members of the Hoopa, Karuk, and Yurok Tribes. This relationship with Native Americans was established through a man named Bill Wing who has lived in the Arcata area for many years and has had a positive relationship with Northern California Tribes for years. Bill hired me to help out with the teaching of these river safety and rescue courses that were primarily for the river technicians within the Tribal Fisheries Departments. After a couple of years of helping out, these courses were turned over to me and I was responsible for them in their entirety. I formed a bond with a Hoopa Tribal member by the name of Troy (Horse) Branham. Horse became my official guide into Indian Country, although, at the time I did not realize how much he was truly helping me.
One of the three day swift-water rescue courses that I taught in Hoopa just happen to fall onto Columbus Day. I remember driving onto the reservation and thinking how ironic it was for myself and my two other White teaching assistants, to be coming to Hoopa on this Federal holiday that has such painful symbolism for many Native Americans. Considering what could have happened to us, or to our truck full of expensive equipment, and the fact that nothing out of the ordinary did happen, points to a positive relationship that I had with the Tribe. The course went very well. The Tribal members that were in the class treated us with great respect and we thoroughly enjoyed our time in Hoopa. We left Hoopa feeling good about our experience with the Native Americans that we shared time with, and I for one was eager to return.
On a subsequent teaching trip to Hoopa, Horse invited me to stay at his family’s home. I accepted the gracious offer and parked my cab-over camper in their yard for the duration of the course that I was teaching. The Branham family treated me as if I were a part of their family, making sure that I had anything that I needed. Their hospitality was especially noticeable when it was time to eat food, and I did not go hungry! One morning I was treated to an unusual treat of spaghetti with eggs on top. I was a little reluctant at first but trusted my host and was pleasantly surprised to really like spaghetti with eggs! I actually made it recently just out of honor and memory for that time back in Hoopa.
Invitation To The Boat Dance
On this same trip to Hoopa I was given the honor of being invited to the Boat Dance celebration. At the time I new it was a special privilege for me to be there, but now I have a whole new appreciation for just how honored I was to have been invited. I remember Horse telling me before we went to the ceremony, to not make eye contact with the male Indians that would be there and do not worry if they gave me a hard time. Horse is not known for being a serious man but I headed his warning because I trusted him, but also because I sensed that he was not kidding one bit! I will never forget the mixed feelings that I had while being there, at one level I felt very honored to have been invited but at another level I felt the questioning energy of hundreds of eyes when I walked onto the grounds with Horse. I did not feel threatened one bit, just the focus of a lot of curiosity. Overall, I very much enjoyed the experience; we ate some tasty food and got to watch the procession of boats coming down the River with the dancers standing tall within the boats. Although, one of the boats did tip over and the dancers had to swim for it. Horse and I left the feast to go see if they needed any help with the boat incident, but by the time that we got there everything was okay. I now understand how lucky I truly was to be a witness to such an important Native American ceremony; I will never forget it. Note – I checked the Hoopa Tribal website to verify the name of the ceremony, but did not see any Boat Dance listed as such. I could be wrong about the name of this ceremony that I witnessed, but I am fairly confident that it was called the Boat Dance. I sent a message to my friend Horse to verify, but have not heard back as of yet.
Creating A Different Future Through Writing
My hope is to be active with Native Americans for the unforeseeable future. Specifically I want to be a part of a positive relationship that is based on the common ground of being human and respecting the Mother Earth. The rivers and streams of this land need to be treated differently than they currently are; they need to be treated as if our lives depended on their wellbeing. I want to be able to write positive literature about how a Native American perspective could be integrated into the larger scheme of things and how this integration could lead to a healthier environment, and thus, healthier people. There is a real need and opportunity for positive relationship stories between Native Americans and Euro-Americans, and maybe our common dependency on water could become the common place to meet at. The fact that we all need water, presents the opportunity to build a bridge of positive relationships between all humans. There is a real need for positive relationship stories within humanity, and the water that course through our veins could become the theme of these much-needed stories.
Koptie, Steve (2009) After This Nothing Happened: Indigenous Academic Writing and Chickadee Peoples’ Words. First Peoples Child & Family Review 4(2):144-151.
They Died Too Young? (March 2011)
When someone passes away through the doorway of death before “old age” we often say – They died too young. I have had several friends along the way that have gone away, in this way. I am currently in the grieving process for the loss of my friend, Chris Deason, who was 41 when he passed away. Chris’s life was very full of living and compared to our mutual friend, Cory LeForce, who passed away at 17, Chris’s life was long. What I have learned from these painful lessons in Death, is that – Life is truly a precious adventure. Precious in that it is a gift to be breathing and have the opportunity to share the wonders of our world with one another, and an adventure, because it is a journey with an unknown destination.
What would life be like if we all lived to pass through the doorway of death at a ripe old age? Would it not be a “life sentence” to know that you will live a certain amount of time? How could life be a precious adventure if we all lived to reach “old age”?
It is not my place to say when anyone should or should not have passed away through the doorway of death, but these friends that have left in their teens, twenties, thirties, and forties, all were teachers that gave painful lessons of life through the death experience. We are all students and teachers within this classroom that is Life, which is filled with lessons of joy and sorrow. It takes a lot of courage to open ourselves up to these lessons and let go of what we “think” life should look like.
I am grateful to these teachers beyond the capacity of these limited words, for the sacrifices they have lived through their passing through the doorway of death. Life is a precious adventure, because it is not guaranteed.
A true gift comes with no conditions.
A Letter to The Dead (March 2011)
March 17, 2011
I wanted you to know something that I had been meaning to tell you for some time now. One fateful day back in 2000 you and I were sitting on a beach just outside of San Francisco, and you took the time to sincerely tell me how much our friendship meant to you. I agreed, and acknowledged our brotherhood in life. I knew at the time that it was a special moment, a defining moment, and one to be remembered but I did not know how significant it truly was. You then proceeded to recommend a short list of a few books to me, as if you had been waiting for the right moment to give me this gift of insight. That short list of books turned out to be one of the most important gifts that anyone had ever given me. At the time I had no idea what a precious seed you were planting within my life. Looking back I truly believe that you somehow knew that I was ready for some new ways of thinking and would soon need the information that lay within these powerful books. If I had known how significant that short list of books truly was I would have kept it and framed it, but that would be like trying to keep the seed that grows into a beautiful flowering plant.
I have learned many important lessons from you, most of them I am only now realizing. I now see that the most important lesson that you have taught me is a lesson within the lesson that is to – never underestimate the power of a friend’s caring advice. I say – a lesson with the lesson – because what I have gained from the books that you recommended to me was nothing short of a life altering experience, but it would be a critical error not to realize that the lessons of the books were secondary to the lesson of your caring for me as a friend. I now realize that it was the sincerity within your intentions that motivated me to actually buy and read the books that you recommended. However, I should not overlook the significance of the impact that these books had upon my life. Many books have powerful messages and offer opportunities for learning, but the books that you intuitively suggested to me came at a time in my life when I was cracked wide open by pain and suffering, and the profound teachings within these books touched me deeply. Words do not come close to communicating the radical and healthy change that came about from your caring advice. The books that you recommended to me were: The Book of Five Rings, The Celestine Prophecy, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, and Tao Teh Ching. Before reading these books, I was not much into reading at all! Most of the books that I had read before simply bored me. I know now that I was simply reading the wrong books, but I cannot overlook the timing of your gift, your caring advice. If you could only see the stacks of books that have grown from the initial seed that you so intuitively planted within my life, you would be pleased!
The radical change that took place within my life, as a result of your caring advice, is still unfolding to my eyes. I have included some writings with this letter that speak to the breadth and significance of the life changing affect that your caring advice had upon me. If you read carefully you will find your caring advice within the pages of these writings. Just like realizing that a giant oak tree comes from a single acorn, you are a part of these writings at their very root. I hope that you enjoy these writings and the insights that have been revealed through them. Chris, you have cultivated something within me that has turned out to be a very positive and fundamental aspect of my life. As I am watching this tree of knowledge grow within me, I also am pleased to tell you that I am following your lead by spreading the seeds to others. The circle of life is being continued. You may not exist in your physical form, the body that you were born into, but you are still growing within the many lives of those that have received the seeds that you have shared. Just as an entire forest can be traced back to a single seed, you are affecting generations of people in a positive way, in a way that is beyond these words. Just as the wind can carry a seed over long distances to be planted far from its source, the technology of today is allowing me to share the next generation of the seed, which you gave me, with people across the globe.
The Coyote’s Lesson in Ahimsa (May 2011)
I am a believer in what Gandhi taught about nonviolence, and I am practicing Ahimsa (nonharming or nonviolence). I emphasize the “practicing” aspect because recently I have been giving this subject a lot of my attention and have realized how very difficult it is to be a part of this culture and do no harm. If you haven’t read the opinion that I wrote in January, I suggest that you read it before you continue with this story. There is a link at the bottom that will take you there.
When I made my vow to Ahimsa I decided that I should also experiment with a vegetarian diet to accommodate this vow. I didn’t eat any meat for about two months and I was feeling very week and tired from this change in diet. I didn’t want my study’s to suffer from this choice so I returned to eating a little meat once in awhile. I haven’t given up on eating a vegetarian diet and believe that with a little more education it will work for me. A week ago I noticed the bugs that were smashing against the windshield as I drove and what that meant to my vow of Ahimsa. Just this last Wednesday evening after leaving a practice at Rasa Yoga Center, I ran over a squirrel as I was getting on the freeway in Medford and thought about Ahimsa. The question that arose in my mind was “Is Ahimsa in direct contradiction with this culture?”
I am currently a full time student at SOU in Ashland and commute three days a week from the Central Point area. My Friday class is a Philosophy class titled Raja Yoga, which basically is an overview of the study of Yoga, not just in Hatha Yoga but the bigger picture of Yoga. This last Friday in class, we had a short discussion on Ahimsa. The opinions varied on what it exactly meant to each of us, and the level that one is willing to practice it at. I shared a story of how I have been stung by two scorpions in my life. Once when I was 19 and I killed the scorpion after it stung me. The second time was just two years ago while on vacation in Mexico and I with the help of a friend, carefully put the scorpion outside of the rental house that we were in. When this second scorpion stung me I realized that it was just being a scorpion and I was just being a careless human. I told this story with conviction and in full support of the nonharming all of creation. We talked about several other topics and did some Pranayama (breathing practice) at the end of class. I left class feeling great! I got in the truck that I drive and started out for the freeway. I got on I 5 at the south Ashland exit heading north. I didn’t even get a mile and out of the corner of my eye, I saw a beautiful coyote running across the meridian of the interstate and before I could realize what was about to happen, I ran it over and killed it. I was initially surprised to even see the coyote there in the daylight and then horrifically shocked at the fate of our paths crossing. I knew instantly that this was a lesson for me in the reality of practicing Ahimsa. I felt a deep sense of grief when I hit the coyote and could see his/her lifeless body lying in the road behind me, but I respected the sacrifice that life had offered up with this painful lesson. After a short time of absorbing what had happened I drove back towards the South Ashland exit to buy some sage, remove the body from the road and burn the sage in respect. While I was driving southbound between the Ashland exits I could see the coyote laying in the road and then noticed a highway department vehicle heading towards it, which I assumed was on its way to pick it up. I went into Ashland bought the sage and a lighter and headed back north for the coyote. It was gone as I thought it would be but I stopped and burnt the sage in respect for it and myself. If you know me well, you know that I have a very deep connection with nature. One that is along the lines of the Native American’s love and honor for all of creation. Through this connection and belief I felt like I had just run over a very good friend, not a good feeling at all.
The very next day I participated in Max Strom’s workshop on “Burning Karma” and “Forgiveness”, good timing huh? Several years ago I was awakened to the reality that there are no coincidences in life. When we are awake to the cause and effect in our life and open to the idea that the effects that we are experiencing may have been caused unconsciously or even long, long ago, we can see the deeper meaning that is there. For me this was a slap up side the head and I heard “So you think you are practicing Ahimsa, do you?”
Even as I write this I am becoming aware of more layers of meaning from this intense experience. I am reminded of the therapeutic nature of writing and how important it is to share life’s experiences with each other. Life is so amazing when we can see all the lessons that are being offered up. I know that Ahimsa is a practice and with all practices we must be patient. How much patience do you think the natural world has left for us? I see now more than ever, that it is about the thoughts that are behind our deeds that really are important for inner peace. Is there something in your life that you can take a closer or even different look at and try to see the deeper meaning that is being offered to you? Thank you for taking the time to allow me to share with you, wishing you well.
Violence and Hatred are a Black Bottomless Hole: The Real Enemy is Fear and Intolerance (May 2011)
I was very disturbed by the celebration of the death of our “enemy.” This is a dark moment in our society and in our world that will only lead to further darkness. There is no light of peace within violence or hatred. America is not well, it is not well at many levels!
I am not a relativist, however, being a student of anthropology I do respect relativism as a tool. Being a student of psychology, I also value objectivity as a tool, but realize that objectivity is more of a human construct than an actually attainable state, especially when it comes to the volatile cocktail of mixing religion and politics. Considering that each and every one of us creates our reality through a subjective filter of our interpretive lens, I think that it is primarily idealistic to claim any objectivity within humanity. Not to say that it is not a valuable pursuit, but we must use reflexivity to keep our selves honest and thus, be able to account for our biases. Our local Rabbi (Ashland, OR.) recently spoke at a presentation at the university on religions of the world, and stated how dangerous and misguided religions can be when “God gets an army.” Rabbi David is a wise man.
How one deals with death is very revealing of how one thinks, believes, and lives. How one deals with the death of an enemy speaks to even deeper depths of where one is at along the development of being human. Children are taught to be “good sports,” to not gloat over their victory and be respectful to the loosing team. If this humility in victory is important on the playing field, then why are we not leading by example within our society with the recent “victory” of the slaying of Osama Bin Laden? The celebration of the killing of a fellow human, no matter what the individual’s behavioral track record is, should not be seen as a joyous event. It should be viewed as the failure that it truly is, a failure of the abilities that supposedly separates us from the “animal world” the ability to reason, negotiate, and compromise. Is it easier to celebrate the death of “the enemy” than to look into the mirror and see the real enemy, which is fear and intolerance? This war, and all wars are marketed to the nation as a fight between good and evil; however, the worst type of evil is the kind that hides behind what is passed off to be “good.” The politicians of the American War Machine are using this slogan of the battle between good and evil like a cheap whore. The worst type of violence and hatred is the justified kind, the kind that blinds the one whom wields it as to its true consequences – more violence and hatred that is transgenerational. Violence and hatred are a black bottomless hole and when one commits to entering into it one will be searching in vain for the light of peace of which one believes one is looking for. There is no light in violence, only darkness. The celebration of the death of an “enemy” that I witnessed in this warring nation, which is America, was a very dark moment for our society. Our society has been living in an unhealthy state of fear ever since 9/11 and its negative accumulative effects are expressing themselves through this form of negative maladapted behavior. America is not well, it is not well at many levels and this celebration of the death of Osama Bin Laden is another strong symptom of a degrading society. True warriors mourn the death of their enemy, because they know that ultimately it is a failure, a failure of humanity.
Stepping back from the American experience, and using as much objectivity as we can, one could ask – Does the American way of life of over consuming and polluting through our convenient reality that is brought to us by globalization, which directly affects hundreds of millions of people in negative ways, not constitute being evil? Just as “good” and “evil” must be taken within their cultural, political, and historical contexts to fully understand, “morals” should also be evaluated within their context.
“So, let us be alert – alert in a twofold sense:
Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of.
And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.” Viktor E. Frankl
Bringing the Power of Nature into the Urban Void (June 2011)
I am obviously biased when it comes to my opinion about the importance of spending time with Nature. Nevertheless, I do believe that there is great healing power within Nature that is available to anyone that is open to it. Throughout my lifetime I have not spent a great amount of time within the highly built-up urban centers of our world. However, for the most part I have enjoyed the time that I have spent in large cities, but there was something missing within these urban realms – the sacredness of Nature. Considering that the majority of the worlds population lives in urban centers, and this trend is on the rise, there is an important question to be asked – What will happen when the majority of humans on this planet have little or know connection and experience with Nature? From my perspective, nothing good will come of this separation from Nature. How are people going to value something that they do not know?
You may be surprised to hear that over the years I have consistently had multiple guests on river trips that did not understand how rivers work; they did not understand that rivers do not go around in a circle like an amusement park ride! I am not kidding, and I really wish I were. I believe that there are many people in this highly “civilized” society that do not truly understand how the water cycle works on this planet, the very mechanism that supports all life on earth. We cannot afford to forget what allows us to live on this planet; Nature is the giver of all life on earth. Regardless of one’s religious beliefs, one cannot deny that humans are interdependent on the natural ecosystems of this planet. This undeniable fact of the source of our lives is exactly why I think we should consider creating Open Spaces that are Sacred Spaces. Please check out the below link and see how some visionaries are bringing the power of Nature into the void of sacredness that lies within the growing urban centers of our world.
Stormy Introspection (January 2012)
I just got done ‘weathering the storm’ here on the Oregon coast, which has been quite the ride! The beach house was shaking and moaning as if a mild-level three-day earthquake was taking place. I did not sleep very well through the majority of the storm, and the stimulus from the storm has made it difficult to focus on the studies. My canine companion (Meguma) did not care much for the entire ordeal; she was physically upset by the storm’s voracious power. However, this stormy experience was a great time of introspection where the ‘unsettling’ aspect of the storm created a space to take a different angle on things (sleep deprivation is also a powerful way to change the look of things). This storm induced state lead to a perspective I have not had in nearly a decade. The vulnerability that I was feeling reminded me of when I lived up high on Mt. Ashland in a little RV in the parking lot, for the last two winters I worked ski patrolling. During big storms on the mountain my little portable home would shake, rattle, and roll.
There is something very ‘real’ about living in a space that reminds one, with physical movement from the natural environment, of one’s fragile and temporary existence. This recent experience with Mother Nature’s awesome power of destructive-creation has made me look, once again, at how we (as a society) have built rigid structures, which represent a ‘permanent’ existence that can actually keep us from living with the realization of our fragile existence. We have literally built walls of denial, which encompass our fragile existence.
How is your ‘built environment’ affecting you? Do you ever stop to think about how the environments that we surround ourselves with and immerse ourselves in, actually affect our thinking and subsequent beliefs? Just as the quality of one’s interpersonal relationships reveal what kind of person one has become, so too does the relationship between one’s environment (both natural and built) and oneself (individually and collectively).
Who have you become as a result of your environmental context? Who have we become as a result of our environmental context?
Walking the Path of Shifting Sand (January 2012)
As I was walking alone the beach, I looked back and noticed the path of my footprints in the sand. Some of my footprints had already been absorbed into the shifting sand, and some had been washed away from the incoming waves. It struck me how life is much like walking on a beach; the path that we walk exists only in that moment. If we try to retrace our path, which has worked in the past, we are not taking the constant flux of life into account. It is not what a path of right-action looks like, which constitutes its righteousness. Rather, it is how the footprints are felt upon the shifting sands of life that make a path one of right-action. I believe this is why right-understanding is a prerequisite to right-action.
There is No Point to Life (January 2012)
There is no point in this life. I did not say there is no point ‘to’ this life. Rather, there is no point ‘in’ this life.
Life is much like a river trip; it has a beginning point and an end point (however, some of us would argue this is not entirely true, but let us keep that perspective aside for this metaphor). Believing the point to this life is some particular place like “retirement” or “success,” is much like thinking the point to running a river is the take-out (the end point of the trip). Unfortunately, I have actually witnessed some of my guests on river trips who actually think this is true. Life is an adventurous journey, when we let it be so, and it is a pathway that leads where we choose, at least primarily from our choosing. Just as a line is made up of an infinite amount of points (any distance can be divided by two), so too is our life pathway made up of an infinite amount of points, which in their sum, is ‘the’ point. Life is the point; please do not let it pass you by.
Our Fragmented World Needs Healing: Are You Up For The Challenge? (June 2012)
We live in a world that has become extremely fragmented. Through the evolution of specialization, humanity has become broken: psychologically, socially, politically, economically, geographically, and ecologically. We have become separated from the very world that has given us this life; we are living apart from our original whole. My Native American friends would say, “Humanity’s hoop is broken.” I say the collective mind of humanity is under a linear-spell of modernity, which is leading us blindly to our collective destruction. If we were only destroying ourselves, would it be so wrong? I say yes, but not nearly as wrong as the destructive totality of our actions upon the rest of life on earth. Is this all too dark for you? Hah! The reality that my words point to make my words look like child’s play, but that is an insult to the wisdom of a child.
What’s that? You want to hear some good news? Well, my friends, the good news is we are the medicine our fragmented world so desperately needs. What’s that? You want some different good news? Sorry, that is the good news, and actually, it is great news! We are very privileged to be right here, right now, in this place, in this time. It is the time to heal our fragmented world; it is time to break the spell of modernity, to wake up to our original wholeness. It is our time to remember we are a part of this world and what we do to this world we ultimately do to ourselves. John Muir once said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
Seeing the world in its original wholeness requires seeing the implicit relationships that bind us all together through our explicitly lived lives. I think Helen Keller summed it up when she said, “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.” Please, my friends, do not fool yourself into believing you are an autonomous individual that can live any life you desire. It is this type of separatist thinking that is at the heart of our fragmentation, it is the spell of modernity. Our fragmented world needs healing. So, I ask you this question – are you up for the challenge?
Diagnosis (February 2014)
(The following was written for a course in ethics within a Masters in Mental Health counseling program I ended up withdrawing from for ethical reasons. This paper addresses my perspective on why I see mainstream Western psychology and mental health counseling as being a colluder in our current crisis of perception and relationship.)
I am fundamentally apposed to the very paradigm that formal diagnosis (e.g., using the DSM) arises out of. In short, I reside within the camp that sees the DSM as unreliable and invalid by its very design. My strong stance against this pathological view of mental health comes from an anthropological critique of Western society and its patriarchic medical model. In fact, I see the entire theoretical approach of formal diagnosis as being pathological in and of itself. The paradigm that supports formal diagnosis stems from an attempt to maintain a hierarchical power differential, which helps to maintain the current status quo. The good that comes from formal diagnosis only exists within the pathological system of origins, and does not have intrinsic value.
How would I articulate this rebellious position on formal diagnosis to a client seeking my help? I would use the language of my eclectic theoretical orientation of an narrative therapy, existentialism, and Ecopsychology, which can lead to a natural questioning of the validity of the dominant narrative, which formal diagnosis stems from. I would explain how many “disorders” are actually natural reactions to a profoundly sick and unsustainable structure of sociocultural institutions (e.g., modernity). I would share the wise words that come from a perspective that realizes “[I]t is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society” Jiddu Krishnamurti. I can make this defiant claim because I will not be working within the agency culture that supports formal diagnosis. If I do end up working as a licensed mental health counselor (e.g., ecotherapist), I will do so through a private practice, which is built upon an ethical mandate to challenge the dominant Western narrative, and reveal the fallacy of its formal diagnosis paradigm (ACA Code of Ethics, A.2.a., A.2.b., A.4.a., A.6.a., C.2.a., C.3.a., C.4.a., C.6.d., C.6.e., C.7.a., D.1.a., D.1.h., E.2.b., E.3.a., E.5.a., E.5.b., E.5.c., E.5.d., E.6.a., E.6.c., E.8., and H.1.b.).
The most vital aspect of formal diagnosis that I would want to communicate to a client is this: I do not want to help you become more comfortable with a profoundly sick society. I do not want to be a part of a pathological labeling of your potentially natural response to this highly unsustainable sociocultural system, because if I do, I may be helping to cause you more harm than good. What I want to do is to help you find new meaning with your place within this profoundly sick society. I want to help you to be able to see the system as being pathological. I want to help you to become a healthier member of this society, and as a result, help the society become well.
My oppositional position to formal diagnosis is supported by a medical/cultural anthropological understanding of health and illness, and how pathological labels are often used as a means of social control and conformity. As a professional counselor I also have an ethical responsibility to “refrain from making and/or reporting a diagnosis if…[I] believe it would cause harm to the client or to others” (ACA Code of Ethics, E.5.d.). When one turns the ethical mandate of being culturally competent upon the topic of diagnosis, one can easy question the appropriateness of formal diagnosis. “Counselors recognize that culture affects the manner in which clients’ problems are defined….” (ACA Code of Ethics, E.5.b.). As a culturally sensitive counselor, I must consider the many ill affects Western culture thrusts upon its members, and how its overemphasis upon individualism results in a pathologizing of natural reactions to this culture’s unnatural foundation. Western culture is a relatively new form of human organization and adaptation, and it is structured upon values and beliefs that are not in touch with the historical reality of being human (e.g., our success as a species has come from being collaborative groups and not from being isolated individuals). “Counselors recognize historical and social prejudices in the misdiagnosis and pathologizing of certain individuals and groups and the role of mental health professional in perpetuating these prejudices through diagnosis and treatment” (ACA Code of Ethics, E.5.c.). Western culture’s history of social prejudices and oppression (e.g., colonialism, slavery, manifest destiny, ethnic cleansing, etc.) is very much alive today, but its presences is more implicit than explicit; today, what is considered undesirable (e.g., deviant forms of behavior) within Western culture is pathologized and oppressed through its patriarchal medical model and its formal diagnosis.
In conclusion, I see this topic of formal diagnosis (e.g., DSM) and its pathological lens on humanity, as being the tip of the incompetence iceberg that Western mainstream-psychology and counseling are suffering from. My opposition to formal diagnosis is not at the operational level. Rather, my disapproval of this paradigm of pathologizing runs to the philosophical core of the profession of counseling.
Be Still (January 2015)
It was eight forty-five in the morning, and it didn’t take long after I put my cross-country skis on, to realize my goal of skiing thirty to forty miles on the rim of Crater Lake was not attuned with the more-than-human perspective, which I was practicing taking on. Nevertheless, for a long day of backcountry skiing, I could not have asked for better weather conditions! The skies were sunny, the air was a warm thirty-nine degrees Fahrenheit, and there was a stillness that instantly penetrated my senses all the way to my soul. This wonderful stillness, and the deafening quite it created, was immediately shattered by the clatter of my skis and pole tips on the rock-hard icy snow surface. Along with the icy nature of the snow, its highly uneven surface made it unpredictably slippery, and was a challenge to merely stay vertical. To add to the challenge of balancing on such a slippery and uneven surface, the weight of my pack, which was around forty pounds, exaggerated the pull of gravity. I was in for a serious challenge!
As I started out skiing away from the Rim Village parking lot, I felt an uneasy tension within me, but did not recognize its source, quite yet. However, as soon as I started to ski down the first small incline of the ski trail (Crater Lake West Rim Road) the source of this tension became very apparent. Almost immediately, I was slightly out of control and picking up speed quickly. Luckily, this was not an unfamiliar sensation, and I methodically put my skinny skis into the wedge position in order to apply the brakes. I was kind of wishing I had my helmet on! As I started to slow down, but didn’t really feel like I was truly in control, I heard something from the more-than-human landscape. It was as if the deafening stillness of the landscape was calling to me over the extreme noise of my skis on the icy snow. It called out, “Slow down. Be still.” and I responded with laughter, because I realized how my very-human perspective with its high achieving goal – skiing thirty to forty miles on the rim of Crater Lake – was apparently incompatible to the more-than-human landscape and its natural perspective.
The more time I spend in the backcountry, the more I realize that wintertime in the high snowy mountains is a time of rest and storing up of energy for the busy growing season of the summer. The mountain snowpack can be seen as nature’s savings account of life giving water; rivers are born in this high mountain landscape. Crater Lake’s landscape can be seen as a nursery of rivers. Both the Rogue and Klamath Rivers have roots in this landscape. I believe it is this living-giving characteristic of Crater Lake, which gives it its sacred and awe-inspiring feeling. One does not need to be aware they’re in the nursery of rivers to feel its sacredness; this landscape’s creative presence is both omnipotent and omnipresent. It is said by some that the Creator, God, the Universe, or whatever you choose to name it, is the present moment. The Creator is the stillness of the universe.
Let’s get back to my laughter, because what I realized from taking on the more-than-human perspective was just how out of synch my very-human high achieving goal was with the natural rhythms of nature and its current state of stillness. I was forcing my human agenda upon the ways of the landscape, against nature’s way. The good news was that I listened and adapted to what I was hearing from taking on the more-than-human perspective. I slowed down a little, but continued on with my plan of reaching my goal of skiing thirty to forty miles. I couldn’t help but see the profound symbolism of how my experience with this conflict between the more-than-human world and my very-human high achieving goal represented our out of touch human systems (e.g., economic, political, etc.) and their destructive relationship with the natural environment. Even out doing my “back to nature” outdoor adventure thing, I was, in a small way, representing the larger problem with our human-nature relationship, which is the normalized forcing of human agendas upon the natural world.
Every time I would stop skiing it was as if the stillness and deafening silence of this awesome landscape was communicating the same message, “Slow down. Be still.” Then I would laugh and say thank you!
It is very difficult to truly listen (active listening) to another person if one’s mind is not still. How often is your mind actually still? Our cultural does not encourage our minds to be still, and actually, the opposite is unfortunately true. So why would yours be still? How often do you think you are really listening to those around you? Not just hearing their words, but actively listening to the deeper meanings of their story. Do you feel like you are too busy to really listen? Have you ever even thought of trying to listen to the more-than-human world? What do you think you might hear? Do you have the courage to listen to what you might be told?
I know I’m going to be actively listening to the more-than-human world much more now than ever, and I hope more of you will join me in doing this practice of taking on the perspective of the more-than-human world, because I believe our humanity is counting on it, our future is dependent upon it.
Social Intelligence and Diversity of Beliefs (January 2015)
After this recent election, I have been a little surprised, and disappointed, by some of the partisan drama (e.g., gloating winners and bitter losers). In short, all this social conflict and tension within our Nation, represents a general low-level of emotional and social intelligence. Behaving in a self-righteous manner, in victory or defeat, is no sign of maturity. We are a young nation, and if we are to survive as a nation, we must mature as individuals. If we continue to look outside of ourselves for the source of our suffering and problems, we will all become losers.
If you are interested in learning more about emotional and social intelligence, I highly recommend the work of Daniel Goleman.
I have been reflecting on all the recent partisan drama, and would like to share the following observation:
The health and security of humanity depends on genetic variation (e.g., making babies with someone outside of one’s own tribe); the same is true for cultural and ideological variation. This is to say, our health as nation is dependent upon diversity of thoughts and beliefs – different beliefs are supposed to balance each other out because of their inherent strengths and weaknesses. If the time comes that all of humanity, or even a single nation, ascribes to a single system of beliefs (e.g., political parties), then all of humanity, or that single nation, will fall together.
We must not only tolerate diversity of thoughts and beliefs, we must encourage others to be healthy by respecting their differences.
The Bunny’s Lesson of Impermanence: The World Cannot be Saved (January 2016)
It was a warm summer day and I was taking the compost out to the garden when I saw it, a small bunny running fearfully back and forth along the garden’s fence-line. Somehow the bunny got into the garden but the fence the bunny was trying to escape through was recently made ‘rabbit-proof.’ When I saw the distressed bunny trying to make an escape, I immediately thought about Meguma, who is a hundred pound dog, an Akita breed. Meguma is a stereotypical Akita, which means she is territorial, aggressive, and breed for guarding and hunting; she has killer instincts, and would have loved to catch that little bunny in here carnivorous jaws.
Luckily I managed to grab Meguma’s collar before she saw the fearful bunny who would have surely triggered her killer canine instincts. I put Meguma inside the house, and then returned to the garden to see if I could find the bunny, but there was no sign of the small furry creature. I walked all around inside the garden, but no sign of my furry little friend.
I love animals and do not want any of them to suffer unnecessarily. When I was watching the bunny run back and forth in obvious distress, I could not help but feel some of its anxiety and fear, and I did not want to see it die a violent death in the jaws of my dog. I am empathic, and not just for other humans. I have empathy for all of life; I am related to all of life; I am all of life.
After some time passed I felt it was safe to let Meguma out of the house, because I figured the bunny had made its escape from the fenced in garden. I felt good about saving the cute little bunny’s life. I protected the bunny from a needless and violent death in the powerful jaws of my canine companion.
Later that summer, I was taking Meguma for a walk along the street-side of the garden when I saw it stuck in the wire fence, I couldn’t believe what I saw. It was one of those moments when the universe circles back around and slaps you with painful irony, and you question everything you thought was so. There it was, stuck in the fence, a dried up bunny carcass. It appeared the bunny got stuck while trying to squeeze through one of the two-by-four rectangular holes in the wire fencing. The majority of its body made it through the fence, but the large hind legs were just too big to fit through the hole. The bunny’s little body was primarily intact except for its head, which was off to the side. There was still some soft fur on its dried up bones, but for the most part, all that was left was a skeleton of the bunny that I thought I had “saved.” The irony of the situation made me a little sick to my stomach, and not because I have a weak stomach for blood and guts, not even close. I was raised on a farm, and have worked professionally as a pre-hospital emergency care provider (e.g., EMT). The sick feeling I was experiencing came from the realization that my searching for the bunny in the garden probably led to the bunny’s unnatural and drawn out death. I felt sick from the irony of life. If only my dog would have killed it before I saw it running around in fear.
I continued on with walking the dog, but could not stop thinking about how the bunny probably died. Did it struggle for days? Did some predator come eat its face off as an easy meal? How did the bunny die?
After walking the dog I got a small brown paper bag and gathered up all of the bunny’s remains, including its soft fur that was surrounding its little corpse. I realized I could not save the bunny, but I could treat its remains with respect. I built a hot fire outside in a fire-ring, and cremated the little bunny. The next day when the ashes were cold, I spread the bunny’s remains across the fertile garden soil. I’m sure the bunny would have liked to be placed in the garden. What bunny does not love a garden? A garden is bunny paradise.
Much of my professional life has been devoted to keeping people safe and even saving lives, and even now I’m working to “save the environment,” but the world cannot be saved. The world is impermanent. Does this mean we should not try? Hell no! All things are impermanent, and this was the bunny’s lesson. We cannot save the world, but we can take care of it and allow for it to have a dignified death, a natural ending and not one prematurely caused by our arrogance, greed, disrespect, and neglect.
The bunny taught me to be humble in what I’m trying to “save” and to realize my attachment to the impermanence of life can get in the way of my stewardship for all of life. Someday the sun will stop shining and the Earth will go away, but we have a choice of how we participate in this cosmic ending. We have a choice in what we are trying to save. Maybe instead of trying to save the world we should focus on allowing all life to die a natural and dignified death? Maybe instead of trying to save the world we should try saving our respect and reverence for all life and the Earth? Maybe instead of trying to save the world we should work harder to save our humanity?
Yesterday I Felt Death (February 2016)
Yesterday, I had a close encounter with life and death. Sometimes life converges in a way that brings us face-to-face with our mortal lives, and dramatically rips us out of the illusion of safety. Many of us live our lives in denial of our inevitable death; we live in denial of the truly precious and fragile nature of this being human. It doesn’t help that our individual denials of loss and death come together and collectively form a culture of denying our humanity through denying our mortality.
I was skiing with a dear friend, Bob, who is my sister’s partner. I’ve known this man for many years and he is friend and family to me. We were skiing at our local ski resort when we had a nearly head-on collision with each other at a fairly high-rate of speed. This near tragic incident happened in a way that would be almost impossible to repeat. It would appear our paths were on a cosmic synchronicity that brought us both face-to-face with our life and the potential of dying at any moment. This near head-on collision brought us face-to-face with reality, our mortality, and did so in a very personal way.
There were others skiing and snowboarding down the run, and this helped to create this unlikely meeting of paths. I was making turns down the right side of the ski run, and Bob was making turns down the left side of the run. Just as we had reached the run’s “break” where the slope’s angle increases dramatically, we both made a turn to the inside of the run, and this is what brought our paths together.
When one is skiing at higher rates of speed, one needs to look way down the slope to be able to plan one’s course through the obstacles of variations in snow, trees, rocks, and other skiers and snowboarders. It was this looking way down the hill that contributed to our near head-on collision. I remember feeling Bob coming at me more than I could visually identify him. He was approaching me from the left and I could just see him in my periphery. His speeding image in the corner of my eye felt like something was sneaking up on me from behind, an uneasy feeling to say the least. I knew something was wrong, something was very wrong.
For a millisecond, I actually thought we were going to hit each other, and I accepted it because that is what being a risk-taker is all about, but then I told myself, “that cannot happen!” As we were about to experience an impact of 80 to 90 mph (we both were easily going 40 to 45 mph) I somehow made a micro-adjustment and jumped over the front of Bob’s skis. I actually ran over the front of his skis, and did so just inches from his body. The sound of our skis clacking together made the most god awful sound! This sound penetrated my body, literally and metaphorically. It was the type of sound made when extremely high levels of kinesthetic energy are generated in near catastrophic events. It was the sound of someone almost becoming seriously injured of even dying.
Bob and I both continued to ski down the mountainside and headed to the ski lift. We didn’t even stop after narrowly escaping from this potentially fatal encounter. This near head-on collision was over just as fast as it had started. At one level, I think we both were in shock of what almost happened, and did not want to stop and have to face its significance. The entire event – the conscious awareness of the incident – was maybe one second long, but the affect and meaning of this event will last Bob and I the rest of our lives. This was a defining moment for both of us.
This brush with the fine line between living and dying has led me to reappraise a lot about what it is I’m doing and why am I doing it?
I’ve lived a life of risk-taking, professionally and personally, and this life of high risk has become the norm; I am somewhat numb to the ongoing consequences of continually taking risks. This dramatic event has given me new reason to evaluate the risks I take and why I take them. One reason this shift in perspective has taken place was the realization Bob and I had about how many lives our actions could have negatively impacted. There was a new level of social responsibility that came from this brush with the fine line between living and dying.
At one point do our actions of exercising our “freedoms” actually inflict pain on others who care about us?
At what point is living one’s life “authentically” a selfish act of harming those closest to us?
At what point do we stop taking “unnecessary risks” that are associated with our personal pursuits, and do so through the realization that these pleasurable risks are not the best place for our life’s energies?
Is there a way to transform our risk-taking behaviors into a more pro-social realm where we are actually helping others, and not potentially causing pain and grief?
The distinction between life and death is an illusion. It is an illusion that is supported by many aspects of our culture of denial. We are all walking a path towards our inevitable death, and our lives are a story filled with the meaning we choose to ascribe to this gift we are given.
What is the deeper meaning of risk-taking through unnecessary risks?
How do we reconcile being risk-takers with the inevitable pain we cause our loved ones?
This recent brush with death, with living with death, has a cosmic depth to it that is shaking me to my core. This “coincidence” of paths crossing was no coincidence. It is as if the universe is telling me to choose a path – the path of my past? or the path of my destiny? There is no future in my past, but there are great insights for my destiny. I must let go of the security the past represents, and have faith in my destiny. I must let go of the familiarity of the past, and dive into the uncertainty of the future. My destiny will not unfold if I drag the past along with me on this quest. I must say goodbye to the old, and make room for the new. I must grieve the loss of the old, the familiar, the comfortable, and celebrate the re-birth of the new, the strange, and the uncertain.
Yesterday, I had a close encounter with the thin veil between breath and no-breath, between living and dying, between being fully awake and sleepwalking, and today, my breath is smooth, my vision is sharp, and my direction never more clear. Today I am living, because yesterday I felt death.
Please Don’t Swallow Trump’s Poisonous Bait (March 2016)
I’ve seen a lot of anger and rage being expressed about the current political scene. In other words, there has been a lot of highly charged reactions towards Donald Trump’s presence within our political system. Personally, I’ve experienced a gamut of thoughts and emotions – shame, anger, disgust, WTF?, disbelief, denial, empathy, compassion, and pain, to name several. However, I do see Trump’s presence as being extremely important feedback for our society to help reflect upon where we truly are at as a people. I see Trump as being the muck raker that has stirred up a lot of suppressed thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, emotions, opinions, ignorance, and assumptions that have been lurking below the surface of our Nation’s consciousness for a very long time. With this noted, I see Trump as a meaningful character in the larger scheme of things. Just to be clear, I believe he would be a complete disaster as the President of the U.S.A., or any political position for that matter, but his presence is valuable information. To see his value one must be able to see one’s own emotional reaction and understand the standpoint this is coming from.
When we react exclusively with rage against someone like Trump, we are actually giving him more power; our rage feeds into the negative field he is revealing, generating, and perpetuating. I wish more of us understood the fundamental weakness within any embodiment of the oppositional identity. In other words, when we get stuck in the fight – no matter if it is about the environment, politics, religion, diversity, inequality, or any other important issue – we can loose track of our own power’s effectiveness, and loose our selves in the myopic power-struggle. To defeat/heal Trump, and all the dis-ease he is raking to the surface, we must be willing to meet him with love, respect, and compassion, because this is what he is lacking. When I look into Trump, I see a very small person who is buried in suffering and ignorance; when I look into Trump, I feel compassion for his lost humanity; I feel compassion for our collective lost humanity.
Please don’t swallow Trump’s poisonous bait; anger and rage is a poison that destroys the one who holds it when it is meant for someone else.
The Frog in The Warming Pot: Consciousness, the Brain, Technology, Nature, and the Normalcy of Modernity (December 2016)
This paper is an inquiry into the intersections between consciousness, the human brain, the use of digital technology, the “civilized” modern world’s relationship to Nature, “normalcy,” and the implications on self-knowledge and human nature. How is our brain and consciousness affected by how we choose to interact with our built and natural environments? The standpoint of this paper is rooted within a critical inquiry through the lens of transformative leadership informed by a sociocultural filter. This inquiry is guided by questions like: How is the normalized use of high-tech devices (e.g., smartphones and other screen devices) changing how we perceive and relate to one another and to the more-than-human world? What are the potential long-term neuroplastic consequences of how we are choosing to interact with our high-tech world? How much of our capacity to expand our consciousness is being limited by our sociocultural norms and political struggles? How much of our “pathology” and its associated suffering is actually “caused” by our aversion to social discomfort, and discomfort in general? Do people truly understand the potential long-term neurological, and behavioral, affects of the everyday/everywhere use of high-tech screen devices, and the consequences upon our development as conscious beings? Are the masses of the modern high-tech world truly informed as to what they are consenting to participate within? Has the collective use of technologies, which change our brains, and not necessarily for the better (e.g., the shortening of attentional capacities and the decrease of facial recognition of emotions), become a system of being, relating, knowing, and doing, in and of itself? How much “life of its own” does this high-tech sociocultural system truly have? What will it take for modern humans to wake up to the truly unsustainable nature of our built environment, of our humanly constructed systems and infrastructures?
Consciousness. What is consciousness? In The Human Brain Book (2nd ed.), Rita Carter notes, “consciousness is essential—without it, life would have no meaning” (2009, p. 178), and working from this very basic operationalization, one can see how vital “meaning” is to the conscious experience of being human; we are meaning-making creatures, and it is through consciousness that we ascribe meaning to this human life on Earth. In other words, consciousness is our lived experience as human beings, and from this basic premise, one can ask: What is the place of “normalcy” within the experience of consciousness? What “meanings” are we normalizing? In Welcome to postnormal times, by Ziauddin Sardar (2009), the concept of “normalcy” in our modern area is put in its place. “Much of what we have taken as normal, conventional and orthodox just does not work anymore. Indeed, normality itself is revealed to be the root of all our ills” (2009, p. 2). More and more of us are seeing the truth in what Sardar is claiming here—the normalcy of modern life, the humanly constructed systems built upon the domination of the natural world, is a pathway to collective self-destruction, to a self-imposed genocide. If this is true, the intersecting scientific findings of climate change, mass extinction, systemic environmental degradation, and a multitude of inextricably interconnected social justice issues, all lead to an underlying problem with the consciousness of modern humans; the meanings being ascribed to the modern way of life—the values, assumptions, and beliefs that support modernity—are a from of diseased consciousness. Can we not image a better future for all beings on Earth? “To a very large extent our current impasse represents a failure of imagination. Or rather, subservience of imagination to orthodoxy” (Sardar, 2009, p. 9). Where is the ecocentric creative consciousness that will help us constructively adapt to our increasingly complex world? “The most important ingredients for coping with postnormal times…are imagination and creativity. Why? Because we have no other way of dealing with complexity, contradictions and chaos” (Sardar, 2009, p. 9).
Normalcy as pathology. When one applies a cross-cultural lens to mental health and illness, to concepts like “disorders,” “functionality,” and “normalcy,” one starts to see a fundamental problem with the pathology paradigm. Oliver Sacks, in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: And Other Clinical Tales, addresses the slippery slope of mental health diagnoses and disorders, and he does so when he notes, “[w]e are in strange waters here, where all the usual considerations may be reversed—where illness may be wellness, and normality illness, where excitement may be either bondage or release, and where reality may lie in ebriety, not sobriety….” (1970, p. 107). This challenging observation from Sacks, points to the relative nature of the quality of consciousness. Does this mean there is no such thing as mental illness or brain disorders? No, making this claim would be a grave error in thinking, but the larger point here is that the value placed on the quality and type of consciousness is potentially political by nature. In other words, what is “normal” or “acceptable” in any one sociocultural context should always be viewed with a critical eye and through the lens of power, influence, and authority. Who benefits from these diagnoses and social labels? Who gains power through the paradigm of pathology, and what influence do these labels have on the overall population? What are the systemic power-differentials created by the pathology paradigm? What are the political implications of the intersubjectivity of those with these labels and those in positions of power, influence, and authority?
Sacks speaks to the disorder-generating influence of intersubjectivity and the pressures of socially constructed behavioral norms juxtaposed with the healing influence of the natural world, when he notes the following:
The presence of others, other people, excite and rattle him, force him into an endless, frenzied, social chatter, a veritable delirium of identity-making and -seeking; the presence of plants, a quiet garden, the non-human order, making no social or human demands upon him, allow this identity-delirium to relax, to subside; and by their quiet, non-human self-sufficiency and completeness allow him a rare quietness and self-sufficiency of his own, by offering (beneath, or beyond, all merely human identities and relations) a deep wordless communion with Nature itself, and with this the restored sense of being in the world, being real. (1970, p. 115)
I can relate deeply to this description of finding a restored sense of belonging in the world through a simple interaction with the more-than-human world, a sense of being real. Over decades of working as an outdoor adventure leader, I’ve lead thousands of people out into the natural world on different types of activities (e.g., rafting, kayaking, canoeing, skiing, hiking, biking, fishing, etc.) and I often notice a sense of ease that comes over people when they truly bring their consciousness into partnership with Nature. This is not true for all, but for many there appears to be a return trip into a primordial state of consciousness that transforms their very way of being and relating. Just as the built environment of modernity changes the way our brains are wired, the natural environment of Nature can rewire our brains back to a more nature-based consciousness where we are more at ease and closer to our primordial source (Selhub & Logan, 2012). The measurable affects of change from our environment upon our neurobiology are examples of the plastic nature of our brains and neurocircuitry.
Neuroplasticity and the culturally modified brain. In The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, by Norma Doidge (2007), it is made clear that neuroplasticity is not a value neutral process of being human. In other words, neuroplasticity’s affects upon how our brains function does so within a spectrum of change, and this neurological “change” is not necessarily a positive transformation. With respect to the relative nature of neuroplasticity, Doidge notes the following:
The plastic paradox is that the same neuroplastic properties that allow us to change our brains and produce more flexible behaviors can also allow us to produce more rigid ones. All people start out with plastic potential. Some of us develop into increasingly flexible children and stay that way through our adult lives. For others of us, the spontaneity, creativity, and unpredictability of childhood gives way to a routinized existence that repeats the same behavior and turns us into rigid caricatures of ourselves. Anything that involves unvaried repetition—our careers, cultural activities, skills, and neuroses—can lead to rigidity. Indeed, it is because we have a neuroplastic brain that we can develop these rigid behaviors in the first place. (2007, p. 242)
I see the “plastic paradox” as being a potential factor in why we as a collective are moving so slowly to make the needed systems change—to transform our systemic way of life to be aligned with the Earth’s natural systems—to stop the normalized ecocide of our humanly constructed infrastructure and ways of relating to the more-than-human world, which actually sustains our very existence. Our modern “civilized” cultures have become neuroplastically rigid. Modern high-tech cultures have become existentially disconnected from the external source (e.g., the natural world) of information, which we traditionally utilized to create our cultures as a form of environmental adaptation. Modernity has “cultured” our brains in a manner that is actually leading us to our own self-constructed systemic destruction. With respect to this idea of our brains becoming “cultured,” Doidge notes the following:
Neuroplastic research has shown us that every sustained activity ever mapped— including physical activities, sensory activities, learning, thinking, and imagining— changes the brain as well as the mind. Cultural ideas and activities are no exception. Our brains are modified by the cultural activities we do—be they reading, studying music, or learning new languages. We all have what might be called a culturally modified brain, and as cultures evolve, they continually lead to new changes in the brain. (2007, p. 288)
Do people truly understand the potential long-term neurological, and behavioral, affects of the everyday/everywhere use of high-tech screen devices, and the consequences upon our development as conscious beings? Are the masses of people within the modern high-tech world truly informed as to what they are consenting to participate within? How mindful are we collectively being through our neuroplastic process of modifying our brains through our social constructions of culture? Where is this relationship leading us?
We collectively create our culture, and our culture creates us individually; we collectively create our cultural consciousness, and our cultural consciousness creates our individual consciousnesses. This is an ancient dialectical relationship, and one that supposedly makes us uniquely “human” among our animal kingdom relatives. For the vast majority of human history, this developmental relationship of consciousness has been rooted within the Earth’s ecological systems, within the Earth’s being, within the Gaia consciousness, but relatively recently, this relationship is taking place within a virtual reality of high-tech digital-screen landscapes. There is a fundamental difference in the quality and timing of these two contexts of consciousness development. In short, the natural context of development does not nurture the ADHD (attention deficit hyper-activity disorder) like the high-tech context. Addressing how we are changed by these screen mediums of technology, Doidge notes the following:
Television, music videos, and video games, all of which use television techniques, unfold at a much faster pace than real life, and they are getting faster, which causes people to develop an increased appetite for high-speed transitions in those media. It is the form of the television medium—cuts, edits, zooms, pans, and sudden noises—that alters the brain, by activating what Pavlov called the ‘orienting response,’ which occurs whenever we sense a sudden change in the world around us, especially a sudden movement. We instinctively interrupt whatever we are doing to turn, pay attention, and get our bearings. The orientation response evolved, no doubt, because our forebears were both predators and prey and needed to react to situations that could be dangerous or could provide sudden opportunities for such things as food or sex, or simply to novel situations. (2007, pp. 309-310)
How is the normalized use of high-tech devices (e.g., smartphones and other screen devices) changing how we perceive and relate to one another and to the more-than-human world? What are the potential long-term neuroplastic consequences of how we are choosing to interact with our high-tech world? Is this historically useful aspect of our brains’ activity—the orientation response—being hijacked by our normalized use of high-tech screen devices? Where is this increased fragmentation of our consciousness leading us?
Social psychology and technology. In Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other, Sherry Turkle (2011) lays out a compelling argument as to why we should be extremely concerned with how the use of high-tech screen devices are changing our consciousness and social brains, and not necessarily for the better. Addressing the twisting of perception—what is real? —that can result from living our lives through virtual realities we’ve co-created through our high-tech digital networks and screens, Turkle notes, “[w]hen part of your life is lived in virtual places—it can be Second Life, a computer game, a social networking site—a vexed relationship develops between what is true and what is ‘true here,’ true in simulation” (2011, p. 153). This “vexed relationship” between what is real and what is real virtually is deeply concerning when one juxtaposes it alongside the findings within environmental psychology that claim a correlation between pro-environmental attitudes and beliefs, and a real relationship with the natural environment, especially one established early on in the lifespan.
We live in a time where more people live in the urban environment than do in the rural, and this is a systems multiplying affect when one considers how our collective consciousness is potentially shifting to the virtual reality of the high-tech digital screen landscape. If the virtual world is just as real as the physical world, why would anyone care to support pro-environmental policies, attitudes, and beliefs? “To those who have lost a sense of physical connection, [digital] connectivity suggests that you make your own page, your own place” (Turkle, 2011, p. 157). The problem with this type of existentially, disconnected, digitalized consciousness is that creating one’s own virtual place does not simultaneously generate the needed livable place we all vitally need within the “real” world here on Earth. Gaia consciousness has boundaries of behavior (e.g., Natural Law) that all life must follow to be a part of a life-sustaining biosphere. The biosphere does not have a place for our relativity, virtual realities, and diseased values. The biosphere requires us to have a consciousness that acknowledges and respects the natural boundaries that are innate within ecological systems.
Pointing to how our use of technology is disabling our ability to recognize the need for healthy boundaries, Turkle notes, “[n]ow demarcations blur as technology accompanies us everywhere, all the time. We are too quick to celebrate the continual presence of technology that knows no respect for traditional and helpful lines in the sand” (2011, p. 162). Just because we can, does not mean we should! Has the freedom of technology liberated us too much from our ancestral boundaries of ecological intelligence and integrity? How much does our use of technology nurture our systemic unsustainability and compulsion of consumerism? “In a tethered world, too much is possible, yet few can resist measuring success against a metric of what they could accomplish if they were always available” (Turkle, 2011, p. 164). Are we modifying our brains, through the use of technology, in a manner that existentially disconnects us from the Way of Nature and the natural pace of life on Earth? “As we communicate in ways that ask for almost instantaneous responses, we don’t allow sufficient space to consider complicated problems” (Turkle, 2011, p. 166). We live in a world, the “real” world, which is filled with complexity and uncertainty, but our use of technology is decreasing our ability to understand complexity. How does Turkle’s work potentially point to a deep-down desire to oversimplify our world in order to consume it more rapidly and easily? “Social media ask us to represent ourselves in simplified ways. And then, faced with an audience, we feel pressure to conform to these simplifications” (Turkle, 2011, p. 185).
What does Turkle’s work reveal about the nature of our collective self-knowledge and ability to be self-reflective? “The text-driven world of rapid response does not make self-reflection impossible but does little to cultivate it” (Turkle, 2011, p. 172). Without Gaia consciousness and the ability to practice self-reflection, which takes time, the ability to be comfortable with solitude, and a respect for the inner directed sense of self, our collective self-knowledge is not ecoliterate (e.g., emotional, social, and ecological intelligence). With respect to a shift in a collective sense of self, Turkle notes:
Sociologist David Riesman, writing in the mid-1950’s, remarked on the American turn from an inner- to an other-directed sense of self. Without a firm inner sense of purpose, people looked to their neighbors for validation. Today, cell phone in hand, other-directedness is raised to a higher power. (2011, p. 176)
I think it is vital to recognize the key role of “purpose” within this relationship to technology and its affects on our consciousness. What is the deeper “purpose” of our high-tech world? What is our collective sense of purpose in this modern world?
Does all this call for alarm mean we have fundamentally changed our consciousness through the use of technology? Not necessarily. Turkle helps with the need to intelligently contextualize this concerning type of cultural modification of our social brains and consciousness, with the following:
Again, technology, on its own, does not cause this new way of relating to our emotions and other people. But it does make it easier. Over time, a new style of being with each other becomes socially sanctioned. In every era, certain ways of relating come to feel natural. In our time, if we can be continually in touch, needing to be continually in touch does not seem a problem or a pathology but an accommodation to what technology affords. It becomes the norm. (2011, p. 177)
This is where the metaphor of ‘the frog being slowly cooked in a warming pot’ enters into the storyline. How insidious is this high-tech digital-screen cultural modification of our social brains and consciousness? “But are we to think of these as pathologies? For as social mores change, what once seemed ‘ill’ can come to seem normal” (Turkle, 2011, p. 178). I’m hearing an echo of Oliver Sacks here and the need to create some distance from our relationship to technology in order to get more of an overview and historical perspective on where we are headed as a People.
How much of our capacity to expand our consciousness is being limited by our sociocultural norms? Another important point is to acknowledge how our sociocultural systems take on a life of their own, especially when norms support their existence, which makes transforming them extremely challenging. If there is no problem identified, then there is no need to change. Has the collective use of technologies, which change our brains, and not for the better (e.g., the shortening of attentional capacities and the decrease of facial recognition of emotions), become a system of being, relating, knowing, and doing, in and of itself? How much “life” does this high-tech sociocultural system truly have?
Bounded intelligence? The use of technology (e.g., computer games and the internet) can lead to the claim that the younger generation is actually getting smarter. However, what values are we placing on what we call intelligence? Contextually, historically, what does it mean to be getting smarter? Does becoming more “effective” and “efficient” within a fundamentally unsustainable system really equate into a valuable type of intelligence? I would say yes, if the youth are focusing their increased intelligence and consciousness upon transforming our sociocultural systems to become sustainable and ecocentric, but if not, then I’d say no! To become more “intelligent” within a fundamentally unsustainable humanly constructed system, a system gone mad with its domination over the natural world, is to become potentially more insane through a form of bounded intelligence or bounded consciousness. In Thinking in Systems: A Primer, Meadows (2008) addresses this issue and offers a way to view our systemic insanity through the lens of “[b]ounded rationality: The logic that leads to decisions or actions that make sense within one part of a system but are not reasonable within the broader context or when seen as a part of the wider system” (2008, p. 187). As a transformative leader working to help expand our collective consciousness to include the more-than-human world—the Gaia consciousness—I see a vital need to understand the limits of our current forms of bounded rationality around what we view as “intelligent” with respect to how we are collectively using technology. Without this understanding, all the creativity in the world will not change these systems bound up in rigid and encapsulated rationality. How has the internet modified our perceptions, assumptions, attitudes, and beliefs surrounding intelligence and knowledge in a biased way that values information over life-sustaining wisdom? How has this type of high-tech brain modification altered our human consciousness away from its ecological self and Earth-Wisdom, away from the life-sustaining Gaia consciousness? Have we become so “intelligent” that we have lost touch with our emotional connection to the Earth and to our true nature?
Emotions as vital feedback. Emotions are critical information for our overall wellbeing and experience of consciousness. With respect to the role of emotions and how they relate to consciousness, Carter notes:
Emotions can be thought of as body changes that prompt us to act. They have evolved to get us to do what we have to do in order to survive and pass our genes on to the next generation. To reinforce their effectiveness, emotionally triggered actions are associated with pleasant or unpleasant conscious feelings. Emotions tend to be short-lived, lasting a few hours at most, but they can lead to more persistent conditions called moods. (2009, p. 124)
If emotions are truly meant to be a form of psychosocial-feedback, and supposed to help us “survive,” then where are we headed with the current level of sociocultural toxicity that is palpable in our social milieu? Are we as a Nation, as a People, actually using our individual and collective emotional intelligence in the way it was ‘meant to be’ used? Are we truly using our emotions as adaptive information, or are we using them to co-create an increasingly fragmented and polarized society? With the current toxic mood of our Nation, who’s survival is being served? We don not teach emotional intelligence, at least not at the normative level, and how is this institutionalized emotional ignorance holding back the expansion of our collective consciousness? How is our culture of entertainment, with its focus on drama and violence, affecting us at the unconscious emotional levels? Our modern consciousness is in desperate need for an ecoliteracy (e.g., emotional, social, and ecological intelligence) intervention; our survival depends upon our ability to adapt more intelligently through our emotional and social interactions.
The social brain. With respect to our social brains and how we collectively create the conscious experience of being human, Carter notes:
Humans are exceptionally social creatures. We need each other for mutual support and protection, and to this end we have evolved brains that are exquisitely sensitive to others of our kind. The social brain is a set of functions that between them ensure that we can operate in a tightly knit community. It includes the ability to communicate with and to understand other people, and to keep track of our social position in relation to them. In order to achieve this, we also need to be able to generate a sense of being a distinct self. (Carter, 2009, p. 132)
Humans have survived through a psychosocial process of collaboration and empathy, it is our social brain that enables us to create sociocultural systems as well as understand when these systems need to be changed for the betterment of the collective. Our brains want to connect socially at deep levels, and we intuitively know our survival depends upon one another, but our current diseased sociopolitical and sociocultural environments condition us to exist in an emotional state of distrust and fear of the “other.” This process of othering includes the natural world. The dominator system of social organization, which is the normative of our modern social brains, goes against hundreds of thousands of years of evolution based on collaboration and partnership (Eisler, 1987; Eisler & Montuori, 2001). Where is this current form of sociocultural emotional modeling taking us as a species? Can we truly survive, let alone thrive, in a collective emotional environment that trains our brains to be so fearful and to reject our deep soul-love for one another, for all life, and for the Earth? Is this “less than loving” collective emotional environment creating a long-term state of cognitive dissonance? If this is rue, is the ever-present unconscious emotional state of distrust creating an increasing internal fragmentation of our true nature as loving beings? Are we becoming a collective schizophrenic? How can we transform our educational institutions in a way that we intelligently use what we know about the more positive aspects of ‘human nature’ and the contagious nature of emotions, to create a collective emotional environment that nurtures our deep desire for the interconnectedness of soul-love?
The interpreter. In Who’s in charge?: Free will and the science of the brain, Michael Gazzaniga (2011) writes about the “interpreter module” (pp. 75-103). It is vital to recognize we all have an innate tendency to see the word as we think it is as opposed to how it truly is, and Gazzaniga’s focus on the role of the interpreter module—the internal process of making sense of the external chaos of our lived world—helps us to better understand just how murky “reality” truly is.
We all have internal scripts about who we are to the world and how the world sees us and treats us, and with more awareness about the role of the interpreter module, I think we would be able to transform our society into a much more emotionally and socially intelligent nation of People. How often do we misinterpret what is truly going on at the interpersonal level? How many times do we walk through our lives and think we are experiencing the external world through some sort of “objective” truth?
When we understand we have a built in desire to seek simplistic cause and effect relationships in a world where they are not so easily pinpointed, nor even exist, we can create more compassion for how we tend to miss-interpret each other. Gazzaniga describes a research experiment where the subjects experienced a very negative interpersonal interaction, because their interpreter module was primed to look for negative information. “The interpreter was driven to infer cause and effect. It continually explains the world using the cues from the surroundings” (Gazzaniga, 2011, p. 86). How are our uniquely lived lives—socially, racially, economically, politically, historically, spiritually, epistemologically, etc.—priming us to look for a specific form of information that might not actually even be there?
Hijacking the interpreter. Being someone who is fundamentally critical of modern civilization’s validity, I have grave concerns about how we are “medicating” ourselves to deal with the existential anxiety of this intrinsically unsustainable built environment. Our nervous systems have not evolved to be able to deal with the constant distress (e.g., urban press) of modern life. From this starting point, it is quite normal to feel some sort of anxiety within the normalcy of our modern lives, and when we have a cultural aversion to the experience of anxiety, we are collectively living in a state of denial of vital instinctual information that our “reality” is offering up to our interpreter modules. “Drugs that reduce anxiety are commonly taken, but anxiety is not always a bad thing… That burst of adrenaline has proven successful over hundreds of thousands of years of evolution” (Gazzaniga, 2011, p. 97). Are we as a culture willing to question what is “causing” our experience with anxiety? Why does our culture have such a negative value on such a vital form of feedback? What are we afraid of learning from this feedback?
We are supposed to feel anxious! Experiencing anxiety is a vital part of our evolutionary pathway; we cannot separate our anxiety from our humanity. “If you are taking a drug to suppress anxiety, however, you don’t get that increased arousal and wariness when you see a menacing situation. Your monitoring system has been hijacked and feeds the interpreter bad information” (Gazzaniga, 2011, p. 97). How much “bad information” have we normalized through our collective aversion to feeling the natural experience of anxiety? “You don’t feel anxious and your interpretive system doesn’t classify the situation as dangerous; it makes a different interpretation and you don’t take special care” (Gazzaniga, 2011, p. 97). Maybe we wouldn’t be in such a collective state of denial about climate change, mass extinction, and our generally toxic way of modern life if we stopped medicating ourselves and actually faced our anxiety?
New vocabularies. When we examine our collective stories—science is a story of inquiry and knowing—and we do so from a place of critical inquiry with the intention of being an active participant within the choice of perpetuating the status quo or working intelligently to disrupt the unquestioned normalcy, we cannot help but see the vital role our language plays within our particular way of knowing. For so many reasons, we need new an expansion of our use of language, and I see Gazzaniga addressing this when he acknowledges the need for “a unique language, which has yet to be developed, is needed to capture the thing that happens when mental processes constrain the brain and vice versa” (2011, pp. 219-220). Our Western contemporary consciousness is averse to paradoxical language, and sees it as being a sort of self-defeating contradiction, but this is not necessarily true. Addressing how paradox stems for the perspective one chooses to utilize, Gazzaniga notes, “[i]n one kind of vocabulary it is where downward causation meets upward causation. In another vocabulary it is not there at all but in the space between brains that are interacting with each other” (2011, p. 220). We are living in a time in history where a “unique language” is desperately needed! I see much of our collective “stuckness” as being rooted in our tendency to interpret the world through forms of logo-centrism and generally myopic, and even arrogant, uses of language. “It is what happens at the interface of our layered hierarchical existence that holds the answer to our quest for understanding mind/brain relationships. How are we to describe that?” (Gazzaniga, 2011, p. 220).
I do not consider myself a “reductionist” or a “determinist” because I have studied too much information that does not align with these ways of knowing and seeing the world, but I sincerely appreciate Gazzaniga’s work, and couldn’t agree more with how he ended the book. “Understanding how to develop a vocabulary for those layered interactions, for me, constitutes the scientific problem of this century” (Gazzaniga, 2011, p. 220). To understand “who’s in charge?” and the potential illusion of “free will,” one needs to be able to utilize complexity and systems thinking, especially the reality of systems nested within systems, and at this point in time, be quite comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity, which are at the heart of understanding human nature and consciousness.
Love and the left hemisphere. In The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Iain McGilchrist (2009) argues the left hemisphere is becoming a dangerous dominator over the right hemisphere. McGilchrist invites the reader to “image” what it would be like if the left hemisphere completely dominated the right hemisphere’s influence upon the construction and maintenance of our world, he notes, “there would be a loss of the broader picture, and a substitution of a more narrowly focused, restricted, but detailed, view of the world, making it perhaps difficult to maintain a coherent overview” (2009, p. 428). Image? This “imagined” world already exists within our highly fragmented and institutionally siloed ways of being, relating, knowing, and doing. It is quite easy to see how our systemic crises (e.g., ecological, climate, mass extinction, wars, social injustices, etc.) all have a correlation with the left hemisphere’s myopic world-view. “The left hemisphere’s assault on our embodied nature is not just an assault on our bodies, but on the embodied nature of the world around us” (McGilchrist, 2009, p. 440).
McGilchrist notes how it is “love” that brings us together when the left hemisphere wants to separate and delineate all of existence. McGilchrist points out that it is “the body, the spirit and art… [which] are all vehicles of love” (2009, p. 445). I claim, just like other transformative leaders before me (e.g., Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas K. Gandhi), it will be the power of love, or what is referred to as Love-Force (satyagraha) or Soul-Force that will be our liberator from the self-inflicted tyranny of our dominator hyper-left hemispheric pathway to nowhere. “If someone gives us pain through ignorance, we shall win him through love…. Nonviolence is a dormant state. In the waking state, it is love. Ruled by love, the world goes on” (Kellerman, 2010, p. 238). Gandhi utilized an internal power source that came from the highest authority; Gandhi’s internal power came from a divine source. “Satyagraha is pure soul-force. Truth is the very substance of the soul” (Kellerman, 2010, p. 238). Gandhi and Dr. King both knew that Love is the ultimate Truth and authority. “Ultimately, these elements are aspects of the same phenomenon: for love is the attractive power of the Other, which the right hemisphere experiences, but which the left hemisphere does not understand and sees as an impediment to its authority” (McGilchrist, 2009, p. 445). I can hear the left hemisphere now, “Love? What is love? Love is not practical, rational, or real. Love is not the answer.” Well, I say to the left hemisphere, “You are no authority on love!”
Metaphor and transforming into Gaia consciousness. How can we apply the understandings of personal transformation to the need for collectively expanding our consciousness into the natural world, into Gaia consciousness? In Metzner’s (1980) Ten Classical Metaphors of Self-Transformation, he writes about the “self-remembering” as a process of integrating the fragmented way of being and reconnecting to our primordial source. When we experience personal transformation “we re-member our connection to the prime source of Self” (1980, p. 54). Metzner writes about the “self-remembering” (1980, p. 54) as a process of integrating the fragmented being and reconnecting to our source. The concept of being “fragmented” is common in psychology and mental health counseling with respect to being in a state of distress and the general experience of dis-eased consciousness. “Fragmented” is also a way to understand many disease states where the body’s systems are not functioning in an integrated way. Integration is a common goal of healing; personal transformation is reintegration to our original wholeness. Quoting the Third Zen Patriarch, Metzner writes, “When the ten thousand things are viewed in their oneness, We return to the origin and remain where we have always been” (1980, p. 54). Transformation, individually or collectively, is about unlearning as much as it is about learning.
Another metaphor Metzner writes about, which resonates with my experience with personal transformation is “from separation to oneness” (1980, p. 55). The concept of “at-one-ment” speaks to how I view transformation as a healing of our existential fragmentation. Our industrialized Western cultural consciousness teaches us we are separate from the natural world, as well as a general either/or false dichotomy of separation and polarization. Metzner writes, “[t]he process of healing the divided consciousness, of blending and integrating the polarities of the psyche… the split between male and female, the split between good and evil, and the division between man and creature” (1980, p. 55). With this particular metaphor in mind, personal transformation is a fundamental change in how we relate to ourselves, to one another, to the more-than-human world, and to the Earth itself. In a culture blinded by the illusion of separateness and either/or thinking, how does one best facilitate transformation through the metaphor of separation to oneness?
In our “civilized” modern way of life, which is existentially separated from Nature, Metzner’s metaphor of the journey “from being in exile to coming home” (1980, p. 58) resonates deeply with how I view the world. As an outdoor adventure leader, almost ever time I journey out into the Wilds of Nature I have the feeling of “coming home,” and for me, nature is the ultimate context to experience our primal source. Also, the more time I spend in the Wild, the more I feel as I am in a state of exile when I return to “civilization.” As Metzner notes, “[a]nd so, paradoxically, the closer we come to the source-center from which we originated, the more acutely we sense our estrangement” (1980, p. 59). I’m not claiming that one must venture deep into the Wilds of Nature to enter into the Gaia consciousness, but I do believe the natural world is the ultimate source of our original consciousness, our true human Nature, and we’d all be much better off spending more quality time partnering with the natural environment.
A methodology for expanding consciousness. In Synergic Inquiry: A Collaborative Action Methodology, Tang & Joiner (2006) note consciousness can be viewed in multiple dimensions (e.g., visible, logical, and mythical), and through the practice of synergic inquiry (SI)—a methodological cycling of self knowing, other knowing, difference holding, and difference transcending—one can expand one’s consciousness to include the different styles of others. In the following, Tang and Joiner point to our systemic crisis in relationship and error in perception, and call attention to how these assumptions are often the source of many of our conflicts:
A serious obstacle to good human relations is that we are so rarely aware of the hidden assumptions behind our own style [of consciousness]. Failing to recognize that which shapes all we think, state, do, or propose, we do not see that these assumptions are not necessarily the same as those of the people with whom we interact. The task of SI is to help us become aware of our hidden assumptions so that we can expand our consciousness from our own habitual preference for either the visible, logical, or mythical level, until our consciousness extends to all three dimensions. In addition, SI reframes what differences are and uses them as creative resources for human development, social problem solving, and conflict resolution. (p. 21)
Many of us have a tendency to distort the “other” in order to not experience the natural discomfort that can be associated with experiencing other types of consciousness, and diversity in general. Tang and Joiner address this common error in relating when they note, “to understand other consciousnesses… without distorting them…. requires a good deal of openness and a capacity to empathize to… consciousnesses that are different from our own and keep from judging on the basis of one’s own perspective” (2006, p. 31). How can we learn from methodologies like Synergic Inquiry in order to expand our consciousnesses to include those very different from ourselves, and especially those from the more-than-human world?
I think it is very difficult for many of us to think deeply about how we truly relate to the more-than-human world, and how the more-than-human world experiences our collective ways of relating towards them. I realize this line of inquiry can be labeled as stemming from a romantic anthropomorphic perspective on the natural world, but I challenge that anthropocentric view as being existentially encapsulated. In other words, claiming a person cannot take on the perspective of the more-than-human world is a form of hypocritical anthropocentrism or anthropomorphism circulating back upon its self and collapsing under its own weight of critique. How do we encourage others to take on the more-than-human perspective when it comes to relating to all life on Earth as well as to Earth? How can the process of Synergic Inquiry (Tang & Joiner, 2006) be adapted and applied to the conflicts between our humanly constructed systems, which are destroying the natural world, and the larger context that is the more-than-human world?
Is anything sacred? In Is a Dewdrop Sacred, or is it Secular? Lata Mani (2009) addresses how there is little room within the dominant narratives for a holistic view on the sacredness of all existence. Speaking directly to this potential dilemma, Mani notes, “for one with a spiritual outlook there is no line, either conceptual or experiential, that definitively demarcates the sacred from the secular. There is, as yet, no place in the current debate for such a perspective” (2009, p. 120). How do we collectively create space for this much-needed perspective on the sacred nature of all existence? Is there a future for resacralizing our collective way of relating? If we cannot collectively agree to a shared purpose of resacralizing all our relationships through a Gaia consciousness, I do not see much of a future for humanity or life on Earth. Transforming our humanly constructed systems into a sacred alignment with the more-than-human world would constitute a partnership based upon truly life-sustaining intelligence. This type of sacred partnership would embody what Gaia consciousness means.
Partnership as sacred consciousness. In The Partnership Organization: A Systems Approach, Eisler & Montuori (2001) characterize the partnership model of organization with the following:
Partnership systems are trust-based, and characterized by equalitarianism and “flatter” organization, flexible hierarchies of actualization (where power is guided by values such as caring and caretaking), by nature-based spirituality, a low degree of violence built into the system, and gender equality and equity. (p. 12)
This description of what it means to socially organize through a partnership consciousness embodies the type of transformative leadership we so vitally need in our modern world. Our current dominator system of social organization, with its power-over social dynamics, exists in an alternative reality from the evolutionary pathway of our consciousness into being Homo sapiens. It is the life-sustaining intelligence of the power-with social dynamic that permeates Gaia consciousness. However, it will take more than this type of descriptive language and analysis to actually transform our way of socially organizing from the dominator system—with its patriarchy, White supremacy, racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and Crony Capitalism—into a truly partnership social organization and consciousness. We will need to challenge the power structures of domination and the language that supports its continued corruption of social capitol.
From dominator to partnership consciousness. In Joining the Resistance, Carol Gilligan (2011) speaks to how language can cover up, and reveal, the deeper meanings within a sociocultural system. Gilligan notes, “[i]n the culture of patriarchy (whether overt or hidden), the different voice with its ethic of care sounds feminine. Heard in its own right and on its own terms, it is a human voice” (2011, p. 25). A core characteristic of Gaia consciousness is understanding how our current sociocultural frameworks, and systems, view ways of being that are considered “feminine” and “caring.” If we are going to transform our collective consciousness into a more life-sustaining, a more caring way of experiencing this being human, then we will have to confront the divisive linguistic power-grabbing of the dominator paradigm. Language can reveal the implicitly held assumptions, values, and beliefs within a system of social organization. Gilligan points to these implicitly held system elements when she compares a patriarchal framework with a democratic framework:
Within a patriarchal framework, care is a feminine ethic. Within a democratic framework, care is a human ethic. A feminist ethic of care is a different voice within a patriarchal culture because it joins reason with emotion, mind with body, self with relationships, men with women, resisting the divisions that maintain a patriarchal order. (2011, p. 22)
Within this challenge to patriarchy and its fragmented ways of being, knowing, relating, and doing, I hear an echo of Metzner’s metaphors on transformation; I hear a call to integrate into our full humanity; I hear a call to integrate our fragmented consciousness. Gilligan’s call to resist the dominator through a different voice, reveals how this “difference arises from joining reason with emotion, self with relationships. Undoing patriarchal splits and hierarchies, it articulates democratic norms and values: the importance of everyone having a voice, being listened to carefully, and heard with respect” (2011, p. 24). If we are going to transform our consciousness into the partnership model of social organization, we will have to use this different voice and the implicit assumptions, values, and beliefs that give it its sociocultural tone and linguistic meanings.
The Transforming Frog
The water in the sociocultural pot is getting very warm. In fact, the water is getting hot! Many of us are waking up to the reality of this powerful metaphor—the frog being unaware of its slow demise in the increasingly warming pot of water—that we can no longer afford to be comfortable in the ecocidal consciousness of modernity’s dominator paradigm. We are the frog, and the psychosocial process of normalization is the warming water. Now more than ever, we need to work diligently to expand our consciousnesses to include the more-than-human world; our survival depends on our ability to embody Gaia consciousness, and become true partners with the natural world. In order to recreate our built environments to partner with Nature, we will have to dig deep into ourselves, into how we each participate in our social organizations, to see how we exercise our power, influence, and authority. We will need to reflect upon how we use systemic power differentials and social privilege. How have each of us, unknowingly or not, perpetuated the power-over dynamic of our dominator system of social organization? How are each of us working to disrupt, or not, the status quo of the dominator paradigm and its dis-eased consciousness? This embodiment of Gaia consciousness is nothing really new, and actually it is a transformative journey to our original Home, to our True Nature as being fully human with the Earth. Expanding into Gaia consciousness is a re-membering of who we truly are to each other, to the more-than-human world, to the Earth, and to the Cosmos. Taking on the Gaia consciousness is taking our rightful place in the sacredness of all of creation.
Carter, R. (2014). The human brain book: An illustrated guide to its structures, function, and disorders (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Dorling Kindersley.
Doige, N. (2007). The brain that changes itself: Stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science. New York, NY: Penguin.
Eisler, R. (1987). The chalice and the blade: Our history, our future. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row.
Eisler, R., & Montuori, A. (2001). The partnership organization: A systems approach. OD Practitioner, 33(2), 11-17.
Gazzaniga, M. (2011). Who’s in charge?: Free will and the science of the brain. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Gilligan, C. (2011). Joining the resistance. Malden, MA: Polity Press.
Kellerman, B., (Ed.), (2010). Leadership: Essential selections on power, authority, and influence. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Mani, L. (2009). Is the Dewdrop Sacred, or is it Secular? In Sacred Secular: Contemplative Cultural Critique. New York: Rutledge.
McGilchrist, I. (2009). The master and his emissary: The divided brain and the making of the western world. New Haven, CT: Yale University.
Meadows, D. H. (2008). Thinking in systems: A primer. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green.
Metzner, R. (1980). Ten classical metaphors of self-transformation. The Journal of Tanspersonal Psychology, 12(1), 47-62.
Sacks, O. (1970). The man who mistook his wife for a hat: And other clinical tales. New York, NY: Touchstone.
Sardar, Z. (2010). Welcome to postnormal times. Futures, 42(5), 435-444.
Selhub, E. & Logan, A. (2012). Your brain on nature: The science of nature’s influence on your health, happiness, and vitality. Canada: Wiley.
Tang, Y., & Joiner, C. (2006). Synergic inquiry: A collaborative action methodology. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York: Basic Books.
Arriving at The Leadership of Disobedience (2016)
At what point does being obedient to authority really mean being disobedient to morality? Does legality necessarily mean morality? Is there an ultimate source of authority beyond human constructs? Is love the ultimate power? Does the more-than-human world have a legitimate authority over humanity? Has America lost its revolutionary consciousness? These types of challenging questions can become quite uncomfortable for the comfortable ears of the normative population within any society.
For this paper’s goal of reflecting upon the relationships between power, authority, influence, obedience and dis-obedience, I chose to explore some of Mahatma Gandhi’s writings on Satyagraha, Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, V. I. Lenin’s What is to be done?, and Barbara Kellerman’s Bystanders: Nazi Germany. I also used Marturano & Gosling’s (Eds.) Leadership: The Key Concepts (2008) to ground this reflective analysis in some of the related concepts and terminology. The convergence of these particular choices of the leadership literature has helped me to deepen my understandings of the necessary historical continuity of revolutionary leaders. In other words, I now better understand why Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience was influential to the leadership of Gandhi and King, and why it is vital that transformative leaders have a thorough understanding of how potentially dangerous obedience is within a society, especially when the behaviors that constitute being “obedient” have become completely taken for granted as just being the way things are, just being “reality.”
This reflective inquiry into power, authority, influence, obedience and dis-obedience has also given me deeper insights in the true complexities of leadership and how it is filled with tacit relationships far beyond the common beliefs. Being an ecological leader, I sincerely appreciate the perspective put forth by Rost who sees “authority, power and influence as relationships among people” (Marturano & Gosling, 2008, p. 87). Leadership is not a thing; leadership is an ongoing relationship. As an ecological leader who values the processual nature of all relationships it is my responsibility to be able to understand the tacit aspects of leadership that Rost notes, and especially how “[a] person’s authority, power and influence are not quantifiable” (Marturano & Gosling, 2008, p. 87). As an ecological leader who feels quite confident in my leadership, the process of exploring the tacit relationships between power, authority, influence, obedience and dis-obedience has given me a different taste of some leadership wisdom as well as some humble pie. With respect to wisdom and leadership, Harle notes, the “research indicates that wise people ‘know what they do not know’…a challenge to leaders who demonstrate a degree of honest vulnerability where omniscience is so often an unwritten prerequisite” (Marturano & Gosling, 2008, p. 180). This reflective inquiry into power, authority, influence, obedience and dis-obedience has highlighted the depths of my ignorance with respect to the complex landscape of leadership.
Power. “The subject is power…instruments of leadership” (Kellerman, 2010, p. xxvi). I appreciate how viewing “power” as an instrument of leadership helps to reframe the common meaning of the word that has become so tainted by the historical cycle of the abuse of power through the use of force. The intelligent use of language is a fundamental skill of being a leader, and there may be no better example of one’s personal power than the use of language through one’s voice. With respect to the needed understanding of the power of language for practicing effective leadership, Gandhi noted, “the need for a word to describe this unique power came to be increasingly felt…” (Kellerman, 2010, p. 238). The word was satyagraha, which has lots of meanings, but the one that embodies Gandhi’s use of power is “soul-force” to practice nonviolent civil disobedience. Gandhi utilized an internal power source that came from the highest authority; Gandhi’s internal power came from a divine source. “Satyagraha is pure soul-force. Truth is the very substance of the soul” (Kellerman, 2010, p. 238). Gandhi tapped into this “soul-force” to create an extremely powerful social network of activist who came together to revolt against the unjust ruling of the British Empire over the People of India, and did so through the overwhelming power of nonviolent civil disobedience.
It was both Gandhi’s and King’s ability to use the power of “soul-force,” of nonviolent civil disobedience, to attract and influence great numbers of followers who aided in their revolutionary causes. The real power of nonviolent civil disobedience is within the social relationships between the leader and followers, but also between the followers themselves, and as Dunn notes, “[p]ower is thus entrenched in the relationship between people rather than being an attribute of an individual” (Marturano & Gosling, 2008, p. 130). It is best to view these powerful leaders of revolutionary social movements as not so much as being filled with “individual power” but rather, as the spokes-persons for a collective source of power; Gandhi and King are labels for powerful revolutionary social movements.
Authority. I see both Gandhi and King as gaining their authority through their skillful and ethical use of power and influence. Both of these leaders did not hold “official” positions of authority that truly reflected the authority granted to them by their many followers; their authority was authentically earned from their followers, and was not the result of some token process of voting. Both Gandhi and King embodied what it means for “[t]hose with power are accorded authority by virtue of the legitimacy of the principles by which they hold power” (Marturano & Gosling, 2008, p. 7).
I see both Gandhi and King as having advanced levels of social and moral intelligence that enabled them to see what Miller is pointing to with the claim that “[a]uthority is a relationship of human beings when one or more persons are authorized to command others regarding legitimate areas of social interaction” (Marturano & Gosling, 2008, p. 87). It would appear that many of today’s “leaders” could learn a lot from both Gandhi’s and King’s examples of how to earn the authority over others through a means of legitimate social interactions. In other words, many of today’s “leaders” appear to be more concerned with the authority granted to them by the corporate special interest they serve, than by the citizen they are supposed to be representing. If this is true, which I believe it is, then why are so many of us so complacent to continue to follow these obviously corrupted “leaders”? Have the masses lost their own sense of authority?
I believe that for one to have faith in any form of authority, and commit to the path of following, one must first have a sense of internal authority; one must have some existence of a positive history with “authority.” With respect to this interpersonal historical relationship to authority, Miller notes, “[t]o find and act upon our own sense of authority it is important to have experienced sufficient and ‘good enough’ relationships of authority” (Marturano & Gosling, 2008, p. 10). When I reflect upon my experience with this world, and our current political scene, I wonder where these ‘good enough’ relationships to authority exist. I believe they are out there, but they certainly are not the one’s being highlighted through the media.
Influence. The word “influence” is another area of leadership I see as being tainted by the historical cycles of corrupt leaders. However, as Rost notes, “leadership cannot be understood without knowing what influence is and leadership cannot be practised without using influence” (Marturano & Gosling 2008, p. 86). The attention to influence within this reflective inquiry is helping me to deepen my understandings that sometimes there are subtle differences between being a leader who influences followers and a ruler who coerces others.
I also see influence as being a tacit area of leadership that does not even need to be explicitly spoken about, because influencing others is something a leader does through their voice and actions. In other words, as an ecological leader working to reconnect the masses with the natural environment, with the Earth systems our human systems have betrayed, I see my leadership as becoming more influential by making my case of systemic reconnection with Nature. As Kellerman notes, “the subject is influence… conceive of change as requiring no more than a compelling case” (2010, p. xxvi). I hear Kellerman loud and clear here, and plan on focusing my attention on clarifying my case and improving on my ability to articulate this case for systemic reconnection with Nature.
But what about influence, what does it mean to influence others? As an ecological leader, how does my voice and actions influence the thoughts and behaviors of others, of those I wish will follow my lead? I see these words from Gandhi as addressing the heart of what it means to influence others: “If someone gives us pain through ignorance, we shall win him through love…. Nonviolence is a dormant state. In the waking state, it is love. Ruled by love, the world goes on” (Kellerman, 2010, p. 238). Gandhi’s words are truly influential upon my human heart and the compassionate wisdom that is stored there.
Why was/is Gandhi so tremendously influential upon so many people’s lives? “Gandhi is so rich and complex a figure that he is a prism through which we see ourselves” (Kellerman, 2010, p. 243). This perspective on Gandhi resonates with me, and I see Gandhi embodying the powerful type of soul-force leadership our world always needs to keep society headed in the right direction. I also see Gandhi and King as both embodying what Thoreau meant when he wrote, “[c]ast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence” (Thoreau, 2000, p. 679). I can image how these powerful words of Thoreau’s could have influenced Gandhi to say, “be the change you are seeking in the world.” Thoreau, Gandhi, and King are all offering leadership that influences others to use their own personal influence to help create a just society and a better world for all.
Obedience. It is through our individual obedience that we all come together to collectively co-create our societies and the world. Writing from the jail in Birmingham, and speaking to the collective power of obedience, King rightfully warns, “[w]e should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal.’” (Kellerman, 2010, p. 258). As an ecological leader working towards being a part of a radical societal transformation in how we relate, I hear King’s warning about the horrific dangers that always exist within the collective obedience of a society as being a universal truth within the human condition.
Are we as a people even aware of what we are being obedient to? Does the average person take the time to question the validity of their allegiance? We are told to “vote with our dollars” but isn’t this just another form of obedience, of bound rationality, within a fundamentally unjust and unsustainable socioeconomic system? “I do not care to trace the course of my dollar, if I could, till it buys a man or a musket to shoot one with — the dollar is innocent — but I am concerned to trace the effects of my allegiance” (Thoreau, 2000, p. 687). What are the greater consequences of our collective allegiance to this construction we call America? If America truly is about being respectful to all humans’ right to freedom, then how can our obedience to the current corrupt system be viewed as anything but treason?
What would American nationalism truly look like if it were actually aligned with the ideals of this nation? Gandhi’s view on governance is quite radical compared to what most might claim American nationalism is about, but I see it differently. I agree with Gandhi when he notes, “it is not only possible to live the full national life, by rendering obedience to the law of satyagraha, but that the fullness of national life is impossible without satyagraha, i.e., without a life of true religion” (Kellerman, 2010, p. 240). What I hear in Gandhi’s words here is a call to be governed by our humanity, by our collective soul-force as human beings who are loving by nature and not hating. Where is our collective obedience to our heart’s wisdom, to our humanity’s vital need for compassion?
Is our collective conscience, which exists within a highly materialistic and consumer based society, blinded to the systemic harm our unsustainable way of life is causing upon other people and the more-than-human world? “Is there not a sort of blood shed when the conscience is wounded? Through this wound a man’s real manhood and immortality flow out, and he bleeds to an everlasting death. I see this blood flowing now” (Thoreau, 2000, p. 680). Thoreau’s words penetrate my conscience to the deepest realms of my morality, and it is his attention to the tacit aspects of our collective obedience that I see as being fundamentally challenging to Modernity’s denial of its own wounded conscience that is bleeding from a self-inflicted wound of continued obedience. When does obedience to the status quo become disobedient to our shared humanity, and more importantly, when is this collusion to betray what is right hidden by what is normal?
Disobedience. What does it cost one to disobey the unjust laws and norms of a society gone drastically wrong? “It costs me less in every sense to incur the penalty of disobedience to the State than it would to obey. I should feel as if I were worth less in that case” (Thoreau, 2000, p. 682). With these penetrating words from Thoreau, this paper’s reflection has landed in front of a very inconvenient mirror of morality, and the inconvenience is not to the Truth that Gandhi or King or any other leader who leads into a just world. Rather, this “inconvenience” I write about is directed at the very fabric of reality that modernity has constructed, and I and many others continue to bow in obedience to maintain. Thoreau’s words force us to face the continuing degradation of our collective self-worth that our collective obedience is truly costing us as a people, because we are not willing to rise up in mass disobedience to this fundamentally unjust system of humanly constructed systems. In other words, our unwillingness to collectively disobey the “laws” of Modernity is killing our self-worth. Are we truly blind to this fact, or just unwilling to face it?
I truly believe a significant element of the problem here is a fundamental error in perception with respect to viewing legality as equating with morality. I think many of us have become morally numbed by the process of normalizing laws as the means to our relational interactions, and this implies to how we collectively relate to everything in this world (e.g., to each other, to the “other”, to other nations, to other forms of life, and to the Earth). Once again, Thoreau’s words ring true, “[l]aw never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice” (Thoreau, 2000, p. 669). I hear Thoreau speaking to how we have become morally blinded by our over-use of laws as a structure for interaction; our litigious society has become litigiously cancerous. If this is true, how do we as leaders influence the masses to wake up to this moral blindness from our litigiously structured society and world?
The Leadership of Disobedience
To claim this particular inquiry into the relationship between power, authority, influence, obedience and dis-obedience has significantly impacted my leadership and me personally would be a gross understatement! I’m actually not sure I can fully articulate how much this reflection is affecting me, and doing so in the right way. I can say this though – I am truly ashamed not to have read Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience up until now. However, I will not waste time with regretting this omission nor will I dwell in the darkness of shame. Rather, I am going to use this energy to move forward into my place as a transformative leader, and to do so with the conviction that permeates Gandhi’s, King’s, and Thoreau’s writings. I realize this is a bold claim, but I do not see any other way to move forward at this point. If I can, I must.
This reflection has sparked a fire within me that I know will never go out; this fire has actually been burning for quite sometime and has lead me to this very moment. The time has come to end this reflective paper, but the process of reflecting on this particular complex topic, I feel, has just gotten fired up! For quite sometime now, and maybe even my entire life, I’ve felt myself being called to a radical place of leadership, a place that will help bring sanity back to how we collectively relate to one another and to all of creation. Now I must reflect deeply upon the following words written by King from the jail in Birmingham: “So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?” (Kellerman, 2010, p. 260). For me, there are no other questions so vital to consider at this moment, but I will offer the following suggestion from King, “[p]erhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists” (Kellerman, 2010, p. 260). What type of creative extremist am I becoming?
Kellerman, B., (2008). Followership: how followers are creating change and changing leaders. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.
Kellerman, B., (Ed.), (2010). Leadership: Essential selections on power, authority, and influence. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Marturano, A., & Gosling, J. (Eds.). (2008). Leadership: The key concepts. New York, NY: Routledge.
Thoreau, H., (2000). Walden and other writings. New York, NY: Random House.