Sunday, August 31, 2014

The U.S.: A Split-Personality Superpower

Mark Fiore is one of my favorite editorial cartoonists, creating short animated videos every week. This week's cartoon suggests the US is "a split-personality superpower, condemned to wander the earth for all eternity fighting our other selves."

A couple of Fiore’s examples: When ISIS overran the Iraqi military positions a month or so ago, the Iraq soldiers ran away and abandoned their equipment, including tanks. You can see the ISIS militants having some fun with their new toys in the VICE documentary on ISIS. Now when we bomb ISIS we're bombing our own military equipment.

In the last couple of weeks Egypt and the UAE have bombed Libya a few times, and even though they're our "allies" and their troops were trained by the U.S. and use our military equipment, they denied to the Obama Administration that they'd done it.

A lot of good money to be made by supplying the armies of the world with the tools of their trade...

The split personality metaphor works in another way: most Americans believe our country is a positive force for good in the world. We vastly overestimate the amount of the federal budget that goes to foreign aid. We complain about having to be the world's policeman. Yet we're blind to the fact that we are the world's biggest exporter of weapons which means a substantial portion of our economy depends upon continuing war and violence in the world. The U.S. is badly in need of therapy to face some hard truths about its personality.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Are Animals Conscious?

Are animals conscious? Consciousness has been called the “hard problem” of philosophy; scientists still don’t have any idea what human consciousness is. But it seems that for most people, consciousness is still on that ever-shrinking list of things that separate humans from the rest of the animal kingdom; only humans have consciousness. But is that true, or is it just more evidence of human arrogance?
Lately I have seen a number of things that have made me question the presumption that animals aren’t conscious. The first is my sweet cat, KittyCat. Sometime about six months ago she and I got in the habit of brushing her every evening about 7:00. I am regularly amazed at how she turns up in the living room every day about that hour. It’s usually the time we are finishing dinner, so you could say she’s using the clue of the sounds of dishes being washed, but there are many times when we haven’t eaten and she still shows up. We joke about her Mickey-Mouse wristwatch, but truly it amazes me how she is so aware.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Three Meanings of Present

Many Eastern spiritual traditions teach the wisdom of being present in every moment of now. This principle was brought to the attention of Westerners in the 1960s through Ram Dass’s classic Be Here Now, and more recently with Eckhart Tolle’s bestseller The Power of Now.
Recently I was contemplating the meaning of "present," and I realized it has three meanings: "here" (when the teacher calls your name you reply, "present!"), "now" (an event occurs in the present), and "gift" (“here’s your birthday present!”).
What I like about this trinity of meanings is that being present means more than “being here now”; being present also means embracing what is as a gift.
When I was in high school I used to make a calendar in the last few months of school and took delight in crossing off every day until the last day of school. One day I realized how crazy this attitude was—I’m celebrating getting a day over with? As if a day is something to endure? What is life except the collection of innumerable days just like this one, filled with a mixture of positives and negatives?
A beloved cat, Fluffles, helped me learn this lesson. At one point in my life she and I would wake up every morning in bed together. Every day the first thing I would become aware of was the sound of her purring, and it communicated to me, “I’m happy that we have another day to live and to love each other.” Yes I finally realized, that’s the way to live. Not seeing life as an endurance test but as a gift!
The gift of presence has another meaning also. Werner Erhard (founder of est) once said, "The greatest gift you can give another is just to be with them."
As I have learned to be more present, I have seen how true Mr. Erhard’s insight is: when you are present with another, they often open up like a flower. Presence is like a calming wave flowing through you, and other people can relax in its wake.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Living with a Wild God

Review of Living with a Wild God, by Barbara Ehrenreich.

In a nutshell: Living With a Wild God is the story of a rational, scientific-minded atheist wrestling with the meaning of a personal mystical experience.

Ms. Ehrenreich is an atheist, has been all of her life. And she is from a lineage of atheists that goes back to her great-grandmother (the great-grandma was Catholic and the priest wouldn’t show up when her father was dying unless they paid him $25; a few years later she was dying in childbirth, when the priest showed up, put a crucifix on her chest and started administering the last rites she hurled the crucifix against the wall.) 

But as a young teen-ager Ms. Ehrenreich was obsessed with the quest to find the “Truth”; in other words to find answers to such questions as why are we here, what is the point of life? At the same time she started having experiences where her perception would dissolve, like all the boundaries around separate objects disappeared. She had trouble putting the experiences into words in the journal she kept at the time, and the best word she could come up for it was “disassociation.”

Then one day when she was 17 she had a profound experience, which, again, she struggles to express. Her best metaphor is of fire: 
the world flamed into life…There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive beatific merger with ‘the All,’ as promised by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, and one reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe fire really closely without becoming part of it.
Because she had no framework for this experience, in the ensuing months she struggled to keep her equanimity. She worried she was mentally ill. Soon she left for college and the existential crisis passed.
Her father was a scientist, and she assumed from an early age she would become a scientist. She ended up getting a PhD in biochemistry, although she has never worked in the field. Instead she became a political activist and social scientist, writing such books as Nickel and Dimed about her attempts to live on minimum wage (imagine, a social scientist who experiments on herself).